Fan the Flames

The gods of our ancestors are everywhere around us, though we barely know them.

Their sacred places have vanished, or become ruins, overgrown and crumbling curiosities of a bygone age.  Their sacred names are misremembered and mispronounced, uttered without the reverence and caution that should attend the power which those syllables invoke.  Their sacred stories…,

The stories we have, the myths, the legends, are but fragments of a once rich tapestry, burned almost completely away now, by time and forgetfulness.

For those of us who are driven to seek out the old ways, there is but scant evidence of the gods left to be found in this world.

We pour over the bits that we can still find, while sifting through surviving folk traditions and songs, looking for anything we might have missed.  We speculate and we argue about the fragments we do uncover.  How do they go together?  What do they mean?

And still, for all that effort, we seem to know more about the lives of the Dinosaurs, who at least had the courtesy to die and leave their fossilized remains for us to dig from the Earth.

Let us speak now, of one such nearly forgotten god.

Oghma

Sometimes called Oghma the Honey-Tongued – because he is a god of eloquence, a master of poetry, and the father of writing.

Sometimes called Oghma with the Sun’s Countenance – because he is a solar deity, or because he exhibits a divinely radiant aspect, or because he likes to cause trouble in academic circles and he knew that taking on a Sun related nickname was a sure way to get people writing papers.

We know that he is the brother of the Dagda, the husband of Étan, and that he has at least two sons.  We know that he is one of the Champions of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of Ireland, and that his strength is second to only one among their number.

We know that he fought in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and that he died there, or that he didn’t.  The stories have it both ways.

The Irish gods do have a nasty habit of dying in one story and showing up again in some later tale.  Which may have something to do with the impermanence of death when it comes to the gods.  But more than likely, it has to do with the fact that these stories were written down by Christian monks who were trying to…,

…who were trying to…,

…we really don’t know.

We haven’t a clue as to exactly what these guys were trying to accomplish.

We do not know their true motivations or what they may have changed along the way.

We don’t know how well they knew the stories themselves, or why they chose these particular stories to preserve.

Is Oghma really just a flagstone flipping superman with a sunny disposition and a way with words?  Can that possibly have been all that the mythology of the ancient Irish had to say about him?  Or were there stories upon stories, now lost and forgotten because they didn’t fit whatever criteria the monks used to determine what should be saved and what should be let go.

Or were they written down and then lost again.

We may never know.

We owe these unknown monks a vast debt of gratitude, but that doesn’t mean we should put too much trust in them.

Let us take a side trip out of Ireland and into the ancient forests of Gaul where another god, or maybe the same god, named Ogmios, once roamed.

He too, was a god of great strength, usually portrayed as a Gaulish Heracles.  But, unlike the Greek Hero, Ogmios is also said to have been a god of great eloquence, who’s power of persuasion was so strong that silver chains dangled between his wagging tongue and hooks embedded into the ears of his every listener.  As a consequence, every mortal within the range of his voice would joyfully gather close to do his bidding.

The little we know of Ogmios comes to us through a handful of Gaulish inscriptions and from a brief description by the 2nd Century Greek satirist Lucian, a fellow who lived long after the Gauls had been conquered, and one not overly sympathetic to the gods of his own people, much less those of long dead foreign barbarians.

Oghma.

Ogmios.

As I said at the start, his holy places are gone, his name misremembered, and his stories are, at best, the stuff of rumor and speculation.

His priesthood however…, his priesthood is as powerful as ever, and it has never waned.

Just don’t look for them among the folks who actually believe in him.

His priests and priestesses are those who write and who speak in a voice we can still hear long after we are parted from them.  They speak to us across the depths of time (think of Shakespeare or Clemens), and they move us with their words even today, when words seem to have so little value.

