Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Pagan Olympics

Along with around 1/7 of the entire world's population, I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the thirtieth modern Summer Olympics with great interest. Thanks to a friend, I was able to watch the uncut BBC version of the ceremony, fortunately, free of NBC's cuts, commentary and commercial breaks. If you can find this version online, it is well worth the effort to view, and is a much more enjoyable experience.

The historical Olympics were of course a tradition that began in ancient Pagan Greece, and were held every four years for over a thousand years, until the reign of good old Emperor Theodosius who of course put a stop to anything with Pagan origins. Despite some popular misconceptions,the games actually began as a footrace for young women to become the priestess of the temple of Hera!

The resurgence of the Olympics in modern times have been marked by the preservation of some of the most ancient traditions from the original Olympics. The most visible and interesting of these traditions is the lighting of the Olympic flame, which has been followed in modern times since 1936. The lighting takes place IN the Temple of Hera, in Olympia, Greece, and is carried out by a circle of priestesses and priests, led by a High Priestess of Hera. The God Apollo was called upon, and the flame was lit using a mirror to generate the heat to light the torch. If you have time, you really should watch the ritual itself. It's an incredible example of a reconstruction of an ancient rite, undertaken with seriousness and power. Finally, from the time that the flame is lit at Olympia until it is delivered to the Olympic Stadium and then extinguished at the end of the Games, the flame is carefully guarded and is never allowed to go out, in the tradition of eternal flames from ancient Goddess temples worldwide. Blown out flames are relit from a "mother flame" that is kept close to the torch and was lit from the main flame at the lighting ceremony. Additionally, an olive branch is retrieved and carried by a young boy, and is then  ritually presented to the Olympic torchbearer.

Returning to the Olympic opening ceremonies themselves, I was literally astonished when the initial scenes showed us a pastoral countryside, complete with meadows, sheep, and... Glastonbury Tor. Glastonbury Tor?! My jaw dropped. The inclusion of the Tor was a great omen that these ceremonies were going to be memorably mystical indeed!

Additionally, although the Tor is currently topped by the remains of an medieval Christian church , the modern Olympic version was crowned instead with a representation of a magnificent old tree. Of what kind I could not tell, but being that a lot of the imagery was so very, very pagan, I'm going to go with the very druidic Oak (This article seems to confirm it was an Oak). So this beautiful, pregnant and magical Goddess belly of a mound of Earth, the Isle of Avalon, this place of intense spiritual significance was not only a highly visible part of the Olympics' opening ritual, but indeed, served as a platform for a significant portion of the ceremonies, including important speeches and the hosting of each country's flag. Most likely, the intersection of both Pagan and Christian belief and popular mythology at the Tor made it palatable for mainstream viewers, if they were aware of the Tor's significance at all. Just seeing the prominence of this homage to the Goddess in all of the footage made for a most enjoyable evening, and the contrast of the softly waving green turf (apparently, quite real!) to the later industrial and urban scenes was quite a striking reminder of the presence and resurgence of the worship of the Divine feminine even today. 

Then, quite soon after I had seen but not yet fully processed the impact of the inclusion of the Tor, I noticed something else that was quite shocking as well. Maypoles! And as I was later to find out, there was not just one or two Maypoles, but indeed, there were four of them. Creative Director Danny Boyle was quoted as saying that the four Maypoles represented the four countries of Great Britian, but I noticed something else that was just as interesting. Once I had time to do some research, I found some very very significant things that may have passed many others by at first glance. 

Firstly, I looked at a satellite photo of the Olympic stadium in London. The first thing that struck me is that the stadium itself is surrounded by water on all sides. You can clearly see here how the network of canals provide it an island effect. In many mythologies around the world, islands are often seen as places of mystical significance themselves, as in the mythology of Glastonbury Tor itself. 

Secondarily, I noticed that the stadium is oriented quite nicely to the directions, with the north-south axis being the longer. Zooming in, Google maps has provided a very recent picture of the inside of the stadium, showing the construction of the Olympic stages. Most noticeably, the largest blank area, where the Tor will be constructed later on, is directly in the North end of the arena, placed prominently in the position of fertile, strong and grounding Earth. 

After looking around a little bit, I discovered several photos of a mockup of the Opening Ceremonies' stage, and saw that the Maypoles are placed precisely in what modern earth-based folk would consider to be the Four Directions. 

Each Maypole was topped with four different flowers and colors, which this article informs us are the "national flowers of all four home nations – the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland, the daffodil of Wales and the flax of Northern Ireland." Now, while they are not quite exactly the placement of the "traditional" colors and elemental correspondence, they are definitely close enough for me. In fact, I was so excited about this that I could not decide which picture I wanted to feature here, and so came up with this slideshow of collected photos of the Maypoles instead. 

Finally, although the "Industrial Revolution" segment that followed the pastoral scenes was intended to be a celebration of progress, there was also a palpable sense of grief that was portrayed at the destruction of the natural world, and very concretely symbolized how the progress and wealth came at the expense of the removal of green grass and clean air. I found it interesting that part of the destruction was done by workmen and women who actually emerged from beneath the druidic Oak tree at the apex of the Tor. Although it was a little unclear to me what this was intended to symbolize, after some reflection I came to the conclusion that perhaps it meant that even those of us with the best of intentions toward preserving the natural world can contribute to this type of destructive influence. Admittedly, this is pure, unbridled speculation on my part! 

All in all, it was very well done and although there were many other mystical and magical symbols present during the Opening Ceremonies, (pyramids which were lit on the Winter Solstice, sacred Geometry, white doves)  I wanted to specifically catalog the inclusion of two very prominent and important ones. I also found it intensely fitting that the Games at which women were finally represented from EVERY single country were the ones which contained symbols of the Great Goddess herself.