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.

Thoughts on a retreat at home

Today is the second day of an attempt at a home based retreat.  There are good aspects and not so good aspects about trying to do a retreat at home. You can set your own structure with a home based retreat. In the current circumstances of Covid-19 you don’t have to worry about social distancing while travelling or staying somewhere else if you do something on your own and at home. But it is much harder to leave the mundane aspects of your life behind when you stay at home and unless your family joins you in retreat activities you don’t have others to talk to during times of reflection. You also don’t have anyone else keeping you on track for activities.

I developed my own retreat structure which is a mix of devotional time, contemplation, mindful chores and exercise with time each day for reflection too. On the whole it’s working pretty well although there are aspects that I am finding need a bit of tweaking – I definitely wasn’t thinking clearly in putting exercise after lunch for example even with a light lunch. I have also greatly reduced my time on email and Facebook during this retreat and any reading I am doing is focussed around spiritual or religions matters.

I picked this week to try this as my kids are staying with their dad for a week which means my days are not punctuated with their day to day needs. Not that either of them are particularly needy during school holiday periods but there are some care requirements in an autistic family. Technically it’s only one at school now but the lad did try college this year and is now looking at modern apprenticeships. Anyway, I digress, suffice it to say it’s easier to immerse myself in spiritual matters without them here.

Luckily my other half, Neil, is also a druid as many readers will already know so although he hasn’t joined me in this retreat I have been able to talk to him about some aspects.  We had an interesting conversation yesterday while walking round our local park.  In it the idea of Druidry as an entity came up.  This immediately brought to mind a passage I had read earlier that day in the book “Contemplative Druidry” by James Nichol in which Penny Billinton speaks briefly about the concept of egregores although Neil had come to the idea of druidry as an entity in a different way.  I have been musing on the idea ever since.

Druidry as a being,
An egregore.
A child growing
Changing into…

Would Druid then become both the name of someone in a form of relationship, consciously or unconsciously, with “Druidry” and the name of the relationship itself? This could also help explain why it is so difficult to define “Druidry” as it is partially formed by those that have relationships to it. This also changes how I feel about being druid as it becomes my relationship, my connection to the entity “Druidry” and like any of my relationships that will always be unique because it is partly shaped by me, a unique being.

It’s been an interesting experimental home retreat so far and I have one more day to complete my intended aim of a three day home retreat.

 

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.

Honouring Ancestors

This is the second post taken from the book I started to write.

I can’t think of any Pagan or Heathen path that doesn’t place great importance on ancestors in one way or another and I mean Pagan in the widest sense here. Often there are different categories of ancestors that are honoured and remembered in ways appropriate to the individual path. The three types of ancestors spoken of the most often within Druidry which is where my path began are those of blood, those of place and those of spiritual path or line. These types of ancestors are not confined to Druidry by any means and other paths in my experience will have similar descriptions for ancestors. There are other groups of ancestors that are important to think about too such as the military dead, the ancestors of skills you may practice or want to develop, the ancestors who fought for rights of the indigenous or those who were enslaved or women or LBGT; this list could easily go on. Where you have a group that comes together to share something be it a skill, an art form, a science or a philosophy you will have ancestors of that group too. Ancestral practices are important and there’s a lot of different ways in which you can start and progress with ancestral devotions.

My own ancestral devotional practice is mainly focused on my family ancestors and has built up over several years. One thread to a family ancestral practice is finding out who your family were through genealogical research. This is something that my mum did and while I have supported her efforts in some ways over the years this was very much her speciality and what I have learnt about my family has been thanks to her efforts for over three decades. Another thread to ancestral devotions is some form of prayer or ritual activity. One of the more common suggestion is to have an ancestral altar space and that is something that I have gradually developed. The first incarnation would have been about twelve years ago now I think and was just a small part of a shelf with a single photograph. I didn’t spend any regular time in prayer or ritual focused on my ancestors at that time. This small beginning remained as it was for a while of years before I began to do more.

