Archive for the ‘nature spirits’ Category

A Druid’s Compass   Leave a comment

[A version of this post was originally published in Druid Magazine. How do we orient ourselves, and what guides and markers can we use? The things I write about are part of my own “Druid compass” — you probably have a similar set yourself. The article gets a little purple in its prose, but if you’re a regular here, you’re used to reading past that.]

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Inwangsan (photo by Gael Chardon)

 

Sometimes it takes another country to teach you lessons about your own. Five summers ago while I was teaching English for a busy month in Seoul, Korea, I encountered a local land spirit who showed me that this lovely country I was just beginning to discover was decidedly not my home.

It was about a week after I’d finally joined OBOD and requested the Bardic course. It was also my last weekend to explore Seoul and its environs before I flew back to the States to await that first of a series of welcome brown envelopes with the British postmarks of the OBOD course.

So on a foggy Sunday morning I made my way by train toward Inwangsan, a sacred mountain a handful of kilometers from my one-room apartment in Seoul, and then on foot into the mist. Outside Dingninmun Station and under the overcast sky, I managed to miss the tourist signs and markers , but the mountain loomed nearby, unmistakable, so I began my ascent off trail, figuring I’d intersect it higher up, near where a Buddhist and shamanic shrine coexist peacefully. Inwangsan is famous for its commanding views and granite cliffs. As for the view, I had little hope for on this gray day, but exposed granite slabs and outcroppings shone slick in the rain.

Forty-five minutes of climbing later, wet, muddy, and annoyed with myself, I paused to catch my breath. The fog had thickened, but the rising slope was still a reliable guide for the direction I wanted to go. I took a step, and –- how to describe it? –- up rose a wall of resistance in front of me. Something challenged me and barred my way from further ascent. At first I thought, stubborn and oblivious as I can be, that it was merely the tug of my own fatigue, but when I took another step it was clear this issued from something other than me. The hair on my arms stood up. Heart pounding, I apologized out loud, mumbled the few phrases of polite Korean I knew, turned around and slogged back down.

What was it? I rarely see anything inwardly in such situations, but impressions came this time as I made my way off the slopes. Something with multiple arms, big as a pickup truck, banded in stripes of dark and light, and determined to block me from advancing any further. I’ve not written about this till now, and just putting it into words makes the feel of it march again up and down my spine, vivid as if it happened this morning, a heavy ascent of wet earth, a tang of juniper and Asian pine and dead leaves. Yet I’d forgotten the mountain’s name, and the train station’s, too, and had to consult my journal from that summer. That as much as anything reminded me yet again (as if I need any further sign) of my “outlander” status there: I did not know the proper names for things.

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Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915

After British poet Rupert Brooke visited the Rocky Mountains some hundred years ago on a North American tour, he wrote: “There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes … it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead” (Brooke, Letter XIII, “The Rockies”).

Brooke was young – it was just a few years before his untimely death at 27 – and he wrote with a young bard’s flip ignorance to cloak his discomfort with an unfamiliar country. For of course ghosts walk this continent, millennia of them. Brooke simply hadn’t yet listened closely enough. But new landscapes often strike us that way. A Chinese proverb I heard while working in The People’s Republic of China sums it up handily: shui tu bu fu – “earth and water aren’t comfortable.” We don’t yet know them, and neither do they know us. But stay in a place long enough, sweat and sleep there, plant and harvest, raise families and bury your dead, and the land begins to learn you, too, and to recognize you. And as you work out names for the shapes of water and earth you find in the neighborhood, and come to greet the stones and trees as friends, the words get shaped by mouths that eat and drink here, by lungs that take in the local air.

In the way of Bards, another who grappled with the same challenge comes to answer Brooke’s verses with words of his own. At 86, Robert Frost was asked to deliver a poem for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961. The day dawned cold and bright, and with his failing vision and the sun in his eyes, Frost couldn’t read the words in front of him, so the old bard made do with memory instead, and recited another of his poems.

