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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sacred space

  "Every religion must have its holy places, affording a means of communication between man, gods, spirits, and forces of nature." - Hilda Ellis Davidson
    I think that one of the most interesting concepts to contemplate is sacred space. In our post-modern paganism there is a tendency to view all space, all nature, as sacred and yet it has been said - and rightly so - that to make all space sacred is to lose any sense of genuine sacredness. Without the profane there can be no appreciation of the sacred, just as without the darkness the light has no value. I think that as neo-pagans, whether we are reconstructionists or or not, it is essential to have an understanding and a feel for the sacred. So if the popular view is too all-encompassing, how do we gain an understanding of sacred space? As usual I look at how our ancestors defined and understood it to help me grasp a modern meaning for the concept.
   At its most basic, sacred space is a special area or space that is set aside for worship or a natural place that provides a special connection to Powers beyond ourselves. Sacred space may be created or exist temporarily or permanently (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). Additionally the formation of sacred space may be based in an acknowledgement of a place's inherent sacredness, such as we see in the Celtic practice of worshiping in groves of trees or by sacred wells, or may be an entirely human construct where a specific area is declared sacred or made sacred through ritual actions. Both the Norse and the Celts seem to have originally sought out natural sacred spaces for worship and to leave offerings, and the places seen as sacred in this way were the same for both cultures: clearings in groves of trees, hill tops, and near bodies of water (Ellis Davidson, 1988). The Norse continued to favor the use of open sacred spaces for worship until the Christian period, although there are examples of man-made temple structures as well, although these are usually smaller and associated with family use (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). Historically we see the intentional creation of places of worship which had their own sacredness in both cultures. In Norse cultures we see the creation of fridr-gardr, or peace areas, which were used for worship and also for law courts (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). In the Celtic areas we find rectangular and square earthworks, called veirechschanzen, which are believed to have been temple sites from around the first century BCE, and contain examples of offering pits (Ross, 1970).
   Both Celtic and Norse cultures acknowledged natural sacred spaces, places that by their very nature had a sacred quality; this included special groves of trees, hilltops, lakes where offerings were given to the waters, swamps, and certain meadows or fields (Ross, 1970; Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). These places were sacred because of an inherent quality recognized by worshipers, such as the presence of specific trees or healing waters, or else were seen as sacred due to omens which occurred to indicate this sacredness or because of specific uses, such as leaving offerings at the sites, which sanctified them. These natural sacred sites might belong to specific Gods or spirits or might be general places of worship (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.).
    Constructed sacred spaces might be simple or elaborate. These places were called hofs in the Norse and could be anything from a simple one room wooden building or a large multi-roomed temple (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). The Irish word for a sacred space was nemed or fidnemed, terms which were likely used for both the natural sacred places as well as the human built temples (Ross, 1970). Both cultures seemed to have used the man-made structures to honor their Gods with offerings and for community celebrations. The Celtic examples include deep pits which contain the remains of ritual offerings and sacrifices. Although neither culture initially seemed to use physical representations of Gods later temple sites may have included such images, and the Celtic temples are believed to have included a central pole or pillar which may have symbolized a sacred tree.

    In the end I believe that modern sacred space is really no different from ancient sacred space; it is what we create and what we find and acknowledge in nature. What makes space sacred is sacred use and, in the natural world, the organic focusing of sacred energy by the landscape and particular features. Anyone can create a sacred space through ritual use, and repeated use can make a temporary sacred space more permanent; this can also be done intentionally through focus and intent. The greatest challenge for us today may be learning to recognize the natural sacred places on our own and properly honoring them. So many of us live divorced from the natural world that it is easy to see why we might begin to feel that all the natural world is sacred, yet if we make the effort to get out and connect with our environment we will begin to see that while we can nurture connection with the sacred anywhere there are special places that are, in and of themselves, sacred. These places deserve to be found and recognized, and honoring them through ritual use, even something as simple as meditation, not only teaches us to appreciate the sacred but honors the spirit of that place in way that is mutually beneficial. Whether we are creating a sacred space or appreciating one we have recognized, we will doubtless find that an appreciation of sacred space deepens our own spirituality.

 Ellis Davidson, H., (1988). Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe
 Viking Answer Lady (n.d.) Sacred Space in Viking Law and Religion. Retrieved from
 Ross, A., (1970). Pagan Celts

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Fire Festivals in history and myth

     The main holidays generally celebrated by CRs and Irish polytheists are Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa; some people also acknowledge the solar festivals, but the four fire festivals are the most commonly celebrated by all. Despite this apparent universal acknowledgement of these holidays there is a variance in how people date them, with some using environmental signs - such as the flowering of the Hawthorn for Beltaine, or the first hard frost for Samhain - and others using more esoteric astrological signs. When looking at the actual references from mythology we find that in many cases very specific calendar dates are given, which are also used by some people to date the holidays. Of course the ancient Irish did not use the Roman calendar system, either the Gregorian or Julian systems, so these specific dates were clearly given during the writing down of the myths which occurred during the later Christian period, which is also why we see some referenced through Christian holy days such as Lammas and All Hallows (i.e. Halloween). However these dates were added based on the monks understanding of when the celebrations occurred and represent a genuine native tradition. The following are all the references I could find to the dating of the holidays, as well as a few extra references to the holidays that support their importance and that the dates they took place on would have been inherently understood even by a Christianized population. Additionally the reference from the Wooing of Emer also note the dividing of the year into summer and winter halves by Beltaine and Samhain.
    A quick note for those unfamiliar with the term "kalends" or "calends" - these words were used to denote the first day of the month for the Roman calendar.


