Saturday, September 23, 2017

In Her Light: A True Pagan Story of Salvation

I’m not the normal gardener. I’m a man who worships Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt. She’s life to me, far more than simple mythology, although I understand that’s where She starts for many others. I built Her a lovely sanctuary in my backyard overlooking the gorgeous hills and forests of Elizabeth, Illinois. Upon a Greek column three feet in height, stands Her amazing bronze statue with bow in hand. The sanctuary garden is the only such structure anywhere in the town, and it is also fittingly a place where nature Herself thrives and enjoys a relaxing time. Birds, rabbits, natural flowers, and even neighborhood cats pay it routine visits throughout the warm and vibrant months. I also don’t work and spend time in the garden to impress my neighbors, but to improve my own life itself.

My fascination with nature began at a very early age. I loved the forest as a child. In fact, I grew up in the middle of one. My childhood home was in very rural Thomasville, North Carolina; the house was cut off from all others around it. I was a natural baby, perhaps even with a bit of Atalanta in me, who was the legendary Heroine Huntress of Artemis who roamed the ancient forests of Arcadia. In so many ways, I was like Her. Not only did I love the outdoors and spent time as a child playing in the woods and delighting in its life and mysteries, but my dad was also not very hands-on with me. Sometimes, he was even rather physically and verbally abusive, so I went to great lengths to stay away from him. In those respects, my father kind of left my life, making me often feel like the fatherless Lady of the hunt Herself.

“Who needs a dad?” I thought. “I can take care of myself.”

I loved nature, and spent lots of time playing in the creek that ran through my backyard, despite my grandfather’s warnings to stay out due to deadly snakes, and even the infamous gigantic snapping turtles that once haunted the muddy banks. There eventually came a time when they vacated the area, either by moving on or from extinction, but during my childhood, they were very comfortable living there. I remember seeing one with its tipped lips that were simply terrifying to a little boy. We once even stumbled upon a vacant shell from one of the beasts, leading to my theory that they eventually died out. According to my grandfather, if one of those creatures ever latched onto me, only the sound of thunder (Divine voice according to my grandmother) could make it release. I was steeped in reverence for Divinity, as well as local mythology to add to the imagination of a child.

There was nothing that could scare me away from those tall trees I loved to look up to, and there was very little if any parental supervision and authority to dictate my actions. Even in the rain I’d go roaming about, amazed at the rushing waters that plowed through the creek openings. Fortunately, Artemis always protected me, since She is the Goddess of Forests, hunting and the protector of children. Of course, in those days, I was a Christian, so I knew nothing of Her. Had I known of Hubertus, the Christian saint of forests, I would have probably prayed to him among those endless trees.

Not only did I love the water that flowed by, but also the exploration of the forest itself, which was so massive that I was never able to find its end. However, I always continued to explore the vast unknown, taking caution and even different routes I knew of to avoid hunters. One path or another would almost always reveal something intriguing, like a ruined shed in the middle of nowhere, or a secret grove blooming beautifully. The forest and all of its life gave me a great serenity and a separation from the mundane world that was normally filled with problems. But I didn’t realize the full Divinity of the forest until I started believing in the Greek Gods. While my official conversion to ancient Greek religion did not come until 2009, in 2005 I flirted with the religion and at times would pray to Artemis while out in the woods.

When night fell, the sky also played a mythological and religious role. People who have spent their lives in big cities that even block out the sun, or countless hours a day glued to a computer, phone or TV screen, may not really think to take notice to the night sky and the stunning stars that shine all across it. As a child out in the country of North Carolina, the stars and the constellations were constant companions of mine. It may be difficult for some to fathom how integral the stars are to someone’s life, but for me, they were just as much a part of the landscape of my world as the ground beneath my feet, and they spoke to me as clearly as the birds or even other people.

The first my grandfather Pete taught me about was the Big Dipper, followed by the Little Dipper, and the idea that people lived on the first star that shined near sunset (the evening star). As it did for people in ancient Greece, the stars above marked meaning and understanding in my life.

Those great celestial bodies are also, in some part, connected to the wild and the hunt, and as such, are families of the forests. The most notable is one of the brightest in the night sky; Orion. The great ancient Greek hunter himself bent his twinkling bow over my wild haunts and home. The countless other stars around him made the sky sometimes look like a gigantic switchboard of lights; all so amazingly beautiful, memorable and influential. Often times, Selene, the Titan Goddess of the Moon, would also shine so brightly that my whole yard was illuminated even in the dark vastness of the rural country.