Only a few nights ago, as I sat with a few hundred others, and listened to Neil Gaiman reading from his stories and poems, and answering questions in a thoughtful, ever friendly manner, I could see in my minds eye, those thin silver chains growing link by delicate link, could feel the hooks sliding deep into my own ears, and I knew that, though he believes the Gods are things created by story, he is every bit the vessel of their power.

Later, reading through his introduction to his latest volume, a retelling of selected myths of Norse Mythology, I found this bit:

“We have lost so much…I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was the Norse goddess of marriages, or of Sjofn, a goddess of love.  Not to mention Vor, goddess of wisdom.  I can imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales.  They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.”   —Neil Gaiman

We who believe in the gods of our fathers know that particular feeling all too well.

We were born to find the stories, to tell them, to share in their wisdom, and to bask in their glow.  These things are as much a part of worship as any ritual or prayer.

But the previous generations have not been kind to us, and all that are left to us are the last fading embers of a once great fire.

And yet even that can be light enough, if we are careful.

We must learn what we can from the old stories.

But we must be willing to play with them as well, to prod and poke them until the hint of fire within begins to glow stronger through agitation and exposure to the air.

And we must be open to invention.  It is through Imbas that we allow the gods to speak through us, to fan the flames of creativity and to tell their stories in our voices, for new generations.

It is long past time to fan the flames.

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Her Shadow in Wings

The sun, glaring down from a faded sky,
Finds me perched in a high place,
Hammer,
Nails,
Shingles,
Hot asphalt burning my knees,
As I kneel,
An unwitting pilgrim,
At the heel of a solar god.

Relief, unexpected and fleeting,
As shade passes over me,
Accompanied by a cool breeze,
My gaze drawn upward,
To a raven wheeling against the Sun,
The poetic impulse takes me,
And I am awash in a sudden flood of verse,
Until my balance wavers,
Dangerously…,

And the moment passes,
Eyes down and the sun on my back,
I return to the task at hand,
But a single phrase lingers still,
“Her shadow in wings.”

 

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Our Lady of Themyscira

There are people out there who worship superheroes.

I am not one of them.

But after having watched the new Wonder Woman movie, twice, one could almost…,

Oh, I’ve heard all the rationalizations, the misapplied references to Jungian archetypes, the quotes lifted reverently from Joseph Campbell’s books, the endless suggestions that the gods are merely manifestations of the collective consciousness, and that the superheroes, having achieved iconic status within western culture are every bit as valid a target of our mental energies as any of the “old gods”…,

I’m not buying it.

But if that’s your gig, the writers and marketers are certainly happy to sell it to you.

No, the superheroes are not actual gods, but when handled correctly they do have the power to inspire us, to lift us up from our own troubles, and to free us from the limitations which society and gravity would impose upon us, if only for a little while.

And, for a long time now, Wonder Woman has been my favorite.

Oh sure, I started out pretty firmly in the Superman camp.

I mean, what little boy doesn’t want to discover that he has amazing powers due to his secret alien parentage?

But we grow up a bit, we become angsty, our worldview darkens, and we glom onto the Batman, reveling in his trauma induced war against a bizarre criminal underworld.

Or, anyway, that’s what happened with me.

And I still buy his books, along with those of the Green Lantern and a smattering of other titles.

But it gets expensive pretty quickly.

If you’re one of the popular superheroes, a Superman or a Batman, you’ve probably got a dozen titles with your name or image on the cover, including monthlies, crossovers, and one shots.

Wonder Woman really only has the one title.

They say it has to do with marketing decisions, and the difficulty in writing a female lead who will be interesting and popular among young boys.  And sadly, that’s probably a big part of it.

But it’s not just the woman in the title.

The gods are in there too.

And I think that scares the crap out of them.

I love Wonder Woman because, even before they revamped her origin and made her a child of the gods, she was a gift from the gods.  Sculpted from clay by her mother the Amazon queen, she was given life by the Olympian gods, and sent to the world of men as an ambassador of peace.

