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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Random Irish Mythology Trivia

* Nuada is left handed - he lost his right arm during the fight with the Fir Bolg warrior Sreng, and we are told it was his shield arm, meaning his sword arm is his left arm 

* Speaking of Nuada's arm, when it is healed it is the original flesh arm that is restored, which Miach acquires and holds against his body for six days, then strikes it with burnt bulrushes for another three. Which makes me wonder where the arm was for the intervening 7 years. 

* When Miach heals Nauda's severed arm by replacing the silver prosthetic with the original flesh arm he is paid with the silver arm - which Nuada has been wearing and using for about 7 years

*The Lia Fail would cry out under every rightful king of Ireland - until Cu Chulain came along and hit it for not crying out under him. The Lia Fail is also the only one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha De Danann that has no set owner. Each of the other three - cauldron, sword, and spear - belong to someone who is at one point High King of the Gods.

* one of Lugh's epithet's in the Lebor Gabala Erenn is "spear-slaughterous"; the great spear which is one of the four treasures of the Tuatha De Danann belongs to him.

* the Dagda's famous magic club doesn't actually belong to him - its only on loan. He obtained it while searching for a cure for his son Cermait who had been killed by Lugh for sleeping with Lugh's wife. He came across three men who were arguing over their inheritence which included a club which could kill at one end and revive at the other. The Dagda asked if he could borrow it and promptly used it to kill all three and revive his son, who shamed him into reviving the three men as well. After that he basically refused to return it, but an agreement was reached that he would permanently borrow it, giving the sun, moon, sea, and land as sureties against it. 

* In several stories the Dagda is said to be "the king of the sidhe of Ireland" and it's implied he has authority over all the other fairy hills and their rulers.

* Although the Lebor Gabala Erenn gives an extensive list of the Tuatha De Danann and how they each died in myth, in the Cath Maige Tuired's list of battle deaths Macha is the only female listed among the warriors. In every account regardless of source she is always said to have died with Nuada at the hands of Balor of the Evil Eye. 

* At the end of the Tain Bo Cuiligne the two bulls, who are actually cursed swineherds shape-changed, battle and kill each other. In this way the spell binding them is broken and they are freed. 

* The famous Queen Medb of Connacht was killed by a piece of hard cheese - it was used like a sling-stone by a man avenging his mother's death. She was killed while bathing. 

* In some versions of Cu Chulainn's death a crow lands near the hero who has been disemboweled and has tied himself to a pillar stone. The bird begins to peck at his entrails while he is still alive and Cu Chulainn laughs at it before dying. 

Lebor Gabala Erenn
Cath Maige Tuired Cunga
Cath Maige Tuired
How the Dagda Got His Magic Staff
Aided Meidbe
Aided Conculaind
Aislinge Oenguso
De Gabail in tSida

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When Fairytales Have Teeth

  I was teaching a class last week about the types of Otherworldly spirits more likely to be found during the winter, and I had one of those moments that will sometimes happen where I opened my mouth and spoke off the cuff, as we were discussing the Unseelie Court. I pointed out to the people attending the class that contrary to what most of the young adult novels and paranormal romance currently on the market like to say, the Unseelie Court aren't the emo bad boys of the Fey world who just need a big hug and some understanding. Although its trendy now to see the darker Fey as just as kind and helpful as the Seelie Court, merely grumpy and misunderstood, in folklore there was usually a good reason people feared them and that reason was their tendency towards homicidal reactions and  eating people.

  Traditionally in some areas, notably Scotland, the Otherworld was divided into two groups, the Seelie or blessed court, who generally mean us well, and the Unseelie, or "unblessed" court, who generally mean us harm. It is of course not nearly that simple and there is a lot of fluidity between the two groups; it is not a set and rigid division. If you offend the Seelie Fey they will not hesitate to harm you, and in some cases the Dark Court can be helpful to an individual. But if we look at the bulk of fairy stories from different cultures over the course of written history it is pretty clear that people feared certain types of the Other Crowd for good reason. 

   Water horses (an each uisce) trick people into riding them only to race back to their watery homes, drown, and eat the people. Red Caps dye their hats in human blood. Bogles can bring blight to crops or attack people. And so it goes, with those who are usually described as Unseelie being found in that court because they are malicious towards people without provocation. Because, you see, its not that you have to worry about transgressing and angering them, or being rude and angering them, or anything like that; all you have to do is be at the wrong place at the wrong time and get their attention and they will be inclined to do you harm. Like a tornado or a hungry apex predator, it won't be personal but it could be deadly. 

