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Tuesday: Honoring Tyr and Our Military Dead

Thank you to everyone who sent me prayers to put on Mani’s shrine. I made offerings to Him last night and printed or hand wrote (depending on what each person requested) your prayers and they are tucked carefully behind a large hourglass on His shrine. I will offer this every Monday for Him and I’ll post reminders throughout the year. 

Today is Tyr’s Day. Tyr is a God of valor and justice, honor, and is strongly associated with the sword. His most sacred mystery involves the binding of Loki’s son Fenrir, the great Wolf. In essence, Tyr broke His word to protect His people, which is a powerful mystery: the sacrifice of honor by a God of honor and one that I will leave to Tyr’s people to discuss. 

We actually don’t know very much about Tyr other than this story about Him and Fenris. One mythographer Jakob Grimm suggested that Tyr is the husband of the Goddess Zisa (1). We also don’t know very much about Her, but I find this very intriguing. It’s one of the things that I want to research when I have more time. She does have some cultus amongst modern Heathens. 

The surviving sources are even unclear about Tyr’s parentage but that isn’t surprising. We see this sometimes with the Gods. If you look at the cultus of Dionysos, for instance, while the majority of sources give His mother as Semele, others list various Powers including Kore. It depends on region. More importantly, it depends on how the God Him or Herself wishes to be entwined into the stories and cosmic architecture of a region and for a people. I think this is, in part, a way the Gods created connections with the land and the people of a particular place. I also think it’s a powerful, powerful mystery. Is Semele Dionysos’ mother? Yep. Are the others? Yep. Is Odin Tyr’s Father? Yep. Is Hymir? Yep (2). This ability of the Gods to birth and rebirth Themselves, to embed Themselves in the sacred stories of scores of different people, to create new connections and relationships is something that opens up the road to devotion to our individual Gods in a thousand different ways and if there are places where the edges don’t meet, where the stories conflict, where they disagree then that is a good thing. It is an interstice of life and vitality where we can learn to venerate Them in new ways.  

Now, one of the ways that I’ve been able to connect to Tyr is through the rune Tiewaz, which is the warrior’s rune, and which is inextricably connected to Tyr. It speaks of a warrior’s obligation to protect his or her people, of responsibility, of strength, courage – the courage to stand in the face of evil. That opens up a pathway for me to honor Tyr, as one Who goes into the darkest places, who stands alone on the border of the Godly worlds and protects, fighting against that which would bring corruption and wickedness, warding against that which would attack the structure of creation…and bearing the terrible price of doing so. 

I also connect to Him through honoring the military dead. My first introduction to Tyr –and this has really stuck and colored every other interaction—was as a God of warriors and soldiers (3). Today, on the first Tyr’s Day of the New Year, this is how I chose to honor Him: by honoring the military dead, especially those Ukrainian soldiers who have fallen fighting for the independence and freedom of their country. 

I keep a special section of my ancestor shrine (which fills nearly an entire room – I gave over my dining room to it years ago) specifically for the military dead. I’ve felt called to honor them as a group for the better part of twenty years now (along with a couple of other groups). Today, I plan on cleaning and re-ordering their shrine – as with Mani’s shrine, even though I dust it and refresh offerings regularly, this shrine needs a good top to bottom cleaning at least once a year. I make offerings to the military dead as a whole, and also to those in my immediate family, most especially my father John Dabravalskas (1917-2006) who fought in WWII and Korea and remained career military; my maternal grandfather Roland Hanna (1903-1991), my first cousin twice removed S. Wesley Heffner who died in WWI (1898-1918).

I invite you all to share your own stories of your beloved military dead in the comments section if you like. Today is a good day to remember them, honor them, and maybe pour out an offering. Regardless, may our military dead be hailed, and may Tyr ever be honored. Happy Tuesday, folks, from your occasional insomniac vitki. 

(image “Tyr” prayer card, image by G. Palmer)

Notes:

  1. Many other scholars, including Rudolf Simek, reject the idea of the Goddess Zisa based on insufficient historical evidence. 
  2. See the Skaldskaparmal and Hymiskviða respectively. 
  3. As I write this, I suddenly find myself thinking strongly on the Goddess Athena, Who is also a God of soldiers, but then also of strategy, wisdom, weaving, textile arts, craft…and in some cases prophecy. Our Gods can be so many things to so many people, and have facets we cannot even imagine. I wonder often about our tendency to categorize the Gods as we do. I think it is excessively reductive. Gods are *Gods* and while we may like to restrict Them to neat categories, the reality is very different. Still, such reduction does help us to conceptualize how to begin devotion so maybe there is an upside. I wrestle with this all the time. 

