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Saturday, December 31, 2011

New year's eve; looking back

 So it's new year's eve and as usual I find myself reflecting on the past year. Every year offers it's own challenges and lessons but this year has seemed unusually hard in many ways with it's over-riding theme of transition. I lost several friendships, one of which was extremely important, and I left my job. It seemed as if at every juncture I was being forced to re-assess my own worth and abilities and re-define my own place. So now, on the cusp of the new year, I ask myself, what have I learned?
  Early in the year I had a falling out with a friend over some choices she was making in her own life. The entire situation made me look at my own life and my own choices and made me seriously re-evaluate several things. I had to ask myself what the real cost was of sacrificing so much for my children, especially in relation to caring for a child with chronic medical issues. And I did realize that I wasn't leaving enough for myself and needed to find more balance before I risked losing my happiness and becoming bitter. Life being what it is the timing of this was actually perfect as it occurred and was worked through before I had to choose to leave my job because of my daughter's health. I realized that I had to make time for myself and for reconnecting to life and living.
  I also lost a very long and deep friendship in a painful way; it began as a difference in opinion over ritual structure and leadership and ended with personal invective. I was left for months questioning my own abilities and actions in a way that began as something closer to self-flagellation and ended with soem clarity and insight. It is true that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and sometimes what causes the most pain can also show us how strong we have become. The situation helped me see how far I have come personally in the last decade and how much I have changed. I even did find some useful constructive criticism in the midst of it all and I was able to see what really mattered and what was only window dressing.
   And, things coming as they seem to in threes, I then lost another friend over a label. I consider myself CR but I am also a witch and this caused a furor in a CR discussion group and cost me a friendship. It also made me really question my own use of labels and how and why I define myself the way I do. I considered myself part of that community, yet I was being rejected by some people within it for not fitting in. I was told I didn't belong, not because of what I did do or what I knew, or what I said, but because I honestly admitted including aspects of Irish magic that made people uncomfortable or were not socially acceptable. Most people call that witchcraft.
   I am CR, in my own mind, because I seek to reconstruct a viable Irish polytheism while also embracing modern Celtic culture. But I am also not CR because I take a wider view on study and practice. I am heathen because I worship heathen gods as well, have a kindred that worships in a heathen context, and practice seidhr, but I am also not heathen because I do things outside of that framework and with deities from other cultures. I am a reconstructionist and a neopagan. I am a druid and a witch. I am dedicated to psychopomps and liminal gods, Hecate, Odin, and Macha but my main goal in life is staying grounded and fucntional.  I am a teacher and a leader as well as being an outsider and odd-ball. I am an innovative traditionalist. A contradiction in terms. I am a liminal person, and I have come to accept that I will never fit within a neat little box or an easy definition, except perhaps the word "witch" that says a great deal and nothing at the same time.
  So I am ready to put this year behind me, lessons learned. I took a bath with sea salt and hyssop oil and burned some frankincense and myrrh incense - totally modern folk magic things to do. Tonight I will throw open my door at midnight and usher out the old year while welcoming in the new - a totally traditional Irish thing to do - and in the same vein tomorrow I will burn juniper and dress in new clothes and move forward without worrying about labels or acceptance. I am who I am and I am proud of who I am.
   Bring on 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mistletoe and the Druids

One of the most well known plants associated with the Druids is the Mistletoe (Viscum Album), yet what do we really know about this plant and it's connection to the Celts and their priests?
  Well, the main source of our knowledge connecting the two is Pliny the Elder who writes about it in his Natural History. For the sake of completeness I am going to include everything Pliny said about the Mistletoe here:
"Chapter 95: Historical Facts Connected with the Mistletoe.
Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. The Druids--for that is the name they give to their magicians -- held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the robur. Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the robur; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages, which, with them, are but thirty years. This day they select because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable power and influence; and they call her by a name which signifies, in their language, the all-healing. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations."

