Cultural Goats

Inspired by Kiya’s post on a reflection she gave at her UU church today, here’s what I did at my Unitarian church today…

The theme at New Unity this month has been ‘culture’. Instead of delivering a reflection on the subject, this week the minister asked if the congregation would be willing to share things from their own cultures and those that have influenced them. And how we shared: stories, poetry, reflections, songs. From poems that gazed into the death-stare of Kali, through traditional Irish folk songs, via reflections by Egyptian feminists, past freestyling on Greek-British culture, and onto a gorgeous rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, culture was brought home as something many-varied, colourful, and deeply embedded in us. Afterwards, friends and I fell into talking about queer culture over coffee. So many cultures. So much richness of belonging.

This is what I read in the service. If anyone hasn’t overheard me and Shai talking about the ‘goats’, you will at some point. Three months after I met Shai, I became suddenly, surprisingly and distressingly ill. Sometime around then, Shai told me this story, a Jewish Eastern European one. It has been constantly referred to in our home ever since. This is my interpretation of the story.

A man lived in a small, very crowded house with his wife, his in-laws, six children and a dog.

One day he couldn’t take it anymore. The noise, mess and stress were too much for him. In desperation, he went to see his Rabbi, who was known to be a very wise man.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “You have GOT to help me. There are so many of us in our little house. I can’t cope with the crowdedness and the noise and the mess and the stress anymore. What do I do about this situation?”


The wise Rabbi pondered this for a moment. Then he said to the man, “Do you have a goat?”

Confused, the man replied, “Yes, Rabbi. We have quite a busy farm and I have two goats.”
 
“Then take the goats,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man duly went home, got his goats, and brought them into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” said the man, “it’s terrible! We have even less space than before, and the goat is breaking everything, and there’s goat mess on the floor, and the children are very unhappy. How is this meant to have helped?”
 
The Rabbi thought for a moment. “Do you have a cow?”
 
“Well… yes,” said the man. “I have a cow.”
 
“OK,” said the Rabbi. “Bring the cow into the house with you.”
 
“Bring the cow… into the house? With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
The man obediently went home, got his cow, and brought it into the house. And then he went back to the Rabbi a week later.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi!” he said. “This is horrific! The goats and the cow are taking up so much space that we barely have anywhere to sleep anymore! They are fighting and they’re in the way and their mess is all over everything.”
 
“Tell me,” said the Rabbi, “do you have any chickens?”
 
“Yes, Rabbi,” said the man resignedly, “I have chickens.”
 
“Then take the chickens,” said the Rabbi, “and bring them into the house with you.”
 
“Bring them… into the house. With my wife, and my in-laws, and my six children and the dog, and the goats and the cow?”
 
“That’s right,” said the Rabbi. “And then come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later the man returned. He looked exhausted.
 
“How’s it going?” asked the Rabbi.
 
“Rabbi,” he said, “I officially cannot cope anymore. The goats and cow are trying to kill each other. The chickens are flapping around making noise all day and all night. We have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, we’re now having to do most things outside, and their mess is everywhere. What are you doing to me?”
 
“Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now. Take the chickens, and the cow, and the goats, and put them back outside. And come back to me in a week.”
 
A week later, the man came back. He looked rested and happy. “Rabbi,” he said, “you have no idea how much better it is now. There is space again. It is quiet again. It is clean again! What a relief.
 
The Rabbi smiled. “Then go home,” he said, “and enjoy the wonderful life you have with your family. And remember, if it ever gets too much – there could always be a goat living with you.”

 

There were a few goats in my house as I walked around Camden after church, getting some meanness about my scooter from fellow Camdonians, and thinking about the very hard week I’ve had of defending my stance on disability and access. But then there was tea and trees and work in Regents’ Park, and the goats were out of the house. For a little while. Everything can always wait until tomorrow.

 

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Regents Canal, where it meets the bridge at Regents Park, Camden, London

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.

