Shit makes good fertilizer!

If you take nothing else from this piece please remember that shit makes good fertilizer.

I’ve said that a few times to different people and in different situations recently and each time it seem to have been words that those listening needed to hear. Life is never easy but the past few years seem to have brought blow after blow to many of us. There are days when it feel like you are struggling uphill through thick sucking mud, other days where it feels something in the universe has dumped a big pile of shit on you. For some it may feel like they are having to carry increasingly heavy loads that they don’t feel they can let go of for all sorts of reasons. Grief, pain, anger and fear buffet us like the winds of an unceasing storm. And it’s exhausting!

And so I remind myself again and again that shit makes good fertilizer. I’ve stuggled in the past, feeling I had to hold my pain and fear in, that I couldn’t let my anger out or express my grief. I was wrong.

I discovered that if I didn’t learn to drop the steaming pile of shit, or at least some of it, I would break down and for a while be buried so deep I didn’t know which way was up. I learnt to cry out my fear, to scream my grief out into the winds. I learnt that if I sever the chains that bound me to my heavy load of anger it would fall and shatter apart like a brittle rock and let out the tears of pain bound within. And I learnt that in release I began to wash away the shit clinging to me with my tears. I didn’t get rid of the shit completely but I was able to dump it on the emotional and spiritual equivalent of a compost heap.

Over time huge piles of shit break down and in doing so it becomes fertilizer that helps new things grow.

Patience, compassion and empathy can all grow stronger from the shit life throws at you. How to hold safe boundaries for yourself and others; what love and trust look and feel like; these things also grow from times when life kept throwing shit at you.

Let your tears flow and wash the shit off you for a bit even if it’s only a couple of minutes. Do it again and again if you need to, and you will sometimes. And breathe, just keep breathing.

And remember that shit makes good fertilizer.

Voices of Hopeless, Maine

I don’t think I’ve written about the mystical island of Hopeless on this blog before. For those who have never heard of it Hopeless, Maine is the creation of Tom and Nimue Brown and it’s an odd place with a lot of gloomy weather and tentacled beings.

On Saturday 22nd January an online festival of Hopeless Maine things took place called Voices of Hopeless Maine and you can read more about the what and why on Nimue Brown’s blog “Druid Life”. I feel very lucky to have been able to take part in this festival.

The event included poetry, songs, stories, music, videos of wonderful artistic creations and live interviews. Some pieces were written by Nimue Brown, some illustrated by Tom Brown, but many were creations of other artists that have been inspired by the weirdly wonderful place of Hopeless.

My own small contribution was to read a short piece by Nimue called To Ride a Surf Horse. Having watched and listened to the entire festival as it took place I feel incredibly privileged to have had the chance to be included with such a talented group of people. I’m incredibly grateful to all of those involved in the organisation of this event for such a wonderful experience!

If you haven’t heard of Hopeless, Maine before please do follow the links and maybe you too will be drawn onto this island of fog, tentacles and weirdly glowing eyes!

Edited to add that the videos from this event are now available on YouTube hosted by SteamPaper’s channel “SteamMedia.”

Reflections on a first Witchtober

Last month I took part in my first Witchtober, a variant of inktober. It’s not well past the end of the month and I wanted to finish the process off with a bit of reflection. My previous post on this subject explains how I got started and where the prompts I used came from.

Each day I managed to come up with some piece of art that reflected something of the prompts. Some days this was easier to do than others and as the month continued I grew more and more determined to complete the whole month. I didn’t have to complete it, there was no one I had made a deal with and nothing I would get for completing it but my own sense of accomplishment but still I grew increasingly determined as the month progressed.

Each day I had the opportunity to reflect on different images and ideas around witchcraft. I found that a very useful thing to do. I don’t consider myself to be a witch. I sometimes do things that fit under the heading of witchcraft but those things are not the main thrust of what I do. I am a polytheist druid and heathen and my practice revolves around two main strands; devotional activities for multiple deities and energy healing work (usually distance healing). So this month of activities around witches and witchcraft gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect more deeply about what these things mean to me.

