Thoughts on a retreat at home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 little bit of local history

On Sunday Neil and I went for a walk round our local park/nature reserve as we often do on a weekend.  On this occasion we met a very friendly dog and her human.  While playing ball with the friendly dog we chatted with her friendly human, a very nice lady who had lived in the area most of her life.  We parted and walked on and later on our walk met up with them again and chatted some more while playing ball again.  We estimate she is now in her late seventies to early eighties based on the conversations.

From this lovely lady we learnt more about the local history of our area.  We learnt that this area had been part of a coal mine.  There had also been a brick and tile works and a hospital.  We had heard of the hospital before but not the  other aspects. And the lady said we could google it all if we wanted too.  Well naturally when we came home I did.

From online research I have found out that there were two separate coal mines in this area.  One is the Robroyston Coal Pit and according to the map links it seems that we are living right on top of that mine. It was only operational for ten years from 1880 – 1890.  The second was the Robroyston Colliery and from what I can tell this was actually under what is now the nature reserve which tallies with what the lady was telling us. It was operational between 1923 and 1932.  The lady told us it closed due to flooding from an underwater river.  That part I haven’t been able to find further information about but many of the coal mines in the Glasgow area were closed due to flooding.

Robroyston Colliery did not escape mining accidents resulting in loss of life.  The Scottish Mining website was a valuable source of information on the most severe accident in the history of that mine. Ther’s also an overview of the mining history in Lanarkshire which was once known as the “Black Country” of Scotland.

I’ve also confirmed the Robroyston hospital location and a few further details about it. There’s a bit of information on Wikipedia about it under the entry for Robroyston which includes mention of the colliery and brickworks.

The lady also mentioned three local burns which have since been swallowed up into drainage systems.  I’ve yet to do the research on those or the possible underground river but I am intrigued by the idea of so much hidden water in the area.

The nature reserve was essentially built on top of the remains of the Robroyston colliery and brickworks.  Apparently local school kids helped to plant all the trees in the park which would explain why there are not any really old trees in the park and why the older ones all seem a similar age.

All this from taking the time to play with a friendly dog and chat to her owner.

 

A stranger in a foreign land

I mentioned in a previous post that our family had visited Canada this summer. Travel to a different country allows you to experience all sorts of new things. You come home changed by at least some of the experiences you had. Some changes will be subtle, others may be more dramatic.

Canada is a huge country so unless you spend months travelling across the country you are only going to get glimpses of the land and culture.  Our holiday was for a total of twelve days and some of that was travel time.  We spent two nights at the beginning of our holiday and one night at the end in Toronto which gave us two days of sightseeing in the city.  The rest of our time we were staying in a lovely self catering house on the outskirts of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

I think the first impression you get visiting Canada from the UK is the sheer scale of the land. When you fly you quickly leave the UK behind you but you spend a good couple of hours flying over Canada before landing in Toronto. The next thing that hit me even as we came into land was that the landscape is pretty flat, that impressions is only strengthened as you drive through Ontario a bit. I live on the outskirts of Glasgow but I see hills from my windows and you can get to places with mountains pretty quickly too, maybe twenty minutes drive.  On landing the next thing that hit me was the difference in the air temperature and humidity. It was warm, to be expected in July, and the air felt much drier than in Scotland. It’s rare I bother with sunscreen in Glasgow but it was used every day in Canada.