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Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration

“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” he begins in “The Gift Outright” (Frost, 1975, p. 348). How often a bard finds a way through error and trial and awen. Frost continues, naming an experience common enough among many American Druids who may strive to honor a rich heritage originating east of the Atlantic, while also heeding new-old voices here on what some First Peoples still call Turtle Island:

But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves …

Here in what homesick settlers called New England, older names still linger for things no one truly possesses. Within an hour from where I live you can find Mt. Monadnock, Mt. Ascutney, Wantastiquet Trail, Skatutakee and Nubanusit lakes. Anywhere you go on this continent, similar names and undercurrents whisper, and careful listening will repay any effort to attend to lore and myth and what the land wights may have to say. (The earth’s an old house: many lands have the same overlay of newer names on older ones.) Sometimes it takes long patience to regain their trust, if careless previous inhabitants squandered it. Sometimes it takes longer practice to stop withholding ourselves from our places, and to inhabit them fully.

Here in Vermont the Yankee accent and sensibility rise like springwater from long winters and sap from local trees boiled to syrup, pork from free-range pigs that graze the oak mast on Windmill Hill, which we can see from our living room window, and Okemo State Forest not so very distant. “Eating local” needn’t be mere marketing of another yuppie indulgence. It’s what we all did until just a couple of generations ago, growing it ourselves, letting the land feed our bellies and spirits. And it makes sense if you’re committed to “Druiding” (let’s make it a verb!) –- the taste and smell of home, and of a new place, too, can be powerful guides. The body leads the way by a kind of homing instinct.

Names, listening, tastes and smells. What of ritual and ceremony? Once my wife and I settled in Vermont, walking to learn my neighborhood became a go-to practice for me, with a three-mile loop of dirt roads my almost-daily ceremonial. When I honor the four quarters, I see the fish pond east of our house the former owners stocked with carp, and I remember water-of-air. The cold fronts each winter sweep down from Canada: air-of-earth. And with a hill named for a grove of hemlocks to our east beyond the pond that obscure the horizon, we never get much in the way of sunrises, but dramatic sunsets make up for it: fire-of-water. Online you can still track down Mike Nichols’ Wiccan classic “Re-thinking the Watchtowers: Thirteen Reasons Air Should Be in the North” (Nichols, 1989): it’s now a “sacred text” itself, though it started out as an observed deviation from traditional practice. Rules change with places, but ancient patterns abide.

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Works Cited:

Brooke, Rupert. (2004). Letters from America. Project Gutenberg EBook #6445. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6445/6445-h/6445-h.htm

Frost, Robert. (1975). The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Nichols, Mike. (1989). “Re-thinking the Watchtowers or 13 Reasons Air Should Be in the North.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos089.htm.

IMAGES: Inwangsan by Gael Chardon; Rupert BrookeFrost at JFK Inauguration.

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“What Remains in the Journal, What to Communicate”   1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images: handbirdhard at work; walking.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

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Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

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Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

Spring Equinox on Monadnock   Leave a comment

Almost a month ago now I got the nudge to visit the major peaks in the area — Monadnock (NH), Hogback and Ascutney (VT) — starting on Alban Eilir, the spring equinox.  Energy-lines and Native American paths have been in my thoughts since the new year, and yesterday I climbed through snow and ice to within bowshot of Monadnock’s stony peak at 3165 feet.  The mountain is a New Hampshire state park, and lies a short distance north of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, southeast of Keene and west of Jaffrey, NH.

Monadnock, or Grand Monadnock, to distinguish it from other lesser monadnocks in the region, has the reputation for being one of the most-climbed peaks in the world.  Thogh my wife and I have lived off and on in the area since 1991, I’d never visited.  From what I saw yesterday, a summer climb would still be strenuous, but I’m glad that with the ice and cold, I had the mountain nearly all to myself.  Or, more accurately, the mountain had me.  All wild places have a presence, and the berg-geist or “mountain spirit” of Monadnock made itself known most of all in a listening silence.  I met just six other people, and all in the first half hour of my climb. All were descending.  After that, no one but the mountain and me.

The first leg of the southeast ascent rises gradually, just enough to get you conscious of your breathing.  The temp at this point was in the low 40s — it just looks colder in these shots.

M1-foot

The new season really is here, though a 4″ fall of heavy wet snow two days ago seemed to give the lie to that. When I left the ranger station at the foot, the sun shone through scattered clouds.  Ice doesn’t rule everything any more. A small spring had broken free of ice and ran across the trail.

M3-spring

The climb begins in earnest once the trail splits into White Cross and White Dot.  The trail map showed similar elevations and roughly equal distances, so I opted for White Cross.

