Archive for the ‘altar’ Category

Genius

[Edited 20:30 12 Nov 2019]

So much of the genius of Druidry grounds itself in the here and now. Its metaphors concern growing things, the seasons, the changes and encounters and opportunities shaped by living in time and space. (The physical world is the ultimate spiritual metaphor.) Our communion is with life lived with other beings, including some without their skins on. But no one asks me to believe in them, or at least no more than I ask them to believe in me. Which can be lots, or not at all.

And so it is that the awen isn’t something to pray to (though I could), but to say and sing and listen to, in a group or alone. The crowded sapling I replanted last autumn doesn’t require my belief (though I’m free to believe my belief will help) but rather the space to grow, and regular watering until its root system re-establishes itself. The birds or beasts I share my life with need food and shelter and care. I may consider them dear companions, or manifestations of deity, but when they wake me asking for a meal, or to nudge me for a caress, no incense is required.

Some may choose to explore further, to part the veils that exist everywhere, that make physical things more and more transparent for Spirit, or that also can preserve a reassuring earthly solidity a little longer, if we need it. Face-to-face with a local part of the world I encounter just a few paces from here, a part I can paint and ponder, photograph and feel, I know enough of divinity to take another step, if I choose.

I’ve had trouble for a few years now with a frequent sense of constriction just before waking. Traditional medicine points to things like sleep apnea, poor diet, sleep paralysis, and similar physical causes. But I’ve eliminated these things as primary, though some may be effects of a more underlying cause. If ever I doubted that I leave my body every night, here’s proof, when proof’s no longer needed: I’m definitely outside, and frequently reluctant to return. Often in near-to-waking dreams I’m entering a tunnel, climbing a narrowing stairway, pushing myself into a corner, sliding into a tight, confining and claustrophobic space. Ah, said a friend proficient at getting out of the body, when I shared some details of this experience, I know that feeling. I came to realize a part of me was too large to fit comfortably inside a human form. Sometimes you need to make inner adjustments with what you try to bring back with you. Hmm.

“I was more independent than any farmer in Concord,” remarks Henry David Thoreau, in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, “for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I should have been nearly as well off as before”. Unlike Henry, I have a house, but my genius is as bent as any, and perhaps the curvature makes following it into a bone-house, if not back out again, more difficult than it need be. I hear the word shapeshift echo behind my hearing, like something spoken in the next room, though no one else is home — and I ponder new ways to explore this dream-waking challenge. What shape might better fit, if a human one proves too narrow? A new practice to explore.

Grounded in the here and now, I have a center from which to explore. Maybe that’s both aid and obstacle. Hermes Trismegistus, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, is said to have remarked, “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” So I reflect that creation as deity sees it is happening wherever the center is, and finishes at the circumference. Whatever that means, it may mean that it begins where I sense a center. I needn’t go looking for it anywhere else.

Hermes Thrice-Greatest, in Latin Mercurius ter Maximus — MtM for someone like me in love with acronyms — is simply another doorway, a mask spirit wears, as we all are to each other, another chance to ponder all the ways and plays of spirit peeking out from everything. The more closely I explore this blessed physical world of metaphorical and very real earth, air, fire and water, the more carefully it explores me. Thoreau knows what I’m sensing; a few lines of his became one of my mantras, long ago:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars — Walden.

The Wikipedia entry for genius offers a useful etymology for extended meditation:

In ancient Rome, the genius (plural in Latin genii) was the guiding spirit or tutelary deity of a person, family (gens) or place (genius loci). The noun is related to the Latin verbs “gignere” (to beget, to give birth to) and “generare” (to beget, to generate, to procreate), and derives directly from the Indo-European stem thereof: “ǵenh” (to produce, to beget, to give birth). Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of [Caesar] Augustus, the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent”. The term genius acquired its modern sense in the eighteenth century, and is a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, as above, and ingenium [cf. ingenious], a related noun referring to our innate dispositions, talents, and inborn nature. Beginning to blend the concepts of the divine and the talented, the Encyclopédie [an 18th-century French encyclopedia]article on genius (génie) describes such a person as “he whose soul is more expansive and struck by the feelings of all others; interested by all that is in nature never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost”.

Again and again I return to earth, to the physical, this first and last mystery, vessel for otherwise intangible spirit, which still looks at me even as I gaze at it. And I consider a genius of my locus, a spirit of place — an altar, if I see it so — the stone in our front yard, mantled with snow and lichen on this November day.

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May all that you meet talk to you, teach you, comfort you, challenge you, guide you, prepare you.

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Four Seasons as a Guide to Manifestation

[Updated 4 June 2020]

“Winter doesn’t mean Summer has failed”, says one of my teachers. It’s not a competition, though sometimes our seasonal myths and stories can make it seem like winter and summer take turns through time in “winning” and “losing” and grudgingly parcelling out the year between them. (It’s more a tussle between lovers.)

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North, early morning, October

And if the world follows its cycles of manifestation, so do humans who live and grow and die and are born here. After all, we’re one of the things the universe does. That mountain ash is as well, and this solitary bee sunning itself on the east wall of our house this October morning, and taking flight in a sudden thrum of wings as I walk past, lugging the laundry.

I’m stingy enough (if you’re kind you can call it thrifty) that I pause under the clothesline a moment, savoring the October calm and light. Sorting through clothespins for the large ones, I calculate how much I’m paying myself per hour to air-and-sun-dry the laundry, rather than spend money for electricity to do the job.

Either it’s the clothesline in good weather, or the drying rack indoors, with a fire in the stove. Labor-intensive, but easy on the wallet. The day’s weather forecast, rather than traffic and distance to the laundromat and spare quarters on hand, is my guide. As a builder-acquaintance of mine likes to say, you have to earn so damn much just to save so damn little. If I can remove one more homely task from that cycle, it’s a victory. In the process, I recover simple pleasures like the scent of laundry the sun has loved all day long.

Could we find a guide as useful for whenever we plunge into any particular cycle of manifestation? After all, I don’t want to pour more energy into working the ground, if the time for planting is already here. Or plant, if it’s harvest-time and a frost looks imminent. More and more I’m starting to see where to focus. Which signals from the universe deserve my attention? What guides me to alertness about these cycles and my part in them, and what distracts and diverts and wastes my energy?

