I hadn’t ever planned to dedicate myself to Aphrodite, but much to my surprise, this became a powerful relationship that stunned me. It was a dedication to Aphrodite, to Desire. To Wanting. In 2006, I was in my second year of training at the Diana’s Grove Mystery School. Each year, we’d work with a myth or fairy tale, and that year we were working with the story of Psyche and Eros.
Over the years, my spiritual practice has moved from vaguely polytheistic to a more pantheistic worldview. During my time at Diana’s Grove I was somewhere between polytheism and pantheism. One of the techniques we used at this mystery school was dedicating to an element, or to one of the deities or characters from that year’s stories.
The practice allowed us to — whether we worked with them as deities, spirits, or as archetypes — deepen our connection to some aspect of that element, deities, spirits, or archetypes.
My mentors had a habit of retelling stories, especially working to tell the “villain’s” side of the story. Aphrodite is usually painted as the jealous Mother-In-Law who tries to thwart Psyche’s attempts to be with Eros. My mentors posed the idea that it was somewhat ridiculous that the Goddess of all Love and Desire would actually feel threatened by a mortal girl, no matter how beautiful.
What if, instead, Aphrodite’s love for her son Eros, and by extension for Psyche, was so great that she was willing to test Psyche, to challenge her, so that Psyche could step beyond her mortal self in order to become a goddess? Only in becoming a goddess would Psyche be able to be with Eros. And the only way to do this was for Psyche to go through the hero’s journey to become more than she was.
That was the setup for the work of that year’s Mystery School, and the version of Aphrodite I dedicated myself to for the year.
While each participant in the mystery school would find themselves in the role of Psyche during the course of the year, I specifically found myself choosing to dedicate to Aphrodite. I chose Desire. When I think back, I realize there really wasn’t any other choice for me, given the strange twists and turns of my own life.
I had been laid off from my job in the middle of 2004. Not long after that I attended my first Witch Camp at Diana’s Grove, and I signed up for the Diana’s Grove Mystery School in 2005. In early 2005 I began attending weekend intensives, and soon after I was building a shrine to Brigid in a grove of trees on the land. It was during that time, and after coming out of a deep depression, that I realized I wasn’t happy in my marriage at all. My husband wasn’t a bad guy, but I wasn’t in love with him, and our lives had been diverging for a long time.
In a massive leap of faith, I left my husband and moved to Diana’s Grove to follow my spiritual calling. I did what terrified me and upended my entire life. I dove headlong into the personal growth work and the leadership training. If I hadn’t already lost my job, I might not have been quite so willing to turn my whole life upside-down to do that work. I sacrificed stability, I sacrificed living in the city in a place that I knew, and I sacrificed the emerging friendships I’d been building with people connected to the Reclaiming group in Chicago. I sacrificed a marriage which, though lacking in passion, was at least safe.
And somewhere in there I fell in love. I fell in love with my spiritual calling to serve, and I fell in love with the work of Diana’s Grove, I fell in love with a guy. It was a trifecta of love and lust and passion. The lack of a Happily Ever After taught me a lot about desire.
I have often been somewhat lacking in desire and passion. In middle-school, to cope with the bullying, I had a mantra that I learned from the movie the Terminator. The character Kyle Reese says, “Pain can be controlled, you just disconnect it.” I’d say that over and over. Pain can be controlled.
Freezing my emotions over kept me safe and sane while growing up. As an adult, though, once I started wanting to actually feel emotions, it wasn’t as easy as just turning it back on. My mom jokingly calls me Mr. Spock for my Vulcan-like approach to emotions. In relationships, however, I’ve noticed the strain. Men want emotions from me that I sometimes just don’t have.
It’s worth acknowledging that my romantic partners always eventually take second string to any creative project I’ve been involved in, and they grow to resent that too. At first, they fall in love with my passion for my artwork, my writing, my event planning projects. Later, they want to know why I don’t love them as much as I love my work. I suppose it’s always been easier for me to emotionally connect to a project, to a painting, to a creative act, than to a relationship, but even that is oversimplifying my relationship to desire and to passion.
When I fell in love in the midst of upending my life, my heart was cracked open. I don’t think I even realized how much I was actually feeling until my heart was broken.
There are a lot of ways to break a heart beyond the obvious romantic scenario. There’s unrequited love, of course. There’s also betrayal by a friend, or an organization falling apart, or a leader falling off their pedestal. There are a host of other reasons and they can all interweave. Having opened my heart, having desired and reached, and having been denied, it doesn’t really matter whether the heartbreak came from a lover or a group or a project.
There was a night when I sat out in a warm summer rain crying until I had dry heaves. It’s been long enough since that night that I can acknowledge I was full of a lot of self pity and “why me.” However, I’d done so much sincere personal work to unfreeze my heart so I could feel … I’d taken so many risks to open up…to try new things…it was almost more than I could bear in that moment to be denied and rejected. To be hurt like that felt like such a betrayal. I felt that the gods had led me to this place, I felt that I had been called and I’d taken that leap of faith…and to have so many things fall apart felt like a tremendous betrayal.