One Hundred Years Ago This Past November 4…

The tomb of the golden King was discovered. 

The Pharoah Tutankhamun was the younger brother or young son (1) of the heretic pharoah whose name I will not write (may his soul be devoured by Amit). The heretic was insane and attempted to force his one “god” on all of the Two Lands, and in doing so destroyed temples, persecuted the devout, and attempted to eradicate the indigenous polytheism of Egypt. He, the heretic, was a disgusting, mentally deranged, perverse, and morally corrupt fool who unfortunately ruled longer than he should have. Fortunately, Tutankhamun did not share the same perversity of belief. 

While Tutankhamun only ruled for eleven years (1332-23 B.C.E.), one of his earliest acts upon becoming Pharoah was the restoration of traditional cultus of the Gods. You can read the Stela of Restoration here. He also restored the capital to Thebes, abandoning the polluted city of Amarna which the heretic had built and to which he had moved the capital, and Tutankhamun also restored the holy festivals (2).

For this reason, this is a young man to whom I pay hero cultus and he is honored on part of my shrine given over partly to religious lineage dead and partly to polytheistic heroes and martyrs. It’s important to remember these men and women who fought for their Gods. All too often the narrative that we as polytheists are fed is one of supercessionism – i.e. “well, of course it was a natural “evolution” monotheism usurped polytheism.” This is bullshit. There was nothing inevitable or natural about this. We are told that the spread of monotheism wasn’t resisted. It was. We are told that it cannot be driven back. It can. Just because the world looks one way today does not mean that it cannot be different tomorrow. Men and women like Tutankhamun light the way for our own restoration. 

For those with children, there is a very sweet (3) children’s book that talks, in a gentle manner, about Tutankhamun’s restoration of the Gods. It’s called “Tutankhamun’s Gift”. I highly recommend it for younger readers. 

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Notes: 

  1. I’m not an Egyptologist. I haven’t kept up on the debates. I *think* opinion has shifted to him being the son of the heretic, but I’m not sure. I know when I first learned about him, the majority opinion was that he was the son of Amenhotep III. 
  2. Apparently, Tutankhamun was revered as a living God during his lifetime, and even petitioned as a deified king, something usually done only when the Pharoah had passed. See Booth, Charlotte (2007). The Boy Behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun, p. 120. This shouldn’t be surprising. He restored the sacral link between his people, his land, and the Gods, something his heretic relative, possibly father, had shat upon. 
  3. Though the book is dated if current scholarship places Tutankhamun as the son and not brother of the heretic. 

In Remembrance and for our Veterans

In Flanders Fields – by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

Happy Saturday – Finally Here in NY: A Little Autumnal Weather

As I write this, I’m sitting in an art gallery in Pawling, where I currently have work in a show. Today is my turn to gallery sit. Of course, today was also one of those crazy days where I just couldn’t seem to get out of the house on time (and I loathe being late). All my frustration melted away though on the drive here. I live about an hour from Pawling, NY and the drive was refreshing: the trees are starting to turn so there was a panoply of color, perhaps not as vibrant as some years, but still beautiful, and it’s finally, FINALLY getting chilly. I just hope it stays so. I’m happiest when it’s 65 and overcast. Lol. 

I haven’t had much of a chance to post updates here the past week or so. Of course, we’re preparing for Winternights, and the slew of ancestor holy days that round off October and guide us into the time of the Hunt. Normally, readers who subscribe to my newsletter would have gotten a fuller update, but I’ve had some problems with mailchimp and I’m in the process of moving to a different distributor. October’s newsletter is going to be a little late but it will happen. 

Meanwhile, since it’s harvest time and a nice time to put root vegetables to work, here is my household’s recipe for borscht. This is an incredibly nutritious soup. When I was cooking it last week, I actually said to a friend that it’s probably the healthiest thing I’ve ever cooked! Every Ukrainian household has its own iteration of borscht, so if you have a recipe that looks different from this, that’s ok. There are as many borscht recipes as there are people to cook it. 

UNESCO has recently declared Ukrainian borscht an endangered cultural tradition.  It’s the perfect food for chilly weather and if you’re sick, as my Ukrainian house mate told me, it’ll cure what ails you. Lol. She was quite adamant too, about how it should be prepared.  My kin on my dad’s side are Lithuanian, so borscht was never really a thing for us. I have opinions on vertinas (dumplings) though every bit as fierce as any Ukrainian cook on the subject of borscht. So, if this isn’t the way your family makes it, that’s ok. There are as many variations as there are cooks to make them.   

