A Pagan carol… for Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah…

This is a first draft, and too long, (and as yet untitled), but I had to post it on Christmas Eve. (And now, I am setting up for Hanukkah. Before I hopefully make it to Midnight Mass. Seriously!)

What is this Star
that sits on the horizon in the east?
That burns in eyes of pilgrims from a distant land
who loved a thousand gods,
but, captivated, still left everything to follow this one Light.

What is this Star,
that flares across the sky in westward trace?
Solar wildfire obsessing three magicians
(who know their astrological events,
their Leo Rising from their Sagittarius),
who seek mysteries yet unilluminated.

What is this Star
that breaks my heart with calling me,
Once every year, away from your dark mountain?
Your face is veiled, my Lady, and I cannot see an end to night.

What is this Light?
Brought into great stone buildings made brilliant with candlelight,
Brought out in dazzling colours to streets that never sat in sacred dark.
And beyond, illuminating the eternal flame.
And what does this child mean, who blazes in the midst of it?

And you, Lady –
You are not the Light to kill this darkness.
You’re the drawing deeper into it,
The blackness in the heart of it,
The calm within the storm of it.
Nor are you the Way out of this wilderness –
You are the getting lost upon the hill of it,
The terror in the night of it,
The long walk to the dawn of it.
No fisherman will walk on water in the search for you
(though he that drowns may find you in the final wave).
And you will not turn over tables in the temple courts,
(our own injustices and consequences will be ours),
And you will not be born among us
(will not redeem us from the monsters that we have become).
You are not the light to kill this Darkness –
You are the Mystery it carries in its heart.

…And yet there is this Star.

So let me go, my Lady, just for one night,
To retread a childhood path to this one Light,
to leave the temple of a thousand gods
to seek the One.
Let me join a caravan that navigates by starlight,
to go with them to places where I once before
sang promises of peace and love and light
(although soon smouldering and all burnt out).
Let me seek a blazing child,
who, for one night, is lost in the wild dark places too,
sleeping in the straw.

And if he will not let me come inside the stable
Then I will sit with shepherds on the hillsides,
feel an early morning desert wind,
listen to an angel’s song,
and sit in celestial rays.
In the seeking there will still be Light.

So, Lady, send me with a message for a foreign god –
who hosts his guest with such welcoming fire in the hearth –
and I will tell him I belong to wilderness,
and it will always call me back to you.
You know I can’t stay long in well-lit places,
will not linger late in temples built of stone,
shut out from Solstice dawn and Beltane fire.
There are wanderers in the desert,
there are souls lost on the hillside,
there are lonely spirits waiting in the gloom,
seeking not a Light to kill the darkness
but your labyrinth path into the heart of it.

So I will seek this Star tonight,
but leave my soul at the wild altar of a wilder goddess –
And she will call me home to mountainsides
when I have had enough of Light.

– Leithin Cluan, Christmas Eve 2016

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Below the Avon

“At the height of the Bristol slave trade from 1700 to 1807, more than 2,000 slave ships carried a conservatively estimated 500,000 people from Africa to slavery in the Americas.” – Wikipedia article on the history of the city of Bristol, UK.

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Clifton Suspension Bridge, above the River Avon. Photo: Flickr CC Pablo Fernandez

Held tight between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
there is a paradox below the Avon.
Travel south (keep driving down the M4 scourge)
and go on further south,
towards the stones we battled over, till
abruptly, a dramatic scar across the land
(crossed by a leap in engineering) leads
down to a town a river goddess holds in her embrace.

Look closer – this is not an ancient paradise:
this slaver city, built by those not privileged
enough to see the wealth their broken backs
and subjugation built for us
to sit and drink our lattes in.
And this disputed territory,
where they once manufactured drudgery
and churned out countless factory-crushed lives,
now welcomes in the moneyed: hipsters, students, suits
…and me.
Where old tobacco wealth and modern diamond-blood collide –
This latest bondage no less slavery
Than that which came before, but more invisible
to us who live so far from those who serve us now.
We can pretend we do not know that in each step we take,
on every broken paving stone, we still
walk on five hundred thousand unmarked graves.

To this most unexpected place then comes
the Pilgrim, with the Thinker at his side,
to meet this tired, reluctant Advocate.
We three so different, but with souls that see each other
in our search for those few starry points
that blaze the light of the divine into the dark.
The pilgrim-radical, his spirit gentler than I thought
a warrior’s could be, told deep-enchanting stories, while
across a silent boundary,
five hundred thousand unseen, wide-eyed faces saw one of their own,
and so did I.
The Thinker, with his questions and his eyes
that rooted out the silence and the fury both.
And me – I’m not sure what I brought.
I was all Apple phones and car keys and despairing cynicism,
yet with something slowly breaking in,
wild flowers through untended stone,
once smooth hewn but now fractured with indifference and life.

And in the hipster cafes of this contradiction
(tea £3 a pot but pennies to the farmers),
we did not whisper when we called down fire from above
upon ourselves and those who have our pity and our grief.
We had three hours to raze states and empires to the ground
and I glimpsed just enough eternity to wish for more.

What are such encounters for, and what
are we who meet each other left with
when our ships return to other powers’ shores?
What are our wandering spirits seeking
when we call into an empty, night-tossed sea
and hear an echo of a voice replying,
hiraeth* returned?

We who long for freedom
are still indentured, still indenturing.
But we are also architects.
We build,
stone on stone,
hand in hand,
our fragile, shattered bodies the material
that shapes new ground.