Ah, you know the feeling as well as I do. How did it happen last week that I squandered what looked like a crest of inspiration and passion, a peak where I knew I could do what I longed to do, and managed to throw myself into the depths of a trough instead? Was it noise rather than wisdom that tugged on my attention from the outside, and drew me aside from my goal? Some samples — the voices we all hear, that seduce us from our best interests: “You should W. Or X is so terrible that you must Y. Or you can’t Z”, and so on, and on. I wake up enough from time to time to ask myself, “Since when have strangers known better than my own inner guidance what’s in my best interests?!”

So I have a map for manifestation. Is that enough? Can I locate more guidance?

Well, how about my reasons, my motive, my intention? Whom does the Grail serve? one such teaching asks us. Druid koan, a question the universe is always asking. Who benefits? If we serve only the self, we’re cutting off half the flow that’s possible for us. As distributors, as channels, as manifesters of awen-inspiration and life and energy, we can always open to a greater flow. Isn’t that our deepest desire, to feel life pass through us on its way to a worthy purpose? To have participated fully in the marvel of existence? I don’t know about you, but that’s the richest and most thrilling experience I know.

What do I need in order to work with the entire cycle?

It’s for the good of the whole. That doesn’t mean cutting myself out of the cycle of manifestation, out of some misguided understanding that I must sacrifice my own happiness or well-being to realize what I desire. I’m also part of the cycle, which is incomplete without me. I am one of the means by which the universe achieves manifestation. Rather than the tired, old (and often untrue) “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, how about “Each of us is part of the Spiral, and also reflects the magical whole in our uniqueness and creativity”?

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Altar of the South, ECG ’17

And because we can peer across and around and occasionally beyond Time, and get glimpses of the Pattern or the Web, we can work from a larger vision of any goal, from full participation in the cycle. Do our best, and then release it, trusting the intelligence of the universe, as it manifests in our teachers and guides, in bird and beast, beech and bug, and the shapes and fortunes of our own lives, to help us tweak and revision and adapt as manifestation cycles through.

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Honoring the Mundane

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Lugh image found in Paris

One of the groups I gather with to observe at least some of the “Great Eight” festivals has been searching for a meeting place for our upcoming Lunasa/Lughnasadh celebration.

So, I ask myself, what does my teacher of Daily Druidry have on hand to show me this time?

Turns out, a lot. One member of our group whom I’ll call V has generously hosted our past three festivals in her spacious back yard.  From the Spring Equinox to Midsummer, she provided cooking space as well as an altar. And plates, cups, and tableware.

And, on more than one occasion, burgers and sausage to contribute to our potluck meals, and a bottle of wine, too. So it’s well past time for a change of host and venue, if only not to impose any more on V’s hospitality. Even though she was willing to offer her home yet again, this time for Lunasa. Until her life rearranged and changes blew through it — good ones! — and now she can’t host us after all (or attend).

So I pour a double libation to Mundana and Mundanus, twin deities of this world where we launch so many spiritual vessels, never noticing how our “ordinary” realities matter at least as much as any other.

As a for-instance: the day of ritual dawns on all-day rain, and we scramble to move indoors, or reschedule.

Or the quiet fellow who agreed at the last gathering to take on writing the ritual script for this one falls sick the day before, with just a skeleton outline he was waiting to complete with the adrenalin/awen inspiration of last-minute-ness, and so we scurry to come up with an alternative ritual, offer up energies to aid him in dealing with his physical reality, and ponder again the key role of those twin gods of the mundane.

Need a hull or anchor, a current or shore to set out from, wind in your sails, fire in your belly, water in your canteens or buoying you up, tide and moon and sun? Hail, gods of the Mundane! We honor and salute you, without whom this world cannot shape the Spiral, playing its part in manifesting anything at all in the world of form. Right and Left Hands of Spirit, we offer these gifts and salutations.

It’s fitting that Lugh whose festival is upon us bears the epithet Samildanach: “equally skilled in many arts”. The god stands out not for any particular excellence but for all of them.

And that includes — fully, rightfully, honorably, deservedly — the forms that Spirit takes in its guise as the “mundane”: the gifts of welcome, an open hearth, food and laughter and good company.

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“mundane” altar: stone (N), feather (E), candle (S), shell (W)

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Images: ancient three-headed image of Lugh found in Paris in 1800s.

Triple Solstice, 2017

Yesterday our local group celebrated an early Solstice. The forecast rain held off — Blessing of the Sun! — and at the very end of the rite as we uncast the circle, a couple of birds landed in the branches of the tree above the altar, just a few feet overhead. As many of you have also witnessed, the natural world acknowledges the energies of ritual respectfully performed.

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Several members of our group are Wiccans — note the brooms to sweep away negative energy as needed. They’re not only working tools but useful working symbols as well. By that I mean a symbol to carry into meditation and deploy in visualization, as well as a physical object. Catch myself in less-than-desirable states of consciousness? Out comes the “inner broom”. My particularly stubborn inner trash gets swept into heaps, dumped in a bucket and cast into an inner river which dissolves it and washes it away, reintegrating it into the cosmos. (Repeat as needed.)

So often we look half-aware for something to replace negativity, and lacking a viable replacement we can get sucked back into it, because its tug draws the emotions. Symbols stand ready to our need, charged with their own emotional electricity. When I find it may not be enough merely to purify, whether with prayer, salt, incense, ritual or some combo of them, a symbol can help rally inner resources. Some unwanted stuff has a way of creeping back in, and the situation may call for an ongoing cleanse. Broom, en garde!

If it makes you feel better, because you “grasp” or “understand” such things, to call them “psychological”, by all means do so. What matters more to me, though, at least in the moment, is whether they work. One member couldn’t join us yesterday who played a specific role in the rite-as-written, so after a quick exchange of PMs with the ritual writer, I stepped in, among other things to cast the circle. This gave me a splendid excuse to de-rust a sword for the purpose and, not-so-incidentally, help me confront why I love and seek out ritual, but shy from consecrating objects I already possess as ritual aids. I’ve touched on this in previous posts [among others, here].

