Archive for the ‘Paganism’ Tag

Solstice and Druidry from Wales   Leave a comment

Note on the Welsh stories of Taliesin as one source of widespread contemporary Druid training and myth:

[They] belong to the islands of Britain and to anyone who connects to them, regardless of one’s position on the planet. The tales arose from the landscape of Britain and were relevant to the inhabitants of these lands then as they are now, but the mysteries contained within them cannot be confined to location. The origins of the tales’ creation may well be locality-specific, but the mysteries they contain are soul-specific – they apply to anyone, anywhere …

— Kristoffer Hughes. From the Cauldron Born. “Introduction”

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Fans of the Druid author, the wonderfully articulate Kristoffer Hughes, will particularly enjoy this 23-minute video, “Kris the Pagan”, in Welsh with English subtitles, from Welsh National TV. But anyone who’s been following this blog can find something of value and pleasure.

The video dates from the time Kris’s book From the Cauldron Born appeared (2012), and includes much of interest to Druids and Pagans generally, as well as friends of Kris: images of Solstice and Wassail celebrations, an overview of Druidry, a visit to the Pagan publisher Llewellyn Press in Minnesota, images of Kris on Anglesey, and Kris narrates the whole thing.

The video could also serve as a good introduction to the feel of Druidry, as distinct from a dry lecture, as Kris keeps it warmly personal and reflective. (And if you love the sound of Welsh, as I do, that’s just an added bonus!)

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“Connected and Blessed”   4 comments

“… if we could reduce Paganism down to its essentials”, write the Higginbothams in their 2002 book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, “we believe its two most central concepts are interconnectedness and blessedness” (pg. 2). I look at the two trees on the cover. Let the left one be connection, I say to myself, and the right one blessing.

llew-higginI quote this book because it’s on my mind. The Pagan group of some dozen members I’ve recently helped to form here in southern Vermont is discussing it as a way toward building some common ground. We’re Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, agnostic and more, veteran and newcomer, from our 20’s through our 50s.

If we seek connection and blessing, it helps to know where to look for them. It’s no surprise that “current events” offer scant help in seeing and experiencing either one. But then, if I’m looking to daily sensationalist media accounts of human mistakes and suffering for inspiration and guidance, what do I expect? The news that gets reported is commonly bad. Pain and suffering pull in eyeballs, and sell advertising. Most informational media, you can soon conclude, aren’t ultimately here for our benefit at all. To be “informed” commonly means nothing more than to know the bad news in the distance. You could easily be excused for wondering how there’s any world left, after just a week of “current events”. What won’t “go to hell in a handbasket”, if we give it half a chance?

But we also make our own news every day, closer and more important. The only two givens: I was born and I will die. Between those two mile-markers lies everything to make the worst and also the best life I can. Everything begs for our attention, the most precious thing we have. Where to put it?

After a day of rain and cold, morning sun. Outside these house walls, where my wife and I are sorting  through a few decades of packrat-dom — simplify, simplify! — the blossoming crab apple in the front yard draws an orchestra of bees.

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Connection and blessing. They come like a handshake — the offer’s there, but I need to extend my hand as well, if I want to complete it and bring it home. All the disasters in the world do not negate the possibility of connection and blessing. Like the frame for a picture, they only accentuate its value. The only reason I’m here at all is because of connection and blessing. Pass it on, says the crab apple, the sweet spring air, the buzz of bees. Do your best to pass it on.

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Image: Llewellyn Publications.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part One   2 comments

[Updated 2 January 2019]

cropped-yakushima_forest_1024x7683With this post, A Druid Way marks its 4th anniversary — I started this blog on October 7, 2011.

I’m also committing to at least a weekly post each Wednesday. A hearty thank-you to you, readers of A Druid Way, for your encouragement and support over the past months and years!

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[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three | Part Four]

This post and the next one pick up the theme of Arthurian myth and legend from the previous one. The “Matter of Britain” as it’s often called is an inexhaustible well of inspiration, of course. This time, however, I want to transition from King Arthur to his nephew Gawain and the Green Knight (and the Middle English poem by the same name), to the mysterious Lady that Gawain also encounters in between his meetings with her husband Bertilak, and more largely to the peculiar and delicious Medieval blend of Paganism and Christianity that surfaces in their story.