Also, this is a soup that will keep. There’s a Ukrainian saying: the best borscht is yesterday’s borscht. It keeps well and is best served with a dollop of sour cream (I don’t like sour cream so to my house-mate’s horror, I omit this in my own portion), a garnish of parsley, dill, and some good, hearty bread. Enjoy. 

Traditional Ukrainian Borsch  

Ingredients 

4-5 medium beets (diced)
3 cups cabbage (shredded)
2-3 medium carrots (diced)
4 medium potatoes (cut into 1-inch pieces) 

2-3 pounds of beef shank (bone in if possible. You can remove the bone after the stock is made. It’ll be tastier with the bone.)

1 onion (diced) 

2 Tbsp tomato paste 

1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (I add more to taste usually, and sometimes even a bit of red wine)

Olive oil and butter

 2 garlic cloves (minced)
 salt (to taste)
Freshly ground pepper (to taste) 

For the broth (which can be made the night before)

10 cups water
2-3 lbs beef shank with bone
3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns (I just pour out a handful and toss them in)
2 carrots (peeled and cut in half)
1 onion (peeled and cut in half) 

For garnish 

sour cream (optional)
fresh dill, parsley, and scallions (finely chopped) 

Instructions 

  1. Place the meat (leave the bone in), water, carrot, onion, peppercorns and bay leaves in a large pot and bring to boil. Turn the heat down to very low and simmer for about 3 hours. 
  2. Take the meat out, let cool and cut into pieces. According to my house-mate, one should aim to get two to three bites out of every piece of the meat so when cutting it up, size that accordingly.
  3. Filter the broth through cheesecloth and put back on the stove.
  4. Start bringing the broth back to boil over medium heat. 
  5. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet (use the largest you have). Place beets in the skillet and cook over medium high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add about half a stick of butter, maybe another dollop of olive oil followed by onions and carrots. Add salt to taste. 
  6. Continue cooking for 10 minutes then add tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and 1 cup of hot broth. Turn the heat to medium and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add red wine (optional—a good dollop), adjust vinegar as desired. 
  7. Add the meat and potatoes to the boiling broth and cook for 15 minutes. Add more salt and pepper as desired. 
  8. Now, add the beets, carrots and onions and wait until borscht comes back to boil. 
  9. Add the shredded cabbage with chopped garlic and cook for 15 minutes –until the cabbage isn’t hard.
  10. Add salt and pepper to taste just before the borsch is done, but taste it first to make sure you’re not over-salting. I personally have a rather heavy hand with the salt. All the salt in our home is blessed to drive out evil, which has only made me have a heaver hand with it in cooking! I really have to watch myself. IF you end up oversalting, boil up a couple of potatoes and add them to the borscht. They’ll absorb some of the salt and help balance out the taste. This works for any stew or soup. Of course, peel the potatoes and cut them into one inch chunks before setting them to cook.
  11. Turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for a half hour. 
  12. Sprinkle the dill, parsley, and/or scallions in the bowl just before serving—I do this to each individual bowl rather than on the whole pot. Likewise, I add a dollop of sour cream to each bowl, not the entire pot.

The recipe is a guide…if you want to add more carrots, more beets, more potatoes or meat, go for it. I tend to have a rather heavy hand with salt so keep that in mind. Also, balsamic vinegar and/or red wine will make the stew tastier, but this can translate as saltier to the palate so taste as you go and adjust accordingly. Serve with a good hearty bread. 

A messy bowl of my borscht. 🙂

That’s all from me for today. I’ve got to get back to work. Since we are in the time of all our ancestral holy days, and since food ways are an intrinsic and powerful part of remembrance and honoring our dead, feel free to talk about your family’s foodways, special ancestral dishes, and such in the comments. ^_^

More Musings on Lineage: Emma Livry (1842-1863)

Lineage is a fragile thing. I think about that every time I think about ballet, and I probably learned more about what it takes to maintain and nourish a lineage through having been a dancer than in all the studies and religious work I’ve done since. Lineage is connection, power, tradition, rootedness, identity, culture, and that culture is directed at maintaining and expressing something precious (be it devotion in our case as polytheists, or beauty and art, a different type of devotion, in the case of the dancers I’m discussing here). It is passed through bodies, through the stories, material culture, and lived experience of one generation to the next.  One generation takes the next in hand, carefully forming them, teaching them, helping them, and entrusting to them whatever lineage and tradition it is that one carries. That is a sacred trust, something to be cherished, reverenced, protected. 

