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 been on an ancestral pilgrimage since thursday. It’s been an amazing experience and more productive than I ever dreamed. I’ve written about it here and here. I’ve a few other updates to make as well but they will have to wait until later this week. I’m just wiped out.
Here is one though that I’ll share now in closing. The newest prayer card is by Grace Palmer and for Narvi and Vali. It’s based on art she did for my adopted mom. It’ll be available very soon. That is all.
Exhausted. In Boston on an unexpected mini-pilgrimage. Read more about it here at Boneladyblog.
(my photo: Cologne Cathedral at twilight)
After five days in Prague, we went by car to Cologne. It was again, a pleasant and uneventful drive save for a bit of cognitive dissonance as I made the mental shift from Czech to German (the latter of which I can actually get by in). Our purpose for visiting here, as I’ve already noted in my accounts of my ancestor pilgrimage was to visit St. Ursula’s and the Goldene Kammer but I actually paid homage at three Marian sites as well.
Hermes guided and protected throughout this entire journey and nowhere was His presence stronger and more immediately palpable than Cologne. I suppose this makes sense: it began life as a Roman settlement and He certainly received major cultus there (in fact, one of the most touching moments of confirmation that I had successfully completed my ancestor pilgrimage occurred in Cologne. I kept feeling that we should go to the Germanic-Roman museum, though I’d been there before. I was tired, but we went in anyway and immediately in the gift shop I found the Hermes statue that I’d been searching for forever. It was exactly what I wanted and I felt it His way of telling me that this part of my journey was successfully concluded, a mark of His blessing and protection and all I can say to that is Hail Hermes!).
(my photo of my Hermes shrine)
I had not known that there were two Madonna statues in Cologne cathedral that were traditionally visited and reverenced by pilgrims. The first I sort of stumbled upon. We went to the Cathedral about two hours after we arrived, so we were both pretty tired, but we wanted to at least get a bit of a peek before making a proper visit the next day. I went in and immediately saw about a dozen candle stands so I gravitated right to them. It was nice that they were all in one specific area (there are single candle stands also in various places throughout the cathedral). I lit numerous candles, praying for various people and then happened to look * up * and right in front of the candles, separated only by a series of benches was the most well-loved and remarkable Madonna that I have ever seen: Cologne’s jeweled Madonna.
(my photo: the Jeweled Madonna at Cologne Cathedral)
She is magnificent! Over the generations many offerings have been made to her, most notably jewelry, which has been appended to Her garb. I spent quite a long time meditating before this particular image of Mary. Of all the Madonnas that I visited in this long, long pilgrimage, I had the strongest sense here of Her connection to the well-being of Her people, and of how well-loved She was and is.
The other is the Milano Madonna. In contrast to the Jeweled Madonna, She is particularly regal. Both are lovely. The Cathedral also hosts a gold reliquary containing the skulls of the three magi, but while we could see it, we were not able to pass under it. That is permitted apparently only on very special occasions like Epiphany. Still, it was nice that there was another reliquary present.
(this is a photo of a page in my travel journal. It’s a picture of the Milano Madonna that I collaged around)
We were scheduled to leave on the 25th and I woke feeling quite ill. I had also, the night before, discovered that there was a Black Madonna at a Church on Kupfergasse, what I have since learned is one of the most venerated images of Mary in Germany. I was rather wistful, wishing we had time to visit that as well, but technically my pilgrimages were over and we were leaving quite early the next morning. That’s not exactly what happened though. I happened to pray to Hermes something along the lines of “I’m feeling so poorly, I wish I didn’t have to fly like this. If possible, can You please help?” I meant, help with my pain levels. Well, He had other ideas and took the easiest way possible to provide assistance: we got to the airport the next morning to find our flights had been cancelled. After the initial shock, and a bit of cussing, I realized what happened, thanked Hermes, called the hotel, booked new flights, took a taxi back and MAG and I went to Kupfergasse and spent a lovely afternoon visiting the Black Madonna there, flying home the next day.
