Archive for the ‘bard’ Category

Seeker, Devotee, Bard, Awenydd

Those of you who don’t already know and follow Lorna Smithers’ excellent blog may want to read her latest post, a lovely meditative poem she follows with a brief comment. “Hour One — Candlelit Illumination” conveys a feel for what we do when we listen, when we approach and sense spirit, when we follow through on vows, when we dedicate ourselves to a spiritual path. “I have no temple”, she writes. “Only a candle …” And that’s spiritual plenitude.

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“It was winter’s tide, and the winter was grim and cold and frosty and with ice bound …”, writes Bede (672-735) in the Old English translation of his Latin History. But we really don’t need a translation in this case, especially with the visual of my snowy backyard about a week or so ago. Across more than a millennium, ancestors are speaking in older languages as well as newer ones, reminding us of a vast pool of shared experiences.

As we become ancestors ourselves, what are we contributing? (Does that feel like a difficult or awkward question?)

Sometimes it’s survival. We may not credit ourselves enough for that, but it’s a signal accomplishment all its own. (The Ancestors are cheering!) We’re still here. Yes, we may be losing things along the way — hair, dreams, relationships, sanity. But bards make sure we remember this turn of the spiral, too, not that we’re likely to forget — as we gain survivor’s wisdom, and survivor’s grace.

You know that grace when you meet it, more easily in another person than in yourself, sometimes. The other person looking into your eyes knows, and their eyes tell you they know — if you know. Then that mutual recognition flares up between you. They too are “acquainted with the night“, to shout out to another bard. And in spite of all, they’re still here.

No, we haven’t (yet) lost ourselves, though Things seem determined to tug pieces of us off and away. After the bigger tugs, you arrive back in your life like flotsam on a strange shore, unsure of your footing, the light, the press of earth beneath your feet, the weight and substance of your own flesh. You feel strange to yourself, as if you’re in your dream body. (And that’s precisely where you are, like you always have been. Now you just notice it a little more.)

Lorna documents her intense experience of a “winter of harsh descent” as she dedicates herself to her patron deity, in a second post from a year ago, which you can find here. The spiritual intangibles that arise from such experiences are things few other people may recognize in you, or be able to hear if you try to talk about them. But the Ancestors know them very well, and make a good audience. (They’re playing the Long Game, after all.) A journal entry, a poem, a song, a prayer, a meditation, a moment of silence “in their direction” — whatever level of dedication you offer, they will welcome.

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I’m slow to answer to the vision from Thecu, or intuition or hallucination or whatever it was and is, and its directives. Slow, but I get there — partly because I’m curious. (If I build it, will she come?) The goddess certainly can’t count on me for very much, at least not yet. But outdoors in the snow for a few days of purification, I’ve set the metal sheet on which I’ll inscribe her runes. Tomorrow I’ll bring it in.

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Tree Prayer, Part 2

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wood grain of an oak

In this post I want to talk briefly about how I composed the “Tree Prayer” I posted last July. The earlier post has enjoyed a recent burst of new attention, so it looked like a good candidate for further discussion.

Oak, shade my path. I welcome your wisdom.
Birch, green my way. I call on your courage.
Hemlock, heal my heart. I fast under your foliage.
Pine, scent my dreaming. I gather your gifts.

Tree companions all, I seek the shelter of your boughs.
May my days make return for your abundance.

One of the goals of the bard is to get those words into memory that we want to keep there. Songs, poem, rhyme, mantra, chant — all rely on rhythm and echo (which is what rhyme is) to transmit words into brains so they stick. Whether for prayer or entertainment, history or mnemonic, the form that we give our words makes them either easier or harder to recall.

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(A snappy campaign slogan can help win an election, just as a bad one can sink it. Likewise with advertising. If you’re like me, you’ve got ad jingles in your head you never needed to memorize — repetition alone did the trick. I date myself with an old car-sales jingle that lasted into the 1960s: “See the USA in a Chevrolet …” Long before I was anywhere near driving age, or had any need to know about it, Detroit supplied me with corporate earworm propaganda, linking Dinah Shore, patriotism and purchasing that particular brand.)

I’ve long been fond of alliteration, also sometimes known as “consonant rhyme”. While a vowel rhyme could work fine, I find it can also be a distraction. There’s also too much “moon-tune-June” rhyming all around: greeting cards, song lyrics, and — gods help us — even dirty limericks in restrooms. So alliteration it is.

First, I chose local trees, species I can see from the house: oaks in the back yard, a line of hemlocks defining our northern property, pines along the eastern periphery, and birches across the road to the west. If you’d like to shape your own tree prayer, look to trees that stand near you for help. Maybe you want a seven-tree prayer, combining the properties of seven with a variety of local species that matter to you. Maybe you want to use the Druid triad form, and name just three.

