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Monday, June 30, 2014

"I am Guarding Your Death"

   Saturday morning I was home, getting ready to head over to my friend's store when my mother called me. She and my oldest daughter had gone over to my grandmother's apartment, a few minutes drive from my house, to check on her. My mother's voice on the phone was small and hesitant, "Morgan, your grandmother's died. What do I do?"
   I took a deep breath and I told her to call the police department - I gave her the number - and assured her I'd be right there myself. Leaving my younger children with my friend who had come to watch them while I went out anyway, I drove over and found my mother and daughter standing on the expanse of grass at the senior housing complex, crying. The police were on the way. My mother needed my grandmother's address book to begin calling people to let everyone know what had happened, which is how my mother handles these things. I went in to the apartment to get it. I knelt down next to my grandmother and prayed, to her god and to mine, to our ancestors - especially my grandfather, great-grandfather, and father (her son-in-law).
   The fire department came. Paramedics came. Police came. Everyone was wonderful and kind. My daughter sat out on a bench, in the shade, drinking a soda that a neighbor had given her, next to my mother who clung to the phone like a lifeline. I tried to deal with all of the official things as best I could. The fire department left. The paramedics left. The police explained that the funeral home was tied up at a service and would be at least an hour, so we waited together. The police have to stay with the body until its removed; we didn't have to stay but chose to. I was thinking of the old practice of wakes, of staying with the body and of my father, who had served in Vietnam, telling me that you always stayed with people.
   We watched three turkey vultures circle overhead. An osprey with a fish in its talons flew directly over my grandmother's apartment, earning an exclamation of joy even through my daughter's tears. Later a hawk circled lazily through the dazzling blue sky. Dragonflies darted around and a variety of songbirds flitted in to the feeders set up in front of homes. Neighbors came one at a time to ask what was going on, offering support and cold drinks. We talked with the police officer about my grandmother, about how at 96 she still babysat my older daughters (10 and 6). Still lived on her own, still cooked for herself, still did the crossword everyday.
   Finally the men from the funeral home arrived, not in a hearse but in a nondescript grey van. I was disappointed by that; my grandmother deserved the pomp and style of a real hearse. My mother and daughter took a walk to avoid seeing her being taken out - I stayed. I stood, solemn, and prayed as the gurney went in and came out again with its burden. I tried praying to Manannan to help her soul find its way, but my head didn't want to cooperate. I kept thinking over and over of the line from the Tain Bo Regamna where the Morrigan tells Cu Chulain she is guarding his death, and then the way in the Aided Conculaind that she perches on his shoulder after he dies. I felt very much like I was guarding my grandmother's death. I found myself praying to Badb instead, to help my grandmother find her way, to carry her soul to the Otherworld. Somewhere in the woods behind me crows began calling, their voices a rough caw-caw as the van doors closed.
   This is only the beginning; we must get her apartment cleared out and her possessions dispersed. I must add her picture to my ancestor altar, a bittersweet prospect. She is to be cremated and the ashes divided - a task assigned to me - into three portions. The last is a daunting prospect to consider, but I will do what needs to be done as respectfully as I can.
   My grandmother was an amazing and wonderful person. I grew up with her as a part of my life and I have many happy memories. I am also glad that she was a significant part of my children's lives. I will miss her cooking corned beef and cabbage on Saint Patrick's Day. I will miss watching White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street with her every year. I will miss her forcing cookies and ice cream on me every time I visited. I will miss taking drives with her along the coast or just sitting in her apartment talking. I will miss the unconditional love. I will miss her, even knowing that she will never really be gone.
   Ochón! Ochón! Tá brón orm.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Dream of Lughnasa

   I had a strange dream last night about a ritual at Lughnasa. In the dream the people had gathered to honor Macha and Nuada at the harvest, which they were calling Brón Trogain. Everyone had met at a recently harvested field, the earth exposed with only a stubble of stems left jutting up in ragged rows. Two horses had been harnessed together with someone walking behind them, driving them. Two older girls walked in front and to each side of the horses tossing handfuls of straw in their path. The horses were driven over the straw as someone prayed to Macha to bless the earth and Nuada to ward it. I do not remember all the words of the dream prayer, only this part - "...walking, may your steps be sacred steps, walking, may Macha, raven of fierceness, bless this earth, walking, may Nuada, hound of battle, ward what we hold dear...".

