Archive for the ‘Beltane’ Category

Blessed Beltane!

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red maple coming into leaf

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Welcome, Fires of Beltane!

Posted 1 May 2020 by adruidway in Beltane, Druidry

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A Beltane Solo Rite

[Updated 19:55 EST 30 April 2020]
calendulaThe following is meant merely as a ritual template. With practice, we naturally reshape what we do. There’s no particular advantage to holding on to a tradition, or to any ritual expressions of it, that don’t nourish and sustain us. If the language feels too formal in places, or just isn’t you, change it to fit. Like a new pair of jeans or shoes, you’ll work them in.

[For a contrasting Beltane rite, see John Beckett’s 2015 blogpost.]

Read through your rite aloud at least once. You can begin to approximate the sound and flow of the ritual in this way, visualizing, as you read, the space where you will perform it, the objects and actions you choose to include, any ritual gestures, and the central part, where your intentions, prayers, songs, etc. will come from your circumstances and choices and intention. If you have one or two other people joining you, experiment with ways of dividing up the lines among you. Rehearse that ritual!

Time spent in meditation, or in the space where you’ll hold the rite, as well as time gathering the materials you will need, are all part of the larger ritual we perform. In some senses, ritual is simply an intermittent and concentrated reminder of the greater temple of sacred time and space we inhabit all our days.

Ritual Preparations: bathe beforehand. Alternatively, if you have a ritual fire space, use the ash to mark yourself before your ritual. A particular piece of jewelry, a sash or headband, a musical accompaniment like a bell, chime, drum or rattle, can help make your rite more vivid. Perhaps you have a special incense, or herbal tincture to use.

Materials: flat space, table or rock for altar; container of earth, sand or a pinch of salt for North; a container of water for West, a feather, fan or incense for East; a torch, candle or lamp for South; any gifts, offerings, objects for blessing, poems, songs, etc.; matches or lighter; ritual objects to decorate the space; ritual jewelry or clothing; musical instruments or playback devices.

The Rite

[Choose where you will stand to begin. Many ancient rites position the celebrant in the West, facing East. Your location may suggest other possibilities.]

Earth below me and in my bones,
Sky above me and in my breath,
Seas around me and in my blood,
by the Power of these holy Three,
I proclaim this to be sacred time and space.
[Strike a bell, gong, or drum
or make some other ritual gesture to mark this moment.]

Here the deep dark of Annwn* [AHN-noon],
here the shining of Gwynvid [GWIN-veed],
Here also Abred [AH-bred], middle realm, and mortal —
I stand in all three worlds.

I welcome all of good will,
bird and bug, beast and bough,
friends, teachers, ancestors of blood and spirit,
Guardians of this Land.

[With forefinger and middle finger extended outward
as the wand we always carry, walk (or turn) clockwise and imagine,
or feel, a shining circle appear as you turn, saying these words]
For the good of all beings, I call on your aid
as I cast the Circle of this rite.

[Turning clockwise to face the North]
With this earth [or salt] I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the North.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the North.]

[Turning clockwise to face the South]
With this fire, I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the South.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the South.]

[Turning clockwise to face the East]
With this feather/fan/incense, I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the East.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the East.]

[Turning clockwise to face the West]
With this water I bless and hallow this circle.
Be welcome, power of the West.
[Pause and inwardly welcome the West.]

[Depending on the time of day, turn East (early), South middle part of day), or West (afternoon/evening). Slowly open your arms as you say the words]
With the blessings of all, I open the Beltane Gates of Fire!

[Here belongs the heart of your rite, and so it is fitting to speak and act from the heart: any prayers, offerings, remembrances, songs, poems. You may wish to dedicate yourself, announce an intention, bless an object, burn a symbol of something that no longer sustains you in your life, and so forth. Perhaps it is now that you light your Beltane fire. You may wish to thank ancestors, teachers, mentors. You may want to make offerings in gratitude, to share in good things you have received. You can include the Druids’ Prayer, the Peace Prayer, the Druid Vow**, or some other formal recitation, as it feels right to do.]

[The close of the rite reverses the opening.]
Now is the time of return. [Pause.]

[Turn West.]
Power of the West, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[Turn East.]
Power of the East, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[Turn South.]
Power of the South, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[Turn North.]
Power of the North, I thank you for your presence and blessings.

[With forefinger and middle finger extended outward, walk (or turn) counter-clockwise and imagine, or feel, the shining circle disappear as you turn.]
As I uncast the Circle, let goodwill go forth and outward to all beings.

May there be blessings and balance in all three realms, Annwn [AHN-noon], Gwynvid [GWIN-veed], and Abred [AH-bred].

By the Power of these holy Three,
Seas around me and in my blood,
Sky above me and in my breath,
Earth below me and in my bones [stomp once],
It is complete and whole!

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*For an interesting take on these realms of existence, see this link: Annwn, Gwynvid, Abred.

**The Druid Vow

We swear by peace and love to stand,
Heart to heart and hand in hand.
Mark, O Spirit, and hear us now,
Confirming this, our sacred vow.

 

That Fire Festival

There it is again, the nudge of an approaching Festival. Like the light of a full moon, it engenders a subtle wakefulness. The gods are stirring the embers, raking the coals, adding kindling and blowing across the hearth their living breath. Who wouldn’t spark into flame?

May, Beltane month, reminds us how every time is a liminal time. (Samhain certainly stands equal to the task of reminding us, if instead of Beltane, you’re Down Under.) Liminal, from Latin limen “threshold”. E-liminate something and you take it across a threshold and outdoors, and presumably leave it there. In that sense, Druids are always trying to eliminate themselves, crossing over and coming back, seeking expanse and connection with whatever is without, in the older sense of “outside, not within”. Several churches across Christendom have as part of their names “without the walls” — outside, e-liminated. If you’re outside, you make your own threshold.

Of course, once you’re outside, it’s the Within that may suddenly become attractive again. By a kind of spiritual gravity, what goes out comes back inside, and vice versa. Like a cat or dog that can’t decide which is better, and meows or barks to be let in and out and back in again, we look longingly at wherever we aren’t. Jesus gets it, knowing Self is the Gate: “They shall go in and out and find pasture” — on either side.

The grass is, in fact, always greenest wherever I am right now. “As above, so below; as within, so without”. It just often takes ritual to know it. We say the words, often without hearing ourselves, but do we mean them? Not to say that everything’s the same on both sides of the limen, but that they constantly talk to each other. And the limen is so often more interesting than the sides.

In some sense, festivals and ritual generally are opportunities and attempts to have it both ways. We get to make an inside and an outside wherever we are, out of the Möbius strip of reality, which has only the one side, though consciousness insists on two. And we get to be the boundary, the place of transformation, our native place. Practice it enough, and we get good at it. Become the exchange point, the crossing-over, the hinge. Then when a big event comes along like death or birth, disaster or first love, we don’t get thrown quite as hard. (Or maybe, we get better at throwing ourselves, so the cosmos doesn’t have to.)

