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Posts Tagged ‘Irish lore’

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Our 2015 turnip Jack-o-lanterns. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2015

In previous years, I’ve posted photos, tutorials, and even lore-based reasons for carving turnips.  It’s become a part of my family Samhain celebration. They are tough veggies to carve, even with strong, well-made spoons as I’ve suggested.

I’m proud to have resurrected the tradition in my own family. I excitedly turn them into protective talismans, warding the home against nasty spirits who may be out and about while the veil is thin.

As I exercised my muscles gouging turnip flesh out, I reflected on how tough the job is. The difficulty is not so great that it discourages me from keeping it. While thinking this, I meditated on the challenges my Irish ancestors faced: poverty, famine, immigrating across the Atlantic, leaving loved ones, and starting over in America. Carving the turnip can be a devotional act, reminding us of the difficulties our Irish ancestors faced.

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Mama and Me Corn Dollies – photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2015.

Every so often, Pagans around the blogosphere post about whether or not various high days make sense to them based on their path or climate. I definitely agree with the need to pay attention to what your bioregion is doing at certain times of year. It’s how we learn the cycles of our local Nature Spirits, after all. However, as someone who follows an Irish hearth culture, the seasonal lore remains very important to me.  I honor three Kindreds, after all, not just the Nature Spirits.  Keeping the tradition of playing games to honor Lugh and his foster mother’s sacrifice honors the Gods and Ancestors I work with.  Perhaps if I followed a different path, one not infused with Gaelic customs and lore, celebrating Lughnasadh wouldn’t make any sense. Honestly, why people who aren’t honoring Lugh would want to celebrate some hodgepodge of Lughnasadh seems strange to me anyway…

Back to the Nature Spirits.  Referring to Lughnasadh as the first harvest festival sometimes seems a bit strange in light of the previous, smaller harvests that have been occurring.  Greens have been available since spring, and our strawberry harvest occurs around the Summer Solstice, for example.  Yet Lughnasadh marks the time when there are an incredible amount of crops to harvest.  In our neck of the woods, farm stands are loaded with tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, summer squash, plums, peaches, berries, and corn.  The latter becomes available right around Lughnasash, which is perfect for the grain-centric traditions.  While corn is a major cash crop in NY, other grains are also harvested around this time.  The oat harvest starts around now, and the winter wheat harvest finishes in August.  Thus, for someone who works with Irish cultural traditions, upstate NY is a great place to be!  I made a loaf of bread for our feast which consisted of many locally grown veggies.  My daughter and I also used the corn husks to make corn dollies. Yes, corn husk dolls are more of a New World custom, but in that we we are also learning about and appreciating the land we live on now.  We offered these to our Ancestors during ritual, thanking them for all the knowledge about the harvest that they passed to us.

My family and protogrove had a wonderful Lughnasadh celebration.  Whatever you celebrated, I hope you had a joyous time, and that you were able to connect to the Three Kindreds in a way that made sense to you and your region.

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What is a crane bag?

The answer: not hard.

The lovely Aoife was turned into a crane and lived about the seas of Manannan Mac Lir for many hard years.  When she died, the great Sea Lord took her skin and made a magical bag that could hold his most beloved treasures.  It’s said to be bottomless.

Many Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists, especially those who are called by Manannan and the symbolism of the crane, make crane bags to wear on their person.  An individual may place his or her most sacred charms and amulets inside; objects of personal power and significance.

Although my Druidic studies have slowed lately, I’ve noted a growing connection to Manannan.  The more I work with trance and magic, the more I study, he seems to nod approvingly at me.  And of course, Brighid remains an incredibly significant part of my life.  For the last few months, I’ve felt compelled by my relationships with these deities to create a devotional object to have at my labor.  Had I the ability to attempt a home birth, rest assured I would have created an altar to motherhood, my labor, Brighid, the baby, and our spirit guides.  (For some lovely examples, look here and here!)  Although some people have made some beautiful travel-friendly birth altars, making a crane bag – something relevant to my path and my Gods that I could create with a favorite hobby – seemed like the right thing for me to do.  Everything will be secure inside the bag.  I can take one item out to hold, rub, and focus on, or I can hold the entire bag.  It’s made of very soft pink velvet and feels very comforting.  Much of my reading has suggested that women hoping for a natural birth should have some sort of focal point to assist in managing pain.  A crane bag holding many special objects to focus on is just my style!  Not only that –  it’s very discreet.

