Category Archives: Celtic Polytheism

Experiments in Nonconformist Blasphemy

One of the great truths which we learn from an early age is that words have power.

“Baby’s first words” are a much anticipated moment of celebration and achievement, captivating every parents attention.  And from there, their power only grows and expands, shaping the way we think, and molding the universe to our will, one small piece at a time.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…,”

There are not many passages from the Christian Bible that I’ll agree with as wholeheartedly as those first few words from the Gospel of John, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The Word, however, is not any individual God, it is a power that WE share with the gods, it is that which makes them our kin, which draws their attention to us, and ours to them.

Language is the medium through which the human will finds its greatest expression.

Words are power!

Even, sometimes especially, the bad words.

Which is why our parents take such pains to make us understand that certain words are beyond us.

These are the naughty words.  Not to be used or even thought of.

Because we haven’t earned the right.  Because we don’t know enough, as children, to take responsibility for the power in those words.  And because it’s embarrassing to have children throwing around phrases that you yourself normally wouldn’t use in public.

But the children see, and they listen most intently, and they learn.

They learn far more than we adults might want to believe.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

And if you believe that, you were probably raised by wolves.

Words can and do hurt you, as every child knows.

Why else did they invent the counter spell?

You caught that, right?

“Sticks a stones may break my bones…,” seriously, think about it.

Think back on your childhood and say it out loud.  Feel the sing song cadence in the words weaving a web of protection around you, diminishing the power behind the curses hurled at you by those other kids.

Because they ARE curses you know.

As kids we called it “cussing” but to cuss is to curse, it’s the same word.

I guess most of us never realized that the schoolyard was a hotbed of magical combat.

“I’m rubber and you’re glue…,” is another common counter spell used among the kiddos.  This one is actually pretty sweet, as it is designed to not only shield against an offensive curse, but to reflect the power of that spell back upon the child who uttered it.

But as children we never realized what was going on beneath the surface.  We just steadily increased our personal arsenal of “mean things to say,” picking up more colorful phrases from our parents and friends and media, along the way.

And these come in a number of categories.

There’s a whole litany of racial slurs available to bigots of every stripe.

I am happy to say that over time I have fully excised these from my speech, and with them, that specialist subcategory which deals exclusively with sexual orientation.  I was never particularly comfortable with this branch of profanity anyway.

Then there are the “dirty” words, those of a specifically biological nature and frequently sexual.

Crude?  Yes.

Course?  Obviously.

Convenient?  As fuck.

This whole category of words exhibit tremendous versatility while still retaining their inherent shock value, this despite repeated use in modern media.  Judicial use of profanity is one of the rights and privileges of adulthood.  Whereas, tossing these words around lightly and frequently is typically seen as the juvenile behavior of someone trying to prove something.

And finally, there is Blasphemy.

And this is a category that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

Here’s where we get into the real meat and drink of cursing.

“God Damn You!” – is a curse of the highest magnitude, essentially beseeching the Christian deity to cast your enemy into the pit.  As curses go, it’s both blatantly sinful and in most instances, extreme overkill.

This goes for most variations of that particular theme.

Even just uttering the word “God!” in either exasperation, disgust, or if you’re very lucky, extreme pleasure, is held as a sin of the first order by most of the modern monotheist traditions.

Now for those of us who don’t follow those traditions, it’s not that big a deal.

Atheists aren’t traditionally worried about offending anyone, particularly not folks they consider imaginary.

Polytheists, don’t typically believe in a hell to which anyone could be damned.

I usually just leave the damning business to the book thumpers.

“God” however, is just too ingrained as a part of speech for me to drop it entirely, so I just slap a plural on it and let the “gods” work it out amongst themselves who I’m talking to.

But now we come to the man himself.

“Jesus” – to his friends.

“Jesus Christ” – if you feel the need to be specific.

“Jesus H Christ” – on those particularly formal occasions.

“Jesus F*cking Christ” – if you accidentally drop a heavy weight on your foot or discover a family member listening to conservative talk radio.

What to do about Jesus, when you don’t believe in Jesus, but he’s stuck in your subconscious and pops out every time you’re stuck in traffic.

Well, for the longest time I tried not to worry about it.

Not my god, I thought, not my blasphemy.

But more and more, I’m thinking Moses got it wrong when he carved those tablets.

Any publicity is good publicity, and here I am, spitting out the name of a deity I don’t believe in, under my breath, and doing it with energy, with emotion, putting real energy behind the words.  It’s some kind of stealth proselytizing!

It’s doesn’t matter if I’m doing it with negative intent, I’m still evoking the name of “the Christ,” lending power to a spiritual construct that I firmly believe has been dragging our society down since the time of Constantine.

I am in no particular hurry to offend my gods, but I really think that we polytheists and pagans need our own blasphemy.

Why should we keep sending all that excess energy into the opposing camp?

So I’ve been experimenting lately.

Trying things out, but with limited success.

