Tag Archives: Imbolc

Lift up the cloak

There are stories hidden within stories.

The monks of Ireland once wrote down a tale concerning a holy woman who went before the king of Leinster, asking for a plot of land upon which to build her convent.  The king, though amused by her request, was not of a giving nature, and she was denied.

Dismissed though she was, she favored him with a smile and tried once again, this time asking if he would not offer her at least as much land as her cloak might cover, when laid flat upon the ground.

Feeling himself mocked before his men, he laughed, as if sharing in the joke, and agreed to her terms.  And it was, after all, only a very small cloak.

Removing the cloth from about her shoulders, she held it tightly by one corner while instructing her young students to grip the other corners and to pull the cloth out as far as it would stretch.  The girls did as she asked and, to the amazement of the king and his party, the great cloth trailed out behind them as they backed, first walking, then running and leaping away, over distant fields.

As the cloak spread out before them, the king knew he would soon be bound by his promise to give up the whole of his kingdom.  And so he cried out, begging the young woman to stop, and offering her all the land she had originally asked for.

And so the matter was settled.

The woman in the story is Saint Brigit of Kildare, who is said to have roamed the emerald isle from the late 5th to early 6th century C.E., and whose feast day on February 1st, has only just passed.

Bride Cloak

There are stories hidden within stories, and sometimes, there are gods hidden within saints.

There is much evidence to suggest that the the woman venerated today as “Mary of the Gael”  is actually a modern reflection of a much earlier goddess — Bríde the ‘exalted one’, goddess of both hearth and forge, inspiration of poets and sacred flame of ancient Ireland.

With that thought in mind, imagine the same story, only stripped now of its hagiographic trappings…,

Imagine the cold fields and forests of that long ago time, still covered in the frost of the long winter.  This is the dead half of the year, when the doors to the House of Donn are thrown open, and its king holds sway over all the land.

But there is movement in the fields and valleys.  A goddess walks upon the earth.  She opens her arms, trailing her long cloak behind her, blanketing the fallow soil with the first warmth of spring.  And while the cold wind still whips above, in the deep places there is a stirring, as the seedlings of the new season begin their journey upward, where they will eventually burst free into the light of the sun.

The season of death is over and soon, the king of that realm must surrender his lands, once again, unto the living spring.  If you listen, you can still hear a gentle laughter carried on the breeze.  Step outside and turn your face to the sun, and you can’t help but feel the warmth of her smile.

The stories that we tell and pass down make up a great tapestry, a cloak of sorts, that we pull with us, covering all the lands and binding us together.  Lift up a corner of that vast cloak, and you will find truths hidden there, waiting to be discovered.

Lá Fhéile Bríde is upon us, yet again.

May it find you warm and happy!

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Holidays, Ireland, Mythology, Religion, The Gods, Traditions

Sacred Space: Back to the Altar

Altar Cup and Book

The Sun rises, its light breaking through the naked trees and piercing the heavy bedroom curtains I have drawn against the dawn.  The patterns of branches in a golden glow sway against the cloth, inviting me to step out into the morning, promising warmth and comfort in the dawning of a new day.

These are lies.

Yes, the lizard on his rock would tell you that the Sun’s rays are all the warmth one could ever need, if that is, he were not frozen to that rock in the 20°F air.

It’s cold out there folks!

It’s winter in Texas, and while we may not have to deal with snowplows and the like, it is too damned cold to be doing much of anything outside this morning.  And this from someone who likes the cold, and abhors the sweltering heat of Summer that all my friends and neighbors are already crying out for the return of.

The winter chill, drives us indoors and away from any outdoor project that is not of critical importance.  And so, by necessity, my backyard temple/shrine project has been very much on the back-burner these past several weeks.

AltarCandle

Oh sure, there are things I could be doing – out there.  But I want this project to be a ‘labor of love’ and quite honestly, I find no benevolent inspiration in the numbing of my fingers.

