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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Spiritual Masochism or Why I Translate Ancient Texts Into Modern English

  Some of my regular readers have undoubtedly noticed that in the last several months I've begun posting more blog entries featuring translations of pieces of the old mythic texts. Some of you may be wondering why - or I may just be boring you to tears. A friend suggested this morning that I may want to explain why I've been doing the translations and how they relate to my spirituality and I thought it was a smashing idea so hear you go. It's a convoluted story, but maybe you'll understand a bit better how my head works and why I feel its so important to share this particular hobby.

   About a year ago while re-reading the Tain Bo Cuiligne I ran across a particular line that really stuck out to me, where Fergus swears on the point of his sword and calls it a "halidom of Macha". As I contemplated that line I found myself wondering if he had really said that in the Irish or if the translator had shifted the meaning in some way and on a whim I found a copy of the Tain as Gaeilge (in Irish) and checked. Indeed the phrase in question - "Mache mind" does mean halidom of Macha, but mind also has some fascinating layers of meaning including blade and oath. It was an intriguing thing to contemplate. 
  More time went by and I found myself, rather unexpectedly, writing a book on the Morrigan. As I worked with the quotes and translations of the source material for that I found myself once again wondering how well the translation reflected the original. Some people may not realize that the vast majority of translations we have access to for the Irish myths were done a hundred years or more ago, and during a time period when certain subjects where not always handled well and others were, shall we say, treated poetically? An example of this can be seen in Hennessey's approach to the line from Cath Magh Rath about the Morrigan where he translates "Caillech lom, luath ag leimnig" as a lean hag, swiftly leaping - but lom doesn't mean lean it means bare or naked. So properly this line says "a naked hag, swiftly leaping" and there is a significant difference, I think, in the imagery created between these two translations. And to me this matters a great deal. It also means that all the translations we have come to us through a specific filter which does, for good or ill, affect the meaning of what we are reading and change our understanding of it.
   So we've established that I am a stickler for semantics and that I am rather obsessed about what the original language actually said, as opposed to what the popular translations say. In Irish - modern Irish that is - there is a saying, tír gan teanga, tír gan anam, a nation without a language, a nation without a soul. I think this reflects a core truth, that our language is not only a basic means of communication but an expression of how we relate to and perceive reality. In psychology we call this linguistic relativity*, the idea that language effects how we think about the world. What this means in practical terms is that to truly understand a culture you must understand the language of that culture. 
   More time went by and the subject of the Morrigan as a battle goddess came up, and specifically of her inciting battle. The section in the Cath Maige Tuired (CMT) where the Morrigan incites Lugh to rise up and overthrow Bres was mentioned and I realized that although a small initial portion was translated the majority was not. In fact significant portions of the Cath Maige Tuired have not been translated due to the difficulty of the text and possibly the subject matter in those sections**. I decided to try translating the passage myself and found that what it said was profoundly meaningful to my understanding of the Morrigan as a goddess and as a deity of war. Over time I started taking on the project of translating more sections of the CMT, because I believe that it is important to read the sections previously untranslated and think about what they say. I made the decision to share these attempts here, even though I am at best a base amateur, because I wanted to offer other people who have no Irish or Old Irish at all a chance to see alternatives to the common translations and possible versions of the untranslated sections. I truly believe these portions of text are worth the effort to understand, and I also realize not everyone can read them. 
   As an Irish polytheist there is much insight and truth to be gained from reading the old myths, but there is a catch, because the translations that are available are written through a very specific lens. That lens distorts and changes what it reflects in ways that we are often not aware of. Reading the original language gives us a more direct understanding of the story as it would have been understood originally, but then presents a new challenge of taking that and putting it into a new language without losing too much of the meaning. There is a certain masochism, spiritually driven, that drives me to do this, to keep seeking to understand the old stories and to translate them. And I want to share whatever I can of it, with anyone who may be interested.

