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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Celtic Idolatry, past and present

    Some people in Celtic Reconstruction prefer not to use images of the Gods, following the idea that the Celts themselves did not do so. A main source for this belief is a quote from the Gaulish Chieftain Brennus, who sacked Rome and was said to have been incredulous at the idea of statues of the Gods in human form in temples: "Brennus, the king of the Gauls, on entering a temple found no dedications of gold or silver, and when he came only upon images of stone and wood he laughed at them, to think that men, believing that gods have human form, should set up their images in wood and stone." - Diodorus Siculus  
   On the other hand I am a pretty strong advocate of using imagery and statues in worship. I think from a purely psychological perspective it gives us something to focus on and connect to. From a magical and spiritual perspective there is also the way that a physical object becomes a channel for the divinity that it represents. 
   Countering the account of Brennus by Diodorus there is evidence that the use of symbolic representations of the Gods was a practice by other Celtic tribes. Caesar notes in his Gallic War: "The chief god of the Gauls is Mercury and there are images of him everywhere." (Freeman, 2002). Certainly we do know that by the later Romano-Gallic period the use of God images was widespread, but archaeology also seems to indicate the use of imagery earlier as well. In either case the examples we have show a distinctive flavor that would seem to indicate genuine Celtic belief influencing them and it is clear they were used by Celtic and mixed Celtic populations. We can find examples of such statuary at Sulis's temple in Bath, Nodens temple in Gloucestershire, as well as Artio's statuary found at Berne (Green, 1992). There are also widespread examples of statues to the various Matronae across the Celtic world (Green, 1992). This tells us that even if at an earlier period the Celts or specific tribes didn't use imagery at later points they did. 
   From a purely Irish perspective there is limited evidence. There are many natural locations and features that are associated with the various Irish Gods, but actual man made representations do not seem to be major features in the archaeological records. We have anecdotal evidence in the folklore that the Gods were believed to take human form and appear to people or possibly even interact in our world. The conception of Cu Chulain, for example, where Lugh appears to Deichtine and the men of Ulster or the story of Macha marrying the peasant Crunnchu. O hOgain quotes Dillion's Serglige Con Culainn, saying "He states that they [the Tuatha De Danann] 'used to fight men in bodily form...'" (O hOgain, 1999, p 213). This supports the idea that the Irish did anthropomorphize their Gods, a key requirement for depicting Gods in statuary. We also have some evidence, albeit less persuasive*, of the use of imagery through the story of Crom Cruach (or Cenn Cruach) who was said to have a stone or gold idol at Mag Slecht surrounded by 12 smaller stone statues (O hOgain, 2006). 
   We may conclude that the Irish saw their Gods as living beings who could appear to people, and perhaps had no need, therefore to depict them in imagery. We can also say that there did not appear to be any prohibition against it and that there were many examples of a type of idolatry using symbolic representations such as stones or places believed to belong to that Power. In the wider Celtic world, including Wales and England we do find statuary used, so the choice to use or not use statuary by modern Celtic reconstructionists should be entirely personal, as either would be historically supported. 
    For myself I enjoy using statuary. I like having something in ritual to represent the deity I am trying to connect to and I believe that it helps me focus in prayer. I like to find a statue that really resonates with me and then I paint it myself. Sometimes the statue that I feel most represents a deity I honor isn't supposed to be that deity, but I'll use it anyway if it works for me. I feel that the painting really helps connect it to that deity and to get some of myself into it. 
One of the statues I use to represent Macha (wife of Crunnchu); from Sacred Source it originally was meant to be Arianrhod but works much better for me as Macha, painted by me


References:
Freeman, P., (2002). War, Women, and Druids
Green, M (1992). Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legends
O hOgain, D., (1999) The Sacred Isle
    --- (2006) The Lore of Ireland

*It is possible that this example is not native and was inserted to be reminiscent of a Biblical story, so it must be given less weight as other evidence

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Blessing the Growing Season


Preparing seeds to plant in the spring was something that was approached with great solemnity and ritual. The seeds to be planted would be sprinkled with water, in a sunwise motion, while a blessing charm was recited (Carmichael, 1900). This was done on a Friday, as it was seen as the day best for any action not needing the use of an iron tool (Carmichael, 1900). Interestingly Friday is also the day that the Good Neighbors were thought to be most active - they who are said to abhor iron - and in Irish belief the growth and success of crops is intertwined with the favorable interactions of the Good People.
  As we move into spring and get ready to plant this year's seeds, I'm offering a pagan version of a planting prayer from the Carmina Gadelica. It includes within it actions to be taken while saying it and ends with a mention of a blessing charm and divination act to be done at harvest time. I hope you may get some use from it.

