Archive for the ‘earth-centered spirituality’ Tag

“First and Last Things” — Druid & Christian Theme 9

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Now that I’ve reached the end of this series on some possible shared spaces between Druids and Christians, I’d like to pause and take stock.

How many of us have experienced anger, frustration or a kind of spiritual PTSD from our contacts with Christianity? How many have found one or more of these posts irritating or painful? Yet how many still feel drawn to something alive in Christianity or Christian practice?

From the wild stats this particular series has generated, I have to conclude it’s provoked a whole complex, difficult medley of thoughts and feelings. Consider, as I have, new readers from outside the circle of the most common visitors — North Americans and a few western Europeans, with the occasional Australian or New Zealander. This series, however, has drawn readers from Iraq, China, Turkey, India, Japan, Hungary, Singapore, Greece, Pakistan — and a readership from all of these nations showed up not just for single post but for most of this series.

And what should appear here as the 9th theme? Magic? Prayer? Initiation? Heresy — the right to choose — along with heterodox beliefs and practices? The Otherworld? Divine kingship? All promise rich materials as fitting ways to close. I’ll probably tackle at least a few of these in the coming weeks. If only because a series like this, like a devotional practice undertaken with love over time, almost always generates a momentum no finite thing can contain.

aceofcupsOr what about a shift of terminology? Would that help at all with any of these themes? If instead of “Baptisms of the Elements”, we called them “Elemental Sacraments”, would that easier name make a difference? Would it make it any easier to move beyond instinctive antipathies and past traumas?

Christian Druids and Druid Christians have already found ways to integrate their practice and ritual, celebrating spirit as it actually manifests, regardless of creeds. Some of the best links happen in community and fellowship. We experience something together beyond words, even as we struggle to embody it in language. But it’s that initial encounter, not the subsequent formulation in speech or writing, that constitutes the source of spiritual energy.

Saint Francis sings in part:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us …

Here is insight and wisdom and reverence indeed, one that may find resonance for both Druids and Christians.

An “incarnational” Druidry, one that shares with Christians a deep gratitude for natural beauty and for the mystery of birds and beasts, for the holy gifts of choice and speech, thought and reason, for birth and dying and rebirth, and for the voice of the sacred in dream, vision, prayer and ritual, and for the transformational power that a spirit-filled person can manifest, whatever the tradition, will earn respect and a hearing in any quarter a Druid would want to find one.

Likewise, a humble Christianity, one which seeks first to model love of self and other, of spiritual freedom, of service and stewardship of the created world, of care for the body, and delight in our kinship with the natural world, one which reads with reverence the Book of Nature, will move and persuade and welcome Druids and other Pagans far more than any scriptural proofs or the tongue of condemnation, doctrine or preaching.

“Let our deeds and our shining faces be our testimony”.

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 Image: Ace of Cups.

V.P.A.S. and You

[Updated with link 1 February 2017]

Sometimes ya gotta love acronyms. (No, not you specifically. People in general. Not that I’ve ever met a person-in-general. Only individuals, who annoyingly refuse to conform to abstractions. Thank the gods.)

Especially if you can find ways to play with acronyms as well as learn something useful from the ideas they compact into memorable form.

So first, let’s look at the A.S. part of the acronym in the title.

This post is inspired by an article in Scientific American from a little over a year ago Nov. 2015) titled “Perception Deception“. (Link to the author Michael Schermer’s blog — scroll down to November 2015 and the article.) In it, the author examines recent studies that point to our — and that includes all species — perceptions of reality as useful rather than necessarily accurate.

(Does it have to be either-or, the author plaintively asks at one point?)

graph-cartoonIn other words, it doesn’t matter how close to reality our perceptions are, as long as they give us advantages in survival and reproduction. Or, as the article puts it, they have Adaptive Significance. The sun doesn’t “rise” or “set”, to use a trivial example; instead, the earth rotates. But unless we’re attempting a spacecraft launch, we don’t need a more “accurate” understanding. Living as if the sun rises and sets grants us perfectly reasonable adaptive capacities.

We don’t need to go far at all to find larger and more weighty human examples. If your parents told you growing up not to talk with strangers and you put that precept into practice, it’s just possible you avoided some serious unpleasantness. There’s adaptive significance: you survived by escaping kidnapping, abuse, death, or recruitment into cult or gang or band groupie-dom.

But we know that most crimes statistically involve people who know us, so the ultimate adaptive significance of that parental instruction may turn out to be low. If that makes us into distrustful adults who find it difficult to open up to others, we may never connect with another person to reproduce and pass along our genes to a new generation. Low adaptive significance for the individual. But paradoxically high for the species: excessively fearful individuals self-select and remove their genes from the genetic melange of the human future. In other words, and among other things, heroes remain possible.

The premier example the studies cite is the Australian jewel beetle:

Females are large, shiny, brown and dimpled. So, too, are discarded beer bottles dubbed “stubbies,” and males with mount them until they die by heat, starvation or ants. The species was on the brink of extinction because its senses and brain were designed by natural selection not to perceive reality but to mate with anything big, brown, shiny and dimpled (Scientific American, Nov. 2015, pg. 75).

Now apart from providing wonderfully vivid and useful ammunition to cartoonists, misanthropists and meme-lovers about the relative intelligence of males and their sex drives, the example seems to me to undermine the point the researchers actually wished to make. Here is a perfect example of how perception needs to match reality quite faithfully, or it won’t confer that sought-after adaptive significance.

In other words, species also need to possess what the article terms Veridical Perception — the VP of the acronym — if they’re going to survive. Or as my mother repeatedly counselled the teenaged me, you have to live in (and perceive) the real world.

(She neglected to add: “Just not all the time”.)

