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Posts Tagged ‘Druidism’

I recently watched a documentary called “When the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West.”  It was both informative and inspirational.  Although Druidism, largely informed by Gaelic Polytheism, is my spiritual home, Buddhism has always interested me.  I often find myself watching documentaries about it and reading about it when I can (although I remain a novice on the subject).  One thing I found particularly fascinating about this documentary was that it wasn’t so much about the history of the religion/philosophy; the focus was on how Tibetan monks brought the practice to America, and how that practice looks here.  Many of the tensions that exist in modern American Druidism can, in some ways, find a parallel in Buddhism in America.  For example, how much value should be placed on cultural traditions versus the central tenants?  How can we create spaces for our religious practices that don’t compromise our values?  How can we take a very old tradition from another land or culture (even one that belonged to our ancestors), and make it relevant to modern people in a different land?  How much time should be spent studying versus practicing? I think modern Pagans of many traditions can learn a lot from the movie.  It’s also especially inspiring to see how this minority faith has been able to build beautiful centers for its adherents around America.  In short, the Buddhist community in the US seems to exist because there are very devoted and serious members who spend a lot of time and, yes, resources on their spiritual passions.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about what drew me to Druidism through comparing my “conversion experience” to those shared on the camera.  Like the Americans drawn to Buddhism, I embraced Druidism because the messages I was receiving from the dominant culture did not resonate with me or my values.  So often, business and money are elevated above health, the environment, and true self-improvement.  “American Culture” is so influenced by monotheism as well as a tendency to generalize “exotic” concepts from other cultures.  So much of that is often watered down until it’s as useful as an advertising slogan.  It’s no wonder so many people like myself look outward or even backwards to a time many have forgotten.  I sought something different, fully willing to get my feet muddy and be transformed.

In Buddhism, part of the central focus has to do with suffering.  Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths address the reality of suffering and how we must come to terms with that and find peace. Druidism, as we know it, doesn’t really emphasize that so much, but in some ways, it could be argued that the suffering of Nature brought me to it.  In recognizing that my brother and sister Nature Spirits suffer, that we are all connected, and therefore their suffering is my suffering, I embraced Paganism and eventually modern Druidism.  Did the ancient Druids have teachings on suffering?  Perhaps.  The closest I can get to it right now is through the reported belief in life after death and the heroic way mythic warriors ran into battle, even when fate was against them.  Yes, you may have broken a geis – a taboo – that will lead to your downfall, but there is still honor in fighting because there’s integrity in it, courage in it, and people will sing of your perseverance despite the suffering you may endure.  So, I suppose, suffering is indirectly addressed in Druidism, but it doesn’t seem to be a central focus (nor does my attempt at finding a parallel mean that there has to be one).

So what is the central focus of Modern Druidism?

Harmony.

After a lot of thought and meditation, I’ve realized that my own concept of Modern Druidism’s central focus is harmony.  Again, I want to stress that this is just my opinion and only applicable to Modern (Neo) Druidism, though influenced by my fledgeling studies of Gaelic Polytheism.  Perhaps others would disagree, and my thoughts will likely evolve as I grow.  Right now – harmony.

So why harmony?

Many in the Druidic and Gaelic Polytheistic communities will agree that the concept of reciprocity is huge in Indo-European cultures.  The lore shows us that there must be an exchange of something in order for the cosmos to stay in order.  Rulers must protect their subjects and fairly distribute resources.  In exchange, everyone in the realm continues to work hard so that resources are obtained and everyone receives the services they need.  Culture can flourish.  When the ruler mistreats his or her people, as Bres did the Tuatha Dé Danann, there is disharmony that must be rectified.  In some stories, even the land herself rebels, hence accounts of sacrificial kings and symbolic marriage to the land.  In ADF Druidism, our liturgical tradition is based around reciprocity.  “A gift calls for a gift,” it is said.  When you are in a productive, healthy, meaningful relationship with another, there is mutualism.  The tall oak may appear to be the most important being in the forest, but such an ecosystem flourishes because of the give and take of the collective.  There must be harmony.

How can harmony, as a core concept of Druidism, apply to our practice?