 So from this we can learn that the Gaulish Druids that Pliny was writing about considered the oak sacred and the mistletoe which grew upon it to be divinely given, possibly because of its rarity. Whenever mistletoe in oaks was found it would then be gathered with due ceremony on the next appropriate day, which appears to be just before the first quarter of the moon, when, as Pliny says, the moon has power and influence. To me this is another interesting celestial connection with the mistletoe. The misteltoe would then be gathered with great ceremony, including a feast and the sacrifice of two bulls. Pliny also mentions the use of a golden sickle, however gold is far too soft to be used in a cutting tool - many people assume then that the sickle must have been of iron but since there were also prohibitions in later Celtic folklore about cutting herbs with cold iron I rather think it is more likely that the sickle was bronze, perhaps inlaid or coated with gold. (Incidently Pliny notes, as does Caesar in his Gallic Wars, that the Celts measured time by nights instead of days and began months and years also in such a way.)
  The Mistletoe itself is a parasitic plant that grows in trees, rooting from seeds usually spread by birds. It grows to form a mass of twigs and leaves about 2 to 3 feet wide, flowers in May and produces berries between late Novemeber and December which are a waxy white in color.  There is some debate about when the Druids may have collected Mistletoe, as some folkloric accounts mention it being gathered around new years (although whether this means Samhain or January 1st is unclear) although it would seem logical that the easiest time to gather it would have been in the fall or winter. As the book The Trees of Old Engalnd says "In summer we seldom notice that mistletoe is concelaed within the foilage of the tree it inhabits, not until autumn has stripped all away, and winter has rendered the woods we discover its presence." Our only firm account of Druids harvesting mistletoe is Pliny and he makes no mention at all of the time of year or season, but does say that it was gathered whenever it was found, leading me to believe that there was no specific seasonal rite relating to it. I think it is possible that the later idea of the Druids collecting mistletoe at new years may have been a confusion of Pliny including a reference to the Celtic days, months and years beginning with the new moon with his discussion of the mistletoe being collected.   Folklore associates Mistletoe with protection from all evil influences and it is also a symbol of fertility, something that is mentioned in Pliny's account, and may lend itself to the folk belief of kissing under the mistletoe. Additionally the stem and leaves had a wide variety of medicinal uses that can be documented back at least 500 years, and in folklore and practice longer. Culpepper's herbal from the 1600's mentions "Tragus saith, that the fresh wood of many mistletoe bruised, and the juice drawn forth and dropped in the ears that hath imposthumes in them doth help to ease them within a few days". According to Grieve's Modern Herbal mistletoe has been written about as a folk remedy in France and Britain since at least 1682. The stem and leaves - collected before the berries form - are used and it was believed to treat epilepsy and calm nervous disorders and treat heart conditions. It is noted that the berries have the opposite effect and are not recommended for use, although external use of the berries as a paste is mentioned. The berries are toxic and produce extreme intestinal discomfort, seizures, delirium, and heart problems in high doses.
  The true connection between the Druids and mistletoe may always be something of a mystery, but it does seem that it played a role in Gaulish and possibly British belief and practice (not existing in Ireland). Examining the evidence we do have, thin as it may be, is none the less interesting and enlightening and shows us the possible reverence of a plant that was born of the sky and blessed by the gods, connected to a sacred tree, and with known healing applications.
Culpepper's Herbal (1649) reprinted 1983

Friday, December 23, 2011

New Year's incense

I was at a public Yule ritual last night which was a lot of fun. One of my contributions was an incense blend desinged for cleansing, based on traditional ideas related to this time of year. It worked out pretty well so I decided to share the recipe here.
 In a mortar and pestle mix equal parts: vervain, rosemary, lavendar, juniper, and white sage.
 Add a double portion of rose petals.
 Add cedar essential oil and hyssop oil until dry material is thoroughly mixed and moist.
 It's sort a modern take on some old ideas related to cleansing, and it ended up smelling very nice so I think I will use it every Yule.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Lebor Feasa Runda Should Go Through a Woodchipper: a book review

