Archive for the ‘OBOD’ Tag

Toasts, Boasts and Oaths   Leave a comment

On Friday, Mystic River Grove, an OBOD group based in Massachusetts, celebrated a Summer Solstice ritual inspired by the Anglo-Saxon symbel or feast, and built around toasts, boasts and oaths. I couldn’t attend, but I want to reflect on these three components of celebration, apart from however Mystic River chose to celebrate beyond those three elements.

ASfeastWith a toast, boast and oath, you could certainly hold a fine solo rite. Toast your gods, land spirits, ancestors, teachers, living kin — whoever you’re called to honor. Then on to a boast, a celebration of excellence, a claim to honor for ourselves, for something we have achieved. Like gratitude, boasting’s a skill we neither teach or practice enough. My default boast is survival. I’m still here. But I can definitely claim more; this blog, my other writings, a good marriage, years of teaching young people, a circle of friends I admire and enjoy.

A solo rite still has witnesses: our own selves, hearing the words. Powers and beings of the world who attend because they were “in the neighborhood” so to speak, unless we explicitly ban them. And anyone we did invite to join us. But what’s the value of our community witnessing when we do these things? Why do these things publicly?

Toasts others make can remind us who we honor and who we might include next time. We learn of others’ gratitude. What I’m grateful for carries a story with it. It’s a window into a life, and speaking gratitude in a circle opens us to each other and our stories.

Boasts tell us something of the commitments and dedications of time and energy in others’ lives. If I’m proud of it, I’ve spent myself on it in some way, poured myself into it, and probably sacrificed in some way to accomplish it. Boasts also let us laugh — we can boast about silly things, or make fun of ourselves for how much even a small achievement may have cost us.

Oaths tell us what will matter in the coming days and months. What are others binding themselves to do? How does publicly announcing an intention, having others witness it, help energize us to accomplish it? An oath may include a spell of finding or binding, of opening the way, or shutting down obstacles, resistances, barriers, and so on. When I took part in Nanowrimo in past years, for instance, and wrote my 1600 words a day, announcing my progress online helped me keep going. You helped me persevere because you knew I’d set out to do it.

drinking horn

Depending on the size of the horn passed round the circle for each of the toasts, boasts and oaths, and the kind of drink you quaff each time, you may find your tongue loosened and the three acts easier to pull off!

Here the rhymer in me wants to add a fourth word, wrecking the lovely triad of toast, boast and oath, but creating in its place a new and balanced pair of rhymes: toast, boast, oath and growth. After all, a rite moves us to a new place and space, never the same as where we were before. As with yesterday and tomorrow, the difference from today may or may not seem like much, but just as the daylight lengthens and shortens each year, depending on which side of the solstice I’m on, so do the energies at play in my life. I can do things today not possible yesterday or tomorrow. And that’s worth a toast, a boast, an oath and the growth that comes with them.

Finally, if we’re going to be Anglo-Saxon about things, the Old English Maxims 1, lines 138-140, offer relevant insight here:

Ræd sceal mon secgan, rune writan, leoþ gesingan, lofes gearnian, dom areccan, dæges onettan.

Keeping to the spirit I feel lies behind these proverbial expressions, and unpacking their compactness and concision*, I take this to mean, roughly, “Let your speech be words of good counsel to others, write runes of wisdom, sing as epically as you can, deserve praise, test and expand your judgment, while holding nothing back each day”.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*With even a little Old English, you can explore meanings and fashion your own translation with the help of the online Bosworth-Tollers Anglo-Saxon Dictionary here.

rǣd: advice, counsel, prudence, deliberation
sceal, 3rd singular of sculan: shall, ought, be obliged, must
mon, Wessex dialect form of man: person, human, mortal, man
secgan: say, speak, express
rune, plural of rūn: whisper (speech not intended to be overheard, confidence, counsel, consultation), mystery, secret, rune
wrītan: write, cut, draw, form letters (on wood, stone, parchment, etc.)
lēoþ: song, poem, ode, lay, verses
gesingan: sing
lofes, genitive of lof: praise, glory, hymn
gearnian: earn, merit
dōm: doom, judgment, judicial sentence, decree, ordinance, law
areccan: to put forth, relate, recount, speak out, express, explain, interpret, translate
dæges, genitive of dæg: day, daytime
onettan: hasten, anticipate, be active or diligent

Midsummer and Vervain   Leave a comment

I’m going all lore-y in this post, so if plants and herbal history aren’t really your thing, move along.

