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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why I'll Always Talk About My Mistakes

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar - touching them is a mistake. Their hair causes allergic reactions and their barbs can cause serious injuries to the eyes. They are pretty though. 


  I suppose its fair to say that I'm more than a tad bit cynical. This isn't so much a matter of age as personality, I think - cynical is my natural default setting and always has been. Chalk it up to some very well ingrained early life lessons that taught me not to trust things that appeared too good to be true, because not only were they never as good as they appeared they often concealed hidden dangers. In all my life I have never found this approach to be a bad one to live by - I am either already prepared when the truth comes out or pleasantly surprised when things actually are as good as they seemed.

I have noticed a trend - in culture, in paganism and polytheism, in general - for people, especially people who are in the public eye, to only ever focus on the positives. In metaphysical books and classes I often listen to teachers telling cute anecdotes about how successfully they have done things, or how well they have handled difficult situations. And make no mistake there's nothing wrong with telling stories of success; success has its place and we need to hear about the times things go right. But too often there is no balance, there is no matching story of failure, or struggle, or personal error to go with the stories of flawless success. I mistrust on a deep instinctual level people who never, ever talk about making mistakes, who present their magical and spiritual lives as smooth, error-free adventures. When I see that sort of perfection being touted I smell a trap (hey I told you at the beginning I was cynical - but that doesn't mean I'm wrong). 

I don't think anyone who actually does anything lacks stories of screwing up, and that's true of spirituality and magic as much as it is of skateboarding or painting. If experienced people aren't sharing their stories of messing up they either don't want to admit they make mistakes or they don't have any to share because they don't actually do anything. In the first case I think its both foolish and dangerous to act like an experienced person doesn't make any mistakes, because it gives less experienced people the impression that perfection is an attainable goal in magical work and spirituality. Its certainly what we want to aim for, and I make far fewer mistakes now than I did a quarter century ago, but I do still make mistakes. And in the second case, well, if you aren't actually doing anything then of course there's no chance of making a mistake. I've got nothing really to say about the people who don't actively do, except that I can't see much reason to learn from them unless what they are teaching is meant to be purely academic anyway. As to the ones who won't admit they mess up, as I said I think its a dangerous and foolish attitude. I would rather have a teacher who seems like a real person that I can relate to than one who is trying to impersonate a state of impossible perfection that I know is beyond me. I also worry that it is easy to fall into complacency, or worse arrogance, where we forget that there is an element of risk and danger to what we do, particularly with magic. When we start to assume everything we do will go exactly as we plan or every situation is in our control and something we can handle, that is when people get hurt. 


I'm not sure why this fear of acknowledging mistakes is so pervasive. To err is human as they say, and mistakes are universal. If they fear criticism, well we will all be criticized anyway and as Teddy Roosevelt said: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings..."


I will always talk about my mistakes, no great challenge because they have been numerous. In almost any spiritual or magical context I can think of a situation where I mishandled, misconcieved, misunderstood, or generally made the wrong choice in how to react to something in a way that had negative consequences. There was the time I accidentally got my friend possessed by an angry ghost because I thought I knew how to handle a situation that I didn't have the experience (at the time) for. Or the time in a ritual at a friend's house that we set her parent's carpet on fire because we used the wrong kind of candles and they burned too fast. There was the time I underestimated the amount of Fey energy in a place and let my guard down, and had my ankle grabbed walking across a flat lawn resulting in a painfully sprained foot (if you've never sprained the muscles in your foot, trust me its even less fun than it sounds like it would be). There was the time I decided not to banish a negative ghost in a place we were living and my husband was almost shoved off a second story deck. There was the time I did a poorly worded money spell and promptly was in a car accident, which meant receiving money in a very undesirable way. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. I have made mistakes; I make mistakes. We all do and that's okay because making mistakes and struggling to fix them - or even having to live with the consequences of them - is how we learn. And learning is absolutely vital in magic and spirituality. This isn't a game, this is - for those of us who really believe in it anyway - a system that has actual and sometimes profound repercussions. Like life itself, magic and spirituality can be messy, can be dangerous, and can go sideways when we least expect it; and we have to know how to handle whatever gets thrown our way. Examples of perfection and stories about everything going exactly to plan have their place but they don't and can't teach us these things. Mistakes can.