What do “my” trees offer? Most of our oaks are mature, and thus excellent shade trees. As the pre-eminent “tree of the Druid”, sharing with it the *dru, *deru, *doru- root in many Proto-Indo-European languages, they endure as “trees of wisdom”.

Birches are pioneer trees, among those species that first appear in barren or “disrupted” areas where an eco-system has faced a fire or other dramatic change. They’re also the tree often associated with bards, sharing the same first letter in several languages (and opening the ogham alphabet), so “green my way” came pretty naturally.

The hemlocks are long-lived, tough (though the hemlock woolly adelgid continues to wreak havoc among them) and possess astringent and antiseptic medicinal properties that a good herbal will elaborate on. “Heal my heart” combines these qualities.

Finally, the smell of pine yields an easy association: “scent my dreaming” picks its way among words that suggest pleasant smells (English shows a curious paucity of “good-smell” words, though we have stench, reek, stink, fume, etc., for bad ones. Japanese has the verb kaoru “have a good smell” and the girl’s name Kaori “fragrance”.)

As with vowel rhyme, less can sometimes be more. I asked readers to try out and live with the tree prayer, and some of the comments suggested people were doing just that. Work with a prayer that involves another being, and often you’ll get nudges on its sound and form that work for you.

The first four lines of the prayer took me approximately an hour of meditation and drafting and revision.

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Images of oak and forest: Pexels.com

Posted 15 January 2020 by adruidway in bard, Druidry, hemlock (tree), oak, ogham, prayer

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“Little We See” — a Meditation

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Go to the Bards, I tell myself yet again. The answers have lain there long. (You can tell I hang out with Bards new and old, even if I don’t always listen to them all that well — I use words like lain.)

Wordsworth, Old White Guy, still has something to tell us:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away.

Do we want some hints for living? Do we want some uplift, to know that positive change — and more important, joy — are still possible in this crazy world?

Bards offer a how-to for the spirit. These four lines yield some solid pointers.

Back away when you can, from the world, into the World. In the heart of even the most urban areas on the planet, green things still can find a way to thrive, sometimes with a little human help. A bee in the bathroom, a bug on the doorbell, a spider webbing the space between light-switch and corner cupboard — the living world keeps knocking. Find the green. Find the World. (Help the bug or bee outdoors again.)

“Late and soon”? Unplug from time, from the apparent world we’ve built for ourselves, into contemplation. We know it’s good for us, and with images, mandalas, music, incense on hand, we can enliven our dips into our own inner pools of calm and wisdom each time with something different, if we crave variety, or with the same deepening familiar artistic companion to our sojourns. It may be a walk with the dog, a time spent folding laundry, a half-hour gazing at the reflection of a pond, working with paints, or clay, or fibers. I turn to a longtime friend, the oooooo at the heart of the ah — oo — en Awen, the HU of the Sufis, a holy name not contaminated with profanity or dulled by careless use. Sing the names holy to you.

Our “powers”? So many of us are facing our powerlessness. In some cases we’ve given what we have away — “laying waste” our own abilities to shape and choose, however meager they may feel and seem. Yet if we turn from buying and selling, things that can’t be bought will reappear for us: time spent with loved ones, time spent in nature, time spent on diving deeper into our own creative selves, uncramping some of our little-used faculties and skills and talents. Reclaim our powers, one at a time if necessary. (No waiting for the next election to give us back what is native to us. No one can hold them back from us, once we recognize them again.)

“Little we see in Nature that is ours”? Let go of possessing, I tell myself, and things will come to me of themselves. Sit still enough, and the birds will light on my head and shoulders like they did with St. Francis, like they continue to do today on those who spend time being still, loving the stillness that keeps opening into something larger and more beautiful. If I hog the road, of course I’ll see little else — I’m what’s in the way. But more and more beings become companions along the way, if I share the path.

If I look in the rear-view mirror of Time, I see the Ancestors waving.

How have I “given my heart away”? Excuse me, I whisper. I’m taking my heart back. I gave it and you didn’t value it. Let me bestow it where it will be cherished for what it is.

Bad news, you say of Wordsworth’s lines? Blaming the victim? No — showing the victim how to unvictim. Empowering the victim with what’s right here, turning off the victim switch others have flipped. No special monastery, ashram, growth center, workshop. These may serve their turn, but they are kindling, not Essential Fire. If I make it, I can unmake it. If I’ve shut it down, I can open it up again. If I’ve created my life, I can change my life.

