On Speaking and Not Speaking

Recently I’ve been thinking about what I make public and what I keep private. In the past I’ve scoffed, a bit, at the ‘keep silent’ answer of the Sphinx, that fourth bit of wisdom that Thelemics, Wiccans and others hold dear. I don’t hold with the late modern idea that religion should be kept out of the public sphere. Religion is culture. Religion is life. Many paganisms, and perhaps especially Gaelic polytheism, are woven into every aspect of life, both private and public. Singing prayers as you light fires in the morning; walking the bounds of your land to claim it as your own; Bealtaine fires to cleanse cattle and (today) ourselves.

But there are aspects of some paganisms that it may be better to keep silent about. I refuse to talk about magic, for example, except with people who are close to me (and then I’m careful). And sometimes, saying or doing anything puts you in the path of what the Irish called the Evil Eye – e.g. from people who don’t like it when others gain any kind of attention, and who might do things in response to that.

And then, some things need to be somewhat public. When you pray to St Expedite, it’s important that you share his name and spread his fame. People used to put his name in the paper. I pondered what the modern equivalent of that was, and came up with twitter and blogs – so here’s my acknowledgement of the generosity of St Expeditus (I hear that you never say his name the same way twice). He also likes flowers and pound cake – I had to substitute what we call Madeira Cake, as we don’t have that – but he seemed OK with the exchange. He came through for me. Blessings on you, St Expedite, who gets things done in a hurry.

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Image: improvised temporary shrine to St Expeditus, with his picture, flowers and sponge cake.

I’ve been doing some Work that’s definitely for my eyes only, recently. And pondering the paradox of how to write about that in places where it’s helpful to talk about what I’m doing, but where I know it will be seen, probably by those who don’t need to know what I’m doing… See, this is tricky :P I also got into some trouble not too long ago with some people who didn’t have the best of intentions, who (among other things) linked my public, academic profile with my personal, Pagan one. Their intention was to do me harm across all the spheres of my life. I don’t hide who I am – at the moment, it’s not difficult to get from here to my public persona. I’ve had to ponder how to address that. Password protected posts? Writing more in places where posts can be locked to a small audience? Neither of those sits very well with me, given the purposes of this blog.

No, I think the answer may be more related to the concept of ‘hiding in plain sight’. Which is again one that some Wiccans love, and that I’ve scoffed at a bit. But when I had important people over to the house recently, and had to look at what I was hiding in plain sight – Brighid’s cross above the door, altars that look like trinkets and pictures, my door sign a clear boundary between my place of Work and the rest of the house, and so on – it occurred to me that this, too, is Gaelic polytheist practice. The ordinary fire blessed in the quiet of dawn. The rowan cross that looks like decoration. The bit of butter left behind the house for the Good Folk. The whispered prayer as you craft an amulet that looks like a piece of thread.

It’s all important – especially for those who live in the liminal places.

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Image: door sign – “Away with the fairies”

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

Book Review: ‘Hoodoo: Folk Magic’, Rachel Patterson

Patterson, Rachel (2013), Hoodoo: Folk Magic (Pagan Portals series). Moon Books.

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On the whole, I would usually prefer to read about another culture’s folk magic from someone who is from that culture. Hoodoo, in particular, is one of those culturally-embedded practices (embedded in African-American culture, in this case) that it’s easy to misappropriate. Those of us outside of north America should be especially aware of this, since we don’t know all the history of oppression and suffering that is the cultural context of hoodoo. But there are ways to practice being a good guest when relating to another culture’s folk magic. However, it can be overwhleming to try and jump right in, and it’s often unwise to do so without a great deal more knowledge than most foreigners will have. That’s where a beginner’s book can be very helpful. Here, Rachel Patterson introduces the reader to hoodoo in a very accessible way. This is a book written by someone like you, working from a Pagan perspective in Britain. That makes this a good introduction for people without much experience of this particular form of folk magic or its wider culture.

Also called conjure or rootwork, hoodoo is an African-American folk magic practice, often with a strongly Christian flavour, and with influences from Africa, the southern United States, and beyond. This book introduces some of the key concepts and practices in hoodoo: working with roots, mojo bags and doll babies; foot track magic and candle/lamp magic; baths/washes, oils and powders; prayer and petitions; working at the crossroads; working with spirits, and many other ideas. It’s a really comprehensive overview of the practices, but at a beginner’s level.