The next stage of development took place after the deaths of my maternal grandparents. Their photos were added to the space I had and I began to sped some regular time communing with them. I developed a practice of brewing a fresh pot of tea, pouring a cup for my ancestors and a cup for me and sitting in silence drinking my tea and thinking about my family. I would think about the things I would like those who had died to know about and how they would have loved to hear about some of the things my children were doing now. It was around 2009 that I started to link this practice with the moon. At first I chose the full moon but not long after I moved to using the dark moon as it just felt more apt to me. Just as in the dark phase of the solar year we honour ancestors so I began to honour them in the dark phase of the lunar cycle.

From there my ancestral altar area has grown again into two dedicated shelves with pictures of different ancestors representing different branches of my family. It’s in a place I see and walk past several times a day and often I’m thinking of different aspects of my family life each of them might appreciate. I have a goblet there that I use to make libations of alcohol and I still make tea. About four years ago my regular dark moon tea making lapsed for around eighteen months to two years. Part of the reason for that is that I developed changes in other aspects of my devotions, part was a gap in having a lunar calendar available and part of it stresses and strains of life in general. It wasn’t the first time I’ve lost focus with some aspect of my practices and it probably won’t be the last. I often find that when I do get through these phases where I have lost focus in some way when I come through the other side my practices then become deeper and more meaningful in some way. In this case I feel that my family ancestors have a bit more patience with me that some deities might.

Not long before I first drafted these words two years ago I began to move forward with my ancestral devotions again. My first step to picking up my ancestral devotions was to re-arrange the shrine area. At that time I arranged the photos from my maternal line on the top shelf with a tea-light holder and room for offerings. On the second shelf I arranged photos from both my paternal line and my husbands line with a couple of other items that I feel are appropriate. I added an oil burner that has an androgynous figure seated cross legged before it looking down at a crystal ball, to me that figure symbolises my ancient and polytheist ancestors. My intentions were to light a candle and make an offering at my refreshed ancestral shrine each week. I was hoping to develop a more conscious relationship with my polytheist ancestors. I admit that was partially in the hope that having that relationship would help me in my other practices too but it is also because I wouldn’t have the gods I do have in my life had those ancient polytheists not walked those paths first.

I kept those practices and arrangements until my mum died on 23 May 2018. After she died the shelves were rearranged again and I now have photos and items from my maternal line on the bottom shelf with everything else on the top shelf.  Central to the bottom shelf are photos of my mum. I still make offerings at my ancestral shrine each week and while I do make efforts to develop my relationship with my ancient polytheist ancestors I now have a much closer Pagan ancestor in my mum.  Sometimes my devotions are more about sharing stuff with my mum than going back any further in my line.

The simple reality is that we would not be alive if not for the lives of all those from who we are descended. That doesn’t mean we have to like all the family ancestors we know about but we should respect the fact that without them we would not be. I prefer using the term family ancestry to blood ancestry because there is so much more to a family than blood. Many families have members that are not linked by blood, this isn’t something new to the modern age, fostering and adoption are very old traditions. Our blood is only one part of who we have come to be as a person, the purely genetic aspect, but we may have been brought up, shaped and influenced by those who have no blood tie. Those people, those incredibly wonderful people, are a vital part of our family ancestry even without genetic links. There are also people in any family line that we have difficulty in respecting or honouring, there are some that we simply will not want to develop more of a relationships with and that’s fine. Our ancestry spreads out into the mists of time and we can connect more strongly with different branches at different times depending on our own interests and experiences.

I feel I have to make something crystal clear here. Regardless of what your blood and family ancestry is if you are drawn to a particular Pagan path then as far as I am concerned you should be made welcome. Ancestors, gods and other spirits call who they will regardless of ancestry.

