Archive for the ‘lore’ Category

Jesus and Druidry, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

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

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

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

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

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Part 2 here.]

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

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

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

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

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

Dictionary of the Scots Language.

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

PIE for Breakfast   Leave a comment

This post is self-indulgent, so if you’re not feeling mellow enough to tolerate such things, best move on and come back another time.  OK, you’ve been warned.

Beside me as I write this lies a thick paperback copy of J. P. Mallory’s cumbersomely titled The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  Since it’s a week-end day like today, and nothing presses me to get up and pretend to accomplish anything, I pull it from the nightstand and lie abed thumbing through it.  Yes, I’ll say it first:   “Nerds ‘R’ Us.”

I confess to abject weakness for books like this one about Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of everyone who speaks one of the approximately 100 languages descended from it — roughly half the planet, three billion people, give or take a few million. I open the book and pause at a list of less well-known extinct language names — Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian, Phrygian — that evoke salad dressings, or obscure vintages, or mysterious bloodlines of characters in an occult novel.  To anyone wired just a little differently, the whole thing must just scream B O R I N G.  Though if you’re such a person, you’ve probably stopped reading this already.

My addiction occasions sighs from my wife, because my corridor of facing bookcases dominates a little-used hallway which has now transformed into a single-file passage to the front door of our house.  Language books fill one whole bookcase.  No, not for the most part languages I speak or know in any worldly useful way, but languages I drink from, for their beauty and architecture and sound (and ideas for my own conlangs*).  I know things about them not even their native speakers know, but I couldn’t speak most of them to save my life.  So this is language as first morning coffee, as comfort food, as fix.  Even the abbreviation PIE, for Proto-Indo-European, is comforting.  Pie.  Whipped cream.  Dessert.  Maybe for breakfast.  Flaky crust and steaming freshly baked fruit.  Ah.

The underlying draw of such things (beyond the sensuous indulgence I confess to above) seems quest-like.  After a long climb I crest a hilltop, the mist clears, and there before me are the ruins, thousands of years old.  Only instead of fallen pillars, abandoned steps, doorways opening on empty air, the ruins are words.  Ancient words, weathered, yet often still bearing a family likeness.  Wiros, gwena, brater, swesor.  Man, woman, brother, sister.  Mus, gwous, deiwos.  Mouse, cow, god.  Sedo, bhero.  I sit, I bear.  Oinos, dwou, treyes, kwetwor, penkwe.  One, two, three, four, five.  The likenesses grow if you know even a little Latin or a Romance language, or one of their cousins in India.

Some of the same fascination with this proto-language stirred in the first linguists who considered the verbal ruins they were painstakingly excavating and reconstructing.  Word by word, through comparisons of living languages and their structures and patterns, the older ancestral language was and is rebuilt.  See where the stones are notched, worn, and smudged with soot, and reassemble the fireplace they once made.  And there’s part of a wheel, an urn, a head-dress.  August Schleicher, who flourished in the first half of the 1800s, “sifted through the reconstructed Indo-European of his day for enough usable words to compose a short narrative tale … published in 1868” (Mallory, 45).  His colleagues caught something of the same fever, kept tweaking Schleicher’s story over the ensuing decades, and here’s a contemporary “version of their version”  of the first sentence that I’ve made somewhat more pronounceable for English speakers by taking a few small liberties.  Linguists will see the changes at once and cluck their tongues at me, and no one else will care:

Gurei owis, kwesyo ulna ne est, ekwons speket, oinom ge gurum wogom wegontem, oinom-kwe megam borom, oinom-kwe gumenem oku berontem.

“A sheep that had no wool saw [some] horses, one pulling a heavy wagon, one a heavy load, and another swiftly bearing a man” (ibid).

Maybe it comes down to this:  through such reconstructions we can come closer to talking with the ancestors — and maybe join them in their drinking songs, rather than expecting them just to sing along with ours.

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*My most developed conlang or constructed language is called Thosk.  (The name is cognate with Old English theod “people,” Oscan teuta “people,”  Latin teutonicus, and German Deutsch.)  Its word-stock and grammar are very Indo-European, and so it’s a sibling of English, Spanish, Latin, Hindi, Armenian, Greek, Pashto, French, Latvian, Swedish, Russian, Bengali, Serbian, Danish, Romanian, Ukrainian, Sanskrit, Farsi, Albanian, Dutch, Gujerati … you get the idea.  Here’s a simple sentence in Thosk:  Men ta tha moi urht bev ahi sumbend no meve klase.  “I give more work to anyone sleeping in my classes.”