Rachel Patterson is not afraid to admit that she isn’t as familiar with hoodoo as she would like to be, which is a refreshing change from writers who claim to be experts in something and then turn out… not to be. In places, this led me to wonder whether she could have done more research on one or two things. At the same time, it makes the subject much more accessible for her audience. For British readers in particular, Rachel’s relative unfamiliarity with American culture and history means she takes nothing for granted on the part of the reader – for example, she introduces terms and cultural concepts that a complete beginner will find very helpful.

This is a starting-point book. Start here – but then move on to more in-depth experiences of hoodoo. We live in a global world, and you don’t have to go to the USA to find out more (although it’s extremely helpful if you can!) There’s lots more information out there, from the Lucky Mojo podcast, to books written by conjure folk themselves, to histories of hoodoo and some of the people associated with it, and even anthropologies of American folk magic and hoodoo. The world is your crossroads. Enjoy!

Grey Skies, Galoshes and Greed: the (Druid?) Ethics of Weather Magic

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It seems to me (and this is just my interpretation) that there are two types of modern druid magic. In one, the focus is on the images of ancient druids controlling the forces of nature. In another, there’s a trend of seeking oneness and harmony with the environment, an approach where the magic is more about understanding our place within the land and the delicate balance of its forces, than attempting to impose our will onto it.

I won’t say I’ve never done the former, the kind of magic that imposes my will on the world/the land, rather than seeking union with it. But not when it comes to weather or the ecosystem.

What I do do a lot of, is calling on deities for help with weather. I assume that they, like land spirits, have a much better understanding of my ecosystem and its needs than I ever could. This tends to lead to much hilarity from SJ, who’s always saying “Ask a god to move this storm” (generally when we’re trying to drive through it) and I call on Manannan, who makes the most sense. (Or, when I’m desperate, Bhearra the goddess of the wild land and its wilder weather.) “He’s a rain god!” SJ argues with me. “Find a sun god.” And then I point out that, in the British isles, we were always guaranteed to have more in the way of thunder and storm deities than, say, gods of clear sunny days. From Taranis to Thunor to the many river goddesses, we are surrounded by water, and any gods who embody our land will probably be a bit… drippy. We do have sun deities, but, like Sulis, they also have springs and underworld associations and lots of other watery goodness.

And why not? Why wouldn’t I, like them, want to revel in the incredible beauty of the surprising, never-static weather of this land? I’m not one of these people who says “Ugh, raining again.” The weather is incredibly fickle here (raining? wait an hour – it probably won’t be). SJ has this strange, optimistic belief that every storm comes with a rainbow (no, they’re not being trite – they really think so and apparently can argue it with bad science) – so our life is full of “Quick, find the rainbow!” moments. There’s the wonderful excitement of suddenly going from a wet day to a sunny one, or of the mists that come down so fast you can wander into the Otherworld in them, and which lift again just as quickly, so that it looks you really did pass into another land. Is there anything more beautiful? Would I really want to impose my socially-constructed, limited idea of ‘a good day’ onto that?

8488755320_da9ed849cc-1The recent storms and months of flooding around here were very scary, specifically because they were different patterns from usual. The weather didn’t change. It just rained, for months. Towns flooded, people lost their homes and died. The rivers Soar and Avon, and my beautiful Trisantona, the Trent, are still trespassing into the fields around their boundaries. While the evidence is still being collected, the Met Office is putting recent weather down to climate change.

And that’s what happens with people mess with the weather. Build more factories and power stations? Be aware that you’re going to pump crap into the sky and the rivers. Drive more cars? Be aware that you’re contributing to the global rise in carbon dioxide that contributes to ‘global warming’. Do weather magic? Be aware that there’s a good chance you’re going to shift patterns that are really important to the local ecosystem. Or worsen patterns that are already screwed-up because of pre-existing environmental damage, like at the moment. If you can deal with that, fine. I don’t think my ethics can extend to that level – not with my very human perspective on the landscape. In tandem with deities who understand weather patterns better than I do, maybe.

But wouldn’t it be even better for me to keep trying to live in harmony with the weird, surprising beauty of the climate of my islands, that have given rise to myth and folklore and the best ghost stories? And am I not more likely to hear the land spirits that way, and be in the right mindset to form alliances with them that transcend the temporary annoyance of a little bit of rain? Yes, sometimes the weather can make me really ill – arthritis doesn’t like the damp, and I do much better in the summer than in the winter. But these are the patterns of life. What else would I miss if I gave them up?

