Happy Samhain. Happy ‘Year of Less’.

The sun’s down – so blessed Oíche Shamhna to you. :)

This afternoon, rushing home (with a bag full of apples) in a tightly-timed attempt to ensure I was indoors before dark, I started pondering how I’ve developed this strange mix of Samhain customs over the past six or seven years. In my attempt at developing my own style of Gaelic polytheism, little things start to resonate, inspired by community or folklore (or other places entirely). They become part of the mix. Things like not setting foot outside the bounds of my land from sundown to sun-up on Samhain Eve; burning a candle in the window all night; replacing my Brighid’s cross with a rowan cross for protection through the winter; a sacred fire…

This is a time of the ancestors, but it’s also a time of many other things. The final harvest is brought in; the Good Folk are abroad; Cailleach Bhearra is reborn from stone onto sand; the Nightmare Queen stands with one foot on land and one in water, waiting for the Good God.

Around these central mythic moments turn my Samhain/Lá Samhna customs.

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Hag Stone, Beara Peninsula, Ireland – associated with Cailleach Bhearra

Now comes November.
my birth time, and white ribs of tide
uproot the silence of the bay.

Today I break from stone onto sand,
motherless, my mother a stone
bedding the earth and dreaming my image.

– ‘Birth’, Leanne O’Sullivan

She is reborn. Everything changes.

October is about cleansing, changing, reforming, making ready for Oíche Shamhna (Samhain Eve). Spaces: altars have been redesigned and redecorated. Spirit: Work has been done on lots of things, mostly to do with casting off the old and getting ready to let in the new. Self: I’ve been doing a lot of work to sort out a myriad of health problems this month, have managed to get pretty deep into my thesis draft, and feel like I’m at least plodding on through the swamp, even if it’s all rather a struggle still.

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Oiche Shamhna ritual setup. Will attempt to keep a candle burning all night. It is at least *near* a window!

The Samhain wreath on my door is synthetic – and beautiful, and made by someone else. (I support local and small-scale artists wherever possible.) I’d love it if I had the time (and fine motor control) to make my own. But my hands don’t work well, and I’m spending pretty much every minute I’m awake drafting my PhD (100,000 words due by February). So, purely symbolic it has to be. #MyDisabledPolytheism

I managed to completely fail to collect any rowan today, too, rushed as I was doing other prep. That can be tomorrow, I reckon.

On Oíche Shamhna itself, the most consistent thing I do is putting a candle in the window, to signal to the dead that they may come in and rest. My religious path is offerings-focused, so offerings to the gods, the spirits, the ancestors and the Good Folk are important. So is having a fire, if I can, but I can’t always. (I can try this year.) Everything else will probably be suggested by those whose time of year it is – Morrigan, Dagda, Beara – or it won’t. It can be a good night for divination for the coming year, or sometimes that works better at Midwinter. (I’d love to hear what other Gaelic polytheists do on the night itself, if any are reading…)

I always have a serious time of chaos around this time of year – She is about to be reborn, and so things fall apart before they can come back together in new, more coherent, better ways. Earthquake and fire and blood, before the new landscape emerges. Then, between Oíche Shamhna and Midwinter, things tend to get pleasantly quiet. This year I’m looking forward to that. My poor little mind has been broken for a few months now (hence my absence from online discussion, which is probably going to continue). It wants a rest. (I just got a new medication for anxiety that I’m somewhat hopeful about. I’m asking some relevant saints of health for help with that. We shall see.)

And Happy New Year to those who celebrate Samhain as such. I do, but sort of by accident – since it coincides with the beginning of a new academic year. This is going to be my Year of Less. A year to nurture my barely-flickering little Dark Flame. This is the year where I say No a lot more. This is the year when I say No to being being involved with things where I’m marginalised, or able-splained at constantly, or which cause me anxiety… say No to trying to be something I’m not (yes, I can do this polytheism/Paganism thing entirely my own way)… say Yes to speaking only my truth… and say Yes to creating only things that are honourable and beautiful. I want more time for things I want to do: go to gigs, and take my scooter around the wilder, weirder parts of London, and maybe see people I want to see (but let myself be alone as much as I want to be, without judging my little anti-social self too much). I want to read tarot and Ogham, and play a bit. I want to have my fifth or six attempt at learning Hebrew (you can’t give up till you’re at, like, 20 failures – that is Official). Most of all, I want to write my thesis, and I want to tell people that, No, I don’t have to do things they want me to do that will give me less time for that thesis…

At least, that’s the plan. :P

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh. Blessings of Samhain to you and yours. Blessings on your ancestors. Blessings on your year to come.

