Initiations and rites of passage

When you talk about initiation in Pagan circles it is often understood to be a ceremony that takes place within a particular path and changes your status within that path in some way. Initiation can also be about beginnings and some initiations are not formal or even planned but situations or events that change you. I have experienced both types of initiation.

Initiation:
“1. formal admission or acceptance into an organization or club, adult status in one’s community or society, etc.
2. the ceremonies or rites of admission. Compare rite of passage.
3. the act of initiating.
4. the fact of being initiated.”
(from http://www.dictionary.com)

 

Initiate:
“1. to begin, set going, or originate: to initiate major social reforms.
2. to introduce into the knowledge of some art or subject.
3. to admit or accept with formal rites into an organization or group, secret knowledge, adult society, etc.
4. to propose (a measure) by initiative procedure:
to initiate a constitutional amendment.”
(from http://www.dictionary.com)

In March 1997, after hovering on the edges of Paganism for about seven years, I took the decision to dedicate myself to a Pagan path. In many ways that decision was my first initiation as it is a decision that changed my life. Inspired by a particular book and also using some materials I found online I wrote a solitary ritual for the Spring Equinox that year that included my self dedication. A year later, having joined the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), I carried out my first initiation rite as a Bard with OBOD. The initiation rites provided by OBOD allow for solitary initiation although those within active groves or able to attend OBOD events may well choose to have their initiations with others of the Order. That initiation too was one that changed my life because it was the start of my ongoing journey within the forest of Druidry but I didn’t feel any dramatic changes at the time. These two events and choices I made in later years have linked the Spring Equinox with initiations in my heart and mind even though I have also had initiations at other times of the year since then.

I continued to walk those first few years of my Pagan life with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and although I work in different ways now I will always hold a special place in my heart for OBOD. The structure of the materials I used in those years provided me with a good grounding in which to grow and change.

In November 2000 I became pregnant with my first child. My pregnancy went pretty well and in due course I had life’s initiation into parenthood. I still feel that no matter how much you think you are prepared for the changes your first child will bring you are wrong. It is an initiation of a very different type and comes with its own ordeals and rites of passage. Nothing can truly prepare you for the changes having a child brings. The change is not as dramatic the second time around but there is still a rite of passage involved for parents. We celebrate the birth of a child, we give gifts for the child, hold naming days but I don’t think we acknowledge the effect on the parents very well.

Rite of Passage:
“1. Anthropology. a ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person’s change of status upon any of several highly important occasions, as at the onset of puberty or upon entry into marriage or into a clan.
2. any important act or event that serves to mark a passage from one stage of life to another.”
(from http://www.dictionary.com)

During my first pregnancy I had another form of initiation. By that time I had been a joint facilitator of a local Druid group and had been writing and facilitating group rituals for that group for about a year. Two members of that group died during the period of my pregnancy. Both had Pagan funerals and one of those, Insa’s, was my first experience of acting as celebrant for a rite of passage.

Being a celebrant for a rite of passage is an honour and a privilege. It’s also incredibly hard work and emotionally exhausting even for the lighter rites of passage like namings and weddings or handfastings. The hardest rites for me, and many others, are the funerals. Holding space for people to remember and grieve for a loved one requires walking along the knife edge between compassion and distance. You have to somehow maintain enough distance to allow you to lead that all important last service for the departed while also helping those grieving to feel the connection to the person they knew. If you didn’t know that person yourself then you have to draw a sense of them out from the stories you are told by family and close friends. If you did know them you have to put your relationship to one side to allow the person that others knew to come though. I still don’t know whether I find it harder to prepare a rite of passing for someone I knew or someone I didn’t know. I have done both more than once and the service for Insa was the first.

For a few years I carried out a range of Celebrant work including legal Pagan weddings and handfastings here in Scotland. I no longer hold the registration to do legal Pagan weddings as I chose to mostly give up my role as a Celebrant. I gave the work up because it requires a level of commitment and energy that owing to family needs I found increasingly difficult to maintain. I have been involved in a baby naming and carried out at least one funeral since I gave that work up but these are rare events now although as my children grow older maybe I will choose to return to this work.