Blessing the Seeds
I will go out to sow the seed,
In the names of the spirits of the land;
I will face boldly into the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a seed fall on a bare rock,
It will have no soil to help it grow;
The seed that falls into the earth,
The dew will make it full.
Friday, auspicious day,
The dew will come down to welcome
Every seed that lay in sleep
Since the coming of the merciless cold;
Every seed will take root in the earth,
With the blessing of the Good People,
The seedling will come forth with the dew,
It will inhale life from the soft wind.
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In name of the Goddess of the land,
In name of Gods of my people.
Blessing for abundance and health,
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground,
Till the harvest day comes.
On the day the autumn equinox arrives
,
Beneficent day,
I will put my sickle round about
The root of my plants as is needed;
I will lift the first cut quickly;
I will put it three turns round my head,
Saying my rune as I do,
My back to the airt of the north;
My face to the fair sun of power.
I shall throw the handful far from me,
I shall close my eyes twice,
Should it fall in one bunch
My harvest will be productive and lasting;
No old woman will come with bad times
To ask charity from us to take our luck,
Neither rough storms nor frowns will come
Nor stint nor hardship shall be on us.

The original is as follows:


THE CONSECRATION OF THE SEED 88
I WILL go out to sow the seed,
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock,
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full.
Friday, day auspicious,
The dew will come down to welcome
Every seed that lay in sleep
Since the coming of cold without mercy;
Every seed will take root in the earth,
As the King of the elements desired,
The braird will come forth with the dew,
It will inhale life from the soft wind.
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son, and Spirit Holy,
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground,
Till the day of gladness shall come.
The Feast day of Michael, day beneficent,
I will put my sickle round about
The root of my corn as was wont;
I will lift the first cut quickly;
I will put it three turns round
My head, saying my rune the while,
My back to the airt of the north;
My face to the fair sun of power.
I shall throw the handful far from me,
I shall close my two eyes twice,
Should it fall in one bunch
My stacks will be productive and lasting;
No Carlin will come with bad times
To ask a palm bannock from us,
What time rough storms come with frowns
Nor stint nor hardship shall be on us.


Reference:
Carmichael. A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Find Your Passion

  When I was in high school I first ran across the maxim "carpe deim" - seize the day. I remember reading it and feeling how much the idea resonated with me, but I was unable to actually take the advice. My life for a long time revolved around doing what I needed to do and trying to conform to what others expected me to do - none of which involved seizing the day or embracing the moment. I was a people pleaser, even in my non conformity. How that changed is a long story, but I think we all at some point come to a place where we realize that making ourselves happy matters as much as making other people happy and that we need balance between the two. Whether we choose to act on this realization or not, and whether we over-react and go to far towards only pleasing ourselves, will depend on the individual. 
   Its an interesting thing in life that we so often choose not to do what we feel drawn to do, but rather try to do what we feel other people want or expect us to do. We make ourselves unhappy in a constant quest to please others, instead of spending our time and energy on what makes us feel fulfilled. This life we are living is a unique thing, the only time we will be here in this exact form and these exact circumstances. It is a shame to waste our chances at joy and fulfillment, to miss opportunities to experience life and the numinous, because we are trying to make ourselves into some thing we aren't. 
Waterhouse, "The Flower Picker" 1895
   I believe all of us have something we are truly passionate about, something that drives us and that gives us a feeling of completion. It is part of our true self, part of the person we are inside who we don't always let other people see or know, but who is at the core of our being. What this something is will be different for different people, and it may not be limited to one thing - we may find several things that invigorate and inspire us. I feel this way about my family, about my writing, and about my spirituality, for example, and I couldn't say that one is a greater drive than the others. I think what matters though is finding what drives you and embracing it. Make your passion part of your life and let yourself be a priority for you - instead of an afterthought. Amazing things happen when people put their time and energy into what they love to do instead of just into what they have to do. 
   Stop and smell the spring flowers. Dance in the rain. Write a novel just for yourself. Accept the pain along with the joy, the disappointment and the success. Reach for your dreams, no matter how impossible they seem. Be who you truly are and love your life.