Vervain (Verbena spp) — “leafy branch” — known among herbalists since at least the time of dynastic Egypt, has associations with midsummer, most obviously because in the British climate where we get much of herbal lore in the English-speaking West, that’s approximately when it flowers. The 11th-century Old English Herbarium (Ann Van Arsdall, Routledge, 2010) describes gathering vervain, using the Latin name uermenaca, at Midsummer. (Any left over from the previous year was to be tossed into the Midsummer bonfire.) Fans of The Vampire Diaries know it for its colorful flowers and anti-vampiric powers. The TV series showed the variety Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), an American species, and dramatized the herb’s toxicity to vamps and its ability to protect a mortal from compulsion by vampires. Who says pop television has no wisdom to offer?!

The range of vervain’s nicknames also indicates something of how firmly fixed it is in herbal history: enchanter’s plant, holy herb, herb of the cross, herb of Saint Anne (yerba del Santa Ana), Juno’s tears, pigeon’s grass, pigeonweed, turkeygrass, herb of grace, etc.

bluevervain-700x525

Blue (or Swamp) Vervain (Verbena hastata)

I’ve been on an intermittent local quest to spot some growing wild. Many North American varieties of the plant are originally native to Europe and were brought by early colonists. In the sometimes quaint and often rewarding language of herbals and herbalists, vervain “has enough garden presence of a rustic kind to justify its inclusion, being in no way boorish or uncivil, and it is easy to start from seed and easy to grow” (Henry Beston*, Herbs and the Earth, David Godine, 2014).

Vervain varieties (over 250!) have been prized for numerous benefits, depending on dose and preparation, along with a few qualifications of sensitivity and toxicity at higher levels. It has tonic, diuretic, and anti-parasitic properties, and can stimulate both dopamine and serotonin, meaning it lifts you up and also slows you down. Leaves, roots and flowers, again depending on variety (harvest early in the season to avoid strong, even rank flavor!), make a soothing tea.

In herblore, vervain sprang, according to one story, from the tears of the goddess Isis as she wept at the death of Osiris. Greeks and Romans both used it as a sacred herb, sweeping it across their altars.  In Christian Europe the story runs that vervain was used to slow the flow of blood from Christ’s wounds (though logically this would merely have prolonged his agony), and so thereby the plant gained another of its nicknames — herb-on-the-cross.

Western medicine officially disdains to acknowledge much value to the plant. One site (drugs.com, sourced from Harvard Health Topics), notes “There is no clinical evidence to support specific dose recommendations for vervain. Traditional use for its astringent properties required 2 to 4 g daily in an infusion … Research reveals little or no information regarding adverse reactions with the use of this product” but adds that for pregnant and nursing women, “Documented adverse reactions. Avoid use”.

Nonetheless, many sites include recipes for nursing mothers, such as this one:

Combine 1 quart of water with 1 teaspoon of vitex berries, 1 teaspoon blessed thistle leaves, 1/2 teaspoon vervain leaves, 1/2 teaspoon nettle leaves, 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon anise seeds; steep for 20 minutes; drink 1 to 3 cups a day.

I’m leaving out the source, perhaps to protect the guilty. But anyone who’s benefitted from herbal remedies, as I have, especially if nothing else has worked, can readily attest to their value from personal experience, in the face of official disdain and ignorance.

With all this history and attention, it’s little surprise that among the plants set forth for study in OBOD’s Ovate grade work, vervain occupies pride of place.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Sources (besides personal experience): OrganicfactsDrugs.com; Mother Earth Living.

*Henry Beston (1888-1968) wrote, “Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man”.

MAGUS 2017: The Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S.   13 comments

The first of what richly promises to be an annual event, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) took place over this last weekend, Thursday to Sunday, at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.

And our hosting venue, Four Quarters, an interfaith sanctuary launched in 1994, was the perfect place to hold a Beltane Gathering. As the Four Quarters home page observes, it’s

a membership-driven non-profit, a vibrant community of real people living real lives. And Four Quarters actually owns the Land, buildings and equipment that make our work possible, forever set aside from the vagaries of private ownership.

The lovely and wild 150 acres of the sanctuary lie in the Allegheny foothills in southern PA, just miles from the Maryland border. Home to a stone circle, labyrinth, retreat center with bunkhouse and dining pavilion, a brewery, a drum and dance circle, sweat lodge, a handful of permanent residents, and the clean-flowing Siding Creek defining part of its periphery, Four Quarters strives to

honor the many world traditions that reflect an Earth Based Spirituality, and we work to support those traditions and welcome their people. We do not teach “One Way” of belief. We do not have “The Answer”. We do have good questions.

