A Goddess Pilgrimage: Magical Santorini - Part 4

"To Journey without being changed is to be a nomad.To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim."

- Mark Nepo


It was 3 months ago that I returned to the United States from my 3 week goddess pilgrimage to Greece. It has taken me that long to assimilate it all, to let it seep into my skin, settle in my bones, and animate my dreams...

The last stop of the trip, after leaving Crete and the wonderful journey there to meet the Minoan goddesses with 19 sister pilgrims, was 3 days in Santorini. I didn't know much about Santorini except that I was told it was breathtakingly beautiful. My friend and traveling companion, Diane Marshall, and I were pretty beat from the two-week pilgrimage, jokingly referred to as "goddess bootcamp."  It takes a lot out of you to traverse an island, climb mountain tops, descend into caves, dance, sing, create altars and rituals, and navigate a different culture, language, and people in a group of 20. Diane and I made a few last minute changes to our itinerary so we could enjoy a full 3 days of resting in Santorini, and we were so glad we did.

We took a boat the 70 miles from Crete to Santorini and arrived at a small semi-circular island whose towering cliffs jutted out from the sea like a giant cake. The white buildings that covered the tops of the cliffs looked like drizzled icing. It wasn't until we went up the steep roads to our hotel, the Volcano View, and collapsed in chairs on the cliffside patio that we gasped in amazement at the beauty of our surroundings.

I knew Santorini was on a caldera, or cauldron, formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption, but I now saw that this little slip of an island was actually one part of the circular edge of the volcano. There were a few other smaller islands that peeked up from the sea across from it which I now realized formed the other edge of the volcanic ring.

Wow! It hit me that we were perched on the rim of a volcano that had last erupted in 1450 BCE, and was now surrounded by water. We had heard much about this volcanic eruption on Crete because it was one of the factors that contributed to the demise of the rich, goddess-loving Minoan culture. We were to learn more about its effects here, at its epicenter, when this land was known as Thera and thought by some to have been the lost continent of Atlantis.

Diane and I spent the first day relaxing at the beautiful hotel that overlooked the sea and took in the calming blue and white of the sea, sky, clouds, cliffs and white-washed churches with blue-painted domes. All of Santorini seemed to be blue and white, colors that seemed to both calm us and cleanse us of our weariness.

We learned that there are more than 250 churches on the little island which takes no more than an hour and a half to traverse lengthwise. Here, the Virgin Mary was venerated and considered to be a guardian goddess of the island, comprised mostly of Greek Orthodox and some Catholics. We were to learn that some of these churches were built on sites that were once sacred to the goddesses of old, including Hecate, Artemis, and Isis, the latter due to the shared cultures of the Greeks and Egyptians during ancient times. Mary has had to stand in for the goddesses that were once revered in Her many forms.

The second day there, we rented a car and set out to explore the island. We were eager to visit the ruins of Akrotiri, a Minoan town that flourished until the volcano blew in 1450 BCE, changing the course of civilization in this area. When the volcano erupted, it covered the town in a thick layer of volcanic ash, much like Pompeii, preserving a portion of the town and many of the artifacts of life during that time, as if placed in a time capsule. It is one of the few excavations we visited that was enclosed to prevent further damage from the elements. As we entered, we saw two and three-story buildings that opened onto small squares, remnants of doors and windows, stone-paved roads, sophisticated sewer systems, furniture, utensils and earthenware jars lined up in basement storage rooms. It left one with the feeling that life was suddenly interrupted, although it is speculated that the people who lived there probably had time to evacuate as many earthquakes presaged the volcano's eruption.

In the midst of this gray, ashen ghost town, some buildings exhibited beautifully-painted frescoes on the walls. One in particular thrilled me as it showed what women of the time looked like, how they dressed and wore their hair. I especially loved the painting of the young priestess who seemed to be in motion and the life-sized female figures portrayed in the "House of Women" who seemed so vibrant.