Also, there is the small matter of a recently cracked rib.  Which is, itself, another story and entirely beside the point I was trying to make.

It is enough to say that the cold weather does exactly what it is supposed to do.  It drives us home, and to the sacred hearth, if we have one.

If my small house had a fireplace, it would be dressed as the primary place of worship – the very heart of the home.

Altar Cernunnos

Lacking that, I have instead, a small altar – the expression of Sacred Space within my home.

It is spare, at the moment, in reflection of the Winter season.

It changes in design and content with the passing of each Celtic feast day.

The altar will begin to bloom again with the coming of Imbolc.  It will grow wild and chaotic in Beltane’s passing, and will take on rich, golden hues when Lughnasadh holds sway.

Altar Base

With Samhain, comes the season of closure, of sleep, and of the sacred balance between the light of life and warmth, and the darkness and the cold that lie just beyond.

There is no particular arrangement to my altar.  The sacred geometry of that space reveals itself to me each season, as I dress it anew.  Next winter, it will doubtless look very different, than it does today.

Altar Morrigan

There are some constants of course…,

There are the images of the primary gods and goddesses of my worship…,

There is the great book, where I will record the myths and traditions that shape my belief…,

A cup, for libations and sacrifice…,

A candle against the darkness…,

A sphere of gold-sheen obsidian, to represent the blackest night, and the promise of light that hides even there…,

And, of course, there is the sickle, Druids’ blade and harvest tool, its razor crescent turned outward in warning, because the harvest is done, and this is the season when the Earth bites back!

Altar Geometry

All this, and more, set upon a heavy wooden frame.  Totem and tool, symbol and sacrifice, a physical expression of the sacred, as warming to me as a roaring fire.

It is a place to go, when driven inward by the cold.

The deceitful Sun is moving higher into the air now, and I have much yet to do, this day.  Some of those errands will drive me out into that hard, bright chill, and I will bring the warmth of the gods with me into the day, and then back again.

Back to the altar.

****

This is the sixth post in a series following my progress (or often, lack thereof) in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Embers

The Imbolc fire burns low.

It was a small fire this year, although it would be fair to say that the flames I kindle for Lá Fhéile Bríde are always on the smallish side.

Winter still holds us within its chill grip, but beneath the cold, there is that first fleeting hint of Spring.  I say ‘hint’ because it is nothing so sure and trustworthy as a particular smell or budding leaves in the naked canopy above, but it is there all the same, stirring at the edges of our perception.  Change, as they say, is in the air.

Imbolc, like its counterpart Lughnasadh, is a time of transition, and the energies seem uncertain.  These are times of reflection and divination, best done in the warm blush of a simple hearth.

The great roaring, spiraling column of flame will whirl its way into the space between the worlds again come Beltane, but for now, a more sensible blaze will do.

It is a small gesture of devotion to the ‘exalted one’, the sacred flame of Kildare.

The fire has burned down to embers now.

I am no flamekeeper.

The embers will cool and their dull red glow will dissipate.

And that’s okay, because I don’t believe that the flame ever really goes out.

Olympic Ritual

This was the scene in Olympia, Greece, in September of last year.   In the ruins of the ancient Temple of Hera, the priestesses called out in benediction to the solar god Apollo, while using the rays of the Sun, focused by a specially polished parabolic mirror, to ignite the sacred Olympic flame.  And in only a few days time, that same flame will arrive in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea.

Well, not really.

The flame went out in October.  It sputtered and died and then was relit by some Russian official with a Zippo, on camera, for the world to see.  And that’s just crazy because they keep multiple spare flames, ignited from the same original flame in Greece, which are toted along in special little lanterns, to restore the “official” flame in just such an emergency.

They go through all this trouble, because the flame is important.  It’s sacred.

Well, not really.

I mean, the flame is kindled on the site of the original Olympic Games, but the circle of women calling out to Apollo and Zeus are actresses.  The ritual is a show.  It’s a fake.