The other major benefit was in having a topic to try and produce art about each day. For most of my efforts during this month used coloured pencils or watercolour type paints but I also used modelling clay three times and wrote a poem for the Hedge Witch prompt. I didn’t have to try and come up with something I wanted to draw, paint or make, I just had to come up with a way of expressing the idea for that day. I really liked that. I’ve not done nearly as much art since I finished witchtober although part of that has been due to other things happening too. I’m looking into other prompt lists though as I enjoyed the process of having a prompt to think about and then express. I’d really love to have a similar set of prompts for druidry and heathenry as the process definitely helped me think more deeply. If any readers know of any such prompt lists or have ideas please do let me know!

Perhaps one aspect of inktober type projects that is most intended is that of developing your skills. The witchtober prompts pushed me to try things I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I believe my art skills have developed as a result of that push. For example for one of the prompts, green witch, I drew hands with fingers in soil and used my own hands to try and get the right shape.

Picture of hands in soil done using water colours

For another prompt, crone witch, I attempted a self portrait. I never would have considered doing that otherwise.

Head and shoulders self portrait of me wearing a purple witch’s hat done in coloured pencils

Hands and faces are hard! But I did it and although I can see that there is a lot of scope for further improvement I’m also pleasantly surprised at how well I managed.

I also tried to come up with things that were a bit different like my spirit witch and bat.

Picture of a spirit distillation still with a witch’s hat in the foreground done in coloured pencils
Picture of a bat hanging upside down on a cricket bat done in pencils.

I’m really pleased and proud that I have completed my first witchtober. I’m grateful for the opportunities for thought, learning, and the sense of community I experienced because I was doing something that others were also doing. I’m also very grateful for all the supportive comments I received during this process.

Hopefully next year I will be able to join in with another witchtober!

Witchtober

Many of you will know about inktober where individuals are encouraged to draw something each day that fits a particular prompt. This year I’m joining in with a variant called Witchtober with prompts from @saffrussellart and @jacquilovesey. I’ve never done anything like this and I’ve had encouragement to give it a go from the ever wonderful Tom and Nimue Brown. 

I’ve been posting most of my efforts so far on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (mainly because my Instagram account is linked to my Facebook account). One effort, a poem has been posted on this blog.  For me this has become a multi media art project as my efforts have now included poetry, modelling clay, paint and pencil.

I’m finding the process of doing this to be fascinating. I look at the prompts well before I try and do anything and I think about how I can express the theme. As the day progresses I get to see what others have done too and if I haven’t come up with an idea that sometimes sparks something. 

The different prompts are making me think about different aspects of witchcraft and what it means to me. I like trying to come up with something a bit different if I can so it’s making me think deeply which is good. I’m also having fun creating a bit of art each day. I can see improvements in my skills too. 

I’m very grateful for what I’m learning in taking part in this Witchtober. 

For my Friends

I wish I could tell you
I'll fix this
For I hate to see you in pain.

I wish I could tell you 
I'll sort it
And make it better again.

I don't have the power
To mend this
But please don't suffer alone.

I can't wave a wand
And dispel it
Nor weave my spells as a crone.

But I'll listen to all
You share with me
As you fight to change your life.

And I'll cheer you on
From my corner
As you overcome each strife.

Sticking a label on it

For the last couple of years my path has gradually been changing. A lot of what I do in my personal practice is the same but there are newer elements. It all started when Loki came into my life. I now honour an increasing number of Heathen deities along with those from Celtic lands I have honoured for years.

Most Druids and Heathens honour ancestors and spirits of the land in some way. And in both communities if you ask a question you will get a multitude of answers – although Heathens will more often refer you to various written sources such as the Eddas and Sagas.

At the same time as these changes have been happening with my spiritual life I’ve also gradually become more confident about referring to myself as autistic in spite of being told that I didn’t fully meet “diagnostic criteria”. Yes, it still annoys me. Fortunately those that know me best, including my kids, as well as an assortment of adult autistic friends have recognised that I am autistic. I refer to it as being peer recognised.

I am still me. I am still Pauline, daughter of Siusaidh. I am also Potia Nighean a’Chailliche (the second part of that name I took in October 2019 as part of my promises to the Ancient One). I’m still a Hearth Druid and I’m proudly autistic. But now I’m adding a new label to my collection, I’ve fully accepted that I’m also Heathen.