In ballet, it’s not just greatness that is shaped this way, but the endurance of specific choreographies, pedagogies, and ballets themselves. One learns directly from those who danced before one. One dancer teaches a particular role to another, or a dancer begins to teach and passes on all he or she has learned to those students seeking to step into the art, and that is how the lineage and tradition survives. It is terrifyingly ephemeral. Break that chain and you can shatter the lineage. 

It is the same with religious traditions, which is why intergenerational passage of knowledge i.e. polytheists raising children as polytheists, cultivating devotion from the womb is so terribly important. We don’t have the societal structure (yet) to support any type of devotion let alone ours, but we can make our households, our homes, our minds, and our hearts living temples to the Gods one by one. We can restore. There’s a line in the Talmud that says that to save a single soul is to save the entire world. I’d like to think that raising up one good polytheist or being one oneself, or leaving behind a body of work to help the next generation, is similarly restorative to our traditions in the world. Anyway, I’m digressing when instead I specifically want to talk about a break in ballet lineage. 

In the mid 19th century, there were two main centers of ballet: France and Italy. Denmark also had a significant school. The Imperial Russian school existed but hadn’t yet come into the fullness of its tradition. That would take thirty plus years of Italian and French dancers and ballet masters working in St. Petersburg and sharing their knowledge, establishing clear lines of pedagogy, and training up several generations of dancers, each better than the last. After 1863 the locus of ballet moved to Italy and then Russia and French ballet fell into … not oblivion but let us say disregard. I’ll explain in a moment. It wasn’t until the Ballet Russe – shaped by French and Italian pedagogy – returned to Paris in the early 20thcentury that French ballet experienced a renaissance. I believe strongly that part of the reason for French ballet losing its place for close to a hundred years was the death of ballerina Emma Livry (and I will caution you before you read further, I’m going to talk about her death, and it was horrific). 

Emma Livry, my collection

In each generation there are dancers who stand out from the rest, the truly great artists and/or pedagogues. The heaviest weight of a tradition rests on their shoulders and they pass it on to their apprentices and students. They infuse the ballet tradition of a particular place with power, life, and vitality and make it shine like the sun in its glory. In the generation before Livry, the key dancers were Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) and Fanny Essler (1810-1884 – Essler actually visited the east coast of the US on one of her many tours! She performed in Baltimore).  There was also Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899), Lucille Grahn (1819-1907), and Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909). It’s important to note that many of these women were also noted choreographers, a fact that until recently received very little attention (1). The same can be said for their predecessor Marie Salle (1709-1756). While all of these dancers at some point danced at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was Taglioni who truly reigned in Paris (and I think can probably be counted the greatest of the dancers mentioned here, though she and Essler were rivals on pretty equal terms technique-wise. Their artistic styles were almost diametrically opposed).

Emma Livry was Taglioni’s student and protegee. Before she met Taglioni, she debuted at age sixteen at the Paris Opera ballet in Taglioni’s signature role La Sylphide. When Taglioni saw her dance, she took Livry as a student and eventually choregraphed a ballet named Le Papillon (the butterfly) for the girl. Livry was incredibly talented and a noted sculptor at the time, Jean-Auguste Barre created sculptures of her. She was praised by ballet critics and it was clear, even in her own day, that she was the one destined to inherit the mantle of the French ballet tradition, and in doing so, carry it into the next generation. Sadly, tragically – and I don’t use that word often—that did not happen. 

On November 15, 1862, during a ballet rehearsal, her skirts caught fire. At that time, stages were lit by gaslights, not electricity. There had been fire related deaths before due to this, so dancers had the option of fire-proofing their skirts. Livry, as many dancers, declined because the substance used in fireproofing made the skirts stiff, unpleasant, and more importantly heavy. When she went up in flames, two male dancers rushed to help her, but by the time they were able to put the fire out, she was so burned that the stays of her corset (dancers wore corsets when they danced in the 19th century) had burned/fused into her ribs. Her face and breasts were unburned. Taglioni was present and tried to help her as the girl as well, and it is recorded Livry prayed fervently immediately after the ordeal. She didn’t die immediately but lingered bed-bound for months in an agony it is recorded she bore with piety and stoicism, dying on July 26, 1863. She died of septicemia when her wounds reopened (they never really healed) at the age of twenty. She is buried in Montmartre Cemetery. I knew most of this from my own time in ballet, but here’s the wiki article on her. 

Livry in “La Sylphide,” image from wiki (her arch in that standing foot is stunning)

As a dancer, Livry was particularly noted for her extraordinary ballon: the quality of her jumps, the ability to jump lightly and to seemingly hover in the air. Le Papillon was the only ballet Marie Taglioni ever choreographed.

