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Friday, November 30, 2012

Karma, Wyrd, and Dán, oh my!

  It seems that many cultures have some concept relating to a person's purpose or destiny in life, and in American paganism and its many sub-branches these culture specific terms tend to get used interchangeably, often equated to the term "fate". Fate, of course, is the idea of a predestined or predetermined outcome in life which cannot be altered or affected by human action. Many Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus, are based on this idea which is personified in Greek mythology by the Moreia (the Fates) who create the "thread" of a person's fate, measure it, and cut it at death. Loving semantics as much as I do, I feel the need to point out that the terms equated to fate are not actually equivalent to each other and in fact often have very specific nuanced meanings. I thought it might be good to write about some of the most commonly used words and how I personally understand them, although I have to be clear that this is purely my own viewpoint; I am no expert. However I think even an amateur attempt at explaining the different terms could be helpful and also could provoke some great thought and discussion. I do want to stress though that this is my own understanding of the concepts, based on my research and study.
   First let's look at the most common term: karma. At this point there are two very different ways to understand karma, which may be labeled the Eastern and Western views. The term itself is from Saskrit and means "action" and is a concept found in both Hinduism and Buddhism; this is what I refer to as Eastern karma. Effectively karma is a neutral principle, the result of the sum total of our actions in this life and previous incarnations. Karma is what directs the circumstances under which we will next reincarnate. We can affect our own karma by choosing the actions we take, because all action inherently creates karma, but karma works on a cosmic scale. I like to think of (Eastern) karma as something like painting; each and every color choice and brush stroke, i.e. action, effects the end result. In contrast Western karma takes a more immediate approach, espousing the idea that karma works on a small, fast scale with the effects of our actions appearing not only within our lifetime, but also sometimes in the same day as the action. The Western view also sees karma as a moral principle, with "good" and "bad" karma based on actions. At its simplest this can be illustrated by saying if you do good, good will happen to you and if you do bad, bad will happen to you, rather like a spiritual ATM - put money in get money out, overdraw your account get charged fees. The most common view of this principle works entirely on the idea of an inherent good and bad value system to all actions, and is supported by the idea that either karma itself is a semi-sentient force or that the Gods enforce it. A less common view related this idea to energy manifestation, as a way to explain why the energy we put out returns to us. When discussing karma or when someone refers to karma it is important to know which view - Eastern or Western - they are applying because the two are very different.
   Next we have the concept of wyrd. Wyrd is an Anglo-Saxon word, corresponding to the Norse urd, and means, roughly, "to come to pass" or "becoming"; related to this is the concept of orlag, meaning "from the law".  As it was explained to me, orlag is the sum total of our past actions as well as those of our ancestors - we are born with a fixed orlag based on what has come to pass before our birth. Orlag effects all creation, including the Gods and spirits, as well as people. To quote Bauschatz: "This past includes the actions of all beings who exist within the enclosing branches of Yggdrasil: men, gods, giants, elves, etc..... it is such actions that form the layers or strata that are daily laid in the well by the speaking of the orlag. The coming into the well is orderly and ordered; events are clearly related to each other, and there is pattern and structure in their storage.” (Bauschatz, 1982). Orlag effects us because it is the base form which we move forward, but wyrd is the active principle created by us during our lives, which in turn creates orlag. Every action we take is based on our wyrd and orlag and further creates the wyrd we are then living with. Wyrd and orlag are both flexible and fixed; like water flowing in a river and the bed of the river itself. The river bed shapes where the river flows and directs the water but the water can change the shape of the river bed. So it is with wyrd - we shape our wyrd by our choices but our wyrd creates orlag which in turn directs our lives. Some people argue that orlg and wyrd are the same concept, and that may be so, I just find that it is easier to grasp them as separate but interlinked concepts. The analogy of weaving is often used to describe wyrd, and I tend to see wyrd as the weft and orlag as the warp. Freewill is an important aspect of wyrd, as we always have choices on how to act within the circumstances we find ourselves in.
   Dán is an Irish word that translates as "fate" - and also as gift, offering, craft, calling, and poem (O Donaill, 1977). It is a complex term but is often understood as the fate or destiny that a person is born with. There is a saying that goes "A man won't drown whose dán is to hang" that illustrates this idea that dán is inexorable and inescapable. This term out of all of the ones we are looking at most closely resembles the Greek idea of fate, although the Irish appear to have lacked the personification aspect of fate seen in the Greek.
  Even if we just look at the roots of each word we can see that there are differences in there meanings. Karma comes from the I-E root of kwer which means to do; wyrd comes from the root wert which means to turn or rotate; fate is from the root bha which means voice (I couldn't track down the I-E root of dán). Each root meaning connects logically to the modern meaning I think, and shows the subtle differences between the terms.
   While I can see why it is easier to use the simple equivalents when discussing the different terms I believe that it is better to understand the nuanced meanings of each term. Each one has its own layers and depth which reflect the culture and world view from which they came, and for modern pagans more can be gained by using them properly than by reducing them all to a Greek concept of fate. There is also a wealth of understanding to be gained by studying each term, in depth, individually, which I encourage people to do if the subject interests them.

