Tag Archives: Ireland

Oh, but we do!

We were sent a message a few weeks ago.

On a mountaintop in Northern Ireland, a six-foot tall statue of the Irish sea god Manannán Mac Lir was stolen by vandals, ripped away from its foundation overlooking the place where Lough Foyle meets the North Atlantic.

Manannan Panorama

For many of the people reading this blog, this is already old news.  It may even seem strange that I have waited so long to write about it, when the story has begin to grow cold and our interests have moved on to other things.

But I believe that this sort of message demands a response from each of us, and I wanted mine to come from a place other than sorrow and anger.

As an artist, I mourn the wanton destruction of any work of art.  I cannot fathom the impulse which drives people to destroy what others have labored so hard to create.

As a devotee of the ancient gods, as someone who has stared into the crashing waves and whispered prayers of my own into the gusting winds, this attack feels very personal.

And I know a great many others who feel the same way.  Indeed, the global outpouring of grief and rage over this crime has been very encouraging.  It is nice to know that we are not alone, even if it sometimes takes a senseless crime to remind us so.

So yes, there is the sorrow and the anger.

But we have been sent a message, and that message deserves an answer born not from grief or rage, but from conviction!

We’ve seen things like this before.

And we will, without a doubt, see them again.

A work of art designed to raise up the ancient spirit that still burns within a people and a place is desecrated.  The symbol is utterly destroyed and in its place a large wooden cross, with these words writ upon its surface…,

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

A line from the Bible, from Exodus, Chapter 20.  It is part of the first Commandment which the Hebrew god gave, through Moses, to his people.

Here is the un-abridged version for you…,

“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shall have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

Now, there is a tendency, within certain circles, to only count the part that I highlighted above as the actual commandment.  But the first sentence and the second paragraph, both serve to modify that statement, thus forming a whole.  What it comes down to is, “You dance with the one who brought you, and just leave off with the golden calf stuff already.”

Which is all well and good if you happen to be descended from that subset of Hebrews who are said to have been enslaved by the Egyptians in the 1st millennium B.C.E., but that’s a mighty thin line in an awfully big world.

Of course, we are also told that Jesus is supposed to have opened that Covenant up to everyone, or supplanted it, or possibly both, depending upon which interpretation of scripture you want to go by this week.

But even then, it only counts if you accept Jesus as your savior, and believe that his father is the one and only god in the heavens.  Which is where those of us with polytheistic tendencies, just nod politely and step outside for a breath of fresh air.

Because it’s not our business what the monotheists get up to, as long as they leave us to our business.

Which is where our statue stealing, cross leaving friends, come into play.  Turns out they think that we should, all of us, take that first Commandment, with its various prohibitions against other deities represented by graven images, a bit more seriously.  While most monotheists are content to simply ignore us, some few think it only fair that everyone follow the same rules.

And while I can understand their position, it’s really hard for me to take their dedication to the 1st Commandment all that seriously, when they so blatantly demonstrate their willingness to break the 7th along the way.

“Thou shalt not steal.”

Yeah, sorry guys, but I’m just not impressed.

Manannan Side View

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

And to them, our answer is and must always be…,

“Oh, but we do!  We have before and shall again in the days to come.”

They can pull down the images of our gods.  And we will just raise them up again.  And really, what are they going to do, burn every museum and gallery, the statehouses, the courts and libraries?  Because that is what they would need to do, and it’s not like it hasn’t been done before.  Those vandals, skulking around a mountaintop in Northern Ireland are no different than the Taliban who used dynamite to demolish the great Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the mobs who wandered the streets of 4th century Rome, destroying everything in their path.  They are and have been, all of them, driven by fear.

That is why we must have the strength of our convictions.  Because they do not, or their fear would not drive them so.

Let them come, and we will stand against them.  And when the smoke has cleared, the memory of the gods will persist, as it always has.  Because their blood runs in our veins, and their bones are the framework upon which our society is built.

Yeah, tear down our statues.  Go ahead.

We’ll just build bigger ones.