- From the Wooing of Emer:
55. Bend Suain, son of Rosc Mele, which she said this is the same thing, viz., that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samuin, i.e., the end of summer. For two divisions were formerly on the year, viz., summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine. Or sainfuin, viz., suain (sounds), for it is then that gentle voices sound, viz., sám-son 'gentle sound'.

-From the Cath Maige Tuired
84. The Dagda had a house in Glen Edin in the north, and he had arranged to meet a woman in Glen Edin a year from that day, near the All Hallows [Samain] of the battle. The Unshin of Connacht roars to the south of it.He saw the woman at the Unshin of Corann, washing, with one of her feet at Allod Echae (that is Aghanagh) south of the water and the other at Lisconny, north of the water. There were nine loosened tresses on her head. The Dagda spoke with her and they united. "the bed of the couple" was the name of that place from that time on. (The woman here mentioned is the Morrigan). 
86. So the aes dana did that and they chanted spells against the Fomorian hosts.
87. This was a week before All Hallows [Samain], and the dispersed until all the men of Ireland came together the day before All Hallows. Their number was six times thirty hundred, that is each third consisted of thirty hundred.

- From the Lebor Gabala Erenn:
242. The progeny of Nemed were under great oppression after his time in Ireland, at the hands of Morc son of Dela and of Connand son of Febar, [from whom is the Tower of Conand named, which to-day is called Toirinis Cetne. In it was the great fleet of the Fomoriag]. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax...

- From the Battle of Mag Mucrama:
 3.Ailill went then one Samhain night to attend to his horses on Áne Chlíach [the hill of Aine]. A bed is made for him on the hill. That night the hill was stripped bare and it was not known who had stripped it. So it happened to him twice. He wondered at it. He sent off messengers to Ferches the poet son of Commán who was in Mairg of Leinster. He was a seer and a warrior. He came to speak to him. Both go one Samhain night to the hill. Ailill remains on the hill. Ferches was aside from it.

- From the Battle of Crimna:
Over Ireland there reigned an admirable king: Cormac, grandson of Conn; at which period also over the Ulidians was a king: Fergus Blacktooth, who had two brothers: Fergus Longhair, and Fergus called ‘Fire-Bregia? Where Cormac’s mansion was then was in Tara; and that of every king in Ireland as well, for the purpose of holding Tara’s Feast: for a fortnight before samhain that is to say, On samhain-day itself, and for a fortnight after. And the reason for which they practised to gather themselves together at every samhain-tide was this: because at such season it was that mast and other products were the best matured.

- From the Birth of Aedh Slaine:
 " With the men of Ireland too it was general that out of all airts they should resort to Tara in order to the holding of Tara's Feast at samhaintide. For these were the two principal gatherings that they had: Tara's Feast at every samhain (that being the heathens' Easter); and at each lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte."


From the Wooing of Emer -
55 To Oimolc, i.e., the beginning of spring, viz., different (ime) is its wet (folc), viz the wet of spring, and the wet of winter. Or, oi-melc, viz., oi, in the language of poetry, is a name for sheep, whence oibá (sheep's death) is named, ut dicitur coinbá (dog's death), echbá (horse's death), duineba (men's death), as bath is a name for 'death'. Oi-melc, then, is the time in which the sheep come out and are milked, whence oisc (a ewe), i.e., oisc viz., barren sheep.

From the Metrical Dindshenchas - 
iar n-imbulc, ba garb a ngeilt - after Imbolc, rough was their herding


- ‎From The Wooing of Emer: 
55 "To Beldine, i.e. Beltine, viz., a favouring fire. For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year. Or to Beldin, viz., Bel the name ofan idol. At that time the young of every neat were placed in the possession of Bel. Beldine, then Beltine."

- From the Cath Maige Tuired:
 [on the arrival of the Tuatha De Danann] "Then they all set sail, and after three years and three days and three nights landed at wide Tracht Mugha in Ulster on Monday of the first week in May."

- From the Lebor Gabála Érenn:
209. Partholon s. Sera s. Sru s. Esru s. Baath s. Rifath Scot from whom are the Scots. He came from "Micil" [Sicily]. He had a voyage of a month to Aladacia. A voyage of nine days had he from Aladacia to Gothia. A voyage of another month had he from Gothia to Spain. A voyage of nine days had he from Spain to Ireland. On a Tuesday he reached Ireland, upon the seventeenth of the moon, on the kalends of May.

221. His four sons divided Ireland into four parts : that is the first division of Ireland. Ireland remained so divided till the plaguing of his people. There came a plague upon them on the kalends of May, the Monday of Beltene; nine thousand died of that plague until the following Monday, upon Mag Elta, five thousand and four men and four thousand women, who were dead between the two Mondays. From that is the plaguing of the People of Partholon in Ireland."

