Spring Equinox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Imbolc

Another post using material from my incomplete draft book.

Something changes. Maybe it is the first tips of green coming through the earth from bulbs dormant over the winter. Maybe it is the quality of sunlight and the fact it lasts that bit longer. Maybe it is the first snowdrop you see. Or perhaps, like me, it is that hard to describe smell or the earth warming, a fleeting sign that something is changing.

Imbolc, Imbolg or Bride’s Day is often referred to as the first of the spring festivals although spring may still be far away. For me this time of year is more about the promise of spring than spring itself. My garden still looks pretty bare but bulbs are beginning to send up their leaves and my rhubarb is beginning to come through again. And yes, the snowdrops are beginning to come out too.

Imbolc is usually dated as the 1st February although some do celebrate on 2nd February. The meanings given to the word itself seem to be unclear. One of the more popular meanings is “ewe’s milk” but my understanding is that among scholars this is generally thought to be drawn from folk lore and not accurate. Certainly if you have sheep in your area and they are due to lamb quite early in the spring the ewes might be coming into milk but milk doesn’t really come in fully for mammals until the young are born. Udders or breasts do begin to swell before young are born but you don’t get much out of them until after the birth takes place.

One more accurate meaning of the word Imbolc or Imbolg (which is the modern Irish spelling I believe) is “in the belly” referring to the pregnancy of ewes. If you have been around pregnant ewes at this time of year the pregnancy is now becoming more obvious to the eye as the lamb grows within the ewe. Another possible meaning dates to Old Irish and is linked to cleansing or ritual purification.

Regardless of the exact meaning of the word it is a time linked to the first signs of spring and also more importantly to Brigid, Goddess and Saint. Whether you are a polytheist or not this is one festival where you are given a very clear pointer to a particular being. Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Bhride, Bride, Brid and Brig are just some of the names given to this incredibly popular being, a being that is as loved as a Saint as She is as a Goddess. There have been several books written about this being and there is no way I can do justice to Her here. As a very light overview I will say that She is sometimes thought of as a single being, sometimes as three, sometimes as a Goddess, sometimes as a Saint. The three connected beings are Brigid the Poet, Brigid the Smith and Brigid the Healer. Fire and water are sacred to Her. Many wells across Ireland and the UK are dedicated to Her as Saint Brighid. These few words merely touch the surface of who She is and can be.

Purification and cleansing is one of the themes at this time so anything that links with that can be a good choice of activity. It’s a good time to begin some spring cleaning and some home cleansing and blessing.

I have been asked in the past how to go about removing negative influences from something. I make sure whoever asks knows that there are several methods that can be used before offering my own preference. I start with physical cleaning, whether it is an object, a place or even yourself the first step is physical. While you physically clean whatever it is you keep in your mind that this is the first step of a complete cleansing, this adds a focused intent to your physical activity. After that step I recommend a ritual cleanse and blessing. The ritual aspect of cleansing is to sprinkle the item, area or person with water blessed for use in cleansing. When I prepare blessed water I ask Brigantia, Maponos and Clutha (my local major river goddess) to work through me to bless the water that it may cleanse the spirit. After cleansing with blessed water I then recommend use of some form of sacred smoke, that could be incense sticks, loose incense or some form of bundle of herbs similar to Native American smudge bundles. A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to using meadowsweet bundles and I find these to be very effective. The idea is that the smoke is carried or wafted around whatever it is being cleansed and purified. If using smoke is a problem then I recommend using a special candle, perhaps a scented one but natural beeswax is a lovely option for this and you carry the lit candle around instead of wafting smoke. Water and fire are both strongly linked to Brigid in different ways which makes this time of year a particularly good one for doing this type of cleansing and purification work in my opinion. As you go through this process you can chant or pray or simply silently focus on the process of cleansing.

Once you have done whatever cleansing you wish to do you can then move onto other activities. One of the more popular activities is the making of Brigid’s crosses. There are many ways of doing this now although the most traditional materials are rushes or straw. You can also use strips of paper, pipe cleaners or even wire. Traditionally these are hung up in the home ideally over doors or windows. They were and still are symbols of welcoming Brigid and of blessing. Traditionally these are kept up for the year replacing them the following Bride’s Day when the old one, if made of rushes or straw, was burnt on the hearth fire. Now they are often kept much longer. I have one hanging in a back window made with pipe cleaners that is at least four years old now. This is a fun activity to try with children too.

