January Wolf Moon: Fenrir, Freyja and her Necklace

January is named for the Roman two headed god, Janus, who looks both backwards to the ending of the old year and forward to new beginnings. In Celtic tree lore, it is the time ruled over by birch, the first tree in the forest to start producing leaves (B or Beith in the Ogham alphabet). Birch is self propagating and therefore highly adaptive and able to thrive in areas cleared by forest fires, making it associated with new beginnings. It was traditionally used to drive out the spirit of the Old Year, but this became distorted later when it was used to flog children.   It was used by druids as kindling to ignite fires, and silver birch is often associated with light bodies such as the sun, moon and the stars.

The January full moon is often called Wolf Moon. Wolves rule the midwinter nights and the image of the wolf howling during a full moon is probably the origin of the concept of the werewolf, a fearsome predator that feeds on blood. Though now more often linked to Native American tradition, the wolf is also a key animal in Celtic and Norse mythology. Solitary and shy, but able to survive in packs and hunt ferociously, the wolf was often associated with death and sometimes destruction, but with the understanding that clearing away the old is a necessary step in the process of renewal. It was a companion of the Welsh goddess Ceridwen, one of the sacred guardians of Britain, and one of the four sacred animals of the Celtic Brigid,[1] all of which demonstrate the importance of wolf to the ancient British landscape.

It is in Norse mythology, however, where wolf has its most intriguing role. Fenrir the wolf was the feared offspring of the frost giantess and trickster Loki who grew to such a huge size that he had to be bound in chains to prevent the prophesied destruction of the world, Ragnarok. Eventually, when the time was nigh, he broke free of the magical chains made by the elves themselves, swallowing the god Odin whole in the drama known as the twilight of the gods. Fenrir was the father in turn of another wolf who chased the sun until finally ‘taking possession of it.’ Not only did the sun disappear from view, but the world was engulfed in a hideous winter of freezing and bloodshed as a result, so there is a possible association here between the wolf and celestial phenomena such as eclipses, comets or meteor impacts, a harbinger of destruction, even a deliver of it.

 The 10th January, the date of this year’s full Wolf Moon, is also the birthday of the Norse goddess Freyja. As mistress of the runes, prophetic vision, and magick, she was once one of the most important figures in the Norse pantheon, and certainly one of the oldest.  Originally a Mistress of the Wild Animals, she is often seen in a chariot pulled by cats or riding a wild boar. Later, like Inanna in the Middle East, she became the typical goddess of sex and war, and as (possible) leader of the Valkyries, prowled the battlefields with Odin, choosing half of all slain warriors to take to her great hall.  

One of her most striking attributes was a cloak of falcon feathers which enabled her to shapeshift into a bird and take astral flight. Shamanistic and extremely ancient in origin, this type of magical ability was known as seidr and said to be gifted by Freyja herself. Indeed, even Odin had to come to her to learn the art of reading the runes showing that she once had precedence over him.

As mistress of prophet visionary and shape shifting, Freyja would have had mastery over the four primal elements Earth, air, fire and water, and therefore alchemical knowledge of how to work with the treasures of the Earth. This knowledge is encoded into the story of how Freyja obtained her famous necklace, Brisingsamen. Here my version of the story:

One winters night, Freya lay dreaming in her bed of fur. She saw the ancient ash tree that stood at the centre of the Nine Worlds and it was spangled in a web of light that shone like diamonds. Yearning to be there, she stepped out of bed and pulling on her cloak made of the softest and lightest of falcon feathers, she flew towards the tree. There she alighted on a branch and traveled down the solid trunk and down into the roots that burrowed towards the heart of the Earth. As she journeyed, she could hear strange notes given out by the rhythmic clanging of a hammer and she followed the sound until she ended up in a candle-lit chamber. Four dwarfs were busy at work, one hammering sheets of gold, one pulling it into long wires, and the other two cutting and polishing stones of every colour and hue until their light radiated out onto the walls of the cave, causing it to sparkle like the night sky.

Freya stepped towards them and saw they were making a necklace, the most beautiful and powerful necklace she had ever seen, and she longed to possess it. She pleaded with the dwarfs, offering them riches and gold in exchange, but they already had mastery of all the treasures in the seams of the Earth and needed no more. What they did, want, however, was for each of them in turn to spend a night with the beautiful goddess. Freyja agreed and stayed with them to learn the magical arts of alchemical transformation taught by the dwarves, who was a master of each element. This was how she came to be in possession of Brisingamen, the necklace that shone bright as the Milky Way.