The hotel we stayed at in Toronto was near the airport.  We had a suite, ideal with the four of us. I thought there would be a restaurant on site, there wasn’t but there was a free light meal available in the evenings. The food at the hotel was much saltier than we are used to and the quality wasn’t great but we managed. The hotel did a free shuttle bus between the hotel and airport though which was very useful as it turned out that the best was to get “downtown” was to go via an express train between the airport and the main train station in Toronto, Union Street. Our first full day we visited the CN Tower and the nearby Ripley’s aquarium. The views from the CN Tower are amazing and it was from there that we caught our first clear look at Lake Ontario. In the UK we are used to seeing across lakes and seeing them fully laid out before us, looking out across Lake Ontario is like looking out to sea. Our last day in Canada was also in Toronto and that day we took an open top city tour bus trip which meant we saw much more of the city and learnt all sorts of things about the city.  One thing that stuck with me was the description from the guide of the two seasons in Toronto of winter and construction. He wasn’t kidding either, almost every street we turned down had something happening on it, road works or building works. I think that apart from the iconic and amazing CN Tower the building I will remember the most is one of the banks, the Royal Bank Plaza, in the financial district.  There are two buildings and they are notable for the lovely bronze colour of the glass which covers them. The guide on the tour bus told us that the glass was particularity valuable because each pane was coated in gold and that’s what gave it the unusual finish.  Apparently the gold coating acts as an insulator helping to keep the building at a more even temperature.

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Royal Bank plaza, Toronto

Niagara-on-the-Lake is an interesting place to stay. We had a lovely house set in its own land.  The house had been a farmhouse at one stage in peach orchards.  Many of the orchards in the area have gone now and everywhere you turn are vineyards. The main street in Niagara-on-the-Lake has a number of shops most of which seem to be aimed primarily at the many tourists in the area but there was one general store which is where we got food from apart from the times we ate out. The area makes an excellent base for exploring the Niagara parks area with its many tourist attractions and although there are a lot of tourists around the main street the area we were in was much quieter and very peaceful.

During July in much of Scotland it doesn’t get fully dark during the night and the sunset is late with a long twilight period. In Ontario the sun set earlier, twilight was briefer and the nights darker.  There were no street lights where we stayed so we could really appreciate the darkness and the vast expanse of night sky that being in a flatter landscape gives. The nights were also much warmer than we are used to in Scotland.

As is my habit when we go away I took with me items that could be used for a portable altar.  These included prayer cards with images of deities, my prayer beads and my small notebook containing some prayers that I don’t know off by heart. I use a cup or glass wherever I stay to make offerings and the offerings are poured out onto land a few hours after I make them, usually the next morning. My offerings are usually alcohol and being on a different continent led me to consider if pouring them out onto the land was acceptable. None of the deities I honour came from the Americas, they are all European. I was aware that I had no information on the beings of the land where I was staying.  I know that in some areas alcohol is not an acceptable offering and I believe that in the traditions of some First Nations tribes pouring alcohol on the land is frowned upon but I don’t have enough knowledge to know if that is or was the case for Ontario. I did my best to respectfully make contact with the local land spirits.  I got the sense that as these offerings were for deities I had “brought” with me that what I wanted to do was acceptable. I felt that it was acknowledged that I was a short term visitor and that I was showing respect as best as I could. I also got the sense that if I were on the land longer I would have been expected to make more effort to learn more of the First Nations people from that area. Not to do as they did but to understand more of what was considered respectful of that land.

The most dramatic and well known place to visit in the Niagara area is, of course, Niagara Falls. The tourist attractions in that area include the Journey behind the Falls, the Hornblower Cruises the Whirlpool Aero Car and the Butterfly Conservatory.  The Journey behind the Falls gives you the opportunity to stand just beside the water pouring down, to feel the thunderous roar in your flesh and to walk in tunnels that go behind the falls with viewing sections where you can see the water streaming down in front of you.  Seeing the falls from above along the pathway that runs beside the river is amazing but going behind you begin to get a sense of the power of the land and water in that place. The Hornblower Cruise gives you a very different perspective of the sheer scale of these falls.  The American Falls and the Bride’s Fall are pretty spectacular but they are small in comparison with the mighty Horseshoe Falls.  The cruise takes you along the river past the American and Bride’s falls and right towards the base of the Horseshoe Falls into the mist and spray.  Being on the river looking up at the roaring water as it thunders down I was filled with exhilaration and awe at the power of this place.  The spray bathed me, washed through me, filled me with joy and wonder.  It was both a very physical and very spiritual experience.