By the power of star and stone, says the Herald at the opening of the standard OBOD ritual format. By the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, be welcome! E-liminated at birth from the Land within, I emerge onto the Land without and stay awhile. At death I get re-liminated from the Land without, and turn back within. So it goes, till I can stand at the Hinge and look across births and deaths, springs and autumns, to What’s Really Going On, whatever that turns out to be. I aspire to be a hinge-Druid, bending rather than breaking.

Ritual is hinge-work. You and I write the ritual of our lives.

At Beltane, the hinges heat up in the growing sun. We long to touch, to connect, to be in communion. Virus or no, we still nurse at the breast of the cosmos. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”, says Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oh, who wouldn’t?!

Or take the case of Job in the Hebrew Bible. God dresses him down, and challenges him. The old King James/Authorized Version catches the flavor well, for all its increasing linguistic distance from us:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

The ritual answer to these insistent questions is “Yes!” That’s one of the things ritual does: it lets us answer “yes” to a cosmos whose very strangeness and majesty and terror otherwise impel us to answer “no”. Who, me? Of course not! No!

Stand at the hinge, and we come into our own as Children of the Most High. For Christians, Jesus is that Hinge, that Gate. The advantage of Person-as-Hinge isn’t exclusive to any one religion or spiritual practice, of course. Talk to the cosmos and it talks back. Persons everywhere, spirit incarnating, doing its thing. We’ve just fallen out of the habit. Ritual is one way that re-awakens us to possibility. But so many us are un-hinged, lost, disconnected.

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the “Mother Stone”, Four Quarters Sanctuary, Pennsylvania

Through the windows and doorways of ritual, we can see again what we lost sight of.

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Four Quarters Sanctuary stone circle and altar

Sometimes the Face that Cosmos wears to reach us is familiar, sometimes not. Sometimes an Ancestor, sometimes an Other. We’re particularly bothered by things that speak to us that don’t have faces. Ritual can give a face to Things without them.

Ritual also opens an opportunity to organize my altars. Yours may look like this shelf of mine, all hodgepodge. Stones, peach pits, coins, figures, feathers.

shelf

Yes, the Wiccan chant reminds us, One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother. But not every thing, not all at once. Ritual says go with one thing, watch it change, celebrate the transformation. Be the hinge.

So we’ll gather (Zoom-Beltane, May 2 for us here in VT), and say the words: By the Power of Star and Stone …

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Linking Our Times of Fire

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photo courtesy Srinivas Ananda

Here’s a set of lively images from just a couple days ago of Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society’s 2019 celebration. Twice a year, at Beltane and Samhain, the Society stages an event featuring fire, drumming and dancers drawing upwards of 10,000 spectators.

Past posts on this blog may help provide inspiration for your own observances and practice.

• Two recent posts on Beltane 2019 — my own local Druid group’s ritual and a reflection on Beltane north and Samhain south.

• What is it with fire and Beltane? Well, the name Beltane itself, according to some etymologies, means the “Fires of Bel”.

• In my “30 Days of Druidry” series, I take up Beltane again — the ancient Celtic fire festivals of Beltane and Samhain still live in many forms today. A local example — a group of Morris dancers (article, pix and short amateur video) braved a chilly May 1st morning yesterday on nearby Putney Mountain, VT, to “bring in the May”.

• In 2015 I wrote this series of posts on “touching the sacred” — something we can often do most easily through fire and fire festivals. No surprise that cultures around the world have for millennia recognized fire as a sacred metaphor and vehicle. Let me take you there, says fire (and also Led Zeppelin’s vocalist Robert Plant, especially in “Kashmir”. Lack direct access to transformative fire? A shaman like Plant can help!).

• “The Fires of May, Green Dragons and Talking Peas” assembles the words of bards and a set of images to suggest to ear and eye what it is we seek and thrive from when we find it.

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wooden totem at Four Quarters Sanctuary, PA

• Want to experience a taste of a larger Beltane Gathering? Here are posts from 2018 and 2017 on the first two years of the Mid-Atlantic Gathering.

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Northern Vermont Beltane 2019

Beltane yesterday, with our Vermont OBOD Seed Group, the Well of Segais, was a windy, sunny welcome to spring in the north half of the state. With many dirt roads washing out after all the recent heavy rains, members scrambled to reach hardtop roads, scouted for accessible ritual locations, and found this marvelous, recently-constructed stone circle in a municipal park overlooking Route 2.

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A short walk over this preserved covered bridge, and across a boggy meadow, took us up a hill to the circle.

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Between the initial location-scouting and our arrival yesterday, someone had found and placed a striking large quartz rock on the central stone. With some careful shifting on our part, it settled into place upright, serving as a stable windbreak. With five of us, we had just enough members to fill the ritual roles  — and to reach out hands to form a ritual circle around the central stone!

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Just as Imbolc for Vermonters often marks the start of “sugaring” — maple syrup season (or at least a midwinter thaw) — so Beltane celebrates the first leaves appearing on the trees, the first brave daffodils often pushing through the last of the snow, and the onset of “mud-” and then “stick-” season, two short but memorable intervals sandwiched between the long Vermont winter and the often wet spring.

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Calendula –Wikipedia Creative Commons

A group member brought calendula seeds as a ritual gift for all to plant. An “all-arounder”, the calendula is a member of the marigold family, bringing color, medicine, edible blooms, dye, tea, and other uses. Technically an annual, the plant can reseed itself and become effectively a perennial, if you don’t deadhead the flowers and if you allow it to mature into its seed-bearing form.

Looking to welcome the moon along with Beltane? Wait till May 4, and you can work with the New Moon, as Mystic River Grove in Massachusetts will do this year.

“Within me the powers of Sun and Moon. With my right hand (or wand) I father the Child, with my left (or chalice) I mother it. Within me lives the alchemy of this union. Let the magical child of my creative nature blossom and thrive in the inner and outer worlds” (adapted from OBOD ritual).

Beltane blessings to all!

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Local (Northern) Spring, Southern Samhain

Yes, it’s finally spring in Northern Vermont — or at least it was yesterday in West Danville, where residents “bought tickets to guess when a cinder block would fall through the ice at a local pond. The cinder block went through … on Thursday at 5:39 a.m.”

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The changing season elsewhere will soon also bring Samhain to Druids Down Under in Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa. Can I sense the sacred fires of life at the heart of Samhain, or perceive the Ancestors peering through for our upcoming Mid-Atlantic Gathering Beltane Maypole? (My mother would celebrate her hundredth birthday if she were still incarnate this May.)

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Katrina, Mike and me, spring 1999

I look at old pictures like this one, from a “just-pie-us” fundraiser in 1999, at the school where I used to teach. (That’s me on the right.) As both a ghostly image of the past of 20 years ago, a kind of ancestor of our “today selves”, and also a picture filled with the high hilarity and sun-vigor of Beltane, it seems fitting for this season.

Haven’t visited the Beltane Fire Society site recently? Check out the 2019 update!

Or catch a clip here:

Or here:

What’s one of your Beltane (or Samhain) stories?

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MAGUS 2018: Mid-Atlantic Gathering US

[Go here for my post on MAGUS 2017.]

SPRING!

