Archive for the ‘Halloween’ Category

Hallows, and Revisiting Romuva   Leave a comment

Happy All Hallows’ Eve! (Do we truly mean ALL Hallows? Will we honor ALL holy things?) A “hallow”, historically, is a saint (from Old English halga), not just any holy thing. But I’m taking the word in the latter, larger sense of any expression of the numinous or sacred. It could be the day, but also your cat, your neighbor, or that rock in your back yard. Even, occasionally, in the church down the road (though out of negative experiences, many Pagans would draw the line there, as if the holy could be found everywhere but there. And of course the churches often return the favor. Aren’t we all just hot messes?!).

That’s too much holy, I mutter. Give me one holy thing, and I can (mostly) handle it. But everything holy upsets my sense of “mostly profane, with dollops of holy here and there, if I’m lucky”. Yes, it’s hard to live on the heights all the time.

Finding your holy thing can be a bundle of work. But we keep giving each other hints, and from time to time the holy still peeks out at us from the eyes of things, from each other, and also from sun-rises and -sets, moons, fires, songs, mountain-tops, fogs and clear days, moments of connection and intimacy and kindling.

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I’ve written before about Romuva, the Baltic Pagan religion that managed to survive and has been growing again. The local analogue to Hallowe’en is Vėlinės — you can see an image and read about the holiday here.

Here’s a video of Romuva chant and ceremony by Kūlgrinda, the musical group founded by the late reviver of Romuva, Jonas Trinkunas (1939-2014), in a public celebration. The group forms one of the symbols of the Romuva religion around the 4:03 mark. The minor-key singing can send a pleasurable shiver up your spine.

“Mirth and reverence”, says the Charge of the Goddess.

May you know both, and find and share them in the coming holidays, the Hallowtides.

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Posted 31 October 2019 by adruidway in Druidry, Halloween, ritual, Romuva, Samhain, Samhuinne

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Samhain/Samhuinn 2019   Leave a comment

Ah, here we are, two weeks out from Samhain, Summer’s End, Samhuinn, All Hallows Eve. (And for those in our sibling hemisphere, Beltane approaches.)

And here for your delectation is an excellent 8-minute clip of Scotland’s Beltane Fire Society’s 2017 celebration of Samhuinn:

With it you can experience a taste of the whole event, different each year: celebration, and mystery.

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Hallowe’en, we often forget, is a hallowed evening, a sacred time, however we may treat it today. (The sacred doesn’t just vanish when we ignore it. It jabs us in our most tender spots instead, until we wake up again and pay attention. Exhibit A: Almost every headline you can find today.)

I wrote in 2017 (around the summer solstice) that

the sacred is a celebration. Cultures throughout human history set aside days and places to witness and commemorate seedtime and harvest, greatest light and deepest dark. The solstices and equinoxes are human events as much as astronomical ones, and predate any written scripture by thousands of years. We likewise mark births and deaths, and we make vows and promises to uphold our marriages, friendships, communities and nations.

Moses (ever tried a desert solstice celebration?!) gets to say it in Deuteronomy 30, that what we seek

isn’t too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It’s not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who’ll ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who’ll cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may do it?” No, the word is very near you; it’s in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

Oh, hear talk of “obeying” and perhaps you resist. I know I often do. Too many times we’ve been ruinously misled by over-trust and heedless obedience. (Republican or Democrat, or whatever the party platform, it hasn’t let up yet.)

As author Peter Beagle describes it, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers—thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams” (“Introduction”, The Tolkien Reader). What we can rightly “obey” shares an affinity with dream. It’s what resounds in us most deeply, if we turn off the jangle of the other voices. Rightly, if not always safely. The sacred is no more “safe” than love is. Both can lead very far from where we thought our lives would go. But the “wrong” voices? What is mass culture but a form of consciously-accepted schizophrenia, if we end up listening to every voice except the first one, the original?

For any authority the sacred wields is not a “command” so much as the first law of our being. To “disobey” it, or attempt to deny or ignore the sacred, is like trying to live outside our own skins. A human without the sacred is exactly that — something eviscerated, no longer alive. We use the sacred itself when we deny it — we employ energies on loan to us even as we refuse them or cast them aside. What else will we do with them?

May our doing, our discovery, our celebration, take us ever deeper to the sacred heart of things.