For the Buddhists in the documentary, suffering influenced people to go through great lengths to improve themselves and their ability to find peace.  Obviously, there is a lot of meditation, but there is also a lot of study.  Whereas the stereotypical monk spends much of his or her day in meditation, in reality, he or she is also involved in a deep study of philosophy and, as Druids would call it, lore. Several of the Western Buddhists were also engaged in studying the Tibetan language to better engage with the culture that inspires them – something many modern Gaelic Polytheists can understand. At one point in the film, some of the monks discuss the importance of memorizing whole texts in Tibetan.  One man explained that there may come a day when someone will ask a question, and rather than make an excuse such as, “Oh, well, I don’t have my books with me right now,” you become the book.  That reminded me of the ancient Druids and their emphasis on oral history; they were said to activity discourage the written text.  Modern Druids have taken the pendulum and swung it the other way.  I think the Buddhists are on to something with regards to studying texts but then working to memorize them – to internalize them.  There’s a harmony there.  Furthermore, they have to find a harmony between their book studies and their spiritual practice of meditation.  A reoccurring discussion in Pagan circles often involves the need to find a balance between how much time one spends studying and actually working or experiencing.

Looking to a very successful minority religious practice for inspiration, one can see the benefits of finding harmony between both. In addition, Modern Druids must also find a harmony between doing that individual study and work, and then serving the community.  In my opinion, based on the historical basis, Druidism is a religion in service to others – the tribe, the spirit world, and the land.  Thus we nourish harmony within ourselves, then cultivate it around us in our relationships.

Harmony with Nature

As explained above, working with Nature was a driving force in my coming to Druidism.  While I wouldn’t describe our ancient predecessors as environmentalists, there’s evidence that they had animistic-type beliefs such as a deep respect for the land and the reciprocity needed to maintain harmony. The rich lore about Nature from Celtic nations inspired me, and the landscape reminded me of my own in certain ways. The modern world is so out of harmony with Nature. It only seems natural for people who strive to cultivate positive relationships with the spiritual world -including the spirits of Nature all around us – to embrace a lifestyle that at least attempts to live in better harmony with the Earth Mother and Nature Spirits. Historical precedence will only take us so far. The necessity for modern Druids to embrace environmentalism (of some breed) is based on contemporary needs. Many in the modern Buddhist community are doing the same. Their meditations on the beauty of Nature have moved several to act. The documentary gave some examples of how modern Buddhists are out picking up litter, marching in protest of environmental degradation, and speaking out for more sustainable practices. Seeing that was really inspiring.  Again – harmony between the desires of the self and the needs of the community.  Druids should also embrace that.

How do you find harmony in Druidism or Gaelic polytheism?  If you feel differently than I do about the central focus of Druidism, what is your opinion and why do you think that?

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Collecting the Ogham

A growing ogham collection. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2015.

Slowly, slowly, my understanding of the ogham grows. As that flourishes, so does my collection of ogham wood.  Since the summer, I’ve started to locate trees named in the ogham system, seek their fallen branches, made offerings to the trees, and learned more about them.  Birch (beith) and ash (nion) came down during summer storms.  Willow (sail) was found bellow a beautiful tree on the St. Lawrence River.

Today we experienced a bit of a heat wave in Northern NY: 20 degrees F!  Oooh baby!  In all seriousness, it was truly a more comfortable day to get some fresh air.  Gone was the biting, icy breath of An Cailleach.  The softly falling snow insulated the land.  While Bee enthusiastically chopped the snowbanks, I spied a small branch dangling from a nearby apple tree, hanging by just a thread of bark.  I trudged through the high banks, asked the apple tree if I could have the branch, and it quickly separated.  I felt that was a resounding “yes!”  I didn’t have anything with me, so I promised future offerings and gave a song.  When we left, Bee and I said “bye bye” to the apple tree.  (I absolutely love how she talks to trees like her mama.)  The thickest portion of the branch is now with the rest of my growing ogham collection, waiting to be sanded a bit and labeled – apple – ceirt.

I’m undecided on whether or not I will utilize these tools for divination.  Author and friend Skip Ellison of ADF advises on using uniform disks so as to avoid the possibility of memorizing the shape of different twigs and drawing what is desired rather than what is needed, even unconsciously.  Others argue that the ogham symbols should truly be represented by the trees themselves, but that seems dismissive of their having been carved into stone, and their representing other things, such as animals and rivers, as well.  Still studying and making up my own mind.  One thing is for certain – I’m planning to work with these ogham sticks for magic.  Say I want to charge something for a specific purpose.  I could sprinkle an object with sacred water using a specific ogham stick, place them in a bag together, etc.  I could place an ogham stick under my pillow to help direct my dreams, or carry one in a pocket to help me with a situation.  So many possibilities!

