Lions at the Door

Lions at the Door August 21, 2008

One of the conversations I didn’t get to have at NEYM this year was with Will T., who said at one point that he’d like to talk with me about my relationship with Herne.

I’m pretty sure Will is not looking at converting to Paganism anytime soon. Instead, I suspect that his me.

Mountain Lion. by Julie Langford

interest was meant as a friendly conversation-opener, since he knows that Herne is important to

I like Will, and would be happy to talk about almost anything with him. This conversation didn’t happen, though, and that’s maybe just as well.

It’s hard to talk about Herne. It’s hard when I’m among Pagans, and, yeah, it’s probably a bit harder among non-Pagans, but for some reason, it’s difficult at any time. I am not sure why… I know that some Pagans have the habit of adopting any “cool” sounding spiritual this-n-that. You know the type: they meet a shaman who speaks of their relationship to, say, the Elk spirit, and right away, they have an Elk spirit. As if relationships in the Otherworld were fashion accessories.

Herne the Hunter

For what it’s worth, in case any such Pagans are reading this: Herne is not really his name, guys. I mean, not only not his name, as in, humans don’t know the True Names of our gods, but not his name as in, he’s not the mythological figure referred to by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor, OK? Or rather, that myth is one of the doors into his metaphor, but it’s a back door, to a very small, lesser set of rooms and passages.

And I’m not giving out directions on how to find him for yourself. If he wants you, he’ll find you. (In my experience, the gods find us, not the other way around.)

I’m public enough with my Paganism. But, odd though it may sound, given how open I have been in discussing so much of my spiritual journey online, I feel shy of speaking of my god too freely and directly, as if I owned him, or understood him or something. “Witnessing” is right out.

It’s private. Not private, the way talking about our sex lives is private… more like, private, the way talking about the ways the deep love and knowledge that develops within a marriage is private. Unless one is a poet, how can one even begin? Were I to attempt it, I fear I would reduce my beloved to a list of his favorite foods, or a few entertaining anecdotes. I would make what is round and full of life sound flat and ordinary. Some things just cannot be spoken, at least by me.

Notwithstanding, Will’s friendly remark has managed to echo inside me for quite some time. In fact, I dreamed about it the other night, a haunting dream that has lingered, too. I keep turning it round and round in my hands, but I’m not sure of its meaning even yet.

In the dream, Will’s remark was a question. “What can you tell me about Herne the Hunter?” And in some way, the dream itself was me, trying to answer that question to myself. Not only that, but it was me, trying to answer that question, having returned from sessions feeling, for the first time, not like a Pagan among Quakers, nor like a Quaker Pagan among Quakers, but simply as one Friend among many. I am growing easier and easier in my relationship with the God of Friends–and even, for the first time, finding myself connecting with Bible as a result of my summer quest for literacy with that mythos.

So the mystery of this dream operates on a whole lot of levels for me.

The dream took place, as many of my dreams do, in a wholly unfamiliar building that was somehow my home. As in many such dreams, my house, my home, most probably represents my spirit, my self.

In this case, the house was not any place I have ever seen in my waking life, but it was definitely my house, my home. It was long, and irregularly shaped, and large, and rambling, and it was surrounded by beautiful wooded countryside. Behind the house was a ravine. I think I had just left a deck on one side of the house, having had this conversation with Will there–or perhaps having materialized within the dream there, in response to the echoing question–and I was circling around behind the house to the back door, when I glanced across the wooded ravine, and saw three lions. (Or were there four?)

At least one was a male African lion. Two were either lionesses or nearly mature cubs, or mountain lions, such as we have in this country. The male lion, with its clear, recognizable mane, was seemingly disinterested in crossing the little gully at the bottom of the ravine, but the other two lions seemed much more interested and aware of my movement.

My response to all this was awe and pleasure at seeing lions–but also sensible fear and a sense of urgency about getting indoors. I was not panic stricken, by any means, but neither did I want to encounter these lions any closer up.

However, just as I hurried up to open the back door into my house, one of the lions came surging out of the woods and rushed up to me. It half-stood, half-leapt up onto it’s rear legs, claws out, grabbing for my head or my shoulders or my neck.

Still, I was not panicked. I was frightened, but also resolute. I held up my hands to ward off those grabbing claws, and grappled with the lion. In a contest of strength and balance and will, I grabbed for the lion’s face and his or her vulnerable eyes, working to push the lion backwards, off of me, to overbalance so that I would be able to step through the door and shut it behind me.

In the moments that my hands were raised to ward off the lion’s attack, his/her claws actually went all the way through the palms of my hands, piercing them completely. The entire rest of the struggle took place with the lion’s paws sealed to my palms by those claws, until I succeeded in driving the creature backwards, and the claws pulled out of my hands with a slight burning sensation, and I was free to slam the door between us.

There was no blood coming from my hands at all… but there were holes that bored all the way through. Small, teardrop shaped holes. I held them up to the light coming from the window, and I could see daylight through them, and a small amount of clear seepage. That, and the slight burning sensation were all the evidence of the struggle.

