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Monday, March 19, 2012

Druids and the Soul

     The question was asked over on Tumblr: what do we know about the Celts' and Druids' beliefs about the afterlife. This seems like a good topic to blog about, especially on a sunny Monday morning so here we go...
   Let's begin by looking at the secondary sources that we have, which generally agree with each other. Polyhistor wrote that  “The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among the Gauls’ teaching that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a fixed number of years they will enter into another body.” This is echoed by Diodorus who wrote that “The teachings of Pythagoras prevails among the Gauls, that the souls of humans are immortal and that after a certain number of years they live again, with the soul passing into another body.”
  Valerius Maximus stated that “They lent sums of money to each other which are repayable in the next world, so firmly are they convinced that the souls of men are immortal.”
  Speaking of the Gauls, Pomponius Mela tells us "One of their dogmas has come to common knowlegde, namely, that souls are eternal and that there is another life....and it is for this reason too that they burn or bury with their dead things appropriate to them in life, and that in times past they even used to defer the completion of business and the payments of debts until thier arrival in another world. Indeed their were some of them who flung themselves willingly on the funeral piles of their relatives in order to share the new life with them."
  Caesar wrote that ”The cardinal teaching of the Druids is that the soul does not perish, but after death pass from one body to another. Because of this teaching that death is only a transition, they are able to encourage fearlessness in battle.”
  Lucan, in his poem Pharsalia, mocks this belief of the Druids, saying "And it is you who say that the shades of the dead seek not the silent land of Erebus and the pale halls of Pluto; rather you tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and that death, if what you sing is true, is but the midpoint of a long life."
   Where it gets tricky, of course, is discussing where exactly the soul goes between lives. In the Irish belief it can get very complex, with many different options, often referred to as “Islands in the West”, being possible. From stories we find in the Fairy Faith, and even depending on how we choose to view stories like that of Ossain and Naimh, a person may join the fairies (the daione sidhe) for example, or their spirit may otherwise wander as Irish myth has an abundance of wandering souls to be found. Of course these examples are largely from much later periods and seeing them in relation to or connected to older beliefs is purely modern supposition. It is difficult to know what the ancient Celts may have believed about where the soul went between lives, for all that we do seem to have decent evidence that they did believe in the souls continuence. My own approach is a synthesis of the ancient evidence and the modern Celtic cultural beliefs, particularly those of the Fairy Faith minus the Christian bits, so I tend to study and incorporate both, and it usually works out that they flow together seemlessly. I offer the material I use in my own practice here for readers to keep or discard as they choose.
   Several different Irish myths discuss the topic of the immortal soul including the story of Tuan mac Cairill in the Lebor na hUidre. In this story Tuan mac Cairill tells the tale of Ireland from the beginning, which he has witnessed throughout his various lives as a man, then as a stag, a wild boar, an eagle, a salmon, and then a man again. As he says in the story "My name is Tuan son of Carell. But once I was called Tuan son of Starn, son of Sera, and my father, Starn, was the brother of Partholan." While this is obviously a story telling device it may also hint at a belief in the continuity of the soul during the rebirth process. Interesting food for thought anyway.
  In the end the evidence does seem to support a Celtic and Druidic belief in the immortality of the soul and of the soul's rebirth. Much may be inferred from the secondary sources and mythology but ultimately it will be up to the individual to decide how to fill in the details that are missing, such as where the soul goes between lives and for how long, and even to decide what value this belief will have for the individual.

 Freeman, War, Women, and Druids
 Matthews, The Druid’s Sourcebook.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Shamrock Charms

Most people are aware that shamrocks, espcially those with more than three leaves, are considered good luck. In the Carmina Gadelica volume 2 we find two charms that can be recited if a person happens to find such a shamrock in order to ensure good luck and blessing for the person who possesses the plant. From page 106 of volume two of the Carmina Gadelica  “some people say that the lucky shamrock has four leaves, other say five, but all agree it must be found by chance not sought out intentionally. Once found it is preserved as a peerless talisman.” The following charms are exerpted from my book By Land, Sea, and Sky and are modern, pagan adaptations of the original charms from the Camrina Gadelica.

