Tag Archives: Celtic Reconstructionist

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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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Holidays, Religion, Traditions, Uncategorized

The Sixth Day of the Moon

I don’t want what you are about to read, to give you the wrong impression of me.

The simple fact is that I love Halloween.  I love every single waxy-candy-corn-polyester-spider-web-plastic-bat-cheap-sound-effect-paper-skeleton-fog-machine-gooey-candy-booze-soaked-thriller-zombie-great-pumpkin-watching moment of it.

And so, you’d think that it would be easy…,

Because it is common knowledge that this time of the year, more than any other, has held on to so many old traditions and associations, it should, therefore, be the easiest time of the year to be Pagan.

Which is not to say that we stop being Pagan during the rest of the year.  We are what we are, and do not change religious status as matters of convenience…, (well come to think of it, I suppose that some of us do, but that’s another topic altogether).

But as conventional wisdom would have it, it should be easy to be a Witch or a Druid in these waning days of October, because everyone is just a tad pagan come Halloween.  Tis the season of dress-up and pretend, ghosts and goblins, tales of hauntings told around a fire, and the incessant cackle of that animatronic crone which the neighbors (who look at you funny all the rest of the year) have propped up on their front porch, standing guard over a bowl of candy shaped like a cauldron with a bloody human hand thrust out of it.

It’s okay to be different from everyone else, because this is that special time of year when everyone is trying to be a little different.  And if you are lucky enough to be ‘the pagan’ in your social group, well that has its own very special benefits…,

“Hey, (‘nudge-nudge’ goes the elbow) I read an article in a magazine I bet you would have liked.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, it was all about the REAL origins of Halloween (their head does that ‘wise nod’ thing).  I can loan it to you if you’d like?”

“Ummm, I’m good, thanks.”

And it’s not as if we can be upset about it, because we know that they love us and they just want to know us better, and to feel included in a part of our lives that they really don’t understand very well.  Society has told them that Halloween is their best opportunity to gain that deeper understanding, and to truly share something with us.

Because, for the Pagan, every day is Halloween.  Right?!

Ugh.

No.

Stop.

If you are a Christian reading this, I beg you, stop trying to understand us through the lens of Halloween.  Imagine, for a moment, trying to bring your gospel to the natives of some far away land, who’s only previous exposure to your religious tradition comes from repeated viewings of that 1969 animated Frosty the Snowman special, as narrated by Jimmy Durante.  Same difference, trust me.

And my fellow Pagans of every stripe, I beg you with equal fervor, to stop trying to educate people about our traditions by doing that same tired old compare/contrast between Samhain and Halloween.  Honestly, 99% of your audience stopped listening the moment they figured out Jack Skellington wasn’t going to make an appearance.

Halloween is not an educational opportunity – it’s a party – so just enjoy it.

And, if I may dole out one more piece of advice: don’t allow your spiritual practice to get caught up in the orange and the black.  Halloween is not an accommodation that the world makes for us, and neither should our Samhain be an accommodation for the rest of society.

So then, what am ‘I’ doing for Halloween?

Sixth Day Harvest

This year I’ll be taking a break from handing out candy to all the little ghoulies, and will instead be having a long overdue dinner with a dear friend and her new gentleman.

And what about Samhain?

This year, I’ll be participating in an ancient rite which I have studied for years and yet never experienced first hand.

“The druids…, hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree…, A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak…,

—Pliney the Elder, 1st Century CE

The Sixth day of the Moon, being the sixth day since the moon was reborn from darkness, and that point when it is entering the midpoint of its transition from New to Full, a time of balance between darkness and light, falls (to the best of my calculations) in the early evening on Thursday, October 30th.

I usually do not celebrate Samhain so early, but an opportunity like this is rare, and this year, more than most, I feel the need to make a change in my usual habits.

Oh, I will still feast, and honor the gods and the dead with the sacrifice of meat and drink.  I will build a great fire for them, and I will pass bodily through the flame that burns in two worlds.  And when I am done, I will take the mistletoe leaves I have gathered, which my ancestors called Uileiceadh – the cure all, and hang them to dry.

And when Imbolc dawns, come February, I will welcome the spring with a hot cup of Mistletoe Tea – a new tradition for a new year.

A blessed Samhain and a Happy Halloween to you all.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Holidays, Interfaith, Religion, Traditions

Three Worlds

We reside at the juncture of three worlds.

Fooled by our senses, we typically believe ourselves to be living on but a single sphere, that same familiar blue ball we’ve seen in myriad satellite images, spinning it’s merry way through the cosmos.