* commonly known, somewhat inaccurately, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
** what this means for us as Irish pagans is profound, as the CMT is a very important mythic text and we are in effect relying on translations that are at best piecemeal.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Obligatory Pantheacon Post

 I attended my first Pantheacon this year, so here is the obligatory re-cap of my experience:
Day one - travel. Who'd have thought I actually enjoy airplanes? Airports however are a form of elaborate torture. I arrived in California and was hit with immediate culture shock - you can get alcohol everywhere and it feels like early summer, and this is so not Connecticut. It was great to travel with a good friend and reconnect with other friends I had made at the Morrigan Retreat last June. I also had fun setting up a communal altar in the hotel room I was sharing with these three friends.
    Horse omens started immediately. No really, in the airport and then everywhere afterwards, horses, horses, horses. I have witnesses! Also crows everywhere. I really should have understood where this would be going but I can be slow on the uptake.
  It was a great experience setting up the traveling altars in the hotel room with my roommates. Although I am very open minded about sharing space with people of other religious persuasions and approaches I must admit staying with other polytheists was nice because there was never any need to explain anything. We all understood that altars were needed, that offerings were required, and we all had the same basic respect for those spaces and things. The communal Morrigan altar was especially powerful as all four of us are devoted to her in different ways, and since there was another Odin's woman there as well he got his space and offerings without any issue as well. There were space for other Gods being honored as well, and several jokes about the number of altars and the amount of alcohol around the room but the overall feeling was friendly and pleasant. I also set up a small space for the land spirits and Fay, as it was important to me to try to connect to the local wights.
  Later on Thursday we went to the Doubletree, the hotel where the con actually takes place, and poked around a bit, met some people including a friend from an online group that I really enjoyed spending the weekend hanging out with (we dubbed her the unofficial mayor of P-con). And then jet-lag of doom set in. Later in the evening I met the Coru Cathobouda crew at their meet and greet event which I attended with the rest of the Tuatha De Morrigan contingent (my roommates at the hotel).
Day two - registered for the con. And so it begins. Today's theme was horse skulls. Everywhere.    
    I taught a Morrigan workshop in the ADF suite and it went so well I was asked to go back Sunday and do another. Met Lora O'Brien who is really wonderful and reconnected with some of my favorite ADF people. I can safely say the ADF hospitality suite is entirely full of awesome.
 I also was able to meet several other people I had previously only known on facebook which was great. I love putting a FB name to an actual face. I must admit even though I had been warned about the size of Pantheacon I wasn't prepared for the sheer scale of it. It was larger than anything I had ever been to by orders of magnitude and because of that I didn't end up seeing or doing nearly as much as I wold have liked to, although what I did see and do was amazing.
   I attended a class by Orion Foxwood where he talked a little bit about his Faery Seership approach and also his theory of the four types of witchcraft. He is a very engaging speaker and puts on an entertaining workshop. 
Day three - the horse skulls continue. Those of you who know my old LJ/yahoo group name will get the entertainment value of my being stalked by the Lair Bhan (although it was being called the Mari Lwyd here). I'll probably do a future blog post just on that topic, but suffice to say it became something of a running joke with the group I was with.