Celebrating My Disabled Pagan Life: Photoblog

Every time a Pagan or polytheist tries to tell others that they should only take natural remedies or dictates what health should look like, I get twitchy.

I’m currently deep into drafting my thesis about disability and a particular religion (which will eventually be 100,000 words long, so it’s keeping me fairly busy). I’m exploring big themes. And the more I read and write about certain religions (you know, the ones that Pagans are often so quick to judge), the more nervous I get about how Pagans can be very similar in our attitudes towards bodies and minds. We, too, dismiss disabled and chronically ill people for being different. We may do it much more subtly. But we do it.

For example, I’m looking in my research at how some religious and spiritual communities keep out people who are different, telling them they just need to pray more and have more faith, and then they’ll get better. That has varying effects on people, usually negative ones. For Pagans, the equivalent could be: you just need to take more natural, herbal remedies and ‘think positive’ and you’ll be all better soon, and then you can come and join us. Or it could be: sickness is full of miasma and bad energy, and you need to be cleansed before you can be a member of our group/do magic/be good enough.

Well, bollocks to all that.

I want to allow my body to be me. It’s different, and it’s beautiful. We are all different. This is not a bad thing.

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See how beautiful! This is how great I am looking after nine hours working on my thesis. I think the threadbare second-hand hoodie is particularly glamorous. And the birds-nest hair.

[Image: Me in chair. With slightly worrying grin.]

I celebrate my reliance on ‘big pharma’. It has allowed me to do a PhD in which I am blessed to be allowed to share the stories of disempowered people. How does it do that? By providing me with medication that treats my appalling levels of pain. Without medication, I’d be unable to move from bed most of the time. It also treats my heart problems and blood vessel issues, extreme fatigue, anxiety that stops me from having the life I want, my three separate sleep disorders, and a few other things. And what a blessing to live in a country with a National Health Service that offers me all that medication at a price that I can afford (and that’s even giving me free acupuncture at the moment). Blessings of Brighid on the doctors and nurses and physios and pain clinicians and sleep technicians that are a part of my daily life (yes, I do mean daily – I have medical appointments most days at the moment).

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Just three of the many gifts that great human minds learning from the wisdom of nature have given to me. I will have to take these meds for the rest of my life – and I will have a rest of my life. How cool is that?

[Image: packets of pills.]

I celebrate my reliance on modern medical technology. It means I don’t have to risk dying in my sleep. That’s a very real risk that people with sleep apnoea live with. Mine is comparatively mild (although I still stop breathing 50+ times an hour in deep sleep), so the risk of that is low, but it exists. More likely, though, is that my ten years of untreated sleep apnoea has led to degenerations in my brain. That may be the root cause of why I’m so anxious, forgetful and brain-foggy. Herbs won’t help that (not least because I’m allergic to most of the ones that traditionally help with sleep). Right now I am struggling very hard to get to used to this dread machine. (I, ahem, may have screamed at it and then thrown it out of my bedroom door at 2am one night earlier this week.) But I persist. It’s been four difficult months trialling it. And I am still deeply, profoundly grateful for this stupid fucking machine with its enormous sleep mask that means I wake up uncomfortably every half hour. Slowly, crawling along month by month, I’m getting used to it enough that it’s actually having the chance of treating my daily and long-term effects of this. (Sleep apnoea, by the way, is a common side effect of my genetic condition. I don’t have enough collagen in my connective tissue, so everything is very very floppy. So my airway collapses a lot. Fascinating, huh? I love the amazing diversity of the human body.)

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My APAP machine to treat sleep apneoa. It runs on the will of the evil beast of Electric Power. (It’s alive! It’s alive!) [Image: black machine with clear face-mask sitting on top.]

These negative attitudes I see in Pagans towards medical treatment – they all reflect the insidiousness of ‘normalcy’, which is a way that our culture regulates our bodies. “Be normal,” says our culture. So we try to pretend we are. And that is very, very limiting of us. And it’s bad for us. It stops us from loving our human diversity. It stops us from understanding our complex, remarkable bodies and minds. It teaches us to judge each other. The very fact that I’m writing about this will be frowned upon, and mostly ignored, since these aren’t topics to be discussed in polite company. (Yes, physical conditions are stigmatised in our society too, even though I hear some people with mental health problems claiming otherwise.)