We only learn from our mistakes if we acknowledge that we made them - and if we never forget the experience and what it taught us. I have erred hugely in my spiritual and magical life and have often and repeatedly paid for it, and those lessons, hard won and painful, have been invaluable. I share those stories with my students and with people who take my workshops or read my books partially so that they won't necessarily need to make the same mistakes (go forth and make your own, as it were) and partially so that they will see that we all make mistakes. I don't believe in perfection, and I think that anyone who is living is capable of error. What matters isn't that we don't make any mistakes, but that we own the mistakes we make, do what we can to fix them, and learn as much as possible from them.

Because when we don't learn from our mistakes, as the old saying goes, we are doomed to repeat them. 
Ignis aurum probat


The result of pissing of the Good People, circa 2014

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Scottish Fairies and the Teind to Hell

  There's an interesting tidbit of folklore in Scotland which says that the Good Folk must pay a teind (tithe) to Hell; this idea appears first in writing in two poems and seems from there to enter the wider lore particularly in the modern period. The teind is an interesting folkloric belief because it is not found in Ireland, nor was it a belief throughout Scotland until a much later period, originally being seen only along the southern border. In his extensive writing on the Scottish Fey in the 17th century, for example, rev. Robert Kirk makes no mention of such a teind, and it appears in only one contemporary witchcraft trial in Edinburgh, yet today it is often discussed as if it were factual for all the Good Folk.

 It is worth noting as we begin however that this may not simply be a Scottish belief but a particularly regional Scottish belief, appearing originally in the areas around the river Tweed. The textual evidence for the Teind comes from the 15th century poem 'Thomas of Erceldoune', later known as 'Thomas the Rhymer' and is tied by place and personal names into the area around Dryburgh Abbey and Melrose along the Tweed (Murray, 1918). The second oldest literary source for the teind is the poem 'The Ballad of Tam Lin' dating to the 16th century set at Carterhaugh in Selkirk, also near the Tweed, along one of its tributaries (Murray, 1922). The two locations are about 8 miles apart. In contrast Rev Kirk was living and writing in Aberfoyle, about 80 miles to the north. I believe this geographic difference was significant, and part of the explanation for why the teind seems to have been so strongly present in one specific area and almost unknown elsewhere.

The teind itself is the idea that the Good People must pay a tribute to Hell on a regular basis, generally said to be every seven years (Briggs, 1976). The exact agreement and terms vary by source: with the single witchcraft confession claiming it was a yearly tithe and the two poems clearly stating it is paid every seven years. It is also called both a teind in some variations and a kane in others; teind in Scots means tithe, a payment of a tenth part, while kane is a Scots word for a payment by a renter to his landlord (Lyle, 1970). The difference between a teind and a kane is of course hugely significant, as the first clearly implies the loss of a tenth of the population every seven years (if we assume seven years was the standard) and the second does not. Indeed the text of Tam Lin often implies that he expects to be the only one given to Hell as he says 'I fear 'twill be myself' (Lyle, 1970). It would seem that there is more logic to the idea of a single offering rather than of a tenth of the entire population being given every year or every seven years, but the evidence exists to support either interpretation.

