Inward to Ovate   Leave a comment

pathImagine a path you create as you go. We don’t need to call it “shamanism” or “Druidry” or “earth spirituality” or anything else in particular. If anyone asks, it’s “nothing special.” It’s just “what you do every day.” I call it my life.

You respond, or you don’t, to the guidance of hints, nudges, dreams, gut instinct, chance encounters, coincidence. You seek, or you don’t, for something that begins to answer the call inside you, the tickle or itch that won’t go away. Oh, you can dull it for days or decades with a wider variety of distractions now than at almost any other time in the last ten millennia.

Sometimes, perversely, it seems the call or itch or tickle is ITSELF the distraction. Can’t do it all. Just gonna live my life. Keep my head down. Leave me alone, will ya? Not gonna get suckered into a wild goose chase, a will o’ the wisp, a fool’s errand. (How many names we have for them …) YOLO. You only live once. Just do it. Live like nobody’s watching.

And the silence, which never quite goes away, which nothing ever completely fills, which opens ever more deeply inward.

Until the day it doesn’t. A barrier, a wall, a blockage. Maybe a guardian who challenges you there. Inside, perhaps, or outside. That restless partner, impossible boss, difficult co-worker, awkward relative, rebellious child. Just for you. Old story. New each time it happens to me, though. OK, so what is it this time?  What’s the point, the life lesson? Sometimes a pain in the ass can just be a pain in the ass and nothing else, right? Please? Can’t the growth thing give me a break?

Then, oddly, it does. A month, a year. Smooth sailing. What’s new? Nothing much. Your holiday notes are short because, blissfully, things are going well. If you’re the suspicious type, you wonder why. If you’re just grateful, you go with it.

Soon enough the sane plainness of it all threatens to run you stark raving mad. Something, anything different. The uneventful routine you longed for has sucked you dry as last month’s bread. You’d prefer a little drama, maybe — you hear yourself actually say it — a minor, manageable disaster. Just, you know, for some color. Something different.

monsterThe universe, remarkably compliant, gives us what we ask for (or what we fear, which is asking by negation; or what we’re least prepared for, which is a gift for our carelessness; what we never saw coming, which is “a little something” for our blind indifference), whether we want it or not. The universe: compliant, and monstrous. Monster under the bed, enormous, hairy and fanged. Or snake-slick and implacable. Or less distinct, and thus scarier: dark tunnel over there, on the other side of the light, which the whirlpool of this dream drags you toward, closer, closer …

If you know all this, have done all this, seen it all, heard it all before, know it inside and out, welcome. You’ve just finished the introductory material. Now for the actual beginning.

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In the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo sings of the path, his path as he leaves the Shire. (That’s old wisdom, not taught much anymore. When in doubt about something, make a song of it. It helps.)

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

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Walking two paths and contemplating the Ovate grade feels something like this to me right now. The real climb is about to commence. (Already has.) I’m standing where I’ve always been, which is on the way to somewhere I can’t quite make out. Glimpses, sometimes. A voice I know, then a good conversation one afternoon. Or a curve in the path opens onto a familiar vista. The waterfall, or lake, or mist over the valley. The call of a bird. A memory, piercing in clarity. A discovery, one that time brings you, or one that has nothing to do with time. Rest point. Then back out into it.

OdinThe start of Ovate is both the vehicle that has brought me here, and simply a step with a label off the shelf that I grab for convenience and plaster on my experience because it’s there (both experience AND label), because it caught my eye. “Oh-vate.” A little inspired, a little crazy. Vatic power, and all that. Indo-European *watis “inspired, mad, possessed, crazy.” Ancient word sent through its changes, re-surfacing in Old Irish fáith “seer, prophet” and then as Woden or Odin, god who hangs on the World Tree Yggdrasil for nine days for the gift of wisdom, for insight. God who sacrifices one good eye for the same reason. Your life comes asking “What’s it worth to you?”