Practicalities of a home retreat

I was asked elsewhere if I could write a bit more about the practicalities of doing a home retreat following on from my last post.  The simple answer is yes, the more complicated one is I can tell you what I did and what I learnt from it but this was something planned solely for me so various aspects may not transfer well to others.

The first thing I did after making the decision to have a home based retreat was to plan out what I could do and when. My first initial thoughts had been to just do a day but I felt this wouldn’t really give me enough time to really benefit from the whole process. I think I was right in that.  I decided to do a three day retreat. I felt that would be enough time to feel the benefit but not so much I would start having difficulties in focus while at home.  I didn’t get that quite right but life has ways of throwing up things you don’t anticipate.

Here is the plan I developed:

Aim: To reset mind, emotion and spirit in a busy world

Minimal technology use – no facebook or email checking. Meals to be eaten, and chores to be done, more mindfully. Reading to be spiritually focussed.

Planned daily routine

  1. Morning devotional mediation before breakfast honouring Brigantia
  2. Breakfast
  3. Morning prayer and chanting in honour of Maponnos
  4. Mindful chores
  5. Devotions to and communing with the Herd Mothers
  6. Lunch
  7. Devotions to and communing with the water beings
  8. Afternoon exercise – walking or yoga type stretching
  9. Reading or devotional craft work
  10. Mid afternoon devotions to and communing with Gofannon
  11. Reflection time – may include journaling or blogging
  12. Devotions to and communing with Loki
  13. Dinner
  14. Evening activities – could include reading, crafting or divination
  15. Late evening devotions to and communing with An Cailleach
  16. Bed

As you can see the routine above includes several periods of prayer/communing with different beings. These are the beings I have regular devotional practices with at the current time.

So that was the plan. It didn’t work out quite like that in practice although it wasn’t far off it. I learnt I made a pretty big mistake putting exercise in the early afternoon. It was too soon after lunch and I had to tweak that so I did some reading or craft work after my post lunch devotions in order to let my lunch digest a bit more before doing exercise.  I also usually ended up sitting down and doing a bit of reading after my chores and before doing my pre lunch devotions to the Herd Mothers partially to relax a bit physically after the chores and partially because I had more time available than I anticipated.

In addition to the devotions of the retreat routine I also felt I needed to incorporate my usual daily devotions which include a libation to the being/s I focus on that day.  The retreat devotions did not include libations or other physical offerings. As my retreat took place on a Tuesday to Thursday that meant the first day there was an evening devotional to Brigantia, the second day I honoured my ancestors and the third day I did my evening devotions to Gofannon.

I was pretty good at restricting my online time but I did have the odd quick look at facebook or emails if I was looking for something in particular, for example on Thursday, where I usually join a zoom singing session with Sing aLoud.

Thursday, the last day of the retreat was a more difficult day to keep the retreat focus going. There were a couple of unanticipated interruptions. One was a brief visit from my kids who were staying the week with their dad. Lovely to see them but unexpected and it knocked me off the routine a bit. The other was news from my husband family down south that his mum had taken a turn for the worse and she wanted to him to visit. We had known she wasn’t well but this sounded much worse. Fortunately travel restrictions in Scotland were just lifting and we decided to travel down that weekend to see her. If the travel restrictions hadn’t lifted I think we would have still gone anyway under the circumstances but we didn’t have to make that call. I still completed the retreat but as you can imagine my mind was much less focussed after that news. It did seem apt that I needed to work harder on a day where my daily devotions were honouring Gofannon who UPG tells me appreciates hard work and perseverance.

Things I missed from a home retreat included simply being somewhere else which can help in distancing yourself from your usual routines and interactions with other people. I’m lucky in having a pagan and Druid husband as talking bout some of the things I was reading or thinking about was helpful.  If I did this again I think I’d try and set up a zoom/skype session or two with others I could talk to and reflect on some of my retreat experiences with so probably fellow druid types.

