Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pilgrimage – The Mythic Journey to Avalon

Since my early childhood, I’ve been fascinated with mythic places and legends.  Poring over old issues of National Geographic as a school kid, I pointed to pyramids, ruins and temples and vowed that I would go there some day.  The pictures awakened wild imaginings in my mind and opened the gateway to a lifelong love of myth and legend.  As I’ve gone on to make many of these journeys, I’ve found that they compel me – it’s as if there is no choice in the matter.  Something powerful awaits in the journey, something destined to change me forever. 

The call bubbles up, echoing from deep within.  Like the Muses, it whispers to us while littering our paths with signs that point the way.  Casting our soul’s sight over oceans, mountaintops or skylines, we exhale into Destiny. The air thickens with possibility.  Forces conspire, pushing and pulling all at once.  Signs lead to people lead to places and doors open. 

Pilgrimage is an opportunity to make a move, to walk our soul-talk.  It requires a leap of faith to dive into the myths that hold us in their thrall and to drink from the wells of sacred memory whose waters have penetrated vast layers of history and fed the souls of generations.  We go in order to connect to something bigger than ourselves and feel the primordial awe that enflames our whole being.  The trip to the sacred place is a conscious act of evolution; a living metaphor for the intense inner journey as each step of the pilgrimage comes into focus and reveals its sacred purpose.  Things take on mytho-poetic proportions as we enter the Myth and it enters us.

The connections we make with the people, landscape and mythology of the sacred place will bring treasures and blessings we never expected.  But the sacred journey also shapes us with inner and outer challenges.  “Know Thyself” was the injunction of the Delphic Oracle, and as I learned on a pilgrimage to Delphi a decade ago, we also come to be tested. Boundaries will be stretched and  characters forged.  Deep emotions surface, and sometimes we need a hand to hold.

From the moment I’ve set on pilgrimages to places like Glastonbury, Delphi, Macchu Picchu, Giza, and others, I’ve had the joyous good fortune to meet kindred spirits and fellow journeyers who went on to become lifelong friends.  People we meet on our spiritual journeys are our mutual witnesses.  Around the sacred fires, they give us the gift of reflection, energy and support.  Many appear as spiritual midwives destined to help us birth new realizations, be it through an observation, a well-timed word, a dance, a touch, or the spellbound telepathy of a shared epiphany.

We journey to be inspired by great Teachers – those who hold the keys to the Mysteries through maps, songs, stories, dances, processions and ceremonies. They awaken our senses, shaking and shocking us with the awesome beauty and real-life poetry that comes with living the Myth.  Their wisdom feeds our understanding and gives us the chance to become like children, surrendering to trust and guidance.  They take us to the deep caves, mysterious lakes, and summer gardens of our psyches, opening us up to the power of Myth for healing and inspiration. As the mythologist Michael Meade once said at Delphi, “A handful of the sweet waters of Mythos is more precious than an entire ocean of dogma.”  The hands of the great Masters cup those waters to our thirsty lips so that we may drink and revive our souls.

So it is that my soul has thirsted for Glastonbury – Avalon – almost my entire life.  A deep fascination with Britain’s history and mythology started with those National Geographics back in the 70’s when I first arrived as an immigrant child to the U.S.

Castles, stone circles, magic and King Arthur piqued my interest more and more even as my Christian upbringing obliged me to read in secret.  As a teenager, I lost myself in the saga of Morgaine and Viviane at the twilight of the Old Religion.  What was the Tor like?  How did it feel to raise the mists or summon up one’s “Goddess glamour”?  Were the gods really all one, as the Merlin says at the end?  Why did I resonate so deeply with the Morgaine character, yet feel antipathy towards Gwenhwyfar?

My late teens ushered in a lifetime of learning about the Goddess and Her ways.  The Spiral Dance, Drawing Down the Moon, A Witch’s Bible Compleat, and many other books came to light my path and lead me to my first coven.  Celebrating the cycles of Life and Earth and feeling the Mysteries of ancient practice revealed in me a love of ritual and ceremony that have carried over into practically every aspect of my life and work.

Over the decades, I would circle through to the UK via long stints in South America and Asia.  In 2015 came a definitive moment via my friend Carla Cooper, who had hosted my folkloric dance workshops in Somerset in July.  One sunny day, she suggested a jaunt to Glastonbury, and it just so happened to be during the Goddess Conference week.

photo by Marc Cooper, 2015

My first sight of the Tor in the distance sent a shockwave of pure awe through me.  It rose in the distance like a giant lightning rod connecting Earth and Sky and majestically marking “the spot”. The whole day, wandering through the Abbey and taking a brief pass through the Conference, I felt déjà vu.  I couldn’t shake it, nor did I want to. I just had to find a way back to Glastonbury.