Lucky Shamrock Charm 170
 “Shamrock of good omens,
Beneath the bank growing
On which stood the gracious Lugh,
    the many-skilled God.
The seven joys are,
Without evil traces,
On you, peerless one
Of the sunbeams--
    Joy of health,
    Joy of friends,
    Joy of cattle,
    Joy of sheep,
    Joy of sons, and
    Daughters fair,
    Joy of peace,
    Joy of the Gods!
The four leaves of the straight stem,       (alternately five)
Of the straight stem from the root of the hundred rootlets,
You shamrock of promise,
you are bounty and blessing at all times.”

Shamrock of Power Charm 171

"Shamrock of foliage,
Shamrock of power,
Shamrock of foliage,
Which Airmed found under the bank,
Shamrock of my love,
Of most beautiful hue,
I would choose you in death,
To grow on my grave,
    I would choose you in death,
    To grow on my grave."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

St. Patrick's Day, snakes, and Irish-American pride

  Next week is Saint Patrick's feast day in the Catholic church, which is probably an odd thing for me to blog about, but the past couple years there has been quite the controversy among some pagans about this day. This year there are anti-Saint Pat's day events and such on Facebook created by people, very sincere people, who believe Saint Patrick to be some sort of super powered anti-pagan figure that drove out the Druids of Ireland and broke the back of paganism there. The general consensus by the people who share that thought seems to be that March 17th every year should be a day of black-clad mourning for Irish paganism or a day of protest against...well, against something. Now I have absolutely no issue with the way anyone wants to spend their March 17th, I generally favor wearing black, and I certainly agree that by and large Saint Pat's day in America is a hideous neon green tourist event, however I am something of a stickler for history - as some of you may have noticed - and I don't like seeing false history becoming mainstream, nor do I like my own actions on March 17th being judged as wrong because of someone else's views, as I have been told previously that my celebrating the day is offensive and disrespectful. So the last few years I have tried, in comments here and there, to point out the history and the Truth to give people a better understanding of how things really happened so that they can move forward and decide what to do with some solid information instead of emotion. This year I am just going to cut to the chase and dedicate a whole blog to it. I am not trying to change anyone's opinion or start a fight - I am only offering the history of who Saint Patrick really was, what he really did, how he interacted with the Druids, and what the bit about the snakes was about. I'm also going to talk a little about why and how I celebrate March 17, and what it means to me.
   So let's begin with a little history. Back somewhere around the end of the 4th century in Britain - no one knows exactly where, except that it was likely on the coast - a boy named Maewyn Succat was born to a wealthy Roman official named Calpurius (Awesome Stories, 2012). Maewyn was born into a Christian family but he didn't consider himself especially devout. When he was 16 he was kidnapped, along with many other people from his father's household, and taken into slavery in Ireland where he was made a shepherd (Saint Patrick, nd). Among the hills and sheep Maewyn found solace in his father's religion, before eventually escaping after 6 years and making his way, eventually, back to Britain where he joined the church (Awesome Stories, 2012). At some point Maewyn took the name Particius, later anglicized to Patrick, and decided that he had a calling from his God to return to Ireland to preach to the people there (Awesome Stories, 2012). Unlike the common belief though, Patrick wasn't the first Bishop in Ireland - there were several previous bishops including Pallidius who was sent by the Pope in 429 (O hOgain, 1999). At this point in the early 5th century Ireland already had a small but settled Christain population complete with churches, monasteries, priests and bishops (O hOgain, 1999). In any event Patrick returned to Ireland and traveled around trying to establish himself. He claims to have had some success and baptized "thousands" of people - of course he also had many difficulties including, apparently, being accused of accepting money for baptisms and other bribes as well as being beaten and robbed and repeatedly threatened with death (Saint Patrick, nd). Unlike the other Irish Christians of the time Patrick was an evangalist and did seek to convert people, but in his 30 years of ministry in Ireland he did not seem to have had any stunning sucess; probably because the Irish did not seem overly concerned with or threatened by Christianity and may have initially just incorporated it along with their pagan beliefs (Da Silva, 2009). After Patrick's death, most likely on March 17th 461, very little was written about him for several hundred years.
     Ireland remained pagan for another 8 or 9 generations before the population became mostly Christian - and that was when the tale of Patrick really took off. In the 7th century, about 200 years after Patrick died, his hagiography was written, the Life of Saint Patrick by Muirchu maccu Mactheni, and the Patrick of Muirchu's story was very different than the historical Patrick, so much so that modern scholars now differentiate between the two (Da Silva, 2009). Muirchu's Patrick was a bold, vindictive, confrontational wonder-worker who preformed mircales and was said to have destroyed the Druids in Ireland (O hOgain, 1999). This mythic Partick - unlike the humble historical Patrick who authored the Confessio - lost no opportunity to curse those who defied him or kill those who opposed him. In one of the stories in the Life of Saint Patrick, for example, the saint uses his God's "power" to crush a Druid's skull and calls an earthquake to kill many others (Da Silva, 2009). In another tale Patrick was said to have turned himself and his entire retinue into deer to escape pursuit. It should be pretty obvious that this is pure invention, something to appeal to a 7th century audience looking to hear about wonders and drama on par with the other Irish myths but not anything relating to actual events. In fact some scholars have pointed out that had Patrick actually gone in and tried to convert by the sword he would have ended up matryred for his trouble. To quote the excellent article by  Da Silva "It is clear that the pagan Irish would not have tolerated the behavior of the mythical Saint Patrick. There was no way Patrick could use coercion or the threat of force as part of his strategy to convert the pagans. E. A. Thompson writes that "the pagans were far too powerful and menacing . . . . And he was doubtlessly aware that if he gave any sign of trying to impose his views on the Irish pagans against their will, his mission would come to an abrupt and bloody end" (90)." (Da Silva, 2009).