Overall the home retreat did help me with a spiritual reset and I came out of it feeling more strongly connected with the beings I honour. I also came out of it with a desire to re-kindle the druid aspects of my path and signed up for the British Druid Order (BDO) distance bardic course.  I’m also trying to be a bit more active in the Scottish Druids Facebook Group I set up and admin.

Hopefully if you are considering doing some form of home retreat this will give you some ideas to consider in your own planning.

Musing about my druid path

My journey with druidry began in 1997 at a Pagan Federation conference in London.  At that conference Philip Shallcrass and Emma Restall-Orr, then co-leaders of the British Druid Order (BDO) were giving a talk. I’ve never forgotten it. It was entitled Druidry, druidry, whose got the druidry?” and in that talk Emma and Philip gave an overview of the different types of druids you can find from experiential ones to academic focussed ones and everything in between.  Much of what they mentioned then is as valid today as it was then. I brought a copy of their Druid Directory, copies of the Druid’s Voice magazines and signed up to the BDO journal “Tooth and Claw”.  I loved what I read and heard of the BDO but at that time they didn’t have any distance teaching materials and I was in Glasgow (as I still am). It wasn’t feasible for me to attend face to face events with the BDO so I looked at other druid orders for something closer or distance learning courses.  I ended up with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) as many others have also done.

I sent for their first gwersi and I carried out the initial Bardic initiation which is at the start of the courses for the Spring Equinox in 1998. In the next few years I progressed through the OBOD courses and my mundane life changed too. I started an OBOD seed group in February 1999 with another OBOD member I had met through a local pub moot.  In August 1999 I got married for the first time.  My son was born on 30 August 2001 and that year I was progressing through the Ovate grade materials.  In early 2004 I completed the OBOD Druid grade materials and started exploring further while continuing to co-facilitate what was now our local grove. I also worked with the members of that grove to run an annual conference in Glasgow called DruidCon for a few years. That gave me the opportunity to meet and listen to a number of different Druids.

In 2007 we ran the last of the DruidCon series of conferences. Our grove was fading into the mists and I was pregnant with my daughter who was born in October 2007.  Family needs were increasing and I had less time or energy for moots or conferences.

In the years between completing the OBOD druid grade and now I looked at a range of other druid orders. I learnt things from Celtic Reconstructionist practitioners, joined the Druid Network and found myself at Caer Feddwyd and then into Dun Brython. I learnt a lot with Dun Brython and through that group met the man who became my second husband following my divorce from my first husband.

Along the way I have gone through at least two different phases of questioning whether I I was a druid. My path now dies not look anything like it did in those earlier years.  My practices are regular and devotional. I am a polytheist. The more common style of ritual in a cast circle calling to the four quarters of earth, water, air and fire is not one I really feel comfortable with anymore. When I do use a formal circle (which is rarely if left to my own devices) I call to earth, sea and sky not as separate realms but as the land beneath me, the waters around and through this land and the sky above me. Until recently I had barely used the Druid’s prayer for years or the Druid’s Vow. But somewhere in my heart, somehow I still described myself as druid, hearth druid as my path was focussed around my home and family.

In recent weeks I have found myself returning to my roots and remembering that it all began with the British Druid Order.  That Order too like OBOD has grown and changed over the years but it still has the same heart feel to it. The BDO still feels like home to me even though I have never been able to attend any BDO events. More recently they too have developed distance learning courses. I’ve looked at the bardic sample, read the course descriptions and looked at the costs and I’m thinking…

Perhaps it’s time to return to the beginning and take a different route though the forest of Druidry.

 

Grant, O Spirits, thy protection…

This is the first line of one version of the Druid or Gorsedd Prayer originally published by Iolo Morganwg in his work Barddas in the late 1800’s.  He gives multiple versions but this is a variant on the one adopted for use in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD)

The full prayer in the version I used to use is as follows:

Grant, O Spirits, thy protection
and in protection, strength
and in strength, understanding
and in understanding, knowledge
and in knowledge, the knowledge of justice
and in the knowledge of justice, the love of it
and in the love of it, the love of all existences
and in the love of all existences the love of Spirit and all Goodness.

