People ask me how I am and I don’t know how to reply. “I’m ok” I say or “I’m managing” but I’m not really. I go through the motions of living, sometimes I even laugh and have fun but I cry almost every day too. If people could see this pain it would look like wounds deep and bleeding, like my skin was mottled with bruises but they can’t see it. My chest hurts but it’s not a physical pain really, just loss, just grief. Just…
A couple of days ago I broke down. I wailed and moaned. I slapped my legs, scratched my face, my arms, pulled my hair banged my head against a cupboard door. Meltdown.
The marks faded on the outside.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is us getting ready for my wedding two years ago.
On Wednesday 23rd May my wonderful mum died. Her death was swift and pain free and totally unexpected. She had a massive stroke in the afternoon and died a few hours later in hospital with myself, my brother and my dad at her side.
The day after she died my dad and I were looking for some paperwork and we came across a letter my mum had written dated 18 May this year and addressed to her next of kin. We don’t know what prompted her to write this letter but these are some of her words which were also read out during her funeral:
“I truly believe in a life after death, so don’t be sad, I will live on in a different format, as energy, as spirit and will return in time. I want you to wear your robes, sing, play your instruments, and tell stories of times we have shared.”
I was blessed with a close relationship with my mum, not a standard one though. We were sometimes more like sisters, other times it was more like I was the parent. We knew we had been together in previous lives. She had some past life regressions done and had some memories where I was included. I didn’t have anything like that done but I knew we’d been together. We knew that I had been her parent or a guardian in more lives than she had been in that position with me.
It comforts me to know these things. I know deep within my soul that while we are parted physically now we won’t always be. Maybe next time we will be siblings. I know we won’t remember the details of our lives before including this one but the love we have for each other will draw us together again. Of that I have no doubt.
But for now I cry. The loss is raw and painful still.
This week we have had quite a bit of snow. As usual the snow gets compressed by the passage of people on pavements and cars on the roads and surfaces become icy. Snow looks lovely but I don’t really like it. I know it can be fun to play in the snow especially if you are wrapped up nice and warm, my daughter adores it. I don’t and I think it’s probably because with snow there is more ice and I hate icy conditions.
This week the weather has disrupted normal routines. Tuesday was the worst day with local road, even the main ones, becoming gridlocked. My kids both get school transport provided, every day for my son and at the moment two days a week for my daughter. My son’s transport was about 40 minutes later than usual which isn’t bad compared to some problems that day. My daughter’s transport didn’t show at all because they got stuck somewhere. Eventually we took her to school ourselves much later in the morning, my husband doing the driving, and by that time traffic was flowing reasonably well. We picked her up from school that afternoon slightly early again with my husband driving. If he hadn’t been home doing work on our bathroom we wouldn’t have gone anywhere because I feel far to nervous about driving in that level of snow and ice.
Wednesday main roads were much better but the street outside our home is not a main road and it was still covered in compressed snow and ice. My son’s transport was still late but not as bad as the day before. My husband drove my daughter and I to her school and I walked her into her entry point while my husband stayed with the car. By the afternoon things were looking a bit better. There had been a touch of a thaw and some grit had been spread on our street now but pavements were still icy.
That evening the forecast was bad, particularly for areas further south and east than us with further snow and wind forecast during the night. And it would be a little below freezing during the night too so more ice! I cancelled plans I had made before all this snow to go out and meet a friend the following morning. I was too nervous about what the weather would bring. Our area didn’t get more snow overnight. Local roads first thing this morning were icy in places but not too bad. School transport turned up on time for both kids. I’m beginning to feel better but still anxious.
When my son was only a few months old I fell on an icy street on the way to work. The fall didn’t seem that bad at the time but I wrenched my back. I had six months of back pain after that fall and walking to work became too painful for that period of time. Eventually I had some treatment from an osteopath and that helped the injured area to finally heal.
Not long after I had finally passed a driving test I bumped into the back of another car because I couldn’t stop my car due to ice on the road. I was going very slowly but that feeling of being completely unable to stop what I could see was going to happen stayed with me. No one was hurt at all, both cars got bit scratched but nothing worse than that. But it scared me. I have remained nervous of icy roads. I can manage it it’s only icy patches but the last few days our street has been much worse than icy in patches.
My anxiety in this weather is founded on very real fears but I still feel I should be able to manage better. I recognise those feelings of inadequacy are also part of the anxiety but…
And I turn to thoughts of my ancestors through the ages. The cold weather, the arrival of snow, the fear of icy footing. Many, if not all, would have felt these things. Injuries are more common in icy conditions, healing from anything takes longer. Outdoor tasks are harder and take longer. Water can freeze over and before the mains water supplies we often take for granted frozen water supplies could be a big problem. And keeping warm also became much, much harder. I believe fear and anxiety during winter conditions would have been common to my ancestors. I am not alone.