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Fire comes to our ritual and bodily need (why separate them, after all?), its heat, light and hue all central to the season and a ritual working: nearby fire-pit shedding warmth on our skin, or candles flickering on the altar. But the sword is a fine tool of power, a weapon, a strong and ancient symbol, forged in flame and often enough incorporating a cross where hilt meets blade. So it gathers up a whole complex of symbolic vectors of energy.

The replica sword I cleaned up yesterday morning before the ritual is an older design than the more familiar Medieval ones with the exaggerated hilt. Its edges are very dull — no risk to anyone of injury — so it’s also ideal to transport. If by chance the police should stop me for any reason, it’s much easier to explain a stage sword than one like my other sword, much rustier, but with a wicked edge still. Seeing how well the white vinegar cleaned off the rust from the smaller sword, though, I’ll be tackling that more extensive cleaning job tomorrow.

I mention all this at some length because the curious resistance I felt at bringing a ritual tool along to the ritual told me something curious is afoot. Two swords (a promising name for a novel, or magical order!) put me in mind of the two ancient Indo-European words for elemental fire, *ogni the active, and *pur the static. Is there something at play in my conception of ritual, or my ritual purposes, that I’m missing or blocking? The smaller, less impressive (and very dull-edged) blade has the fancy scabbard. The other, larger and deadly weapon has a simple leather sheath, all practicality, but no tooled design. Surface and deeper meaning, keenness and showiness, purpose and pretension? I’m still listening.

After uncasting the circle yesterday, I drove the point of the blade into the soft earth by the altar, saying, “The circle open, but unbroken”, or some variation on those words.

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And the ritual circle in my mind, open and unbroken, interrogates me still. If I gain any insight, I’ll pick this up again in a subsequent post.

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“Where can I celebrate the Solstice?” You can find some version of this question online. Best, I’d answer, is your own celebration. Yes, there are plenty of group events around the world, but the shortest night of the year offers you your pick of how to observe the festival. An all-night party (a lively Scandinavian tradition) or a vigil (some Druid traditions) are two popular options. Or some unique combination of the two.

I plan to stay up Tuesday evening for a “second Solstice” and greet the Sun Wednesday morning, June 21st, on what will be the longest day in the eastern U.S. Where I live, daylight on the 21st is 15 hours and 21 minutes long, making the night just a little over 8 and a half hours.

The “third Solstice” is Friday 23 June, whether I attend a group celebration just outside of Boston (a drive of 3 hours in Friday evening traffic) or do a ritual solo at home.

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East Coast Gathering 2015

This last weekend marks the 5th East Coast Gathering I’ve attended, the 6th since its launch in 2010, and another gift of Spirit and mortal effort.

You can read my accounts of three of the previous years: 2012 | 2013 | 2014. A special thank-you to John Beckett, several of whose professional photographs illustrate this post. You can visit John’s own articulate and insightful blog “Under the Ancient Oaks: Musings of a Pagan Druid and Unitarian Universalist” over at Patheos here.

Camp Netimus -- photo courtesy Krista Carter

Camp Netimus — site of the ECG. Photo courtesy Krista Carter

 

Registration for the weekend filled within 20 hours of opening this last spring. Gatherings like this answer an obvious need in the Druid and Pagan community, and more are in the works in other locations. It’s on us to help make them happen. A dedicated team can bring the same joy, support, inspiration and community to other regions.

Yes, we’re all solitaries some or much of the time, but every solitary benefits from celebrating and learning in the company of others. That chance conversation, ritual insight, day- or night-dream, word or phrase that lights up just for you, the hugs you give and receive, the opportunities to serve the community through offering a workshop, cooking, cleaning, organizing, driving — these make Gatherings like this such richly rewarding experiences. The dark and light halves of each year are real, and we need all the help and laughter we can find to thread our way through the labyrinth of time.

 

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I arrived Thursday afternoon early enough to check in and unpack before the opening ritual. My cabin mates had already hoisted a banner, which also made the building easier to distinguish from the others in the dark, when the “9” on the door was no longer readily visible.

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Cabin banner. Photo by A Druid Way

 

Equinox marks the shifting energies of days and nights, rebalancing the world. A lovely moon bore witness, waxing each evening through wonderfully clear skies, lighting the path to evening events like the Ovate initiation ritual and illuminating the short uphill walk from the cafeteria to the nightly fire circle.

The crescent moon. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Crescent moon in a twilit sky. Photo courtesy John Beckett

 

The theme this year was ritual, and the whole weekend focused our attention on its magical possibilities through a dozen workshops, demonstrations and ceremonies. You can get a sense of the range of approaches from the list of workshops here. We also welcomed returning U. K. guests Damh the Bard, Cerri Lee, and Kristoffer Hughes.

Cerri Lee, Damh the Bard and Kris Hughes. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Cerri Lee, Damh the Bard and Kris Hughes. Photo courtesy John Beckett

 

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Damh’s workshop on “The Bardic Voice” underscored the centrality of the Bard in Druidry. Like many Druid groups, OBOD orders its teaching in the sequence of Bard, Ovate and Druid. But they do not form a linear progress or erect a hierarchy of achievement. They spiral. In an Ovate breakout group a day later, several people mentioned how they often return to the Bardic coursework, its insights deepening through their Ovate practice. And likewise with the work of the Druid grade.

Damh is a fine teacher, an animated storyteller and ritualist of deep experience. With his wife Cerri he leads Anderida Grove. [For an audio inspiration, listen to his hour-long recording for inner journeying here.]

Damh in teaching mode. Photo courtesy John Beckett

Damh in teaching mode. Photo courtesy John Beckett

 

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Reminders of ritual possibility filled the weekend. Below is a picture of a labyrinth, another gift of the weekend, lovingly constructed by Cat Hughes and friends.

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Labyrinth by day — entrance. Photo by A Druid Way.

 

Volunteers switched on each light every evening, then turned them off again when everyone else had gone to bed.

Labyrinth by night. Photo courtesy Damh the Bard.

Labyrinth by night. Photo courtesy Damh the Bard.