  The point to all of this is that the Patrick we are familar with today is mostly a mythic figure, created by a great PR department. The historical Patrick didn't actually do very much and it wasn't until hundreds of years later, when politics in some of the churches he founded meant the need for a powerful figure, and the Church was looking to complete the conversion of the remaining pagans, that he was reinvented as the super-saint we know today. Many aspects of saint Patrick's story seem as well to involve the saint being inserted into older mythology, such as in some of the stories surrounding Lughnasa where saint Patrick takes over the role of Lugh in fighting off the forces of darkness and chaos to secure the harvest (MacNeill, 1962). This would have been a logical substitution over time as the new religion replaced the old. Beyond that I have my own idea about how a British born Roman ended up as the patron saint of Ireland, but that probably falls into the realm of a conspiracy theory so I'll leave it off this blog.
    Why does all this matter to me? Well, for one I have always felt strongly that bad history does paganism no favors. For another thing I can't see any purpose to feeling outraged today over something that didn't even actually happen 1560 years ago, or for that matter demonizing someone who didn't actually do very much. I just don't see any point in buying into another faith's mythology in a way that creates feelings of anger and negativity in my own. I am an Irish-focused pagan and I am a Druid and I know from studying history that both Irish paganism and Druidism went on well after Patrick, that his life as we know it today is just a fancy story made up to replace older myths, and that in the end Patrick has no more meaning to me than what I give him. Why should I give him power over my life by believing he was greater than he was? I admire his devotion to his own faith and his courage in going back to a country where he had been taken by force as a slave, but beyond that he's just another historical figure in a sea of historical figures.
   Now on to the snakes. Another big aspect of Saint Patrick's day for pagans is the idea that the story of Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland was actually an allegory for his driving out of the Druids. This idea is pretty well integrated into media and common belief; many people repeat it and there are even modern celebrations of "All Snakes Day" in honor of the triumphant return of the modern Druids. Now,  I am all in favor of the snake as a modern symbol of Druids - plenty of wonderful symbolism there since snakes are energized by the sun and "reborn" each spring out of the earth after hibernating, eat little fluffy things, often are passed by unseen, not to mention the more obvious associations with wisdom and the historic Gaulish Druid's eggs -  and I think the idea of a modern All Snakes Day is pretty cool. The history though just isn't there for any connection either of Saint Patrick with snakes or of the story being about Druids. Firstly, Ireland hasn't had snakes since before the last ice age, so there never were any snakes to be driven out by anyone (National Zoo, n.d.). Second of all, and more importantly, the actual legend says that he drove out the snakes and toads (toads being very rare and snakes as we've established being non-existant) (Banruadh, 2006). For people living in Ireland after Patrick this story would have been a great explanation of why those animals weren't in Ireland, because there is no reason to think the 7th century story was an allegory. Quite frankly the rest of Patrick's hagiography has him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteoussnes, so why would the story suddenly get cryptic about him driving the Druids out? Every other page was proclaiming it proudly! No, this particular tidbit - which is suspiciously exactly the same as a story from the life of a French saint - was always meant to be literal. The earliest reference I have found to anyone thinking the snakes meant Druids (and thanks to the friend who helped me find it) is in the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries from 1911 where someone states that he believes based on a story that because a certain place was where the Druids last stronghold was and also the place Saint Patrick drove the snakes that the snakes must represent the Druids, but it's just faulty logic (Evans Wentz, 1911). The snakes in the story were just meant to be snakes, just as the toads were toads and Saint George's dragon was a dragon.
    So why do I celebrate Saint Patrick's day? Thats' a good question, since I am certainly no Catholic. But the truth is that I have celebrated a secular version of St. Patrick's day for my entire life; in my family it was a celebration of our Irish heritage, a day when we told stories about the family, ate traditional Irish-American food and enjoyed each others company. I have been pagan since I was 11, but I never questioned the validity of celebrating my heritage with my family. Sure my heritage is what it is every day of the year, but that was one special day when the whole family celebrated together. My father and I would go out and enjoy a show together, the Wolfetones one year, the Irish Tenors several times, a wide array of different Irish step dancing groups. When I was young we would go out to dinner and after my grandmother moved up here we would go to her house and she would cook for everyone. I have so many wonderful, happy memories of all the Saint Patrick's days I've had with the people I love and that is why I celebrate it, and why I will continue to - because its a family tradition. One I hope to pass on to my own children. We're Irish-Americans every day of the year, but March 17th is the one day when we are most aware of it, of our roots, of our history. Of our traditions.
   This year my family, my husband and daughters and I, will be going to eat corned beef and cabbage at my grandmother's house. She is 94 now, but she still cooks on St. Patrick's day all the same. We'll tell stories about the family and about past celebrations, and when we get home my daughters and I will light candles on our ancestor altar in honor of the family that isn't with us physically any more. And on the 18th I will go with my oldest daughter to see Celtic Woman in concert (the first time since my dad died I've gone to a show for Saint Patrick's day, but that's a tradition that needs continuing). It may be a weird Irish-American thing to do, but it's something ingrained in the diaspora, outside of any religion.
  Now in a modern setting we have All Snakes Day as a pagan alternative to St. Pat's day; I don't generally celebrate it only because it tends to emphasize the snakes=Druids idea, although not everyone who celebrates it believes that, to be fair. Another alternative that is gaining popularity is to call it something like Irish Heritage Day becuase the emphasis of the day to Irish pagans is to celebrate that and that certainly captures the spirit of the holiday for most Americans. I rather like that one, and sometimes use it myself. Finally there has been a movement - and I'm sorry becuase I've had no luck finding any links from last year - to celebrate the 17th of March in honor of great Irish mythic heroes like Cu Chulainn. I find that idea intriguing and intend to look into it more.