It’s true that human culture can shelter from reality some highly inaccurate perceptions, and for long periods. To quote a whimsical example, Humpty Dumpty exclaims,”Why, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” The mutual support we give each other, and human law, medicine, societal expectation and life experience, all help moderate and temper and refine our perceptions of reality to help minimize the damage inaccurate perceptions can cause. But wackadoos and wackadooism still persist. We can just generously think of them as genetic outliers. Experiments in adaptive significance, not veridical perception.

It is also an argument of the article that species with high adaptive significance consistently out-survive species endowed only with veridical perception.

Yet despite what current politics and media suggest, most humans live in approximately the same perceptive universe. Our differences loom large only in certain select domains. In spite of the noise these few domains are generating right now, the immediate adaptive significance of most of our behaviors remains high. (It’s flaws in their long-term adaptive significance that remain our great challenge.) Drive down the highway and — while a few accidents do indeed happen — the marvel is that most people see the universe in ways similar enough that we don’t take out all other drivers on the road in a single day of apocalyptic Hollywood bloodshed, simply because what you see as a red light I see as green. The relative absence of “carnage” — a loaded word in the U.S. right now — is an encouraging thought.

evolution-cartoonBut side by side with adaptive significance, we might remember that evolution doesn’t “progress”. Where and how the arc of history may bend will apparently always be an experimental question, not an ideological statement.

A sparrow flying around today isn’t an “improved” or “more” evolved version of an ancestral theropod or archaeopteryx. The same is true of modern humans: we’re not any better suited to life in cities or at a desk in corporate America (or on the tundra or in the jungle) than our Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal forebears. We’re distinctly not “new and improved”. What we are is adapted, and adaptable.

It doesn’t have to be a choice: our behaviors more often possess adaptive significance when they also arise from veridical perception. We thrive when we “do the true”.

Veridical Perceptions with Adaptive Significance

And what about Druidry, just one of our many attempts at a veridical perception, at an accurate grip on reality? Does it also confer any adaptive significance? Is it just a Western 21st century middle-class indulgence? Does it offer an edge that can help us navigate tough times and steer us through these beginnings of a centuries-long post-industrial transition?

The next post will look at some possible responses to these questions.

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Images:graph cartoon; evolution cartoon.

“Collapsing Now” and “Inevitable Progress”

[OK, what follows is a rant. Continue for your own discomfort. I say little that’s new here. Just retuning and returning with notes I’ve sounded before. Mostly, as with blogging, I’m talking to myself, but out loud. Say it to see how it sounds. Flavo(u)r to taste. You indulge me by sometimes liking what I write, if it has any merit you can use. And your comments, as always, are welcome.]

“Collapse now”, counsels John Michael Greer, “collapse now and avoid the rush” as industrial civilization devolves and careers along an increasingly wobbly course. Greer, whose words and ideas have intermittently appeared here, is a “talk-walker”, someone who lives what he advises others to practice. An increasingly widely read blogger and master gardener, as well as author and mage and archdruid emeritus of the Druid order AODA, Greer lives largely off the grid. Owning no car, and growing a large portion of his food, Greer and his lived choices make his words carry more weight with me than the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.

Of course, Greer’s choices are just one possible set, and not even the best for many of us. But they’re his, not manufactured for and sold to him by someone else.

And Stephen Hawking? Just yesterday he wrote in an article in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that, yes, he’s lived a life of extraordinary privilege; that, yes, elites like him and his circle have long ignored the plight of working-class folks; and that, yes, recent elections and votes in the U.S. and U.K. and elsewhere betoken a cry of anger and anguish. But he can still write in an astonishing stew of ignorance and arrogance that

what matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.

No, in fact, the reaction of elites matters far less. It will be quite predictable. We’ve seen it repeated endlessly over the span of millennia. They won’t do what they could do, because it’s really not even theirs to do, though we’ve often abdicated choice to them. But as we always have, we choose day by day to put into action the causes that bring us where we go next.

three-things-cannot-be-long-hiddenThat’s neither good or bad in itself: it’s simply how cause and effect have worked, and will continue to work. But so often it’s not in the self-interest of any elite to do what the “electorate” may want or need. That’s what makes them the elite. Plotting a course of self-interest is how they got to be elite. That’s what “people do” in such circumstances.

And — always — people can do something else. I can, and so can you. I did yesterday, and you did too.

Not according to Hawking, though. Current trends and practices

in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits [Hawking’s link] while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

Inevitable, progress, socially destructive. There it is, in a nutshell, the reason we’re collapsing. The first two assumptions are just that, assumptions. The third factor looms before and around us, resulting from the first two.

We’ve demonstrated over time, far better than any New Age workshop or guru ever could, how we create our reality. Assumptions are, after all, powerful magical techniques. Hold them strongly enough, inject them with emotion and attention, and they shape consciousness. They make up the outer circumstances, often the inner ones, of life. One life, a billion lives, in high tech or on a factory floor or in a studio or classroom or garden. One life, a billion lives, filled with pain, joy, a mix.

“With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present,” says Hawking. But who will start today? You, privileged physicist Stephen Hawking? Whenever I read or hear “must” and “have to”, I know someone’s avoiding actually doing that “must” or “have to”, or, more likely, is shunting it off onto someone else’s shoulders. I try to minimize that in this blog, but my percentage slips from time to time.

Waiting for “elites” to act is exactly the wrong course of action. We each take steps each day to build whatever balance we have in our own lives. Sharing resources? One way I share is to “consume less”, of course. Will I recycle this bag or box, or throw it in the trash? Will I replace these lightbulbs with higher-efficiency ones, or maybe just not use lights as much? Candles, or darkness. Will I reduce my car-trips, combining tasks and appointments? Will I sell the car, and use public transport? (It may not be available.) Will I unplug appliances that eat energy even when they’re “off”? Will I grow anything at all that I can prepare myself and eat, rather than buy from halfway around the planet? Will I downsize a habit, a car, a house, a hoard of possessions, an attitude, a life?