 

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Kris’s workshop, “Laudanum, Literature and Liturgy — the Ritual Legacy of Iolo Morganwg,” featured the ritual — in Welsh — that Morganwg first performed on the Summer Solstice on Primrose Hill (London) in 1792, launching the Druid Revival and establishing the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards. Morganwg is also the author of the Druid’s Prayer, still used in many modern Druid groups including OBOD, and a major influence on generations of Druids from his time to the present. Kris’s Celtic eloquence in praise of Morganwg and his passion for Druidry took him off script and left many of us with tears in our eyes.

Kris during his workshop on Iolo Morganwg. Photo courtesy of Dana Wiyninger.

Kris during his workshop on Iolo Morganwg. Photo courtesy of Dana Wiyninger.

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Bill Streeter from the Delaware Valley Raptor Center, the charity designated for this year’s Gathering donation, brought six birds and made a fine presentation on raptors, their abilities, the dangers (mostly human) facing them, and the challenges of rehabilitating injured birds.

Bill Streeter of the DVRC with a golden eagle. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Bill Streeter of the DVRC with a golden eagle. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

These magnificent birds have often suffered neurological injuries that worsen over time. Though both the eagle above and the owl below look normal, both are blind in one or both eyes, or suffer other injuries like crippled wings, and thus could not survive in the wild. But the birds help save the lives of their kin through their appearances in info sessions like this one.

Great Horned Owl. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Great Horned Owl. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

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The Alban Elfed ritual celebrating the Equinox includes gifts from children, guests and each of the three grades of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Here are Chris and I holding bowls of acorns, part of the Ovates’ ritual gift, just before the ritual procession into the Circle.

Chris and I just before Alban Elfed ritual. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Chris (r) and I (l) just before Alban Elfed ritual. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

The evening eisteddfod (music and poetry circle) one night featured a splendid duet from Kris and Damh — see the image below.

Kris and Damh singing at the fire circle.

Kris and Damh singing at the fire circle. Photo courtesy Hex Nottingham.

Below is another pic of the fire circle one night. Our enthusiastic and skilful fire-makers Derek and Brom love large, carefully-constructed bonfires.

Fire. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Evening bonfire. Photo courtesy John Beckett.

Once again Dana set up her meditation tent on the campground for all to visit and enjoy.

Approaching the tent. Photo courtesy Dana Wiyninger

Approaching the tent. Photo courtesy Dana Wiyninger

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Altar in Dana’s meditation tent on the camping field. Photo courtesy Hex Nottingham.

A small group made a side excursion to nearby Raymondskill Falls. Here’s a view of one of the waterfalls.

Raymondskill Falls. Photo courtesy of Gabby Batz Roberts.

Raymondskill Falls. Photo courtesy Gabby Batz Roberts.

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And for those of us who can’t wait an entire year, the Gulf Coast Gathering will celebrate its second year in March 2016. Blessings of the Equinox to all!

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

“Creating a Goddess Book”: The Rest of the Workshop

Our bodies already know the Goddess – this is our oldest magic.

I relied on this insight in planning for the workshop at this year’s East Coast Gathering, whose theme was “Connecting with the Goddess.”

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Goals and plans I had for the workshop:

The heart of the workshop is a hands-on look at various ways to make a physical book/scroll/altar object that explores/invites/incorporates ritual, ogham/runes, art, prayer, poems, questions, magic and daydreaming into a concrete “link” to the Goddess as we experience Her — or desire to experience Her. Think “book” as “portable paginated/folding/roll-up ongoing altar-in-process.” I’ll talk about inspiration, nudges, hints and ways to listen, inviting and hoping for participant sharing and input! The seed for the workshop comes out of the fact that I’m a prime example of somebody who doesn’t have a consistent Goddess practice (though She’s seeing to it that’s shifting, too), but when She wants my attention, She gets it, like with this book, and workshop.

It’s probably a good thing we don’t always hear how ambitious we sound. Young or old, you eventually learn to deal with the inevitable gap between vision and manifestation. If you’ve managed to hold on to any of that original and wonderful idealism of youth, you also realize that the gap isn’t a reason to despair, or to dispense with vision, but rather a sign of just how important vision is.

The physical world, so important for manifestation, by its nature tends to lag behind the swiftness with which vision can appear. But that lag is precisely part of this world’s immense value: its inertia and density allow for greater permanency and resistance to change, so that we can experience the results of vision over time — and fine-tune it if we choose. Unlike in dream, where the subtle stuff of vision or imagination can wisp away so quickly, physical manifestation tries to linger.

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The Goddess is generous. Or alternatively, if you prefer the cynical version, I belong to the OCD Order of Druids. Creativity, as the saying goes, is messy. I over-planned for the workshop, ending up with far more material than any mortal could begin to do justice to in a mere hour, and this post is my penance, or confession. Or further indulgence. And maybe — in the way it often arrives when we’re not paying attention, even in spite of ourselves — a spark of awen.

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ogham“Creating A Goddess Book,” with focus on “book” in order to free it from the psychological shrine many Druids, and Pagans generally, tend to put books in. Instead of paper, a book of leather, or metal, or cloth — individual sheets, or a single longer scroll. A nudge to try out the qualities of other substances than paper, than the admittedly inviting blank books on sale in chain bookstores, or even Ye Friendlie Lokal Paygan Shoppe.

Each workshop participant received a packet to practice with, consisting of a rectangle  (approx. 3″ x 4″) of vegetable-cured leather and a similar-sized rectangle of .019″ aluminum, wrapped in a larger swath of canvas cut from a shop drop-cloth from Home Depot. A wood- and leather-burning tool, a few screwdrivers, some markers of various kinds, a few words about inspiration and the importance of working to manifest things on the physical plane as one powerful way to connect with the Goddess. Suggestions for inscribing/writing/ incising a short prayer, vow, magical name, etc. Reference tables of Ogham and runes for those who wanted to inscribe words with some privacy, as a personal meditation. I pointed out that you could cut all three materials with kitchen scissors. Besides the wood-burner, no fancy tools required. Then I shut up and let participants have at the materials. Done!