Our ancestors may have seen things somewhat differently.

Imagine three great realms through which we travel…,

Below us, the Land: The solid and stable Earth upon which we build our homes, grow our crops and live our lives.

Above us, the Sky: A realm of both vapor and vacuum, which arches infinitely above us while still tousling our hair with every gentle puff of breeze.

Surrounding us, the Sea: Vast and deep, it is the dark and turbulent cradle from which life arose.

The symbolic expression of this worldview, among those who seek a connection to the old ways, is expressed as the triskelion, or triple spiral.

 

Our place is at the center point.  The Celts are thought to have believed that the place where the three great worlds came together was the axis upon which physical life and spirit revolved.  Humanity can only exist where all three worlds come together.  We are creatures of the Land, the Sky and the Sea, united.  Remove from us, our connection to any one of these worlds, these vital elements, and our lives are removed just as quickly.  The essence of the mortal animal is the balance between the three worlds.  We are the spectrum, focused down into a single point of white light.

Spiraling out from our comfortable resting point, the three worlds twist and coil about themselves, becoming increasingly foreign to our own blended nature in the process.  The beings that reside in those distant places (distant in constitution, although not necessarily in position) must themselves be very different than we who speculate about them.

Near to us, at the center of the great spiral, there are the Sidhe and the Gods, along with the spirits of wind, wave, field and forest.  They share our space within the three worlds, although they may be more or less connected to any one of the realms than we are.

Beyond those nearby and familiar spirits, there must be those who are more firmly rooted in but a single world.  These are the beings which the various world mythologies call giants or the Titans.  Often enough, our stories cast them as villains, evil creatures that must be banished or imprisoned.  However, many of us have come to believe that these beings are simply so foreign to ‘our’ nature that their mere presence is destructive to us.  Such creatures may not even consider us in their reckoning.

Whatever their motives, they are beings who belong to but a single world, Land, Sea or Sky, and when they seek our shores they tip the already precarious balance between the three worlds.

Last week, I wrote about Climate Change.  I pondered both the recent computer models that show drastically different shorelines in our (not so?) distant future, and the fate of the people of Doggerland, a long sunken realm which science tells us once connected the British Isles with the European continent.

I suggested, in that post, that change is a constant which we would do well to accept.  And while I believe that to be true, I do not think that the inevitability of change should be used as an excuse to sit back and let it all happen.  Indeed, if we ourselves are the agents of change (and there’s plenty of evidence that we are), then we are beholden to those who will follow us to do what we can to maintain the balance.

Now, of course, there are those who would very much prefer to think of these things in purely scientific terms.  The data tells us that the continuing release of greenhouse gasses will cause global temperatures to rise.   Rising temperatures will, in turn, cause long frozen permafrost to melt, releasing more greenhouse gasses and raising the sea levels along the way.

While I think it’s perfectly acceptable to see things in those terms, over time I have learned to see the spirit in the science.  I look at the scenes of ruin which are still pouring in from the Philippines, and it seems obvious to me that the Titans are loose upon the land.

People have this crazy idea that modern science and ancient mythology are naturally at odds, or that believing in one somehow negates the other.  This could be no further from the truth.  The ancient lore makes it clear that we must care for the world if we want to live in peace within it.  This means making proper sacrifice to the gods and spirits of the land, the sea, and the sky.  And if that sacrifice means giving up a few creature comforts to cut down on our carbon emissions; if we can endeavor to be less glutinous in our power usage while limiting our range of selection at the grocery store; then so be it!

Sacrifice means giving things up for our own good.  When did we forget that?

We reside at the juncture of three worlds, but in turning away from that reality, we have abused our position and threatened the sacred balance.  The giants are at the gates.  Already, some have broken from their ancient bonds, wandering about our sphere, bringing death and destruction in their wake.  Without a doubt, things are going to get worse before they get better.  If we hope to leave anything for our descendants except chaos and ruin, we need to renew our relationship with the worlds we inhabit, we need to remember what we have forgotten and take our place once again at the place where the worlds are joined.

The ancient Celts swore their oaths to the Land, to the Sea, and to the Sky.

To what will you swear your oaths?

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Modern Life, Mythology, Nature, Philosophy, Religion, Science, The Gods, Traditions

Following the Horned God

I remember that it was more like falling ‘into the world’ than the falling ‘away’ from it that I have often heard describing the “spiritual experience”.  The details of my surroundings in those moments remain sharp in my memory despite the fact that my attention was focused elsewhere.  In my hands I held a magazine opened to an image depicting an antlered figure rendered in crude lines on soot stained stone.  It was that image, or rather the figure within that image that drew me inward.  My consciousness slipped down beyond the ancient drawing, past the halftone pattern of the printed page and into a space that seemed to exist both below and within the reality in which we share our day to day lives.

