31 Days of Offerings – Day 4 & 5: Offering Too Much

31 Days of Offerings(1)

It is possible to offer too much. Sometimes I give more of myself than I can sustain for very long. Eventually, my life spirals out of control and I stop doing anything useful, either for others, or for me.

On Sunday I made no offerings. I was a bit too busy being in that state of intense anxiety that means actual human functioning is a bit out of the question. At the end of a week where I’d been headed in that direction for days.

On Monday I decided to begin again at the beginning.

Photo: newly-organised shrine

Photo: newly-organised shrine

New shrine cloth. A bit of reorganisation of some items. Putting up some pictures I got in the Beara Peninsula this summer, but hadn’t done anything with yet. (I still need to get them framed, but it’s a start.) Moving some things out of focus, other things into the centre.

Settling in for the long dark.

And in the centre of the storm, an eye of perfect calm. Such an incredible contrast of peace… from a many-layered chaotic goddess.

It’s my experience that Cailleach Bhearra doesn’t much care about her shrine – she has the mountains as her playground and a sea-god for a husband, after all. The shrine is, really, for me – a place where I want to stop and meet her. It needs to be a little wild, but not so out of control that my human spirit is too afraid to stop there a while and meet with her wild soul.

A bit like with my life, really.

Q is for… Quiet Quotidian Work

I’m probably going to go fairly quiet over the next 2-3 weeks.

Moving is hard work for me. I’m disabled, so can’t do much in the way of packing or lifting boxes. I’m also having to do the packing without SJ, who is in London at their new job. I have a friend helping sometimes, but I’m still having to do things that I really shouldn’t. There’s also the general stress I mentioned in my last post. And on the day before we move, I’m giving a paper at a big conference. So that was interestingly timed. I’m trying to write the paper at the moment. I keep looking for books to help, and finding that they’re in boxes. Erk.

On the plus side, we have a place to go to now! And it’s nice, and takes cats! But still with the chaos.

As you can imagine, my spiritual life and work have gone very quiet while all of this gets sorted out. A lot of my supplies and altar stuff are going into boxes. I’m left with the basics, so that I can do the daily stuff – make offerings, light candles, say prayers. Quotidian stuff. The non-flashy, not-so-exciting stuff that I’m always overlooking in my haste to do a high day celebration, or some magic, or a trance adventure, or nature work, or my next Ogham fid meditation, or… or… or…

And this is a really good thing. In the end, we all need to focus on the basic, daily work sometimes. Forget the complicated stuff. All the herbs, wood, oils, well water, river water, stones, cords, charms, prayer beads and Ogham sets are going into boxes very soon. I’ll be left with a few candles, my ADF Well/Fire/Tree representations, my paints, and the odd book. I’ll go back to basics, and let myself be very quiet. If only to balance out the chaos. I will make offerings, light candles, and say prayers. Rinse, repeat and meditate again. Quietly. Daily.

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.

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I is for… Icon

(So here I am, talking once again about a Christian thing that, for me, merges with Pagan things. I should really give up and call this ‘Leithin’s Interfaith Blog’.)

I adore icons. Especially Byzantine and Russian ones.

Early Byzantine icon of Mary

Early Byzantine icon of Mary

Icon simply means ‘image’, but the term is generally used to mean sacred imagery, particularly of Eastern churches, where icons are painted in Byzantine or Russian styles[1]. Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are full of icons. If you’ve only ever been in bare, late modern churches, in their dull community-centre-like buildings with no pictures or representations of the Divine, you’re missing out.

Saint Sophia and her daughters - Byzantine (picture from Wikimedia)

Saint Sophia and her daughters – Byzantine (picture from Wikimedia)

There’s so much to say about iconography that entire books have been written about it. Here’s just one thing: images of Mary and the child Christ, probably based on earlier images of Isis and Horus [2].

