Archive for January 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 2   3 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

But what of the Galilean Rabbi himself?  Enough about trends, which I said last time I wasn’t really interested in. We may forget that Jesus is a common enough religious name of the time — a version of Joshua — “God saves.”  (It’s a name still popular today among Hispanics.) Thirty, and he’s still not married.  A disappointment to his culture, his family.  After all, both count immortality at least in part through heirs and bloodlines.  His mother tries to understand, received a sign when she conceived him, has her suspicions and hopes.

Reconstruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem

Reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem

An itinerant teacher and preacher, one of many, traveling the countryside.  On festival days, when he can, like many of his countrymen, he visits the great Temple in Jerusalem.  A short career: just a few years.  A group of followers who scatter at his death, denying him repeatedly.  A promising life, cut short by an ill-timed visit to the capital. The one who betrays him comes from among his own followers.  Roman overlords, touchy at the major festival of Passover, the city bulging with visitors and pilgrims, a powder-keg, awaiting a spark to flame into chaos.  A summary arrest and trial for the young Rabbi, followed by an ignominious and agonizing death.

Except unlike so many other such preachers, after his death Jesus is not forgotten, is eventually deified, gets elevated to membership in the theologically-problematic Trinity that Christians insist isn’t polytheistic. (If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck …)  What was it about him that came across as godlike? Sadducee

As with other spiritual teachers, we can see his divine intoxication ebbing and flowing, peaking and falling away again, a common enough human phenomenon. Most of us have known a peak experience at least once; we’ve also sadly  watched it slip away.

At times Jesus is a poor Rabbi working for justice and compassion, firmly ensconced in the tangle that is 1st century Judea, with its liberal agnostic Sadducees, conservative legalistic Pharisees and radical Zealots.  Israel, a stand-out nation, with its peculiar and demanding monotheism, an island of faith and practice in a sea of surrounding nations with their many gods. A politically contentious region, one the Romans occupy, “pacifying” it in typically straightforward Roman style, with local career politicians like Pilate. The Romans crucify troublemakers, tax the province for whatever they can squeeze out of it, and garrison it as a staging point for patrolling other legs of an Empire increasingly wobbly and quarrelsome and groping towards revolt.

More and more, this Rabbi draws a crowd when he stops to preach.  He’s a vivid speaker, his rural Galilean-accented Aramaic familiar to his audience.  He’s one of us, Joseph’s son.  Did you hear what he said earlier today, last night, a week ago? Almost always something memorable.

tribute-penny

Show me a coin, he asks those gathered around him one day.  A natural teacher, using whatever’s on hand to make a point.

Whose image appears on it? he asks them now.

It’s Caesar’s, they answer.

Exactly so, he says.  Distinguish rightly what goes where.  The coin, the tax, that goes to Caesar.  The divine , however, requires something different.  

Like what? his listeners wonder.

Good master, somebody else asks him, intent on his own issues. What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

Don’t call me “good,” the Rabbi replies, after a pause.  I’m not. Call nobody good, except God.  And that’s not me, not me, not me the silence echoes, in case anyone was wondering.

The fig tree, when he reaches it, has no figs.  Of course not — it’s not the season for them. Jesus, hungry, tired and discouraged, curses it anyway, goes to bed with an empty belly.  Real son of God material.  Not likely.  Word of it gets written down, too.

I’ve been with you this long and you still don’t get it? he scolds his closest followers one day.  How long must I endure you?  Almost losing it. In public.  Another low point.  Another note that rings humanly true.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

That’s “this-world” Jesus.  He sweats in the Mediterranean summers, shivers in the damp, rainy winters.  Cries when his friend Lazarus dies. Bellows at the merchants and money-changers in the Temple.

Sheep and goats wander the roads as he walks from town to town.  It’s hot and dusty, it’s raining, it’s stormy.  The Sea of Galilee can turn to whitecaps in a minute, threatening the small fishing boats that work its coves and depths.  Workmen hail him, stop and question him, ponder his words.  His own people.  Fishermen, slaves, tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, widows, children. The sick, the street people, the lepers and beggars, the homeless.  His message first of all must reach them, before anybody else.  They need it so badly.

wfieldBut at times we hear a different voice, sense a very different presence.  The Otherworld vivid, all around. (“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes …” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nineteen centuries later.) The Kingdom, here, now. This Jesus, so drenched with the divine that the rocks sing to him with it.  He can be wrapped in a shining cloud and commune with the ex-carnate Moses. Perceive the spiritual temptations of worldly power, available to anyone who begins to walk into the heart of the Great Mystery.  He can say, Satan! but he’s really talking to his own human capacity to choose for good or bad. The power that goes with deep awareness and choice.