So what do we do until Arthur returns?

In the Arthurian peace and flowering of Britain which underlies much of the initial formation of the legend, the focus shifts from Arthur to his court, and more particularly to his knights and ladies, who leave Camelot to set off on their own adventures. A pattern to consider: first, achievement; but then, further exploration and spiritual challenge. Or the opposite — after a few iterations, it amounts to the same thing.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d'Espinques.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d’Espinques.

After all, once Arthur wins through to his throne, marries, and begins to assemble his court, he himself can seem less interesting (at least until time whirls round again to the Battle of Camlann, his final and fatal engagement with his bastard son Mordred). So singers and storytellers started to look for adventure elsewhere, with knights inspired by Arthur’s example and by the fellowship of the Round Table. King and Queen on the throne, or knight on a noble/ hopeless/ mysterious/ romantic quest — it’s easy to see where the greatest dramatic potential lies.

The Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sets forth one version of the story in 600-year-old English. The language is intermittently still quite comprehensible to us moderns, if you make some allowances for spelling (I’ve done very minimal editing):

Astrid Briges Frisbee as an archetypical young Guinevere in King arthur 2014

Astrid Berges Frisbey as an archetypical young Guinevere in the upcoming (2016) film Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.

“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse” and “was cummen with knyghtes into the halle.” And there Guinevere rules beside him as queen, a Guinevere as yet untouched by the scandal of any affair with Lancelot, “full gay, graythed [arrayed] in the midst” of the noble gathering. And a more lovely lady, “sooth [truly] might no man say.” Here then are the archetypes, before they decline into stereotypes. Here are the originals, magical king and beautiful queen. Part of their appeal is to our own psyches, to the beauty and power we instinctively know both genders possess — or could possess, if only …

The story setting is the three-part holiday of Christmas — New Year’s — Epiphany, the ancient tradition — and ultimate source of the song — of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Midwinter, birth of the Son, rebirth of the sun, the new year at hand. The Court’s right in the middle of its fortnight of feasting. Shortly, it’s New Year’s Day. And as such gatherings and festivals and holidays so often do, this revel has already begun to spin off its own local customs. After all, when does your family open presents on a gift-giving holiday? And what rituals have you perhaps built around it? Or if not you, a relative or friend?

Not surprisingly, in Camelot it’s Arthur himself who starts it, ritualizing the festivities. “The kyng wold not ete til al were served.” It’s a gesture wholly in keeping with the holiday season of generosity and joy. And the king extends the ceremonial atmosphere still further, also refusing to eat before he hears a story: “he wold never ete upon such a dere [dear, special] day ere him devysed were of sum adventurus thyng an uncouthe tale …” Or until someone challenges one of his knights “to joyne with him in joustyng, in jeopardy to lay … life for life …”

And things Medieval and magical being what they are, if you’re Arthur — if you recognize and live from the throne of your spiritual sovereignty — sometimes the “uncouthe tales,” marvelous stories previously unknown — come to you.

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The Green Knight, William O’Connor, 1996

Right in the midst, then, of all the noble knights and fair ladies, heaping platters and heavily laden tables, sprightly servants and bold banners, talk and revelry, the Green Knight suddenly barges in on horseback. For a moment he just sits his mount, framed by the main door, towering over everyone. The perfect Medieval photo op.

Huge and red-eyed and green is he indeed: “for wonder of his hue men had.” Likewise “his strayt cote” and “his hood bothe” and on his legs “hose of that same grene.” A marvel! The hair on his head, “the barres of his belt and other blythe stones,” even the steed he rides, “a grene hors grete and thikke” — everything’s green! In one hand he holds a branch of holly; in the other, an enormous axe.

Then he spurs into the great hall. “Where’s the governor of this gang?” he demands, haughtily. “To knightes he cast his eye.” For an instant — no surprise — silence greets him. “Each mon had marvel what it might mean” that man and horse both shone “grene as the grass, and grener it seemed.”

