Every year on the Ides of May, business people in ancient Rome used to draw water from a well adjoining the Porta Capena, then sprinkle it on their wares and the tools of their respective trades. That well has, alas, long run dry. In commemoration of this practice, my custom for the past few years has been to take a quantity of Lake Michigan water, present it to the god Mercury, and ask that by his grace that water might be for me as the water drawn from the Capene Gate in ancient times. Later I would sprinkle a few drops of this water on my work station—the computer, the mouse, the printer, my pica ruler, and so on—again asking Mercury to bless and purify it after the terms of the Ides of May ritual of old.
I’m using past tenses here, because this year, as it happens, the Ides of May—the 15th this month—fell on a Sunday. This meant that I actually couldn’t get into my building this Ides, for the first time in several years. (Weird situation with my keycard—anyway!)
So my solution was twofold: first, to observe the ritual of sprinkling blessed water at my work station several days early;* second, to come up with something else to do to honour Mercury on his actual dies natalis. I hit upon the solution of taking a little roadtrip (owzat, god of travellers! 🙂 ) in order to invoke the presence of Mercury and Maia at a spot I thought should be agreeable to them, viz. Blue Mounds in southwestern Wisconsin.
I’ve mentioned Blue Mounds before, but to recap, this eminence is the highest point in southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, and southwestern Michigan. A rather flat area, for the most part. However, there is one section of land that glaciation forgot—a region where ancient rocks and hills and glades can therefore be enjoyed undisturbed. This is known as the Driftless Area, and it stretches nearly from Madison WI to Minneapolis MN, also stretching to Dubuque IA and Galena IL. One knows, of course, Mercury’s affinity for mountainous places, from Mt Cyllene in Greece to the Puy de Dôme in France and far beyond. Furthermore, Blue Mounds’ local prominence means that it has also been a landmark for travellers in the region from time immemorial. (Another reason I find the region compelling is that some of my 19th-century ancestors used to live in nearby Mazomanie, Arena, and Black Earth, but the tie-in with Mercury on that score is obviously indirect.)
Now, the previous time that I had visited Blue Mounds, I found the site a bit hard to really engage with. It’s hard to spot where the summit is, exactly, since the top of West Blue Mound is a wide flattish area about the size of a football field or two. Where is the focus, I asked myself? Where can I fit in to this landscape? Where best to engage the sacred? In this respect, Blue Mounds is a different sort of place from other sites where the answer to these questions is self-evident—the Puy de Dôme springs to mind by way of example, but so do the Rocher d’Aiguilhe, the Lenus Mars sanctuary by Trier, the temple of Apollo at Didyma, and so on. (Conversely, Blue Mounds reminds me a bit of Bibracte in Burgundy in this regard…)
This time, however, I found the spot at Blue Mounds that more or less screamed, “Yeah, duh—this is the place!” It is a natural circle of stones, located near the northern edge of the summit where the views over the Wisconsin Valley are the most dramatic. There are three places on the northern side where there is a large gap in the trees permitting such views; this is the middle of the three. The western and eastern gaps have benches and a strongly park-like, artificial feel, whereas the circle of stones gives this middle gap a slight hint of a more wild character. Only slightly. In all three gaps, the grass is mown, and there are even picnic tables—though it occurred to me that this could be convenient for pilgrims to the spot with mobility challenges.
So anyway, I performed my little ritual in that stone circle—having first asked permission to enter and use that space from the spirits of the place. I offered prayers and songs to Mercury, Jupiter, and Maia, inter alia. I poured out libations of (local Wisconsin) wine. I would almost have been tempted to follow Hélio’s example and set up some sort of altar on the spot—but look at this photo and tell me that the farthest stone (rightmost in the photo above) is not already a perfect altar fashioned by nature. It called for no improvements. It was upon that stone that I poured my libations. I circumambulated the stone circle, which was equally well fit for the purpose.
I then settled down to sit, just behind the second stone from the altar, and meditate for a spell. After a time I heard the rather loud voices of a couple of locals out enjoying the weather (and it was a glorious day). Part of my brain braced itself against the disturbance, when I suddenly heard the woman’s voice say, “Shh! He’s meditating!” before murmuring something quieter about “stones”. To my pleasant surprise, both people then fell into a profound and respectful silence; I could hear their steps passing behind me, but I never heard another syllable from either of them. Plainly I wasn’t the only person who grasped that there was something about that circle of stones.
I would say more about the altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus on May 23 at Mogontiacum, and about other various religious goings-on (including various ritual engagements with Ritona lately), but time is getting away from me, I’m afraid, and I should conclude!
May the blessings of Mercury and Rosmerta be upon all those who read this post.
* I chose the 12th in order that it should not fall on Lemuria; the coincidence with the divine Augustus’ dedication of the temple of Mars Ultor I thought rather propitious than not.