For various reasons which I won’t go into here I stopped using this prayer on a regular basis years ago but recently the words have been simmering in the background of my mind.  I think this was partially triggered by a recent blog post by Philip Carr-Gomm on The Call for Justice: In the USA and Everywhere

I have been reminded of a story of Iolo Morganwg hosting a series of early gorseddau (basically a series of Druid meetings for those not familiar with the term gorseddau) in 1797. His first that year was at midsummer, the next three months later, presumably at the autumn equinox. During that one due to his known political leanings the meeting was observed by twelve local justices accompanied by a troop of mounted and armed vigilantes. This is referred to in Professor Ronald Hutton’s books “Blood and Mistletoe” and “The Druids”.  P169 in “Blood and Mistletoe” (published 2009) and p161 in “The Druids” (published 2007). Around the time the books were due out I heard a talk by Prof. Hutton in which he brought that story to life in a way that the best storytellers can. I can’t remember his words but he said that a version the Gorsedd prayer would probably have been said at that meeting.  Prof. Hutton brought to life the idea of being at a gathering on a hillside with hostile armed men observing while reciting one of the original Welsh versions of that prayer.  I find it a powerful story.

Would I have the courage to stand reciting that prayer with hostile observers around me? I don’t know. I would first have to overcome my social anxiety to be at any size gathering and that in itself is not an easy thing now.

I am, however, finding the words of that prayer more relevant now than ever before and intend to start using it more often once more.  Where once I used the words Spirit and Spirits I think I will now use Gods so I am addressing the many deities I honour.

Grant, O Gods, thy protection
and in protection, strength
and in strength, understanding
and in understanding, knowledge
and in knowledge, the knowledge of justice
and in the knowledge of justice, the love of it
and in the love of it, the love of all existences
and in the love of all existences the love of Gods and all goodness.

Beltane musings

Writing this post has a bitter sweet aspect to it to me.  This is based on the last writing I did before my mum died on a book that was never completed.  I tried to get back to it last year but failed so over the last six months I have used the material for posts here instead.

As many readers will know Beltane is often given the date of 1 May but its origin, like Imbolc, Lughnasadh and Samhain, is agricultural. This means that in the distant past it was triggered by seasonal changes in the local environment. Samhain has developed into the season of the ancestors and become fixed in our hearts and minds with the time of Halloween. Imbolc has a very strong focus on Brighid and has also become a fixed date festival more than one of the first signs of spring. For many, if not most, people Beltane has also made this transition from seasonal to calendar but personally I just don’t feel the energies of Beltane until I begin to see blossom on the hawthorn tree.

When I first wrote these words I had already taken part in a ritual for Beltane with the Tuatha de Bridget group I am a member of long before I had seen any hawthorn blossom. I think this was the first time the group ritual had taken place before I had seen a single hawthorn blossom and it just didn’t feel quite right to me. Spring was late that year, we had a long winter. I wrote this a week later than the ritual I attended and the last couple of days before I wrote had been warm and sunny, summer was finally on the way but still no hawthorn blossom. I’d heard from a friend in Ipswich that he had hawthorn blossom in his garden. I knew that soon the hawthorn would blossom around Glasgow but it wasn’t quite ready. This year as I walk round my local park I can see plenty of hawthorn leaves but the buds for the blossom are still very small.  IT will be a while yet before the hawthorn blossoms round here even with the recent lovely weather we have been having.  My fixation on the hawthorn blossom being the signal for Beltane is not one that has any foundation in any of the fragments of lore I have read. It’s not uncommon for Pagans in the UK to link hawthorn blossoms with Beltane but neither it is as fixed for many as it is for me.

What is known from the remaining fragments of lore gathered from across the UK is the Beltane marked the seasonal change into the summer months. We know that many places lit large communal fires, particularly in Scotland and Ireland but also in Wales, Devon and Cornwall. Often these fires were lit using methods that could have been recognised in neolithic times. In some cases in Scotland offerings of food were cast into the fires such as those referenced in F. M. McNeil’s Silver Bough volume two, in other cases the fires would be jumped by one as a symbolic sacrifice or by many for good fortune. In Ireland there are records of cattle being driven between two fires at this time. We also know that the making of crosses and other charms from Rowan wood was a widespread practice for this time of year, these were used to ward off evil influences.