 Bauschatz, P., (1982) The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture
 O Donaill, N., (1977) Focloir Gaeilge-Bearla

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

View of Witches in Irish Folklore

  The final chapter of Kevin Danaher's book Irish Customs and Beliefs begins with an anecdote from the author's youth. He relates encountering an old woman named Nellie while on a family vacation in Clare, who, he discovers later, is known through the area for her herbal cures and propensity to curse anyone who offended her. He ends the passage by saying,
            "On the way home that day I couldn't help thinking that the old lady was very like the witch in the story books; the black cat in the hearth and the heather besom behind the door were just what a witch should have, and when I heard of her cures and curses my suspicion grew. But I soon found out that the classic figure of the witch cleaving the night air on a broomstick with her cat perched on the pillion was not recognized in local tradition. Old Nellie might be a bean feasa, skilled in cures and in divination, or even an old cailleach who stole the cows milk disguised as a hare, but not a witch." (Danaher, 1964, pages 121-122).
  This nicely illustrates a key difference between the Irish view of witches and the more well known continental one. While European lore paints a vivid picture of the witch flying through the night to unholy meetings and using her powers to torment her neighbors, wither crops, and generally spread misery, the figure of the Irish witch is markedly different. While still seen as negative and working against the community the tone of Irish witches in folklore is generally less severe. The most commonly written of way that an Irish witch might vex her neighbors is by stealing the milk from their cows or otherwise bewitching the cattle. This would be accomplished by the witch shapeshifting into the form of a hare and sneaking into the field (O hOgain, 1995). The more sinister view of witches seems to have been imported from Europe at a later time and never took the strong  hold on the country that it did elsewhere, notably in Scotland (Danaher, 1964). Rather we see the idea of two types of magic users, the bean feasa (wise woman) who helped the community with herbal remedies, divination, and advice (especially relating to the fairies), and the cailleach who was envisioned as an old woman intent on stealing the milk from the cows and more broadly a family's luck.
   Irish witches were well known to be able to take the shapes of both hares and weasels. There are several stories of farmers or hunters who are out in the early morning and spot a hare in among the cows, shoot it, and find later that a well known neighbor has been injured, having been the witch shapechanged (O hOgain, 1995; Wilde, 1991).  It is perhaps because of this association that is thought to be bad luck for a hare to cross your path (Wilde, 1991). Similarly witches could take the form of a weasel and it was thought to be bad luck to cross paths with any weasel in the morning, although it was equally bad luck to kill it and risk it's spirit seeking revenge (Wilde, 1991). It should be kept in mind though that as with so many things in Irish folklore it could always be the fairies; indeed fairies were known to take the form of hares as well, particularly white ones (O hOgain, 1995).
   Ireland had very few witch trials over the centuries and these were usually within settlements of those of non-Irish descent (Danaher, 1964). The last witch trial on record in Ireland occurred in Carrickfergus in 1711 and resulted in a conviction and a sentence of the pillory and a year in prison (Danaher, 1964). This seems to reflect the different attitude with which the Irish approached the subject, compared to the far more rabid witch-hunting that went on in Europe. Perhaps because the beliefs about witches were not as severe or perhaps because the belief in the supernatural and use of magic in folklore was so strong even after Christianization, the Irish witch never created the hysteria in Ireland that was the hallmark of Europe during this period.

Danaher, K., (1964). Irish Customs and Beliefs
Wilde, L., (1991). Irish Cures and Mystic Superstitions
O hOgain, D., (1995). Irish Superstitions

