In 2001 I began my training as a Priestess of Avalon in Glastonbury. The name 'Avalon' comes from the older Welsh 'Yns Afallon' meaning 'Isle of Apples', the word 'afall', meaning 'apple' or sometimes 'fruit'. It is often hard to trace the meaning of apples through the many religions and folk tales in which they feature due to this previous, more generic, translation and yet the apple has become a powerful companion on my spiritual path with She~Who~Is (the name which I have come to use for 'Goddess'). In many traditions, the apple is both a mystical and forbidden fruit and so it seemed to me to fit very well with my new found path of the Divine Feminine, which carries with it a sense of being outside the teachings of more conventional religion. Despite no longer thinking of myself as a Christian, I felt in deep kinship with Eve, who bit into the apple of wisdom, and with the serpent/snake, who is so often a symbol both of the Goddess and of women. And yet always there is more to these symbols than meets the eye if we can be brave enough to stay on the journey.
Even in researching for this piece of writing I have discovered, to my joy, that several ethnobotanical and ethnomycological scholars, such as Carl Ruck and Clark Heinrich, believe that the apple in mythology is a symbolic substitution for the psychedelic Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric, mushroom, beloved of reindeer and shaman alike, and in this context its association with 'knowledge' takes on a wilder and deeper meaning and draws together several seemingly disparate spiritual threads for me. But more of that another time. For now, back to the apple.
Although many of us know of the apple as a symbol of 'sin' and the expulsion of humankind from the Garden of Eden, there are also passages in the Bible, particularly in the Song of Songs (my favourite!), where it becomes instead a metaphor for both sensuality, beauty, and love. In secular art, the Roman goddess Venus is often depicted with an apple, although the Latin words for apple, 'mālum' and evil, 'malum' are almost identical. Apples are also intimately associated with 'fairyland' and with death (there is a tradition amongst boatbuilders that it is unlucky to build a boat out of apple wood as it is more often used for coffins), and Avalon is often also thought of as the 'Isle of the Dead'. All point to a different state of being and a journey to the 'otherworld', which links us back to the trance state induced by the Fly Agaric mushroom. Some of these meanings are threads of different traditions that have been drawn together without a great deal of historical evidence and yet much of it feels right from a more spiritual standpoint. At the very least, we can say that truly the symbolism of the apple runs deep through human culture!
And yet, what do we mean when we talk about 'apples'? Even when we think of our familiar fruit there are several deep roots which we can choose to follow into an intangible and misty~magical place. The apples that we would recognise come from the deciduous apple tree 'malus domestica' which, as is clear from its Latin name, is a cultivated form of its wild ancestral grandmother 'malus sieversii'. Some believe that it was the earliest tree to be tamed. When I first began on my priestess path I innocently imagined the apples of Avalon to be the large, red ,and juicy fruit that I bought in my local supermarket and yet, if I came across a gnarled little crabapple in a wood, my heart would skip a beat. Soon I came to associate Avalon with these wild, often misshapen (to our modern eyes), and sour little apples. I love that these older, wilder fruits, which are so important to so many cultures, are often too bitter to eat. In imagining the sweet and delicious fruit of the domesticated apple in all our stories we are unconsciously implying that something is only of value if it is palatable to us. Knowledge is indeed sometimes a bitter fruit to swallow and can teach us a deep humility about our own place in the scheme of things.
And so it was bitter indeed when I learned, in perhaps the last five years, that the spiritual group that I had attached myself to was not the convention-defying, patriarchy-challenging, community that I had imagined and was instead one which advocated the de-wilding of much that I have come to believe is the true dwelling place of Divinity; the wild edge, the outcast, the anarchist, the heretic, the rebel. As we have seen, there are many sorts of apples, both wild and domesticated, and all have their place. Many prefer the seeming abundance of a well managed orchard, and they are beautiful, but in many cases the fruit growing in them has been managed almost out of existence; homogenised, with little resistance to disease, and many of us no longer trust those wild, gnarled and bitter, little apples that might come our way. It is telling that, in many managed orchards, crabapples have to be planted amongst the cultivated trees as the latter have become sterile, producing very little pollen, and no longer attract the bees and other pollinators needed to keep them fertile. It is dangerous indeed to align ourselves too powerfully with what is managed and tamed and all groups need their wild dissenting voices in order to remain healthy, fertile, and alive. In a truly wild orchard, which is managed by Goddess~as~Nature, there is room for a worm or two to make its way through the sweet flesh without threatening the health of the whole, and for diversity and change to have their place, as they should in any healthy ecosystem. I wish my old community well. It is no longer the place for me, or for many of my sisters.
I once took a friend to visit the apple orchard in Glastonbury Abbey. I took him there because I loved it so much and I had expected him to love it too. To me it was a little bit of wild nature in a town which so often falls prey to the commercial side of spirituality. It was, and is, my place of connection with what~is and yet I was shocked that his reaction was one of almost disgust. He found the number of apples rotting on the ground wasteful and bemoaned the 'laziness' and lack of care of those who he felt should have been managing it. What I had found beautiful he had found ugly. For me, these windfalls (even the word is beautiful) are what bring the magic, what invite Grandmother Rot to move through, as she should, and provide food for birds, butterflies, and countless other creatures, in the process. Wild attracts wild. When we become too domesticated we become fragile, when we align ourselves with the untamed on the edge of things we allow ourselves the opportunity to become stronger, more able to meet life's challenges, we become less afraid of letting Spirit truly flow through us. It isn't always easy but it is wild...
And so, in staying close to the roots of things, in following the path of the apple, I have severed my links with my former spiritual community and even with Avalon, which I have come to see as a younger, more domesticated, version of the wilder and older Afallon. 'Afallon', coming from the Welsh language, is resonant with the oldest indigenous tongue of these lands and connects me more deeply with the path that I have chosen and the land that I love. I have followed the serpent-path and have bitten into the fruit of knowledge. I have been cast out of the well-managed Garden, and I have never felt more connected to She~Who~Is, nor to my path as, what I have now come to call, a Hedgepriestess of Afallon. I might have twigs in my hair and mud on my knees but I am happy and open-hearted in a way that I have never been before; sometimes we need to be tamed and become feral in order to understand the preciousness of what it means to be wild. I am grateful.
|'Avalon Spring Dawn, 500BCE', used with the kind permission of Richard Fraser http://www.richardfraser.co.uk/|
And, in that spirit of open-heartedness, we come to my final A for Activism. Freedom allows the heart to expand and increases our ability to love. All activism, which is much needed in our frightened and beleaguered world, must come from this place of wild love. In this way we may prevent ourselves from experiencing the burn-out which besets many activists and, in our determination to stay soft-bellied and close to the earth and the roots of things, we may avoid the trap of becoming the thing which we are working to change. It feels right here to celebrate that Jesus, when liberated from the dogma of the institutional church, has become a powerful symbol of the Occupy Movement. Robin Meyers, in his book ' Saving Jesus from the Church' (New York HarperCollins, 2009, quoted in 'Jesus Through Pagan Eyes, Mark Townsend, 2012), describes Jesus's connection to Spirit as, “pure, unbridled, reckless compassion”. It is this 'reckless compassion' that we can call upon in our activism, and in our everyday lives, if we are able to break free from the chains of domestication. We are all afraid. I know that I am and yet, the more that I can connect to what is wild and edge-dwelling in nature and in myself, the more I am able to be brave in spite of the fear. The 'apple' has taught me that, and the Goddess who sings in its wilfully wild and bitter flesh calls me on...