It can be long work. But what else am I here for? Oh, so many things, many things, sing the birds. Everything, whispers the wind. Come find out, says the path into the greening woods.

trunkreflection

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Lorna Smithers’ “Annuvian Awen”

This post offers honor to the bards — in this instance, to Lorna Smithers, a British awenydd or dedicant to the awen-inspiration which pervades our experience, which the bard is called to witness and manifest.

Lorna’s most recent post and poem puts words to this season after Samhuinn. Are you feeling it in your bones and mood, the dark half of the year? (Those of you in the southern hemisphere have recently entered the light half.) Turn then to Lorna’s lines, and cherish the treasures of darkness.

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The Oak King cedes his place to the Holly in the Wheel of the Year.

If you’re looking for a chant to take you through to Yule, to Midwinter, try out Lorna’s poem as a charm that opens like this, first in Welsh and then in English*:

Allan o dywyllwch caf fy ngeni
Allan o waed caf fy ngeni
Allan o ysbryd caf fy ngeni …

Out of darkness I am born
Out of blood I am born
Out of spirit I am born …

For if we “sing from Annwn” (further lines from her poem), that very deep Otherworld, we consciously join “the souls of the dead and of living initiates to the cauldron”.

And they are one and the same.

For we are the Dead, to those now in the Otherworld. We’ve left them to live here. But all of us are “initiates to the cauldron”, link between worlds.

O friends, read her post!

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*Sound matters. I love that Lorna was moved to compose in both languages. If you know even a little Welsh, attend to the sound of these lines. For help with the Welsh ll, this Wikipedia sound file is useful.

East

Feeling from the West, and from the South the fire of intention set on slow burn. Now on to thought, consciousness, intellectual discrimination — the original sense of the word, that priceless ability to make distinctions, not our unfortunate modern meaning-shift of imposing them hurtfully on our brothers and sisters. Properly-made distinctions distinguish between stupid and wise uses. Distinctions by themselves are inert, lifeless. They need human consciousness to animate and manifest them.

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ECG directional banner for East and the Hawk of Dawn. Design by Dana Driscoll.

But often, feeling is first, before thought, before reflection. We feel and then think about it, even as we experience and then reflect on what happened. e e cummings captures it perfectly in his love-poem of that name:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

and death i think is no parenthesis

So much here, in the “syntax of things”, the pattern and web that bards sing of. Here the Bardic impulse lives: thought in the service of feeling, shaping in words what comes first in emotion. So we continue to turn counterclockwise to work our spell, from feeling to intention and now to perception, clarity, naming what first was wordless. My spellchecker flags my initial typo “worldless” — true as well, because without thought is no distinct world, for feeling floods everything, without the distinctions of thought.

We flow liquidly from feeling to feeling, not bothered by the categories and parameters and boundaries of thought. But feeling, if it’s to lead to anything other than the next feeling, needs the mold and shaping power of thought to give it direction and focus. Thoughtless feeling blunders and bumps into things, knocks over both bad and good, never noticing the wreckage. But wise thought charged with feeling bears a rare potency.

How marvelous that thought is also magically linked to spring, to beginnings and formative activity! The freshness of new thought, the airiness of clean perception is indeed Springtime. And the cosmos invites us to say, as cummings poem announces, “we are for each other”. Because as another Bard reminds us, “no man is an island, entire of itself”. (What do they teach in schools nowadays? We’ve long had that wisdom laid out before us that we need to navigate difficult times. True Bards have always been out in front, pointing and singing us to our heart’s deep desire.) We are kin, family, relatives. The Lakota know it, calling the cosmos mitakuye oyasin, “all my relatives”, winged and footless and four- and two-footed.

It’s in the Western world in particular that we’ve carried individualism too far and made a cult of it, set up altars and applied ourselves to worship. Friendships and families, strained. Human connection breaking. The Me generations are reaping the harvest of being cut off from the cosmos. Sever the link to the worlds, cut the original umbilicus that was never meant to break, and we’re just “stupid bags of skin”, to quote yet another philosopher. Beings who live, and die, alone. Sad, and wholly avoidable.

Thus to thought, to link us up, to relink us, Latin religare, from which comes the noun religio, a relinking. The multitude of shapes and forms that religion can take testifies to mental creativity. Almost anything shaped with love can help to relink us to what we need to truly live. Lose the love, though, and any form empties out pretty fast. It can’t serve its purpose without feeling, any more than it can without thought. Without the heart, religion dies. Without the head, it’s brain-dead at birth.

Of course, if we leave religion in the hands of thieves and scoundrels, we’ll get the same result we do when we leave governance in similar hands. But that’s on us. Religion well-practiced can relink us to what nourishes and feeds us. When (not if) it’s not doing that, it’s always time to wrest the reins from the hands of the incompetent and the malicious. Little wonder we’re in a spiritual-but-not-religious age. But the spirit needs a container, a form, a shape, to embody it in a world of bodies, forms and shapes. A formless spirituality may work for spirits, but we have bodies while we’re here, and an embodied spirituality will almost always serve us better.