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Filed under Art, Culture, Ireland, Modern Life, Religion

Sacred Space: Spirit in the Tree

My neighbors must think I’m crazy.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my backyard recently, staring up at the dead tree which stands at its center.  Every few days, I find myself walking in circles through the high grass (ugh, I really need to mow) and stopping at various points to look up into the barren branches.

After two or three orbits around the trunk of that old oak, I’ll head back inside and go about the business of the day.  The sun may set and rise again a few times before I return, to gaze again into those twisting limbs.

I am looking for the shapes that I know must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, Co. Kerry.  Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, County Kerry. Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

In thinking about how we create a sacred space, it seems to me that part of the job of a temple or a shrine is to remove us from the everyday world of our mortal lives.  While the gods may walk among us as we go about our daily routine, we might never notice their presence because we are conditioned, over a lifetime, to expect only the ordinary.

Our ancestors believed that to experience the divine, we must enter into an altered state of awareness.  There are many means to do this, but the temple is the physical manifestation of that altered state.  The temple sets the mood, it removes us from the ordinary and offers us a glimpse of the otherworld where the gods reside.

Dingle Tree Friar

In my travels, I have encountered a few places that felt as if they were set apart from the world around them.  Most I have sought out, but a few I stumbled upon by accident.

Such was the case a few years ago while traveling along the western coast of Ireland.

Upon arriving in the town of Dingle, in Co. Kerry, and checking into our Bed & Breakfast, the kindly Hostess of the establishment sat us down and offered us a number of suggestions as to what my girlfriend and I should see and do while touring the area.

Now I am very much the planner, when it comes to mapping out my explorations, but I do like to leave some room for chance encounters, and something that our Hostess said grabbed my attention.

“Oh, and you really must visit the Angel Trees!”

“Angel Trees?”

“Oh yes, they are like nothing you have ever seen.”

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

In the town of Dingle, in the west of Ireland, off a narrow street that seems more like an alleyway than something you would actually want to drive through, in the garden of a rectory that sits beside a rather pedestrian little church, there is a doorway to another world.

In this otherwise simple garden, stand a handful of tree-trunks, ash and oak, that are carved in such a way that standing among them I felt as if I had been transported somewhere else entirely.

The imagery, while Christian in theme, had a primitive, tribal nature to it, which seems quite out of place with the rather mundane surroundings.  And yet, while you might expect a certain dissonance between the trees and their surroundings, in my experience, the sculptures draw you in to their world, leaving the mortal realm far behind.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

And now, several years later, as I gaze up into the branches of the dead oak behind my house, I am looking for the shapes that will have that same effect on those who see them.

When I first began planning this project I assumed that after limbing the tree and shortening the trunk, I would enclose in within some structure.  Yet, thinking back to those unexpected trees in Dingle, I realize how much more powerful it would be, to have an open air temple with that great carved trunk as its focal point.

And so I wander into my backyard at odd hours of the day.

I gaze upward, looking for the shapes that must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

****

This is the third post in a series following my progress 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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Filed under Art, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey, Travel

A Curious Absence of Saints

I have wandered the hills and valleys of Ireland, driven along its rocky coasts and roamed the quiet midlands.  In my travels, I have stopped to explore every monument of stone and ruined churchyard to be found along my path, often altering that path considerably in the hope of encountering some new mystery to explore.

Along the way, I have taken several thousands of pictures.

While I am careful that the photography not intrude upon my more visceral experience of a place, I strive to document each location to the best of my ability.  The photos are touchstones, reminders of places I fear I may never see again.  And in that spirit I try to be as thorough and faithful to the place and time as possible.

I was therefore, quite surprised to learn, as I went scanning through my photos just the other day, that my collection suffered from a curious absence of saints.

Saint Patrick?Saint Patrick, in particular, was nowhere to be found.

I only went looking because I noticed that my next blog post, the one you are reading now, was due to publish on March 17th, and it occurred to me that I really should write something about St. Patrick’s Day.