 

 

 

From there, we wandered from black volcanic beaches to white pumice beaches to red lava stone beaches until we found the old settlement of Thera, perched on a hillside. I read about the tiny church halfway up the hill that was built on the site of an ancient temple of the goddess, and wanted to see it. Once again, as Jean Shinoda Bolen points out in Crossing to Avalon, one way of "usurping goddess sites was by building chapels or cathedrals in honor of Mary on them. As a feminine expression of divinity, Mary is archetypally the mother goddess. In all but name, this is how she is worshipped... For regardless of discriminating points made by theologians, the man or woman who prays to Mary is speaking to the same compassionate goddess whose names were, among others, Demeter, Isis, Tara, or Kuan Yin, goddesses who, like Mary, understood suffering.... When Mary chapels are built on goddess sites, they are, in effect, reconsecrated and renamed, places where it can be said that the Goddess continues to be honored."

After a full day of exploring, we made our way to the north tip of the island to the town of Oia where we were told the sunsets were spectacular. There, we sat on a rooftop patio and sipped wine and watched the sun go down along with throngs of others lined along the walls of the cliffside city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third day was spent just walking up and down the cobblestone streets of the quaint town of Fira, relaxing, shopping, always eating magnificent food and taking in the beauty around us.

It was hard to leave this magical isle. We wanted the days of keeping our gaze on the deep blue sea, sipping wine, and letting the warm wind blow through our hair until the sun dropped beneath the horizon to never end. But as all good things must, this journey, too, came to a glorious end in Santorini.

The pilgrimage to Greece to encounter the goddess was one that will always be a part of me, and that did indeed, transform me as I felt the presence of the goddess both within and without. For She is there. Wherever you seek Her, you will find Her. And I came to know, as did Morgaine, the last priestess of the goddess in The Mists of Avalon, who followed a young girl into a chapel at the end of the story "...even if they think otherwise... these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind."

 

A Goddess Pilgrimage: Crete - Part 3

As Carol Christ, our fearless leader, explained to us that first night in Crete, a pilgrimage is more than just a journey to a sacred place, it is a journey between states -- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In a way, when you are on a pilgrimage you are without a country. In starting a pilgrimage, you cross a threshold into a liminal state, where you often experience a sense of timelessness, if not another place in time. Pilgrims are on their own personal odyssey as well as on a collective odyssey with other seekers. In their book, The Archetype of Pilgrimage: Outer Action with Inner Meaning, Wallace and Jean Clift describe the various reasons for embarking on a pilgrimage:  to answer a call to adventure (one of the first stages Joseph Campbell described in "The Hero's Journey"); to experience a place of power; to hope and ask for healing or a miracle; to express a love of God (or Goddess); to find or reclaim lost pieces of ourselves; to give thanks; to ask for forgiveness; to leave the routine of ordinary life and experience something new or numinous; and to prepare for death. On this last point, it would seem we are always preparing for death, albeit often unconsciously, and going on a pilgrimage can feel like one of those things you need to do before you die. In many respects, all of these reasons compelled me to go on Carol Christ's Goddess Pilgrimage, a 2-week sojourn she has been leading in the spring and fall for 20 years.

The night before we left Athens for Crete, I put on some music (Gabrielle Roth's CD, Luna) and danced on the rooftop of our hotel, where I had a stunning view of the Acropolis, awash in golden light. I was celebrating the initiation I had experienced at Delphi and preparing myself for our morning sight-seeing at the Acropolis, afternoon releasing ceremony at Eleusis, and evening flight to Crete the following day. Dancing in the moonlight I felt the energy of the priestess. I was integrating the mysteries I had already experienced and initiating myself for those to come.

The next night, we landed in Crete and met our sister travelers on the rooftop of our hotel in Heraklion under a full moon. There were 20 of us, including Carol and two sets of mother and daughter travelers. I knew my mother was a part of this journey in spirit, and felt her presence strongly at times as I continued to both grieve and celebrate our life together. My sister pilgrims and I shared a little about ourselves and why we were there, starting with the affirmation, which would become a familiar refrain, "I am whole, I am here, I am... " and say our name.

"I am whole, I am here, I am Stephanie." And so began the pilgrimage on the beautiful island of Crete, where the ancient, yet advanced, Minoan civilization honored the goddess of earth, sea and sky.