327a. There is the course and the cause of their arrival, after their education : [others say that it was in ships that they all came]. However, they had completed all their education among the Greeks, and they took territory and estate in the north of Alba, at Dobar and Urdobar, for seven years, Nuadu being king over them. And they came to Ireland, on Monday, the kalends of May, in ships [and vessels]. And they burn their ships, and advanced unperceived by the Fir Bolg, till they landed on Sliab in Iairnn. And they formed a fog for three days and three nights over sun and moon, and demanded battle or kingship of the Fir Bolg. And the battle of Mag Tuired was fought between them, as we have said above, and afterwards one hundred thousand of the Fir Bolg were slaughtered there.
Thereafter the Tuatha De Danann took the kingship of Ireland. It is they who brought with them the Stone of Fal, which was in Temair, unde dicitur Inis Fail."

418. The Sons of Mil came into Inber Scene and Inber Feile, and Erimon went left-hand-ways toward Ireland, till he landed in Inber Colptha. That was in the year when Alexander broke the great battle in which Darius the Great son of Arsames fell, at the end of two hundred thirty and seven years, save three years, after the slaying of Baltasar, and after the capture of Babylon by Cyrus son of Darius, whereby the Captivity was released from the Babylonian bondage, according to synchronism and harmony. If we follow according to common belief, it was in the Third Age of the World that the Sons of Mil came into Ireland, a Thursday according to the day of the week, on the seventeenth day of the moon, on the kalends of May according to the day of the solar month. The company of the sons of Mlil took Ireland, and then it was that Amorgen the poet made this poem, as he set his right foot upon land, dicens."

Belltaine .i. bil tene .i. tene ṡoinmech .i. dáthene dognítis druidhe tria thaircedlu...móraib combertis na cethrai arthedmannaib cacha bliadna cusnaténdtibsin (MARG-L eictis na cethra etarru)
Sanas Cormaic B102
Belltaine that is lucky fire that is fire of prosperity that is a festival held with two fires Druids made with incantations...making the offspring of the herds receive blessing every year against illness (left hand marginalia - they needed the herds between)
In other words: "Bealtaine, meaning lucky fire or fire of abundance, a festival with two fires made by Druidic incantations...made for the young herds to receive blessing every year against illnesses (note - the herds need to be driven between the fires)


From the Cath Maige Tuired 1:
"It was on Saturday, the first day of August, that Slainge put into Inber Slainge;" (the arrival of the Fir Bolg in Ireland)

- From the Lebor Gabála Érenn:
59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. This is that Tailtiu who was wife of Eochu son of Erc king of Ireland till the Tuatha De Danann slew him, ut praediximus: it is he who took her from her father, from Spain; and it is she who slept with Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall of the Tuatha De Danann; and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh. Unde Oengus post multum tempus dicebat, "the nasad of Lug, or the nasad of Beoan [son] of Mellan."  

From the Wooing of Emer
55. To Brón Trogaill, i.e. Lammas-day, viz., the beginning of autumn; for it is then the earth is afflicted, viz., the earth under fruit. Trogam is a name for 'earth.'’

- From the Birth of Aedh Slaine:
"...and at each lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte. All precepts
and all enactments which in either of these festivals were ordained by the men
of Ireland, during the whole space of that year none might infringe."

Macalister, R., (1940) Lebor Gabala Erenn, volumes3 and 4
Gray, E., (1983). Cath Maige Tuired
The Battle of Mag Mucrama
The Battle of Crimna
The Birth of Aedh Slaine
Metrical Dindshenchas

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Druids, Sacrifice, and the Power of the Head

   One of the issues about ancient Druids that tends to be brought up by both supporters and detractors is that of ritual sacrifice. Those who support modern Druidism tend to try to minimize or deny the practices among ancient Druids, while those who are against modern Druidism as a viable faith tend to over emphasize it. The reality is that the Druids did sacrifice both animals and people, as did most cultures during that time and it was done for a variety of religious reasons. For modern Druids nothing is gained by denying this fact, but it is important to understand it and the meaning behind the practice. Obviously modern Druids and CRs do not advocate or engage in human sacrifice, but we do make ritual offerings and sacrifices of different types; knowing why the ancients offered what and when they did can help guide us in our modern practice.
   Celtic culture in general, and the Irish in particular, were known to practice head hunting, the belief being that a person's power resided in their head. The heads of enemies would be taken with the belief that the owner of such a trophy would also possess the power of the person whose head was taken; in some cases the head would be preserved, usually with oil, or else hung up for all to see as a trophy (Ross, 1998). Archaeology at many temple sites has revealed skulls, supporting the descriptions of classical authors who discuss the use of heads as trophies given to temples; this both implies a religious significance to the taking of heads and also lends validity to other comments about human sacrifice by classical writers (Ross, 1998). The historian Livy offers this example about the death of the Roman general Postumius: "...the Boii took his severed head in a procession to the holiest of their temples. There it was cleaned and the bare skull adorned with gold, as is their custom." (Freeman, 2002). These heads were collected in wall niches or turned into ritual drinking vessels.
   In modern terms this is important for several reasons. Anyone following a Celtic path needs to understand the significance and importance of the head as the seat of the soul and repository of personal power in order to understand the underlying meaning of different myths and references to the head. As Ross says,  "...a symbol which, in its way, sums up the whole of pagan Celtic religion....This is the symbol of the severed human head; in all its various modes of iconographic representation and verbal presentation, one may find the hard core of Celtic religion." (Ross, 1998, p.154). In different Celtic myths this idea is central to the story itself and key to the meaning behind plot elements. For example in the story of Bran and Branwen when Bran is killed he requests that his head be removed and placed in a certain location so that he can continue to protect his people. We see severed heads that talk and prophecy in other stories, reflecting the idea that the head retained its power after the person's death. Symbolic heads were also used and archaeologists have found examples of carved stone heads, which are believed to reflect the ideas associated with actual heads and skulls. Such trophies were also sometimes associated with specific Gods, as indicated by references such as the one that states that severed heads are "the masts [acorns] of Macha", a goddess associated with war. In modern practice the head can still be valued in the same way; I keep a resin skull on my ancestor altar for this reason. The head can be used in a concrete way in the form of an actual replica skull or in a purely symbolic way in artwork.