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That little display says I got nine and a half hours sleep last night. IT LIES. [Image: Close-up on APAP machine.]

But I, like Whitman, sing myself and celebrate myself. (Please excuse the hubris of comparing myself to great poet.) This is my Druidry. This is my polytheism. This is my daily practice.

The siren song of the normal is seductive. But we know better – we liminal ones who live in the ever-moving spaces between pain and relief, between difference and normalcy, between this world and the Otherworld. And if we force others to look at the shadowy spectre who walks with them daily, that they have forgotten how to see? Then we have done the sacred work of the Lords and Ladies of Life and Death. That sounds a lot more adventurous than doing the normal thing.

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Disability does not make me ‘impure’. That’s why the gods don’t mind me giving them an offering from my scooter. Like here, in which I sit on another beast of the Demon Electricity! This one is made of Iron! [Image: Me on my scooter holding a piece of paper and a cup. I was at a Pagan Federation event in which I called on many deities.]

My polytheism/Paganism celebrates my entire human experience. Does yours?

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It’s coming to eat me. I don’t know why I appear to be finding this amusing. [Image: Me wearing APAP face mask.]

The River of Justice

I’m in a bad place.

I’ve had two months of attempting to get my university to allow me an interruption to recover from some serious health problems I’ve had over the past year. I don’t know whether I should be resting, or working my arse off in an attempt to meet my deadlines.

I’m having a (not unrelated) mental health crisis and am trying to find the money to see a specialist autism psychiatrist. There are few of those on the NHS, and none in my area. This will be difficult to raise the money for. Then I have to go to the pain clinic next week, knowing that pain clinics can be dreadful experiences for disabled women in particular. I’m trying to deal with some awful experiences with my GPs too. My poor spouse is attempting to support me through all this, which causes other problems. Around me, the dominos fall one by one.

I haven’t done any ordered spiritual practice in maybe six months, except for (rare) incredibly loose meditation and off-the-cuff brief rituals. As someone who finds great order and joy in ritual, not being able to do it for so long is terrible.

I feel deeply mired in a vicious cycle that I can see no end to.

My Ogam fid right now is Ur. Shroud of a lifeless one; in cold dwellings. I am buried deep in the dark earth, and I don’t know how to claw my way out.

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Image: Ogam fid Ur

In a Field

So you can imagine that I was looking forward to my little break at the camp I’ve attended for (I think) three years now. Not a long time, really – but this is a community you can fall in love with very fast.

Without going into some details that I’m not ready to broach yet, this was a hard week for me at the camp. I was doing a thousand things all week, rushing between events that I was facilitating and Ogam reading sessions I was doing and supporting other disabled people. That was the good stuff. Then there was the less good. I was excluded from things that I should have been included in – maybe unwittingly, but who knows. I was made fun of when I raised certain accessibility-and-inclusion issues. I was ignored when I raised others. In common with other years, a feature of opening ritual was a fabulous spiral dance that no one had warned me about, so I sat there being stared at and feeling like a lemon. For a talk I was running on accessibility, I was put in a venue that was inaccessible to me. I was allowed to be ambushed by someone I did not need to be left to deal with, allowed to be put in a situation that made me vulnerable as an autistic person. There were times when I was too overwhelmed to go into venues because I was couldn’t deal with the sensory and people overload from poorly-designed environments. I ended up in my wheelchair on the last day, entirely dependent on my spouse for getting around between venues while working, because my scooter batteries only last three of the four days of camp. I had several emotional breakdowns – quietly, in my tent, attempting not to ruin anyone’s camp experience.*

These are all issues that are very easy to individualise. You could say that I found it difficult to deal with people because I am vulnerable. But vulnerability is social – it is something we do to people, as a society, when we put them into unsafe positions. You could say it’s my own fault if I can’t be in loud spaces or can’t get around packed cafes. But someone chose the design of the camp and of the venues, and repeats that design from scratch every year. You could say, as people have been telling me for a while now, that this is a camp in a field, and nothing can be done about that when it comes to accessibility. And yet we have hot showers, and huge tents with beds for hire, and enough electricity to host exciting bands. We are not living as close to the land as we think we are, in this back-t0-nature camp. There’s nothing natural about disablism and exclusion. We create it.