In the trial of Alison Pearson the accused witch confessed to learning her craft from the fairies and said that "every year the tithe of them [the fairies] were taken away to Hell" (Scott, 1830). 'Thomas of Erceldoune' references the Devil fetching his fee from the fairies and suggests that Thomas will be chosen because he is so strong and pleasant:
"To Morne, of helle the foulle fende,
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And thou arte mekill mane and hende,
I trowe wele he wode chese thee." (Murray, 1918).
 Similarly Tam Lin, while pleading with his lover to save him from his fate says that:
"But aye at every seven years,
They pay the teind to Hell;
And I am sae fat and fair of flesh
I fear 'twill be mysell.' (Child, 1802)
This seems to suggest that the tithe was a regularly anticipated event and that those chosen for the teind are picked for physical health and personality. It is the best who are chosen and given, and so in both poems the ones who would be the teind try to avoid their fate. Although the teind in general has a heavily christian overtone one might see in this aspect perhaps hints of an older pagan reflection, where a sacrifice chosen for a deity would always be of the best quality, unblemished, and usually of good temperament.

The core concept behind this payment seems to be the idea that the Gentry are the vassals or subjects of Hell and it's ruler and so owe it and him rent on a set basis. This rent is paid, we might say, in the currency of Hell - people. Lyle's article 'The Teind to Hell in Tam Lin' argues that the belief in the teind grew out of a need to explain the belief in changelings (Lyle, 1970). From this perspective people in seeking to understand why fairies stole human beings came to fit them and their motives into a Christian worldview; fairies were fallen angels who lived as tenants to the Devil, trapped as it were outside of both Heaven and Hell they needed to pay rent to their landlord and did so by stealing humans to spare having to give up their own folk. A key aspect to this argument is the fact that in both poems the teind is due to be paid the next morning and the men in the story can be saved that night if they escape Fairyland before the payment (Lyle, 1970). In Tam Lin this occurs explicitly on Samhain, a time in Scotland when the bi-annual rents came due, reinforcing the idea that the tithe or kane was a rent payment (Lyle, 1970).

It is entirely possible that Lyle is correct and that the teind is a later folk belief, dating to the mid second millennia, and created to explain changelings. Certainly it has many layers of such belief attached to it and it is impossible to ever know the ultimate roots of the beliefs now. However it is also possible that the ideas behind the teind may also reflect much older, highly localized beliefs which I might tentatively suggest originally related to offerings or sacrifices to the spirits of the area or perhaps a deity of the river Tweed. If the Christian overtones are stripped away and we remove the references to Hell and the Devil, which I think we can safely say are much later additions to any potentially earlier beliefs, we are left with a septennial sacrifice of either a single individual or a tenth portion - a tithe - paid as a form of rent by the Fairy inhabitants of the area of the river Tweed around Melrose. One might even go further and suggest that during the pagan period this payment was most likely from the human inhabitants to the Fey in that area or perhaps to the deity of that river itself. The Celts, et al., were well known for worshiping river deities and for making votive sacrifices to rivers, so such an idea is not at all out of place with what is known of native pagan religion (MacCulloch, 1911). Traditional Fairy Faith beliefs as well would support the idea of the importance of specific locations to very specific beings and practices and the idea that a belief might be highly localized, especially prior to modern technology and the spread of literacy (Evans-Wentz, 1911). I believe that after Christianization the beliefs were either changed to reflect the new cosmology, to fit into the new belief system, or else over time the older beliefs were confused and twisted when they stopped being followed.

So ultimately we can conclude that the teind is a fascinating and unique belief found in the southern area of Scotland as early as the 16th century. It reflects the idea that the fairies paid rent to Hell in the form of lives, preferably stolen human ones, probably once every seven years. A person could avoid being this teind if they could be rescued from Fairy on the eve of the payment, otherwise if they were fair enough and well mannered enough the Devil might choose them as payment. The belief itself might be a way to explain why the fairies took humans to begin with and left changelings, or it could perhaps be an echo of an older pagan practice or offering sacrifices to the spirits themselves for the humans to pay rent, as it were, to live in the territory of the gods or Fey. Ultimately we will never know with certainty, but it is an interesting subject to contemplate.