Warrior, traveler, initiator, self. Homeless person you meet on a street corner, and turn from, because he reeks of sweat and urine, because he’s mumbling (or screaming) to himself. So not the Druid I was looking for.

And yet this, too, is useful, or not. We reach for images to see the invisible, to name the nameless.  The Way that can be walked isn’t the real (lasting, eternal) Way, says the Tao Te Ching. Six words in Chinese: dao ke dao fei chang dao. “Way can way not lasting way.” A mantra for the possible, for the (in)sane, for the despairing. “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Same woods where Little Red Riding Hood meets a man-eating wolf on her path.

Carl Larsson's Little Red Riding Hood.  Wolf at your elbow?

Carl Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood.
Wolf at your elbow?

But we walk it anyway, because there isn’t any other way. No way! people say when they don’t believe something. No path to understanding. I’m stuck in surprise and disbelief. Not a problem. You can “way” it anyway. “What’s love got to do with it?” asks Tina Turner in her signature song. What’s belief — or a clear path — got to do with it? Some people stop at the first line. But the Tao Te Ching does actually offer some useful advice mixed in with the maddening inscrutability of its lines:

True, the way you can walk ain’t no lasting way. The name you give it (or yourself) ain’t no lasting name. Give one thing a name and you find a whole world of (other) things. Long for anything and you may run up against its shape (or its opposite) everywhere. Give up longing, though, and it opens into a mystery. Both of these come from the same source. If I had to name it, it’s darkness. Darkness IN darkness, a door to understanding. Really? Uh-huh.

Understanding. Great word. When you stand-under it, and don’t grab at it, it comes to you of itself, like dawn, arriving every morning without any tugging on your part. Like a bird at the feeder which grows accustomed to your presence as you patiently fill and refill the seed each day. Feed your mystery until you feel its wings beat and hear its chirping.

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The last chapter of The Lord of the Rings (which is never the last chapter, another piece of old wisdom now fallen into sad disrepute) gives us additional words to Bilbo’s walking song:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

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Images:

path; monster; Larsson’s Little Red Riding Hood; Georg Von Rosen’s Woden/Odin.

A Not-Always-Druidic Miscellany   Leave a comment

drhorribLooking at the current roster of candidates for U.S. president, all I can think of are the words of Dr. Horrible (a marvelous Neil Patrick Harris) in Joss Whedon‘s unique Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog: “The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.”

You can catch the good doctor’s comment (along with another quip about the “status quo”) near the end of this 1-minute clip:

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tolkbtcJust back from the 50th Int’l Congress on Medieval Studies (held every year in Kalamazoo, MI) where I survived delivering my paper on “Tolkien’s Beowulf and the ‘Correcting Style'” and hobnobbed with some 3000 other medievalists from around the world. The Congress is always a remarkable experience: the 4-day event this year included 567 sessions of papers, roundtables and presentations, along with the always-popular publishers’ room (BOOKS! we’re NERDS!), concerts, mead-tastings, interest-group meetings, the annual Saturday Dance, the Pseudo Society’s mock lectures and delicious satiric send-ups of all things medieval, housed in typical 1950s-style concrete block dormitories with university cafeteria food and coffee, in always variable Midwestern U.S. May weather.

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Also visited again the striking Serpent Mound near Locust Grove in southern Ohio, and learned there’s a winter Solstice celebration at the site that includes the placing of lights to outline the earthwork serpent that loops across a rocky outcrop of the Adams County countryside:

(WILDART ALBRECHT 12/20/10) Volunteers  light the 900 luminaries at the Serpent Mound in Adams County. Volunteers light the serpent for the winter solstice . (Dispatch photo by Eric Albrecht)

(WILDART ALBRECHT 12/20/10) Volunteers light the 900 luminaries at the Serpent Mound in Adams County for the winter solstice. (Dispatch photo by Eric Albrecht)

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Images: Dr. HorribleTolkien’s Beowulf; Serpent Mound Winter Solstice.