I have always been perplexed that, in a medium where literally ANYTHING is possible, comic book writers almost never treat the gods as actual gods.  They are invariably aliens with magic seeming technology, livings in some dimension, removed from our own.  Or they are creatures of limited power, created by human thought and belief, languishing in a universe that no longer prostrates itself before them.

The gods are almost never written as actual gods.

Except in Wonder Woman.

For a long time, I thought this must have something to do with the publishing houses not wanting to rankle a largely Christian audience.  But I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard any of my Christian friends complaining about the presence of Hera or Apollo in a Wonder Woman comic.

Mostly they just seem put off by the fact that she doesn’t wear pants.

“She’s dressed like a whore,” one of them told me, a few years back.

Yeah, you try to think the best about a person, and then they make an idiot remark like that.

But for a while there, the artists gave us a Wonder Woman in pants.  And it looked terrible.

Oh how this new movie must be making their heads spin!

So I’ve been eagerly awaiting the new movie, and for the most part it has exceeded my expectations.  But the revelation, in the first few minutes of the movie, that Ares has murdered all of the other gods of Olympus…,

It seems as if the bravery of the comic did not translate so completely to the silver screen.

If the gods are dead, we don’t have to write for them, we don’t have to explain them, we don’t have to be worried that people will be offended by their presence.

Maybe Ares was right, and we don’t deserve them.

But it’s not about what we deserve.

It’s about what we believe.

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Sacred Space: Finger Bones

My hands ache.

I am acutely aware of the weight and shape of every bone in my hand.

I can feel the tendons stretching and relaxing as my fingertips dance over the keyboard to write these words.  The movements, subtle though there are, carry their own slight discomfort to the pain centers of my brain.

The tenderness is unfamiliar, and irritating, and strangely welcome.

It means that I’ve actually been working.

***

These posts, in my Sacred Space series, are supposed to chronicle my efforts at building a small private temple on my property.

The tree, which I mean to carve, stands untouched.  The ground where the fire pit will eventually go, the fountain and small reflecting pool, the spiral walkways…,

It’s all still a grassy patch of nothing in particular.

The plans are there, but the time, and the will to begin, remain elusive.

***

I took half of the month of May away from my job.

Beltane was celebrated with fire and feast and a flurry of creative exertion, as I broke ground on a new workshop in the backyard.

There was digging, and then backfilling, and leveling.  Lumber and nails were unloaded and then transformed into floor and walls, and eventually many-jointed trusses arched overhead like the bones of some terrible beast.

I took a break from my job to do work, to build a place where I hope to do even more work.

And that probably seems just a little insane, in a world where vacation time is ideally spent in some sort of leisure activity – or even better, inactivity.

But while the job I go to every day puts bread on the table, it lacks true satisfaction.  I spend most of my time creating nothing, adding nothing of substance to the sum of my time on this planet.  I find, instead, that true satisfaction comes about when channeling an idea through the body and forcing it to take shape in the material world.

***

So I haven’t built my temple yet, but my workshop is almost done.

And maybe that’s not so bad, because I think a workshop is a sacred space in its own right.

The stories that my ancestors have passed down, about the gods we worship, tell us that they were not only masters of warfare, and magic, and healing.  The greatest of the gods, the ones who were heroes among their own immortal folk, were the masters of every art and craft.

At the woodworking bench, at the forge, at the loom and the wheel, wielding hammer and saw, and torch and trowel…, through hand and heart the very energy of creation is focused in the places where we make the things that will last beyond our fleeting lives.

We reshape the world in our image.

How better to honor the gods of our fathers?

***

My hands ache – and that is as it should be.

A hammer is scarred by every nail it strikes.

That is the sacrifice we make to change the world.

Even the bones in our hands can be a sacred space!

Lace your fingers together.

Do you remember the rhyme?

“Here is the church…here is the steeple…,”

This is the eleventh post in this wandering series, following the thoughts, planning and eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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On this, our desexualized fertility festival

Religious holidays can be difficult things to explain to those who fall outside of one’s faith tradition.