When the stars came out, led by Orion, they not only changed the landscape, but the actual world. Creatures of the darkness emerged, often as animals of the forest and hills, to speak to us as another part of the natural world. We were only to fear them if we ended up on their bad side, or simply held a primitive mind. But to listen and learn of their lives as we should, would give us wisdom. Artemis leads the beasts of the night as She does the animals of the day, and with the Gods always comes a knowledge or enlightenment for us to learn in the proper ways.

Lying quiet in the bed at night, one might have heard the rustling of a gentle raccoon, or as I did, the shivering womanly scream of a deadly wild cat. They’re certainly not something I’d want to invite over for sweet tea and biscuits. In fact, my old homes were no strangers to stories of weird and terrifying things screaming in the blackness, sometimes sounding as if they were coming from inside the home. Some of these noises went without any solid explanation.

Some may wonder what a Goddess or the Divinity of the wild can tell us through chilling roars in the night, or the scrummage of a slick scavenger. There are many, but perhaps one of the most important is that all things have a cycle. Often times, that cycle in nature is of life and death, predator and prey, and the natural courses for all living things. We humans are also part of that natural world and lifestyle.

The second most important lesson is for humans to recognize that we do not own the planet. We are merely a single part of it and share the land with a variety of other lifeforms, many of whom were there long before we were. When it comes to nature, our ideals of owning land is really a fallacy. Deeds and human laws have no authority when it comes to the natural world. In the night beneath the lights of heaven, this is often shown to us, and should we choose to learn from it, can develop an enlightened and a self-sustaining respect for the earth.

Today as a Hellenist, I sometimes remember to send my prayers to the stars when they emerge:

Great stars, ever-burning fires of the heavens,
encompassing Earth, eternal lights of the darkness,
when I gaze upon you, marveling at your vastness,
I am reminded that human affairs are small.
O’ stars, billions and more,
great ones who surround me this night, guide my destiny.

When I was given my first rifle as a teenager, I became a bit of a hunter myself. Running through the woods to my little designated clearing before the ruined stone wall that separated my land from another, I would usually send my shots to mere squirrels for fun. Sometimes, I would take aim at the deer. Later in life, Artemis taught me the point of the hunt; that I should only kill what I can use, and to shoot merely for the sake of shooting is not moral, nor civil and honorable. Before this enlightenment, I never understood how hunting could be religious, or how the natural world could teach me so much about life.

When we spend time among nature, we learn that we are part of it. We are reminded of our history and the very essence of our entire being. We come to realize that there is also a great importance in caring for and preserving natural life, that we may also continue to care for and preserve ourselves. Without nature, there is no us.

When these truths are grasped, people start to understand the interconnected value of all life on earth. The natural, religious and mythological life shaped me into a very moral and enlightened man for the rest of my days, and I cannot possibly repay the gifts that blessed me among those shady, cool and enchanting leaves. I grew to understand how myth and nature could save a human’s very soul.

Once I married and left the Tarheel state for northern Illinois in search of a more prosperous life, I actually at first found a worse one, and developed severe depression and severe anxiety disorder. As the years rolled on, I progressed into thoughts and desires of suicide. I plummeted downhill quite rapidly. I pulled myself out of the pits of literal death, in large part, by learning to focus on the good in life. One way I accomplished this was by reestablishing my connection with nature, her myths and the plants and flowers I loved so much throughout my life.

Part of my solace was found in gardening and building religious sanctuaries that were part of them, thus came my sanctuary of Artemis, that the beauty of the green world and the mighty Goddess who watched me in childhood may always be right by my side. Nature gives me a fair share of assistance as well. Endless rows of dandelions beat forth from the heart of earth when spring comes, and purple wildflowers accompany them by the hundreds. The grass and other leafy plants are so green and pure that they resemble emeralds swaying in the sunshine.

My personal time is often spent finding additional, natural beauties for the garden that I can plant and nurture. I even raised a small, lovely tree therein to remind me of the woodlands I so adored.

As I dig my hands into the cool, rich soil of Mother Earth, breathe in the fragrance of the flowers, caress the lush green bushes and irises that are so soft and pleasant they literally calm the mind, body and soul into delightful intrigue, and above all, turn my eyes and heart to Artemis, I am separated from the dismal of modern life and return to that natural love that once followed me all of my days. I come to understand and see the good and glorious parts of life all around me. I realize this place is full of love and beauty that I have the privilege of living in each day of my life. Depression, anxiety and death have no authority here.

In the Goodness of the Gods,

This story was originally hoping for publication in an upcoming Pagan magazine, but the editor ran out of room. Therefore, I decided to post the manuscript here on my site as a free read for all.

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