Not feeling particularly motivated, I thought I would dig up some of the photos I’d taken of his various statues in Ireland, and use those for inspiration.

Click…click…click…scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing!

I sat back from my screen, perplexed.  That couldn’t be right.  I mean, I know for a fact that there is a statue of St. Patrick standing near the entrance to the Hill of Tara.  I’d photographed every inch of that ancient seat of kings, as well as the little churchyard that sits next to it, during my first visit in 2005.  I remembered walking past that stark white statue with the little metal fence around it, not once, but twice!

And so I checked again: hills, grass, tower, graves, passage tomb, sheep, standing stone, circling ravens…, no statue.

Church at Tara

Okay, so then where else?  I searched my memory for other encounters with Ireland’s patron saint…, a-ha!  there was Saint Patrick’s Cross which stands among the mighty ruins on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary.  Surely I had a photo of that, and even if it’s not really a statue, it would give me something to work with…,

Scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing.

View from Rock of Cashel

“How,” I wondered aloud to myself, “can this be.”

I tried to think back to all the other cathedrals, graveyards and ruins that I have visited.  Surely there had to be…, I know that one had a statue…, Maybe there was a plaque…,

Nothing.

The Rock of Cashel

There are no monuments to Saint Patrick, no statues or shrines, recorded anywhere in my camera-rolls.  And I think the reason for this must be because I just don’t see him.

I’ve heard his story again and again, since childhood, but it has never really made any lasting impression upon me.  

I was taught that I should like St. Patrick because he was ‘the’ Irish saint.

But was he, really?

There is nothing in the mythology surrounding Pádraig that touches me or even rings true to my ears.

I have tried to see the young man, captured, bound and sold into slavery, only to give himself over to Christianity and escape his captors, led across the wilds of Ireland and back to the sea by a mysterious voice.  Yet it seems as if I have heard that story before, attached to other names and places.

And then there is the great teacher, who is said to have stood upon the Hill of Tara among both the greatest kings and wisest Druids of that land, and explained to them the mystery of the Christian Trinity through the example of the wild shamrock which grew unnoticed underfoot.  Strange, that they should be so easily won over, these wise men, when triplicate gods and goddesses were already known throughout the land, and the shamrock already known for both its symbolic and medicinal qualities.

Then, of course, there is the mighty “warrior for god” who appears in the later tales.  No meek teacher this Patrick, he duels his enemies with holy magic, tossing them into the air like some midichlorian pumped Jedi Knight.  

Let’s not even mention the thing with the snakes.

Over the years I have seen him first as a saint, then as a villain, and now he hardly seems important at all.  From what little we truly do know of him, it seems clear that almost nothing which has been believed about him is true.

So why then, should we celebrate the anniversary of his death (if indeed we even have that detail correct)?

More than once, I have been told that celebrating Patrick’s Holy Day is an important part of my Irish heritage, and that, as a grandchild of the diaspora, I should do whatever I can to maintain those cultural links with my distant kin.

How much honor do I bring to my ancestors by pretending to celebrate a Catholic feast day?  None, I think.

The truth is, I don’t need Saint Patrick, whoever he was, to help me celebrate my Irish heritage.  I do that every day.

I think I’ll get by just fine without the silly parades and the mass inebriation, which have become the American standard in holiday celebrations.

Yeah, I’ll wear the green – but I do that once a week (at least) anyway.  I like green.

And you can be sure that I’ll raise a glass, to you and to yours, and to bridging the miles that lie between myself and the one place I’ve ever known that truly feels like home.

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Filed under About this Blog, Holidays, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions, Travel

Unbroken Bread

The sun was low on the horizon as Diarmuid gazed out across the fields surrounding their newest hiding place.  He listened intently to the rasping caw of a crow from somewhere to the north of the small copse of blooming cherry where they would spend the night.  He knew from his years in their company that the men of the Fianna sometimes used birdcalls to signal their positions prior to an attack.  The cry came again and he relaxed.  It was only a lonely creature of the wild, calling out its fellows at the end of the day.