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green can be  unseely — Northern dialect for “unlucky, unholy.” Corpses and cheeses rot to green, metals like bronze corrode, swamps give off their ghostly phosphorence, moss and weed, creeping vines and algae, all overtake things each in their green fashion. Even the Devil himself gets rendered in green in more than one Medieval painting.

With modern commerce and ecology, green is almost wholly a good thing — not so in Medieval times. It represented a mixed bag of lust and youth (we can still be green with envy, too; and an untried youth is still sometimes called a “greenhorn”), nature and fertility, and early versions of the Green Man beloved of Pagans. Another post on this blog, about Beltane, also treats of greenness in some detail.

[Most clearly, perhaps, we see and hear and feel this enchanting but deeply ambiguous green in Dylan Thomas‘s wonderfully Bardic poem “Fern Hill” : “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” and later “I was green and carefree” and later still “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman” and “it was air/And playing, lovely and watery/And fire green as grass” and then nearly done “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows/In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs/Before the children green and golden/Follow him out of grace” and last of all “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” A poem that doesn’t merely describe but evokes … Follow the link to the poem and read it aloud.]

To return to the Medieval poem: Arthur answers the arrogant Knight with courtesy — the Medieval cortaysye — bidding him join the feast and tell his errand later. It’s an age-old gesture of hospitality, one that dates back to Homer, the traditional and trusting host’s welcome to a stranger. Eat and drink first, and only then speak your will, or recount your story.

Still haughty, the Green Knight declares his nature means he has no intention of lingering. I come, he declares, because of the fame of Arthur’s realm: castle and court are called “the worthyest of the worldes kynde.” The axe I carry, he announces, is no threat. Look to the holly sprig. Be sure “bi the braunch I bere here that I pas in peace.” If I wished for war, I’ld have come fully armed. “But if thou be bold as all folk tellen, thou wil grant me goodly the game that I ask bi ryght.” A Christmas challenge: “I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen.”

Besides, if he were spoiling for a bout, he’d win easily, he boasts. All he sees on the benches around the hall are “berdless children.” But if anyone’s got the guts, “leap lightly to me and latch this weapon. I schall give him of my gifte this axe, to hondele as he likes. I quit-clayme it for ever — keep it as his own. And I shall stond him a stroke” and promise “the doom to deal him an other … and yet give him a respite, a twelve-month and a day.” And again we’re into magical territory, the “year and a day” of testing and challenge, mystery — and mastery — and cyclic completion.

The Knight taunts the company further, and when no one rises to accept the challenge, Arthur himself reaches for the axe. But his nephew Gawain intercedes and claims the right, pointing out that with warriors in the Court to uphold its honor and reputation, the king needn’t lower himself to accept such a challenge. Gawain reasons further with him: besides, as your nephew, if I die, the loss is less.

To make short work of the next few stanzas, Gawain readies the axe, the knight stands with neck bared to receive the keen edge, and Gawain gives him a fierce blow that lops off that green head.  Through fat and flesh, the blade bites the floor. Blood spatters those nearest, and they kick at the head as it rolls past the benches.

sggk-armThe Knight, however, strides forward undaunted, retrieves his head, and turns back to his horse. “The brydel he cachches, steps into stirrup and strydes aloft, and his hede by the here in his hondes holdes.” And he speaks one last time: “On New Year’s morn, Gawain, come to the Green Chapel, I charge thee, to receive such a dint as thou hast dealt and now deserve …” And then, as British poet Simon Armitage* renders it in his fluent and lively translation, “So come, or be called a coward forever” (pg. 51)!

Knight, horse and now chapel — green and Christian mixed. The whole game’s unseely! The Knight departs, more food, drink and dancing displace everyone’s fears — except Gawain’s.

Thus the original anonymous Middle English poet closes this first of his four sections (here again is Armitage’s translation*): “But mind your mood, Gawain, keep blacker thoughts at bay, or lose this lethal game you’ve promised you will play” (pg. 53).

More to come in Part Two.