Here’s the Stone Circle seen from the north, a work in progress (with annual megalithic-style stone raisings open to anyone willing to join the rope-pulling and log-rolling stone lifting team). Note the nearly three-foot-long camp bell suspended from the tripod in the foreground — a deep voice audible throughout the property.

circle w bell

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A wide-angle shot can’t capture the majesty of the stones or the power of the circle. Here’s a closer view of some of the lovely rough surfaces, mottled with rust in places, asking for touch and communion.

stone closeup w flah

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

The first time I walked the circle Thursday evening, I sensed a quiet hum of presence. The next time I came more at ease, eager to touch and listen to the land and the inner voices. By the time I reached the eighth stone, sudden tears filled my eyes. The circle holds indisputable power.

Here’s one of the altars near the center of the stone circle. The ancestors speak strongly here, if I give even half an ear.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

How to convey the blend of the speaking land, the personal and the tribal at such Gatherings?! You come as someone new to Paganism, or to OBOD more specifically. Or you come knowing you’ll reunite with your people once more, across the miles. If we saw each other every day, we might begin to forget the human and spiritual wealth that surrounds us. In ritual, in conversations in the dining pavilion (below) or over coffee during breaks, we’re reminded that we’re never alone, no matter how solitary we may live the rest of the year. Inner connection exists over any distance.

dining pavillion -- W Flaherty.jpg

dining pavilion — photo courtesy Wandy Flaherty

Typically when I reflect on a Gathering a few days after, one or two things stand out sharply. But when I started naming them over breakfast this morning, I ended with a list of a score of items — nearly the entire weekend as I experienced it, a blend not to be parcelled out in soundbites or highlights.

From the place, with its cool air crackling with oxygen from the vigorous trees, to the faces and energy of the Tribe and its rituals, formal and informal, to the songs of spiritual presence that all places offer, everything stands out in memory.  Impossible to narrow down. This post is a small attempt to hint at that Everything — to urge you, if you want a taste of a particular kind of marvelous, to attend a Gathering if you can.

The way of the Solitary can indeed be a blessed one, but the Tribe also offers a great deal to reinvigorate even the most hermetic of Solitaries. A Gathering can paradoxically reaffirm the Solitary, because you meet other Solitaries. You witness the integrity of the individual path, as well as the gift of the Tribal way. Gatherings have changed me into an avid Tribe-seeker, at least a few times each year, so that when I retreat to my own smaller circle, the closing words of OBOD ritual echo true: “May our memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.”

/|\ /|\ /|\

“Kindling the Flame” was our Gathering theme. We apparently also needed the blessing of Water, in the form of steady rain from late Thursday afternoon through the night, and intermittently all Friday, to help remind us that all the elements gather, whenever any one of them is invoked. “Thus is balance preserved”.

Thursday included an opening orientation by our special guest OBOD Druid Renu Aldritch, a workshop I delivered on “Kindling Our Sacred Fires”, the opening ritual, and preparation for Bardic initiations the next morning.

After breakfast Friday, we initiated 12 Bards. Like many others, I’ve come to see how priceless it is to support initiations and attend whenever I can, regardless of whether I have an assigned “role”. The rite washes over us all, renews the experience each of us had during our own initiation, helps us rededicate, and allows us to greet the newly initiated within ritual space.

Always there are small hiccups and endearing glitches during a ritual. I think without them we’d have to make sure we added them. And we come to expect them: they humanize a dramatic moment, when someone with a major or minor role misplaces a prop or drops a ritual spoken line, topples the incense or bowl of water, mispronounces a magical name, and so on. We laugh, disarmed, and then the next part of the ritual can reach deeper, because we’ve opened up that much more. Each initiation is unique: tears, laughter, the presence of Spirit, the call of bird or beast to punctuate a word or silence.

Friday gave us Renu’s workshop, “Kindling the Spiritual Warrior”, a theme that bears ongoing attention. Dana’s workshop “Land Healing on the Inner and Outer Planes”, her ritual later that afternoon, “Ogam Tree Galdr in the Northern Tradition”, her generous personal readings using her own tree divination system, and her conversation fired many with renewed love and commitment to this path. That evening also brought initiation to three Ovates under moonlight and the background throb of drums from a drum workshop. We couldn’t have asked for a better ritual setting.

Downhill from the Labyrinth, prepping for the evening Ovate initiation in the open air: Renu, Dave, Ahote, me and Cat. (We opted later for a covered stage, in case the rain continued.)

planning for ovate init -- gail Nyoka

photo courtesy Gail Nyoka

Saturday gave us Wanda’s workshop, “Awakening Your Beltane Sensuality” with its creative chance to heighten one sense by muting the others. Now that the rain had ceased, we could hold our main Beltane rite in the stone circle.

