The Naiad Nymphaia and the feast of Saint John the Baptist

I have gotten out of the habit of talking about the festivals I celebrate as well as the simpler aspects of my religious practice that I can share with others* and I’d like to change that. What’s the point of having a religious blog if you’re not going to talk about the things you actually do, ya know?

So, over the weekend my partner Dver and I celebrated the Naiad Nymphaia, which we moved from its traditional** date on the summer solstice to the feast of Saint John the Baptist a couple days later. There’s actually ample precedent for this sort of thing since many Prechristian European folk customs associated with solstice and midsummer “gravitated” over to the Nativity of the Baptist during the Middle Ages. Throughout Italy, for instance, young girls would harvest herbs and flowers and weave them into brightly colored chaplets, boys would bathe in the frigid waters of rivers to prove their manhood and for the remission of sins, and huge bonfires would be lit in the town square to get rid of bad luck by burning away the things of the past. You find very similar customs throughout Europe and even in the New World.

On Saturday we went to the Farmer’s Market to celebrate the harvest and pick up the last of the offerings we needed for the nymphs. Since it was the fourth of the month we got Hermes a fine bottle of beer which we libated to him while we ate a tasty cheeseburger from one of our favorite restaurants. Relaxing, we watched several shows (which contained unexpected but meaningful references to Spider) and then went out and visited with some friends who are going to be vending at the Oregon Country Fair, talking mostly about our mutual love of this place we call home.

Sunday was spent around the house engaged in festive activities. Just a few of the things we did:

* made a sumptuous feast with the bounty of fresh produce we got from the market the day before
* brewed two kinds of mead
* made floating beeswax candles
* watched a couple of the Greek myths from Jim Henson’s Storyteller series (which contained more random references to Spider)
* painted an oscillum
* made a rusalka doll
* made stephanoi with material gathered from Dver’s garden

I’m sure there’s stuff I’m leaving out. It was a very full but pleasant day with everything serving to keep us focused and mindful of the important themes it contained. You don’t need a large community to turn an ordinary day into a festival — it just calls for more than a simple ten minute ritual.

As twilight approached we collected our offerings into baskets, put on our flower-crowns and headed out for a reverent and joyful procession through our city. We gathered wild flowers along the way and had a lush bouquet to offer the nymphs when we finally arrived at their secluded grotto on the banks of the Willamette. We’ve been coming to this spot to celebrate the Naiad Nymphaia pretty much from the time we moved here and it’s built up a lot of power and associations for us through the years.

We erected the shrine on a tree trunk that extended out over the river. We made a ring of flowers, jewelry and candles, set up a little bowl and a pretty card, stabbed sticks of incense into the moist earth beside it and then hung strips of cloth and the little head I’d decorated on nearby trees. Then Dver sang to the nymphs, we poured out libations of mead, offered them fresh honeycomb and the other things we’d brought, I recited my hymn to the Willamette, and Dver released the floating candles lit into the river and drowned the rusalka doll. Then we spent some time privately communing with the spirits of the place. At first I was just hanging out, taking in the beautiful surroundings and the sight of our offerings in the growing dark. With the candles and the strips of colored fabric hanging from the branches and the little oscillum swaying in the breeze I was reminded of Erigone and the Aiora:

“Icarius’ dog returned to his daughter, Erigone; she followed his tracks and, when she found her father’s corpse, she ended her life with a noose. Through the mercy of the gods she was restored to life again among the constellations; men call her Virgo. That dog was also placed among the stars. But after some time such a sickness was sent upon the Athenians that their maidens were driven by a certain madness to hang themselves. The oracle responded that this pestilence could be stopped if the corpses of Erigone and Icarius were sought again. These were found nowhere after being sought for a long time. Then, to show their devotedness, and to appear to seek them in another element, the Athenians hung rope from trees. Holding on to this rope, the men were tossed here and there so that they seemed to seek the corpses in the air. But since most were falling from the trees, they decided to make shapes in the likeness of their own faces and hang these in place of themselves. Hence, little masks are called oscilla because in them faces oscillate, that is, move.” (The First Vatican Mythographer 19)

Then, because I associate Erigone with Arachne, I called to mind the rites of the tarantati:

“I will spare the details of the many other aids and expedients the poison victims use to raise and cheer their melancholy spirits during the dance, items also needed for one reason or another. For instance there are artificial springs of limpid water constructed in such a way that the water is gathered and always returns to flow anew; these springs are covered and surrounded by green fronds, flowers and trees. Further, lasses dressed in sumptuous wedding gowns have the task of dancing with the tarantati, festively singing and playing the same melody with them during the dance; then there are the weapons and the multicolored drapery hung on the walls. All of these, and many others, cannot be procured without payment.” (Ludovico Valletta, De Phalangio Apulo 92)

“All the wives offer – understood as a loan – handkerchiefs, shawls, scarves, petticoats and linens of every color, pots of basil, lemon verbona, mint and rue, mirrors and baubles, and last but not least a great tub full of water. The surroundings are decorated in this way, and when everything is ready the victim of the bite, dressed in gaudy colors, chooses as she pleases ribbons, handkerchiefs and shoes that remind her of the colors of the tarantula and she adorns herself with them while waiting for the musicians.” (Anna Caggiano, Folklore Italiano 6.72ff)