Here’s the thing: the power of French ballet died with her for decades. It’s a noticeably glaring gap in the history of ballet. Many of the leading pedagogues had moved to St. Petersburg (which led to the glory days of the Imperial ballet there, and the Ballet Russe, which returned and repaid the debt to France generations later). Livry’s death, however, left a lacuna in the mid 19th century that no other French dancer could fill. I’m not the only historian to note this. I can’t recall where I read it, possibly here, but other historians have also pointed out that with Livry’s death, ballet in France went into a serious decline (2). 

I will close by pointing out that the work you do matters. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. It matters even if all you’re doing is choosing to pray or make an offering. In the eyes of our Gods, I do not believe this is insignificant. It is restoration, the whisper of lineage, devotion and in a tiny way, the restoration of our world. Never ever doubt that your lives matter, that the choices you make matter. You may not realize how much at the time.  You don’t have to be a spiritual specialist like a spirit worker or priest for that to be true.  It matters and what you create matters. So, find your devotional voice. Find the medium by which you will bring beauty into the world and throw yourself into it without hesitation. It doesn’t matter if others think it ‘good.’ Pray. Do your devotions. Bring beauty into the world and know that in doing so you are reweaving delicate threads of traditions through which the Gods, I think, are aching to express Themselves. You’re restoring windows to the world through which They can act. May be so always and may you be blessed in the striving.

γινέσθω

Notes: 

  1. Until the past two, maybe three years, there was in ballet circles the mistaken idea that until the 20th century choreographers were male. Even now, it’s still seen as men choreograph, women dance. This is not the case at all though historically. Women, from the earliest significant periods of ballet, like Marie Salle in the 18th century, were choreographers, and noted as such in their heyday. 
  2. The prestige of French ballet began to rise again in the 1920s (after the Ballet Russe re-infused ballet there with vitality). Several noted Imperial ballerinas, most especially Matilda Kchessinska , Olga Preobrajenska, and I believe, Lyubov Egorova began teaching in Paris. Then there was ballerina Yvette Chauvire and Claude Bessy, the latter the youngest child to ever be admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and who later became director of the school. Both of whom helped train the incomparable Sylvie Guillem, and thus the tradition in France was revived, restored, and holds its place today as one of the great schools of modern ballet. 

An Interesting Find for my Ancestor Shrine

So, I’m gallery sitting today (the show ends tomorrow) and right next to the gallery is a book store/antique store. This is my happy place and when I take lunch, I usually go over there for a half hour and browse. Today, I think my military dead were with me because I scored most unexpectedly. 

I’d been in the store last week and this item was not there. Tucked into a corner in the back room was a sword. I like weapons. I have quite a collection of weapons. I studied sword work (Japanese and western fencing though very little of the latter). I had to check this out. No one was there so I unsheathed and studied it. It turned out to be a WWI Italian Cavalry sword. I deal quite a bit veneratively (is that a word? I’m using it anyway regardless) with WWI dead, partly because I have a cousin who went over with Pershing’s forces and didn’t come home. In the part of my shrine given to the military dead, there’s a ton of WWI tokens (I have, for instance, an extensive collection of WWI knives. I’m very tactile and stuff like this really helps me to connected with the dead in question, plus in this case, I like blades). 

Now this is one more addition to the shrine. It’s in excellent condition, has great balance, and feels really nice in the hand. I’ll hang it in that section of the ancestor shrine and call it a day but what a lucky find. Hail to our military dead, to those who suffered and laid down their lives, or suffered and soldiered on so that their children wouldn’t have to (we’re not so good at living up to that sacrifice are we?). 

Here’s a pic of my find. 

My photo, WWI Italian cavalry sword, sitting on a windowsill in Pawling, NY.

Thinking About My Ballet Lineage -Giuseppina Bozzachi

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting several posts about lineage, particularly my artistic lineage. Part of this is simply due to the fact that these spirits have been strong and very present in my devotions of late, and partly to something one of my friends told me. 