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Great Hallows   Leave a comment

Someone called Samhain that in passing — “Great Hallows” — and it’s fitting.

bryn_celli_ddu-exter

No, you don’t have to enter. But entrances await you, in sleep and waking, in the thought and feeling of a moment, in the earth around you, to leave the daylight world. The season itself recalls you: the cooling earth, that nip in the air, scent of dead leaves and woodsmoke, bursts of color around the next turn that linger in the eye.

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Not kings or nobles but shepherds know the hallowed times, like this turn of days towards the greater dark. In The Winter’s Tale the Shepherd says to the Clown (always a liminal, transitional figure in Shakespeare) “You met with dying things, I with things newborn.” That’s what I meet each Samhain season, both death and life. This is a Great Hallow, a tide of exchange between worlds. Not the tide of equinox, of balance, but what comes after the rebalancing.

Hallow: a word almost lost, a thing changing shape and name, a Samhain sign in itself.

Passage. That’s what Samhain offers, means of passage between the two realms. A holy occasion. Like so many holy things, misunderstood, feared, slandered. But most unfortunate of all? Ignored.

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So I look at this image for just a moment, that gulp of time that’s all I need to jump-start wonder all over again. And I summon this liminal place within me, where all places also lie: Bryn Celli Ddu, the “Mound in the Dark Grove,” stand in for each of us and our own mythic image of the Place of Spiritual Exchange. (Here the Dead journey among us, looking for the same thing.)

We — all of us — have hallowed something all year long. Time to recognize it on All Hallows’ Eve.

What is dead, and what lives, in my life? How do they nourish and reflect and illumine each other? What Samhain question is my life asking me today and all this month?

Here at “summer’s end,” which is a good approximation of what Samhain* means, I listen. A full time job, that — all these voices now, as one cycle nears completion and the second takes its birth. Then the greater stillness of Winter, and its own energies and lessons.

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Image: exterior–Trish Steel; southern Vermont sumac; Bryn Celli Ddu interior — Wolfgang Sauber.

(I love how ddu “dark” [approx. “thoo”] in Welsh has that shape and spelling after a feminine noun like celli “hill,” that double dd, following the rules of sound and spelling change that run counter to English habit. Words as wands of transformation for the tongue.)

*irish Samhain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinne, both from Proto Celtic *samonios. The Coligny calendar names a “three-night festival” trinoxtion samonii, in Gaulish, a older and now extinct relative of Irish and Scottish Gaelic: Gaulish samon “summer, Samhain.”

Earth Work: Illness, Fasting, and Samhain   3 comments

[Edited 20 June 2018]

Ah, Samhain, you’re here again. This solemn time to honor our dead and acknowledge the things that have passed from our lives. This joyous time to celebrate the harvest and the warmth of friends and loved ones to carry us through the dark half of the year. This reminder of the balance inherent in all transient things. Our work, if we choose, with the earth.

Halloween-time, to carve a pumpkin, set out the candy for the trick-or-treaters, remember to put the car in the garage the previous evening so next morning the windows aren’t all frosted over. Time for mulled cider, fallen leaves, bonfires, the possible gift of a few more mild, bright days before the snow comes. As a friend remarked yesterday, Halloween is the true start of our winter, here in the Northeastern U.S. where I live. The earth doing its thing. Earth-work.

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Ushtogaysky Square, Kazakhstan — immense millennia-old earthworks make headlines …

ushtogaysky-square

NASA photo at the New York Times link above

X marks the spot of a different kind of earth-work. (We’re always at the center.) I jump from this macrocosmic image to the microcosm of my personal work on earth. After you’ve finished groaning, come with me, to see whether whatever I can mine from it has any value for you, for this blog. Here goes …

Over the past several days a virus has been racking my joints and muscles and leaving me achy, feverish, weak. In other words, no gift to take along with me to an early Samhain celebration an OBOD friend was hosting last night. He lives “across the water” in New Hampshire, and the dozen or so folks he expected to join him included out-of-towners bringing kids and planning to sleep over. (The Samhain ritual took place later in the evening, after a typical Halloween party for the younger set).

forty-day-word-fastSo I stayed home instead, built up the fire, hydrated myself with tea and soups, and slept. Sometimes what we leave behind gets pried from us through mild (or great) suffering. Sometimes, of course, we can leave it more willingly. And we can try to make something of it, if there’s anything left of us in the moment, and turn to old spiritual technologies like fasting that may have slipped out of fashion but have never lost their worth.