   Too often we simply avoid bad books without ever knowing why they are bad and to be avoided, but relying on friend's opinions or word of mouth reviews. I have read other reviews of this book, Akins' Lebor Feasa Runda, which took a highly scholastic approach and were very valuable, but I think that by arguing semantics of language and nuances of source material many readers may get lost in the details. So here I offer my simplified book review, an Idiot's Guide to Why This Book is Awful, if you will.
    To begin with Akin's appeals to people's curiosity and desire for genuine material to lure an audience in and draw interest for his book by claiming it is a translation of a previously unknown ancient book of Druidic teaching, which he has exclusively gained access to but cannot produce for others to view. In reality his book is nothing but a badly written version of commonly known Irish mythology followed by his own personal ideas and a generous amount of uncredited plagiarized material from known traditional sources.
    The psuedo-archaic writing style is painful to read, rather reminiscent of the King James Bible, and I can see no point to it beyond making the work look somehow either older or more prestigious. There is no reason for a text he claims to have translated himself to be written in this way except for effect.  Beyond that there is a lot of non-Celtic material mixed in which clashes with extant Celtic sources, and the clear threads of Celtic material are not credited. He invents a system of aligning the days of the week with different planets and gods which is exactly like any Ceremonial Magic compendium with Sunday ruled by the sun and Monday by the moon, etc.,. He also uses the Greco-Roman ideas about four elements, instead of a more authentic Celtic view, to give a few samples of the foreign ideas in the book that are passed off as Irish.
   Particularly troublesome to me is the use of charms and prayers from the first two volumes of the Carmina Gadelica slightly re-written to be pagan without any acknowledgement of the true source of the material which could not possibly be a "secret" manuscript that would predate the Gadelica by almost three thousand years. It is beyond belief that nearly three millenia later the charms and prayers would have translated the same from Scottish to English as they allegedly did from Irish to German to English in this book. Akin's alleged personal translation from German is word for word identical to Carmichael's from 1900. To give a sample of this on page 148 of the Lebor Feasa Runda "The wicked who would do me harm / May his throat be diseased / Globularly, spirally, circularly / Fluxy, pellety, horny-grim" now compare that to the opening lines of charm 193 from volume 2 of the Carmina Gadelica printed in 1900, page 155, "The wicked who would do me harm / May he take the throat disease / Globularly, spirally, circularly / Fluxy, pellety, horny-grim.". This clear, obvious, plagierism cannot be defended, and this is only a small sample of the many such occurances throughout this book. I might not care about the poor writing or random nature of the work if Akins had simply published this as his own personal inspiration with credit to his sources, but I think plaigerism is simply wrong and cannot be justified away with appeals to spiritual inspiration. A core Druidic principle is Truth.
   I also find it disturbing that in his recipe for "oil of enlightenment" he repeats a medieval witches flying ointement that includes toxic ingredients like Hemlock, Aconite and Belladonna. Were anyone to follow his recipe for this oil and use it they could easily poison themselves, yet at no point does Akins mention that any of these plants are poisonous or require special handling.
    In short the book is clearly a mish-mash of plagierized sources Frankenstiened together. A beginner who reads this first will find information that is both wrong, misleading, and in at least the one case potentially dangerous.
 Other reviews:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Gaelic Heathen Yule

  So Yule is fast approaching, and this Yule will represent my first attempt at incorporating some Celtic elements and traditions into what has so far been a Germanic and Norse festival period for me. Prior to becoming heathen in 2006 I didn't celebrate the winter solstice in any special way, beyond the secular; after becoming heathen I began celebrating the "traditional" 12 days of Yule, beginning on Mother Night and ending usually either on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. I followed the CR approach of celebrating the four Irish fire festivals as holidays and not acknowledging any Celtic aspects of the solstices or equinoxes. However this year I am looking at what the more modern Celtic traditions of this time of year are and how they may relate to older Heathen ones in order to create a more synchretic personal approach (celebrating with my kindred is still Norse oriented).