Statuette of Isis nursing Horus – Late Period-Ptolemaic Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Isis nursing Horus. Penn Museum. Photo by Jocelyn Dale, Flickr (CC)

Isis nursing Horus. Penn Museum. Photo by Jocelyn Dale, Flickr (CC)

Mary and Christ - Byzantine icon

Mary and Christ – Byzantine icon

Protestant churches don’t like icons, or images of God in general. Their rejection of them is based on the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” In short: don’t make idols. There’s a long history of Protestant resistance to Catholic/Orthodox iconography that goes along with that. Anglo-Catholic churches (the ones I used to go to) have re-embraced iconography. And there’s always this tension there – this oft-repeated mantra of it’s not an idol, it’s an icon. But I looked at the statue of Mary in my church and didn’t see ‘something that points to Mary’. I saw Mary. To all intents and purposes, it was a beautiful, glorious idol to me.

And here’s a funny thing. In Christianity, I was a huge fan of icons, especially traditional ones, like those above. But when I started honouring my Gaelic gods, in a religion/spiritual path that’s all in favour of representing deities with idols or pictures, I suddenly didn’t want to. I was no longer forbidden from making a “graven image” of my gods – in fact, it was encouraged – but now, I couldn’t do it. I had pictures of the Morrigan and Arianrhod for a while, but they became… insufficient. It was like I was trying to capture a divine essence that cannot be caged in images.

I still have this picture on my wall above my deity altar:

Relief from the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. Photo by Mary Harrsch, Flickr (CC)

Relief from the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. Photo by Mary Harrsch, Flickr (CC)

It’s from the shrine of Sulis Minerva, in Bath, but it’s not the goddess – it’s probably either a representation of local land spirits, or worshippers. For me, it captures the essence of Sulis Minerva – not in an image of her, but in the faces of those who honoured her.

And, yes, part of it is the difference between this and this. There are hundreds of years of tradition and spirituality behind each Eastern Orthodox icon. The artwork is some of the most beautiful that you will ever see. Each one says, my god (or honoured ancestor) is worth some serious craftswork. Now, admittedly, neopagans don’t get commissions of a lot of money from a rich church allowing them to spend months, maybe more, on each image they create of their god(s). And I’m sure there are some serious craftspeople out there, making absolutely beautiful images of their deities. I just haven’t seen the ones that call to me (yet). And I think that’s mainly because – well, how can a statue of Lugh compare to this?

Photo by ghewgill - Flickr, Creative Commons

Photo by ghewgill – Flickr (CC)

And how can a painting of Arianrhod compare to this?

Corona Borealis - by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic - Flickr, Creative Commons

Corona Borealis – by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic – Flickr (CC)

And how could an image of Cailleach Bhearra ever compare to this?

Healy Pass, Beara Peninsula, Cork

Healy Pass, Beara Peninsula, Cork

I find the gods in the things that embody them – the trees, the sea, the wind, the mountains, and the simple little candles that stand for each deity on my altar. So when I learnt, from writers like Miranda Green, that the Celts probably didn’t have much in the way of physical representations of their gods, at least before the Romans arrived, it all made a lot more sense. Ronald Hutton says it’s not clear whether or not the Gaelic and Brythonic tribes honoured the land as a manifestation of deity or the divine. And certainly, not all the Gaelic gods are land deities. But Cailleach Bhearra is a mountain goddess and Manannan is a sea god – and while they may not quite be gods of those things, they are those things. Bhearra is as much the mountains as the stones that make them up. Manannan is as much the sea as the waves and the gulls and the shoreline.

I suppose I’m talking about a kind of polytheistic animism. I’m good with that. My icons are in the world around me.

But I’ll always love the reminder of forbidden, illicit worship of the divine embodied in *things* that Christian iconography first pointed me towards. The icon was my first way in to understanding that the divine is creation, and creation is divine.

Statue of St Gobnait. Ireland

Statue of St Gobnait. Ireland

Statue of Mary, at the side of the road in Co Cork, Ireland. You can see these on every corner in rural Ireland.

Statue of Mary, at the side of the road in Co Cork, Ireland. You can see these on every corner in rural Ireland.


[1] John R. Hinnells, A New Dictionary of Religions

[2] Victor Lasareff (1938), ‘Studies in the Iconography of the Virgin’. The Art Bulletin.

