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.

(Pt 2:) My Polytheism

There’s a beautiful trend happening. People are writing about their polytheisms, people whose polytheistic practices are diverse, varied, multiple, weird, different from what we’re told (recently) that polytheism ‘should’ be. (See Jack’s post here, and Kiya’s post here, and the wonderful My Polytheism blog which is collecting a lot of this writing – and I hear that Jolene Poseidonae wants more people to contribute to it!)

Like a lot of these brilliant writers, I have been really concerned by the gatekeeping and crypto-fascist stuff coming out of those who would paint themselves as ‘leaders’ of polytheism. As though it were a cult and they were the gurus. As though it were a singular religion, with rules that we all share, and which they can write.

For me, part of this mess has been positive. My Lady is pointing me at the roots of modern cultural polytheisms – roots which are mostly nationalistic and fascist, if we are completely honest – and asking me if that’s what I want to be part of, even as it moves beyond that. For that history will always be with it. I’m thinking about that, and it may take some time. These things can be transformed, She says – but is that the Work you want to do?

Because you see, my gods are not particularly bothered how I worship them and what I call myself. And my ancestors definitely aren’t. It’s for you, they whisper, and I, barely hearing them, shake my head like I were brushing off flies, and pour out my offerings on shrines that Irish gods never had, and that they certainly don’t have now. And what paltry offerings they are – whiskey and mead and scraps of food.

And they don’t mind – it’s what I need. And I believe they appreciate those little offerings, paltry as they are. But there’s a sense that, when I’m ready, there are far bigger things waiting for me outside the four walls of the room that houses my shrines to the beings of Light that dwell in the secret places of the land. And far, far bigger things waiting for me beyond the four walls of my current ways of thinking and doing and worshipping.

My gods do not live in any shrine inspired by modern polytheism. No offering of whiskey is enough for them, and no trinkets that remind me of them could ever fill the deep, dark spaces they have made in my heart.

Then what do you want? I ask, perturbed, frustrated.

You, whispers Beara, my dark Lady, whom I had the gall to name myself, whose tales I have twisted as she has led me to, in whom I have found a depth of chaos and justice that no constructs of ‘ancient lore’ can describe. For it can only be found in the places she dwells – in the wind in the trees, at the seashore in a storm, on a wild island, on the mountain. And in the deepest pool of chaos, beneath the Tree.

Anything (and everything) you want, says Dovinia, ancestress-goddess who crosses divides between land and people, and finds me lost, somewhere in the depths between.

The Adventure, winks Manannan mac Lir, who does not care if I put the accents on the right places in his name, for all names and stories could only ever be an echo of the sound of the sea on the rocks in a mighty storm – and a wry, friendly fisherman watching from the shore in a bright yellow hat, so easy to miss in the heavy rain. He offered me a box once and asked if I wanted to open it. I’m not sure I’ve even cracked the lid yet.

They ask me to challenge the deepest parts of myself that do not want to offer hospitality to the stranger (or wants to fetishise them* until my hospitality is far more about me than about them). The parts of me that withdraw into tribal instincts – where what is mine must stay pure and unsullied by others, and what is yours must be mine if I think it is good, and condemned as alien and wrong if I do not. The parts of me that are racist, colonialist, internally and externally disablist, internally and externally homophobic, transphobic, classist, elitist… the list goes on. The parts of me that secretly like that most of my gods are Irish and that I rarely venture out to meet others. That I rarely look beyond my little boxes. That I call myself a thing and ignore how it oppresses others. Because to look at that oppression is difficult, and may involve Work that I’m just too tired to do. (The parts of myself that use ‘I’m too tired’ as an excuse far, far too often.) They call me to challenge all these things in me, for only then can I even begin to challenge them in others.

This is my offering.

They ask me to give all of myself to a cause without end, from the depths of my frustration and pain, in disability campaigning that alienates me from my community – and leaves me deeply hurt, unsure if I should go on with such work that makes people stand against me, vocally, if very boringly. But I will, because order needs chaos, rising up from the dark pool beneath the Tree, or nothing ever changes. And Beara nods, and approves – but only long enough to ask for more.

This is my offering.

And they ask me to do the most simple things, that are the most difficult. Continuing to show up, even in the too-bright, scorching days of a summer ruled by Balor, where my world and my mind feels like it is falling apart. Keeping going, when the doctors are unkind and unhelpful, when the university administration is neglectful to the point of my desperation, when the mountain of work is terrifying to look up at. To keep pulling out that next transcript to analyse, Cuchullain-like (but with no super-strength to help). To accept the many gifts that They give me. To believe my spouse loves me. To keep lighting the candle on the shrine – because that is what I need, and my need is great.

This is my offering.