Ancestors of place are, in my path, those who have lived and worked the land in a particular area, usually an area of significance to you. There might be overlaps between family ancestry and ancestry of place for some of us. I live and work in Glasgow. As far as I know I have no ancestral family ties to Glasgow, I do have links to Paisley but that’s not the same place. I choose to honour those who have made Glasgow what it is today. That also means acknowledging that part of Glasgow’s former wealth was made on the backs of slaves, there are buildings I walk past and admire that would not be there if not for wealth gained from trade in goods dependant at one time on slavery. That is a much more painful reality to the place I call home and one I struggle with at times but I will not turn a blind eye to it. There are other places that are special to me and I honour the ancestors of those places too.

There are various ways of working with ancestors of particular places and the most obvious is to learn something of the local history. If you have family or good friends with generations of links to a particular area then talking to the older members among them is probably a good first step. Local libraries often have information on local history, there might be a local history society and of course, there’s the internet. As with any research look for collaborating evidence for any stories you come across. Maybe you’ll find that there is a history of a particular craft associated with your area and you can include that knowledge in your ancestral practice by getting a symbol of that craft or even learning to do it yourself. Maybe you’ll find out about local people accused of witchcraft in the middle ages and decide to honour them or maybe you’ll find out about a more famous figure, an inventor or social leader. I live not far away from the area where William Wallace was betrayed and captured 1305 for example. Once you find these things out then you might chose to include something connected to that in your practices. Other ways of working with ancestors of place could include doing something practical to care for some aspect of the place such as helping to preserve or keep tidy a particular area. Sharing what you have learnt with others is another way to do something practical.

If you are learning more about a place and spending time there you may find that the line between spirits of place or local wights and ancestors of place becomes a bit blurred. ‘Wight’ is more commonly in use in Heathen practices and I’m rather fond of it because it encompasses a wide range of beings.

” ‘Wight’, by the way, simply means ‘being’, but is usually used for those people who are neither Goddesses nor gods, nor human people.”
(Blain, p1)

For some this blurring doesn’t matter, for others it does. Either way respect for those beings you develop connections with is vital. Sometimes, as humans, we can get caught up in ideas of human ancestry but when you are working with ancestors of the land it may well be that you need to put those ideas to one side and think about the influences of plants and animals, rivers and hills and the wights that come with them. Whether we acknowledge it or not we are connected with and influence many aspects of existence about us and what we do, how we behave, can have repercussions we are barely aware of. If you are learning about the ancestors of a place it may well be that the non-human ancestry will have a larger impact than any human ancestry might. Helping to keep an area clean of human rubbish is an activity that may well mean you strengthen those non-human bonds more than the human ones.

Ancestors of spiritual line or path can include some that are common to many and others that are very individual. For example Ross Nichols is a key ancestor for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Without his work and teachings the Order wouldn’t exist as it does today. Beyond him there is a lineage of figures associated with the revival and development of what has become modern Druidry. Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente and Alex Saunders are key ancestors for the Wiccan path among others. Some Heathens may well consider Snorri Sturluson an ancestor of their path purely for his work in preserving so much of the Old Norse lore but there will be other ancestors that mean a great deal. Each path will have figures that are honoured well beyond their lives and should be thought of as ancestors of path or line. Practical crafts and skills can have very similar lineages that can be honoured as ancestors. In addition to these wider known figures smaller groups and individuals may have others they think of as ancestors.

For me personally there are currently two people in particular that I honour as ancestors of my own path. As time passes there may well be other names that join them for varying reasons but for now there are two. I choose to name them here and share something of why they are important to me, they are Chris Turner (aka Coifi) and Insa Theirling. Both of these played a significant part in the development of my path as it is today although neither they or I knew it at the time. Both died in 2001 and I was honoured to have a role in the passing rites for each of them.

Coifi taught me to draw a labyrinth. I might have learnt it at some stage from someone else but as it happened I learnt it from him. Like many I find walking a labyrinth a wonderful thing to do drawing together physical movement with spiritual purpose. Thanks to Coifi I can draw a labyrinth in the sand of a beach using a staff or even by dragging my foot along, then I can walk it with purpose and later watch as the ocean clears all signs of it away. I don’t think I can easily convey in words what that has meant for me over the years. I have other memories of Coifi too but that bit is the most special and significant to me.