"Ut melius, quidquid erit, pati. Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam, quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare Tyrrhenum. Sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero."
 - Horace, Odes 1:1

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Finding Balance


   The spring equinox is upon us once more, a holiday that I celebrate several ways. Today, the equinox itself, I will honor Artio and leave offerings out for the Good Neighbors. This sunday I'll honor Idunna and my children will enjoy coloring eggs and hunting for treats.
   Since there is no strong evidence that the Irish celebrated the equinox I use this holiday to honor the Germano-Celtic goddess Artio, who I have worshiped for many years. I call it, rather informally, Waking the Bear and celebrate it in honor of spring and the return of warmer weather and new growth. I offer Artio honey, bread, and apples to represent the sweetness of spring after winter, the transformation of old into new, and renewal and regeneration. I also use this time to reflect on what my goals for the coming seasons will be and to decide what I want to accomplish by the fall.
   As part of a long standing personal practice I will also leave out an offering for the daoine sidhe. I once believed that this was a traditional custom but even after realizing it wasn't I decided it had personal value to me. Making bigger formal offerings to the Other Crowd every six weeks is a good pattern to be in, I think, and one that serves me well.
   I also honor Idunna at this time. It seems appropriate to me to choose now to honor the goddess who keeps the gods healthy and young with her apples, because springtime to me is so much about youth and vigor. I honor Idunna with a blot where I offer apples and apple cider. It may seem strange to be offering a fall fruit in spring but my thought is that apples can last about 5 months in storage so offered in spring would represent gifts of the precious fruit of the last harvest. And of course apples are especially Idunna's, being the fruit she uses to give immortality to the gods.
   My children color eggs and eagerly await a visit from the Osterhase (Ostara hare, more or less) who leaves a basket of treats and hides eggs for them to find. This year my 6 year old has been counting down the days to the equinox, confident that the first day of spring will bring warmer weather, while my 10 year old has focused on the visit from the hare. They are both excited about the prospect of celebrating the different aspects of the holiday and look forward to our family ritual tonight and Idunnablot this weekend.
   It is funny that this holiday which represents balance in so many ways ends up being one where I balance each of the things that influences me, honoring my Celtic, Norse, and Fairy Faith sides fairly equally in ways that I cannot always do at other holidays. Indeed the two equinoxes are perhaps the easiest holidays for me to celebrate and the spring equinox with its colored eggs and treats is one of the most fun. Spring is in the air and everything feels alive with potential and possibility; we should all try to enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Augury Charm

  Augury, omens, and divination are very important to my practice, as I believe not only that they allow us to communicate with the gods and spirits but also that such methods are useful for providing needed answers. In Scottish tradition augury was used especially to find lost items (Carmichael, 1900). I have adapted several augury and omen charms from the Carmina Gadelica to my own use because I feel that using these charms is in the spirit of the ancient traditions and not only improves my skill but also strengthens my connection to the Gods and spirits. In this blog I'm going to include a couple version of an augury charm I use when practicing teinm laida, a type of Irish seership.
   This first one is a quick version that I often use, shortened from a longer one which I will post following it.
"Gods over me, Gods under me,
Gods before me, Gods behind me,
Knowledge of truth, not knowledge of falsehood,
That I shall truly see all I search for.
Kindly spirits and Gods of life,
May you give me eyes to see all I seek,
May I see and speak truly"   I tend to use the longer version specifically when I am doing divination work with any of the Morrigan, and have used their names to replace the original Christian references. The longer version is:
Augury Charm 194
"Gods over me, Gods under me,
Gods before me, Gods behind me,
I am walking your path, O Gods,
     The path of the ancient ways.
The augury made of Badh at the end of battle,
The prophecy made by Macha after clearing the plain,
Witnessed by the Gods and unGods-
     Witnessed by the ancestors and spirits.
The augury made by Morrigan of the future,
Of what was yet to come,
Knowledge of truth, not knowledge of falsehood,
     That I shall truly see all I seek.
Goddesses of prophecy,
Give me eyes to see all I seek,
With vision that shall never fail, before me,
     That shall never quench nor dim."