Touching the Sacred, Part 4: Beltane as “Found Festival”   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Bluets (houstonia caerulea) in our back yard

 

Bluets carpet our backyard lawn, an easy seduction into putting off the mowing I’ll need to do in another week. The air itself is a welcome. I no longer brace myself to step outside. Instead, I peel off an unnecessary extra layer and stand still, feeling my body sun itself in the coaxing warmth. Bumblebees chirm around the first blooms, goldfinches dart across the front yard, and our flock of five bluejay fledgelings from last year wintered over without a single loss and now sound a raucous reveille every morning.

In this last of a four-part series on Beltane, I want to look at our “found festivals” — how we also touch the sacred in the daily-ness of our lives. We don’t always have to go looking for it, as if it’s a reluctant correspondent or a standoffish acquaintance. When I attend to the season and listen to the planet around me, I touch the sacred without effort. The sacred encounter, like a handshake, is a two-part affair. How often do I extend my hand?

Susanne writes in a Druid Facebook group we both follow that finally in her northern location “the last bit of snow on the north side of the house melted away on Beltane day.” Gift of Beltane. Something to dance for.

GBarrmaypole

Rudolf Steiner school celebration in Great Barrington, MA

 

The ritual calendar of much modern Paganism meshes with the often milder climate of Western Europe where it originated. It doesn’t always fit as well in the northern U.S. or Canada, or other places that have adopted it. (So we tweak calendars and rituals and observances. Like all sensible recipes say, “Season to taste.”)

It’s a cycle that the medieval British poet Geoffrey Chaucer celebrates in the Canterbury Tales by singing (I’m paraphrasing lightly):

the showers of April have pierced the droughts of March to the root … the West Wind has breathed into the new growth in every thicket and field … the small birds make their melodies and sleep all night with open eyes …

A Vermonter like me looks at Beltane looming on May 1 and reads those lines of Chaucer’s and thinks, “About a month too early, Geoffrey.” Spring, not summer, begins at Beltane, though to feel the recent temperatures on your face you might well think Beltane is the start of summer indeed. Game of Thrones fans, never fear: Winter will come (again). But now … ah, now … Spring!

Susanne continues:

and even though they are a symbol of Imbolc, the snowdrops are blooming merrily followed closely by the daffodils. The peepers are peeping, the owls are hooting, the woodcocks are rasping ‘peent’ on the ground and twittering in flight.

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salamander crossing signs in our nearest town

 

Late April and early May here in southern VT, and in your home area, too, means an annual migration of some sort. Here it’s spotted salamanders. After dark, volunteers with flashlights man the gullies and wet spots to escort the salamanders safely across roads, and slow the chance passing car to the pace of life.

yellspotsal

 

Beltane finds Susanne with her hands in the earth, responding to the call of Spring:

The weekend was spent with Spring clean up, turning the soil and sowing the greens and peas in the garden. I was a bit disappointed in myself that I haven’t held a Beltane ritual but then I realized that this was the ritual…working with the soil, plants and spirits of the land, listening to my favorite songs …

May you all touch the sacred where you are.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Images: bluets/houstonia caerulea — ADW; Great Barrington MA school celebration; salamander sign — ADW; yellow spotted salamander.

Touching the Sacred, Part 3: Days of Beltane   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

[To the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”]

On the second day of Beltane, the Old Gods said to me:

Dance round the fire, and then say what you truly long to be …

I always find Beltane lasts longer than a single day. This year I’m celebrating it over three days, from yesterday, the “official” May-Day, through tomorrow, with the Full Moon at its peak at 11:42 pm, Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. (that’s 03:42 Greenwich Time, May 4).

Do you carry a private moon with you? At times like these I feel I do.  It’s tucked under my ribcage, trembling like a small forest creature that’s heard an owl: I have a lunar heart. Or in place of my mouth, a moon. No words, just white shadow wherever I turn to speak.

I do the original moonwalk, following shimmering paths visible at no other time. Or I hold out my hands and each palm glows with a hemisphere of unearthly light. I clap them together and the blow sparks new planets all up and down my spine.

