Archive for the ‘OBOD’ Category
In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.
“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”
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And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.
OBOD Chief 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Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.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 (pg. 31).
As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. The Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:
Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).
An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.
Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.
And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:
Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).
This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:
May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light.
Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:
A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.
And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:
In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.
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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry
Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,
might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).
It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:
Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.
Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are
the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation
together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:
As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.
Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:
Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …
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Image: Iona Abbey.
says Canadian poet Charlotte Hussey.
Now this proves very useful advice, I’ve found. All the materialist skepticism to the contrary, imagination springs from an inward compost and leaf-mold, yes, and also a vital, creative capacity we all possess as our human birthright. Even those of us who’ve tried to cast it away, if only because to nourish dream and hope can hurt much more than indulgence in flat despair. That means almost all of us. Maybe our singers and poets and wild-eyed prophets number among those who simply can’t forget any longer.*
And some of the Wise will tell you that imagination is the astral sight: we see by other means than merely light rays reaching the retina and dashing up neurons to the brain. Light everywhere has its place, but physical light does not account for those familiar or haunting landscapes we’ve never visited, companionable (or challenging) beings we have never met, and so on. Or indeed, landscapes and beings we have met before. Just not here.
And Hussey’s Ecobardic Manifesto asserts, among its other points, both the return of and our singular need for “the prophetic vocation to look into the inner truth of things and speak, on behalf of the community, what need[s] to be spoken.”
But do we even want to hear “what needs to be spoken”? And if we opt to listen, how do we distinguish this needful message in the midst of the clamor and noise of all the other increasingly hysterical voices around us?
Small steps. I keep returning to this most helpful strategy. Our own practice of silence is a beginning (and advanced) step that helps with discernment of an inner truth we each know for ourselves, if we listen. If we can’t discern it, we can imagine it. Finding a still point beyond the mind chatter. Walk along a quiet sidewalk with trees, find a park, a quiet corner of your apartment or condo or neighborhood. Stillness as practice.
Focus or mantra or prayer. For Christians, scripture like “Be still and know that I am God” makes a powerful start. Pagans have an equivalent range of seed-verses and prayer-songs.
Sometimes the name of deity, or a suitable word like awen or om or amen.
Song or chant in a language you don’t know, to take you out of your talking head (and anybody else’s, too).
Symbol or mandala or image, for those who prefer the non-verbal. Cross, triskele, star, Platonic form, face of a beloved.
Counting your breaths.
Worship kinetically: pick up colorful leaves, play in the mud, lie on your back and watch the clouds. The skills we practiced effortlessly as children have not abandoned us, though we may have “put away childish things” as we raced off to concern ourselves with “matters of importance” and the wide word of adult stress and doubt and angst.
Substances used reverently, like various smudges and smoking herbs, fermented drinks, and so on, have featured in worship and ritual and self-care for millennia.
More important than what I do is doing it often enough that it becomes for me a spiritual practice.
I cannot remember the paternal grandfather I was named for: he died 14 years before I was born. All I have of him are three yellowing photos and a handful of stories. But I imagine him when I honor my ancestors of blood and spirit, and he’s more alive to me as a result. A link, however tenuous, that I (and he, from his side) can strengthen at will.
One of the OBOD Bardic practices is the inner sacred grove. So what kind of place will I make as a spiritual sanctuary for myself and any inner guide whose counsel I seek? I resort to this place to leave a symbol, a dream recalled I want to ponder, or to begin a poem, resolve a problem, express my gratitude, build an altar, light an inner flame, begin and end a ritual, recall during moments of challenge and joy. What I imagine can become as real as anything I build with lumber and mortar, nails and plaster and insulation. (And the grass there doesn’t need weekly mowing. Though the trees, oak and birch, rowan and ash among them, are growing well.)
Imagine, and I remember.
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IMAGES: Charlotte Hussey; D W Easton, circa 1925, on his mail route in Niagara Falls, NY.
*”I think we’re living in a culture that’s so demanding: You never feel like you’re good enough. It wears people down. People are exhausted at the end of the day. They go home and have a drink as a way to cope with all of this—a lot of people have to self-medicate because it would be hard for them to look in the mirror otherwise. The whole concept of being conscious—that’s hard work. A lot of people just don’t want to sign up for it.” “Alcohol as an Escape from Perfection.” Atlantic, 10/13, accessed 10/4/16.