Just pretend for a moment that you know nothing about Christianity and imagine someone trying to describe Easter to you…,

…think about it…

…a god briefly sacrifices himself to redeem humanity for the sins of two people who hadn’t been given a moral compass to know they were sinning in the first place…

…and Christians the world over commemorate these events by dressing up in their finery, spending an hour in church, watching their children gather colored eggs, and then filling up on a big ham dinner (just like the apostles would have done).

And yes, I’m glossing over all of the finer points, and it’s all in the presentation, but still…,

…it’s a lot to take in.

Now imagine the difficulty of describing a holy day for which there is no one accepted or even remotely authoritative description.

Welcome to Beltane!

So let us begin from an traditionalist perspective.

A well reasoned polytheist, using a reconstructionist approach, based solely on what we know of the folk practices of the pre-christian Irish, would tell us that Beltane, marked by the first blooming of hawthorn trees, was a time of purification and blessing.  It was a day when maidens collected the first dew of the season.  It witnessed the release of livestock into the summer grazing lands, but was certainly best known for the lighting of great fires, the light and heat of which was believed to provide magical blessings and protection to man and beast alike in the coming season.

Who?  What?  Why?!

That whole Easter thing doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

Again, I’m glossing over some of the finer points, but not by much, because the stone cold truth of it is, we really don’t know much about why any of those things were done.  And frankly, I’ve begun to wonder if we haven’t been a little too willing to take things that just happen to have occurred on or near Beltane, as being part and parcel of the holy day itself.

Was it really so much about the movements of cattle into the seasonal grazing areas?  Or is that just something that happened around the same time, and over the centuries we’ve colluded the two things.

It’d be a bit like assuming that watching American Football was part of the celebration of the Christian Sabbath in North America.  A scholar, in some post-apocalyptic future might conclude that feasts of pizza and libations of cheap beer were likewise, part of the weekly observance, based purely upon the evidence at hand.

Now there are a couple things going on here.

Firstly, there is the importance of honoring our ancestors and finding our own way to the traditions and beliefs that they held sacred.  We do this through careful examination of the evidence at hand, with an eye toward preserving and reviving that which they left for us through the ages.  In this way we do service to them and to the gods which called us to this path.

That’s part of it.

The other thing that is going on is a negative reaction toward anything which smells even vaguely of NeoPaganism.

Where the festival of Beltane is concerned, the general opinion seems to be that the old Victorian occultists who started the revival in Beltane observances, were really just looking for an excuse to shuck their knickers, alone or in groups, and that adding a ritual component to the lusty month of May was all the provocation they needed.  As their spiritual descendants, the NeoPagans may have picked up a reputation for treating Beltane as an orgy at fireside: all drum circles and gypsy dancing, while ignoring history and tradition.

And maybe that’s fair.  It might be a good idea to pop over to the Wiccasphere and see if there’s anything unseemly going on.  You know…, for science.

10 Ways to Celebrate Beltane

(oooh, this ought to be good)

Light a bonfire (a little on-the-nose, but okay)

Pick flowers (ooookay)

Wear a Flower Crown (at least those flowers from #2 aren’t going to waste)

Do some Divination (actually, that’s entirely historical, something’s wrong)

Dance (also appropriate to the holiday)

Leave out offerings to the Fae (am I reading from the wrong lists)

Decorate a tree or bush with ribbons (…)

Take a Ritual Bath (NOW things are finally getting saucy)

Volunteer at an animal shelter (what just happened?)

Roast Marshmallows

Marshmallows!  My hand to the gods, I saw this listed on two of the dozen or so lists I rooted through in the course of my “research”.  Sure, there were indeed a few references to fertility magic and love spells, but a good naked frolic in the wild seems to be largely off the menu.

That, or I’m just not being invited to the good parties anymore.