A book called tainted love apparently. So as you might expect I start to prepare the complaint. I was tired so I didn’t do much that evening and tried to sort it the following morning. The first time I tried to complete the complaint form I was using my kindle and the photos I had taken wouldn’t upload to the complaint form. So a bit later I got out my laptop and completed the form on that. At that stage though I thought I’d better just check the inside of the book in case that looked damaged in some way. Imagine my surprise when the first page I saw inside the cover said “Dealing with Deities”. As I looked further the contents of the book seemed to be exactly what I had ordered!
“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover!”
How many times have I heard that saying? How many times have I used it? Although that thought has only just occurred to me as I write this. what came to my mind yesterday as I saw the inside of the book was that someone had played a trick on me. My first thoughts went to Loki because in my experiences he has a talent for playing with electronic equipment. And the book arrived on a Saturday which is the day I devote to him.
Next thoughts were the juxtaposition of the words “Tainted Love” with “Dealing with Deities”. I’m not sure what to make of that. Initially I laughed.
Today though I’m thinking about the word “tainted” and how that means something that has been corrupted or fouled in some way. It occurs to me that the love we have when dealing with deities is often corrupted by our own wants and desires. And then there’s the fact that those of us that are polytheists are also reconnecting links that long past ancestors shattered for various reasons. Our efforts to make those connections again are tainted by what has happened in the past of our societies. Some of these things we can do something about, we can do our best to love our deities without clouding maters with wants and desires. I don’t mean we never ask for help but if we do so we do with respect and never taking such help for granted. There’s not a great deal we can do about taints left from the actions of previous generations long gone into the mists of time. We can acknowledge them. We can do our best as we re-forge broken connections but the scars will be there for a long time. And if we do our best then hopefully over time as we and those to come build on what we do now those connections will become stronger and clearer.
And sometimes after we first see a “taint” we find that it actually helps us develop something new and wonderful.
I can’t even remember exactly when after that point that other things began to change but at some stage I began to honour Epona Rigantona each week on a Friday. I chose a Friday because Epona is my beloved and Fridays in the past have been linked to deities of love (see Wikipedia Names of the days of the week if you are interested).
It felt good to be honouring Epona each Friday so I decided to start honoring An Cailleach on a Saturday. I was now honouring different deities on Friday, Saturday and Sunday plus every twenty days flame tending in honour of Brigantia.
That bit bears repeating. Loki brought change with Him. I wasn’t looking for Sleipnir’s Dam and I didn’t expect or invite Her (at least not to start with) but for some reason best known to the Bound One, He decided to bring Her changes to me.
One of those changes was that I started to include Loki in my weekly devotions. At first I tried slotting Him in on Thursdays but that didn’t feel right. So I switched to Saturdays, prompted in part by something I had read that suggested Saturdays had been linked to Loki in the past. I can’t remember exactly what that was now but I switched days and it felt much better.
But it didn’t feel right honouring An Cailleach on the same day so after a bit of thought I decided to move honouring Her to Mondays. There are aspects in some of the lore which I believe indicate ties to the moon for An Cailleach so this seemed to fit well.
For a couple of moons I tried to keep the lunar links I had made as well but that became a bit confusing as I ended up trying to honour two different deities on one day. For me that became confusing and I felt I wasn’t doing justice to my devotions to either deity when the days linked into full moon cycles. I decided drop the full moon devotions in favour of the weekly ones for a moon or two to see how it felt and I’ve kept that change.
So now I honour different deities on four days of the week and another every twenty days. I’m also no longer solely honouring Brythonic deities. At first I thought maybe Loki would be in my life for a set purpose and then maybe wander off but at the moment it feel much more like the Sky-treader is here to stay. The current pattern feels good with one exception and that’s the ancestors.
In dropping the full moon devotions I found I began to lose touch with the lunar cycle and the pattern of honouring my ancestors at the dark moon began to slip as well. I still have my ancestral shrine area and still think of varying ancestors at different times but the more ritualised devotions have fallen away. I’m still not sure if I need to start on a weekly basis for honouring my ancestors or try and restore the dark moon practice. I think maybe moving to a weekly based practice would work out best, if so I have my choice of Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday currently free of other devotions. Maybe Wednesday as that day has links to deities of communication.
My journey with devotional practices has not been a swift one but one that has gradually altered to a more frequent family of devotional practices. And I know that I am still changing and that my practices will also continue to change.