“Jesus Christ” is just so ingrained at this point, and the cadence of the words, in English at least, is a perfect bit of marketing genius.

So, coming at it from an Irish Celtic perspective, I’ve been trying…,

“Nuada’s Hand!”

As an expression of anger or disgust, invoking a deity who lost his hand and his kingship in a single blow feels somewhat fitting.

And maybe…,

“Nuada’s Shining Hand!”  For when you need that little extra oomph!

I don’t know.

It’s the best I’ve come up with so far.

I’ve been trying to meditate on them, to find that spot in my head that Jesus occupies and to transpose one god for another, but it doesn’t quite feel natural to me yet.

And that in itself is irksome.

If anyone out there has suggestions for me, I’m open to hearing them.

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Filed under Culture, Magic, Modern Life, Proselytizing, The Gods

Gods of Shade and Shadow

So here’s the thing, the solar gods and I, we don’t really hang out.

It’s not that I don’t like them or anything.

They’re great folks.

Really!

They’re just a little hard for me to be around for very long.

If I am being totally honest, I find that they can be exhausting.

And for all their radiant smiles and their buoyant attitudes…,

It’s hard for me to put a lot of trust in them.

I’ve been burned before.

So, as we march relentlessly toward the solstice…,

…as the air writhes and the heat rises, and forgotten atop the maypole, the flowers of spring’s glory grow bleached and brittle in the heavy air of Summer…,

You will find me in the shady spots, if you find me outside at all.

And if I seem distracted, it is only because of the heat.

Or can you hear their voices as well?

The spirits in those leafy places will whisper to you of growth and decay in a single breath. They are the watchers and the secret keepers. Tricksters, travelers, rogues, and royalty, and the world was theirs only a few short weeks ago.

But now the ashes of the Beltane fires have scattered in the breeze. The solar gods are strutting about in all their majesty, and the gods of shade and shadow must withdraw to the underbrush, biding their time through the long season, until Autumn brings them out again to roam and rule in the turning of the year.

But for now, the earth is cool here, beneath the branches.

Join us, if you like, should you grow bored of those lazy hazy crazy days of summer.

You’ll always be welcome.

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Filed under Nature, The Gods, Art

A Year…,

12 Months.

365 Days.

I don’t know how many hours and minutes.

And I don’t want to know.

We don’t get them back.

…,

I’ve been gone from these pages for a while.

Not dead.

Not sleeping.

But elsewhere.

Did you miss me?

…,

This was a year of projects, of choices made, muscles flexed, and time spent.

I built myself a workshop.

I witnessed a total eclipse of the Sun.

My wife and I got married, again, and in public view this time.

And I worked…, a lot, even as I have felt my satisfaction in those labors waning.

…,

But new years bring new choices.

The numbers are arbitrary, of course.

Two-Thousand and Seventeen, becomes Eighteen.

Separated by nothing so much as our desire to begin again.

To grasp another chance to do our bit, and change the world to our liking.

…,

I have a plan for myself.

It’s a ten-year plan.

I guess that makes this Day One.

And I am terrified by the sheer weight of everything that needs doing.

But the good news, for me, is that I’m not alone.

WonderlandWeddingCouple

I mean, if you could get have a traditional Celtic hand fasting ceremony, while dressed as The Mad Hatter and The Queen of Hearts, and if you could likewise persuade your friends and family to come, dressed as Wonderland characters…, why wouldn’t you?

 

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Filed under Holidays, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

Chasing that hole in the sky.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

We were sitting in the office at work, one of my managers and I, and I was making arrangements to leave a little early for the evening.  One of my co-workers had agreed to finish out my shift, and when my manager asked me what the occasion was, I’d told her that the wife and I were planning on driving straight through to Tennessee to secure our campsite for Monday’s eclipse.

She was adjusting my schedule in the system, shifting the little bars that represent my comings and goings, when she glanced up and asked the question.

Most of the folks in leadership at my job are at least somewhat aware of my spiritual leanings, if only in the abstract.  I’m the guy who asks off for unusual days on the calendar, and marks them down as religious observance – often followed by an unpronounceable series of letters:

Imbolc…Beltane…Lughnasadh…Samhain…,

I’d been planning for the Eclipse trip for a while, but I’d only been able to secure three days off from work, Sunday thru Tuesday, during which we’d make the twelve hour trip to our chosen spot along the path of totality, set up camp, watch the big show, enjoy some nature, break the whole thing down and drive back again.

As the trip grew closer, I’d been fussing with the itinerary, worried that our campsite might be over crowded, about traffic congestion in the area, about arriving so late in the afternoon that I’d be setting up camp in the dark.  And finally, with only a week to spare, I’d come to the conclusion that the best course of action was to just drive in over night and through the morning.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

One of the other managers, who is fairly new and doesn’t know me as well, glanced over at us with a confused look on his face.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

It was an honest answer, I thought.

I had no rituals planned, neither prayer nor sacrifice was on the agenda.

