Archive for the ‘animal encounters’ Category

“Is it just me, or …?”   Leave a comment

It’s almost never “just me”. Even when we “dare to bare” our hearts on social media (a perilous adventure), where this plaintive question seems to pop up frequently. Living in a cosmos of other beings, it’s almost always something more, ultimately so likely that it’s safe to make it a default setting on our outlooks. (Sometimes, however, you do need to choose the best audience to share it with. Many humans understand much less of such things than most trees, for instance. Looking for solidarity and confirmation? Share it with a tree first!) Encounters everywhere, reminding us, calling to us, engaging us to look beyond “just me”.

Here’s a night visitor to a Vermont Druid in the northern part of the state — a lovely barred owl (Strix varia).

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Barred owl, 15 Feb. 2019. Photo courtesy Sue S.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, it’s always about more than just me.

Owl says so!

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Posted 15 February 2019 by adruidway in animal encounters, Druidry

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Omens, Signs, Friends Visiting   Leave a comment

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I practice two distinct spiritual paths. One of the teachings on the other path concerns waking dreams. “A waking dream is something that happens in the outer, everyday life that has spiritual significance”, writes one of my guides on that path. And the crucial point, for me, is that I can perceive that significance. Or miss it. Or call it coincidence, or something else.

In her post “The Reality of Omens“, Druid Life blogger and author Nimue Brown writes,

When looking for omens in the world around us, it is necessary to consider how reality works in the first place. One of the things I have rejected outright is that other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me. I have something of an animist outlook, and I do not think the universe is *that* into me.

Brown’s caveat rings true — we can safely pare the human ego down, without fear it will crumble and disappear. Unlike the average toddler, most adults handle reasonably well the discovery that they’re not actually the center of universe.

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But as a fellow semi-animist, I’d not separate “spirit” from what you and I and other things are doing every day. “Spirit” isn’t a thing that stands apart from what it inhabits — it’s not a bearded Jehovah lounging in the heavens, lording it over the rest of the cosmos, twitching the puppet-strings to get his way with us. Spirit permeates things — it’s what peeks out when you look in the eyes of a dog or bird or bug, or into the heart of a flower. It’s what gives waves their curl, or cumulus clouds their cotton-like billow, or your jogging neighbor the will to keep at her four-mile routine, in spite of December sleet. Spirit makes things thing-ly — how else can I detect its presence? Ever seen it hanging out all by itself? Pay attention and I can notice now more, now less. But never apart from the things it’s been doing all along, like you and me and the grass growing tall in the back lawn where I haven’t mowed it at all this year.

The skies cloud over, the temperature drops and a wind kicks up. Is it an “omen”? No — but these things do carry meaning to anyone paying attention. It’s probably going to rain soon. That particular kind of omen we call a “no-brainer” (though humans still manage daily to ignore even obvious omens). As part of the universe where a local storm is brewing, I can pick up on other things spirit is doing, or I can ignore them. The universe “isn’t that into me”, but it is in fact *in* me, and in you too, and we’re both in it.

So I prefer to see “omens” and “signs” as friends visiting. Spirit is simply flowing. One of its flows is you, another is me, a third is the car pulling into the driveway with S. at the wheel, “just stopping by” on her way home after shopping. If I gain insight or wisdom or a nudge to do something, or a burst of gratitude from that visit, then I’m paying attention in some way, and I’m being me, with my own unique responses to what spirit’s always doing all around and in me.

Rather than worrying overmuch about whether it was a sign or an omen or simply another wave in the ocean of spirit manifesting everywhere and everything, why not measure its effects? Is my life deeper, richer? Are the lives of others made richer and deeper? Is that enough, without checking the box labeled “omen” or “not omen”?

But what of the autonomy Brown names as part of her animist understanding of the uni-verse, the “one-turning”?

The idea that “other autonomous beings could show up in my life as messages from spirit – because the idea that a hare, a sparrowhawk, or some other attention grabbing thing could have its day messed about purely to try and give me a sign, is profoundly uncomfortable to me”, she notes.