So I light my fire, I meditate with an image, I write and draw and dance and do ritual to embody what I want to celebrate and remember and welcome into my life and the lives of those I practice with.

And I write about some of that here.

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As this blog approaches its 6th anniversary and 50,000 hits, I again want to thank all of you who visit and read. Site statistics tell me more of you stay than leave, which in turn tells me I’m talking about things that matter enough to you that you come back, and wrestle with some of the same issues, and attempt to make of your lives something worthy of the gift of life we’ve been given.

 

Thirty Days of Druidry 12: J3D!

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J3D — “Just Three Drops” — is shorthand for the experience of Gwion Bach, the servant boy in the Welsh story who tends the cauldron of transformation for … how long? Yes, perhaps you’ve already guessed it — a year and a day. The magic brewing in the cauldron is, alas, destined for another, and Gwion is sternly charged to keep the fire carefully. Never let it die out. Always maintain a steady flame. Haul wood, carry water. Be sure the contents continue to simmer and seethe and stew as they slowly wax in power.

After Gwion faithfully tends the fire for that long, sooty and tedious year of drudgery, at last the mixture nears completion. One day the cauldron boils up, spattering a little, and three drops spill onto Gwion’s hand, burning it. Instinctively he lifts the burn to his mouth to soothe it. Voila! In that moment he imbibes the inspiration, awen, chi, spirit, elemental force meant for another, and so begins the series of transformations that will make him into Taliesin, Bard and initiatory model for many Druids and others who appreciate good wisdom teaching.

An accident? Has Gwion’s year of service led to this? Was it sheer luck, a “simple” case of being in the right place at the right time? Does blind chance govern the universe? (Why hasn’t something like this happened to ME?) Is the experience repeatable? Where’s a decent cauldron when you need one? Can I get those three drops to go? J3D caps, shirts, towels, belt-buckles on sale now! Buy 3 and save.

J3D in some ways can mislead you. “Visit us for your transformational needs. Just three drops, and you too can become a Bard-with-a-capital-B!” The ad seduces with the promise of something for almost nothing. (May the spirits preserve us from clickbait Druidry!) Such glibness leaves out the inconvenient preparation, the lengthy prologue, the awkward context, the unmentioned effort, the details of setting everything depends on. (Doesn’t it always?) It’s true: Just three drops are all you need, AFTER you’ve done everything else. They’re the tipping point, the straw that moved the camel to its next stage of camel-hood. J3D, J3D, J3D! The crowds are chanting, they’re going wild!

Curiously, J3D is a key to getting to the place and time where J3D’s the key. It’s the sine qua non, the “without which not,” the essential component, the one true thing.

Fortunately, the way the universe appears to be constructed, we can locate, if not the ultimate J3D, still very useful versions of it, tucked away in so many nooks and crannies of our lives. If I didn’t know better, I’d even suspect that the universe in its surprising efficiencies has shaped every environment for optimum benefit of the species that have adapted themselves to live there. Which means pure change and perfect intention are pretty much the same thing, depending on the local awen you’re sipping from. Paradox is the lifeblood of thinking about existence. Or as one of the Wise once put it, the opposite of an average truth may well be a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth is often enough another profound truth.

When the first glow is gone, the spark has dimmed, the lustre has worn off, you’re probably at the first drop. When any possibility of an end has faded from sight, when you’ve forgotten why you’re doing it and you’re going through the paces out of what feels like misplaced devotion or pure inertia, if you even have enough energy to stop and think at all, you’re likely in the neighborhood of drop 2. When you’ve given up theories, regrets, anger, hope, denial, bargaining, and grief itself, and you simply tend that fire because you’re able to tend that fire, and lost in reverie you feel a sudden burning, the third drop announces itself.

At that point the experience may well appear as three quick drops in succession, erasing any memory of the earlier drops, the practice for the final event, slog to get to that point. Or the long intervals between each drop find themselves renewed, deepened, intensified in the pain the third drop brings. Somehow, though, all that has gone before either falls away, or the pain of change is so intense it fills your whole awareness, crowding out all else, a white and scalding fire from horizon to horizon. Or in a vast hall of silence, the only sound is a whisper of the soft flesh of your hand soothed by tongue and lip. Then you know the transformation is upon you.

J3D.

O Bríd and Oghma, I Invoke You for a Tongue

[Part Two]

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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Images: Brigid’s CrossOgma.