Another possibility is to make a Brideog (Little Brigid) doll. Again traditionally these would be made of straw or rushes and often woven like autumn corn dollies. The doll is then decorated and dressed. A bed is prepared for the doll and the doll is then taken to the front door. One person, traditionally a woman, announces that Bride’s bed is ready, another calls out “Let Bride come in. Bride’s bed is ready.” The doll is then placed in her bed and left overnight. In times gone by where most homes had a hearth fire Bride’s bed would be beside the hearth and the ashes smoothed over before everyone retired to bed. In the morning the ashes would be examined for marks, ideally footprints, that were considered to be a blessing from Bride.

As with any festival sharing food and drink is always popular. For Imbolc dairy foods are usually considered particularly appropriate. Milk or water to drink are also good choices. Water because so many of Brigid’s links are to holy wells.

One of the traditions that I am very fond of is the Brat Bride or cloth. The cloth in question is sometimes a piece of fabric, sometimes a knitted cloth sometimes even a ribbon. The cloth is hung outside or placed on a windowsill overnight for Bride to bless as She passes. The cloth is then used during the year to aid in healing work. I am fortunate enough to have a piece of cloth that was originally part of a much larger cloth first blessed one Imbolc at Kildare, one of the most holy sites associated with Brigid as Saint. It was a gift to me many years ago and one I treasure. Each year I hang it outside again at Imbolc to renew the blessings on it and it has been used several times as an aid to healing.

Throughout this section I have deliberately used different spellings and variations of the many names associated with Brighid. Whether She is honoured as Bride, Brigid, Brig or any one of Her names this festival is very much dedicated to Her. Some of those who follow a Brythonic path now call this festival Brigantica and honour Brigantia at this time. It is Brigantia and my relationship with Her that I will turn to in my next post.

References

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

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

Daimler M (2016) Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge and Healing Well Moon Books

https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/ritual/fire-festivals/imbolc/ 

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

Eponalia

Eponalia is the feast day of Gaulish Goddess Epona, the Divine Mare and in the time of the Roman Empire it was celebrated on ‘XV Kalendas Ianuarius Eponae’ (from http://epona.net/inscriptions.html). This date translates in the modern calendar to 18 December.

Epona is one of the few, if not only, Gaulish deities adopted into the Roman calendar of celebrations in Her own right and that honour is due in a large part to the importance of the Roman cavalry. For me, and some Brythonic polytheists, Eponalia marks the first of the winter festivals. The others being the winter solstice (usually 20/21 December) followed by Midwinter, Yule or Christmas on 25 December and then the New Year festivities. Some of these festivals are more spiritual than others depending on personal inclinations and family commitments.

Eponalia for me is a quiet time. It is a pause between attending school Christmas activities, preparing for family gatherings and the festivities of winter solstice and midwinter, Yule or Christmas. Eponalia is a time to reflect, to remember, to acknowledge and honour the darkness and to honour Epona Herself, whom I love deeply.

In past years, when I was working, I have made donations to horse related charities for Eponalia. Two years ago I had my first Eponalia where I could spend some time among horses and ponies. I’ve loved horses and ponies for as long as I can remember but for various reasons have not been able to spend much time around them or learn how to ride them until relatively recently. To be able to spend time at a stable yard among the horses and ponies there helping out with the range of the usual activities that take place in a stable yard was a wonderful gift and not one I will forget in a hurry. That occasion was also the first time I have had a horse stand on my foot with enough weight to leave a bruise. He really didn’t want me to clean that particular hoof out!

Regardless of anything else part of my Eponalia celebrations include my devotional activities at my home shrine. These usually take place in the evening when the day has quietened. Before I start I decide on what I will offer as a libation to Epona and bring that over to the shrine. I also get out an old flat pillow that I use to kneel and sit on when I am at my shrine and put it into place. I light a rose scented incense stick and as I waft the smoke around my shrine and around myself I begin to sing:

“Epona, Eponina, Ipotia,
Epona, Eponina Ipotia,
Atanta,
Dibonia,
Vovesia,
Catona”

I then kneel before the shrine and sing my Hymn to Epona.

Once I am finished singing I pour out my libation saying something like “ I offer this wine/mead/juice to you Epona, to you I make this offering.”