The story as handed down to us is patchy, and for many it is purely sexual in nature, the goddess sleeping with each of the dwarves in turn to obtain the treasure. Strangely, the necklace is also not a magical object per se and has none of the attributes or named powers as for example Odin’s ring or Thor’s hammer. Yet to Freyja the necklace is of prime importance so much so that she is prepared to do anything to retain it, and there is a disturbing end to the story.

Odin saw that Freyja had obtained the necklace, and how, and was apparently angry, even outraged. He ordered the trickster Loki to steal it from the sleeping goddess and bring it to him forthwith. Freyja soon realised her necklace was gone, and who had taken it, and came to confront Odin. Apparently, with very little persuasion, she struck with him a dark bargain in order to secure its’ return: she was to incite war between two kings and their great armies, then revive them on the battlefield so that they might rise up and fight again.

The reason for this request is not explained and could be interpreted simply as a moral warning against coveting material possession, or even against sexual promiscuity, both of which could bring unwanted consequences. But there could also be something more behind this rather intriguing story. The necklace could represent some sort of primal power, and one that is linked to the stars of the Milky Way, it could symbolise secret and eternally powerful knowledge that has been lost in the mists of time. The silver birch with its association with light bodies, the wolf with its cosmic symbolism and Freya’s starry necklace all demonstrate that the stars of the Milky Way were much for central in the psyche of our ancestors than it is in today’s light polluted world, and the long dark nights of the North would have been the perfect place to view it. Furthermore, the wolf myths also hint at a cataclysmic event that led to Ragnarok, the destruction of everything including the gods, when an old order broke down in order to make way for a new. And in this it is tempting to see parallels with today’s world with the lunar eclipse and important conjunctions around this January full Wolf Moon.


[1] See www.exemplore.com for more details

Yuletide: the tale of the Holly and the Ivy

Yuletide is the twelve festive days celebrated from the Winter Solstice that were used by our ancestors to align the solar calendar with the lunar. The Solstice was seen as the still point of the wheel of the year, the pivot on which the agricultural year turned, the time when the sun appears to start heading northwards in the sky just as it has reached its furthest point south. These twelve adjustment days were therefore taken at this special time and were used as an opportunity to relax and make merry, to walk in the fields and the forests, commune with the ancestors, to rewild.

The image of streams of cavorting revellers was probably the origin of the Wild Hunt of Norse/Anglo Saxon mythology. This was when the one-eyed all-seeing shamanic god Odin rode across the skies with his ghostly hunters. Accompanied by ravens, trolls and otherworldly psychopomps, or soul guides, these creatures were later demonised and reduced to satanic hordes and discarnate spirits, harbingers of death, bringing misfortune on anyone who saw them. A piece of propaganda later introduced by the Christian world to ensure the midwinter revelries did not take place.

Despite these attempts at censor, there is much in this old mythology that has survived and preserved in our Christmas customs. Odin rode a large muscular horse called Sleipnir, said to have eight legs, who carried his master through the nine worlds held in the branches and roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, a clear reference to shamanic journeying. Reindeer are also important shamanic animals with their antlers rising to the heavens and their hooves firmly on the ground, and it is significant that eight of them are said to pull Santa’s sleigh. Odin also dropped presents at the foot of his sacred pine tree for the faithful, a custom preserved in the laying of Christmas presents under the Christmas tree.

And trailing behind the Wild Hunt were the Oak and the Holly Lords perennially engaged in a battle of mythic proportions. Robert Graves analysis of an ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Battle of the Trees’ unravelled a remarkable and ancient story telling the unfolding of the natural year through a tree alphabet encrypted with sacred knowledge and ritual.[1] The year was divided into two halves to reflect the power of the waxing and waning sun. The Oak king was the Lord of the Waxing Sun who reached his peak at Midsummer, but was then supplanted, or even sacrificed, by the Holly king who ruled the part of the year when the Sun’s power was waning. At the Winter Solstice, it was Oak that supplanted Holly, who then ruled over the waxing year. Graves uncovered evidence for this Earth centred belief from Turkey to the West of Ireland with different cultures flavouring the narrative with their own character.