But she and the many other beings in her life can be and are many things at once. And so are you and I. Like spirit in us and all around, I am many things at once. I am not “purely” anything, but delightfully mongrel. I’m an incarnate human, and also a Vermonter, a husband, a blogger, an aging white male, a person alive in the 21st century, an American, the son of two parents who both lost fathers while still in their single-digit years. I am a manifestation of spirit, a homeowner, a Druid, a teacher, a conlanger, a portal of Mystery, and so on. (Maybe the problem isn’t labels by themselves, but that we never use nearly enough of them. Scatter them like seed. Each is — not a limit — a possibility.) Each of these features opens access points for spirit to reach other beings, while leaving me with the same freedom as other “autonomous beings”. Spirit does “overlap” and “interconnection” really well.

My individuality and freedom are what spirit uses to connect with all other free and individual things. Spirit as the whole, the universe, seems to “love” individuals — that’s why there are many of us, rather than just two or three. Spirit as “one thing” interconnects and links all things, all these other “one things”.

So when a crow flies overhead while I’m checking the squashes in the garden, the crow is a crow and a friend visiting and a reminder, if I’m listening, of animal intelligence and and and.  Its appearance and my awareness meet, for whatever comes from that meeting. Omen, sign, friend visiting, reminder of crow wisdom to fly over things before I decide to land on them, spirit guide — because spirit is always sparking the beings it pervades — to eat, fight, flee, love, mate, birth young, flower, fruit, grow old, die, return, become, become.

And the crow also discovers and learns something. Here’s a human that does not aim a gun at me as I fly over. Here is a water supply, a pond I can drink from. Here are trees to roost in, good cawing branches to talk to the rest of the flock, food sources to peck at in the scraps and compostables that get put out almost daily. And a hundred other crow things I don’t know about, without shapeshifting to Crow, or crow to me.

Brown goes on to make a key observation about our attention:

I can however read something into my behaviour at this point. I was in the right place at the right time, and I think that tells me something about my relationship with the flow. I take exciting nature encounters as good omens not because I think nature is bringing me a special message, but because it means I was in just the right place, at exactly the right time, looking the right way and paying attention. That in turn means I am in tune, and would seem to bode well for anything else I’m doing.

I simply take “encounter” as “message”. Humans are meaning-makers — it’s what we do. Any omen is an amen, an awen, a chance, a doorway. Will I walk through it? Or will I see how spirit walks through it — to me and to everyone and everything else? And as these things happen, can I catch the Song that is always singing, just at the borders of hearing?

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Article in today’s New York Times: “What does it mean to be human?” touches on some of these matters.

A One-Winged Dragon   4 comments

9dragSo my Druidry goes to work and I find out, a little more, what it can do.

This last September, when my wife and I were visiting friends on our way to the 2014 East Coast Gathering, we stopped in at a community antique shop. Normally I don’t visit such places, but this one, run as a non-profit, drew us in. Though my wife didn’t find the odd weaving item she’s perpetually on the lookout for, shuttle or reed or bundle of heddles that she can often locate used, I met a dragon.

I say “met” because elemental encounters with beasts like dragons are gifts to celebrate. But was this draig-athar, the air dragon I first took it to be? Or maybe draig-teine, the fire dragon? Oh, too much mind, not enough listening.

airdragThe right wing was missing. I picked it up. Heavy as earth, and earthbound with that missing wing — probably brass, that fire metal composed of tin — and copper, a water metal. As a candle-holder, also linked with fire. All of them mined from earth. All four elements in one. Candle holder on the top of the head … in Chinese dragon lore, the dragon possesses a chimu, which enables it to fly. As the Han Dynasty scholar Wang Mu observes of the dragon: “Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called chimu. If a dragon has no chimu, he cannot ascend to the sky.”

Let go of labels. But fly without one wing? Transmute! There was my augury, if I wanted one. Don’t let mere appearances decide your reality. Or, to make it short and sweet — fly anyway.

Five dollars lighter (paper standing in for coin — metal again), I carried the dragon from the shop to our car.  Back in Vermont, he (she?) sits facing west on a window-sill near where I’m clearing a space for an altar. Just out the window is a thermometer. In other words, there’s enough symbolism here to keep me busy with metaphors and correspondences till both dragon and I dissolve into our component elements, the life force binding us long ago withdrawn.

Fly anyway.

Struggling with diet and energy levels and an ornery GI tract still sorting itself out after radiation for a prostatectomy? Fly anyway.

A Druidic invitation to see possibility in limitation — the only place we find it. Fly anyway.

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A one-winged brass dragon

What I want: “a return to how things used to be.” But what do I need, apparently, among other things? Greater compassion for myself, for others dealing with the body’s trials and challenges. Patience with changes already set in motion. Definitely a stronger capacity not to let mere appearances decide my reality.