   As with the head and skulls we also see references and stories about sacrifice that should be understood in order to understand the beliefs behind the practices. The earliest reference to Druidic sacrifice comes from the 4th century BCE writer Sopater, and is a casual reference which indicates a wider understanding among the Greeks of the Celtic propensity for the practice (Freeman, 2002). The Druids were known to divine the future by reading entrails, and this could be done either with animal or human victims; Diodorus Siculus describes an instance of this in great detail and calls the practice unbelievable. Diodorus also mentions the use of prisoners of war and criminals as sacrifices, and says that the Celts would often sacrifice animals captured in battle as well (Freeman, 2002). Caesar also mentions that criminals and prisoners of war were used as human sacrifices, because, he says, the deaths of such people are the most pleasing to the Celtic gods, and Pliny the elder mentions the sacrifice of white bulls in his description of the Mistletoe rite (Freeman, 2002). Archaeology has provided evidence of the sacrifice of dogs and horses as well as cattle at sacred sites, such as the shrine at Gournay (Green, 1997). Archaeology has also supported human sacrifice among the Celts and supports the more fantastic descriptions by classical authors, including live burial and drowning (Green, 1997). In fact the Druidic practice of human sacrifice was one of the key points that the Romans used to justify destroying the religion; after the time of Caesar when Gaul and portions of Britain have been subjugated Pomponius Mela writes, "The horrible practices of the Gauls have been abolished, yet some of their customs linger on. Though they no longer slaughter human victims, they still require a little blood from them on the way to make a sacrifice." (Freeman, 2002).
    The proof of ancient Druidic human sacrifice is comprehensive and hard to argue against; indeed there is no point trying to argue against it since many cultures historically practiced such sacrifices. It should be discussed though by modern Druids to help us understand the ancient Druids better. We should also be asking ourselves what, exactly, the ancient practice has to do with us. Obviously human sacrifice is a thing of the past and is against modern morals and laws, however the idea behind it deserves consideration. When we ask ourselves why the Druids sacrificed living things we can better understand the principles behind modern sacrifices, which usually consist of objects or food. All the evidence supports the idea that human sacrifice in particular was done only for the most sacred of occasions, or in dire circumstances. Caesar tells us that  "...those who are afflicted with terrible illness or face dangers in battle will conduct human sacrifices, or at least vow to do so....They believe that unless the life of a person is offered for the life of another, the dignity of the immortal gods will be insulted." (Freeman, 2002). In other words human sacrifice was used when a person's life was in danger to offer the gods something of equal value to what is being asked to be healed or preserved. In a modern context this tells us that we should offer something of great value or significance when asking or giving thanks for something of great significance. This is entirely in line with the concept of reciprocity found elsewhere in Celtic (especially Irish) material such as the Testament of Morann or the Instructions of King Cormac. It is essential for modern practitioners to understand, that we must only ask for what we are willing and able to offer compensation for, and that we should offer in accordance with what we feel we have been given. In thanks for a good harvest we offer the first fruits we gather. In exchange for daily blessings we might offer incense or candles, but for something of greater importance we should offer more. There are many options in such cases, from jewelry to weapons, both of which were also used historically by the Celts as offerings usually given to water, or even silver and gold which are as valuable today as they were in antiquity. For those of us with a special skill, whether it is cooking, sowing, art, or something else, we can offer the product of our skill. Some modern CRs, particularly those living on farms, may offer animal sacrifices but my understanding is that it it does humanely and that the animal is eaten afterwards, making it roughly equivalent to kosher butchering. There are also those who are willing, in specific circumstances to offer their own blood, usually using a sterile lancet like diabetics use to test their blood sugar. More common modern offerings range from incense to butter or oil which is ritually burned, flowers, poetry or artwork, food, drink, and silver, with objects of greater value like jewelry and weaponry being offered on special occasions or in extreme circumstances. When weapons or jewelry are offered they are usually broken or rendered useless first in accord with the examples found in known ancient Celtic offering sites. Whatever we as individuals choose to offer, whether it is to the Gods, spirits, or ancestors, the important part is to be confident that we are giving something of value in exchange for what we feel we have recieved or are asking for.