If you had stepped into my home at that moment you would have seen a child of eleven, sitting in his mother’s rocking chair, reading a magazine article about prehistoric cave-paintings in Europe.   You would have noted his mother reclined on a nearby couch, reading a House & Garden magazine, and his father at the dining room table, leafing casually through the Sunday paper.

You might have seen the boy suddenly lift his head, looking with startled eyes to see if his parents had noticed anything amiss.  If you looked closely you might have noticed the way he gripped the arm of the chair, as if testing to see that it was solid and real after all.

For my parents it was just another lazy weekend afternoon, unremarkable and now unremembered.  For me, it was a moment I could never forget, the first step along a path that would lead me through the modern Pagan movement and into the mythology of my Celtic ancestors.  That was the day that I began my search for Cernunnos, the Horned God.

Cernunnos on the Gundestrup Cauldron
Used with permission by http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

This is not a subject I approach easily.

This is, in part, because my experiences with Cernunnos have been both very personal and of a nature that I find difficult to put into words.  Only recently, despite being openly pagan for almost twenty years, have I shared those experiences with the important people in my life.  My relationship with the Horned God is both more intimate and less consistent than that which I share with the other gods of my pantheon.  Truth be told, in the past I have often avoided speaking of Cernunnos because he represents a significant enigma in my spiritual practice.

As a Celtic Reconstructionist, one of my goals is to rediscover the beliefs and traditions of my ancestors and further my relationship with the gods by honoring those traditions as accurately as possible within the context of our modern society.  Cernunnos flies in the face of that goal precisely because we know so very little about him.

He is known to us primarily through a handful of representations in stone or bronze relief scattered around Europe.  He is most often depicted as a bearded man with antlers sitting in a lotus-like position while surrounded by animals.  The torc, a Celtic neck ring indicating royalty or power is either worn about his neck, held in one hand or dangling from his antlers.  In his other hand he may hold a serpent crowned with the horns of a ram.  He may also be seen to carry overflowing bags of coins.

Cernunnos (Kernu – “horn or antler”, no – “indicating a deity”, -s “latin first person singular”, thus “The God with Antlers”) may be his name or an epithet by which the Gallo-Romans referred to the him.

Many in the CR (Celtic Reconstructionist) community eschew Cernunnos for exactly these reasons.  Too little is known about him to build a religious practice.  If guided by the available iconography we can only guess at his nature.  No record, that I am aware of, reveals the sacred places or days associated with him.  There is no word on what traditions or customs might have been used to honor him.  Any discussion involving the Celtic Horned God will likely lead to more questions than answers.

And then there are the more recent associations to consider.

When anthropologist Margaret Murray published The God of the Witches in 1931, she postulated a secret pre-christian religion surviving into the modern day and worshipping the Horned God.  While it is now common knowledge that her methodology and conclusions were dubious at best, her ideas proved very popular among early devotees of Wicca.  The popularity of the Horned God within Wiccan circles has served (however unfairly) to further alienate Cernunnos from many practitioners of CR.

Finally, there is the simple fact that Cernunnos appears to have been a god of the continental Celts while I am a follower of the Gods of Ireland.  There is a tendency toward hard-polytheism within the Reconstructionist movement.  We see our gods as individual beings and not “aspects” of some other deity.  Within CR this usually means that you honor the gods of a particular region (Ireland, Wales, Gaul).  The idea of Pan-Celtic gods (deities that existed throughout the Celtic world) has been falling out of favor for some time.

So why is a devotee of the Irish Gods and a stickler for hard facts like myself following a Gaulish deity shrouded in mystery?  Perhaps because my beliefs are as much about my experience of the divine as about the scholarly theories thereof.

The reality is that Celtic mythology makes an absolutely strict adherence to hard-polytheism a difficult proposition.   A number of the gods and goddesses (including Cernunnos) are represented in triplicate form throughout the lore.  Further, there are too many commonalities between gods with similar names and attributes scattered throughout the Celtic world for me to completely cast aside the idea of a Pan-Celtic pantheon.

While I have long looked for a deity that I felt could be the Irish manifestation of the Horned God, I have yet to find one that feels right to me.  Of the two which are most often suggested (The Dagda and Donn), neither seems an entirely perfect match.  Rather than forcing an association between two disparate beings I find that I am willing to live with the unanswered questions.