M2-signs

Besides, to paraphrase Frost, “it was snowy and waited there.”  As the map warned, “trails are not necessarily marked for winter use.” Painted arrows and keys on the rocks often lay below the snowline.  Markers on a few exposed boulders showed  and the prints of those ahead of me provided enough guidance.  But I was mindful of the sky — a quick change could easily leave me lost in fog or snow showers, as the map also warned.  It was easier, not just prudent, to pay attention, because I was alone.

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Many states in the U.S. still retain versions of Native American place-names.  Vermont and New Hampshire bristle with them: Bomoseen, Skatutakee, Memphremagog, Ascutney, Monadnock.  The Wikipedia entry obliges with the following information about the mountain’s name:

… “monadnock” is an Abenaki-derived word used to describe a mountain. Loosely translated it means “mountain that stands alone,” although the exact meaning of the word (what kind of mountain) is uncertain. The term was adopted by early settlers of southern New Hampshire and later by American geologists as an alternative term for an inselberg or isolated mountain.

As I climbed, the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees. No birds here, unlike at the foot where a few sang tentatively overhead. The higher elevation showed visibly in pines coated with ice.

M7trees

I didn’t wear crampons or any special footwear beyond a pair of good winter boots.  Only in a few places was ice a problem.  The snowfall of the day before was a gift — it coated the ice of thaws and freezes beneath it, and made for easier going.  The ascent continued to sharpen, and I remembered bones and muscles I’d forgotten about since late fall.

Vistas offered compensation.  Here’s the view to the west and south, during a particularly clear interval.

M6hills

White Cross and White Dot rejoin about half a mile below the peak.  I was tired by now, though I chuckled at the mixed message of this sign:

M8sign2

It was soon time to descend.  The rock of the final 500 feet was too slick, the weather worsened by the minute, and leaving now would bring me to the foot again before twilight.  Here is the peak over the treetops.

M9peakview

I’m including this final image, though it’s blurred, because this is the highest I climbed, and it captures the berg-geist in winter:  I have been here a long time, and I am still here.  You are flesh — I am stone.

M10Little ceremony — that wasn’t my intent when I climbed.  A few words and gestures to the trees, the sky, the rocks, the snow and brisk fresh air. The mountain, always answering, said nothing.

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Magpie Religion   1 comment

magpieMagpie religion says pick it up if it’s shiny.  Add it to your collection.  Don’t worry if it “matches” or “fits” — shininess is its own category.  It stands out from everything else.

Magpie religion is normally practiced alone, though its origin lies in the genetic stamp all Magpies carry. Aloneness is not a bad thing — the Magpie, at least the Eurasian variety, passes the mirror test for self-awareness.  Magpie doesn’t need a flock to find its own way.  The world of shiny awaits.

Magpie religion says don’t worry so much about God, an afterlife, and so on.  Magpie religion means be a Magpie as best you can, and that means “do Magpie things.”  You’ll begin to see that God comes to you.  Sometimes wearing feathers.  Sometimes not.

Magpie religion means, while you sit on your branch, if you can, sing.

Magpie religion seeks no converts.  If you’re born a Magpie, you’re already a member.  You belong.  If you’re something else, BE that something else.  No copy-cats, or copy-birds.  Everything belongs, has its shiny.  Go find it, says Magpie religion.  Bring it back to the nest.

Magpie religion says beautiful exists on its own terms.  It needs no excuses.  It also doesn’t need a runway, an ad campaign, backers or models.  It doesn’t go in or out of style.

Magpie religion says “Magpie” doesn’t signify anything, even if death or bad weather happens to come along.  Other beings signify using “Magpie.”  Magpie doesn’t mind.  It could mean more shiny.

Magpie religion says the order is important:  magpie first, then religion.  Remember that when you sort your shiny.

Magpie religion says don’t worry if others call you Magpie, which is a silly name, after all.  By BEING Magpie, you make the name beautiful.  Ruffle those feathers, preen a little.  You’ve earned it.

Magpie religion says if someone wants to make an animal guide out of you, introduce the Trickster.  Then fly away.

magpieflyMagpie religion says you carry bright and dark in your own bodies.  No need to go far to seek them, to “understand” them.  You stand under them already.  Literally. Without trying.  Want a vision, check a mirror, see yourself — recognize it.

Magpie religion says “Magpie religion” is a set of sounds, a set of ripples and sparks in your nervous system.  Where are you flying today?

