Archive for the ‘ancestors’ Category

Back and Forth Through Time

In Arthur Myghtern I looked at the king at the heart of one resonant mythos still living in the consciousness of many in the West. “King who was and will be”, myghtern a ve hag a vyth, Arthur points us toward a profound magical and spiritual technique: we can walk up and down, back and forth in time. We become truly “royal”, goes one interpretation, when we accept this capacity, when we rise to the occasion, grasping our spiritual destinies with both hands. (Of course, I can always stay where I am for a few more cycles, if I choose, and accept what comes with that choice. How often I’ve done just that!)

One of my poems, “Drinking with the Ancestors“, also tries to get at something of this experience, albeit in a jocular way. You might find these two articles helpful: Five Ways to Honor Your Ancestors (at ancestralmedicine.org), and Catriona McDonald’s “Spirits, Spirits Everywhere” on her blog. You can also check out my “Seven Seeds of an Ancestor Practice“.

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Chinese tradition of Qing-ming ancestral observance, after the Spring Equinox. Image Source.

Now “time travel” is easy to say and write. But what about doing it? Well, simply being alive is one technique — the ancestors live through us in surprising ways. (Does that feel too “easy”?) We carry their DNA, and we carry on far more of their traditions and perspectives than we might think at first — as almost any couple discovers when birthdays, holidays and other traditions from two different families run headlong into each other.

But while “living through our descendants” is one way to be a time-walker, there are others. The traditions of Samhain, “when the veil between worlds thins”, is one of them. For some the romance of those words is enough. If you have something to say to me, now’s a good time, says my inner skeptic, more interested in keeping a distance than in doing any listening. (Some of the best conversations are whispered up close and personal.) For many, it usually feels fitting to remember the dead, even if it’s once a year. Most of the rest of the time we’re too busy just trying to survive ourselves.

Observing birthdays and anniversaries of those who’ve passed into the Otherworlds can bring us closer, as can photographs and family stories. What is remembered lives, indeed. Dreamwork around an ancestral photo, carried on over several days, together with journaling, drawing and meditation, can often open up new territory of insight and subtly shift our spiritual practice. I gain clarity and self-understanding by looking at what my ancestors have bequeathed me, bad and good. Some of the inheritance consists of difficult gifts, but everything can be a resource for moving on from here, if only as a guide for what to avoid.

Visuals meant to suggest “time travel”, especially those courtesy of Hollywood sci-fi, can both help and hinder. We don’t need to “see” anything, or “go anywhere”, for time travel to happen, so we may miss it if that’s the confirmation we’re expecting. “Nothing happened” is our most common experience, as we tend to label it, ignoring most of what actually does take place where we’re not looking. Time travel may not offer anything to “see”, but what of other senses?

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What of the future? Using the image of the spiral of experiences and lifetimes, I’ve found that many of those portals that most readily open across time are those which are in harmony with this moment, both behind and ahead. When some people speak with conviction of past-life recall, there need not be any disjunct between that and a sense of ancestral influence — I may well “be” my own great-grandfather, whatever that “means”. More to the point, from the perspective of that past self, I am its future, and the two of us together converse with a combined past-future that is the same larger thing. You touch your past by wearing skin today, say the Ancestors. We touch our future the same way.

One of the more remarkable stories I’ve heard firsthand comes from a woman now in her 80s. She tells how her own past self, a Greek physician from centuries ago, healed her present self in a series of dream-visions. The sense of vertigo and time-shift I’ve felt as I enter such experiences is a valuable guide. We give ourselves wider permission to explore through such stories, and we start to break the hold that time-magic wields over us. They catch the imagination and liberate us, rather than chaining us to logic and binding us to present circumstances.

If I fear a future event — my cancer returning, the death of my wife or best friend, poverty and old age, whatever — I can begin to send strength and needed courage and inspiration to that future self, and rather than passively and fearfully dreading the arrival of the event, shift the quality of that experience through my efforts today. My present fear breaks up, and my future experience changes, too. At least if our ancestral recall has anything to say about it, my life today is the magic of my ancestors made manifest in the most concrete physical ways. I am their survival, their dreams come true, their hopes realized, their magic working still.

Various teachings and understandings of our human experience talk of M-E-S-T, matter, energy, space and time. (And “messed” it is, says my inner imp.) The harmonics of our common experience organize our worlds, but they needn’t be the only way we perceive. Each perspective offers gains and limits, and learning to shift among them broadens the field of “what’s possible”. In the process, we don’t “cheat death”, any more than we “cancel winter”, but we learn to walk with and through it into the following spring, both the “same” and utterly new.

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Seven Seeds of an Ancestor Practice

[Updated 23 May 2020]

With even a little searching, you can of course find books and other resources for various ancestor practices.

Chances are good you’ve already begun one. Like so many things, the seeds — and often, the seedlings — already have taken root in your life.

With a family photo, an heirloom, a couple of stories, human memory, and experience of being alive, you’ve placed your hands on your own thread in the Weave, on a branch of the Great Tree, that surpasses any book.

Say you have an interest in genealogy. Or a relative frequently sends out clippings, photos, tidbits of biography about the family tree.

Maybe you’ve inherited old photos and letters, and they’ve sat on a shelf or at the back of a closet in a box or boxes because it’s hard to know what to do with the stuff. You can’t bring yourself to throw it out, but right now it’s just there, taking up space, one more tug whenever you’re looking for something else and there it is: history, image, memory, bonds of time and experience and emotion.

Or perhaps you have a difficult family history. You’re estranged from several living relatives, while deceased members left the scene with issues unresolved, and the family you have now aren’t blood relatives at all, but a family of choice you’ve managed in spite of things to assemble and cherish. Roommates, friends, mentors, colleagues, partners — people you’ve gathered and welcomed into your life at various points, who love and support you in turn.

With luck and grace and a strong constitution you may have one blood relative or spiritual ancestor you’ve started with. That person’s picture on an altar, or a wall, or stored on phone or laptop, serves as your launch point. Maybe not daily, or even weekly, but often enough, the images comes up and you have a moment to reflect on them, to remember.

Maybe you’ve signed up with one of the online genealogy sites, and your profile settings see to it you receive alerts whenever an ancestor date arrives. Your great-grandmother’s birthday, for example, or your great-great-grandfather’s wedding. The site obligingly emails you pictures of headstones, or some other electronic addition you might add to a memory altar, or discard or ignore.

All of these things may be enough. You’re busy, you don’t have time for “one more thing”, or that genealogically-obsessed relative more than makes up for whatever inattention you’ve been paying to the Right Noble Family Tree with their incessant gifs and jpegs and anecdotes, newspaper articles, questionnaires, memorabilia, and so forth.

