The Magic House by the Grove
“I am nature, the Universal Mother,
Mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time,
Sovereign of all things spiritual,
queen of the dead, queen of the immortals,
The single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.”
Apuleius – “The Golden Ass” – translated by Robert Graves
A week later I pulled into the dead-end street where Shasta lived, accepting the invitation she had made for me to visit. It was a short road, perhaps less than fifty yards and it appeared to end in a tangle of vines and bushes. I parked on one side of the road, staring ahead of me. The house was supposed to be there. I read the address again, checking to be sure I was on the right street. But all I could see was a forest of kudzu, trees and vines. Suddenly, as if a glamour had been removed from my eyes, I realized that I was looking at a little white cottage hidden among the greenery. It looked like a fairy house; shells, crystals, flowers and bones were strewn down the path that led to the front door. The wooden porch was full of deer-skins, Indian blankets, rocking chairs, baskets of gourds and Native American dream catchers. Illustration by Sylvia Laurens.
To one side of the front yard were four old metal chairs overgrown with ivy. A hand knotted rope with brass bells served as the doorbell and on the front door, behind the dilapidated screen, swung a wooden heart. I stepped cautiously up onto the porch, looking at everything with wonder. Very different from my own lovely, artistic, but very neat and proper house, this cottage felt very much alive. Its magic was palpable. I sent out my inner senses, and it felt like decades of history were sequestered here. Ghosts of ancient wise women whispered in the air. A “spirit house,” I thought, feeling the power of the ancestors gathering around me as if they knew I had come. I felt like I had just arrived in some Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, and as I pulled on the bell rope I realized that I was in completely uncharted territory.
Shasta came to the door. She practically purred as she led me into her quaint little cottage, humming with energy. My eyes drank in everything. I saw that it was a simple square layout with the living room to the left. The first room was completely empty except for an old stone fireplace and four altars, one at each of the room’s corners. I got a glimpse of a large coiled stuffed snake mounted high in one corner, a large statue of Mary in another with roses at her feet. In a third corner a cat-headed stained-glass goddess about four feet tall stared back at me. Who was she? Egyptian! I thought, and then I was past her living room and moving into her kitchen.
“Would you like some tea?” Shasta’s softly modulated voice invited. A white cat jumped down from the kitchen counter, looked up and mewed. There were four white wicker chairs with a small coffee table between them nestled beneath a set of double wide windows. This was clearly where she ate, read, and even served guests. Two other cats, looking profoundly pleased with their lounging activities, yawned up at me. Shasta moved one of them from the chairs. “Sit down. I’ll put on the tea.”
While she was busy in the kitchen, I looked around, trying not to be rude. The cottage was laid out in a simple square pattern. At the left front was the living room, with the kitchen to the rear. On the right side of the house I guessed was probably Shasta’s bedroom and somewhere tucked towards the back right, was a bathroom. “I have several herb choices,” she said across the counter top. “I make them fresh from my garden. Would you like some dandelion or catnip tea? I grow it wild here.”
I had never even heard of catnip or dandelion tea before. “Either one would be nice,” I mumbled. I had only had herb tea made from the Celestial Seasonings box.
“When the tea is finished steeping, we’ll go out and sit in the garden.” Through the side windows I could see that the garden was wild with kudzu. I could also see a little area where the land had been cleared and vegetables planted, but beyond that almost everything looked half hidden in green; the trees, the rocks, even the arched arbors of this magical little valley. From here it looked like an enormous green vortex where the earth dropped away into the center of the yard, leaving the entire perimeter rimmed with trees. Wild roses covered the old fence around the property, making her house almost invisible to anyone not trained to know what they were looking for.
“This grove is hundreds of years old,” Shasta explained as she saw me studying it. “Women have been coming here for centuries to pray. I am the keeper of the grove along with my old friend Jeremy.”
“Jeremy?” I asked.
Her chin gestured to the little hidden house on the other side of the sanctuary. I had not seen it before. “He is the priest of the grove, just as I am the priestess.” I wondered if he was half as fascinating as she was. Shasta poured the hot water from the kettle into our cups of dandelion. “Do you like honey?”
I nodded. “Shasta, do you have a restroom I can use?”
She smiled, gesturing. “Go back through the living room into the healing room. It’s on the opposite side of the house.”
I wandered through the rooms, my eyes large as saucers. I saw turtle shells, snake skins, cow skulls and fur throws. There were baskets of gourds in several corners and a bookcase of well-loved books. This time as I passed the altar with the beautiful cat-headed being, I studied it more carefully. It looked majestic and proud, definitely Egyptian. In a second corner I realized that a white wolf pelt was draped beneath a white cow skull. What could that mean? One thing I knew though; the whole place felt alive. As I entered her bedroom, which she had called the healing room, I noticed how pristine it was. Lace, candles and rattles lay near the mirror of the dresser, and a large double bed with a white lace bedspread stood against one wall with a couple of overstuffed chairs.