We already fast when we refuse to accept the memes of fear and despair and business-as-usual of too much modern life. We purge. We deny some negative shard a foothold, most effectively by replacing it with a positive alternative. If you’re interested in anything, why not start where it’s actually already a part of your life? In my life, if I look around, this seems to be true of many more things than I’d ever believed possible. How many access-points and footholds and innate spiritual “flux-capacitors” (courtesy of the Back to the Future wiki) we have for almost anything we can imagine. Transform, transform, whispers the cosmos.

muslim-fastMany people think fasting belongs to Christianity. No meat — fish is fine! — on Fridays. Look Medieval, and maybe skeletal monks and nuns come to mind. Ascetics whipping themselves with a cat of nine tails.

There’s the Yom Kippur fast. Or, if you have a Muslim co-worker or friend, you’ve possibly heard them talk about keeping the fast for the month of Ramadan. Not to pick on Muslims, as the ubiquitous Gene Wilder memes like the one to the left would wrongly imply: anyone can be obnoxious and obvious about such practices, which is one reason they go through cycles and fall out of favor for a while. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

For about a decade I fasted once a week. This was a significant practice of the other spiritual path I follow. Like many disciplines, fasting’s less daunting after you actually do it a few times. You learn how your body reacts, how to ease into it the day before, how to come off a fast, what food and drink work best for your own particular circumstances and body chemistry and goal. Partial fast, water or juice fast, complete fast. (Ooh, you’re hardcore.)

Headaches from dehydration? Sure. Greater susceptibility to cold, since you’re not stoking the furnace several times during the day? Yep. Bad breath? Perfectly possible. Absolute joy at breaking a fast — how delicious almost any decent (or indecent) food tastes, how much the fast may have subtly reset some of your programming, how your dream recall can be improved, how an old habit may loosen its hold, how you have more faith in and less fear of your own body? Check, check, check.

come-at-meA fast can be difficult, sure. But not, I usually found, because of hunger. That comes and goes, and it’s often the least challenging aspect of fasting. No, to many others besides just me, one of the truly interesting parts of a fast is what it may reveal about attitudes, attachments and mindsets that deserve a careful look. And it’s just the scrutiny they don’t usually get in the scramble to ingest the daily three squares, plus the obligatory snacking an overfed Westerner like me makes sure to practice as faithfully as any religious devotee. Food Yoga, anyone? Follow the Calorie Sutra? Junk-food Gita? The venerable Maha-salsa-and-chips? Down with that.

A physical fast also begins to open up unforeseen and potential valuable energies for other things than preparing, consuming and digesting food. Plenty of books and other resources address those advantages.

And for clarity and vision-questing around Samhain, a fast can offer one more valuable tool to those who want to look beyond the usual boundaries and curtains over our awareness.

As I’ve aged, and as accumulated physical issues make a food-fast a cause of more problems than benefits, I’ve turned more to mental fasts. (This could be one alternative to people struggling with food issues like bulimia and anorexia.) In addition to its purpose as a ritual offering, a devotion which deserves its own post, keeping the attention on a chosen object, image, mantra, deity, etc., for a twenty-four hour period drops all kinds of issues front and center stage. Lacking things to work on? Feeling like I fully qualify for Ancient Honorable Thrice-Sanctified Adeptus XI? Nothing quite like a fast to reveal my crap-of-the-day and put me in my place.

So I take inventory every hour and return, return, return the attention to its focus. Technology helps. (Got the latest fast-app?! A simple e-timer can help a lot. Try a “tasteful chime,” as one friend calls it.)

How good is my concentration? Is my chosen focus for the day even worthwhile? What is devotion, anyhow? What distracts me the most? What claims to be more important, or insists it’s a valid priority? How do I respond to others who ask why I may seem a little absent-minded or distracted today? Do I listen carefully enough to perceive who really wants to know, and who — if I tell them — may mock what they don’t understand? How much of this particular fast is just an exercise of ego or will-power, and how much is meaningful devotion?