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Horseshoe Falls, Niagara

One of the last major attractions we visited was the Butterfly Conservatory, a haven of delicate beauty.  Hundreds of butterflies of several different species danced about us, some landing on us for a time allowing us to admire their beauty more closely before fluttering away again.  As with most of the attractions we visited fairly early in the day when things were relatively quiet although by the time we were leaving the crowds had started to gather in that haven of tranquillity too.

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Richmond Birdwing, female butterfly

The last place we visited in the Niagara area was the the Six Nations and Native Allies Commemorative Memorial in Queenston Heights park. This was important for us to visit as we had become more and more aware through our visit of the absence of information about the First Nations history in the area.  Almost everything we saw was focused on white colonial history as if there had been nothing of significance before European colonisers arrived. Living as we do in a land rich in the ancient monuments built by our ancestors going back to neolithic times the absence of any mention of First Nation history until we found this one monument was striking and uncomfortable.  Our British nation was behind the persecution of indigenous peoples in many countries.  We who are the descendants owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that painful past and, in my opinion, do what we can to shine a light onto that history and honour those lives that have been forgotten for too long.

 

With grateful thanks to Neil Pitchford, Awen photos for the use of the images in this post.

Là na Cailliche

Today, 25th March is known as Là na Cailliche or Cailleach’s day. I haven’t done much in previous years to mark this even though I was first introduced to the Cailleach about twenty years ago. Back then I knew little and it’s taken time for the relationship I now have to develop.

I felt last week that I needed to do something more this year, something special. I thought and decided that a walk in the Campsie hills somewhere was fitting. I see the Campsies each day from my home. I look towards them often and think of the Cailleach. I don’t know of any particular folk lore that links any Cailleach stories with the Campsies but for me She is there. It’s not the only place ties to Her by any means but it is a personal one.

I’m not the fittest person. I also have family commitments that mean I can’t be out all day so I had to plan for somewhere fairly easy to get to and somewhere I could walk and return in good time for kids coming back from school. I chose a walk into the hills above the Campsie falls and if the weather was really bad my back up plan was to do some knitting and  spinning. Luckily for me the weather has been lovely. A bit of a chilly breeze but dry and some sunshine.

I  prepared a packed lunch and a flask of tea, tied a plaited cord belt and prayer beads round my waist both dedicated to the Cailleach, put my staff in the car and headed off. Walking boots and suitable layers of clothing for hill walking too of course and my hubby knew where I was going. Safety as well as spirituality!

It felt good to be up in the hills, it felt right to do something special to mark this day.  I ate my lunch on the hills by a cairn and shared my tea with the Cailleach and the spirits of the land. I sat and gazed out over the land and listened to the skylarks singing. There was a long pause, a silence that felt as if the world around me was waiting for something. I listened. I breathed the air and felt the cold, damp earth beneath me. Sound returned to the land.

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As I had walked up I heard a raven call and caught a glimpse of one flying. As I walked down again I heard the raven call twice more and saw it soaring. Three times heard, three times seen. Twice seen and heard at the same time, another time heard but not seen, then seen but not heard.

There’s a low flat stone part way up the hill and it’s clear that several people have taken advantage of its seat like nature for a rest. I did too for a short rest on the way up, a longer rest on the way down. And during that rest on the way down I prayed with my prayer beads. Beads that my mum had made. And the words I said changed.

Earth Her flesh,
Stone Her bones,
Plants Her skin, Her hair,
The waters Her blood,
The air Her breath,
The clouds Her thoughts,
Ravens Her voice,
Eagles Her eyes,
Deer and hares Her ears.

Hail to  you, Mighty Cailleach!

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Experiences and notes from Heathen Women United 2nd Annual conference

This conference took place at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston on 6-8 July 2018.