My finished motherhood crane bag. I reused fabric from an old, velvet blazer and some swirling pink for the lining (not photographed).  The pink is supposed to represent my uterus.  The drawstring method seemed best since the uterus can stretch and contract. On the front, I attached three antique buttons I purchased years ago. I knew I was saving them for something special! They fit the bag perfectly. Not only do they work with the color scheme, but symbolically an open flower is supposed to magically encourage the cervix to open.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

Detail of the button I used as the clasp when the bag is tightened. A Celtic knot seemed most appropriate as it connects me to my hearth culture and gives me strength.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

Although my crane bag is not bottomless, I’ve been able to fit quite a bit in there! I included the Goddess stone from my friend RavynStar, a yonic dandelion charm (the yoni is demurely facing away from the camera), the mother blessing beads from everyone at my baby shower, a sterling silver ring (now broken but still precious to me) that belonged to my mother when she was younger, a tooth from a doe, a bracelet from my late aunt, an collage of Brighid made by a fellow ADF Druid artisan, and my baby’s first photo! Everything is very significant to me symbolically. They are to remind me of the strong women in my life, my Goddess, the Earth Mother, the creative powers within me, my own strength, my spirit guide, and the ultimate goal – a healthy, happy baby. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

I also included these lovely talismans made by fellow flame keeper and Druid, Grey Wren. She completely surprised me with these beauties! The bloodstone with coral is to give me strength during and after labor. The rose quartz is to help with bonding, peace, and love. A friend taught her to associate it with motherhood. The white chalcedony with the pearl is supposed to help with lactation and sleep.  It will also be very appropriate for baby since she is supposed to be born in the sign of Cancer – a water sign! I am thinking about attaching the last to the baby’s mobile since sleep and nutrition are going to be hugely important to her, and we’ll need all the help we can get!  It could also go with some water symbolism. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

 

A birth and motherhood crane bag is very easy to make.  All you need are some special objects that bring you comfort and courage, and a bag to put them in!  As always, I encourage you to make your own bag as you’ll put your own energy into it.  Red or pink are particularly appropriate symbolically, but choose what fits your own needs.

Have you made a birth altar or crane bag?  I would love to see it!

For More Information on crane bags:

Make Your Own Crane Bag and Discover the Purpose of the Incarnation You are Currently Living” by Elen Sentier.  A good introduction.

The Crane Bag” by Dr. John Gilbert – How one Druidic tradition utilizes this tool.

The Crane Bag” – a poem about its lore and origins from Tairis Tales.  Definitely read this for an understanding of its significance within Celtic lore.

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A lovely green corner in Ireland. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2011.

Last year started what is clearly becoming a tradition for me.  As March is Irish Heritage month, I take it as a time to reflect on and honor the sovereignty Goddess of Ireland – Ériu.  Chelly has also been focusing on her and shares some wonderful musings in her latest post.  I was inspired and reminded of my desire to spend some time meditating on Ériu, so I shuffled my pregnant behind to my altar for some quality time with the Triple Goddess of Ireland.

My novice studies of Irish lore lead me to agree with Chelly on the nature of Ériu.  She is not to be underestimated as the Milesian Donn found out.  Yet she is also welcoming to those who honor and respect her. I certainly felt a sense of homecoming when I made it to Ireland a couple years ago.  I long to return but until I can, I must be content to connect with that bit of land at a distance.  I decided that tonight would be a good night to meditate on her and give her some offerings.

Saying my words of praise, pouring offerings, and holding a memento from her land, I slipped into a very light trance.  I envisioned myself surrounded by the mist created by the Two Powers of fire and water.  I wouldn’t let myself go too deeply as I worry about the implications of doing so while pregnant and still a novice to that practice.  My stretching belly kept me from separating too much from my body anyway.  It is taut, and breathing deeply is less comfortable than normal.  Yet I was able to visualize myself in Ireland once more.  I saw myself at Tara, saw the rolling green hills around the mounds, and the clootie tree near the hedge.

Tara in Ireland. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2011.