My search for the ogham will continue.  I already know where I will obtain oak, elder, and rowan.  Others, such as mistletoe and blackthorn, will be a real challenge.

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I don’t normally reblog, but this post from John Beckett of “Under the Ancient Oaks: Musings of a Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist,” was just too good.  A friend and grovie sent it to me because she felt I am a Druid warrior.  That really made my day.  I’m definitely not a passive tree-hugger.  I do what I can to protect my tribe and the Earth Mother.

The Dark Side of Druidry.

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My husband recently encouraged me to join Reddit so that I could take advantage of the vast gardening community there. While exploring, I found a subreddit dedicted to Druidism which was where I discovered this gem – “Fable: The Lost Art of the Spoken Word.” It features many bards from the Druidic community, namely Philip Carr-Gomm. It really set a fire in my head! I hope it inspires you too.

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Three Cranes Grove, ADF, did an “Earth-Along” last weekend with people all over the world.  You didn’t need to  be part of Three Cranes, or even ADF, to participate.  The first day was of service to the Earth Mother and Nature Spirits.  As I said recently, I take a bag into the woods with me every year right after the snow has fully melted.  It tends to come around Earth Day.  What perfect timing!  So I joined my brother and sister Druids around the world and went into the forest to do what I could.  A bit of styrofoam here, a broken toy there, a stray decoration here, a plastic bag there…  The hardest part is saying, “enough.”  There’s still more, but I can’t do it all by myself.  Whenever I visit the woods, I make a point to take three things back with me for the trash or recycling bin, yet rubbish continues to find its way in…

Yesterday, a few of us from Northern Rivers Protogrove  attended The Thousand Islands Land Trust’s Arbor Day Celebration in Clayton, NY.  It was a lovely time and gets better each year!  Kudos to my friend, C, for organizing so much!  I led several children in an active meditation in which we used our imaginations to become trees.  It was basically the Two Powers for children but much more secular.  It was a hit and I will definitely do it again next year!  There were many other family activities such as making peanut butter and birdseed pinecones, leaf rubbings, and visiting animals from a local organic farm. One of our grovies helped children write environmental goals on a mural, and a few others helped to plant some trees.  After that was lunch and chatting along the majestic St. Lawrence River.

Today, my husband, my daughter, and I joined with others in Thompson Park in Watertown, NY for an “Earth Week Celebration.”  First was a discussion on sustainability lead by  Mr.Juczak, founder of Woodhenge in Adams, NY.  Then we broke into groups to clean up the park.  My family found so much litter!  It was hard to help with a baby in a carrier, but I pulled my own weight.  It felt great to give back to Nature and the community.  For many of my urban friends in the area, Thompson Park remains one of the most accessible natural locations so it’s important to keep it clean.

As I explained to one of my fellow cleaners today, as someone who reveres the Earth, it’s important for me to truly practice what I preach.  It isn’t enough to send out healing energy and give offerings of seed and herbs.  You have to embrace sustainability as a lifestyle.  That can mean many different things to different people, and the important thing is that you start to take baby steps to live in better harmony with the Earth and Nature Spirits every day.  With that in mind, I remind all of my readers that we shouldn’t leave service to the Earth Mother and Nature Spirits to Earth Hour, Earth Day, Arbor Day, or Earth Week.  We need to live and breath it!

May we honor the Earth Mother in all we think, say, and do!  So be it.

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I recently watched “Ghosts of Murdered Kings” on PBS.  If you follow the link, you’ll be able to stream it on their website.  This documentary focuses on the research surrounding the various bog bodies that have been uncovered throughout much of Northern Europe.  I was able to see some bog bodies in person, first one at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and then in the National Archaeology Museum of Ireland (which I blogged a bit about here).  The later has several on display.  I felt a bit odd typing the previous sentence because there is something deeply humbling and even troubling to me about displaying dead bodies, especially if they were meant to be in the bogs…  But on the other hand, they have taught us so much about the Celts and their beliefs.  They also communicated something almost ineffable about mortality that stayed with me after seeing them.