When I first heard about the conference I thought it sounded interesting but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to attend.  Fortunately things worked out and I was able to attend the Saturday and Sunday aspects of the conference just missing the Friday aspects.  What I missed on the Friday was some meet and greet time and the opening blot for the conference but no talks, the talks began on Saturday.

I did have some anxiety about attending the conference mainly due to worries about being in a new place, including the fears of finding the place and being on time, and meeting new people.  I had no idea what size of conference this would be although I did already know a small number of people that were going to be there so that helped.

Finding the place and getting there went very smoothly helped by the excellent information provided by the conference organiser, Linda Server. I was still a bit anxious on arrival and for a little while afterwards but that faded as the first day continued. I was feeling much more relaxed by the morning of the second day.  The first day continued for about 11 hours of talks, discussion and entertainment, the second day was a bit shorter but still a full day. Lunch was provided for the conference delegates on both days as well as a continual supply of tea, coffee, water and biscuits.  There were also a few stalls at the conference although I didn’t buy anything myself.

I took notes on nearly all the talks, sometimes very brief notes, sometimes longer notes.  My notes will not reflect the level of scholarship and research that the presenters demonstrated but will hopefully give a taste of what took place. Oh, and just to be clear, while this was organised by Heathen Women United attendance was not restricted to just women, there were a number of men there too.

Saturday began with a short welcome and opening statement from Linda Server with some announcements about last minute changes to the conference schedule.  Following that was the first panel of speakers. Panel one had the title “Urd” and included three presenters. Each spoke for about twenty minutes followed by a question and answer section directed at all three panelists.

The first speaker was Solveig Wang from Scotland speaking on “Women and Ritual in Old Norse Society”. Solveig spoke about the role of women as instigators of ritual in old Norse society as evidenced by both historical and archeological records.  Women of the house commonly officiated at rites with senior women in a community officiating at larger community rites. She mentioned a number of words and phrases such as “blótgyðya” which means a sacrificial priestess ( I hope I’ve written that correctly!).  She spoke of the importance of the women who carried and distributed the mead cup at feasts, the women carrying the mead cup had considerable influence and while in that role were sacred.  There are a number of figurines depicting cup bearing women from the archeological record and a couple of slides were shown with examples.  While most of the women in these roles were part of the the home and community there were exceptions, most notably those of the wandering Volva practicing the arts of Seiðr.

The second speaker was Shani Oates from the USA.  Shani’s talk was titled “The Silent Scream: Slaves, Concubines and Polygamy in Pre-Christian Norse and Icelandic Culture”.  Shani spoke about the way some scholars split women appearing in the Norse and Icelandic literature into four categories.  These are the warrior, the prophetess or spae-wife, the revenger and the inciter.  These four types can be further simplified into the sacred (incorporating the first two) and the mundane (the latter two).  She did mention the scholars behind these theories but I didn’t note the names.  Women in pre-Christian  Germanic and Icelandic society had the power ti raise matters for the “Thing” via their husbands.  If the matters they had raised were not dealt with to their satisfaction they could use a range of shaming tactics on their husbands including divorce.  Women would often be the instigator for blood feuds frequently pushing the men into action.  Much of the evidence for this and other examples are evidenced in various laws. There is a composite codex of the laws from these times in Iceland known as the “Grágás”. Abuse and violence towards women was considered shameful and as a result was minimal. In instances where abuse towards women did take place no shame was held against the women involved, instead their male protectors (husbands, fathers or owners in the case of slaves) were shamed.  For the pre-Christian wife loyalty was not expected to shift to her husband’s family but remained with her birth family.  That was something that changed with the spread of Christianity.  Married women had the right to inherit land and property in these pre-Christian societies.  In these earlier societies a Skald or a Gossip was someone who shared information and gave advice in their communities, it was an important role and it was only later that the term came to imply someone that simply talked to much or was malicious.  The mead cup ritual was mentioned during this presentation as well noting that the women carrying out this role could choose to give advice or ask for quests to be carried out, again this emphasized the importance of this role.  Shani also spoke of how it was qualities of personality that allowed people to rise in the pre-Christian Germanic and Icelandic societies.  Men and women with strength of will and intelligence could rise through their efforts.