He had turned his gaze northward as he listened to the distant cawing and now he scanned slowly back toward the south looking for any sign of pursuit.

He almost missed it.  A small trail of smoke, as from a cook-fire, drifting up from the forest several miles to their west.  Nearly hidden in the red glare of the setting sun, it was difficult to gauge its distance, but Fionn and his men were close.  An hour or two of hard riding in the morning would bring them here, Diarmuid thought with a smile.  Let them come!  By the time they arrived and followed the winding trail he’d left them through the trees, he and Gráinne would be long gone.

He dropped now to one knee and pulled a small bundle from the bag which had lain at his feet.  Pulling at the edges of the cloth wrapping, he uncovered a small cake, no larger than a woman’s fist, and placed it on a stone.  He spoke in a low voice now, calling upon the creatures of the wild to leave this morsel whole and unblemished until Fionn himself came and found it waiting for him.

The unbroken bread was a sign.

Diarmuid Ua Duibhne would not touch what did not belong to him.

We are just a few days now from St. Valentine’s Day and so I thought it only fitting to visit one of the most famous love stories of Irish mythology: The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.

Valentine’s Day is not a holiday that I normally celebrate.  Being one-part Catholic holy day venerating not less than two supposed saints of the same name and two-parts Hallmark holiday disposed toward a marketing frenzy for florists, candy manufactures, and of course, greeting-card companies, I find it somewhat distasteful.

We are told that February 14th is a day to celebrate romantic love, but I have always felt that if you are in a truly romantic relationship, you don’t need any outside stimulus to celebrate, and if not, you don’t really need the reminder.

Turning away from the sunset and back toward their hiding place, he could hear her singing in the distance.  The last light of the setting sun turned the white cherry blossoms at the edge of the wood into glowing pink clouds which swayed in the softening breeze of early evening.  Wafting through these clouds, as if from the otherworld itself, the lilting voice of his companion wound its way through the trees to him from their nearby camp on the bank of a small stream.

She had sung on that fateful night in the court of her father, the High King, her voice captivating all who listened even as her beauty stirred their blood.  No man who looked upon Gráinne, and listened to her voice, could do so without feeling a stab of envy for the man to whom she had been promised, Fionn Mac Cumhail, chieftain of the Fianna and Diarmuid’s own master.

Moving slowly through the trees now, he could hear her voice again in his memory.  The feasting hall of the High King had grown suddenly silent and all around him men slumped unmoving, where they had been feasting only moments before.

Her voice at his ear, “take me away with you this night.”

He could not.  His honor and duty to his lord would not allow it.

The puff of her sweet smelling breath against his cheek, belying the power of her words, “I would have you as my love and not the old man to whom I have been promised, therefore I place upon you a geis of power which shall see your undoing unless you take me away with you before your lord and his company should awake.”

It is easy to see Gráinne as the villain in this story.  After all, she puts a sleeping potion into a cup of wine and passes it around the room, putting most of her wedding party into a deep slumber.  She then forces Diarmuid to elope with her through the use of a kind of magical spell that would otherwise bring him to an early death.

Diarmuid, it would seem, is a dupe, forced by cruel fate and a willful woman to betray his leader by stealing away with his bride to be.  What I’ve neglected to mention is that Gráinne herself is a victim of forces beyond her control.

Diarmuid, you see, was blessed (cursed?) by a goddess of youth with a single blemish upon the skin of his brow which would make any woman who should gaze upon it swoon with love for him.  The young man was good enough to wear a cap over this “love spot”, hiding it from view, but during the wedding feast, Gráinne accidentally got a look at it and found herself enamored with the young warrior.

Standing among the trees at the edge of their small clearing, he could see her moving about as she prepared their nightly meal.  She had placed their blankets together near the fire, as she did every night, knowing that he would move his to the other side of the small blaze as soon as their meal was done.  It was another of their little rituals, like the unbroken bread, which had been repeated night after night since they had fled the court of the High King.