Friday, November 23, 2012

An Dagda

  One of the most well known Gods of the Tuatha de Danann is the Dagda. He can be found under many variations of the name and under many by-names, such as Daghdae, Dagdai, Daghdo, Daghdou, Dagdae, Dagdhua, Dagdhae, Dagda Mor, Dagda Donn and Eochaid Ollathair, Ruad Rofessa, Aedh Alainn, Aodh Ruadh Ro-fessa; usually the definitive article "the" is added before Dagda (Gray, 1983; O hOgain, 2006). The name Dagda itself is an epithet which means "Good God", implying a God good at all things. This name is gained during the second battle of Maige Tuired when he promises to do as much as all the other Tuatha De have said they will do in the fight (Gray, 1983). His by-names tell us a great deal about him as well: Eochaid Ollathair "Horse-lord Ample Father", Ruad Rofessa "Red man of Knowledge (specifically Druidic or Occult), Aedh Alainn "Fiery Lustrous One" (O hOgain, 2006). People inclined to look at the Dagda as a more neopagan type Father God should bear in mind the actual connotations of "Good God" as well as the more restricted translation of Ollathair, as there is no direct evidence that he was previously seen as the literal father of the Gods, but rather as prolific. In fairness to that view, however, O hOgain does suggest that the Dagda can be connected to the "Dis Pater" father deity that Caesar claims the Gauls believed they descended from (O hOgain, 2006). Additionally the text of the Cath Maige Tuired provides a long list of names for the Dagda, after he is challenged to give a ride to a Fomorian princess and replies that he has a geas preventing him doing so unless she knows his full name. She asks him three times for his name and on the third request he replies: "Fer Benn Bruach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe" (Gray, 1983). O hOgain suggests tha the name Dagda comes from the root Dago-Dewios, a cognate with other Indo-European sky gods such as Zeus, and also through this and  his imagery to the Gaulish Secullos (O hOgain, 2006).
    In some sources the Dagda is said to be the son of Elatha and married to the Morrigan, although he is also known to hve fathered at least one child with Boinn. His children vary by source but are usually  given as Angus mac Og, Cearmait, Aodh Caomh, Conan, Midir, Bodhbh Dearg, Ainge, and Brighid; in one later example Dian Cect is also said to be his son (O hOgain, 2006). His sons often die after trying to obtain a woman who is not available; only Angus successfully marries the literal woman of his dreams Caer Iobharmheith. This may connect the Dagda to the concept of passion or of sexual envy, as he himself fathered Angus on another man's wife. He is also sometimes said to be the brother of Nuada and Ogma (O hOgain, 2006).
   The Dagda is generally described as being a large man, sometimes comically so, with a tremendous appetite and immense capacity. It was said that to make his porridge he needed 80 gallons of milk as well as several whole sheep, pigs, and goats, and that he ate this meal with a ladle large enough to hold two people lying down (Berresford Ellis, 1987). Some modern sources describe him as red-haired, possibly relating to the name Ruad Rofessa, and describe his clothing as a short tunic, sometimes obscenely short. He is considered to be generous, wise, and bigger-than-life in his appetites (O hOgain, 2006). He is often described as immensely strong and able to complete great feats such building a fort single-handedly or clearing 12 plains in a single night.
   The Book of Lecan states that the Dagda ruled for 80 years as king of the Gods after the death of Lugh, but other sources state that he was killed fighting Ceithlinn at the second battle of Maige Turied (Smyth, 1988). This is later explained with a story saying that he took a wound in the battle that took 80 years to kill him, but that is clearly an attempt to unify the varying tales into a coherant whole (O hOgain, 2006).  He was said to be a master of Druidic magic and to possesses several magical objects. It was the Dagda who held the cauldron of abundance brought from Murias, one of the four treasures. He also owned a great club that was so large it had to be dragged on wheels behind him; it is said that one end of the club could kill 9 men with one blow, while the other could heal (Berresford Ellis, 1987; O hOgain, 2006). His horse was Acein (ocean) and the Dagda possessed a harp whose playing changed the seasons. This harp was stolen by the Fomorians and the Dagda along with Nuada and Ogma had to journey to recover it, possibly indicating its importance to maintaining the order of time and the seasons.
   The Dagda is associated with Brugh na Boynne and also with a site in Donegal called Grianan Ailigh as well as Leighead Lachtmhaighe in Clare, Cnoc Baine in Tyrone and O Chualann in Wicklow (Smyth, 1988; O hOgain, 2006). It is said that it was the Dagda who delegated each of the sidhe to the Tuatha de after their defeat by the Milesians, possibly at Manannan mac Lir's suggestion (O hOgain, 2006). The Dagda originally lived at Newgrange (Burgh na Boynne) but was tricked out of the site by his son Angus. He is also particularly associated with Samhain, when he was said to unite with the Morrigan; this is also the time that he united with the Fomorian princess, also gaining her assistance against her own people in the battle.
   In general the Dagda is associated with leadership, wisdom, strength, abundance, fertility, generosity, and Druidic magic. O hOgain posits that the descriptions of him as swift may indicate that he was believed to be a God who responded quickly to his followers, and he also relates him to the sun and solar imagery (O hOgain, 2006). In some modern groups he is associated with the Norse Gods Thor or Odin, with valid arguments for both connections, and as mentioned he may also be associated with Secullos or the Roman Dis Pater. When I honor him I prefer to offer dark beers or ales, and I have also recreated a version of the porridge described as his in the Cath Maige Tuired (although in much smaller quantity). Although I dislike the modern way that authors describe him as "the God of the Druids" I do tend to associate him with Druidic magic and, tentatively, see a symbolic connection between his club and the Druidic staff. I have also come to believe that his comic appearance is a balance for his immense wisdom and power, on some symbolic level.