The third talk in the first panel was from Embla Aae from Iceland and her talk was titled “A Comparative Look at Scandinavian Women’s Literacy in runes from Heathen to Christian Times”.  Embla provided some background to the development of runes through history starting with the Elder Futhark  which were used from late BC times to around 200 AD (if I’ve noted this down correctly).  By 400 AD the Younger Futhark was in use and that remained in sole use to around 600 AD. Dotted runes were fully developed and in use by arround 800AD, new graphemes came in after that between 1000 – 1200 AD with runes use dying out after that time. Before Christianity runes stones are usually memorial and neutral in terms of faith contexts.  Later a wider range of runes stones can be found but most are still memorial.  Women’s names do appear in rune stones as either the carver or someone that employed the carver but not very often.

I didn’t take any notes on the questions to and responses from the panel.  My next notes are from the first guest speaker but as this entry is already over a thousand words I am going to leave this here.

 

 

Rebirth

We went out the other weekend exploring Glen Lochay near Killin in Pethshire. We chose that area because of something Neil had read about Creag Na Callich which overlooks Glen Lochay and because I had been feeling the need to seek out the Ancient One in the land.

Several years ago the wooden hammer that had been given into my care and used since in ritual had been destroyed by my ex-husband. That hammer was dedicated to An Cailleach and I still feel it’s loss. I had been thinking about this a fair bit recently and felt that something wasn’t resolved between An Cailleach and I over this loss. I felt I had to know if I needed to make some form of reparation to Her for the hammer’s loss and my failure to anticipate my ex-husband’s behaviour.

The first snows were on the mountain tops and much of the colour lower down was of late autumn. I had offerings with me of whisky and oatmeal. We drove along the Glen stopping from time to time to explore something or for Neil to take some photos. I was seeking for something, somewhere I could feel An Cailleach and commune with Her. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, just that I’d know if I found it. If I didn’t find that something then I would need to do more, If I found that something then I hoped things would become clearer for me.

At one point we spotted something unusual. We stopped and went for a closer look. We had found something, something quite special. Closer to the river on the other side of the field I found a place that called to me, a tiny island forming just by the river bank. A place of magic that sang to me and my heart filled with wonder. I poured out part of my offerings there. Then I returned to the centre of the field and the tree that was growing there.

I have seen trees growing out of cracks in rocks and cliffs. I’ve seen trees of one species growing out of another older living tree of a different species but I’d never seen something like this before. A stump of what must have been a pretty old tree was still connected to the large rocks it had grown on top of and between. Growing on the top of that stump were several types of mosses and lichens and in the midst of them a silver birch tree. As I walked round this gazing in wonder at this a single word resounded like a bell in my head. “Rebirth!”

I gave more of my offerings there in that place beside that tree.

Glen Lochay - renewal

Later in the day we walked part way up the route out of the other end of Glen Lochay in a route that leads towards Glen Lyon, we didn’t have time to do more that go part way up. Before we turned back I made my final offerings in a place that looked back along the Glen towards Creag Na Callich among other peaks.

I sought An Cailleach and She had answered me.

We took a slightly different route out of the Glen towards Killin and in the dusk as we came towards a couple of fields we saw a herd of red deer. There were a couple of stags, one clearly more dominant as he chased off others bellowing at them, and about forty does. A wonderful end to our visit to Glen Lochay.

 

All photos thanks to Neil Pitchford, Awen photos

Away with the Fairies

“Pause”, they said.  “Take time to reflect”.

“Can you hear the call?” Asks a voice.
“Will you answer?” Whispers the wind in the trees.
“Where will it lead you?” Words felt more than heard.
“What gift will be yours? What price?” Voices ripple with the water.