Here’s an evocative pic from Saturday night, the Fire Circle alight, a few dancers visible, along with Brom, our Fire Master, tending the flames.

magus beltane

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

By Saturday night I’d mostly finished my other ritual responsibilities, including providing a glitch for the main Beltane ritual where I had a speaking part — I dropped a line. “When that ritual pause goes on a little too long and you look around, you’re probably what’s missing”, as someone quipped over the weekend.

I was looking forward to enjoying the Fire Circle without performing for the eisteddfod, the Bardic arts portion of most OBOD festivals that welcomes the evening fires and the awen-inspiration of a Gathering and offers it back again in song and poetry and story.

But as Bards know from experience, the awen sometimes has other ideas. Fire gave me an opening line a few hours earlier during dinner. And it kept gathering more lines to it, right up to the evening Fire Circle. Verses kept changing and I didn’t have pen and paper handy, so I kept playing with lines and rhymes and their order. “Fire says improvise” came the first line. I’d invoked fire, after all, during my workshop, in several different ways. What did I expect?! Here’s the poem:

Fire says improvise —
no surprise,
when such orange wonder
seeks out skin and eyes.

Fire can burn all to black
but before,
that hot roar lifts me
to soar beyond
anything I thought to think I lack.

Most times I’m no fool —
how does this jewel
get to be so hot and cool?

Old rule, it says.
Burn madly, gladly,
or — if you must — sadly:
one way only among those other two.
For I will heat you from your crown
to your open-toed shoe.

The fire, friend,
the fire is in you.

Just get up and say it, came the nudge. Doesn’t have to be polished. I delivered the lines, gazing at the flames the whole time, then stumbled back fire-blind to my seat on one of the Fire Circle benches. The version here is close to what I remember saying, probably edited a little. Fire didn’t want an editor. Just flame, large or small. The other Bards obliged, and this eisteddfod was among the most varied and interesting I’ve known.

One of the oldest pieces of spiritual counsel in the Indo-European tradition is this: “Pray with a good fire”.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Below is an informal altar by Siding Creek, which curls around Four Quarters, another voice audible through much of the Sanctuary as a background whisper.

siding creek altar -- renu

photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Four Quarters brews its own mead, a taste of the Land to take inside the body. Warmed by place, fire and fellowship, we return to our lives richer by each person who attended. Long live MAGUS!

Coffee Dragon -- Wanda Flaherty

photo courtesy Wanda Flaherty

A final view of the Circle through the eye of the Mother Stone:

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

Jesus and Druidry, Part 3   2 comments

In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”

/|\ /|\ /|\

And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.

OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

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

As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. The Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:

Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.

Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.

And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:

Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).

This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:

May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light.

Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:

A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.

And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:

In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.

/|\ /|\ /|\

A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry

Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,

might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).

It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.

Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are

the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation

together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:

As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.

Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:

Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Iona Abbey.

Thirty Days of Druidry 23: “Pray Like a Fire”   1 comment

Beltane’s nearly upon us, and Alison Lilly’s most recent blogpost “Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer” catches the energy behind this fire festival. For it is after all the day of the Fires of the Celtic solar god Bel, as even a traditional source like the BBC calmly informs us on their website. Some seasons you’ve just had enough of the world, and most of all yourself as a tame fire, to paraphrase Alison. Do check out her blog. She evokes and invokes Beltane in a personal and poetic meditation.

You too may long to spark, flare, burn and roar. Heap the kindling of my life and ignite, you whisper — or shout. Beltane is here for you.

Part of the Bardic training of Druid groups like OBOD and others, and much of the initial work in the outer grades of the magical Order of the Golden Dawn focuses on exploring and balancing the elemental energies flowing in and around us. We don’t — normally — want to burn up or out. But a healthy conflagration may burn off the wintry torpor that clings to our mood and outlook. Beltane is tonic, purgative, exhiliration, ignition.

The symbolism of the four physical elements of earth, water, air and fire persists in the cultural and magical imagination of the West because they express important truths about human life. They serve as a powerful shorthand for a whole cluster of ideas, images, experiences and memories, and their presence in ritual and story, song and myth will endure as long as we inhabit the same worlds where they manifest.