  In Germanic and Norse traditions Yule is a 13 night, 12 day festival that is considered one of the most sacred times of the year. Yule begins on Mother Night, the night before the solstice which is often celebrated in honor of Frigga and the disir; in my family we celebrate Mother Night two days before the calendar date of the solstice because the eve of Yule has developed its own family traditions.  Many modern heathens that I know choose to stay up on the night before the solstice in order to greet the dawn on the solstice morning. The day of the solstice itself is considered both the most powerful of Yule and also the most dangerous as both trolls and ghosts are roaming free on the night of Yule. On this day the Yule log is burnt and the most sacred oaths are sworn. Celebrations continue until New Year's, a day that itself is important since it sets the tone for the year to come; actions taken on the last day of Yule/New year's eve (or day) influence the year to come.
Swearing oaths and making sacred toasts were sacred activities, as well as leaving out food offerings for the gods and spirits. Odin was especially associated with Yule time, as are the goddesses Perchte, Berchte or Holda. Yule bucks were made (the mask of a goat head, or a straw goat) and used for guising but was also believed to have its own separate spirit that had to be propitiated - often with ale or porridge - in order not to harm anyone in the family. Porridge is also left out as an offering to the house wight or spirit that lives in the home. A Yule tree was used for decoration and a yule log was burnt or in some modern cases a log is set with candles which are burnt.
    Now working with that as a base we can look at what we have for Yule traditions in Scotland. In Scotland McNeill states that while Odin may be known as the Yule Father it is Thor to whom this holiday actually belongs, as does all of the month of December. A Yule log of oak was traditionally burnt and Thor was asked to bring a prosperous new year. She relates a story of Norsemen in Scotland celebrating Yule with a great feast and then a bonfire, around which they danced and then chanted "Thor with us, Thor and Odin! Haile Yule, haile!" (McNeill, 1961, p. 52). In Scotland the "Christmas" season ran from Christmas eve until 12th Night, reflecting the older heathen practice of a 12 day celebration of Yule. Prior to the start of Yule the home was cleaned from top to bottom and stocked with food. During the period of Yule all household work like spinning and weaving was strictly prohibited as it was believed that to do such work, even drawing water, during the 12 days of Yule would risk the girls of the house being taken by a Kelpie. The hearth was cleaned and decorated to please the gods and garlanded with rowan to keep out mischievous spirits. On the eve of Yule the family would go out and collect the Yule log which would be brought in with great ceremony, an offering of ale is poured over it, and it is placed in the fire to burn through the night. In some parts of the Highlands the Yule log is associated with the Cailleach, the spirit of winter, and in those places the Yule log chosen would be the stump of an old tree. Special breads and cakes were baked on Yule eve, and ale and sowans were made with omens taken from how they cooked. First thing on Yule morning weather omens were taken to predict the year to come; green Yule meant snow in spring, warm Yule a cold spring, and a light Yule a good harvest. The rest of the day was spent in social gatherings and feasting. Another Yule tradition is guisers and mummers who travel from house to house in costume singing and offering entertainment and blessings in exchange for welcome into the home and some food. 
     New Year's Eve, called Hogmany, has many traditions of it's own, including special cleaning of the home, settling any debts, returning borrowed items, and generally setting everything in the household right in preparation for the new year. At the exact stroke of midnight on New Year's eve the head of the household opens the front door and lets the old year out while welcoming the new year in with the words "Welcome in New Year! When ye come, bring good cheer!" (McNeill, 1961, p. 104). Another important tradition of New Year's is first footing, or the belief that the first non-family member who enters the home after midnight on new years while indicate the family's luck in the coming year, with a cheerful dark haired man being the best first-footer, with a pretty woman being second best. Anyone born with a deformity, of bad character, who is stingy, whose eyebrows meet in the middle, or who may have the Evil Eye are bad luck. To avert the ill luck of a bad first footing throw salt in the fire, burn a wisp of straw, or put a burning coal in water.
    In Scotland New Years is also a time of blessing the home and of omens. Holly, Hazel, and Rowan are hung up around the home and the entire home was fumigated with burning juniper. Burning the juniper was considered very important to cleanse the home and was done immediately upon waking before anyone ate breakfast. On New Year's eve a silver coin was left out on the doorstep and if it was still there in the morning it was seen as a sign of prosperity for the year to come, but if it was gone it was an ill omen. Wearing new clothes on New Year's day is good luck so is carrying a silver coin in your pocket. To see a red dawn on New Year's day means bad luck and strife to come and the direction of the wind is an omen of the year to come as well: "Wind from the west, fish and bread, wind from the north, cold and flaying, wind from the east, snow on the hills, wind from the south, fruit on trees." (McNeill, 1961, p. 115).
   In Ireland Yule was also started with a complete cleaning of the home which was  followed by decorating with Holly, Ivy, Bay and other evergreens, and as in Scotland food was stocked up on. Preparations were made that included placing lit candles in the windows of the home; these are now associated with Christmas but may well be older as some believe the candles' light serves to guide and welcome the visiting dead who wander at this time of year. Some choose to light a special candle for any family members who have passed in the last year. As in Scotland the weather is seen as being an omen of the year to come with cold weather foretelling a warm spring; additionally a new moon was seen as especially lucky. Mumming and guising is also seen and New Years eve and day were strongly associated with divination and omens. While first footing isn't seen in Ireland the way it is in Scotland there is a belief that if the first person or animal to enter the home after midnight on New Year's eve is male and black or dark haired the house will have good luck. A special bread was baked and then hit three times against the door while the head of the house or house wife chanted either "We warn famine to retire, To the country of the Turks, from this night to this night twelvemonth, and even this very night." or "Happiness in and misfortune out from this night, Until a year from to-night" (Danaher, 1972, p. 261). After this the loaf was tossed out the door.
   So this actually gives us a lot to work with for celebrating both Germanic/Norse Yule traditions and Celtic ones over the course of  a 12 day celebration. I like the idea of including Thor more in the Yule celebrations, especially as they relate to the Yule log, and of lighting candles for my ancestors, which I may do each night of Yule. Including the Cailleach makes sense as well. I also can easily see how to incorporate the specific New Year's eve and day traditions, such as welcoming the new year in and also the Irish custom of banging the bread on the door. And the multitude of divinations and omens can easily be used on the day of Yule and on New Year's day, as can the cleaning of the home before the start of Yule and the cleansing and blessing rituals of New Year's day.
  I'm excited to see how Yule this year is going to go as I work on finding the synergy of this path, which clearly has so much potential.

