Flames of the Firebird

I love the story of the Phoenix. A being, when tired of its outmoded life, surrenders itself to flame to be utterly consumed, and later rises from the ashes to be born anew.

The winter that I started working with Cerridwyn, I also started to work with the energy of the Phoenix, the Firebird. I had some pretty extraordinary things happen once I started working with the Firebird, and they are some of the stories of how I know my Paganism is real.

The first strange occurrence was an accidental invocation. (Be careful what you dance and sing for, my friends!) It was December or January: I had found a song I really liked, and joyously sang and danced around my living room, feeling the resplendent glory of the Firebird well up inside of me and plume out – like wingbeats fanning a fire. I was hotter than usual when I finished dancing, and I ended up burning like a furnace inside for days. This was incredible! I am normally extremely cold-natured – I wear layers and layers in the winter and I’m still freezing and unhappy. I wore shorts outside when I went to meet my friends that night (instead of my usual four layers of jackets.) Everyone else noticed the odd spectacle, and I shared my story. It was so visceral and out of the ordinary that I knew it had to be real. There’s no way I could make up that experience, and even if I tried, I wouldn’t believe myself.

After that, I knew there had to be a more intentional way to channel that energy. It felt simultaneously like tapping into my own personal power as well as channeling energy from a source outside myself. I felt the flames whirling around me and consuming me from the inside out. It was unlike any other energy I had experienced. It was wild and untamed, while simultaneously purposeful. It didn’t speak in words or have the presence of a God or Goddess. Not quite. It felt Otherworldly, but also inside of me. It was like a dance between this world and another.

A few weeks later, when I was having an awful day at my old job, I sang and danced to the Firebird again, with the intention of burning up all the negative energy I had accumulated from the day. It did so in spades. I was so fed up with all of the bullshit from my job and my awful supervisor. The fury overtook me. I screamed and sang and went up in flames as I spun around my apartment. It was a raging wildfire through my body and my aura, clearing the path and burning away all the bullshit. Afterward, I was still smoldering, and I felt cleansed and empowered.

The Firebird became a regular fixture in my spiritual life. I’m still not entirely sure if it is another being, something inside of me, or a combination of both. Right now, I believe it is both. I will call on the Firebird as a Divine entity in ritual, and I will also call it as a part of myself. The Firebird symbolizes courage and power, and the strength to use both wisely.

I’ve seen the Firebird in visions – I’ve even become the Firebird in meditation/trance. I feel the Firebird when I call to the South and the element of Fire in ritual, but it is definitely not an elemental spirit. I feel its energy when I energetically shield. I’ll feel it when I create through art, song, or dance.

At a fire pit gathering last fall, a friend told me she could see the Firebird behind me as I danced. I feel the energy flowing through me as I move – the wings unfurling behind me with a flourish and flames following my footsteps. I love that other people can see it, too. It’s a part of the shared spiritual experience that helps me to know it’s not just all in my head.

It seems fitting that the Firebird first came into my life when I was in an intense period of change. I had recently left grad school. I was tackling my OCD directly, looking for a better job, and trying to repair my romantic relationship when it made its spectacular entrance into my life. My spirituality was also evolving into a much more experiential and deity-centered practice.

Pretty much everything in my life was uncertain at that time. I was constantly struggling to pay my bills. I didn’t know if my romantic relationship would survive. My brain was being restructured through therapy and psychiatric medication. I was dealing with the grief of losing what I thought was my life’s dream in academia, and discovering that the dream that had replaced it might not be sustainable, either. I was facing so many of my fears head-on, trying not to completely break down in the process.

The Firebird reminded me that even when life feels like it’s going up in flames, beautiful things can be born from the ashes. Even though it completely sucked, I’m so glad I went through that transformative experience. In a sense, I was reborn. My closely-held dreams and fears had to die so that I could continue on – so that I could grow. My life is so different now than it was before the Firebird. Though I endured a few burns in the process, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Making Soup for Cerridwyn

While my closest relationship with a divinity is with Aphrodite, I also have a close working relationship with Cerridwyn. Cerridwyn is the Welsh goddess of transformation and change. She is the keeper of the cauldron of knowledge, and she is frequently viewed as a “dark” goddess.