One and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one make ten. “Suddenly” a lot? Nope. Accumulating every day. We know this. The world now vividly reveals the human psyche. (The fact that it also does many other things needn’t be lost on us either, in our species-centric obsessions. Other lives have their say.) Our Western popular culture now gives us The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100, Terra Nova, Incorporated, The 3%, and so on.

The beauty of our individuality is that there’s no “single solution” but a multitude of choices, because we’re a multitude of people.

brian-savage-thank-god-a-panel-of-experts-new-yorker-cartoonThe city-dweller in a third-world nation foraging for scraps through piles of refuse exhausts her options and migrates with her family to another region where she can grow a small garden. Or find work. Or mount a protest with others large enough it draws media attention to a problem. Or, sometimes, die trying any of these. Sometimes we can shame ourselves into fixing things. Sometimes we just turn away. Every choice matters, every choice contributes to the pool. Nothing is lost. All that we do returns to us, so we can see our choices more clearly. Why else have worlds like this, where choice is possible and makes such a difference?

Americans, of course, are all elites in their own way. We’ve seen the figures, how we consume a very large percentage of the world’s resources, far larger than our share. Greer counsels “collapsing now” as something prudent, as an act of self-interest, because our two choices are not really choices at all. We can collapse more gradually, with foresight and preparation, or we can collapse painfully, in places violently, resisting change all the way down. Collapsing or not collapsing are no longer the options. How we collapse is.

It’s not some unique event, the collapse of a civilization and economy. History doesn’t so much repeat itself as find endless variations on a small set of themes. The collapse of a petroleum-consumption-empire-supported lifestyle doesn’t mean “the End” but it does mean massive change in a certain set of imbalances.

It’s safe to say large portion of the readership of this blog is blanketed, for now, against the worst sufferings these changes can bring. If you have both the leisure and opportunity to ponder the words of a privileged white blogger, you’re statistically pretty likely to be privileged yourself. Yes, we’ve been “inconvenienced” by changes already. Yes, our “standard of living” may be declining. Most of us aren’t yet starving, in prison, or dead. But our heads and hearts are troubled, our bank accounts are scary-shrinking, our stresses, health, credit-cards, relationships and uncertainties maxed out. We’ve had a foretaste, certainly. Those of us who live more on the fringes in any way will, like canaries in the mine, bear more of the assault of change. We’re already beginning our own forms of collapse, of hopefully creative down-sumption.

The healing, creativity, practical tool-kit, and hope that Druidry offers, like other spiritual paths also do, involve steps we can take now and daily. Whether we actually take any of them, whether we see them as beautiful and wise opportunities to begin to reclaim ourselves and our world, or as RAORPSEMFs, Ridiculous Avoidances Of Real Problems Somebody Else Must Fix, will determine to a great extent how the next minute, month and decade will go for any of us.

Yours along the journey,

A Druid Way.

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Images: Three things; panel of experts.

Personal Holy Days

In addition to whatever religious, ritual or secular calendars you may follow, you’ve probably begun to recognize and honor your own holy days. You know, the ones that fall between the official dates on the calendar that hangs on your wall or scrolls from your desktop. Some difficult, some joyful. It may be that you count your birthday or some other similar day among them. Hobbit-like, you may have come to enjoy gifting others rather than yourself on those days, with a feast, or outing, a picnic, perhaps in a back yard, garden, or favorite annual reunion campsite that has begun to take on numinous qualities, because your love has helped to make it so.

A valuable piece of wisdom there, in the transformation our love and our repeated attention can make of almost anything.

For me, my parents’ anniversary on the 26th of June plays that role. Long ago my father and mother set the tone, because they almost always made it a larger family event. A month later in July, my father’s sister celebrated her anniversary, and with a number of May family birthdays preceding it, the late June date falls squarely in the middle. The typically good weather here in New England, together with the first early garden produce (strawberries! asparagus!), make it a perfect candidate for a holiday gathering, a cookout or garden party. This year would have marked my parents’ 60th anniversary (they made it to 46), and for me the date’s taken on a “second solstice” quality. Cherish such days in your year. If you’re like me, such personal calendars subtly shift and re-form over time.

So yesterday a libation and some quiet reflection, a walk through my new Druid grove awaiting its formal consecration, and the working out of some light physical karma that has come to flag for me a potential shift in consciousness. “Pain is often the creator of awareness,” one of my teachers like to say, rather ruefully, and it’s proven true for me. When I wake up enough to know once again I’m in the hands of Spirit, minor pain and discomfort can open a chance for sharpening awareness quite effectively.

Outwardly, builders recently finished repairing the foundation and rear wall of our garage, a necessary dedication of resources if it wasn’t to fall down our sloping back yard.

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And just as true as the seemingly mystico-magical but quite practical saying “if you build it they will come,” if you’ve already come to a place, sometimes you have to (re)build it in some way to flourish there. And when you do, everything else re-equilibrates to the new harmonic you’ve established. Energy will flow first along the easiest channels it finds, and I’ve learned that often means right through the middle of any weakness, hole, or gap in my being and circumstances. I perform that service, I’m that easiest channel, a part of any dynamic I seek to transform, and the sooner I get that, the less wear and tear on the earth, water, air, and fire bodies that Spirit wears locally, in what I am pleased to call me, my life. No distinction, really, as I keep relearning. Jiji muge, the Zen Buddhists say. Between one thing and another is no separation.

Tamias_minimus

Tamias Minimus, aka chipmunk

So we must act mindfully and vigilantly at all times, they tell us. Nope. Not at all. Fat chance of that happening! snarks my inner brat. I don’t know about you, but I mess up all the time. That’s where the learning and growth is, the crack in the sidewalk where weeds finally push through, the shell the chick pecks open to move to the next stage, the new home the hermit crab must seek when it outgrows the old one.

Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans, John Lennon reminds us.  Well, yes, and that’s a very good thing indeed, whispers the chipmunk, my inner guide for the month. (A mated pair lives beneath the roots of the evergreens that line our driveway.) Keep learning to listen, and you’ll plan wider.

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Image: chipmunk  (tamias minimus)

Single Stories, With Children

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In a recent NY Times article (“The Danger of a Single Story,” April 19, 2016), conservative columnist David Brooks writes,

As in life generally, every policy has the vices of its virtues. Aggressive policing cuts crime but increases brutality. There is no escape from trade-offs and tragic situations. The only way forward is to elect people who are capable of holding opposing stories in their heads at the same time, and to reject those who can’t.

There, right in our faces, the challenges of a “single story”: even as he strives to diagnose the dangers of binary thinking, Brooks beautifully illustrates it: “the only way forward.”

There are, of course, nearly an infinite number of ways forward. (The larger the group you look at, the fewer the ways. So look smaller, instead. We each of us will make, are making right now, our own ways forward, different from everyone else because we’re different. This post, this blog, is my set of ways. They don’t negate yours. Both-and, not either-or.)

Right now, more than in the past, we face difficulty identifying what “forward” looks like. Oh, there’s always a raucous chorus of voices who will tell you their versions. Mostly we suspect it’s “not what we have right now.” But that’s not at all the same thing as some kind of straight-jacket on reality that drops us into one kind of cosmic “only,” a limited-time offer from the gods.

[Pause for Druid meditation on the rhododendron almost ready to bloom, on the crab apple already loud with bees.]

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Back again. Readers of this blog know I work mostly in the personal as opposed to the political. And I’ll continue to insist they’re two distinct things. Of course they frequently intersect. Don’t most things in our universe?

Partly that’s a matter of scale. We’re beginning to realize, painfully, that we can only effectively know the local and personal. I can and do pretend from time to time to have wisdom about things outside my experience. (Sometimes I even get away with it.) Prophets and Wayshowers manage to pull it off with panache, and get others to buy in.

But as soon as I can, I’m taking this discussion out of the abstract and into the individual. Name a policy and I’ll show how it erases the unique, the personal, the distinctive. Policy tends to exemplify the tyranny of abstract, one-size-fits-all thinking. Draw a line in the sand and that line starts to matter more than people do, regardless of which side of the line they’re on. Is that ever right, we ask? And our answer determines our experience. There’s no such thing as free will — because we will it so.

[Pause for second Druid meditation, on appearances and other realities. Not just one reality. Boring. Not even just two. Almost as boring. Multiple, endless. Now we’re talkin’.]

I want to hold multiple stories in my head, not just one, even though I’m not running for office or proclaiming my way forward as the ONLY, as if all other options, all other universes, are BAAAAAD. No, I want to hold multiple stories because they’re beautiful, and beautifully true, together or separately, at one time or another. Each one a drop of dew, mirroring the blades of grass nearby, but also the sky. Dreamer, you cry. At the risk of riding on Lennon’s coattails, “you say I’m a dreamer, but …” We’re not there yet. That’s one thing dreaming’s for.

Fall in love with the universe, I hear, as both command and prayer, fall in love with it, and you don’t seek policies, you seek the beating heart of each thing, to know it better, to celebrate with it in its own way, orgy or restraint, sowing or boundary. Yes, as I plant my garden and keep out the rabbits and squirrels, and sweat a little in order to live here at all, I can celebrate at the same time. No single story for me. Work and rejoice. They’re not opposites. Things together. The universe, I find, is a marrying kind of place, for worse, and for better.

 

 

Thirty Days of Druidry 26: The Chew Toys of Druidry

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For my birthday earlier this month, my father in law sent along a card with a cover picture of the four (five) characters from The Wizard of Oz. In the cartoon bubbles above each one are their familiar goals: a heart, some courage, a brain, a home — and Toto as a stealth fifth character gets his say, too: “Maybe a chew toy?”

Druidry has grown sufficiently into its potential that it has a green and beating heart. As for courage, many Druids do try to “walk their talk” as far as they can, at least keeping the two yoked together and pulling in the same general direction. Not all of us, and maybe not even a majority of us at any one time. But any is more than none, enough for a start, more than before. Step forward, live one’s values openly, whatever others may think of them, or quietly (still matters): against fracking, for preservation, against excess (except maybe during festivals, when mead and love-making and all-night drum circles get to play their vital parts in making Druidry just slightly less than completely respectable).

And against dogmatic certainty, if we can, allowing for enough skepticism that we swallow fewer baited hooks. Small successes: a river cleaned and reclaimed, legislation to preserve rather than consume (or at least consume and restore, replant, restock, re-establish). Is it enough, against the slide and careen of our times? We may not be able to know right now. Maybe our current pessimism is part of a useful course-correction, long in coming.

But it counts for something — all things have their weight and presence. The planet’s learning and growing too, a hive of beings that, if they soil their home, will nevertheless still die and be remade in some form, if only as atoms that were Christ and Hitler too, to work out all the consequences, bad and good together. If not me as me, some of my kin will be here in years to come. (Does it matter in one sense if I have been here before? I’m here now.)

A keen-edged kind of justice: the physical world doesn’t appear to do mercy, unless you count cosmic balance as a kind of far-seeing compassion, impersonal in its workings. The gods and spirits, I notice, do sometimes save, but not us from ourselves when we walk away from their counsel.

Brains, too, haven’t been lacking since Druidry’s earliest days, admittedly along with sometimes generous portions of looneyness. The Revival brought out themes and practices many Druid groups like OBOD still draw from, and the more purist Celtic Reconstructionists have increasingly founded their practices on what can be recovered from the past and from mostly careful and informed deduction.