Or you’re adopted, or orphaned, or otherwise almost entirely separated from your bloodline. Rather than an embarrassment of riches, you experience a dearth of ’em.

We all have arrived where we are today with the help of someone. That person is an ancestor, a fore-runner, a pathmaker, a hand to steady us on our way. And we have performed the same service for someone else, often enough without noticing.

Here are seven seeds for an ancestor practice I’ve explored over time.

1) “The Names of the Survivors”: We’re Here Now.

In my late teens I heard Rochester, NY poet Linda Allardt read her poem “The Names of the Survivors”, and the title as well as the closing lines have stayed with me. Survival makes do for grace, she closes, and at first that can sound grim or dark. But what is survival?

The best reason, if I need one, for an ancestor practice lies in one simple fact: I’m here today. If ever I’ve felt gratitude for simply being alive, there are roots of ancestor practice lying ready to hand. My existence today is tribute and vindication of their joys and struggles, in all their grotty and difficult human-ness. If you have a gratitude practice of any kind (or are looking at starting one), if you give thanks consciously at whatever frequency, it’s a sweet and simple thing to include those who have gone before and contributed to this moment.

2) Keeping up the Bone-House

Allied with my own being-here-now is a chance to do my best to honor and pass along that legacy. One of the Old English kennings or poetic expressions for the physical body is bánhús, bone-house. What I do with this bone-house life passes on my inheritance of it in the most concrete ways.

Every act matters, and an ancestor practice can paradoxically help me recall that. The deeds of now-nameless ancestors each helped bring me to here and now. It wasn’t the “big stuff” most days, though in hindsight each of these things is enormous: lighting a fire, cooking a meal, raising the children, tending the sick, burying the dead, butchering livestock, harvesting the crops, repairing the roof, honoring the lives they in turn received by living them fully. When I do the same, I celebrate and pass along the inheritance. Each life has a weight and presence of infinite value in the world.

When I smile at others and greet them, when I hold the door, pick up an empty soda can, drop off an abandoned wallet or phone to a lost-and-found, by performing such small gestures I lighten another’s life, no matter the degree. If one other person is glad I live today, I have helped branch the ancestral tree, and honored the gift I was given.

3) The Light-and-Shadow Tracery of Faces

You may or may not have (m)any photos of ancestors, depending on your family’s circumstances and the availability of cameras. Other objects may belong on your altar or other details can fill your remembrance.

Among my favorite family photos is this one of my uncle, aunt and mother, taken around 1921. (Yes, my mother was born in 1919 — she would have been 100 last year. She had me quite late — she was 40 when I was born, more unusual and risky then than now. An ancestor’s choice I’m obviously grateful for!)

threedwe

All three have passed over now, all three are people I knew in this life, and I celebrate their birthdays still. How much further you take such celebrations — preparing their favorite foods, inviting them to join you as you partake, including family and ritualising the event in other ways — depends on your own inclination and guidance. Such choices can bring ancestors into our present in potent ways.

Though we live in time, I’ve found we also travel along it in memory and imagination and vision, and we can consciously bless our past and future selves, as well as our ancestors, and descendants. The strength I’ve found to carry on through difficult times — to survive at all — pours forth from the pooling blessings of countless others, including my own. By such acts of compassion, the boundaries between self and other, self-ish and self-less, fall away.

For the good of the whole I offer this to the Sacred Pool …

4) Houses of My Blood and Spirit

The places where my ancestors lived may lie remote from my own, or I may live near or in the same house as one or more of them. When we enlarge such “houses” to include those who have taught and guided and encouraged us, whether living recently or long ago, here or on another spiral of the great journey, such dwellings grow large indeed. I count among my ancestors of spirit those whose words and wisdom inspire me, so that my altar of ancestors potentially extends far and wide. Whose birthdays will I acknowledge, or whose lives will I otherwise recognize and celebrate? It may be a talent I share with an ancestor, an historical interest, a quirk of person and character that allows me unique access to realms a particular ancestor also explored.

When we consider the spiraling DNA of these bodies of ours, all of us still live in very old ancestral houses, heirs to millennia.

Pondering, listening and revisiting these points slowly, over time, can help each person develop an engaging, varied and personal ancestral practice, along with a calendar of “Big Family” observances, of the Trees we each branch from.

And those other trees, which may be the same trees: What else can they teach us, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life?

5) The Telling

Recalling the quirks and twitches of our forebears, their idiosyncrasies along with their strengths, helps bring both into sharper focus, and diminishes our tendency to idealize them to the point where we can no longer aspire to be like them.

One of the purposes of ritual is the re-telling and re-enactment of stories. The central ritual feast of Communion or Eucharist in Christianity is anamnesis — “remembrance” in Greek. As often as you do this, says Jesus, do it in remembrance of me. For Christians, Jesus is the Great Ancestor of Spirit, and many traditions include remembrances of their own spiritual ancestors. When we re-member, we put the members back together, we reassemble a life and recount its impact.

Multiple stories mean multiple examples and models of choice and action. Each ancestor points to another possibility today.

6) Be(com)ing an Ancestor

Wants and desires define the ancestors, shape their legacy in us, as they define me and each of us and the legacies we leave. What I want is love and direction and purpose. What I desire may or may not bring me any closer to those things — may well change hour to hour, day to day, with an attractive face on the way to posting a letter, a split-second decision to take a different route through town, that impulse buy that leads to so many further consequences, the online comment that backfires or unfolds a friendship, the unplanned event that proves crucial to so much that follows.

Sorting these things out in worlds of time and space is what makes each of us an ancestor-in-training. What do I know, what do I need to review, what have I not yet discovered or explored?

More spirals await.

7) Regular Samhain

Samhain is the end of the Celtic year, and also — blessed paradox — the beginning of a new year. I witness the cycles of my life, its ends and beginnings, in spirals within spirals. Our normal short-term attention is between 3 and 10 seconds, and that window of awareness has a start and an end, a dimension and rhythm worth studying and exploring. So too does the cycle of waking, daytime experience and sleep.

Beyond that is the lunar cycle, so useful as a model for working with cycles on a scale most can manage, even in busy modern lives. The three days of dark in each monthly cycle encourage a practice of letting go and picking up again, can allow for a physical correlate to deep meditation, for other kinds of work with the pattern of Samhain of endings and beginnings, at different scales than just the calendar year.

Spirals within spirals form a spiritual reality and offer a model for a vital practice that proves flexible and adaptable to individual circumstances, shapes our lives however we live them, and links us to ancestral wisdom and presence in ways I’m still discovering, as are we all.