The first stop was the palace or sacred center of Knossos, built around 2,000 BCE on sacred grounds where people had lived and worshipped since Neolithic times (6,000 BCE and before). We silently walked in procession through these ruins, some of which were partially reconstructed by the archeologist, Arthur Evans, in the early 1900s. This was where the snake goddesses, which I was thrilled to see in the Heraklion Museum, were found.

The palace of Knossos is where the King-Priest Minos and Queen-Priestess Pasiphae were thought to have lived, as well as the half-man/half-beast minotaur, in the center of the labyrinth. Some surmise that the myth of Theseus slaying the minotaur with the help of the princess/goddess, Ariadne, whom he later abandoned, represents the end of the worship of the goddess and the beginning of the patriarchy on Crete and throughout Greece, as Theseus was a warrior king from Athens.

What was most likely enacted here before the patriarchy was the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage between the priest and priestess who wore masks of the bull and cow, representing the joining of the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine, or the sun and the moon.  This celebratory pageant, attended by all members of the community, included the connubium, or consummation rite, and ended with the coronation of the king and queen in the center of the labyrinth. The mural depicting the "ladies of the court" were likely priestesses, dancers who led the procession and circled around the royal couple. The bull was sacrificed as part of the marriage feast to ensure fertility across the land. These rites were once widely celebrated at the sacred centers of the Minoans, for they were an egalitarian society in which the goddess was honored as the ubiquitous, life-giving force that She was.

We were to visit many other sacred centers of Minoan culture throughout the two week pilgrimage. We would weave in and out of the stone passageways and crumbled  foundations, imagining what it would have been like to live in these village centers where the people practiced sacred rituals as part of their everyday life. Virtually all of these sites had stone altars, many in the form of kernos stones, giant table-like slabs, with bowls carved into them for the placement of offerings.

Many of these sites had lustral baths, large cisterns or small rooms filled with water in which people passed and cleansed themselves before taking part in sacred ceremonies. There were storerooms with giant pithos jars that were used to hold the olive oil and wine. Many of these centers were built over and over again after maurauding invaders set fire to them or earthquakes ravaged them. At times, we would feel the veil was thin between present time and days of yore, and we could feel, if not hear, the priestesses dancing and singing or sense the panicked state of those who fled from impending danger.

 

This introduction to Minoan culture was followed by a much anticipated visit to the Paliani Convent, an old convent (from about 668 CE) and the sacred myrtle tree that is said to be over 1000 years old. Sue Monk Kidd described her visit there (while she was on Carol's pilgrimage) in her book, Traveling With Pomegranates, and the granting of her wish to write a novel after being a non-fiction writer for many years. The Secret Life of Bees, which featured the black Madonna as a prominent character, would be her first book of fiction.  I looked forward to visiting this sacred tree as I have always loved the spirit of trees, and this one was magnificent.

 

 

The story goes that after the Turkish invasion in 1821, the convent was destroyed, but an icon of the Virgin Mary was found in the tree. The nuns moved it into the church, but the next day it was found back in the tree. As many times as they tried to take it in, She made her way back to the Tree of Life. And so she has remained there, now entirely encompassed by the arms of the great tree (a smaller replica hangs on the branches for all to see).

Here, we said prayers, asked for healing, and tied a ribbon on the tree in remembrance. We each took a small piece of the myrtle tree from fallen twigs, wrapped the same color ribbon around it, and brought it home with us. One member of our group shared that she had experienced an instantaneous healing of a problem she had been having for months. The nuns who lived there were sweet and welcoming, and we felt Mary's presence.

The highlights of the pilgrimage for me were the rituals we performed at altars we created in various settings, from a Tholos, or rock tomb on the top of a hill, where we all took part in a ritual to honor our ancestors, to ones we performed in some of the caves we visited, which very much felt like being in the womb of the Great Mother, to those we built on mountaintops with panoramic views of Crete and the surrounding seas. We each bought a Minoan snake goddess to represent us on the altars. We would bring liquids for libations to pour onto them, including clear spring water, wine, and honey, as well as seeds, stones and talismans we wanted to bless.