 Ross, A., (1998). Pagan Celts
Freeman, P., (2002). War, Women, and Druids
Green, M., (1997). The World of the Druids

Friday, January 11, 2013

Female Druids

   Every now and then I run across someone who tells me that I can't be a Druid because only men were Druids historically, or that there was gender seperation historically whether it was simply the different genders living seperately or full on segregation of practices. I can blame this on popular fiction novels or on bad mass market books on Druidism, but it still leaves the problem of people seriously believing that women can't be Druids and that bothers me. Not just because I am one, but also because it discourages women just beginning to explore Druidism as a path and steers them away to other things when Druidism may be where they belong.
    Of course there are clearly modern female Druids, some of whom are very well known, and the vast majority of modern Druidic groups are welcoming to Druids of both genders. In this way at least the discussion of female Druids in antiquity is a bit redundant, since whether they existed then or not they most definitely do now. However I think it's important for people to understand the historic material we have and what it does indicate, so that we can have a clearer understanding our collective past and what it is we are building modern practice from. Although it is broadly true that we will never be able to prove anything about the ancient Druids with absolute certainty, I feel that we can draw logical conclusions from the evidence we have.
    There is historical evidence of the existence of female Druids, called bandraoi today and bandruí in Old Irish. Just the fact that there is a word for female Druid in Old Irish, in and of itself, should be strong evidence that the concept of female Druids existed and that their existence was accepted historically; otherwise it seems unlikely, to me, that the oldest sources would have a word to describe them. Beyond that, however, there is also evidence from both Greek and Roman sources as well as mythology to support the existence of female Druids among the ancient Celts. Obviously this evidence is less substantial than that which discusses Druids in general or male Druids in particular, possibly because of the bias of both classic writers and Christian monks against women in positions of power. For example:
   "The Druidess exclaimed to him as he went, 'Go ahead, but don't hope for victory or put any trust in your soldiers.' Lamoridius on the emperor Alexander Severus receiving a prophecy when passing by a Druidess (Freeman, 2002).
     Another account by Vopiscus relates a similar tale of Diocletian being told he would one day be emperor by a Druidess offering a spontaneous prophecy, and later the same writer says "On certain occassions Aurelian would consult Gaulish Druidesses to discover whether or not his descendants would continue to rule." (Freeman, 2002).
  Additionally Tacitus's description of the destruction of Anglesey includes the mention of black-clad women, which he described as "Furies" moving among the Celtic warriors carrying either wands or torches, apparently casting spells or curses at the Roman soldiers; I feel that it is reasonable to believe that these women were Druids. It is true that Celtic women were known to fight alongside their men, but in this context I believe it is more likely that the women were on the island as Druids themselves, rather than wives of men fighting the Romans. The reader is, of course, welcome to draw their own conclusions.
  In various translations and versions of the Tain Bo Cuilgne Fedelm is called a Druidess, Seer, or Fairy. The Morrigan and Macha are called druidesses at different points and the Tuatha De Danann appeared to have both male and female Druids. In the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill it is said that he was fostered by two women, one of whom is described as a Druidess. A 15th century Irish manuscript relates how Fingin Mac Luchta was visited by a Druidess each Samhain eve who would foretell events in the year to come. ( In all of these cases the word used to describe the woman varied between Druidess, seer, and fairy and most were strongly connected to the Otherworld, for example in the story of Fingin the Druidess was said to come from  a fairy hill. It is possible that this reflects the slow Christianization of older stories into more fantastical forms, or the liminal place that Druids occupied where they were always seen as being more than one thing, as it were. The Metrical Dindshenchas describes a woman named Gaine as "learned and a seer and a chief Druid" (Gwynn, 1906). Female Druids were often described as both seers and Druids, indicating that perhaps Druidesses were often both or were particularly associated with prophecy.
   There is only one reference I am aware of that describes an island where only female "priestesses" lived where men were intentionally excluded, and I do not believe that this is enough to justify the belief that the genders were segregated. The shrine of Brighid at Kildare was tended by women after conversion but it is difficult to say whether this was true during the pagan period as well, or is only a reflection of the later Christian division of genders. In contrast there are several cases in Irish mythology were female Druids are described training or teaching men, which supports the more likely scenario of a mixed group.
   Beyond that, it appears to have been accepted in general in Celtic cultures that there were Druidesses historically. As McNeill says, "Among the Celts, women seem all along to have exercised certain priestly functions." (McNeill, ) This is logical, as Celtic women had more rights than their Roman and Greek counterparts being able to rule - we see this with both Cartimandua and Boudicca for example - and fight alongside the men, a practice with appalled the classical commentators.
  Taking all of this together I feel that the existence of female Druids historically is a sound conclusion. Although we may never know exactly what place the female Druids had within the larger Druidic community and Celtic culture they seem to have been especially associated with Seership, and could have achieved high rank, if Gaine a "chief Druid" is any example. For modern female Druids we can be confident that our own practice is as firmly rooted in historic Druidism as the practices of our modern male counterparts, for what that is worth, and that we have as much right to a place on the spiritual path of the Druid as anyone else.