Insa’s gift to me was an introduction to the Scottish Cailleach through some of the folklore Insa studied at that time. When I first met Insa she was studying for a PhD at the University of Glasgow on Supernatural females in Gaelic Scotland and naturally enough the Cailleach featured. Insa had joined the Druid group I ran at that time and gave us a couple of talks based on some of her research. She also wrote at least one article for the Tooth and Claw magazine run by the British Druid Order if I remember correctly. Insa was a beautiful young woman. I have a wonderful memory of her playing her harp in the dappled spring light of the place our grove met for rituals in Pollok Park. Sadly she developed an aggressive form of cancer and after months of fighting she died. I would probably have learnt of the Caillach at some stage without Insa but without her struggle I may never have made such a heart felt prayer to the Cailleach which I believe was the first seeds of the relationship I have with Her today.

Hopefully in this section you have seen something of my stumbling journey in developing ancestral devotional practices. I share these things with you so that you can see where I’ve faltered and know that if you occasionally struggle in your journey you are not alone in doing so. If you are hesitating about beginning ancestral practices please just take that first step. Your ancestors of many kinds are waiting for you to reach out to them.

 

References

Blain, J. (2016) Wights and Ancestors: Heathenry in a Living Landscape Prydein Press

 

Approaching Samhain

The following post began life as a first chapter for a book I began to write two years ago. I never finished writing the book and I have now decided to use what I wrote as blog posts instead.

Memories. They flood my mind at this time of year.

The clocks will soon turn back and the first frost of this season should soon be seen in my area. Winter approaches and as it does I continue to prepare for the coming months. The lavender bushes in my back garden will be trimmed back. I harvest some of the flower heads through the autumn but never all as there are at least three species of bumble bee that feed from the lavender. By the end of October though most of the flower heads are dead and I cut it back ready for the coming winter and the following spring.

This is a time of preparation and it probably always has been. Generations of ancestors will have finished their harvests and checked their stores. Did they have enough to see them through the dark times? Had they stored enough fuel to keep them warm in the cold months? Our lives are often removed from many of those concerns but still there are things we think about and organise at this time of year. Should we have a flu jab this year? Can we afford our possible heating bills? Is it time to check our stocks of cold cure remedies? Where’s that warm jumper got to? We still prepare for the cold, the dark and the coming winter months.

Each of us will have times of year that means more to us than other times. This time is one of my special times. I adore the autumn colours. And I love to kick about in fallen leaves when they are crisp and crunchy. Some will say that’s because I’m in touch with my inner child and there maybe something in that. I think it’s also the sensory pleasures or the colours and the crunchy sound – there’s nothing quite like it. Autumn is also a time of celebrations for me and mine though so the changes in this time of year also provide signals that it’s time to prepare for those celebrations.

And memories, those too are triggered by the changes around me. I took my first concrete steps into my Pagan path in the autumn of 1996. I’d been aware of Paganism for much longer than that but it wasn’t until 1996 that I started describing myself as Pagan. I had started a work placement with the University of Glasgow that gave me easy and daily access to the internet. I found a fair amount of material back then, enough to help me start creating my own solitary seasonal rituals. I already knew of the Pagan Federation but it was that year that I first became a member and that November that I attended my first Pagan Federation conference in London.

That first Pagan Federation conference was highly significant to my journey. I’d already come to feel that I wanted to learn more but that I wanted to be guided in my learning somehow. I looked at the various paths and Druidry was the one that interested me most but I still wasn’t sure. At that long ago conference there was a talk and I still remember it. I remember the title being “Druidry, Druidry, whose got the Druidry?” and the presenters were Philip Shallcrass and Emma Restall-Orr, at that time the joint leaders of the British Druid Order (BDO). That talk changed my life. It opened my eyes to the complexity of Druidry in a wonderfully light-hearted way. Afterwards I went to their stall and brought the BDO Druid Directory and at least one issue of the magazine “Tooth and Claw”. During that winter I read through things, thought about what I had learnt and although I loved the BDO I joined the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). Back then the BDO didn’t have a distance teaching programme and most of their activities were in the South of England. I lived in Glasgow and still do. OBOD had, and still has, a very useful distance teaching programme. My own practices have changed a fair bit since those early days but I will always hold places in my heart for the British Druid Order and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druid.

