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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Celebrating Samhain

   I've blogged about this before, but several people have asked this year so here is how I celebrate Samhain:

  For my family Samhain is a three day holiday which begins on October 31st. Although I tend to favor the idea that originally the holiday was agrarian based and timed depending on environmental signals which would have brought the herds in from summer pastures, I chose a set time for convenience and so my children could look forward to the date. Since generally the four fire festivals are dated on the kalends of the month, which would make Samhain on November 1st, I start my celebration the day before and end it the day after that date.
  The first day of the holiday is dedicated to the daoine sidhe and wandering ghosts. Since we also celebrate secular Halloween with trick or treating my children give the sidhe a tithe of candy from their take at the end of the night. Porridge is offered as well, left out near the woods and I tell the kids fairy-stories. After the kids go to bed I also re-swear my oath to my Druid Order because this is the anniversary of my dedication as a Druid in White Oak.
   The second day is dedicated to the Gods. Usually an Morrighan and an Dagda, but this year I am honoring Macha and Nuada instead. As part of this I tell my children stories about the Gods or spirits and things that happened on Samhain, of which there are many to choose from in Irish myth. This year I'm planning on talking about the second battle of Moytura and the Tuatha De overcoming the Fomorians. As part of my ritual I extinguish all the candles on my altar and relight them to symbolically re-enact the Samhain fire lighting at Tlachtga. We have a small ritual feast as well, of pork and apples with seasonal vegetables, some of which is offered to the Gods, spirits, and ancestors. 

   The third and final day is for the ancestors. I light candles on my ancestor altar and tell my children stories about the family members who have passed from this life. We set an extra place at dinner and leave out a plate of food for the dead. I also often talk to my children about the turning of the seasons and the approach of winter now. We take our Halloween pumpkins and offer them to the woods to feed the deer and other wildlife. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Taking of the Sidhe

 Why do we offer to the Gods and daoine sidhe?
  Not hard to say. When the sons of Mil defeated the Tuatha De Danann the land was divided between the two, with the Milesians taking what was above the earth and the Tuatha De taking what was beneath it. But soon the Gaels found that their cows would not give milk and their crops would not grow, because the Tuatha De destroyed all the produce. The sons of Mil reached an agreement with an Dagda that they would offer a portion of their harvest in exchange for the friendship of the Tuatha De. After that time offerings of milk and grain were made to the Gods and later to the daoine sidhe as well, to ensure a good harvest and abundant milk. Today we offer to receive blessing and luck in our lives.
   Who divided the Sidhe?
 Not hard to say. When the Tuatha De went into the sidhe, the hollow hills, it was necessary to decide who should go to live where. An Dagda was the High King over the Tuatha De then and it fell to him to divide up the sidhe; with Manannan advising him, he chose a hill for each of the Gods. In this way each of the Tuatha De found a home within the sidhe.
  How did Angus Og come to posses Brugh na Boinne?
 Not hard to say. When an Dagda divided up the sidhe he took several places for himself including Síd Leithet Lachtmaige, Oí Asíd, Cnocc Báine, and Brú Ruair; and  Brugh na Boinne was also his. His son Angus Og came to his father and asked what place should belong to him, but an Dagda said that all the sidhe had been claimed and none were left for Angus. So Angus asked if he might have a night and day in Brugh na Boinne and, seeing no harm in it, an Dagda agreed. 
    After the allotted time had passed an Dagda came to Brugh na Boinne and asked Angus to leave as they had agreed, but Angus replied, "Is not all time divided into a day and a night? So that is how long I have been granted this place." 
  Then an Dagda left and the Brugh belonged always to Angus Og.

The Book of Leinster version
The Book of Fermoy version
Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Patrons and Priestesshood

