I like St. Ursula. She’s the patron of teachers and students, her name means ‘bear,’ and seriously, I have my suspicions that she didn’t start out as a good Christian woman. After having made a pilgrimage in part to her ‘goldene kammer’ in St. Ursula’s basilica in Cologne, she’s become one of the spirits that I venerate fairly frequently. I was almost named Ursula after my paternal grandmother and there are many points of connection that I feel with the saint. Let me tell you her story.
According to Ursula’s hagiography, she was a princess who was sent by her father to a bridegroom on the continent. She traveled with a retinue of 11,000 virgins. She declared that before her marriage, she would make a pilgrimage across Europe, particularly to Rome where she persuaded the pope and at least one bishop to travel with her. They headed toward Cologne where they were set up on by Huns who beheaded everybody except for Ursula who was shot dead with arrows, all apparently in the late fourth century C.E. Personally, I’m dubious. Even the Catholics question the historical veracity of this legend, and for a number of reasons too much and too many to go into here!
The Basilica of St. Ursula contains the relics of Ursula and her virgins. Now, this basilica was built on a Roman Pagan burial ground. According to legend, Ursula started out with eleven female companions. People kept finding bones though, a lot of bones, of either gender and soon ‘eleven’ became ‘eleven thousand.’ The bone room, the ‘goldene kammer’ housing the relics truly is a powerful place, a holy place, and I envy the docent her job. We have the bones of dead Pagans arranged on all four walls in various patterns, occasionally spelling out words like ‘Maria, ora pro nobis’ (hard to see in the photo here) and receiving veneration, quite a bit of veneration as Ursula has become (along with the three kings whose relics also rest in Cologne, at the Kölner Dom) patron of the city.
(The above photo is mine, the little photo at the beginning of this article is not mine, but is from wikipedia, a fifth century fresco of ST. Ursula)
I think her chapel with all its bones was one of the favorite ossuaries that I had the pleasure of visiting last year. It was small – much smaller than I expected which made it particularly difficult to get a good photograph.
(this image is by Mary Ann Glass)
My travelling companion MAG said that it was very clearly feminine space – she was picking up on the presence of Ursula I think, and the reliquaries in the shape of female busts, and the statue of Ursula in the main part of the church.
(this photo is mine, of one of the reliquary busts)
We were watched the whole time we were in the bone room, but that was ok. The docent was a lovely woman who tried to be enormously helpful. She made sure we saw that the bones spelled out words and was otherwise unobtrusive.
(this photo is mine, of the bones which spelled out prayers. I couldn’t get back far enough because of the size of the room to get the full prayer in the shot but this gives one a sense)
The presence of this holy power was palpable.
(This is mine, of several of the skulls in one of the niches in the room. I love how they have ribbon over their faces, as though they are shy and hiding from the glance of the world)
It was a bit of a lesson for me that a spiritworker can’t go happily traipsing through these places without attracting the attention of those venerated there, and sometimes that leads to alliances being formed. I went to gawk at her bones and I came away with the expectation that I would continue to pay respect.
Personally, I tend to think Ursula started out as a local deity or demi-deity in the area (the bear connection is particularly potent for me), something not unheard of with popular “saints.” In the end, it doesn’t matter. She was receptive to my overtures and I have found her a strong and steady presence in my work. Today is her feast day. May she be well hailed.
Here is a prayer that I have adapted.
Holy saint Ursula who was strong,
Pray for us.
Fierce saint Ursula who was bold and courageous.
Pray for us.
Good saint Ursula, charismatic in your leadership,
firm in your purpose,
Pray for us.
You are remembered today
with your companions.
Let us be as fierce in our devotions
To our Gods and spirits
as you were in forging your way
across the land
and in facing death.
Saint Ursula, please
pray for us,
and be hailed.
(Holbein’s St. Ursula)
I’ve updated my etsy shop. I’ve printed a limited edition run of one of my ossuary photos, this one a 9×12 image of the bone chandelier in Sedlec Ossuary. Check it out, folks.
I have the calendars in my hot little hands and all pre-orders will go out by Monday. For those of you interested in ordering, contact me at krasskova at gmail.com.
2016 Ossuary Calendar
Cost: $12 +5 shipping and handling
i’ve also added a listing at my etsy shop for them, if folks would prefer to go there.