Then I was at the door to the bathroom. From the moment that I entered it, I could tell that the house was watching me. A strange sort of power emanated right through the floorboards. There was one window that threw triangles of light into the room, and the afternoon sun was subdued. Everything was white except the walls; the fixtures, the towels, the rugs. But the walls were painted purple with strange swirling symbols, spirals and portals on them. I felt like I knew these images. Were they part of the language I had seen? A shiver went through me. This was a place of power. It felt like the living intelligence of the land was here, like some ancient being was watching. I knew that whatever energy the grove had, this room was one of its exit points, and it seemed as curious about me as I was about it.
Shasta was ready with the tea when I returned.
“Interesting bathroom,” I commented dryly.
She gave me a sideways glance. “I thought you’d like it.” She held my eyes for a moment.
“It was watching me,” I said.
She smiled. “Yes, I know…. this grove lies at the intersection of two blind springs, springs that run underground, but do not surface. This creates a powerful magnetic field through which River Woman can speak. Come. We’ll go out into the garden.” Shasta opened the door and stepped outside onto the porch into the afternoon sun. The light seemed to glisten off the railing, the teacups, even her earrings. I took a deep breath and followed.
River Woman, I thought, contemplating the meaning of her words. Who was River Woman? I thought she meant the primordial intelligence of the water itself. As I thought of the water all over the world having an active intelligence, I realized that water passed through everything, cities, mountains, meadows, towns. Water even passed through the ocean and the sky as rain. Water passed through humans and animals and returned to the Earth. If water could communicate its vast wisdom to someone who really knew how to listen, one could learn a great deal simply by sitting beside the water.
Shasta seemed to be reading my mind. “In the ancient days the women made their homes near water. This was not only practical; it was also for understanding. A wise woman from the village would go down to the water and listen each day. In this way she would hear news from the spirit of the water about all that was happening in other villages upstream. She would know before anyone arrived to tell the Elders. This is part of the teachings of River Woman.”
I nodded, not even sure how to respond. It was an entirely new way of thinking. “Think about it,” Shasta went on. “If all water is connected to the great ocean, then everything is connected. This is why the Goddess was always called la Mer, Mari, Mary or the Great Mother. She is the ultimate healer. On a planet like this one, a water planet, one can sit in this grove and learn a lot about what is happening all over the world just by being still.”
We picked up our mugs, descended the steps and entered the magical glade. I followed her silently through the foliage into the back. Three huge grandfather oaks oversaw the little valley, and beyond it were even more woods, buffering her from the world. From one oak hung a rope swing, looking for all-the-world like we had stepped into an 18th century painting. Several alcove gardens could be seen hidden in the foliage, and now Shasta led me into one of them. A statue of “Maria of the Woods” overhung with altar offerings and half-melted candles attested to the fact that other students had visited here. Mardi Gras beads, ceremonial objects and prayer-ties all hung from the trees and a loose assortment of benches, rugs, tables, and candles were half obscured beneath the canopy of foliage. An aura of reverence emanated from the place.
“Mary is the patron saint of our woods,” Shasta explained. “Many people have gathered here to speak to her.” I nodded, not even able to formulate a question. Despite my years of spiritual training, this was all new to me. The healing energies of sacred ritual were gathered in the silence. “Shall we sit?” Shasta asked, leading me towards a wicker sofa where I could see down into the little bowl-shaped valley for the first time. There was a fire pit and four altars, one for each of the directions. I could feel the power rising from the ground like a pulse. I knew that if I were left alone in this grove, I would be able to hear the Earth speaking.
Suddenly I spotted three huge cauldrons turned upside down in the ring. The sight sent a shiver through me. I knew from my Christian upbringing that witches used cauldrons. “What are those?” I pointed dubiously.
She laughed, amused by my fundamentalist sensibilities. “Don’t be afraid,” she patted my arm matronly. “Cauldrons are only iron kettles, you know. People have cooked in them for centuries.” I smiled sheepishly, feeling chagrined. My southern Baptist training was rearing its head. “The cauldron, you see, is like the womb of the Earth, the womb of women everywhere. It is dark and round and mysterious, and from it life springs, even if that life is only a well cooked stew.” She laughed and I laughed with her, half embarrassed, half still ill at ease. What had I gotten myself into?
