Archive for the ‘ancestral wisdom’ Category

Ancestry, Polytheism, Tradition   1 comment

Melas commented thoughtfully on the previous post, and I’d like to reflect on his words here. In trying to explore the questions he raises, ultimately I end up pushing hard against my own doubts and understandings and probable prejudices. By this I mean I’m mostly arguing with myself, not Melas. So here goes …

First, Melas’s initial observation:

The poem, though short, is moving, especially upon a reflection, as you have provided. Without considering the poet’s evident meaning or original intention, I’d venture upon a somewhat different interpretation than yours, that is, one based on my traditional views. Let us at least agree that ancestry bears some degree of importance in any tradition of polytheism; the difficult questions are, how much, and what if one is of mixed ethnic ancestry?

I’ll add to Melas’s two “difficult questions” here and make them four: Does ancestry in fact matter, how much, what if one is of mixed ancestry, and does polytheism affect the issue one way or another? (One or many gods, or none, we all have the same energies to work with. Or do we live in wholly different universes simply because we group and name and work with these energies differently?) To continue a theme from the previous post, if we consider a person of Greek descent whose ancestors for at least ten or more generations were most likely Orthodox Christians, is practicing Hellenismos, reconstructed Greek polytheism, a comfortable or straightforward way to find harmony with these most recent ancestors, to enlist their aid, or to maintain their tradition? Or consider the opposite: is the Orthodox Christian angering all those ancestors who preceded Christianity? Is it merely a numbers game?

When I welcome ancestors — the occasionally monotheist, sometimes pantheist, intermittently polytheist being that I am — I invite those sympathetic to me, one of their descendants, today. (Who else, after all, would want to come? Think of those family events you’ve tried to escape!) In this sense, ancestry is indeed everything. I’m here because of them, and with them rest both my gratitude and reverence. But I face choices and challenges both similar to and different from ones they faced. I have ancestors who were Christians, Pagans, atheists, agnostics, animists, polytheists and shamans. How do we sort out such identifications and allegiances?

Do the last thirty generations of so of Christian ancestors of varying degrees of devotion and wisdom trump hundreds of generations and more of pre-Christian ancestors? Will the polytheists among them fight the monotheists in the Otherworld, or at my ritual circle? Does more recent ancestry matter more than the more ancient strains? OBOD’s standard ritual includes a declaration of peace, without which no work can proceed. Those who work the rituals can attest to the power of that declaration, and to the tenor and energy of the rites that follow. What we do, and who we welcome, matter here and now. A feast is ultimately for those who actually attend (though even to be invited is pleasing, too). To paraphrase Jesus, many are called, but fewer are fed.

King’s poem in the previous post acknowledges his

people
back to the beginning of
life,
In the witness of the gods
and the ungods

Back to the beginning: bug and bird, beast and beech tree. I suspect, one of the words I prefer to use in place of believe, because it captures both my doubt and my intuition, that such matters as commitments and practices from one life may recede when we drop the body of that life. We work on what we need to learn. If we truly do experience all things as we move through each circle of existence and awareness, as some Druids teach, then so do our ancestors along their journeys. Some things we give up, even as we take on others. (Some will follow us through many lives.) Whether this time around I was baptized into the “right” church, or offered the traditional gifts to welcome my spirit guide on my vision quest, may matter little compared to our enduring work along the Spiral of all beings to learn and grow in strength and love. And from what I’ve seen, we’re all slow learners. The Spiral is large and long.

Melas comments:

To the first [how much does ancestry matter?], I would say as much as possible, since a connection by blood is an inner force and connection (literally and figuratively) that can’t be replaced easily or dispensed with as unessential. I am not wholly Greek in ancestry, but my ancestors are partly from neighboring nations, and therefore choosing for me is easier than someone half-Greek and half-Chinese. In such a case, it would be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other, since large distance is inconvenient and causes confusion in the mind and heart.