 Our Troth volume 2, the Troth, 2007
 The Year in Ireland, Danaher, 1972
 the Silver Bough volume 3, McNeill, 1961

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nine Virtues

  In heathenry you will hear people talk about the 9 noble virtues (often abbreviated to NNV), a modern list of positive character traits devised by the Odinic Rite in the 70's based on ideas from Norse mythology. Some of these 9 are more historically accurate than others, but in a modern context all of them seek to provide a general guideline of qualities worth nurturing. Some people really like the NNV, while others find the whole idea useless.
  The original Nine Noble Virtues are:
Self Reliance
  Now persoanlly I like to switch out loyalty for fidelity, because I feel that loyalty has a closer meaning to what I feel that "virtue" should be, whereas fidelity is too similar to part of how I would define honor. Fidelty means a strict adherence to promises, devotion to duty, and faithfulness to obligations, while loyalty means steadfast allegiance, faithfulness to a person, ideal, cause, or duty. I also prefer honesty over truth as something we can nurture within ourselves. So my personal NNV would be:
Obviously these are goals to be worked towards constantly and everyone will have a different understanding of what they mean. Part of what I like about them is that even outside the context of heathenry they are still a good guideline for living; you could apply these to your life as a CR, or neo-pagan, or witch, or atheist, or what-have-you and they would still be useful and I like that universal quality. Of course everything must be done with moderation and it's just as easy to go to far with any one of these as it is to not have that quality at all...
   Now personally this is how I see each virtue. Courage is facing fear and not letting fear control you. Honesty is being honest with yourself and others. Honor is living an honorable life by holding true to your principles and keeping your word. Loyalty is being faithful to the people, things, and causes that matter to you. Discipline is self-control and doing what needs to be done. Hospitality is being a good host and a good guest. Self-reliance is trusting in one's own abilities and judgement. Industriousness means being diligent in getting things done. And pereseverance is persistance and seeing things through.
  After an interesting discusison on a heathen parenting group I have been contemplating how to blend the ideas behind the NNV with the only moral guideline, of sorts, that I grew up with, a framed print of the "Children Learn What They Live" sayings by Dr. Dorothy Nolte ( Being raised a secular agnostic we really had no religious influences at all but we had a nice needlepoint of the list of those sayings that hung in the kitchen which I looked at each day. The idea is a short list of negative things that a child could grow up with and the result followed by positive things and the results. So, for example (this is a work in progress), for heathen children it might be something like:
  If a child lives with fear, they learn to be afraid
   If a child lives with deception, they learn to lie
  If a child lives with inconsistancy, they learn not to listen
 If a child lives with betrayal, they learn to be mistrustful
  If a child lives with irresponsibility, they learn to be lazy
  If a child lives with hostility, they learn to be defensive
 If a child lives with encouragement, they learn courage
 If a child lives with truth, they learn honesty,
 If a child lives with respect, they learn honor
 If a child lives with reliabilty, they learn loyalty
 If a child lives with responsibility, they learn discipline
 If a child lives with welcome, they learn hospitality
 If a child lives with independance, they learn self-reliance
 If a child lives with expectations, they learn industriousness
 If a child lives with challenges, they learn perseverance

Thursday, December 1, 2011

the 12 Days of Yule - a holiday song parody

The Twelve Days of Yule-tide - sung to the tune of the 12 Days of Christmas

On the twelfth day of yule-tide, my kindred gave to me
twelve happy heathens
eleven rounds of sumble
ten bottles of mead
nine sets of runes
eight hammer pendants
seven hours of feasting
six songs to Sunna
five amber rings
four drinking horns
three ash spears
two viking movies
and a yule log carved with holly

© M C Daimler