After a hard winter in much of the U.S., a vigorous flourish of Spring greeted participants of MAGUS 2018 arriving in south-central Pennsylvania at Four Quarters Sanctuary. Blessings of Beltane!

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photo courtesy Srinivas Anand

flowers -- fae hanks

photo courtesy Fae Hanks

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photo courtesy Srinivas Anand

EMBODYING SACRED TIME and SPACE

The 2018 Gathering theme “Sacred Time, Sacred Space” emerged in a closely-linked series of workshops preparing the ground for the main ritual of the Gathering.

The saying “If you build it, they will come” has now passed into common lore, but a variation of it is also beautifully true: “If they come, you can build it.” Plan thoroughly, call the Tribe, put your heart into it all, and group magic happens with each person contributing. This holds true each summer for Four Quarters’ “Stones Rising” festival, when another stone is erected in the Stone Circle using neolithic methods, sweat and determination. And it certainly held true this Beltane.

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View of a portion of the Stone Circle. Photo courtesy Anna Oakflower.

THURSDAY

After an 12-hour drive from Vermont to Pennsylvania, broken by a stop-over in Binghamton Wednesday night at the house of an OBOD friend also attending the Gathering, we arrived in time to settle into tent and bunkhouse, and attend the first workshop Thursday afternoon, “Envisioning the Future of American Druidry”.

Dana led us to examine what, after all, we do as Druids in the 21st century in this land. What matters to us? What tasks come to our hands as a result of being alive now and here, rather than at any other time and place? How do we acknowledge and interact with a sacred landscape?

After opening ritual later that evening, several of us gathered briefly in the dining pavilion with seven Bards asking for group initiation the next morning, in order to answer questions and attend to final details.

I was privileged once again to participate as a initiation celebrant. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is joyful service. As we perform the ritual of initiation, we strengthen the bonds with our community, we open the circle of Druidry to another person who wishes to stand with us, and we renew our own commitment.

“We swear”, go the ritual words,

by peace and love to stand,
heart to heart and hand in hand.
Mark, O Spirit, and hear us now,
confirming this, our sacred vow.

FRIDAY

The morning dawned warm and mostly sunny, and celebrants welcomed new Bards one by one in the Stone Circle, a powerful setting for initiation.  Recognize and invite the ancestors over time, and not surprisingly you begin to pay attention to them more carefully, and sense their presence.

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wood pillar, northeast quarter of Stone Circle.

WIth the blessings and active involvement of Four Quarters staff, each MAGUS attendee found a stone for the main ritual, and many attended Forest’s Stone Carving workshop Friday afternoon to incise on them one of four ogham of the sacred trees we were working with in preparation for the ritual — birch, white pine, elder and oak.

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Forest’s Stone Carving workshop. Photo courtesy Patricia Woodruff.

After dinner Friday evening came the workshop “Chanting for Sacred Time and Space”, with Tom and Loam helping us to tune to the land and to each other with group songs and melodies.

Later, several of us gathered by Sideling Creek for the night-time Ovate initiations. A few brief spatters of rain refreshed rather than soaked us. Peepers and owls sang the initiates through the rite.

The Fire Circle that evening was livelier than Thursday’s. I longed to stay, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than another half hour, so voices and drums and laughter saw me off to bed.

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Photo courtesy Crystal Collins.

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Forest models a t-shirt. Photo courtesy Patricia Woodruff.

SATURDAY

Cat’s morning workshop, “Terra Incognita: Mapping the Sacred”, helped expand our sense of maps and spaces, and led us deeper into the energy ley lines can carry.

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Cat’s workshop on mapping the Sacred. Photo courtesy Patricia Woodruff.

That afternoon, in “Creating an American Ley Line Network”, Dana focused us further, letting us draw an ogham stave with one of the four tree ogham. Now grouped with the others who drew the same staves, together with our group leaders we practiced chanting galdr, the tree/ogham name, and meditated to strengthen our connection to our specific tree.

MAIN RITUAL

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Preparing the Main Ritual space. Photo courtesy Dana Driscoll.

By 4:30 pm Saturday we’d assembled in the Stone Circle, transformed earlier in the day by the ritual team who marked out the sacred space. Now it was sparking with energy from the bright yellow cornmeal rangoli. [For a picture of the rangoli at ECG 2017, go here, and scroll down to the ninth image.]

Participants each brought their stones to lay in the center of the ritual circle, ready for charging in the powerful galdr ritual that followed.

Below, Sue and I stand together briefly after ritual and our group’s grounding session, the ogham duir “oak” in white on our foreheads.

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Photo courtesy Anna Oakflower.

Careful attention by the ritual leaders kept us all grounded and centered, though you can see we still look a little dazed. The Four Quarters kitchen staff made sure we had a meat option at dinner a quarter hour later, to help us earth any remaining energy.

EISTEDDFOD

And of course no Druid Gathering is complete without the Bardic arts of music, poetry, drama, etc. This year MAGUS added a visual arts eisteddfod to celebrate a wider array of skill. Below, the eisteddfod continues in spite of rain, indoors in the dining pavilion.

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Photo courtesy Patricia Woodruff.

SUNDAY

Linked now by magical intention and the physical key of a sacred rock each will take home, we closed the weekend in a gentle rain with our final ritual. An extended acknowledgment of each person who had contributed to the weekend helped ground us and speak our gratitude as the MAGUS team recognized workshop leaders, ritualists, support staff, organizers and Four Quarters staff.

We said our goodbyes, and departed. I know I will return, in the meantime “singing up the ley lines”, as the verse of one of our chants reminds us to do. I whisper the words as we drive home in the spring rain.

As I wrote for MAGUS ’17,

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion, or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

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[For those interested in further details and the perspective of one of the principal Gathering ritual organizers and leaders, here’s the most recent of Dana’s posts on “An American Ley Line Network: A Ritual Of Creation”.]

Fire, and All That Beltane Stuff

One of the pleasures of OBOD Gatherings is taking part in the group initiations with those who opt for them.

Many don’t. An initiation is always personal, and many wish to honor that by outward solitude. It’s no surprise that the two initiation experiences, solitary and group, can each have a very different feel. As they should.

With a solitary initiation, at a time of your own choosing, you dedicate or consecrate your work, your attention, your energies to a task in ways personal and unique to you.

Of course, no initiation is wholly solitary. What you say, think, and feel are all between you and those present, with and without their skins on. In fact, in one of the paradoxes of spirituality, those others can help make the initiation more personal and solitary. My first Ovate initiation — I won’t say “self-initiation”, because in my experience all true initiations come about the same way, whether like my first you do them in your living room, or with a group, as with my second OBOD Ovate initiation — my first initiation packed a punch significant enough that I wrote about it to my Ovate tutor.

Recording it, shaping it for telling, if only for a journal entry, is an important facet of the experience, and communicating something of that to one’s tutor is recommended in OBOD, and wholly appropriate. The deepest experience can’t really be written about anyway. In this way we learn to honor the Law of Silence, one fourth of the old occult dicta, to know, to dare, to will and to be silent. Mix ’em and match ’em: know your will, and dare to be silent, rather than casting your pearls before swine. (Jesus knew more than a thing or two about magic.) As with telling dreams, others often cannot experience the most meaningful part of what we’re trying to communicate anyway.