Our arduous climb down into the depths of the first cave, Skoteino, which means "dark," was a profound experience for me. As we entered the cave, I heard a fluttering of wings and a white dove, symbol of Aphrodite, flew out. She is an ancient mother goddess I have felt a strong connection to so I felt this was a sign of her presence.

We created a beautiful altar and releasing ceremony, where I was able to not only let go of the hurt between my mother and me, but lifetimes of pain in my motherline that freed us all.  We then descended two more levels and ten of us made our way down into Her womb. There we extinguished our lights and sat in complete darkness, meditating. I felt such peace and connection to the divine as I sat upon the moist, red Mother Earth and envisioned being held in her great lap. In each of the five caves we visited we sang songs to Her, the walls reverberating with the sound of twenty women's voices, as if we were in a cathedral. And, so we were -- the cathedral of the divine feminine.

In these two intense weeks of travel, we got to experience the beauty of Crete, from beaches to mountains, caves, gorges, lakes, and plains. We sang songs to the goddess on the bus as we zig-zagged across Crete. We rode donkeys to the cave of Zeus. We sat in the roots of a 2,000 year old tree that all 20 of us together could just wrap our arms around. We wandered the streets of many a town in search of treasures and adventure.

We got to know the people who lived there, simply but happily close to the earth and her bounty, and those who ran small inns and tavernas.

 

 

 

 

We feasted on many gorgeous meals of fresh vegetables, fruits, the most delicious homemade yogurt, feta, bread, local honey, and olives of every variety that most taverna owners harvested from their own orchards after the tourist season ended. And always the raki, the distilled wine aperitif that was served with every meal. Yamas!

It was always a treat to pluck a ripe pomegranate from the trees that flourished there.

 

We met women who were hand crafters in the old tradition of weaving on looms, creating intricate embroidery, and lace-making. We learned of the hidden motifs of the goddess, the tree of life, the snake, and other symbols of the feminine divine that have been woven into fabrics and piece-work for centuries. While Greece is very much a patriarchal country, which was evident in the roles we saw played out, archetypes of the goddess are still evident in many weavings.

handwork with goddess motif

We danced traditional Balkan and Greek dances under the leadership of Laura Shannon, who leads women's ritual dances around the world and whom we were privileged to have with us.

We savored our days off in beautiful locales like the small mountain resort, Zaros, the picturesque fishing village of Mochlos (I want to go back to both of those dreamy places one day) and the small coastal city, Agios Nikolaos, where I behld the goddess in the sunrise.

The weather was warm and clear as was the sea we swam in more days than not. There is nothing like eating and drinking at a seaside taverna and then plunging into the warm waters that lap at the shore. At Mochlos, we could swim to a small island and explore the ruins of a sacred center of the Minoan culture that was once attached to the land.

This pilgrimage to the goddess of ancient Minoan culture was a journey that has continued to play out in my dreams and memories. It all started with a dream I had last year of standing on a Grecian cliff and noticing some undiscovered temple stones beneath my feet and realizing that I had found one of Aphrodite's forgotten temples by the sea. To me, this symbolizes the rising of the goddess and the shift of consciousness that is slowly taking place that will include once again an embrace of the divine feminine. For all of us who shared this pilgrimage we truly came to know She is there for all who seek Her.

Be sure and read Parts 1 and 2 and the conclusion of my journey to magical Santorini in Part 4.

If you wish to explore the goddesses on your own, I offer e-courses that you can learn more about by going here:  New Moon Goddess Mystery School and here: Goddess Temple e-courses

If you are interested in taking the goddess pilgrimage to Crete with Carol Christ in the spring or fall, you can find out more by clicking here: Ariadne Institute 

A Goddess Pilgrimage: The Eleusinian Mysteries - Part 2

One of the things I knew I wanted to do on my trip to Greece was to take time to release feelings I still carried about my mother's death on June 12th of this year. Because of all that I had going on in my life at the time, I didn't fully grieve her passing. I felt relief that she was freed from suffering a 14-year mental and physical decline due to dementia, culminating in a broken hip and having to spend the last eight months of her life in a nursing home, confused and alone. In many ways, I had been grieving the loss of my mother for years, so I was prepared for her to go when she at last died at age 94. But this mother-daughter relationship is a deep and primal one, and regardless of the nature of the relationship, a mother's death generally marks a profound passage in a daughter's life. And so, for me, two questions seemed to be nagging at me: How do I grieve my mother's death? and How do I honor her?