     Recently I was reading John Beckett's essay "Hearing the Call" and I think he raises several good points about the way that modern pagans approach the ideas of patron* deities and dedication. Obviously I can only speak about this from a more Reconstructionist-flavored viewpoint, but I do think its a valuable discussion to have. I want to say up front though that this is a topic that I'm very ambivalent about. Despite being dedicated to a Norse God and Irish Goddess, and having a relationship with the daoine sidhe that is very similar, I am not a big advocate of patronage or dedication.
   Firstly modern pagans do tend to immediately assume everyone should have a patron. One of the most common questions I see asked on discussion groups and in classes is how a person can find their patron or know who their patron is. The common perception seems to be that all pagans have patrons or are dedicated to a specific deity and that, therefore, finding and declaring yours somehow makes you more pagan. Of course that isn't true; many polytheists don't have patrons, some don't even believe in the concept, and whether one has one or not has nothing to do with how pagan a person is or isn't. 
   Secondary to this is a pervasive idea that a person's patron is simply the deity they happen to like the most or, in some cases, feel is the most impressive. I think this comes from a common misunderstanding because people who have patrons do tend to talk more about their patrons than other deities they may honor, giving an impression that their patron is their favorite deity. In this case though it isn't a case of choosing the one you liked the most, but rather that a certain one is the closest to you and so gives the impression of being a favorite. It's also not as simple as choosing your own patron in some cases, unless you are choosing one based on a career or specific activity; there are some people who choose to permanently or temporarily oath to a patron of a certain activity that they participate in, usually with a formal ritual contract. Outside of that though many people believe that you should not choose your patron they should choose you; I can say that I did not choose mine, nor was I looking for patronage of any sort. I believe that, ideally, patronage should be something that grows organically as a person develops their personal practice, rather than a matter of selecting deity x from column b. It's also important to remember that the choice to enter into patronage requires agreement on both sides. Just because you want a deity to be your patron does not mean that the deity will actually be, anymore than asking a famous person to show up at your house means they will be knocking on your door. Of course the flip side to that is sometimes you can enter into such a situation blindly or without enough thought, the deity will accept the offer, and you may regret your impetuousness.
   The reality is that polytheism does often have general patrons for trades or careers, but the idea of personal patrons is more complex. Does it happen? Yes - historically as well as now - but so often the modern view lacks the understanding of service that goes along with it. Patronage, like so many other things, is a reciprocal relationship. To have a personal patron means to be give something back to that deity. Patronage can also be either temporary or permanent, and it is generally a good idea to clearly specify which one you intend. 
    Beyond patronage, and something that is often confused or conflated with it, is dedication. To me dedication is the choice to enter into the service of a deity; in modern pagan terms this might be described as being the clergy - the priestess or priest - of that deity. In my experience many people who talk about having a patron deity are not actually talking about having a deity that is a special guide or protector, but are actually talking about being or wanting to be a priestess of that deity. It is true that patronage can and sometimes does evolve into dedication, and perhaps this contributes to the confusion between the two, but whereas patronage (in my opinion) is like having a good friend among many casual friends, dedication is like joining the military, at least in as much as you are turning part of your life over to the service of that deity. 
    Being dedicated to Macha, and Odin, makes my life very very complicated and means that I serve their purpose as best I can. Being dedicated to a deity on a personal level, to me, means acting as clergy for that deity, especially. It means making offerings, conducting rituals, prayers, and generally being willing to fill whatever role ultimately serves that deity. I have done many, many things in service I never would have done otherwise, from writing and teaching certain subjects, to officiating weddings and founding groups, to helping total strangers. Service has been about literal blood, sweat, and tears at times. Its part of being a Druid in my opinion, beyond serving the community as clergy, but it isn't simple or easy. Its not something to choose lightly and it changes you. There's a price to be paid, and its hard to understand what that price will be until you are living it. I don't think its possible to fully understand what it means to be dedicated (just like you can't know what its like to join the military) until you're on the other side of it. Its always, at best, a leap of faith. Some people take that leap with as much preparation as possible. Others do it on a whim. The one's motivated by whim baffle me, in a way, especially when its purely human motivation - no "calling" from the God, the person just decides it's super cool - because whatever the motivation is the offer can be accepted. And sometimes it is. 
 Quite frankly I don't know why anyone would want to do it, except that obviously it has to be done. The idea that its glamorous or makes a personal special (or should I say Speshul?) just strikes me as ridiculous. I am not special; I am utilitarian, serving a purpose in the world. It's work, and the work never ends.

*Patron: 1 a :  a person chosen, named, or honored as a special guardian, protector, or supporter This is the definition most closely in line with the modern pagan usage of the term; a deity who is believed to have a special connection to a person through the person's dedication or oath which forms a reciprocal relationship

Thursday, October 17, 2013


  I was reading a blog by Nimue Brown that discusses uncertainty, something which for me is the only constant. I believe that the quest for truth, the search for spirituality, is always a matter of questions and not answers. I don't mean so much the experiential side of it, which is a solid thing to me, but the philosophical side, the questions we ask that can never be answered except with guesses and theories. I know my Gods exist, but I will never have certainty that Nuada is Elcmar, for example, or whether Odin really is Wodan. I have my own imbas about these things, but there is that endless thread of uncertainty that keeps my belief flexible instead of fixed. There are some things which are rock solid, but everything else is a matter of faith and perpetual questioning.
  Reading Nimue's words reminded me of a poem I wrote almost 10 years ago, which I'd like to share.
My inconstant heart yearns
for the solidity of truth
for firm ground beneath me
What seems certain today
I doubt tomorrow
and yet I long to believe
I search for light in the dark
but see nothing except shadows
Where is the sure path to follow?
where is the clear truth to believe?
I have faith that these things exist
yet all my evidence is faithless,
I tear to shreds my own belief
yet cannot stop believing