As you’ve doubtless heard: “Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal them!”

It’s one of the delights of OBOD that it recognizes, and encourages, either or both forms of initiation. After all, fire is fire.

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front yard this morning — fire in the rain: last of the snow, first hint of the green

At MAGUS 2018, in a week and a day, we’ll be initiating Bards, Ovates and Druids in separate rituals. A good half of ritual is theater, and there one can experience the truth of the lines from the “Charge of the Goddess“: “Therefore, let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you”. If we don’t let them, how will they manifest? Learning how is the practice of our path.

As a Wise One has said, “At birth we’re fitted with a consciousness that allows us to go to school, get a job, and make our way through life. But we owe it to ourselves to reach higher, deeper, beyond. These don’t come with being born — we have to reach for them”. For me at least that rings true. Hence, among other things, this blog. Maybe I should rename it “A Druid’s Reach”.

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awen pendant

As I write this it’s drizzling outside. I’m adding one more awen pendant to the set I’ve made as Bardic gifts for the initiates — a last-minute addition has appeared on our roster of initiates. As a participant in the ritual I also get to say some of the most wonderful lines — a privilege, to assist in the shaping of others’ initiation experiences.

Beith — birch (genus Betula) — is a tree associated with the Bard. The first letter of the ogham alphabet, beith/birch is a pioneer tree, one of the first to take root in an open area. As a tree of beginnings, it’s an apt reminder of the focus of stepping onto a Druidic path: song, voice, word, music, poetry, imagination — all prime tools of the Bard, and never abandoned as one proceeds to deepen one’s practice of Druidry.

I’ve written elsewhere here of MAGUS and Beltane (MAGUS ’17 | the series Touching the Sacred | Triad for Rekindling Sacred Fire | Beltane 2016). In the latter post, I wrote:

Beltane, like the other “Great Eight” festivals of contemporary Druidry and Paganism generally, draws on a swirl of energies as democratic and mongrel and vital as you could wish for. Find a group to celebrate with, or if you prefer solitary practice, get outdoors, invite the season, contemplate on images and energies alive and at work in your awareness. Bring them into some physical form to ground and manifest them in your world. We all need reminders to help us through those “difficult” days with humor and grace and even, spirits friendly and stars favorable, with gratitude. What better than with something that’s come into your world through you?

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Posted 25 April 2018 by adruidway in awen, Beltane, Druidry, fire, initiation, MAGUS

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Hot Mic Druidry

It’s Unverified Personal Gnosis, of course, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the mic is always hot. The universe — intelligent Web that it is (after all, it gave birth to you and me, right?) — is always listening, manifesting and responding to us.

Often it can feel like we pray and get no response. For that reason, some — many — may have sensibly dispensed with prayer. No surprise there, since asking has never done much in isolation. Oh, it does a little. It opens a few windows and doors, but if we don’t look out or walk through, they soon close again. Follow-through, follow-through, I say to myself.

Edinburgh Fire Festival bonfire

What about the prayers the universe prays to us? Do I really think it only goes one way?! How many prayers have I left unanswered? What is my part in manifesting? If I’m god-like, then what’s god like?

Part of the magic (it’s all “mostly magic”) is a matter of scale. Hot mic Druidry, just like hot mic Christianity (and hot mic atheism, for that matter) is partly a responsiveness to being alive, a sensitivity to here and now, this moment. So much of the time I’m anywhere but here. We use the future as a substitute for a larger present.

I shrink the present into the longest I can pay attention before something better takes its place. But (one of the handful of truly powerful and magical words in English, along with yes and if, why? and thanks! and even our own names, magical or mundane, chanted with intention, until the potential of what we are starts to resonate and I gasp at large we all really are) — but with loving attention, the present can expand to contain everything else. And I know that’s when the magic happens.

Most of us experience this intermittently, in “flow” moments. To taste this is to experience the “kingdom within”, as José the Carpenter put it. The old Hermeticists and Qabbalists spoke of Malkuth, kingdom, just below Yesod, foundation. The kingdom is just that close, and once the windows and doors open, we have the Foundation for everything else. And the “eye of the needle”, so easy or hard to pass through, depending? Well, that’s the eye of our own perception, clenched tight from disuse, or opening to let in the Light and Voice of the Silence. We don’t need any more teaching at this point. We need prods and reminders to put into practice what we already know.

What metaphor will catch my attention this time? Which one will work for me and aid me in taking that next step? Truth-of-this-Moment, enough to jump start the next one.

So I keep catching pieces, fragments, glimpses, echoes. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing how much of my time here I squander, until I recall that this too is mission. There’s no hurry along the spiral. Only the Fire burning in each of us. Sit still warming myself a little too long, and that part gets scorched. On to the next, in turn. (The “best” among us just get basted more evenly.)

In this season of the approaching fire festival of Beltane, it’s no surprise our images and metaphors are fire. Cold can burn, too. If we can fight fire with fire, can we not welcome fire with fire?

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Images: Edinburgh Fire Festival bonfire.

Triad for Rekindling Sacred Fire

[5 May 2020 Update — Druid Magazine has been removed from online. Only paper copies remain.]

NOTE

A version of this post appeared on pg. 32 of the summer/fall 2017 issue (large PDF) of Druid Magazine. I’m grateful to the editors, and to their liberal policies that actually recognize the ownership of authors!

In the Southern Hemisphere, Beltane has recently passed, and we can, if we choose, draw on the “opposite” energies here in the North in November, in a six-month harmonic with the South. (Isn’t it always Opposite Day anyway?) It’s Spring in Autumn, Christmas in July, your six-month birthday.

Because when don’t we need sacred fire?

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1–Finding Fire

Every Druid tradition I know of honors fire in some way. “It is the hour of recall”, go the closing lines of OBOD ritual. “As the fire dies down, let it be relit in our hearts”.

Here is the promise of elemental fire, never quenched, always ready to rekindle. But so often I find myself dry, cool, grounded, earthed—all excellent things after ritual, ideal for smooth re-entry into our lives, but hard to live from when we crave and need the flame again.

I’ve detected more than a fair portion of Earth in my makeup: a little reserved, suspicious of quick flares, with a tendency to solidity, inertia even. Does a spark still smolder in the heart of a person like that, waiting to be relit? Can I coax it to flame again? I hold the answers like twin children, one in each arm: of course, and not today. As I write this, I look out the window at fog and wet pavement. Where do I look for flame? In moments like these, it seems a more than reasonable question.

Yes, in the electrified West, we turn a key to start the car, we flip any number of switches all day along, expecting and usually seeing instantaneous lights, readouts, computers booting, phone screens lighting, and hums and rumbles of devices jumping into action. If, like me, you happen to heat with wood, you lay paper and kindling, strike a match, and flame obliges. Praise be to Brighid!

But for all that, I keep reminding myself, we do not command fire. In her The Way of Four Spellbook, Deborah Lipp notes:

Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).