Then suddenly I got really dizzy (to the point where I almost fell off the log I’d been resting against!) and experienced nympholepsy, seizure by the nymphs. It was very brief and mild, as if they just brushed against my consciousness, causing the world to dissolve into moisture. Then I was back to myself and thinking about John the Baptist. Did he know the nymphs of the river Jordan, the spirits of the Judaean wilderness? Certainly he spent much time among them, dressed in the skins of beasts, living in caves and eating only honey. And was he not filled with inspired frenzy when he proclaimed the coming of the triumphant king crowned with vines and dispensing wine on the back of an ass? And again when he said,

No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the anointed, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30)

I ask you: who could all this be referring to but Dionysos, lord of the nymphs? Renaissance artists certainly felt John had something to do with Dionysos. And that’s not even taking into consideration the whole decollation business.

So, flush with those thoughts, I decided to do something completely crazy. I wanted to rush naked into the river so that I could be cleansed of all that was holding me back, take the potency of the water into myself and start fresh as I head into the feast of Saint Paul of Galatina. Two things caused me to hesitate: 1) It’s been unseasonably cold for summer and I didn’t want to freeze my balls off on the long walk home and 2) although our grotto was secluded enough
that we could do the ritual there was still a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists passing by and the last thing we needed was to get arrested for indecent exposure. (Then again, as Dver pointed out later, it would have made for a totally badass story.) Never one to be shackled by fear or good sense I told Dver I was going for a dip and proceeded to take off all of my clothes. I waded out into the water with my naked, flabby satyr ass shining almost as brightly as the moon overhead. The water was much warmer than I had any reason to hope for, but the river bottom was slimy and rock-strewn so I had to tread carefully. The water got all the way to my chest before I decided to come back in. I was going to dunk my head under but the rain-fed current was pretty strong and Willamette is a drowning river. Besides, as important as this river is in my personal cosmology — it’s not exactly pristine if you know what I mean. (I wish my thoughts had been profound and mystical – mostly I just prayed not to step on some junky’s discarded needle.) After I got dressed we hung out for a little bit and then packed all of our stuff up and headed home, which seemed an infinitely longer walk than our trek down. Still, it was a wonderful festival and I’d do every bit of it again — and will, for the most part, next year!

I’m glad I already scheduled the Spider posts, because this is going to be a pretty busy fortnight for me. In a couple hours I’ve got my weekly recitation of the 99 Adorations of Dionysos. Wednesday is my monthly holy day for Spider. Thursday is the first of my monthly holy days for Dionysos, as well as the start of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This goes on for two days, and it’s going to be filled with some pretty intense devotional stuff which I’m not likely to share here. On Saturday Dver and I will be observing the dies mortis of Jim Morrison, and then on Sunday I’ve got the monthly Dionysian oracular session. Tuesday is the actual anniversary of the Lizard King’s death, so I’ll be doing something private for that and then things are pretty quiet until the noumenia of Eleutherion when my cycle of monthly holy days starts up again. I don’t have a whole lot after that until September — especially since I take Sextilis off as an expression of mourning for Antony and Kleopatra — so I plan to devote this time to a more serious and thorough study of Italian (which I’ve been horribly negligent with) and learning to juggle. So, I’ll be busy — but very happy, as this is the stuff I’m made for.

* So much of it remains under a shroud of secrecy — mysteries aren’t meant for public consumption, after all — a shroud which only poetry can lift.

** I say “traditional” but it’s only been on the summer solstice for a few of years now, having floated around a bit before then as we refined our practices and brought them more into synch with the local energies. Plus Dver was the one who came up with this set of four annual festivals honoring the different types of nymphs, so if we want to adapt the tradition we can! Ha!

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10 thoughts on “The Naiad Nymphaia and the feast of Saint John the Baptist

  1. WOW!!!!!


  2. Awesome, as always!

    Your experience with the Willamette is similar to mine when I did my first misogi–while it was rather cold, that wasn’t as bad as how silted and muddy the floor of the river was. While I wasn’t worried about discarded syringes or beer bottles and such, still, it was rather unexpected…and was the bit that kept kind of “coming back” to me afterwards, oddly enough.


    • Squish squish squish!


      • Quite! ;)

        There’s nothing like doing a water purificatory ritual and then having to wash off after doing it properly…!?!

        In the future Willamettic interactive rituals, I’d recommend bringing a towel and water-shoes, if you can. As Dionysos was sometimes all about the specialized footwear, I’m sure he’d approve!


  3. Pingback: Crafting a festival « A Forest Door

  4. Fantastic! I love when you share the details of your festival/ritual work. This post, along with Dver’s post and photos, are very inspiring. Thanks so much for writing about this.


    • Well, it’s the stuff I enjoy reading the most from others, so I figured it was only appropriate to share my own.


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