This was about a maybe once in a lifetime chance to watch the moon completely obscure the sun.  It was about science, and timing, and prepping to get the best photo I could with the equipment I have.  It was about being in the right place at the right time and seeing something remarkable and rare.

As the date of the eclipse grew closer, I’d seen more and more discussion groups showing up online, asking what were the proper traditions and ceremonies for pagans to observe during the eclipse.  And I’d sigh and shake my head.  Because there are none, not really.

An eclipse is too random, too site specific, and never repeating at the same locations at the same intervals.  The ancients didn’t leave us any eclipse related traditions, at least none that I’ve ever heard of, because there are none.

If spirits that live in the rocks and trees of central Tennessee decided they wanted to speak to me, certainly I would listen.  But maybe, if they could just hold that thought for another 2-minutes and 32-seconds…, that would be fantastic.

I was there for the sun, and the moon, and to see the thing that I’d missed too many times before.

I’d seen five eclipses already in my lifetime, all of them partial.

When I was a kid and the other children in my class had their shoebox viewers at the ready, I came to class with my fathers telescope, sun-lens equipped, and ready to share a first hand look with the rest of the class.

I’d watched that yellow disk slowly consumed by the interposing body of the moon, and I’d watched that shadow slip away again, its mission unfulfilled.  I’d felt the strange cooling in the air, listened to the hush of bird and insect, and watched as daylight faded into the semi-twilight that a partial eclipse can bring.  All that I was missing was that elusive moment of totality.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

You’d think, after all these years and misadventures, that it wouldn’t still be so humbling to discover that I am an idiot.

Totality.

It was like nothing I have ever experienced and yet powerfully familiar.

Watching the last vestiges of the sun slip away through a pair of solar binoculars, I was visually disconnected from the world around me in the last few minutes before it hit.  And while I was expecting a long, gradual progression, I was totally unprepared to feel the sudden and repeated shifts in the world around me, as layer after layer of the sun’s atmosphere was blocked from view.

And when totality struck, I was unprepared for the noise it made.  There WAS a noise, although I couldn’t tell you if it came from outside or from within, but it sounded to me like something that the sound editor of an effects ridden disaster flick would be compelled to add, because you can’t just have the sun whiff out on screen, without some auditory cue – something between a deep throb and a gasp.

I was unprepared for the glowing white ring in the sky, for the deep red clouds on the horizon, and for the overwhelming feeling that this, THIS, is what the otherworld must feel like: detached and superimposed over our own world, always there just beneath the surface, and yet almost entirely out of reach.

Of course it was a “religious thing.”

Or no, not a religious thing at all.  A spiritual quest, maybe.

Because religion implies organization and planning and ritual, and try as you might, I just don’t think you can plan on an eclipse.  We do rituals to try and find our way, if only partially, into the otherworld of the gods and the ancestors.

But from time to time the Earth conducts a ritual of her own, and if we are very lucky, or very privileged, we may just stumble upon her and her sister moon, as they weave and dance in and around the fire of the sun.

And why else would so many of us travel so far to share in a single event, except in pilgrimage?  Each and every one of us, chasing that hole in the sky, and finding ourselves forever changed by what we have seen and felt.

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Filed under Nature, Religion, Science, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

First Harvest

This is not, I think, what the ancestors intended.

Just sitting in my backyard, drinking a glass of lemonade, on the first reasonably cool morning I’ve seen in a while, and simply watching the world go by, is not exactly what I think of when the celtic festival of Lughnasadh comes to mind.

I’ve always thought of it as more of a “working holiday”, with everyone busting ass to bring in the first grains of the season, performing all the mechanical alchemy that turns raw grain into flour, and then the truly ‘High Magic’ that renders freshly baked bread unto a formerly barren world.  Meanwhile, those not otherwise engaged in the sacred rites of food preparation begin to gather in the newly clear fields, to compete with each other in contests of strength, endurance and athletic finesse.

To be fair though, my particular ancestors never had to deal with Texas heat.

And they knew what they were contributing to their community, they could see, touch, feel and even taste the things they produced.  A celebration of the first harvest was a culmination of their own efforts and the benevolence of the land upon which they worked their lives.

For many of us, in this age, the day to day yield of our efforts is a little more difficult to see.

First Harvest?

We can sit on a cool morning under the shade of the oaks, looking through the blooming echinacea, out over the cats playing in the grass and the birds taking turns at the feeder, past the workshop which is nearing completion and out to the stands of honeysuckle which are consuming the white trellis I built for them.  The bushes in the back need trimming (again) and the mosquitoes are buzzing, but there’s always something needs doing and there are always those moments, however brief, when we can choose to let those chores and distractions go for a while, and just savor the moment for what it is.

A celebration of everything that brought you this far.

I wish a joyous Lughnasadh to you all.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Holidays, Modern Life, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

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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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Mythology, Religion, Spiritual Journey, The Gods

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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Filed under Comics, Culture, Heroes, Modern Life, Religion, The Gods