When the choosing is clear, the choice can align the chooser quite effectively within a tradition that can be a solace and a guide, a source of strength and identity. Today many are still born with such a clear ancestral heritage. In such a case, it may indeed “be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other”. Perhaps Americans feel more keenly the “confusion in the mind and heart” that Melas talks about, with our often mixed ancestries. Confusion may result, whether the distance is physical, cultural, linguistic, genetic, spiritual, psychological, etc.

But should I then be a Christian, because everyone in my immediate family was, and because though I’m deliciously mongrel in many ways, most of my more recent Swiss German, English, Welsh, French, and Scottish ancestors were Christian as well? (I have transcripts of letters from one ancestor eight generations back, admonishing her children to strengthen their faith in trying times.) Should I be Catholic, or Protestant, or provoke ire on all sides and practice a blend of Christianity and Druidry?

Candomble pic

Candomble ritual, Brazil

And I call to mind people known to me personally, who don’t count among their keys to identity a genetic match in this particular life to a particular tradition that nonetheless calls deeply to them. Is there no place for an Asian or African in an often Euro-centric tradition like Druidry? Most traditions of Druidry I know welcome all who come with good will and an open heart, regardless of DNA. And that feels right to me, and to many others. Does that weaken the tradition, or strengthen it? Or indeed not affect it either way?

What are we to make of those whose inner experiences orient them toward traditions outside their apparent genetic heritage? What of the Euro-American adopted into a Native American tribe? The person of mixed ancestry who practices two or more traditions, a syncretism that seems more the rule than the exception, if we look at human history? Many homes in America find ways to honor a colorful braid of ancestral strands, Latino and Jewish and Thai, Catholic and Native American and Nigerian, etc. Haitians practice Vodoun, and Candomble and Santeria flourish in many places in the Americas — syncretistic forms all of them.

santeria

Santeria initiate

What of other new traditions, and restored ones, among people who already have a clear cultural and genetic identity? Native Americans have established the Native American Church, a distinctive set of beliefs and practices blending Christianity and shamanism, with sacramental use of peyote. As a Wise One once quipped, “There is little nature likes so much as to destroy old forms and then create new ones like them”. Do the ancestors of Native tribes ignore their descendants because of this innovation? I suspect — that word, again — that the ancestors either haven’t figured out yet, or worry about it a great deal less than we do.

Melas closes:

This point of the essential connection between ancestors and polytheism is too often overlooked nowadays, and I think it is dangerous. If we don’t stick firmly and mainly to a certain tradition and people (again, without scorning others), we expose ourselves to the uneasiness (sometimes misery) of uncertainty, and further we render traditions unlasting, empty and jumbled by removing distinctions from them.

Does the distinctiveness of a tradition depend on ancestry, or on honoring the ancestors? I see these as different things. I may know next to nothing of my ancestry, or through misinformation and deliberate ancestral deception I may believe things that are inaccurate, but the existence of my ancestors is still indisputable. And what of ancestors of spirit, those who have taught and trained and nourished me though we have no kinship by blood? They matter equally to me and to many others. Are such calls outside our blood the calls of those ancestors?

In the end, I’d argue that the distinctiveness or value of a tradition is simply this: does it meet the needs of those who practice it? Does it nourish the heart and spirit? Does it answer our innermost cry? If it does, it thrives and flourishes: we thrive and flourish in it. If it doesn’t, then like all things in this world, it changes or dies. It may be distinct, but dead. We contain, but also surpass, all that we do. That’s time-bound, however wonderful it is. And we live in more than one world at once, acting in each. But each of us is also still a seed, a potential, waiting in the earth, even as along time’s spiral we fruit and die, sprout again and blossom. The world shows us that much every year.

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Images: Candomble; Santeria.

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Crossing on a Word   Leave a comment

Perform a Rite of Chocolate: only you and your Guides know how much is too much. (If you need an actual god of chocolate, the Mayan deity Ek Chuah, “Black Star,” patron of merchants and cacao, may serve your purposes; this site includes an image and some ritual details to build on.)