I think one of the really intense highlights of my ancestor pilgrimage was the two ossuaries I had the privilege of visiting in the Czech Republic. This was actually my whole purpose in visiting Prague (though that city in and of itself is enchanting): it was an easy day trip to both Sedlec and Brno.
After visiting Czermna, I had some idea of what to expect, in terms of how exposure to such places and so many dead might affect me so I was a bit better prepared the day we went to Kutna Hora (the entire town is, I believe, a UNESCO site. There are two cathedrals that are also UNESCO listed – we visited both. One has one of the oldest Gothic Madonnas in Europe and the other the bones of st. Felix and St. Vincent. While the latter didn’t speak to me at all, I found myself very drawn to the former. Then of course there is the Kostinice…the bone chapel).
Two years ago I didn’t even know these places existed, save for the ossuary in Paris (which I have never visited). On my trip to London a couple of years ago, I stumbled across this book and later this one.
I was completely blown away and kept returning to these books again and again for inspiration. There was an intense beauty there, the vestiges of a deep, deep devotion. I found nourishment in knowing that these places existed and a deep pain that they no longer held the place in our social and religious consciousness that they once had done.
In his book, “Empire of Death,” Koudonaris notes that “…charnal houses were once part of a dialogue with death that has now fallen silent;” and, more accurately than he probably realizes, “the dead were not expected to be silent.” (p. 10 and 16). This pilgrimage was, more than anything else, my way of re-opening that dialogue, of bringing those forgotten voices, that lost wisdom back into my own work, and into our communities. We do silence our dead in our culture and I think it’s part and parcel of our forced separation from our ancestors. Ancestor work, venerating our dead, moving amongst them is as natural as breathing and yet we have been taught to cut ourselves off from that source of vitality and inspiration. Meanwhile our dead have so much to teach us and in some cases are clamoring to be heard. It is only by steeping ourselves in the wisdom of past devotion that, I believe, we can learn – re-learn—how to hear them with clean, consistent clarity. I think we need desperately to restore the dead to our ritual landscape, palpably, viscerally, and with fervent devotion. The dead speak and their bones help us hear them.
One of the things Koudonaris notes in his book is that it has been recorded “that adults would come to the charnel with their children and show them the skulls of their ancestors as an introduction to their family history.” I find that…powerfully profound. It both roots us in our history and ties us to the flow of eternity in a way that isn’t macabre or frightening, but intensely connected and hopeful. Being able to embrace the bones of our dead not as an abstraction but visually, viscerally with hands and eyes and hearts changes the parameters of every kind of veneration. It makes it real in the here and now in ways that I think sometimes many of us struggle with.
Anyway, the day after we arrived in Prague, we made a day trip to Kutna Hora. Firstly, the town itself is lovely. It’s worth going and spending a few days there in the old part of the town. We didn’t have the luxury, only visiting the two cathedrals and the bone chapel. Walking into Sedlec was absolutely and utterly overwhelming in every possible way. At first I thought that it was just because one is permitted to go in alone and to spend as much time as possible there; then I realized it was because it was probably the largest, active ancestor shrine in the world.
Think about it: people, hundreds of thousands of people if not more come from all over the world, every year to visit the site. Whether they realize it or not, with their candles and coins and attention, they’re paying homage to the dead and let me tell you, the dead there are very aware of the fact. There was palpable presence. In fact, I was there for a long time because I wasn’t permitted to leave. At first I couldn’t figure out why and then I realized there was a lot of military dead on the site. Once I realized that, I was able to pay proper attention to them too and then was able to depart.
While at Sedlec, I was able to discharge some obligations. I had been asked to light candles for a couple of people while I was away and I did so at this bone chapel. There was a small candle stand where one could do so, which I thought was just lovely and what was even more lovely was that people were lining up to do so.
It’s so hard to breathe when approaching these places. They’re intensely sacred places and that sense of the holy permeates every aspect of the land on which they’re centered. Going into them is dizzying and often massively overwhelming. There is reverence and the smell of bone, the aroma of holiness. Even covering my head as I did, MAG had to keep an eye on me because I was so disoriented. I won’t speak of what passed between me and the dead in this place; I’ll only say that I made offerings and those offerings were heard and received. We spent most of the day in Sedlec and it was hard, very hard to tear myself away from the bone house.