My relationship to my mom is a complex story, as is the myth of Demeter and Persephone, which I have written about here and here. I have come to believe that some of my healing work with my mother entails past lives and karmic ties that I felt needed to be severed once and for all. So I felt compelled to visit Eleusis, a town 14 miles outside of Athens, which is now called Elefsina and is known as an oil refinery town, situated on the Bay of Eleusis. Because of its inelegant surroundings, there are not many visitors anymore. It is not on the list of tourist destinations, and in fact, our wonderful and accommodating travel agent in Greece, tried to dissuade us from going there, saying there was nothing to see. Of course, that depends on what you're looking for.

My friend and traveling companion, Diane Marshall, agreed with me that it was important for us to go there for we both had some work to do with our own mother-daughter story even though it was going to be inconvenient to get there in the little time we had left on the mainland. Something was telling us to go despite the obstacles and naysayers, and as often happens when you are clear about your intention, things fell into place. A lovely man named Nikos was sent by the travel agent to take us there for 2 hours on our way to the airport, where we would depart for Crete that evening.

During the taxi ride there, we caught glimpses of the old road, the Sacred Way, which was used thousands of years ago by the pilgrims who annually made the trek to Eleusis from Athens. They went in a procession, cleansing themselves along the way at a well, stopping to pray and offer sacrifices at altars and shrines, led by the high priestess of Demeter carrying a casket of sacred objects for the initiation rites. This happened in September, the same month we were visiting the sanctuary. The Eleusinian Mysteries were enacted for over a thousand years and many people, from kings and queens to commoners, chosen as initiates, took part in them. We don't know exactly what happened during the 9-day ritual at the Eleusinian Sanctuary, but we do know some things: that to be able to participate you had to swear an oath of secrecy and that when participants completed the rites, they no longer feared death.

Eleusis is the place where the Demeter-Persephone story was played out as part of the mystery school and figures in the myth, itself. It is the story of life, death and rebirth. It is the story of the matrilineal and matriarchal culture being supplanted by the patrilineal and patriarchal culture. It is the story, seldom told, of the primacy of the mother-daughter relationship, which in a matriarchal culture would have been deemed as important as the story of the father and son (of God), which took its place.

Demeter was the name of the Greek Mother Goddess, some say another name for Gaia, the earth goddess, who was known and celebrated in earlier Minoan Crete before she came to Greece. She was the goddess of the grain, which represented life in ancient times, for people were dependent on the earth, its growing seasons, and the food that came from Her and sustained all life. The earth was seen as feminine for she was like a great, round, pregnant belly where life grew in the fertile darkness until it was ready to burst forth into the world, and then eventually die, as all living things do. And miraculously, it seemed, every spring there was rebirth as new life came forth from the seeds that grew in the darkness, in a continuous circle of renewal. So the earth became synonymous with the Great Mother, who was responsible for life, death and rebirth. And in olden times this cycle was sacred and celebrated, as was the goddess. Offerings were made to the Great Mother to keep her bounty plentiful and so that people could express their gratitude for her abundance.

The story of Demeter and Persephone can be understood on many levels, but on one level it is simply the story of the earth mother, Demeter, giving birth to the seedling grain, Persephone, who is snatched away by Hades (death) and taken into the Underworld for a time (germination, growth), only to be brought back into the world above by the power of the Mother, the giver of life (rebirth). On another level, it is the story of the daughter leaving her mother and becoming her own person and the grief that the mother feels when her little girl goes off into the world to carry on this cycle as a goddess in her own right.