This is lovely and poetic, evocative and wise, and, as a friend remarked when I quoted it to him, it’s also bullshit. The only place fire happens is geography, just like with every other element. Heart, fire pit, computer screen, creativity—we light and relight them constantly. It’s our extensive craft with the fire principle that’s made much of civilization possible. But mastery in the end means service, and our wizardry rings hollow whenever we forget this.

2–Serving Fire

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire,” declares Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien, 2004, p. 330). Not a bad magical declaration. So I turn to the Indo-European past and summon reconstructed ancient words* to say something like it: *Ambikwolos esmi yagnos ogneyes [Ahm-BEE-kwoh-lohs EHS-mee YAHG-nohs OHG-neh-yes], which roughly translates to “I am a servant of the sacred fire.”

So I ask how I already serve fire, because contrary to an adolescent tendency in us to see our lives as all-or-nothing, we have a starting place within us for anything that can manifest—or so some Wise Ones have told me. How else can we recognize a lack or hole or void except by feeling the outline of what’s missing, of what’s supposed to be there?

Now, when I need to reignite the fire of the sacred, and that includes writing about it, my daily practice, my own “hour of recall”, hopefully guides me to embers that still throw off heat. (If it doesn’t, I know I need to fine-tune what I do each day.) I keep re-learning that we never really extinguish sacred fire. We merely smoor it—that lovely old Scottish word—not “smother” or “suffocate” as some dictionary entries render it, but bank it, setting it to smolder till morning, when it can be breathed and fed to flame again. Peat excels at smoldering, but so do woods like hickory, and so do our human spirits.

While preparing a fire workshop for MAGUS Beltane, out of ruminations like these, I made a list of questions I found I kept asking myself, so I shared them with attendees. Here are seven from that list you might use in your journal, or for a series of meditations. And if one or two of them call you away from reading this, go with them for a while along your own green and shining path. Your responses are more valuable, after all, than “finishing the article”.

1) What does it take—literally and intentionally—in order to kindle you, and in order for you to kindle other things in your life?

2) What offering, if any, do you make to help you kindle? What else could you bring into your practice? What could you discard?

3) What is sacred to you? How do you find, invite, welcome, increase the sacred? What sacred ways are a part of your life right now that can help you kindle?

4) What ways, if any, do you tend to discount, push away, ignore, or feel “aren’t my way of connecting with the sacred”? What can you learn from your attitude towards them?

5) Where are you already kindled? What is burning, warm, or fiery in your life right now?

6) Where do you desire kindling? (Where do you need to bank a fire and cool off?!) Or to put it another way, what needs to catch fire in your life?

7) How has sacred fire already honored your practice and flames inwardly for you?

3–Building a Ritual Fire

In reconstructed Indo-European, one of the words for “altar” is *asa. If you want to expand your ritual declarations and charm-making, you can say *asam kwero [AH-sahm KWEH-roh] “I build an altar”. And if you’re consecrating a talisman or another person, you might add *Yagnobi ognibi tum wikyo! [YAHG-noh-bee OHG-nee-bee toom wee-KYOH!] “I hallow you with sacred fire!”

What to burn on that altar? Here your judgment, tempered and instructed by divination, practice, dream, and study, matters more than anything I might suggest. But if you’re seeking such a suggestion, here is one. Druid and Pagan traditions speak of Nine Sacred Trees suitable for kindling sacred fires (Steward of the Woods, 2015).

What about an altar? You may well have one already, whether backyard fire pit or space cleared on a bookshelf for images, a piece of quartz found on a walk, Tarot card for the day, incense of the season, and so on.

Evidence from several different traditions tells us that squares of sod or turf were a common form that a ritual altar could take. The Aeneid (Mandelbaum, 1961, p. 117) mentions a sod altar. Records from the Scots in the 1700s (Frazer, 1929) talk of building May Day fires on an altar of sod. And the Æcerbōt, the Anglo-Saxon “Land Remedy Spell”, amounts to a ritual for creating sacred space and restoring the land’s fertility (Jolly, 1996). To do so, it instructs the ritual performer to take one sod from each of the four directions of the land to build the ritual altar. Ceisiwr Serith (2015), an experienced ADF ritualist, author, and Indo-Europeanist, gives more supporting info in an article on his excellent website, “Proto-Indo-European Religion”.

In closing, I turn for words to the Rig-Veda 1.26.8: “For when the gods have a good fire, they bring us what we wish for. Let us pray with a good fire” (Three Cranes Grove, 2007; To Pray with a Good Fire).

Note on reconstructed Proto-Indo-European:

The * asterisk is a conventional notation for indicating a reconstructed form. You can never know enough about linguistic prehistory to do more than mangle reconstructed languages. Even graduate study like mine in historical linguistics inoculates precisely nobody from error. (Though a professional career demands pursuing the unattainable.) So in releasing perfectionist worries over Indo-European reconstructions and pronunciations, I cherish the advice of the great medievalist scholar, teacher, and author John Gardner. In advising readers when trying to speak Middle English aloud, he remarks,

“Read aloud or recite with authority, exactly as when speaking Hungarian – if you know no Hungarian – you speak with conviction and easy familiarity. (This, I’m told by Hungarians, is what Hungarians themselves do.) This easy authority, however fake, gets the tone of the language …” (1978, p. 315).

Tone, we might say, covers a multitude of sins.

If you’d like to learn more, two readable, popular, and authoritative books are by West and Mallory, included in the bibliography. Work through them and you won’t need me or anyone else. You’ll be writing your own reconstructed Indo-European phrases and rituals with “conviction and easy authority”.

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Gardner, John. (1978). The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Vintage Books.

Jolly, K. L. (1996). Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Lipp, D. (2006). The Way of Four Spellbook. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Mallory, J. P. & Adams, D. Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Steward of the Woods. (2015). “Nine Sacred Woods: A Druid Walk in the Park”.

Ovid. (1929). Fasti (J. G. Frazer , Ed. and trans.). London: MacMillan and Co. (Original work published in 8 AD).

Serith, C. (2015). Proto-Indo-European Religion.

Three Cranes Grove. (2007). To Pray with a Good Fire.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987). The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Vergil. (1961). The Aeneid ( A. Mandelbaum, Trans.). New York: Bantam Books.

West, M. L. (2007). Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.

The first of what richly promises to be an annual event, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) took place over this last weekend, Thursday to Sunday, at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.

And our hosting venue, Four Quarters, an interfaith sanctuary launched in 1994, was the perfect place to hold a Beltane Gathering. As the Four Quarters home page observes, it’s

a membership-driven non-profit, a vibrant community of real people living real lives. And Four Quarters actually owns the Land, buildings and equipment that make our work possible, forever set aside from the vagaries of private ownership.

The lovely and wild 150 acres of the sanctuary lie in the Allegheny foothills in southern PA, just miles from the Maryland border. Home to a stone circle, labyrinth, retreat center with bunkhouse and dining pavilion, a brewery, a drum and dance circle, sweat lodge, a handful of permanent residents, and the clean-flowing Siding Creek defining part of its periphery, Four Quarters strives to

honor the many world traditions that reflect an Earth Based Spirituality, and we work to support those traditions and welcome their people. We do not teach “One Way” of belief. We do not have “The Answer”. We do have good questions.