References:
Child, F., (1802) Tam Lin
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Lyle, E., (1970). The Teind to Hell in Tam Lin
Murray, J., (1918) The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune
Murray, J., (1922) The Complaynt of Scotland
Macculloch, J., (1911) Religion of the Ancient Celts
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Scott, W., (1830) Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Offerings to Gods and Spirits

  Offerings are a word that gets thrown around a lot in modern paganism and polytheism, particularly in the corners of it that I lurk in. Earlier this month at the Morrigan's Call Retreat I had a good discussion about offerings with another speaker at the event, Lora O'Brien, and she recently wrote a blog 'Working as a Spiritual Fixer in Ireland' which  I highly recommend reading. As I've been thinking about the subject more I've decided that it really is something that could use a more in-depth public discussion. On the surface it seems like a pretty straightforward concept - an offering is something that you give as a gift or in exchange for something - in spirituality usually to create reciprocity. And like all seemingly simple things it is actually much more complicated than it seems.

  I make offerings all the time myself because I see them as something that underpins my spirituality. Offerings are what create and continue relationships with the spirits and various beings around me, from my ancestors to the Gods, from the land spirits to the Other Crowd. I make offerings on holy days and important occasions, but I also make them on a daily basis, and I truly believe that I receive back in exchange.

altar space with offerings at Brushwood, NY

However there are some key things about offerings that I think are important to understand, and that are not often discussed. Firstly why do we make offerings? The main reason historically was twofold: to propitiate the spirits for blessing or to prevent harm, or to maintain an agreed upon exchange. In the first case, when applied to the Good Neighbors, the idea was that if we offered to them willingly they would not take from us forcibly so we see practices like milk being offered at fairy trees or cows being bled in fairy forts on holy days like Bealtaine. This ties in to some degree with the second idea which is that there was once an agreement between the Tuatha De Danann and/or aos sidhe and humans that a portion of our milk and grain would be given to them so that they would allow the land to prosper - basically we give back some of our harvest in acknowledgement that it ultimately comes through their good will. There are also those who traditionally would offer, especially milk or cream, once a week to the Fey in their home or immediate area in appreciation for their effort around the area and to ensure no ill luck about the place. Another aspect of this is that if we are taking something from one of their places, visiting where we don't usually go, or feel we have been given a gift by them or - in my opinion - feel we owe them in some way we should something back. With the Gods we may be offering for many reasons but ultimately the ideas can be the same: to build relationships, to create connection, in thanks, in propitiation. Offering to our ancestors may be more casual and more often because the relationship with them is closer and more implicit. Reciprocity is built piece by piece on giving when things are received and offerings are important to that.

Any offering should always be the best of something that you have to give, even if its a daily offering you are making. the idea here isn't to do something as a throw away action but to do it with intention and even if its small and casual it should be meaningful. It should have value, both intrinsically and to you as something that actually costs to give. the cost doesn't have to be monetary but it should be something that really matters to you, something that you have an investment in. I burn incense every day to the Gods and it is always either something I've made myself or the best quality one I could find to buy. Offering to spirits is not a matter of giving second rate things or whatever you have on hand*, although I will say that in some situations I have literally given the jewelry I was wearing. In my house we often share our own food with the various spirits we offer to, both in the belief that we are giving what is good enough for us, and because the practice of sharing food with spirits is a long one in many cultures seen in things like the Dumb Supper and in ancient ritual sites were evidence shows feasting and faunal deposits (people sacrificing animals, eating them and giving them to the gods).