In Britain, the Robin Redbreast embodied the spirit of the New Year, signalling the return of the Sun. This half of the year is associated with holly, which now produces red berries amidst its spiky evergreen leaves, hence the association of robins with holly at Yule. Just after the Solstice, around Christmas Eve, Robin Red Breast sets out to kill his predecessor, the Gold Crest Wren. Men would hunt wrens with birch rods at this time, driving them out of ivy bushes, indicating that Ivy as the Lord of the Waxing Sun. The Robin is said to murder the Wren, his father/predecessor, acquiring his red breast as a result. For the rest of the year, the Wren was considered sacred and it was forbidden to collect her eggs.

Graves also introduced another dimension to his Battle of the Trees analysis, for the gods of the waxing and waning years were revealed as pawns who competed for, and each in turn lose, the love of the triple goddess, Creatrix of Nature, who he called the White Goddess. There are considerable depths to this story, but one of the most pertinent is the subscript of the day out of time, the 23rd December just after the Solstice, the magical thirteenth month which was not ruled over by the tree alphabet. This was the Epilogue, the story that told of the birth, life and resurrection of the god of the waxing year. The time when the Goddess gave birth anew to herself and the sacred child, bringing about redemption and the resurrection of the life- giving power of the Sun.

Christianity has of course taken over all the major aspects of this ancient narrative in the contemporary version of the Christian story. Now it is Christ, born of the Virgin, who shall redeem us, and his birth takes place at the Winter Solstice. His cousin, John the Baptist takes on the role of the Midsummer tannist and throughout the Middle Ages, 24th June was referred to as the Eve of St John.

Nowhere is this ancient knowledge so explicitly preserved and intertwined with Christianity as in the carol the Holly and the Ivy, cheerfully sung in chapels and churches up and down the country at Christmas. The chorus ‘the holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown’ implies Holly is Lord of Midwinter, with the Ivy as Midsummer Lord. The birth of the sacred child by the goddess and the sacrificial aspects of the story are clearly indicated, albeit in a very mild form, by the  next verses, ‘the holly bears a blossom was white as lily flower, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our dear Saviour’ and ‘the holly bears a berry as red as any blood and that Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.’

The ‘prickle’ of the Holly is a premonition of the crown of thorns worn by the sacrificial Christ and the bark of the holly, as bitter as any gall, mentioned later in the carol, is a reference to the redemptive Christ, who was offered gall to drink in place of water whilst dying on the cross.

Though we now celebrate the birth of the sacred child (Christ) at Christmas, in Anglo Saxon Britain, it was the Mother who was honoured on the 24th December. This was when the sacred tree was taken into the home and decorated, a living representative of the World Tree, with the star at the top representing the Pole Star around which everything turned. The Yule log was lit as a symbol of the returning Sun, and food and gifts were shared to honour the abundance of the Earth. Even Santa Claus, with his obligatory red suit, is actually the old Holly king or Robin Redbreast in disguise, with his elf helpers a reference to the fairy folk of the Old Religion, and his magical flying reindeer and Christmas Eve night journey a memory of the Wild Hunt of Odin.


[1] Robert Graves, ‘The White Goddess’ Faber and Faber, 1997

December Cold Moon: the Cailleach, owl and elder

The full moon in December, usually the last full moon of the year, is known as the Cold Moon, or Long Nights Moon, when the days are short and the hours of darkness long. This is the time when the first frosts have claimed any remaining leaves leaving trees tall and exposed against an inky skyline, when the fecund Earth has drawn down into it all the remaining nutrients from above, and bulbs and seeds lay dormant. It is the time of endings, before the time of new beginning, the time when the sun will begins its annual cycle of return at the Winter Solstice, bringing with it the promise of longer days.

Though the sun seldom reveals itself by day, the night skies can be spectacular. The great bear Ursa Major makes the climb up around the world pole in the east, and meteor showers radiate from Ursa Minor in the middle of the month. Orion the Hunter and his faithful dog (Sirius) chase Taurus the Bull towards the ecliptic in the South, and the Pleiades are visible as seven tiny enigmatic pin pricks of light.

The winter garden is ruled over by robin, wren, blackbird and thrush, vying for berries and grubs, while winter visitors like whooper swans and pink footed geese have arrived from the Arctic in search of milder weather. The hedgehog and snake have long since taken to their holes deep within the Earth, and frogs and toads over-winter by sitting at the bottom of ponds. At night the black and white badger and fire red fox prowl, and the occasional long eared hare might be seen leaping through fields by day.