The original charm from the Carmina Gadelica is:
AUGURY OF MARY 194
GOD over me, God under me,
God before me, God behind me,
I on Thy path, O God,
     Thou, O God, in my steps.
The augury made of Mary to her Son,
The offering made of Bride through her palm,
Sawest Thou it, King of life?--
     Said the King of life that He saw.
The augury made by Mary for her own offspring,
When He was for a space amissing,
Knowledge of truth, not knowledge of falsehood,
     That I shall truly see all my quest.
Son of beauteous Mary, King of life,
Give Thou me eyes to see all my quest,
With grace that shall never fail, before me,
     That shall never quench nor dim.
 (Carmichael, 1900)

Reference:
 Carmichael, A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica


Thursday, March 13, 2014

When The Gods Speak - part 2

"oh you speak to me in riddles
and you speak to me in rhymes"
 - Sarah MacLachlan, "Possession"

  In my last blog I talked about when the Gods speak to us with signs and omens, today I'd like to talk about some other methods, namely dreams, intermediaries, and directly. All of these methods have historical basis to varying degrees and also occur in modern times, but like signs and omens require a level of awareness on our part. No message gets through if we aren't listening.
  Dreams have long been understood as a way for different messages to reach us, not only from Gods but also from different spirits. The tricky thing with dreams is sorting out our own subconscious speaking from things outside us speaking. Learning how to discern one from the other is a slow process, but generally there are a few tips I use to separate out my own head from outside messages. Firstly I look at how I felt in the dream. There is - for me - always a feeling of awe or intensity that comes with this sort of communication in dreams that is absent in a regular dream. I also look at the message itself; if it what I would expect or want to hear I am pretty suspicious of it. The Gods and spirits don't, in my experience, show up to pat us on the back and say atta boy or tell us to do what we really want to do anyway. Of course in fairness most of my experience with dream communication is with Odin and he isn't exactly one to show up just to tell you how good you're doing (again, my experience). Its not that dream communication will always be negative, far from it, but it will always have a purpose and that purpose isn't about feeding our egos but about telling us something that the Power communicating with us feels we need to hear. I also find that dream messages are rarely straightforward; rather they often seem like riddles that have to be puzzled out. They can be highly symbolic, convoluted, or cryptic and usually require reflection to understand. 
  Intermediaries are any thing or other person who communicates a message to you. This can include everything, in my opinion, from casting lots to going to a Seer. An intermediary is the middleman for the message. According to Tacitus the ancient Germans divined the will of the Gods by casting lots, observing the movement of birds, and by watching special sacred horses. In seidhr the seidhrworker can act as an oracle to rely messages by going into a trance state; it may be that Irish practices like imbas forosnai and tarbh feis work along similar lines (although when seeking answers for yourself these may fall more into the direct communication category). In modern terms when we use Ogham or runes for divination to know if an offering was accepted we are using an intermediary to communicate with the Gods. A person can train as a Seer to interpret omens, lots of various sorts, and pass on messages to others as well. The thing to remember is that, just as with dreams, the messages received through intermediaries must be interpreted by you to be understood, and you are dealing with a message that has been relayed twice - once by the God to the intermediary and then again from the intermediary to you. 
   The final method I'd like to discuss here is direct communication. I personally think this method is more likely for people who do a lot of trancework or train for it, but the Gods can speak to anyone they want. This will be different for everyone, including everything from hearing it as a voice to seeing images or words, but is most likely to occur during trance or meditation*. Unlike in dreams you should have more awareness of what is going on, but as in dream communication there should be a sense of Presence, of awe and intensity. Also like with dreams one of the ways I check the validity is whether I'm only hearing what I want to hear. Another way is to check, in the moment, to see if I can influence what is being said. If I can control the message or change what I'm being told then I know I'm just talking to myself. Now, that isn't to say you can't bargain, because you can - if a deity ask something from you that would be difficult or impossible you can make a counter offer or refuse - but if you can directly influence the deity you think you are dealing with to say exactly what you want then its your imagination. 
   Now the difficulties here are deciphering the meaning behind the message and being certain you know who the message is from. Neither of these is necessarily easy, which is why people used to train to be professional Seers. For the modern pagan or heathen without access to a trusted expert opinion discernment is key. Really take time to reflect on the message and what it could mean. Consider possibilities and look at the most logical meanings, and learn to trust your instincts. Secondly don't be afraid to question the source; just because they says they are deity X doesn't mean is deity X. Over time you learn the "feel" of different Gods by experiencing them in ritual and possibly through the various types of communication, but initially don't be afraid to question. Look at whether the deity is acting in a way that aligns with their mythology and whether the message aligns with the deity**. If something shows up wreathed in pink light, cuddling a bunny, with a message of forgiving your enemies and practicing nonviolence and tells you she's the Morrigan, I'd be highly suspicious of it. In the same vein if the deity doesn't give you a name, don't assume it must be a deity you are fond of or really like; sometimes we get messages from very unexpected places. 
   Many pagan religions believe in the importance of reciprocity, and this should include not only offerings and blessings but communication. We speak to them and they do answer, but we have to pay attention and be willing to listen. Our gods are not omnipotent. They cannot make themselves heard if won't hear them. And we are not perfect recievers, we mishear, misunderstand, misinterpret. Learning to communicate with the Gods and spirits is a process that requires effort, discernment, and openness. But its worth the effort. 