  It is possible for an individual to earn the favor of a member of the Unseelie Court, just as its possible for someone to anger the normally benevolent Seelie Court, but generally speaking its dangerous to fall into a mindset of seeing them as safer than traditional folklore paints them, or otherwise Romanticizing them. You can choose to interact with more dangerous spirits, but part of the key to doing so safely is the constant awareness that they are dangerous. If you get too comfortable with those beings who we have the most traditional protections against - and with good reason - then eventually something bad will happen. Because all those myths and stories exist because of people who have learned the hard way, just like the reason we're told not to feed wild bears at parks. 

  Everything in the Otherworld is not safe and not all of the beings who dwell there mean us well. And quite frankly its arrogance on our part to think we know more or better than our ancestors, than the cunning folk and wise people who spent life times practicing their skill. If all these Beings were really so safe and easy to deal with, with just the right attitude, then anyone and everyone would have always done so. And we would have no stories of harm, and maiming and death at the hands of these spirits, nor would witches have been seen as dealing with dangerous things. No, the truth is that we cannot simply decide through positive thinking and a belief in the goodness of all spirits that the Other Crowd are harmless; our opinions do not make them a bunch of watered down angels with angst. 

   I have a lot of respect for grizzly bears and their place in the ecosystem but that doesn't mean I ever for a moment confuse them with teddy bears and think I can walk up and give a wild one a hug. Or one in captivity for that matter. Because a wild bear, no matter how noble and beautiful to our eyes, is still a wild bear and its going to do what its nature tells it to do, which may mean ignoring us or may mean ripping chunks out of us. Just so the Dark Court Fey may ignore us or they may hurt us, and this is why there are so many folk protections against them. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fight the Bad Meme - Blog Edition

  I've started a new thing on my social media page, which I call "fight the bad meme", because it seems like every single pagan holiday that rolls around sees an influx of poorly researched memes purporting to 'educate' people about the real history of that holiday and it's traditions. Usually most to all of the information presented in the meme is utter bollocks. So after I've seen the bad info going around enough to think its probably catching on as urban legend-ish fact I'll research the actual history and then post a little educational blurb. After some thought I decided that its worth sharing that information here as well, because really the more the accurate information is spread the better. 

- No, Horus wasn't born on Christmas Day. Neither Horus nor Osiris were born on or around December 25th. As far as I know the major deity births in the Egyptian pantheon were celebrated in early August and were tied to the cyclic flooding of the Nile. There are however more than a dozen figures named Horus in Egyptian mythology so it is not entirely impossible that one could have been celebrated on December 25th but it would have been an odd time given the way the calendar system worked - lunar based would have meant timing to a specific day each year in general would be unlikely*. I have found a reference to one Horus being born on December 25th but I can't date it back earlier than a 1907 book whose purpose was to connect Horus to Jesus so I just don't find it at all credible. I'll keep looking but as of now unless someone can show me actual evidence of an ancient pagan Egyptian festival on that date, I am standing by my statement that Horus was born on an epagomenal day, one of the five extra days in the Egyptian calendar year which occured in late August. Also Horus wasn't born of a virgin - since there's a story about a golden penis being involved in his conception its pretty clear on that point - Horus wasn't baptized, didn't have disciples, didn't raise a dead guy, wasn't crucified, and didn't have all the same epithets as Jesus. Horus does have some very interesting mythology, you should read up on him if it interests you.

- Kissing under the Mistletoe isn't a pagan holdover. Kissing under the mistletoe as far as I can find is a later practice, referenced in print to the 1800's, and is neither specifically Druidic nor Norse. Mistletoe was seen as sacred by the Druids, but we have no sources indicating it was hung up or used in fertility rites, although it was seen as having properties relating to fertility. It was hung in the middle ages by several western European cultures to ward off witches and baneful magic, but again no kissing underneath it. In Norse myth it was the plant used to kill the God Balder, and may or may not have become associated during the pagan period as symbol of peace (I can't track down anything definitive). Only during the Victorian period did a story emerge as far as I can find of Balder not dying/being resurrected and the mistletoe being a symbol of Frigga's joy at his return. And we all know what I think of the Victorians rewriting the myths. What is clear is that it was during this period that it became a Christmas practice to hang mistletoe and kiss beneath it, with a berry being removed for each kiss given, until all the berries were gone.