  Very early in the morning I went to a smashing class on the Irish sidhe by Lora O'Brien - if any of you ever have a chance to go to any of her classes, DO IT!
   Later that day we wandered in to relax a bit in the Sisters of Avalon suite, admire their artwork and connect with some great people who are helping with the Morrigan sacred sites pilgrimage I'm involved in next year*. Later we hung out with some Faery Seers and learned a bit about their approach - not my cuppa but always good to learn other ways. The hospitality suites were an interesting experience in themselves, and I have to admit I thought it was really fascinating to look at the approach each one took.
      There were some spiritual shenanigans on Saturday including making offerings on a rock in a small island of trees in the parking lot. Part of my personal experience as a polytheist and Reconstructionist is that you end up making a lot of offerings, and I was lucky enough to be bunking with other people who felt similarly although the actual lead up to making the offerings should probably be categorized as a misadventure.
Day four - very early Sunday morning I went to a class on working with skull spirits because at that point it felt like I needed to figure out what was going on with all the skulls I kept seeing. It was very interesting stuff (and the Mari Lwyd was discussed of course because at that point I was still being stalked by horse skulls). Went to a class about the Morrigan, Poetry, and Prophecy - interesting info on Irish poetics but there can't ever be enough rosc catha discussion for me.   smile emoticGot to have a good chat with Morpheus and Brennos Agrocunos over lunch with the Coru and Tuatha De Morrigan folks, sort of an east coast/west coast gnoshy thing.Went to Lora's Morrigan class which was amazing, even if there were a mad amount of people crammed into a little room for it (seriously should have been in a bigger room). 
  Lora O'Brien did a workshop on the Morrigan which was intriguing and had some great food for thought in it. Hearing her talk about her firsthand experiences with the Morrigan's sacred sites, especially Oweynagat, makes me even more eager to go visit them myself. She also had a guided meditation at the end of her workshop which I found very profound. 
 Later that day I taught my second workshop, "Morrigan 2.0" in the ADF suite - anyone else noticed a theme at P-con this year?  - and had a blast doing it. ADF Druids rock! The class went well and we ended up talking about a variety of things relating to Irish Gods and mythology with a bit of Boudicca thrown in. Afterwards I was as asked to invoke Macha at the ADF unity ritual Monday morning, as if I'd say no to that! 
 That night I was dragged up to a meet and greet in the Llewellyn suite. It was an interesting experience but by far the loudest hospitality suite which made conversation a bit difficult. I enjoyed meeting Jason and Ari Mankey though and seeing the new Llewellyn releases displayed around the room.
Day five - Up very early Monday morning for the ADF unity ritual, which went really well, even if my brain ceased functioning at this point. I think I was suffering from convention burn out. And as I was standing there getting ready to thank Macha at the end of the ritual I had a strong feeling that Herself wanted the thank you in Irish. I have no idea where I pulled the words from if not Her, because by that point my mind was pretty mushy, but the words came.
    Afterwards down in the lobby I had an awesome chat over coffee with Vyviane Armstrong, Lora O'Brien, and Stephanie Woodfield about the sacred sites tour that's being planned for next year which may be one of my favorite parts of the whole con, although its hard to pick any one favorite thing.
And then - the vendor room. Wow. Please take my money awesome pagan vendors. (And I got to meet Jen Delyth and talk about, what else?, the Mari Lwyd).