Hex Nottingham's leather and metal "pages" -- photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Hex Nottingham’s leather and metal “pages” — photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Except for the next flash of inspiration in the planning process, which would not let go: a “Nine-Fold Star of the Goddess” you can try out here at one of several websites that illustrate the steps.

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A sampling, with some commentary and additions, from the workshop handout:

“Spirit must express itself in the world of matter or it accomplishes nothing.  Insights of meditation and ceremony gain their full power and meaning when reflected in the details of everyday life.” — J. M. Greer, The Druidry Handbook, p. 138.

This world, here, is the realm of mystery. Spirit is simple — it’s this world that’s so surprising and complex in its changes and ripples, its folds and spirals and timings. Make something, I tell myself, labor with the body, and then I can often approach the Goddess more easily, dirt under my fingernails, sweat on my face. She likes bodies. I’m the one who keeps forgetting this, not her.

“Work with a Goddess long enough and you learn to hear Her call. You learn to pick her voice out above the noise of contemporary society, above the words of teachers and friends, and even above your own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes what you hear is not what you expect.” — John Beckett, “A Rite of Sacrifice,” Mar. 4, 2014.

“Shaper, you have made and shaped me. Honor and serenity are yours. I am your garment, you the indwelling spirit. Work with me in everything I do, that all may know you. Energizer, quicken me. Measurer, clear my path. Protector, guard me safely. Initiator, take my hand. Challenger, transform me. Savior, be my help. Weaver, make my pattern bright. Preserver, heal me. Empowerer, make me wise.” — adapted from Caitlin Matthews, Elements of the Goddess, p. 118.

Rilke’s fragment, a whole meditation in itself, or a daily morning prayer.

Oh, I who long to grow,
I look outside myself, and the tree
inside me grows.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

And Larkin’s poem “Water”:

Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

— Philip Larkin

After delighting in this poem, make an exercise of it. Choose one of the elements.  It can be water, as in the poem, or one of the others. Finish the sentence: “If I were called in to construct a _____, I should make use of [element].” Keep going: a series of statements, a meditation on the one you just wrote, a free association.  Whatever gets you putting words down.  You can try this over several days with all the elements, or at a different pace, if you’re working with the elements on your own.

The ECG schedule this year put the Goddess Book workshop immediately after Thursday’s Opening Ritual, so people arrived still bubbling from the ceremonial jump-start for the weekend.

“In every world, in every form, in every way, I am near you, I uphold you, I comfort you, I guide you, I deliver you from each limitation until my freedom is yours. Your body is my chalice, your heart my echo, your form my shadow, your pulse my footstep, your breath my passing.” — from my own Goddess book.

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pattern-star

1. Once you hold the Star of the Goddess in your hand, write the names of the four elements and Spirit, one near each of the points. Complete this step before reading further.

2. Which elements sit on either side of Spirit? Contemplate on their positions there.  Are they elements that help support your spiritual life?  Are they especially active?  Are these the elements that need extra attention and balance?

3. Consider a section in your Goddess book for vows: experiment with them, not as harsh, unyielding obligations, but as tools for studying resolve, testing experience, practicing manifestation of your intent, and so on. They need not be “public” – write them in ogham, runes, etc. Start small and easily achievable.

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Dedicating a Goddess Book: Blood, sweat, tears, spit, etc. can mark our books with our earthiness: a commitment to be honest with the Goddess about our path, its ups and downs, to remember her presence with us, and to acknowledge what we need, what we doubt, what we’re willing to work for – whatever feels right to include. Make a ritual of it. Do it quietly, simply, without fanfare, with silence making its own ritual. Or call out all the stops, bells and whistles. Then dance, feast and celebrate.

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Allow a Goddess book — it could be a single sheet or “page” specifically intended for this purpose — to return slowly to the elements on an outdoor altar. Or bury it in the Mother’s good earth. Thus is the vow fulfilled that the Mother takes into Herself, as She will take all things back in time, and return them again.

“All things are holy to you.  This book like all things lies among the faces you show to me; may I learn from you daily, drink deep from your well, and body you forth as your child.” — from my Goddess book.

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A small ritual. Take a few deep breaths. Sing the awen, or other name or word that grounds and focuses you. Holding your cupped hands in front of you, say: “I make this altar for the Goddess, a space where she may act in my life.”

Holding the Star, or your journal, or other ritual object meaningful to you, or nothing else at all, ask yourself: What specific space or doorway exists in my life for the Goddess to manifest or to act in? Pay attention to hints, images and answers as they come.

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And again: Our bodies already know the Goddess – this is our oldest magic.

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Images: ogham; star.

Shinto and Shrine Druidry 2

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

Spider web

The continuing interest among visitors here at A Druid Way in the posts on Shinto says hunger for the Wild, for spiritual connection to wilderness and its rejuvenating spirit, and potentially for Shrine Druidry, remains unabated.  No surprise — in our hunger we’ll turn almost anywhere.  What forms our response to such hunger may take is up to us and our spiritual descendants.  Spirit, the goddesses and gods, the kami, the Collective Unconscious, Those Who Watch, your preferred designation here _____, just might have something to say about it as well.

What we know right now is that we long for spirit, however we forget or deny it, papering it over with things, with addictions and with despair in this time of many large challenges — a hunger more alive and insistent than ever.  And this is a good thing, a vital and necessary one.  In an artificial world that seems increasingly to consist of hyped hollowness, we stalk and thirst for the real, for the healing energies the natural world provides all humans as a birthright, as participants in its “spiritual economy” of birth, growth, death and rebirth.

As physical beings we live in a world where breathing itself can be a spiritual practice, where our heartbeats sound out rhythms we are born into, yet often and strangely have tried to flee.  Even this, my sadness and loss, can be prayer, if I listen and let them reach and teach me, if I walk with them toward something larger, yet native to blood and bone, leaf and seed, sun and moon and stars. Druidry, of course, is simply one way among many to begin.