That’s all you got?

No. But it’s more than I had.

A fair trade?

Wait and see.

Really? “Wait and see”?!

Can you imagine the missing wing — see it there, mirroring the left one, ready to sweep wide and catch the wind?

Yes, but– 

So just because you can’t fly in one place, you stop flying in all the others?! Choose again. 

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Images: dragon from the Nine Dragons scroll; air dragon from the Druid Animal Oracle — image by Will Worthington; the brass dragon.

Interlude: Bald-faced Hornets meet the Druid   Leave a comment

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A bald-faced hornet up close

Dolichovespula maculata is the resplendent Latin name of a North American insect variously called the bald-faced hornet (BFH after this), the blackjacket, or the bull wasp. “Long wasp spotted” is one literal translation of the Latin (the Im-maculate Conception was “spotless”), and captures well enough their appearance. They’re bigger than most wasps and hornets in the U.S., with a temperament to match. I didn’t take the pic of this brisk specimen to the right (though the larger pics below are mine). The BFH defends its nest vigorously if approached too closely or disturbed.

A short side note: childhood stings, and a love of honey and a relatively bug-free outdoors, taught me a healthy respect and appreciation for bees and wasps, and I’ve learned more about them over the years, some of it firsthand. Most wasps and bees are beneficial, of course, wasps in particular often feeding on insect pests.  We’ve had a wetter summer than most this year here in Vermont.  Normally that would bring hordes of insects, but we’ve had markedly fewer mosquitos and other pests this summer than any year since we’ve moved here. And the hornets get the credit — we’ve watched them bring back insect after insect to the nest.

The vital honeybees, major pollinators and crucial to many human plant foods, continue to face sharp declines around the world from causes that still aren’t competely understood, and they need our protection. As a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture bluntly puts it, under the heading “Why Should The Public Care about What Happens to Honeybees,” “About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” Their troubling decline is thus not a small problem. (You can read about one Druid’s adventures in beekeeping here at the fine blog The Druid’s Garden.)

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Mud-dauber wasp nest

We’ve been in our Vermont house since winter 2008, and we’ve co-existed well enough with bumblebees, honeybees, yellowjackets and the more familiar (to us) mud-dauber wasps, which, with a ready supply of mud from our pond, often build their tubular homes above the same back door.  They’re also more placid species; we eye each other when either my wife or I go out the back door, or hang or retrieve laundry.  Hello, busy people.  We come in peace. Carry on, carry on.

It’s important to note here that neither of us is allergic to bees or wasps — an allergy would make this a very different post.   Occasionally one or two wasps buzz around our heads, investigating.  Once or twice one landed on our hair or an arm or face for few seconds, then flew off again.  No stings.  We’ve heard stories from neighbors of BFHs landing on a person, plucking off an insect about to bite, and flying off.  They’re definitely not timid.

This summer, after we returned from our 7-week cross-country road trip, not one or even two but three BFH nests loomed under our eaves.  It was our first encounter “up close and personal” with this species.  The BFH nest below is approximately football- or coconut-sized, and much larger ones, housing 400 or 500 or more wasps, have been reported.  (The papery exterior shields a series of combs that resemble a beehive’s, helping balance out temperature fluctuations.  We’ve had several 24-hour periods recently ranging from 45 at night to 90 during the day.) On the windowless and doorless north side of our house, a nest would hang away from foot traffic,and possibly escape our notice for days or weeks.  One of the two other BFH nests hangs from the eaves over our bedroom window, but that has a good screen and tight-fitting crank-out windows.

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One of the bald-faced hornet nests under our eaves

This nest, however, hangs just left of one of our back doors, right next to our clothesline. So far, we’re following a policy of “wait and see.”

Bald-faced hornets don’t (yet) winter over in the Northeast. New queens born in the autumn typically survive underground, while workers die off. Everything we’ve heard about BFHs indicates they also don’t return to an old nest the next year. A lot of work for a single year! Just to be safe, however, we’ll remove the nests late this fall — after several good hard frosts.

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too close to a door …

Treating the eaves early next spring with Ivory soap as a natural repellent will be our first follow-up.  We’ve heard that painting the eaves sky-blue has also worked for some home-owners in southern states, where this hornet is more common. With global climate changes, we’ll probably continue to see more of them here in the north.