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A House between What if? and Impossible

On an online Druid forum I frequent, an atheist Druid recently posted those words. That’s where I aim to live my life, he said (I’m paraphrasing). Between What If? and Impossible. (That part’s verbatim.)

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moss rock in backyard, 9 March 2020

It’s a remarkable space, that interval.

“Knowledge is disinfectant”, notes David Ropeik in today’s USA Today apropos of the virus commanding so much of our attention. True enough: knowledge is also a bridge, a compass, a balm for fears, a great gift passed along from ancestors to descendants, our precious long human heritage, built slowly and often with great effort, against fear and superstition and a disinclination to train and refine and amplify these animal instincts into something more than the survival baseline we’re all granted at birth. (What else are these enormous brains for, if not to play with and improve on the given?)

We add, each of us, to the human tapestry, helping to provide each other with experiences of this world. Hail and welcome, Fellow Catalysts.

Knowledge reaches in both directions, towards the What If, illuminating that terrain with often startling results, and also toward the Impossible, doing the same. In fact, serious work in either direction often illuminates the other just as much. Sometimes they trade places, being the highly fluid things they are. Funny how that works.

What do I know, personally? (persona — the thing the sound –sona comes through per-.)

I know cycles within cycles within cycles. I see the lines of my grandmother’s face written in the face of my 5-year old first cousin twice removed, my grandmother’s great-great grand-daughter, two beings separated by five generations. Are they “the same person”? Of course not — no more than I’m the “same person” I was at five, and I’m still here. Along with what if? and impossible, these identities we cling to are also far more supple and fluid than we commonly suppose. Those of you who do ritual and path-working, meditation and visualization, altered states of consciousness of so many kinds — you know what I mean.

I know the moon waxes to full and wanes to dark every month, whether I’m watching or not. The mourning doves are singing again among the bare branches here in Vermont, as they return to do each spring. I know the years, the decades. I know the snow and the green grass, the summer heat and the frost of January. If these are sometimes poetry it’s because they’re always poetry, our heartbeats the meter of the verse and song we only sometimes notice.

I see the lines on my face and my wife’s keep spreading, our hair graying, our bodies — despite the care we try to take of them — accumulating the signs of a cycle’s eventual close that will sweep them away. Rather than despair, I rejoice we’re here at all. Should we be somehow exempt from the same patterning and transformation and cycle that first brought us into manifestation, along with everything else?

I know the tremendous sustaining and healing power of the love and caring of other beings, having seen it in my life and all around me, and offered my own. We all witness human and beast and “those without their skins on” — TWOTSOs — reach out to us each day and night, in waking and dream and in-between, in the inquiring noses of dogs and cats, the human warmth all of us need, the oxygen-gift of green things, the nudges and hints and humor of dreams and visions, the food that some of these other lives provide to sustain us each day.

I know that between What If? and Impossibility — however you and I choose to label them — are hoards of beings, chances, doorways, moments and passages. (Pick something to marvel at today.)

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Monday’s full moon, night setting on camera: “light within, and light without”

I know that each day I move through so many states and flavors of consciousness — the fluidity that makes creativity and magic possible: sleep, dream, near waking, day-dreaming, full waking, concentration on a task, creative flow, intense experiences of pain or pleasure, intoxications intentional and unintentional provided by medications and “other” substances. And we all know what is fully possible in one state is inconceivable and (therefore) quite literally un-do-able in another. We know this because we’ve been there.

Between the what if and the impossible is where all of us pass our lives.

I know that both the rough-hewn and the refined spiritual technologies we call “religions” and “practices” and “rituals” and the imaginative embrace of Here and Now have deepened and enriched my life in ways I probably can never fully disentangle from all that I am and do and think and feel and suspect (a verb I infinitely prefer to “believe”). A good chunk of evidence for all these assertions is what I write about and attempt to document on this blog.

I  know the wonder and beauty and mystery and love of these things in my own ways, as many of you also do.

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A final word about proportion, because the wisdom I aspire to — the best of what I “know” — doesn’t shy from hard truths, but in the act of looking finds they’re not as hard as we make them (I make them) out to be. Amid the wonder and beauty and mystery and love, a dash of fear, never dominating, just enough of that animal survival heritage of ours to keep us alert and focused on what matters, to keen our senses, prod the pulse if need be, but never dominate the day, or cloud the whole scene.

I know that “I” — this funny little ego with its likes and dislikes, its tempers and distempers and moods and whims — doesn’t “have eternal life” (how could such a flimsy thing?), but that life has me, in ways I keep discovering. Has me, holds me up, keeps sending me into the scene, gives me a part to play.

Sometimes the supporting roles are best of all.

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Acrostic of the Heart

[An exercise from a draft of a book on Druid spiritual practices I’m writing.]

Using your own name, a specific goal boiled down to a word or two, a god-name, an ancestral name, etc., spell the name or word, giving a separate line for each letter (an acrostic). Then, in a meditation or ritual, dream or other prompting, ask for guidance. Write what comes to you. You may wish to do this on successive days, either with the same focus, or a succession of names.

Zita and Dean 1921For practice with this exercise, I chose my grandfather’s middle name, William. He died more than twenty years before I was born. We share the same first name — when I was young, I heard people talking about him using “my” name. I first saw a picture of him when I was 10 years old. (I always wondered why my grandmother had so few family pictures in general — maybe memory was painful enough without reminders. He died when she was still in her thirties, left to raise two children through the Depression.)

Hearing and sharing the same name set up a connection, and seeing his formal portrait, and later other pictures of him, confirmed a link I value to this day. I’ve deepened it with writing about him in pieces like the one below.

Though this one’s not specifically about him, it’s about connecting with the ancestral legacy we all bear, about the Ovate flavor of experiencing the inward journey, about the Bardic encounter with ever-deepening mystery at the heart of things. In the end, they’re not separate, and it’s a relief not to struggle to sort them out, but wait until they clarify, like a muddy stream will, in a few days, after a rainstorm roils the waters.

Just pay attention, whisper the Ancestors. That’s a good half of everything we ask of you.

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Ancestral

Washed out of my bones
I fly across an ocean green as glass,
lifting easy above whitecaps.

Loosed from cages of chest and skull
I see them all at once
along this dark shore — shadows, lights

moving to music I can’t quite hear,

am always hearing —
ash, ember, blood drum.

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Sometimes what you receive or create is for you alone. It is sacred, which means no one else has any say in the matter, nor any opinion to touch upon what is inmost in you, unless you grant it. What you welcome is not for others’ commentary or reaction or judgment, but for blessing and connection and the kindling of a holy fire within.

Other times, you may receive inward blessing to share, but these decisions themselves are not for debate with others. Choose prudently.

