My astral trip to the Underworld was a turning point in my life, more so than anything else that came before. In the months that I had spent in the cemetery studying the ancestor’s occult library, there was still a nagging voice in the back of my head that said I was crazy and none of it was real. But once I had actually managed to astral project and visit the spirit world, those doubts were gone for good. The astral plane was real, and if anything, the physical plane was the fantasy world. This revelation sparked a passion in me unlike anything I’d felt before, and mastering the Craft became the driving purpose in my life.
Genevieve was the best teacher I could have hoped for, and helped me to understand that being a good Witch also meant being a good Wiccan. My earlier attempts at solidary study at been hindered by being overly analytical. Genevieve taught me that faith is not the rejection of reason, merely the acknowledgement of its limitations. Properly honed intuitions and emotions, crafted by millions of years of natural selection, can be just as powerful for inferring truth. This is especially true when there is not the required time or evidence for rational analysis, or when dealing with other worlds which, by their very nature, do not conform to our laws. The fact that I had only first succeeded in astral projection when the Dephi Dream had granted me a much more intuitive state of mind was all the proof I needed that it was the better approach to understanding the spirit world.
I have an altar now, a small oak table draped in a purple velvet triple moon tapestry. It's light enough that I can move it around the cemetery when I want to, but I usually keep it in the maintenance shed where it won't get wet. On it, I have candles for fire, incense for air, salt and gemstones for earth, and a filled chalice for water. I have my athame, feathers from the crows in my cemetery, a wand made from a willow branch, a small cauldron, mortar and pestle, my Book of Shadows, and a pentacle talisman. There are two smalls busts, one of the Mother Goddess and one of the Horned God, and two figurines, the Crone with a staff and cloak, and winged Isis, who I worship as an amalgam of all three Goddesses.
I do not, however, have any idol of the Maiden Goddess on my altar, for reasons which I expect are clear.
Every day now, I kneel by my altar, light the candles, burn the incense, and pray. Genevieve also helped me to realize that the purpose of prayer is not that a god answers, or even that there is a literal entity who identifies as the god you’re praying to to hear them. All forms of Magick are based on the effect consciousness has on reality, and praying helps to clearly crystalize your thoughts and desires in your mind, and repetition reinforces them. Words are thoughts given physical form, and speaking or writing them helps make them more real. Genevieve and I are also great believers in the oneness and interconnectedness of all things, and that spells and prayers spread out through that interconnectedness to influence reality, including the god we're praying to if we're lucky.
It’s nothing short of ironic that after realizing all this was when a goddess actually did choose to acknowledge my prayers.
It was June of last year, about three months after I had visited the Underworld. Genevieve and I had gone on astral journeys many times since then, but I refused to go anywhere near the portal behind the tree line, be it in spirit or in the flesh. I had just stepped out of my shed when I saw a blonde woman sitting in a lawn chair by my firepit, my cat Moxley on her lap. For a second, I just assumed it was Genevieve, because who else would it be? But Genevieve doesn’t drive or own a car, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to find the cemetery on her own. I was still the only person I knew who could do that.
“Hey!” I shouted, stomping towards her, the anger that anyone had dared to trespass into my sacred cemetery overriding any sense of caution. The woman looked up at me and smiled, the same smug smile I had seen countless times from the portrait in the mausoleum, and I froze in my tracks. It was Persephone.
She looked a little different from when I had seen her in the Underworld. Her skin was sun-kissed, her hair crowned in a coronet of actual flowers instead of gemstones, and she was now clad in only a gossamer summer dress.
“Hey to you too,” she smirked, gently stroking Moxley’s fur. “How’s your summer been? Mine’s been dreadfully dull, but all my summers are like that. I miss my kingdom. I miss my king. I miss my dog. Like Mark Twain, I go to Heaven for the climate and Hell for the company.”
“Dread Persephone,” I murmured softly as I bowed in obligatory reverence to her, terrified at what she might be planning on doing.
“Actually, Fairest Persephone is fine now, given the season,” she assured me. “Though, I do appreciate the reminder of my proper honorific.”
“How are you here?” I asked, bewildered. From everything I thought I understood about the Elder Kin, they shouldn’t be able to cross the Veil accept at liminal times and places.
"Reverse astral projection, let's call it. My astral form is in the Summerland, but I'm projecting my mind into a rudimentary physical body I made from ambient matter,” she said nonchalantly. “It’s hard, even with a weakened Veil, and I could have just projected an image into your mind had I just wanted to talk, but I thought I should pay this nexus of mine a visit. Even after all this time, it really is quite charming. I can see why you love it so much.
“Come now, don’t just stand there. Sit by my side, and we’ll talk a bit. I think it would be good for us to talk here, instead of in the far more formal setting of my court. Don’t you?”
I nodded, and sat down in the chair adjacent to her. It was a rare opportunity to actually be able to converse with a deity, and I wasn’t going to waste it.
“Are you what Genevieve thinks you are?” I asked curiously. “An emanation of a specific aspect from a panpsychic, pantheistic Brahman oversoul?”