This Jesus says The divine and I are one.  I came to testify to the truth. If you see me, you see the face of the divine.  I came so that people can have more abundant lives.  I came for you all.  And you are all my sisters and brothers. All children of God, all walking the fields and forests of the Kingdom.

This Jesus knows the divine is all-present, that the flow of Spirit sustains everything, that there’s always enough.

How to capture this inner truth in stories? A huge crowd, fed, with left-overs.  A leper healed.  A poor woman looking for love or a livelihood, taken in adultery or prostitution, forgiven — and no one to say “But wait!” or argue the letter of the law with the Rabbi with the shining eyes.  The accusing crowd, unsettled, disperses.

The hick Rabbi, dying a criminal’s death on the cross, thieves and murderers on both sides pf him, gasping as he asks God to forgive those who nailed him up to die a slow death.  The palpable sense of his presence after his death.

His consciousness rising and falling in its breadth of awareness of its own divine potential, its union with all things, its kinship with mustard seeds, with the birds of heaven and the foxes of earth and trees that clap their hands. What could be more human?  What could be more Druidic?

wstevehThe world has three levels: heaven, earth and hell. The leaven is divided into three portions and hidden for a time.  All things will be revealed. The divine is both different and the same, yesterday, today and forever.  Ask, seek, knock.  Druidic triads everywhere, once we start looking.  No, the carpenter’s son wasn’t necessarily a Druid. No, Jesus maybe didn’t “in ancient time walk upon on England’s mountains green,” as Blake imagines it in his poem “Jerusalem.”  Another story to convey the sense of the divine, here.  No reason to claim kinship where it doesn’t exist. But every reason to celebrate links and commonalities and similar wisdom, wherever, whenever they appear.

A man who touches the divine and tries to express it in a culture steeped in a monotheistic tradition of necessity will draw on monotheist images and tropes.  How else to express his sense of profound communion, except by an image of a family, father and children? How else to communicate the sense of despair and agony of being cut off from every hope and healing, except by images of lasting hell?  How else to convey the divine promise rich inside every breathing moment, except by saying something like It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom?

water into wineThe gift, already given, given every day, dawn, noon and sunset. The divine never offers less than all.  We strain to catch and carry the ocean in a coffee mug. We gaze at dawn and can never hold all that light.  We go for water, and it changes to wine, intoxicatingly alive.  Each spring, the world practices resurrection.  And yes, even the rocks are singing.

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Images: TempleSadduceesAugustus pennyGalilee; Van Gogh: Wheatfields; W Stevens quotewaterdrop.

Updated/edited 2 February 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

Midwinter greetings to you all!  It’s sunny and bitter cold here in southern VT.  The mourning doves and chickadees mobbing our feeder have fluffed themselves against the chill — the original down jackets — the indoor thermometer says 62, and my main task today, besides writing this post, is keeping our house warm and fussing over the woodstove like a brood hen sitting a nest of chicks.  Hope you’re bundled and warm — or if you live on the summer side of the globe, you’re making the most of the sun and heat while it lasts.

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gbshawThe long and complex associations between a dominant religion like Christianity and minority faiths and practices within the dominant religious culture, like Druidry, won’t be my primary focus in this post. I’m more interested in personalities and practices anyway. It’s from spiritual innovators that any transformation of consciousness spreads, and that includes people like Jesus. Or as George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) quipped in his play Man and Superman, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  I’m asserting that in the best sense of the word, we can count Jesus among the “unreasonable” men and women we depend on for progress.

Mostly reasonable people like me don’t make waves.  Cop out?  Maybe.  If I chose to stand in the front lines of protests against practices like fracking, wrote blogs and letters decrying the bought votes and cronyism of specific members of Congress, targeted public figures with letter campaigns, founded and led a visible magical or spiritual group or movement, made headlines and provided a ready source of colorful sound-bites, I’d win my quarter-hour of fame, and probably an FBI or NSA file with my name on it.* Maybe it would make a difference.  Maybe not.  Material for an upcoming post.

