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

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!

Are We There Yet? Assessing the Road Ahead

This is my first post for the Cauldron Blog Project, for which the topic is ‘Resolutions, Habits and New Beginnings.’ It’s also my first ‘A’ post for the Pagan Blog Project 2014. (Yes, I’m doing that again! I might not manage two posts per letter, especially since I’m doing two blog projects at once, but we’ll see…)
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I’m very good at saying ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’. In reality, I’m impatient. I want to get somewhere. I sometimes forget to stop, take stock, and remember that I always am somewhere. Continue reading

Whose work?

I have a compulsion to seek justice and equality.

It’s not as noble as it sounds, believe me. I hate doing it. I’m about as lazy as a cat in the sunshine on a summer afternoon. I’m a complete coward – I avoid conflict as much as I can. I’d rather not have the discussions that I have to have, to try and persuade people what equality means and why it’s important. Mostly, I’d rather pull the bedcovers over my head and ignore the world. But still, I fight. Continue reading

T is for… Tombs

I love ancient tombs. Passage tombs, wedge tombs, long barrows, dolmens… I find them all fascinating.

The entrance to...

The entrance to…

Passage tomb, Angelsey

…a passage tomb, Anglesey, Wales

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire, England

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire, England

It’s usually quite a challenge for me to get to ancient sites. At Wayland’s Smithy, the road ends about a mile before the site, so we dragged my wheelchair down a dirt track. (Which turned out to be rather a lot of fun!) Continue reading

M is for… Mighty Monster Trees (and Massive Mountains and Moo-ing Mascots)

“Why, who are you afraid of?” said Peter. “There’s no one here but ourselves.”
“There are the trees,” said the Beaver. “They’re always listening.”

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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That’s me, towards the bottom left of that picture, standing beneath a California redwood. You can tell by how it’s, um, quite big.

Our second week on the road and our second day in the Redwoods, and I decide I want to take a short walk among the trees on my own. We parked the RV on the side of the not-inappropriately-named Avenue of the Giants, and I was directed towards the map. “OK,” said SJ (who is used to that thing where I get lost). “Do you see this path here?” I did. “And do you see how it leads onto this larger loop with the interpretive trail*?” I did. I could even see how to get from one to the other and back again. And just to make really sure, I took a picture of the map on my phone camera. Easy peasy.

So off I set, an intrepid explorer with two sticks and a bit of a walking distance limit. And at first, all was well. I found the trail (where the signs shared helpful facts about how old, tall and weird each redwood was). I looked at some trees. I stood inside a few others.

At which point I realised some things. One, that I’ve never stood inside a tree before. Two, that I’ve definitely never stood instead a tree that bloody huge before. And three, that these trees were monsters. And I don’t just mean in the 300-foot-tall, 2000-year-old sense. There was something incredibly primal and alien about them. Reaching out to them was like opening myself up to a vortex that I could have lost myself in forever. I stopped, but I still felt very much like they wanted to eat me. Spider-and-fly stuff – if the spider was several thousand times bigger and vastly older than the fly. Come into my parlour…

It was at that point that I realised I was horribly lost.  I had reached the place where I thought I had entered the trail from, but all I could see was thick, brambly undergrowth. There was no way of identifying the little path that led back to the van. I walked around and around the trail, much further than I’m meant to walk (I was in some serious pain afterwards!), all the while surrounded by those strange, seductive trees that wanted to swallow me whole. On getting back to the main car park for about the third time, I checked my little photo of the map and saw that I could get back to the van on the road. I started walking.

And here’s the really odd thing. All the while, I was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the van. From civilization. From the perception – the illusion – of safety.

We’re never all that far from the dangers that our ancestors lived with all the time. We’ve just shoved ourselves inside several tonnes of metal, bricked ourselves into boxes, buried ourselves in concrete. Safe as houses?

I did a lot of connecting, these past few weeks, with my goddess who stands between chaos and cosmos, between destruction and creation. In local folklore, she is said to have given the human race our powers of consciousness and thought – those egos that make us think we can separate ourselves off from the land around us, when we’re really just hiding under the covers from all the monsters under the bed. That line that Bhearra walks is liminal, shifting, illusory. We’re always just around the corner from chaos. That’s what I learned in the Redwood forest.

And now, some happy pictures of beautiful mountains, lakes and sea-shores. Which were all much less scary. (Apart from the plants that eat insects – those were also fairly terrifying.)

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Crater Lake

 

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Big Sur – Route 1, southern California (the cow was the honeymoon mascot)

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Those weird California wetland plants that eat insects

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A place that made wonderful, terrifying gnomes and fairies from local wood. (See how happy SJ was to be there. I, on the other hand, loved it. I really wanted to buy a fairy and take it home and put it on my land/sea/sky altar. Alas, this was not within my economic powers.)

Mount St Helens

Mount St Helens. Bloody huge.

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*While in America, we discovered the joy of the ‘interpretive trail’. In plainer English, this means ‘there will be signs explaining what you’re looking at’. Handy.

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.