Can you hear us?
You will need to listen closely, as it would be easy to miss us when we first begin to gather. We arrive by car and bus and the new magnetic train which sweeps in every hour from the city center. We might go unnoticed as we approach the edge of the Sacred Grove, with the clamor of the afternoon commute still ringing in your ears. Perhaps you will notice the crunch of a few wayward leaves as we stroll, unhurried but with purpose, among the trees at the outer edge of the Nemeton.
Instead, the deep throb of a departing mag-train carries in with the breeze, setting teeth on edge and ruffling feathers in the treetops. The throb swells for a moment to a high whine as the train bullets away from the station, and is answered by angry cawing from above. Listen closely now, in the silence that is left behind, and you may just make out the beating of wings, vanishing further into the wood.
The ravens are raised here, in a rookery which the Draoí keep near their own quarters. I remember seeing it once as a child, a series of tall, half domes, made of wood and wire mesh, with intertwined branches for the birds to perch on while sheltering at night or in bad weather. Groups of children are often given tours of the temple grounds and the rookery is always a favorite stop. I remember a kindly young woman who worked there showing us how each bird had a silver band around its leg and stamped on that band, the raven’s name in block letters.
The bird she held, perched on her gloved hand, was named Cúar.
She asked us if we’d like to touch him, to stroke his long black feathers. My brother stepped forward with no fear, but I couldn’t be coaxed. I was the younger child and the temple ravens frightened me. I was just old enough to know to which goddess, in particular, those birds were sacred, and while my older brother found stories of war and heroism thrilling, to me they were the stuff of nightmares.
A lot has happened since then and today I find them comforting.
There are so many others walking around us now that our footsteps on the soft earth take up a kind of natural rhythm, broken occasionally by laughter or a shouted greeting between friends.
There is no official pathway through these woods to guide you from the outside world into the precinct of the temple itself. The groundskeepers tidy the forest floor of any debris that might cause one to stumble, but the only paths here are those worn over the years as generations have passed between the trees. Some of these paths are narrow and twisting, while others are wide and smooth enough to easily accommodate a wheelchair when the need arises. The passage through the sacred grove, from the outer world to the inner, is meant to be a transformative experience. We begin the journey, alone or in small groups, at the point of our choosing along the edge of the great circle which forms the outer edge of the temple grounds. As we pass through the Nemeton toward the center of the circle we naturally draw closer to one another. Our paths converge and we become a community.
Surely you can hear us by now? We are too many to ignore.
We walk together out of the shelter of the trees and ascend a low rise toward the great temple which stands before us. Familiar faces smile and nod in greeting, even as we continue up the hill. Old friends reach out to grasp hands as we crest the top of the mound and begin the slow descent into the cauldron, a terraced stone depression in which the Bile stand, towering above us in the sunshine.
Imagine the Bile as great trees, or columns really, but made to resemble trees. Their polished wooden surfaces are carved with intricate knot-work patterns depicting all manner of flora and fauna as well and the symbols and guises of the gods themselves. Crowning the Bile are great green and gold triangles of cloth connecting the tops of the columns, each to the others. These, we are told as children, are supposed to be the branches and leaves of the idealized and sacred trees which make up the temple space. Gazing up at them, this canopy may take on the seeming of a mighty ship’s sails. Or perhaps you will see them as the tents of some mysterious desert caravan.
When the wind gusts, the taunt ropes creak and the flapping of cloth becomes a kind of thunder high above our heads.
Walking out of the grove and into the late afternoon sun, it felt quite warm outside. Yet now, as we descend into the great stone basin and the shade of the the towering Bile, you can feel the air cooling around you.
Before us, at the very heart of the great circle, is the final mystery, a pool of still water like a mirror of black glass set into the earth. The Draoí tell us that this is the great well upon which all of creation rotates, that even as the mighty Bile tower above us to support the heavens, so does this sacred well reach down into the roots of existence.
Imagine yourself standing at the one fixed point in all the universe, with everything we have ever known, everything that has been or ever will be, all revolving slowly upon this single perfect axis. Imagine it and believe!
Once we had no temples at all.
In those times our numbers were few and we gathered to honor our gods in backyards, basements and spaces both borrowed and rented. When our numbers began to grow many resisted the call to build temples. Temples and dedicated clergy were, to their minds, a certain road toward fundamentalism, dogma, corruption and holy wars.
We were in those days, much like the Christians were in the 2nd Century C.E., closeted in hidden rooms and catacombs, hiding their rites away from prying eyes. It is true that most of our polytheist predecessors had no cause to fear for their lives. Still there were places in the world, even then, where our spiritual ancestors could be tortured, raped and killed for believing in anything other than the “one true god”.
Perhaps there was something karmic in that long wait. Perhaps we needed more time in the catacombs among our own dead, before we were truly ready to come fully out into the light of day.
We couldn’t keep hiding forever. We could not continue to cling to our pathetic little differences and our illusions of control and not expect that we would find ourselves under the heel of those who would seek to undo us.
When there were too many of us to hide, when victimhood lost its appeal and the people of the gods were no longer afraid to stand up and be counted among their neighbors, we began to build the temples.
And now we are gathered all together. If you close your eyes you may even see us in our multitudes. The music has died down and we sit in meditative silence, waiting for that moment when the sun will dip low enough on the horizon that its light passes between the Bile and into the sacred well. For a few moments we will see the sun’s light reflected from the rippled pool’s surface as fire dancing on the water. The three elemental forces will have come together as one and we will bathe in that perfect symbolic light, as high above us, the bells begin to ring.
A shadow passes over my face and looking up, I see a few of the temple ravens wheeling and turning far above our heads.
I think of my brother and I see him in that long ago memory, reaching out to stroke feathers as black as midnight. He was never one to show even a hint of fear. The Mórrígan’s birds did not frighten him, and neither, in the end, did the reality of war itself. I watch the ravens weaving among the great columns in the waining light before they return to their roosts, and I wonder if it was old Cúar who carried my brother’s soul from the battlefield and into the arms of our ancestors.
I think that it was. I think he knew it would be, even then.
I leave you now to wander these temple grounds on your own. Or, if these are not to your liking, I invite you to find something more to your taste. Simply close your eyes and allow your imagination to soar with the ravens. This is how we lay the foundations upon which wood and stone and spirit will find their rest. This is how we work our will.
If you have need of me again, you will find me here, waiting with friends and loved ones in a future not yet born. We are waiting for you to take the first steps that will lead to the Ringing of the Temple Bells.