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Misconceptions and Faith

27) Worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered

I’m always very surprised when ‘hard’ polytheists will talk in one breath about how annoying it is when deities are conflated, and in the next will talk about ‘the Cailleach’ in a very archetypal way. People who see all gods as separate beings will routinely conflate the myths of many different areas of Ireland and Scotland about Cailleachean. Despite her (other) name, Baoi is not the same as them. There’s been cross-pollination of myths, and I don’t know exactly what that means for the deities in question. But they’re not exactly the same, by any means. Continue reading

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Pantheons

I’m trying to catch up with all the blog posts I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but haven’t. Continuing my series on Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra, here’s the next in the #30DDD blog series.

16) How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?

Well, to start with, talking about a ‘pantheon’ in relation to Cailleach Bhearra doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I would argue that our insistence on making a pantheon out of the Irish gods doesn’t work too well when you’re looking at local cults and traditions. Tribes and localities had different gods, and not all of those gods will have been represented in the ‘official’ medieval myths. (Especially not when you’re looking at a very marginalized area like West Cork.) Baoi and Duibhne/Dovinia are cases in point. While there is a Bui/Bua in some medieval texts, it’s very hard to say if she’s Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra. Likewise, the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is a fascinating piece that doesn’t fit particularly well with local folklore. It’s even harder with Duibhne/Dovinia, whose name is all over the Dingle peninsula on ogham stones, but who isn’t represented in myths at all, and about whom contradictory stories are told. (Some dictionaries of mythology even tell you Duibhne is a male ancestor of the tribe – while others call her the Hag/Witch of Dingle, sister to Cailleach Bhearra. So to some extent, my entire relationship with Duibhne is UPG/personal experience. Which is a bit frustrating, sometimes, when you’re talking about one of your patrons.*)

But Baoi does represent some values that are relevant to the old gods of Ireland. She’s a sovereignty figure – and sovereignty goddesses seem to have been incredibly important to the Gaelic tribes, with different queens of the land in each area. She may also be a fertility and prosperity deity, as many of the sovereignty queens seem to have been. Baoi is much more wild than some of them (based on my reading of other myths), though. She gives life and takes it away again. She’s chaos and creation. She’s a Cow Goddess with Mare Goddess attributes. She’s impressive but deeply chaotic. She’s not a tame lion, to quote a certain writer of fantasy.

17) How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?

There’s evidence that she might have Norse origins. Dursey Island, which is her place, has a Nordic-influenced name as well as the Gaelic one (which could in fact be a later name). If I were more familiar with Norse mythology, I might say that she feels a bit Jotun-like. But I’m not so I won’t. ;)

18) How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG)

Well, it seems likely that she had a role to do with prosperity and fertility. I tend to focus on the prosperity and fertility of the land, in this context, since I’m not planning to produce any babies anytime soon. But I don’t have any personal experince of her pushing the ‘polarity’ stuff on me. In some local traditions she’s married to Manannan mac Lir, but he’s not her consort – they are ever separated by the sea, and she is left looking out over the cliffs, waiting for him.

My personal impression is that she likes creativity, including sexual expression, whether opposite-sex or same-sex.

19) What quality or qualities of this god do you most admire? What quality or qualities of them do you find the most troubling?

The qualities I admire in her are also the qualities that terrify me. She has wild, unpredictable whims – like a storm. My experience is that Bhearra is not like us. She’s very unlike us. Sometimes I feel that, while I can have a vaguely rational conversation with Duibhne, talking to Bhearra is like trying to talk to the mountains. She has such an entirely different perspective on creation, destruction, life and death that she can’t relate to some of my passing concerns. The ageless Mountain sees us as ants who live and die in a moment… Which doesn’t mean I experience her as callous, exactly – though it can sometimes feel that way. On the positive side, though, she takes the long view – and this little ant often needs that.