In areas where livestock farming was widespread it was at this time of year that cattle and sheep would be taken to summer pastures. This is still a practice in some areas of Wales and Scotland although using less manpower and more vehicles to achieve. In past centuries some of the community would have to go with the flocks and herds to watch them over the summer living in purpose built shelters for that time. In Scotland these were called Sheilings, I know there were similar structures in part of Wales.

Another common feature found in records from a wide range of areas was to go “A’ Maying”. Ron Hutton’s Stations of the Sun gives several examples from a range of areas where officials paid for sections of the community to go out and gather flowers and greenery from the surrounding area. Hutton writes of a number of songs and poems that imply that young men and women regularly got up to sexual activities while out gathering flora but he goes on to write:

“It took until the late twentieth century, and the patient labours of demographic historians, to reveal that there was in fact no increase in the number of pregnancies at this season, in or out of marriage. The boom in conceptions came later in the summer.”
(Hutton, 1996 p229)

It seems the beginning of May was and still is a bit damp and chilly for certain types of outdoor activities after all.

At some stage Maypoles were introduced and my understanding is that the first records of them are from the mid fourteenth century but they may have been around before that. According to Hutton these were generally confined to “areas of English influence and language”. Like the fires more common in other areas the maypoles were a focal point for community festivities. By the end of the eighteenth century the use of maypoles began to fade but this symbol was rescued to some extent by the growing folk lore movement of Victorian times.

In fact many of the older traditions virtually disappeared from British communities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the mid to late twentieth centuries several areas began new versions of these older traditions and now there are vibrant Beltane and Mayday celebrations that take place across the UK.

Note that the hawthorn does not appear as an important part of any of the recorded Beltane traditions but still I cling to hawthorn blossom as the key marker of the season.

For me Beltane marks the final transition from the winter months to the summer months. Some myths, particularly the tale of the “Coming of Angus and Bride” in the Scottish Wonder Tales by Donald A. Macnkenzie, have the Cailleach being defeated at the spring equinox. To me the handover of power is not between Bride and the Cailleach but between Rigantona and the Cailleach at Beltane just as to me it is at Samhain the Cailleach takes up her sovereignty over winter once more. I also don’t see this as a battle but more like a dance. At this time I see the return of Rigantona (or Rhiannon to give Her the more modern name) from the Underworld to the land around my home. It is at this time, marked by the hawthorn blossom, I see Rigantona taking up Her cup of sovereignty for the summer just as at winter She passes it to Her Mother/Sister, the one I know as the Cailleach. So at Beltane on one level I celebrate the transition from winter to summer. On another level I mark the change in which of the goddesses I honour now holds the cup of sovereignty.

For many others this festival is one of fertility and sexuality, marking a marriage between masculine and feminine energies often represented by a maiden goddess and a youthful god. Handfastings, or marriages are popular at this time. Ceremonies often include some form of symbolic joining of sexual energies such as dancing with ribbons round a maypole or choosing a May King and Queen to crown. These are very heterosexual symbols and mythologies and such rites can make those who are gender fluid or non-hetrosexual feel excluded. My own personal symbolism for this time of year is not about sexuality but about sovereignty but the group I am part of is more eclectic in nature and the symbolism is usually more sexual in nature for that group. For the last couple of years though the group has attempted to balance these ideas with the addition of a spirit of change or mischief represented by a hare. This was inspired by a Beltane Faerie Story written by a dear friend of mine, Ferdiad and posted on his blog a few years ago. I encourage anyone writing a group ritual for this time of year to think carefully about the symbolism of what they are doing and think about making the ritual inclusive for a range of sexual and gender identities.

This year though across the world people are looking at different ways of celebrating Beltane due to social distancing or lockdown measures and the COVID-19 virus. There will probably be more online rituals shared and many people will be considering how to mark the season by themselves or with their households. I will be watching for the first signs of hawthorn blossoms locally as I do each year and then I will mark the dance of the seasons once more.

 

References

Hutton, R. (1996) The Stations of the Sun Oxford University Press

F. Marian McNeill (1959) The Silver Bough Vol Two: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Candlemas to Harvest Home Stuart Titles Ltd