Apparently, (this is what my friend told me – she watches Ukrainian, Russian, and English news about the war) pro-Russian propagandists are using the reputation of the imperial ballet and the ballet russe as justification for Russia invading and torturing Ukrainians (and anyone else – give it time). The argument is something like, look at the glory that only Russia has produced. Let me just say that the modern Russian ballet is a caricature of its glory days. Even Soviet era ballet was better formed, with better technique and far, far more artistry (though not choreography) than what we see now (1). Imperial Russian ballet had phenomenal dancers from all over what was then the Russian empire (not all of whom were ethnically Russian), and its core came from a French pedagogue and choreographer Marius Petipa (March 11, 1818- July 14, 1010) and an Italian dancer and pedagogue Enrico Cecchetti (June 21, 1850 -November 13, 1928–he was the first to dance the bluebird in Sleeping Beauty). The latter’s skill and style were essential parts of the artistic formation of every iteration of both the Imperial Ballet AND the Ballet Russe pretty much through Alicia Markova – who was actually English (2). It continues to form the core of British ballet training. Ballet is and always has been an international conversation. Without the Italian and French influence, there wouldn’t be modern Russian ballet. The artistic torch inevitably makes the rounds from generation to generation, prima to prima, pedagogue to pedagogue, country to country and no one country can lay claim to that artistic prize without bowing its head to the weight of the multi-national lineage that comes with it. 

Now, yesterday a piece of ephemera arrived for my ancestor shrine. This is meant for the section of my ancestor shrine given to my artistic lineage (and lately I sort of just roll castrati, ballet dancers, artists, and writers all into the mix – gaudeamus igitur and all that – but this particular person is part of my ballet lineage). 

G. Bozzacchi, photo portrait, my collection

This is an image of Giuseppina Bozzacchi (November 23, 1853-November 23, 1870 – yes, she died on her 17th birthday). Bozzacchi was an Italian ballerina who created one of the most beloved comedic roles in classical ballet: Swanhilda in the ballet Coppelia (3). Bozzacchi actually has the shortest ballet career on record. She lived during the Franco-Prussian war and died technically of smallpox or possibly an unspecified “fever” (4) but more likely of war-time starvation.  

At the time she was dancing with the Paris Opera ballet, she was “discovered” by choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon (September 17, 1821 – September 2, 1870). Saint-Leon was ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg for a decade. He had studied music with Nicolo Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) and ballet, most likely with his father who had danced with the Paris Opera. Saint-Leon danced with one of the last great romantic ballerinas Fanny Cerrito (May 11, 1817 – May 6, 1909) He even married her, though they later divorced.  While Saint-Leon was a gifted dancer, he has become even better known as a teacher and choreographer. He is responsible, along with Marius Petipa for creating the scaffolding of what became a pedagogical system that turned out some of the greatest dancers in the history of the Russian Imperial Ballet who in turn traveled west with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and helped create English and American ballet. 

Bozzacchi danced Coppelia eighteen times before she died. Here is a lengthier article about her, Saint-Leon, and this ballet. 

A better image of Bozzacchi, which I got off wiki. She has excellent feet and very strong pointes for someone of her generation (the technology and technique of pointe work changed greatly throughout the early 20th c). I find her confidence in this image quite remarkable for someone only seventeen. She’s presented here in Coppelia.

Notes:

  1. The ability to raise one’s legs beyond a split does not artistry make. It’s a grotesque twisting out of true, in classical ballets – the core of the art – at least. There is also a simple fact that having a great artistic history doesn’t give you the right to go into a neighboring country and start killing people there—and I’ll forgive a lot in service to art, but there are limits even for me!
  2. Her birth name was Lillian Alicia Marks but in those days, because of the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, and also dancers like Anna Pavlova, it was common for English girls to take Russian names if they were ballet dancers. I’ll be writing about Markova later this month.
  3. I danced this ballet – in the corps. I played one of Swanhilda’s friends who help her break and enter a dollmaker’s shop. It’s a fun ballet to dance. It tells the story of a dollmaker, who makes a doll so lifelike that a stupid young peasant boy, Franz, falls in love with it, thinking it a living girl. The toymaker, you see, would set the doll in the window, with a book in her hands, where she could be seen from the street. His sweetheart, Swanhilda, isn’t having it and after a small act of breaking and entering (lol), hides the doll and takes its place. The toymaker is initially none the wiser, and eventually, of course, it all works out. Her lover Franz gets his come-uppance and realizes he’s been an idiot, the toymaker is amused and forgives all, and Swanhilda and Franz go off into the sunset. It’s quite a charming ballet and the only one I can think of that’s anywhere close to it (though for whatever reason, it’s not performed very often these days) is La fille mal gardee (I believe it was first performed in the mid 18th century). The Royal Ballet has an updated ballet version choreographed by Frederick Ashton. 
  4. The accounts note smallpox and fever. Today we have a vaccine for smallpox but up until the middle of the twentieth century, smallpox was considered one of the “deadliest diseases known to humans.” See here and here for more info. As of today, it has largely been eradicated via vaccination. The vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in England in 1796 and there was a vaccination drive in France throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Bozzachi had grown up in Italy however and it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that there was a significant push for vaccination in that country. The methods of vaccine creation were hotly debated as the technology was fairly new.