“Words, words, words,” she chuckled. “I think the Sky Father said it best with ‘I am that what I am’. If it appeals to any lingering materialism you may still possess, you can think of the universe as a simulation and me as a mod, but that’s still just a metaphor, and no more or less valid than the metaphors used by the most primitive shamans. But the answer to ‘what am I’ will always be ‘beyond your understanding’.”
I nodded again, and decided not to waste my limited time with her with any more metaphysics.
“Then explain this to me then; why can’t you just let me have my friend back?” I asked, my voice cracking a bit as I did so. “I’m not arguing whether you have the authority to keep him, I’ll admit that you do, but why do you care? I’m not even asking for him to be brought back to life, I just want his soul. What does one soul mean to you?”
She drew pensive, seemingly considering her response very carefully.
“Identity is very important to my people, Samantha, far more so than it is to mortals,” she began. “The astral plane is far more malleable to thought than this world is, and thus our bodies are much more accurate reflections of our true nature. Before I was the Queen of the Underworld, I was nothing more than my mother’s daughter. In her mind and the minds of many others, she is the perfect mother and ideal of feminine authority. She is selfless to the point of self-destruction when need be, viewing her power solely as a responsibility and never as a privilege, incapable of being corrupted or deluded by it. She is the embodiment of pure compassion, and lives only to care for others.
“But to live under such a benefactor can be smothering and infantilizing, and that was to be my fate for all eternity. I was her daughter, to care for and dote over and, most of all, to protect. I was to spend my eternity in the Summerland where I’d be safe, helping the mortal souls who came there for respite and reflection from the cycle of rebirth until they were ready to return to Earth or ascend higher yet. That was to be my only reward for my toil, the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing I helped people. I didn’t even have to worry about screwing it up, since my mother would always be hovering over me, ready to correct any mistakes her hapless, idiot daughter made.
“She loves me, I know she does, but she did not respect me. When I told her that I wasn’t as selfless as her and that I wasn’t happy with the life she had ordained for me, she just assured me I would grow out of it, that she knew me better than I knew myself, and that she knew what was best for me. She wanted me safe, and I wanted to be free – the most proverbial parent-child conflict of them all. My growing unhappiness did start to impact her own sense of identity, however, as I was making it increasingly difficult for her to view herself as a perfect mother, and my rebellions against her only made that worse. In particular, she viewed herself as extremely progressive and permissive. ‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt’, right? As such, I was free to frolic with Gods and Goddesses, nymphs and satyrs, and any mortal souls in any combination and manner that pleased me. Then I fell in love with the Lord of the Underworld, and she did not like that one bit.”
“May I ask why?” I interrupted.
“Same reason most people don’t like him, I imagine,” she shrugged. “He tends to the lost souls those of us on the higher levels of the astral plane would prefer not to think about.”
“No, I mean why did you fall in love with him?” I clarified, and pondering whether she had legitimately misunderstood me or if she had been trying to deflect the question.
“Oh. Well, then and now, I view love more as a primordial force than a rational choice, one even the gods are powerless to resist. It just happened. But if I must give reasons, I admired the quiet dignity with which he conducted his thankless work, the paradise he had made in Hell. He also gave me something I could never get from my mother; respect. He never spoke down to me, always treated me as an adult and equal. I respected him in turn, and was willing to become his Queen and aid him in his work, which I deemed far more rewarding than playing guidance counselor to the Blessed souls of the Summerland.
"My mother, of course, was devastated at my choice to spend eternity in the gloomy Underworld with its lost souls. She did everything in her power to ‘rescue me’, to save me, and when she couldn’t she viewed herself as a complete failure as a mother and fell into a deep depression, and the entire Summerland began to decay with her. It was partially a ‘fisher king’ scenario and partially because she was neglecting her duties that no one else could do. I was her main assistant, and I was gone. The Crone is wise, but old, and limited in the amount of work she can do. My father, the Horned God, is obedient to my mother to the point that he’s usually useless without her giving him orders. But like all my people, his identity is essential to his existence, and his identity is that of the ideal son, lover, and father, willing to do anything to protect and provide for his family; even die.
“So that’s what he did. It’s hard to describe what he did in literal terms, but he made a sacrifice that saved the Summerland but simultaneously made him unworthy of it, and he descended to the Underworld. I… hadn’t quite realized things had gotten that bad without me, that my mother couldn’t be the Mother without me as the Maiden. I hated being the Maiden though, and I loved being Queen of the Underworld, but how could I in good conscious keep my throne knowing that my mother, already in the grip of crippling depression, had just lost her beloved consort because she couldn’t attend to her duties? The astral plane needed both the Summerland and the Underworld, and the Summerland needed the Maiden Goddess, but the Underworld could survive without a Queen.
"If I were as selfless as my mother, I would have returned to the Summerland forever. But I'm not, so I didn't. Instead, I proposed a compromise. I would not forsake my identity as the Maiden Goddess, but nor would I forsake my preferred identity as the Queen of the Underworld. I would forever be of both worlds and split my time between the two. My mother accepted these terms, and I returned to the Summerland. With me by my mother's side, it was healed enough that what my father had sacrificed could be restored to him and he was resurrected come Spring.