Beltane’s nearly upon us, and Alison Lilly’s most recent blogpost “Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer” catches the energy behind this fire festival. For it is after all the day of the Fires of the Celtic solar god Bel, as even a traditional source like the BBC calmly informs us on their website. Some seasons you’ve just had enough of the world, and most of all yourself as a tame fire, to paraphrase Alison. Do check out her blog. She evokes and invokes Beltane in a personal and poetic meditation.
You too may long to spark, flare, burn and roar. Heap the kindling of my life and ignite, you whisper — or shout. Beltane is here for you.
Part of the Bardic training of Druid groups like OBOD and others, and much of the initial work in the outer grades of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn focuses on exploring and balancing the elemental energies flowing in and around us. We don’t — normally — want to burn up or out. But a healthy conflagration may burn off the wintry torpor that clings to our mood and outlook. Beltane is tonic, purgative, exhiliration, ignition.
The symbolism of the four physical elements of earth, water, air and fire persists in the cultural and magical imagination of the West because they express important truths about human life. They serve as a powerful shorthand for a whole cluster of ideas, images, experiences and memories, and their presence in ritual and story, song and myth will endure as long as we inhabit the same worlds where they manifest.
Their existence as physical entities endows them with the further potential to serve as sacraments. As always, though we keep forgetting, reverence and engagement are our choice, an opportunity like any other that we may welcome or reject. Here, too, fire can kindle us to possibility and change.
Fire Temple, Chennai, India
Further afield from Celtic-flavored European Druidry, fire is also central to the religious practice of Zoroastrians, the people popularly known as Parsis. Their Fire Temples offer just one more illustration of why reducing fire to an explanation like “rapid oxidation in an oxygen-rich environment like earth’s atmosphere” says nothing about our actual experience of fire, its light and warmth and flickering presence, and its long association in human consciousness with spiritual reality, energy and life. Anyone who’s experienced a good bonfire knows this to some degree. It’s our human art to extend these experiences and celebrate their effect as spiritual opportunities for transformation and joy.
Zoroastrian Sadeh Festival
Fire calls to ancestral human memory. Cultural practices and beliefs that center on it only endow it with additional significance and power. Druids may say as part of ritual “Let us pray with a good fire,” an invocation traceable to the worship of the Hindu Agni and a hymn in the Rig Veda (Bk. 1, 26). And Wendy Doniger in her translation* notes that “When Agni becomes the priest, his robes are both the flames and prayers.” Thousands of years of human experience with fire has not dulled its power.
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Whether you’re part of an OBOD Beltane gathering that follows the traditional ritual, or some other group and ceremony, or you’re a solitary celebrating alone in your own way, may you too share that shiver of anticipation and delight as the day and the rite opens for you at the birth of summer. May you and the Sun both grow in strength. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, we welcome you to this rite of Beltane …”
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IMAGES: Fire Temple in Chennai, India; Sadeh Festival;
*Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. One Hundred Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated. Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 100.
This last weekend marks the 5th East Coast Gathering I’ve attended, the 6th since its launch in 2010, and another gift of Spirit and mortal effort.
You can read my accounts of three of the previous years: 2012 | 2013 | 2014. A special thank-you to John Beckett, several of whose professional photographs illustrate this post. You can visit John’s own articulate and insightful blog “Under the Ancient Oaks: Musings of a Pagan Druid and Unitarian Universalist” over at Patheos here.
Camp Netimus — site of the ECG. Photo courtesy Krista Carter
Registration for the weekend filled within 20 hours of opening this last spring. Gatherings like this answer an obvious need in the Druid and Pagan community, and more are in the works in other locations. It’s on us to help make them happen. A dedicated team can bring the same joy, support, inspiration and community to other regions.
Yes, we’re all solitaries some or much of the time, but every solitary benefits from celebrating and learning in the company of others. That chance conversation, ritual insight, day- or night-dream, word or phrase that lights up just for you, the hugs you give and receive, the opportunities to serve the community through offering a workshop, cooking, cleaning, organizing, driving — these make Gatherings like this such richly rewarding experiences. The dark and light halves of each year are real, and we need all the help and laughter we can find to thread our way through the labyrinth of time.
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I arrived Thursday afternoon early enough to check in and unpack before the opening ritual. My cabin mates had already hoisted a banner, which also made the building easier to distinguish from the others in the dark, when the “9” on the door was no longer readily visible.