The other major influence for my memories at this time of year dates back to being a girl attending a Catholic convent school. Halloween was not something I remember doing anything about back then but All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s day made a deep impression. It is from this part of my childhood that the importance of ancestral remembrance at this time of year took hold within my mind.

There are some who will tell you that our ancient Pagan ancestors honoured their ancestors at time time or that it was the “Celtic New Year”. As far as I am aware there is no real evidence for either idea. There is plenty of evidence that this was a time where preparations for the coming winter were finalised including the slaughter of livestock that would be unlikely to make it through the winter.

Thus, there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time of a major pagan festival which was celebrated, at the very least, in all those parts of the British Isles which had a pastoral economy. At most, it may have been general among the ‘Celtic’ peoples. There is no evidence that it was connected with the dead and no proof that it opened the year, but it was certainly a time when supernatural forces were especially to be guarded against or propitiated; activities which took different forms in different regions.
(Hutton, pp369-370)

In Scotland, my current home, popular traditions at this time of year include ‘guising’ and the making of ‘Tumshie’ (turnip) lanterns. Guising at this time of year on the surface looks very similar to the activities of ‘trick or treating’. Individuals dress up and until about a century ago their “object was to avoid being recognised by the spirits of their dead, who might possibly do them a mischief.” (McNeill, p24) I have been told on several occasions that guisers should differ from trick or treaters in a rather important way – they should entertain in some way for their treat and not just expect something. That’s something I try to encourage in my daughter who greatly enjoys knocking on other people’s doors. I have yet to brave making an attempt at a ‘tumshie’ lantern though as these traditional Scottish lanterns are made from a hollowed out turnip. I’ve been reliably informed that the effect of carving out the insides of turnips can be felt in the hands and wrists for quite a while afterwards. Coward that I am I’ll stick to carving pumpkins while my daughter is still young enough to enjoy such activities. Other popular associations are various forms of supernatural beings and bonfires but most of the later seem to have have moved to November 5th and the British celebration of Guy Fawks night.

A significant part of my pagan path is Brythonic so I have an interest in the Welsh folk traditions of this time too. The Welsh name for this time is Nos Calan Gaeaf which literally means ‘winter’s eve’. It is described as a ysbrydnos (meaning spirit night) and there were many rural folk traditions surrounding this time in Wales just as there were in Scotland. Again many of those traditions have gradually died out and been replaced by the more commercial halloween activities. Bonfires were popular as were activities like apple bobbing. There were beings to watch out for that were specific to Wales such as the fearsome Hwch Ddu Gwta (Black short-tailed sow) who came from the Otherworld and would chase those walking home or the Ladi Wen (White Lady) who was said to spin and weave by stiles and her very name was used to warn children against bad behaviour.

It’s not much of a stretch to go from being concerned about supernatural beings to thinking of the dead as ghosts are usually included when people think about the supernatural. It is likely that the link between this time of year and our ancestors was something that took hold around a thousand years ago due to the medieval Catholic church and festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’. That’s a fair bit of time for an idea to sink into our cultures. Acknowledging the fact that it probably came from the Catholic church doesn’t bother me in the slightest but I am aware that some will prefer to cling to the idea that ancestral remembrance at this time is part of our ancient Pagan heritage. Certainly ancestral practices of some kind seem to have been important to our ancient pagan ancestors but we simply don’t know if there were commonly held specific times of the year that ancestors were honoured or if it was more a daily practice woven into the patterns of life about them.

What we can say with confidence is that within a large number of the paths within modern Paganism Samhain, or Nos Calen Gaeaf, has become THE time to honour our ancestors.

