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.

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

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

Pagan Healing Circle changes

In June last year I wrote about being called to try and do more of a healing nature in a post titled Healing Needs.  I set up a Pagan Healing Circle at that time but keeping it going has become something I no longer wish to keep up with.  While there has always been healing sent to a small number of personally known individuals, other requests to the group have been rare. It has become increasingly difficult for me to keep going with any enthusiasm for this venture so I have decided to stop.  I have closed the Facebook page I had set up and removed the page about the healing circle that I had on this blog site.

One of the members of the group of healers, Geoff Boswell, has offered to take the group forward with the support of the others in the group and he has set up a new Facebook group for it.  The Pagan Healing Circle has been renewed under the guidance of a Druid I have known and respected for many years.  Healing requests should be directed to this new contact for the group.

Fourth post on HWU conference

This is the fourth (and last) in a series of posts with my notes from the Heathen Women United conference on 6-8 July in Preston.

The first post is Experiences and notes from Heathen Women United 2nd Annual conference which includes my notes on the first panel of speakers and the second post is Notes from HWU conference cont. which includes my notes on the keynote and guest speaker talks on Saturday 7th July. The third post More notes from HWU conference cont. includes my notes from the second panel and a small amount about the evening performance on Saturday.

This post will cover my notes from Sunday 8 July.

The first session of the day was a combination of talk and workshop presented by Alison Williams-Bailey on Galdr (a form of sung magical incantation). Alison spoke about some of her experiences learning about joik with the Sami people. She said that joik is a language for feelings and that it comes from nature.  A joik can be used as an anchor for journeying.  The most common form of joik is the personal joik and that a joik is “owned” by the being the joik is for or about.  There are a number of famous joiks such as the Bear joik and the Wolf joik, there is even a mosquito joik. Alison quoted a friend of hers that had spent time with some Aboriginal tribes saying “Indigenous means your heart is in the land”. Alison demonstrated a joik. The second part of the session was a practical workshop singing various Anglo-Saxon verses and in some cases doing simple dances with the songs.  This was my first experience of attempting to say or sing anything in Anglo-Saxon and I will admit I struggled with the pronunciation on a few things but it was great fun.

This session was followed by the third panel and last of the conference – Skuld. This panel included four speakers.

First to speak was Tom Berendt currently studying in the United States. His talk was titled “Ostara’s American Awakening: Invoking the Heathen Goddess of Fertility”. Tom spoke about the increasing popularity in America of Ostara as a Goddess linked to the Spring Equinox with the festival itself being increasingly referred to as Ostara.  The connection of Ostara to the Spring Equinox was first introduced by Aiden Kelly in 1968.  The origins of this are thought to be with Bede and his mention of Eosturmonath and a goddess named Eostre. Tom mentioned that Bede may overstated the popularity and importancce of Eostre, she may have been a local goddess for the areas now known as Kent in England rather than a much more widely known goddess.  Ostara has become much more popular though and her popularity has been increased by her inclusion in shte cast of characters in Neil Gaiman’s book and TV series “American Gods”. Ostara has become strongly associated with the spring and fertility particularly in neo-paganism.

Next to speak was Dr Edward Davies with the title of “The ‘Silent Voice’ of Heilræði: Surfacing from the Lake of Masculinist Infantilisation.” Edward first gave examples of women in sagas that had played roles of negotiation and diplomacy, roles where they were engaging in social mediation and justice. My understanding from this talk is that “heilræði” approximately means sound or wise counsel.  Edward mentioned that women in the sagas often seemed to prefer discussing situations before acting. He went on to talk about definitions of masculinist and feminist giving a definition of masculinist as having an emphasis on domination, the importance of power and tendency to belittle others. He went on to talk about different waves of feminism and how these were not necessarily tied to linear timing but more styles of feminist thought (if I have noted this correctly).

The third speaker in this panel was Ceallaigh Mac-Cath-Moran from Canada. Her talk was titled “Unverified Personal Gnosis: Mediating the Supernatural Among Heathen Women.” Ceallaigh started her talk by mentioning the recent #HavamalWitches reaction to some of the masculine domination within Heathenry which is a response to stanza 154 of the Hávamál and the statement “We are the witches the Hávamál warns you about”.