Both Diane and I were mothers in the middle of this motherline ourselves. My mother had just died and my daughter will be graduating high school and going off to college next year. This year, my friend, Diane, had to put her mother in a memory care facility and her grown daughter moved away to another state. When we got to Eleusis we were both immediately drawn into the energy of the setting and entered a liminal state. We could feel the power of what was enacted in this sanctuary, once hidden behind high walls. We walked around, taking in the place where temples to Demeter, Artemis, and Hecate once stood.

In the myth, after Persephone is abducted, Demeter searches for her for 9 days, grieving mightily. In her anger, she stops nurturing the crops and a famine occurs. She finds herself in Eleusis, where she attempts to bestow immortality on the king's son (alluding to the new, coming patriarchal story), but is thwarted by the queen who thinks she is trying to harm him by passing him through the fire (of eternal life). Demeter then reveals herself as the goddess and commands that a temple be built there in her honor.

Her temple is the site where the final enactment of the mysteries took place in the dark of night. It is believed that during the final 2 days of the initiation, after fasting for several days and taking part in an enactment of the myth, the celebrants drank kykeon, fermented barley water that likely had hallucinogenic properties (ergot from barley is known to have these effects). During this ritual, the initiates' eyes were opened to new ways of understanding by beholding the epiphany of the goddess as Earth Mother, the rising of Persephone, and the reunion of mother and child.

Diane and I were drawn to the cave that represented the entrance to the Underworld, where Persephone was abducted and where she later rose. This was near the ruins of the Temple of Hecate, the goddess who heard Persephone's cries and alerted Demeter as to her whereabouts and the Plutonian, an underground sanctuary dedicated to Pluto or Hades, where initiates may have spent some time in the darkness.

Diane used her pendulum to find the site that had the most concentrated energy and it was on a primitive altar stone where we built our own altar. I placed photos of my mother and me as well as a medicine bag which contained shells representing her bones and hearts with our names on them that I had created for this purpose. Diane and I together created a ceremony of thanks to our mothers and daughters as well as a releasing. For me, it was a time to let the tears flow onto the Mother herself, the earth that held us, provided for us, and to which we will one day return.

Earlier this year I took a shamanic journey in which I saw what had happened between my mother and me in a past life, which I believe bound us in a way that I knew needed to be dissolved. In this journey I saw that I was her mother at a time when women were in mortal danger for practicing healing arts that many called witchcraft and thought were the devil's doings. I was a healer, a medicine woman of those times, and my mother was my daughter who mistakenly betrayed me, letting the powers that be know what I did to help others, and I was killed. I saw that my mother was an innocent who was horrified at what she had inadvertantly done and carried that guilt over many lifetimes. It explained a lot about our relationship during this lifetime. Why I always felt like her mother, why things always seemed to overwhelm her and I would be in charge, why she was interested in metaphysical healing and chose a religion (Christian Science) founded by a woman healer (prayers were addressed to "Father-Mother God"), and lastly, an answer to the puzzling riddle of why my mother never could understand what I did for a living even though I would explain it to her over and over. This refrain continued through two distinct careers I had in my life in which my mother would often say, "Now tell me again what it is you do for a living. Explain it to me," and I would until I became infuriated that it never seemed to sink in.

At Eleusis, I symbolically cut the cord that tethered us in this karmic way.  Synchronistically, two months before my mother died, I found a letter she wrote to me 25 years ago that I had forgotten about in which she asked me for forgiveness, explaining how difficult it was for her to be a mother given her own emotional abandonment by her mother. Upon reading this letter years later, I knew that the forgiveness she sought went back many lifetimes. I knew I needed to call her although I wasn't sure she would be able to comprehend what I wanted to say. At that time, my mother was in the hospital and had been taken off the hideous, sedative drugs they gave her at the nursing home, and a window of clarity and opportunity opened. I told her I forgave her and would always love her and that we could release any hurt and pain we had carried between us in this lifetime and in past lives. She thanked me and told me how good it was to hear those words from me. I asked her to forgive me, too, for my anger at her and any pain I had caused her as her daughter. She told me there was nothing to forgive and that even though she didn't at all times know how to show it, she had always loved me.