Our guides were adamant that we should experience a few of the lesser known and more unusual sites before we would visit Maeshowe on Thusday 7th July so the day before they took us to visit the Tomb of the Dogs also known as the Cuween Hill Cairn, Unstan Cairn and Rennibister Earth House. Many people visit Maeshowe and go away feeling that it is a good example of tombs in Orkney, and so it is in many ways, but it is also very unusual. It is one thing to accept this with your more logical mind but quite another to visit a wider range of tombs and see and feel the differences.
Our first tomb visit was to the Tomb of the Dogs or Cuween Hill Cairn. This is a small tomb a fair way up the side of a hill. It’s called the Tomb of the Dogs because there were a number of dog skulls found in it as well as human remains. To get to it you have to be fit to first get up the hill (which isn’t too bad) and then be flexible enough to get down and crawl thought the narrow passage way into the chamber beyond. The chamber is large enough for a small number of people to stand in but it is pitch black inside so a working torch is a must. It is an example of a chambered cairn with four smaller side chambers. the side chambers are virtually at ground level and you can look into them fairly easily. At Maeshowe the side chambers are well above the main floor level and would not be as easy to see into let alone access as the chambers at Cuween.
Personally I felt a sense of pressure while inside Cuween Hill Cairn. It wasn’t frightening but after a short while I felt as if the spirits of that place were telling me I had seen enough and it was time for me to leave now please. Definitely well worth a visit if you are physically fit enough to cope with the hill and crawling through the passage.
From there we visited Rennibister Earth House. A totally different experience. For a start it’s accessed via the yard to a working farm and via a metal ladder going down into the ground. This ladder is not the original access, that would have been the long sloping passage. Originally it would have been closed in and pitch dark but as it was discovered by a machine falling into the roof and now accessed that way it’s reasonably light inside. Human remains were found within the chamber but archaeologists are not certain of the original purpose of the structure. Around the walls are built in alcoves, not large ones and they look a bit like the alcoves seen in the neolithic houses and in the walls of the older section of Kirbuster farm museum.
To me this place felt as if it had been used for ritual purposes of some kind. I could see it being used for some sort of rite of passage perhaps. The atmosphere there was much lighter but mysterious too.
The last place we visited on that day was Unstan Cairn. This is a much easier place to access but still requires a bit of flexibility as you do need to bend a bit to go through the entrance passage. Inside it is a quite different style of structure. It has some features in common with chambered cairns in that it has a circular shape and a side chamber but other features are more like rectangular stalled cairns such as the one at Midhowe (which we didn’t visit). It is an odd place, very light because it has a modern concrete roof and unlike other tombs we visited very green from algae able to grow on the stones in the light. The stalls also add to the unusual atmosphere making it feel to me a bit like an animal barn even though it was very much a tomb still.
The following day we visited Maeshowe. This is a much larger tomb than the others we had previously seen and thanks to our guides we had a much greater appreciation for the design variations and the atmospheric differences. For a start at the other places it had been just us and the places themselves were much smaller. For Maeshowe you are in a tour group of about 25 people with a guide. Even though the place is larger you somehow feel more compressed due to the people around you all shuffling round to get a look at whatever aspect the guide is pointing at and talking about. It is an impressive place with a fascinating history both ancient and more recent. The Viking graffiti in it is interesting as well. Maeshowe is special and very well worth seeing but for me, in terms of atmosphere I much preferred the experiences of the lesser known tombs.
I’ve called this post “Echos of Devotion” and so far spoken of tombs, cairns and mysterious underground chambers. But if you think about the work involved in crafting these structures and the devotion to purpose the builders of them had I think you will understand why devotion is such a strong theme for me in reflecting about these places.
On Thursday after visiting Maeshowe in the morning we took a drive back towards the Churchill barriers and visited the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. For anyone not in the know this is a chapel made using nissan huts and recycled materials by Italian prisoners of war during the second world war. It is an absolutely remarkable testament to the devotion of those involved in all aspects of the modification and decoration of the nissan huts. Although it was only completed just after the POWs were repatriated it has been beautifully preserved and cared for. From the information present at the site I believe there are occasional services held there. I absolutely loved this place! I found the atmosphere there highly sacred, a very special place and very accessible too.
Devotion of a different sort was our next stop as we sampled some of the wonderful offerings of the Orkney Wine Company, unsurprisingly after trying a few samples we purchased a few bottles to bring home. Very impressive products!
That afternoon found us in Kirkwell visiting St Magnus’ Cathedral. A wonderfully accessible venue for such an old cathedral. St Magnus’ Cathedral is a place that shows a different aspect of devotion again to me. In that place are the echoes of the devotion of craftsmen and women down the ages and the communities that have supported them as well as the echoes of the devotional use through many centuries. It’s a lovely example of Christian architecture through centuries too as different aspects of the building date to different time periods.