Stanza 154 for those not familiar with the Hávamál can be translated as:”A tenth I know: when at night the witches
ride and sport in the air,
such spells I weave that they wander home
out of skins and wits bewildered.”  from https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/havamal.html#spells

Ceallaigh went on to point out that this is not a new reaction as Seidr is described in source materials as women’s magic. One aspect of Heathen practice is that of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Ceallaigh gave a composite definition for this which I didn’t note down ad she said that there isn’t a dictionary definition of this term. From her research Ceallaigh said that many treat UPG as not as important as information from the lore or archeology. UPG can become verified by a link to an event in the material world and that often this happens retroactively.

The last speaker in this panel was Dara Grey from the United States of America.  Her presentation was titled “Wiccatru, Folk Magic and Neo-Shamanism”. Dara began by talking about the various definitions of what makes something a religion and usually definitions include elements of belief, practice, experience, knowledge and consequences.  There is lots of debate about what aspects of Heathenry fit into these elements. Magic is often defined as separate from religion but lots of ritual practices include elements of magic. The phrase “Wiccatru” comes up in debates over disputed practices. Wiccatru can mean Norse elements within Wicca or Wiccan elements within Norse practices. More often it is used as a pejorative to dismiss something for example within arguments about doing something the right way.  Dara pointed out that we can not reconstruct the wider cultural context of ancient practices and this is a factor is the wider reconstruction of a religion.  There are many gaps in the lore leading to dilemmas over what “doing it right” looks like and for some this leads to anxiety about practices.

The panel question and answer session was lively and I did make a few notes.  One person asked if it mattered if belief in a particular deity was modern or historical. The responses agreed that it didn’t really matter and that it was important to remember that authentic perceptions were often more about consensus than historical facts.  It was pointed out that it is important to be careful when using the internet as a sole source for research.  Another person asked why authenticity was considered masculine. Dara responded that creativity was often seen as in opposition to authenticity and that women were often seen as being more creative and men more about being authentic.  It was noted that this attitude was cultural to some extent as it is stronger in the U.S. than in Iceland and Norway.

Following a lunch break with wonderful food we had talks from two guest speakers and another keynote speaker. The food on Saturday lunchtime was good but the food at Sunday lunchtime was better. It was a lovely soup and a range of artisan breads and some cake too. Very tasty!

The first guest speaker on Sunday was Suzanne Martin from the UK with a talk titled “Queer Heathenry: Heirs of the Bifrost – a queer heathen’s perspective”. Suzanne began with an overview of queer history and the main categories of “queer” people. From there Suzanne spoke about the growth of queer Heathenry over recent decades.  In recent years many groups have made explicit their stances on inclusivity. The Sagas include a range of elements that can be viewed with a queer interpretation such as Thor wearing a wedding dress or Skadi taking up weapons and seeking vengeance.  We have Odin performing seidr which was considered to be women’s magic and Loki not only changing into other species but changing gender too.  There are plenty of other examples in the lore. In modern culture Marvel films have added characters that are queer or have changed the gender of figures such as a recent film with Thor as a woman. Moving forward queer heathens are becoming more willing to come out and are being more accepted within their communities.

At the end it was mentioned that Suzanne is co-host of Frithcast, a podcast focusing on modern heathenry.

The final keynote speaker of the conference was Dr Deborah Moretti with a talk titles “The Witch and the Shaman: Perceptions of the Witch- Figure in Early Modern Italy”. This talk is based on work Deborah has undertaken doing a second PhD and working with Prof. Ron Hutton on a wider project about the witch figure in history. Her research looks at witch trial evidence in two areas of Italy one in the north and one in the south. In the north elements witch elements included flying to sabbats, demonic aspects and sabbats taking place on mountains. In the south ideas were different, more folkloric with the possibility of elements being from older traditions.  Deborah found no evidence within the witch trial documentation for shamanic style practices.  Some of the folkloric aspects do indicate possible older shamanic practices but no evidence was found.

The last guest speaker was Lorna Smithers with a talk on “Belisama and her Daughters”.  In this talk Lorna introduced us to the Belisama, goddess of the river Ribble which flows through Preston and the wells, springs and streams that were part of the local water table although mostly now built over.  She also shared some of her devotional poetry. Much of what Lorna spoke of you can read on her blog at Signposts in the Mist.