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northalafields

A 21st century mound — Northala Fields, London

Robert Frost makes do for my divination today — words from his too-famous “The Road Not Taken” bumping into each other in my head this morning after a walk: “I saved it for another day, but knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

The Spiral we all walk leads me away and away, until I forget I ever meant to come back at all. Then when I do, I run smack into what I’d “saved for another day.” Now the day’s here. Nothing lost. That inexplicable half-recognition at the arrival of things that we can’t possibly know, that kiss of the strange-familiar we all face once in a while — or many times — washes over me, gift of the Spiral. But oh how the hide-and-seek of it all can last lifetimes. What else did I save long ago “for another day”? No way to know, till it happens again.

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The last few days I’ve been awkwardly mindless.  Today, a little more joyously mindless. Oh, I still think, or maybe more accurately, what passes for thought comes flitting by and makes do, till my brain finds its way home again.

Fortunately this masquerade of consciousness seems to convince everybody else around me right now. I got through a short-term job interview yesterday that seemed to go well enough, I balanced my checkbook, I wrote a note to an old friend.

“Your brain could fit in the navel of a gnat and still rattle around like a BB in a corn-flakes box.” The old high-school insult, embroidered and endlessly recycled, just about sums me up right now. Except it’s insult no longer, just blunt fact.

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Men an Tol

Without warning I feel the power gather on the other side of the Gate. (What Gate? How should I know? But there’s a Gate right now, and power on the other side of it. Ya gotta roll with these things, I tell myself. Mindlessness helps.) A sound, a word, it’s the name of an ancestor who wants to reach me, whose wisdom I need right now, name which is also a pass-key to a world opening like an eye onto a twilight landscape.

I know this word, I say it to open wider, but it’s nothing I can write down, nothing to save for another visit, nothing with a human shape, though I keep saying it. But even as I think this, the inner reassurance comes that when I need to visit again, I’ll be able to. Then the whole thing is gone as quickly as it came. I stand on an endless beach, watching the tide go out all at once. At least that’s how it feels.

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Images: Northala Fields, London; Men an Tol, Cornwall — from a wonderful site of Moon Gates.

“Deep Knowledge”   3 comments

In this, the dark half of the year, we may face things that don’t have faces. One way we deal with this is by telling stories.

Royal One, born at midwinter, Yule King, in the deepest darkness, our need is great. In us is the royal child born; some faiths make that story their own and turn its wisdom to their own ends.  But no story is the final one, because each captures only an echo, and needs to be retold, for the echo to sound out again, and all too soon it also will fade, and need renewing in turn. But even an echo of home can be enough to lead us there at last.

William Sharp in 1894

William Sharp in 1894

Here is a gift of old wisdom, a story that seeks to link two traditions, Druidry and Christianity.  It comes from William Sharp (1855–1905), a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and a contemporary of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  Here he is writing as Fiona Macleod in The Washer at the Ford. New York: Stone and Kimball, 1896. (Follow the title link to a free online Project Gutenburg text of Sharp’s book.) It’s a quaint and unusual volume, but in the excerpt below and elsewhere he accesses a current that makes us restless and stirs our blood and bones to seek what nothing else can satisfy. (Or if the story does nothing for you, simply move on. The awen that is your particular gift lies elsewhere.)

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Long, long ago a desert king, old and blind, but dowered with ancestral wisdom beyond all men that have lived, heard that the Son of God was born among men. He rose from his place, and on the eve of the third day he came to where Jesus sat among the gifts brought by the wise men of the East. The little lad sat in Mary’s lap, beneath a tree filled with quiet light; and while the folk of Bethlehem came and went He was only a child as other children are. But when the desert king drew near, the child’s eyes deepened with knowledge.

“What is it, my little son?” said Mary the Virgin.