- There is no Scandinavian fertility God named Yule - Yule, in Norse Jol, is the name of the midwinter holiday and is applied to deities like Odin as byname, as in "Jolfadr" but is not itself the name of a God.

- The Oak and Holly Kings don't pre-date 1948. The oak and holly kings are thoroughly  modern and neither ancient nor Celtic, although they are based on older motifs. The idea for the two kings comes from Robert Graves book "The White Goddess", not from pagan Irish or Celtic culture.
  *I'm editing to clarify for those who may not be understanding my larger point here - I am not contesting that the motif of seasonal rulers fighting for dominion of portions of the year exists historically. However my point remains, and I stand by it, that the Oak King and the Holly King as named personages do not pre-date Robert Graves book. There are multiple memes circulating that claim explicitly that they do, and arguing that a modern creation based on older motifs is itself ancient is akin to arguing that since modern paraffin candles are based on older theories paraffin candles are ancient, even though paraffin wasn't invented until the 1850's. 

- Christmas Trees are a 16th Century Protestant Christian Tradition - I hate to ruin everyone's "they stole our pagan traditions" fun but the Christmas tree as it is today is a Christian thing developed in Protestant Germany circa the 16th century. The practice of bringing in evergreen boughs and such to decorate is far older and can be found in cultures from China to Egypt to Europe, and seems to represent a basic human urge to be reminded that life still exists in the depths of winter. It is also clearly true that trees in general were sacred in several pagan faiths and specific sacred trees, groves of trees and the concept of a world tree can be found in both Celtic and Norse pagan religions, as well as the use of carved God posts or God poles. But the killing an evergreen tree and decorating it at midwinter thing simply has no evidence to back it up prior to about 500 years ago. This does not however diminish the sacred symbolism of trees in paganism, or the value of the practice in modern paganism
I suspect it was a conflation of the older pagan veneration of trees and the practice of decorating with evergreen boughs with the later Christian practice of bringing in a tree and decorating it that caused the confusion with this one.

As an addendum to this there's a particularly atrocious meme going around with a festive Christmas tree picture that claims to explain the Pagan origins of the Christmas tree:
* First of all it claims that a tree was brought in so the wood spirits would be kept warm during the cold winter months. A. Why would you kill a tree to do this? I mean you basically just destroyed their home and killed the spirit of the tree. This is not how animism works. B. Wood spirits living in your house is Not A Good Idea. Seriously there's reams of folklore on how to keep this from happening, why on earth would you think people would do it on purpose? C. Also seriously, why do wood spirits need human help to be kept warm exactly? Also what about prior to December when its cold? Do you keep the tree rotting in your house until spring?
* Next, it says food and treats are kept on the tree to feed the spirits. Awesome, congratulations old school pagan your pre-modern technology home now has mice. Well, probably more mice anyway. Out in the open, crawling on this tree to get to the exposed food. Which is what mice do.
* Next it says bells were hung to chime when an appreciative spirit was present. I'm going to ignore the assumption that bells were common enough to even have to do this with and just point out that in most folklore bells are a protection *against* spirits. So you're covering your tree spirit house in anti-spirit charms. Yeah, this is probably not going to work very well.
* Finally it says a five pointed star called a pentagon is placed on top to represent the five elements. Okay, first a pentagon has five sides, not five points, that's a pentagram. Second not all cultures used five elements, and in particular the Celtic and Norse didn't. So the cultures that had evergreen trees that could have been brought inside, wouldn't have used a five element system.

- Pagan Women Were Equal to Men. This isn't holiday themed but I keep seeing it pop up so I may as well address it. No. Pagan women were not equal socially to men before Christianity took power because every culture was different. We might argue that Pagan Irish women had a pretty good deal but pagan Roman women certainly didn't, so we can't make a broad general statement. 

*the calendar was lunar and also tied to the heliacal rising of Sirius, but neither of these would support the idea of Horus being born on December 25th. 