References:
Hutton, R. (1996) The Stations of the Sun Oxford University Press
MacNeill, F. M. (1961) The Silver Bough Vol. Three Beith Printing Co. Ltd

A death, a rebirth, a claiming

A Death

Recently I chose to support a particular kickstarter project for “Tales of Hopeless, Maine” and I chose a level of support that included as a reward a Hopeless, Maine obituary by author Nimue Brown. When I first chose this I did so because I thought it would be unusual and fun (which it is) but not long before mine was written Nimue asked me what name I wanted to die under.  That’s not a question I expected and it got me thinking about my various names. My birth name is Pauline and many people use that name for me including my husband. My parents call me Polly, my brother sometimes calls me Pic (short for pickle), my children usually call me mum. And among many Pagans, particularly Druids, I have been known as Potia. I have also had several surnames in my life, Pitchford is my fifth. So I had a lot of options to choose from for my “death”. After some thought I felt that it was time “Potia” died.  Potia was a name I took up towards the beginning of my journey into druidry. I have changed a lot since then.  It’s also a name linked to Epona via a particular inscription. My love for Epona hasn’t changed but I am not dedicated to Her alone.

I had no idea how I might die on Hopeless, Maine. It’s an unusual place where death is not always certain, where bodies are not always available to be identified and buried. Perhaps I would be stabbed by knitting needles or poisoned via a pot of tea. I never imagined the death I got or the headline: “Potia Pitchford defies explanation“.  To be taken by surf horses was a beautifully significant way for Potia to die, to be taken into the depths by the very image of one of my most loved deities. And yet for my death to be uncertain too. No body to identify or bury, just gone. This death has a strong spiritual significance to me that I didn’t anticipate. It was also published on Friday 13th and Friday is the day I do my weekly devotions to the Herd Mothers, to Epona and Rhiannon.  It was also a full moon and I now do devotions on full and dark moons for beings of ocean, seas and rivers.

A Rebirth

The druid I was, Potia, has changed. What I am now has grown out of the druid that I was. I am a priest, a tender of a shrine, a servant of a group of deities and sworn to two deities in particular. I have written of some of this in a previous post “On being a priest“. I have felt since writing that post that I needed to take on a new name, one that to some extent reflects the changes in my life.  Until this evening what that name would be escaped me. This evening as I sat communing with An Cailleach I received some guidance.  I need to check my understanding and make sure I can write it correctly. I’ve also been led to believe I don’t need to stop using Potia, this new name will be more of a descriptive surname if I understand it correctly.

A Claiming

“You are mine” She said to me this evening. I acknowledge that claim with the understanding that I am also sworn to the Herd Mothers and that any tasks She and They would have of me need to be balanced against the needs of my children.

 

The aftermath of a difficult situation

This post will touch on themes some readers may feel are uncomfortable.  In particular the use of restraint for esoteric or erotic purposes – better known as bondage.

I will make it plain here that I have very little knowledge of bondage or any aspect of BDSM practices. The topic came up recently in a druid forum and I need to express some of my thoughts on the situation that resulted.

Essentially a member of a forum I am on brought up the topic of BDSM and bondage in particular in relation to a new practice he was developing that combined aspects of shamanic journeying with light bondage.  He explained something of what he was trying to do and asked if anyone would be interested in learning more.  He framed this topic in a manner that was familiar to him as someone who had been involved in aspects of BDSM for several years.  He posted this in a forum space that was set up for heated discussion and on a board that prides itself on being a “safe” space for members to express their different forms of Druid practice.  I presume he felt that he should be “safe” to introduce this topic and as it’s usually a quiet board leave it for a few days before coming back to see if there were any responses.

Sadly his post was not received well by several members.  Reactions were heated and hostile with one of the worst responses accusing him of breaking the law and causing harm, while another severe response accusing him of trying to solicit sexual partners.

I was frankly shocked by the heat of the responses.