Cabin banner. Photo by A Druid Way
Equinox marks the shifting energies of days and nights, rebalancing the world. A lovely moon bore witness, waxing each evening through wonderfully clear skies, lighting the path to evening events like the Ovate initiation ritual and illuminating the short uphill walk from the cafeteria to the nightly fire circle.
Crescent moon in a twilit sky. Photo courtesy John Beckett
The theme this year was ritual, and the whole weekend focused our attention on its magical possibilities through a dozen workshops, demonstrations and ceremonies. You can get a sense of the range of approaches from the list of workshops here. We also welcomed returning U. K. guests Damh the Bard, Cerri Lee, and Kristoffer Hughes.
Cerri Lee, Damh the Bard and Kris Hughes. Photo courtesy John Beckett
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Damh’s workshop on “The Bardic Voice” underscored the centrality of the Bard in Druidry. Like many Druid groups, OBOD orders its teaching in the sequence of Bard, Ovate and Druid. But they do not form a linear progress or erect a hierarchy of achievement. They spiral. In an Ovate breakout group a day later, several people mentioned how they often return to the Bardic coursework, its insights deepening through their Ovate practice. And likewise with the work of the Druid grade.
Damh is a fine teacher, an animated storyteller and ritualist of deep experience. With his wife Cerri he leads Anderida Grove. [For an audio inspiration, listen to his hour-long recording for inner journeying here.]
Damh in teaching mode. Photo courtesy John Beckett
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Reminders of ritual possibility filled the weekend. Below is a picture of a labyrinth, another gift of the weekend, lovingly constructed by Cat Hughes and friends.
Labyrinth by day — entrance. Photo by A Druid Way.
Volunteers switched on each light every evening, then turned them off again when everyone else had gone to bed.
Labyrinth by night. Photo courtesy Damh the Bard.
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Kris’s workshop, “Laudanum, Literature and Liturgy — the Ritual Legacy of Iolo Morganwg,” featured the ritual — in Welsh — that Morganwg first performed on the Summer Solstice on Primrose Hill (London) in 1792, launching the Druid Revival and establishing the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards. Morganwg is also the author of the Druid’s Prayer, still used in many modern Druid groups including OBOD, and a major influence on generations of Druids from his time to the present. Kris’s Celtic eloquence in praise of Morganwg and his passion for Druidry took him off script and left many of us with tears in our eyes.
Kris during his workshop on Iolo Morganwg. Photo courtesy of Dana Wiyninger.
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Bill Streeter from the Delaware Valley Raptor Center, the charity designated for this year’s Gathering donation, brought six birds and made a fine presentation on raptors, their abilities, the dangers (mostly human) facing them, and the challenges of rehabilitating injured birds.
Bill Streeter of the DVRC with a golden eagle. Photo courtesy John Beckett.
These magnificent birds have often suffered neurological injuries that worsen over time. Though both the eagle above and the owl below look normal, both are blind in one or both eyes, or suffer other injuries like crippled wings, and thus could not survive in the wild. But the birds help save the lives of their kin through their appearances in info sessions like this one.
Great Horned Owl. Photo courtesy John Beckett.
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The Alban Elfed ritual celebrating the Equinox includes gifts from children, guests and each of the three grades of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Here are Chris and I holding bowls of acorns, part of the Ovates’ ritual gift, just before the ritual procession into the Circle.
Chris (r) and I (l) just before Alban Elfed ritual. Photo courtesy John Beckett.
The evening eisteddfod (music and poetry circle) one night featured a splendid duet from Kris and Damh — see the image below.
Kris and Damh singing at the fire circle. Photo courtesy Hex Nottingham.
Below is another pic of the fire circle one night. Our enthusiastic and skilful fire-makers Derek and Brom love large, carefully-constructed bonfires.
Evening bonfire. Photo courtesy John Beckett.
Once again Dana set up her meditation tent on the campground for all to visit and enjoy.
Approaching the tent. Photo courtesy Dana Wiyninger
Altar in Dana’s meditation tent on the camping field. Photo courtesy Hex Nottingham.
A small group made a side excursion to nearby Raymondskill Falls. Here’s a view of one of the waterfalls.
Raymondskill Falls. Photo courtesy Gabby Batz Roberts.
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And for those of us who can’t wait an entire year, the Gulf Coast Gathering will celebrate its second year in March 2016. Blessings of the Equinox to all!
Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.
In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.
“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The Guardian.com
I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.