Loenid Tishkov:

Leonid Tishkov: “Private Moon”

Festival observances, like other rituals, can make us vulnerable to ourselves in powerful ways. Often we’re taught to leave dreams in childhood, as if adults don’t need to dream at all, let alone dream bigger than we ever dared as children.

Open myself to desire and dream, and longings I’ve shoved aside, sometimes for years, can rush back full-force. What I still dream and wish for are gifts my childhood has kept in store. Not just for the grown-up me, though it can feel that way. These gifts may have taken human or animal form, wandered homeless, raggedy and broken and weeping, or snarling, feral, wild things no child could understand. Things it runs from, things that hide under the bed, in the closet, that stretch and loom after the bedroom light gets turned off.

But the child also recognizes them as blood kindred, curls up with them each night, and each dawn they glimmer and vanish till the next twilight gathering. They reappear in that book you read and re-read till it fell apart in your hands, in the story no bedtime retelling could ever wear out. The childhood rituals that primed you for adult ones of deeper mystery: sex, death, creation.

What I do with them now are the gifts I give back to that younger self, some fulfilled, others still orphans. But I have brought them out and looked at them head on, and hugged them. I take them in even as I give them back. And in that circuit lies power.

Beltane pairs with Samhuinn across the ritual year, its opposite pole, and this Beltane-with-a-Scorpio-Moon I’m feeling it particularly strongly. No surprise, the astrologically-minded say:

The sun is now anchored in the sign of Taurus. Beltane occurs when it is precisely half way through the sturdy earth sign. The sign is symbolized by the fertile bull and, given its association with the fecundity of the springtime in the Northern hemisphere, Beltane in particular is a full-fledged celebration of life, creativity and the abundance of the upcoming summer season.  

But, its polarity, Scorpio, is not. 

Scorpios domain deals with matters that no one else wants to: the vile, the putrid, the petrifying, the intense, the rejected, the betrayed, the scorned, the scathing, the denied and the dead. Scorpio reminds us that we can repudiate anything for an eternity but that doesnt mean it will be resolved, it doesnt mean that it will be repaired, and it doesnt mean that it will go away. 

Ritual is one way to approach the difficult as well as the beautiful, to manage them in more bite-sized (ceremonial-sized) pieces. And sometimes, to discover the beautiful and the difficult, the deformed and the immensely powerful, amount to the same thing.

Beltane carries Samhuinn in its belly, or on its back. Or Samhuinn is Beltane turned inside-out. Both are fire-festivals, and fire does not always lie easily on the hearth. Sometimes it flames forth, blows past barriers and oppositions in its guise of wildfire.

More in the next post.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Images: Leonid Tishkov/”Private Moon”;

Touching the Sacred, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

In Part 1 I wrote about the approaching Festival of Beltane and our longing to touch or encounter the Sacred. It keeps calling to us, and will not be ignored.

Here I’ll talk about how we fulfill the call inside us to touch the Sacred.

hurston-years

Zora Neale Hurston, from her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

One way to understand this call is as a sacred vow that our lives require each of us to fulfill. Being born means we agreed to it. Don’t remember making the vow? Each of us promised to make good on it. “Will you do what only you can do, because only you live your life? Will you listen to what there is for you to hear? Will you keep growing? Will you remember to celebrate all that can be celebrated?”

Our lives ask us such questions, and we answer with how we live. We honor the call, the sacred vow, when we’re fully alive. We catch intermittent glimpses of this in our lives. This joy is for you, it says.

Often we don’t trust it. A girl I was serious about before I met and married my wife was convinced we shouldn’t trust it. Every happiness has to be paid for with sorrow, she said.

Or we see it, this joy, in the lives of others. A light seems to shine around them, and in their presence you feel better, more balanced, more you. They seem to practice the sacred like a dance or song. That can be a powerful way to live. Life as practice. Not as a thing to be perfected. Life’s bigger than perfection, it seems to say. More ornery, stubborn, lovely and changeable.