OK, you get the idea. Illness can provide a natural push toward a mental fast. You can’t jump into your normal routine, you may find yourself in bed, and rather than relying on cable, Netflix, Hulu, net-surfing or some other drug of choice to fill every single minute you’re not moaning for sympathy, soaking in warm water to soothe your unhappy bone-house*, tossing and turning because you can’t sleep, or downing pills, extracts, roots, powders, potions or elixirs, why not use even a fraction of the time to experiment … on yourself? Best laboratory ever! No? Still not convinced?

I’m a sucker for squeezing every experience for what I can gain from it. (At least that’s what I tell myself. Some future fast will without a doubt show me where that’s no longer true, or never was.)

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a holiday fest this evening with some friends and neighbors. Just the four of us.  A mostly veggie potluck meal, because that’s what’s come from our gardens. A short blessing (probably the one that opens my About page) in lieu of a longer ritual. And the fasting I did yesterday, imperfect, illness-prodded, leaves me grateful to today to be feeling better. No small thing.

Here for your delectation is a short Youtube clip from the 2014 Edinburgh Samhuinn Fire Festival:

Happy Samhain/Halloween to you all!

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Images: 40-day word fast; Gene Wilder fast-meme picCome at me, bro!;

*Old English bán-hús: body, chest; literally, “bone-house.”

Reclaiming the Wild Self   Leave a comment

estes-quote

You can find out more about Clarissa Pinkola Estés here.

In part, the doors Estés refers to are a matter of human time. Live long enough and you’ll very likely wear such scars. carry such stories, cherish such loves. One way to find common ground with others is to focus on these doors. And one of the best ways to access them is by careful listening to ourselves and to each other.

Often enough, we may fear such a world and such a self as much as we yearn for it. A doorway means change. Even if it just opens onto another room, it’s not the room we were in a moment ago. Fears can outline such a door, too — including fear of a door itself. If you’re anything like me, you know or have been someone who at one time or another has walked into a cage and exulted as it clanged shut behind you, reassured that at least you wouldn’t have to walk through yet another damned door.

How to recapture the sense of the preciousness of these doors, as Estes calls it? For in the end our own longing compels us to find them and walk through. Ritual is one way, though by no means the only. By defining boundaries in ritual we can make a door easier to see and peek through. If the past is difficult country for me, I can approach it with safeguards in place. Ritual can help with its prescribed beginnings and endings, its containers of energy and wisdom we can safely draw on at need for balance and perspective and protection. A holiday like the upcoming Samhain, like Hallowe’en, a holy evening for remembering who and what has passed from our lives, offers a safe space to honor and to say farewell to what is gone. Sometimes all that is needed is for us to agree that we can finally let go.

One of the most moving Samhain celebrations I’ve ever experienced was organized by a high-school student — I’ll call her C. — who during her senior year led the Alternative Spiritualities group I advised while teaching at my former school. C. was an atheist who deeply understood the power of ritual theater. Under her leadership, our meetings often were focused discussions about perception and consciousness. Ritual, however, happened just once.

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Interior of a Protestant church, looking from the altar toward the rear entrance.

Halloween fell on a Saturday that fall, as it does this weekend. Just after sundown a group of perhaps a dozen students and I gathered in our school chapel with its old, austere New England style, opened the windows — it was a mild October evening — and lit incense and candles. You take, and make, doors where you find them.

C. briefly explained what we’d be doing, then gathered us in a circle, led us in a simple chant and circle dance, and at length asked us to recall someone or something we wanted to say goodbye to. Any script C. had was entirely in her head. The ritual flowed smoothly because everyone knew its purpose and no one was worried about making mistakes. After all, you couldn’t go off-script. Both tears and laughter fit any moment of that evening.

We each wrote the name of this person or thing on a slip of paper and folded it tightly. One person collected them, and then ceremonially burnt them in a large bucket of sand in the center of our circle on the chapel floor. We chanted as the smoke rose, and I saw several students crying quietly. We cleaned up and sat on the altar steps for candy and snacks and soda, sugaring ourselves into a lighter mood. Many students said at our next meeting the following week how meaningful the experience was for them.

Reclaiming the wild self is work we’re all doing. Much of what I try to write about here is an attempt to document my journey to do just that, along with my sidesteps, mishaps, meanderings and insights along the way. We may call this spiritual objective by different names, but the deep yearning in us is the same, if we stop and talk with and listen to each other. We can if we wish walk part of the way in each other’s company.

May you find such doorways on your own journey, and may they be blessings.

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Images: Estes quotationChurch interior.