As for a home, well, here we are. Living in and on it, nourished by it, drinking from it, giving back to it what we choose to give to future generations — to our future selves if you hold deeply to full-on recycling.

Which leaves the chew-toy. What things might correspond to that? The tides of current fashion and flaming opinion, sure. Scandal and media obsession, the so-called Witch Wars, the poly-, duo-, mono- and a- theist speculations that usually lead no further, sometimes, than mild clarification or further obfuscation. One or two or ten people finally turned toward practice rather than pontification. A slight deviation away from head-stuff, into things heads deal less well with, but other parts of us say home, home, I’m in native inner country here.

A seemingly casual and causal sidestep into worlds where those old questions get traded for quietly larger and equally old ones. The slant of sunlight at dawn. Dew on bare feet, now that summer’s nearing. Trill of birdsong. Instinct to breathe in the chi, prana, nwyfre, elan, vital energy alive and pulsing all around. Breathing it out as I live my life. A nudge, maybe no more, to serve in some specific way in my neighborhood: an old backyard dump to be cleaned up, a gathering to organize or attend, a seemingly chance conversation that changes the paths of the participants, infinitesimally, modestly, significantly. A move around or out-of-state. A relationship ending, a relationship beginning. A season to plant, to harvest, an injury healed, a new wrinkle, scar, perspective, discovery, wonderment.

What I chew on comes second. Remember, I say to myself, remember that sequence, that priority. My jaws don’t have to be the strongest thing about me.

Thirty Days of Druidry 10: Both Trees

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In Tolkien’s legendarium, his two trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, are silver and gold, both fruit-bearing, and the originals of the moon and sun.

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Either-or? How about both-and?

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The jury’s just heard the last of the testimony. The voices of the four defendants — two humans, one animal, one deity — still seem to echo in the paneled courtroom.

The DA rises slowly from his chair and approaches the jury to give them their charge before sending them off to deliberate. As he stands before them, he leans forward a little, resting his hands on the railing at the front of the jury box. At such close range, they can see shadows under his eyes. His suit is rumpled, and the once-crisp blue tie is stained and hangs loosely knotted. His trim physique looks pale, and his eyes rather glassy behind the heavy metal-framed glasses he has worn each day as this case goes forward. He speaks:

OK, folks. You’ve heard everyone involved tell their side. The facts are clear: God plants a garden in Eden, puts the man there, makes all kinds of trees grow out of the ground, good to look at and good for food. In the middle of that garden stand two trees. Let me refresh your memories here: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The DA pauses and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He looks around slowly, catching many eyes. Then he resumes his summary.

God tells the man, “You’re free to eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When you eat from it, you will die.” Note that God doesn’t say “if” but “when.”

God realizes it’s not good for the man to live alone, and after a dry run with animal companions who just don’t fit the bill, he puts the man to sleep, and from him makes a woman.

The serpent says to the woman — and everyone agrees on his words — “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman answers, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” It’s here that confusion enters the record. Does Eve know which of the two trees to avoid? Or has this all-important distinction already been lost?

I know we’ve arrived at the appearance of “he said-she said,” but it’s important to note everyone still agrees what was said.

“You certainly won’t die,” the serpent says to the woman. “God knows when you eat your eyes will be opened, and you’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” Again, “when,” not “if.” Up to this point everyone agrees on what was said.

Now the serpent claims he tried to get Eve’s attention at this point, before she moved from her spot in the middle of the Garden, staring at the Trees of Knowledge and Life, and took that famous fruity bite. His words don’t appear in any of our official transcripts, and here’s the first disagreement. But I repeat his testimony here:

“Hey, Eve. Eve! EVE! A piece of advice. Eat from the Tree of Life FIRST! The tree of LIFE!”

Again the DA pauses, rubbing his eyes and cleaning his glasses, which he prefers over contacts. This time he takes so long that the judge is just about to admonish him, when he suddenly resumes, as if startled out of a dream.

When Eve sees the fruit of the tree is good for food and good to look at, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she takes some and eats it. My next question to you is this: how does she know these things before she eats?

Folks, to make short work of the rest of the story, which again nobody contests, God finds them. There’s an ugly episode of shirking responsibility and buck-passing to the serpent who can’t blame anybody else (though you might look again at God).

God curses the three of them, serpent, Adam and Eve. And this is my final observation to you. In spite of what we’ve heard today, neither Adam nor Eve dies for many more centuries.

Consider these things carefully, and you can only arrive at one verdict. All right, ladies and gentlemen. You’re dismissed.

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But what is the verdict? Is there, can there be really only one, in spite of how we often interpret the story? A better question or at least a more Druidic one: what’s the range of possibilities?

My apologies to those of you who know this story well. I taught it in high school for a decade and a half in a “Bible as Literature” unit, and we looked at characterization, at gender, at issues of truth and specificity, and the implications of distinctions like if and when, and what the story may subversively teach below and around and in spite of what we’re traditionally told it teaches. (A small detail: as many of you also know, there’s no apple anywhere to be found.) And we looked at over-reading the story, too, which teachers are infamous for doing, and which I do here.

I’ve also manipulated the story, and added to it, for my purposes. The “if/when” distinction, however, does appear in the New International Version, which comes in for its share of criticism for instances like this, and many others.

Student atheists in my class often didn’t know the story, Jews and Christians who actually did know it (and not all did as well as they thought they did) expressed often widely disparate views on what the takeaway is or could be. It’s safe to say all our eyes were opened. If we left some discussions feeling uncomfortable, it was a useful discomfort.

Among the reasons I like this story as a Druid is that trees are mediators of such potent energies as wisdom, moral law, and life. And as the song “The Wisdom of Trees” says, “Church bells ring, and I’m glad they do, but …”

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Therese1896Let’s refuse to choose between wisdom and life. Like Thérèse of Lisieux, when presented with a choice, will I say “I choose all”?