I consider myself to be a Priest and I still use the term Druid. It is not formal initiations within a Druid Order that leads me to use the word Druid to describe myself and I’ve never had a formal rite of initiation as a Priest. I use these words because of personal experiences with deities and spirits. I am not the sort of Priest and Druid that leads a lot of ritual for others although I do some of that. I am not the sort of Priest and Druid that supports others in times of stress although I do some of that too. I am a Druid and a Priest because I serve my deities. I serve them in bringing up my children to be responsible and caring members of society. I serve them when I kneel in quiet contemplation at my altar. I serve them when I go about my daily life, doing my best to walk my truth. My service is not demanded of me but offered freely and with love. It is in fleeting moments of ecstasy, fear and awe that I have been initiated by the gods themselves into my role as Priest.

This type of initiation is one that is highly personal to each individual. It comes of personal experiences and personal relationships. It isn’t something that can be easily expressed or something that can be given to anyone else in a ritual. You can lead a ritual that can facilitate these types of experiences but you can’t promise them or give them to others yourself. If you have these types of experience you might choose to mark them in a rite of passage of some kind if you have a community you can do that with but you don’t need to do anything other than accept or reject the experience. Even rejection begins a new path.

Many initiations and rites of passage have some form of ordeal experience that takes place before the rite itself.  I challenge anyone who has arranged a wedding to say there aren’t any aspects of preparation that are an ordeal in some way.  Likewise however smoothly a birthing experience goes some aspect of it is almost certain to be an ordeal.  Ordeals before rites of passage or initiations do not have to be formal structured ones. Sometimes life just puts you into situations that are ordeals to get through and when you come out the other side you want to mark it with something.  I am wondering how many of us will want to mark the experience of this COVID-19 lockdown with a rite of passage of some form when we are able to gather with others again.

Spring Equinox

Spring Equinox is an odd time of year really. The very name implies that it should be spring and a time of daylight and darkness in balance and in reality neither are the case fro more than a fleeting moment. The actual point of 12 hours daylight and 12 hours darkness is not usually on the actual date of equinox in spite of its name because the equinox is actually an astronomical marker of the point at which the earth’s axis is not tilted away or towards the sun. The underlying axial tilt remains. It is latitude on our planet that determines our length of daylight so while there are days around the astronomical equinox that are very close to 12 hours they vary from place to place so the common understanding of equinox as equal day and night is an approximation.

The other aspect of the name is “spring” and some years sprig seems further away than others at this time of year. Two years ago Scotland had a widespread red alert for snow for the first time in many years just before the spring equinox. Many schools in the central belt of Scotland were closed for three days with various areas suffering from power cuts and being cut off due to snow drifts. This year we’ve had a very wet winter but recent days have finally seen a bit more sunshine. Today is gloriously bright and sunny at the moment if a bit on the cold side.

What about our ancestors? Did they celebrate the spring equinox? There are a couple of ancient monuments that have equinox alignments in the UK and a small number in Ireland so there is a little evidence that the equinoxes were observed in some way by our neolithic ancestors. Our iron age ancestors seemed to have focussed more on other festivals and there’s nothing in the way of ritual survival information connected specifically to the equinox available in either Professor Hutton’s “Stations of the Sun” or F. Marian MacNeill’s “Silver Bough”.

So what do we make of this festival today? I struggle with it. I know many refer to the spring equinox as Ostara and link it to the Germanic spring or dawn goddess Eostre. There’s no evidence to suggest that the spring equinox is the time that those ancestors that would have known more of Eostre would have come together to feast and honour Her. We do have evidence that it would have been some time in the spring but not necessarily at the equinox. Adrian Bott has written a number of pieces of the years published in the Guardian and on his blog about this time of year and in one of the more recent blogs writes:

“Eostur was the fourth full moon of the Anglo-Saxon year (which began with the first new moon after Modranecht, Dec 25th)”
(from https://cavalorn.livejournal.com/591576.html)

Nothing to do with the spring equinox there.  I’m not saying we can’t use the equinox to honour Eostre but I feel strongly that we should be aware that this is a modern development. Likewise using the symbols of eggs and seeds for the equinox is a modern growth of symbols that are associated with the spring generally.

A symbol associated with this time of year that I have only recently learnt about is the Easter Fox. Again this information comes via Adrian Bott and in particular an interview with him carried out by the author Yvonne Aburrow published at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2015/03/move-over-easter-bunny/

“Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox. Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter Fox was not disturbed during his visit – for example by shutting up pets for the night. Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910.”
(from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/2015/03/move-over-easter-bunny/ question 5)

Adrian goes on to state that there is no evidence that this is a survival from pre-Christian times but a lovely idea to work with anyway.