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Flidais with Me

I signed on to contribute to an anthology about Goddesses and I had wanted to write about Flidais - I had actually begun thinking about what I would say and how, and had decided to tell the personal details of my experience with Flidais earlier in the year - but someone else had already asked to write about her and I was assigned a different Goddess. After more thought though I have decided that my story of experiencing Flidais in a time of need is an important one to share, so I am going to blog about it here. Because the Gods really are with us still, if we let them be.

While I was pregnant with my son I had done some mediation work where the Goddess Flidais appeared to me. I saw a stately woman in a white dress emerge from the woods with a doe walking on one side and a heifer on the other. She didn't speak but held out her hands and I felt this overwhelming sense of comfort and reassurance. Somehow I just knew who she was. It lasted for what felt like several minutes, and then I snapped out of the meditation suddenly. But the feeling stayed with me.

Months later I had been discharged from the hospital three days after my son's birth and the first day home went well, except that I was very tired. Not that unusual, so not worth worrying about, but I was still struggling with severe edema in my legs. The doctors had told me that would slowly go away though, so I tried not to think too much about it. Then the night came. I could not sleep. I could not lie back, even a little, or I could not breath. As the night wore on I began to feel a growing sense of panic, as my breathing worsened, and I started having a hard time getting a breath even sitting up. By morning I faced the reality that I could barely get enough breath to speak and there was no choice but to go to urgent care. My mother in law, a former EMT, drove me, and the entire ride was an agony of sucking air in and pushing it out again. I focused on each inhalation and exhalation, each moment, and thought of nothing else.

When we arrived we were rushed back to a room and I was put on oxygen, which did not help very much. My blood pressure and pulse were very high. A CT scan was ordered and because I'm allergic to the contrast dye I was given Benedryl, so that now I was exhausted, couldn't breath, and was struggling to stay awake. I wondered, if I fell asleep, if I would ever wake up again and hated the Benedryl. I prayed desperately to Odin, God of breath, but felt no response, no presence. As I waited in the room for the CT scan results, gasping for breath, I wondered if I would die. I thought of my children. I thought of my husband. I looked at the hives on my hands from the contrast dye and thought that maybe the Benedryl was a good idea after all. And then the doctor came in and said my results looked exactly like someone in congestive heart failure; I had what he thought was a large amount of fluid in my lungs and around my heart. He wanted me transferred as soon as possible to the hospital I'd just been discharged from, he wanted me on a high dose of Lasix, to force the fluid out, and he wanted me on a mask that forces oxygen exchange because its been shown to push fluid out.

They brought in the oxygen mask and tried putting it on my face; it was like sticking my head out a car window going 60 miles an hour. I panicked, thrashing my head away. I wept and begged the nurses not to make me wear it. They talked about sedation and I cried harder, because nursing my son was very important to me. And then, in that moment of pure desperation a wave of calm washed over me and I heard  a female voice telling me "Be still. Be calm. Breathe." My whole body relaxed, and the mask was lowered on and fastened. Claustrophobia rose up again and I reached out to that ephemeral presence; it was like a gentle hand on my shoulder, reassuring, radiating calm. The voice said "Focus on each breath. In. Out. Nothing else." I did exactly what the voice said and somehow it was bearable.

As soon as an ambulance could be found I was transferred to the hospital. I did not know how long I would have to stay but I knew that I was desperately ill. Being as sick as I was didn't matter to me; all I cared about was being separated from my 4 day old baby. It was agony, and I found myself thinking over and over of the story of Rhiannon and how she lost her son. I could not even say the word "baby" without crying. Finally, late that night I decided to be as pro-active as I could, under the circumstances, and make an offering to Flidais who is, after all, associated with healing and nurturing. I had nothing to offer, but I had been pumping and saving breastmilk for my son. I took all that I had and hobbled into the bathroom. I poured my offering, more precious than any other I'd ever made, out into the bathroom sink, thinking of it eventually finding its way to the sea, and asked Her to help me regain my health and to reunite me with my child. I did not know how either would or could be accomplished, as things were looking rather grim at that point, but I needed the hope that prayer can give us when we have nothing left to look to.

