Spirit animates all things, earth and water, air and fire. To live is to experience, in Christian terms, a continuous sacrament. The sacraments of Druidry are the elements. Spirit makes life sacred, and we know this to the degree we recognize and participate and commit to living fully and wholly.
The energies of the elements feature widely in both Druidry and Christianity. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, and water energies characterize the Bardic grade in many Druid traditions — inspiration and intuition, dream and emotion and astral awareness. The place of the Bard is the west, long associated with elemental water. Standing in the west, the bard also faces east — sunrise, beginnings, elemental air, perception and knowledge.
We’re always crossing and re-crossing elemental lines and boundaries. Neither earthy gnome nor watery undine, airy sylph nor fiery salamander, we’re all of these, linked to each.
We might see and call each person’s life a spiral of elemental baptisms. So we ritualize it as a sacrament and reminder. Each of us cradled in our mothers’ wombs, our earth bodies forming, the amniotic waters bathing us as we take on physical shape and substance. No breathing except what our mothers do for us. Then birth, and that first cry, a gasp of air in new lungs, the loss of that other body and its warmth, our first journeying into a world that offers us choices and ventures among all four elements.
What more earthy place to be born for a child of god — all of us children of the divine — than a stable? How fitting that in the traditional story, animals surround the holy newborn, with their hay and straw, along with the reek of dung and the puffs of animal breath. The Golden Tarot features the holy magician surrounded by beasts, implements and symbols of the elemental altar at his feet.
Yet even at birth, at such a private affair, surely a matter of just father, mother and child only, a star shines distantly to herald each birth. We saw his star in the east, say the Magi, the Mages, the Magicians, and we have come to honor him.
Follow your own star, counsel the wise ones of many traditions. You are my guiding star, say our love stories and tragedies. A star shines on the hour of our meeting, say Tolkien’s Elves. Nothing is random.
And disaster? That’s a dis-aster, an ill star that may shine and color our lives. But other stars also — always — are shining. We are never just one thing only. And the Ovate is the grade of the north, the mysteries of life and death, healing and divination, time and fate and return. We are earth at birth, but all of the elements in turn and together, too. Stand in the north, the place of earth, of incarnation and death, and take stock. Learn the herbs that heal and harm, chant the words and sing the charm.
The call of rivers and oceans, streams and pools and wells. Water baptisms, summer swimming holes, the daredevil dive from a height into water that some of us risk. Do we long to “make a big splash” as we enter our adolescence? Surely a time of water and emotion, of dream and imagination, as the world unfolds itself into our first inklings of adulthood, as hormones surge and wash through us, working their watery changes. And those stories of the Biblical flood, of Atlantis drowned, of Mu and Lemuria. We live our lives on a planet dominated by water, we carry in our veins a blood that mirrors the primeval ocean in its salts and minerals, our bodies made of water and earth, subject to the tug of a tidal moon.
Air that fills our lungs, that in-spires us, that makes up one of the rhythms of our whole lives, until we ex-pire, that last breath going out, just as with our first cry we took it in. Air that caresses sweetly or gusts violently, every element meeting us in all its guises, fierce and gentle. Jesus on the mountain, transfigured. Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by power, by simply existing, alive, a blend like each of us of the elements and spirit.
And there in his sight the diabolic or oppositional aspects of incarnate life pull at him. Cast yourself down, the voice taunts him: you won’t really die. Who among us hasn’t stood on a high place and imagines jumping, imagined not plummeting to death, but somehow floating, flying, a power beyond what human life gives? What will we do with this enormous power each of us has to heal or hurt, make or mar the people and places we live? Renounce it, ignore it, forsake it, abuse it, explore it, fulfill it?
Conception and taking on form, an earth baptism of the North.
Birth and first breath, an air baptism of the East.
Adolescence and its hormonal tides, a water baptism of the West.
Adult passion and dedication to a worthy cause, a fire baptism of the South.
Trace the traditional order and position of each element in that sequence — North to East to West to South — and you describe a zigzag, a Harry Potter lightning flash.
And to push further at the symbolism, to go all nerdy and allegorical for a moment, because we can, we’re all marked by a vol de mort, the will of death, a will shaping the particulars of this life that ends at death, whatever may or may not follow.
But until then!!
Other baptisms, of suffering and love, growth and pain and knowledge, each time the elements forming and reforming in our experience. Bones breaking, healing. Bodies ill and recovering, hearts broken and full to bursting, minds challenged and sharpened by training and testing, blunted on battlefields and in factories, regenerated in gardens and gatherings, shaped in schools and lives.
In each life humans spiral through these baptisms, each renewing the experience and memory of the previous one, but also extending it, transforming it. Never twice the same, and yet familiar, too.
Jesus changing water to wine, a water-fire baptism of surprise at a wedding, a symbol of wholeness along the spiral, elements blending and merging. Jesus transfigured, on the airy mountain. Jesus crucified, the pain of incarnation and death, all the elements again, body and blood, breath and fire of pain, of ending. It’s finished, he says. in one gospel. I’ve done what I came to do.
Don’t each of us? To live at all, whether short or long, is to experience the whole gamut, every baptism multiple times. Death, yes. The tomb where they lay Jesus, and roll the stone door shut. Elemental baptism of earth again. Spiral, spiral.
For that’s not all. Because resurrection. Spring. Rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, look out your window. No need to believe any of these things. Walk out the door and experience them for yourself. Make a ritual out of it. Figure out after what it “means” to you. Live it.
To go pop-culture on you: I’ll be back, says the Terminator, mirror of the Creator. The great Ender, who promises a death before life even gets fairly launched. Prevent the future. But No fate — he doesn’t “win.” Instead, life changes him — our perception changes him. He becomes, death becomes, potentially at least, an ally, if a difficult one.
Death is the mother of beauty, says crazy old bard Wallace Stevens. (All bards, to make a verse or song or story, must be a little crazy from time to time. It’s good for them, good for us.) What?! I shout, outraged. Death is the mother of beauty, he repeats, quietly. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.
The gift of incarnation is to draw out from each element the fullness of what it offers. A ritual of elemental baptisms can help us recognize the opportunity of each as it spirals by, and ride the energies of the elements. Give me a rich, full life. I long to drink it all, the bitter, yes, inevitable. But also the sweet, the fair, the lovely, the shining, the joy.
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Images: elementals; Golden Tarot Jesus as Magician; scar.
In 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.
Artists 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.
Another 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: handbird; hard at work; walking.
[Part 2 here.]
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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The 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).
One 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, <begin nerdiness>. 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.
In 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 (here, here 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, <end nerdiness>.
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.