(My photo of the black Madonna of Kupfergasse)
When I returned home, it was to find a card from a Catholic friend with whom I took Latin Prose Comp. in grad school. He was in England and had visited Walsingham, a site of Marian devotion and pilgrimage reverenced by both Catholics and Anglicans alike. He had sent me a lovely card, with an image of the Walsingham Madonna. On the card, she is adorned as lavishly and beautifully as any of the Madonnas I visited in Poland, Czech Republic, or Germany. I took the card as a particularly favorable omen, as my friend did not know I was on a Marian pilgrimage.
That is pretty much all I have to say for now about my pilgrimages. I have already noticed dramatic shifts in my ancestor practices, and in my religious taboos, particularly around miasma. I have no idea yet how they will ultimately impact my work but I think figuring that out is one of the things that will really root these experiences in the fabric of my devotional life.
I know that I will do this again (though it will be awhile. This is an expensive process). My military dead have already indicated that I should visit Verdun (and the ossuary there), Somme, perhaps Normandy and several other WWI and II battlefields, that there are things I must, for my work, experience there; moreover, the bone yards call with a siren song that is almost painful to ignore. I want to root myself there and if I could choose the work that most calls to me now, it would be tending those places of the dead and inviting their veneration. I think that I will go to many throughout my working life, that I must to renew and refresh my connection to the dead, to keep my work with them clean and honed. I think there is powerful medicine for this ancestor worker in such places. How I will manage it, I do not know, only that I think I must.
(photo of the Loreto by Mary Ann Glass, used with permission)
My impressions of Prague are bracketed by astonishingly beautiful colors, profound engagement with the dead, and deeply emotional stops on my Marian pilgrimage, which upon my arrival in the Czech Republic, I hadn’t yet realized I was on. The day after we arrived in Prague was the day we went to Kutna Hora, and to Sedlec to see the dead. We also stopped at two Cathedrals, both Unesco sites, both powerful Marian shrines. It wasn’t until shortly before we left for Germany, when we visited the Loreto though that I truly realized what was happening and that I was doing two pilgrimages instead of one (and oh I almost didn’t go. I was in a great deal of pain that day we were scheduled to go to the Loreto and so many things were lining up indicating I should go but I didn’t want to. I was feeling so pulled and yet was so resistant that I finally divined and asked Hermes’ guidance and was told in no uncertain terms to go there immediately. So I did and it was yet another gift given by the God of travellers on what had been an already blessed and fruitful journey…but I’ll get to that in a moment).
It was odd…and strangely discomfiting after Poland to find the chapels and churches largely barren of worshippers in the Czech Republic. There’s a different history there, and different things sacrificed I think upon the altar of survival. After the bone chapel in Sedlec, which was full of people – many of them praying, we visited the Cathedral of St. Barbara (Chango! Yes, I made offerings to Chango there) and the Church of the Assumption of Mary. There were the bones of saints displayed for veneration. There was a Gothic Madonna, which I had to circle about in my heart for a long, long time before I could truly find a point of connection. It wasn’t until I sat with Her later, meditating upon a photo that I had taken, that I was truly able to connect to the power of the image. After walking through the sanctuary of the dead, so much of the rest of my visit there passed as if in a deep dream, a whirl of Presence, light, color, and bones. It took me some time to process my experiences in the Cathedrals.
(my image of the Gothic Madonna)
One of the images at the Church of the Assumption really gripped me by spine and heart and gut and I had to sit and pay homage for a long, long time. It was supposed to be Mary but I immediately called Her the Lady of Lions and Her image took me elsewhere, stole my breath, and gave me for the briefest of moments a glimpse into venerations long past.
(My photo, Lady of Lions)
Both Cathedrals were beautiful and very moving though very, very different. I think I found St. Barbara’s the more barren of the two…there were no bones or reliquaries whereas in the Church of the Assumption, I had a moment’s engagement with the bones of a man reverenced as St. Felix (which St. Felix, I’ve no idea. There were a few. This man’s presence was strong and very comforting though) and I was primed on this journey first and foremost for the dead. I think that’s why Mary was able to sneak behind my guard!
(my photo, one of the Loreto frescos)
It all really came to a head at the Loreto. This was and is a major pilgrimage site to Mary. It contains a replica of Mary’s “house,” and it is beautiful. The entire walkway into the chapel is covered with frescos of the Madonna in various guises, lined with small chapels and candle naves. There is a church guarded by two saintly reliquaries and She is there, another black Madonna, beautiful, quiet, and full of subtle healing magic.