At one point, I stood in the centre of the field, wondering why we still have no lit paths back to the accessible camping area, why we still have no electric mobility aid charging points, why people’s mental health difficulties or triggers or physical needs still aren’t taken into account when we design rituals, why we don’t have a hearing aid loop for deaf people, why the showers are still a death trap for people with mobility difficulties (though slightly less so than in previous years… so that’s something… I suppose?) I know that there are other camps I could have gone to this summer, also in a field, that have all the facilities I mention here. I wondered, and continue to wonder, whether there was any point me being there, when my arguments for these things have been making no inroads towards change. And while I continue to push for these things alone, at a cost to myself.

From one perspective, much of this was because it was a stressful year for everyone at the camp, and things were very difficult, and things get overlooked as a result.

But as my friend said yesterday, what and who is it that suffers when things get tough, in this and many other institutions? It’s the oppressed people and the vulnerable people. The ones who are included as an afterthought, not as a central value and joy of the community. And that is an important lesson.

Because it is absolutely not just about me. I am not the only person whose vulnerabilities were exploited and whose needs we did not have enough resources for, this camp.

Creating Channels for the River of Life

Water flows down channels. The digging of new channels to bring in other streams – outsiders and excluded people – is difficult. That’s ‘inclusion’. Beginning with channels that bring all the streams into the flow at the start – that’s justice. That’s not easy either, but once it starts, the great river of true, diverse, and deeply honourable community can be the long-term result. And what a river it is.

Communities create thoughtforms. We choose what we value, what we honour, what we want to be part of, and what we want to be part of us. The result will always reveal the architecture of the thoughtform – of the tribe, and of the institution that surrounds it.

These are the flows of the Xartus – the great tree of life, of the pattern of the universe, whose pathways of justice we can either move along, or resist. Or, to put it in theoretical terms: political philosopher Paulo Freire says that, in the long view of our evolution, humanity tends towards humanising each other, rather than dehumanising. I suspect that he is almost right. I think we co-create the universe around ourselves and our communities. That if we choose to tend towards justice, we will tend towards justice. But if we choose to tend towards oppression, then we create a world of oppression.**

For We Are Not Yet Free

I’m not unaware that this post could cause controversy. But you have to start from the place where you are called to stand.

There was much I loved about this camp, this year. I loved the people – the wonderful tribe that grows up around the camp. It takes me multiple years to make friends and to know who I can trust, and this year I was particularly honoured to get to know some old friends much better and to meet some fantastic new ones. I loved reading Ogam for the most wonderful people who were willing to put up with me. (Am I the world’s only dyslexic Ogam reader who has to sit and count the strokes? I do hope not.) I was honoured to be asked to do things to help the camp – not least to be asked to embody the Goddess of Life in a ritual. (A disabled Goddess of Life? I may have got a bit teary-eyed at being given the opportunity to be so visible in my unavoidably embodied, reminder-of-death self.) I was delighted to be so busy that I am now more tired than many non-disabled people will be able to imagine, and it’s totally worth it. I was honoured to be given a bottle of mead in exchange for a reading; to be thanked for making camp a more accessible and inclusive place; to be part of a growing, wonderful queer community that now makes up part of the life of the camp; to benefit from the very hard work of the people who create the camp.

But I stood in the tension, in the liminal spaces, where I live. In the indescribable joy of hearing a queer-celebratory poem that reinterpreted myths of old gods, I also heard its sad undertone of the divine queer lovers’ inevitable return to the goddess. For we are not yet free. In the shock and anger and fear of hearing my daily reality laughed at and my very ground of being rejected, I knew that while things have improved, they will never improve enough. For we are not yet free. In the paradox of loneliness of my retreat from an environment I could not cope with, I had no choice but to cut myself off from friends and support. For we are not yet free.

Without wanting to sound too ‘up myself’, I think maybe I’ve had a small effect on the camp, by standing in my space and my truth. I suspect I was one of the first people at the camp to turn down hugs, particularly in the closing ritual, where there is a cost involved in saying “I can’t hug you – I can become overwhelmed by touch from those I don’t know.” I saw people’s conflicted faces when I first did that, three or four years ago. This year I experienced people asking me, and others, whether they could hug us. That is huge. It’s not just my doing, of course – but if I have helped to contribute to a growth of consent culture at the camp in any way, maybe my work has been worth it. I have talked to a number of people about how things have changed in terms of accessibility while I’ve been involved with disability work there, and that’s good to know. As much as change is not coming as fast as I want, this is becoming an issue that’s important to at least a few people. My accessibility workshop was small, but held space for some great conversations and creative ideas. Maybe things in our wider Pagan community will continue to change, very slowly, as we build new channels for the course of the river of life.