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Images: sitting; in flight

The Eurasian magpie, the variety studied more extensively, also appears to possess episodic memory — the ability to recall/distinguish “what, where, when.” Magpies have been observed using tools, and groups of Magpies showing what has been interpreted as grief over the death of one of their number.  The Magpie is not only one of the most intelligent of birds, but of all animals — an intelligence now recognized to have arisen independently in both corvids (crow and magpie-like birds) and primates.  See Eurasian magpie for more info.

Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate   Leave a comment

jmccarthy(Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared in the November issue.)

Magic of the North Gate is an intriguing book for those like me who have studied McCarthy’s previous works and might have expected another in the same vein. An inviting departure from her involvement in more temple-oriented magic, this book reflects a change of lifestyle as well for its author. A teacher, ritual magician and Hermeticist, McCarthy now resides in Dartmoor National Park in the southwest of the U.K. Think of a Golden Dawn mage taking up residence in Yellowstone or Yosemite. The book remains characteristically humble, wise, unexpectedly funny, and profound – qualities too often lacking in books on magic. Add to these its emphasis on being of service to the land, and it is altogether a valuable resource.

Throughout the book’s nine chapters, McCarthy recounts her rich experiences over the years of working with land spirits and nature magic. A resident for a time in the western U.S., she passes along many helpful observations in her stories and suggestions applicable both for the typically more settled inner and outer terrain of the United Kingdom, and the wilder landscapes of North America. To put it another way, her book often prompts a reader to meditate, reflect and then adapt her many ideas to the reader’s own landscape, circumstances, abilities and experience. No mere recipe book, this.

Nevertheless, along the way you discover that you’ve gained valuable insights on how to approach gardening and building outdoor shrines, advice on honoring the fairies and welcoming local deities, or strategies to deal with approaching storms and “death alleys” on infamous stretches of highways. She discusses ways of honoring old bones you may unearth, effecting a “deity transfer” to a statue, and interacting with Native American peoples, sanctuaries and spirits who will respect your heritage and ancestors if you own them outright, in keeping with how you respect theirs. The eighth chapter, “The Dead, the Living and the Living Dead,” offers much material for exploration and contemplation. As McCarthy observes, “A major skill to learn in life that has major bearing on the death of a magician is discipline of controlling wants and needs … it is a major tool” in making the transition through death (230).

The final chapter, “Weaving Power into Form,” likewise provides ample material to explore in one’s own practice. McCarthy’s Hermeticist training and experience re-emerge, particularly in her emphases and terminology in later chapters, to good effect, since she has contextualized what she says there by establishing a foundation in preceding chapters for her particular flavor of earth magic. Her insights into ways of working with the energies of the temples of the directions and elements are also helpful.

McCarthy’s writing style is both conversational and reflective. Her book reads in part like a journal and follows its own organic and occasionally circular order, though her nine chapters do deliver what their titles promise. Often, though not always, the points she makes are less a “how-to” – though she offers much advice clearly grounded in experience – than a “what-happens-when.” To give just a few for-instances across the chapters, here are some excerpts:

“Magic in its depth creates boundaries of energetic opposition and tension. This is part and parcel of how power works – it also protects the integrity of the inner worlds as well as beefing up the magician … It can also act as an idiot filter …” (17-18).

“If I had known about [the impact on the physical body] beforehand, I would still have explored, but would have looked after my body better and would have made a point of reaching for inner contacts to help teach me about how to handle my body through this work. Hence this part of the chapter” (39).

“Land spirits don’t do ‘sorry’; if you break a promise then the deal is off” (130).

“You may notice that your home or building does not appear upon the land, which is normal if it is a modern building. Buildings, unless they are consecrated spaces or temples, tend to take hundreds of years to fully appear in the inner landscape of the land” (133).

I will return to this book to re-consider and annotate the portions I’ve highlighted and queried in a different way than I will her other books, The Work of the Hierophant, and the Magical Knowledge trilogy (Foundations, The Initiate, and Adepts). The latter texts help fill in gaps in my more intellectual understanding of kinds of work I will very likely not pursue in this life, though there, too, McCarthy’s earned wisdom transfers to other kinds of practice. But Magic of the North Gate is a more immediate companion and touchstone for what I am exploring already, in my own way, on my handful of acres on the New England hilltop where I live and anywhere else I set foot.

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McCarthy, Josephine. Magic of the North Gate. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013.

Image: Josephine McCarthy.

Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared.

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