My polytheism is social justice. My polytheism is critical theory. My polytheism is Hannah Arendt and bell hooks and Sara Ahmed and Robert McRuer and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and Sharon Betcher and Nancy Eiesland. My polytheism is stories – sharing the stories of those who are not heard, because my privilege means my voice is louder, and this is what I can do. My polytheism is research into disability and Christianity, that I have never walked away from in six long years, through circumstances having forced me to attend three universities, all of which have made it very hard to work as a disabled student – because I made a commitment, and because the stories of my participants need to be told. My polytheism is hospitality, keeping my vows, showing up, and really trying hard not to raid the cattle of others.My polytheism is the modern stories that inspire me that I am afraid others will laugh at, and so I relegate my feelings about those to other places, and pretend I am not inspired by Buffy and Angel and X-Men and Night Vale and a reimagined Narnia where a queen calls to me. My polytheism is not even sure it’s all that different from monotheism, some days, when the voice of the One whispers through and in the voices of the Many. My polytheism simply is, a belief in many gods, because many gods made themselves known to me. And oh, how they made themselves known!

My polytheism is nothing like yours. And that’s OK. It’s good. It’s beautiful.

Now please – tell me about yours?

(Don’t worry – part 3, on disability, miasma and polytheism, is still on the way… :) )

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Image: ‘Bright Flame’ shrine. Images of Brighid and Our Lady Breaker of Chains, with flowers (from my garden) and candles, plus memorial and inspirational items.

*Currently reading Sara Ahmed on the fetishisation of the stranger. I recommend it.

A Gaelic polytheist reacts to ‘Miasma’ (Pt 1) – The Song of Amergin

This is a poem about the source of my gods’ power – and mine.

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – taken from several translations)

To my gods, the earth is not foreign, or hostile, or unclean. They were here first. Longer ago than I can imagine, they dwelt in every atom of the earth. They infused it, welcomed it, loved it, with all its dirt and all its mess and all its blood and all its sex and all its death. Long before we started trying to reject our humanity (in the vain hope that that would somehow make us more spiritual), my gods moved deep within the playground of primordial pre-human muck. Dancing in the dirt, living in the trees, shagging under proto-mountains, feeling their way through the darkness, experiencing embodied reality.

Read the Song of Amergin again, if you are willing. Who is ‘I’? I have no idea. I don’t know if Amergin is channelling a particular god here. Yet the Song drips with divine influence. And isn’t that the point? Arriving in Ireland, the human Amergin accesses the same power as the gods. He does that so well that he defeats them. As he describes it, it is the power of the earth that he invokes – deep, dark, messy, mucky, embodied earth. Brought forth from primordial chaos, and one day to return to it.

The Three Realms are connected. Land, Sea and Sky – we belong in all of them, and so do the gods.

My gods dwell in the rivers, the sea, the mountains, and even in the swirling chaos of urban life. To come close to them, I need to come to closer to the earth – not wash the earth off me in some misguided attempt to ‘purify’ myself. My spirituality, like the power of the gods, arises from what is earthy in me. My deep, earthy, spiritual matter. To some polytheists and pagans – and especially, I think, to Gaelic polytheists – the earth is not something that we need to ‘rise above’. Humanity is not something we have to put aside in order to honour the gods.

Miasma?

There has been a conversation, in response to Many Gods West, about ‘miasma’, and about how we all need to use and work with this concept/practice. This is a Greek concept that I do not understand very well in terms of actual practice (because I am not a Hellenic polytheist). It’s to do with purifying yourself. As the concept has been explained to me, it’s about removing from yourself the things that the gods do not like, because they are holy and we are human.

But that’s a concept from an entirely different religion from mine. I think that, in the joy of finding a polytheist community out there, we can sometimes forget that we are not all one community. We are all working from within very different spiritual systems. Gaelic polytheists are not on the same religious/spiritual path as Hellenic polytheists, nor as Heathens, nor as Kemetic polytheists…

And in that forgetting, we forget some of the most important things about honouring our gods. I do not serve ‘all the gods’. I serve my gods – the ones who I believe reached out to me. Not for any reason of socially constructed Romantic concepts of ancestry, or ‘cultural purity’ (*vomit*). I serve those particular gods because (I believe that) I chose them and they chose me. No other gods have called me but they. There is no grand command sent down from on high that I need to honour a Power that I don’t relate to, in a way that I can’t understand. If I wanted to, I could – it would probably involve me going through something akin to a conversion process, since the way (for example) a Hellenic polytheist thinks about their gods is not the way I think about my gods. But I don’t have to.

And that means no one gets to impose their way of thinking about the gods onto me.

In fact, I have sacred taboos against honouring entire pantheons of gods. And that, at least in part, is because of what I would have to do to honour them. Things which could violate some of my most sacred virtues and vows – like hospitality, honouring the earth, or my own concepts of justice.