The conference ended with a closing blót. This was a simple sumble rite with mead and apple juice being circulated twice and some runic chanting included.

The whole experience of this conference was intense for me but really good. I learnt a lot and by the end of it I felt an unanticipated connection to the Heathen community.  I am so glad I made the effort to attend this conference and I look forward to seeing more from the Heathen Women United community.

More notes from HWU conference cont.

Third of a series of posts with my notes from the Heathen Women United conference on 6-8 July in Preston.

The first post is Experiences and notes from Heathen Women United 2nd Annual conference which includes my notes on the first panel of speakers and the second post is Notes from HWU conference cont. which includes my notes on the keynote and guest speaker talks on Saturday 7th July.  This post will cover the second panel of talks and a little about the evening entertainment.

The first panel was called Urd and this second panel was called Verdandi.  It included three speakers presenting information about aspects of contemporary Heathen practices.

The first to speak was Annie Humphrey currently studying for a PhD in medieval history in Ireland and originally from the North Eastern United States and her talk was titled “Heathen Motherhood in Theory and Practice”.  Annie spoke eloquently from personal experiences as well as from her observations and much of what she spoke of resonated with me.  She began by talking of how the role of mother could perhaps be better described as that of the nurturing parent and how even in the Heathen and pagan communities there tended to be a lot of stereotyping around parental roles. There can be assumptions that being a mother is the peak of what it is to be a woman which are often painful to those who do not have children either by choice or circumstances. Annie also spoke of how you loose your individual identity in many ways in becoming a mother, you are seen more as “mum” than whatever else you may be.

The second to speak in this panel was Barbara Davy from Canada speaking on “Women, Heathenry, Paganism and Ritual in Contempory Canada”. Her slides had the subtitle “to become Ancestors of a Living Future”. Barbara first spoke about her experiences as a guest at a Dísablót (rite honouring the female ancestors for those not familiar with this term) where a human skeleton was seated at the table fro a community meal along with the living guests.  Dísablót is usually held in the winter months around Yule although timings can vary. She went on to talk about her research on research and environmental values.  Pagans and Heathens feel a stronger connection to the land and wider world to a statistically significant level compared to those who do not follow a Pagan or Heathen path. Ritual is also more important and Barbara suggest that it is ritual that leads to many of the differences she has noted in her research. Barbara suggested that re-emphasizing Ancestor Veneration could lead to a better sense of wider connections with wights and the wider environment as well as our ancestors.

The third speaker was Raoul Zimmerman from France. His talk was titled “Men and Women in Contemporary Asatru in France.” Raoul spoke of his fieldwork in both Iceland and areas of France with different Heathen communities and comparisons between the areas.  He reported that the Asatru community in France was much smaller than in Iceland and the groups he had come into contact with in France were heavily male dominated. He also noted that there was more racism in the French groups than in Iceland.  In his experience the women in France connected with Heathenry in some way also tend to be much more open to ideas from wider Paganism.

There were questions at the end of the panel but I didn’t take any notes on the questions or responses.

The second panel took place after the second and before the third keynote speakers and I have written about all the keynote and guest speakers on Saturday in my previous post about the conference.

The final part of the day was a performance by Alison Williams-Bailey.  This was a solo song and storytelling performance called “Creation Song: A Norse Mythology Storytelling Show”. Alison’s performance lasted about 45 minutes and was a powerful demonstration of memorisation of both song and story.  I was happily enthralled as she moved, spoke and sang stories from Norse mythology. It was a wonderfully immersive experience.

 

 

Conference review for Brighid: Her Flame Burns Brightly 27 Jan 2018

“Brighid: Her Flame Burns Brightly” was an online conference organized and hosted by Land Sea Sky Travel as the first in a series of conferences. The series is called “A Year With The Gods” and they have plans for online conferences spaced through the year close to the more commonly recognized Pagan festivals.

As I have had a devotional relationship with Brigantia for many years I decided that trying to attend this online conference should be a good experience for me with the added benefit of devoting time to Her that day.  I was however a bit nervous as I had not experienced this type of online conference before.  I needn’t have worried.

The software used was Zoom which has a freely available client for a participant.  The software has some good support information and I didn’t have any problems with downloading the client or testing my set up.  The organisers of the conference were also available via email and Facebook with advice in the days before the conference.