With the Earth laid bare and nutrition withdrawn, this time is ruled by the Cailleach, the one-eyed blue faced hag of winter who is older than time itself. She carries the memory of the tectonic formation of the Earth, and is accredited with the formation of many glens, mountains and lochs. She strikes the land with her magic hammer, turning soil to solid rock, even causing crustal movement to form valleys and mountains. When she washes her brown cloak in the turbulent sea, the snow falls dusting all the mountains of Scotland an icy white. She is seen leaping from mountain top to mountain top with a trail of animals in her wake. The animals of winter such as wolf, fox and eagle all adore her, and she protects the deer of the forest from over hunting. She is at once the Creatrix of the land, and its fiercest guardian. When the delicate balance of the earths ecosystems is overturned, she is the first to seek vengeance, reminding humans of the dangers of taking more than is needed, of thoughtlessly plundering the Earth.

She is often associated with the owl, the ruler of the night winter skies. Like her, the owl is old beyond its years, all-seeing and all-knowing. UV vision make it a fearsome predator at night, especially in the depths of winter when all cover has been stripped away. The owl can look forward and backwards by twisting its head, seeing both past and future, like the Cailleach with her single piercing eye.

The Blackthorn is her preferred tree, as its berries ripen after the first frost. She is said to carry a staff made from its wood and when she strikes the ground, winter begins. Growing alongside Blackthorn, it is, however, Elder that rules December according to Celtic tree lore. Though the flowers and bark of Elder are therapeutic, it has a long association with death and disease. Legend calls it the Crucifixion tree and the fateful tree on which Judas Iscariot hung himself. In Harry Potter, it was the Elder wand that was one of the deathly hallows, which according to legend was fashioned by Death himself. Sometimes acquired through killing its previous master, the wand had a long and bloody history before coming into the possession of both Dumbledore and Harry Potter. It’s association with the thirteenth month of the tree calendar, R (ruis) 25th November to 22nd December could be one of reasons that the number thirteen is also considered unlucky, when darkness became dreaded and feared.

Yet this thirteenth month was once considered the most sacred time of the year, when the Earth lets die what it is no longer needed, a time of allowing the passing of the old to make way for the new. A time to get rid of anything surplus in order to face the cold winter ahead, which in turn would bring with it the cyclical return of the sun at the Solstice. When the balance between us and nature was understood, when our lives and that of the land were considered intimately entwined.

January Heaven and Earth calendar

1st – 7th Seven Days of Rest

3rd Quadrantid meteor shower peak, Waxing half moon (4.45)

5th Earth at Perihelion

10th Full Moon (19.21), Penumbral lunar eclipse (19.10)

12th Saturn/Pluto conjunction in Capricorn, Uranus goes direct

17th Waxing half moon (12.58)

20th Martin Luther King birthday

21 – 24th World Economic Forum in Davos

25th Chinese New Year – Metal Rat

26th Australia Day

27th Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Black Madonna of Tripoli (Lebanon)

In the city of Tripoli there is humble and almost unknown Black Madonna. She has lain dormant for many years now, but quite suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, she is starting to emerge from the fecund, dark loam of the collective unconscious like a fragile shoot appearing out of frozen soil. The power of the Black Madonna as an agent of change and transformation cannot be overlooked, and nowhere today is this more true than in Tripoli, the second city of Lebanon. So, what does this particular Black Madonna represent, and what is her message to us at this time?

Black Madonna of Tripoli (author’s photo)

She hangs on the wall of the Greek Orthodox Church of St George near the old souk in the heart of Tripoli. She feels slightly incongruous in this poor and very conservative Sunni city close to the Syrian border, where women frequently wear the veil. Dubbed the ‘City of Division,’ Tripoli has gained negative publicity over the past few decades as a place of unpredictable sectarian violence and frequent clashes between Sunni and Alawite rebels or anti/pro Assad factions. It has also historically supported Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement. Yet over the past few months the people of this conservative place have been at the heart of the Lebanese anti-government protests.

Ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (author’s photo)

Possible reasons for this unexpected behaviour can be found by looking back into the city’s long and illustrious past of dynamism and change. Tripoli was first established as a trading port by the entrepreneurs of the ancient world, the Phoenicians. For hundreds of years, these merchants dominated the seas of the Mediterranean and traded in silver, wood, glass, textiles and of course their hallmark purple dye made from a secretion of the murex sea snail. They invented the alphabet that we use today and ducked and dived at a time when many great civilisations were going into decline. They also witnessed the arrival of new and aggressive players such as Alexander, the Ptolomies, Seleucids, Persians and Romans, and even managed to stay independent to some extent, some of the time. Parallels with today maybe? The Lebanese may be part of the Arab world, indeed at the heart of it, but they also have a different quality and pride themselves as being the entrepreneurs – the ‘middle-men’ of the Middle East.