A Story

A child of the Mountain lived in a little hut beneath that mountain, at the very edge of the seashore.

At night, when the sea came close to the edge of the shore, it brought the winds with it. They rocked and shook the hut, the spray of the sea battering against the windows, the cold wind whistling through the cracks in the walls. She feared for her safety.

So the child climbed the Mountain.

“Help me, Lady Mountain,” she said, when she got to the top. “Your winds are battering my little hut, and I’m afraid that it won’t stay standing for much longer.”

“What do you want with a hut?” said the Mountain. “One day all things will be washed away, and all that will remain is the sea and the mountain, and then even I will be gone, and there will be nothing but land, sea and sky. You have no need of shelter. If you want to serve me, embrace the chaos. It’s all there is.”

Well, thought the child of the Mountain, while this was probably good advice, it wasn’t quite what she needed.

So off she went across the bay to talk to the Mother of the Tribe.

She found Her sitting serenly on the cliffs, watching the tide go in and out.

“Help me, Mother of the Tribe,” she said. “Across the bay, my little hut is battered by raging winds and rising tides. The Lady of the Mountain will not calm the winds. Can you?”

Duibhne laughed. “You serve the Forces of the wild, and you thought that you could escape them? You built a hut on the edge of the sea beneath the mountain, and you think you can find shelter from Her chaos.”

She went on, “If you want peace and quiet, you can leave the mountain and come and live here with me. Life with my people is quiet and safe. I tend the land where the people live, not the empty wilderness where only the wild animals can survive. Come and farm sheep here, among the people of the Tribe. Or, if you’d rather, go back to the Mountain and live in the wild with her. Your choice.”

So she built a sturdy cottage, set back from the seashore, surrounded by farmland, and lived among the people of the Tribe.

And she lay awake at night, wishing she could hear the spray of the sea that used to sing against the windows of her hut, wishing she could feel the cool winds whistling in through the cracks in the walls. She missed the thrill of the hurricanes that used to rage around her, missed the wonder of the mighty sea in its eternal dance with the land. Here the sea was silent and the winds were mild and warm. This was not her home.

So it was with a mixture of fear and excitement that she returned, one day, to the Mountain. She found her hut in pieces. She sat in the foothills and waited for the storm to roll out over the sea.

“Embrace the chaos,” said the Mountain, approvingly.

.

References

J. MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
All the other books I’ve cited on the topic of Cailleach Bhearra in this blog post series
And a story out of my own head.

*For want of a better word. I do not have one.

The Horse and the Water-Horse

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Horses may be the most important animal in Irish mythology, rivaled only by cows. They had major socio-economic importance in ancient and medieval Ireland – people’s livelihood depended on good, strong horses, and the relationship between a human and their horse was mythologised as something of a magical union. Irish folklore says that horses have a human ancestor, which accounts for good horse-and-rider alliances. Continue reading

The Hard Earth

A poem that Jack wrote for me. Fantastic stuff – I adore it.

The Hard Earth

if I fall and scrap my knee,
I give my blood to the unforgiving
earth, and though she doesn’t soften,
I feel a momentary hardening
in myself, a sense of the stone
that holds me up

there was a time when even mountains
were young and soft and warm, still
molten or raw in the air. there was
fire in the void, unlimited by oxygen,
and there was ice without ocean.
she came between them, new and sharp,
giving as she took what was hers,
meeting the water and letting him
shape her, and she him

she remembers when the ice scraped
her bare, when the humans first built
grass huts and cut stone tombs
into the hills, was already old
when the gods fought for land.
she learned to wear their forms
and reach out to the humans
but they sensed the height
and the depth that echoed in
her words and images

her stone is still her, still hers,
through glacier and flood,
invasion and tourism, and she
cannot be chased away. what’s her
is hers. and the blood soaks into
the stone, and the feeling recedes
leaving a very large rock and
a very small person

See: http://jackofmanytrades.info/the-hard-earth/