Two days later we went to Brno. It was an ordeal but Hermes got us through. We almost weren’t able to actually visit the ossuary! I got to the church of St. James and it was closed for renovation. I actually considered trying to bribe one of the workman to get in, but the language barrier prevented that. I could palpably feel the dead beneath my feet. I had moments of such a powerful connection as I walked around the square hoping against hope for some way in. It was viciously hot so we decided to have lunch at a café on the square while we regrouped. Our wonderful driver Vladimir went and asked around and discovered about an hour later that the entrance to the ossuary is not actually in the church, but rather free standing right nearby. We’d never have found it – it looked at best like the entrance to the subway! Going down the stairs I felt pulled and all but tumbled into the entrance area.
This is one of the most peaceful and serene places I have ever been. I really like how the city is tending to this ossuary: they have local artists engaging with the bones, creating pieces that are then tastefully and quietly displayed around the site. It begins for instance, with a metal sculpture of Charon. Going into the ossuary itself, standing before the dead, bones and skulls all around, rising up from floor to ceiling, down short tunnels and branching off into different rooms, I received a palpable feeling of being blessed. That is what I took from Brno: the blessing of the dead.
I could have stayed in that ossuary for hours. I read once that Capuchin monks in Rome would often sleep amongst the dead in the ossuary of Santa Maria della Concezione. I understand why. I have never had the peace in my soul that I tasted for the brief time I was there.
After Brno, we went to Austerlitz battlefield which was surprisingly non-eventful. It was interesting, but battlefields usually lay me out really hard and this one didn’t at all. Then it was back to Prague.
In my next writing about this pilgrimage, I’ll focus more on the Marian pilgrimage that I (accidentally) did simultaneously with my ancestor one and I’ll also write about the bone chapel in Cologne, which was the end of my ancestor pilgrimage and again, a place where so many threads resolved.
(all images are mine. Please do not use without permission)
My purpose for making this trip was two fold: an artists’ residency (thankfully fully funded by the city of Myslenice and the EU), and an ancestor pilgrimage. I ended up doing two pilgrimages, but one was purely by grace and chance. I went over with the intent of visiting four ossuaries and/or bone churches and it’s that pilgrimage I want to recount first.
It was odd: immediately prior to this visit I pretty much stopped painting. Whereas many of the artists socialized and dabbled the first week, I painted almost everything in the first week at a frenetic pace and then slowly allowed myself to transition into ancestor stuff during the second week. There was a very palpable point where I was finished with the art part of things, and ready for the dead-work.
We set out for Czermna, Poland early on the morning of July 15. It was at least a four hour drive from Myslenice (due to traffic, we ended up not getting back till after eight pm). Of all the ossuaries that I visited, I think this was my least favorite. Part of that is due to the difficulty of actually visiting. You see, unlike the other ossuaries, we were not allowed in alone. We were only permitted in with a group tour (which granted, ran frequently). The small chapel was packed, and it was very hard to pray. The dead there also seemed somewhat chaotic in feel. Still, I managed, and given that it is located right adjacent to a cemetery, I managed to slip into a pretty deep altered state almost before I even entered the chapel.
I kept my head covered and made sure to cleanse before and after entering the bone house. I could palpably feel the miasma as I got within a certain distance of the bones. Miasma isn’t always bad. It’s a side effect, a very natural side effect of some experiences, and certain types of contact. Weddings cause miasma for instance, (something that cracks me up every time I think of it lol) from which one must be cleansed. Death has its own kind of purity but it’s very different from the potency of the living. It is miasma, and cleansing is required after contact. From the moment I sat foot on the grounds, I knew I was in a state of intense miasma, something that pretty much continued until I returned home and cleansed. Actually, given the level and type of ancestor work that I do, I’m pretty much always in a state of mild miasma. I realized this and it’s import on this pilgrimage. I’m not yet sure of the consequences of this to other ritual work. I do know that I cleanse frequently but likewise given the frequency of my contact with the dead….I’m not sure how it’s all ultimately going to work. I suppose figuring that out is part of moving to the next level as an ancestor worker.
At any rate, the moment I stepped on the grounds of the church, bone chapel, and cemetery I felt the shift in my energy. I made sure my head was covered and when the tour started, went in. I ignored the tour guide (the tour was in Polish anyway, of which I only have a smattering). I connected with the dead there, introduced myself, paid my respects, and made my prayers.
This ossuary (called Kaplica Czaszek – skull chapel) was a pretty late construction: 1776-1804. To create what he called a ‘sanctuary of silence,’ a Czech priest Wacław Tomaszek dug up over thirty thousand skeletons and used at least three thousand of them to adorn the chapel. The rest are in a pit beneath the chapel. There are an awful lot of military dead there: from the Thirty Year’s war, the Silesian wars, as well as victims of various epidemics. It is apparently the only such chapel in Poland, at least as far as my research has shown.