But there must always be a balance between what things cost and what they are worth. And I always have to ask, to quote my wonderful teacher Cat: What am I doing? And why am I doing it? I have boundary issues. I am too quick to say ‘yes’ to requests – I forget to be sure I can cope with the fallout for my body and mind. Partly, I take on so much because I am so excluded from so many things, and I want to fight my way in. I don’t want to be kept away from camps because of poor access. I don’t want to have to leave druid orders when they don’t want people with mental health problems involved. I want to go to moots and community events even when most of them are upstairs. But the exclusion is about them, not me. It is not always my job to fix it.

And there is a question that comes up time and again. The question of whether I want to be part of any community – however wonderful in many ways – that so persistently cannot make space for me and my people. Because we are not their priority. And that’s a much more terrible thing than it may first seem. What am I saying about myself and my value if I consistently demonstrate that I agree with them?

However much I love the tribe, however much I love the camp, I don’t know if I can continue to let that love and celebration be at a cost to me and mine.

“Well the Mississippi’s mighty
But it starts at Minnesota
At a place that you could walk across with five steps down
And I guess that’s how you started
Like a pinprick to my heart
But at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown…”
– ‘Ghost’, Indigo Girls

*I am ironically ruining that by talking about it now. But silence is rarely the solution to anything. It just took me too long to work that out.

**Oppression is never accidental – it’s always chosen, but sometimes we don’t notice the tiny choices we make every moment that create it.

Colonialism, Pagan Spirituality, and Us

There’s been a discussion going on about colonialism, on a druid website I sometimes read and contribute to. I have newly developing but important thoughts on the subject, and I thought I should write about them here too – because colonialism and neocolonialism and druidry and Paganism are all mixed up together in complex ways that I believe we need to address.

Note: these are very challenging subjects and thoughts. When I first encountered them, my instinct was to dig in my heels and become defensive. Surely I’m not a coloniser or a racist. I’m a good person. But that kind of thinking is dangerous. We can be good people and be benefitting from colonialism, and even extending its power through our Pagan practice. We do these things unconsciously, because we are part of complex power structures. It’s so important that each of us challenges ourselves on these things… I’ll reflect a bit more on that at the end of the post.

As I’ve said before. I think everyone should read the work of Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and colonialism (and gender) in the Goddess movement in Glastonbury, although her conclusions relate to other Pagan movements too. Her academic work can be found here, and she recently wrote a short general summary of what she’s been doing, which can be found here. She is a colleague of mine and we have talked about this stuff a lot. She has really challenged me, in a way that I think all druids should be challenged, to think more about justice and oppression.

Colonialism is a tricky thing. It’s easy to ‘jump’ back to Roman times in our mind, and think, oh, ‘we’ lost ‘our’ traditions then. But it can be dangerous to identify solely with those pagans, who are not us and are not in our historical situation, when there is so much history in the middle that we need to know about and take responsibility for. As a result, we can too easily forget about things that we need to learn about and from – including Britain’s role in colonialism. We are colonisers, as much as we were colonised – we just did the colonising in other places, and received a huge amount of benefit back here. We continue to benefit from the oppression of other nations and peoples. That’s called neocolonialism.

We must be mindful of Paganism’s tendency to lean on concepts of nationalism that may be harmful to others. For example, are we using symbols and stories that Britain has used in domination of the rest of the world? This can be very harmful to people of colour, immigrants, and others who may want to join our movements. Pagans of colour are often excluded, told to find ‘their own’ traditions (as I wrote about before – an incredibly stupid and racist thing to say) and often do not feel welcome in our very white Pagan movement. But they should be welcome. And welcome is about a lot more than just being ‘friendly’.

In short, colonialism is not something we can just skip over and pretend didn’t happen. What ideologies are we using in our attempts to reclaim older traditions? Do these ideas and stories draw things that have been used to oppress other people? If so, I want nothing to do with them, as I am a druid focused on justice for all. This is difficult, challenging spiritual and emotional Work, rooting out our own relationship to colonialism and how we continue to benefit from it. I think it’s among the most important work we can do, in our work towards the healing of all people and our druidic concepts of healing the land.