Edited/updated 15 April 2015

“What Remains in the Journal, What to Communicate”

handbirdIn her comment on a post from August ’13, Lorna Smithers makes a distinction particularly vital for “Bardic types” that I want to take up here, especially in light of my last post:

The division between what remains in the journal and what to communicate is a question I confront continuously as a Bard, for unlike with a path that focuses solely on personal transformation through magic, Bards are expected to share their inspiration.

I find that some experiences are ok to share immediately, others need time to gestate for the meanings to evolve and take on a clearer form, and a select few may always stay secret.

I see good craftmanship to be the key [to] sharing experiences. In contrast to the vomit of ‘compulsive confession’, well-wrought craft lifts the raw material into the realms of art, creating works that affirm the awe and wonder of the magical world.

That Bardic instinct to share inspiration that may or may not have been shaped by art can get us in trouble.  The desire to bring into physical expression something that’s going on in your inner worlds can lead to what Lorna accurately calls vomit.  Sometimes, of course, awen really does drop a piece of loveliness in your lap.  It arrives fully-formed, and you run with it, dazed and delighted and puppy-like in your enthusiasm to share the wonder of it with all and sundry, but that (the gift of inspired loveliness, not the puppy-like response) usually only happens when you’ve done plenty of the hard slog of shaping already, alone or with only yourself and your gods for support of a vision no one else may even know anything about.

Sometimes the time and energy your pour into nurturing your creativity can make you defensive if you haven’t “produced” anything visible.  If you’re a writer, for instance, you’re not a “real” writer till you’ve “published.”  Few will care about the months, years or decades of work that may lie shelved in boxes or occupy megs of space on a computer.  The same holds true in comparable ways for anyone who’s devoted time and energy to a craft or art.

Lazy-at-workArtists who should know better sometimes like to hint, or let it be inferred, that this business of “awen on command” is how they work all the time, both mystifying us “ordinary mortals” and also doing a disservice to their craft and the nature of inspiration.  Talent, oddly enough, responds well to practice, and no one works most of the time without effort.

The Anglo-Saxon bard was called a sceop, pronounced approximately “shop,” “one who shapes” inspiration into language and song.  And the word bard comes from an Indo-European root *gwer- that means “to praise”  or “to sing,” indicating two of the roles of the Celtic bard. The same root appears in Latin gratia, and English grace — a whole cluster of relationships — the gift and our response, our gratitude, and the quality in things blessed with awen, the loveliness and fluidity and rightness they often evince.

But if I opt to share something that’s not ready or right to share, I’ll usually regret it.  Let me enthuse or gab about a story or an inner experience before its proper time, and it may lose its luster.  It no longer thrills me enough to work with it, and I take what was a gift and cast it aside, its charm lost.  The spell is broken, and I am no longer spell-bound, or able to do anything with it.  Like the old fairy story of the goblin jewels, in the daylight of the blog, or the careless conversation with another, the one-time treasures that sparkled and shone under moonlight have turned to dead leaves.  One or two such painful experiences is usually enough to teach anyone the virtues of silence, restraint and self-discipline.

walkingAnother half (there are almost never just two halves, but three, four, five or more) of the whole, however, is that keeping the flow going, trusting the awen enough to go with what you get, and allowing the work to manifest, brings in more.  Jesus did know what he was talking about when he said (paraphrased to modernize the language), “To people that already have, more will be given, and from people that don’t, even what they have will be taken away.”  While this may sound at first like contemporary government policy and destructive legislation and current economics, it holds true on the inner planes, in the worlds of inspiration and imagination.

Lorna herself is an exemplar of this Bardic trust and inspiration.  As an Awenydd, one who receives and shapes the gift of awen, she demonstrates in poetry and photography on her blog and in performance the mutual bonds with the Otherworld and spirits of place that make up her path.

And so it was with considerable interest that I read her account “Personal Religion?”  well into writing this post, while I was checking that the URLs were right for the links to her blog.  She experiences a strong reaction on hearing about the OBOD Golden Anniversary celebrations, and launches into a series of probing personal questions without immediate answers which I urge you to read directly.  The challenges she faces are those of one attempting to be faithful to a call, and she follows a path with honor.  Her struggles illustrate the living nature of the Pagan path, with its many branches and trails.  Her practice flourishes precisely because she strives to be faithful to her own vision, which may not always grow and bloom under the “big tent” of orders like OBOD.

Making that struggle visible is valuable — posting it for others to read, ponder and benefit from.

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Images: handbirdhard at work; walking.

 

Hunter, Hunted: Animal Guides, Denial, Persistence

[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.