Here’s the Stone Circle seen from the north, a work in progress (with annual megalithic-style stone raisings open to anyone willing to join the rope-pulling and log-rolling stone lifting team). Note the nearly three-foot-long camp bell suspended from the tripod in the foreground — a deep voice audible throughout the property.

circle w bell

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A wide-angle shot can’t capture the majesty of the stones or the power of the circle. Here’s a closer view of some of the lovely rough surfaces, mottled with rust in places, asking for touch and communion.

stone closeup w flah

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The first time I walked the circle Thursday evening, I sensed a quiet hum of presence. The next time I came more at ease, eager to touch and listen to the land and the inner voices. By the time I reached the eighth stone, sudden tears filled my eyes. The circle holds indisputable power.

Here’s one of the altars near the center of the stone circle. The ancestors speak strongly here, if I give even half an ear.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion (below) or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

dining pavillion -- W Flaherty.jpg

dining pavilion — photo courtesy Wandy Flaherty

Typically when I reflect on a Gathering a few days after, one or two things stand out sharply. But when I started naming them over breakfast this morning, I ended with a list of a score of items — nearly the entire weekend as I experienced it, a blend not to be parcelled out in soundbites or highlights.

From the place, with its cool air crackling with oxygen from the vigorous trees, to the faces and energy of the Tribe and its rituals, formal and informal, to the songs of spiritual presence that all places offer, everything stands out in memory.  Impossible to narrow down. This post is a small attempt to hint at that Everything — to urge you, if you want a taste of a particular kind of marvelous, to attend a Gathering if you can.

The way of the Solitary can indeed be a blessed one, but the Tribe also offers a great deal to reinvigorate even the most hermetic of Solitaries. A Gathering can paradoxically reaffirm the Solitary, because you meet other Solitaries. You witness the integrity of the individual path, as well as the gift of the Tribal way. Gatherings have changed me into an avid Tribe-seeker, at least a few times each year, so that when I retreat to my own smaller circle, the closing words of OBOD ritual echo true: “May our memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.”

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“Kindling the Flame” was our Gathering theme. We apparently also needed the blessing of Water, in the form of steady rain from late Thursday afternoon through the night, and intermittently all Friday, to help remind us that all the elements gather, whenever any one of them is invoked. “Thus is balance preserved”.

Thursday included an opening orientation by our special guest OBOD Druid Renu Aldritch, a workshop I delivered on “Kindling Our Sacred Fires”, the opening ritual, and preparation for Bardic initiations the next morning.

After breakfast Friday, we initiated 12 Bards. Like many others, I’ve come to see how priceless it is to support initiations and attend whenever I can, regardless of whether I have an assigned “role”. The rite washes over us all, renews the experience each of us had during our own initiation, helps us rededicate, and allows us to greet the newly initiated within ritual space.

Always there are small hiccups and endearing glitches during a ritual. I think without them we’d have to make sure we added them. And we come to expect them: they humanize a dramatic moment, when someone with a major or minor role misplaces a prop or drops a ritual spoken line, topples the incense or bowl of water, mispronounces a magical name, and so on. We laugh, disarmed, and then the next part of the ritual can reach deeper, because we’ve opened up that much more. Each initiation is unique: tears, laughter, the presence of Spirit, the call of bird or beast to punctuate a word or silence.

Friday gave us Renu’s workshop, “Kindling the Spiritual Warrior”, a theme that bears ongoing attention. Dana’s workshop “Land Healing on the Inner and Outer Planes”, her ritual later that afternoon, “Ogam Tree Galdr in the Northern Tradition”, her generous personal readings using her own tree divination system, and her conversation fired many with renewed love and commitment to this path. That evening also brought initiation to three Ovates under moonlight and the background throb of drums from a drum workshop. We couldn’t have asked for a better ritual setting.

Downhill from the Labyrinth, prepping for the evening Ovate initiation in the open air: Renu, Dave, Ahote, me and Cat. (We opted later for a covered stage, in case the rain continued.)

planning for ovate init -- gail Nyoka

photo courtesy Gail Nyoka

Saturday gave us Wanda’s workshop, “Awakening Your Beltane Sensuality” with its creative chance to heighten one sense by muting the others. Now that the rain had ceased, we could hold our main Beltane rite in the stone circle.

Here’s an evocative pic from Saturday night, the Fire Circle alight, a few dancers visible, along with Brom, our Fire Master, tending the flames.

magus beltane

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

By Saturday night I’d mostly finished my other ritual responsibilities, including providing a glitch for the main Beltane ritual where I had a speaking part — I dropped a line. “When that ritual pause goes on a little too long and you look around, you’re probably what’s missing”, as someone quipped over the weekend.

I was looking forward to enjoying the Fire Circle without performing for the eisteddfod, the Bardic arts portion of most OBOD festivals that welcomes the evening fires and the awen-inspiration of a Gathering and offers it back again in song and poetry and story.

But as Bards know from experience, the awen sometimes has other ideas. Fire gave me an opening line a few hours earlier during dinner. And it kept gathering more lines to it, right up to the evening Fire Circle. Verses kept changing and I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I kept playing with lines and rhymes and their order. “Fire says improvise” came the first line. I’d invoked fire, after all, during my workshop, in several different ways. What did I expect?! Here’s the poem:

Fire says improvise —
no surprise,
when such orange wonder
seeks out skin and eyes.

Fire can burn all to black
but before,
that hot roar lifts me
to soar beyond
anything I thought to think I lack.

Most times I’m no fool —
how does this jewel
get to be so hot and cool?

Old rule, it says.
Burn madly, gladly,
or — if you must — sadly:
one way only among those other two.
For I will heat you from your crown
to your open-toed shoe.

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

Just get up and say it, came the nudge. Doesn’t have to be polished. I delivered the lines, gazing at the flames the whole time, then stumbled back fire-blind to my seat on one of the Fire Circle benches. The version here is close to what I remember saying, probably edited a little. Fire didn’t want an editor. Just flame, large or small. The other Bards obliged, and this eisteddfod was among the most varied and interesting I’ve known.

One of the oldest pieces of spiritual counsel in the Indo-European tradition is this: “Pray with a good fire”.

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Below is an informal altar by Siding Creek, which curls around Four Quarters, another voice audible through much of the Sanctuary as a background whisper.

siding creek altar -- renu

photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Four Quarters brews its own mead, a taste of the Land to take inside the body. Warmed by place, fire and fellowship, we return to our lives richer by each person who attended. Long live MAGUS!

Coffee Dragon -- Wanda Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A final view of the Circle through the eye of the Mother Stone:

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

Festivals & Holidays — Druid & Christian Theme 6

[Updated/edited 27 May 2019]

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

Happy Beltane! Go here for an enthusiastic if skewed view of the holiday, and here for The Edinburgh Reporter‘s take on this year’s celebration in Scotland’s capital tomorrow evening. As the Chair of the Beltane Fire Society says in the article:

Beltane is an event that cannot be described, it has to be felt, and that’s what makes it so special. We really want to reach out and welcome in the wider community this year, so come and share the beginnings of Summer with us.