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Images:  manuscript illustration of the Round Table by Evrard d’Espinques; Astrid Berges Frisbey as GuinevereGreen Knight by William O’Connor; Green Man at Wikipedia; cover of Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

*Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. (There are other good translations — notably one by J. R. R. Tolkien. But I like this one, partly because my high school seniors liked it when we read it in our British Lit. class, and also because it provides the Middle English text on the facing page, for linguistic nerds like me who enjoy fine language for its own sake. You can find it used and in paperback. Or get thee hence to thy local library.)

Updated 11 October 2015.

Margot Adler: NPR Reporter & Pagan Author, 1946-2014   Leave a comment

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Margot Adler in 2004. Picture: Wikipedia OTRS, by Kyle Cassidy

Quietly, steadily, Margot Adler helped Paganism gain wider understanding and respectability. Her passing at 68 from cancer this last Monday, 28 July ’14, also leaves a gap on the airwaves.  Often people seem to know her either for her work as a veteran reporter and correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), or for her seminal book on Paganism and her involvement in Wicca, but less often for both.  Yet the combination is a key to her life and significance, and helped to give her and what she had to say particular impact, harder to ignore because of her reasoned and thoughtful public voice over the decades.

The NPR website provides a couple of short audio segments acknowledging her work and her passing.  This one includes brief mention of her involvement in Paganism toward the end, around the 3:40 mark, and includes a link to the other segment.  Both segments include written transcripts as well.

Adler’s signature book, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, to give its full title, was first published in 1979 by Viking Press. The Amazon page for the 4th revised 2006 edition enthuses:

Almost thirty years since its original publication, Drawing Down the Moon continues to be the only detailed history of the burgeoning but still widely misunderstood Neo-Pagan subculture. Margot Adler attended ritual gatherings and interviewed a diverse, colorful gallery of people across the United States, people who find inspiration in ancient deities, nature, myth, even science fiction. In this new edition featuring an updated resource guide of newsletters, journals, books, groups, and festivals, Margot Adler takes a fascinating and honest look at the religious experiences, beliefs, and lifestyles of modern America’s Pagan groups.

ddtm1sted2005 article in the Religion Journal of the New York Times, “Witches, Druids and Other Pagans Make Merry Again in the Magical Month of May,” observed that “the book is credited with both documenting new religious impulses and being a catalyst for the panoply of practices now in existence.”

My 1981 Beacon Press* paperback edition has begun to yellow with age.  Paging through it as I write this post, I remember how I read and re-read it, fascinated by practices, perspectives and beliefs that variously called to that 20-something me from a place both familiar and strange, echoed my own experience, or surprised me with their outright oddness.

If modern Druids and Pagans more generally have relied heavily on books to launch and sustain them, that’s because it’s often principally or solely through literacy, books, and reading that many Pagans learn they aren’t alone after all, that others like them really do exist, and that the spiritual energies they finally must acknowledge are at work in them deserve expression rather than repression — that the way opening before them is possibly even worth the risks and hardships that may come with it. The brave Solitaries in their personal practices, and the Pagan groups that have formed and continue to form, resemble those of many other new religious and spiritual movements that coalesce and arise, and have arisen historically, within cultures typically oblivious, resistant or actively hostile to the opportunities, perspectives and critiques such movements offer. Where else, after all, would you expect Pagans to begin?!  Where and how else do any new spiritual and religious movements begin, but by those with a shared experience or vision recognizing each other, and drawing nourishment from the common ground between them?

That original book cover of Drawing Down the Moon looks tame today, but it made me want to hide it from casual view, even from my parents who were very accepting of whatever their bookish son was currently reading.  So what happened next with me?  Very little, outwardly.  But the book and its many voices, together with its author’s reflections on the Pagan movement, fell onto fallow ground.  I can trace its impact directly to my involvement in Druidry now.  And from what I’ve heard, I surmise this proved true for many others as well.  Roots and branches of many lives.