A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest   Leave a comment

It’s almost here: Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain/Samhuinn, Dia del los Muertos, Day of the Dead.  Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most unusual festivals in the calendar. In this post I want to take a different tack, exploring history at least somewhat removed from the usual Christian-Pagan fireworks that continue to pop off annually around this time. Because the Druid-pleasing answer* to “Is it Christian?” and “Is it Pagan?” is “Yes.” What matters more, I hope, is what that can mean for us today.

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A recent (Tues., Oct 28) issue of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper features an article on Halloween by British historian Ronald Hutton, who’s well known in Druid circles both for the quality and thorough documentation of his historical work and also his interest in Druidry. Among many other points, Hutton addresses the impression, widespread in Great Britain, that Halloween’s an import from the U.S. It’s not, of course, being instead as English as Monty Python and Earl Grey (and later, as Irish as the Famine, and Bailey’s Irish Cream). Hutton’s observations suggest a connection I’d like to make in this post, in keeping with this time of year. Hence my title, which will become clear in a moment. Just bear with me as I set the stage.

November, rather unimaginatively named “Ninth Month” (Latin novem), was called in Anglo-Saxon Blodmonath, the “blood month” — not for any “evil, nasty and occult” reasons beloved of today’s rabble-rousers, but for the simple fact this was the month for the slaughter of animals and preservation of meat for the coming season of darkness and cold.

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

… was one of the greatest religious festivals of the ancient northern pagan year, and the obvious question is what rites were celebrated then.

The answer to that is that we have virtually no idea, because northern European pagans were illiterate, and no record remains of their ceremonies. The Anglo-Saxon name for the feast comes down to an agricultural reality, the need to slaughter the surplus livestock at this time and salt down their meat, because they could not be fed through the winter. A Christian monk, Bede, commented that the animals were dedicated to the gods when they were killed, but he did not appear to know how (and they would still have been eaten by people).

Hutton proceeds to examine how we can nevertheless reconstruct something of that time and its practices through careful research. As a Janus-faced holiday, Halloween marked the fullness and completion of the harvest and return home of warriors and travelers — a time to celebrate.  It also marked the coming of the hardest season — winter: cold, dark, often miserable and hungry, and sometimes fatal. People then measured their ages not in years but in winters — how many you’d survived. Hutton eloquently conveys all this — do read his article if you have time.

And because so much of North America bears the imprint of English culture, I want to peer at one particular autumn, and the Hallowed Evening that year, in England 948 years ago.  It’s 1066, a good year at the outset, as historian David Howarth paints it** in his wonderfully readable 1066: The Year of the Conquest. A year, strangely enough, both like and unlike our own experience so many generations later in 2014:

It was not a bad life to be English when the year began: it was the kind of life that many modern people vainly envy. For the most part, it was lived in little villages, and it was almost completely self-sufficient and self-supporting; the only things most villages had to buy or barter were salt and iron. Of course it was a life of endless labour, as any simple life must be, but the labour was rewarded: there was plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of space, and plenty of virgin land for ambitious people to clear and cultivate. And of course the life had sudden alarms and dangers, as human life has had in every age, but they were less frequent than they had ever been: old men remembered the ravages of marauding armies, but for two generations the land had been at peace. Peace had made it prosperous; taxes had been reduced; people had a chance to be a little richer than their forefathers. Even the weather was improving. For a long time, England had been wetter and colder than it normally is, but it was entering a phase which lasted two centuries when the summers were unusually warm and sunny and the winters mild. Crops flourished, and men and cattle throve. Most of the English were still very poor, but most of the comforts they lacked were things they had never heard of.

Howarth’s account continues, vivid in detail; he chooses the small town of Little Horstede near Hastings that dates from Saxon times for his focus, to examine the immediate and later impact of the Norman Conquest.

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

By early autumn of the year, things still looked promising for the English. True, their king Harold Godwinson, new to the throne just that past January, faced a dispute with the Norman duke William over the succession after the late king Edward passed. But Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law, he apparently had the late king’s deathbed promise of the throne, he was unanimously elected by the Witan (the English council of royal advisers), and he was a crowned and fully invested king as far as the English were concerned.