Ogham (OR: Blogging some actual work)

It occurred to me today that I talk a lot here about my theology and ideas, but not so much about my practices. And while I do write in my druidry journal, about once a week, it can be tricky to get an overview when I look back on what I’ve written.

So. There are (at least) two things I’m doing at the moment that I need to write about here a bit more. The first is the ADF Dedicant Path. The other, which I’m doing on my own, is work with Ogham. I should take these one post at a time, so – Ogham first.

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H is for… Hearth

I have no great envy for the hearth witches and other hearth-focused Pagans out there. I never wanted to be the housewife at the hearth, knitting, cooking, baking bread. I may lean towards Celtic reconstructionism, but I wouldn’t want to be an iron age Gaelic woman. Oh, the boredom! Continue reading

E is for… the Elements of the Cosmos

This poorly-written post is brought to you by a week of migraines and missing cats. Sorry. It’s an ‘E’ post, at least!

I spent nearly a year working with the classical four-element structure of magical work. It’s central to the approach of OBOD and other revival druidry. During my several months focusing on each element in turn, I had some very positive and useful experiences. I connected strongly with water (if I had a totem animal, it would be the noble Duck). I struggled against air, fighting the wind. I sank deep into earth, discovering its surprising, mysterious depths. I danced with fire and my soul was set alight. I have great respect for the four-element system, not least because it’s ancient, probably dating back to Babylonian myth and at least to Greek. But I’m starting to realise that, in my own magic and religion, it doesn’t work well for me (though it’s definitely worth studying). But there are alternatives that do make sense to me.

Three Worlds

ADF doesn’t talk about four elements (for the most part). It works with a triple structure. It uses the fire, well and tree, but they’re not parallels of the four elements – they’re more like key symbols of the cosmos, symbols that have been used by Indo-European cultures to help them understand their place in the universe. They symbolize the relationship between the three worlds: the upper world, the underworld and the axis mundi, sort of on the vertical level.

Fire, Well and Tree

Fire, Well and Tree, as per my altar. There are lots of pictures on ADFers’ blogs of other (much prettier) examples.

Three Realms

I do a lot of thinking around the concepts of land, sea and sky, which are central to Irish myth. My favourite example of its use: the ‘oldest animals’ tales, which feature creatures from each of the three realms. The eagle Leithin seeks knowledge from a stag, a blackbird, and the ancient salmon who remembers the great flood. The Three Realms show up in other Celtic cultures’ myths, too. Gwion Bach is pursued by Ceridwen through the three realms of land, sea and sky – as a hare, a salmon, a bird – before surrendering. In both tales, wisdom is found through through union with all the realms of the cosmos.

ADF tends to see the Three Realms as kingdoms of the middle world, divided on a horizontal scale. But I do better mapping them straight onto fire, well and tree — my simple brain can’t cope with a horizonal-vs-vertical approach. Fire becomes a symbol of Sky, the upper world of the gods. The well symbolises Sea, the underworld of the ancestors – at least some of the Gaels believed the land of the dead was over the sea, in the House of Donn, and wells and bodies of water were (perhaps) an entrance to the Otherworld. The tree is the Jupiter Column[1] (or standing stone, or world tree) in the centre. At the same time, that Centre is us – reaching out from our realm of Land, down to the underworld, up to the place of the gods.

Five Provinces

There is also a ‘five directions’/’five provinces’ concept in Gaelic mythology – although this is something where I’m still working out the relevance to my own spiritual approach. Ireland is divided into five provinces: a central province that holds the Hall of Tara, surrounded by four other provinces in each of the four directions. Some writers from ADF have talked about this as the establishment of the cosmos in the middle world. You could see it as part of a creation myth – the world is not divided by the gods, but by the previous rulers of Ireland. The five directions are also associated with attributes in at one myth. This comes from more recent sources than the ‘three realms’ approach[2], but I still find it intriguing.

I’m still working on how I understand this splitting up of the land, and how it relates to all the other ideas for me, but there’s something there. ADF has a sigil that represents all of it — the three worlds, the three realms and the ‘quartering’ of the land. I need to do some meditating on this symbol, and on the traditional ones like the triple spiral. One of these days!