Back to the main topic of Jesus and Druidry.  As Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries,

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints.  That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (p. 31).

rookOne somewhat obscure but intriguing survival is the Scots poet Sir Richard Holland’s Buke of the Howlat(e) (Book of the Owlet), dating from the 1450s. OK, . Holland’s satirical poem is peopled with birds standing in for humans, and it stars an unhappy owl which has traveled to the Pope (a peacock) to petition for an improved appearance.

lainghowlatIn the process of considering the owl’s request, the Pope orders a banquet, and among the entertainments during the feast is a “Ruke” (a rook or raven) in the stanza below, which represents the traditional satirical and mocking bard (named in the poem as Irish, but actually Scots Gaelic), deploying the power of verse to entertain, assert his rights, and reprimand the powerful.  Thus, some two centuries before the start of the Druid Revival, Holland’s poem preserves memory of the old bardic tradition.  Bear with my adaptation here of stanza 62 of Holland’s long poem.  Here, the Rook gives a recitation in mock Gaelic, mixed with the Scots dialect** of the poem, demanding food and drink:

So comes the Rook with a cry, and a rough verse:
A bard out of Ireland with beannachaidh Dhe [God’s blessings (on the house)]
Said, “An cluinn thu guth, a dhuine dhroch, olaidh mise deoch.
Can’t you hear a word, evil man? I can take a drink.
Reach her+ a piece of the roast, or she+ shall tear thee.
[+the speaker’s soul — a feminine noun in Gaelic]
Mise mac Muire/Macmuire (plus indecipherable words)
I am the son of Mary/I am Macmuire.
Set her [it] down.  Give her drink.  What the devil ails you?
O’ Diarmaid, O’ Donnell, O’ Dougherty Black,
There are Ireland’s kings of the Irishry,
O’ Conallan (?), O’ Conachar, O’ Gregor Mac Craine.
The seanachaid [storyteller], the clarsach [harp],
The ben shean [old woman], the balach [young lad],
The crechaire [plunderer], the corach [champion],
She+ knows them every one.”
[+again, the soul of the speaker]

If you can for a moment overlook the explicit Protestant mockery of the Papacy (the Pope as a Peacock, after all), here, then, is an early Renaissance indication that the Bardic tradition was still recalled and recognized widely enough to work in a poem.  Holland’s poem is itself a satire, and in it, the bard demands food and drink as his right as a professional, shows off his knowledge of famous names, and generally makes himself at home, both satirizing and being satirized in Holland’s depiction of bardic arrogance.  (For in the following stanza, he’s kicked offstage by two court fools, who then spend another stanza quarreling between themselves.)

Thus, when the first Druid Revivalists began in the 1600s to search for the relics and survivals and outlying remains of Druidry to pair up with what they knew  Classical authors had said about the Druids, things like Holland’s poem were among the shards and fragments they worked with.  I’ve written (herehere and here) about the tales from the Mabinogion which, as Carr-Gomm points out above, preserve much Druid lore, passed down in story form and preserved by Christian monastics long after the oral teachings (and teachers) apparently passed from the scene. OK, .

More about Revival Druidry, the Revivalists, and Druidic survivals, coming soon.

[Part 2 here.]

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*It’s likely such a file already exists anyway: I lived and worked for a year in the People’s Republic of China, I had to be fingerprinted and cleared by the Dept. of State for a month-long teaching job in South Korea (a requirement of my S. Korea employer, not the U.S.) a couple of summers ago, and I practice not just one but two minority religions.  If you’re reading this, O Agents of Paranoia, give yourselves a coffee break — nothing much continues to happen here.

**Below is Holland’s original stanza 62 from his Buke of the Howlate.  With the help of a dated commentary on Google Books, and the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, I’ve worked on a rough translation/adaptation.  If you know the poem (or know Scots), corrections are welcome!

Sae come the Ruke with a rerd, and a rane roch,
A bard owt of Irland with ‘Banachadee!’,
Said, ‘Gluntow guk dynyd dach hala mischy doch,
Raike here a rug of the rost, or so sall ryive the.
Mich macmory ach mach mometir moch loch,
Set here doune! Gif here drink! Quhat Dele alis the?
O Deremyne, O Donnall, O Dochardy droch
Thir ar his Irland kingis of the Irischerye,
O Knewlyn, O Conochor, O Gregre Makgrane,
The Schenachy, the Clarschach,
The Ben schene, the Ballach,
The Crekery, the Corach,
Scho kennis thaim ilk ane.

Carr-Gomm, Philip.  Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century.  London: Rider, 2002.