He was also proving to be a competent leader and warrior. When an invading army of some 7000*** Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig landed in the Northeast of England, Harold rode north in force, covering the 180 miles between London and Yorkshire in just four days, meeting and defeating the Norwegians on September 25 in the Battle of Stamfordbridge. The peace that the English had enjoyed was tested, but as word spread of this English victory, you can imagine the relief and the sense that all might well continue as it had for decades now. The rich harvest of 1066 went forward, and plans could proceed for the annual All Hallows celebration.

Swithun (d. 862), bishop, later saint, of Winchester

England was by this time thoroughly Christian (see St. Swithun, left), though folk memories of older practices doubtless persisted, mixed with a fair helping of legend and fantasy and uneven religious instruction from the local priests. The Christian retrofitting of Pagan holidays, holy sites and practices is well documented, and hardly unique to Christianity — the same thing occurs worldwide as religions encounter each other and strive for dominance or co-exist to varying degrees. To name just a few examples, take for instance Roman polytheism and many faiths in the lands of the ancient Empire, with Roman priests adding one more deity statue to the crowd for each new god they encountered, including the current emperor of course (with most peoples acquiescing happily except for those odd Jewish monotheists and their bizarre prohibition against such images!); Buddhism and the emergence of the Bon faith in Tibet; Shinto and Buddhism in Japan; and mutual influence between Islam, Sufism, and older practices like the Yazidi faith in the Middle East.

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

allsaints-oswiecim

All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

It is commonly asserted that the feast was the pagan festival of the dead. In reality feasts to commemorate the dead, where they can be found in ancient Europe, were celebrated by both pagans and early Christians, between March and May, as part of a spring cleaning to close off grieving and go forth into the new summer. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic church did gradually institute a mighty festival of the dead at this time of year, designating 1 November as the feast of All Saints or All Hallows, initially in honour of the early Christian martyrs, and 2 November as All Souls, on which people could pray for their dead friends and relatives. This was associated with the new doctrine of purgatory, by which most people went not straight to hell or heaven but a place of suffering between, where their sins were purged to fit them for heaven. It was also believed that the prayers of the living could lighten and shorten their trials, as could the intercession of saints (which is why it was good to have all of those at hand). The two new Christian feasts were, however, only developed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, and started in Germanic not Celtic lands.

Yet all was not peace in England. The triumph that was the Battle of Stamfordbridge proved short-lived. Disturbing rumors kept arriving of William assembling an army of invasion across the English Channel on the shores of Normandy, in fact ever since January when Harold received the crown. The English king began preparations for defense. Yet as the days and months passed, and the good weather for such crossings steadily diminished as all of September and then early October came and went without incident, most people began to relax. England would enjoy a breathing space for this winter at least. Whatever might happen next spring, this late in the year no one chanced the storms, fog and rough water, least of all a large army that would have to arrive by boat.

battlemapYet William and his invasion force did just that. After weeks of bad weather, the wind finally shifted to favor the Norman leader, and he and his men set sail on September 27. When word came to the English king of the Norman landing, with ships and troops on the southern shore of England, king Harold and company rode back south, already weary from one major battle, right into another.

Careful excavation, study of contemporary accounts, and site visits mean that resources like the Eyewitness to History website can give us a portrait like this:

Harold rushed his army south and planted his battle standards atop a knoll some five miles from Hastings. During the early morning of the next day, October 14, Harold’s army watched as a long column of Norman warriors marched to the base of the hill and formed a battle line. Separated by a few hundred yards, the lines of the two armies traded taunts and insults. At a signal, the Norman archers took their position at the front of the line. The English at the top of the hill responded by raising their shields above their heads forming a shield-wall to protect them from the rain of arrows. The battle was joined.

Contemporary accounts record how the two armies fought all day, until Harold was dispatched with an arrow through one eye. Shortly after that, the disabled king was cut down by Norman warriors, and England’s fate turned.

Years later the Bayeux Tapestry commemorated a version of the event. But of course at the time there was no Twitter feed, no broadcast of news minutes after it happened by correspondents on the scene. No Fox News and CNN to digest and sort through the implications according to the politics of the day. Word of the battle and what it might mean would take weeks to spread, rippling northward from the coast where the first battles took place. For much of England, the Hallowed Evening, the All Saints Day of 1066 came and went without change.

At this distance, and without knowing the details, most of us may naturally have the impression Hastings was decisive. King Harold dead, battle won, QED. From there, we assume, William advanced toward London, accepted the grudging fealty of a defeated people, and after maybe quelling a few sparks of resistance or rebellion, took firm control of the throne and nation and ruled for the next 21 years, until his death in 1087.