McNeill, F., (1956) the Silver Bough, volume 1
Freeman, P, (2002) War, Women, and Druids
Gwynn, E., (1906). Metrical Dindshenchas

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Being Pagan or Not Being Pagan

    It seems like its getting more and more trendy for people to start distancing themselves from the umbrella term of paganism, which is usually used to describe someone who is a modern polytheist and can apply to almost any religion that isn't monotheistic in approach. In a way I understand the desire behind it - I went through the same thing myself, after about a decade in paganism. I felt like what I was doing, what I believed, was wholly removed from the mainstream paganism of the time, which was riding the wave of new found public popularity, thanks to shows like Charmed, and seemed to center around books professing love and light and turning the other cheek. I should have seen the trend for what it was, having already seen the rise and fall of the same sort of thing around Norse, Celtic and American folk magic. Instead I became disillusioned with community and pulled back from it, not wanting to be associated with pop paganism. For years I scoffed at the lack of scholarship and the do-what-you-want attitude, but finally I came to realize several key things. Like all trends that one passed and moved on to the next. Like all trends it did not really reflect the reality of the pagan community. And, most importantly, like all trends it takes people speaking out and offering a solid alternative to counter the misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the popular perception to overcome it. Realizing that led me to rejoin the wider community and to do so with an eye towards teaching and advocating my own views.
    Perhaps the current anti-pagan paganism trend will create positive things for the larger community, if only by challenging us to better define who we are and what holds us together as a community. Perhaps eventually it will remind us that if we don't stand together as a community, outside of our individual groups and traditions, we are making our own struggle for legitimacy in the wider world that much harder. Perhaps we will come to realize that what holds us together as a community and allows us to accomplish things that benefit us all is the very differences and uniqueness that we all want so much to hold on to. Perhaps we will realize that an umbrella term is not such a bad thing if we use it as a tool to our advantage instead of seeing it as wall holding us back.
     I think that part of what trips people up is the idea that a single word can totally define them; when that word turns out to only cover part of the story or is related to others who don't at all resemble the individual there is a knee jerk rejection of the term itself. For myself writing the forthcoming blog on female Druids was enlightening to me on the topic of labels and self identification. I have long struggled to find the term that describes me best and have long failed to find that perfect term. Writing about the Druidesses of antiquity made it clear to me that they were as likely to be called Druid as Seer, Priestess as Wise woman. All these terms were used almost interchangeably and without any apparent conflict. Thinking about this has helped me to understand that I don't need a single label or term for myself, and neither does anyone else. Calling myself a Druid is descriptive of part of who I am and what I do, but that description is only the beginning and does not need to be restrictive. Pagan, polytheist, heathen, gythia, Druid, witch - these are all parts of who I am. No one word describes the entirety and any single term is only as restrictive as I allow it to be; a word can describe me or define me depending on how I look at it and I have realized the value of description over the restrictiveness of definition.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cursing in the Norse Tradition

  Although it raises some sticky modern ethical dilemmas for some people, and is guaranteed to start a fight in most groups, cursing can be found in all (to my knowledge) ancient cultures. Norse cursing has its own distinct flavor that makes for an interesting subject to look into.
   Possibly one of the most well known types of Norse curses, at least within Heathen groups, is the nidstang. A Nidstang, or Nithstong (scorn-post) is a 9 foot long pole carved with runes that curse a specific person and topped with a severed horse's head or skull (Pennick, 1993). The basic idea of such a pole was to disturb or enrage the landvaettir in such a way that they turned the luck of the target of the curse bad (Pennick, 1993). Nidstangs could also be used to desecrate an area, in which case they were called alfreka, meaning to drive away the elves, with the understanding that to drive away the landspirits was to make the area spiritually impotent (Pennick, 1993). Nidstangs were also combined with curse-runes, where certain runes such as thurisaz were carved a specific number of times in order to negatively effect the targeted person. In Egil's saga, Egil places a curse upon the king and queen who have made him an outlaw by erecting a nidstang and reciting a verbal curse to deny the spirits of the land rest until they force the king and queen out of the country.
    Modern digital nidstangs containing a written curse exist online and have been used for such diverse purposes as cursing negative groups that have co-opted heathen symbols to cursing the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Such a digital curse would work in a different fashion from the traditional poles, unless the caster believes there are digital or virtual wights that can effect the person and aims at turning them against the target. I would say that this type of modern nidstang is aimed more at making a bold public statement or damaging the target's reputation.
  Part of the ritual associated with the nidstang includes spoken or chanted curses and we also see these separately, sometimes used with the invocation of runes. In the Curse of Busla, for example, we see both types as Busla attempts to use witchcraft to save her condemned son by cursing the king, after confronting him as he slept. First she chants a long curse, which includes the verse:
  "Shall trolls and elves and tricking witches,
shall dwarfs and etins burn down thy mead-hall—
shall thurses hate thee and horses ride thee,
shall all straws stick thee, all storms stun thee:
and woe worth thee but my will thou doest" (Hollander, 1936)
 When the king is still not willing to fully pardon her son, she continues with the final and most powerful verse:
 "Come here six fellows: say thou their names:
I shall show them to thee unshackled all.
But thou get them guessed as good me seemeth,
shall ravening hounds rive thee to pieces,
and thy soul sink to hell-fire!” (Hollander, 1936). 
after reciting the curse she draws specific runes in a pattern. Only after this does the king relent and Busla removes the curse she has just layed on him.
    Similar to this we see another type of curse that was spoken but relied on verbally invoking specific runes. One version of this type of curse that I find particularly entertaining to study is the fretrunir, or farting curse. A father and son in Iceland were executed in 1656 after being convicted of using this curse against a pastor and a local girl in what is known as the Kirkjubol witch trial. Part of the chant that they used was said to be:
   “which are to afflict your belly with great shitting and shooting pains, and all these may afflict your belly with very great farting. May your bones split asunder, may your guts burst, may your farting never stop, neither day nor night. May you become as weak as the fiend, Loki, who was snared by all the gods.” (
 Clearly the intent is not only to humiliate the person with excessive gas but also to cause serious health problems relating to the stomach, intestines, and bowels. Another version from the Galdrbok includes the runes used and invokes an array of Heathen and Christian Powers, clearly with the same intent as the Kirkjubol example:
 "I write you eight áss-runes, nine naudh-runes, thirteen thurs-runes — that they will plague thy belly with bad shit and gas, and all of these will plague thy belly with great farting. May it loosen thee from thy place and burst thy guts; may thy farting never stop, neither day or night; thou wilt be as weak as the fiend Loki, who was bound by all the gods; in thy mightiest name Lord, God, Spirit, Shaper, Odhinn, Thorr, Saviour, Frey, Freyja, Oper, Satan, Beezlebub, helpers, mighty god, warding with the companions of Oteos, Mors, Notke, Vitales." (
  There are also examples of rune staves used for cursing, generally by carving the runic symbol on an object such as a piece of wood or bone and then placing it in the path of the target. Several of these types of rune staves can be seen in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft such as the killing rune which is intended to kill livestock belonging to the target. Those who study runes in modern practice also have found that certain runes used on their own can be effective curses, generally aimed at disrupting a person's luck or negatively impacting things around them or their health. 

