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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Morrigan, War, and a guest blog on Patheos

 Yesterday I wrote a guest blog for Raise the Horns on Patheos titled The Morrigan, War, & How We See Our Gods. It looks at the more difficult aspects of the Morrigan's mythology and character and why it's important, in my opinion, to face those things in her we fear or are disturbed by instead of turning away from them or trying to minimize them. It also touches on the equally challenging subject of the value of war in the quest for peace. Click over and give it a read if you're interested.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sovereignty Then and Now

  We talk a lot about goddesses of sovereignty, especially in Irish polytheism, but there is a disconnect between the ancient understanding of what those goddesses did and what they are seen to do in a modern context. Often the way that sovereignty is perceived is heavily colored by modern ideals of the value of the individual and of individual freedom, while the ancient view saw sovereignty as the right of one person to exert control over others. This disconnect is born from a misunderstanding or romanticism of the historic concept and yet may also represent a way in which the old gods are evolving and adapting to a new world.
   To begin, sovereignty itself may not be a very good translation of the Old Irish word flaitheas, although it is one given by the dictionary. Flaitheas more properly should probably be translated as "rulership" or the right to rule, which is also another of its meanings. The ancient goddesses of sovereignty gave the kings and chieftains the right to rule over the people, effectively legitimizing their kingship. To have the blessing or approval of the goddess of sovereignty, to symbolically marry her, was to be given the divine right to rule. In the context of ancient Irish culture this was a very important thing because only with the approval of this goddess, only with flaitheas, could a king prosper in his rule; through right relation to the goddess of flaitheas a king could bring abundance and security to his people and land. Angering her though would lead to destruction, one way or another.
   Where this gets tricky linguistically is that the word sovereignty in English not only means the authority of someone or something over a group, but also freedom from external control. While the Old Irish word means ruling, and is even used as a word to mean a kingdom or realm, the English word only partially overlaps these meanings and includes connotations of independence and freedom that are entirely lacking in the Irish. In this case the choice of words in translation is very important, especially since the newer understanding has grown largely out of the concepts surrounding the English term, not the Irish.
    Many people today when they see the word sovereignty used interpret it not as the right to rule a place and its people but rather as a word relating to personal autonomy. This may be inaccurate in a historical context, but for those of us living in a place without a functioning monarchy what else would sovereignty be? When there is no king to marry the land, no chieftain to be chosen and blessed by the goddess, then what becomes of the concept of sovereignty itself? How can we not internalize it and make it personal, make it about our right to rule over our own land, which is our body, our own kingdom, which is ourselves. When we honor the goddess of sovereignty in our lives we are honoring a modern concept of sovereignty, but that is no less impactful or important than the ancient one. It is different, and more personal, but just as powerful in its own way to call on a goddess of sovereignty today as ever.
    What does a goddess of sovereignty do in a culture with no kings to crown? Perhaps she adopts a new understanding of sovereignty in line with a new time that sees the value in the individual over the value of the group. Perhaps she shifts her view from weighing the merit of kings to rule the land to the merit of the individual to rule their own life. She will test us, she will judge us, she will weigh our worth.
  Let us strive to be worthy. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Frau Holda, physical worship and a story about knitting