IMAGES: Therese.

Thirty Days of Druidry 9: The Worship of Trees

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“Lately I have succumbed to an old atavistic urge: the worship of trees.”

So goes the opening line to the Telling the Bees’ marvelous song “The Worship of Trees.” On the particular Youtube version below, these words come just a little after the 1-minute mark. Druids are named for their association with trees, and I can think of no better way to communicate a Druidic response to the previous post, where in one section I talked about salvation as just one religious and spiritual alternative in spiritual practice. Druidry doesn’t seek salvation so much as wisdom and connection. If this is atavism, let’s make the most of it!

“Something deep inside of me yearns to be free.” This freedom is not merely a negative “freedom-from,” but a positive “freedom-for.” What do we long to do, what would we do, if we could? Unlike in “spiritual pollution” religions, in Druidry sin doesn’t eternally hold us back (though poor choices can for a time). The blessings of the natural world can heal more than we imagine. Especially when we see how large the borders of the “natural” reach, and how we and our bodies and our sciences and arts and spiritualities, our planet and solar system and galaxy, fit cozily in one small cosmic cubby.

“Lately I have touched the sublime, out of sight out of mind: the worship of trees.” It’s dangerous to state absolutes about something as fluid as Paganism or Druidry specifically, but I will nonetheless: most Druids accept the existence in some form of more than one plane of existence. Note I don’t say “believe “– it’s not a creed to recite each full moon, but an experiential awareness that the cosmos vibrates up and down a very wide range, and our human experience is only part of the bandwidth. Ecstatic experience can for a time open us to other portions of the band, and broaden our sense of its range and of what’s humanly possible too.

“Lately I have been flung into rustication: the worship of trees.” Part of the Druid experience — again, here I can generalize — is a sense of being part of something much larger than human only, something that sweeps us up in its flow and carries us with it along with everything else, in a direction that isn’t different from where we’re going anyway. It’s a harmonic of existence, and so it’s not something to fear or resist, but to study and harmonize with in our own ways, as each species does. Note that the existence of so many distinct species shows the flow needn’t extinguish individuality — it can also manifest through it. What is it in the flow that calls us with such a strong imperative? Only as humans can we deny or ignore the summons, though ultimately we’re borne along willy-nilly anyway.

“I’m too far in …”: some practices and ways of being in the world aren’t wholly “safe.” They may change you, change the environment, and have unforeseen (though not unforeseeable) consequences. John Beckett talks of “a certain forest god” he serves, Cernunnos, whose worship isn’t always comfortable or easy.

And to take things one more step, to the madness which exists in so many shapes we might say we’re all mad to a degree. We have our fixations, obsessions, relentless habits and cherished opinions. Some days it doesn’t take much to shove us a little further in one direction or another that may well land us outside what’s socially acceptable. The gods may be fine with our eccentricity. It’s other humans who get left shaking their heads — or burning down our houses and chasing us out of town. But in that madness, an ecstasy may empower you to open doors no one else can open, and you fulfill a great purpose that answers that “yearning to be free deep inside” which not just you but many feel. And like the leaves a tree drops each autumn, madness is one way to receive and transmute energy.

After all, I ask myself, would I really value a religion or spirituality that doesn’t include an edge?!

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IMAGES: trees with aerial roots.

Thirty Days of Druidry 5: Pond-Rune

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the pond earlier this morning

The fish-pond the previous owner built on the east side of our two and a half acres skews the elemental associations I inherit from my Euro-Druidry. So I read my pond-rune for its wisdom, in spite of the dislocation. Water to the East, the pond a surrogate for the Atlantic surging beyond it a mere hundred miles further off. Be ready to shift your perspective for what it can teach you, says my Druid guide.

Over-caffeinated this morning, I’m giddy as I try out this re-orientation, going for the literal first. Widdershins and we’re off, a banishing of the old order. Air to the North, then? Because nothing halts Canadian weather from turning intermittently south to us, troubling and training our meteorologists all year long to keep humble. It fits, too, because that first warm day of spring is air breathing its promise of new life, before the earth has quite let go its permafrost. Frost-heave warning signs still mark the worst of the bumps and dips in Vermont back-roads as the ground slowly gives up winter.

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the grove to the west, as the sky clears

Earth to the West, a tree-covered rise just across the road in front of our house. From time to time I build a dream-shrine there, or imagine it alive with some rite in progress, all without disturbing in the least the neighbor who actually owns the land. For three seasons the trees gather the light each day at sunset, their branches embracing orange and peach and golden afterglow, except for summer’s green crowding out all other colors.

And last to the South and Fire. Most immaterial of the elements, only you remain unchanged. I’m intrigued. The polarities work, too. Earth and Water, both traditionally feminine, face each other across the east-west axis, as do Air and Fire, traditionally masculine, across the north-south one. In fact, the realignment accords reasonably well with Mike Nichols’ article “Rethinking the Watchtowers: 13 Reasons Air Should Be in the North.” Here’s the second from his list of reasons:

PARALLEL CULTURES: Although arguing from parallel cultures may not be as convincing, it is still instructive to examine other magical aboriginal cultures in the Western hemisphere. For example, the vast majority of Native American tribes (themselves no slouches in the area of magic!) place Air in the North, which they symbolize by the Eagle. (Aboriginal cultures lying south of the equator typically have different associations, for reasons I will discuss next.)

Here’s a set of new meditations ready to hand: what follows from such a re-alignment? What new insights? What new ritual possibilities? As Druids emerge across the planet and walk their own lands, how do we adapt our practices and teachings, and what do the adaptations and changes teach us in turn? The pulse of our world is one, yes, even as each vein and artery flows with its own unique current and energy and direction, nourishing distinct organs and tissues. The metaphor’s merely another tool, and the question as always is: does it help us feel our way into accord with the spirits of the land where we dwell?