My initial introduction to Cerridwyn, and what sparked my relationship with her several years later, was my first shamanic journey/trance with my former coven. We had gone on a guided journey to find our magickal names, and Cerridwyn’s name appeared to me, spelling and all. I had not heard of her, so when I did research later, I was shocked to find that the name of a goddess appeared to me! I did not believe that was actually supposed to be my magickal name, and I was absolutely terrified of working with a “dark” goddess. So I pushed it aside, and didn’t think too much about it.

A couple of years later, signs started popping up a little before Yule 2017. Some of my friends and Pagan community members began to talk about how they were starting to hear from dark goddesses. I was reminded of my brief interaction with her in my journey several years before. I started seeing references to her again, and I blatantly ignored them. Eventually, it took the intercession of one of my friends saying “Hey, Cerridwyn stopped by with a message for you. She wants to talk.”

Mild panic ensued. I had never had a deity speak to me through someone else, and clearly she had been trying to get my attention. I spoke with a few different friends about it, trying to get over my fear of working with a “dark” goddess. I was very heavily in the realm of “love and light” at this point in time, and I would steer clear of anything I deemed “dark and scary.” I had avoided doing the personal shadow work that was necessary to see that both light and dark are essential to life, and dark doesn’t necessarily mean bad. I would figure this out in time.

I also didn’t know how to communicate with her. Clearly my own channels weren’t open enough if she had to go through one of my friends to talk to me! I asked the friend who gave me the message if she had any ideas for contacting Cerridwyn, and my friend (who is a kitchen witch) suggested that I make a big pot of soup, which paralleled one of her stories from the lore. What I thought my friend had said was “Make a big pot of soup after dark completely by candlelight,” when all she actually said was “Make a big pot of soup.” I discovered this discrepancy after the fact, and I had clearly gotten some divine guidance in a way that I was able to hear it.

So, I prepared to make some soup. I found a nice recipe, gathered the ingredients, and laid out everything in my kitchen. I had been studying trance, and I wanted to make the experience as fruitful as possible. I compiled a chant to sing while making soup from a song that my Pagan group sings at Yule. The original version contains sections on the Maiden, Sun Child, Mother, Father, Crone, and Sage (I usually sing the Maiden section at our gatherings). I edited the song to the Maiden, Mother, and Crone sections, since some research revealed that Cerridwyn is sometimes depicted as a triple goddess.

I turned out the lights and lit my candles. I didn’t have many – maybe five or six, so it was still rather dark. I could barely see the recipe, which I had printed out and was propped up underneath a cabinet. I could barely see the vegetables I would be chopping. It would definitely be a test for my OCD. I couldn’t tell what was dirty or not by sight. I had to just go with it.

I began to sing, slow and soft at first, but gaining in energy and momentum. I chopped vegetables and lost myself in the song, sometimes forgetting words, sometimes skipping a section, but I just kept going. I added the ingredients to the pot and stirred, feeling very much like the witch I knew I was. I had to learn to not be afraid of the dark.

After I had added all of the ingredients, the soup needed to simmer for 30 minutes. I gave it a final stir, finished that round of the song, and sank (a little lightheaded) to my kitchen floor in silent meditation.

The vision came almost immediately. I was in a forest glade at night. There was a single fire burning in the middle of the glade, with a cauldron hanging over the fire from a tripod. Cerridwyn was there. She had dark brown, almost black hair that fell around her face in messy waves. She looked to be in her mid-30s. The contrast between her pale face and her bright red flowing dress was made even starker by the firelight. She looked at me with deep brown eyes as I cautiously approached.

“Why did you call to me?” I asked her.

Giggles. “You’ll see.”

“But you’ve been so gentle with me. Not everyone has had gentle experiences.”

A combination of three phrases bombard my brain at the same time. “I have to do it this way. / You need it this way. / We do what we need to in order to reach out to each person.”

“What do I need to do?”

“Enjoy your soup.”

I looked at her, confused. I had expected some profound message. She stirred her own cauldron, and motioned for me to go, telling me once again, “Enjoy your soup.” The vision started to fade, and I was once again sitting on my kitchen floor, listening to the pot of soup bubble above me.

I turned the burner off, and ladeled myself a bowl of soup. I sat on the kitchen floor again to eat the soup by candlelight, somehow knowing that it was what I had to do. The soup was delicious, and helped ground me after the powerful experience.