As the conference organizers are based in the United Stated of America the timings of the conference were very understandable picked with the Sates in mind.  Saying that the welcome pack emailed out before the event had a detailed schedule for the day including timings in three different time zones.  I was both impressed and very pleased with this level of information and it made things much easier for me to organize.  There were a number of nice extras sent out with the welcome pack too including a couple of short stories, a couple of chants and a couple of links to suppliers of relevant goods and services.

On to the day itself.

For me the conference started at 3.30 in the afternoon.  Getting into the correct location was straightforward and everything seemed to be working very well.  Our main host for the day, Vyviane Armstrong, provided clear information and repeated basic housekeeping type information throughout the day for those that joined at different times.  Tech support was on hand through out the day too and while I was aware of some minor glitches happening problems were dealt with swiftly and efficiently with a good sense of humor kept throughout.  I was very impressed with the entire organizational operation and I would expect that things will only improve as the series of conferences continues.

The opening devotions were carried out by Andrea Maxwell who sang a beautiful chant for us. The day was underway.

The first presenter was Lora O’Brien not someone I was familiar with although that’s true for a lot of people so please don’t take any particular meaning from that.  Lora spoke about her experiences with Brighid and took up all on a guided journey to meet Brighid.  Her voice was clear and very enjoyable to listen to, the journey was a delight.  I particularly enjoyed the use of a boat as guide for part of the journey, this reminded me of many tales from both Scotland and Ireland.  It also reminded me of the little boat in the Wizard of EarthSea quartet by Ursula Le Guin.  Interestingly I had a name from my little boat, Wayfinder, and I hope I see it again in other journeys. I also found it interesting that where Lora described working areas in Brighid’s place that were slightly messy with works in progress I saw areas that had been tidied up, work finished for the day and things in their place for when they were next needed.  I’m sure that says more about me than anything.

The next presenter was Gemma McGowan who spoke eloquently about her experiences serving Brighid as a priestess.  Unfortunately I had to sort out my daughter’s tea during that talk so could only dip in and out.  One of the advantage of this style of conference though is that the sessions are recorded and will be sent out to all the participants so although I missed some of Gemma’s talk at the time I will be able to listen to it again and pick a time when I am not going to be interrupted.  I know she shared something of her experiences in seership and trance possession which is something I have a little experience of myself with a different Goddess so I am particularly looking forward to being able to properly listen to what Gemma shared during her talk.

The conference then had a short break and a giveaway draw.  The break was also an interesting experience as participants had the option to turn on mics and videos for a little bit.  It got a bit chaotic.

Following the break we had our Keynote speaker, Morgan Daimler. Morgan is a well known author and presenter and I was delighted that this conference would give me the opportunity to hear her speak.  She confessed to being a bit nervous at the start of her talk as it was the first time she had presented at an online conference.  I could see the nerves but I could also see her swiftly relax as she began to speak. Morgan spoke about her work with the original old Irish texts translating and digging for references of Brighid.  While I was familiar with much of what she spoke about some information was either completely new to me or had simply not stuck when I read Morgan’s book on Brigid. In particular that the earliest mentions in the texts are of a single Goddess, the triple Brighid comes later in time.  Also that the earliest form in the Irish texts was very likely to have been thought of as Brighid the Poet.  That’s poet in the old Irish sense of an incredibly highly trained and skilled individual with a huge collection of lore, poems and stories stored within their memory.  It was a very interesting talk.

Straight after that talk was a panel discussion.  A range of questions were put to the presenters who shared their experiences and opinions.  Participants were also encouraged to share responses in the chat room which remained pen throughout the conference.

After another break we heard from Mael Brigde who founded the flame tending group Daughters of the Flame in 1993.  She shared with us the history of that group which I found fascinating and what a lovely piece of synchronicity that the Daughters of Flame lit their first flame tending candle on the very same day that the Brigidine sisters relit the sacred flame at Kildare. Neither group being aware of the other doing so at that time.  Meal Brigde spoke beautifully about her experiences and both the history and practicalities of flame tending within the Daughters of the Flame.  She also sang two chants for us, both simply lovely.

By the time Mael Brigde’s talk ended it was 11.30 in the evening for me and I was very tired so it was at that point that I quietly left the conference, shot down my laptop and went to bed.  The conference itself went on with another presenter and I look forward to listening to her talk in the future when it is sent out to participants.