Mistletoe: (ignore references to Balder being resurrected, that's newer myth)
The Oak and Holly Kings:
Christmas trees:
Folkard, P., (2015)  Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom
Fraser, J., (2002) The Golden Bough
Chamber, R., (1939) Chamber's Journal
Pagan Women:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Winter Solstice

    Although there is no solid evidence connecting Christmas in Ireland to older pagan practices, there are some hints of traditions which may pre-date Christian influence. As Estyn Evans tells us "Although Christmas is the outstanding Christian festival of the year its traditional 'Twelve Days' of holiday are steeped in pagan lore and in folk practices relating to the winter solstice..." (Estyn Evans, 1957, p 279). It is possible that the older solstice customs shifted to Christmas (O Suilleabhain, 1967).
  Preparations began before the holiday, with a thorough cleaning of the home and the gathering of appropriate decorations (Danaher, 1972). As with many other cultures these decorations would include boughs of evergreens, brought into the home. Holly, ivy, Bay, and Laurel were common and usually collected by the children of the family (Danaher, 1972). The emphasis of this holiday was on immediate family but also had community aspects. The holiday itself was celebrated with public ritual - in this case Mass - and followed by public hurling matches and hunting but was otherwise enjoyed quietly at home (Danaher, 1972).
   Gift giving was an extensive practice, virtually a social obligation. Shopkeepers gave gifts to customers, the well-off gave to the less fortunate, and friends and family gifted each other; these gifts could include firewood, food, special seasonal treats, and clothes (Danaher, 1972). In this way gift giving both reinforced social bonds and also acted as charity to support the lower levels of society.
   This time of year, like Samhain, is a time to remember and honor the dead (O Suilleabhain, 1967). One overtly Christian practice which might have older pagan roots, and could in any event be adapted for pagan use, relates to welcoming the traveling holy family on the eve of the holiday. Three plates are left out on the table and a bowl of water is left on the windowsill to be blessed by the spirits during the night; this water is then thought to have healing properties (Danaher, 1972). This folk practice in other parts of Ireland is done to welcome in the spirits of deceased family members seeking to return for the holiday (Danaher, 1972). The custom itself might be of an older, pagan nature which originally related to the dead and was later shifted to the Christian holy family. This can also be seen in the practice of lighting a candle at this time for a family member who has died in the past year, and decorating the graves of family members with holly or yew (Danaher, 1972).
    One similar traditional practice is the lighting of a large white candle in the kitchen window the night before the holiday (O Suilleabhain, 1967). This candle was often lit by the youngest child in the family, and might be decorated with holly (Danaher, 1972). The candle would be allowed to burn either all night or until midnight, and if it was put out or went out early it was thought to be a terrible omen, sometimes seen as foretelling a coming death in the family (Danaher, 1972). It was also thought to be lucky to eat breakfast by candle light (Wilde, 1991).
   There are some indications that it was a tradition in pagan times to slaughter a bull at this time, which later became a Christmas celebration practice (Wilde, 1991). This may perhaps be reflected in the fact that beef, roasted or boiled, was the most popular meal for the holiday (Danaher, 1972). Sweets, apples, and baked goods are also traditional foods. Generally speaking a large meal would be prepared including as much variety as the household could manage.
   There are several omens that might be taken on the day. To hear a cricket was a good omen, as was hearing a rooster crow at night (Danaher, 1972). Snow, frost, and cold weather were seen as good omens, signs of a pleasant spring to come (Danaher, 1972). The special candles lit were also used for divination, as previously mentioned.
   All of these represent Irish traditions which easily be done on the winter solstice for those who wish to celebrate it. The largest adaption required would be to substitute the morning Mass for an appropriate Irish pagan ritual on the morning of the solstice. This should be easily done, and could incorporate lighting candles on the eve of the solstice and waking up to watch the sun rise after the longest night.

Danaher, K., (1972) The Year in Ireland
O Suilleabhain, S., (1967) Nosanna agus Piseoga na nGael
Wilde, L. (1991) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstition

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Winter Crow

She flies with the snow
Black against white
Badb Catha, battle crow
seeking, always,
those ready to go
whose time is done
whose life has now flown
In blood and battle
In pain and in woe
She seeks them out
Flying to and fro
And brings them home
And brings them home
- M. Daimler, 2015

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Value of Darkness

So I write a lot about the value of darkness and recently I've been making memes about it as well, such as this one:
and this one:


When I posted the first example on facebook yesterday someone asked me, privately, what exactly I meant by 'darkness' which got me thinking about the larger issue of what I was trying to say and why.