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In the poem above I underlined the letters of the name prompt. The two final lines, both beginning with the letter “a”, came after some listening time, later the same day. When I say the lines to myself I hear them now as a kind of breathing, or sigh, or a voice without words, a sound at the edge of hearing.

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Trigger Blessings

What? Well, we’ve heard a great deal, at least in the U.S., about trigger warnings — flags to alert you to media content that might possibly cause you distress.

(These days I find myself asking what doesn’t cause distress to somebody, somewhere.)

So why not look for trigger blessings instead?

You know — signs, clues, hints, flags that something out there (or in here) might possibly bring you joy, strength, inspiration, the will to carry on.

Do such things even exist?

They do. And often we mediate them to each other. Hello. I am your trigger blessing for today. Grandchild singing tunelessly, pet warm in your lap, neighbor waving on the way to work, kind stranger who lets you into line — many of our blessings come through persons. And we can be a blessing to others.

Not a bad goal, and prayer, for one day a week, to start: let me be a blessing to others. Then, having asked, watching for the moments I can make it happen.

Not for my sake (though serving brings its own rewards) but because it’s so clear others very much need blessing. Just as much, it turns out, as I do.

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Since working with the Enchantments of Brighid, you could say I haven’t had anything remarkable to show for it. Led a workshop discussion on Past Lives, Dreams and Soul Travel. Caught a miserable sinus infection, along with my wife, after a weekend trip to celebrate her dad’s 85th birthday. (The old guy’s in better shape, in some ways, than I am.) Had a few dreams I’ll get to in a moment. Enjoyed the growing light that February brings to the northeast U.S., whatever the weather. Felt a stirring of creativity easily attributable to chance, or cycles of change. Nothing especially unusual here. Move along.

Except …

Enchantment often works best under cover. No one’s contacted Industrial Light and Magic, or WETA, or the local CGI crew, to mock up a trailer for the work of Brighid. The goddess, or our own life patterns if you prefer, can pull it off without the splashy special effects.

Though they’re present, if I look behind the glamours and bad mojo of our deeds, our headlines and our endlessly squawking media to all the other things, better ones, that are happening all the time.

My wife and I are making plans for a family and friends gathering to celebrate our 30th anniversary. An online Old English group I founded just held its first Skype meeting to practice the language, with 8 of us chatting awkwardly, with a good deal of laughter, for 40 minutes. Ideas are percolating, following on the Druid-and-Christian themes I’ve explored here in numerous posts, for a session at the 2nd Mid-Atlantic Gathering this coming May — a breakout discussion group I suggested will talk about the many intersections of the Druid and Christian experience.

Our finances, always interesting, continue to be interesting, but just in new ways. It turns out we won’t starve after all. (Or if we do, I’ll document it here.)

And the dreams …

In the first, from 31 January, I face Thecu, many-armed and -faced, pointing toward the east and to either the 4th or 3rd of her 9 runes of storm. Near her, a patch of intense darkness. My spiritual Guide and Teacher from my other path appears, says it’s always a choice: leave it alone or walk through. Bless the darkness — no reason to fear it. New fears, old fears: the old are a marker; the new, often, no more than distractions, unless I let them teach me something.

The second, from 4 February: I am warning others of an approaching tornado, but no one can hear me.

In the third, which my dream journal records for 9 February, I’m with a group of students from my former boarding school, though in the way of dreams I don’t recognize anyone. We’re talking about diversity, when one student shouts “Be careful!” Then I’m flying over trees, leading with my left toe. I arrive at an abandoned house somehow connected with my parents. I shout, “You never shared your pain with me!” and wake, at ease, reflective.

While going through old documents and photographs, I come on an image of my dad’s grandfather Albert whom I’ve never seen before, age and sepia blending, formal pose and 114 years all combining to distance him and bring him near. Yes, Ancestors, I’m still here, still listening.

Albert Hird

Turns out more than enough is happening to keep any respectable Druid very well occupied.

Trigger blessings to you all.

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Storm and Story

In a fit of New Year’s house-cleaning, I spent part of yesterday going through photos and papers my mother left to me. She passed sixteen years ago, but only now am I finally getting around to culling photo albums and memorabilia. Unlabeled pictures of ancestors I don’t recognize I’m discarding. (The clearest of them I’ll scan and post to ancestry.com — someone may perceive a link to their own story.) Together the images I’m discarding will make for a personal springtime ritual of memory, which feels now like it should be annual: to the unknown ancestors.

Ann Hall

a known ancestor — my great-great-grandmother Ann

Among my mother’s effects was a sealed envelope, with a notation in fading Victorian script: “Worth County Eagle of Feb. 10, 1881”. Worth County is rural northern Iowa, where my mother was born and grew up.

The paper is just one quarter its usual size, and the Feb. 10th issue opens with an apology, explaining that the recent three-day blizzard has delayed their paper shipment, and so the present issue is small, a single sheet, folded in half to make four pages.

The railroads are all blockaded. Possibly the BCR & N [railroad] may get trains to Albert Lea [nearby in Minnesota] by Saturday night, if they have no bad luck. The Minneapolis & St. Louis [line] is in very bad shape. Six engines are dead at Hartland and the road is full of snow. They cannot clear the road this week.

But the most poignant column of the issue, appearing on the third page, is more personal:

Last Friday afternoon, Joe Fleming, of Kensett, came to Northwood, on horseback, for a coffin, for the only child of Chas. Christenson. It was late on his arrival, and he did not think it expedient to venture out again, so near dark, and remained over night. Our readers all know what a day Saturday was, and it was unsafe for one to be out on the road, so Joe waited until Sunday morning. By then it was impossible for him to get his horse out of the barn, on account of the deep snow. But he made up his mind that the trip must be made, and so had the coffin fastened securely to his back and started on foot, during that severe snow storm. He arrived at home safely.

What we do simply to survive is worthy of story. Let’s not diminish the lives we lead today. One-hundred thirty-seven years ago a child died, a human grief, and that death sparked the human determination that became this particular story. What is remembered lives. But we chose what we remember. Storms occasion such stories, markers of our lives. Everyone has one or more to tell.

May you be warm and safe and cherish your stories, however hard-won. By living them you’ve earned them. Such memories number among things that need to be born.

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Becoming an Ancestor

From the OBOD “Inspiration for Life” for 26 October: “Our greatest responsibility is to become good ancestors” — Jonas Salk (1914-1995). Search for information on Salk and you’ll find, beyond his discovery of the life-saving polio vaccine, that the original quotation has  “be” for “become,” but “become” fits. It gives us room to grow into the role.