“Sure, Mother dear,” said Jesus, who had never yet spoken a word, “it is Deep Knowledge that is coming to me.”

“And what will that be, O my Wonder and Glory?”

“That which will come in at the door before you speak to me again.”

Even as the child spoke, an old blind man entered, and bowed his head.

“Come near, O tired old man,” said Mary that had borne a son to Joseph, but whose womb knew him not.

With that the tears fell into the old man’s beard. “Sorrow of Sorrows,” he said, “but that will be the voice of the Queen of Heaven!”

But Jesus said to his mother: “Take up the tears, and throw them into the dark night.” And Mary did so: and lo! upon the wilderness, where no light was, and on the dark wave, where seamen toiled without hope, clusters of shining stars rayed downward in a white peace.

Thereupon the old king of the desert said:

“Heal me, O King of the Elements.”

And Jesus healed him. His sight was upon him again, and his gray ancientness was green youth once more.

“I have come with Deep Knowledge,” he said.

“Aye, sure, I am for knowing that,” said the King of the Elements, that was a little child.

“Well, if you will be knowing that, you can tell me who is at my right side?”

“It is my elder brother the Wind.”

“And what colour will the Wind be?”

“Now blue as Hope, now green as Compassion.”

“And who is on my left?”

“The Shadow of Life.”

“And what colour will the Shadow be?”

“That which is woven out of the bowels of the earth and out of the belly of the sea.”

“Truly, thou art the King of the Elements. I am bringing you a great gift, I am: I have come with Deep Knowledge.”

And with that the old blind man, whose eyes were now as stars, and whose youth was a green garland about him, chanted nine runes.

The first rune was the Rune of the Four Winds.

The second rune was the Rune of the Deep Seas.

The third rune was the Rune of the Lochs and Rivers and the Rains and the Dews and the many waters.

The fourth rune was the Rune of the Green Trees and of all things that grow.

The fifth rune was the Rune of Man and Bird and Beast, and of everything that lives and moves, in the air, on the earth, and in the sea: all that is seen of man, and all that is unseen of man.

The sixth rune was the Rune of Birth, from the spawn on the wave to the Passion of Woman.

The seventh rune was the Rune of Death, from the quenching of a gnat to the fading of the stars.

The eighth rune was the Rune of the Soul that dieth not, and the Spirit that is.

The ninth rune was the Rune of the Mud and the Dross and the Slime of Evil—that is the Garden of God, wherein He walks with sunlight streaming from the palms of his hands and with stars springing beneath his feet.

Then when he had done, the old man said: “I have brought you Deep Knowledge.” But at that Jesus the Child said:

“All this I heard on my way hither.”

The old desert king bowed his head. Then he took a blade of grass, and played upon it. It was a wild, strange air that he played.

“Iosa mac Dhe*, tell the woman what song that is,” cried the desert king.

“It is the secret speech of the Wind that is my Brother,” cried the child, clapping his hands for joy.

“And what will this be?” and with that the old man took a green leaf, and played a lovely whispering song.

“It is the secret speech of the leaves,” cried Jesus the little lad, laughing low.

And thereafter the desert king played upon a handful of dust, and upon a drop of water, and upon a flame of fire; and the Child laughed for the knowing and the joy. Then he gave the secret speech of the singing bird, and the barking fox, and the howling wolf, and the bleating sheep: of all and every created kind.

“O King of the Elements,” he said then, “for sure you knew much; but now I have made you to know the secret things of the green Earth that is Mother of you and of Mary too.”

But while Jesus pondered that one mystery, the old man was gone: and when he got to his people, they put him alive into a hollow of the earth and covered him up, because of his shining eyes, and the green youth that was about him as a garland.

And when Christ was nailed upon the Cross, Deep Knowledge went back into the green world, and passed into the grass and the sap in trees, and the flowing wind, and the dust that swirls and is gone.

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*Iosa mac Dhe: Jesus, son of God.

Image: William Sharp;

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

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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