[Today, we sit down for an interview with Sara Mastros, author of the Orphic Hymns Grimoire. Here, she discusses her personal spiritual practices, her translation of the Orphic Hymns, her magical workshops and classes, and her upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Sara Mastros: My personal spiritual practice is…well, personal. It’s largely intuitive and eclectic, while being rooted in thirty years of formal study and practice. I think the best I can do to name it is something like “free-thinking pagan animist,” but I’ll also answer to “dirt-worshipping tree-hugger” or “devil-worshipping savage.”
These days, my magical practice is likewise eclectic, but primarily inspired by the overlapping syncretic cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, interwoven with modern Anglophone folk practices. I specialize in ecstatic trance mediumship, oracular prophecy, contemporary American folk magic, the Greek Magical Papyri, Practical (Ma’asit) and Ecstatic (Merkavah) Kabbalah, and Solomonic evocation, but I dabble in almost all types of western magical practice, and I’m always eager to learn more!
ev0ke: Which Deities, Powers, spirits, or other beings are honored in your tradition?
SM: All of them! I partner with a very wide variety of spirits, both embodied and otherwise. They run the gamut of traditional “types,” from the puckish hob that lives in my kitchen to the archangels of the planetary spheres. Among the gods, I’m especially partial to Witch Queens, Crossroads Lords, and Deep Sea Progenitors, but I also work with lots of others. As the hymn of Mousaios says:
…I call to the good spirits, beneficent and holy,
And also the others, baneful and unruly.
The spirits of the heavens, and of the seas’ waves,
Those who wander the air, those who dwell in the caves.
I call underworld spirits, and those of the flames,
I call every spirit, both named and unnamed…
Because of my work with the Orphic hymns, I’ve become particularly attached to those eighty-eight gods, which include all the “usual suspects” from Greek myth, but also some more obscure Anatolian deities like Mise, a genderqueer avatar of Dionysus the liberator.
In my public work, I write and teach for a diverse international community, so I mostly talk about “big name” gods and spirits whom we all share, but my everyday practice focuses primarily on my ancestors and landcestors, as well as the genii locorum of my region, particularly those of the Great Confluence where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the mighty Ohio.
ev0ke: In the mythology that has been handed down to us, Orpheus is a son of Calliope, a divinely-gifted poet, musician, and prophet. What do you find so compelling about the story of Orpheus? What appeals to you about it?
SM: It is exactly that which draws me to him: Orpheus is the archetypal bard-magician. In broad terms, there are four classic stories of the Orpheus. I, and many other writers, have arranged them to form a single biography, but that was not necessarily the way they were understood in the ancient world. In his youth, Orpheus brought the alphabet from his native Thrace into Greece. He adventured with the Argonauts. In his most famous story, he descends into the realm of the dead to rescue his lost love. Finally, he returns home to Thrace, bringing Greek culture back with him, only to be killed by angry maenads. In each of these stories, his outstanding virtue is his eloquence; he is the ur-poet. Orpheus’s stories teach us many beautiful and amazing things, but also many painful truths. I do not look on Orpheus as a god worthy of worship, but as a mortal hero, a deeply ethically flawed human being who achieved immortality by the greatness of his story.
Listen to the tale of the poet most renowned,
Hero and mystic, weaving magic made from sound,
Orpheus, an orphan slave, from ever-blessed Thrace,
Whose ecstatic charismatic rites crack open Heavens’ face,
And under peal of thunder-drums, trace a path from trance to Grace;
Redeeming what merely seems and revealing what’s been debased.
The Son of Songstress Muse, high priest of all harmonics.
Archaic story-telling bard hooked on heaven’s phonics.
Great cosmic voice that opens up the heavenly abode.
Goetic oracle and orator, our hero and rhapsode
Rose swift to fame and fortune for the stories that he told.
He spoke the language of the birds and sang them from their trees.
He sailed the seas out to the east to seize the golden fleece.
He raised the sailors’ spirits, and sang the fish up from the seas,
he outsang sirens’ serenade, thus besting bitter banshees.
Some say it was at a wedding that he met his soul’s true love,
The princess Eurydike, called “Justice Wide Above”.
But she was bitten by a viper, and he held her, wailing woe,
As her soul flickered,
and made its descent,
into the depths below.
Others say she was immortal, and her descent not deathly loss-
That she is Great Hekate hidden in Patriarchal gloss.
In any case, brave Orpheus sought his love below the dark,
He crossed the river of life and death, the true magician’s mark.