That night was one of those moments on the knife’s edge of my own destiny. It changed everything for me.
Months later, I dedicated to Aphrodite and to Desire. After such hurt, it felt like a risk. And yet at that point, I suppose I felt that the only way out was through. I was committed to a path of personal growth, and obviously I needed to understand something more about love and desire. I was no longer naïve enough to think that it was always going to work out; indeed, I knew by that point that the path of personal transformation is like a sword on the forge, being beaten and heated and shaped until all the dross is hammered out.
That year, I remember attending a workshop on charisma and enchanting a group. Even attending that workshop felt like a risk for me. I’d always identified as the loner, the person who was awkward and had poor social skills, the person who was terrible at public speaking. During that workshop, I remember someone saying something like, “Charisma is daring to be beautiful and luscious and desirable.” That sat with me for quite some time.
A lot of my personal growth work, particularly at that time, was me dealing with issues of body image and shame. Growing up, I was the fat kid with acne. “Beautiful” wasn’t a word I had ever associated with myself, much less luscious or desirable. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that a large reason I married my husband in my twenties is because I had the mindset of, “Well, we get along really well, and it’s not like anyone else will ever want me.” It wasn’t a conscious thought, but that’s about where my self esteem was at.
At the time, I had lost a lot of weight, but I was still fat by the dominant culture’s standards. And being rejected by the object of my desire hadn’t exactly instilled me with confidence in my attractiveness.
But once again, it was a deeper desire that won out.
See, the happiest moments in my life are when I’ve envisioned this huge, seemingly impossible thing, and then I’ve figured out a way to do that thing. I’ve wanted it so badly that my desire lit me up, filled me with the fire and the ability to do the thing, or to motivate a team to do it and manifest that vision.
And I wanted that. I wanted to be able to inspire people, to be the charismatic leader and teacher that could serve communities and make amazing things happen. There was a moment where I cracked once again, where I realized, I couldn’t do what I was called to do by being the loner in the corner who wore a lot of black and wasn’t comfortable talking to people. I couldn’t do the things I dreamed of unless I was willing to give up the awkwardness, the standoffishness, my preference for being the behind-the-scenes. I couldn’t do these things unless I was willing to be visible. To be beautiful. To be desirable.
For so long, I had identified only with the moon, with nighttime, with being the quiet person in the corner. With being the rebel and the reject, the one who didn’t belong.
Aphrodite tempted me out into the sunlight.
Bringing the Gold
People used to tease me about wearing a lot of black. I had a Goth phase in college, but I was wearing black far before that. In middle school and high school, I suppose it’s the go-to clothing color of choice for the rebels and the rejects. It pretty nicely says, “Fuck off, I’m different,” and hopefully adds a little intimidation to ward off some of the bullying. In theory, at least.
I was genuinely sensitive to the sunlight for many years in part because of my regimen of acne medication. I’m pale to begin with, but I took the whole thing to some kind of vampiric affectation. To me, the sun represented the popular people, the normal people. Normal people wore gold jewelry. Pagans and Goths wore silver. Wearing black and connecting to the moon and to silver felt like some strange kind of rejection of the people who had rejected me.
What I’ve learned through years of personal growth work is that sometimes, we hold onto these little psychic life-rafts. When we’re bullied and abused, we often survive by thinking that we’re somehow better than our abusers, that we’re perhaps meant for something greater. It might be something as silly as what clothing we wear, or pretending to be oversensitive to the sunlight, but it keeps our minds intact when we’d otherwise break. In essence, we have to believe in ourselves.
I think of it as our psyche’s version of Dumbo’s magic feather. Who knows what any one person will grasp onto. The challenge is that there’s a time in our lives when the magic feather holds us back.
As I was doing the work to come out of my shell, there was a quiet little part of me that remembered my mom singing “You Are My Sunshine” to me as a kid. She used to call me that, “Sunshine.” In fact, my middle name “Aura” was almost my first name. A friend of hers who read auras told her that I had a golden aura in utero. This, for some reason, prompted my mom to paint all of my childhood furniture marigold yellow, which probably also served to propel me toward becoming a Goth in an act of rebellion against such cheery colors.
As I continued doing personal work, I spent a lot of time thinking of the sun, and of gold. I still thought of it as something that was for other people. Yet, when I moved to Diana’s Grove, I was out in the sun all day, every day. I had to let go of the idea that I would somehow melt by being out in the sun for that long. I wasn’t, in fact, a vampire. Did I burn? Yes. Did I melt? No.
In fact, I basked in the light, though at first I was loathe to admit it.
I had built this entire identity out of being the tough loner who didn’t need anyone. Pain can be controlled. You can’t reject me if I’ve already rejected you. And you can’t hurt me if I don’t feel anything.
And I was trying to remember that little girl I was, before the bullying started. Back when my mom called me “Sunshine” and people smiled at me just because I smiled at them. I was a charismatic, happy little kid before the bullying.