(“The Loreto” photo by Mary Ann Glass, used with permission)
They would let you in for free if you were only going to pray but we knew we’d want to document our journey by photographing and so we paid, and the kind lady let us in on one fare. I started making the rounds of the square, studying each fresco and praying – some images calling more than others. Where I could, I lit candles and prayed for a very long time to a number of Holy Powers, including Mary since it was Her home.
(my photo, the Loreto, my own private labyrinth)
The small chapel was beautiful and She was there. I stayed for a very long time. In the actual church (there is both a chapel and a church), I didn’t take any photographs. I couldn’t. I just sat and sobbed while She opened me up and deepened a process of internal cleansing and restoration that I began with help shortly before leaving the US. What passed between us there I will not share. It was a moment of profound heart healing and that was the moment I realized I was on this second pilgrimage. It was also the moment that any qualms or discomforts I had about venerating Mary disappeared. She’s not always an easy fit into my devotional life, but She has a place I don’t contest now.
We spent only an hour at this shrine, but it felt like days and days. I think my sojourn there was spent walking and praying between worlds and between the passing moments of time. It was passage marked by reverence and tears.
(my photo, taken in very dim light on my iPhone, of the Loreto Mary in Her small chapel-house)
I was sorry to leave Prague. The city has its own siren song. It’s seductive and compelling. There’s so much I want still to see there, and oh I would love to spend days and days in Sedlec. Already I long for the moment that I can return, if not to Prague than at least to one of the blessing places of bone.
(my photo, Sedlec, the sanctuary of bone)
Coming soon: Part III
(my photo: ceiling fresco at the Loreto in Prague of Mary as Queen of Heaven)
So I promised I would write about this, because it was a most unexpected part of my journey this July. I went initially for two reasons: an artists’ residency and an ancestor pilgrimage and both were immensely fulfilling, and the latter more profound an experience than I have the words to express. During those two experiences, however, I also sort of did a Marian pilgrimage. I ended up visiting seven traditional Marian sites, leaving offerings, and coming to terms with Her place in my devotional life.
I never had much of a devotion to Mary until a few years ago. I have several ancestors who were deeply devoted to Her in life and one day while I was cleaning and rearranging my shrine, I got a strong push to put a statue of Mary (and it had to be a particular statue, with her robed all in white) on my shrine. I did divination which confirmed and bought a statue. When it arrived, I walked over to my shrine and knew immediately which ancestor had wanted it. That was the start of a bit of space being given to Mary on my shrines, and I was deeply vexed and uncomfortable about it. Still, my ancestors wanted it and I figured that was their space so ok.
Over the past two years, that tiny little space for Mary has slowly grown to a regular, working shrine. Until this pilgrimage I was still very uncomfortable with it. I’m not Christian. What the hell am I doing venerating Mary? Well, that’s the thing. Personally I think She’s the best part of Catholicism as evidenced by how fervently their hierarchy keeps trying to squash Her veneration. I finally came to terms with the fact that She’d inched Her way into my devotional life for three reasons:
- Some of my ancestors really loved Her and wanted Her to be a presence on my shrine. She was important to them and had helped and nourished them. That alone was enough for me.
- Here is a Holy Power who has allowed Her image and iconography, Her cultus to be used by numerous indigenous Goddesses so that They may continue to receive offerings. No one will ever convince me that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the same Being as the Virgin of Czestochowa, or the Virgin of the Eastern Gates, etc.
- Finally, She’s a good patron for godatheow. This is probably the least of my reasons, but it is one and sometimes I find inspiration there.