The original poster was asked to clarify his intentions with his opening post and when he didn’t immediately appear to do so there were further heated replies.  This is a board where usual interactions are considered and thoughtful, where it is not unusual to have days between responses and yet there was an expectation that for this topic the poster should be there straight away to respond.

It wasn’t that long before the poster did respond and I felt he did so very well.  He accepted people had been upset and apologised.  He explained himself eloquently in my opinion but still the heated responses continued.  He chose to remove his post as there were several responses on the thread saying it should be removed and that took the responses with it.  Another member tried to start a thread for healing from the situation but that too became heated with members now expressing anger that the thread had been removed even though that was what they had said they wanted.

None of these individuals seemed to give the original poster the benefit of the doubt.  He had been judged and found wanting merely because he had raised a controversial topic and perhaps not phrased things as carefully as he might have done at another time.  But he probably thought he would be safe in this space to raise this without tiptoeing around the subject.  And indeed why should he have to tiptoe around it anyway?

The conflict, and therefore the original poster as the start of the situation, were likened to Islamic radicals and white fundamentalists  in one post, to a murderer in another, just because he had shocked some members of this space.  Some stated they no longer felt “safe” there because of what he had raised.  I’m not sure I feel safe there having witnessed all these heated reactions.  Who will they turn on next and why?

And then there’s my own feelings of confusion over all this.  Did I do enough by witnessing this the way I did?  Did I speak up clearly enough? Should I have said more, done more, to defend this man?  Did he need defending?  Will he feel this space is “safe” for him to continue in.

I do know this person a bit and I know that he has a hard won strong sense of personal identity.  This isn’t the first time he has experienced reactions like this from what I understand so hopefully he will weather the storm reasonably well.

Did I stand by my own principles well enough?  I’m not sure.  I didn’t let my anger and growing disgust at the responses I was reading get the better of me so that’s good.  I did write something in support of the original poster so at least I spoke up to some extent.  Should I have done more?  Realistically could I have done more?  I don’t really know.

I’m not upset by the thought of someone using BDSM practices as part of their own religious practice.  I’m a self diagnosed autistic with sensory needs that mean I often seek really tight hugs and even being pinned down.  It’s not that much of a stretch to go from the feelings of relaxation I get from deep pressure to accepting that bondage can lead to a change in consciousness especially when handled in a way to enhance that sort of effect.  I don’t have a clue how that might look practically but that’s not the point, I can trust that this man knows what he is doing.

I accept other definitions of what it is to walk a Druid path.  I listen to other points of view and think carefully before I respond.  I expected those in the forum this took place in to do the same, to think carefully, to give the benefit of the doubt, to respect alternative practices and views.  I am still upset that so many didn’t do that, that so many didn’t seem to take that step back and seek further information before reaction so strongly.  And at the moment I am less likely to share my thoughts and practices in that space because of what happened.

 

A bit of this and a bit of that

It’s been a busy month for me with lots of different things going on which means my mind has often been jumping about from one topic to another.  It also means that I’m feeling a bit drained.  Much of these happenings have been good things.

The first two weeks of April are school holidays here so there were visits from school friends to co-ordinate, trips out to arrange and space for relaxing and unwinding to be managed. This year my son also needed to fit in some study time for exams that take place in May.  Juggling the desires of a highly selectively social teen with a bouncy sensory seeking ten year old while remaining sane myself can be challenging and by the end of the school holidays I am very happy to get back into term time routines!

My husband, Neil, is a keen amateur landscape photographer and on Saturday 7 April he was up at Fort William for the launch of an exhibition with the Society of Scottish Landscape Photographers which including one of his images. I wasn’t able to go with him and I still haven’t seen the exhibition but it’s moving to an exhibition space in Leith, Edinburgh on Saturday 5 May so I’ll get to see it when it’s there.  If you’ve not yet seen Neil’s photos please do take a look at his site Awen Photos, you can also find him on Facebook. Needless to say I am rather proud of his photographic skills!