 Recently there was an interesting blog about hands-on worship, the idea of honoring our Gods with practical physical actions. I thought it was well written and made good points but it also got me thinking about how often we may be called to do that in our own lives and how - or whether - we respond. So I wanted to share a story about my experience with Frau Holda, and the way that tangible skills are an act of worship in themselves.
   When I began honoring Frau Holda one of the first things I felt strongly was that she wanted me to learn how to knit. To me this made sense from her, as she is a Goddess associated with spinning yarn, and knitting is about as close to working with yarn as I can afford to get. But sensible or not I was dismayed. I am a domestic person in certain ways but anything relating to yarn makes me twitchy - its too tedious, too sedentary, too repetitive. I love the end results but I hate the very idea of my being the one to do it. So suffice to say that I was not thrilled to feel called to learn this skill. I dreaded it. I dragged my feet and of course found circumstances aligning so that I had ample unexpected opportunities to learn anyway. I was given all the supplies I needed, including yarn, by my grandmother who suddenly decided I was the perfect person to give her knitting paraphernalia too when her eyesight no longer let her do it herself. The same day I was at my daughters' school book fair, walking past a display, when one of those hobbies-for-dummies boxed kits suddenly fell off the table onto the floor in front of me. The topic of the kit? Knitting of course.
    I can't say I've enjoyed the process so far, and I find it challenging my weaknesses in ways that are both frustrating and irritating. I would have thought I was a patient person before starting to learn this skill. But there is undeniably something about the feel of the yarn under my fingers, the motion of my hands, the almost meditative quality of the motion, that is very powerful. I think of my grandmother knitting. I think of all the women in my family for hundreds of years that helped clothe their families with this skill. And I meditate on Frau Holda spinning, spinning, spinning....
   I haven't produced anything yet worth bragging about, but I haven't given up either. I keep trying, and honoring Frau Holda with my effort. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In the Earth - a poem

In the Earth

If I were a Goddess, ancient and mighty
I'd choose to live in the dark earth
deep down in the fertile soil
full of life and death and growth

What does the sky offer, after all?
Boundless, borderless, endlessly shifting
Nothing to dig your hands into
No place to put down roots

Give me dirt and depth to anchor myself
Give me solid stone and sleeping seeds
The bones of the dead and cycle of seasons
blended and blurred and twisting together

If I were a Goddess, ancient and mighty
I'd leave the sky and make a home in earth
where blood and shadow dance together
where life and death are joined

Friday, August 8, 2014

Gods With Us

  An interesting topic that crops up in Celtic pagan discussion groups from time to time is whether the Irish (or more generally Celtic) Gods and spirits travel with the people who acknowledge them, or whether they are stationary, tied as it were to specific locations. People who argue for the latter view point to the way that Irish Gods were strongly associated with specific locations and the way that they were said in some cases to be embodied by the land, such as the hills called the Paps of Anu. How, this argument says, if the Gods are so strongly connected to those places can they also be elsewhere? Now my own view takes the former side and I decided to use today's blog to explain my viewpoint.
Brugh na Boyne; image in the common domain courtesy of

   It is true that many if not all of the Irish Gods are said to have homes, or sidhe, in specific places. These were established when the Gods moved beneath the hills after the Milesians came and we know what many of them are because of the strong local folk traditions surrounding each location. The Tuatha De Danann are inextricably linked to real world places and these places are woven into the tapestry of the Gods' stories. Oweynagat is the Morrigan's and part of the story of Odras. Brugh na Boyne is Oengus mac Og's and part of the story of his conception and cleverness. Emhain Macha is Macha's and a symbol of her sovereignty. Our Gods do not essentially live in some distant, unreachable world or some separate plane of existence; they live here, in our world, or at least their homes have physical, tangible, counterparts here that we can visit and see and touch. Perhaps this is what leads to a feeling that these places are not just where we can find the Gods living, but are the only places the Gods can be...but if we look at myth we will see that our ancestors never held such a view. Each God had many homes, many places, and some gained and lost different places over time, indicating the transient nature of these connections.
    The Irish Gods, the Tuatha De Danann, were not native to Ireland but rather came there later, whether you choose to believe that in the mythic sense outlined by the Invasion Cycle or whether you see them arriving with the Celtic peoples. Either way they were foreign Gods once who made homes in a new place. We see echoes of this ability to go where the people honoring them went in the spread of the worship of the Gaulish goddess Epona to Rome, as her worship caught on with Roman soldiers and was imported back to their homes. We see this as well in the way that the Irish migrating to Scotland brought with them some of their Gods, like Brighid and Angus and possibly the Cailleach. The Gods are not omniscient or omnipotent but they are Gods and it is entirely within their ability to go where they will, especially I think if they are being called and honored in a new place. Even the slua sidhe, the fairy host, is said to be able to cross the ocean and journey far afield of their homes; why would the Gods be able to do any less?
   Speaking of the fairy host, another related argument that I hear is that the spirits of the Otherworld are bound to specific places. Now I grant you that land spirits generally are tied in this way to a location; however I do not believe that applies to the Good People. In stories they are clearly said to change their homes (their sidhe) at certain times of year and are wont to travel which is why building on fairy roads is such a bad idea. Yeats speaks of a woman whose mother had a fairy woman as a friend and the woman would tell her of things occurring in America; this can be interpreted as the fairy woman having oracular abilities, or perhaps she was able to travel there herself and directly see the events. I'd argue each possibility is equally likely. Spirits, like people, move and travel and explore new places. They also in my experience tend to follow those who believe in and offer to them. There are spirits of place and spirits of stationary things like trees or rocks that do not move around but there are other spirits that are not anchored to a specific thing that go where they will. And it is possible that how we perceive them plays a role as well.
    When we move from place to place we bring our Gods and many of our spirits with us, and we also have an chance to meet new ones. We carry them with our traditions and practices and beliefs into new territories and new opportunities. In a way - perhaps the most important way - we ourselves are what anchor our  Gods in this world as they migrate with us, until they establish new physical ties to things less transient....