Growth? I don’t know about you, but most days I need all the help I can get. We can be as literal as you like. My father had a mild case of polio in the 1930s when he was a young man, and it stunted the growth of his legs. He would have been as tall as I am at 6’2″. When we sat, we were the same height, but standing, he was six inches shorter than me. He made up for reduced stature by work and persistence (if you’re uncharitable you might have called it cussed stubbornness). Sometimes we can feel like we’re cast against type in our own lives. What now?

If I approach the day, the season, this life, as roles, I can often feel my way into possibility. We’ve all slipped in backstage. From there we tried out for this role — like almost all the others we’re offered — just by being born. Set aside for a moment the question of whether any of us asked to be here.  If we do indeed get recycled from one part of this universe into another, perhaps our own ancestors called us, and our parents made bodies for us and brought us back to the longest-running show of them all. Have kids, and we’re doing the same for them. No kids this time around? You won’t escape that easy.

Live in this world more than a handful of years and you’ll meet others you instantly warm up or cool off to. Mere chance? Unlikely. Instead, one big noisy, contentious family reunion. You never liked Great-Uncle Louis, only now (s)he’s your one-year old niece Lucy who just spit up on your new silk shirt.

Or that annoying nephew Luke who always manages to bring back your car with a few more dings and scratches whenever he borrows it. You’d say no but you still owe his mother a few grand from that tight period some years back.

After all, karma’s one of the most efficient ways of polishing rough edges. Get back what you give out. Until you decide to play it differently. A different take. An original interpretation. A dramatic break-through. A sensitive and well-rounded performance that elicits sympathy for a potentially unlovable character.

What roles will I play in this ancestor ritual that is my life? Can I live large enough that I qualify as a “good ancestor”? Do my choices make the future lighter, wiser, more loving? (The signs tell me I’ll get to find out in person. Back in a century or three to check in and live my own consequence.)

Some days I get a foretaste. I wake, sliding slowly out of bed feeling I’m already halfway to ancestor status. You know, when your body’s now the best barometer for tomorrow morning’s weather. Low pressure and my lower back aches. Rain coming and my shoulder throbs. At such times it’s slender consolation that half a millennium hence my thighbone may decorate some family altar, or that my brother’s great-great-great-times-10 granddaughters will drink toasts from my lovingly preserved skull.

No, Salk probably meant something more. While not all of us will fall fighting to defend our land for our descendants, in every age too many of us do.

But just as many of our battles are inward, and many outwardly calm or seemingly easy faces conceal, it may be, most grievous private wars. It’s fitting, then — humbling, sobering and just — that we may well return to see what becomes of our own deeds.

For me there’s no better perspective. I find myself asked to forgive less than glorious forebears. “Judge not, lest you be judged” can cut painfully close. Knowing my own struggles and weaknesses, I’ll toast them with a generous measure of compassion — not because they may “deserve” it, but because they need it, and so do I — even as I honor the great among them, this weekend on Samhain.

/|\ /|\ /|\

“Imagine if you can’t remember”

says Canadian poet Charlotte Hussey.

Now this proves very useful advice, I’ve found. All the materialist skepticism to the contrary, imagination springs from an inward compost and leaf-mold, yes, and also a vital, creative capacity we all possess as our human birthright. Even those of us who’ve tried to cast it away, if only because to nourish dream and hope can hurt much more than indulgence in flat despair. That means almost all of us. Maybe our singers and poets and wild-eyed prophets number among those who simply can’t forget any longer.*

And some of the Wise will tell you that imagination is the astral sight: we see by other means than merely light rays reaching the retina and dashing up neurons to the brain. Light everywhere has its place, but physical light does not account for those familiar or haunting landscapes we’ve never visited, companionable (or challenging) beings we have never met, and so on. Or indeed, landscapes and beings we have met before. Just not here.

charlottehusseyjpgAnd Hussey’s Ecobardic Manifesto asserts, among its other points, both the return of and our singular need for “the prophetic vocation to look into the inner truth of things and speak, on behalf of the community, what need[s] to be spoken.”

But do we even want to hear “what needs to be spoken”? And if we opt to listen, how do we distinguish this needful message in the midst of the clamor and noise of all the other increasingly hysterical voices around us?

Small steps. I keep returning to this most helpful strategy. Our own practice of silence is a beginning (and advanced) step that helps with discernment of an inner truth we each know for ourselves, if we listen. If we can’t discern it, we can imagine it. Finding a still point beyond the mind chatter. Walk along a quiet sidewalk with trees, find a park, a quiet corner of your apartment or condo or neighborhood. Stillness as practice.

Focus or mantra or prayer. For Christians, scripture like “Be still and know that I am God” makes a powerful start. Pagans have an equivalent range of seed-verses and prayer-songs.

Sometimes the name of deity, or a suitable word like awen or om or amen.

Song or chant in a language you don’t know, to take you out of your talking head (and anybody else’s, too).

Symbol or mandala or image, for those who prefer the non-verbal. Cross, triskele, star, Platonic form, face of a beloved.

Counting your breaths.

Worship kinetically: pick up colorful leaves, play in the mud, lie on your back and watch the clouds. The skills we practiced effortlessly as children have not abandoned us, though we may have “put away childish things” as we raced off to concern ourselves with “matters of importance” and the wide word of adult stress and doubt and angst.

Substances used reverently, like various smudges and smoking herbs, fermented drinks, and so on, have featured in worship and ritual and self-care for millennia.

More important than what I do is doing it often enough that it becomes for me a spiritual practice.

dweI cannot remember the paternal grandfather I was named for: he died 14 years before I was born. All I have of him are three yellowing photos and a handful of stories. But I imagine him when I honor my ancestors of blood and spirit, and he’s more alive to me as a result. A link, however tenuous, that I (and he, from his side) can strengthen at will.

One of the OBOD Bardic practices is the inner sacred grove. So what kind of place will I make as a spiritual sanctuary for myself and any inner guide whose counsel I seek? I resort to this place to leave a symbol, a dream recalled I want to ponder, or to begin a poem, resolve a problem, express my gratitude, build an altar, light an inner flame, begin and end a ritual, recall during moments of challenge and joy. What I imagine can become as real as anything I build with lumber and mortar, nails and plaster and insulation. (And the grass there doesn’t need weekly mowing. Though the trees, oak and birch, rowan and ash among them, are growing well.)

Imagine, and I remember.

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Charlotte Hussey; D W Easton, circa 1925, on his mail route in Niagara Falls, NY.

*”I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.” “Alcohol as an Escape from Perfection.” Atlantic, 10/13, accessed 10/4/16.