I think that our relationship with the land is damaged when we oppress others, here and elsewhere. British colonialism, even though it mainly took place far from these shores, was incredibly harmful to the earth (and to communities of people) in other places. We have benefited and gained at a cost to others and their lands. That benefit on our part, and suffering on the part of others as a result, continues today. The land we live on knows, feels and remembers that, I believe. That’s a personal spiritual view… but one that I often ponder. What do we need to make right, that has gone wrong before? It’s easy to stand on the land and feel all spiritual and connected, and then go away and not act in a way that truly lives out our connection with all life. Is spirituality having any impact on our real life? If not, it’s worthless.

And this is not about feeling guilty for the actions of our ancestors, by the way. It’s about taking responsibility for how we benefit and continue colonialism today.

As a person of Irish origin, I find it difficult when British people try to overlook centuries of oppression of others, and forget it ever happened. Yet the Irish are also doing this today, as much as the British, and forgetting their own oppression as they oppress others. I have a mixed heritage, and I am both a child of colonisers and the colonised. My ancestry, body and life hold the results of both these things. We all do. We all have to live with these contradictions. We may not ‘feel’ like colonisers, but every time we lean on stories or ideas that oppress others, every time we benefit at a cost to other groups or nations, every time we encourage nationalism in any way, we are colonisers. It is possible to be both colonised and a coloniser.

Neocolonialism is alive and well right here and right now. We continue to oppress other, less powerful nations and gain benefit as a result of it. It affects how we behave towards others here in the UK too. Just look at the racism going on against immigrants and Muslims in this country today. It happens because of our inheritance of colonialist ideologies and what we have learned and believed from generations of thinking that ‘Britannia rules the waves’. I think the land holds all of this history, knowledge, experience and pain. My focus, as a druid, is on healing the land and contributing to the healing of all the people who live here, all the wonderful wealth of people who have been coming and going from these shores for countless generations. After all, we are an island nation, and we have never had one static ‘tradition’ or belief. No country has, but Britain has a particularly diverse history of influence of many groups and tribes and peoples. We need to celebrate that, rather than leaning on one interpretation of a history that is mostly made up by (white) Romantics and which is nostalgic for an era that may not even have existed.

I will be happier when I see a British druidry with many people of colour involved in it, and when I see real diversity in druidry, not just a sea of white faces (not to mention groves full of nothing but straight people and able-bodied people and binary-gendered people and neurotypical people and middle class people). Then I will feel less like I belong to a tradition that buys into ideologies related to colonialism and neocolonialism. I will feel like I am truly following the Virtues I identify with as part of my spiritual path(s): Hospitality, Integrity, Discernment, Justice.

This article, by Vibha Shetiya, gives another insight into the concept of what ‘our’ traditions are, and whether they can really be related to our ‘ancestry’, which is never from only one place. She says ‘I’m just me’. Britain is a complex, mixed place that holds many histories and much pain of many people. Can we not recognise that we have a very complex ancestry, and indeed that concepts of ancestry and ‘our’ traditions are extremely difficult things that come with a lot of baggage?

This is also giving me thoughts about ancestor work and colonialism and Paganism and history. I’ll share more of those in another post, I think.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very difficult stuff. It’s not easy to take it on board. But I believe it’s part of the Work of a modern druid, if we claim to be spiritual and aim to be awake and aware, to feel the pain of these realisations and confront them anyway. Let the darkness of colonialism and oppression in me be exposed and rooted out by the Light. Isn’t that the whole reason I’m a druid, working in a spiritual tradition of justice? I think it should be.

31 Days of Offerings – Day 3: Offerings in Exchange

Saturday, and I’m at an old medical centre with completely beautiful grounds, a stream running through them at the bottom of the hill, an overgrown herb garden a home for whole microuniverses of life near the entrance, a delightfully happy rowan tree near the carpark. Urban and rural druids alike would fall in love with this place.

Photo: trees at the edge of a garden wall

Photo: trees at the edge of the garden wall

We were there for a day of contemplative druidry, trying out a range of techniques and practices, all of which I adored and will be trying out as part of my regular practice. Chanting; sitting in silence to invoke the Awen; contemplative reading of the book of nature; connection with the spirits of little things… Lots of fantastic, thought-provoking stuff.

I brought a handful of rowan berries in for one exercise, collected from a search in the long grass beneath the abundant rowan tree. Well, now what do I do with these? I wondered. In my meditation I saw them bouncing down the hill towards the rest of the world (something like in the Ribena Berry advert), delighted to be going somewhere new. I always find the rowan tree delightful. Abundant early autumn joy.