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Brón Trogain 2014

  This year we are celebrating Lughnasa by it's older name of Brón Trogain. For my family it begins today, July 31st as we go out and start picking berries. Berry picking for several years has been the main activity of our holiday, the way we officially begin celebrating.
 We have allowed large sections of our backyard to be taken over by berries, producing a thicket of thorns and fruit that provides an ample harvest. In the morning my children and I went out and began picking the ripe berries, working our way around the yard, weaving over and under the sharp branches. As we went I told them stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann and of the Gentry. I also recited this prayer:
"On Brón Trogain at the rise of the sun,
With the sun rising, warm, in the east,
I will go forth into the morning light,
And I will reap the harvest
 I have sown.
I will stand under the open sky
With the fruitful earth all around me,
I will raise my eye upwards,
I will turn on my heel quickly,
Rightway as travels the sun
From the airt of the east to the west,
From the airt of the north with motion calm
To the very core of the airt of the south.
I will give thanks to the Gods who bless me
For the growing crops of the ground,
Who give food to us and to the flocks
I will give thanks to the Gods who bless me
For the harvest that flourishes in my life
Whatever that harvest may be
And I will offer to them, sharing what I have"
my daughters pointing out a patch of Jewelweed next to a berry patch
  After we filled our bowl - with plenty left unpicked - we made offerings on our outdoor altar. My oldest daughter asked if she could have a few berries to offer to the daoine sidhe; she took a handful and went and prayed for a bit before leaving them beneath our hawthorn tree. My younger children were more interested in eating the results of our efforts themselves (I believe my son may have eaten his own weight in berries). 
 After the berry picking - and offering and eating - we had our version of athletic games, which mostly ends up being foot races, ball tossing and playing tag. The age range and needs of the children mean we have to choose things that will be more for fun than to show skill, but the intent is certainly there. We also added some prayer ribbons to our fairy tree and decorated our outdoor altar with flowers. 
   We held a small ritual to honor Macha and Nuada, with offerings of berries and of straw and prayers for blessing and protection. We also offered ghee to the ancestors, Other Crowd, and Gods in thanks for the blessings that provide the harvest we are enjoying. Divination was done with the Ogham and the message received was quert (apple).
   Thus begins our holiday....