I heard sounds in the house, and realized the other lion was already inside. Exploring the house from the inside, I found the second mane-less lion by an open window. A similar struggle to the first occurred, perhaps more violent, as this time, I actually had to put my thumb into the beast’s left eye–I felt it pop beneath my gouging. Oddly, the eye was blue. (Why blue? Are there even any lions with blue eyes?)

There was no sense of malice, or anger, or hate in any of this. A prudent sort of fear and urgency, but no panic: the lion, though attacking, was not my enemy. Having defeated the second lion or lioness, and thrusting him or her out through the open window, I glanced out across the ravine, and there was the African lion, still watching calmly and idly from the woods.

The wounds on my hands were still there. They seemed less like wounds than like markings, however. This is not to say the cats would not have eaten me, if I had let them. But the sense was not of pain or terror, but of calm acceptance of something that was not out of place.

I made my way to a large room in my home–almost ballroom sized, and with a number of levels, a staircase to a balcony area, and many waiting friends from the Pagan community. No one seemed remotely alarmed (including me). Peter was there somewhere… I think my friend Kirk was there. Rayna was there. Her husband, Canu, another dear Pagan friend whom I hardly ever get to see any more, was expected any minute–Canu who has often acted as Herne’s priest for me.

I think I was pondering the question, what can I say of Herne? and perhaps discussing it with Rayna, when I woke up, palms still tingling with the remembered wounds.

Holey hands. Holy hands. Holes that the Light shone through.

When I told the dream to Peter, he immediately thought of stigmata. I agree that the dream seems to mix Christian and Pagan symbolism in ways that are hard to track, but the equation with stigmata seemed a bit pat. There was no blood, and, anyway, I’ve never been Catholic, and the wounding did not seem in the least Christ-like or like a crucifixion to me. Hands and the palms of my hands are more likely, for me, as a Reiki practitioner, equated with healing and with spiritual presence than with Jesus.

The lions, though… Those are a truly ambiguous symbol. Lions certainly can be Christian, or at least Biblical. Studying the Bible this summer, I’ve come across any number of references to lions. Aslan, in my beloved Narnian books, is both a lion–a large, African lion–and a symbol of Christ.

And, though the dream took place in a northern deciduous forest, like the ones I grew up in in New England, there was at least one African lion watching me from the trees. A stranger to these woods, an immigrant, as Jesus is an immigrant to both the land spirit of North America, and, I suppose, to my own “shores”.

But lions are often symbolic of Herne for me as well, despite his more common depiction as a stag or a man with antlers. Herne is hunter as well as hunted, and reflects the fierce and fearful side of life as well as the self-sacrifice that is sometimes necessary to live honorably and well. And I have spoken of him as a lion at times–in explaining the ways that Pagan gods, gods of nature, are not always to be models of human behavior, I have spoken of the way that what is right for the lion is not always right for the man; though it is right for the lion to run down the deer and tear her living flesh, it is not right for me to do so. Herne is the god of necessity, and he does not hunt for sport, but for need. Only where I, also, like the lion, act from need and from my deepest, best nature, may I take this violence as an appropriate model for my own life.

But the connection between Herne and lions goes deeper than that, to a fall weekend years ago, when I was fasting and focusing on an upcoming Samhain ritual, and also specifically deepening my relationship with the god of the hunt.

I actually met a lion–a mountain lion, a fully grown lioness, who had been raised by humans and lived in a cage. I was given the chance to pet the lioness, knowing that she had once been tame, but might not be entirely so any longer. And I deliberately set aside my fears–no, accepted them for the realistic understandings they were, that this was a large and wild animal who could certainly cause me significant injury if she wished–and put my hand into the cage to pet her.

I can still feel the sensation of her rubbing her jaw up against my knuckles, exactly the way a domestic cat will rub its face against the hand of a human.

I don’t remember if she was purring or not.

This was a weekend dedicated to Herne, during which I was deliberately attempting to see with Otherworld vision for as much of the time as I could. Herne, the god of “act, and accept the consequences,” is forever interwoven with that moment, for me: the moment I stroked a lion’s jaw.

(The happy ending was not that the lioness did not harm me. The happy ending was that, knowing she could, I chose to risk that touch.)

So: lions. I do not believe, as some do, that Herne is Jesus. But the lions, as symbols, belong to both. Which leaves me with the question: whose lions were they, that I was shutting out of my house?

Does the shutting out of my house stand for a rejection of spiritual learning? Or does the marking indicate progress in that learning?

In the dream, Canu as priest of Herne was not yet in evidence. I suppose I should give the flesh and blood Canu a call, and see if he has anything to add to this mystery, of symbols upon symbols.

Because it is a mystery. I am not at all clear on what this means–but, given the way the dream has lingered on, it may well mean something worth trying to hear.

As has happened before, no sooner had I posted this blog entry than I learned of a new Mythology Synchroblog–on the Otherworld. For those who might be interested in pursuing that topic a bit farther, I give you the participants (thus far) in this Pagan blog event.
Other participants:

Photo Credits (order of appearance)

dcumminsusa. “Aw, Look the Puma Wants a Human Toy.” 5 December 2007. 22 August 2008.Ainsworth, Harrison. “Herne the Hunter.” Wikimedia Commons. 2007. 22 August 2008.
ekai. “Mountain Lion Safety.” 12 April 2007. 22 August 2008.

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