And so, over the next year, people and events conspired to make that wish come true.  An invitation to teach at the March 2016 Majma Dance Festival in Glastonbury brought me into contact with many more beautiful dancing souls, who then conspired to open the pathways for me to return to the UK in July of 2016 for an extended teaching trip.

I decided to try and present myself to the Goddess Conference, on the off-chance that they may be interested in having a World Dance Alchemist among them, offering my services as a Melissa and chewing my nails to the bone wondering if I had been too forward in my approach. 

The welcome that I received from dear Amanda Baker felt almost too good to be true.  The warmth and generosity emanating from her emails helped me to trust that this was actually going to happen!  That same week came an offer of housing with the family of Claire Salem, who lives a 20-minute walk from the town square.  Things were settled. I was going! I could hardly contain my excitement.

I was received in the UK by Shirley Griffiths from Newport and Sacha Tremain from Bristol in the month leading up to the Conference, and it turned out to be a perfect preparation for what I would experience in Glastonbury. Both of these wonderful spirit-dancers shared my passion for ancient places and took the time to show me some of Britian’s historic sites.

Shirley shot by Paola
Paola shot by Shirley
The tour began in Wales with Shirley and included inspiring sites such as the ancient Tintern Abbey. A day spent there rendered many laughs and playful portrait images as two dance friends made art in its ancient spaces.  One drizzly afternoon at the Avebury Stone Circles with Sacha fascinated me with and its ancientness.  I felt its energy rising from the ground and traveling along its lines and angles in a powerful current, imposing yet embracing.

Sacha and I then spent a day tromping around in the Gloucestershire forest, where she channeled her inner Artemis while I clicked the portraits.

Sacha shot by Paola
For our Goddess Dance project we journeyed to the temples of Aphrodite and Hera, the archetypes of Lover and Queen that most prominently inspire my work in sacred dance. I was honored to bring my lifework to a group of thirteen ladies – a journey of art, affect, and sacred movement ceremony that inspires and integrates the feminine psyche.

Like this, the energy built up to the last ten days of July at the Glastonbury Goddess Conference.  Excited yet apprehensive, I made my way to the first Melissa meeting, where I was immediately put at ease by Brian Harrison’s gentle leadership.  As I met the other Melissas, I was grateful for my experience in festival event work, which prepared me to observe and flow with the group dynamic in a productive way.

Just like so many spiritual journeys, there’s a feeling of living an entire lifetime in one week.  The first day or two feel tentative, and then we start to build connections with people and fall into rhythms until the big climax and heartfelt good-byes. On the day we set up the town hall as the Goddess Temple, I fell into a nice work-groove with Rowan, Pete and Trevor. The entire Melissa team was a joy to be a part of, buzzing around like worker bees and getting things done!

I am immensely grateful to Amanda Baker not only for having the generosity to offer me a spot as a Melissa, but for actually reading my CV and intuiting that she could take a chance on the creative technique that I brought to the table.  She asked me to partner with Sadhu Valakhilyas in constructing a ceremony for the invocation of the fire element, and I was happy to meet him and see that he was also a mover like me!  So it HAD to be a dance!

Our team’s creative sessions were so much fun. We exchanged ideas and fused them into a kinetic dance of invocation. Along with Silva, Sarah, Greg, and Annabel du Boulay who jumped in to drum and teach us some songs, we worked with gesture, music, and fiery movement that charged people up and transformed their personal energy. It was amazing how it all came together, and was such an honor to share music and sequences from my repertory of sacred dance with everyone at the  Conference.  

As a teacher of world dance, I often invoke the spirit of my late folklorist grandfather, Vangel Betinski, who danced the ancient dances of Macedonia.  When I was young, he would train me in the folklore of our people even after I had moved to the States.  “No matter what,” he told me once, “No matter where you go, you will always find your brothers and sisters in the dance.”

And so I did at the Glastonbury Goddess Conference.  As our group welcomed each new influx of participants into the Town Hall for the fire-dance, we jumped and clapped and stamped and sweated and smiled…..and recognized each other in the dance.  Soul to soul, eye to eye, heart to heart.  There is nothing like the power of ritual dance to awaken group spirit and build community.  Fire is outgoing, energizing and transformative energy.  After conducting the fire dance four times that day, my body was exhausted, but my spirit was electrified.