Peaceful co-existence is our goal. Meditation and inner conversations with the wasps, thanking them for keeping down the pests, but asking them not to nest on our house, is another equally important remedy I’m now learning and practicing.

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Images: bald-faced hornet close-up; mud-dauber wasp nest.

Hunter, Hunted: Animal Guides, Denial, Persistence   1 comment

[A version of this post appeared in my column in the online Druid magazine Amethyst. My thanks to the editors for providing their well-edited forum for OBOD’s East Coast Gathering (ECG) community.]

I offer this post on the chance it may prove useful if you’re grappling with some aspect of animal guides, power animals, personal totems — the usages and terminologies haven’t settled down yet.

Last September, as I sat engrossed in the ECG 2013 workshop on Animal Guides, I simply had to laugh at myself. It had become clear to me over the weekend that sometimes your animal guide pursues you, rather than the other way around. In my case I’ve learned that gods, spirits, and guides often have to shout and do handstands to get me to notice at all. I’m just grateful they think it’s worth Their while.

boarpicWith Boar, my obliviousness ran deeper than usual, and lasted much longer. Maybe (I say, trying to excuse myself in any way I can find) it’s only because I’ve looked at my obtuseness more closely than usual. Maybe following two paths has scrambled the inner circuits. Maybe my inner discipline needs work (whose doesn’t?!). Laughter may be appropriate – and fitting for Boar, who can be a bit of a trickster anyway. As long as laughing isn’t all you do, I hear inwardly. Clues pile up. Here are some I’ve managed to account for so far.

My father, a city boy who grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, became a full-time dairy farmer a few years before I was born. For some reason he could judge pigs well, recognize the outstanding animal, pick out the prize pig. In fact he won several judging competitions when I was still a baby. But the ability perplexed him. He’d mention it from time to time, amused. (Now I ask myself, is Pig or Boar some kind of family or ancestral totem? One more quest to add to my list of quests.)

I was born in the year of the Boar, according to the Eastern 12-year calendar. OK, I thought. Interesting piece of trivia. Entertainment, really. Chinese restaurant lore. Fortune cookie material. My nominally Christian family never paid any attention to such things. And in my adolescent arrogance and ignorance, I considered myself professionally immune to astrology, which I was sure was for wackadoos. It didn’t help that it was part of the national conversation at the time. If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan presidency and the First Lady’s Nancy Reagan’s admitted fascination with astrology, you know what I’m talking about.

wyconyWhen I was in my early teens, and walking the Wyoming County fairgrounds in late August, a show pig at our local county fair lunged at me as I passed – a serious, front-legs-over-the-top-of-the-pen, get-to-you-if-I-could attempt. I was passing by a good ten feet away, one person in a crowd of visitors to the week-long fair in our agricultural county. What set the pig off? Something I was wearing? A scent of sweat or lunch or shampoo? Pitch or timbre of my voice? I never did find out. But I’ll note that I was fascinated around this time by the Greek myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, and the relationship between Meleager and Atalanta, a fleet-footed huntress sent by the goddess Artemis, who had also sent the boar. Why? To punish the king of Calydon for his neglect of the rites due to the gods. (You have to understand: goddesses feature in another of my lists of embarrassing interactions with the universe. Sometimes when I get it down on paper it’s just downright embarrassing. But, I can hope, maybe my embarrassment will be useful to others.)

stylboarhelmI reflect, too, on my long* fascination with Old English, Anglo-Saxon society, and the war (and boar) themes in poems like Beowulf. To the left you can see the stylized (and outsized) boars on the warriors’ helms.

To cite just two instances from one poem, at one point the poet equates the warriors directly to the boar and to its symbolic importance as a fighter:  “The armies clashed — boar struck boar” (lines 1327-8).  And some hundred lines later, Beowulf’s own helmet is described in detail: “A smith crafted it, set boar-images around it, so that ever after no sword or war-axe could bite it” (1452-1454).

asakusajinjaFast forward a decade and I’m teaching English in Japan in Musashino, a western suburb of Tokyo. One weekend my wife and I were visiting Asakusa Jinja, a large Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo. As I was poring over trinkets for a cheap souvenir, a servant of the shrine insisted that I take a small carved wooden boar token. It didn’t appeal to me at the time – I thought some of the other images were more artistic renderings. But I made a small offering and went home with the image.