The answer to my prayer came the next day, on Imbolc, and in a way that I had never anticipated. I was still too sick to leave the hospital but through a series of inexplicable misunderstandings and a minor miracle the hospital arraigned for me to be transferred to the labor and delivery floor so that my child could join me. This was the only way we could be together, and only if both my obstetrician and the L&D charge nurse agreed to the re-admission because the hospital was on a visitor lockdown due to a flu and norovirus outbreak. Yet somehow everything aligned so that it could happen. And I spent the next 3 days of my hospital stay with my child, and my husband who had to stay as well to help care for the baby.

When I was finally released I had lost almost 40 pounds of fluid in the course of 4 days. My lungs were clear. My heart was not permanently damaged. I had my little son with me, and I was still nursing him despite all the challenges. 

Beannachtai Flidais duit

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Message of Dian Cecht and Miach

"In that battle, moreover, Nuada's hand was stricken off—it was Sreng son of Sengann that struck it off him— so Dian-cecht the leech put on him a hand of silver with the motion of every hand; and Credne the brazier was helping the leech."  - Cath Maige Tuired
"Now Nuada was in his sickness, and Dian-cecht put on him a hand of silver with the motion of every hand therein. That seemed evil to his son Miach. He went to the hand which had been struck off Dian-cecht, and he said ‘joint to joint of it and sinew to sinew,’ and be healed Nuada in thrice three days and nights. The first seventy-two hours he put it over against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second seventy-two hours he put it on his breasts. The third seventy-two hours he would cast white [gap: meaning of text unclear/extent: one word] of black bulrushes when they were blackened in fire. That cure seemed evil to Dian-cecht. He flung a sword on the crown of his son's head and cut the skin down to the flesh. The lad healed the wound by means of his skill. Dian-cecht smote him again and cut the flesh till he reached the bone. The lad healed this by the same means. He struck him the third blow and came to the membrane of his brain. The lad healed this also by the same means. Then he struck the fourth blow and cut out the brain, so that Miach died, and Dian-cecht said that the leech himself could not heal him of that blow." - Cath Maige Tuired
   This is the core of the story of Dian Cecht and his son Miach, healers of the Irish Gods. Many people read this story as one of jealousy and petty retaliation, but I tend to see it differently. To me this is a story about the natural order, the right order of society, and the consequences of defying that order. 
   Dian Cecht is the premier physician of the Tuatha de Danann, called the God of health and Healing Sage of Ireland; he possesses a healing well or cauldron (O hOgain). The first question I asked myself when contemplating this story, is why couldn't Dian Cecht heal Nuada's arm? Of course we could assume that he lacked the skill, but that seems unlikely to me - rather I think it is more likely that the arm was not healed because it was not meant to be. Nuada had been king for 7 years when his arms was lost, meaning he had to forfeit the kingship as only the physically perfect could rule, and then Bres became king. Nuada being restored by Miach allowed the Tuatha de Danann to rebel because Nuada was fit to rule again; however it is worth keeping in mind that Dian Cecht's grandson by his son Cian is Lugh Lamhfada who was also destined to be king, and would indeed take the kingship from Nuada later on. Perhaps - and this is purely my theory - it was not jealousy that motivated Dian Cecht to attack Miach but the knowledge that healing Nuada had changed what would have otherwise happened, which likely would have been Lugh showing up to take the throne from Bres himself. It was Lugh who won the battle for the Tuatha de, and Lugh who killed Balor of the Evil Eye, Balor having - so the story goes - killed Nuada and his wife Macha in the battle. Nuada could not overcome Balor and win the battle but Lugh could and did  - a fact Nuada seems to acknowledge to some degree as he allows Lugh to lead during this time. But, Gods never really dying, now the Tuatha de Danann had Nuada as king and Lugh as destined-king. I can see how, if Dian Cecht had any inkling of this, he might see healing the displaced king as a bad idea, something that disrupted the natural order.
   Miach looks at his father's replacing of Nuada's arm with one of silver and declares that the cure seems evil to him - perhaps because he knows the arm could be restored - and so he sets out to heal it as he believes it should have been done. Dian Cecht sees the arm restored and declares that that healing seems evil to him - perhaps because he knows it has thrown off the natural order of the kingship - and attacks Miach, wounding him four times with the fourth time being fatal. No worries though as his death is only as permanent as any of the other Gods, and he shows up again later healing the wounded with his sister by his father's side. When I look at the story of Miach and Dian Cecht I see a father who allowed a wound to heal a certain way because he was taking the long view, and a son who stepped in and through arrogance healed the same injury, not because it was right to do so, but to prove that he could do it. 

The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Cath Maige Tuired