Then I move into a cross legged seated position and with my prayer beads say the following prayer:

“Hail Epona Rigantona! Rhiannon, Epona Hail! Herd Mothers Hail!

Epona of Horses, I praise you!
Rhiannon of the Land, I praise you!
Epona of Sovereignty, I praise you!
Rhiannon of Journeys, I praise you!
Epona of Stables, I praise you!
Rhiannon of the Otherworld, I praise you!
Epona, Great Mother, I praise you!
Rhiannon of the Singing Birds, I praise you!
Epona Rigantona, Rhiannon, Epona, Herd Mothers, guides, guardians and teachers, I praise you!

Epona of Horses, I honour you!
Rhiannon of the Land, I honour you!
Epona of Sovereignty, I honour you!
Rhiannon of Journeys, I honour you!
Epona of Stables, I honour you!
Rhiannon of the Otherworld, I honour you!
Epona, Great Mother, I honour you!
Rhiannon of the Singing Birds, I honour you!
Epona Rigantona, Rhiannon, Epona, Herd Mothers, guides, guardians and teachers, I honour you!

Epona of Horses, I thank you for your presence in my life.
Rhiannon of the Land, I thank you for the stability in my life.
Epona of Sovereignty, I thank you for the choices you bring to my life.
Rhiannon of Journeys, I thank you for your guidance through my life.
Epona of Stables, I thank you for the security in my life.
Rhiannon of the Otherworld, I thank you for the mysteries in my life.
Epona, Great Mother, I thank you for your nurturing presence in my life.
Rhiannon of the Singing Birds, I thank you for the beauty you bring to my life.
Epona Rigantona, Rhiannon, Epona, Herd Mothers, guides, guardians and teachers, I thank you for being with me through my life.

Hail Epona Rigantona! Rhiannon, Epona, Herd Mothers Hail!”

Then I sit for a while in silence and think about Epona and what She means to me. I also spend some silent time keeping my mind as calm and clear as I can to see if anything comes forward.

This simple ritual is one I have gradually developed over a few years and I use it every week in my devotions to Epona as well as on Eponalia itself. It’s adaptable to group ritual as well and I have led a group version of it in the past.

These typed words are not really able to convey the feelings I have as do my Eponalia rite. On this day I know that many others across the world also honour Epona. Some of them are people I have met, many more are those I only know online but there is a special sense of connection in the knowledge that others are also honouring Epona on this day.

More experiences with A’ Chailleach

This post follows on from my last one.

In late 2009 I had another very powerful experience in my growing relationship with A’ Chailleach. I was asked to be involved with the closing ritual at a Pagan conference held in Glasgow. I wasn’t organising the ritual or the conference but months before the conference I was asked by the conference organisers (who happen to be my parents) to take part in a ritual that would be centred around A’ Chailleach. I didn’t know the others that were going to be involved in the ritual but I said yes because at the time I was told that there shouldn’t be anything in it that would be a problem after all it was a public ritual and that further details would be sorted out nearer the time with those who would be leading the ritual who happened to be speakers at the conference.

And here I’ll just add that yes, my parents are also Pagan and their main path is Wicca. And no, I didn’t grow up with them as Pagans we all came to it separately in later life, my mum was first when I was in my late teens. It does however mean that I feel a sense of family loyalty in supporting some of the things they have organised over the years and I expect the same goes for them in supporting some of the things I have organised over the years.

Anyway the conference took place on Saturday 29th August and it wasn’t until the Thursday before that I heard anything more about the ritual and then it was only brief notes. By this time though I felt it was far too late for me to back out of the ritual even though what little I did see made me feel uncomfortable. The basic outline of this ritual was to put me on what was in effect a high seat at the centre of the ritual and for me to be A’ Chailleach and sing. The ritual leaders clearly had a different idea of what this could mean than I did, for me this wasn’t just being Her priestess but Her host. They hadn’t met me or talked to me before this time at all, they just knew I was reasonably capable from what they’d been told by others.

One of the other speakers was a friend of mine and I was able to discuss my concerns with him and before the ritual itself we laid out a couple of preparations which would allow him to help me if it was needed.

I had two major concerns. The first was that nothing would take place and that I would be acting. The second was that something quite powerful would take place and that I would have problems in coming back to myself. Recent online discussions and some hypnotherapy experiences had made me think that I may be more suggestible to trance situations than I had previously thought and this was a ritual situation that sounded likely to trigger a change in consciousness.