We each of us have festivals that mean more to us than others and this is one of the festivals I feel least connected to. This year many face to face celebrations are being cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis but there are online options for those that do want to celebrate.  I don’t mind if I miss celebrating it although in past years I have usually given the younger kids in the family that I see regularly something seasonal between the spring equinox and Easter.

The spring has long been associated with new beginnings, growth and making new starts for various things. This year I guess it’s also going to be linked to unprecedented change!

 

 

 

Family

In  my last post on Yule I spoke about traditions I have with my family during the darkest days of winter. Family is a central part of my life. Family has always been fairly important to me but becoming a parent changed that from a fairly important aspect to a central one. My journey as a mother began just a couple of years after my journey as a Pagan began. From the earliest days of my first pregnancy there has been a spiritual aspect to being a mother from marking stages of my pregnancies with ritual to sharing my path with my children.  I have not brought them up to be Pagan but with the knowledge of various pagan paths as well as other religions so that they may choose their own paths but I am very open about my beliefs and practices.

A few years ago I coined the phrase “Hearth Druid” as a light hearted but fairly accurate description of my path. As I am also a polytheist, if I want to be more descriptive I will say I am a polytheist hearth druid. Druidry is the path I began with when I first explored Paganism and I later developed into a polytheist Druid. For many there is an aspect of service within the Druid path. That service can take many forms and in my case a key part is service to the future by doing the best I can to raise my children to be caring and responsible humans.

Any parent who says raising children is easy is likely to be stretching the truth to breaking point. Parenthood is wonderful and terrifying. It brings some of the most intense joys, some of the deepest fears and the greatest amounts of stress to your life. I am blessed with two children six years apart in age, one son and one daughter. My son is a young man now and I am immensely proud of him. I am incredibly proud of my daughter too who is growing into a young woman. Both of my children have additional challenges to deal with in this modern world of ours because both are autistic. I am not diagnosed as autistic but I still believe that I probably am. I am certainly among the more neurodivergent section of the population.

I am lucky in that both my children are very healthy. They are intelligent, loving and wonderful young people. The additional challenges they have, that I have, are because our society tries to treat us all as if we are the same. We are told again and again that we must meet set targets and milestones in set periods of time and yet very few of us will meet any of these things in the same periods of time or in the same way. Our modern society does not yet value diversity as well as it should whether that be physical diversity, neurodiversity or many of the other aspects of diversity that exist within our human species. In my opinion we are only just beginning to truly appreciate the importance of diversity in nature generally.

Learning more about diversity in various ways, learning to appreciate diversity, is part of the reason I am the polytheist that I am today. I have grown into polytheism and I believe it fits wonderfully with a viewpoint that treasures diversity.

Some polytheists are able to put their devotions to their deities at the centre of their life. Some have incredibly close relationships with a small number of deities, relationships where they are asked to serve their gods in very direct and often life altering ways. I am not one of those polytheists, at the centre of my life are my children. My children don’t need me quite as much as they used to when they were younger but my daughter in particular still needs a lot of support.  I still have deep relationships with my deities but they do not ask me to choose between my love for them and my love for my children. Those I am sworn to understand that I what service I can give them, as with everything in my life, is balanced against family needs.

Other members of my family are also very important to me. I am lucky enough to have a very close relationship with my parents. I had a particularly close relation ship with my mum and I miss being able to phone her up for a chat.  I miss her hugs most.  I had more of a friendship than the usual sort of mother/daughter relationship many people seem to have. Neither of my parents were Pagan when I was growing up, they came to it later in life when I was in my late teens and although I was aware of that change it wasn’t something that led me to become Pagan myself. Our paths differ but we still share seasonal rituals as part of the same local group which used to be driven forward more by my mum with my dad and I in support and my dad now carries on with me in support.

And then there is my husband. Both of us have been married previously and both of us have learnt things from those previous relationships. I now understand so much more about myself, my probably autistic self, than I knew in my first marriage and that learning has been incredibly valuable in my relationship with my husband now. He is my love and my support. He is also a Druid and that gives us another bond. We call him a Land Druid because his Druidry is so closely tied to his relationship with the Land, walking it, taking landscape photographs and being out there.

My relationships with other members of my wider family are also very important to me. I chose my current home for example because I wanted to be physically closer to my brother, his wife and their children. That in turn has allowed me to develop much better relationships with all of them.