Throwing Off What I Don’t Need

I am already pure enough, just by being part of the earth. I don’t believe I have to cleanse myself of human or earthly things.

But there are things I need to do, if I want to become more fully human.

I need to throw off anything I do not need, anything that does not serve me, or that does not serve the gods. That is how I can move in better harmony with the pathways of the Xartus, the great tree of life. I need to seek justice, not injustice. I need to offer hospitality, probably my highest form of spiritual and community practice, which I fail at all the time, but which I can only hope to get better at.

I also need to do some things that are useful to me, based on my own experience. For me, protection and connection are important. Being around my gods every day, if only briefly, and making offerings to them regularly. Having a hearth shrine where I light a fire (a tiny candle-shaped one in my case!) that is the centre of my home. My Brighid’s cross above the entrance to my home. The ritual of hospitality (there it is again) that I need to try to offer to those who come through my doors. Other rituals that I do as the year turns. The prayers I say daily that build up a connection between me and the Sacred Three. The fires I burn at key times (and sometimes burning certain things, like juniper). And, most important of all, without which none of these things would matter: seeking justice in all things, in all my actions, in all my work, in all my interactions with my community. These are all small things, and probably look very insignificant to a lot of people. But they are important for me, for connection and for protection.

And all of these are about reminding me that I am human, and connected, and embodied. That I am living on and with the earth, and that I only exist as part of my community. They’re not about forgetting my humanity.

If I need to lose anything, I need to lose the things that are un-human about me. My tendency to get really selfish, to forget about hospitality and the importance of community. My ability to get wrapped up in myself and what I need, and ignoring what others need. My ability to ignore what I already know about who needs justice and how I can act more justly, and (worst of all) to pretend I’m a warrior for justice when I can be a terrible coward who avoids the hard work it requires.

There are monsters within me, fomori of the heart. I need to throw off what I don’t need, that keeps me mired in the monstrous, and keeps me from the gods and the community.

But, again. Nothing to do with miasma.

Many Religious Paths

I was having a conversation about why people need gods, with modern druids, recently. Modern druidry is incredibly diverse on the issue of (poly)theism – it’s an orthopraxic religion, not an orthodoxic one – we are druids because of what we do, not because of what we believe. (Which is how I can be both a Gaelic polytheist and a modern druid at the same time. There aren’t conflicting belief systems there.) Someone was talking about not believing in gods, in part because they aren’t keen on the ‘lists of associations with gods’ that you can find on every other cheaply-made witchy website on the internet. (That’s got nothing to do with my gods, I said, though I don’t know if anyone heard…) But I have no need to change their minds about deities. Their spiritual/religious ways are their ways. My ways of relating to the gods are mine.

And you know what’s really nice about modern druidry, with its orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy? No one tried to change my mind, and I didn’t try to change theirs. No one said “Oh but you must think about the gods this way.” And that’s how I know where I want to find my community.

And this was an interaction with someone who is agnostic on the subject of deities. This ‘miasma’ stuff – this is coming from polytheists. People who claim to value the gods – but who know nothing of my gods, and have no right to speak on their behalf. Nor to try to convert me to their way of thinking.

You are the Mountain.
You are the Wilderness.
You are the Wild One.
You were the there when the sea first drew breath
and the land rose up from its depths
and the sky settled on the horizon
You will be here until the land drowns,
Until the sea rises up and swallows her whole,
Until the sky falls and the world burns…

– My own invocation, of Cailleach Bhearra of the Beara peninsula – part of my dedication oath

Stay tuned for a follow-up post to come, about the problems of the concept of ‘miasma’ for people who are disabled, or ill, or stigmatised by society…

 

31 Days of Offerings – Days 12-14: Reflections On Daily Religion and Being Too Many Priests

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While giving offerings over the past week, I’ve been having more thoughts on the touchstone of daily religion, brief practical offerings, and the giving back of everything I do. A lot of Pagans are trying to live in a mostly-Christianity-inspired devotional world of personal deity relationships and mysticism. But actually, most ancient pagans were nothing like we are, and would have been far more focused on the day-to-day than the mystical.

We are all trying to be priests. Where is the role for faithful laity, and why do we discourage practical, daily religion? And what about the difference between the way we relate to different gods, as well as to the spirits and the ancestors?

Which is not unrelated to the place my thinking went next:

Why is ‘having too many shrines’, and by extension ‘having too many gods’, sometimes a taboo in the Pagan and/or polytheist world?