I had decided that in doing this ritual it would be more appropriate for me to remove my glasses and personal jewellery and wear items linked in my thoughts to A’ Chailleach. As part of my preparations I took my things off with ritual intent and gave them to my friend to hold for me. In returning them to me he would be able to help me ground myself in my more mundane life if that’s what I needed.

The ritual had me seated on a chair in the centre of the room with a circle of what must have been close to a hundred people around me. I wore a black robe with a plaited cord belt in colours I associate with A’ Chailleach that I had made a few years before. My face had been decorated and I was also wearing a veil that concealed my face. I held that precious wooden hammer I have mentioned earlier on my lap as this was a strong link to A’ Chailleach.

A bit of introductory words were said to introduce everyone present to who “the Cailleach” was and that the ritual would be calling on Her and asking for Her blessing. Then a ritual circle was cast and quarters were called by members of my parent’s development circle and coven. A few words were said gently calling “the Cailleach” to come to those gathering and show Her face. Then a chant and spiral dance was started off. The focus of all that energy was me and calling “the Cailleach” in through me.

I remember feeling that energy was building and feeling oddly colder as if someone had opened a door or window and I was in a breeze. The words of the chant were “We are many, we are one” As the spiral continued I started to hear words in my head “But I was first!” The chant became “We are many, we are one. But I was first!” in my mind.

I remember my body slowly standing. The spiral was no longer moving but the chant had sped up and feet were being stamped. I remember my body throwing up my arms, lifting the veil as it did so and then a shout “BUT I WAS FIRST!”. After that I was no longer I. I was there in the background but no longer the one controlling what I said or did. She said something about asking them to listen to Her words and to embrace Her challenge if they would. She then sang through me the “Challenge of the Cailleach” in the first person. It was different to how I sang usually. Part my voice, part my words but not completely either. In the last verse which mentions the Cailleach sleeping my body began to sit down again. As the voice stopped my head fell forward and my eyes closed and inside I felt this deep need to sleep. The “me” part of this knew that there were oatcakes and mead to be blessed so we struggled to stay alert enough to do this. After everyone else had had some the cup was brought to us and we drank and we were offered some oatcake – it felt dry and almost like dust. The ritual then started closing and oddly I remember strongly that there wasn’t a proper thanks and farewell made to the Cailleach.

As the closing progressed my body started to shiver and feel more and more drained. Inside I silently said my own personal farewells to A’ Chailleach and asked Her to leave me now. I wasn’t confident She was leaving or that She was leaving me behind and I remember feeling a bit scared that I wouldn’t fully return to being simply me. But Her presence sank down and eventually let “me” go.

After the ritual finished I called for my glasses. I can’t remember if it was at that point, slightly before or slightly afterwards that my friend asked me how I was feeling and gave me a talisman to hold. Finally things began to break up. To me it felt like a longish time but it probably wasn’t very long at all. An experienced Heathen friend came up to me and touched my hand saying her name and offering help. I said something about my other friend and then he was beside me again too. They both helped me up and we left the room for another quiet room. I was shaky and feeling drained.

It took a while for me to feel more myself. Those who had offered me help stayed with me the whole time and were an immense help and support. When I felt ready I asked for my rings back and that helped me feel more myself. I then got to the stage where I felt much more me and that I needed to get out of the robe and into my normal clothes. After that we went to the park across from the location of the conference and I made an offering which was burnt or charred anyway and thrown in the river. I still needed to eat but I was at least feeling much more myself by that point. The whole experience left me feeling drained and somewhat emotional for several days afterwards.

I’ve gone into a fair amount of detail about this experience because I learnt a great deal from it that I will share here. The first and most important thing I learnt is always know more about what you are getting into that I did when this particular ritual began. My second most important criteria is that any being that is invited to attend a ritual should also be given thanks at the end and, if appropriate, asked politely to depart for their usual abode.