Except not. True, William was crowned king in Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.  But the following years brought their own troubles for the Norman king. Here’s the Wikipedia version (accessed 10/30/14; endnotes deleted):

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years. William left control of England in the hands of his half-brother Odo and one of his closest supporters, William FitzOsbern. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne. The Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. These events forced William to return to England at the end of 1067. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold’s mother Gytha, and after suffering heavy losses managed to negotiate the town’s surrender. In May, William’s wife Matilda was crowned queen at Westminster, an important symbol of William’s growing international stature. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Gospatric, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south. Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Ætheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile Harold’s sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

Ideologies and politics trouble us this Halloween just as they did 948 years ago, on a misty green island off the continent of western Europe.

Centuries later, as blended Norman and English cultures formed a new unity, the Protestant Reformation which swept much of Great Britain blotted out the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayer for saintly intercession. But as Hutton notes, Halloween “survived in its old form in Ireland, both as the Catholic feast of saints and souls and a great seasonal festival, and massive Irish emigration to America in the 19th century took it over there.”

In fact, having made this a citation-heavy post anyway, I’ll give Hutton nearly the last word, which is also his last word in his article:

In the 20th century [Halloween] developed into a national festivity for Americans, retaining the old custom of dressing up to mock powers of dark, cold and death, and a transforming one by which poor people went door to door to beg for food for a feast of their own, morphing again into the children’s one of trick or treat. By the 1980s this was causing some American evangelical Christians to condemn the festival as a glorification of the powers of evil (thus missing all its historical associations), and both the celebrations and condemnations have spilled over to Britain.

On the whole, though, the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark.

There’s a worthwhile Conquest. “Is it Pagan?”  “Is it Christian?”  Let’s ask “Is it holy?”

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Images: jack-o-lanterns; Harold on the tapestry; St. Swithunbattle map; All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland, 1984.

*Rather than dualities and polar opposites, ternaries and triples permeate Druidry. As J. M. Greer observes,

Can anything as useful be done with the three elements of Iolo’s Druid philosophy, or for that matter with the four medieval or five Chinese elements?

Nwyfre, gwyar, and calas make poor guides to physics or chemistry, to be sure. Their usefulness lies elsewhere. Like other traditional elemental systems, the three Druid elements make sense of patterns throughout the universe of our experience. Tools for thinking, their power lies in their ability to point the mind toward insights and sidestep common mistakes.

Take the habit, almost universal nowadays, of thinking about the universe purely in terms of physical matter and energy. This works fairly well when applied in certain limited fields, but it works very badly when applied to human beings and other living things. Time and again, well-intentioned experts using the best tools science has to offer have tried to tackle problems outside the laboratory and failed abjectly. Rational architecture and urban planning, scientific agriculture and forestry, and innovative schemes for education and social reform often cause many more problems than they solve, and fail to yield the results predicted by theory.

Why? The theoreticians thought only of gwyar and calas, the elements of change and stability, expressed here as energy and matter. They left something out of the equation: nwyfre, the subtle element of life, feeling, and awareness. They forgot that any change they made would cause living things to respond creatively with unpredictable changes of their own.

In every situation, all three elements need to be taken into account. They can be used almost as a checklist. What is the thing you’re considering, what does it do, and what does it mean? What will stay the same, what will change, and what will respond to the change with changes of its own? This sort of thinking is one of the secrets of the Druid elements.

**Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest. Penguin Books, 1981, pgs. 11-12.

***A conservative figure — estimates range as high as 9000.

About Initiation, Part 5   2 comments

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Much of what we can do with initiation consists of bringing the inner experience outward, establishing it in consciousness, so that we can begin to live in and from the new awareness.  That can often mean we find ourselves expressing it through light, sound, color, form, in painting, drawing, photography, dance, music, writing, embroidery, etc. — some way to bring that inside stuff into this realm of touch and smell and contact and physical sensation.  The correlation doesn’t need to be, won’t be, exact.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s a bridge to somewhere over the rainbow, where the sidewalk ends, where the path disappears into a pool of still water.  Pick(le) your metaphor.