Diebler, Arthur.  Holland’s Buke of the Houlate, published from the Bannatyne Ms, with Studies in the Plot, Age and Structure of the Poem.  Chemnitz, 1897.  Google Books edition, pp. 23-24.

Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Images: G B Shaw; rook; Laing edition of Buke of the Howlat cover.

Of Bridges and Leaders, Part 2   2 comments

[Part One here]

And so the tale unfolds, its apparent focus on the actions of men.  But what of Branwen, sister of Bran?  She is not merely passive, an unwitting pawn in the hands of her brother, her family.

In her story a second and hidden teaching lies in plain sight, so to speak.

“She tames a starling and teaches it human speech,” goes one version.  Such an innocent line.  Does she achieve this before her mistreatment begins at the hands of her new husband, Matholwch king of Ireland?  During?  In either case, her deed stands as a marvel.

The -wen affix in Welsh is one way to form feminine names: Branwen, no less than Bran, is a leader, a bridge. A Raven.  For if she tames the starling before she needs it so desperately, foresight and guidance are hers because she listened and acted on them.  And if after, to her belong inspiration and determination and a singular courage.  To win the trust of a wild creature, to teach it speech, even if it is mimicry, to impress on it the urgency of her plight, to teach or guide it where to fly to find Bran, and on finding him, to repeat the message — each is remarkable alone, to say nothing of all of them together, while being abused and degraded.  This is the power of the animal in us, of Raven wisdom.

I do a quick internet search for “raven wisdom” and through a marvel worthy of the story, within seconds “A Bit about the Raven” appears among the links.  What are some characteristics of Raven Wisdom, according to the site?

  • Rebirth without fear
  • Ability to tear down what needs to be rebuilt
  • Renewal
  • Ability to find light in darkness
  • Courage of self-reflection
  • Introspection
  • Comfort with self
  • Honoring ancestors
  • Connection to the Crone
  • Divination
  • Change in consciousness
  • New occurrences
  • Eloquence

Each of these is apt and fitting, without forcing the issue. Deserving of meditation. Fear would rule you if it could. In Branwen’s case, with abuse and pain and betrayal at the hands of your husband, trapped in another country, all your blood kin, except for your child, across the sea, out of reach. Raven brings rebirth without fear. Branwen realizes the gift of self-possession, and “possessing” the self, a kind of paradox, she — we — have all that is needed.

I’d take a good Black Ops team any day, or barring that, a revolver, you think. And in the short term, these advantages would serve. But how well would they serve?  Rescued, delivered, you return to your old life.  No change, no growth to speak of, only new sorrow, and harrowing memory.  A resolve not to be married off without your consent?  Maybe it started as a love match, not just a political marriage.  Who can say, from what the story itself offers?

raven2But if you “learn” from the experience, but do not also transform as a result, you learn not to trust your own judgment, not to trust the judgment of your family who supposedly love you, who launch you into such a disastrous marriage. Not to trust life to bring you home.

Raven offers more.  It asks us about our own consciousness, about our attitudes to kinds of wisdom we may not (yet) value, or which we may even disdain or abuse, but which remain as gifts given before we can see and claim them as ours.  Raven is nowadays ubiquitous as a Craft name, a Pagan nickname, or initiatory identity.  Raven was the first degree of initiation among the devotees of Mithras.  And Raven is the trickster and initiator par excellence among traditional peoples of many cultures.

For the story does not end merely in rescue …

Part Three coming soon.

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Image: Raven

Of Bridges and Leaders: A Branch from the Mabinogion   Leave a comment

Here begins an old tale from the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, told on the Island of the Mighty — Prydein or Britain.  It starts small, like many tales that grow at length to something greater.  This particular story begins with a bird …

starlingA flutter of wings, a small dark shadow overhead.  You look up.  With a Welsh name like Bran, which means Raven, you’ve grown used to such encounters.  Like calls to like, after all.  The bird, a starling, circles you,  its breast heaving with the double strain, it turns out, of a hasty sea journey and the urgent message it has for you.  It alights on the windowsill of your chamber.  Claws scuttle on the stone, as it gazes at you expectantly.  The charcoal feathers shift and settle.  As king of Britain, you’ve learned to listen.

The bird chirps its news.  The message, it seems, comes from your sister Branwen …

BranwenSome years past, Branwen married Matholwch, the king of Ireland.  A canny match. True, their wedding didn’t come off without a hitch, but then what wedding does? Efnisien, your difficult half-brother, arrived in the middle of the betrothal feast and made a stink at not being consulted.  More than peeved, he acted, mutilating some of Matholwch’s prize horses. Ah, brothers-in-law. Men on both sides lunge for their weapons. From feast to fight on the same day.