Those two hours spent at Eleusis, at the very site where an ancient ritual of mother and daughter love and loss was played out for over a thousand years, were healing and transformative for me. I am quite sure I was there, too, in a past life, and perhaps my mother was, as well. For we have in common that we have been seekers of the greater meaning and understanding of the mystery of life, we both sought creative ways to explore our soul's purpose, and we both found a spiritual path that embraced the divine feminine. I can better honor my mother for the life and gifts she gave to me, which are so much clearer to me now that the veil of pain has been lifted.

 

If you are interested in exploring the myth of Persephone and Demeter and how to work with these powerful archetypes, you may enjoy my Triple Goddess e-course that explores the maiden-mother-crone through the Greek goddesses Persephone-Demeter-Hecate.

A Goddess Pilgrimage: Initiation at Delphi - Part 1

I came to Greece to go on a two-week goddess pilgrimage to Crete, with a few days added on either end to explore mainland Greece and Santorini. The journey truly began for me that moment when I crossed into liminal time and space at the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi.

Liminality, from the Latin word līmen, meaning "threshold," has been defined as "the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete." (Wikipedia). Websters defines it as "of or relating to a sensory threshold."

My friend, Diane Marshall, and I had arrived in Athens the day before we went to Delphi, just as a general strike of workers was called and all public transportation, tourist destinations, and museums were shut down. We wandered around Athens that first day, somewhat jet-lagged, but excited to take in this sprawling world capital city. "Just stay away from the parliamentary buildings," we were told, "and you'll be fine." And where we roamed, through the famous plaka, the old, historical "Neighborhood of the Gods" at the foot of the Acropolis, there were no signs of protests or unrest. In fact, it was a little quieter than usual due to the strike and people staying home from work, which made it easier to acclimate to our surroundings.

We took in the agora, the ruins of the old Roman marketplace, which once had homes and shops lining the Sacred Way that led to the Acropolis, where magnificent buildings, including the Parthenon and Temple to Athena, once stood as a fortress overlooking the city. We could not go up to the Acropolis on this day, so we walked and walked and enjoyed eating the healthy and delicious Mediterranean cuisine at the open-air cafes, or tavernas, grounding ourselves as much as possible on our first day in a country neither of us had been to before.

On our second day, we were happy to leave the energy of the city and head to the mountains, to Delphi, a couple of hours from Athens. I was excited to see Delphi as I was fascinated by what I knew of the oracles at Delphi, priestesses who prophesied for people who made the pilgrimage there to seek their counsel. Since we were on a tour with only a couple of hours to spend at Delphi, we were taken to the more recently erected Sanctuary of Apollo (6th c. BCE) built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In ancient times when the goddess reigned and the Mycenaeans, an early agrarian, peace-loving people who worshiped Her, inhabited the area (1500 to 1100 BCE), the first prophetess, Herophile, sat on top of a rock, known as the Sibyl Rock, and prophesied next to the omphalos, or navel of the earth mother, Gaia. Leaders and people from near and far came to hear the gifted oracle's prophesies, which included the foretelling of the Trojan War. But then about 1000 BCE, the Dorians overtook the Mycenaean villages that included a sacred spring and cave with vapors emanating from deep below that were said to have trance-inducing properties. These invaders brought their god, Apollo, with them and instated him there.

The story goes that Apollo had to fight and kill the giant python, the offspring of Gaia, that guarded the sacred Castalian Spring so that he could establish his own temple and oracle. This would presage the end of the worship of the Great Mother earth goddess, and the beginning of a patriarchal culture represented by the Hellenic gods and goddesses, some of whom were preempted and reconstructed from the attributes ascribed to the ancient mother. But these new gods and goddesses behaved much more like humans, acting out qualities of both light and shadow, such as love, generosity, wisdom as well as jealousy, narcissism, and vengefulness.