Olympic Propaganda 1936For that matter, while the tradition of burning a flame during the whole of the games, is a tradition that was indeed observed by the ancients, the whole business with the torch relay bringing the flame from Greece to the host city, was concocted by the Nazis for the  1936 Games in Berlin – Hitler’s Olympics.  The relay was yet another bit of Aryan propaganda, a symbolic passing of the ‘torch of civilization’ from ancient Greece to the supposed ‘master race’.

So, I ask you: Is the flame that arrives this week in Sochi, the one born from the ‘Flick of a Bic’ any less sacred then the flame which left the Temple of Hera so many months ago?

Is there anything of the divine to be found in a ceremony conducted by paid performers?

Do the Olympics themselves mean anything beyond advertising revenues and jingoistic chest thumping?

I contemplate the embers of my own sacred fire, and I wonder.

Olympic Flame

It is easy to become discouraged.

In the whole of the world there are only a tiny fraction of people who share beliefs similar to my own.  We are a small community.  Our neighbors scoff at our efforts, if they deign to notice us at all.  Closer to home are the tolerant, the confused, and the sympathetic who quietly pray for our souls.  If we are lucky we have people in our lives who love and respect us enough to ‘go through the motions’.  Most of us are lucky if we ever meet face-to-face with more than a handful of the truly like minded.

We complain incessantly about the politics, the divisiveness, and corruption (of one sort or another) within our community.  In many ways these are the same kinds of arguments I have heard people make against the Olympics.

“It’s all about politics and propaganda,” they say.

“Everyone,” we are told, “is in it seeking money or power or attention, and no one really cares about the sanctity or sport or the high ideals of cooperation and universal brotherhood.”

So which is it?

Are we all just a bunch of misguided frauds?

Or is the idea bigger than the day to day reality in which we find ourselves?

Jesse Owens 1936The Berlin Games and the Olympic Torch Relay were used as a platform to express a horrific ideology.  And what we got instead was the triumph of Jesse Owens – the perfect expression of the Olympic Ideal.

Don’t tell me that there is no power there.

Certainly the Sochi Games have had controversies of their own, mostly related to the issue of Gay Rights within the Russian Federation.  Maybe the power of the Olympic Ideal will overcome Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic agenda.

One may always hope.

And what about those very few of us who choose to honor the gods of our ancient ancestors?  When the one public ritual that is performed in their honor, before the eyes of the gathered world, is little more than a choreographed performance…, does that ritual have any true meaning?

If an actress recites a prayer and if I believe in it, am moved by it, does it have power?

The flames of our ancestors burned out long ago.

Others came, and relit them for their own reasons.

But still they burn, and the embers of those old fires have been awakened.

We need only fan the flames.

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Sports, The Gods, Traditions

Let me try again:

We all have rituals.  They are the actions, the words and the thoughts that, through repetition, become the markers against which we judge our progress through life.

Most of these rituals are just the little day to day things that we never even really stop to consider.  We might call them habits, if we bothered to notice them at all.

Some few rituals come more rarely, monthly perhaps, or even yearly.  Not all of them are pleasant, (who likes doctors visits or doing their taxes?), but if we are lucky, there may be more of these occasions that we look forward to with longing, than those which we dread.

As I write this we are just about a week away from Lá Fhéile Bríde, which is the modern Irish name for ‘The Day of Brighid’.  It is the Celtic celebration, more commonly known in Pagan circles as Imbolc, which falls on or about February 1st.

I have a number of rituals which are associated with this particular celebration that I could share with you.  I could write about the symbolic relighting of the hearth fire, my offerings to the goddess of free verse and raw milk, or the reading of the omens in land and sky.

These are all important rituals to me, although I am better about keeping some than others.  There is one very personal ritual which I associate with Imbolc that I look forward to more than any other.

Ever year, as the calendar turns to February, I watch a movie.

I watch my favorite movie.