I really enjoyed my day taking part in this online conference.  I was a little disappointed not to be able to hear more of how the speakers felt Brigantia fits into the assorted Brigidine lore as I connect best with Brigantia.  I was also a little disappointed not to hear from any male presenters during the day.  There were male participants but a male perspective in the conference did seem a little lacking to me.  These however are minor points.  No conference pleases everyone all the time.

Over all I felt this conference was exceptionally well run with some wonderfully chosen speakers.  I am very pleased I made the decision to attend this first conference in the series.  I am not sure how many of the others I might attend but I can see at least two that interest me from just the titles.

I know from experience of running face to face conferences in the past what a great deal of work goes into conference organization. My heartfelt thanks and congratulations go to all those involved in the planning and organizing of this very well run and presented conference.

Further details of the plans for the future conferences will be available on the Land Sea Sky Facebook page

 

 

 

 

Healing Needs

Over the years I’ve felt the need to do something of a healing nature.  There have also been times I’ve needed some healing support myself.  Most of the time what I have done has been as an individual. I’ve prayed; dedicated and lit candles; developed and carried out healing spells; chanted and sung; sent out distance healing using Reiki; visited people in hospital and given healing in the form of Reiki and similar types of spiritual healing; and I’ve asked for some of these for myself from people I know that also do forms of spiritual healing.

I have a whiteboard hung on the wall by my shrine to those deities I have special relationships with and on it are the names of people I know of that have asked for healing either directly or via a trusted loved one.

I’m not medically trained.  I’m not trained in one of the many and varied healing  and associated professions  and I’ve never been called to do that sort of vital work.  What I can offer, what I do, can not replace good medical care and expertise.  What I offer is something that can support the heart and soul, something that helps with feeling loved, feeling cared for and supported all of which aids physical healing.

Recently though, I have felt the need to do more.

One aspect of doing more is to take on the role of healthcare chaplaincy coordinator with the Scottish Pagan Federation.  The basics of this role is to ensure NHS trusts in Scotland know where to come to if they wish for Pagan information and support.  Another is to provide a visiting service to any Pagan who is in hospital and would like a Pagan visitor.  I can’t do all of this myself by any means but there are volunteers across the country who will do what they can to support Pagans who find themselves in hospital.

The reality of our current society is that much of the longer term healthcare takes place in the home and community.  Now many Pagans will have some form of Pagan community they can turn to for support at these times, that might be an online community or a moot they attend when well enough but there are many that for all sorts of reasons will not have that support.  Part of the role I have with the Scottish Pagan Federation is to try and provide some support for Pagans in Scotland that find themselves isolated and in need due to their health, physical or mental.  Being able to support people though does rely on someone letting the Scottish Pagan Federation (via their contact form) or myself know that there is someone in need support and that’s not always easy in itself as often we don’t like to ask for support for ourselves even when we need it.

But I felt I needed to do something more.  I felt pushed, prodded, urged to set up some form of virtual healing group.  I bounced my ideas of a few others, some of whom are, or have been, involved in other healing groups.  I wanted something which was open to those of any type of Pagan and Heathen path to join.  I wanted something that didn’t restrict how healing was done or sent, other than it would be virtual.  I wanted something that had a central hub that requests to join and requests for healing went through.  And I wanted something that had the potential to grow.

I think in the Pagan Healing Circle that I have set up, I have planted the seeds.  It’s young yet but already I have close to a dozen individuals who have joined me in this circle.  Healing is being sent out for a couple of individuals already and I hope that as word spreads others will ask for healing too.

Healing requests come to me on a dedicated email address.  I then send them out to the rest of the circle and make a note of what date they are sent round.  The plan is that requests stay active for a month unless we get follow-up requests or feedback of some kind asking us to keep sending.  A minimum of a first name and what the healing is for is asked for, I don’t circulate the whole email I receive, just the request itself.  This is to preserve as much privacy as possible while still providing support and healing.

If you want to know more about this healing circle, would like to join or wish to make a healing request please do email me on paganhealingcircle@gmail.com.

Oh and we’ll happily accept healing requests for beloved animal companions too.

Image thanks to Awen Photos

Orkney part 2 -guided journeys

Breakfast at our accommodation was excellent and very good fuel for the day ahead.