Getting into the nuts and bolts of ancestor work – a note. 

Today on twitter someone expressed the sentiment that he kept ‘thinking about ancestor veneration and what that would look like in practice but was concerned about how one would hold the ancestors accountable.’ I tried to find the comment again so I could quote it exactly, but I couldn’t and I’m too tired to hunt anymore. The comment stuck with me though and the more I thought about it over the course of my afternoon, the more annoyed I became. 

Firstly, who are we to think we have the right to hold our ancestors, en masse, accountable for anything? (1) Who are we to think that we are better or more evolved than they? There is a certain degree of hubris in the initial comment, and I think we need to remember always, that modernity does not equal progress. Our ancestors made their mistakes, so have we. The purpose of ancestor veneration is not to express agreement with any choice a particular ancestor has made. Our ancestors were people and none of them were perfect. We aren’t perfect either, and holding up our standards as the apex of moral rectitude has its prideful dangers (not the least of which is that our own descendants may look upon us with horror for the choices we make today). There ARE rites and rituals to call particularly problematic ancestors into account, to bring them healing, to restore them and help them become valuable and contributing members of our respective ancestral houses. Ancestor “elevation” is one such rite (which can also be done for perfectly healthy ancestors as an act of devotion) (2).

Ancestor work isn’t about projecting our own morality anachronistically onto the dead (though we can and should learn from their actions, both good and bad). It’s about honoring family – as far back as we can go, in all its complicated variations. 

Acknowledgment, appreciation, veneration, and respect are the watchwords of ancestor work. 

When someone says, “how do we hold our ancestors accountable for xyz),” I want to ask in return: what have you accomplished? Have you painted a great masterpiece? Have you saved a life? Have you given life and raised a family successfully and well? Have you farmed a field and fed your village? Have you served your country? What have you done that will make you worthy of honor when you too become an ancestor (and one does not need to have children to be an ancestor). Will you have contributed and left the world better, or will you have sought only to tear down customs and traditions that create civilization and that have sustained families and communities for generations? Sort your own house out and be grateful for the help of your dead (3). 

Notes:

  1. As an ancestor worker, I will call out the generation of ancestors who willingly abandoned their ancestral traditions, converting to Christianity. I have flat out said that they have an obligation to their descendants to join the work to make things right and I will commit them to my other ancestors so they can be sorted out productively. This is my one exception to what I note above. Even there, I give the opening for productive restorative work to occur. 
  2. Really toxic ancestors, those who want to prey on the living, or who remain vicious and abusive can be sequestered and isolated from veneration. There are rites for that too, though they’re not to be done lightly. Often ancestors abusive in life, once the burden of their own life-pain is removed, once they experience the Gods, once they are brought to their own ancestors for healing realize the devastation they created in life and want to make amends. 
  3. Many of them are well aware of their mistakes and they often work off that debt by helping us become better human beings. We complicate this generally by resisting them. 

Reader Question about Ancestor Veneration

Today I woke to an email wherein K.H. asked: why do you still honor ballet dancers if you’re retired. You don’t dance anymore so haven’t you exited the lineage? 

This is a good question and it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this or had a similar question arise when teaching about ancestor veneration. The word “ancestor” for us, tends to be polyvalent. It’s absolutely first and foremost our blood ancestors, those from whom we are biologically descended. It’s also any adopted ancestors. For instance, I was legally adopted. My adopted mom is a major ancestor. After that, there are those we consider spiritual ancestors – friends, people who inspired us in our lives, teachers, saints, etc. Some of us may be called spiritually to honor certain groups. I have a good friend who honors “the working girls,” dead who were prostitutes in life. I have an acquaintance who honors the deaf dead. I myself honor the military dead and the castrati as two distinct groups within my ancestral house. I feel called to do this as part of my spiritual work, and I have come to love them dearly.  There are also lineage ancestors.

In my House, we honor our spiritual lineage: those who were spirit workers, clergy, shamans, diviners, etc. before us. We also specifically honor those who may have initiated us, or taught us who have died – the latter group first and then the larger, overarching group. This is so important that I even include it in my opening prayer when I sit down to do divination, each and every time. 