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If you know Kipling‘s Just So stories, you’re familiar with “The Cat That Walked By Himself.”  The cat in question consistently asserts, “All places are alike to me.”  But for people that’s usually NOT true. Places differ in ease of access, interest, health, natural beauty, atmosphere — or, in convenient shorthand, spirit.  Shrines acknowledge this, even or especially if the shrine is simply a place identified as Place, without any sacred buildings like Shinto has — a place celebrated, honored, visited as a destination of pilgrimage, as a refuge from the profane, as a portal of inspiration.

Here’s a local (to me) example of a place in Vermont I’ll be visiting soon and reporting on, one that sounds like an excellent direction for a Shrine Druidry of the kind people are already starting to imagine and create. It’s called Spirit in Nature, and it’s a multi-faith series of meditation trails with meditation prompts.  Its mission statement gets to the heart of the matter:

Spirit in Nature is a place of interconnecting paths where people of diverse spiritual traditions may walk, worship, meet, meditate, and promote education and action toward better stewardship of this sacred Earth.

Spirit in Nature is a non-profit, 501 (c)3 tax-exempt organization, always seeking new members, local volunteers to build and maintain paths, financial contributions, and interest from groups who would like to start a path center in their own area.

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So much lies within the possible scope of Shrine Druidry it’s hard to know where to start.  Many such sites (and more potential sites) already exist in various forms. Across Europe, and to a lesser degree in North America (public sites, that is: private Native American and Pagan sites exist in surprising numbers), are numerous sacred-historical sites (some of which I’ll examine in a coming post), often focusing around a well, cave, tree, waterfall, stone circle, garden, grove, etc. Already these are places of pilgrimage for many reasons: they serve as the loci of national and cultural heritage and historical research, as commemorative sites, spiritual landmarks, orientations in space and time, as treasures of ethnic identity — the list goes on.  Quite simply, we need such places.

Lower Falls, Letchworth St. Pk, NY. Image by Wikipedia/Suandsoe.

Lower Falls, Letchworth St. Pk, NY. Image by Wikipedia/Suandsoe.

The national park system of the U.S., touted as “America’s Best Idea” (also the title of filmmaker Ken Burns’ series), was established to preserve many such places, though without any explicit markers pointing to spiritual practice.  But then of course we already instinctively go to parks for healing and restoration, only under the guise of “vacations” and “recreation.” And many state parks in the U.S. extend the national park goal of preserving public access to comparatively unspoiled natural refuges. Growing up, I lived a twenty-minute bike ride from Letchworth State Park in western NY: 14,000 acres of forest surrounding deep (in places, over 500 feet) gorges descending to the Genesee River.  Its blessing follows me each time I remember it, or see an image of it, and in attitudes shaped there decades ago now. May we all know green cathedrals.

I’ll talk more about shrines on other scales, small and large, soon, and tackle more directly some of the similarities and differences between Shinto and Druidry.  I’ll also look at some of the roles practitioners of earth-centered spiritualities can — and already do — play in connection to the creation and support of shrines.

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Images: spider web; Lower Falls at Letchworth State Park, New York.

Shinto and Shrine Druidry 1

[Related posts: Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3 || Shinto — Way of the Gods || Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2 || My Shinto 1 | 2 ]

IMG_0780I’ve mentioned Shinto and Tsubaki Grand Shrine before in these pages — a lovely shrine in Granite Falls, WA, about an hour north-northeast of Seattle. Recently during our car tour that included the Pacific Northwest, my wife and I “made omairi” or paid a visit on a sunny July day. The idiom “pay” is illuminating: some kinds of visits can be the fulfillment of a religious vow, a pilgrimage we dedicate to a spirit or an ideal — acts, in other words, performed at least potentially in fuller consciousness than usual.  True, “the bow can’t always be bent,” as the old occult proverb goes; we “have to live in the real world,” as my mother used to admonish me.  But you quickly find that cultivating regular times of intention and focus brings spiritual advantages just as it does other kinds of advantage in other aspects of life.

IMG_0782Tsubaki finds a working balance in explaining just enough about itself and about Shinto to the visitor who may know little about either. Shrines express unique and individual presences, and Tsubaki is no different.  We can argue till the cows come home and make their own butter whether such distinctiveness comes from human intention solely, or from a happy cooperation of human and divine.  What remains is the shrine itself, beyond mere debate: a place to visit, breathe, absorb, reflect on, and if you feel called to do so, revere and commune.

Tsubaki aids visitors in doing this. Here is the shrine’s temizuya, literally, “hand-water-place,” a feature at most shrines, offering an opportunity for ritual purification.  The shrine offers a bilingual placard explaining the temizu ritual. Participating (or not) is left beautifully up to us, especially on a day like this was, with no one around but one silent shrine tender, sweeping and cleaning.  But the temizuya does stand ready as one invitation among many to make our own discoveries through performing a small ritual action.

IMG_0783Of course, a shrine need not always explain. Tsubaki, like so much of Shinto, also demonstrates the value of silence in fostering encounters with the natural world. They are not separate things; the human is part of the world of the kami, of spirit.

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From another viewpoint, a shrine simply acknowledges what is already present, whether it chooses to point our attention to it, or bring us together by putting us in the same place. Here is the path from the central shrine down to the gravelly bed of the Pilchuck River. There you can see another small shrine (in the center of the picture, looking something like a tall sawhorse draped with white flags) standing near the water’s edge.

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The plaque above adjoining the emaden explains another Shinto practice. Below is the emaden itself.

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Less formal are the written prayers tied to natural features like trees and to man-made objects. And many Westerners have become familiar with Tibetan prayer flags. Odd that in the West a prayer is considered primarily a verbal action. The silent written prayer can stay in place; we can walk away, knowing our petition or vow or praise or thanks remain, where we made them.  We wish for a change, a response, to manifest at least in part in this natural world.  Then let our petition, our expression, our acknowledgement of spirit linger in the world, till the world’s elemental and spiritual forces reclaim them.

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In addition to other kami, Tsubaki also enshrines America Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami, the kami protector of the North American continent.

In the next post, I’ll look at some possibilities for what Shrine Druidry could look like as an expression of Druidic experience.