Mamluk era mosque (author’s photo)

Then in 551 AD, it all changed. A devastating earthquake and ensuing tidal wave swept away all that remained of the ancient world like it had never existed. Nature abhors a vacuum and into this one stepped the next set of invaders, this time from the Muslim world, who in the shape of the Omayyads, Fatimids, Druze, Ottomans then Lebanese, were to dominate the city until today – aside from a period of Western and Mamluk domination, both of which have left physical legacies. The citadel of Raymond of St-Gilles built by the Crusaders still dominates the city, and the Mamluk era mosques, khans and souks make the architecture of Tripoli unique in the Middle East.

Citadel of Raymond of St-Gilles (Qala’at Sanjil)

Though Tripoli’s past has been rich and colourful, the twentieth century has brought with it a fair degree of misery. Sectarian violence had already become a theme at the close of the 19th century with frequent conflict between the Druze and Maronite Christians. When the Maronites began to oppose the then ruling Ottoman Empire, the Western Powers seized the opportunity and intervened, a precdent that was to continue after WW1 when the League of Nations, and Sykes-Picot carved up Lebanon, thereby altering the demographics and sowing the seeds for the devastating civil war of the 1975 – 1990.

To return to the Black Madonna and her message, it is important to understand that the full name of the church in which she stands is the ‘Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in Lebanon.’ Though obscure today, this church has an ancient pedigree which can be traced back to the very earliest days of Christianity when both Peter and Paul visited Antioch. The church founded at this time became so important that it became part of the Pentrachy – one of the five major episcopal sees of the Roman Empire, which included Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople. In time, Rome claimed supremacy over all the other churches with the great schism of 1054 splitting Rome and the Eastern Churches for good, and the rest is literally history.

Hammam in Tripoli, the oldest in the country (author’s photo)

Somehow, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch has managed to survive the upheavals of the last two millenia and today its members count for around 8% of the Lebanese population. It has also managed to exist in small numbers in other parts of the Arab world where its’ highly educated and financially adept people have managed, in Phoenician style, to blend into a rigidly conservative and at times fractious religious environment. Most notably, during the Lebanese civil war , the terrible and prolonged sectarian conflict in which over 120,000 people lost their lives, 1 million went into exile and over 76,000 were displaced, the Greek Orthodox community were able to act as negotiators to build bridges between the Maronite Christians and the Arab community at the heart of the conflict.

So, the essence of this Black Madonna is about the preservation of something pure and almost lost, of blending in chameleon-style in hostile environments, and of thriving not just surviving. Of knowing when to lie low and when to step forward and having the courage to do so even when threatened. Of seeking heartfelt, inclusive change that benefits all, not just a minority.

Tripoli protests in October 2019

Over the past few months, the people of Tripoli have been reclaiming their city, resurrecting it from the fragments of division and renaming it a ‘City of Peace.’ Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Maronite are putting aside religious differences to protest against and demand the resignation of a corrupt and ineffectual government. In the words of one protestor, ‘It was always minority causing all the trouble, most people were trying to live their lives…. I always thought people would come together, they just needed a reason.’ [1]

Though this Black Madonna arises from a Christian/Orthodox background, her message transcends religion and draws on a wisdom that resonates with us all at a deep, core level. The protests may have faded in Tripoli for now, but the sentiment behind them has not. People want change and once the nature of this change is formulated coherently, there will be nothing than can get in their way.

[1] Richard Hall, Independent Newspaper, 25.10.2019.

The Black Madonna of Vilnius

Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn is one of the most beautiful and evocative of Europe’s Black Madonnas. She has presided over the city of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, for nearly four hundred years and showers her gifts of compassion and mercy from her lofty position on top of the Gate of Dawn on all those who enter and leave. Her story is one of heartbreak and loss, prejudice and politics, love and hope, all intricately bonded with the remarkable history of the city and its’ people. She also sits at the heart of the European landmass, very near to geographical centre of Europe (latitude 54 54 and longitude 25 19), so she is in a sense an omphalos, a microcosm in the macrocosm of Europe’s more recent history.

Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (author’s photo)

Her origins are shrouded in mystery. She probably emerged around 1630, her painting commissioned by the government of the time, though other legends say that she was brought from the Crimea as war booty. This story hints at Lithuania’s great past when her boundaries stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea under the days of the Grand Duchy, but by the seventeenth century these days were no more. In any event, after her first appearance she was placed in the Gates of Dawn, part of the city walls, built to protect from invaders. She began to bestow miracles with immediate effect, restoring to health a two-year-old boy who had fallen from a second floor window.

The Black Madonna of Vilnius (photo credit Diana Eder)

By now Lithuania had been swallowed in a union with Poland and Vilnius no longer exercised any real political power. The people would have visited Our Lady to tell her of their woes and reflect on a glorious past long since vanished. But worse was to come. In 1654 the Russians arrived and during the Battle of Vilnius, the city was looted and pillaged, many people taken prisoner and murdered. Carmelite monks were given the task of maintaining the city gates and inherited Our Lady as part of the job.   They built her a small wooden chapel which became her home until it burnt down at the beginning of the eighteenth century when the current brick chapel was built. It was during this time that she was to gain her stunning coat of gilded silver, richly decorated with roses, tulips and carnations, and lending her a more Orthodox look.

For the next two centuries Vilnius was to remain under Russian rule, apart from a brief interlude in 1702 when the Swedish army captured the city as part of the Great Northern Wars. Our Lady once again came to the fore. Four Swedish soldiers, who had the impudence to mock and even shoot at her, were killed when the iron gates of the city fell on them. Then, the very next day, the Lithuanian army launched a counter attack against the Swedes, right next to the Gate, and were rewarded with victory.

Over time, Lithuania’s other neighbour – the Prussians – emerged as a military power and she found herself surrounded by aggressive and expansionist neighbours who mercilessly carved her up in the partition of Poland. Repression increased; the Russians clamped down on any rebellion and in 1840 in a bid to try and stamp out any remnants of national pride, the Russian language was made compulsory. The city walls were demolished as a in an act of dominance, but miraculously the Gates of Dawn survived and remains to this day the only surviving part of the defensive walls.

Woman of the Apocalypse

Throughout the trials and tribulations of occupation, war and repression, the faithful continued to pray to Our Lady for her benevolent intervention and brought her votive offerings of cured limbs, eyes, and many, many hearts. It was during this time that she inherited her splendid silver crescent moon, earning herself the title of Queen of Heaven. With her golden crown and halo, the twelve stars around her head and the moon beneath her feet, she became associated with the Woman of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation.

Jewish Quarter, Vilnius (author’s photo)

By the end of the nineteenth century, Vilnius had become a major Jewish centre. Forced to live within the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, many Jews were attracted to Vilnius with its railway network and thriving business centre and by 1870 they comprised half of the population of the city. The Jewish quarter was a bustling place where furriers, opticians and goldsmiths plied their crafts, and moves were afoot to build a large synagogue to facilitate their worship. But anti-semitism also thrived and organised pogroms and acts of extreme violence against the Jews became more frequent on the streets around the Gates of Dawn. Many tried to emigrate, but those that remained were to face the then unimaginable horrors of the twentieth century.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Vilnius was occupied by the Germans, then in 1918 with both the fall of the Tsarist Empire and the collapse of the German Empire, the city finally and jubilantly declared independence. Sadly, this was not to last. The city was annexed in 1920 by the Poles, and for the next 19 years Vilnius became part of Poland, cut off from the rest of Lithuania and ruled over once again by outsiders. The people turned again to Our Lady in their hour of need and in 1927 she was crowned formally as the Mother of Mercy.

The twentieth century was to wreck worldwide havoc with its mass murder, unimaginable scale warfare, disease and genocide and Vilnius played out its role as microcosm to the macrocosm of European/world politics. One of Lithuania’s most famous daughters, the renowned archaeologist and thinker Marija Gimbutas lived during these times. She was born in Vilnius in 1921 to doctors, who had founded the first Lithuanian hospital and were themselves strongly involved with the folk history and culture. The young Marija would have almost certainly visited Our Lady, though there are no formal written records of this.

Under Polish rule, the family moved in 1931 to Kaunas but Marija was to study in both Vilnius and Kaunas where she embarked on her studies of the Ancient Balts and their Indo-European ancestry, a theory for which she is now famed. Vilnius was not to return to Lithuanian control until World War Two, when the Russians, this time in the guise of the Communist Soviets, took control of the whole country including the former capital. But fortune proved once again fickle, and with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Lithuania now found herself ruled by an even more aggressive master.