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Oh earth of my bones, earth of my ancestors’ abode, earth that my feet and this house and our lives all rest on, I give thanks for breath and blood and day, the four elements in their shifting guises now complete. The fifth, Spirit Within, Spirit at the Center, hail and always welcome.

Thirty Days of Druidry 3: “The World Has To Be Dreamed”

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Sometimes an evocative line can serve up a good day’s worth of Druid meditation. An article on schizophrenia in the current New Yorker offers this fabulous paragraph on the development of the brain, with its potent last line:

The human eye is born restless. Neural connections between the eyes and the brain are formed long before a child is born, establishing the wiring and the circuitry that allow her to begin visualizing the world the minute she emerges from the womb. Long before the eyelids open, during the early development of the visual system, waves of spontaneous activity ripple from the retina to the brain, like dancers running through their motions before a performance. These waves reconfigure the wiring of the brain—rehearsing its future circuits, strengthening and loosening the connections between neurons. (The neurobiologist Carla Shatz, who discovered these waves of spontaneous activity, wrote, “Cells that fire together, wire together.”) This fetal warmup act is crucial to the performance of the visual system: the world has to be dreamed before it is seen.

I find myself wanting to draw out this image, to extend its reach, then try out those extensions to see whether and how they might be true. Dream a world and you can see it. Sing before you can hear anything, let alone the music of the spheres. Limn the deeds and character of a deity, and she begins to manifest at the invitation of this earliest devotion. Imagine with whatever awen drops into your awareness, and the transformation of that subtle primordial seed-stuff proceeds apace. We nurture energies and impulses, not merely passively experiencing them, and they weaken and die or grow and thrive in the womb of human consciousness. How many things are literally unthinkable until that first person somewhere thinks them? What can I give birth to today? (Schizophrenia, and creativity too, have physical correlates — according to research cited in the article they both issue from the processes mentioned of strengthening and loosening connections between neurons.)

Old Billy Blake, sometime-maybe Druid, maybe madman, says in the last lines of his poem “Auguries of Innocence“:

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see [with] not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Praise be then to the Keepers — and Seekers — of such Double Vision. And I ask myself: Can we see the world whole in any other way? Hail, Day-dwellers, Night-dwellers, Walkers of Both Worlds!

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Image: “Infinity”

Tracking the Formless

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Rabbit tracks in early morning snow by our garage

All around me, the formless. Everywhere I look, the track of some local thing I mistake for itself only, when it’s also a sign of the Mystery. In the end, it can feel like all is sign, one “it,” then another and another, each ceaselessly signifying the whole, each the center of Mystery, because each points to itself but also beyond and back again.

Everything’s in motion, no final self to stop and reckon with. Not just one thing becoming another, but everything becoming everything else. People age almost before our eyes, and a year that seemed long may turn and whisk itself into the past. Snow, sun, wind, tides — the hands of Spirit always reshaping the world. Already we edge closer to the third decade of the 21st century. Everywhere I see the mark of one thing passing into others, leaving spoor and benediction for those to follow who will.

I stalk Spirit in its many guises. Just when I think I’ve cornered it, something slips past uncommonly like a bird or feathered thing. Its pinions brush my cheeks. But when I meditate, when I remember to let go of catching anything, it comes to nestle in my lap. I feel its breathing stir my hair, and unexpected warmth sends a shiver down my spine. Remember, the voiceless thing says in my ears. Remember. Witness.

Solstice 2014

Anciently, Ireland was known as Inis Fail, the Isle of the Lia Fail, the Stone of Fal from the magical city of Falias and the Goddess Danu, one of the Four Hallows of Ireland, also called the Stone of Destiny, which roared when a true king sat or stood upon it. The Isle of Britain was called Clas Myrddin, Merlin’s Enclosure, and continuing the island theme, its holy and magical city Glastonbury was Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass. Such lore can indeed take you some way along a path, the names themselves an invocation as magical as any.

Merrivale Stone Rows, Devon

Merrivale Stone Rows, Devon

Outside of Britain we may well long for our own mythological names, gestures of respect and power toward the spirits of the land, honoring them with noble names, and opening doorways.  Yes, by borrowing for an interval a tongue from across the Water and bowing to our ancestors of spirit from there, we could do worse than call North America by one of its native names, Turtle Island, rendering it in Welsh: Ynys Crwban. Old tongue, New World. But the spirits here aren’t Welsh, and they’re wilder, and steeped in their own ways and works.

Still, Earth and Stone are North, and Winter, and Night. I sit and calm myself, finding the Pole Star in inner sight. The sky’s too cloudy for it outwardly, with a light snow falling most of the day and into the evening. I do a private ritual, and then in vision I’m drawn toward a stone circle. But instead of the broad windswept Salisbury Plain, and the great Henge there that all know, I’m given to see a different circle. Here the stones set their feet deeper, cradled in earth. The place feels both older and more intimate. The lintels stand just chest-high, low enough I can see over their tops and into the circle, which is some twenty feet across.

Vision wavers for a moment. Briefly I’m back and conscious of the room. Yes, I sit here in Vermont, just feet from snowdrifts outside the window, but in vision rough gray stones rise from a green cloak of moss that more than half-covers them. I’m there again. To enter the circle I have to go down on all fours and crawl through the space between two uprights and a heavy lintel. My palms and legs rub against the cool dampness. The rich chocolate scent of earth fills my nose — leaf-rot, moss, lichen, chlorophyll — the planet’s kitchen working, working endlessly. Each pace forward and I move over lives too small to see unaided. But they’re still here. Then I’m inside. I begin to sense an invisible dome overhead, a kind of presence shaping the space. The stones hum just below hearing, holy engines, the sound stillness makes, not empty at all.