 Pennick, N., (1993). Runic Magic: the history and practice of ancient runic traditions
 Hollander, L. (1936) Old Norse Poems

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Druidic Wands and Sacred Woods in Irish Tradition

   When the topic of wands and sacred woods within Druidism comes up most people immediately think of what we know from continental and British sources; understandable since the British model is the most popular. I think though that there is more than enough evidence from the Irish, if we look at both the ancient and folkloric sources, to give us a viable system for modern usage. I also think those of us who are Irish-focused polytheists, especially Druids, are better served looking to Irish sources when possible rather than using the more common but less applicable British models.
from top to bottom: a birch wand with crystal point, handmade, and two wands from  Spirit of Old  - a hazel wand with a skull craved at one end, and a blackthorn wand with bark left on the handle
   It's fairly well established that the wand was an important tool used by the Druids in general, and Celtic magic users as well. John Tolland, in his "A Critical History of the Druids", says, "...I return to the Druids, who were so prevalent in Ireland, that to this hour their ordinary word for Magician is Druid, the art of magic called Druidity [sic], and the wand, which was one of the badges of their profession, the rod of Druidism.". (Matthews, 1997). Wands were used not only as a sort of badge of office but also as a magical tool to direct and control energy, usually accompanied by a spoken charm. When we look at Irish mythology we see many instances of Druids using wands, as well as those who are not explicitly Druids but who are acquainted with Druidic magic, such as Fionn mac Cumhail. The story of Fionn includes the use of wands, generally made of hazel; it is a hazel wand that turns Fionn's wife into a deer, and in some translations it is a hazel wand that prospective members of the Fianna must use to defend themselves with when undergoing trials before being accepted, and one version of a story about Fionn has him using a hazel wand for divination (although most versions have him biting on his thumb). In some versions of the story of the Children of Lir as well a wand is used to curse the four children into the shape of swans and in the Wooing of Etain the druid Dalan uses three wands made of yew to divine the location of Etain. A wand is also associated with the traditional celebration of Imbolc where a slat Brighid (wand of Brighid) is placed with the Brideog, in the hopes that the morning will reveal the marks of the wand in the fireplace ashes. The slat Brighid is described as a straight section of white wood, with bark peeled off, and is often made of birch, willow, or bramble (Carmicheal, 1900). In Scotland the quarter days were celebrated, in part, with the use of rowan wands, which were placed above the doors for protection and blessing (McNeill, 1956).
   The trees used for magic and wand making were different in Ireland than in Britain; indeed the sacred trees themselves differed from the well known British oak and its attendant mistletoe. Oak was known and mentioned as sacred in Ireland, but it is the hazel and rowan that were most well known and associated with the Druids (McNeill, 1956). It is believed that the ancient Irish revered hazel, rowan  elder, and hawthorn in particular, with yew and ash also mentioned in some sources (Estyn Evans, 1957; Wilde, 1991). Even into the last century hazel and rowan were viewed as protective and blessing in Irish folklore (O Suilleabhain, 1967). Our knowledge of the Druidic uses of the different woods is somewhat limited but can be supplemented with the more recent folk beliefs about them for modern usage.
   The rowan was seen as a lucky wood and was considered to be the best protection against negative  magic; it is also considered by some to provide the berries that are the food of the aos sidhe (McNeill, 1956). Rowans were often planted by the front door of the home to protect it and rowan wood was used to make sacred fires to cook the little cakes often featured in folk ceremonies (McNeill, 1956). Some also believe that rowan was the wood used by the Irish Druids to create sacred fires for their rituals (Estyn Evans, 1957). In modern practice the rowan is sometimes associated with the goddess Brighid. On Beltane sprigs of Rowan were hung above cradles, churns, and doorways to protect them from fairy influence (Wilde, 1991).