“The Earth is the same as the cauldron, Tricia. The nurturing power of the feminine grows something wonderful from the dark womb that is our Mother Earth. Although most people take this for granted because they are disconnected from the natural world, it is still true. The Mother gives us everything: air, food, water, all our plants, our trees, our wood, our fabrics, even our animals; it’s all offered from the bounty of the Mother. Life germinates in the womb. This is true for all creatures. It is part of the Great Mystery of life, death and rebirth. Cauldrons represent the alchemical laboratories that symbolize the nature of women and sacred life. This is also why the cauldron was used in alchemy.”
“Alchemy?” I swallowed, my adrenaline humming. “What do you mean… alchemy?”
She laughed, seeing my discomfort, but her voice was patient. “Alchemy is transmutation,” Shasta explained. “Personal inner transmutation, or chemical scientific transmutation, it’s all the same. The alchemy of transformation is always done with the four elements, because that is the paint box of the Divine.”
I held her eyes but didn’t speak, thinking about her words. The paint box of the Divine… What a unique thought… but true, I realized. I wanted her to go on.
She sighed. “Let me ask you a question, Tricia. What do you think the world is made of?” I looked around at the trees, the sky, the bench, my own clothes. I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to say. “Elements,” she said plainly. “Lots of elements, like you find on the periodic table, and each of these elements is composed of some combination of air, earth, fire or water, aren’t they?”
Yes, I thought, that was true, wasn’t it? It was all some proportion of these four simple elements, plus the element of life or Spirit which animated it. When Shasta put it like this, it was easy to follow.
She continued. “So all science is the study of the elements and how they respond to one another, whether it is the science of chemistry, biology, astronomy, physics or even medicine. From herbology to pharmaceuticals, we are talking about how things combine, how they transmute and change and interact with one another. That’s alchemy, isn’t it?”
She was right, I realized. Science is basically the empirical study of how the Universe works, how it combines and operates within our ability to perceive its laws.
Shasta went on. “But there is a deeper level of working with the elements that is known as ‘the Great Work.’ This is the alchemy of the human soul, and it is done within the laboratory of time.” I opened my mind to let these ideas come in. “The past, the present and the future, these were all known in ancient mythology as the three Fates, the three Norns that sit beneath the One World Tree.”
“A symbol of the Absolute behind it all.” I looked at her hard, trying to follow what she was saying. She smiled, as if dismissing a subject that was too large for the moment. “Anyway, that is what we do here in this grove… transformation, connection… prayer, ceremony… the alchemy of connecting the Soul with the Divine behind it all.”
The magician’s quest, I thought, the Philosopher’s Stone… these were part of the secret societies connected with the search for the Holy Grail. I knew that for centuries there were legends of medieval alchemists who had sought the formulas that would turn lead into gold, create the fountain of youth, and allow them to attain immortality. These were clearly a metaphor for something far deeper.
Shasta went on. “Whenever someone goes to church to worship, the church uses these same elements, don’t they? The Catholic fathers took this knowledge of ritual and ceremony from the priestesses long ago because it engages the inner senses as well as the outer ones.” I thought about what she was saying. Yes, they did use air, earth, fire and water. These four elements were part of every religious ceremony I had ever attended. The burning of incense used both air and fire; so did the lighting of candles. Water was intrinsic to baptism and the sprinkling of “holy water” which represented cleansing. Drinking wine and eating the Communion wafers were part of the Earth, as well as the golden chalice. That sacred cup could represent anything from the act of receiving, to the womb of the Holy Mother herself. At the Eucharist we even say, “Take. Eat. This is my body that was given for you and for all men…” Shasta was right. This was how all the most beautiful ceremonies were done in virtually every religion.
“They use the four elements because they work,” she said. She opened her hands and gestured around the yard. “Now look around you. This is the Goddess’ true cathedral, Tricia, made of the natural elements. This is why our ancestors built campfires and sat around them. It wasn’t just to stay warm or to cook food… it was to dream with the fire. Anyone who has gone camping knows this. When we stare into the flames we enter an altered state, a place where our vision takes us beyond the mundane things of life into the dreamtime.” She looked out at the grove. “Those cauldrons are merely holders for the alchemical fire of transmutation, like the chalice. It’s a simple as that.”
I took a deep breath. Her words were part of something I had always felt, as if nature itself was the real holy place. I realized then that my silly fears were part of the rigid prejudice of my own Christian upbringing that feared to let anything else in. It was based on ignorance. We had always been taught that anything “earth centered” was evil, although stepping back from it now, I realized that this was patently absurd. The Earth was the only reason why any of us even had life at all! Each day we ate from her, drank from her, and breathed her air. How could anyone make that “evil?” It was like separating yourself from the sacredness of God.