I found myself staring at the Lia Fáil, and suddenly Ériu was there!  I saw her as a beautiful woman with fair skin and long, wavy hair the color of sunlight on the River Boyne.  Here eyes were as brown as the dirt and she wore a gown green like the rolling hills.  She smiled at me and welcomed me back to her whenever I could come.  As a Druid in America, I often fret about working with very local deities such as Ériu, but she reminded me not to lament over the distance and that she was always part of me.  Images came to me of ancestors eating the crops from her soil, filling them with energy and life.  Some of these ancestors came to America, bringing about my existence.  They flow in my blood, blood energized in part by the land of Ireland.  What’s more, she showed me my ancestor’s grave – the ancestor buried in Watertown, NY.  The soil of Ériu became the flesh, blood, and bones of her people.  Some of those people, like my ancestor, are now in the soil here, thus intermingling with the land here in America.  “I am part of the whole world,” she seemed to say.  An Earth Mother linked to all other Earth Mothers, rolling on the globe of our greater Earth Mother.  I now imagine a circle of dancing women bringing life and change as they weave around a central bonfire, individual and yet connected always by the forces of this planet…

She faded out over the sea but left me feeling at peace and connected.

And now my baby is kicking and I think about all the ancestors, land spirits, and Earth Goddesses making up this new little one.  Are any of us really new?  Seems to me that we’re recycled.  We are a continuation – it is the hope we have that springs anew each time.

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Meeting with and talking with people who think and feel differently, both online and in person, always makes me stop and consider my own perspectives.  Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen in the Other World or in your heart – it also happens in your mind, in dialog, in your relations with others.

I mentioned my friend Katrina the other day in my post about astrology.  It’s been awhile since I’ve had a long conversation with her, but she was always more of a soft polytheist.  She’s a very intelligent individual, and also open-minded and interested in having discussions.  She loves comparative mythology just as I do.  We always have some interesting exchanges.  Being more of a hard polytheist, Katrina helped me see different perspectives in a more positive light.  She is definitely one of my role models and I always think of her when the nature of Gods comes up.  And it often does in such a diverse world!

My feelings grow and evolve according to my experiences, studies, and moods.  For the most part, I have experienced the Gods as separate beings.  Before Druidism, I had a very strong relationship with the Egyptian Goddess Bast.  When our time together ended, she never became Brighid or any other Goddess. Some of my Wiccan friends, who have some Norse leanings, were doing a drawing down with Freya.  Not once during the ritual did I get the impression that Freya and Brighid were the same being.  In fact, experiences during that ritual lead some of us to believe that Brighid definitely did not want me to work with Freya.  I will also add as an aside that, despite Freya’s connection with cats, there was nothing in that experience that connected her in any other way to Bast.

I will not claim to be an expert on the matter.  I will not even claim to be an incredibly practiced spirit worker.  When I have been lucky enough to get into a productive trance state, and when I have been able to meet with my Gods, the question came up once or twice.  The Gods always laugh it away as a silly concern and ask me to focus on the here and now.  It’s become a bit of a mantra to me. When I ground and center, I focus on the here and now, even saying those words to myself as I breathe in and out.  In that moment there is only me, the altar, the nature around me, my ancestors, and my Gods.

And my Gods seem to be individual.  They are part of nature and connected by nature, yes.  Brighid is the fire.  An Dagda is the passion.  The Cailleah is the snow and wind.  Manannan is the sea.  But to me, that isn’t it.  Hestia, a Greek Goddess, is also fire.  Yet she isn’t Brighid.  They are of different lands, cultures, and lore.  To me, they are related through nature but distinct.  They can be described as an archetype but are more than that simplification.  Much as my sister and I are both archetypes of daughters, wives, sisters, women, and even artisans, we are still different people.  We are united by the same forces of nature that unite as all – a web of creation and destruction that, to me, is mindless.  It just is: creating, destroying, and uniting us in those simple truths.

To me, my Gods are intimately tied to a culture.  I don’t see this as a limitation of them. I always say I have an agnostic side to me, and that side argues that, yes, they could be more than that.  But they present themselves to me in that way, using that symbolism.  The symbolism of the Irish culture helps me better access them.  There is power already invested in those symbols and it works for me.  Perhaps Brighid really is the same as Hestia.  Perhaps I am only seeing one head on a hydra of fire.  Perhaps Brighid and Hestia really are the same as Bast and Lugh and Odin, and any other number of deities…    But I haven’t experienced them as that.  I continue to work with the Tuatha de Dannan using the symbolism of the culture associated with them – the culture of some of my ancestors.