 Gray, E., (1983). Cath Maige Tuired.
 O hOgain, D., (2006). The Lore of Ireland
 Smyth, D., (1988). A Guide to Irish Mythology
 Berresford Ellis, P., (1987). A Dictionary of Irish Mythology

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Four Treasures

"305. There were four cities in which they [the Tuatha de Danann] were acquiring knowledge and science and diabolism: these are their names, Failias, Goirias, Findias, Muirias. From Failias was brought the Lia Fail which is in Temair, and which used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland, From Goirias was brought the spear which Lug had: battle would never go against him who had it in hand. From Findias was brought the sword of Naudu: no man would escape from from it; when it was drawn from its battle-scabbard, there was no resisting it. From Murias was brought the cauldron of The Dagda; no company would go from it unsatisfied,"
     - Lebor Gabala Erenn (MacAlister, 1941)

"1. The Tuatha De Danann were in the northern islands of the world, studying occult lore and sorcery, druidic arts and witchcraft and magical skill, until they surpassed the sages of the pagan arts.
 2. They studied occult lore and secret knowledge and diabolic arts in four cities: Falias, Gorias, Murias, and Findias.
 3.From Falias was brought the Stone of Fal which was located in Tara. It used to cry out beneath every king that would take Ireland.
 4. From Gorias was brought the spear which Lug had. No battle was ever sustained against it, or against the man who held it in his hand.
 5. From Findias was brought the sword of Nuadu. No one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its deadly sheath, and no one could resist it.
 6. From Murias was brought the Dagda's cauldron. No company ever went away from it unsatisfied."   
   - Cath Maige Tuired (Gray, 1983)

   In modern Irish paganism and Druidism it is not uncommon to hear people talking about the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann. For many people they have become a template of sorts for what tools to include or for establishing directionality. My own approach is very different, although I do see the value of the four treasures for a modern practitioner. They are powerful symbols and still carry deep meaning; they can tell us a great deal about the deities associated with each one and about the wider values that each treasure represents.
  First, to get my own disagreements with the modern views out of the way, not that I begrudge anyone their own opinion or way of approaching practice. I have seen some people put forth that these four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann represent the tools that we as modern practitioners should use. I disagree with this because I think that viewing them as comparable to the traditional tools of ceremonial magic and witchcraft, the suits of the tarot if you will, is missing the unique value each one held within Irish mythology. It has never made sense to me, personally, to equate the spear to the staff, particularly as the spear was associated with victory in battle. Similarly the sword, while certainly a viable ritual tool, it seems odd to me to use a proxy representation of a weapon who it was said would kill everyone set against it when it was drawn from its sheath; that is an awfully intense energy to be pulling out to create ritual space, rather like using a flamethrower to light a candle. We also know from mythology, folklore, and secondary sources which tools it was likely that the Druids would actually have used: the wand, the staff, the cauldron, and possibly the sickle and Druid's egg (Green, 1997; Freeman, 2008).
   Even more common in modern practice is the idea of using the four treasures to mark out or establish ritual space; this hinges on using four cardinal directions and assigning one to each of the four cities listed in the descriptions above. Clearly the first obvious issue with this idea is that the source material of the mythology does not include any directionality for each city, they are simply listed. Secondly, and the reason I excerpted both sources, is that the cities are not given in the same order between the Lebor Gabala Erenn and the Cath Maige Tuired, making any placement based on the listing order arbitrary. Adding to this is the use of the four directions, as opposed to more or less. Brendan Myers in his book Mysteries of Druidism also makes a good argument for a five-direction approach to sacred space that includes center. To be fair, Alexei Kondrative in his book Apple Branch does offer a good system based on using the treasures and four cardinal points; he uses the etymology of the names of the cities to associate them with the four classical elements and then to directions (Kondratiev, 2003). I don't personally agree with this, as I feel it includes too many outside influences, but it is at least a strong educated guess for those that do want to use this system. It is also worth noting that this idea also relies strongly on using the system of the four classical elements, which there is no evidence the Celts followed; in fact it seems far more likely that the Celtic system of elements would have included more than 4 (see Searles O Dubhain's article here for more on that).
   Now having said all that I do see great value in the four treasures. I believe they can be very important symbols for us both of the Gods who hold them and of some core concepts of Celtic paganism. To me the treasures represent the values of sovereignty, hospitality, defense, and offense, respectively. By meditating on these qualities and their symbols I feel that I have gained a deeper connection to my spirituality.
     "3.From Falias was brought the Stone of Fal which was located in Tara. It used to cry out beneath every king that would take Ireland." (Gray, 1983). The Lia Fail is one of the most interesting of the treasures because it does not belong to any named Deity, but rather to the land of Ireland herself. Interestingly the eDIL gives multiple definitions to the Old Irish word Fal, and these include the stone at Tara, abundance, science and learning, a king, and a fence, hedge, or enclosure, and mentions that Fal was once used as a name for Ireland. While in modern euphemism the Lia Fal is often called the Stone of Destiny I tend to think of it as the stone of Ireland. It represents, literally and figuratively, the sovereignty of the island. In my practice I meditate on it as the expression of the will of the land and of the power of right leadership. As a personal symbol I see it as representing the importance of connecting to and living in right relationship with the land, and listening to her voice.
  "4. From Gorias was brought the spear which Lug had. No battle was ever sustained against it, or against the man who held it in his hand." (Gray, 1983). The spear of Lugh is the next treasure mentioned, a fierce weapon that could overcome any battle. Lugh himself is the many-skilled God, destined to win the war against the Fomorians for the Tuatha de by slaying his grandfather Balor, and also a God who would be king of the Tuatha de. His spear is described as a weapon which no battle can be sustained against, a power that is extended to any who bear the spear. To me I see the spear as having a more defensive energy to it, because of the way the translations word the description - "no battle was ever sustained against it" - in this case the use of the word against has a defensive feel to me (others may disagree of course). When I meditate on the spear I tend to see it as representing the value of a good defense, of standing your ground, and of persevering.
  "5. From Findias was brought the sword of Nuadu. No one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its deadly sheath, and no one could resist it." (Gray, 1983). Juxtaposing the spear is Nuada's sword, a clearly offensive weapon. Nuada was the king of the Tuatha de when they first came to Ireland and then again after his arm was healed. Unlike Lugh who is described as many skilled Nuada seems to be a much more straightforward God of battle, married according to some sources, to Macha herself a battle Goddess. Although some sources do connect him to healing he is clearly a deity of war and battle, leading the Gods in the epic wars. His sword is said to be inescapable once drawn, and unbeatable. Whereas the spear is described as a weapon against which no battle could be sustained the sword is said to be something from which none escape. I tend to see the sword as representing a good offense, something that we all need to have at some point. Although ruthless, it is perhaps a lesson that any situation which calls for offensive action should be entered into with the intent of winning. The sword shows no mercy, and presents no weakness. In my practice I will meditate on the sword as the attitude needed to achieve victory in any battle, and as the ability to fight for oneself and one's family. I also use it as a representation of Nuada, who I honor.
 "6. From Murias was brought the Dagda's cauldron. No company ever went away from it unsatisfied." (Gray, 1983). Finally we have the last treasure the cauldron of the Dagda. It is not at all surprising to me that the Dagda, a God who himself is associated with great appetite and excess, would be the holder of such a cauldron. It is also worth noting that despite the modern neopagan association of the cauldron with feminine or Goddess energy, it is actually most often associated with Gods in Irish and more generally Celtic myth. The Dagda has the cauldron of plenty, Dian Cecht has a cauldron (sometimes called a spring) of healing, and even a Welsh story about Bran and Branwen that talks about an Irish king who has a cauldron that can revive the dead. Additionally we see the poem attributed to Amerigen "the Cauldron of Poesy" which describes three cauldrons born in every person. The cauldron itself is clearly a very powerful and widespread symbol in Celtic myth. The Dagda's cauldron is one of abundance that satisfies all who take from it, a fitting treasure for one who is sometimes called Eochaid Ollathair, the All-father. I tend to see it as a representation of the qualities of generosity and hospitality, as well as the ability of a leader or head-of-household to provide for those who look to them for support. When I meditate on the cauldron I see it in the light of a source of these things and try to relate that into my own life. I also often end up contemplating the wider symbolism of the cauldron in Irish myth as a provider of abundance and healing. I also personally do use the cauldron as a tool in my practice because I feel the symbolism with it is so strong.
   So these are the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann. There is a great deal of modern material about them to be found, but much of it is inspired or extrapolated rather than original. For those who want to incorporate the treasures into their own practice this can give you a great deal of freedom, especially if you keep in mind that what can be found in books, no matter how authoritative, is just that author or group's opinion. I tend to reject the two common views of the four treasures and have established my own. That may be the best route, in the end, for every individual to do to get the most out of their powerful symbolism and energy.