The last place I am going to mention in this post is the remains of an usual round church at Orphir that we visited on Friday, our last day on Orkney. The Orphir Round Kirk is the last remains of a medieval round church and the only one surviving in Scotland. It is found behind the Orkneyinga Saga Centre and the ruins of the Earl’s Bu. Another fascinating little place to visit with echoes of the past also surrounding these unusual church remains in the well kept and still used graveyard.
As always photos copyright and thanks to Neil Pitchford of Awen Photos.
Breakfast at our accommodation was excellent and very good fuel for the day ahead.
At 9am our wonderful guides Helen and Mark Woodsford-Dean of Spiritual Orkney joined us. We hadn’t met them face to face before although I had known Helen online for a while. I’d contacted Helen while we were planning the honeymoon trip to ask if she had availability in her calendar for the week we were going to be in Orkney. She did and we had an exchange of emails and Facebook messages to arrange things during which she planned an itinerary for us based on what I’d told her about the sort of things we wanted to see.
It is possible they might have shown us a couple of places if we’d asked out of friendship but personally I would have felt guilty taking up their time and expertise during the peak tourist summer season when tour guiding is one of the ways they make a living. Besides we wanted to see lots of places and having experts showing us around was something we wanted to do. And not just expert tour guides but fellow Pagans and people we knew a bit about. I can not stress enough how delighted we both are that we went down this route. Helen and Mark are lovely people and great guides.
Our itinerary for our first full day included the Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse Neolithic Village, Ness of Brodgar, Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and a couple of hours on the Brough of Birsay.
As we journeyed around we were treated to a wonderful combination of archeological information, including from their own experiences digging at the Ness of Brodgar, and local folklore.
I’m not going to write huge amounts here about these wonderful places for a couple of reasons. One is that so much has already been written about them, the other is that the experience of being at these places is unique to each person. What I do have is a few of my husband’s photos to share as a picture can be worth a thousand words.
One of the more profound experiences for me visiting these places was that, thanks to Helen in particular, I could understand more about these places than I would have done otherwise. Little details that helped me see something more of that ancient way of life that I’m pretty sure I would have overlooked without her explanations. Encouraged by Helen to really look at the houses of Skara Brae for example I could see not only the similarities between each structure but also the little differences that made me think of the way we all like to personalise our own spaces when we can.
On the Brough of Birsay (which is reached via a tidal causeway) we saw puffins, fulmars, razorbills and skuars flying from nests and resting places on the cliffs. We also saw the Viking ruins there with their excellent drainage systems (again I’d never have realised what we were seeing without Helen pointing them out). We also had the opportunity to scramble through a cave towards the top end of the Brough which Helen referred to a rebirth cave. It was a couple of steps down to the entrance and then as you made your way through the cave it narrowed until you came to the opening at the other end and had to crawl to get out. While we didn’t have the opportunity to make a full formal ritual around doing this it still had that rebirth effect for me at least.
Our second day was also spent with our lovely guides and on that day we visited the cliffs at Yesnaby, Kirbuster Farm museum, the Broch of Gurness, the Tomb of the Dogs, Rennibister Earth House, Happy Valley and Unstan Cairn. Again I’m using some of my husband’s photos to help show something of our experiences but as there’s less written about some of these places I’ll try and write a bit more too.
The cliffs at Yesnaby are wild and parts of the landscape look like they have been transplanted from another world.
On the heath before the cliffs you can find the rare primula scotica. This is a tiny little plant and not easy to spot unless you know what you are looking for so it will probably be no surprise for me to tell you that Helen found them and once we had been shown them we were able to find more in that area.
Kirbuster farm museum is a fascinating place. Part of the buildings date back to the 16th century and there are recognisable features from the styles of buildings at Skara Brae and the other neolithic sites that have clearly been continued through the ages such as the sleeping alcoves and built in wall niches. This is also a free museum with very knowledgable and friendly guides – well worth a visit.
By a narrow margin I think my favourite part of that day was the visit to Happy Valley. This lovely place has very unusual gardens by Orkney standards that were planted by the former owner who was something of a recluse during his life. Luckily the building and gardens are being preserved and cared for by the Friends of Happy Valley group. It is a beautiful place and has a magical atmosphere to it. I wish we could have stayed there much longer but my need for certain facilities meant we had to move on as the house was locked up.
I think I will write a separate post about experiences with tombs, cairns and the Rennibister Earth House and bring this section of our Orkney experiences to a close.