“Ghosts of Murdered Kings” is another wonderful addition to the NOVA library.  It explores the most recent theories surrounding these bodies.  The prevailing theory seems to be that the bog bodies were usually royalty sacrificed to the land following poor harvests which relates back to the old ritual marriages between rulers and sovereignty Goddesses.  Even having been exposed to this theory before in history books and the National Museum of Ireland, the refresher was welcomed.  I learned several new things about how these theories came to be which gave me a greater appreciation for the scientists who work so diligently.

I recommend this documentary but caution that children might be frightened by it as it shows real corpses and features some minor dramatized violence and discussions of “triple murder” and “overkill.”  It will definitely make you reflect on the practices of our Celtic ancestors and their relationship with the natural world.  Whether such a sacrifice was or still is necessary is not the point – rather, why aren’t we taking our relationship with the land as seriously?  Each of us is married to the land whether we like it or not.  If we fail to respect her while also meeting our needs, what we will we have to give up to change the situation?  What habits should we commit to the bogs to better ourselves and society?

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I keep seeing or hearing people discuss how they feel Samhain and/or  Halloween should be celebrated.  Some say it’s too scary; others that it isn’t scary enough.  Some call for more reverence for the ancestors; others feel the holiday has become too somber in Pagan culture.  Those later folk embrace the carnival nature that secular Halloween has come to embody.  And of course, there are those who turn their nose up at modern Halloween because it’s too disrespectful to the cultures it came from and  too materialistic.

Honestly, I find truth in all of those thoughts.  Here are my thoughts, but know they are merely my thoughts and not my recipe for Samhain goodness that you must follow or else!

Halloween can be too scary.  I remember running out of haunted houses when I was younger and I still dislike most horror films.  And I enjoy more whimsical costumes myself.  Fairies, historical figures, animals…

Halloween, and Samhain especially, can be too watered down.  These traditions originate from the Celts, and it wasn’t just the ancestors who could cross over the veil – it was all of the sidhe realm! Every fairy, goblin, and bump-in-the-night came out.  Not all fairies are nice happy things as some modern folk seem to think.  That said, not all ancestors are nice either!  Nobody wants the unhappy ancestors to visit…  And yet, the belief in these Otherworld denizens fueled many of our traditions.  Some have suggested that carving turnips or pumpkins into faces could scare away nasty boos.  Dressing up in costumes is believed to confuse spirits.  People who value and respect the sprits and the Otherworld should feel a sense of fear about Samhain.  It adds to the fun but, also, it is good practice to be careful.  I know, this time of year, I often look over my shoulder in case the Pooka is about…

There should be more reverence for the ancestors on Samhain.  They are part of the reason for the season, if I may borrow that phrase.  To completely ignore them feels disrespectful to me.  In my belief system, the ancestors come back to visit us and hospitality – towards living and dead – is incredibly important. (At the same time, to only pay them attention on Samhain is equally disrespectful in my point of view).  

Samhain can be too somber, and that can make the holiday almost unbearable for some which is a shame when it’s such a sacred time.  Sarah Lawless found a way to embrace the carnival nature of the day while also honoring the spookiness and the dead.  And it shouldn’t be all sadness, no matter how scary and painful death can be.  Joy and fun are the ways we come to terms with death. We remember the good times.  Pagan rituals that don’t allow anyone to dress up feel backwards to me.  Dr. Jenny Butler recently did an interview on Transceltic and explained many of the fun Samhain traditions, including dressing up in costume on this day. “It is a playful time,” she says, “when it is acceptable to have a subversive appearance, so people can chose to dress as they wish, whether that is as something scary or outlandish.”  Trust me, it’s possible to dress in a costume and still feel the fullness of the event.  Although I agree that some costume choices are much more appropriate for ritual settings than others!  

People have lost touch with Halloween’s roots.  Many probably wouldn’t care because they celebrate the secular holiday, and that is fine and well.  However, many who embrace Paganism in one of its forms can also forget.  It’s a Celtic holiday.  It was a time to honor the Ancestors, light bonfires, and engage with the Otherworld.  We can get lost in the plastic world of imported costume accessories, racist costume stereotypes, and sugar highs without regard to human dignity, Nature Spirits, of the Earth Mother herself.