*I'm not going to discuss possession work here; that's a whole different category and a topic that deserves its own blog

**this is extremely difficult with Odin due to the scope of his mythology and variety of his by-names and personalities

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When The Gods Speak

   Something I see all the time is people saying that they don't understand people who say that the Gods talk to them, or that people who say it are looking for attention or delusional. Well, certainly that is sometimes the case and I'm not denying that, but I also think that the Gods do speak to us all the time and we just don't listen. Maybe its the fact that one of my main focuses is Seership but I think it is important to learn to hear the Gods. We've been taught not to listen, not to pay attention to the signs and omens around us that can be their voice. They speak and we ignore.
   Now when I say speak I'm not necessarily talking about perceptible voices, although if you do trance work that is possible, but I mean speak in a looser sense. Speak as in communicate. The Gods communicate with us regularly and we can learn to listen if we learn to be aware. The Celts were very big believers in omens and augury, the idea that things that happened around us - birds flying a certain way at a certain time for example - had significance, and omens and augury are still a wonderful method of communication. The key is to be aware of what is going on around you, especially when you are looking for or asking for a message. Learn to recognize the way that your Gods communicate and to interpret the messages they give you.
   Several years ago I was contemplating starting to honor Nuada more devoutly. I had asked him if this was something he wanted and something I should do. Driving home a day or two after asking I was on a road that runs parallel to a river. As I drove a bald eagle clutching a fish in its talons flew over my car and began pacing me, about fifteen or twenty feet above me and just far enough ahead that I could see him - perhaps ten feet in front of my car. Water and blood dripped on my hood and windshield; he flew like that for several seconds, until the road curved and he flew back towards the river. I could have said it was just a cool experience, but I knew that hawks and salmon are animals associated with Nuada, and in this case I interpreted the very odd occurrence involving a bird of prey and a fish, next to a river (also something Nuada is associated with) as relating to him. I saw it as an omen, and I listened.
   The Gods speak to all of us, all the time, but mostly we ignore them. We turn away. We explain away what we see and look away from the omens and signs while staring at the sky asking for answers. We expect fireworks and booming voices, so we ignore the subtle whispers and signs. If you want to hear the Gods all you have to do is learn to pay attention and listen.