(My favorite Lithuanian Madonna: Lady of the Eastern Gates. My photo of a prayer card in my collection)
This all really solidified for me this trip. I did not in any way intend to do a Marian pilgrimage. In Krakow, however, we went to Wawel castle and I went to visit the Black Madonna there, a copy of the one at Czestochowa. One was only allowed in that chapel to pray – it was barred to tourists—so I went in and prayed for the health and well being of my Catholic relatives and friends. Then later that day, we went into the Church of St. Thomas. It was right down the street from our hotel. This was where I first began to notice the striking piety all around me. Oh I felt like a parched man suddenly presented with a rushing river of life-giving water. Everywhere I saw people unashamed and unafraid to show their devotion. It nourished my soul. The Church was almost closing and I went in and looked at the icon there and it made me cry. I saw people of all ages on their knees praying to Her. They were pouring out their hearts to this Holy Power and I thought “would that our communities had half that devotion.” We’ve a long way to go. Even I occasionally feel self-conscious expressing devotion in a public place and we shouldn’t. It should be as natural as breathing. We shouldn’t care what others think about it, or how they respond. That is inessential. I found myself evaluating where I fell short in devotion and in courage. I didn’t want to take a photo inside the church, (I didn’t want to disturb worshippers, or appear disrespectful and there was a very fierce nun standing guard) but I was quite moved by the power of the icon, so I did a collage later that night with my own interpretation of it.
(my collaged interpretation of the icon at St. Thomas)
The next day, MAG and I went into St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow. This is a stunning church. Part of it was closed to tourists and I wish I had gone in just to pray—there was an icon I would have liked to visit in the side that was closed. Still, Marian icons and imagery were scattered throughout (as well as images of various saints including Therese of Lisieux). While MAG took photographs, I just sat and found myself weeping. There was a powerful presence there, ancient, indigenous to that particular place, an old Goddess Who was very aware of the suffering of Her people. She may have been wearing Mary’s face, but it wasn’t Mary. That place had been sacred to Her since long before Christianity had come to that soil. Her people were there, praying and I could sense the intensity of their devotion, of their pain, their hopes, their longing, their suffering, their joys…everything those present were pouring out to their queen of heaven, and vestiges of everything former generations had poured out over the centuries. It overwhelmed me and just left me shaking. When we went outside, we sat by a fountain and I realized, touching the water, that it was a sacred spring. I anointed myself, got up and made an offering to the Lady of the place (in this instance by giving a few coins to each of the beggars sitting by the door of the church), and gave thanks for the grace I had been shown.
After Krakow, we went to the artists’ residency in Myslenice and all I could paint were icons of Mary. Land speaks to me very strongly. This happened when I was in Taos as well. Suddenly all I could paint were Native dancers. I’ve never had any desire before or since to do so, but while I was there, that was what the land gave me. In Poland, I painted Madonnas.
(my own painting, simply titled “Madonna”)
While we were at the residency, a lovely potter we met there took us on a day trip, first to her coffee shop and studio and then to Kalwaria Zebrydowska, a Marian pilgrimage site (and a UNESCO site). Here, there was a stunning altar image of Mary, and a chapel wherein people lined up on their knees on the hard stone six and seven deep outside the chapel to pray before its icon. I sat and prayed and thought about many things, including how I had been sustained through a pretty bitter and dismal childhood with enough spiritual health to be able to throw myself into veneration of Sekhmet when She came calling and then Odin. I had been sustained and the people who sustained me as a child were people with deep reverence for Mary. Their devotion was the best education in what it means to love a Deity that I could ever have been given. It gave me a positive model and one that I have never forgotten. It was the one place without scars.
(my very blurry photo, taken from afar, of the altar piece image of Mary at Kalwaria Zebrydowska)
As we traveled to and from this Basilica and monastery, we saw so many shrines by the roadside. Some were small boxes on posts, the boxes containing images of Mary usually with glass to ward off bad weather, some were larger, more elaborate dotting the crossroads. All were well tended with offerings of flowers and candles and other things too at their base. These were everywhere and almost all of them in this part of Poland showed images of the Virgin. Of everything I saw, I think it was these roadside shrines, some simple, some elaborate that moved me the most where Mary was concerned. I came home thinking, “I’d love to do that for some of the Norse Gods!”
(my photo, the chapel icon at Kalwaria Z.)
We went from Poland to the Czech Republic by car and it was interesting…as we hit parts of Lower Silesia, those roadside shrines suddenly became sparser and began to feature the crucifixion rather than Mary (and I lost personal interest in them, though I still think it’s a fabulous devotional idea). Arriving in Prague, I was overwhelmed at first by the sheer beauty of the place. There were so many colors and it was just magical. Mary was all around too. There was a black Madonna appended to the side of a building overlooking the square. I’m disturbed by this one a little: she is in a cage and I’m not sure of the history.