When I was there, squeezed into a corner next to a wall of skulls and bones, I noticed that many people had brought their children. One poor little fellow was doing ok until the guide opened up the trap door to show the ossuary beneath the church, then the child began to cry. I suppose seeing the pit with the bones frightened him. His parents comforted him quickly and well but I wish I’d had enough Polish to tell him that it was ok. That this was a special place, a good place, that our dead watch over us, and that really, they need somewhere to keep their stuff (i.e. their bones)!
Despite all of this, visiting this chapel was intensely moving. I petitioned them for help breaking through any blockages in my ancestor work and promised to consistently honor them (and brought back a small token to facilitate just that). It was disorienting being in such close contact with over thirty thousand dead and their remains. I had the sense of a lot of people whispering around me. I think this was a really good introduction for my pilgrimage. It was the least intense of the places that I visited, and a nice way to ease into what could have really knocked me on my ass. It allowed me to get a sense of what the remaining sites would be nice, and how I could better prepare. I also got to see what the emotional texture of the experience would be like, and what aftercare I required.
Ironically, by this time my Marian pilgrimage was already underway – I just didn’t realize it yet! I’d already visited St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow and the Black Madonna at Wawel castle – both pilgrimage sites. We had also inadvertently gone to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, another site of Marian pilgrimage where we had the opportunity to pray before Her icons. This was one of the most amazing gifts that I was given during this pilgrimage. For years, I’ve had a surreptitious devotion to Mary. I started honoring Her a couple of years ago because several of my ancestors, who had all had devotions to Her in life, clamored for me to add Her image to my ancestor shrine for them. Occasionally they would ask for things for Her. I was sort of ok with that, but it was uncomfortable. It’s been something that I’ve struggled to integrate into my other practices since they requested it. I was always deeply ambivalent about it though. That all resolved with this pilgrimage. Poland and its intense piety gave me that gift and I am immensely grateful.
I honor Mary now for three reasons: 1. My ancestors want me to. It’s important for them. 2. Here is a Holy Power that allows Her image to be used by numerous indigenous Goddesses so that They can continue to receive veneration. All Marys are NOT the same. I respect this immensely; and 3. She’s a good patron for a godatheow. I also think it’s good to acknowledge where we come from. Mary sustained many of my ancestors through some very dark times. When I first went into ST. Mary’s Basilica, I had to stop and just sit in one of the pews and cry. Firstly, there was a powerful sense of Presence, of a Divine Presence very, very old (and I might add indigenous to that place, well before the advent of Christianity) that heard the prayers of Her people and gave them comfort. There was also the sense of generations upon generations of pain and hope and love and fear and desperation and so many other emotions having been poured out before the shrines and icons. I could sense it layered into the very stones of that Church, and I could sense it pouring from those worshippers present today. It doubled me over. There is something about Marian theology that supersedes the narrow constraints of the Church into which it is tied. …possibly why since the counter-Reformation, Her veneration has been attacked. At any rate, as I spent my days dealing with the dead, She brought a necessary breath of comfort and coherence to my journey.
It really was a place where all the disparate threads of my religious journey came together: Odin, the Norse Gods – my home–, Mary, the Orisha, the Roman Deities…I saw vestiges everywhere and the land itself spoke to me; and always, everything was guided by my dead.
We left Myslenice, and indeed Poland, on July 18, taking a car to Prague. I made offerings the night before we left, to Poland, to Krakow city spirit, to Myslenice town spirit, and to Hermes, and asked for safe passage to Prague, which was granted. It was a quiet, uneventful journey notable only for the shift in colors, and the sudden change in roadside shrines – whereas they were largely to Mary in Poland, suddenly in the rural Czech Republic, the shrines all began to show the crucified Christ (much less interesting to me lol). By Prague, even those vestiges of devotion were lacking. Prague is glorious, beautiful, and was the staging point for the next phase of my ancestor pilgrimage. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.
(all photos are mine. Please do not use without permission).
Here are a couple of photos from the places I”ll be visiting on pilgrimage in July. (most are from trip advisor). This won’t be the first pilgrimage that I’ve taken but I suspect it will be the most intense. I’m hoping to deepen my understanding of ancestor work, regional cultus, the connection between honoring the bones of our ancestors and the spirits of place and hopefully many other things as well.