“Drinking with the Ancestors”

firegod

photo courtesy Hex Nottingham

Here’s the poem* I read by the fire** at Saturday night’s eisteddfod at ECG ’16. I’m also submitting it to Touchstone so you may run across it there if it’s accepted.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Drinking with the Ancestors

This poem ain’t no teetotal ritual:
let’s raise each cup, now, individual,
every mug and glass fill up now
and start drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
the Dead are chummy when you meet ’em.
This good liquor in your tummy
gets you thinking: toast the Ancestors!

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice, if we lose focus,
glasses clinking with the Ancestors.

A few more rounds, more pints and glasses,
may find us falling on our asses.
We strive to heed old voices calling
though we’re blinking at the Ancestors.

Yes, when morning comes, perhaps uncertain
if we dreamed or drew some curtain
on a world where it truly seemed
that we were linking with our Ancestors,

good liquor works its own true magic,
so never blame it – downright tragic,
if “hung over” is what we name it:
feel like sinking toward the Ancestors?

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises)
familiar patterns – star or rose
tattoos we’re inking for the Ancestors.

Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re sussing
out the paths our lives might take
or leave shivers in their wake
that have us shrinking from our Ancestors.

Before a soul decides to curse them,
mutter charms that will disperse them
foil their harms and then reverse them,
all these stinking, damned Ancestors!

(Ah, do please remember)

we’re their consequence, not moot –
we got their genetic seed and root,
and we’re the payoff, crown and fruit,
we’re their future, built to suit,
so cheers to drinking with our Ancestors!

/|\ /|\ /|\

*I’d drafted the piece at ECG ’12, with the title/last line echoing in my head all weekend, then revised it a few days before this year’s Gathering.

**Hex remarked when he posted the image, “You have the complete attention of a long horned fyre god here, and it is blessing you with its aura.”

Our Honored Dead

[I’m teaching in a 5-week boarding school summer program this June-July for American (academic enrichment) and international (English as a second language) middle and high school students. The intensity of the pace accounts for the dearth of recent posts here.]

entrance

Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery

 

Tomorrow we have a day off from classes for a visit to the Yale University campus. For the older students, we’ll also make a side tour of Grove Street Cemetery, listed as a National Historic Landmark for its historical interest (its first burial occurred in 1797 after a Yellow Fever epidemic), the names of its famous dead, and its enduring ties to Yale.

In the past year my wife and I’ve discovered our ancestors lived in the same small town (in a different state, near the Canadian border) around the same decade that Grove Street was established, and mostly likely they knew each other. And as we’ve been telling the students this summer, a well-landscaped cemetery can be a peaceful and unique experience, because it can enlarge our sympathies and imaginations beyond the immediate concerns of own lives.

Live long enough, I’m finding, and your sympathies may enlarge so that any dead become part of your honored dead. We share DNA from around the planet (one of my cousins had his DNA tested and found Greek and Central African markers in it), we all face the same challenges of dying and living, and if the dead have any honor in my memory, it’s because I give it to them.

JunglebookCover

cover of the first edition (1894) of The Jungle Book

 

In Kipling’s Jungle Book, the human boy Mowgli says more than once to his animal companions, “We be of one blood, thou and I.” Such simple acknowledgements may at times matter more than many prayers and offerings, if they open our hearts to gratitude and the wisdom we inherit in our bones and our mortal dreams.

So tomorrow in my own way I’ll commemorate the “Grove Streeters” by reading and repeating their names, pouring libations of water (nothing stronger — I’m with adolescents, after all) in their honor, and acknowledging their part in shaping the world as we have it today. And always, I am confident, there will be others who will follow us and do the same, touched through their own sufferings and joys by a similarly enlarged sense of kinship.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: Egyptian entrance gate, Grove Street Cemetery; Jungle Book cover

Growing Down

greenworldThe green world burgeons all around me, though I fall silent. I don’t grow up like these eager stems, leaves and blossoms that surround this house of self in a blaze of green glory. So early this year, summer already launched in the heart of spring. Not up. No. I grow down.

The word itself brings the action. D o o o w w w n n n. Without thought, something bones and skin and gut do. Are doing. I shudder in a moment of vertigo. One world spins and collapses around me. Then I’m touching another, walls that shape the passage-way around my descent. Something deepens, I sense roots like fingers, fingers like roots, reaching into darkness, into cool earth and colder stone.

sheela-na-gig

I feel them ever so subtly at first, their branching shapes, the strength of this bark-skin, root and claw, fingertip and tendril, things that are somehow both my hands and also the tree roots I find myself grasping.

Then all at once, that subterranean tug of ancestors, my roots their roots, reaching and twining into the dream earth I crawl into each night and pull over me. I shiver, bone-deep. All that they were, I am. All that they feared and love, I too fear and love. In the darkness, a space opens. Water pools at my feet, a faint glow illuminating it, silvering the surface. Ripples die away and all lies still. My own breathing deafens me, too loud. The dark silver still shines with its own light, waiting … for what?

nightlake

I’m jerked upright, to my feet. Want to meet your ancestors? asks an insistent whisper. Look, the whisper says. Look, Pilgrim, in the mirror. The silver surface of the water steams, mist swirls up from it, the fog thickens, then furls back and away. I kneel down to look …

/|\ /|\ /|\

Singing. I hear singing.

Three awens for the dead, who live again. Three awens for the living, who will die in turn. Three awens for those yet unborn, who know both worlds, who await a third.

O Walker between the worlds, do you wish to remember all you have forgotten? Then stand ready. The nine awens of change wash over you.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Are you ready?

It’s not a question. Oh, it has the form of one, but it’s not. It’s a choice. I show I’m ready, or not, by what I choose. And by how. Not by thinking of an answer.

It’s a fair choice. It’s always a fair choice, I hear. Because it’s yours. But if I don’t know it’s a choice, if I listen to fear, or doubt, or judgment, or anything else but what I was born listening to, what shaped me while I was a mere thumbling in my mother’s womb, I miss the choice, and think it’s merely a question to answer, one that already has an answer, not one I answer in this moment, right now, by choosing. What will I choose? That’s the real question.

aceofcupsI gift you with a grail, the chalice of your desire, says the short powerful figure before me. I try to make out a face, but nothing other than an outline in this dimness.  And the voice.

What will fill it? Where will you pour it? The gift cannot be given to you until you give it away.

How? I hear myself shouting, how in the name of the Nine Druids do I give away a gift I don’t even have?

/|\ /|\ /|\

I’m coming back. Ascending, though that’s not exactly it either. One world fades, another gains strength.

A final whisper. Wanderer, you have no other home. Home is where you serve.

Images: greenworldsheila-na-gig; lake at night; grail.