With seven songs for seven steps, he charmed his way below,
Through dark and cold and death and lethe into the earth’s hollow.
The Queen of Hell fell under his spell, enchanted by the sound,
and found his love, where she lay bound, beneath the ancient mound.
With further songs and spells he charmed the guardian of the dead,
and rolling rocks
where Justice laid her head.
The Queen gave leave to lead his love back up above the ground:
“But, Orpheus,” Hell said to him, “you mustn’t turn around!”
Orpheus, still young and brash, failed the Dark Queen’s test,
So Hekate-Eurydike sleeps on Persephone’s blessed breast.
In impotent goetic woe, Orpheus returned to wild Thrace,
And once again gained widespread fame for his voice and pretty face.
But he wallowed in bitter fury, forswearing She who was his love.
He blasphemed the Queen Below and worshipped only Him Above.
He taught his men to oppress women and engage in child rape,
So Maenads ripped him limb from limb and took that pretty face.
With such death, his soul was cleansed; his rage was finally abated,
And he came at last to true love’s arms, in the Dark where She had waited.
Orpheus died while he yet lived: That’s what makes a mage.
He went below and rose again, he paid Hell’s steep tithe-wage.
If you would follow in his steps; if you would open up the ways,
Dare to raise Keyholder’s torch and seek Wide Justice always.
This secret rite we’ll teach to you, if you read his hymns with care,
And allow illuminating Dark to lay the long way bare.
Mystery cannot be penetrated.
She must penetrate you.
Climb your way up out of Hell, but
Keep faith with what’s beneath you.
ev0ke: You recently released the Orphic Hymns Grimoire. First, congratulations! Second, how long did it take you to translate all of the hymns? And were some more complicated than others?
SM: In the beginning, I was just making translations for myself, most just as an exercise to improve my Greek. Mnemosyne, Hekate, and Selene were among the first three I worked with. I put a few on Facebook, and they were surprisingly popular. People started asking for more, so I, mostly on a lark, put together a Kickstarter, and things just rolled on from there. It took about six months to do the first pass translations, and then another six months to tighten up the poetry and work out the commentary, spells, and other material.
Some of them were definitely much harder than others! This is partly because some of them are longer than others, and some use more technical vocabulary, but mostly it was just because some gods and I resonate better than others, so it was easier for me to find the right voice for their hymn. I suspect that a reader with a critical eye can probably hear in the poetry my natural sympathy for witchier gods, like Hekate, Hermes, or Dionysus over more “lawful good” gods like Athena or Apollo. In particular, for some of the hymns, it was almost like taking dictation, whereas for others the connection was not as clear. Finally, some of them were emotionally difficult. For example, I translated the hymns to the Furies while watching the Kavanaugh hearings, and I started the hymn to Dikaiosyne(Righteousness) the day police murdered Antwon Rose up the street from my home.
ev0ke: The Orphic Hymns Grimoire looks at the hymns “from a modern, feminst, pagan viewpoint.” Can you give us an example of how your work differs from that of past translators, who were usually male monotheists (and definitely not feminist)?
SM: This is a really good question, but it has a bit of a trick in it. The most familiar English translations of the Orphic hymns, the ones you’ll find if you look them up on google, are by a neoplatonist named Thomas Taylor, who was definitely not a monotheist. In fact, his contemporaries sometimes derisively referred to him as “Taylor the Pagan,” and he and his wife spoke only classical Greek in their home. Rumor has it, he sacrificed a goat when he finished translating the hymns. Thomas Taylor was as witchy and weird and woke as it was really possible for a well-to-do British man of the early 19th century to be. He was a fierce advocate for the education of (rich) women, and of the intellectual equality of women generally. In The History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology he wrote: “The Platonic philosophy, indeed, as it necessarily combines truth with elegance, is naturally adapted to captivate and allure the female mind, in which the love of symmetry and gracefulness is generally predominant. Hence, in every age, except the present, many illustrious females have adorned the Platonic schools, by the brilliancy of their genius, and an uncommon vigour and profundity of thought.” His feminism is very non-intersectional and kind of “oh grandpa!”, but I really think his heart was entirely in the right place. I believe the best characterization of Thomas Taylor’s feminism is this fun fact: For a while, he was Mary Wollstonecraft’s landlord.