A journey begun with beech and oak to the sound of blackbird song.  A wide and bramble lined path followed through birch woods with silence falling about us.  A muddy branch taken leading onto a darker path, twisting and turning past trees and over shallow streamlets.  A destination found among the hazel trees.

Confirmation sought and a sign received.  Spirits asked and permission given. A bridge crossed.  A gift of acorns fallen in my path.

Climbing down into water rushing past me.  Careful steps taken past the realm of trolls.  A faery realm I entered. A call I heard to drink and I did. I drank of faery waters and ecstasy poured into my soul. Laughter erupted from my voice, flowed like the waters around my feet, pouring into the air, echoing into the land.

No room for pain or sorrow.

Fairy Bridge, 16 Sept 2017
Fairy Bridge, Glen Creran, 16 Sept 2017

Calm returned I left the waters, treading with care among the rocks. I sang my gratitude and climbed up once more.

I sat by the bridge and sang to the land then wandered once more among the hazel trees.

Blessed with a gift of hazel nut I returned.

Muddy path retrod we walked back to grass covered, bramble-lined path among the birch trees. Berries tasted, rich tang of autumn.

Eyes treated to dappled light on mountain side we returned to woods of oak and beech once more.  A journey over.

And half an hour later, pain felt. A price taken but delayed for a time.

Orkney part 3 – Echoes of Devotion

To me Orkney is a place in which the echoes of past devotions take on powerful and tangible forms.  I’ve already spoken of our journey to Orkney and some of the places we visited with our wonderful guides.  In this post I intend to talk about some of the other places we visited both with and without our guides.

Our guides were adamant that we should experience a few of the lesser known and more unusual sites before we would visit Maeshowe on Thusday 7th July so the day before they took us to visit the Tomb of the Dogs also known as the Cuween Hill Cairn, Unstan Cairn and Rennibister Earth House. Many people visit Maeshowe and go away feeling that it is a good example of tombs in Orkney, and so it is in many ways, but it is also very unusual.  It is one thing to accept this with your more logical mind but quite another to visit a wider range of tombs and see and feel the differences.

Our first tomb visit was to the Tomb of the Dogs or Cuween Hill Cairn. This is a small tomb a fair way up the side of a hill.  It’s called the Tomb of the Dogs because there were a number of dog skulls found in it as well as human remains.  To get to it you have to be fit to first get up the hill (which isn’t too bad) and then be flexible enough to get down and crawl thought the narrow passage way into the chamber beyond.  The chamber is large enough for a small number of people to stand in but it is pitch black inside so a working torch is a must. It is an example of a chambered cairn with four smaller side chambers. the side chambers are virtually at ground level and you can look into them fairly easily.  At Maeshowe the side chambers are well above the main floor level and would not be as easy to see into let alone access as the chambers at Cuween.

Personally I felt a sense of pressure while inside Cuween Hill Cairn.  It wasn’t frightening but after a short while I felt as if the spirits of that place were telling me I had seen enough and it was time for me to leave now please.  Definitely well worth a visit if you are physically fit enough to cope with the hill and crawling through the passage.

From there we visited Rennibister Earth House.  A totally different experience.  For a start it’s accessed via the yard to a working farm and via a metal ladder going down into the ground.  This ladder is not the original access, that would have been the long sloping passage.  Originally it would have been closed in and pitch dark but as it was discovered by a machine falling into the roof and now accessed that way it’s reasonably light inside. Human remains were found within the chamber but archaeologists are not certain of the original purpose of the structure.  Around the walls are built in alcoves, not large ones and they look a bit like the alcoves seen in the neolithic houses and in the walls of the older section of Kirbuster farm museum.

To me this place felt as if it had been used for ritual purposes of some kind.  I could see it being used for some sort of rite of passage perhaps.  The atmosphere there was much lighter but mysterious too.