Because, I can think of no better way to celebrate Lá Fhéile Bríde, which the ancients called Imbolc and the Christians renamed Candlemas, than with a repeat viewing of ‘Groundhog Day’.

Goundhog01

Now, I could say, at this point, that the American celebration of Groundhog Day is, in itself, a faint memory of the ancient Imbolc traditions that were carried into the new world by Irish and Scottish immigrants.  The links between the ancient holiday, the secular holiday and the odd-ball comedy of the same name are there, if you want to find them.  But there is seriously no need.

The movie is deeply spiritual in its own right.

I may be getting ahead of myself.

If, somehow, you are unaware of the plot, it goes like this:

Phil Conners (played by Bill Murray) is a self-centered weatherman assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Trapped there overnight by a blizzard, he awakens to find that the previous day, February 2nd, is repeating, over and over and over again.  Nothing, not even death itself, can release him from this seeming eternal hell.

Groundhog02

The film’s director, Harold Ramis, has said that while he did not intend the movie to present any particular spiritual viewpoint, he was surprised by the variety of groups, from Buddhists to Evangelical Christians, who felt the movie spoke to them.

“So instantly people were identifying the film as ‘teaching’, and in such a parochial way, each seeing it as an expression of their own particular point of view, without recognizing that it was, in fact, a universal point of view.”

—Harold Ramis – Director

So, what do I see there that compels me to slip the disc into the DVD player year after year?

Maybe the thing that draws me back is the sly way in which an alternative understanding of deity is presented to us.  In one of my favorite scenes, Bill Murray’s character Phil is explaining to Rita, his television producer and love-interest (played by Andie MacDowell), that he is repeating the same day, again and again…,

Phil:  I’m a god.
Rita:  You’re God?
Phil:  I’m a god. I’m not “the” God… I don’t think.

To prove his point he then moves about the busy cafe in which the scene takes place, telling her things about the other diners which he should not possibly know.  When she asks him if what he is doing is “some kind of trick”, this is his response…,

“Well maybe the “real” God uses tricks, you know?  Maybe he’s not omnipotent.  He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”

Most people probably just see this as an irreverent joke, another throw-away line in a stream of one-liners, but to me it hits very close to home.

I’ve never believed in that one, omnipotent, omniscient being that so many people center their faith around.  For me, the gods are very much like us, except that they are not bound as firmly by the same physical laws which restrict our movements.  For example, I have never believed that the gods experience time in the same linear fashion as we do.  Perhaps, I have often thought, the gods exist eternally within the moment, and so are able to be, where they need to be, when they need to be there, if not everywhere at once.

Indeed, as the movie progresses through repetition after repetition, and Phil becomes more altruistic in his intentions, we witness the creation of a being, both more and less than human, effectively immortal, who through movements mostly invisible to the those around him, is able to shape the world, even as he is shaped by it.  He is the master of every skill, the knower of every secret, and yet powerless against a finality which, in this state, he himself cannot experience.

Groundhog03

So yes, there’s a glimpse of the gods, hiding there in plain sight, but I’m drawn to this movie for other reasons as well.

Maybe it’s because it’s not just another movie about redemption.

Phil Conners is not redeemed.  He has nothing to be redeemed for.

Phil is a cynical, sarcastic, jerk.

So am I, a lot of the time.

These are not sins for which we must seek redemption.  These are character traits all too commonly found in those who are prone to self-reliance and disinclined toward being “team-players”.  We call ‘em like we see ‘em, we don’t go in for the ‘touchy-feely’, and if that makes us unpopular, well, that’s okay, because if you want something done right, you had better be glad there is someone willing to do it themselves.

Phil is not redeemed at the end of the movie.  He is renewed.

After repeating the same day over and over again for years (centuries? millennia?), he has found a way to renew himself, to turn his great strengths away from self defense and out toward his community.  He is given the chance open himself, to try again to find his proper place in the world.

It’s not really a new concept.