Thornborough_Henge

Thornborough Henges, Yorkshire, England — site of modern Beltane festivals

[Here for more on the Thornborough 2017 Beltane.]

If you’ve been following this series on some of the shared imaginal territory between Druidry and Christianity, and you find your hopes both raised and disappointed, this preamble is for you. Of all the themes, festival and holidays are probably the most self-explanatory. Instead of worrying too much about what I’m writing here, go find a good Beltane celebration. You’ll know more afterwards than anything I cover here.

But if you’re kind enough to have stayed and you’re still reading, let’s take a look at the nature of this theme. Now I have something of a handle on the weaknesses in my own understanding and writing ability. Let’s lay that aside for a moment. You and I both bring to this discussion — as we do to everything else — our personal histories of living in societies where Christianity still dominates the scene. After all, for centuries it’s ruled the roost. It’s been the default setting: our laws, values, art, music, vocabulary and ways of thinking all still draw so deeply from Christianity that we can suppose only naively that if we’ve “left the church” we’re “free” of it, and shaped no more by its perspectives and doctrines and worldview. [Yes, you may belong to the growing minority who grew up in a non-Christian household. Still, it’s pretty likely you celebrate Christmas in some way, and get some kind of Easter vacation without even asking.]

We assume, that is, if we no longer subscribe to a handful of Christian doctrines for spiritual guidance and practice, that we’re somehow “post-Christian”.  You hear that everywhere. Yet we can acknowledge how much Classical civilization continues to mold the West — we never imagine we’re “post-Roman” or “post-Greek”. To offer the most trivial example, one of our generic insults is “Go to hell!” — a distinctly Christian destination, one that’s unlike to freeze over any time soon. (We can check back in after another 500 years — maybe by then a more clearly post-Christian West will have taken shape. One of the best ways to test this is to live for a time in a non-Christian part of the world. Much of Asia will do, but so will the Middle East, Africa, and parts of South America. Get back to me after that, if you take issue with what I claim about persistent Christian influence in the West. I had to live outside the U.S. for three years to see something of this.)

In a word, we’ve all got baggage. Nothing surprising in that. But if by chance we still long to salvage something from Christian practice that moves us still — if we refuse to throw out an imaginal and spiritual baby, however troubling its family tree, along with an often foul historic bathwater — and we’re walking a non-Christian path, the many links and themes like these past few posts have explored can call to us quite strongly. Parts of the Mass may move you, or you love the lights and cheer of Christmas, or the palm fronds and joy of Easter, or the quiet of candlelight services where words don’t fill your head and your heart has space to expand into the richness of silence.

We can use that fact of emotional and spiritual connection, use it for insight and growth and exploration.

How? Bear with me. I’m suggesting a few ways in what follows.

palm and maypole

One of the delights of following a couple of blogs mining the same spiritual or religious vein is the interconnections they can weave over time. Obvious reasons for such common ground are shared experiences, comparable reading lists, current events, and so on. But sometimes you just end up in shared spaces, looking around and talking about what you’re experiencing, as if it’s in the air and water. (Which it is.)

I reviewed John Beckett’s new book in the last post, and John launches the interconnection this time, in his recent April 25th post “Why I Had To Make a Clean Break With Christianity“. If you follow his blog, you know that John has grappled with the lingering after-effects of membership in a fundamentalist church, and its mind-warping power on his worldview. He revisits that experience occasionally for hard-won, balanced insights anyone can use.

If you’re uncertain about the possibility of an rapprochement between Druidry or Paganism and Christianity, in other words, John’s got something to say you may find well worth your while.

There have always been, he notes, Christian groups with a wide range of practices:

Christianity was never a wholly new thing in any of its forms. It has mythical roots in Judaism, intellectual roots in Greek philosophy, and folklore roots in every land in which it was established. Some pagan beliefs and practices survived, but they were Christianized. They had to be –- in medieval and early modern Europe it was impossible to be anything other than a Christian (or possibly a Jew, in some places, at some times, for a while…).

These survivals and continuations include magic –- a lot of magic.

As a Pagan and Druid, John knows magic because he practices it, and from that practice he knows from the inside how pervasive magical practice actually is. If you’re human,  in other words, you’ve both done magic yourself and had others practice it on you. The less conscious, and therefore weaker, the more random in its effects. But most Westerners have confronted one extremely common form of debased magic in advertising — the manipulation of emotion, desire, image, sound and verbal conjuring for a specific purpose: to sell you stuff. And though most of the more radical Protestant denominations have worked assiduously to purge their churches from any perceived taint of Catholic magic, it manages to creep back in unseen.

Magic doesn’t care what you believe – magic cares what you do. Work this magic properly and you’ll get results.

But I can’t do this magic. I had to make a clean break with Christianity and I can’t go back, not even to work magic with the aid of powerful spirits.

Wait, you’re saying. The title and theme of this post is Festivals and Holidays. What’s that got to do with magic, anyway? You’re always going on about magic. Enough already!

Well, “ritual is poetry in the world of acts“, wrote OBOD founder Ross Nichols. And poetry works with image and emotion. You see where this is going? Poetry is magical art, verbal magic. And rituals and festivals, if they’re potent and memorable, are stuffed with poetry and theater. There’s a reason that a wedding at a justice of the peace can be much less satisfying than a church or temple wedding, regardless of what you believe. (Because what you do is another matter.)

We long for ritual, even as we’ve managed to banish a bunch of it from our lives. So we pour it into wedding planners and other secular makeshifts that can deplete our bank accounts without delivering the goods. (“But do you really feel married to this man?” my mother-in-law asked my wife after our non-church wedding. Note: we had two weddings, secular and spiritual to cover all the bases. Neither one “churched”.)

So. Most of the “Great Eight” holidays of the Pagan Wheel of the Year have their Christian counterparts. We needn’t rehash old arguments about who “stole” whose holiday. If Druids, and Pagans generally, would like to find common ground with Christians, shared celebrations of holy days are one place to look.

Interestingly, of all the Eight, Beltane has perhaps the weakest Christian link. Yes, May 1st is the feast day of two apostles, James and Philip, in the Catholic church. In northern and central Europe Walpurgisnacht on April 30th, the eve of the festival of the eighth-century saint Walpurga, on May 1, came to be associated with witches. Beltane on the other hand was almost exclusively a Celtic holiday until it was claimed by neo-Pagans in the middle of the last century. Six months out from the start of winter at Samhain (“summer’s end”, the Celtic sam– cognate with the sum– of English “summer”), Beltane also fits the rhythms of the year-long cycle of seasonal celebrations, heralding the beginning of summer, of energy and fertility and well-being.

Whatever you do, wherever you are, try to find a way to celebrate the season.

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Images: Thornborough Henge; palm and maypole.

Fire — Druid & Christian Theme 3

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?

fire-ring

Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):

Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).

Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.

Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.

John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.

“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.

I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”

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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.

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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,

Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.

Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.

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Image: fire.

Thirty Days of Druidry 24: Playing the Druid Card

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Could I be the Mage,
or might I be the Fool?
Should we learn to use our cards
like any kitchen tool?