  When I woke up I remembered the imagery and feeling of the dream quite vividly. I thought it was very odd because, although I know Brón Trogain is an alternate name for Lughnasa* it's not one I ever use. Macha is tied to Lughnasa by the Aontaí (harvest fairs) at Emain Macha, but we don't have, as far as I know, any existing rituals or even hints of rituals for her at that time. Also although there were traditions in the spring of leading horses over fresh planted fields to make the crops grow better (O hOgain, Lore of Ireland mentions that) I don't know of any such rituals in the autumn.
   I decided to do some research into the different parts of the dream and as expected didn't find anything relating to the ritual itself. Weirdly I did find a study showing the agricultural benefits of covering fields in cut straw over the winter, but I don't believe this was an Irish practice in antiquity. Macha is connected to horses, so the idea of the horses as a blessing agent had a certain logic to it. What I found most interesting though was looking up Brón Trogain in Old Irish. Usually the name of the holiday is translated as "sorrow of the earth" because of the phrase given in the Wooing of Emer passage and it is firmly connected to the beginning of autumn and Lughnasa. I decided to look at what the words themselves actually meant to see if that could offer any insight. Brón means sorrow, grief, burden, or lamentation. Trogain not only means earth and autumn but also female raven, so it could be translated as "Sorrow of the (female) raven". Macha, of course, as one of the Morrigans is associated with both the hooded crow and the raven, forms that she was believed to take. Additionally Trogan is associated with childbirth through this expression "used as an imprecation [curse] troigh mhna troghuin foruibh `pangs of a woman in childbirth" (eDIL, n.d.). I have long held the imbas that it was at a Lughnasa aonach that Macha was forced to race the king's horses and gave birth to her twins, and cursed the men of Ulster, so the odd linguistic connections between the name Brón Trogain for the holiday and the translation of "sorrow of the raven", along with the connection of the word trogain, possibly, with a curse relating to women in childbirth seems far from coincidental to me.
   I still don't fully understand what this dream meant or why I had it. But I think I will be calling the holiday I celebrate on August 1st Brón Trogain from now on....

*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.'’

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Poem for the Morrigan

She is blood and battle and death
The blade that cleaves flesh from bone
That cuts the old from the new
That reshapes, remakes, redefines us
Blood is not to be feared; it is the current of life
Battle is not to be feared; it is the price of sovereignty
Death is not to be feared; it is the end of the old...
And a new beginning, endlessly

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Morrigan's Call: A Retreat Dedicated to the Great Queen

    I spent the last weekend at Temenos retreat center in Massachusetts, participating in a spiritual retreat dedicated to the Morrigan. The retreat itself ran from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, but a lot was packed into that short amount of time. There were workshops, rituals each day, and a concert by Jenna Greene. We set up a temple in a screened in space at the top of a hill, and our temple had altars for an Dagda, Badb, Macha, Anu, Nuada, and the land spirits, as well as a large main Morrigu altar.
the main Morrigan altar

FRIDAY:
   I traveled up with my friend Melody. We arrived Friday afternoon and were directed to our cabin by Stephanie, who was organizing things. Temenos is off the grid so there is no cell phone reception, no electricity, and no plumbing. Our cabin, which we shared with two other amazing women, was beautiful; I could easily see myself living in that cabin year round. There was a kerosene lamp for light at night and a woodstove for heat, although we never needed to use the latter.

our cabin
 After unpacking and a quick side trip to the temple space to drop off some altar items, we hiked the half mile or so to the main lodge  over the dirt trail with its roots and stones and undulating rise and fall, watching carefully to avoid stepping on the little salamanders we'd been warned would be out and about. The main lodge was like a large version of our cabin but with a kitchen and limited running water; the water at Temenos is mineral water laced with iron, magnesium, and sulfur so there was also an abundance of bottled water around. Most people were staying at the lodge so on Friday afternoon it was a hub of activity as people arrived and settled in.
   Eventually, when it seemed that everyone who was coming had gotten there, we all processed up to the temple space - and I mean up, up a winding, steep, rocky path that I jokingly called a goat trail - to bless the space and invite in the different Powers. Blessing the space was a special experience, and I am glad I got to be part of it. The altars were a joint effort, created by people who brought different items to add, but the end result was cohesive and beautiful.
   At this point, if memory serves there was a break for dinner and then those of us participating in the first night's ritual headed down to the ritual space to get ready. Stephanie and Mayra Rickey had designed the rituals together and several of us had volunteered to help out by taking parts in them. This first one invoked Badb as the Washer at the Ford and was focused on cleansing and releasing the past. I cannot possibly do justice to the ritual by describing it in words; it was intensely moving and powerful and I truly believe that She was present with us and that we each got what we needed from the experience.
  After ritual, as the moon rose and the sunlight faded to darkness, we made our way back to the lodge and Stephanie and I taught our workshops. Her's was an introduction to the Morrigan and mine was about the Morrigan in the Invasion myths and what we could learn about Them and how They related to other Gods in those stories.