MacAlister, R., (1941). Lebor Gabala Erenn
Gray, E., (1983). Cath Maige Tuired
Green, M., (1997) The World of the Druids
Freeman, P., (2008) War, Women, and Druids

Friday, November 16, 2012

Kids and Faith

There are certain questions that are commonly asked within the pagan community, and one that I see repeated at least once every few months is about raising children pagan. The exact phrasing of the question may change, but its always expressed in two core ways: should I raise my kids in my religion? and how do I teach my kids my beliefs?
   My answer to the first question is a simple yes. Of course you should raise your kids with your faith; if its important to you why wouldn't you want to share it with them? Now I'm obviously not talking about situations where there are legal reasons, such as a messy divorce, or extenuating circumstances, such as a pre-existing agreement with a non-pagan spouse, involved. But if you are actively practicing your religion and have children who you can include I really think you should, for several reasons. First of all it will create valuable family traditions around holidays that your children can cherish even if they grow up to believe something totally different. This will also create opportunities for family bonding and spending time together that, sadly, in our modern lives we often don't have much of. Secondly children generally like being included in things they know are important to you, at least in my experience. Thirdly it gives them a good understanding of your religion that will allow them later to make a decision about their own faith; related to that if you keep what you do and believe secret you may inadvertently teach them that your religion is something to be ashamed of or not good enough. Its entirely possible to raise your children in your religion without making it feel restrictive or forced, or teaching them that what you believe is the only option. I raise my daughters with my faith but they are free to go to other people's religious services or to study other options. I've never understood the idea that we should not raise our kids with our own religion because it will somehow take away their ability to choose for themselves. Finally, teaching your kids what you believe does, in theory, pass on the morals and guidelines for life that you have learned from your religion. Certainly this can be done in a secular way, but if you base your life on the 9 noble virtues, for example, why wouldn't you want your kids to have that same guideline to live with? Also if you love your religion enough to practice it, why wouldn't you want to share that with your children and give them that same opportunity to enjoy it?
    As to the second question, that one is easy - just include them in what you do and give direct answers to questions. My kindred is child-friendly and we have always had a policy that the kids are welcome to wander in and out of blot and participate if they want to. By myself I always give the girls the option of joining in with me if they want to. Rather than feeling forced or not wanting anything to do with it my kids would have me doing ritual every night if I let them talk me into it! They love hearing stories about the Gods and Goddesses as well as the other spirits and our ancestors. They enjoy celebrating our holidays. If anything I have trouble keeping up with their interest, which is bottomless. I have never gone out of my way to teach them about my faith, I just include them when I celebrate and I answer their questions. The closest I've ever come to intentionally teaching them anything religious is buying the children's books, like Kindertales, to read to them. I don't think as parents we need to try to teach it if we are giving them living examples to follow and learn from.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