But it’s something we can also study, perform, explore, try out, test, demonstrate, play with, give away and take back. Sometimes with each breath. Sometimes over nearly a century. Perfection’s a dead thing. Not alive, slippery, mysterious and intoxicating. Try out what lies on the other side of perfection. Not just play the hand I’m dealt, but take or drop a card. Reshuffle. Paint my own deck. And sometimes, change the game.

Right, says the skeptic. You just believe that if you want to. But ignore such hints and outright shoves, and likewise we can often feel both restless and spiritually dead, a truly wretched combination, when we’ve done less than our lives ask of us.

We all know this intimately, too, in one form or another. It prods young (and older) people to find themselves, it burns in those who are spiritual hungry to go on inner and outer quests that may take years or their entire lives, it launches many a mid-life crisis, a dark night or decade of the soul. It slaps you upside the head, and will not stop. It passes go, it drives up onto the sidewalk, it drops you off on the wrong side of town. Or it slows down, even stops, parks in a driveway, kills the engine, offers you the wheel — then tosses the keys into the bushes.

fb-addict

And the call troubles some people enough that they retreat into things in order to try to hush the call, to drown it out because they despair of ever being able to answer it. And the things — possessions, pleasures, addictions — being finite, can’t replace the call either. They just rub it raw. Who needs the sacred if it’s such torture?! No thanks, I say. These aren’t the droids I’m looking for.

Fortunately the sacred doesn’t just sit around waiting for us to find it like the fabled pot of gold at the rainbow’s end, like the toy in the bottom of the cereal box. It bounces and squirms and growls and seeks us out, constantly breaking through into our awareness. Hence the difficulty of avoiding the call, and the frequency with which we encounter it.

These Festivals like Beltane, or even newer observances, like Earth Day today — they don’t come out nowhere. Sure they do, says your friendly neighborhood internet troll. OK: who ya gonna believe?

Where do we find the sacred — or where does it find us?

humanbeauty-stovka

“Human Beauty”/Jano Stovka

We may touch the sacred when we experience beauty. And beauty not only meets us in familiar ways that marketers box and package and try to monetize, but also in less conventional ones, if we pay attention. And sometimes even when we don’t.

Experience beauty and we’re lifted out of ourselves, stopped in our tracks, slapped, arrested, pierced with Cupid’s arrow — the language we’ve used throughout history in poems and songs to describe the experience can sound violent, because we may not expect beauty, or recognize it when we face it, or want it when we do recognize it.

Or we do all of those things, and our hunger for it just grows and builds. Or it makes us weep or laugh, or act in other ways that don’t fit or which leave us uncomfortable. Wait, say our lives. You thought this was going to be easy or simple?!

Encounters with the sacred can come in isolation, too, of course — away from others. We may turn our backs on people who disappoint us or who are simply so loud in our lives that we need silence, or at least other sounds. Wind, crickets, birdsong, water. We set out by ourselves, convinced this is IT. This is the way.

Walk alone and some cultures, at some times, will understand and recognize and support you. They’ll assist the solitary walk in unique ways that other cultures may not be doing at that moment. Time, space, acceptance, easing the transition in or out.

Oominesanji_stairs

Stairs at Oominesanji, Kii Mountains, Japan

No single culture does it all — culture’s a human thing as much as anything else is. But the natural world is a powerful ally — what we’re born from, where these bodies end up after a few decades. The in-between, where we convince ourselves we’re not a part but apart: the natural world offers remedies for that illness that we recognize every time we let it.

In Part 3 I’ll look at some more ways we touch the sacred.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Images: years that ask; addictionOominesanji Stairs; human beauty/Jano Stovka

Beltane 2015 and Touching the Sacred   1 comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Here we are, about two weeks out from Beltane/May Day — or Samhuinn if you live Down Under in the Southern Hemisphere. And with a Full Moon on May 3, there’s a excellent gathering of “earth events” to work with, if you choose. Thanks to the annual Edinburgh Fire Festival, we once again have Beltane-ish images of the fire energy of this ancient Festival marking the start of Summer.

beltane
You may find like I do that Festival energies of the “Great Eight”* kick in at about this range — half a month or so in advance. A nudge, a hint, a restlessness that eases, a tickle that subsides, or shifts toward knowing, with a glance at the calendar. Ah! Here we are again!