I opened back up to that sunshine, to that gold, to that desire. I was working with Aphrodite as the sea, the Grail, the deep well of emotion, but I was also working with her gold, her power, her sunlight. So much of my work to step into leadership was just becoming willing to stand and be seen.
Much as Aphrodite challenged Psyche to gather wool from the golden rams of the sun, I felt challenged to step into the sunlight.
As the year progressed, I went from being terrified to lead a workshop, to realizing that there were times where if I wasn’t willing to step up and do something, it wasn’t going to get done. That the desire was the fuel to make the vision manifest, and it was the fuel to get me past my fear of being seen.
I learned that I can stand in sunshine, I can reach for sunlight, and that isn’t betraying the part of me that connected to the moon. It’s not betraying the me that wore black and hid in the shadows. I can be the sunshine and wear black. I can be the sunshine, and be an introvert. I can wear skirts and girly clothes without betraying my strength. I can wear bright colors. I can be both of those at once. I can hold that paradox.
But without my willingness to feel that desire and reach, I can’t manifest my dreams.
Opening to Passion
In the years since my dedication to Aphrodite, I’ve worked with other goddesses of love. Freyja, Inanna, Ishtar. While my body image issues are still present, I’ve healed a lot of old wounds. It’s hard to keep my heart open, and I’ve gone back and forth into and out of depression, and I still struggle to feel emotions at times.
My heart’s been broken again since then in different ways. Groups breaking apart, betrayals, events that had to be cancelled at the last minute or large projects that didn’t come off the way I’d hoped. And, of course, failed relationships.
Sometimes I wonder if I should just stick to creative projects as a place to fuel my passions. Maybe I don’t get to settle down and get married to a life-long partner. Maybe, in following my particular spiritual and creative callings, my marriage is to my work, my art, my creative projects. I won’t say that the idea of this isn’t frustrating, but it’s less painful than it once was, particularly now that I’ve opened up to so much creative inspiration in my life. I don’t always feel emotions in a bodily way, but my creativity is certainly flowing and I’m inspired for the work I do.
While the year I spent dedicated to Aphrodite at first felt like me trying to open up to romantic love again after heartbreak, it really became about me opening up to desire, to sunlight, to being willing to be visible so that I could effectively step into leadership and public speaking.
Aphrodite, for me, will always feel like the initiator that loves me enough to challenge me. That loves me enough to break my heart. That loves me enough to say, “Yes, you fell in love with this, and you can’t have it. You can’t have everything you want. And yet, will you still reach? Will you still desire?”
Sometimes, desire hurts.
Sometimes it hurts to want something, to be filled with such desire and know I may not achieve what I’m reaching for. And yet, it is through challenge that we grow. The hero’s journey is a series of tests and trials that transforms the hero into the person who can do more than who they were when they began.
While I committed to Aphrodite under the auspices of opening up to romantic love, what I gained was the willingness to take the risk. And it’s not that I always succeed. Sometimes I facilitate rituals that flop. Sometimes I plan events that don’t go well. Sometimes I submit writing and artwork that is rejected for projects. And yet, in the past years, I’ve been willing to put my writing and artwork out there in a way I never have before.
Without the risk, there’s no success. But being willing to risk opened me up to my own desire.
Claiming the Desire
Often people ask me how I got good at doing ritual, and how they can get better at leading rituals. And I can teach techniques of facilitation, sure. I can talk about leadership, I can talk about public speaking, I can talk about the process of a ritual and how to manage logistics. But what it really comes down to is the desire.
Do you desire bringing an amazing, transformative experience to your group? Are you willing to get out in front of a group of people and risk looking stupid? Are you willing to sing a chant while people stare at you in silence? Are you willing to be so filled up with energy and life force that people are willing to step past their own comfort zones in order to sing and dance and join in?
Are you willing to spend hours and hours and hours practicing facilitation by leading workshops, taking supporting roles, by learning and making mistakes?
You have to want it. You have to want it bad enough to risk screwing up. You have to want it bad enough to move past all your fears.
Whether we’re talking about taking the risk to be a better public speaker, or be a better writer, be a better leader, or any other endeavor, we’re talking about practicing til you have calluses. We’re talking about being willing to put your writing or art or projects or other work out there where people will give you feedback.
What Aphrodite asked me then, and what she asks me now, is, “Do you want it? Do you really want it? What are you willing to do to make it happen? What are you willing to give up?”
And if I want it badly enough, I let that sunshine fill me up with the desire. I want it, and I reach for it. I don’t always succeed, but it doesn’t stop me from reaching. If there’s anything I learned from Aphrodite, it’s that running away from pain and from sorrow isn’t going to get me what I want. In fact, the tears in my eyes often are what let me know I’m on the right path.
What do you desire? What are you willing to risk? Are you willing to stand in the sunlight, to be luscious, beautiful, and desirable?
[Shauna Aura Knight is an artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for CIRCLE Magazine, and her writing appears in several anthologies. She’s also the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels including Werewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, A Fading Amaranth, and The White Dress, the Autumn Leaves. Shauna’s mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination. http://www.shaunaauraknight.com%5D