Diarmuid knew that when he moved his blankets away from hers, she would smile ruefully but offer no protest.  Instead, she would gaze at him as she did each night, with a hunger he could feel long after he had turned away from her, putting his back to the dying embers of the fire, which along with his honor, was all that could keep them apart.

Suddenly, her song faltered and he was startled to find himself looking into her eyes from the deepening shadows of their wooded shelter.

While they gazed upon one another, it seemed that there was not a sound in the entire world.  No breeze stirred the leaves of the surrounding trees.  The waters of the stream, which had been trickling noisily along only moments before, seemed to have been stilled as if by magic.

For a moment in all the world, there was only Diarmuid and Gráinne.

And then he thought of that small loaf of unbroken bread.  He thought of the loyalty he still felt to a man who had once been like a father to him, and was now hunting him across field and mountain.  He took a breath, and stepping into their small camp, he dropped a bundle of wood onto the fire so that it blazed more brightly between them.

Most people think of Mythology as little more than a collection of stories told by primitive peoples to explain the world around them.  My own belief is that the stories of myth represent a cultural connection to certain universal truths which elude “rational” understanding.  In either case, the place of “love” in mythology is a troubling one indeed.

I know thousands of stories from a number of cultures and traditions, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a single one where love brings anything but tragedy to those who pursue it (or have it thrust upon them).  What does that say about our belief in the power of love, that it is more often a foil used to crush cities and drive great heroes to their doom rather than as a reward for those who persevere against life’s difficulties.

Diarmuid makes it through that night with his sense of honor in tact.  With Fionn hot on their heels they may make it a few nights longer before the trail of unbroken bread comes to an end.  The chase goes on for months or years, until the pursuers eventually tire and their prey escapes across the sea.

For a time, the young lovers are allowed to live in that state of bliss which we are all told to hope for.

No doubt, you can guess how the story ends.

“Happily ever after,” is a line we feed the kids.  Adults know better.

Yet maybe love, like a good story, should be less concerned with the bits at the beginning and the end and more about all the crazy stuff that happens in the middle.

So here’s hoping you find your share of the crazy stuff.  And if you are so inclined, have a happy Valentine’s Day.

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Filed under Holidays, Ireland, Literature, Magic, Mythology, Traditions

To the Waters and the Wild

I am the victim of a seasonal ailment.

To be entirely truthful, it is a chronic disorder, a dull ache that lingers throughout the year, persistent but not overly debilitating.  As the Autumn season approaches, however, and the temperatures begin to ease, the symptoms of this disorder tend to flare up acutely.

It is this time of year when Ireland calls me home.

Can I call it home?

I do not live there, was neither born nor raised there.

Yet, since the first time I set foot upon it’s soil and breathed it’s air, the Emerald Isle has felt more like home to me than any other place I have ever known.

I sometimes wonder if I am the same person who boarded that Dublin bound plane almost a decade ago.  Perhaps I have been made a changeling.  I would think myself a little too old for that sort of thing, as the lore typically speaks of stolen children.  Still, I can’t help but question why else I should feel so uncomfortable in my own skin.  And why does everything I touch suddenly seem either too small or large for comfort?

Has anyone ever wondered if a changeling knows what it is from the very beginning?  Or does it only discover it’s faerie heritage when revealed to the world as an impostor?

Do I exaggerate?

Yes.

And no.

As I write this, I think back to this very day exactly two years ago and remember that I was walking in County Sligo, along the shores of Lough Gill, through what W.B. Yeats called the Sleuth Wood, near “a leafy island where flapping herons wake.”

The morning sky was a deep grey and, although a light rain was falling, the thickness of the canopy above provided sufficient shelter from the worst of the damp.  My companion and I followed a lazy path which meanders along the rain dappled shore.  Straying from the path (and how many tales have I read which caution against exactly that sort of thing), we climbed up the rocky slope into the deepest part of the wood.  There we truly felt as if we had entered another world.

It is no wonder Yeats mentions it as a faerie-place in his poem.  It exists as nothing less than an aggregate of light and shadow, a realm where every surface teems with both life and decay.  The totality of the forest seemed to crowd in from every direction while the air was silent but for the muffled echo of dripping water and our own footfalls – a quality of sound that I have otherwise heard only when exploring deep caves.

For an all too brief stretch of days in September of 2010, we followed the path of “The Stolen Child“.  Leaving the hum-drum of the weeping world safely behind us, we explored the deeps of Sleuth Wood, wandered the shores “by furthest Rosses” and dipped our hands into the waters which gush “from the hills above Glen-Car.”

If Yeats’ poem is truly (as many believe) about reclaiming the “stolen” inner child that lives within each of us and embracing the true wonder of the world around us, then we took him at his word.  We came back from that journey refreshed and more open to the magic that lives between the mundane moments of the daily grind.

Such things are difficult to hold on to for very long.  Children are want to wander.  Time passes, and the day to day pressures of simply living take their toll.  Bit by bit, moment by moment, the child is stolen away from us.  We shall have to find him yet again.

Just not this year.

It was a difficult decision.  Although my resolve still wavers, we have put our next trip to Ireland off until the coming Spring.  Until then we shall try, in the coming weeks, to salve the growing ache, with a brief trip into the mountains of Washington State.  I do not doubt that there are wonders there to rouse the inner child, for a while at least.

Until we may once again…,
“Come Away to the Waters and the Wild.”

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Filed under Ireland, Literature, Modern Life, Nature, Spiritual Journey, Travel

Lughnasadh and the Games of Summer

There are those who absolutely live for Summer.  They thrive in the long sunny days, shedding as much of their clothing as modesty (or the law) will allow, to bask more fully in the solar radiance that dominates this time of year.

I am NOT one of them.

I do not like the heat and I never have.  I am a creature born for cooler climates.  This particular turning of the yearly solar cycle weighs upon me like a penance, a nearly endless stretch of long sweaty days, standing resolute between me and the cooling relief of Autumn.

Perhaps this is why I have always had difficulty putting as much enthusiasm into my celebrations of Lughnasadh as I do the other holy days of the Celtic ritual calendar.

Lughnasadh (pronounced loo-NAH-sa and meaning Feast of Lugh) is the Celtic celebration of the ripening of the first fruits of the harvest season.  Traditionally, the celebration begins at sundown on the evening of July 31st with a bonfire and sacrificial feast after which would come days spent berry-picking on hilltops, visiting holy wells and general merrymaking.

All of which sounds wonderful in a temperate climate like the one that Ireland enjoys.  Here in Texas the high temperature today is expected to be around 106° F.  Sorry, but berry picking and bonfires are the last things on my mind just now.

Happily, there is one tradition associated with Lughnasadh that does have me excited this year.  The Summer Olympics have returned to us after four long years!  And how, you may ask, can I possibly find an association between the Olympic Games and a little known Irish harvest festival?

To answer that I must briefly recount the origins of the Feast of Lugh.

Áenach Tailteann

In the ancient days before mortal men came to Ireland there were two great races of beings which vied for control of that land.  These were the Firbolg who had settled Ireland in an earlier age and the Tuatha De Danann who arrived in a shadowy mist and made war upon the FirBolg.  Eventually, all but a few of the Firbolg were driven away to the rocky shores and islands of the western sea.

Of those who remained, Tailtiu was among the most beloved.  She had been a great queen among her people and still held sway over the wild forests and valleys of Ireland.  It is said that she was asked by the Ever-Living Ones to clear away the forests so that the fields could be used as farmland to support the people.  Through her effort the wilds were cleared away and made ready for the plow but doing so broke her heart and brought her to her deathbed.

In this way, it is said that Tailtiu, a goddess of the untamed nature and wilderness of Ireland, became the foster mother of mighty Lugh, a hero and king among the Tuatha De Danann and a god of agriculture.  As she lay dying, Tailtiu bid her foster son to hold ceremonial games on the newly cleared ground so that her immortal sacrifice might be remembered for all time.