Feminism, and social justice more broadly, isn’t something I brought to the Orphic hymns, or something Taylor brought to them. It’s something they’ve been bringing to us all this whole time. Since its inception, Orphism has called to the weirdos, and its translators are no exception. In fact, that was the main complaint against Orphism in the ancient world; it has always been a cult for foreigners, slaves, women, “deviants,” and other “undesirables.” Despite Taylor’s general awesomeness, he was still very biased, as we all are. Taylor translated the hymns for his own time; I have tried to do the same. It is my great hope that in 250 years, the arc of history will have turned so far toward justice that my translations are also in need of some recontextualization.
ev0ke: The Grimoire also includes spells and devotional practices. How did you decide which to include? And are these geared towards solo or group practitioners?
SM: I wish I had a more exciting answer for you, but it was really just about which ones happened to inspire me. For the most part, all the spells in the book are designed for solo practitioners, but some of them include instructions on how to adapt them for a group. On the other hand, the hymns as a whole form the core “script” for the ancient group ritual called “Orphic Bacchanal,” which is discussed in the introduction.
ev0ke: The Grimoire features illustrated “ikons” by Brian Charles. How did you decide which Deities to feature? And can you pick a favorite illustration?
SM: Brian and I have been working together artisitcally and magically for just over a decade, and he lives across the street from me, so it was a very close collaboration. He and I both, sometimes together and sometimes separately, were simply informed by certain gods that they wanted ikons. Some, for example the ikon of Hestia, Brian based very closely on my inspired sketches. Others, like the ikon of Herakles, are entirely him. Personally, my very favorite is the ikon of Herakles, below, but Hestia (also below) is another favorite. Herakles’s ikon really shows off his background as a comic book illustrator. I love how jovial Herakles is, and also all the little touches, like the wrestling championship belt with the lightning bolt on it. For me, it perfectly captures Herakles as the original super hero.
Hestia, on the other hand, I especially love for the colors, which for me capture both the delicate crackle of domesticated hearth fire and also the deep roar of primal flame. It was important to both of us to present the gods in diverse, multicultural, but still very recognizable ways. One thing I like about Hestia’s ikon is how it provides a new take on the ancient goddess, but is still instantly recognizable.
ev0ke: The Orphic Hymns Grimoire is available not only in physical and digital editions, but also as a coloring book. Why a coloring book, and how did you go about creating it?
SM: All of the illustrations started as black and white line “coloring book” style images, because that’s just Brian’s style. I’m not much of a visual artist, but I love to color. I think one of the best things about coloring in the ikons is that it gives you a way to sit in communion with them, and really make the ikons your own. One of the nice things about using ikons with Greek gods is that there’s already this very deep, rich mystical tradition of ikon practice in the Greek church that is easy to adapt to Pagan practice. If you’d like to try your hand at coloring, here are the coloring book versions of the ikons above.
ev0ke: You also publish a weekly newsletter, Witchcraft Wednesday. What do you usually include in the newsletter?
SM: Most often, it has excerpts from whatever I’ve been writing that week. In a month, there’s usually at least one recipe from my upcoming book The Big Book of Magical Incense, which will be coming out from Weiser/Red Wheel next spring. There’s usually one excerpt from a course I’m teaching, which currently includes Introduction to Witchcraft: Thirteen Lessons in Practical Magic (which you can join any time) and Topics in Advanced Witchcraft: Courting Spirit Allies (which starts May 1st). Additionally, in most months, there’s at least one issue about a holiday or other seasonal observance. You can sign up for the newsletter here. The box to sign up for the newsletter is at the bottom of the page.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your book?
SM: They can get it directly from me here, or from major online book sellers, like Amazon or Barnes & Nobles. However, the best way to get it, in my opinion, is to ask for it at your local pagan bookstore. Since long before there was an internet, pagan bookstores have long been important cornerstones of our community, and it’s vital that we continue supporting them.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
SM: In addition to writing, I do a lot of teaching. Before I left to witch full-time, I spent the last decade teaching high school and university math. I really enjoy both in-person and online teaching. You can check out my online witchcraft courses here. The first lesson in every course is free, to help people decide which courses are right for them. I accept barter for all my teaching, and scholarships are available for people in my local community. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m not expecting to do any in-person teaching this summer, but most years I teach at a number of festivals and conferences.
I mentioned upstairs that I’m working on a book about magical incense; that project grew out of my small-batch magic incense business. Finally, I’m the “head witch in charge” at Mastros & Zealot: Witches for Hire, a full-service custom sorcery outfit. We specialize in divination, protection, academic, and real estate magics.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]