Midsummer cake baked as an offering to Aine and the Gentry
When choosing what to give I do look at what would have been a traditional offering, like milk or cream for the Good Neighbors, or historically what was given to certain Gods. I also trust my intuition though, so my ancestors get things like coffee and hard candies. Sometimes I give things like poetry or songs, or my own effort or energy with something, if it seems like that is an appropriate thing to give. And I find that sometimes when something needs to be given I'll just get an idea for what it needs to be - and understand it isn't always something I want to give. For whatever reason I end up offering a lot of silver in the form of jewelry, usually jewelry I have a sentimental attachment to. These aren't things I necessarily want to give, in the sense of I'm not seeking to give them away or eager to give them up. I'd rather keep them, but I've found that when I get that feeling that I need to give something the more I resist it the stronger the feeling gets and the more little omens and indications I'll get that I need to make the offering. Recently for example I had gotten a feeling before going somewhere that I was going to need to give one of my favorite necklaces, a larger stone that was a cabochon of an amethyst naturally growing within clear quartz set in silver (my friend had called it a fairy stone when she'd seen). I did not want to give up this necklace but nonetheless I wore it when I went where I was going, and while I was there I kept getting that nagging feeling as well an assortment of different things going on indicating that an offering was needed. I tried other things first of course, because I'm stubborn, but finally I gave what they wanted and after that things shifted into a more positive sense. I've had the same thing happen before over the years, and I try to be philosophical about it. You may sometimes feel called to offer something with metaphysical significance such as your own blood or an oath and in that case you need to really seriously think about all the implications before you do it, especially if you have no familiarity with blood magic or with the power of oaths (when in doubt don't do it is always a good way to go, and try to find a substitute, if you really feel you must try to talk to someone more experienced first if you can).

So we've looked at why we offer and what, and I've mentioned to whom. When we offer is another question we might want to discuss. I mentioned daily offerings, and those are an option. I usually make daily offerings to the Gods in the morning and do some meditation on the day to come as part of my morning routine. these offerings are fairly small and basic - usually incense and lighting a candle - and represent a way to connect to the deities I honor. I also make a weekly offering to the Good People, of cream, because its traditional and to maintain a right relationship with them. And on the holy days, the holidays I celebrate I make offerings as well, to the ancestors, Gods, and spirits. If I am traveling I also will make offerings when I come to a new place, sort of a peace or friendship offering to the spirits of that place. I don't think there's really any right or wrong for when to make offerings but I do think if you are pagan/polytheist that making offerings at least on the holy days is a good idea.

  I will add this though on the subject of regular offerings to the Other Crowd: its a commitment that you shouldn't start unless you're willing to follow through with it. There are weeks were I am literally spending the last of my grocery money - or dipping into my gas money - to get the cream to give the Good Neighbors, but they always get theirs, sure enough. I learned my lesson on that one years ago when finances made me decide to stop giving them milk and I had an entire gallon pulled from my hand; as my grandfather would say, if you don't give them their due they'll take it. And in my experience they really will.

Where you leave offerings is really going to depend on your own circumstances and preferences. I follow the school of thought that the Gods and spirits consume the essence of the item, if it's food or drink, within the first 24 hours of it being offered and after that the physical item itself can be disposed of. So I leave offerings on my altar for a day then throw them out, or put them outside. In some cases I put them directly outside, but if you choose to do this consider whether the item is safe for any animal that might eat it. Milk, cream, honey, or alcohol are either kept on the altar for a day or poured directly outside. Flammable items like paper, butter, ghee, or herbs, I burn, because of the old Celtic belief (recorded by the Romans) that what is burned with intent in our world appears in the Otherworld. Solid items like silver, jewelry, or weapons, I give to earth or water, again because of archaeological evidence that this is how historic offerings were made in the pagan period.

**Editing to add: This should be common sense but we all know the saying about that...Most of this blog is discussing offerings in the context of home or private ritual sites. If you are visiting a historical, archaeological, famous, or natural site please do not leave a tangible offering there unless there is a policy in place allowing it. Its bad form to leave items, even what you might consider small things like crystals or coins at sites, that might be excavated for study at some point, and its extremely bad form to leave any sort of trash or litter anywhere. FYI - candle wax, food wrappers, bottles, and such are trash and they shouldn't be left at public sacred sites for other people to clean up. When in doubt pouring out a bit of water is usually a respectful and safe option. You can save the bigger offerings for other private settings later, or ask someone local (if you are traveling) how best to handle what you need to do.

So, I think we've covered every aspect of offerings I can think of, excluding how which is really a personal detail that I think is up to the individual to decide and also probably depends on your specific path - although its been touched on anyway here in bits and pieces. Offerings should never be taken lightly, and even when they are part of the daily round of our spirituality should never become routine. And whatever we offer should always be understood as important and valuable, or quite frankly its not worth doing, because if its being done without the proper intent or without any meaning - offering something with no real value to the person - then it will have no meaning or value to the spirits receiving it either.