New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10” list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.
The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”
You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”
English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”
“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.
Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness. They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.
Until we did.
[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]
We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.
But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)
These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”
Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:
… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.
During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.
If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.
“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.
“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.
Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react variously to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets some of them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:
When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.
The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be crossed with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)
In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.
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Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.
*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]
McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.
Updated 9 August 2015
[This lovely image comes courtesy of mistressotdark. And in case you’re wondering: yes, the path sometimes IS this clear, lovely and straight. But we earn these glorious stretches during intervals when everything isn’t sweetness and light.]
Today’s post features an excerpt from Tommy Elf’s moving account of his Bardic journey, framed by his experiences at the first Gulf Coast Gathering in Louisiana this past weekend. His words dovetail with the previous post here about initiation — always a challenge, whether you’re journeying down a solitary path with its own obstacles and opportunities unique to your nature and history, or along a more public walk with Orders like OBOD.
Here are Tommy’s reflections:
Folks, I have been in my Bardic Grade studies for the last seven years. For those seven years, I believed that I could struggle through the material on my own. I rarely asked for help from my tutor/mentor, and stepped back and forth constantly as life had set into time requirements. At this gathering, I opted to have a Bardic Grade initiation – and I am glad that I did so. It has changed my perspective so much. I had the chance to talk with other Bardic Grade folks, as well as my fellow initiates, about their experiences. And I found out that I was not alone in those moments. Furthermore, one of the guests was Susan Jones, the Tutor Coordinator for OBOD. She held a session with all the Bardic Grade members to discuss pitfalls, and various other aspects concerning the course. Listening to other people discuss their experiences helped me to realize that our journeys may be unique to one another, but there are some aspects that are similar. For anyone currently in their Bardic Grade studies, I cannot stress how much help is actually available to you. You just have to reach out and grab it! There is your mentor/tutor, the discussion board, your own grove or study group (if one is near enough to you), as well as other folks within OBOD who are taking their Bardic grade or have already been through it.
Tommy’s openness here contrasts helpfully, I hope, with my own sometimes opaque references to my journey. There’s also a delightful symbolic resonance to his seven years in Druidry — at a crisis moment, the turn comes, and ways open before him. Seven it is. And now the challenge: what next? How do I incorporate this new thing into my life? How do I step into possibility, and not snuff it out by dragging along with me everything I DON’T need? What am I called to do? What CAN I do?
If time truly is what keeps everything from happening at once, and space is what keeps everything from happening here, we have ample reason to be grateful to both, pains though they both often are. Or more elegantly, as I’m fond of quoting Thoreau: “Time is the stream [we] go fishing in …”
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Camp Netimus path — photo courtesy of Carolyn Batz
I’ve reached a watershed in my Druidic studies with OBOD — the completion of the Bardic course. The real training runs life-long, of course. No one stops talking (or starts bowing) now that I’ve learned and practiced a little more than I knew before. Except those who always bow to me, just as I bow to them: beloved trees moving even when no wind stirs their branches, sky as I exult in its blues and grays, birds when I approach slowly and smoothly enough not to startle them, Mystery that surrounds and haunts me.
As I draft and revise my Bardic Review, I’m grateful for this partial record of my journey here, online, one I’ve shared with regular readers and one-time visitors both. Much that I could not say here, I recall from the prompts to memory that ARE here: reminders of the outer experiences that pair with inner ones, links and steps that often clarify over time and through further reflection into more than I imagined. A test for the path you’re on: it’s larger than you guess, and keeps revealing and concealing as you walk, small circle of flame that rounds your feet in the dark.
For some time now I’ve carried an image with me for the Ovate Grade: Greywolf — Philip Shallcrass, head of the British Druid Order — in his “wolf-hame” — the Druid as shaman. As a Bard I’ve luxuriated in words, but what I find now draws me to Ovate is space, a place for silence, and presences I do not see but sense otherwise than with sight.
A friend who entered the Bardic grade with me in 2011, shortly before I began this blog, and who has preceded me into Ovate remarked at the 2014 East Coast Gathering that for him as Ovate the guideposts and mile-markers are fewer now. I look forward to a place that rests behind and around the words. Oh, they’re still there, this set of lovely and quicksilver tools. But now the dark has its say as well, and all the Bardic brightness has paradoxically opened onto the place beyond the firelight and delivered me where, as I am readied further, I follow a path more by touch of foot than sound of words.
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