The Wild Boar serves as the mascot at a private high school where I taught for almost two decades. Every day classes were in session, I entered the campus dining hall passing beneath a stuffed head of a wild boar mounted over the entrance. The animal had been shot decades ago by one of the first headmasters of the school, an avid hunter.

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I took a vacation to Italy and the Tuscan hill country, where not once but twice I ate wild boar, and was sick both times. You’d think at some point it might have dawned on me that I shouldn’t eat my animal guide.

porcellinoIn fact, a few years ago an alum donated to the school a replica of Il Porcellino, a famous boar figure from Florence, Italy by the Renaissance sculptor Pietro Tacca. I now walked past Boar twice a day, outdoors and in. I can’t claim the universe rearranged itself for my benefit (or embarrassment), but the effect was the same.

Why such resistance on my part? I still don’t know entirely. But Boar appeared in a vision during the East Coast Gathering drumming session with Thomas Deerheart and Maya Minwah, and gave me some very specific health advice for a longstanding issue I’m dealing with. Ever since then I’ve been drawn to touch Boar, run my hands over his coarse fur, feel the ridge along his back.

daoracleThe Druid Animal Oracle entry for Torc, the Boar, notes: “… he is a representative of the Goddess—his skin can heal you” (Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Animal Oracle, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 39). It’s important to note I finally read the Oracle only after I wrote a second draft of this column (yet another resistance – I’ve had the volume on my shelves for over a year).

We say “my guide” or “my power animal,” but I’m finding that for me at least it’s the other way around. I belong to them. Whatever I think I’m looking for, it’s been looking for me even longer. The hunter is hunted. They track me down till I’m cornered and I have to listen, till I can’t ignore them any longer.

Recently Magpie has caught my attention again. I’m trying to listen better this time to whatever this new guide wants to communicate. What with running with Boar, and flying with Magpie, at least I’ve got the opportunity for plenty of inner exercise.

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As I look over these notes, several points stand out.  (I’ll put them in first person and speak only for myself, not to presume too much about who you are, or what your experience may be.)  First, to my mind, is the desire (I don’t know how else to put it) of the Other — Spirit or spirits, guides, deities, totems — to connect with me.  Second I must concede my own obliviousness.  I ask for help, or a “sign,” but even when it lies down in front of me and trips me up, I STILL manage to ignore it.

Next is the likelihood that once I start looking, the coincidences begin stacking up until it’s clear there’s more than coincidence going on.  Common themes emerge.  The animal I seek is also seeking me — in dreams, “accidents,” images, unaccountable emotional reactions to seemingly “unimportant” things– in all the different ways it can reach me, in case one or more channels of communcation are blocked (usually on my end).

Animal images in poems also cry and echo for the nerd-Bard that I am.  We repress the animal guides in and around us, so that like other repressed things, they eventually spring, animal-like, into our psyches elsewhere, in sometimes strange and nightmarish images, in art, dream, eventually, even, in national obsessions and pathologies.  If they pool and accumulate enough cultural energy, they manifest in personal and societal outward circumstances, in political and cultural movements, in wars and other conflicts.   Think of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which famously ends “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Or consider Philip Levine’s “Animals are Passing from Our Lives” in the voice of a pig approaching its slaughter.  Apocalyptic and angry poems like these, like most art, aren’t “about” only one thing.  Run them to earth and they keep meaning something more.  We use animals (animals use us) to communicate what we sometimes cannot say directly.  Among all the other things they do, animals help us express that deep love, that bitter grief, anger and darkness, comfort and healing, that simply may not be able to manifest in any other way.

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Images: boar; boar-helmed warriorsAsakusa Jinja; Il Porcellino; Druid Animal Oracle.

*Like many English majors, I studied Old English as an undergrad and grad student.  Like some others, my interests in things Tolkien and Old English stimulate and nourish each other.  Since then I’ve kept up my amateur’s interest by attending conferences, writing and presenting papers, shoring up my grasp of the language in discussions and translations on online forums, and in rendering portions of OE poems and prose into modern English, as with the lines above.  I say “amateur,” because with the exception of occasionally teaching the poem in translation to high schoolers, I pursue my interest out of personal obsession rather than professional necessity.

 

Of Bridges and Leaders, Part 2   2 comments

[Part One here]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the story does not end merely in rescue …

Part Three coming soon.

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Image: Raven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Part Two]

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Images:  starlingBranwen.

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