So after meditating with the berries, I did a few things. A few of the berries I threw into the river, an offering of thanks to the local goddess for hosting us with such grace. The rest I took home and they’re now on Cailleach Bhearra’s shrine. Some of these I’ll return to the earth, spreading them as far as I can take them from where they started, like the squirrels and the birds do. A few I’ll string on a rowan cross, as my ancestors did a long time ago — thinking, while I weave them, about why those who came before chose to bring a symbol of autumn life into the house to get them through the winter, and what that might mean for me.

Most offerings I treat in the Irish folk way, burying them. Their toradh, their essence, has been consumed by the gods, we Gaelic polytheists believe, and they are no longer good for us to consume. Yet if you separate that practice from the belief and look at the effect that that practice had on the world, in its time, in a more modern druid-y way, you can see it from the perspective of the nuts and berries. How sometimes the gods smiled on their offerings of rowan and juniper and there grew a sacred grove.

Do ut des – I give that you may give. We uphold rta. And the Xartus, the great tree that is the spine of the universe, continues to grow. Offerings in exchange for offerings.

Photo: Rowan tree. Image by Dave_S (CC, Flickr).

Photo: Rowan tree. Image by Dave_S (CC, Flickr).

Picture: Rowan berries

Photo: Rowan berries

Photo: gorgeously overgrown herb garden

Photo: gorgeously overgrown herb garden

Photo: stream running through the grounds

Photo: stream running through the grounds

Summer Harvests

It was Lammas at Druid Camp.

Alone, I would usually choose to celebrate Lughnasadh – the festival of Tailtu who created agriculture, of Lugh who prevents the death of the crops and brings the harvest. Summer games and competition and high-energy feats of challenge and pride, in honour of a proud, accomplished god.

But we were together, and it was Lammas.

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The wheat of the Lammas harvest that we were surrounded by at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

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Community-witnessed handfasting at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Druidry is very much a community-based tradition. If alone I am a Gaelic polytheist with Brythonic leanings, together with these friends I am a Druid in a community of Druids. And only communities can reap a good harvest.

And I thought back to two weeks before, in Ireland with my mother and grandmother, spending most of our time with cousins and other family. I didn’t get much time with the land, with Beara. I did more important things. My harvest was community.

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The view across the hills and down to the sea from the vantage point of my family farmhouse, dating back to my great-grandparents and still at the centre of a small farm worked by my cousins. Beara Peninsula.

I return to posts from American Pagans about rejecting Lughnasadh (by which, in this case, the writer actually means Lammas) because “most Pagans live in the US” (EXCUSE ME?!), the assertion from some corners that modern polytheism is better than modern Paganism, and other culturally imperialist rubbish that starts to bring me down. British Paganism and British Druidry are a minority voice online. Most Americans don’t know about the beautifully non-hierarchical, deeply rooted-in-our-land, strongly community-focused practice that draws from many streams of modern Paganism and other spiritualities that is modern British druidry. The loud voices shouting about their recent conferences, and whose hotel was better, know nothing about the week we spent in a field, overlooking the river of Sabrina and the ancient barrows across the hill, surrounded by sheep, having to build our own community from the ground up (and make it accessible to as many people as possible!), where the success is all the sweeter for how every person contributes in their own way. They don’t know about the talent (that Eisteddfod!), the strength, the love, the mutual acceptance and help and support, the critical thought, and the plain hard work that can bring 200+ very diverse druids together in a field and have them, by the end, become a coherent spiritual community complete with regular dramatic rituals and dances and fires and drinking of mead and telling of stories. So many stories.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

Flaming labyrinth at Druid Camp. Photo by Pawl Rouselle.

And that started me thinking about stories, and how the One Reality we all inhabit can be so very different from so many different perspectives. “We don’t need Lughnasadh,” announces someone who sees one side of the story. On the other side of the world, Lammas is the theme for 200 druids in a field surrounded by wheat. The sun at its height but showing the first signs of waning towards its long sleep. Our carefree summers making their way, like a slowly-winding labyrinth, towards Samhain and darkness and change. At the height of summer there is the seed of winter. At the height of life there is the seed of death. That’s what our harvest, here on this insignificant island where modern Paganism was birthed, is all about.