This is not a matter of faith but rather my way of dealing with the “facts on the ground.”  Cernunnos, lord of nature, fertility, abundance and death is believed to be above all things a god of transformation.  My own experiences with him have been transformative for both myself and others.  He opened a door for me when I was a child and although I was too young to actually step through, the view from the threshold was enough to change the way I looked at the world from that point forward.

I don’t need archaeological evidence (however much I may hunger for it).  I don’t need an Irish cognate among the Tuatha Dé Danann.  I don’t need everyone to agree on who he is or what he represents.

I certainly don’t need anyone to agree with me.  I claim no special wisdom on this topic and my experiences have been my own.   I am here, finally, to add my voice to the conversation.  Only by sharing our experiences and observations can we hope to learn.

My own search for the Horned God continues.

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Filed under Mythology, Nature, Religion, Spiritual Journey, The Gods, Traditions

The Salmon of Knowledge

There is a deep place, far from any road or path, absent on any map and hidden from mortal eyes, which reaches down into the very beginnings of time.  Flowing upward from that vast depth come all the waters of the world.  Trickling between the roots of the great hazelnut trees which stand in a solemn circle at the wells edge, the waters come together to birth the many rivers of Ireland and eventually, the sea.

Long ago, a single salmon made the long journey inland from the sea and found itself swimming alone in that great dark pool.  Hungry from its exertions and finding nothing else to eat, the salmon consumed nine hazelnuts which had dropped one by one from each of the trees surrounding the well.  Taking nourishment as they do, from the undiluted waters which spring from the center of existence, these trees bear fruit of amazing potency.  In this way a simple fish was imbued with both immortality and the knowledge of all things.

From the time we are born our primary occupation seems to be the acquisition of knowledge.  First, there is the basic knowledge of survival, communication and social interaction.  Later, we wade into the realm of the arts and sciences where we learn many more things than we are likely to use in our daily lives.

Finally, we tackle the bigger questions, the great “Whys” and “Whos” and “Hows” that make up the underpinnings of our understanding of the universe.  For many people, religion provides the answers to these great questions.

My religion does not provide easy answers to the big questions.  Instead, it helps me to better formulate the questions themselves.

The goal of Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheism is to honor the gods and the spirits of the land through traditional modes of ritual and belief, most of which have been lost for centuries.  This means we spend a lot of time picking through the surviving lore in the effort of piecing together a functional belief system.

Sound like a lot of work?  It is.

My reading list often makes me nostalgic for my college days when I had more time and less need of sleep.  Yet, this is the kind of work I truly love.  In ancient times a Druid was expected to dedicate twenty years of his or her life to memorizing the lore before earning recognition by his tribe.  A smattering of stolen minutes throughout the week seems like a small sacrifice in comparison.

Years passed and the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge spread to the mortal men who came and settled in Ireland.  Many sought to catch the magical fish, knowing that to taste its flesh would convey unto them the knowledge of all things.  One of these men, a great Druid and poet, learned that a large salmon, pale almost to white with age, had been seen swimming in a pool of water at the edge of the river Boyne.

For six years he lived at the edge of that pool, waiting with his nets for the moment when he would catch a glimpse of his prize.  Finally the moment came for him to cast his net over the water.  The salmon was his at last!

Wading back to the shore, he handed the fish to his student, a loyal and trustworthy young lad, with instructions on how it should be prepared.  While the old man made himself ready for the long overdue feast, the fish was skewered and suspended over a fire.

Turning the fish on its spit, a drop of hot oil ran down the skewer and seared the lad’s thumb.  Burned and in pain, the young man naturally sucked his thumb.  Through no fault of his own he had disobeyed his master and tasted the cooking fish.

Returning to his camp, the Druid could smell the savory aroma of cooking fish.  Pausing for a moment to look into the eyes of his pupil, he saw there an intelligence he had never before known.  With a sigh, he offered the fish to his student.  The Salmon of Knowledge had eluded him yet again.

Sometimes, the acquisition of knowledge comes through great toil and study.  Occasionally, however, it’s about being in the right place at the right time.  Celtic Reconstruction is about more than just words on paper.  We are called to our beliefs.  We experience the world in a way that shapes our practice into a living tradition which is at once new and a continuation of our ancestral traditions.

Each truth gained, either through study or insight, leads to more questions and more surprises.  Mostly we work for the little answers that will help fill in those big questions.  Occasionally though, there is movement beneath the surface, a pale shadow on the water that tells us that the Salmon of Knowledge is still out there.  And we who are hungry, make ready our nets.

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