Paneriai Forest Memorial (author’s photo)

Almost immediately the next tragic stage in Vilnius’ history began – the mass murder of its vast Jewish population. Already segregated in ghettos near the Gates of Dawn, the Jews were systematically liquidated. The first stage was transport to the forest of Paneriai just outside Vilnius where around 100,000 people were shot and buried in mass pits over the course of the war. In 1941 over a three-month period, half of the Jews of Vilnius had been massacred at this site alone. The deportations must have occurred within sight of Our Lady,  but sadly no intercession was forthcoming on this occasion.

Nuclear silo, Zemajitija National Park (author’s photo)

By the end of 1944, Europe was on her knees and the Reich that was to last a thousand years came crashing down. Out of the ashes of chaos, a new threat was emerging and in 1945 Vilnius came come back under Soviet control once again. Regarded as the worst of all foes by some, Gimbutas chose to flee the Soviets and sought haven in the ruins that was Germany with her manuscripts under one arm and her baby under another. The people of Vilnius now faced life under the Stalin and thousands of Lithuanians were murdered, imprisoned or deported under his rule of political terror. Many would have turned to Our Lady for comfort and mercy and to feel her boundless compassion during the spiritual sterility of the Cold War, when tension was always high between East and West. Unbeknown to anyone, four nuclear warheads pointing at European capitals were stationed in the forests of Lithuania after the stand-off of the Cuban missile crisis and remained perilously positioned there for over a decade.

Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn (author’s photo)

Finally, in 1989 the opportunity to shake off Soviet repression presented itself and the Lithuanians were in the vanguard. Under the Glasnost of Gorbachev, the Warsaw pact countries began to open their borders and align themselves to democracy. The people of the Baltic States, who actually comprised part of the Soviet Union at the time, formed a Chain of Freedom of over two million people from Tallinn to Vilnius. Seven months later, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Republics to declare independence. In 1990, for the first time since the thirteenth century, Lithuania became an independent country and the smile of Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn seemed to become more serene. She can now be visited by anyone at most hours of the day and night, always available with her boundless compassion, fully at home in her role as Queen of Hearts and the Lady with the Moon at her feet and stars in her hair.

Oracles and Dragon Energies

Prophecy is one of the most ancient of all the human art forms, yet probably one of the most misunderstood. Today it is largely relegated to astrology columns in newspapers, or maybe the occasional tarot card reading, and certainly peripheral to most peoples’ daily lives. Throughout the ancient world, however, it was mainstream, the grease that oiled the cogs of state and gave succour to many a great statesman. Indeed, the oracles could be considered as the ancient equivalent to Google, the place where everyone went to find knowledge, to exchange ideas and to generally hook up with other like-minded people. But what powered the sites themselves? What enabled one site to be used as an oracle when another could not?

Tholos at Delphi (Wiki Commons)

Though oracular prophecy predates the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was their temples and myths that preserved the ancient oracular sites, and some of the mystery surrounding them. Apollo was the Greek god of prophecy and the most famous oracles were presided over by him. But this hadn’t always been the case. In archaic times, the oracles were dedicated to Earth goddesses, and presided over by priestesses who had access to the voice of the Earth, usually operating out of groves or simple sanctuaries. The myths tell us that before Apollo could take them over, he had to subdue the serpent Python, which he pursued to Mount Parnassus, then into the shrine at Delphi itself, ‘where he dispatched it beside the sacred chasm.’ As Graves suggests, this mythic takeover of Delphi probably records the historic invasion of the Northern Hellenes of pre-Hellenic cultures. As part of the takeover process, they killed the sacred oracular serpent that was kept in the sanctuary of the Earth goddess.[1]

‘Lilith’ by John Collier

Snakes are one of the most primal symbols of Earth energies. They live close to the ground, sense vibrations, and move in a sinuous wave akin to the way in which energy moves. Though the Earth energies are not visible, anyone looking at the waves on the sea could easy make the link between waves, and the way they embody form and movement, long before modern science mapped them. They can also survive beneath the ground for long periods, only to emerge in unpredictable and terrible ways, like the restless forces from within the Earth. Indeed though Apollo is said to have killed the Python, he retained the services of the oracular priestess who were themselves called ‘Pythia’ and it is highly likely that snakes were kept in the sacred tholos at Delphi well into Hellenistic times.