As I rose again to clean my bowl and tidy the kitchen, I realized I didn’t want to turn the lights back on. It was beautiful – everything lit by candlelight. It felt peaceful. I also had a realization that I would not have been able to do what I just did a year ago. My OCD was so bad then that the idea of doing anything in the dark and not washing my hands a million times would have been impossible. But I had done it, and that was a victory in and of itself.

Cerridwyn is a goddess of transformation and change, and I got to see so clearly in that moment how much I, myself, had changed in the last year.

I continued to make soup for Cerridwyn, albeit somewhat sporadically. I discovered that she has to be called – She doesn’t just show up for me like Aphrodite does. She continued to be vague while giving me information and instructions for how to spiritually prepare for the upheaval that was coming, and she always told me to enjoy my soup.

She has appeared to me as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. While I am not dedicated to her, she is still very present in my life, and has influenced so much of my spiritual growth. I tend to contact her during the dark half of the year, and our connection is stronger during this time.

Once I was initiated as a priestess of Aphrodite, I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate my relationship with Cerridwyn. I was pledged to another goddess. Connecting to her was more difficult than it had been at some points in the past, but she reminded me that “Even though you’re not my priestess, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing my work in the world.”

I was humbled. I was also reminded that my relationship with one goddess is not diminished by having a relationship with another goddess. Some of the lore portrays Aphrodite as being a jealous deity, but this is not my personal experience of Her.

I even reached out to Cerridwyn about my transition into priestesshood by talking over some of my fears with her. I was (and still am, to a certain extent) afraid of not being good enough. I’m afraid of letting myself, Aphrodite, or my community down. I’m afraid that I’m too young to have this role. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do what needs to be done. I’m afraid that sometimes being a friend and being a priestess will conflict, and I won’t make the right decision.

Cerridwyn told me that these fears are normal, and that it’s good to be concerned about these things. It means I care deeply about my service to Aphrodite and to my community. She also told me that I can’t let those fears get in the way, and that I’ll know what the right thing to do is when the time comes. I hope so. And I trust in Her, and I have faith.

Going Deeper – Are You Ready to Dive In?

So you’ve decided that you want to begin a relationship with Aphrodite (or another Divinity that feels right to you). A deep, personal relationship. Maybe you want to become a devotee, dedicant, or priestess (or priest; we are open to all genders here). What do you do next? There are some important considerations to take into account, and then I’ll talk about first steps to connect with your deity in another post.

Important things to consider before embarking on a relationship with any Divinity:

1) Where are you on your spiritual path?

Are you relatively new to Paganism? How long have you been called to this path? “New” can be a relative term, and some people who are relatively “new” to Paganism or Witchcraft are able to hit the ground running with the basics and move on to deeper things more quickly than others. These people have usually had a “calling” for a long time, or finally realized that they were “a witch all along and didn’t know it,” but this isn’t always the case. If you are starting out, I would recommend a MINIMUM of six months of study in various Pagan traditions before moving on to deep personal relationships with deities. Most traditions recommend a year-and-a-day of study before moving on to the next level. Taking some time to study and reflect is essential because: A) You want to have a pretty good idea of what path feels right to you before you start diving deeper, and B) You want to know exactly what you are getting into if you pursue a relationship with a particular deity.

What books have you read? What methods or traditions have you studied? I’m not saying you need to study every single tradition out there before you start going deeper with one particular tradition or Divinity, but it’s a good idea to get a general overview of modern Paganism and see what resonates with you. Even if you end up deciding that your first tradition or deity was the One, at the very least you have a good background with which to participate in the larger conversation of Paganism. Check out the Resources section of my website for some of my recommended books for beginning study and exploration.

2) What is your spiritual skill set?

Do you have a daily meditation practice? Do you have any experience with going into and out of trance states safely? How much are you in touch with your intuition? Do you know basic energy anatomy and how to move and raise energy? Developing a deeper relationship with any deity is going to be difficult if you don’t have some basic spiritual tools.

Having a good meditation practice is essential for a deep spiritual life, as well as for magick and energy work. Now, meditation is different for everyone. I’m not talking about the complete “clear your mind and have no thoughts at all for 20 minutes” (but if you can do that, good for you!) Meditation is mostly about being able to hold an intention, whatever that intention may be.