Saturday 14 May saw Neil and I at the Druid Network AGM at the Bilberry Hill Centre near Birmingham. It’s a location that the Druid Network have used for several years and we are all rather fond of it.  The Druid Network (TDN) AGM has a formal side to it but it is also a time of community connection, discussion, shared food and fun.  It is a full day event and many of us stay overnight before dispersing across the UK the following day.  Last year I stepped into a new role at the AGM, that of minute taker.  I found that having a task to do helped me manage my social anxiety and this year I continued in that role.  I’m not a fan of taking minutes for meetings usually but when both I and the group can benefit I am much more keen. Thanks to years of University committee experience it’s not a role I find difficult and TDN AGMs are more fun to minute than anything I have done in the past.

Just last week I had another AGM to attend.  This one was for the RDA Glasgow Group and I was anticipating a much more boring and formal meeting. I was pleasantly surprised.  It was anything but boring!  This AGM took place on Wednesday 25 April in the evening in the RDA Glasgow Group conference room. The discussions that followed the formal reports were lively and I found the whole meeting much more interesting than I had anticipated.  I was very tired afterwards though as there was a lot to concentrate on.

I’m becoming more involved with the RDA.  While I was recovering from my unscheduled dismount and not fit enough to help out in classes I helped out in the office instead and took on the RDA Glasgow Newsletter preparation.  I will be doing the next issue too although I’m not sure what’s happening after that as yet.  I’ve also been doing a bit of work on updates for the RDA Glasgow website (feedback always welcome by the way).  I’m now building up my fitness for helping in classes again and it’s great to be back doing that but I still plan to help out in other areas.

Which reminds me, today being the last day of April is also the last day of Autism Awareness month for several countries. World Autism Awareness Day is 2 April each year.  Some areas of the world use the whole of April as Autism Awareness month.  In the UK the National Autistic Society held a week long focus of events from 26 March  – 2 April.  Anyway, RDA National has been working on a new addition to its online learning courses aimed primarily at RDA volunteers and staff.  This one is on Autism Awareness and it’s going to be officially launched very soon.  I took part in the testing of the course and I am delighted to say that in my opinion they have done a really good job on this course with a good balance of information and practical suggestions.

These are a few of the highlights from my busy month.  I’ve also been continuing in my book writing efforts and trying not to let self doubt stop me.  I’ve been healing from my own injury and continuing to coordinate requests to the Pagan Healing Circle. And, as always, I’ve been continuing to devote time to my family and my devotional practices.

 

 

To be or not to be an author…

I am already an author here on this blog, I’ve also written articles that have been published in the Pagan Dawn magazine in the past.  I am currently musing on the idea of writing a book.  I had tentative ideas of writing a book once before on urban druidry.  That never came to pass and others have written books on forms of urban paganism since that time.  If I go forward this time though it would be something on being a (mostly) Brythonic polytheist.  Brython have plans to write and produce a primer that would cover various aspects of Brythonic polytheism.  I don’t want to write something like that though and frankly I don’t think my scholarship is up to that type of book although I’d probably make a good draft reader for the project if they get that far.  If I do write something, and I’m really not sure if I will, it is likely to be more personal and experiential.

I’ve been on my path as a pagan for a little over twenty years now.  I started learning about druidry with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids  (OBOD) in March 1998. I have grown and developed in that time as you would expect and so has my path.  In the last decade I have developed much more of a Brythonic polytheist practice.  In that time I’ve gone through a number of personal changes as well that have affected all aspects of my life.

We are at a time when books about various polytheist paths are gradually increasing.  Is it time for one on what it is to walk a mostly Brythonic polytheist path?

But why would I write this? For the gods or for my own sense of ego? Probably a bit of both but is the balance right?  Would I do this more for the gods and to give others signposts for their journeys?

And would it be something others would want to read?

I think I could do this but should I?  And if I did would it even get published, be read by others, be enjoyed?

More questions than answers.  I’d welcome thoughts from readers of this blog about this.