ADF cosmos sigil [1]

ADF cosmos sigil [3]

Nine Elements

And this is all before we’ve got onto the nine elements you can find in some Irish myths: stone (bones), earth (flesh), plants (hair), sea (blood), wind (breath), moon (mind), sun (face), cloud (brain), heaven (head)… [4]

And all that is before we’ve gone anywhere near Iolo Morganwyg’s nwyfre, calas and gwyar… Those are concepts with which John Michael Greer has done some fascinating work, [5] by the way.

Working with different elemental systems helps me get my head around the world. And just as I think I’ve got there, it spirals up into magic and mystery again. Ultimately, of course, when you go out into the land, you experience these things, beyond thought and philosophy and language and lore. But I’m a brand new beginner at magical-type work, and it helps me to see these things in frameworks which resonate well with the ways I’ve chosen to honour my gods and my land.

Wishing you happy adventures out in Land, Sea and Sky, folks.


Here comes the ‘I’m sorry for all the references’ bit.

[1] Jupiter Columns are a really cool thing. I might write about them under J – if I feel well-researched enough by then! Miranda Green’s Gods of the Celts has a good introduction to them.

[2] Discussed at the Celtic Reconstructionism FAQ

[3] From ADF’s page Concerning Druidic Sigils and the Talismanic Art

[4] The Elements of the Dúile by Searles O’Dubhain

[5] An extract from his book Druidry: A Green Way of Wisdom is at http://www.aoda.org/articles/elements.htm

D is for… Deities: Defining the Divine

Disclaimer: This post is about my experiences. I sometimes have difficulty communicating the idea that I’m talking about *me* alone, and not trying to universalize any of my ideas. But this post is just about me. Me me me. Got that? Good. :P

I’m a polytheist. I actually believe that the gods exist. Really and truly, and outside of our minds, and everything.

Why yes, I am that naive. ;)

cailleach bhearra

Cailleach Bhearra, as imagined by the Irish Film Board.[1]

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Last night I dreamt of my grandfather. I quite frequently do – he was an important influence in my childhood, and I remember him often. He is one of the reasons I value education. Having left school at 15 because of poverty, he did years of night school to gain his degree and ended up with a great job in the Civil Service. He loved languages and creativity – he wrote the most fantastic stories – and I think he had a spiritual side that he didn’t talk about much. His stories about the woods near his house gave me inspiration to see forests as living, enspirited places.

In the dream, I had run into my Grampy somewhere random, a hotel I think. He had been living under a false name in a new city. He was tight-lipped about why he hadn’t contacted me for ten years, but he was very pleased to see me (and especially pleased that I’m doing a PhD, partly funded by the money he left me). He was different: more serious, with only occasional flashes of the humour that he was well-known for, but absolutely himself. It was a strange dream – I was remembering that he had died and that I’d been to his funeral, but I also knew he was sitting in front of me. I’m not usually that analytical in dreams. Mostly, I was just pleased that I could talk to him again.

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing 12 days of ancestor meditations. I dedicated my ‘folding table’ altar to them for the period, setting the altar out in a style inspired by another culture’s ancestor veneration approach. As a starting point, this approach did the job I wanted, which was to focus my mind on the ancestors for a specific period of time. I didn’t manage to do 12 completely consecutive days, for health reasons – but I mainly did four days on, a day off, rinse and repeat. I tried to meditate at sunset each time, but that was impossible on days when I was in the office, in which case I did the meditation before bed. I used a modified version of an ancestor meditation from the BDO bardic grade material.

Since the beginning of my exploration of my Pagan path, I’ve found it difficult to connect with ancestors. Honouring gods was not a problem, which surprised me, having come from a monotheist tradition. But I’d heard the myths of these gods since childhood, so it wasn’t so difficult to talk to them. Ancestors, though, were another thing entirely. A lot of Christian groups have a major prohibition on attempting to contact the dead (others less so, what with the saints, but I didn’t find saint-honouring traditions until I was a bit older). I can’t deny that the thought of ancestor work made me a lot more nervous than other aspects of Pagan/Druid practice – which, realistically, should have been equally nerves-inducing. Human beings: not really very rational creatures. I did have a fairly successful ancestor meditation that a priest friend led for me, which made me realise that talking to my ancestors is not as difficult as I thought. Since then, I’ve found that spending time at my ancestor shrine is a more useful experience than it was – but it’s still difficult.