Believing, as the (transformed) saying goes, is seeing.  We see it through, we manifest it, because we’ve seen it before, maybe via an inner sense that doesn’t always feel like sight but may come as some other way of knowing.  Do we need to be told “what to look for and when” as the cartoon suggests?  Only if we’re focused on proof rather than transformation.  Only if we’re trying to see somebody else’s vision.  Ours, however, is ours — it doesn’t require tricks.  (True, it may sneak up on us, or we may be the ones doing the sneaking.)  Others may well “believe” it when they see it in our lives, when they have something they can contact that reassures them we’re still grounded here. Even if — or especially when — we’re not, anymore.  Or not like we were, exclusively.  We’re not freaks (at least usually not obvious ones).  But the life that flows through us when we complete the circuit and connect to both poles comes across to everyone.  Each person is charged at least a little, whenever any one of us is.  The democracy of spirit.  The changes come, and with a measure of luck and grace and good weather, we survive this life again, and enough of our loved ones are still with us to carry on.

If it’s a difficult initiation — unwanted or unsought — we may resist the awareness.  The divorce, the scary diagnosis, the death of a friend, the chronic pain.  But even if it’s the events and timing of the outward initiation that seem to be the launch-pad, the dividing line between our old and new selves, almost always, in my experience, sign-posts and markers of the inner preparation and change have shown up beforehand.  We just may not recognize them till later, if at all.  Scant consolation when your life falls apart all around.  And even less welcome are the well-meaning Others in your life who may let slip that they “saw that one coming a mile away.”  (But could we listen, could we hear the warning?  Nope.  Absolutely not.  Don’t want to, don’t tell me, I don’t want to hear it!)  Sometimes deafness is protection, the only shield we have at the moment.  Compassion for ourselves, for others in that moment, and after.

One of the reasons I maintain this blog is the opportunity it gives me to test and measure some part of my inner worlds against this outer one.  After all, this is the world I live in with a physical body, and if I want to use here what I’ve experienced elsewhere and inwardly, it needs to be adapted to the dynamics of this world.  This physical life is one pole of the circuit that is our existence.  The other pole lies in our inner worlds, but that’s no reason either to discount it or to grant it a superiority over everything else that it doesn’t deserve.  Who has explored “everything life has to offer”?  I’ve been around for several decades, and I still feel like a rank beginner, like I’m only just starting to do more than scratch the surface.  And yet at the same time as doors open, a strange-familiar welcome lies on the other side, like I’m returning to something I’ve always known but haven’t yet walked.  Now (first time?  second time?) I’m setting foot there.

In the first branch of the Mabinogion, Pwyll prince of Dyfed encounters Arawn, Lord of the Otherworld, and the exchanges that develop between the two realms profit both of them.  It’s a circuit both literal and figurative, as most things are:  accessible to the metaphorical part of our minds, but also to our inner senses, if not our physical ones.  And sometimes the division falls away and no longer separates the worlds. In the Western Tradition, Samhain or Hallowe’en celebrates just such a thinning of the veil.  The Otherworld enters this one, or we journey there in dream or vision, and we become walkers in both worlds.  Sometimes this world can then go transparent, and we see both worlds simultaneously, that old double vision that dissolves time and distance and the game of mortality.  Then the veil falls again, easy concourse between the worlds slips away, and we resume to our regularly scheduled lives.  Except not quite.  We’ve changed.

As the old U.S. Emergency Broadcast System (now the EAS) used to say, more or less, “Had this been an actual emergency, you would have received instructions about what to do next,” except that instructions are already hard-wired in our hearts.  Listen without listening, and all we get is static.  The station has nothing more to say to us.  No instructions.  It seems like no one’s at the controls.  No directions.  If we can’t easily access them any longer, out of neglect or fear or ignorance, sometimes there’s a gap between learning about the “emergency” and “receiving instructions ” — a gap of hours, months, years, lives even.  Where to go, what to do, how to go on, all become unknowable, impossible, lost to us.  And so the ferment works in us, till we’re driven to find out, to quest for wisdom, to cry for vision.  And what we ask for, we receive — eventually — as the Great Triad records:  Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and it will open to you.  Eventually.  Patience, old teacher, maybe the earliest and longest lesson of all.  Another face of that strange love that sometimes seems (dare we admit it?) built into things, that will not ever let us go.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Updated 15 March 2013

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Images:  mystical dancer initiation; proof; b&w figures

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