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

Solstice 2011   4 comments

One of the appeals of earth-centered religions and spiritualities is their celebration of a world we can see and touch, smell and taste and hear right now.  No membership in the right in-group, no attainment of a prerequisite spiritual state, no promised future to wait for.  Instead, democratic access to the sacramental gifts of this life:  the pleasures of simply being alive, of breathing air (assuming you have decent air to breathe), of eating and touching and loving the things of this world, of caressing the people you cherish, of hearing their voices and enjoying their physical presence.  Transient, fragile, time-bound, brief — and all the more dear for that.

At the winter solstice our ancestors knew from studying the sky and watching the sunlight on markers of wood and stone that “when the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.”  My father, a dairy farmer, used to repeat the old saying around this time of year with a kind of grim satisfaction.  More frozen pipes in the barn, more days the tractors would start only with difficulty, more days to chip away ice and plow snow.  But when I talk with my students, mostly dwellers of suburbia and “urbia,” and learn they don’t know this or many other pieces of earth-wisdom, I realize again that I stand as a member of a transitional generation.  My parents and grandparents inherited much of the lore and skill of our agricultural past, and have passed a portion of it on to me.  But so many of the rising generation have lost most of it.

Anyone can have that curious sensation of “secondary memory” that outreaches one’s own lifetime, grafted on through relatives and ancestors.  The only grandmother I knew well was born in 1894, and so I can recall experiences that did not actually happen to me, but which — through her retelling, and with accompanying photos or other artifacts — have assumed the guise of shadowy half-memory, as if they indeed left their imprint directly on my own life and thought and perception, rather than through telling alone.  But in the case of hard-earned knowledge of how to live and anticipate change and thrive on earth, they are not the incidents peculiar to one life only, but part of the lore of the tribe.

Solstice feels something like that to me. It’s the oldest pan-human holiday we can discern, predating those of particular cultures and religions by thousands of years.  There’s nothing “pagan” about it — it’s a matter of observable fact, rather than belief, as are the equinoxes.  Neolithic monuments and markers attest to the reach of such knowledge around the planet.  An essay by scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke, the title of which has drifted out of reach of immediate recall, begins like this:  “Behind every person now alive stand one hundred ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”  The first time I read that, I felt a delicious shiver of mortality and awe.  Yes, the ratio may have shifted (though I hope never to live on a world where that proportion favors the living over the dead — imagine for an instant the conditions that implies), but the image endures.  And of those assembled dead, perhaps half or more knew and celebrated the solstice.  For five hundred or a thousand or more generations, people acknowledged the shift of the planet in its relation to the sun.  The southern hemisphere of course complements the northern in its seasons — their summer is well-launched, and now the days begin to shorten.  The body knows these shifts, while the mind may take its own interval to catch up.  We feel such changes in our bones, on our skin.  In a couple of weeks, by mid-January, the change shows more clearly.  Morning and evening commuters will enjoy more light, and the year turns.

Another of the keys, then, to connect to my previous post on a Religious Operating System, is lore itself:  the knowledge of cycles and patterns we can measure and demonstrate for ourselves.  No need for the fascination and hysteria surrounding 2012 and the supposed End of the World “predicted” by the Mayan calendars.  Does no one remember Y2K?!  Or any of half a hundred “prophecies” of the end over the last few millenia?  The Maya were simply engrossed in the measure of time, and by their reckoning one major cycle ends and another begins.  Their obsession made for precise astronomical reckoning.  Changes are coming, certainly.  Have they ever not come?

Lore includes some dross and superstition, which can almost always be dispatched by dint of careful observation and experiment.  And while some generations may forsake the wisdom which their ancestors long thought worthy of preservation, it is — eventually — recoverable. If the peak- and post-oil folks are right, we face a sharp decline in material wealth and technology powered by a rapidly diminishing supply of cheap energy, and not enough people now know how, or are prepared, to flourish as people did for most of human history:  wood fires, gardens and food animals, home remedies, animal and human labor, solar and wind power on a modest scale.  But little or no electricity, or any of the hundreds of devices it powers, or petroleum products and technologies.  We live with a false sense of security, as if the entire West were one large gated community.  All it takes is a power outage of a day or two, as happened with Hurricane Irene for so many, to cast us out of our ease and return us to the human experience of all generations until the last few.  We could see the real “99%” as all those who lived before the last century and its admittedly artificial standards of material luxury and abundance for a portion of the planet.  But the solstice includes those hundred ghosts and the living, all witnesses of the day that signals the return of light and hope to the world.  May it bring those things to you.

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The solstice for the U.S. actually takes place at 12:30 am Eastern Standard Time on Thursday 12/22.  So calendars favor the majority — for all but the east coast, the Solstice is indeed today rather than early tomorrow morning.

Henge image.

Posted 21 December 2011 by adruidway in Druidry, lore, nature, solstice, spirituality, wisdom

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