This month we are finishing up the first Aett by looking at the eighth rune, Wunjo. This is a fairly easy one to remember since it resembles the English letter “P”, although it is equivalent to the sound “w”. Wunjo is also called Wynn and represents the end of the cycle of the first eight runes.

   Wunjo doesn’t appear in either the Icelandic or Norwegian rune poems, so we must rely on the Anglo-Saxon to help us begin to understand it’s meaning. According to the one rune poem it does appear in, Wunjo represents true joy, the bliss of a person who knows nothing of suffering and who loves his life. The anglo-Saxon rune poem says: "Bliss he enjoys who knows not suffering, 
                                     sorrow nor anxiety,
                                     and has prosperity and happiness and a good enough house." ( 
        From this we can gather that this rune is a symbol of the joy of a child, pure and unmarred by pain or sorrow, and also of the person who is content with what they have in life. It implies that the person who feels this type of joy has all their basic needs met and is wise enough to be satisfied with what they have.
   For many modern runesters Wunjo represents all positive emotions - joy, bliss, happiness and contentment. It is being happy in the moment and embracing the present without worry of either the future or the past. Many see it as harmony of diverse elements and it can represent marriage, joining, or the blending of two different things into one. It is the innocence of the child but also the will to choose happiness and embrace joy. Some also see this rune as a sign of emotional healing and in some instances, spiritual ecstasy. It is associated with Odin, and is the only rune which has no negative meanings attached to it.
   When this rune appears in divination it is always a positive sign. It can represent a turn for the good or an improvement in a situation. If asking a “yes” or “no” question with the runes, Wunjo being drawn would indicate a definite “yes”. In some circumstances it can appear to tell the questioner to embrace simple joy, to live in the now and let the future worry about itself. It reminds us that happiness is a choice and may be telling us to find our bliss. It indicates a positive outcome.
  In magic it can be added to charms to draw good luck, and carved onto spell candles to increase positive energy. When drawn on the forehead it can help to alleviate depression. It can also be traced onto the walls of a room to improve the atmosphere.
   To attune to this rune I suggest using it as much as possible. It is safe to work with this way because it has no negative aspects. It can be subtly traced on the walls at your job to bring harmony and peace to your work place and traced on your forehead to improve your mood during a bad day. This can also be done to help relieve stress. It can be added into almost any positive spell to increase energy and draw luck. And as always you can do a rune meditation where you visualize yourself entering into the rune and experiencing its energy. Remember to write down any results after using the rune, or after a meditation.
   Next month we will look at Hagalaz, and begin the second Aett.

further reading:
Diana Paxson, Taking Up the Runes
Freya Aswynn, Northern Mysteries and Magic
Sweyn Plowright, Rune Primer
Edred Thorsson, Futhark

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: Mysteries of Druidry

  Since yesterday was a holiday I'm doing my weekly book review today instead. I decided to review one of my favorite books on modern Druidism, Brendan Myers' "the Mysteries of Druidry". This book came out in 2006 and presents an interesting blend of modern mysticism and solid research. I like to recommend it to anyone who is interested in Druidism, especially of the Irish variety.
  The book includes a forward by Isaac Bonewits, an introduction, 7 chapters, an epilogue, notes, index, and brief about the author page. The introduction begins with an imaginative envisioning of a meeting between the young Cu Chulainn and the Morrigan, and then segues into an introduction of the concept of Celtic mysticism and modern Druidism.The chapters look at different core concepts of modern Druidism including 9 concepts that the author identifies as key to Druidism, sacred space, magic, Druidic tools, and outlines of meditations. The epilogue offers a view of what Druidism could be as a viable spiritual path.
   What I like most about the book is the author's engaging writing style and way of discussing difficult or complex subjects in accessible ways. He tackles the often problematic concepts of mysticism within Druidism in ways that are easy to follow and provide food for thought for the reader. He also provides a selection of actual ritual ideas and suggested meditations which allow a reader to experience the ideas being discussed firsthand. One of my favorite parts of the book is a section in chapter 6 that lists and describes 12 qualities of a modern Druid, which I think are well thought out and good criteria for anyone to apply who is interested in this path. The book also includes some lovely artwork and a thorough index.
  One of the only criticisms that I have with this work is that it is formatted using two columns of text on each page rather than one, and I find this a bit distracting. Otherwise I feel like the author has done a very good job of accomplishing the apparent goal of the book, to discuss mysticism in modern Druidism and also supply useful guidelines for actual practice. Mysticism is a hard topic to successfully discuss and I feel that many authors either avoid it or fail to handle it well, so it is nice to have at least one solid resource on the topic.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Animism and Neopaganism