Suddenly needing their strength I rise to my knees and hug an upright stone, its cool solidity reassuring against my arms and cheek and chest. With that, the welcome surges through me. You’re here, you’re here, we say to each other. In that instant I don’t worry who or what I’m talking to, only that we’re glad to be together — together again. This is not the first time for any of us. I spin in a half-dance, half-frenzy, soon enough falling dizzily to the ground. Wetness on my face — rain, tears, I’m not sure which. Both. I am earthed, spent, embraced, recharged, home.

A log shifts in the stove in the next room and brings me back. Now is the hour of recall, goes the line from OBOD ritual. The Circle in the vision is real enough it’s got me wondering if it exists on this plane.  The thought comes Build it so it does. I sit with that impression a while longer, trying to absorb the implications for this vision and others.  Build it so it exists on this plane.

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The Piccolo San Bernardo Circle in Val d’Aosta, Italy, straddles the French-Italian border in a mountain pass at about 2000 meters. The circle appears for only a few weeks each year, when the snows recede enough to reveal the stones.  The ancient Roman satirist Petronius appears to refer to it and remarks, “Winter covers it with a persistent snow and it raises its white head to the stars.” This seemed a fitting image to close with for the solstice in the North. What will manifest in our circles, when the circles themselves lie half-hidden to our sight?

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Piccolo San Bernardo, Val d’Aosta, Italy

Images: Stone Pages — Merrivale Stone Row; Stone Pages Piccolo San Bernardo. The Stone Pages site is well worth visiting and dreaming with.

A One-Winged Dragon

9dragSo my Druidry goes to work and I find out, a little more, what it can do.

This last September, when my wife and I were visiting friends on our way to the 2014 East Coast Gathering, we stopped in at a community antique shop. Normally I don’t visit such places, but this one, run as a non-profit, drew us in. Though my wife didn’t find the odd weaving item she’s perpetually on the lookout for, shuttle or reed or bundle of heddles that she can often locate used, I met a dragon.

I say “met” because elemental encounters with beasts like dragons are gifts to celebrate. But was this draig-athar, the air dragon I first took it to be? Or maybe draig-teine, the fire dragon? Oh, too much mind, not enough listening.

airdragThe right wing was missing. I picked it up. Heavy as earth, and earthbound with that missing wing — probably brass, that fire metal composed of tin — and copper, a water metal. As a candle-holder, also linked with fire. All of them mined from earth. All four elements in one. Candle holder on the top of the head … in Chinese dragon lore, the dragon possesses a chimu, which enables it to fly. As the Han Dynasty scholar Wang Mu observes of the dragon: “Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called chimu. If a dragon has no chimu, he cannot ascend to the sky.”

Let go of labels. But fly without one wing? Transmute! There was my augury, if I wanted one. Don’t let mere appearances decide your reality. Or, to make it short and sweet — fly anyway.

Five dollars lighter (paper standing in for coin — metal again), I carried the dragon from the shop to our car.  Back in Vermont, he (she?) sits facing west on a window-sill near where I’m clearing a space for an altar. Just out the window is a thermometer. In other words, there’s enough symbolism here to keep me busy with metaphors and correspondences till both dragon and I dissolve into our component elements, the life force binding us long ago withdrawn.

Fly anyway.

Struggling with diet and energy levels and an ornery GI tract still sorting itself out after radiation for a prostatectomy? Fly anyway.

A Druidic invitation to see possibility in limitation — the only place we find it. Fly anyway.

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A one-winged brass dragon

What I want: “a return to how things used to be.” But what do I need, apparently, among other things? Greater compassion for myself, for others dealing with the body’s trials and challenges. Patience with changes already set in motion. Definitely a stronger capacity not to let mere appearances decide my reality.

That’s all you got?

No. But it’s more than I had.

A fair trade?

Wait and see.

Really? “Wait and see”?!

Can you imagine the missing wing — see it there, mirroring the left one, ready to sweep wide and catch the wind?

Yes, but– 

So just because you can’t fly in one place, you stop flying in all the others?! Choose again. 

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Images: dragon from the Nine Dragons scroll; air dragon from the Druid Animal Oracle — image by Will Worthington; the brass dragon.

A Hallowed Evening and a Conquest

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

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

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

Hutton observes that the ancestor to modern Halloween:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

Harold in the Bayeux tapesty, with a hawk

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

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

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

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

In his Guardian article on Halloween, Hutton notes:

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All Saints Day, Oswiecim, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacification, oddly enough, usually involves violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan Williams Gets It — a Spiritual Diagnosis

druidwilliamsSome of you may recall a minor kerfluffle from the Christian Right a decade or so ago, when then Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams joined the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards and appeared in — gasp! — “pagan” Druid robes and hood. One of the many ironies of that moment and others’ reactions to it is that of all Druid groups, the Welsh Gorsedd is among the most secular and the least woo-woo (a highly technical sociological term).

So here’s a worthy sequel: an excerpt from a 2009 lecture Williams gave  titled “The Climate Crisis — a Christian Response.” During his talk he offers Druidic perspectives:

I once suggested that one necessary contribution to a better awareness of these issues was to make sure we went out of doors in the wet from time to time (a suitable lesson from Noah…), and – if we haven’t got gardens of our own – make sure we took opportunities of watching the changing of the seasons on the earth’s surface. This may seem trivial compared with the high drama of ‘saving the world’; but if this analysis is correct, our underlying problem is being ‘dissociated’, and we ought to be asking constantly how we restore a sense of association with the material place and time and climate we inhabit and are part of.

A transcript appears on the link page — it’s worth skimming for additional insights like this, a thoughtful and mature Christian grappling with the same realities we all face, and feeling his way into a diagnosis that accords with earth-centered insights and experiences — one that also doesn’t deny Christian wisdom either.

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Image: Rowan Williams/BBC News.

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