For some, family can also become something incredibly painful. While that is not my experience I know that for some the last thing they want is to be close to some or perhaps all of what would usually be called their family. Family is not just about those you are connected to by blood, upbringing or marital status though. Family means different things to different people and for many a spiritual family can be as important or more so than their blood family. In some cases those you think of as family widen out in different directions. A best friend may be closer than a sibling, members of a grove may become like a second family or members of an online community may develop a sense of family brought together by shared interests or commonalities in situation. Families are another area of diversity in life that can be overlooked but what is a family but whom you love the most and who love you in return?

I am very open with my family about my beliefs, they all know I am polytheist. Some members of my wider family are happy to chat about faith matters, others are not so keen. In my wider family there are several Christians and yes, there has been the odd misunderstanding over the years but we have been able to move past such things. When I was a child and for most of my growing years the only faith really spoken about in the family was Christianity. That has changed. When we do talk about religion we don’t just talk about our own faiths, we also talk about other faiths in the world.

In my own home I openly practice my faith, there is nothing hidden and my children are free to join in when they want to or not as the case may be. I have taught them that if someone is at prayer unless it is an emergency you wait respectfully until they are finished before you start talking to them. I have an altar in my dining room, pagan books on bookshelves, robes and cloaks hanging in my wardrobe. Nothing hidden. If anyone in my family is curious about my own path or other aspects of Paganism they know they can ask me. They also know there’s a chance I’ll start getting very enthusiastic and start telling them about all sorts of related information. A question about a Norse deity may lead to a discussion on Norse myths, then myths of other cultures, the place of story in our world in feeding our imaginations, in allowing us to move beyond our own limitations and widen our perspectives. Or it might lead along other paths entirely. I get very enthusiastic and my mind jumps about leaping from trail to trail. My family know this about me and know that if they start asking questions an hour could easily pass as we discuss things. Fortunately they are also quite adept in letting me know when they’ve had enough if I don’t spot the signs myself.

My family, like my faith, is intimately woven into the strands of my life. The tapestry of who I am would not be as colourful or as complex without either of these parts of my life.

Winter Solstice and Yule

This is another post based on material from my draft book.

The Winter Solstice is usually around the 20-22 December in the Northern hemisphere (in the Southern hemisphere this would be the summer solstice) and it is the centre point of the winter. It is the time of greatest natural darkness, from this point onwards the amount of daylight will gradually start to increase. I live in central Scotland and the difference between summer and winter light is much more noticeable here than it is around the South of England for example. I have friends living in Orkney and for them the difference is even more extreme. The actual amount of daylight you get on the winter solstice will depend on where you live but it will be the least amount for your area in any year. The weather often turns colder, although January can be colder still.

There is little evidence of how our ancient pagan ancestors may have celebrated this dark time of year. There are a small number of surviving neolithic monuments in Britain and Ireland that indicate that the solstice was considered important in some way such as Newgrange with its dawn alignment around the winter solstice, Maes Howe with its dusk alignment around the winter solstice and Stonehenge. Archaeological evidence from Durrington Walls near Stonehenge suggests feasting on pigs and cattle may have been a significant part of winter festivities in the landscape around Stonehenge. Surviving lore from Scandinavian and Germanic sources suggests winter festivities were important to iron age Pagan ancestors but we have virtually nothing in Britain relating to winter festivities that we can trace back to the iron age with any confidence. The traditions that remain in our modern culture around this time of year are a mixture of traditions that have built up around Christmas and New Year in different areas of Britain and many of them have been imported from mainland Europe.

One thing that had come down through history is that there seems to have been a very old tradition of several days worth of celebrations around this time of year. This has echoed down to us in the words of the carol “On the First day of Christmas”.

Professor Ron Hutton writes:
“The tradition of twelve days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span.”
(Hutton, p6)

During the eleventh century and Danish rule over England the term Yule was introduced for the winter festivities. Over the next couple of centuries this became more popular as a term for the mid winter festivities surrounding Christmas in England and spread to Scotland as well.