For me, that’s regardless of whether I’m involved in any public gathering, or anticipating the time — because it’s never anything as rigid as one single day, but rather an elastic interval — on my own.

Yes, purists may insist on specifics, and calculate their moons and Festivals down to the hour, so as not to miss the supposed peak energies of the time. And if this gives you a psychological boost to know and do this that’s worth the fuss, go for it.

Below is Midnightblueowl’s marvelous painted “Wheel of the Year” (with Beltane at approximately 9 o’clock). With its colors and images, it captures something of the feeling of the Year as we walk it — a human cycle older than religions and civilizations. Or the cycle helped make us human, changing us as we began to notice and acknowledge and celebrate it. Try looking at it both ways, and see what comes of that.

Wheel_of_the_Year

Painted “Wheel of the Year” by Midnightblueowl. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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For today I take as divination the message below, which got promptly diverted to the spam folder: “This page decidedly has whole of the information I precious astir this dependent and didn’t make love who to ask.”

O crazy spam-scribe of the ethers, you stumbled onto one of the Great Paradoxes, best stated by William Blake, with his “infinity in the palm of your hand, eternity in an hour.” In that sense, yes: this page “decidedly has whole of the information” though it is also what it is, a finite thing. Like each of us, like the tools we use to connect to What Matters, like the sneaking suspicion that will not go away that there’s Something More. (Even if it’s just an explanation of what’s up with all these capital letters, anyway?)

And since Beltane’s approaching, there is indeed a “precious astir” at work as the energies swirl.  Who or what is “dependent”?! The writer of the spam, not knowing “who to ask” and even acknowledging he “didn’t make love.” And all of us, dependent on the earth and each other.

I bless you, oh Visitor to this e-shrine, workshop, journal — the many-selfed thing that blogs can be and become. Who to ask? you inquire. Your inward Guide, always present and waiting for you where you are most true. Or the face of the Guide as it manifests again and again in your life — stranger at the market who smiles at you, bird that catches your eye, tune you find yourself humming.

How to get there, that place we all long for, that colors our thinking and follows and leads us in day- and night-dreams? Place that Festivals and holidays and time and pain and love and living all — sometimes — remind us of? Ah, you mean The Question! Love, gratitude, service — all things any of us can begin today; all things, it’s important to remember, we already do in some measure, or we would die. Too easy? Or you already know that? There’s also ritual — finite, imperfect ritual, our human dance. Mark, O Spirit, and hear us now, confirming this our sacred vow … 

What’s your sacred vow? Don’t know yet? Got some work to do? Tune in to the next post for more.

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

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Image: Beltane Edinburgh Fire Festival; painted Wheel of the Year by Midnightblueowl

*The “Great Eight” yearly festivals with their OBOD names: Imbolc, Alban Eilir/Spring Equinox, Bealteinne, Alban Hefin/Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, Alban Elfed/Autumn Equinox, Samhuinn, Alban Arthan/Winter Solstice. Many alternate names exist, and almost every one has a Christian festival on or near it, too.

“Selfies with Trilithons” and Our Longing for (Re)connection   Leave a comment

Selfless trilithons

Selfless trilithons

Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.

In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.

Will Self visits Stonehenge

“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The Guardian.com

I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.

New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10″ list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.

The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”

You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”

English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”

“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.

Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness.  They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.

Until we did.

[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]

We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.

But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)

These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”

Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:

Midhowe broch

Midhowe broch

… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.

During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.

If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.

“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.

“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.

Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react variously to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets some of them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:

When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.

The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be cross with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)

In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.

 /|\ /|\ /|\

 Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.

*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]

McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

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