At 9am our wonderful guides Helen and Mark Woodsford-Dean of Spiritual Orkney joined us. We hadn’t met them face to face before although I had known Helen online for a while. I’d contacted Helen while we were planning the honeymoon trip to ask if she had availability in her calendar for the week we were going to be in Orkney.  She did and we had an exchange of emails and Facebook messages to arrange things during which she planned an itinerary for us based on what I’d told her about the sort of things we wanted to see.

It is possible they might have shown us a couple of places if we’d asked out of friendship  but personally I would have felt guilty taking up their time and expertise during the peak tourist summer season when tour guiding is one of the ways they make a living.  Besides we wanted to see lots of places and having experts showing us around was something we wanted to do. And not just expert tour guides but fellow Pagans and people we knew a bit about.  I can not stress enough how delighted we both are that we went down this route.  Helen and Mark are lovely people and great guides.

Our itinerary for our first full day included the Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse Neolithic Village, Ness of Brodgar, Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and a couple of hours on the Brough of Birsay.

As we journeyed around we were treated to a wonderful combination of archeological information, including from their own experiences digging at the Ness of Brodgar, and local folklore.

I’m not going to write huge amounts here about these wonderful places for a couple of reasons.  One is that so much has already been written about them, the other is that the experience of being at these places is unique to each person.  What I do have is a few of my husband’s photos to share as a picture can be worth a thousand words.

 

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Stones of Stenness

One of the more profound experiences for me visiting these places was that, thanks to Helen in particular, I could understand more about these places than I would have done otherwise.  Little details that helped me see something more of that ancient way of life that I’m pretty sure I would have overlooked without her explanations. Encouraged by Helen to really look at the houses of Skara Brae for example I could see not only the similarities between each structure but also the little differences that made me think of the way we all like to personalise our own spaces when we can.

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Skara Brae

On the Brough of Birsay (which is reached via a tidal causeway) we saw puffins, fulmars, razorbills and skuars flying from nests and resting places on the cliffs.  We also saw the Viking ruins there with their excellent drainage systems (again I’d never have realised what we were seeing without Helen pointing them out).  We also had the opportunity to scramble through a cave towards the top end of the Brough which Helen referred to a rebirth cave.  It was a couple of steps down to the entrance and then as you made your way through the cave it narrowed  until you came to the opening at the other end and had to crawl to get out.  While we didn’t have the opportunity to make a full formal ritual around doing this it still had that rebirth effect for me at least.

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Puffins on Brough of Birsay

Our second day was also spent with our lovely guides and on that day we visited the cliffs at Yesnaby, Kirbuster Farm museum, the Broch of Gurness, the Tomb of the Dogs, Rennibister Earth House, Happy Valley and Unstan Cairn.  Again I’m using some of my husband’s photos to help show something of our experiences but as there’s less written about some of these places I’ll try and write a bit more too.

The cliffs at Yesnaby are wild and parts of the landscape look like they have been transplanted from another world.

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Top of cliffs at Yesnaby

On the heath before the cliffs you can find the rare primula scotica. This is a tiny little plant and not easy to spot unless you know what you are looking for so it will probably be no surprise for me to tell you that Helen found them and once we had been shown them we were able to find more in that area.

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Primula Scotica at Yesnaby

Kirbuster farm museum is a fascinating place.  Part of the buildings date back to the 16th century and there are recognisable features from the styles of buildings at Skara Brae and the other neolithic sites that have clearly been continued through the ages such as the sleeping alcoves and built in wall niches.  This is also a free museum with very knowledgable and friendly guides – well worth a visit.

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16th Century aspect of Kirbuster Farmhouse

By a narrow margin I think my favourite part of that day was the visit to Happy Valley. This lovely place has very unusual gardens by Orkney standards that were planted by the former owner who was something of a recluse during his life. Luckily the building and gardens are being preserved and cared for by the Friends of Happy Valley group.  It is a beautiful place and has a magical atmosphere to it.  I wish we could have stayed there much longer but my need for certain facilities meant we had to move on as the house was locked up.

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Happy Valley Gardens

I think I will write a separate post about experiences with tombs, cairns and the Rennibister Earth House and bring this section of our Orkney experiences to a close.

All photos copyright Neil Pitchford, Awen photos.