Thursday, July 30, 2015

Aphaea, Clay, and the Goddesses below the Earth

The Temple of Aphaea at Aegina

On the island of Aegina, where we visited the ancient temple of Aphaea, a little know huntress goddess of nets who has been syncretized with Athena, Artemis, and maybe even Astarte. Aphaea, by that name, was worshipped more or less only at Aegina, although she was also known under the name Diktynna of the Nets on Crete and as Britomartis in Minoan culture. Britomartis is also a character in Spencers' Fairey Queen, where she is a Maiden Knight. At her temple on Aegina, I got a very Hekate/Artemis kind of a vibe, with a bit of Astarte around the edges. It's a lovely temple, high on a mountain overlooking the sea, and pretty far off the usual tourist track.  The hill surrounding the temple is wooded, mostly with a kind of pine that smelled very crisp and clean.  I wold like to visit again when it is not so brutally hot.  There was no one but our group there the day we went.  However, it was referendum day.  Here on Aegenia, things have been quite calm, but I think it is more heated in Athens.
photo from

The temple is lovely, and in good condition.  It feels distinctly Artemis/Hekate-ish.  It reminds me, particularly, of the stories of the two of them together.  I think people forget that their mothers are sisters.  Hekate once told me a story of how she gave up her fertility to her cousin, and took, in exchange, Artemis's inheritance of day-prophecy from Leto.  It was a great work of magic.

Aphaea brings also to mind Hekate as a daughter of the Sea.  While most sources say that Perses is Hekate's father, to me, I have always understood her to be, at least in some sense, the daughter of Asteria and Okeanos, of Sky and Sea.  In nearly every culture, there are (at least) two ocean spirits; a goddess of the beach, and a god of the depths.  Hekate's kinship is not to the Aphrodite-warm ocean waves, it is to the primal, deep, cold, cthonic reaches.  The ocean whereof all life arises, and into whose cold depths we all return.  And yet, here, on Aegina, the Aegean ocean sparkling in the July sun, Aphaea seems a goddess of light and heat and youth.  I have a brief vision of a mermaid-tailed herbalist, smelling of pine and pistachios, a patroness of young women exploding into their own power.  My best friend when I was in high school, and to this very day, is a beautiful woman, with a wild mane of blonde hair.  She is a master herbalist, an acupuncturist, and a naturopath.   In our youth, she was devoted to Artemis.  She now has a newborn daughter.  Like us all, she has grown and changed, becoming every more amazing, as we've grown up.  To me, Aphaea feels like her, like grown-up Artemis, daughter on her hip, an accomplished healer who lives by the sea.

After we left the temple, we went in search of the last traditional potter on the island. I have always been interested in pottery; I did some of it in school, and so this was very interesting to me.  All we had by way of an address was "Nektarios Gkaris the Potter, Aegina". However, the gods smiled on us!  Our bus driver turned out to be Nektarios' cousin. (This is not quite as unlikely as it sounds; to us Greeks, "cousin" means anyone you're related too.  My family was one of the first Greek families in Lancaster; now nearly every Greek person there is my "cousin".)

Our bus driver took us to visit his studio; a small ramshackle building completely stuffed with pottery and cages full of parakeets. At a place of prominence, where he could look out the window while working, was his potter's wheel, and behind it the kiln. Nektarios spoke very little English, but our guide translated for us. He said that he had learned the craft from his father, but he had no children and no one to pass his craft onto, and so the ancient techniques of Aeginean pottery will die with him.

He digs his own clay, but all the land he used to dig on has recently been privatized, and so it is now very hard to get local clay; he does not know how long he will be able to continue.  He told us that, in the 70s, the federal government had funded a school on Aegina for pottery and other folk-crafts, but that corrupt local politicians had sold off all of the equipment. (I think; it was very crowded and hard to hear) 

I bought several things from Nektarios.  See the large Hermes plaque inside the door?  I got a tiny one just like it.  Among the things I got (and now I'm wishing I'd bought many more things, and shipped a box home) was a plaque of Theotokos (Mary, mother of Jesus).  I wasn't really sure why, but it called to me.  At the time, I said it was for my (late) grandmother, and I thought maybe I'd put it by my ancestor alter.

After I got home, I painted up some of the pottery.  Here's my Hermes, at home with the egg: 

Here's a replica of a Cretan sistrum, which I've painted Mycenaean style with a mixture of red paint, my blood, dittany of crete essential oil, and flying ointment.  The sound it makes is not entirely satisfying.  Many people think that these sorts of clay sistra were never intended to be played, but are simply grave goods, props.  Already, with limited use, the clay disks are starting to chip.  When they break, I will replace them with metal ones, which I think will produce a better noise.
And here is Theotokos (which is not quite done being painted)
At first, I wasn't really sure why she wanted to be so dark complected.  I knew there was a thing called "Black Madonna", but I didn't know much about it.  After a very fascinating and informative talk with my friend Michael, I am COMPLETELY convinced that Aphaea and the Black Madonna are both avatars of the goddess I call The Great Lady Below.  I often work with her as Ereshkigal; I think she's who a lot of Wiccans connect to when they work with Hekate (although I don't read Hekate that way at all).

Black Madonna, by Ulla Karttunen

To me, the primary attribute of the Lady Below is her chthonic nature; she is the deep, rich Heart of the World, from which both healing and death emanate; she is white as bone and dark as night.  She taught us to forge the very first stone blade, and gave us homes in her sheltering caves.  Before agriculture, before the domestication of animals, it was She who provided everything; mother, sister, lover, priestess, teacher, and undertaker.

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