So all this is to say thank you to Adler for her book and also for the questions she raises in it, most of which remain valid.   While various streams and strands in Paganism have grown and strengthened since the time of the first edition of Adler’s book, the challenges she perceives for Paganism persist.  I’ll close with an example:

Neo-Pagans, Adler asserts (pp. 385-386*)

have so many different visions that together they seem broad enough to sustain the human need for beauty, freedom, and growth.  They contain a vision of the earth that is a noble one, a reverent one.  I am still inspired by it.  These ideas seem capable of stirring great ferment; they seem capable of ending human alienation from the planet.  But will they?

… It also seems clear that those who choose to be Pagans do so to nourish and sustain a Pagan vision already inside.  This vision exists as a painting exists, or a piece of artwork.  And Neo-Pagans are the artists.  But the relationship of artists to living on the earth has always been uncertain.  Perhaps it is important to emphasize the visions of Pagans rather than the realities of their lives, the poems they write rather than the jobs many are forced to keep, the questions the movement asks rather than the goals already attained.  The goals sometimes fall short of transcendence, and Pagans are often imprisoned by the very civilization they criticize.

Of course, that’s partly WHY they criticize it.  Plant a dream, and it may well take time to germinate, if conditions are less than welcoming.

“You’re much too journalistic,” Michael told me again and again as we walked around Craftcast Farm in the winter of 1976.  “I want to know what people feel like in the circle.  That’s what I want your book to tell me.  That’s what I want to know.”

Along with her good thinking, and the words of many who have become our Pagan elders, Adler’s book definitely conveys both that atmosphere and the challenges Paganism continues to grapple with.

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Images:  Margot Adler; book cover of Drawing Down the Moon, first edition.

*Adler, Margot.  Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.

Edited 4 Aug 2014

Of Headlines and Images: “Purely Cultural” or “Very Pagan”?   Leave a comment

It’s worth resurrecting a decade-old headline — and the accompanying picture! — to reflect on the power of headlines and images.   In 2002, when then incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards during the Eisteddfod, an annual festival of Welsh culture, it kicked up some predictable controversy (or kun-TRAH-ver-see, as the Brits say it).  It also produced a fine picture that says at least as much — though what it does say is also debatable.  Here’s the whole article:

Incoming Archbishop of Canterbury becomes a druid
Monday 5 August 2002

An ancient early morning ceremony yesterday saw the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury stepping into a circle of Pembrokeshire stones and into a controversy.  Rowan Williams donned a long white robe, stood inside the sacred circle in a mist shrouded field in Wales, and became a druid.

The Archbishop of Wales was one of 50 people to be inducted into the Gorsedd of Bards during the service at the National Eisteddfod, a celebration of Welsh culture this week at St David’s, Pembrokeshire.

The Gorsedd comprises Welsh-speaking poets, writers, musicians, artists and others who have made a distinguished contribution to Welsh language and culture. But the ceremony was seen by some as too close to paganism for comfort.

The Rev Angus Macleay, of the evangelical group Reform, said: “Even if to Welsh speakers it is recognised as purely a cultural thing, the appearance of it looks very pagan. You have folks calling themselves druids, dressed in white and going into a stone circle, reciting prayers which don’t mention Jesus Christ.”

Dr Williams, who takes up his post in November, hit back at suggestions that the honour was linked to paganism. It was “one of the greatest honours which Wales can bestow on her citizens”, he said. “Some people have reached the wrong conclusion about the ceremony. If people had actually looked at the words of the hymns and text used they would have seen a very Christian service.”

The Archbishop is stepping down this year, having presided over a  decade’s worth of theological contentiousness about marrying and ordaining homosexuals that is splitting his church.  Other kerfluffles (I use the word advisedly:  in a century historians will no doubt smile and shake their heads at what is controversial now) include his positions on Sharia law, the hijab, Freemasonry, and creationism.  He is taking on what should be (almost anything would be!) a less dramatic and public role: Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.  Think Professor Minerva McGonagall as head of house of Gryffindor at Hogwarts, though Gryffindor was one of four dorms or “houses,” rather than an entire college.  Still …

I suspect Williams enjoyed his secular Druid experience more than some of his official duties as Archbishop.  I hope he reflects on it from time to time, as Druidry grows richer and more widely known.

[Updated 7/19/12]

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