And I will not forget his question,
“Do you still have hope?”
and how I wished I had the time to answer
(Time, the great Oppressor),
though I tried to stumble, word on word,
a tumbling of longings for the tyrannised.
And deep below the city stones,
five hundred thousand souls cried out an echo of this pain.

And you, seeking an ancient (subjugating) city, here
Where green and pleasant valleys fall
Toward the stones we battled over (though
I’ve never been quite sure who won the fight,
now that the white-robed men of power claim the land
that still the peasants do not have the right
to walk upon);
you may find yourself
caught between the Durotriges and the Dobunni
(keep struggling along the M4 road,
an English dirge to farms sustained by bureaucratic subsidies),
where once an erstwhile Avon claimed the land as all her own,
and still she cradles those who cry below.
We claim this city too, we radicals,
we idealistic, cynical and hopeful ones,
whose voices are not silenced by this age of chains and charred remains,
though we must strain to hear the halting song of those who went before.

© Léithin Cluan, 2016. For Rhyd Wildermuth and Jonathan Woolley.

Bristol Quay. Flickr CC Ubaían.

Bristol Quay. Photo: Flickr CC Ubaían

*Hiraeth: a Welsh word for which there is no translation, but which means something like a longing for home in the depth of the soul.

The Durotriges and the Dobunni were Iron Age tribes located in the area around the River Avon, not far from today’s Bristol.

The M4 motorway is a shining testament in concrete to heartless late modern capitalist infrastructure. :P

30 Days – An Chailleach Bhéarra: Art, Music, Filidecht…

The next four questions fit very well together, so I’m tackling them all at once.

20) Art that reminds you of this deity

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An Cailleach Bheara by the Irish Film Board. They take from both Irish and Scottish myths about the Cailleachean, but there’s a lot of ‘my’ Bhéarra in this film. Her associations with the wild, and with wild animals; the story of the bones in the attic (which is Ireland-wide but feels very relevant, especially the way they bring out the theme of the clash of Christian and pre-Christian aspects of Ireland); the renewal of the Cailleach every 100 years… Really, really beautiful.

21) Music that makes you think of this deity

For me, the sadness that this song expresses for the people of a little town comes straight from the heart of their tutelary deity. Poor men from across Ireland went to fight in whatever wars England was engaged in at the time, and had no choice in the matter. Bantry is a little harbour town in Beara – the girls would have stood on the docks and watched their men leaving them. (My great-grandmother taught lace-making in Bantry.) It’s entirely possble that this song comes from a different Bantry, but the song works very well for me as a picture of life in that little town.

22) A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with

If we’re specifically talking about Baoi, rather than other Cailleachean, then my favourite writing about her is the collection of poetry called ‘Cailleach: the Hag of Beara’ by Leanne O’Sullivan. It draws strongly on local myths about Bhéarra, which are quite hard to come by outside of the peninsula. In this collection, Bhéarra is simultaneously a mortal woman and a goddess, as the stories and history of ordinary people from Beara merge with the legends of their Hag. In the poems, her husband, the sea god, is also a fisherman – and they are destined to join and then part, like land and sea.

This is the sea at the end of it;
the sky and the sea’s tangled cries flooding
inwards, then out to the grey reflection of itself.

I am lost in this encircling.

But my favourite poem from the collection is a somewhat indecipherable one. The woman’s fisherman-husband is dead, and she is at the end of her 100-year life, preparing to turn to stone and be reborn:

The Wanderer

Would you walk with me, woman?
The cold is in for the night now,
and the mountains quiet. It’s scarce
the sun rolls around her face
or walks out in the fields. The cold is in.
Would you walk with me, woman?

The night makes a blaze of my grief,
my only soft and finest love.
Her long hair is flung out before me
like moonlight on the sea.
All the memory of her is me.
Would you walk with me, woman?

I have no talk of war or song,
I have no ready ear to the earth
or words in passion for their work.
Sooner comes the dark engrained
on summits, and the ocean louder.
Would you walk with me, woman?

One more road in a whirl of roads
opens before me like a ritual of place.
I remember the foreign lightness of her touch.
I loved her soft and undecipherable notes.
The mountains are dark now. The cold is in.
Would you walk with me, woman?

– Leanne O’Sullivan

23) Your own composition – a piece of writing about or for this deity

I don’t write poetry very often – I have to be really caught by imbas – but here’s one I wrote for her people, a little while ago. I’ve posted it before, so I’ve stuck it behind a tag.

You are forgotten people of forgotten gods. Continue reading

Early Summer: Urban Druidry…

The chill left the still air.
The land was caught between breaths.
Unseen, laughing hands took mine
and led me down,
down through lonely alleyways,
past the graveyard overgrown with hawthorn and forget-me-nots,
between the narrow, tumbledown gate-posts,
and out into a sudden shock of green,
where a yellow carpet fell among the young oaks
and butterflies and dragonflies remembered distant sunny afternoons.

From the top of the world I stood above the sparkling city
while it whispered to me old, old secrets.

But I know there are no green places left in London,
no meadows not lost to departed faery feet.
So it must have been an Otherworldly hill they took me to,
another city, just out of mundane sight
that I looked down upon. Continue reading

Desert

There are no mountains in the desert.
Where do I leave her offerings here?
Strange trees sprout from rocky outcrops
Dark fruit of a dry and gritty land.
Mismatched crows stand around, dust-coloured and idle.
Checkpoints and barbed wire fences barricade the way
Between me and the rough hints of green. Continue reading