SATURDAY:
    Saturday morning started early, as we all woke up just after 6 a.m.; nonetheless we were slow getting going out of the cabin. The four of us spent a couple hours talking, reflecting on the first day, getting to know each other, and generally socializing in the cabin.
the view from our cabin
As the sun climbed higher though I finally had to excuse myself to go to the temple for my morning devotionals before breakfast. Morning devotional prayers are a daily practice I find deeply fulfilling and which I always find some way to do, although its much better to have a dedicated temple space to do them in. I went up, prayed, introduced myself to the local land spirits and daoine sidhe before heading down to the lodge looking for something to eat. The atmosphere in the lodge was open and friendly, with people hanging out and chatting in small groups. I made my way to the kitchen where one of my cabin-mates, the amazing Natalie, was cooking and I quickly acquired some pancakes. It was wonderful to stand and eat and get to know my fellow retreat members, especially talking with people that were from very different places that I had an unbelievable amount in common with.
   There were some great workshops Saturday, including a class by Stephanie on Babd, one by Ed Rickey on the warrior mindset, and one by Michelle Skye on connecting to Macha. All of them provided insight and moments to connect to the Goddess in profound ways. I taught one on honoring the Morrigan in difficult times as well. And in between there was lunch and labyrinth walking and more socializing.
   The highlight of Saturday for me was a ritual devoted to Macha, who of course I am dedicated to. The ritual was designed as a challenge, to confront people and ask them what was worth fighting for. I had the role of Macha of the Battlefield and the job of challenging each participant with my sword during the center of the ritual. I consider it a very great honor to have been able to do this as part of my service to Her and I hope that I did that job well. The ritual itself I cannot describe, but I will say that it was one of the most intensely spiritual experiences of my life.
  Afterwards the group headed back to the lodge for dinner and I and a couple others went up to the temple space. Honoring Macha is an honor to do, but it is not always easy nor simple, and certainly not always what I expect it to be. I let go of one of my greatest fears this weekend and embraced an aspect of service I have always balked at doing, always pulled back from. I let go of my fear and faced my own challenge, my own question of what was worth fighting for, and set my feet on a path that I cannot turn back from now. Because there is dedication in word and there is dedication in deed...
    After temple we went down to the lodge with everyone else and ate and enjoyed Jenna Greene's concert. I have heard Jenna many times but it is always a treat to listen to her play her harp and sing, especially this time with Brian Duguay joining in - they duet beautifully. It seemed like such a perfect ending to a day that was both intense and moving, although in fairness my day ended not with gentle music but with a rather amusing trek through the dark, following a flashlight beam and my intrepid cabin-mate Ivy with my other cabin-mates trailing behind. There was a certain symmetry in the day ending as it did, with music and song and fellowship followed by a challenging journey on a rough and unpredictable path through the tenebrous woods.

SUNDAY:
   The morning of the final day dawned bright and hot. Morning devotionals were followed by breakfast and socializing, very much like the day before, the routine already feeling comfortable and normal. It quickly became clear that the original schedule for the day was going to have to be rearranged to accommodate several unplanned for situations that had arisen, but the entire group rolled with it in a marvelously convivial fashion. We moved the final ritual, a blessing dedicated to Anu, up and shifted the workshops back, moved the location of the ritual closer to the lodge to accommodate some mobility issues and worked in a small mini-ritual before hand to include a couple people who had missed the first two rituals but wanted to come to the final one. I reprised my role as Macha in the mini-ritual and participated in the Anu ritual as Anu of the sidhe, handing out the blessed tokens. The energy of this final ritual was calm and solid - I felt like a standing stone through most of it - and entirely perfect to end the retreat with.
  After the final ritual we had a raffle to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, with lots of great items going to support the cause. Then Michelle did a workshop on bird omens, I taught one on Morrigan and the Fair Folk, which ended up more as a class on the Fair Folk with some discussion of how that relates to the Irish Gods (and apologies for my atrocious accent in Irish to the lovely girl from Roscommon), and Natalie did a crafting workshop. And then it was a rush to pack and head off the site to get home....

Temenos

    People came to this retreat from as far away as Canada and Florida, from California and Virginia. People came representing many different pagan paths and belief systems. Women and men, old and young, different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, different education and life experience backgrounds, different beliefs and approaches - a diverse group of people, all coming together for one purpose, to honor the Great Queen. Without melodrama, without interpersonal conflict or ego, without tension between the many, many different people's differences. We came together to honor Her, and we did; in word, and song, in ritual, and prayer, in communion with each other and by sharing our experiences and insights with each other. And it was an awesome and amazing thing to experience.   

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Random Morrigan Shenanigans

 Recently a new book was released: By Blood, Bone, and Blade, a tribute to the Morrigan. This is an interesting work with an assortment of material from many different contributors and like all anthologies some of the material is really good and some is less so. I personally have an essay and several prayers in the book.
  On another Morrigan related note I will be at a Morrigan Retreat in Massachusetts this weekend teaching workshops, helping with rituals, and generally honoring the Great Queens. I'm excited for this opportunity to honor Her/Them and to spend time with other people who honor Her. My workshops look at the Morrignae in the Lebor Gabala Erenn and what that tells us about Them, the Morrigan as a goddess for difficult times, and the Morrigan in relation to the daoine sidhe.
  When I get back I'll share my experiences here.