And so it was that Lugh declared that, on the anniversary of the first harvest, people of every tribe and nation would be welcome to gather at the place of her power in what is now County Meath, for the Áenach Tailteann (Taillten Fair).  For the span of the celebration neither war nor bloodshed would be tolerated.  Instead, friendly competition in feats of strength, martial arts and Horse Racing would accompany the religious rites which honor the turning of the wheel from the growing season to harvest.

When mortal men displaced the Tuatha De Danann as masters of Ireland the Taillten Fair continued and the day of the first harvest was made holy to Lugh who’s memorial to Tailtiu is remembered even to this day.

Now it shouldn’t be very difficult to see the many parallels between the games of the Taillten Fair and the Olympics of ancient Greece.

Both games were celebrated at the bidding of the gods.  It was the Greek demigod Heracles who is said to have decreed that on every fourth year a contest of strength and skill should be held among men as a tribute to his father Zeus looking down from high Olympus.  While many of the polytheistic associations in the modern Olympic Games have been scrubbed away in deference to the squeamish monotheist sensibilities of Christian and Muslim participants, the pagan origins of the Games are hard to ignore.

Now THIS is what I call a ritual flame!

Historically, we know that the Taillten Fairs continued from at least the 6th century BCE until the 12th century of the common era when the Norman invasion put a stop to them.  The Olympics of Greece are believed to have had their start in 776 BCE and continued until 393 CE when they were discontinued under Christian influence.  Both the Olympics and the Taillten Fair have seen many modern attempts to recapture their former glory, but the modern Olympic Movement (beginning with the 1896 games in Athens, Greece) has seen the most profound success.

Both games featured a mandatory truce of war in favor of friendly athletic competition between tribes/states that may otherwise have been blood rivals.  Participants in the games of the Taillten Fair were judged as much on their sportsmanship as they were their physical skill and accomplishment.  That ethic of good sportsmanship is continued in the Modern Olympics although it is sad to say that some always seem to fall short of the ideals express in the Olympic Oath.

The Taillten Fair as it was, is lost to us, possibly forever.  But I feel that the spirit of those games and the promise made by Lugh continues today.  The ideals of the Olympic Games, so similar in spirit and purpose to the Áenach Tailteann, live on in the hearts of those who love them.

And I count myself among their number.

I have watched the games since I was a child and have always felt a deep enthusiasm upon their return.

I am always curious to see what the host nation will do during the opening ceremonies.    Although I have a special affection for the Athens Games with their attention to the Olympian pantheon, I must say that London did not disappoint in spectacle.  During the Parade of Nations I was particularly moved to see the flags of the many participating nations planted in a replica of Glastonbury Tor (which the Celts of Britain once called the Isle of Glass).

National Flags on the Glastonbury Tor

On Tuesday as the Sun sets, Lughnasadh begins.  I will clean and redress my altar and make proper sacrifice to the gods.  I will eat a light meal (the heat always makes me peckish at this time of year) and light a candle in their honor.

Look for me on Wednesday and you will find me glued to the television watching as much Olympics coverage as I can handle.  In the days to come I will root for Team U.S.A. and the small team from Ireland as well as underdogs from countries where sponsors and training facilities are few.  They are all Olympians who carry on an ancient and sacred tradition.  They each deserve their chance to bask in the glory of victory and to thrive in the Sun.

In that spirit I wish a safe and joyous Lughnasadh to you all.

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Legends are Lessons

Last week I finally had the opportunity to see the new Pixar movie ‘Brave’.  The following day while at work, a friend asked what part of the movie I felt was the most impressive.  He was referring, I knew, to the digital animation for which Pixar movies are famous.  I think I said something about the impressive work the animators did with the endlessly curling hair of the main character, Merida, and left it at that.  The truth would have been somewhat harder to explain.

I am often struck by how little the art of storytelling has changed in the course of human history.  Strip away the little details like previews, popcorn and stadium seating and we are still left sitting together in a dark place listening to a storyteller work his or her magic by the flickering light of a fire.