  I am an animist. This is not an uncommon statement in modern paganism (including reconstructionism) but like so many other things it is far more complex than it may appear. What I mean when I say animist, and how that worldview shapes my life, may be very different indeed from what others mean when they use the term, because in modern pagan usage it is a somewhat nebulous and often poorly implemented idea. Part of this, I think, is rooted in a poor understanding of the original term, and part in people trying to graft what can be a very foreign idea onto the worldview they were raised with.
   So what is animism? Well, to start the term itself originated in anthropology in the 19th century as a way to categorize the beliefs of indigenous peoples. It is based in the Latin word "anima" which means spirit or soul. In effect animism is the belief that animals (including people), plants, natural objects and phenomena, and sometimes man-made objects have a spirit. An animistic world view can be found in all cultures at varying points and psychologist Jean Paiget theorized that animism is the natural state of belief in children. Unlike pantheism, which sees all existence as having a unified spirit, animism sees each spirit as unique; my soul is not the same soul as yours, nor is one oak the same spirit as another oak. Another thing that makes animism different from some other viewpoints is that to an animist all spirits are generally equal in significance (not, however, in Power) so that a human spirit is no more or less important in the universe than a Maple, or a squirrel, or a river. Animism does not see humans as superior or inherently more worthy than anything else. This does not mean that to an individual human or group of humans that their lives mean less but rather that they do not interact with the world with the idea that they are privileged, rather the spirits around them must be treated with respect in order for the humans themselves to succeed.
    When I say I am an animist I mean that I perceive the world as being populated by spirits, in the sense described above. Material existence cannot be separated from spirit, because spirit is an integral part of all things and is manifest in the individual spirits that inhabit the world. My cats have spirits, just as I and my family do. The oaks, maples, aspen, and cedars in my yard have souls, as does the swamp behind my house. I also believe my car has a spirit as well, so I suppose I am a modern animist. Animism also shapes my belief that spirits are eternal, and so just because something has died doesn't mean it's spirit is destroyed (and Irish paganism shapes my belief in reincarnation, or "spirit recycling"). I believe it is important to live in right relation with the spirits we share the world with, just as much as we should live in right relation with our human neighbors and coworkers (and for much the same reason). This can be done by showing respect and gratitude, taking only what we need, and using everything we take. It also means that I look at the world around me as full of living spirits that are just as important as I am. I have a certain horror at the wanton, purposeless, destruction and death that is so common in a world that will clear an area of land to sell and then let it all sit and rot waiting for a non-existent buyer, or pollute and poison an area for expediency.
     Now to be a bit critical. When I hear other neopagans talking about being animists I tend to see some common flaws in the way it is being approached. Some people who use the term animist actually mean pantheist, that is they believe that there is one, unified, spirit in all things not individual spirits in all things. There is nothing wrong with pantheism, and in fact you can be both a pantheist and an animist, but confusing the two terms shows a basic lack of understanding of what animism is. Other people take animism to a personalized extreme, where instead of understanding that humans are no better or worse than other spirits they elevate all spirits to the privileged status humans tend to accord themselves in non-animist views. Not only is this perspective difficult to really apply to everything but it also makes life a guilt ridden experience, when you are seeing every rock, tree, and animal as having the right to life, liberty, and happiness that you see for yourself. Animism respects all spirits, but also contains the inherent understanding that all spirits have a place in the natural order which means some are used as firewood, building materials, or food - with appreciation for the use they offer to support other life. It is offensive to waste and to take for granted what others give for us to live, but the use itself is not offensive. Life is predicated on death, in a perpetual cycle; an animist understands and honors this, and our own place within it. In contrast others take what I might call a selective animism approach where they say they are animists but only credit certain things with spirits, generally based on their own fondness for the animal/plant/object in question or desire to avoid guilt about using others. And of course, as with all things, there are those who give the idea lip service and nothing more.
    I think neopaganism - indeed all religions - would benefit greatly from an animistic viewpoint. Animism in many ways gives us the best understanding of the true beauty and value of life - all life - and teaches us to honor what we need to live. It takes nothing for granted, but appreciates the cooperation needed between all things for life to continue. Animism avoids the dichotomous thinking that says a thing is either good or bad, or the view that all is good; it teaches us that there are good spirits and bad spirits, yes, but also that most spirits are simply spirits that will respond based on how they are treated. And most importantly animism disabuses us of the idea that we are privileged or special; whether we like it or not we are as valuable as everything else in the grand scheme of life.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Book review: Trance-portation