Their existence as physical entities endows them with the further potential to serve as sacraments. As always, though we keep forgetting, reverence and engagement are our choice, an opportunity like any other that we may welcome or reject. Here, too, fire can kindle us to possibility and change.

firetempleexter

Fire Temple, Chennai, India

Further afield from Celtic-flavored European Druidry, fire is also central to the religious practice of Zoroastrians, the people popularly known as Parsis. Their Fire Temples offer just one more illustration of why reducing fire to an explanation like “rapid oxidation in an oxygen-rich environment like earth’s atmosphere” says nothing about our actual experience of fire, its light and warmth and flickering presence, and its long association in human consciousness with spiritual reality, energy and life. Anyone who’s experienced a good bonfire knows this to some degree. It’s our human art to extend these experiences and celebrate their effect as spiritual opportunities for transformation and joy.

zorofire

Zoroastrian Sadeh Festival

Fire calls to ancestral human memory. Cultural practices and beliefs that center on it only endow it with additional significance and power. Druids may say as part of ritual “Let us pray with a good fire,” an invocation traceable to the worship of the Hindu Agni and a hymn in the Rig Veda (Bk. 1, 26). And Wendy Doniger in her translation* notes that “When Agni becomes the priest, his robes are both the flames and prayers.” Thousands of years of human experience with fire has not dulled its power.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Whether you’re part of an OBOD Beltane gathering that follows the traditional ritual, or some other group and ceremony, or you’re a solitary celebrating alone in your own way, may you too share that shiver of anticipation and delight as the day and the rite opens for you at the birth of summer. May you and the Sun both grow in strength. “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, we welcome you to this rite of Beltane …”

/|\ /|\ /|\

IMAGES: Fire Temple in Chennai, India; Sadeh Festival;

*Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. One Hundred Eight Hymns, Selected, Translated and Annotated. Penguin Books, 1981, pg. 100.

 

“Selfies with Trilithons” and Our Longing for (Re)connection   Leave a comment

Selfless trilithons

Selfless trilithons

Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.

In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.

Will Self visits Stonehenge

“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The Guardian.com

I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.

New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10” list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.

The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”

You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”

English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”

“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.

Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness.  They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.

Until we did.

[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]

We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.

But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)

These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”

Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:

Midhowe broch

Midhowe broch

… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.

During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.

If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.

“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.

“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.

Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react variously to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets some of them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:

When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.

The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be crossed with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)

In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.

 /|\ /|\ /|\

 Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.

*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]

McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

Updated 9 August 2015

Help Along Our Ways   Leave a comment

woodpath
[This lovely image comes courtesy of mistressotdark. And in case you’re wondering: yes, the path sometimes IS this clear, lovely and straight. But we earn these glorious stretches during intervals when everything isn’t sweetness and light.]

Today’s post features an excerpt from Tommy Elf’s moving account of his Bardic journey, framed by his experiences at the first Gulf Coast Gathering in Louisiana this past weekend. His words dovetail with the previous post here about initiation — always a challenge, whether you’re journeying down a solitary path with its own obstacles and opportunities unique to your nature and history, or along a more public walk with Orders like OBOD.

Here are Tommy’s reflections:

Folks, I have been in my Bardic Grade studies for the last seven years. For those seven years, I believed that I could struggle through the material on my own. I rarely asked for help from my tutor/mentor, and stepped back and forth constantly as life had set into time requirements. At this gathering, I opted to have a Bardic Grade initiation – and I am glad that I did so. It has changed my perspective so much. I had the chance to talk with other Bardic Grade folks, as well as my fellow initiates, about their experiences. And I found out that I was not alone in those moments. Furthermore, one of the guests was Susan Jones, the Tutor Coordinator for OBOD. She held a session with all the Bardic Grade members to discuss pitfalls, and various other aspects concerning the course. Listening to other people discuss their experiences helped me to realize that our journeys may be unique to one another, but there are some aspects that are similar. For anyone currently in their Bardic Grade studies, I cannot stress how much help is actually available to you. You just have to reach out and grab it! There is your mentor/tutor, the discussion board, your own grove or study group (if one is near enough to you), as well as other folks within OBOD who are taking their Bardic grade or have already been through it.

Tommy’s openness here contrasts helpfully, I hope, with my own sometimes opaque references to my journey. There’s also a delightful symbolic resonance to his seven years in Druidry — at a crisis moment, the turn comes, and ways open before him. Seven it is. And now the challenge: what next? How do I incorporate this new thing into my life? How do I step into possibility, and not snuff it out by dragging along with me everything I DON’T need? What am I called to do? What CAN I do?

If time truly is what keeps everything from happening at once, and space is what keeps everything from happening here, we have ample reason to be grateful to both, pains though they both often are. Or more elegantly, as I’m fond of quoting Thoreau: “Time is the stream [we] go fishing in …”

/|\ /|\ /|\

%d bloggers like this: