Tag Archives: Traditions

First Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Harvest?

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

A celebration of everything that brought you this far.

I wish a joyous Lughnasadh to you all.

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

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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Raised to Believe

I’ve spent a lot of time, in this last week, reading back over my old posts, searching for something that I’ve been told is there.  I scan through the words, and I remember the feelings behind them.  I pause, occasionally, to wince at the occasional typo that snuck its way in, but I do not linger to make corrections, because that’s not what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for ‘hate’.

I was told recently, by someone close to me, that the point of last week’s post had been lost, buried in my hate for the dominant religions, and in particular, for Christianity.

The accusation shook me, because this blog has been, for me, a labor of love.

There is no room for hate here, and looking back over my past writing, I cannot find any.

Oh, sometimes I am angry, but anger does not equal hate.  Hate is unreasoning, born for its own sake, and feeding upon itself.  Anger, particularly that which is born from injustice or cruelty, can rise up to shake the pillars of society.  Anger gave us a free nation devoted to the prospect of liberty for all.  And when we found that the promise of that nation had faltered, anger gave us women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement.

I was raised to believe that one should be angry when presented with injustice, cruelty or bigotry.

I was also raised to believe that we should examine all those things which are claimed to be truth, with a critical eye.  I’ve turned that criticism upon the dominate faiths, upon Atheism, and upon those within the Pagan and Polytheist movement, whenever I have felt the need.  I will continue to do so.

Faith and belief need testing — otherwise they are mere trinkets we carry along with us from childhood.

I was raised to believe many things.

Some of those I have kept.

Others I have abandoned along the way because they had no value to me.

I have been told that disparaging the things that people were raised to believe is hurtful and insulting.  And maybe that’s true, but I’m far more concerned with the things we choose to believe than the things handed down to us from our parents.

Our parents are flawed creatures, just as their parents were, just as we will be in turn.

We are not some isolated tribe, holding on to a knowledge that will vanish forever, if we do not pass it on to the dwindling generations to follow.  Those days have passed, perhaps never to return, and we find ourselves in an open land where the beliefs and assumptions of the previous generations can be tested, and when found lacking, set aside in favor of new traditions.

For some, that is a sorrowful reality.  For others, it represents an opportunity to grow beyond the seemingly arbitrary limitations society would set upon them.  We can correct mistakes that were made long ago, and abandon injustices that have been built into our society over hundreds of years.

This is a time of great hope, and it is that hope that shapes my work here.

I was raised to question assumptions, to feel anger when presented with injustice.

I was also raised Catholic, but I never really fit there, I never saw the same church as everyone else.

This is the church, this is christianity, as I see it…,

Creevelea Sanctuary

A thing both beautiful and deeply flawed.

The edifice was once mighty and graceful, if a bit austere, but is now crumbling into the ivy, and all the more lovely in its decay and humility.

The specific chapel, pictured here is part of Creevelea Abbey, in County Leitrim, Ireland.  It was built by my ancestors and their graves are set into the floor, very near to that sweeping, vaulted window.  I have visited many churches in Ireland, and when I walked in that space, nearly a decade ago, I felt the deepest reverence for the history in those walls, and in my connection to it.

That connection, to the faith and traditions of my ancestors is part of what makes me who I am.  But that church is only part of the story.  The ceiling is gone, the stones are weathered with age, and the forest is calling.  The path which I walk in reverence, urges me in other directions, along some trails so old they were nearly forgotten when the first stones of Creevelea were set in place, and others so new that no one can know where they will lead.

I may question, or criticize, or thunder in anger.  But I cannot hate, lest I despise myself.

That is not what I was raised to believe.

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A Question of Resolution

What does a promise mean?

When we make a pledge to undertake some action, whether that pledge is made to ourselves or to another, do we not feel bound by the words we speak?  Or has our increasingly casual relationship with language diminished the hold which our own words have over us?  Words are, as they have always been, little puzzles of meaning, intent and context, which we seem ever more inclined to ignore as we make our merry way through life.

Traditionally, we have invested certain words with greater power or importance.  Some few take on special meaning under certain circumstances or at a particular time of the year.

Resolutions

Resolution: as we tick away the final hours of December, this word seems to take on a special prominence.  The expectation, as we all know, is that we will ‘resolve’ to make some change in our habits in the coming year.  The dawning of a new year would seem a natural time in the turning of the great wheel to introduce some change into our lives and when we make these year-end promises, we are taking part in a tradition that stretches back into the very beginnings of human history.  What we today think of as the New Year’s Resolution, was already ages old when the Norse clansmen swore great oaths to their gods and ancestors in the deepening hours of Yule.  The tradition may have begun, as written accounts would suggest, in ancient Babylon, but I rather suspect it predates the written word.

This yearly ritual links us to the traditions and beliefs of our most distant ancestors, and yet, when I hear people speak of their New Year’s Resolutions, they often seem to be such trivial things, hardly worth attaching to such a nobel sounding word.  In the coming year, we will strive to eat better or exercise more.  Maybe we will try to be more consistent about recycling or make an effort to call our distant relations more often.

More often than not, there is the clear expectation that we will break our resolutions at some point in the coming year.  We assume that we will fail in our promise, anticipating the moment when we can abandon these self imposed constraints for yet another year and return to business as normal.

Is it possible that people simply don’t understand the word?  Resolution is a big word after all, and in a culture that trivializes language, its many meanings may have become lost or confused.

While in the context of the New Year, we may resolve to move forward with some course of action, the best way to do that may be to take a good look at the year now past.  Let us, for a moment then, consider not the promises to be made but rather the culmination of the year’s events.

Consider the last three hundred and sixty five days to have been a puzzle or a test.  How did you resolve it?

A resolution is more than a vow to be made and broken, it is the answer to a question asked.  In this case, that question is 2012.  What was the result of this year?  How did it affect you, your family and friends, or even the world as a whole?

How can we hope to know what change we should introduce into our lives if we are not considering the year now past?

Is there a single quantifiable answer to that question?  I think, not.

The outcome of the past year is an aggregate of a million smaller questions and answers which bring us to yet another of the interrelated meanings for the word Resolution.

As you read this blog you are looking at a screen on which millions of tiny dots of varying color and brightness come together to resolve the words and pictures you see.  When we speak of Resolution from this frame of reference we are discussing the number of dots (or pixels to be more precise) which come together to form the images you see.  The higher the resolution, the sharper the image and the more clearly you can see and understand what it is you are looking at.

In the same way, looking back at the last year is not simply a matter of examining a singular conclusion to the events of that year because that result is derived from the amalgam of every decision we made during that span.  The more aware of ourselves we are, the more awake to the choices we have made and the consequences following therefrom, the higher the resolution of our perception and the better equipped we are to make necessary changes going forward.

Dictum meum pactum

My word is my bond.

Once upon a time, the words we spoke were held as a reflection of the person speaking them.  To knowingly break a promise would reveal you as faithless and untrustworthy.

To whom do we make New Year’s Resolutions in this day and age?  We do not typically make them to one another.  So to whom then?  Our gods?  Our selves?

And if we cannot keep a promise we made to our own selves how can we ever feel we are deserving of the trust of another?  Or is that not something we concern ourselves with any longer?

If you choose to make a New Year’s Resolution this year, make it with awareness of the full meaning and importance of the word.  Look not just forward but back and with an eye to the little decisions that brought us to where we are.

Embracing that kind of self-awareness may be resolution enough.

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A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

This time of year is so thick with Holidays that it can be hard to catch your breath.  When I was a child, the weeks between Halloween and Christmas seemed to stretch out forever.  Now it feels as though I am assaulted by them all at once.  Like Sally, I find that while I still have candy left over from Halloween, a simple trip to the grocery store finds me besieged by ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ and ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’.

Still, as busy and cluttered as this time of year seems to be, I still look forward to Thanksgiving.

Despite the parades, the gluttony and ignoring, to the best of my ability, the football obsessed and their need to scream at the television between servings of pumpkin pie, there is a strange Zen like quality to the holiday.  With none of the pressures of buying the right gift or getting the costume “just so”, it exists as a moment of relative calm within the chaotic vortex of the American holiday season.

Gather your family and friends.
Eat an excess of turkey and pie.
Sleep a few hours and then repeat.

As festivals go, it is beautiful in it’s simplicity.

The other thing I enjoy about Thanksgiving is that it doesn’t really belong to any one group.  Certainly, there are certain groups who have have tried to claim it for themselves.  President Lincoln’s proclamation, making Thanksgiving a national holiday, is so full of references to the “Most High” and “Father in Heaven” that, reading it, I am forced to wonder if someone misplaced the 1st Amendment to the Constitution during the Fall of 1863.

Given the circumstances of what we in the United States like to think of as the First Thanksgiving, it is easy to see where such a claim could be made.