* I'll add one exception to that, in emergency situations obviously you may end up offering what you have on hand but it should still be the best you can muster.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dreanacht - Wren Augury

The second part of the text on raven and wren augury. Original text followed by my translation.

Dreanacht
Mad congaire an ceanandan duit anair turus daine craibtheach cucad co n-agairbe fort. Madh anairdes gaires an drean druith uallcha doroith. Mad aniar esurraidh dobi cucaib. Mad anairtuaidh goires aes lasa mbi cele fesa no mna tic and. Mad atuaidh is inmuin leat anti tic and. Mad aniartuaidh tic aes craibthech tic and. Mad od leith anneas gairesacht minab edrud ocus grian turus inmuin tic cucaib. Mad edrut ocus grian guin duine dil duit no adharc fort budéin. Mad ad cluais cli comrac fri hóg ua cein no fess la mnai óic. Mad ad deaghaidh gaires guidhi do mna d’fer ele dod chind. Mad for talmain tis ad deaghaid berthar do ben uaid ar eigin. Mad anair gaires an drean aes dana do thiachtain cuccad no scela uathaibh. Mad andes id diaigh gaires taisigh clerech maith nodcífi no tasc athlaoch uasul adcluinfe. Mad aniardhes gaires ladraind ocus drochbachlaigh ocus drochmhna do thiachtuin cucad. Mad aniar drochdhaine gail tic ann. Mad aniartuaidh gaires deghlaoch sochenelach ocus brugadha uaisle ocus mná maithi dothic ann. Mad atuaigh gaires drochdaine tic ann, gidhad oig gidhad clerigh cidad drochmna ocus aos ochaid aingidh do rochtain. Mad andes gaires galur no coin allta for do chethruib. Mad do thalmain no do chloich no do chrois gaires tasc duine moir indisis duit. Mad do chrosuib imda gaires ar daine sin ocus in lin fechtus teid forsin talmain is ed in lin marb dlomus, ocus an leth forsa mbi a aghaid is as dlomus na mairb.

Best, R.I. (1916) "Prognostications from the Raven and the Wren," Ériu



Wren augury
If the little fair headed one calls to you from the east
 people of devotion journey to you with severity on you. If southeast the wren calls false-bearded fools will arrive. If from the southwest, landless men are coming to you. If from the northeast it calls people with entertainment for the night or women are coming there. If from the north one who is beloved to you is he that is coming there. If from the northwest people of devotion are coming there. If it sings from the south side, it calls, although not between you and the sun, a beloved on a journey is coming to you. If it is between you and the sun wounding of a person dear to you or destruction on you yourself. If near the left ear yourself contesting against a young man or sleeping with a young woman. If near the back of you it calls an invitation by your woman to another man following you. If on the ground below near your back your wife will be taken from you indeed. If from the east the wren calls poets are coming to you or news from them. If from the south behind you it calls good, concealed clergy you will see or you will hear death-news of a noble ex-layman. If it calls from the southwest thieves and bad servants and bad women are coming to you. If from the west bad warlike people are coming there. If it calls from the northwest a good warrior from a noble family and noble hospitallers and good women are coming there. If from the north it calls bad people are coming there, or young warriors or clerics or bad women and cruel inciting people will be arriving. If it calls from the south illness or wild wolves on your herds. If from the ground or from a stone or from  cross it calls death news of great people it announces to you. If from many crosses it calls it is a slaughter of men and the full number it journeys between there and the earth is the full count of the dead it proclaims, and they will be from the side on which it faces as it proclaims the dead.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Two Short Translations

"Is Acher in Gáith Innocht"

Is acher in gaíth innocht,
fu-fúasna fairgge findfolt:
ní ágor réimm mora minn
dond láechraid lainn ó Lothlainn


Fierce is the wind tonight
Agitating the ocean's white hair;
I do not fear advancing across the sea
Eager dark warriors of Norway


Quatrains on Festivals

Atberim frib, lith saine,
ada buada belltaine:
coirm, mecoin, suabais serig,
ocus urgruth do tenid.