I am equally comfortable going outside and honoring the sunthe windwaterlightening as is without cultural symbolism.  When some argue that hard polytheists don’t do that clearly haven’t met many and create a false dichotomy as my friend  Grey Wren would say.  Hard polytheists aren’t all so rigid.  I think the vast majority of us are more fluid and open to the mystery of who the Gods really are. We understand that mythology is symbolic rather than literal. We think and feel the way we do because that is how the spirits present themselves to us.  We do as we do out of integrity to ourselves and the spirits.  It is what makes sense to us.  However, that integrity is no excuse for the haughty, evangelical nature some hard polytheists might present to others.  Thankfully, that sort seems to be the minority.

But don’t feel like you can’t talk to us about your experiences as a soft polytheist.  Most of us are open-minded and understand that no human can truly understand the spirit world completely.  We can still learn from each other.  We can still connect because we are connected.  Exactly how is just a beautiful mystery. 🙂

 

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A corner of my Nature Spirit altar is dedicated to the deer spirits.  Behind a jawbone is an image from a Solstice card I kept and a candleholder of silhouetted stags.

My recent post about cleaning a deer skull I found generated some interest in that spirit animal and my experiences with it.  It made me want to write something more in depth about my evolving relationship with deer spirits and the lore surrounding them.

My relationship with deer truly began as a little girl.  I was lucky enough to grow up on an acre of land with a forest behind our home.  On many an early evening or morning, a white tailed deer or five could be found grazing or passing through.  My father built bird feeders and even a deer/turkey feeder once.  I was enthralled by the nature spirits who came to feast.  Dad was a hunter and taught me much about deer – how their tails go up as a warning; how the males rub their antlers on trees at certain times of year; what they eat; what their droppings and tracks look like; even their sounds.  They are very sensitive to humans and their animal companions.  They are wary of cat piss and too many dogs.  The smallest crack of a twig underfoot will send them dashing away from you – always graceful through unseen trails, thorns, and deep snow.  My fascination has continued into adulthood.  Walking through the forest during winter can teach you much about them and their survival adaptations.  And when I came upon their dead – either hanging upside down from a tree on a hunter’s property or ripped open by dogs in a field – it was humbling.  I encountered death in a visceral way with deer that I had never seen before.  My parents quickly removed or never showed us our dead pets.  I only ever saw dead family members after the embalmers did their work, turning people into temporary dolls without a hint of blood or foul smell.  My father stopped hunting shortly after my sister and I were born because he just didn’t have the time, and we weren’t allowed to handle raw meat for fear we’d get sick.  To see a dead deer up close – it was the closest I’ve ever been to death on such a scale.  We are similar in size, after all – each a large mammal.  Our guts and brains melt away into goo as well, if given the chance…

Then there is my dietary choice.  As a vegetarian, I began to relate to their eating habits.  Plenty argue that eating meat connects humanity to the natural cycles, but by relating to a deer as a vegetarian, I realize that my diet is not so far removed from nature.  I often tell people that, in this life and at this time (sans survival scenarios), I am connecting to nature as the deer.  I do my best to eat local and sustainable food – but I’m aware that my hooves will trample creatures from time to time.  I can be very peaceful and not cause bloodshed, but if attacked I have my antlers to defend myself with.  I eat plants and will one day be cut down – either by a predator or time itself.  And when my body rots, the other plants and animals will take me back into the Earth Mother.  I am not the hunter – I am the hunted who knows there are predators in the wood and I must be careful.  It keeps me humble and alert.  It is simply a different way to connect with nature – no more or less valid than the deeply spiritual experience of the hunter and meat eater.