Trying to get back to my Monday book reviews, I've decided to review Diana Paxson's 2008 book Trance-portation: Learning to navigate the inner world. I was excited to read this book after it was released because I feel that there is a distinct need for this type of work. There are many books on the market that are intended to address guiding people through the beginner stages of trance and spiritual journey work, but I often feel that the subject is not handled well. Too many times the basics - grounding, centering, shielding, discernment, and such - are either over emphasized to the point that nothing else is addressed, or else the basics are glossed over in favor of more advanced material. In this work, however, there is a good balance between the essential basics and the necessary advanced steps that creates a very functional and useful manual for trance work.
    The book includes 13 sections: travel planning, crossing the threshold, getting started, trance-perception, there and back again, native guides, getting along in the culture, mapping the inner worlds, fellow travelers, destinations, your place or mine, going nowhere being everywhere, and road hazards. There are also three appendices: notes for the tour guides, guidance systems, and journeys to find allies. Each section follows logically from the previous one so that it works as an instruction manual or can be used as a reference by skipping to the section needed.
    This is an excellent book for those who wish to begin using trance and journey techniques and have no practical experience, but it is also useful for people who do have experience. The author does a thorough job of explaining the principles behind this type of spiritual work, but what makes this book such a good resource for practitioners of all levels is the practical advice. The book touches on common problems people face, includes cautions and protection ideas, as well as how to connect to Otherwordly spirits and deities, and what to expect. The tone of the book is very practical and full of anecdotal advice that illustrates the points in ways that are easier to understand than simple dry facts would be. I also really liked that while Diana's own approach is largely Norse the book is intentionally aimed at a general audience and can be applied to almost any spiritual path; a seidhr-worker should get as much out of this as someone coming from an Irish (or Celtic) view, or a modern neopagan.
   I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in beginning this type of work; this book will give the reader a firm foundation to work from. It includes suggestions for how to do trance work and also what to do trance work for, which was nice, as it includes ideas that might be new perspectives for some readers. Trance work is more than just wandering around the Otherworlds for personal enlightenment or seeking answers to questions and the book provides some good suggestions for other uses. I also very much liked the way the author encourages people to be safe and to use discernment both in the Journey and with anything gained form the Journey, as this can be an area that beginners fall into bad habits with.
    Overall I think this book is essential reading for anyone who does spiritual journey work, both as a great place to start and also as a good refresher for more experienced people. It is certainly the first book I recommend to those asking where to start and also one I re-read whenever I feel I need to. There isn't anything else on the market that is quite like this book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

the Third Day of Samhain - Life without electricity

  So hurricane Sandy has come and gone and my family is left without electricity. I spent the first day trying to take the romantic view and imagine that I was getting a feel for what life was like for my ancestors, but around the second day reality set in - my ancestors lived in homes designed without electricity, heated by fireplaces, with hearths to cook on. I do not. I am still trying to make the best of the situation, such as it is. As I have only random internet access when not at home I'm not in a position to put up any in depth blogs, but I will share how I have spent the first two days of Samhain and my plans for today.
  My town canceled trick or treating, as 90% of people have no power, and rescheduled it for next Monday. My children were very disappointed so I decided to make the best of it. We bought some candy and the girls trick or treated from room to room, which they enjoyed very much. Then we huddled around my laptop and watched It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown as a family, which was also more fun than anticipated. Finally we held a small but meaningful ritual for the first night of Samhain were we honored the wandering dead and the daoine sidhe. A small food offering was left out and the girls went to bed. I stayed up and held a second ritual to renew my oath as a Druid of the White Oak, a yearly practice since my initiation. This year I found myself reflecting more on everything that has come to pass in the past year, the things that have changed and the accomplishments and personal challenges that have filled my life.
   Last night, the second night of Samhain, we celebrated especially in honor of the Dagda and the Morrigan and their joining on Samhain before the second battle of Maige Tuired. I told the children stories about the Morrigan and the Dagda and talked about who each deity was and why we honor them. The girls shared that their "favorite" goddess is Brighid and we ended up talking about the Tuatha de Danann at some length, with me telling stories about different deities. My oldest daughter asked if there was a goddess associated with deer because she said she had dreamed about one, so I told her what I could about Flidias. We lit candles for the Gods and a special incense blend that I had made for the holiday as well and all in all had a very nice, if casual, ritual.
   Today is the third day of Samhain, the time when Irish folk belief tells us that our beloved dead come back to visit. Tonight we will set out an extra plate for any who visit and an extra chair. We will light the candles on the ancestor altar and I will tell my children stories about each of their family members who rest there, as many as I can remember for as long as they will listen. The dead never truly leave us until they are forgotten.