I imagine the primary goal of the storyteller has changed very little over the centuries as well.  However clever the speaker or precise the computer modeling, the ultimate goal of the storyteller must be to vanish while the audience becomes one with the story.  This lofty goal has become, I believe, increasingly difficult to achieve.

As the technology of storytelling becomes increasingly sophisticated, so to does the audience grow more jaded and easily distracted.  Sometimes, the mechanics of the art-form can actually distract from the story.   Our modern storytellers strive to make the experience more realistic by bombarding us with technological gimmickry but all we’ve ever needed was a good story.

A well told tale will draw us along until we find that one thing: a character, situation or locale that feels familiar enough to make it all seem real.  As much as I love the artistry that goes into a good movie, I crave that moment when it all just falls away and the story is all that matters.

As I watched ‘Brave’, that moment came as the heroine found herself standing within a ring of ancient stones, her frightened horse stamping his hooves, unable or unwilling to join her within the circle.  For a few moments I forgot that I was watching a movie generated by pixels on a screen and was transformed from viewer to participant.  I could certainly understand Merida’s unease as I recalled my own encounters with the Stone Circle.

Change Your Fate

The landscape of Western Europe and the British Isles is littered with the relics of the ancient peoples who passed that way long before the written word.  In my visits to Ireland I’ve noticed that every farmer’s field seems to contain some treasure of the past.  Ring Forts, Passage Tombs, Dolmen and Standing stones, they rise up out of the earth as neglected monuments of a vanished age.  Yet none are as mysterious as the Stone Circles.

Composed of upright megaliths (sometimes weighing several tons and transported from miles away) most Stone Circles date from a period between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago.  The stones were typically placed along astronomical alignments with natural or manmade features on the horizon that correspond to the rise or fall of the Sun, Moon or particular stars on certain days of the year (typically a solstice or equinox).

‘Brave’ takes place in 10th century Scotland and it is a credit to the screenwriters that their characters appear to know as little about these stones as we do today.  The people who built these monuments vanished thousands of years ago, most likely absorbed into the Pictish and Celtic tribes that moved westward across Europe and the British Isles.  By the 10th century only legends remained.  Yet as we are reminded throughout the movie, “Legends are Lessons” and there are as many legends about Stone Circles as there are Circles themselves.

The Circle presented in the movie is modeled after the Callanish Stones, a huge complex that stands on an island off the coast of Scotland.  In some legends Callanish was a portal for the “Shining Ones” to re-enter our world on certain nights of the year.  Older still are the tales that speak of the stones as a gathering place for those who would welcome the re-birth of the Cailleach – the old woman of the moors, a bringer of life and harbinger of change in Scottish mythology (and here I am forced to think of the ‘witch’ whom our young princess meets after passing through the stones and into the mysterious woodland beyond).

I have not been fortunate enough to visit the Callanish Stones.  I have walked among the giants that ring Newgrange, the smooth stones of the Druids Circle in Kenmare, the wonderfully craggy stones of the Drombeg Circle and several others I couldn’t name.  While each Circle is unique, they share among them an uncommon energy which defies measurement but is present nonetheless.  It is a connection between a people now long gone and the universe (seen and unseen) in which we all live and die.  It was this power that I felt again for a brief moment while sitting in a theater watching Pixar’s latest offering.  An echo of the otherworld.  A reminder of my own small place in an ancient story.

Drombeg Stone Circle (also called The Druids Altar) in Co. Cork, Ireland.

The Stone Circles and other relics of the past represent the legends passed down to us by the greatest storytellers of all time.  Without words or music or digital animation, the Stone Circle still touches something hidden deep within our psyche, a racial memory of an earlier time when we had a more direct connection to the living Earth.

By stepping into the Stone Circle and embracing the energy that still flows there after all these centuries, we are transformed from mere audience members into active participants in that grand epic.  The story is in the stones; give yourself over to the same throb and pulse of the living world that our most ancient ancestors sought to share.  Be brave and change your fate!

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Mythology, Spiritual Journey