(my photo, Black Madonna in a cage in Prague)
Another Madonna looks out over the main part of the square, standing as Queen of Heaven on the crescent moon. We visited the Infant of Prague (Ellegua!) in the Church of Our Lady Victorious and She was there too, both riding the moon and unexpectedly within: another black Madonna. We paid homage. Then there was Kutna Hora followed by the Loreto…but that has to wait for another day. It was there that I realized I was on this pilgrimage too and there I sank into a moment of Mystery, and there all the threads of my devotional life resolved into a rich, if somewhat rough tapestry, and there I made my peace with this Being’s place in my devotional life. Stay tuned for part II.
(my photo, one of one of the reliquaries inside the Kammer)
I had intended to write about my unexpected Marian pilgrimage today but I’m sitting here in front of my ancestor shrine far more in the mood to write about visiting the dead, so that’s what I’m going to do! I still have one more stop on my ancestor pilgrimage to write about after all, and it was a most unique stop: the Goldene Kammer (Golden Chamber) at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne.
When I had initially done divination to see which ossuaries I should visit, my ancestors were most insistent that at least one be in Germany (I have a lot of German ancestry). I chose St. Ursula’s because the bones were used to spell out Latin words and I thought that interesting, it was in Cologne and I figured it would be easy to end our trip there, catching a flight home from Frankfurt, and oddly enough, I was very nearly named ‘Ursula,’ it being my Lithuanian grandmother’s name. Hey, for a diviner that’s as good enough reason as any to consider it! Ironically, I’d been to Cologne before, but had not known about St. Ursula’s at the time.
Now, this is not one of my favorite German cities. It’s not a pretty city, having been bombed significantly during the war. It does however have a rich history, dating back to Roman times when it was founded in the First Century AD as capital of the region. One can see extensive Roman ruins in the main square (where the Cathedral is located), and even St. Ursula’s is situated above a Roman Pagan cemetery. There’s a great Germanic-Roman museum that has one of the few (perhaps the only) existing images of Nehellenia and then of course there’s the Big Cathedral (which is worth seeing – there is a lot going on inside! More about that later in the Marian portion of my write ups). We arrived late on July 23, walked around a bit, listened to street musicians, took a quick peak at the Cathedral, and had a quiet dinner.
Early the next morning, we set out for St. Ursula’s, which turned out to be only a short walk from our hotel. I was really, really nervous. It was painful and I kept wanting to run the few blocks we had to travel. Thank the Gods MAG is an awesome navigator. I never would have actually found the place without her! We made it to the church right at ten am, after morning mass and the time the Kammer was supposed to open. I felt propelled in and aspersed myself with the holy water (if the Catholics will make it, this Polytheist will use it) and started pacing the church to find the bone room. I found St. Ursula’s body. I found lots and lots of candle stands and lit lots and lots of candles. I couldn’t find the Kammer but I found a nice German man who told me to knock on the office door, that the Kammer should open soon and who tried to be helpful. I was nearly in tears at not being able to get to the bone room that I could so powerfully sense.
I knocked at the door of an in-church office where I’d seen people going in and out earlier (while MAG tried to find someone in a second church office around the corner) and a sweet little elf-like woman came out. When I told her we were there for the kammer and begged her to tell me how to get in, she told me she’d open it in just a minute but the priest was holding her up with his chatter. LOL. She was delightful! She didn’t speak a word of English (my German is rusty) but we managed. She let us into the Kammer and oh it was breathtaking.
(my photo, of one wall of the Kammer)
Firstly, there were two lucky women working high on ladders in one corner, doing restoration work, so we couldn’t get clean photos of the entire room. I suspect that would have been difficult in the best of times anyway: the room is not large, nor is it brightly lit. We did our best before we left to get at least a few photos but I couldn’t do anything but gape at first though, and for a long time, and then weep. Their presence is strong. (I have my doubts about whether or not they are Christian, mind you. My own opinion is that we’re venerating some Roman Pagan women. Either way, the site is amazing and holy and more than a little overwhelming. MAG commented that it was the most feminine site we’d visited, and I suppose that’s true. It was certainly true in sense of presence).