I’m fundraising right now for my assistant, who ‘s going to accompany me and make sure I don’t pass out or walk into traffic (i’ve done both in the past). Check that out here. I’m a slow poke in getting the first auction up on ebay but I’m aiming for the weekend. When I return and have had a chance to process everything, i will be offering an online class (topic TBD) for free as a thank you to all who have donated toward making this pilgrimage a success. I’m scared….I know it’s going to be massively intense.
Anyway, here are pictures from the ossuaries at Sedlec and Brno:
Isn’t it gorgeous? I was very taken when Sannion referred to pilgrimage (and by extension ancestor work) as ‘walking the white road,’..white like the bones of our dead, bones that are memory, bones that nourish us here and now. always.
This July I will be attending an international artists’ residency in Poland. This is all paid for by the folks organizing the residency (yay!) and I”ll be working with some amazing artists. I decided while I was there, to take advantage of proximity and, after the residency is over, to spend one week, visiting ossuaries in the Czech Republic and Germany. I believe very strongly that these are sacred places, and that reverence for bones pointed to a devotional understanding that our ancestors lost with the so-called “Age of Reason.” There is a very keen wisdom there for those that would seek it out. Moreover, contact with such places, places built for devotion, given over to devotion for centuries, filled with bones that enjoyed their share of reverence has the potential to teach much about honoring the dead. I think this will powerfully further my work, and more importantly, the intensity of these places will prepare me for a trip I intend to take in a couple of years to Somme and Verdun. When doing this type of work, it’s necessary (or at least helpful and eminently less painful) to have an assistant. It helps to have someone to help navigate Midgard (and words, the whole wording thing doesn’t work so well after extensive contact with the dead, yeah..helping with words lol), and make sure the shaman doesn’t walk into traffic. (Sorry, Heathens, not going anywhere anytime soon). My friend MAG is going to be coming with me. She’s a photographer so the trip will be a good one for her art, but she’s also agreed to serve as my assistant when dealing with the dead, something she has done in the past when I’ve made pilgrimages for the military dead. She’s got good instincts and does this extremely well.
Over the next few months, I am going to be fundraising to cover her airfare and expenses. I am asking for community support. I believe that what I will learn from this pilgrimage (because that’s very much what it is for me) will open up a deeper level of understanding with ancestor work and that is something that I will share with all of you. It was not uncommon in times past for a community to pitch in to help one of its members go on a pilgrimages. I”m asking for that help now, not for me, but for my friend. To that end, I”m offering the following (or will be, within the month):
* for $15 I will write a prayer to the Deity of your choice.
* for $30 I will do a setting of lights for you.
* for $45 I will make a set of ancestor prayer beads for you (limit 5)
* for $50, you will receive a divination session (limit 3 questions).
* for $60 you will receive a signed copy of “On Divination” and six prayer cards of your choice. (Limit 5)
I will also shortly be offering a series of “baskets” on ebay. They’re not literal baskets lol, but small devotional collections. For instance, the first one going up (if all goes well, i’ll have it up by Monday), is a “ Freya Basket.” it contains the Paul Borda statue of Freya (brown finish), a devotional to Freya, a prayer card, a love and beauty magical bath, a small vial of blessing oil, and a Sigdrifa’s Prayer bookmark. bidding will start at $125.
I’ll be doing three, perhaps four of these “baskets” in May.
I’ll also be donating 75% of all my art sales from my studio and also online (krasskovacreations.wordpress.com — if you see anything you like email me at krasskova at gmail.com).
Should anyone wish to donate, rather than purchase one of these things, I am open to that as well. Again, contact me at krasskova at gmail.com. One of the things that I am seriously considering doing, is taking prayers of anyone in the community who wishes it with me, and making offerings and offering prayers to the spirits of the land, the dead whom I’m visiting, and those of our Gods once reverenced on that land. I will happily do this for anyone. I’ve already had several people ask me to pay respects to their ancestors when I set foot upon their ancestral soil and I’m happy to do so for anyone.
My goal is to raise enough to cover MAG’s airfare and hotel.
Taking a page from my partner Sannion’s book, when I return, I will offer a free class to all those who contributed in some way. I’m going to decide on some topics over the next week or so, and y’all can vote on what you’d like to see offered.
That is all for now. I’ll post here when the first ebay auction goes up.