 

DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 2

[Part 1 | Part 3]

I’ll be covering a fair bit of ground in this post, and supplying a larger than usual number of links (distractions?), since so many of you, my readers, come from such diverse perspectives and experiences. Thus it is that while some of what I say here will be sure to irritate, confuse or bore some of you, there’s a very fair chance the same sections won’t be the same irritants for everybody.  And with a liberal helping of what goes under the names of luck, awen, grace, and chance, some of it might actually be useful to you.

So what do you make of this video?!

Ritual and Ritual Language are Pan-human

One of my points in including the “Biker Blessing” — whatever you think of Pope Francis, the pontiff sure has his own style — is simply to illustrate two important points we keep forgetting:  all humans participate in and perform rituals, and they’re both utterly common and rather strange, when you actually begin to examine them more closely.

To give just one common example, if you intend to get hitched in a church, you’re not yet married until right after the presiding clergy says some equivalent of the words “I now pronounce you man and wife.” So what do those words do?! (For the nerds among us, this has been called the performative aspect of language, according to the theory of speech acts in a book with the fine title of How to Do Things with Words by Brit J. L. Austin.)

It’s because the West in particular often lacks (read “threw the baby out with the bathwater over the last century”) meaningful ritual that ritual has come to preoccupy many Druids and Pagans generally. But it bears repeating that ritual isn’t merely a Druid or even a Pagan concern: ritual and ritual languages cover the planet.

Here’s a remarkably respectful video from a 3-minute 2010 BBC broadcast.  (Title includes “OBOD” but no mention is made of it in the video itself, so don’t worry — I’m not proselytizing — really!):

“Ceremonies of Innocence”

Another common example. Depending on how you were raised, your parents taught you to say “thank you” and “excuse me.” In the process they likely also taught you that the forms themselves matter, as much as or often more than your heartfelt gratitude or apology. The discipline of saying the words themselves – often — was enough. (If you’re feeling cynical, you could argue that this is one of our first formal lessons in hypocrisy.) We may rail justifiably against “empty language,” but that’s not the fault of ritual. The emptiness of much empty talk issues from a lack of conviction or perspective behind it. As Yeats said in his poem “The Second Coming,” “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” So we get loudness and passion as the daily menu on far too many of our media of choice, while stillness and reflection flee for the hills. But (to mix metaphors) that’s where these two inexhaustible caves of treasures lie waiting. We can, if we desire to, recover the “ceremonies of innocence.”

A Side-note on Definitions

You may have noticed that I carefully sidestepped the issue of what “ritual” is and what a “language” is. If you want more information on these fascinating and often controversial topics than the quick-and-dirty Wikipedia links can give, and you don’t have a good town library handy, just search “magical use of ritual language” on Google Scholar. Earlier today (3/24/14) it returned 168,000 results. So even if upwards of 90% of these prove to be some combination of junk or dead links, you’ll find remarkable studies, academic and amateur and much in between. Enough in fact to launch you into a lifetime of fruitful reading and study on just this one topic, should you wish.  (See the end of this post for a detailed excerpt of  the Wikipedia entry for “magical language.”

All or Nothing

allnothingOf course, using ritual language doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition. A few words and phrases can often be sufficient to signal important parts of a ritual, or to heighten the charge of ritual atmosphere. Any decent magical training curriculum will show you this. Like all conscious acts, those performed with intention carry power. (Anyone reading this knows, for instance, the difference between a casually tossed-off “I love you” and the same words said with full attention and feeling. If you don’t, don’t come back here until you do. That part of your life obviously deserves more atttention than this blog.)

As an example of this “ritual sprinkle” approach, here’s an excerpt of the ritual use of Welsh from the “Grand Sword” page of the Gorsedd of the Bards (Museum of Wales online):

One of the Gorsedd’s oldest rites is the ceremony of partly unsheathing the Grand Sword. The Archdruid asks the following questions and the audience replies ‘Heddwch’ (Peace) three times:

Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd, A oes Heddwch? (The Truth against the World, Is there Peace?)
Calon wrth Galon, A oes Heddwch? (Heart to Heart, Is there Peace?)
Gwaedd uwch Adwaedd, A oes Heddwch? (Shout above responding Shout, Is there Peace?)’

Carrying a sword was one of the rites in Iolo Morganwg’s first Gorsedd in 1792. As a pacifist Iolo wanted to emphasise that the Bards met in peace and when a naked sword was placed on the Logan Stone they proceeded to sheath it as a symbol of peace in Gorsedd.

Bardic chair inscription: "the truth against the world"

Bardic chair inscription: “the truth against the world”

With no more than this much Welsh in a ritual, or even just Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd [approximately “uh GWEER uhn EHR-been uh BEED”] “the Truth against the World,” you can clearly set apart the language of your rite from ordinary language, and help evoke the heightened state of consciousness characteristic of much (not all) successful ritual.