The less fun part was the Epic Quest Homeward which involved two airplanes, an overnight layover in Salt Lake City airport, and New England welcoming us back to her frigid arms with a snow storm.
That's the highlights anyway, I'm sure I'm leaving half of everything out. In short, met a ton of awesome people, the craic was mighty, and I had my priestess hat on, quite unexpectedly, the whole time. Because the Work never ends.

Since people seemed to really like it, here's the Macha invocation from the ADF ritual:
"Macha Mong-ruadh
Macha of the Red Hair
Great Queen, Mighty Lady,
Uniter of opposing forces
Who was queen by her own hand
and chose the king from the most deserving
You who brought unity
Where there had been opposition and strife
Be with us now."
The "thank you" (and anyone who can correct my Irish feel free to jump in, it was a spontaneous thing) was:
"Macha Mong-ruadh
Mór Ríoghain, Bean uasal,
go raibh maith agat as do bheannachtaí
imeann i síocháin
gach croí, do bhaile"
(Macha of the Red hair
Great Queen, noble woman,
Thank you for your blessings
Go in peace
Every heart, your home)

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Excerpt from "Celebrating Imbolc with the Family" in Air n-Aithesc volume 1 issue 1

   Of the four Irish fire festivals Imbolc is the most family oriented, although it does also have wider community aspects. Celebrating Imbolc as a modern Irish polytheist, or indeed any Celtic polytheist drawn to this holiday, is an opportunity to involve the entire family, especially children, in the traditions. While we don’t have any surviving information about the ancient ways that this day was celebrated we do have a plethora of native traditions to draw on, with the role of saint Brigit and the pagan Goddess Brighid often blurred and easily shifted fully into paganism. With some slight alteration all of these traditions can be celebrated by any pagan family to honor Imbolc and the holiday’s main deity, Brighid.
A basic overview of the Irish traditions, most of which were actively practiced into the last century, is helpful in giving the reader both an understanding of the holiday and of ways that it can be adapted for modern family practice. There were often regional variations in practice and even in the tone of the celebrations, from solemn to comical, which created a wide array of different traditions associated with this holiday (Danaher, 1972). For the purposes of modern celebration by a pagan household it would be best to focus on specific traditions and choose one tone for the festival, rather than trying to include everything noted here.
    Generally it was the daughters of the household who played the main roles, although the mother might also be called to do so if there were no daughters. This is in contrast to other traditions which place the father as the main actor in any rituals, divination, or prayers, and establish the more domestic tone of Imbolc. The prominence of women and daughters also demonstrates the importance placed on Brighid at this holiday, with the women and girls often being the main intercessors between Brighid and the family in the ritual enacted or playing the role of Brighid herself. Imbolc also places a strong emphasis on children’s participation that is lacking at other holidays which tend to have a more adult tone.
    Weaving new Brighid’s crosses – symbols of protection, health, and blessing – was an important Imbolc tradition in many places. One ritual that was enacted in Connaught, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Ulster before the Brighid’s crosses were woven for the new year on the eve of the festival was for the eldest daughter to take the part of Brighid and wait outside carrying the material for the project (Danaher, 1972). She would then knock three times, proclaiming herself to be Brighid requesting entrance; she is warmly welcomed in and the family sits down to dinner with an elaborate blessing prayer (Danaher, 1972).  The meal often prominently featured dairy products, and if the family was wealthy might also include fresh mutton (Danaher, 1972). After eating the meal the family would sit and weave the new crosses, with the largest sprinkled with water and hung up on the wall until the next Imbolc (Danaher, 1972). In parts of Leitrim there was also a children’s practice to use a small rectangle of wood and with potato paste attach peeled rushes in shapes symbolizing the moon, sun, and stars which would be hung up alongside the woven crosses (Danaher, 1972).
    Another tradition was to create an effigy or doll, called a brideog (little Brighid), representing Brighid. The Brideog might be made of straw from the last sheaf of the harvest, leftover rushes from weaving the crosses, a re-purposed child’s doll, or the dash from the butter churn. The effigy would be decorated with a white dress and mask or carved turnip, and might be comical, grotesque, or beautiful in appearance (Danaher, 1972). In some parts of Ireland the Brideog was carefully and elaborately decorated with shells, crystals, and other natural adornments (Carmichael, 1900). In some places, including Ulster, Connaught, Leinstir and Munster, the children would process from house to house carrying the brideog and pronouncing Brighid’s blessing on each home (Danaher, 1972). At each home the people give gifts to the effigy, and the mother of the household gives food to the children in the procession, usually cheese, butter, or bread; this food would later be used by the children for a feast of their own (Carmichael, 1900). In other areas including Cork, Clare, Galway, Mayo, and Kildare a brideog might not be used but rather the unmarried girls would form the procession with one of their number chosen to represent Brighid (Danaher, 1972). In Ulster it was said that the chosen girl wore a crown of rushes, called a crothán Brighite, and carried a shield (sgaith Bhrighite) on her arm; she carried Brighid’s crosses to hand out telling each household that it was the sword of Brighid (Danaher, 1972). In other areas the procession might collect food from each house, and in some cases might be comprised entirely of men or boys who would play music at each house (Danaher, 1972). In these cases the procession was often referred to as ‘Biddy Boys’ (EstynEvans, 1957).
In those homes that used an effigy as a Brideog a small bed would be prepared, made of rushes or of birch twigs, on the eve of Imbolc (Estyn Evans, 1957). In some cases the older women in the home would prepare or shape a small cradle, the leaba Bride or bed of Brighid, for the effigy to sleep in (Carmichael, 1900). In this tradition the effigy is made with great care and a ritual is enacted, much like the one mentioned earlier with the reeds for the crosses, where the effigy is taken outside and invited in. In one tradition the women of the house prepare everything and then one goes and stands in the open door, bracing on the door jambs, and loudly invites Brighid in three times, telling her that her bed is ready (Carmichael, 1900). The brideog is placed in the bed with a small wand, the slat Brighid, which may be made of birch, hazel, willow or another white wood (Carmichael, 1900).  
  Read more in Issue one 2014 of Air n-Aithesc