If a ritual is set up with a possibility of someone hosting a deity that person should be willing and have some knowledge of the possibilities even if they are relatively inexperienced in doing such things. They should also have support and that support should ideally include at least one person who has had experience with hosting. The supporting individuals should ideally be prepared to offer support for days after the ritual takes place if required. This was a profound experience for me and it took me months to process some aspects of it. To let A’ Chailleach ride me in the way I did required a level of trust and submission of ego and because I already loved Her it was fairly easy for me to let go and trust Her. But as She left me on that occasion I also felt that She almost took part of me with Her and that was scary. The effects on my emotions afterwards were also unsettling.

I was fortunate to have the support I did at the time and more experienced polytheists and Seidr workers in the Scottish Heathen community to turn to in the months afterwards for further advice and training.

About six months after that experience while there was still snow on the mountain tops I was at a weekend camp in Wales for the members of Brython, a brythonic polytheist group. I had thought that while I was there I would undertake a shamanic style journey to seek A’ Chailleach and apologise to Her for my part in not making sure She was appropriately thanked and farewelled at the end of that ritual. I took with me an offering for A’ Chailleach of something that I had commissioned and did not want to part with that would go on the communal fire on the Friday evening. One interpretation of the difference between a sacrifice and an offering is that a sacrifice hurts more and giving this to the fire for A’ Chailleach hurt! On the Saturday we went on a walk up into the foothills of the Snowdonia mountain range and spent that night in a bothy. I struggled a great deal with that walk and felt I’d gone through a much more physical ordeal to seek A’ Chailleach out than I had anticipated. Afterwards I felt I had been heard.

At the beginning of 2011 I separated from my first husband and we later divorced. As part of the surrounding difficulties at that time my ex-husband destroyed the incredibly precious gift that I had been given by Andy Guthrie in 2003, the handcrafted hammer. I had thought it was safe where I kept it but I was wrong. I have more recently sought A’ Chailleach out in the wild glens over this loss to see if I needed to make some form of reparation. I was shown an unusual sight of a birch tree growing out of a long dead tall stump of a much older tree and given the word “rebirth” to go with that sight. My conclusion from that experience is that nothing else is needed. We move on.

The lunar devotional practices that I had developed for A’ Chailleach and others continued until about 2016. Sometimes I sang for Her, sometimes I sat in silence in the darkness. I usually made a libation of alcohol and that varied a bit. Sometimes it would be wine, sometimes port, sometimes hot chocolate or warm milk with honey. And as I began to develop a taste for single malt whisky sometimes it was whisky I offered. In 2016 I began to shift my practices away from a lunar cycle into an almost daily devotional pattern.  I now offer A’ Chailleach a libation on a Monday evening. As before it’s usually alcohol of some kind but not always, I tend to go with what I feel is right on the day.

Over time and with various experiences my relationship with She who I know as the Ancient Mother has deepened. As I write this these words it is close to nineteen years since I first called out to Her behalf of my friend Insa. I never imagined then the relationship that would gradually develop.

A’ Chailleach is not an easy Goddess to serve. She tests you, pushes you to learn and develop. Sometimes She can be as fierce as the winter storms but not always. In my experience She is not a Goddess that watches over you closely. She loves the wild and the fierce places in nature, She cares for those that dwell there. There are some people that She calls to and if they answer She will teach them what She wishes them to learn one way or another. If She calls to you think carefully before you answer. You don’t have to say yes, you could say no, or not yet, and She will probably listen as in my experience she wants you when you are willing. Be aware though that if you do say no you might not be given another opportunity to say yes. She’s not an easy goddess but She is a strong one!

Personal experiences with A’ Chailleach

This post is another that is based on material I gathered together in drafting a book.  This section was the longest one so I’ve split the material into two separate posts.

It began as many relationships do with a first meeting and that was thanks to my friend Insa who spoke about her studies learning about this ancient being during a pub moot in 1999. In December 2000 Insa was diagnosed with cancer. In February 2001 she was in the Beatson Centre at the Western Infirmary having chemotherapy and I remember walking along the river on my way to visit her. I paused by the water and made a heartfelt plea to A’ Chailleach that Insa be spared for just a bit longer. This was the first time I had addressed A’ Chailleach directly and as it happened, Insa did rally round for a while. She died in July 2001, A’ Chailleach had claimed one of Her own.