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Updated 9 Oct 2015

Goddess at The Turn of the Year

rgingrasfire[The following rite is freely adapted from Ceisiwr Serith‘s Deep Ancestors.*  In particular, the Proto-Indo-European (in bold) differs in conception from Serith’s reconstructions.  Serith knows both his PIE and his ritual; the changes here match my esthetics and inner sensibility, which I trust — for me.  Your mileage may differ.  I repeat the words I speak to close my own rites: Solwom wesutai syet!  [sohl-WOHM WEH-soo-tie syeht] May it be for the good of all!]

Gumete, gumete, gumete!
[GOO-meh-teh, GOO-meh-teh, GOO-meh-teh] 
Oh come, come, come!

Gumete gurtibos solwom deiwom.
[GOO-meh-teh goor-TEE-bohs sohl-WOHM day-WOHM]
Come to praise all the gods.

Usme keidont — klute tos.
[OOS-meh KAY-dohnt — KLOO-teh tohs]
They are calling you — hear them.

Gumete ognim,
[GOO-meh-teh OHG-neem]
Come to the fire,

gumete spondetekwe!
[GOO-meh-teh spohn-deh-TEH-kweh]
come and worship!

Tusyomes, tusyomes, tusyomes!
[toos-YOH-mehs, toos-YOH-mehs, toos-YOH-mehs!]
[Let us hush, hush, hush!]
May we all maintain a holy silence.

May we be pure
that we might cross through the sacred.
May we cross through the sacred
that we might attain the holy.
May we attain the holy
that we might be blessed in all things.

Goddess who burns on the hearth, in our homes,
we call you to join us here
bringing our prayers to the gods
forming the means by which we sacrifice.
May the holy arise in our midst, the pure and the blessing.

Shining Lady, unite us all,
for by worshiping at a common hearth
we are made one family, one people.
Asapotya**, Lady of the Hearth, your household is here.

stove12-13

Our soapstone stove, alight with Brigid’s blessing.

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A blessed solstice to all!

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*Serith, Ceisiwr.  Deep Ancestors.  Tucson, AZ: ADF Publishing, 2007.  Pp. 122-124.  Serith is a long-time and respected member of ADF who maintains the Nemos Ognios grove north of Boston.

**A possible reconstructed name of my own devising. The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *asa becomes (among other words) Latin ara “altar.”

The * indicates that the word is reconstructed — we have no written record of it — from actual words in one or more of the descendant or “daughter” languages. In general, the more extant “descendant” words deriving from a PIE “ancestor” word, the better the evidence for that particular PIE ancestor. Historical linguists have worked on PIE for over 200 years: we have a few thousand “restored” words that most agree on.  One advantage Indo-Europeanists have in making such reconstructions is the large number of documents in older  forms of languages like Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, Gothic, Avestan and Old Church Slavonic.

Image: fire on shore.  Be sure to visit Richard Gingras’ fabulous images of fires at the URL indicated for the image.

The Four Powers–Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1

[Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the first of a series on the powers of magic.

heaney“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin.  At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?

Much of our knowing is experiential during those years.  We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world.  We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.

child-at-shoreThen in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so:  a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art,  science and history.  Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements.  The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles.  Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention.

And other knowledge of the body, too:  the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol.  Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time.  Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.

We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives.  This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire.   You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted:

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.

Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post.  Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid.  It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

forgeHere’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation.  The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.”  Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools.  But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.

Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start.  The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open.  To know this much is a priceless beginning.

How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.

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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.

Updated 3 July 2014

Druid of the Day (3)

Author, Episcopal priest and current professor Barbara Brown Taylor has written An Altar in the World, a splendid little book on simple, essential spiritual practices which anyone can begin right now.  She writes from a refreshingly humble (close to the humus, the earth) Christian perspective, and a broad vision of spirituality pervades her words.  Because of her insight and compassion, her awareness that we are whole beings — both spirits and bodies — because of the earthiness of her wisdom, and her refusal to set herself above any of her readers, she makes an excellent Druid of the Day.  I hope I will always remember to apprentice myself gladly to whoever I can learn from. As the blurb on her website page for the book notes, “… no physical act is too earthbound to become a path to the divine.”

Taylor brings a worthy antidote to the bad thinking and fear-mongering so widespread today.  Here’s a sample:

… it is wisdom we need to live together in this world.  Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right.  Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act.  They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know …  If you are not sure what to believe about your neighbor’s faith, then the best way to find out is to practice eating supper together.  Reason can only work with the experience available to it.  Wisdom atrophies if it is not walked on a regular basis.

Such wisdom is far more than information.  To gain it, you need more than a brain.  You need a body that gets hungry, feels pain, thrills to pleasure, craves rest.  This is your physical pass into the accumulated insight of all who have preceded you on this earth.  To gain wisdom, you need flesh and blood, because wisdom involves bodies–and not just human bodies, but bird bodies, tree bodies, water bodies and celestial bodies.  According to the Talmud, every blade of grass has its own angel bending over it whispering, “Grow, grow.”  How does one learn to see and hear such angels? (14)

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Taylor, Barbara Brown.  An Altar in the World.  New York:  Harper One, 2009.

East Coast Gathering 2012

The OBOD East Coast Gathering offers a chance for Druids to walk among friends, attend workshops, and (re)connect with a beloved landscape in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Here’s the OBOD banner, the color easy to see, the three-rayed Awen symbol of the Order a little harder to make out.  (Photo by John Beckett)

The camp which hosts the Gathering offers both tent areas and basic cabins.

With more people attending this year than last, the ample space helped.

The area is splendid for large group rituals as well.

The rainstorm over the weekend brought with it cooler weather, which just made us all the more grateful for hot drinks and the varied meals our staff of Druid volunteers cooked for us.

(Dining room photo by John Beckett)

I didn’t arrive in time for the opening ritual.  But the Closing was held on the same grounds, with the same altars.  Here are shots of the two entry cairns seen looking south, along with the four directional altars and their banners: Stag of the South, Salmon of the West, Bear of the North and Hawk of the East.

One of the added pleasures this year was the attendance of more Druids from different orders, including ADF.  Here are members of Cedar Light Grove assembled around their grove banner (photo by John Beckett).

OBOD groves brought banners too.