Either way, we’ve got a majority of folks advertising Beltane like it was your local craft fair, while a small but vocal minority would like to point out that Maypoles are an imported tradition from English and German speaking folks, and if you could all please just be careful with your frolicking, as you are likely to frighten the cows.

The truth if it, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

FeelTheFire

There are plenty of things to suggest that Beltane IS, among other things, a fertility festival.

Those maidens I mentioned earlier, collecting the first dew of the season?  They bathed in it.  A ritual intended to increase and preserve their natural beauty.

The light and heat from those Beltane fires, was believed to not only protect the herds from harm, but to bless them – to increase their bounty – make them more fertile.  I wonder what we are supposed to think that same light and heat would do to the men and women who danced around those fires?

I wonder how anyone could believe, after standing near a great fire, feeling the energy of it moving through them, that joining in dance around those flames and sharing in that energy, passing it each to the other, could be anything other than a sexual act.

Standing at to opposite end of the year from Samhain, during which we honor the dead, Beltane comes to us at that moment when the generative power of life is at its strongest.  The veil between this world lifts but twice a year, once to allow the spirits of the dead to transcend this mortal plane, and once again at May Eve, to allow them back in where they might find new life and new lives to inhabit.

Fire Festival – Fertility Festival – Craft Fair

Celebrate it however you like, but don’t deny the energies at the root of it.

Sex is in the air folks, otherwise my eyes wouldn’t be itching from all this pollen.

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The Land of the Dead: Regarding Your Recent Visit…,

I stopped writing.

There were reasons for the pause.

I needed to get my bearings, figure out where I was, and chart a course forward.

There were other reasons that cropped up along the way.

“Life stuff” – we categorize it, like it were something we could put in a box and slide under the bed, as if we weren’t swimming in it constantly.  Drowning even, when the waves catch us by surprise, and we find ourselves gulping for air.

So I stopped writing.

And I stopped reading.

And then there was a combining of households, and boxes to be filled, and what gets sold and what moves to storage, and…, life stuff.  Like I said.

But space, like time, was suddenly at a premium.

And the altar had to be put away.  All the bits and pieces carefully cleaned and wrapped and boxed.  Temporarily.  Until I can find the space for them.  Make space for them.

I stopped writing, and reading…, and talking.

To the gods.

To the spirits.

To the ancestors.

It’s the easiest thing in the world.

To let it all go, to be what this empty world we’ve created wants us to be.

I used to wonder, from time to time, about the Land of the Dead.

It is a place of dread that figures into so many of our mythologies: a grey void of a place where the dead wander, without purpose or meaning, hungry for the attention of the living.  I was never sure I believed such a place could exist.  It seemed so far removed from my personal experience of the universe we share.

The Otherworld, I had always been taught, always believed, is reflected in our own mortal realm, just as our world is reflected there.  Neither realm is wholly separate from the other, each profoundly present within and throughout the other, and still, for some of their inhabitants, frustratingly out of reach.

But where then, could we see any reflection of those ghostly fields where the dead are said to wander aimlessly?

Where, if not all around us.

Listless – Hungry – Craving.

I have found myself wandering among them in the grey realm from which they’d seek escape, if they only knew that they were trapped.  The Land of the Dead is not a mythological construct,  not even close.

We’ve built it, floor roof and walls, and we’re constantly furnishing it with all the ‘life stuff’ that we collect along the way.

And it’s not a terrible place to visit, from time to time.  We all end up spending time there eventually.  The important thing is not to get trapped there.  Never forget where you are.

Always be “Just Visiting” – because the alternative…,

JustVisiting

So here I am.

Writing again (and it’s harder to get started again, than I would have believed).

And reading.

And talking (to them, and you).

Still not sure of exactly how to get to where I want to be.

But at least I know where I was, and that’s as good a starting point as any.

Any day now I expect to receive my survey in the mail…,

“Regarding your recent visit to the Land of the Dead.”

