Hephaestus: A Mystery for Pagan Community Builders

6570018_xlI taught a workshop on community building tools for the Milwaukee Pagan community. As part of that class I offered an open public ritual working with Hestia, Hecate, and Hephaestus.

The workshop itself took far more work to pull off than I had expected, which is a story for another day about communities, group dynamics, stepping on people’s toes, and epic yarns of nonviolent communication on email lists. Some local community “leaders” (ie, the loudest people) were offended that I was coming in to teach a workshop on leadership.

But after a lot of effort on my part, and the part of a local organizer, we got things together, and had about 20 people at the class over the course of the weekend (some could only attend part of it).

The class went very well, and as often happens during a weekend intensive with an ecstatic/participatory ritual, the class participants grew emotionally close. In the ritual, we worked with Hestia of the hearth fire, the tribe fire. We gathered together around that fire, felt the warmth of it, and tended that fire, and then, when the fuel got low, we went out into the darkness to seek more fuel for the fire.

Calling us out into the darkness was Hecate, who held aloft the guiding Fire of the soul. With her lantern she guided us further out into the darkness. Where first we began, seeking our personal magic and the gifts we brought to community, that which would feed the clan fire, we went further into the forest to seek that which held us back, the old wounds, the obstacles, the shadows and fears and pain.

Hecate drew each of us to the Crossroads, where we could choose to descend into the Underworld and sacrifice our pain, our old wounds. We could choose to face Hephaestus, the twisted and crippled god of the forge.

After writing down or making a symbol to represent our wound, we released it into the lava of his forge, and Hephaestus hammered for us. He hammered our pain until it was beauty. We gave him pain, sacrificed a wound, and in turn he gave us a gem that was the gift we take from that wound. Over and over he turned our pain into beauty.

We sang the dirge-chant, “May my life be a gift to you, Take me home again,” to hold space as we each released our pain, and then we drew in close around the clan fire, offering our gift there to Hestia, to the fire. Hestia spoke, invoking herself into each person, naming each person there as Hestia and calling them fire-tender.

We each then blessed water in a decanter, then shared water together, each serving the next person, and then together we sang the chant Pour it Out for Me.

The ritual was potent for me for a number of reasons. One was seeing the man who aspected Hephaestus. I could feel the palpable waves of pain coming off of this god of the forge, who labors out of love even though each stroke of his hammer must be agony. I could imagine the beauty he wrought from those mangled hands, and I wept for him. I wept for all of us that sacrifice our pain to step into beauty.

During the ritual there were a few logistics I wasn’t sure how we’d get through, since I didn’t have a ritual team and I had a group unused to ecstatic or participatory ritual. But each person really supported the ritual and that was beautiful to watch people taking what I knew had to be huge risks, even just making eye contact had to be a huge risk for some people there.

Somehow the logistics all flowed relatively seamlessly, with a few hiccups. There was a point when I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I was in that trancey state where the divine had an answer for me, and suddenly I was invoking Hestia into each person there. What followed that part of the ritual felt like I had the hand of the divine on the back of my head, because I’m not at all sure that Shauna/local me could have pulled off what I was trying to do in the ritual, but whatever angel was riding behind my head had other ideas for things and seemed to know just the right words to say to progress the ritual to the next part.

In the car is where the ritual hit me. My co-facilitator shared with me his mystery of Hephaestus–that many times as he/Hephaestus hammered the wound to produce the gift, he’d strike the stone/jewel, and break it, or accidentally send it skittering off, and so he’d try again.

What he realized is that Hephaestus is crippled, lamed–he doesn’t have the full use of his limbs, and he’s in excruciating pain with every hammer stroke. And that as he hammered the things he was making–belts, helmets–sometimes he’d miss a stroke and screw up the piece, and have to start over once, twice, a dozen times, until it was perfect.

In fact he has to start again, and again, and again. Aphrodite’s Girdle may have taken him a dozen tries. The helmet of Hades may have taken him 10 tries, or thirty. Over and over, he would work on a piece and then his own body would betray him, and he’d have to start over again.

We both cried a fair bit at the idea of that, of both the pain, and the relentless pursuit of excellence, of the willingness to keep trying.

And that’s when it hit me. The Milwaukee community we were there to serve…the Chicago community…all the communities I’ve served…all of them were like that, like Hephaestus. Full of pain, hammering over and over and over to try and get it right. Unity initiatives rising and failing, groups forming and falling apart. Over and over they keep trying.

For a little bit I was overwhelmed by the pain and agony I felt I was almost aspecting, channeling from the community itself, the amount of pain people have gone through out of love for community and trying to bring things together, only to have the community fracture and fall apart.

And there is so much pain in some Pagan communities, so much drama and anger and hurt. For me, that was what Hephaestus had to offer us–that it hurts, and we have to keep trying to do it, over and over again, until the belt or helmet or shield is as excellent as it can be.

Over and over, Hephaestus hammered. Lamed, he misses a stroke and must start over. His agony, his pain, he continues to shape and reshape and turn into beauty. He is the beauty beneath the surface, the beauty not of face, but of heart and of work and of love made visible.

In the process of organizing the class, I feel like I’ve been through the fire of the forge; it was almost like an advanced practicum on group dynamics. I found myself, over the course of organizing the class and working with the community, baffled and frustrated and angry—and also, honored to the point of tears at what some people were willing to risk to bring healthy community tools to their group.

I’m amazed and inspired by the 20 people I worked with that weekend.

I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for Pagan communities. Will we ever be able to get past the extreme egotism and drama that seems to halt us in our tracks? My inner optimist says yes, but my inner skeptic who had to field emails and hate-mongering and active hostility and drama, wonders what it will take for Paganism to grow up.

But then I remember Hephaestus, lamed, crippled, hammering away at the pieces, slipping and breaking a link on a belt or a misplaced dent on a helmet, and throwing it into the forge to begin it again, until it’s just right, and I’m willing to try again.

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