“My mother still doesn’t really approve of my life choices, but she accepts them, and though she misses me dearly she is able to maintain the Summerland during my absence, knowing we’ll be reunited again on Beltane.
“So you see Samantha, I, like many gods, have a dichotomy to my existence. Between Fairest Persephone and Dread Persephone, between the dutiful daughter and the rebel daughter, between the Disney princess and the Disney queen.”
She held out two fingers, whistled, and a chirping song bird came and perched upon them. With a sinister smirk she blew upon it, and it instantly fell dead to the ground.
"Compassion for its own sake is a trait of Fairest Persephone, and any indulgence in compassion in my capacity as Queen of the Underworld compromises that identity, my preferred identity, the one I made for myself and will maintain until the end of time no matter what the cost. You have offered me no reason to return your friend to you other than pity, and it takes an enormous amount of pity for me to be willing to act as Fairest Persephone while I sit by my husband’s side. Don’t get me wrong, it is sweet that you care about your friend this much, but you’re no Orpheus mourning for Eurydice.”
I sat silently, contemplating what she had said.
“That all sounded like a very convoluted way of saying that you just don’t want to,” I muttered, hanging my head.
“I suppose it is,” she smirked. “I understand if that explanation doesn’t bring you any comfort. But I have some questions for you now, if you don’t mind.”
“And what would those be?” I asked.
“Well Samantha, I know that since you came to see me, you’ve been exploring these woods, both on and off the trails, wondering if there was any truth to the old legends you read about,” she replied. “You found the Green Man, didn’t you?”
The Green Man is a nature spirit that resides in and watches over Harrowick Woods. He usually takes the form of a tall, sylvan satyr. With my clairvoyance, he wasn’t hard to find once I started looking.
“I did,” I admitted, not seeing any point in lying, even though I suspected I knew where she was going with this.
“How could you not? He’d be very hard for someone like you to miss,” she noted. “And, being a devotee of my father, he would have been all too eager to aid a Witch. I can only imagine the first thing you would have asked him was how to help your friend, and I’m sure his first suggestion was to make him your spirit familiar. That way, he’d be anchored to you and unable to descend back to the Underworld, and in your service, he might even be able to rack up enough Karma to ascend to the Summerland someday. Am I wrong?”
I sighed, but gave a resigned nod. That’s exactly what he had told me.
“But, as much as you miss your friend, you haven’t tried anything yet,” she went on. “I assume then that you’re waiting until Halloween, when the Veil is weakest and when I, hopefully, am distracted by my welcome home party. I’ve come here to tell you that’s not going to work, Samantha. I’ve made my decision, I know what you’re up to, and I will not be made a fool of. I admire your persistence - really, I do – but do not think for an instant that you can defy me. You think that just because you’ve read some old grimoires, walked across the planes, and danced naked around a bonfire with your little girlfriend that you’re an all-powerful Witch? You are a dabbler, and any expertise you think you may possess is pure Dunning-Kruger effect. You don’t have the slightest idea how much you don’t know, how much you cannot understand. If you try to trick me, or steal from me, you will fail, and – for reasons I’ve already explained – I will not be merciful.
“This is not a threat. This is a warning. I like you, and I don’t want to have to punish you, but I will if you attempt to circumvent my ruling. If you really want me to release him to you as a familiar, continue to study your Craft until you advance enough that you can actually offer me something worthy in exchange. I believe you have that in you, Samantha, and it’s something I’d actually be willing to agree to.”
“Well, I don’t think I’d be willing to agree to a deal on your terms, knowing what I know about you,” I said adamantly. “I don’t want to be your subject, I don’t want to end up in your Underworld, and I sure as hell don’t want to condemn any innocent descendants I may have to that fate. You may be a goddess, but you’re not God with a capital G. You’re not all-powerful, or even supremely powerful, and you’re not the sole arbiter of the fate of mortal souls. I’m not afraid of you, I’m not giving in to you, and if I do save my friend it will be on my terms, not yours.
“Go to Hell. Now, please.”
I grimaced as she picked up Moxley and held him to her face, presumably contemplating killing him just to punish me for my outburst.
“You’re lucky it’s summer and you’re cute,” she told him, before setting him down on the ground. She then looked up at me with pity, pity that I knew I would not receive should I cross her while she was not under her mother’s thumb.
“If you ever change your mind about that, just holler, and I swear I won’t hold anything against you,” she assured me, before dissipating into a spray of mist.
I scooped Moxley up in my arms and clutched him to my chest, nuzzling his head while sobbing, wondering what the hell I had just done. I had no real reason to believe I could ever defy Persephone, and every reason to believe that bowing to her whim was my only hope of helping my friend. But as I said, I was committed to trusting my intuition now, and my intuition told me I was missing something. I felt that something was off, that something didn't quite make sense, and I was just on the cusp of my conscious mind realizing what it was. I felt then, and know now, that I was only one more epiphany or revelation away from being able to rescue my friend, with or without Persephone’s approval.
I just hoped that I would have that epiphany before the next Halloween.
Written by The Vesper's Bell