Some of my favorite ways to mediate are:

  • Dance! (or other movement) – Put on some music you love and get lost in it. Don’t focus too much on your movements, just do what comes naturally.
  • Hiking/Walking Meditation – Focus on observing (without judgement!) everything around you: how the ground feels underneath your feet, what sounds you hear, the colors you see, et cetera. If you find yourself following a train of thought, bring it back to gentle observation.
  • Mantra or Affirmation Meditation – This involves repeating a specific phrase or mantra as the focal point of the meditation. I like using these when I’m feeling down or upset. “I am loved” or some variation of that is one of my favorites.
  • Breathing Meditation – Focus on your breath. You can either think “in… out” with your breaths or count your number of breaths or the duration of your breaths.
  • Focal Point – I don’t do these very often, but lots of people have success with image meditations or mandala meditations. This can involve a real image or one you hold in your mind (though the latter is more difficult). It can also involve any other visual focal point, like a candle flame or water flowing over rocks.

There are lots of other ways to meditate, but the important thing is to find a way that works for you. Meditation will allow you to develop focus for magickal and energy work, as well as be able to open up your mind to the Divine.

Trancing is a level up from meditation, and I don’t suggest trying it without a trained teacher or a good book. Trance-portation by Diana Paxson is a good place to start. I have had a number of wonderful and fantastical Divine encounters whilst in trance, but it is not something you want to jump into the deep end with.

Intuition is a very personal thing, so journeys to get in touch with your intuition are going to be as varied as each individual. Most good introductory magickal/spiritual skill set books will have suggestions for this.

Energy is so important! At the very least, you should know your own energy anatomy, and how to raise and control energy within your own body and within a circle. For years I focused on external energy raising, which was all well and good, but it was only when I started working within that I discovered the amazing possibilities of energy. Working with your own energy will also teach you when another (Divine) energy is present or channeling through you.

3) Do you have a pantheon?

If you do, great! Maybe you found a pantheon that resonated with you during your year-and-a-day of study. Awesome! I didn’t. And that’s okay. You don’t have to have a pantheon. (Though there are some Pagans who may tell you otherwise.)

I’m an eclectic witch. Even though I work with a Hellenic divinity, I don’t follow the Hellenic pantheon or Hellenic traditions. The only other Greek deities I work with on occasion (and I mean very occasionally) are Hestia, Hecate, Persephone, Demeter, and Dionysus. And that’s okay. No one has come to smite me yet.

Your path is just that – YOURS. No one else can tell you what is right or wrong for you. (I assume we all can agree with a general “Do no harm, but take no shit” policy at the very least.) When it comes to which deities you worship and how you worship them, your best authority is you.

4) Have you dealt with your personal shit?

Ah, perhaps the biggest question of all! Have you dealt with your personal shit? Have you been on the personal growth path long enough to at least know what your problems are, if you haven’t already dealt with them? This can run the whole gamut, including but not limited to: mental disorders, fears, insecurities, family issues, physical health, romantic relationship issues, energy blockages, resentments, self-esteem, prejudices, addictions, and healthy boundary setting. Do you know what your core values are? What drives you as a human being? You should know yourself, or at least be making an effort to do so, before you begin pursuing a deep relationship with a deity.

I highly recommend therapy. For everyone. It doesn’t matter how well-adjusted you think you might be – none of us escaped childhood or early adulthood without some battle scars (and possibly some festering wounds). It’s also just nice to have an impartial third party to talk about your life issues with who won’t pass judgement on you and is there to support you. You do need to find a good therapist, though, and that may take some time. You need to find someone whom you “click” with, who provides helpful advice, and who is hopefully pagan-friendly (if you want to talk about spiritual stuff with them).

All of this to say: You don’t actually need to wait to pursue a relationship with the Divine. You can start today (and should, if you want to!) These are just some guidelines for that next step, some recommendations that I either had, or wish I had had, when I began my journey to Aphrodite. That being said, The Divine is (for the most part) understanding. If you are just starting on your journey, or are in the beginning phases, don’t be afraid to reach out! Pray, make offerings, sing, dance, meditate! The Divine can, and will, help you in your preparations for deeper connection. Like I said in the beginning, these guidelines are for those wanting to pursue a dedicated, daily relationship with a deity – like that of a devotee or priestess (/priest). And if that deity likes you, they will most certainly give you some guidance along the way.

This is Part One in a series on Going Deeper with your Pagan Practice.