Saint Patrick (n.d.) Saint Patrick's Confessio
 B. Da Silva (2009) Saint Patrick, the Irish Druids, and Ireland Conversion to Christianity
D. O hOgain (1999) the Sacred Isle
M. MacNeill (1962) The Festival of Lughnasa
W. Y. evans Wentz (1911). the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hospitality in a modern world

 Hospitality is an important quality in both Celtic and Norse tradition. In both cultures, as in many other ancient cultures, hospitality to guests was seen as an important social expectation. In the Norse Havamal we see a selection of advice given in how to live honorably, including this part about hospitality:
  "134. I counsel thee, Stray-Singer, accept my counsels,
they will be thy boon if thou obey'st them,
they will work thy weal if thou win'st them:
growl not at guests, nor drive them from the gate
but show thyself gentle to the poor.
135. Mighty is the bar to be moved away
for the entering in of all.
Shower thy wealth, or men shall wish thee
every ill in thy limbs."
(Bellows translation)

In the Cath Maige Tuired it is a lack of hospitality that is at the root of the second battle between the Fomorians and the Tuatha de Danann, as the lack of hospitality by the half-Fomorian King Bres eventually resulted in a rebellian by the Tuatha de Danann.
 "36. At that time, Bres held the sovereignty as it had been granted to him. There was great murmuring against him among his maternal kinsmen the Tuatha De Danann, for their knives were not greased by him. However frequently they might come, their breaths did not smell of ale; and they did not see their poets nor their bards nor their satirists nor their harpers nor their pipers nor their horn-blowers nor their jugglers nor their fools entertaining them in the household. They did not go to contests of those pre-eminent in the arts, nor did they see their warriors proving their skill at arms before the king, except for one man, Ogma the son of Lain.
39. On one occasion the poet came to the house of Bres seeking hospitality (that is, Coirpre son of Etain, the poet of the Tuatha De). he entered a narrow, black, dark little house; and there was neither fire nor furniture nor bedding in it. Three small cakes were brought to him on a little dish--and they were dry. The next day he arose, and he was not thankful. As he went across the yard he said,
"Without food quickly on a dish,
Without cow's milk on which a calf grows,
Without a man's habitation after darkness remains,
Without paying a company of storytellers--let that be Bres's condition." (Gray's transaltion)