Posted 14 June 2015 by adruidway in ancestors, Druidry, grail, initiation, Ovate

Tagged with , , , ,

A Druid in the Life of a Day

sunriseSunrise, are you waiting for that sliver of moon to invite you? This time of year I’m up before you, and waiting in the perfect frozen peace of January pre-dawn.

Slowly our snow-covered fields flower from purple to gray to white, and then bloom golden with light. A cardinal with pinfeathers puffed against the cold ignites the snow when he lands beneath the bird-feeder, all impossible red. Ah, day at last, over the eastern hill you come, and here we are, in the eye of the sun, loving the light though we may forget to say so. I will say so now, while I remember. All praise for light inside and out!

Yes, I can be a Druid in the life of a day. But bring on night and darkness and my Druidry can suffer a sea-change. You know you’re a Druid when death moves you not at all, says a tendril of awareness. When you may not even notice you’ve changed realms. Well, but I’m not there yet, I reply. I have no trouble with death. I drop into darkness each time I fall asleep. It’s dying that troubles me. And others’ deaths that are hard to take, though with the gift of Sight we may know them after and visit them still. It’s the body comfort I miss, voice and touch and the daily-ness of a life lived next door to my own. I know you’re around, Ancestors without your skins on, but I miss you here.

I light this flame to gift the darkness, not contend with it. Each has its place, here in Abred*. “Know all things, be all things, experience all things”: some say this is our destiny, as we move through the circles of existence. Maybe. Not sure yet. Don’t need to be. This circle right now, right here, keeps me plenty occupied.

Nine awens for the day
for the day’s choices
and gifts easy and difficult.

Nine awens for the gods
unknown and known who grace us
with the Breath of Asu,

sound and light both.
Nine awens for you, little soul,
beast, bird or human, watching

at the gates of Abred*
for the flower of destiny
to unfold its next petal

as you become.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: sunrise.

*Abred. The great Revival Druid and brilliant forger, Iolo Morganwg, wrote in his compendium of wisdom and fabrication the Barddas that all beings move slowly from Annwn, the unformed, to Abred, the first world, our present circle, “probation,” and from there to Gwynvyd, the “white world” of the next advance and “perfect freedom,” and on from there to Ceugant, “infinity.”  And the way there is long and full of experiences until, ripe with knowing all things each circle has to teach us, we take a step to the next.

Do I “believe” it? That’s not the important question to me, or to many Druids. How well does it explain things? What can I learn from it? Those are the important questions. Whether it’s “true” or not is quite beside the point. I’m not interested in creedal religion; that’s one reason I’m a Druid, after all. I don’t have a statement of faith; I have a practice that includes various beliefs that evolve as I do. I don’t want to sit in the restaurant and wait to be served from another’s choice, to use Philip Carr-Gomm’s image (go to 4th paragraph). I want to work in the kitchen, help it come together for myself. This is Abred, the world of probation, after all — of proving and testing and trying out.  So I’m game — I try it out, try it on for size.

Updated 4 August 2015

Solstice 2014

Anciently, Ireland was known as Inis Fail, the Isle of the Lia Fail, the Stone of Fal from the magical city of Falias and the Goddess Danu, one of the Four Hallows of Ireland, also called the Stone of Destiny, which roared when a true king sat or stood upon it. The Isle of Britain was called Clas Myrddin, Merlin’s Enclosure, and continuing the island theme, its holy and magical city Glastonbury was Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass. Such lore can indeed take you some way along a path, the names themselves an invocation as magical as any.

Merrivale Stone Rows, Devon

Merrivale Stone Rows, Devon

Outside of Britain we may well long for our own mythological names, gestures of respect and power toward the spirits of the land, honoring them with noble names, and opening doorways.  Yes, by borrowing for an interval a tongue from across the Water and bowing to our ancestors of spirit from there, we could do worse than call North America by one of its native names, Turtle Island, rendering it in Welsh: Ynys Crwban. Old tongue, New World. But the spirits here aren’t Welsh, and they’re wilder, and steeped in their own ways and works.

Still, Earth and Stone are North, and Winter, and Night. I sit and calm myself, finding the Pole Star in inner sight. The sky’s too cloudy for it outwardly, with a light snow falling most of the day and into the evening. I do a private ritual, and then in vision I’m drawn toward a stone circle. But instead of the broad windswept Salisbury Plain, and the great Henge there that all know, I’m given to see a different circle. Here the stones set their feet deeper, cradled in earth. The place feels both older and more intimate. The lintels stand just chest-high, low enough I can see over their tops and into the circle, which is some twenty feet across.

Vision wavers for a moment. Briefly I’m back and conscious of the room. Yes, I sit here in Vermont, just feet from snowdrifts outside the window, but in vision rough gray stones rise from a green cloak of moss that more than half-covers them. I’m there again. To enter the circle I have to go down on all fours and crawl through the space between two uprights and a heavy lintel. My palms and legs rub against the cool dampness. The rich chocolate scent of earth fills my nose — leaf-rot, moss, lichen, chlorophyll — the planet’s kitchen working, working endlessly. Each pace forward and I move over lives too small to see unaided. But they’re still here. Then I’m inside. I begin to sense an invisible dome overhead, a kind of presence shaping the space. The stones hum just below hearing, holy engines, the sound stillness makes, not empty at all.

Suddenly needing their strength I rise to my knees and hug an upright stone, its cool solidity reassuring against my arms and cheek and chest. With that, the welcome surges through me. You’re here, you’re here, we say to each other. In that instant I don’t worry who or what I’m talking to, only that we’re glad to be together — together again. This is not the first time for any of us. I spin in a half-dance, half-frenzy, soon enough falling dizzily to the ground. Wetness on my face — rain, tears, I’m not sure which. Both. I am earthed, spent, embraced, recharged, home.

A log shifts in the stove in the next room and brings me back. Now is the hour of recall, goes the line from OBOD ritual. The Circle in the vision is real enough it’s got me wondering if it exists on this plane.  The thought comes Build it so it does. I sit with that impression a while longer, trying to absorb the implications for this vision and others.  Build it so it exists on this plane.

/|\ /|\ /|\

The Piccolo San Bernardo Circle in Val d’Aosta, Italy, straddles the French-Italian border in a mountain pass at about 2000 meters. The circle appears for only a few weeks each year, when the snows recede enough to reveal the stones.  The ancient Roman satirist Petronius appears to refer to it and remarks, “Winter covers it with a persistent snow and it raises its white head to the stars.” This seemed a fitting image to close with for the solstice in the North. What will manifest in our circles, when the circles themselves lie half-hidden to our sight?

psbernhi

Piccolo San Bernardo, Val d’Aosta, Italy

Images: Stone Pages — Merrivale Stone Row; Stone Pages Piccolo San Bernardo. The Stone Pages site is well worth visiting and dreaming with.