And then I was in Ireland over the summer, in the Beara Peninsula, where my ancestors come from. A goddess that I believe my ancestors worshiped (UPG) was very present there. And, after some work on my part, so were my ancestors themselves. Back in Britain, though, they were much quieter again. So when a friend told me about his ancestor meditations based on a voodoo altar setup, I was interested. I didn’t want to indulge in cultural appropriation, though. I like hoodoo, but voodoo is a complete mystery to me, and I don’t really have time to study either of them in depth at the moment. So I just took some inspiration – a sustained period of meditations, a dedicated altar with belongings and photos of my ancestors, and food and drink offerings. I have some Irish whiskey made in the Beara Peninsula, I made the black coffee that my grandfather loved, I offered chocolate one day (since Grampy was also a fan of that), and on other days I left other food depending on what I felt inspired to offer.

It’s hard to explain the effects of the ancestor work, either during the meditations or at other times during the 12 days. Suffice it to say that things happened. I did much more writing than I usually manage each day – academic and creative non-fiction alike. I started working with Ogham, including having a good idea about how to take it further, and I did some interesting work with my tarot deck. I was asked to contribute to creative projects, and had others accepted where I’d been waiting on a decision. I suddenly got very decisive about Druidry, and joined ADF formally – I’ve been doing a lot of ADF-style work recently, based on materials they’ve made public, but for many months I’d been really unclear about what direction to take my Druidry in, until I started these meditations. Simultaneously, the British Druid Order set up a support system for their Bardic Grade students, something I’ve been waiting for, as I’d been finding it hard to work on their course without help. And while my health was as dodgy as ever, I somehow felt more able to cope with the severe pain and other illness symptoms that I deal with every day – which is an amazing gift.

Did I experience my ancestors? That’s the really interesting bit. Outside of specific meditations, I only feel their presence occasionally. I’ve been learning a language for the past year-and-a-bit, because I’d like to be able to communicate better with my bilingual partner’s family – and just sometimes, during lessons and practice, I feel like my Grampy’s pleased that I’m taking his linguistic interest forward. (The difference is that he was great at languages – he spoke fluent Spanish and French, decent Welsh, and wasn’t bad at a couple of others, while I am absolutely rubbish at them. But I think he likes the fact that I’m trying!) And sometimes I feel a general presence of anonymous ancestors. But mostly, it’s the gods that I connect with in daily life. I’m not honestly sure that I felt the ‘mystical presence of the ancestors’ much more, in the rest of life, than usual.

But in the meditations: yes, absolutely, I believe that my ancestors responded and were present. I got different (and very interesting) messages and ideas each time. Decisiveness about directions was the order of the day. My visualisations were much more vivid than they usually are – I have some difficulty visualising, most of the time. One night I desperately needed sleep but attempted the meditation anyway, and was told quite firmly that they would rather I was looking after myself. One night I focused very strongly on my grandfather, and had a very thought-provoking request from him – that I have no idea how to honour, but I will try. On other nights I focused on other family, and felt the need to stay more in touch with cousins overseas and at home. And on some nights I just had a general sense of ‘ancestors’ who I thought of as ancient and mighty. Power and numerousness. And the idea that there are projects in store for me that I will love. And that I should have more self-esteem and be more proud of the good work that I do in the world. And do more for my community…

Like I didn’t have enough to do. ;)

Ancestor altar

Are the dreams about my grandfather relevant? There’s a nice mundane explanation – I ran into an old university lecturer last week, who I knew in my undergraduate days, and who did rather remind me of my grandfather. Reconnecting with old influences was on my mind, and that’s probably the extent of it. But maybe not. Still, I dream about him often, and the dreams often feel quite significant. If it’s only that I think he would be pleased that I’m doing the education thing that he loved so much, I’m glad I had a little reminder.