(Mary Ann Glass’s photo from inside the Church)
From top of ceiling to about three quarters of the way down the wall there are bones (St. Ursula is said to have been martyred along with either eleven or eleven thousand companions – people kept finding bones from that Pagan graveyard I’d warrant…) woven into patterns that spelled out in Latin “St. Ursula, pray for us.” And “Mary, pray for us.” The lovely docent took the time to make sure we knew the words were there and what they meant and allowed us to stay as long as we wished. There were reliquary busts containing bones, and discrete niches in the wall housing skulls. It was extraordinary.
(my photo, a close up of the bone patterns)
(my photo, one of the skull niches)
In Czermna I was jarred into what this pilgrimage meant. In Sedlec, I was completely overwhelmed and humbled by the presence of the dead. In Brno I received their blessing. In Cologne, that blessing was extended into all of my work. I felt evaluated and given a renewed approval on my work. Of all the dead that I visited, it was Ursula and her retinue that I felt most strongly upon tending my shrine at home (one of the first things I did was honor all the dead that I’d visited).
In many respects I also feel as though I have a guide, many guides now in my ancestor work, in addition of course to my very own dead. These places have been tremendously nourishing for me, repairing some of the exhaustion and damage of the past few years. The bones in the Goldene Kammer were discovered in the mid twelfth century, they are far older, and the wisdom they carry older still. Some things must be experienced in situ, again and again, and some experiences have the power to transform, to shift forever the course of one’s life and work. Engaging with the dead so powerfully, so directly puts so much into perspective. It renders; and more than anything else, I’m finding that to walk in humility and partnership with the dead is the greatest blessing of living.
(photo by Mary Ann Glass, close up of the main altar in the Kammer; note that the busts are actually reliquaries containing bones.)
Please do not use photos without permission.
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)
One of the things that I wanted to be absolutely sure to see while I was in Prague was the statue of the Infant of Prague. This little (it’s small!!) wax statue, located in the Church of Our Lady Victorious, is a highly venerated image of baby Jesus….or for some of us, Ellegua. (Maferefun, Ellegua!). This is one of the popular and fairly common syncretizations for Ellegua and it’s my favorite.
The day after we visited Sedlec and Kutna Hora (I know, I know, I’m getting out of order, but I promise I’ll write about that amazing visit most likely tomorrow), we went to various special sites in Prague. One of them, was the Church of Our Lady Victorious. I didn’t know what to expect. I have a statue of the Infant of Prague for Ellegua, but that’s a far different cry from actually being in the presence of such a venerated relic.
Firstly, with all due respect, the Czech Republic seems very different from Poland in the matter of piety. Many of the Churches we visited were no longer active, which was very disconcerting for me personally to experience. All in all, there wasn’t the visible display of piety that I found in Poland. I even had one woman tell me that the majority of her countrymen were atheists (I think she was likely exaggerating, but it seems that WWII and the Soviet occupation had a deep, abiding, and corrosive impact on the faith of the people). Perhaps I am simplifying but whereas in Poland, the devotional piety was so palpable I felt like I could almost grab it and wrap myself in it like a blanket, in Prague, I mostly sensed vestiges of it long, long past. (It’s worth pointing out that the Czech Republic was also a battleground during the Catholic – Protestant wars in the 17th century and that surely had is repercussions here too).** So I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into this church (goin’ to church to visit Ellegua…. ^_^).
I was pleasantly surprised. Oh my Gods, when I first walked in, my belly was all -aflutter. I was excited at the prospect of finally getting to see the Infant of Prague in person. There was a queue, a devotional queue! He is placed centrally along the right-hand wall, in an elaborate shrine and there’s room in front of the shrine for worshippers to go, kneel, and pray. To His right, to my surprise, was a Black Madonna, given to the Church by Brazil. I have a deep love for the Black Madonna and saw four of Them on this trip. Sadly, I did not make it to Czestochowa, but I do intend to visit there too one day. This one took me as a surprise. Since there was a little crowd praying around and before the Infant of Prague (Ellegua!), I first paid my respects to the Black Madonna and only then made my way to the prayer book – written in multiple languages—that rested on the railing in front of the Infant.