These are most of my shrines (at the moment):

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Above – top left: shrine to Cailleach Bhearra and Duibhne – centre: seasonal shrine currently dedicated to Latiaran and the harvest cycle goddess of Munster – top right: hearth shrine including an area for Brigantia – bottom left: three out of four levels of my shrine cabinet, with the hearth shrine at the bottom, the ancestor shrine in the middle, and a shelf for Manannan mac Lir, Macha and the Morrigan above that – bottom right: the shelf above that, dedicated to the avatars of Sophia (who are a mix of gods and spiritual ancestors), including Arianrhod, Jadis, Mary Star of the Sea, and St Catherine. And that’s not including my little corners dedicated to the house spirits and land spirits, or the basic candle and offering bowl in the kitchen…

When I hear people complaining that another Pagan has too many gods, or worse, hear someone saying it disparagingly about themselves, I have to wonder where we get that idea from. It seems to go back to that idea that we all have to be mystics, saints, oracles, prophets and priests – with ALL the gods we engage with.

One goddess, I believe, chose me to go a bit deeper with her. But I have far more simple purposes with every other god I honour – and there are a lot. I honour them to keep their stories alive, as with Latiaran on her tiny shrine with her bee candle. I honour them to keep my home re-enchanted, buzzing with the reality of the Otherworld. I honour them to keep me connected. I honour them because they are there, and they are the gods.

My gods are everywhere — immanent in every tree and hill I pass, in every interaction I have with my fellow human beings, in the tarmac on the roads and the bricks and mortar of my home. So I tell their stories in their many shrines, from the candle on the kitchen windowsill and the little box in corner of the bookshelf, to the ornate table at the entrance to my study.

May my home always be filled with the stories of the Shining Ones.

31 Days of Offerings – Day 2: What’s the Offering?

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Photo: offerings at a shrine incl candles & milk

Second day, and I’m already starting to realise that there’s a big question mark around what the offering is each day.

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Today the offering wasn’t the milk and incense. It wasn’t the candlelight. It wasn’t even the piece of writing that my day unfolded around – not exactly.

It was the… bravery? No, not quite that. The risk and adventure of it, the submission to the forces of chaos and creation, of knowing that writing (and publishing) the post was a massive risk and being unbelievably scared, and still doing it. The spirit of creation, Cailleach Bhéarra-style – the chaos that dies down to reveal transformation and new possibilities. Standing in the way of the hurricane and seeing what happens next.

A goddess of the land doesn’t need the things she’s already created (as much as she sometimes appreciates the effort). I think maybe she’s more interested in what I can create, and co-create with her.

I think it’s going to be an interesting month.

Photo: turbulent waves on the West Cork shore. By Eoin Milner.

Photo: waves on the West Cork shore. By Eoin Milner.

My Goddess has a Sense of Humour: Random thoughts of the day*

IMG_20150401_084035Asking Her why I feel blocked in a particular situation led to: my need for a miracle (the Star), the suggestion that I do a deal with the Devil, the Empress and Emperor side by side (Beara looking the Christian god in the face, hand on hips, going “Is she yours or mine?”), and the Hermit (me, getting in the way of myself). That’s all a pretty good picture of how I’m feeling at the moment.

The above picture shows the Battlestar Galactica tarot deck I’m working on. It’s not finished, but I already adore it. I’m currently working on Wands, which are a difficult suit to start with. Lots of Gaius Baltar, for some reason. I also want to start on a Narnia oracle deck soon. That should be easier: grab the characters, let them speak.

On an entirely different note: I was just discussing April Fools with another person with Asperger’s, on twitter. We agreed that we rather hate it. Tell us something and we’ll believe you. Why wouldn’t we?! Metaphor. I find it difficult.

What I’m reading at the moment: Devoted ed. by Alkistis Dimech (wonderful), When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by Tanya Luhrmann (also very good, though I keep forgetting it among all the other things I’m reading), The Poet’s Ogam by John-Paul Patton, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life by Meredith McGuire (excellent) and The Druid’s Primer by Luke Eastwood (review to follow as soon as I finish it). I want to write more book reviews at this ‘ere blog, so let me know if you’d like me to share my thoughts on any of the above.

In pain and illness news: Things are really quite bad at the moment. I can’t do much with my right arm (too much sitting at the computer typing – what’s a postgrad student to do?) and my lower back is all messed up as usual. I’m pondering how these things relate to embodied spirituality, at the moment. I’m learning so much from my participants, whose bodies frame and contain their spiritual lives much more than mine does.

In otheIMG_20150401_102627r news: Dilly Cat!

This is a shot I took lying on the floor alongside the bed in my office. She likes ‘under the bed’ a lot at the moment. But she’s willing to come out for cuddles when it’s quiet.

*I’m hoping ‘Random thoughts of the day’ posts will be a new series here. You will be hearing more pointless ramblings from my life. Rejoice.