O Bríd and Oghma, I Invoke You for a Tongue

[Part Two]

brigidscross

Brigid’s Cross: Crosóg Bhríde

For the gift of speech already, I thank you.

For the gift of a Celtic tongue I will make,

let my request be also my gift to you in return:

the sound of awen in another tongue, kindred

to those you once heard from ancestors

of spirit. Wisdom in words, wrought for ready use.

May your inspiration guide heart and hand,

mind and mouth, spirit and speech.

/|\ /|\ /|\

The six living insular Celtic languages — Welsh, Breton, Cornish*, Manx*, Irish and Gaelic — have survived (*or been revived) against often harsh and long odds. I won’t go into the historical challenges that the Celtic tongues share with most minority languages. And I’m not even considering any of the extinct continental Celtic tongues like Gaulish, Galatian or Lepontic.

OgmapxSuffice it to say that not one of the six living Celtic tongues is secure enough that its advocates can relax into anything resembling the ease of speakers of a world language like English. So why not learn one of these endangered languages (or revive Galatian)? After all, with such knowledge comes the ability to experience a living Celtic culture from the inside, as well as gain access in the original languages to texts that nourish Druid practice and thought. One more speaker is one more voice against linguistic and cultural extinction. In the title and first section above I invoke Brighid/Bríd and Ogma/Oghma, to give the ancient and modern Irish forms of their names. With the experiences of many contemporary and ancient polytheists in mind, I can say with some confidence that the gods honor those who go to the trouble to learn the old languages and speak to them using even a little of the ancestral tongues.

Or if not one of the living Celtic tongues, then how about one of the Celtic conlangs that already exist? Arvorec, Kaledonag, Galathach and others wait in the wings, in varying states of development. They could provide a ready foundation to build on — a foundation already laid.

Why not use one of them? In part out of respect for their makers, who may not want their creations associated with Druidry. Arvorec, to focus on just one for a moment, is already part of the conlang community of Ill Bethisad, and has its own con-culture (and even con-religion — An Graveth, a cousin to Druidry). In part — a significant part for me — as a Bardic offering to the gods invoked here: gods esteem the taste of human sweat. Salt flavors the sacrifice. And for the very human reason that when we invest time and energy in something, we often value it more, and can draw on dedication, creative momentum, pride, inspiration, desire and love to see it through. If a Celtic language is not my mother tongue, then let it be a foster-mother. Let this tongue be one I have helped craft from the shapes and sounds and world we receive as a heritage.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Like the Romance, Slavic, Germanic and Indo-Iranian language families, the members of the Celtic family show considerable similarities among themselves in vocabulary, grammar, and so on.  Centuries of work on the greater Indo-European family have already been done, insights and advances continue, and many resources exist for the Celtic conlanger and Bard-linguist to draw on. Proto-Celtic, the mother tongue of the Celtic languages, is also being reconstructed.

celtic_familyOne early question to answer in birthing a Celtic conlang is Q or P. No, that’s not some password you have to know in order to gain admission to the Secret Circle of All Druidry (SCOAD), or a riddle posed by the Planetary High Holy Archdruid. P- and Q-Celtic are shorthand for a linguistic division that usefully divides the six living Celtic tongues into two groups of three, based on their treatment of the Indo-European *kw- in words like *kwetwores “four,” Proto Celtic *kwetwar-, with Irish ceathair, Gaelic ceithir, Manx kaire for the Q-side, and Breton pevar, Cornish pesvar and Welsh pedwar for the P-side. Of course, being next-door neighbors as well as cousins, the six languages also borrowed from each other through their centuries together, which delightfully muddies the waters of linguistic post-gnostication (“knowing after the fact,” like pro-gnostication, only not). Flip a coin, go with your gut, follow your own esthetic, pray, do a divination, or some idiosyncratic combo all your own.

I’m going with P.

What else do we know about the Celtic Six as an initial orientation for a language maker? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s just a small sample: all six have a definite article (English “the”), but only one has an indefinite article (English “a, an”). Most have Verb-Subject-Object (VSO “Ate I breakfast”) as a common if not the dominant word order (English is SVO). All count with an old vigesimal system by twenties, as in French, where “eighty” is quatre-vingt “four twenties,” “ninety” is quatre-vingt dix “four twenties (and) ten,” and so on.

And the consonant mutations: no mutations and — sorry! — it’s just not Celtic! Sorta like a sundae without whipped cream, or a kielbasa slathered in coleslaw and mustard without the bun. In brief, depending on the preceding word, the initial consonant of a Celtic word changes in predictable ways. Here’s an example from Welsh:

Ei means “his.”  It causes lenition of the consonant of a following word.  Cath means “cat,” but when lenited after ei, the form is ei gath “his cat.

Ei also means “her” (and provides an example of how mutations can help distinguish words): ei “her” aspirates the consonant of a following word. Ei chath means “her cat.”

Eu means “their”: it doesn’t cause a mutation: eu cath is “their cat.”

It gets tricky because while the insular Celtic languages do all have mutations, their mutations behave differently from language to language. Here is Welsh again, now contrasted with Irish:

Welsh | Irish | English gloss

cath | cath | “cat”

ei gath | a chath | “his cat”

ei chath |  a cath | “her cat”

eu cath | a gcath | “their cat” (Incidentally, not a typo: Irish gc- — like bp- and dt- — is pronounced g but also shows it is derived from an original c. Cool. Or ridiculous. Depending.)

/|\ /|\ /|\

May we remember you and your gifts, Bríd and Oghma: apt words, the praise of good things, and wisdom dark and bright.

To Brighid
(author unknown)

Brighid of the mantles, Brighid of the hearth fire,
Brighid of the twining hair, Brighid of the auguries,
Brighid of the fair face, Brighid of the calmness,
Brighid of the strong hands, Brighid of the kine.

Brighid, friend of women, Brighid, fire of magic,
Brighid, foster mother, Brighid, woman of wisdom,
Brighid, daughter of Danu, Brighid, the triple flame.
Each day and each night I call the descent of Brighid.

That the power of healing be within us,
That the power of poetry be within us,
That the power of shaping be within us,
In earth, and sky, and among all kindreds.

Kindle your flame in our heads, hearts and loins,
Make us your cup, your harp, your forge,
That we may heal, inspire and transform,
All in your honor, Brighid, font of blessing.

Brighid above us,
Brighid below us,
Brighid in the very air about us,
Brighid in our truest heart!

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: Brigid’s CrossOgma.

Edited/updated 15 April 2015

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

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