Rennibister earth house
Rennibister Earth House

The last place we visited on that day was Unstan Cairn.  This is a much easier place to access but still requires a bit of flexibility as you do need to bend a bit to go through the entrance passage.  Inside it is a quite different style of structure.  It has some features in common with chambered cairns in that it has a circular shape and a side chamber but other features are more like rectangular stalled cairns such as the one at Midhowe (which we didn’t visit).  It is an odd place, very light because it has a modern concrete roof and unlike other tombs we visited very green from algae able to grow on the stones in the light.  The stalls also add to the unusual atmosphere making it feel to me a bit like an animal barn even though it was very much a tomb still.

Unstan Cairn
Unstan Cairn

The following day we visited Maeshowe.  This is a much larger tomb than the others we had previously seen and thanks to our guides we had a much greater appreciation for the design variations and the atmospheric differences.  For a start at the other places it had been just us and the places themselves were much smaller.  For Maeshowe you are in a tour group of about 25 people with a guide.  Even though the place is larger you somehow feel more compressed due to the people around you all shuffling round to get a look at whatever aspect the guide is pointing at and talking about.  It is an impressive place with a fascinating history both ancient and more recent.  The Viking graffiti in it is interesting as well. Maeshowe is special and very well worth seeing but for me, in terms of atmosphere I much preferred the experiences of the lesser known tombs.

I’ve called this post “Echos of Devotion” and so far spoken of tombs, cairns and mysterious underground chambers.  But if you think about the work involved in crafting these structures and the devotion to purpose the builders of them had I think you will understand why devotion is such a strong theme for me in reflecting about these places.

On Thursday after visiting Maeshowe in the morning we took a drive back towards the Churchill barriers and visited the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm.  For anyone not in the know this is a chapel made using nissan huts and recycled materials by Italian prisoners of war during the second world war.  It is an absolutely remarkable testament to the devotion of those involved in all aspects of the modification and decoration of the nissan huts.  Although it was only completed just after the POWs were repatriated it has been beautifully preserved and cared for.  From the information present at the site I believe there are occasional services held there.  I absolutely loved this place! I found the atmosphere there highly sacred, a very special place and very accessible too.

Italian chapel exterior
Exterior of the Italian Chapel
Italian chapel interior
Interior of the Italian Chapel (the brick and stonework effects were all hand painted)

Devotion of a different sort was our next stop as we sampled some of the wonderful offerings of the Orkney Wine Company, unsurprisingly after trying a few samples we purchased a few bottles to bring home. Very impressive products!

That afternoon found us in Kirkwell visiting St Magnus’ Cathedral.  A wonderfully accessible venue for such an old cathedral.  St Magnus’ Cathedral is a place that shows a different aspect of devotion again to me.  In that place are the echoes of the devotion of craftsmen and women down the ages and the communities that have supported them as well as the echoes of the devotional use through many centuries.  It’s a lovely example of Christian architecture through centuries too as different aspects of the building date to different time periods.

St Magnus Cathedral 2
North Nave Aisle showing the back of a 17th century Mort Brod (death board) memorial to  a glazier, Robert Nicholson
St Magnus Cathedral 3
Pulpit and North Transept showing the Norwegian flag prominently displayed in honour of the many links between Orkney and Norway.
St Magnus Cathedral 1
One of two Green Man carvings in the St Rognvald Chapel area of the Cathedral.

The last place I am going to mention in this post is the remains of an usual round church at Orphir that we visited on Friday, our last day on Orkney. The Orphir Round Kirk is the last remains of a medieval round church and the only one surviving in Scotland.  It is found behind the Orkneyinga Saga Centre and the ruins of the Earl’s Bu.  Another fascinating little place to visit with echoes of the past also surrounding these unusual church remains in the well kept and still used graveyard.

Orphir Round church
Orphir Round Church

 

As always photos copyright and thanks to Neil Pitchford of 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.