Benefits of Ritual Language

If you want the John F. Kennedy version – “what ritual language can do for you” – here’s a start.

An FAQ of the Latin Liturgy Association site lists several “important benefits of using Latin” as a “sacral” language, including its close association with worship, as with the Arabic of the Qur’an, the Sanskrit of Hinduism and the Hebrew of Judaism. It also “helps us overcome limitations of time and place” and “participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations” who preceded us. As the language of a sacred musical tradition, it also gives access to the plainsong and chant of the Church.

So Why Use a Distinct Ritual Language?

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

OK, you get that ritual and ritual language are powerful and widespread. But why not keep it to your own native tongue and skip the difficulty of learning another language besides? Who has the time for studying and mastering a dedicated language? Isn’t a dedicated practice more important? Aren’t ritual and worship and devotion in [insert your language here] better than none at all? This cry of the heart has a strong appeal. Its human roots are ancient. Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions (p. 34) cites a Hindu prayer, noting, “Even village priests will frequently open their temple ceremonies with the following beloved invocation:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations,
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Surely this is justification, if indeed we need any? You may have seen this prayer incorporated into rituals as part of the reach toward the divine – I have. Of all human failings, surely what language we use in our quest must rank low on the scale of such things?

M. Isadora Forrest notes in her book Isis Magic, “Isis of the Ten Thousand Names provided Her ancient worshippers with a broad range of Divine aspects, functions and affinities” (pg. 8). So if we can approach spirit or divine realm using our own names for it, what’s the need for a separate ritual language? Can’t we reach and communicate with the Goddess [substitute your own preferred name here] using what is, after all, our “mother tongue,” the speech that is most intimate to us? Isn’t this language therefore among the most valid of tools we can use, if we wish to contact and plunge into the Otherworld, the divine realm? It reaches and extends from the heart.

Well, just like you generally appreciate home-baked over store-bought, deities show preferences. Among them are offerings, names and languages. That doesn’t mean that English or whatever your native language is won’t “work” as you lay the roses, pour the mead, light the cedar incense, offer the myrrh or dragonsblood or cinnamon, but it does mean that a more immediate connection is one benefit and advantage of using a ritual language. In part it’s a matter of dedication and devotion. Our efforts please the divine; as someone said – I’m quoting badly here – “the gods enjoy the taste of human sweat in their offerings.”

A tradition can have profound impact on our spiritual paths. Forrest observes (again, insert your preferred designation for “Goddess” and “Isis” as needed):

By examining the evidence this tradition has left us, modern devotees of the Goddess can be connected with and find inspiration in the ancient worship … We can discover the traditional ways Isis was worshipped and learn how her worshippers thought, talked and taught about her. In the stories they told, the religious purposes they agreed upon … we can follow the path of a very ancient religious tradition that can connnect us to our spiritual ancestors. By using the symbols they used and found meaningful– and by finding our own meaning in them – we are empowered by tradition. It can guide us, inpsire us, explain things to us. It provides potent archetypal symbols, sanctified by centuries of use, energized by the meaning invested in them. The devotion of thousands upon thousands of Isis worshippers before us can provide a path we can walk and a context for our own relationship

with the divine. Thus, “tradition can be an extremely valuable tool of connection with the Divine; yet it need not constrain us. Human religious history is a history of change” (9).

Ritual Language and Two Kinds of “Users”

The use of a special ritual language concerns two groups of ritualists in different ways. For writers or composers of rituals and liturgies, the language must be “composable in.” That is, it shouldn’t be so difficult to use that the creation of new rituals and liturgies is so challenging only a few can pull it off. This means that those who know the language can use it creatively. Need a new handfasting ritual, or a rite to plant potatoes? No problem! This also means that the first group can make the ritual accessible to the second and much larger group, the users or participants in rituals and liturgies. This latter groups includes not only the “usual suspects,” the regular participants in rituals, but also any visitors (assuming your rituals with a ritual language are open to them), and readers of any media like your group’s website that explains or presents rituals to a wider audience.

Which Ritual Language?

There are currently some 6000 human languages on the planet, though the number is decreasing dramatically. However, Celtic-inspired Druids need not sort through them; under a dozen ready and suitable options present themselves. (If you want to focus on Asatru and other similar northwestern European Heathen traditions, replace Celtic with Germanic tongues. Likewise, substitute some Slavic options, if you’re into Baltic Heathenism like Romuva, or Hellenismos if you’re a Greek Pagan.etc.).

Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, Manx. Throw in Proto-Celtic if you wish. All but the latter have communities of speakers, grammars and dictionaries and various learning resources. (Proto-Celtic lets you try out an ancestral speech in a form that’s still being reconstructed as we speak. Enough exists to compose in it – barely.  See the next section for more possibilities.) Admittedly you’re most likely to encounter the modern forms of these, but dive into the modern form, and you can begin to make use of preserved older forms in manuscripts, chronicles, epics and legends, rich with symbolism and myth for rituals, prayers, chants, song lyrics, etc. as yet unborn, unwritten, unchanted, unsung.

Conlangs, Arise!

DanaeLang4

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Another option lies in the adaptation of a Celtic language to your purposes. Ritual language is already heightened, altered, shifted.  Well, a conlang or constructed language may fit your needs.  (For a detailed look at some possibilities, visit Mark Rosenfelder’s online Language Construction Kit.)  Conlangers have been modifying adapting, regularizing, extending and creating out of whole cloth an astonishing range of languages. A significant number of them exist in forms complete enough to use for ritual. And you can actually commission a language from the Language Creation Society. You too can do just as the producers of Game of Thrones have done with Dothraki, whose creator David Peterson has created other languages. Visit his website for a sampling.

Perplexed by the contradiction between authentic or historical and concocted or created ex nihilo? You’ve arrived at the classic a priori versus a posteriori nexus – a lively point of debate in the conlang community.

J M Greer

J M Greer

Ends and Beginnings

Had enough? Need a break? Or want to sample the sounds of some 30 European languages? Below is a Youtube clip featuring Celtic, Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, along with Greek, Albanian and Hungarian to round out the linguistic variety of Europe (see the note below for a complete list of languages and approximate times). You may have visceral reactions to accents, pitches, sounds. I urge you to make note of them. See if you can get down in words what it is that appeals or doesn’t appeal to you in the sounds and overall sprachgefühl, a wonderful German word that literally means “speech-feeling” — the character of a language. This can be helpful as you consider the sound of any ritual language you might want to use. It may also prove useful if you’re wondering what languages you might want to study in the future (if you’re following the language learning advice of John Michael Greer in his talk “A Magical Education”). And there’s a chance it may spark a dream of a past life when you may have spoken a form of one of these languages yourself.

Here’s the 32-language video:

A Next Step

In DRL —  A Druid Ritual Language — Part 3, I’ll look specifically at Welsh and then at a couple of conlangs as candidates for ritual languages.

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Images: Huston SmithGame of Thrones; all/nothingDanaelect4;  J M Greer; bardic chair.

From the Wikipedia entry for “Magical Language“, accessed 3/23/14, which I cite below for its interest:

The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In “The Magical Power of Words” (1968) S. J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski … suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”Magical speech is therefore a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts.

Not all speech is considered magical. Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power. Magical language … is distinct from scientific language because it is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions; whereas in scientific language words are tied to specific meanings and refer to an objective external reality. Magical language is therefore particularly adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.

Malinowski argues that “the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life.” The two forms of language are differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: spellssongsblessings, or chants, for example. Sacred modes of language often employ archaic words and forms in an attempt to invoke the purity or “truth” of a religious or a cultural “golden age”. The use of Hebrew in Judaism is an example.

Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicianspriests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language.”

Video roster of languages and times; “FSI + a number” refers to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranking of difficulty for an English speaker, 1 being easier, and higher numbers being comparatively more difficult/requiring more hours of study:

0:00 Serbian—FSI 3
0:21 British English
1:03 Albanian—FSI 4/FSI 2
1:18 Finnish—FSI 4
1:46 Slovakian—FSI 4
2:25 German– FSI 2
2:56 Macedonian—FSI 4
3:26 Portuguese—FSI 1
3:54 Ukrainian—FSI 4
4:19 Croatian—FSI 4
4:50 Moldovan—not listed
5:48 Swedish—FSI1
6:14 Russian—FSI 4
6:52 Italian—FSI 1
7:22 Slovenian—FSI 4
7:49 Danish—FSI 1
8:22 Polish—FSI 4
8:44 Romanian—FSI 1
9:13 French—FSI 1
10:00 Byelarussian—not listed
10:24 Bulgarian—FSI 4
10:54 Greek—FSI 4
11:22 Czech—FSI 4
11:52 Dutch—FSI 1
12:35 Bosnian—FSI 4
13:00 Spanish (Castilian) – FSI 1
13:30 Estonian—FSI 4
14:02 Norwegian—FSI 1
14:53 Lithuanian—FSI 4
15:20 Irish Gaelic—not listed
15:52 Latvian—FSI 4
16:26 Icelandic—FSI 4
16:52 Hungarian—FSI 4
17:30 Slovenian—FSI 4

Edited/updated 10 July 2014

Jesus and Druidry, Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Part 2 here.]

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

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

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

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

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

Dictionary of the Scots Language.

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

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