It’s not just clergy, diviners, or spirit workers et al. who have lineage. When you work in a field, any field, you become part of a lineage and it nourishes the soul and orients one properly to recognize and honor the sacred in all that one does. When I danced, I served the daimon of the art and I became part of a lineage stretching back a thousand years, if not more (because ballet has its roots in a certain type of mime originating in ancient Rome). As an artist, I have stepped into a lineage dating back to the time of our ancestors who lived in caves and made their mark in ochre and charcoal. It doesn’t matter that I never became a great dancer, I belong to that lineage, likewise art and music (I’m studying guitar and have musicians in my family). Even though I am retired from ballet, I am still connected by virtue of the time I danced, to that particular lineage. It is a part of who I am. It always will be. It’s not something that I can excise from my history or my formation. It’s left a deep mark on my character (and I would go so far as to say I was able to thrive as a spirit-worker and maybe even as a priest because of the lessons I learned as a dancer). 

It’s true that one may choose, upon retirement or upon leaving a field, to stop honoring the ancestors, the forebears of that particular lineage but I don’t think it’s a good idea to do so. We are who we are, we become who we become via our experiences and the professional lineages in which we work. I have found that those particular ancestors, though related only by virtue of our shared time in a professional field, continue to show interest and to be an active part of my ancestral house. I think for whatever time, however long we worked within a field, we contributed and helped to fortify it and that forever ties us to that lineage. This isn’t a bad thing at all. 

For those interested in learning more about honoring ancestors, you should check out the tags here at my blog “ancestors” and “ancestor work” and I’ve also written a book available here

my own ancestor shrine (one third of it at least), several years ago.

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Art and Honoring Our Lineages

Lascaux cave paintings

There are points in my practice wherein various ancestral groups sort of blend together. It’s ok and I go with it, but sometimes it does surprise me. I’ll give you the example that I’ve been thinking of this weekend. Because I was a ballet dancer, I honor those dancers who inspired me in my work. Because I love them deeply, I honor the castrati. Awhile back, I sort of combined those two groups into one ancestral group. There was historical cross over – Marie Salle, one of the most famous ballet dancers of her generation worked with Handel and several castrati in London (she was also a choreographer in an art and at a time where female choreographers often didn’t receive recognition). All this really means is that when I honor them, I honor them together. Well, the same thing is happening, sort of, with the artists that I honor. 

Because I paint now, semi-professionally, I honor my artistic lineage (my writing lineage also got smooshed into this group unintentionally). I started early with those who painted the magnificent murals in neolithic caves. As part of that, in my kit, I have the four ochres: white, yellow, red, blue. That is what I carry in my töfr to represent this particular lineage. I also keep a small box-shrine (a box that sits right by my easel and that contains various things I associate with my artists) near where I paint. 

Now, at first, I thought that honoring these artists was just because I am also an artist. It’s only the last week that I realize it also dove tails with my spirit-work. Spirit workers edge into art in so much of what we do (I have had to paint spirit-portraits and icons,  create elaborate necklaces, embroider prayer flags, create medicine blankets, and even setting up a proper shrine is an act of art. Many of the artists I honor, including some of those neolithic ones considered their art a sacred act). I didn’t realize this until I got pushed *hard* to add certain things that are used in natural dying (dye not die) in numerous cultures to my shrine box. I found myself purchasing Madder (how one gets a brilliant and beautiful crimson dye out of this I just don’t comprehend), raw lapis (ground it creates ultramarine paint – it was so expensive in the renaissance that wealthy patrons who commissioned paintings would sometimes purchase the ultramarine and dole it out as needed to the artists. See this marvelous book, and this book for more information – also, they’re fantastic reads. Today we mostly use synthetics for this color.), dragons-blood (used in magic but also in dying), oak gall (makes a nice sepia tone, also the duergar like it), cochineal (one of the traditional sources for a deep reddish-purple), etc. These can make dye, watercolor, and ink, as well as being used in conjure – and probably in more things too that I don’t know about. There are other plants and resins that I keep in my kit as well to help facilitate all this. It came as a shock to realize that the artistic use of these things was connected not just to art but specifically and powerfully to spirit work and not just my spirit-work. I was pushed to share these with my assistant, and it became clear it was a lineage thing (1).

All of this makes me remember something that happened years and years ago. One of my language teachers, after our tutoring session, told me that she really wished she could experience the Gods as I did. I knew that she painted as a hobby, and I asked her how she felt when she created a piece of art. What she described was the touch of the Gods, that holy power flowing through her, and I told her that. She was having direct experience with the Gods, it just wasn’t coming for her in the same way that it happened with me. That conversation, she told me later, completely changed the way she looked at her art. 

Art is a conduit for the holy. Let’s do more of it because bringing beauty into the world is a good thing. 

What inspires you? What crafts, art, artists (in any art form) open you up to your Gods, your ancestors. What makes you feel closer to the holy? 

Notes: 

  1. The cochineal were discovered, btw, by Arachne’s dog. Arachne is one of the holy powers honored in the Starry Bull tradition. 

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