And this year, the third Gathering and my second, yet another draw was the chance to meet and learn from both OBOD’s Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm, and AODA’s Archdruid John Michael Greer.

The first photo is of Philip giving a talk in Storyteller’s Grove a little north of camp.

The second shows John Michael during one of his morning talks in the Pavilion.

In the third, both join for a conversation and Q&A. (3 photos by John Beckett)

And of course no Druid gathering would feel complete without the ceremonial garb that makes the rituals visually distinctive and memorable.

Here are JM Greer and John Beckett:

Topping off each day were the evening fire-circles and drumming, music and song and ample home-brewed mead, cyser and sack from our resident firekeeper and brewer, Derek.  Then came the Hour of Recall, truly.  The Closing ritual, goodbye hugs, departures, promises to keep in touch, to plan events, to meet again.  Another remarkable East Coast Gathering comes to an end, with opened hearts and subtle changes to take away and live through for the coming year.  Till 2013!

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A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones

An altar is an important element of very many spiritualities around the world.  It gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshipper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing.  The red color of the Taoist altar below immediately alerts the eye to its importance and energy.

As a center of ritual action and visual attention, an altar is positioned to draw the eye as much as any other sense.   In Christian churches like the one below, everything is subordinated to the Cross and the altar immediately below it.  Church architecture typically highlights this focus through symmetry and lighting.  But in every case, enter the sacred space which an altar delineates, and it tells you what matters by how it is shaped and ordered and organized.

Part of OBOD* training is the establishment and maintenance of a personal altar as part of regular spiritual practice.  Here’s a Druid altar spread on a tabletop.  Nothing “mundane” or arbitrary occupies the space — everything has ritual or spiritual purpose and significance to its creator.

Such obviously physical objects and actions and their appeal to the senses as aids in spiritual practice all spring from human necessity.  We need the grounding of our practices in the physical world of words, acts and sensations in order to “bring them home to us,” and make them real or “thingly,” which is what “real” (from Latin res “thing”) means.

Religions and spiritual teachings accomplish this in rich and diverse ways.  We have only to think of Christian baptism, communion and the imposition of ashes at Easter; Hindu prasad and tilak; Jewish bris/brit (circumcision) and tallit (prayer shawl) and so on.

Atheists who focus exclusively on belief in their critiques and debates thus forget the very real, concrete and physical aspects of religious and spiritual practice which invest actions, objects and words with spiritual meaning that cannot be dismissed merely by pointing out any logical or rational cracks in a set of beliefs.  Though you may present “evidence that God doesn’t exist” that seems irrefutable to you, you haven’t even begun to touch the beauty of an altar or spiritual structure, the warmth of a religious community of people you know and worship with, the power of a liturgy, the smell of incense, the tastes of ritual meals, the sounds of ritual music and song.

Just as we hear people describe themselves as “spiritual without being religious” as they struggle to sift forms of religion from the supposed “heart” of spirituality, plenty of so-called “believers” are “religious without being spiritual.”  The forms of their spiritual and religious practice are rich with association, memory and community, and can be as important as — or more so than — a particular creed or set of beliefs.

Having said all of this, I’ve had a set of experiences that incline me away from erecting a physical altar for my Druid practice.  So I’m working toward a solution to the spiritual “problem” this presents.  Let me approach it indirectly.  Once again, and hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed this blog or is as bookish as I am, the trail runs through books.

Damiano, the first volume in a fabulous (and sadly under-known) trilogy by R. A. MacAvoy, and recently reissued as part of an omnibus edition called Trio for Lute, supplies an image for today’s post.  Damiano Delstrego is a young Renaissance Italian who happens to be both witch and aspiring musician.  His magic depends for its focus on a staff, and we see both the strengths and limitations of such magical tools in various episodes in the novel, and most particularly when he encounters a Finnish woman who practices a singing magic.

When I read the trilogy at its first publication in the 80s, the Finnish magic sans tools seemed to me much superior to “staff-based” power.  (Partly in the wake of Harry Potter and the prevalence of wands and wand-wielders in the books and films, there’s a resurgence of interest in this aspect of the art, and an interesting new book just published reflecting that “tool-based” bias, titled Wandlore: the Art of Crafting the Ultimate Magical Tool).

So when I then read news of church burnings, desecrated holy  sites, quests for lost spiritual objects (like the Holy Grail) and so on, the wisdom of reposing such power in a physical object seemed to me dubious at best.  For whatever your own beliefs, magic energy — whether imbued by intention, Spirit, habit, the Devil, long practice, belief in a bogus or real power — keeps proving perilously vulnerable to misplacement, loss or wholesale destruction.  Add to this Jesus’ observation that we are each the temple of Spirit, and my growing sense of the potential of that inner temple of contemplation — also a feature of OBOD practice — and you get my perspective.

Carrying this admitted bias with me over the years, when I came last year to the lesson in the OBOD Bardic series that introduced the personal altar, I realized I would need both contemplation and creativity to find my way.

My solution so far is a work in progress, an alpha or possibly a beta version.  My altar is portable, consisting of just five small stones, one for each of the classic European five elements — four plus Spirit.  Of course I have other associations, visualizations and a more elaborate (and still evolving) practice I do not share here. But you get the idea.  (If you engage in a more Native-American nourished practice, you might choose seven instead: the four horizontal directions, above [the zenith], below [the nadir] and the center.)

I can pocket my altar in a flash, and re-deploy it on a minimal flat space (or — in a pinch — right on the palm of my hand).  One indulgence I’ve permitted myself: the stones originate from a  ritual gift, so they do in fact have personal symbolic — or magical, if you will — significance for me.  But each altar ritual I do includes both an invitation for descent and re-ascent of power or imagery or magic to and away from the particular stones that represent my altar.  Lose them, and others can take their place for me with minimal ritual “loss” or disruption.  Time and practice will reveal whether this is a serviceable solution.

This post is already long enough, so I’ll defer till later any discussion of the fitness of elemental earth/stone standing in for the other elements.

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*OBOD — the particular “flavor” of Druidry I’m studying and practicing.

Images: Singapore Taoist altar; Christian altar; Druid altar; Amazon/Trio for Lute.

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Updated: 27 July 2013

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