I have a very clear memory of a school assembly – a Christian one – led by my lovely primary school teacher Mrs B (who always seemed, to 6-year-old me, to be aged about 100). She was talking to us about an upcoming school trip. She said that we could pray for good weather, but we had to leave it in the hands of God, and remember that while we’re praying for sun, the farmer down the road might be praying for rain. And that, since we and the farmer couldn’t both get what we wanted, we had to be prepared for bad weather and a cancelled trip. We can’t be greedy for the weather we want, she said. We’re not the only people who want things.

It’s still the best lesson I’ve ever had on the subject. Thanks, Mrs B, for your excellent druid weather magic ethics!

U is for… Unsound Minds

The BBC recently published the results of a study into stress, mental health problems and rumination. Apparently, psychologists have long considered that rumination, or obsessive thoughts, is a cause of stress and depression. Now they have evidence of that based on experiments, apparently.

I wish I were capable of understanding the original study — not being a psychologist, I’m not. But I have a problem with this conclusion. For me at least, it’s the wrong way round. My experience makes me think there’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc situation here. Continue reading

(Catching up) S is for… Saints

I don’t talk much about the saints I work with. It’s totally outside my Gaelic tradition – and, indeed, outside my druidry path. I don’t have a detailed theology of what saints are, either. They’re my spiritual ancestors – an ongoing link to Christianity, which remains important to me as part of the history of my spiritual journey and the history of my culture – even if I can no longer support its theology (or host most of its practices) in my life. They are ancestors who are often very willing to help me with folk magic, and to receive prayers and attention in exchange for protection or provision.

In the Gaelic tradition, researching saints often becomes messy quite quickly. demonstrating the fluid boundaries between ancestors, gods and land spirits in Gaelic culture. Some of the saints-as-ancestors may also be gods. St Gobnait, in my UPG, definitely has something to do with Bhéarra – I’m just not sure what. (See my post on St Gobnait for more of my thoughts on that topic.) Studying the stories of the post-Christian saints has taught me as much about Gaelic culture as studying the myths. Both may well have pre-Christian roots – but regardless, I’m not sure the Christian/pagan dichotomy really works particularly well in terms of Gaelic reconstructionism. Gaelic culture has endured on through Christianity. The saints are a complex part of this, knotted into the threads of pagan and Christian Gaelic folk culture. Neopagans tend to have mixed, slightly confused responses to the Irish saints – St Patrick is vilified, but St Brigit is considered to carry survivals of the goddess Brighid in her stories. Keeping in mind how our views of the saints are socially constructed – in this case, by our social context of modern Paganism – could be useful here. My views are just as socially constructed as anyone else’s, but I try to approach the saints on their own terms, and ask what they can teach me.

Some of my saints are Gaelic. Some are not. Some may have pagan roots. Some do not. They are all my spiritual ancestors. They have all helped me, and many other people.

St Catherine, inspirer of scholars and strong women. St Gobnait, lady of the deer and the bees, from the Munster hills of my ancestors. St Francis, gentle brother to animals and to the land. St Cajetan, of social justice and concern for the poor and jobless. Mary, mother of a god, protector of the weak – in all her many aspects. Mary Magdalene, Gnostic avatar of Sophia, teacher of wisdom, whose story has been suppressed and lost, like the stories of so many women before her – and patroness of those whose brains and neurology don’t work too well. St Anthony, of the lost. And many others. They protect me, guide me and work with me. They are my ancestors, and I honour them. I don’t need much more theology than that, really. The rest is mere detail.

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Shrine areas for St Gobnait (well water and bee images) and St Catherine (spinning wheel), next to my general working area for folk magic

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Saints’ shrine – upper level (right to left: St Cajetan, Mary, St Expedite, St Anthony). The configuration changes depending on who I’m working with. Not all the saints want to be a constant presence on my shrine. Some do.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

– From the Breastplate of St Patrick

Life/Re-doing ADF stuff/30 Days of Paganism

So. I’ve been working through ADF’s ‘Wheel of the Year’ book, which takes you through the Dedicant Path a week at a time – but I’ve been quite scrappy about some weeks. I think I need to go back over the weeks I didn’t do in enough depth. And also start the five months of meditation in earnest – as near to daily meditation as I can get.

Continue reading