Prior to period of the reformation Christmas or Yule in Scotland was celebrated in a similar manner to that in other medieval Christian countries in Europe. That changed during the reformation with much of the festivities becoming frowned upon by the early Kirk and in 1640 the Parliament of Scotland banned Yule celebrations. While that act and subsequent acts concerning Yule celebrations were repealed Christmas remained a quiet affair in Scotland for centuries due to the influence of the Presbyterian Kirk. Christmas day only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1954, Boxing Day didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1974. New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay became the major public expression of mid winter festivities in Scotland. In recent decades there has been a gradual shift towards more widespread celebrations of Christmas but it is still Hogmany that is the major focus of mid winter festivities in Scotland.

In the UK, and probably many other places, shops everywhere have displays of Christmas foods and assorted gift ideas from November and sometimes from October. Children get increasingly excited while parents get increasingly stressed. Schools put on Christmas fairs, nativity plays, school concerts in December and often arrange other additional seasonal activities. Councils decorate streets with lights, canned Christmas music is played almost everywhere. There is an unspoken pressure that we should be joyful and celebrate but many people struggle to keep going and suffer increasingly from physical or mental health conditions.

For many Pagans of many different paths this time of year is difficult for religious reasons as well. Do we celebrate Christmas for the kids? Do we take part in the Christian traditions that have often been built upon much older Pagan traditions? How do we acknowledge the darkness, honour the winter?

There are no easy answers to these questions. If you have young school age children the chances of them escaping the increasing hype about Father Christmas or Santa Claus coming to them with gifts of all types on Christmas Eve is incredibly slim. As they grow older they may gradually move away from ideas of Santa but still want gifts – well most of us like gifts after all.

One advantage Pagans have is that some of the traditions of this time of year are rooted in Pagan traditions from other areas of Europe. Feasting during the midwinter is one aspect that has an ancient history. The details have varied as tastes and availability of foodstuffs has changed but the central theme of gathering in larger groups and feasting still remains. Where there is a feast in ancient time there would often be a fire and there are many variants of Yule log traditions, not something we do as much now that central heating has replaced so many open fires. While the very name Yule log suggests Scandinavian origins to this tradition there would have been other important fires during this time in ancient Britain if only to cook all the food for the feasting. In Scotland the importance of fire has remained in New Year traditions such as that of carrying a lit ‘Clavie’ or large fire pot around Burghead on the Moray Firth and the fireball procession at Stonehaven. In Burghead it is likely the tradition was transplanted from elsewhere in the region as the town itself isn’t ancient. The Stonehaven tradition again is relatively recent being developed in Victorian times but again it may have roots in older traditions. Whether these traditions are truly ancient or relatively young they speak deeply to us of the importance of light and heat in these cold and dark times.

Decorating the home with evergreens is another ancient tradition, holly, ivy and mistletoe being particularly popular choices in Britain, again the plants used have varied a little over time depending on availability and location. Then there is the Christmas Tree. Decorated trees of some sort have been used in various countries at this time of year for centuries but the Christmas tree as we now know it seems to be medieval in origin and brought to this country in Victorian times by Prince Albert from Germany. Now we make choices between live trees and artificial ones of different sizes, there are ethical pros and cons with both options and in the end we all choose what we feel is best for our homes and families. And then there’s that wonderful tradition of giving gifts and the mysteries of Santa Claus, Saint Nikolas or Father Christmas!

My own wider family is a mixed faith family but my husband and myself are both Pagan.  My son has never been very interested in religion but we have talked many times over the years about various faiths, he has never been keen on all the Christmas hype. My daughter has been interested in Paganism for a few years and more recently stated that they are polytheist with a particular interest in the Heathen path at the moment but she adores all the colour and excitement of Christmas. We have a number of health issues in the family too, both physical and mental. So like many families we need to compromise with our winter festivities. In the wider family we celebrate the winter solstice and Christmas.

The first family activity for this season is decorating the house. I won’t even consider doing this until December and usually we are well into December before the decorations are brought down from the loft. My son is not at all interested in this side of festivities but my daughter adores it. She always helps with the tree decorating and in helping to decide placement for some of our other decorations. She has some decorations for her bedroom too where by son’s room is a decoration free zone. The decorations are usually all in place by Eponalia.

For me personally Eponalia, as mentioned previously, is of particular importance as a time of quiet reflection and prayer before the more hectic family activities begin. By Eponalia in past years I’ve usually been to two school fairs, at least one school performance of some kind and had to begin to plan what else will be happening and when for the rest of the festive season so I’m usually feeling a bit stressed by mid December. This year has been a bit quieter but I’ve also started working again so that has reduced the time and energy I have for planning and organising.