Lugnassad, luaid a hada
cecha bliadna ceinmara,
fromad cech toraid co m-blaid,
biad lusraid la Lugnasaid.

Carna, cuirm, cnoimes, cadla,
it e ada na samna,
tendal ar cnuc co n-grinde,
blathach, brechtan urimme.

Fromad cach bíd iar n-urd,
issed dlegair i n-Imbulc,
díunnach laime is coissi is cinn,
is amlaid sin atberim.


I tell to you, an excellent festival,
suitably pre-eminent is Bealtaine:
ale-feasts, edible roots, gentle bitters,
and new curds for a fire.

Lúnasa, suitably it moves
each year along,
tasting every fruit of harvesting,
food herbs with Lúnasa.

Meat, beer, nuts, tripe,
they are suitable food for Samhain,
bonfire on a hill with a company,
buttermilk, a roll of new butter.

Tasting each food for freshness,
this is the principle at Imbolc,
cleansing hands and feet and head,
Thus I say to you.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Popculture Fairies, Kids, Contradictions, and Conversations....

Or I could have titled this one 'teaching my kids about the Good Neighbors in a post modern world' but that wouldn't have been any shorter, would it?

So, as I've mentioned, probably ad nauseum at this point the main focus of my actual day to day, rubber-hits-the-road spirituality is the Otherworldly spirits and land spirits. I also, as I am sure I've not often mentioned but you may have caught onto, have three children. My kids are now ages 3, 8, and 12 which is an interesting spread to deal with. I have always held to the belief that we should raise our children with our beliefs and let them decide what they want to do from there, so from birth my kids have been raised pagan. And teaching them about the Gods has been fairly easy - they see what I do on holy days, they hear the stories, they see the altar, the offerings. I read them the mythology, much of which can be found in child-friendly versions. My husband is a very casual sort of Egyptian pagan but they see his version of spirituality too and it offers a nice counterpoint, I think to my own.

Teaching them about the Other Crowd is a whole other kettle of fish, almost literally.

You see, I realized really early with my oldest that I was swimming against the popculture tide, for the most part, on this one. Because the pagan Gods generally* are untouched by modern younger kids shows and movies, but while I'm over here railing against twee little fairies and the dangers of assuming too much safety with the Fey, Disney, Nickelodeon, Hollywood in general and a glut of children's fiction is teaching kids - mine included - the exact opposite of everything I'm saying to them.


And here is the real crux of the problem - I can't tell them that the happy nice fairies don't exist, nor that there aren't any winged little ones either. Because as much as I might emphasize the darker dangerous sort for the sake of caution I don't deny that Fairy is a dizzying array and variety of beings in nearly every imaginable form and temperament. There are nice little garden Fey, and winged sprites, and gentle fairies who are shy and unassuming; there are all the kind and harmless things that can be imagined and probably many beyond our imagining. And there are also things that eat us for dinner, and dye their hats in our blood, and drown kids for sport. And none of it is really that cut and dried at all because really its not black and white but infinite shades of grey that constantly shift and change and just when you think you've sorted out who's on which side of the divide of good and bad or safe and dangerous all the lines have moved and everything's topsy turvy. The cute little winged fairy is biting a chunk out of your hand and the giant monstrous Fey is helping you in exchange for nothing but a good word. Because that's the only constant in Fairy, that its never constant by our measure.

Fairy from the movie Labyrinth
Sarah: "Ow! It bit me!"
Hoggle: "What'd you expect fairies to do?"