I realized then that even though I thought I had “graduated” long ago from the overt oppression of the church, clearly there were still pockets of its upside down logic left in my psyche. As beautiful as organized religions can be, I had long ago realized that there were discrepancies in the church that separated people with judgment and blame. I had long been on a path of listening to that inner Voice that speaks to all of us who come in purity of heart. Yet until that moment, I hadn’t realized how firmly the fear of witches had been implanted in me.
“Are you a witch?” I blurted out, blushing scarlet with my own lack of tact.
She laughed and shook her head, unruffled. “No, a witch is a person trained in the Wiccan path. That is not my training. My path is the path of the Goddess. I am a priestess of the Divine Mother in all her forms, but my personal circle is Isis, Quan Yin, and Sekhmet, the cat-headed being that you saw inside. The Wiccans work with both the male and female deities.”
“Is that why you have three cauldrons?” I asked, trying to keep any distress from my voice.
She smiled. “Yes, they represent the Triple Goddess.” I had no idea what she was talking about. She saw that, and went on. “These are the three stages of life that every woman lives through; the maiden, the mother and the crone. These complete the wheel of life, death and rebirth. The Divine Mother encompasses them all.”
Hmm… I had a lot to learn. “But what about God?” I asked a bit petulantly. “Where does God fit into all of this?”
Her eyes blazed. “Tricia, the male version of the Creator has had plenty of press these past few thousand years. There are many advocates for a vengeful, punishing God, a god who separates and divides, who judges and condemns, a god who destroys or conquers everything that will not submit.” I felt the power touch her like a flame. “I for one choose life. I choose a Creator who unites. I choose peace and unity, not division and war. Our world has seen enough of that to last many lifetimes.”
She was right. Condemnation, punishment, original sin, blame and shame seemed to be at the root of how all the patriarchal religions lived, from Islam to Christianity. They said they revered women, and yet they oppressed them. They said they were bringing forth the teachings of the prophets of love, yet they were more than eager to tell you that you would go to hell. To me, something was fundamentally wrong with any version of the Creator who would only bless one group and send the others into oblivion. Yet this was the world that we had been born into, a world where men taught oppression in the name of God. And I could see that their way was taking the entire planet down a path of abuse. We saw it in the environment, the exploitation of children, the killing of animals and the pollution of natural resources. They had no thought for the generations that would come after, only their own profits in the moment.
I remembered then the creed that our Native American ancestors had tried to live by: “Make no decision that does not serve seven generations forward.” This insured that we would become wise stewards of the land and the people. I flashed on the words of the Bible: “…and the tree shall be known by its fruit.” Well, our culture and its fruits clearly sprang from a warped and twisted tree.
Shasta’s voice cut in, pulling me from my contemplation. “But who remembers the Great Mother that actually creates everything, the one who gives everything on this planet life? Who honors her?”
Tears sprang to my eyes. I could think of nothing to say.
“All things are born of woman, Tricia,” Shasta continued in a voice soft with power. It was so plain a truth that I could not believe it had never occurred to me before. She was right. Nothing would be born or live without the creative power of the female. “Show me one living creature born of man. It doesn’t happen. The best we can offer is androgynous earthworms.”
I laughed out loud. The image of men claiming supreme dominance as huge aggressive earthworms was just too fantastic. The laughter broke the tension. After a moment Shasta joined me, and I knew we were visualizing the same thing.
“Honestly, Tricia, in all of the Cosmos it is only the Mother that is the Life Giver. How can God be a male, I ask you? Males do not give birth, do they?” I looked at her, and beneath the mirth there was a serious glint in her eyes. “She is both the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of Earth, but She has been forgotten by Her children, dishonored and mistreated. When you come here to this grove, you honor Her.”
I looked out on the ragged beauty of the half-wild garden hidden by the kudzu. Just like the Goddess, I thought, hidden unless you had the eyes to look for Her. Shasta’s words brought an entirely new way of thinking into my world. I realized then that in some strange way, I had always accepted God as being male. I had accepted the inner picture of some guy with a long white flowing beard who judged and punished us if we didn’t do as he said.
“Shasta,” I turned, knowing my prescient gifts were speaking. “I know that the time will arrive when I will come here to study with you, but that time is not yet. There are other things that I must do first. But I am sure this is why the Priestesses of Isis contacted me in that dream. She nodded. “So, when I am ready, will you teach me?”
A mysterious smile played around her lips. She fixed me with her piercing eyes. “So shall it be. And in the years to come may you discover for yourself the answers to who the Great Mother truly is.”