So what’s a Gaelic polytheist ditzy Druid in modern America to do?

I find harmony in the blend of Halloween and Samhain.  

At least, that’s what I try to do.

Halloween can be too scary.  Clowns, for example, are horribly frightening to me.  I had a negative experience with one as a child and it left an imprint.  However, I can’t try to censor Halloween and tell others not to dress as clowns any more than I can tell someone not to dress as other peoples’ worst nightmares*.  I can’t stomach most horror films because they are too gory.  I do, however, adore a good ghost story.  Halloween should be a little scary.  It’s in its DNA!  As they say in The Nightmare Before Christmas, “life’s no fun without a good scare.”  And it’s true.  Sometimes it reminds us what is so precious about life.  And that’s why it shouldn’t be all scary.  We care tenderly for our beloved dead, for one, and should create a home that is welcoming and warm for them.  Bring out the good table settings!  And if some people would rather dress as fuzzy rabbits or cute princesses – why not?!  Let people have fun on their own terms because, as discussed above, there’s no set costume in Samhain tradition!  Get in touch with your inner bard and let your costume tell the story you want!

I have great reverence for the Ancestors, and I could honestly be a lot better about honoring them all year, but I do try.  Samhain is a special day, though, when it is believed our beloved dead can return to us.  I feel them as the veil thins.  They are in my thoughts, my dreams, and sometimes in the corner of my eye.  It is not depressing to me, but it feels good to know they want to come see me, check on me, and maybe bestow some kind of blessing.  I know I would want to do the same for my loved ones after death.  Why not set out a nice spread and be hospitable about it?  Why not show that respect while having a good time with the living?

And it needn’t be somber.  My experience with ADFers has taught me how to find a good balance between the deep reverence and joviality.  Samhain, more than any other High Day, moves me in a way that is almost ineffable.  It is one of the few rites where I seem to laugh and cry every time.  Even if I haven’t lost someone that year, the sorrow from others impacts me deeply.  Again, it reminds me just how precious life and our time with other loved ones is.  And so we laugh as well because we remember those good times and enjoy new ones with those around us.  To me, you must have both to fully experience Samhain’s mystery.  

Finally, in my household, Samhain is deeply Celtic.  The holiday came from Celtic cultures, Halloween traditions were brought over by Irish immigrants, and those are deeply respected under my roof.  If you should stop by, expect to hear some Irish music playing.  Expect to see carved turnips.  If you come to a Northern River’s ritual on Samhain, expect to see us honoring the ancestors as well as the Tuatha de Dannan.  In my opinion, to have a ritual with any other cultural focus but Celtic (a specific culture or pan if you must), is just nonsensical since the holiday has Celtic roots and, chances are, the other culture you wish to honor already has a holiday with similar traditions.  If you must celebrate using different cultural symbols, why not just research that culture and use the name they would have instead of one originating from Celtic languages?  And although I will be embracing the Celtic traditions to the best of my ability, I’m still a modern American of mixed cultural background.  You will hear modern Halloween songs playing along with the traditional and folk.  You’ll see big orange and white pumpkins along with the turnips.  You’ll see me handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, although, this year, I’m doing my best to give out more eco-friendly varieties**.

But that is just in my sphere of influence!  

If I visit your household or your spiritual circle and find you doing differently than I, I will respect you as a human being.  I understand we aren’t all cut from the same spiritual or cultural cloth.  I know some of us find value and purpose in celebrating differently.  It’s not my place to throw my weight around. Several years ago, I tried to argue with folks who wanted to do a completely Hellenic rite while calling it Samhain and it didn’t end well.  I’ve grown up since then and realize that is not the way to conduct myself.  I may not do things the same way or agree with you, but I would rather work on finding my own harmony with Samhain than insist on how you should find yours.  

On that note, no matter how you celebrate, I hope you are just as excited to celebrate Samhain!  Wishing you a blessed Samhain my lovely readers!

* There is, of course, a time and place for some costumes.  We all have our boundaries and we must respect the wishes of hosts and hostesses.  In other words, if you show up to my home as a clown, I may punch you in the face! :P

** Even if you can’t afford organic candies, at least try to avoid chocolate that isn’t fair-trade.  Human dignity and preserving the world’s biodiversity are worth more to me than an affordable chocolate fix!

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