   To the Irish the hazel was both seen as useful in magic, as a wand, and also connected to wisdom as hazelnuts were believed to provide knowledge. We see this in the story of Fionn, who eats a salmon that has eaten the hazelnuts of the well of Segias and gains the wisdom of the world. Hazel nuts are associated with Samhain divinations and may have been used for the same purpose by the Druids (McNeill, 1956). Hazel is also associated with weather magic and with water, being seen by some as connected to storms and having a long history of use in water divining (McNeill, 1956). It was believed that a hazel wand cut on Beltane had the greatest power, and that a person could use such a wand to trace a circle in the ground around themselves which would be a sure protection against fairies and evil spirits (Wilde, 1991). Besides protection, particularly from faeries, hazel was also associated with healing especially of poison (Danaher, 1964). As we've noted hazel wands appear in mythology used by Druids to transform and to divine.
 The elder was also seen as significant. This tree was associated with protection and also with the faeries (McNeill, 1956). The elder seems to have a contradictory nature, being used for healing and making musical instruments like flutes, but also used in cursing; it is said that striking a living thing with an elder twig will cause    illness or death (Danaher, 1964).
    The apple has a long history in Irish lore, being associated with magic, healing, and long life. In myth the apple branch is used to gain entry to the Otherworld, and is strongly associated with the aos sidhe. As Evans Wentz says in the epic Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, "For us there are no episodes more important than those in the ancient epics concerning these apple-tree talismans, because in them we find a certain key which unlocks the secret of that world from which such talismans are brought, and proves it to be the same sort of a place as the Otherworld of the Greeks and Romans." (Evans Wentz, 1911). Many modern Druids use an apple branch decked with bells to open the way to the Otherworld during ritual, and to invite in good spirits.
   Both the blackthorn and hawthorn were dual natured, seen as both protective and also as fairy trees that could be dangerous (O Suilleabhain, 1967). The hawthorn has many associations with Beltane. It may have been significant in part because of its flowers and berries, with the white flowers representing the hope of spring and its red berries the fulfillment of the harvest (Estyn Evans, 1957). While Hawthorns planted by people, or found in hedges, were not seen as special the lone Hawthorn was said to be a fairy tree and not to be disturbed or damaged (Estyn Evans, 1957). Hawthorn is considered one of the 7 herbs of great power by Lady Wilde, along with elder tree bark, ivy, vervain, eyebright, groundsel, and foxglove (Wilde, 1991).
   Finally the yew also plays a role in the Irish approach to magical trees. As mentioned we see a Druid using yew wands in the Wooing of Etain for the purpose of divination. The yew was renowned for its long life and was one of the trees about which it was thought that trimming would bring bad luck (Danaher, 1964). In modern folklore the yew is associated with death, but this is not likely to have been how the ancients saw it as the modern view is largely based on the fact that yews are often found in growing in church graveyards.
    Anyone looking to incorporate the use of trees, wood, or wands into the practice of Irish polytheism would do well, at the least, to focus on hazel and rowan. Including the other trees mentioned here - elder, apple, blackthorn, hawthorn, and yew - would also be useful. Studying the tree ogham for each of the mentioned trees is also helpful at adding depth to their symbolism and uses.

Matthews, J., (1997). The Druid Source Book
Estyn Evans, E., (1957). Irish Folk Ways
Danaher, K., (1964). Irish Customs and Beliefs
O Suilleabhain, S., (1967). Nosanna agus Piseoga na nGael
McNeill, F., (1956). The Silver Bough
Carmichael, A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica, volume 1
Evans Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, L/. (1991) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year Blessing

     Today I start my (secular) New Year by walking through my house smudging with a blend of Juniper, Rosemary, and Vervain to bless my home. As I do this I will say a prayer based on one from the Carmina Gadelica.

*the following is excerpted from my book By Land, Sea, and Sky:

This prayer is commonly said first thing in the morning of the first day of the new year (Carmichael, 1900).
This prayer is meant to be said on the first day of the New Year, whenever you believe that is. It is a request for a fresh start in a fresh year and blessings on the person, their family, and home.

Blessing of the New Year 67

Gods, bless to me this new day,
Never seen by me before;
As I bless You on this morning,
Embracing the time I am given.
Bless my two eyes,
May my eyes bless all I see;
I will bless my neighbor,
May my neighbor bless me.
Gods, give me a clean start,
Let me remain under your protection
Bless my children
 and my husband, 
And bless my life and my possessions.

Carmichael, A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica volume 1