But little children don't think well in nuances and degrees, they like concretes - good and bad, dark and light, either/or. Basically things I'm not good at. I can talk plenty about the dangers of Fairy and the need for caution to adults with decades of fairies-are-watered-down-angels-meant-to-serve-us ingrained in them but that's born of my soul-weariness from constant over exposure to the saccharine-sweet bubblegum approach that denies everything traditional fairylore ever was or still is. When it comes to my own children, I was baffled as to how to reach them without either scaring them so badly they iron plated themselves, or failing to get through to them at all and watching them merrily trip into danger face first.

Paracelsus once said, "Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy." I decided this was good advice in this situation as well, if I made it work for me. Popculture was the problem, but popculture could also be the solution. There are, after all, some decent movies out there with fairies in them, or fairy themes. The Secret of Kells. Song of the Sea. Labyrinth (especially for my older daughter). Spiderwick Chronicles. The Secret of Roan Innish. Into the West. Even Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit when they get older. None of these are prefect but if I watch them with my kids I can gently bring up the disconnects from the older folklore and redirect them in a better direction. I can make a fun movie into a subtle teaching experience. If I'm clever (and I certainly try) I can work in the actual methods of dealing with them safely. I can read them, and tell them, the old stories too of course, and teach them what I do and the folklore but they are less interested in that than in the captivation of a good movie. Because as much as it pains me, child of books that I am, while my kids like to read and like stories well enough their imaginations are captured by movies in a way that reaches the places I need to speak to right now. And unlike boring old mom talking a fun movie will get all three of them, diverse ages or no, sitting down together and paying attention. So I have to make popculture my weapon instead of letting it be used against me.

So this past weekend we tried two new animated movies, Epic and Strange Magic*. Very different movies but both were good in their own ways.

Epic is the story of a teenage girl who goes to live with her estranged father after her mother dies. He is obsessed with proving that in the woods by his house live an advanced civilization of tiny people - read: fairies. Meanwhile the fairies are divided into two opposing factions, the boggans who are bad Fey intent on spreading rot and decay, and the leafmen who are good Fey who fight the boggans and whose Queen is the only power that can reverse the damage the boggans do. The girl decides to run away and stumbles across the Fairy queen as she's being attacked; the girl ends up being shrunk down to fairy sized (about 2 inches) and entrusted with a magic pod that will choose the new queen. And adventure ensues.
Pros: sticks to the rigid ideas of good and bad with the Fey; likable characters; teaches kids to be aware of what's around them; time runs differently
Cons: balance is mentioned as necessary but is portrayed as endless war. The only true wisdom is held by the good side and the evil side is just mindlessly bad and destructive. also reinforces the 'fairies are tiny' idea.
Lessons I was able to teach my kids after watching: things aren't what they appear to be. Things that appear harmless can be dangerous. Things that appear unpleasant can be helpful. Time runs differently in Fairy.

Strange Magic; story of two fairy kingdoms, one of elves and winged fairies (all tiny) and one of goblin-like creatures (also tiny) led by a winged king who looks a lot like a cross between a cricket and a fairy. The Bog King hates love and has imprisoned the only fairy who can make a love potion. The fairy princess Marianne has her heart broken by an unfaithful fiance, who then tries to get he rback so he can be king. When her younger sister's best friend, an elf who is in love with the sister, gets tricked into sneaking into the dark kingdom to free the fairy to make the love potion (by the fiance who wants it to use on Marianne) adventure ensues.
Pros: great message about not judging by appearance; good isn't always good and bad isn't always bad; nice trickster fairy in the mix. Strong female lead.
Cons: singing. Lots of singing; Painfully campy at times. Another tiny fairies movie.
Lessons I was able to teach my kids; don't judge good or bad on looks, what seems fair can be treacherous, and what seems ugly can be trustworthy. Also don't judge beauty by our own standards, what we think is beautiful may be ugly to other beings, and what other beings find beautiful may seem ugly to us.

I'm still not a fan of popculture fairies, but I'm adapting. And my children and I are finding common ground to pass on the old ways in a new day and age....

*I did say generally, and I realize there are some exceptions.
*support your local library and check out the movie selection!