When I search for wisdom,
when I peruse old lore,
do I seek just kicks and tricks
or something worth much more?

Is my quest a question,
things I already know,
or an “undiscovered country”
I rediscover as I grow?

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If “playing the _____ – card” means to take (unfair) advantage of some given of our identities, what might it mean to play the Druid card? Well, it certainly gains us nothing with either the gods or local land spirits.

Druid-card Holder (DCH): “Hey! I’m a Druid!”

Land Wight (LW): “Welcome. Have you listened to the land, spent time hearing what it has to teach, growing a portion of your own food on it, and feeling how each season and its energies shape the lives of all the creatures on it, including you? Have you, in four words, lived where you live?”

DCH: Well, no …

LW: Go away and do not return until you learn reverence.

Print

“I invoke you, goddess, for a change.”

Let me try again. If I live where I’ve lived, rather than almost anywhere else, I accept the gift of responsibility. Usually the word sounds heavy — something people try to flee rather than to welcome. But let me do my Bard word trick once more. I know I’ve often walked away from my response-ability, my ability to respond. I turn it off, drown it out, change channels, either because it’s painful or too demanding or or or. Third time’s the charm: find three or’s and I can successfully escape my ability to respond and maybe spend my whole life in someone else’s dream rather than one of my own. Success!

I often explore my own “weaknesses” because I find I learn more from them than from my strengths. (“Could that be one of their uses?! Hmm.”) We’re so accustomed to others being down on themselves that you may hear this as more of the same. No. I gain strength and insight from such cool, steady gaze. Don’t misunderstand. I’m as good at denial, deflection and depression as the next fellow. A 3-D life! A modern Western triad!

But what I want to get better at are the finely-tuned opportunities my weaknesses constantly point me toward. Lack something, and I sensitize myself to it everywhere around me. My lack magically energizes the thing to keep knocking at the door of my life. But rather than turning to my ability to respond, my responsibility, I do everything to reject the thing I said I wanted. But no worries, mate: it doesn’t actually vanish. It will keep knocking until I let it in. “Ask (I keep asking all the time) and it will be given to you; seek (we never really give up seeking, just take breaks for a day or a decade) and you will find; knock (oh, how it will knock back, friend!) and the door will be opened to you.”*

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Bala Lake in Wales, where Gwion Bach begins his adventure of transformation

More and more it seems that rather than missed opportunities, there are only ones I keep rejecting. If I really do “miss” one, it will re-group and when necessary take another form in order to reappear down the road and insert itself into my life. Come around the next turn and — ah! There it is, possibly in a guise more difficult to ignore, less easy to escape at all.

My fate pursues me like yours does you, like Ceridwen pursues Gwion through all his transformations. I might even evade my fate for a life or two, come back in another body, gender, set of circumstances, with a “clean slate” so to speak. Except not really. My one life is with me, my responsibility sharpens, clarifies, till I can live it fully, because there’s nothing else I can do, even if I wanted to.

That’s one corner of my “Druid card” — at least, living where I’ve lived, as I understand it so far. What’s yours?

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When I respond, link, connect, then I “beltane.” Let’s make it verb … Not to cheapen it, market it, no. To sanctify it. And you, my kin, my readers, when you last beltaned, what did you discover?

“Beltane is so much about the urge to connect, to blend and merge; to feel a part of something extraordinary; to at once lose one’s sense of self in that merging but also to paradoxically feel more absolutely and truly oneself because of it. In the desire to penetrate life’s mysteries, we need also to open ourselves to them, surrendering to the power of love that it may have the opportunity to transform us. Great things are born in us at such moments of union; this place of merging is where the tap root of our creativity feeds, without it we feel dry and disconnected. If that magical, alchemical moment of connection and merging were a colour, I suspect it might be perceived as many beautiful, vibrant shades but its foundation, I feel sure, would be the green of spring: ecstatically joyful – the irrepressible life and desire that leads us to love.” — Maria Ede-Weaving

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IMAGES: Ceridwen Centre logoBala Lake.

*Matthew 7:7 — an excellent Druidic number!

Updated 9 May 2016

Thirty Days of Druidry 23: “Pray Like a Fire”

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Beltane’s nearly upon us, and Alison Lilly’s most recent blogpost “Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer” catches the energy behind this fire festival. For it is after all the day of the Fires of the Celtic solar god Bel, as even a traditional source like the BBC calmly informs us on their website. Some seasons you’ve just had enough of the world, and most of all yourself as a tame fire, to paraphrase Alison. Do check out her blog. She evokes and invokes Beltane in a personal and poetic meditation.

You too may long to spark, flare, burn and roar. Heap the kindling of my life and ignite, you whisper — or shout. Beltane is here for you.

Part of the Bardic training of Druid groups like OBOD and others, and much of the initial work in the outer grades of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn focuses on exploring and balancing the elemental energies flowing in and around us. We don’t — normally — want to burn up or out. But a healthy conflagration may burn off the wintry torpor that clings to our mood and outlook. Beltane is tonic, purgative, exhiliration, ignition.

The symbolism of the four physical elements of earth, water, air and fire persists in the cultural and magical imagination of the West because they express important truths about human life. They serve as a powerful shorthand for a whole cluster of ideas, images, experiences and memories, and their presence in ritual and story, song and myth will endure as long as we inhabit the same worlds where they manifest.

Their existence as physical entities endows them with the further potential to serve as sacraments. As always, though we keep forgetting, reverence and engagement are our choice, an opportunity like any other that we may welcome or reject. Here, too, fire can kindle us to possibility and change.

firetempleexter

Fire Temple, Chennai, India

Further afield from Celtic-flavored European Druidry, fire is also central to the religious practice of Zoroastrians, the people popularly known as Parsis. Their Fire Temples offer just one more illustration of why reducing fire to an explanation like “rapid oxidation in an oxygen-rich environment like earth’s atmosphere” says nothing about our actual experience of fire, its light and warmth and flickering presence, and its long association in human consciousness with spiritual reality, energy and life. Anyone who’s experienced a good bonfire knows this to some degree. It’s our human art to extend these experiences and celebrate their effect as spiritual opportunities for transformation and joy.

zorofire

Zoroastrian Sadeh Festival

Fire calls to ancestral human memory. Cultural practices and beliefs that center on it only endow it with additional significance and power. Druids may say as part of ritual “Let us pray with a good fire,” an invocation traceable to the worship of the Hindu Agni and a hymn in the Rig Veda (Bk. 1, 26). And Wendy Doniger in her translation* notes that “When Agni becomes the priest, his robes are both the flames and prayers.” Thousands of years of human experience with fire has not dulled its power.

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Whether you’re part of an OBOD Beltane gathering that follows the traditional ritual, or some other group and ceremony, or you’re a solitary celebrating alone in your own way, may you too share that shiver of anticipation and delight as the day and the rite opens for you at the birth of summer. May you and the Sun both grow in strength. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, we welcome you to this rite of Beltane …”

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IMAGES: Fire Temple in Chennai, India; Sadeh Festival;

*Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. One Hundred Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated. Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 100.

 

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