  These are just a few examples of the way that the value of hospitality was expressed in common stories in both cultures. In the first example we see the idea that how we act as a host to our guests reflects on our reputation for good or ill. In the second we see the consequences of failing to offer hospitality when it is expected. In both cases we can see that hospitality involves generosity and openness to guests and that failing to be hospitible opens a person up to consequences of both reputation and (in the Irish) satire. It's clear from this and from other material relating to hospitality in these groups that hospitality was important and most modern pagans and reconstructionists seem to agree with the value of this. Yet how do we, as modern followers of these oder ways, create hospitality in our lives? How do we embrace a virtue of open handed giving and welcome to guests in a culture (talking about America in particular) that is often not reflective of that same value?
  This weekend my oldest daughter had a friend over for a play date. I spent a lot of the visit reminding my daughter that her guest was a guest, and was to be treated as such. When there was only one cookie left, it went to her friend. When they could not agree on a game to play I intervened and said that as the guest her friend should be allowed to choose what to do. This is how I was raised and I feel it is inline with the older values of hospitality, so it is what I want to pass on to my children; however I found out after the other child had left that this is not the usual way of things in modern society. My daughter, who is 8, informed me that when she went to other children's homes she had to do whatever they wanted to do, and was basically treated by the parents as imported entertainment for the other child. I was not happy to find this out, although it gave me an opportunity to discuss the value of being a good guest as well. Of course I also wasn't happy to find out that this child, much like another of my daughter's friends that had come over previously, attempted to steal something while she was here. The whole situation has me thinking about the subject of hospitality and how we, as modern pagans, can create a culture of hospitality - particularly for our children - in a world that is often at odds with those values.
  So far my best solution is to read the stories that I can to my children that emphasize these values and to try to show them by example what hospitality means to me. And what I would like it to mean to them. It's a complex subject, since hospitality is a balance between being a good host and a good guest, and to violate either has consequences, so conveying this to a child growing up in what amounts to a different culture with different values is challenging.
  How do you find that balance in your own life? How much value do you place on hospitality and being a good guest? And how can we, as modern pagans, re-establish this value within our own commuity? Just some food for thought....

 Bellows translation of the Havamal can be found here
 Gray's translation of teh Cath Maige tuired can be foudn here

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lorica Prayers

 So back in July of 2011 I had talked about the Deer's Cry, an Irish prayer that is part of St. Patrick's Lorica. Lorica is a Latin word for a soldier's leather breastplate or corslet; in Christian tradition it was a prayer said for protection every day. I very much like the idea of this type of prayer and think that it adapts well to pagan use. I also think that it can help enrich and deepen our spiritual practice to have daily prayers we say to connect to things beyond ourselves and maintain the reciprical relationship we have with the Spirits around us. I believe the Lorica prayer - perhaps we could call it cathéide in Irish, which means armor - is a great thing to include in these daily prayers. In my own personal version I have blended the idea somewhat with the ideas seen in the Song of Amergin of relating to the many different parts of creation. Being that it is so personal I'm not comfortable posting my daily prayer here, but I will post another Lorica prayer I wrote. Perhaps it will be useful for others, or serve as inspiration for you to write your own.
A Modern Irish Pagan's Lorica

"I arise today in joy
Through the strenth of the sea,
Stability of the strong earth,
Endlessness of the eternal sky.
I bind to myself 
The endurance of my ancestors,
The eloquence of the poets,
The truth of the ancient Druids.
I bind to myself
The speed of the hawk
The courage of the deer
The wisdom of the salmon.
I bind to myself
The inspiration of the Gods
The mystery of the Otherworld
The illumination of Spirit
I summon today all these powers
between me and any dangers
Every day that I recite this prayer
I am protected from harm
In the names of my gods
and by sea, earth, and sky"