Just three days after Eponalia is the winter solstice and in my home that is the central point of the winter festivities. In some years I join a local group of Pagans on the closest weekend before in celebrating the coming time of the winter solstice. Sometimes other commitments mean I’m not able to join them. Several years ago though I started a family tradition for the solstice itself and that is our winter solstice walk. The kids and I wrap up warmly and we go out on the evening of the solstice (or if the weather is really bad as soon after as we safely can) for a walk around the local streets. When he’s able to (depending on work) my husband joins us. My nephews and niece who live very close to us often join us on our walk. We admire the lights we see on, and in front of, houses as we walk round and we chat a little bit about the importance of hope and light in the darkness. When we return home after the walk we have hot drinks, hot chocolate for those that want it, and a seasonal snack. Once we are all settled with food and drink the kids get their Yule gifts from myself and my husband. Giving my kids a gift at solstice helps to emphasise the importance of the solstice to us and other pagan members of the family. It also has the benefit of helping to spread out gifts and accompanying excitement rather than getting everything on one day.

The next couple of days are an odd combination of excitement and calm in my family. My daughter in particular gets increasingly excited for the coming of Santa and Christmas and my son quietly retreats to his room to avoid all the fuss. Depending on energy levels (mine rather than the kids) we might do some baking together. Why buy extra biscuits or mince pies when you can have fun with the kids making your own? It’s usually a messy and fun activity for the kids and a bit more stressful for me although eating the results is very enjoyable.

There’s visits to and from various family members on Christmas eve, Christmas day and Boxing day with Christmas gift giving among the wider members of the family. And then, just for a little bit, days begin to get calmer again. Outside it is still cold and dark but we know that daylight is slowly beginning to get increase again.

However you celebrate or don’t at this time of year I wish you all a sense of peace and hope in this time of darkness.

References

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

F. Marian McNeill (1961) The Silver Bough Vol three: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Halloween to Yule Stuart Titles Ltd

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

 

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.

 

Lifestyle changes

In July 2016 I lost my job as a an administrator with the University of Glasgow on capability grounds due to stress, depression and anxiety.  I wrote about some of this a year later here. I was on medication for depression until the end of 2016 and had some counselling therapy in the later half of that year too.  On that occasion I’d been on medication for a year. It wasn’t the first time I’d been on medication, if I remember correctly it was the third time over a period of about four or five years. It was however the first time I’d had some therapy on the NHS. I’d had a bit of counselling through work before but hadn’t found that very helpful. I’ve been out of the workplace since that time.

In October 2016 I had my induction for volunteering with the RDA Glasgow Group. I’ve been volunteering there ever since and I still love it.  I also think volunteering there has had a very beneficial effect on my mental health.  I’ve been off the medication for depression for almost three years now.  I’m feeling much more balanced within myself. I still get the occasional episode of anxiety it is not nearly as bad as it used to be and I can usually push through the anxiety and carry on.

I’ve already written about some of the changes that have been happening recently with my family. Since that post something else has developed. I started to do a few more hours of volunteering in the RDA Glasgow group office again.  And not long after I started doing that a job opportunity with RDA Glasgow came up.  It’s a part time admin post for volunteer coordinator and the things I have begun helping with in the office are part of that post.  I thought about it and decided to apply so a few days ago I sent in my thoroughly updated C.V. and an application letter.  The closing date isn’t until the 19th of this month so I’ve got a bit to wait before I will hear if I am selected for interview.  My husband, Neil, has sensibly advised me to just put it all out of my head. I’m not very good at that. I’m not exactly worrying about it but I can’t help thinking about the possibilities of things I could maybe do in the role.

Part of the role is to deal with volunteer paperwork and support the newly revised induction process. I’m already starting to think about improving checklists that can help me keep track of who is at what stage of the process. I also think I might be able to help with some aspects of the initial induction, the health and safety bits for example.  Another aspect of the role is supporting active volunteers, introducing ways to recognise and thank them like social activities and awards. An award certificate for Duke of Edinburgh (DoE) volunteers might be a good idea as they need evidence of what they have done for the DoE awards, at the moment they get is a simple record card of the hours worked and what they’ve done.  I keep musing on aspects of the job. I’m excited by the possibilities. I am trying not to get too enthusiastic, after all I might not get it but I find it difficult not to think about what this job could mean for me.