I should probably give them a nice review.

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Time in a Bottle

I was sitting outside the other day, nursing the last few moments of a fifteen-minute break from work, just watching the traffic flow by, when my phone vibrated in my hand.

I looked down to see a text message from my wife, letting me know that she had two hours to kill between appointments and wondering if I needed anything.

In the second it took to ponder my response, I felt the huge weight of all the things that I need to get done over the next few weeks suddenly looming over me.

“I need those two hours!  Just pack ‘em up and we’ll use them later.”

I waited a few seconds to see if she’d respond to my little joke, and then I went back to work.

I’d run out of free time.

endlesstime

We have some funny notions about time.

We do our best to borrow and save and steal it, as if it were some tangible resource that we could collect and hold on to.  It is not.

Our scientists and statisticians study and measure it, seeking to quantify it and gain some measure of control.  We have none.

And with increasing frequency, we personify it, assigning to it both motive and malice.

This last year of the Common Era, 2016, seemed for many, to have provided both terrible events and heartbreaking loss in a greater than normal abundance.  The response to this, among the mostly Christian population of North America, has been to dance right past the standard platitudes regarding their own supposedly omnipresent and omnipotent deity and his grand plan for everything, and instead to spew their frustrations upon the year itself.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I pointed out how woefully out of practice this society is when it comes to idolatry.  There could be no better example than that of these last few months, wherein we’ve once again ignored a whole army of perfectly serviceable gods and goddesses, preferring instead to invent a new one upon which to vent our collective spleen.

The road back to Polytheism will surely be filled with unexpected twists and turns, but this…,

People got mad at a unit of time, and a few nights ago they celebrated its death – with the same fervor I’d expect in a blood sacrifice.

Folks, please.

Those who Spin and Measure and Cut must be rocking with laughter.

thefates

To the vast disappointment of all the numerologists in the crowd, the numbers are completely arbitrary and don’t mean anything.

Which year was it, that was our dread enemy?

AD 2016 is the popular choice – but that’s what exactly, two thousand and sixteen years after the birth of a fellow who may have been the hebrew messiah, or entirely fictional, or possibly both.  And what scant evidence we have suggests that we missed the mark by no less than a half a dozen years.  So that number is pretty meaningless.

There are other suspects, but they’re not much better…,

It has been 2769 years since the Founding or Rome in the old calendar.  But that date was also selected several hundred years after the fact and is an extremely rough approximation, so…,

Maybe we should blame 4714 of the Chinese Calendar.  The Year of the Monkey sounds like something given to causing a lot of trouble.  But if that’s the case we’d better hold onto our hats, because we are still under the gun until January 28th when the Rooster takes over.

And I suppose old 5776 on the Hebrew Calendar could be a likely enough suspect.  But this one is supposed to be counting up from the year the following the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth as depicted in the Book of Genesis, which I find pretty weird, seeing as I’ve personally visited ruins that are at least that old and geologic sites that are tens of millions of years older.

The year is a figment of our imagination.  It is a crude attempt to force time into a bottle.

But the truth is that Two-Thousand and Sixteen didn’t kill anyone, didn’t elect anyone, didn’t bomb anyone, or starve them, or spray them with rubber bullets…,

We did those things.

And we will keep doing them until we learn not to.

And if our past is any guide to the future, the numbers on the calendar won’t make a damn bit of difference along the way.

We lost some amazing people recently, Carrie and David and Prince and what seems like a thousand others, bright and powerful souls who touched our lives.  Our hearts ache with their passing, but there is no need to cast blame.  The pain we suffer is the sacrifice we offer up for the privilege of knowing them.  And my gods, the price is worth it, because I can’t imagine what our lives might have been like without them!

Nothing ended at midnight on December 31st.  Nothing began at 12:01am.

The Earth continues upon its path around the Sun.

The Fates work diligently upon the threads of our lives.

And time keeps moving.

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