Symbolically, the male god killing the snake, a primordial symbol of the goddess, made a fitting myth for the beginning of the cult of Apollo, also establishing his might and power over the region. Apollo is said to have arrived riding on the backs of dolphins which became his priests in the temple. Some myths say he made the sailors who brought him his priests. These priests became intermediaries to the new oracle, a priestess known as the Pythia, a woman chosen for her deep, intuitive abilities. She sat upon a tall tripod in an underground chamber inside the temple, chewing on laurel leaves, and breathing in the hallucinogenic and noxious fumes that emanated from the underground fissures as she prophesied. (The priestess had to be replaced every so often as this was a dangerous and often deadly calling, owing to the poisonous fumes. One can't help but consider that enclosing her in a chamber is what made this job fatal, whereas before the patriarchy took over, she was on a rock in the open air where she would not be in danger.)

While it was interesting to contemplate this story and see these temples, I felt called to go down to Athena's temple across the road and down into a ravine below Apollo's temple. On the way, I passed the Castalian spring, the same water source that has flowed down from the mountains since ancient times. In the past, those who came to the oracle for guidance, would anoint and purify themselves at the spring. I stopped and drank from the spring and used it as holy water, touching it to my pulse points, third eye, and heart. I walked down the road towards the temple of the goddess I had blogged about last month, thinking about her qualities as protector and patroness of Athens, where I had just been. I thought about her earlier origins, where she was not seen as a warrior goddess, but as a patroness of arts and crafts, particularly weaving. She, too, had been co-opted by the patriarchy.

As I started down the path leading to her temple, I noticed that a tourist group was boarding their bus, leaving the place empty. I was delighted to be going down to her temple by myself so that I could perform a ritual. I pulled from my medicine bag a beautiful, blue, double-lobed celestite stone that a friend and sister from my Goddess temple e-course had gifted me. I had brought it as my talisman for the trip. Its properties help you feel harmonious and peaceful under times of stress, and as I knew traveling in a foreign country can bring its own kind of stress, I wanted to have it as a calming touchstone. It was also said to open one to new experiences and connection with the divine.

As I approached the remaining foundation stones of Athena's temple, I felt the stone grow warm in my hands and decided to set it down and charge it in the bright sunlight that beat down on the dark stones. I circled the temple wondering if I should leave the stone as an offering to Athena. I was torn since I wanted it for my protection and yet, it was a beautiful offering to this goddess who I felt was initiating me into this world of ancient and modern Greece.

I stood on the temple stones where many hundreds of years ago, priestesses had walked. I imagined what it must have been like when there were temple walls, altars, and sacred rites going on here. I held the celestite in one hand and asked Athena for protection on my travels, openness to new experiences and people, and to the mystery that I knew was unfolding. Then it seemed as if the gem leaped from my hand. I heard it hit the hard floor and I saw half of it roll away and fall into a crevice in the middle of the temple. The other half of the gem lay at my feet. I picked it up and held it in wonderment. Athena had answered my question with such an obvious solution. She would take one half and I would take the other with me, and so we would be joined in divine sisterhood.

I slowly walked out of this sacred sanctuary changed, enlivened, moved. I had crossed the threshold into a feeling I would carry with me over the next 3 weeks in Greece and even back home with me. It has taken a month for me to start feeling back on the ground of my country, home, family and work. Now I am in the process of integration, of deep rest and the need for more sleep, for any crossing into liminal time and space changes you, maybe even shatters you, in some way. This kind of dismembering is good and necessary for transformation. I would say there is no going back: you are changed on some level by crossing such a threshold, through ritual that brings about a shift in consciousness, by experiencing life in a different culture, setting, and even time. For my journey felt like one that embraced many lifetimes. I had a sense that I was able to move thought the past, to have glimpses of what life was like hundreds of years ago -- a remembering -- and at the same time be present to what was happening in this lifetime in a rather fluid, dreamy way. This was the initiation of my pilgrimage that in many ways, I am still on, and will always be on.

Stay tuned for future installments: Part 2, The Mother-Daughter Story, where I recount my healing journey to Eleusis, the place where the Eleusinian mysteries and the story of Demeter and Persephone played out for thousands of years; followed by Part 3, Goddess Boot Camp, the 2-week, life-changing odyssey on the island of Crete with 20 sister pilgrims; and Part 4, Santorini Magic.