I spent some time paying my respects, praying, and eventually making offerings (candles….one could buy and light plenty of candles in the church. I really need to get a multi-tiered iron tea light holder for my ancestor shrine room…). That was all. Then I went to the small religious gift shop attached to the church and got a few things for my Ellegua shrine (including holy water from the church, and a small replica of the Infant of Prague).
It may sound uneventful, but it was really quite exciting for me. There’s a synergy in that Church, around that shrine that words fail me in describing. It was, yet again, one of those places where all the ragged threads of my religious and spiritual journey through the years came full circle and it was delightful. Maferefun, Ellegua!
** Vestiges of this history show up in some of the religious imagery in the churches too. A the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the violence of the imagery – saints murdering Protestants—right central to the main altar instead of the crucifixion really disturbed my more –or-less Protestant traveling companion. I pointed out that the iconography was no friendlier toward my kind: on one side they had saints slaughtering Protestants, and on the other, Pagans. That church was, however, an anomaly. We spent more time than usual in it only because of the amazing acoustics – we attended a concert there one evening.
(image mine, of Prague Old Town Square–pretty houses)
I was so happy to head to Prague. While the artists’ residency was a wonderful experience, I do not like suburbs and rural areas. I like cities. I couldn’t wait to get to one. I get really, really antsy and uncomfortable if I’m in the suburbs for too long. Cities nourish me in ways that quieter, more rural or suburban areas never will. This is one of the reasons I truly loathe doing rituals outside or attending events that are held on camp grounds and the like. I much prefer the dynamic of a city, and preferably indoors. I figure our ancestors worked long and hard to give us the luxury of civilization and culture and I’m going to take advantage of it! So setting off for Prague on July 18 was delightful. The only downside was saying good bye to all the wonderful people we’d met in Poland!
Going to Prague was a largely quiet ride. The night before, I made a public offering to Hermes in the local park (pictures to follow for my Public Shrine Project). We’d come back early to see if it was still there (one I made in Germany years ago lasted weeks) but it wasn’t, instead someone had set up a weird little display of pine cones where the offerings had been. I took that as a good omen). We made offerings to all the relevant land and city spirits and asked for safe passage to Prague and then we were off. It was a quiet and uneventful drive, save for getting my ear accustomed to Czech rather than Polish. The languages are closely related, but where Polish uses sibilants, Czech seems to prefer harder sounds. It was neat comparing the two.
(image by Mary Ann Glass. Used with permission).
We made excellent time and actually got to Prague about three pm. That gave us plenty of time to walk around, and me to promenade and greet the city spirit properly. That was, this time, the first thing I did! I do learn from my mistakes. We were staying at Hotel Paris, a gorgeous Art Nouveau inspired hotel right near the Old Town Center (oh my Gods, cobblestones kill) so we set off to do a bit of shopping and make our way to the astronomical clock. I”d seen it in pictures and wanted to see it in person. As we went, we sort of scoped out what we wanted to do between excursions (I had the trip to Sedlec ossuary/Kutna Hora planned, as well as one to Brno and Austerlitz). We had half a day to just relax and breathe before doing anything pilgrimage related.
Oh Prague is a beautiful city. Coming over the bridge into the city proper was breathtaking. The Czech people are not afraid of color! It was a feast for the eyes: pinks and ochres, salmon, rust red, yellows, oranges, light minty greens, and for the first time, aquas and blues. I don’t recall seeing those latter two colors used much at all in Krakow. Visually I found the rococo onion domes on so many of the buildings enchanting (a pain in the butt to draw freehand, but enchanting). There aren’t many cities that affect me like Prague did, but I almost immediately fell in love with the place.
(Image mine, of the “Dancing House,” a modern piece that was quite controversial when built. It does, however, blend nicely into the more antique architecture surrounding it.)
That’s about all I have to say in this post. The city is magic. I want to go back and spend a longer period of time there just taking it all in. Tomorrow (or maybe later today if I am feeling energetic), I”ll write about our trip to the Sedlec bone chapel, and perhaps also the next phase of my erstwhile and unexpected Marian pilgrimage: Loretto, and the Church of the Lady Victorious.
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