And it would continue to be electrified over and over as the week unfolded, charged to overflowing with the vision, talent, and spiritual generosity of this thriving international Goddess community. The wise words and songs of great Teachers like Starhawk and Alisa Starkweather….the haunting music of Heloise Pilkington or Tiana’s visionary Goddess art….these were just some of the glorious manifestations of Goddess spirit on a daily basis.

Tiana's Goddess Art

But nothing could prepare me for the intense transformational experience of the Mysteries conducted by Kathy Jones and the High Priestesses. Time and again, the ceremonies struck a harmonic convergence of sacred theater, myth, shamanism, art, epiphany, and tribe.  The sound-scapes, physical settings and characterizations of the Lady invoked Her presence with deep resonance that reverberated throughout the sacred week. It was obviously lovingly planned to take people deeper and deeper into the Mysteries of Lady and Land.
The Treasures of Avalon

Water Ceremony
As I followed Kathy and the Priestesses across the sacred topography I dropped into deeply-rooted reverence for Mother Earth.  Walking the land is an act of sacred communion, of physical merging with the deity’s primal body.  A deep draught of the air, a drink from the sacred well, earthing myself in the grasses, jumping and clapping around the sacred fire….

I drank that energy in and sent it through my whole body.  I felt it wrapping each of my cells in a vibrant magnetism.  I envisioned it imprinting itself onto my DNA, charging me with the Lady’s love and purifying me from the inside out.  Then I let it spark outward to my sisters and brothers in the fire ceremony at dusk, envisioning and feeling the whole tribe united in a warm, protective bubble of Goddess light. 

Fire Ceremony
No words or symbols can adequately capture the force of shared affect.  Its immediacy has always led me to dance it, move with it, allow it to move through me. As Isadora Duncan said about her vision of the Dance as Prayer, “If I could speak it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” Ritual and ceremony give us direct experience of the Divine in a safe container where we are encouraged to experience deeply and wholly.  When the powers of ritual and dance unite, an explosive potential for magic and healing is released.

Taking the magic and healing even further was the 10-hour shamanic journey. Laughing, crying growling, chirping, howling, dancing, screaming, dreaming and knowing....I dove deeply that day.  Deep into the depths of being beyond the ego’s searchlight, I lost myself and found myself.

The voice of Kathy Jones – Master storyteller, shaman, weaver of visions – led us into the sacred topographies of psyche.  Beyond the mists, into the Avalon of soul and collective unconscious, the stories and places and characters gradually brought forth an even deeper sense of a Mother-World – that alternative reality that Kathy spoke about since the beginning of the Conference.

A world in which magic is a lived daily reality.  A world where the past, present and future meld into an Eternal Now blessed by a benevolent, generous Goddess. A world where inspiration, creativity, love and material to spiritual well-being spread their vines and flower over the ruins of our corrosive current world paradigm.

Air Ceremony

During the entire Conference, I felt a growing sense of Mother-World.  I felt it in the embrace of the Melissas and our Queen Bee Amanda Baker. I felt it in the Embodiments of the Lady, welcoming me to Her realm.  I felt it in the voices of the singers, my barges to the Other Side.  I felt it in the dance, swirling with my brothers and sisters.  I felt it in the treasures and gifts I received all week long – a snakeskin, a picture frame, a pendant, a kiss, a key…..a yummy treat prepared by Amanda Reeves.  And I feel it welling up now as I write these words in a café in the middle of chaotic São Paulo.

In the end, I took a workshop with Michelle Patten about responding to the call of the Goddess.  During the meditative journey to Avalon, the Lady gave me a beautiful little key to take with me as a sign of whether or not the path of the Priestess was for me.  In the closing ceremony, we were all given keys, which kind of made me laugh.  But as I continued my journey with my annual pilgrimage to Macedonia, I saw more keys of that type, randomly popping up as if planted by an mysterious force.  

And it is to that force now that I remand my destiny.  I will soon jump off the cliff of an immense life-change, closing a twenty-one year overseas journey and spiraling back to the United States, the land that welcomed me as a tiny immigrant in the 70’s. In this land I hope to re-establish roots nourished by the values of freedom and opportunity and to cultivate the fruits of my lifework as offerings to the Goddess.  I’m scared, but excited and trusting in the signs.

Throughout my wanderings, I'm starting to see that what I seek is also seeking me.  As we spiral ever closer, I can see that every step of the way, even the detours,  are somehow meant to be.  All the places, people, animals, trials, tribulations and triumphs are becoming part of me, chapters in a personal myth leading me to stronger and wiser versions of myself.  Each step I take with trust in a higher purpose lands on sacred ground.  Step by step the story unfolds, rippling outward into a reflection of the Myths that move me. 

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