Some ancient cultures have been known to celebrate yearly rites of renewal as the Winter gives way, at last, to Spring.  These celebrations are seen as an opportunity to take what we have learned from the last turning of the great wheel and apply that knowledge and experience to the coming year.

Hmmmmm…,

I feel like I could have explained all of that more succinctly.

Let me try again:

We all have rituals…,

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Holidays, Movies, Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Spiritual Journey, The Gods, Traditions

Eternal Flame

These last few days the weather has been on the dreary side, with cool temperatures and a damp to the air which hasn’t the pluck to decide if it wants to be rain or fog.  In other words, it’s been typical weather for winter in North Texas.

Many of my friends grumble about it daily.  They are hungry for the return of spring and summer.  They want to put away their coats and and start wearing shorts again.

I don’t mind the weather so much.  In fact, I’d like it to be a bit colder, but again, it’s winter in Texas and I know to be thankful for what I can get.

Time passes quickly and spring is close at hand.

Already the first Celtic celebration of the coming season is at hand.

February 1st marks Lá Fhéile Bríde which is the modern Irish name for The Day of Brighid, otherwise known to our more ancient ancestors as Imbolc.

Many believe that the ancient title, ‘Imbolc’ translates roughly as “ewe’s milk” and ties the festival to one of the most obvious signs our ancestors had of the approaching spring: the beginning of lambing season.  It has a nice ring to it, particularly if you know how to pronounce it (the ‘b’ is silent folks).  It has deep sound which comes across as both primitive and mysterious, which may explain why many modern Pagans who follow traditions with little or no connection to Celtic mythology have adopted the word as their own.

I get it.  I like the word as well.

Lá Fhéile Bríde, however, is the more properly descriptive term.

In this age of calendars and computer weather models, we don’t need the sheep to tell us when spring is coming.  Instead we are free to focus our attention upon the goddess for whom the day was made sacred, the Goddess Bríde.

The Goddess Bríde

She has been known by many variations of the same name (Brighid, Bríd and Brighit among others) but they all mean the same thing: Exalted One.  She is the goddess of the coming spring; the goddess of poets and smiths; the goddess of hope and healing who lives in the light of every candle.

There are those who refer to her as a “fire goddess”, but the gods of the Celts are not so easily pigeonholed into particular roles or duties.  While it is true that Bríde reveals herself to us most often in the warmth of the hearth, the smoldering coals of the forge, and the light of the dawning sun, she is as easily found wandering through the dewy grass of green fields or the pinprick light of distant stars.  Her voice is the keening wail of a mothers sorrow and the laughing tinkling of bells among a shepherds flock.

She is one of a very few gods who’s worship not only survived the christianization of the ancient world but flourished and spread within the newly dominant Christian pantheon.

Cill Dara (the “Church of the Oak” – modern day Kildare) was an ancient pagan place of worship long before the 5th Century, when the new religion began to take hold.  It seems an unlikely coincidence that “St. Brigid” is given credit for starting a church beneath the branches of that same sacred tree.  And how interesting that for many years thereafter, nineteen nuns of the Kildare Abbey took turns in keeping nightly vigil over an “eternal flame” which was said to never gave off ash or smoke, and could not be touched by any man.

There are flamekeepers still today and I honor their dedication to the Exalted One.

Eternal Flame

On my home altar I keep a small figurine of a lamb in honor of the goddess Bríde.  That figure, made of Irish marble, has a mottled green surface which reminds me of fields I have walked in that land.  In just a few days now, as the first light of Imbolc touches the horizon, I will take that stone lamb outside with me to great the new day.  Later, I will place it back on my altar, next to the candle which I keep there to burn on the holy days.    Lighting the candle, I will watch the flicker of light reflecting from the cut and polished surface of the lamb.

I will conjure from memory the smell of rain on tall grass and I will imagine myself standing in a green field under cloudy skies, surrounded by everyone I have ever loved, the living and the dead.

I will close my eyes and say her name.

Watch the sun shine through the rain!

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Ireland, Mythology, Religion, The Gods, Traditions