First a bit of backstory. This all began a bit tongue in cheek, because I was tired of seeing so many posts and memes about the Light, be the Light, look for the Light, and so on all of which played into and reinforced the idea that darkness = evil or ignorance. Personally I have very light sensitive eyes and am prone to migraines so the Light (tm) isn't exactly my favorite thing in a physical sense. I also am not a fan of the either/or dichotomy that is so very pervasive and tells us that if light is good then darkness is bad, when the reality is that both contain good as well as bad qualities.

I started to think about how undervalued the Darkness is, how many people fail to appreciate it as a force in itself that has many positive qualities. Our senses are sharper at night and we become more aware, not less, of what's around us. We pay more attention. Many animals are active at night, and some people are naturally nocturnal. the night in many ways is a time of beginnings, and indeed Caesar tells us in his 'Gallic Wars' that the Celts reckoned time as beginning in darkness and proceeding into light: "...they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night" (Gallic wars, 6:18).

This idea of the darkness being the beginning of each new day is related, in Celtic thought, again according to Caesar, to the belief that the tribes of Gaul descended from the god "Dis" or Dis Pater, a chthonic god of the underworld, the dead, fertility, and wealth who is often thought to be Secullos viewed through the lens of the Interpetatio Romana. In Ireland Dis would be equivalent, I think, to Donn, as the primal ancestor and keeper of the house of the dead. Many people these days are at best wary of so-called Dark Gods and at worst phobic of them but the chthonic, psychopomp, and death deities deserve a place as much as any other Gods. They've suffered from the same bad PR that darkness in general has gotten, but rejecting the Gods of the underworld and death doesn't help us in any way, it only encourages us to fear the Powers associated with an inevitable transition that all living things eventually face. I have found an amazing amount of peace in establishing relationships with these deities, and in connecting to them I've come to better understand the connection between the balance of good and bad that is found in all things.

The darkness and dark times are often endings but they are also beginnings, and represent the starting point of new things, the dark of the womb and the dark of the seed buried in the earth. The darkness of the very first stirring of a new idea or project, before it has physically manifested at all. Many death and chthonic Gods are also associated with fertility in one way or another and I think this is a logical association both between the cycle of birth, life, and death and also between the darkness as a source of life and growth.

The darkness is a time of rest and renewal, the time when many people sleep; a time of dreams. There is a healing, soothing quality to darkness both physically and mentally. The night can be a time that offers physical rest from the activities of the day, and the stillness that comes when the rest of the human world is sleeping can offer a time of peace and introspection. And some people find the night and its energy empowering and exciting.

The darkness is strongly associated with the unconscious mind and with the negative qualities people can have or experience including anger, fear, pain, hatred, and jealousy. However rejecting these things doesn't make them disappear, anymore than turning on all the lights in your house makes the night cease to exist - it only creates for us the illusion that the things we fear or dislike about ourselves or others are gone. The only way to truly conquer negative feelings is to confront them directly and own that they are part of us, that we as people are not perfect or filled only with the feelings we want to have. I caused myself more misery when I was younger trying to pretend to be happy when I wasn't than I ever felt when I faced the sadness head on and let myself feel it. We can understand that we have negative aspects to ourselves, that we strongly feel negative things, and that these are part of us but that they don't define or control us.

The darkness represents the unconscious and that's part of why we fear it, I think, because it holds an honesty that the consciousness of light and day do not, but does our fear of what we might find at night, or in our dreams, or in our mind really make the darkness itself bad? Or is it instead a place where we can grow by facing the things within ourselves that, once overcome, can make us stronger? We are taught, many of us, at a young age to avoid pain and fear and negative emotions, as we are taught to fear the dark, but avoiding them only hides them - we must deal with them in order to make them part of us, so that we control them and they don't dictate our actions.

There is as much negative in the Light as there is positive in the Darkness. There is balance. The Light can overexpose and destroy, it can burn, it can dissect what it focus on. The Light in its way is a better illusion than any Darkness, and the monsters of the Light are the fiercer.

To me the Darkness is beautiful. It is comforting, nurturing, protecting, accepting; it offers a chance for growth and empowerment. So I write about the positive qualities of Darkness, how it nurtures, how it strengthens, how it protects. We all begin our lives in Darkness, in the womb, and ultimately return to the Dark in the grave, in death. Darkness is with us throughout our lives, and there is much good to be found in it, if we are willing to see beyond the old ideas of light = good/ dark = bad.

copyright 2015 Morgan Daimler