And that’s what our very different stories are all about, too. “I was right, you know, and he was wrong.” Except that right and wrong are forever relative. As a friend of mine said today: “We are all scumbags. We are all saints.” We may want to play the innocent hurt victim or the evil villain – depending on where our self-esteem might be today – but these are stereotypes, archetypes that aren’t useful beyond a certain point. I don’t worship the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, because these are useful illustrative archetypes, but not necessarily the stories by which I want to live my life. I am neither the villain nor the victim. I am neither the Druid nor the Christian. I am neither the daughter nor the wife. I am neither the sociologist nor the poet nor the seer nor the Gaelic polytheist nor the Pagan nor the wheelchair user nor the stranger nor the friend. I am all these things and more. Truth is bigger than we can imagine.

I am the universe emerging into consciousness, beginning to understand itself. (To slightly misquote Babylon 5.) And how much more am I than stereotypes and archetypes, as a result? I won’t reduce myself or others to one-dimensional pictures. I am stardust, as complex as the winds and as simple as the rain, the sacred legacy of my ancestors, the sacred ancestor of those who come after me.

This is the harvest that I reap.

Happy Lughnasadh. Happy Lammas. May summer and harvest festivals be celebrated forever, the wisdom of our forebears integrated into our new stories. We need the old and we need the new. We need all the sides of the story.

Hail, Lugh! Hail, ancestors!

Books To Read: A Druid’s Primer

druid's primer bookLuke Eastwood, ‘A Druid’s Primer’. Moon Books, 2012. ISBN 1846947642.

Eastwood has created a really interesting approach to modern druidry here. He’s done a lot of good research into histories of pagan practices, both ancient and modern. He then merges everything he’s learnt into a mix of existing and new philosophies and practices. This is a good book for anyone fairly new to druidry who wants to be better informed about some of the sources we draw on, as well as for more established druids who want to try a new approach to mixing the old and the new. It’s a very Irish-focused book, which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (though you won’t be surprised to hear that that worked well for me), but he does draw on British and other myths and folklore too.

But the problem with separating books into ‘recommended’ and ‘not recommended’ categories is that most Pagan books have parts that I like and parts that I… don’t. This book is no exception. Overall, I really enjoyed it. But let’s get into the things that I didn’t enjoy.

I’m getting really tired of books that repeat myths that we know are simply not true.

First myth: Let’s address this once and for all, shall we? The snakes that St Patrick drove out of Ireland were NOT THE PAGANS. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone thought they were, until very recently. The first reference that I can find to this idea is in Marion Zimmer Bradley – from the 1980s. It’s a modern Pagan idea. And I really wish this particular myth would burn and die. Eastwood doesn’t endear himself to me by repeating it.

Second myth, more problematic as it runs through the whole book: Modern Druidry is not ancient. Eastwood has a good grasp on the history of modern druidry, and that of ancient druidry (as far as we know anything about it). His problem is mixing the two up, believing the commonly-held view that modern Druids are the direct inheritors of the wisdom and knowledge of ancient druidry.

And that’s not entirely his fault. This myth is everywhere, after all. OBOD has its own version, as do other druid orders. But it really is a myth. Modern druidry has very little to do with ancient druidry, other than basic inspiration – and everything to do with being a beautiful modern spirituality rooted in the old sacred earth that we could do worse than embracing as, well, modern.

So now that I’ve started with the things I disliked about the book, let’s get into the good stuff – and there was quite a lot of it.

For example, he has some great chapters that merge ancient myth with modern druid ideas, such as the light body exercise. He relates the modern sun and moon cycles celebrated by most modern druids, to ancient myths that contain echoes of cosmological and solar folklore – including the myth of the Dagda and Aengus at Bru na Boinne, and the story of the Mabon. The chapter on elements is largely based on the Western magical tradition, but mixes some Irish mythology in. His chapter on healing, with botanical information on herbs/plants and their mythical and folkloric uses, is a lovely addition that I didn’t expect to see, but enjoyed.

My favourite chapter was on Ogham. This was a surprise, as I’ve done a lot of work with Ogham, using both new and old ideas on it, and I find that a lot of what’s written on it can be fairly terrible. But Eastwood’s extensive research really comes into its own here. He combines medieval and neo-Pagan sources on Ogham into a really lovely set of interpretations on each of the feda. He could have written a whole book on Ogham – as he says, he’s only had time here to skim the surface of all the sources, myths and ideas relating to it. If he does write more on the subject, I’ll read it!

As long as you’re aware of the limitations, this is a really good book with some refreshing approaches to the modern druid way of drawing on the old while being rooted in the new. I’ll be using a lot of this book in my own practice.

My rating: 7/10.