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Celebrating Lughnasa, Together or Alone

  It is clear from my last blog that for a modern practitioner there is an abundance of material to work with in finding ways to celebrate Lughnasa. I’m going to offer several suggestions for practice that could be used for anyone with a Irish leaning, or who would like to celebrate this holy day in a Irish manner, but I leave the actual ritual up to the individual or group to design. Personally I follow a basic structure of blessing the space, invoking the ancestors, daoine sidhe, and Gods and offering to them, praying or saying something about the purpose of the ritual, making a main offering for the holiday, divination, thanking the Powers, and feasting. My own approach is Irish Reconstructionist in nature and that doubtless colors my view, but I would like to offer this to anyone of any faith who celebrates Lughnasa.
    One aspect that should be celebrated the same whether a person is solitary or in a group is food. Ideally if you grow your own fruit or grain, or have a milk cow, you could use the product of your own harvest, otherwise you should try to find high quality, local foods to use. Most Irish cookbooks should offer recipes for Barm Brac and you can substitute fresh fruits like raspberries and blackberries for the raisins and dried peel the recipe calls for. Although corn is often mentioned in relation to Lughnasa it is likely used to mean oats, and was replaced in time by potatoes as the main produce crop. It would be fine to use new world corn, especially if gluten sensitivity is an issue, if that is a local crop that is being harvested in your area at this time, or alternately to use wheat or oats to cook with. In the same way that there are many Barm Brac recipes to choose from there are innumerable porridge recipes to which fruit can be added, and fresh milk would also be appropriate. I would suggest leaving a portion of whatever is prepared out as an offering after the celebration, either to the daoine sidhe or the gods you decide to honor, or to both.
     If you are practicing with a group the group should choose a suitable place outdoors to meet, preferably either on a high place like a hilltop or mountain, or by the seashore or a river, or other place considered sacred by the group. Everyone should bring a small token dish to represent their contribution to the harvest, and if possible a fire should be kindled. The group should feel relaxed and social while setting up and getting comfortable stories should be told relating to Lughnasa; if possible music should be played or people can be encouraged to sing. It would also be alright to decorate a local stone, tree, or spring with flowers or other appropriate biodegradable decorations. At this point the group can celebrate the religious rite in whatever way they prefer, with the entire festivities dedicated to the god or gods of the rite. The food should be reheated using the fire and then shared and eaten by all, with some left as an offering as previously mentioned; this can be done during the group’s religious ritual or afterwards depending on the group. More stories can be told and music played while people socialize, and then the group should have whatever athletic games they are best able to hold. My own approach is geared towards groups with small children and involves things like foot races, contests of strength, solving puzzles, or games of skill, like tossing a bean bag through a ring with the winner receiving a special token or prize. Groups without children can of course choose to athletic games more appropriate for adults. After the athletic games if the fire has died down a bit it would also be traditional for people to jump the fire. The celebration should be planned to last for the entire day and the tone should be fun and lighthearted.
    In contrast a solitary practitioner may have to work a bit harder to include athletic aspects, or choose not to include them at all. I would suggest if you are alone that you choose a location to celebrate that will be physically challenging to get to, and include getting to and leaving the site as part of the athletic challenges of the day. You could hike to a high place or other sacred site and then, if it’s safe build a fire do so. Sitting alone you can recite stories, poetry, or sing while preparing the area; decorating a tree or other sacred object can be done alone. You can then celebrate your solitary rite as you choose, dedicating your efforts to the deity or deities you are honoring. In the same way when you bring out and eat the food you have brought be sure to leave some as an offering. You may choose to sit for a while in silence contemplating the beauty of your location or the meaning of the holy day, or you may find ways to challenge yourself (safely) to physical activities where you are. You can even jump the fire by yourself when it is low enough. Spend as much time as you would like at your ritual site, enjoying it, and then clean up and head home.
   There are many traditions associated with Lughnasa that emphasize both community and connecting to the divine. Some of these traditions pass beyond recorded history and into supposition and guesswork, but many are firmly based in folk practices that continued well into the last century. By learning about and understanding the old traditions of Lughnasa we can find new ways to incorporate them into modern pagan practices, and doing so will deepen our own spirituality.