Quickly you hit on a fitting response: a gift from the royal treasury.  A conciliatory gift, a magic cauldron you give Matholwch that has the power to revive fallen warriors.  The Irish king, appeased by the marvelous gift, looks calmer.  His jaw unclenches.  At a gesture, swords are sheathed.  Spears grounded.  Blood cools, as the court bard strikes up a soothing song.  Crisis avoided.

Over the months and those first years, messages come. Time for a child and heir born to the royal couple, your nephew Gwern — check.  Time for the memory of the wedding embarrassment of an unruly relative to die down — check.  Time for healing …

A sharp squawk brings you back to the present.  The starling’s news is dark.  The shadow of Efnisien’s deed, it appears, still pricks the Irish pride and honor.  The Irish king, your brother-in-law, is mistreating Branwen, in spite of the fine heir she has provided him. He beats her daily and has banished her to the kitchens.  Nothing for it, you know, but to set out with a troop of warriors to resolve the problem — personally.  You summon men from all 154 cantrefs (districts) of Wales.  With you travel your brothers Manawydan and Efnisien.  You will not be ignored.

You cross the Irish Sea, and even before you beach your boats and stand on the eastern shore of Ireland, word of your coming has spread.  The Irish, determined to slow if not halt your advance, have taken out some of their own key bridges.

Your great stature makes you a giant among your subjects.  Literally. Leaning across each river and valley as you come to it, you lay your own body down for your men to cross over.  As you do, you say the words, “A fo ben, bid bont” — “He who would be a leader, let him be a bridge.”

[Part Two]

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Images:  starlingBranwen.

Magpie Religion   1 comment

magpieMagpie religion says pick it up if it’s shiny.  Add it to your collection.  Don’t worry if it “matches” or “fits” — shininess is its own category.  It stands out from everything else.

Magpie religion is normally practiced alone, though its origin lies in the genetic stamp all Magpies carry. Aloneness is not a bad thing — the Magpie, at least the Eurasian variety, passes the mirror test for self-awareness.  Magpie doesn’t need a flock to find its own way.  The world of shiny awaits.

Magpie religion says don’t worry so much about God, an afterlife, and so on.  Magpie religion means be a Magpie as best you can, and that means “do Magpie things.”  You’ll begin to see that God comes to you.  Sometimes wearing feathers.  Sometimes not.

Magpie religion means, while you sit on your branch, if you can, sing.

Magpie religion seeks no converts.  If you’re born a Magpie, you’re already a member.  You belong.  If you’re something else, BE that something else.  No copy-cats, or copy-birds.  Everything belongs, has its shiny.  Go find it, says Magpie religion.  Bring it back to the nest.

Magpie religion says beautiful exists on its own terms.  It needs no excuses.  It also doesn’t need a runway, an ad campaign, backers or models.  It doesn’t go in or out of style.

Magpie religion says “Magpie” doesn’t signify anything, even if death or bad weather happens to come along.  Other beings signify using “Magpie.”  Magpie doesn’t mind.  It could mean more shiny.

Magpie religion says the order is important:  magpie first, then religion.  Remember that when you sort your shiny.

Magpie religion says don’t worry if others call you Magpie, which is a silly name, after all.  By BEING Magpie, you make the name beautiful.  Ruffle those feathers, preen a little.  You’ve earned it.

Magpie religion says if someone wants to make an animal guide out of you, introduce the Trickster.  Then fly away.

magpieflyMagpie religion says you carry bright and dark in your own bodies.  No need to go far to seek them, to “understand” them.  You stand under them already.  Literally. Without trying.  Want a vision, check a mirror, see yourself — recognize it.

Magpie religion says “Magpie religion” is a set of sounds, a set of ripples and sparks in your nervous system.  Where are you flying today?

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Images: sitting; in flight

The Eurasian magpie, the variety studied more extensively, also appears to possess episodic memory — the ability to recall/distinguish “what, where, when.” Magpies have been observed using tools, and groups of Magpies showing what has been interpreted as grief over the death of one of their number.  The Magpie is not only one of the most intelligent of birds, but of all animals — an intelligence now recognized to have arisen independently in both corvids (crow and magpie-like birds) and primates.  See Eurasian magpie for more info.

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