The Python that Apollo subdued was also known as a Dragon, and it was this Dragon that was said to have chased Apollo’s mother Leto around the Earth as she tried to give birth to him. This was clearly no ordinary snake, but one of mythic proportions, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was a metaphor for the seismic energies of the Earth itself, which Apollo must subdue if he was to use them. This was an issue I had been pondering for a while, and the opportunity to find out more presented itself on a recent trip to western Turkey.

Travertine, Pamukkale (author’s photo)

Hierapolis is not a name that is familiar to most people, but everyone has heard of Pamukkale. Though remote, more than 140 km from Izmir, over two million people visit this site every year and enjoy the thrills of dipping in the blue mineral waters that cascade over the calcareous deposit known as travertine. But not many people are aware that there was also an ancient oracle at this site, known throughout the ancient world as the Gateway to Hell. As I was to discover, this is no coincidence, for the same geological features that gives rise to the amazing mineralogy and healing waters of Pamukkale also powered this mysterious and most primal of oracles.

Mineral waters of the Travertine (author’s photo)

Turkey has frequent earthquakes because the Anatolian plate on which it sits is squeezed between the mighty African and Eurasian plates that are moving in opposite directions. Pamukkale is not situated on a plate boundary, but near a meeting point of four Graben, areas of multiple faulting and rifting caused by these plate movements. At Pamukkale, the crust has thinned as a result of the tortuous stretching of the Anatolian plate so much that it has fractured, resulting in a network of faults and fissures. Hot water from the mantle percolates through the crust, bringing with it the minerals dissolved from the local limestones, and deposits these on the surface in the form of the milky white travertine that visitors come from far and wide to see. In addition, a cocktail of noxious gases are discharged as the hot mineral rich fluids reach the surface and today, close by to the translucent blue pools in which these visitors dip, taps are visible that vent discharging gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, make the place safe to visit.

Remains of the Plutonium, Hierapolis (author’s photo)

In ancient times, this ancient chasm in the land, as well as its noxious gases and beautiful minerals, would have been sacred to our ancestors and a cult site was located since time immemorial dedicated to Cybele, the ancient Anatolian mother goddess and her priests, the castrated Galli, would have officiated. With the arrival of the Hellenes and then the Romans, this mysterious site where Earth processes could be seen and smelt became associated with an entrance to the Underworld, but still considered sacred as the name Hierapolis (or sacred city) implies. A temple dedicated to Pluto and his consort Kore, the equivalent of Persephone and Hades in Greek myth, was built over the sacred chasm and appropriately named the Plutonium. Guarding the entrance to the Underworld was Cerberus the three headed dog and a snake, still retaining its status as a prime Earth energy symbol. A nearby temple of Apollo took over the oracular function in the form of Apollo Lairbenus, whose mother Leto was equated with the ancient earth goddess Cybele.

Temple of Apollo (author’s photo)

Accounts from Strabo of how priests would go into an underground chamber with a deep cleft in the rock, through which flowed a fast running stream, and come out to utter prophecy suggest that they used the noxious gases as a sort of trance inducer. It is possible also that small animals were used to indicate levels of the gases, much as canaries were later used underground to warn miners. [2]

Priestess of Delphi, John Collier (1891)

The chasm at Hierapolis is reminiscent of the description of the sacred chasm at Delphi in the myth of Apollo and Python, and indeed Mount Parnassus is located in a seismically active part of Greece. Modern research has shown that the site was built over a volcano related fissure that discharged gases through the springs percolating through the rocks, either in the form of ethylene or methane. [3]The Pythia would have sat on a tripod over this chasm and uttered her prophecy in an altered state of consciousness, literally induced by the Earth energies. Interestingly this was exactly how John Collier depicted her in his iconic painting of 1891.

The connection between seismic activity and oracular sites was beginning to look far from coincidental. It was apparent that ancient people noticed the connection between springs, gases and earthquakes and deemed the chasms associated with them to be highly sacred, as well as mysterious. They placed sanctuaries and later temples on these gateways to the Underworld, where the voice of the Earth itself could be heard, and it was the dragon or serpent that came to symbolise this seismic activity.

I knew there were two more famous oracles on the Turkish Aegean coast, at Didyma and Claros, and it was there I journeyed next to further investigate the link between dragon energies and oracles.


[1] ‘The Greek Myths’ by Robert Graves, Penguin 1992

[2] ‘Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: from Troy to Bodrum,’ by Paola Pugsley, 2018

[3] See https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2001/08/greece-delphi-oracle-gas-vapors-science/