 

The problem with this argument is that it can so easily be turned on it’s head just by looking at the actual context in which these events transpired.

The Plymouth colony would have collapsed, and it’s people starved to death, had it not been for the assistance given by the Wampanoag, under the leadership of Massasoit.  The “Indians” were not simply invited to the feast, they were responsible for it.  The first Thanksgiving can just as easily be seen as that humbling moment when a people who believed themselves to be technologically and spiritually more advanced than the native “savages”, were saved by a people who lived in a spiritual relationship with the land.

Sounds like a very “Pagan friendly” holiday to me.

Then, of course, there are those who choose to see Thanksgiving as a cautionary tale.

Massasoit allied himself with the Plymouth colony for his own reasons, most of which were political and tactically advantageous for the Wampanoag people.  Unfortunately, he lacked a true understanding of the European concept of “Land Ownership”.  The plight of his people and eventually all Native Americans against the relentless onslaught of Euro-American expansion and depredations have caused many to mark the 4th Thursday in November as a day of mourning.

How then should we celebrate Thanksgiving Day?

The day and it’s history just sit there taunting us, daring us to try and define them, to claim them for our particular causes and viewpoints.  Thanksgiving smirks at us like Lucy, holding that damned football tipped upright in our path by a single wicked finger.  We have only to make a run for it.  She wouldn’t pull it away from us this time.  It is Thanksgiving after all and there are traditions to be observed and honored.

So, does it stand as another moment of triumphalism for the dominant cultural faith?  Perhaps it exists as a moment to embrace a gentle humility of the spirit and cooperation between those with disparate beliefs?  Perchance we shall greet it as an opportunity to initiate a deeper relationship with our environment?  Or will we cast about for ways to punish ourselves for the sins of our grandfathers?

Maybe it is my particular polytheistic perspective that allows me to see it as all these things.  The day simply IS what we choose to see it as, and the question of why we gather together is, in the end, far less important than the fact that we do.

Good old Charlie Brown will keep tilting at windmills while Linus preaches from the sidelines.  I think I’ll just enjoy another helping of cornbread dressing.

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A Traditional Marriage

I am just back from attending a wedding over the weekend.  It happened this way:

As the family sat down to our evening meal there was a sudden commotion in the yard.  Venturing outside we found men on horseback, lanterns and torches held high, circling the cottage.  Without warning their leader rode forth and swept a young woman into his arms.  With his soon-to-be bride settled in front of him, he galloped off, followed by his kinsmen.  Just as the groom rode with his bride, his men did not ride alone, for each had been joined on horseback by maidens, there to attend the bride and protect her honor during the coming ride.

It was a very traditional marriage, except of course, that none of this actually happened.

It was actually a lovely wedding.  The ceremony was held on the beach at sunset.  There was a bride and a groom and Pachelbel’s Canon playing in the background.  It was everything you could expect of a traditional wedding ceremony, except perhaps that it wasn’t very “traditional” at all.

It was neither an arranged marriage nor was there an abduction and chase.  The groom did not pay any bride price to the family of his new wife.  At no time did the groom’s mother bless the fertility of the union by crumbling a small cake over the head of the bride.  None of these things happened despite thousands of years of ‘tradition’ leading up to this moment in time.

For all the shouting of politicians and the men behind the pulpits, there is no such thing as “Traditional Marriage”.  The “Whys” and “Hows” of marriage have changed dramatically over the centuries and will continue to do so as we move through the modern era.

The truth is that, as a culture, we seem to pick and choose our traditions with no real thought to their longevity.  Occasionally, people with an agenda will play fast and loose with history and religious texts to support their position.  Maybe some of them even believe what they are saying.  History, however, seldom supports them.

The most important thing here, the one true fact that we miss with all this debate over “Traditional Marriage”, is that two people (any two people) actually love each other enough to commit their lives, one to the other.  This is something that should be celebrated instead of being made into another excuse for divisiveness and hate.

I don’t know how many thousands of people (worldwide) got married this weekend.  I don’t know what traditions those people did or did not observe.  I only know that I was happy to be asked to celebrate the union of two of them.  I honor them for being so sure of their love for one another.  I worry for them, because they are so young and have so many trials ahead of them.  Love, Honor, Concern – maybe these are the only wedding traditions that really count.

***

On the other hand, maybe some of the old traditions really are worth bringing back.  I mean, doesn’t a brisk ride through the countryside at night sound a lot more appealing than worrying about what kind of centerpieces you should have at the reception?

 

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