Meditation has brought the deer closer to my soul, finding me an ally in the spirit world.  At first it just kind of happened out of the blue.  Deer would show up – bucks and does.  Sometimes the deer would transform into humanoid shapes and talk or laugh.  More recently, when I encounter frightening things or have nightmares, the buck comes and waves his antlers, sometimes shredding the shadow.  I’ve ridden his back a couple times and he loves offerings of apples.  Once, while meditating in the forest behind my parents’ home, I opened my eyes to see a herd of deer around me – a harem, it seemed, guarded by one buck.  He looked at me and made his gutteral call several times, the mist rising from his nostrils like smoke.  He stamped his front left hoof in the ground, bringing up soil and leaves.  This was no helpless herbivore – this was a warrior and guardian.  I stared back in awe and fear but did not move.  He could have charged.  They could have stampeded over me if they wanted.  After a minute that felt like an eternity, the herd slowly melted back into the forest as if they never were.  Truly, of all the times I’ve encountered deer in some spiritual vicinity, this, and the day I found the whole deer corpse, stand out among the most influential.

Learning about the lore surrounding deer has been informative and transformative.  Like North America, Northern Europe also has deer but they are generally of the red variety.   There is also evidence that reindeer existed in Scotland in prehistoric times and some connections have been made with other cultures, who herd them, and the legends of the Celts.  Could such a practice have existed in antiquity? Could it have remained in the Celtic imagination and transformed through the ages?  Although we often think of boars and, especially, cows with regards to the Celts, findings by archaeologists lead them to conclude deer were the most widely hunted creature and thus held much importance.  Many stories that feature the eldest animals, such as the Eagle and Salmon, also feature the stag.

Some scholars assert the existence of deer cults lead by women in northern Scotland.  The lore surrounding Flidais, a lusty spirit/Goddess/character of Irish fame, connects her to deer, leading some to suspect deer cults existed there in the misty, pre-Celtic past.  Unfortunately, many compound her with Artemis so it’s very difficult to know more about her without finding parallels in other cultures or relying on UPG.  The old stories are rich with giant women and wee women who herd and even milk the deer as cattle.  These same women can even transform into deer.  While there is only so much information out there on Flidash, stories abound about Cailleach spirits.  I pluralize because, the more I study, the more it seems there is more than one and that Cailleachs are very localized.  They control the weather for certain regions (especially wind, snow, and storms) and herd deer.  Often, they’re shown as protectors of the deer.  Hunters must ask for permission before taking one of her herd.  In some stories, she gives the hunters very specific descriptions of who to kill, and punishes those who don’t listen or don’t ask permission.  To me, this shows that there was a definite understanding that hunters should be responsible and not decimate the herds.  If too many deer were taken, or if only a certain kind were taken, the population would weaken and there would be less food in the future as a result.

The Fionn legends are filled with deer: Ossian’s mother, for example, was turned into a deer and some stories say she was in this form when she gave birth to him.  The symbolism even enters into Arthurian legend.  Merlin is said to have ridden a deer when he went mad.

Finally, deer have some connection with the Otherworld and death.  Some of it is connected with Cailleach traditions (poor weather brings death, winter can represent death, she kills disrespectful hunters, etc), some through the general otherworldliness of deer (they are often very quiet and shy; legends connecting them to the fairy realm), and through what is observable – the cyclical nature of their antlers and their being hunted and sometimes sacrificed.

I have a little altar to the Nature Spirits that is always changing.  Soon, I’ll need to expand it in some way to make room for the deer skulls I’ve obtained.  It’s important to me that I continue to work with the deer spirits.  I definitely feel a strong connection and want to work on learning more and deepening my relationship with them.

References and further reading:
The Driving of the Cattle of Flidais, Book of Leinster. 
Brock, Juliet Clutton & MacGregor, Arthur.  "An End to Medieval Reindeer in Scotland."  Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1988), pp. 23-35.
Carr-Gomm, Philip & Stephanie.  The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition.  Fireside (1994). 
D'Este, Sorita & Rankine, David.  Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore and Legends of the Pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess.  Avalonia (2009).
Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  Harper Collins (2000). 
Geddes, Arthur.  "Scots Gaelic Tales of Herding Deer or Reindeer Traditions of the Habitat and Transhumance of Semi-Deomesticated 'Deer', and of Race Rivalry."  Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1951), pp. 296-311. 
McKay, J. G.  "The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians."  Folklore, Vol. 43, No. 2 (1932), pp. 144-174.

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Michael Fassbender Plots Movie About Celtic Warrior Cuchulain | /Film.

Wow, I’m pretty excited about this.  I just hope they don’t turn it into another “Beowulf.”

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