When I first called on A’ Chailleach in 2000 I had little idea that this would start a something that would bring a number of changes to me. I didn’t realise it at the time but I believe that in calling on Her on that day I gained Her attention. For a couple of years following that nothing really changed then in August 2003 we held a conference in Glasgow called DruidCon. It was run by those walking a druid path for anyone that might be interested in learning more of druidry. At that conference, one of our speakers, Andy Guthrie, presented me with a wooden hammer he had made after his talk on Scottish myths. His talk had included tales of A’ Chailleach and the hammer was given to me as a symbol. I was incredibly surprised by the gift and although I was very grateful I didn’t truly appreciate what I had been given at that time. It took me years to more fully appreciate that gift and then I lost it but that was many years later.

Naturally enough that gift led me to research more about A’ Chailleach and to try and understand Her a little better. In turn this led to me crafting a song or more accurately a hymn for Her in the winter of 2004 which I call “Challenge of the Cailleach”. One of the ways I connect more deeply with the gods is through music and song. I chose to sing that hymn almost every day for the following year. I still sing it, usually in the winter months and especially around Samhain.

The first year I sang that song was a challenging year for me. I had a great deal of stress at work and there were times I felt as if I couldn’t cope anymore. I also strongly felt that A’ Chailleach was testing me in that year. I felt that She was pushing me to see if I would stay the course or turn away. In the run up to Samhain 2005 I felt I needed to do something special at the Samhain ritual and invoke A’ Chailleach. I felt that She wanted to see if I would embrace Her and I found the following words flowing from me as I prepared for that ritual:

So you would call to me would you! You dare to wake me, to bring my gaze upon you. I have been stirring for some time, tossing and turning in my sleep as my time comes upon the land once more. For make no mistake I am part of the cycles of this land.

Hear my voice in the wild howling wind. Feel my touch in the winter’s chill. See me gather the storms on the mountains. But I am more than storms and strife. I have more to give than the chill touch of winter. Yes, I bring pain and destruction. Yes, I bring strife and testing but I am more!

I am rest and quiet. I am the healing touch of solitude. I am the raw beauty of the wild mountains. I herd my Deer and watch over them when the hunters come. I fly over the land with the wild geese. I ride the Wolf, swift and sure. I create the land anew with my floods and avalanches.

Yes, I hold back the spring but only that it may grow stronger in the testing until it overcomes the winter once more. And so too will I test you sooner or later. Think not that you can escape me.

Dare you stand before me?
Dare you look me in the eye?
Dare you embrace me?

And if you dare so much, then and only then will you know what my gifts can be.

After that ritual (which I only remember as if through a fog) I felt that A’ Chailleach was satisfied with what I had done. Things were still stressful but I no longer felt as if I was being tested.

In the spring of the following year I entered into what was to be a very difficult time for me personally. I experienced an early miscarriage and later in the year a family death. I ended up off work for a while. I had lost my sense of balance and didn’t regain it until I had spent a night at the autumn equinox alone in a cave on the coast of Ayrshire chanting, sobbing and finally sleeping. Throughout this period of time I felt A’ Chailleach was with me, this time as a supportive presence mourning my loss with me and lending me Her strength. I later felt that my year of testing had been in preparation for the pain that She knew was coming my way and to help me realise that I was stronger than I had thought.

In October 2006 I wrote the following words which I’ve shared previously elsewhere online but I think it’s worth including them here. They seemed to flow so swiftly that I feel that they didn’t really come from me but from A’ Chailleach.

This is my story. It is not the whole story, just a fragment that I am able now to speak.

I am old, older than you can imagine. Many have been my names and most are lost in the mists of time – even I can not remember them all now. Today I am called the Hag of Winter, Queen Beira, the Veiled One, the Cailleach, the Carlin.

Most of you will think of me as the dark hag of winter and see me as a force belonging to the mountains of Scotland but I am much more than that.

I am the Mother of this Land known to you as Alba or Scotland. I am the Mother of all the Gods and Spirits waking and sleeping in its mountains and valleys. My hands dug out the lochs and my tears filled them. My feet created the valleys as a I walked carrying my loads of earth and stone to make the hills and mountains. My breath formed the clouds that gather around those mountain peaks. My sweat fell down to create the streams of water flowing though the Land. I planted the first trees and tended them as I did the first of the animals to move into this land. Deer and cattle, goats, wolves and geese all these and more have I tended and loved.

You who call me hag and crone – you too would look haggard if you had lived as long as I. You think me ugly? Is the midnight sky ugly? Are the stark mountains ugly? No, it is merely that I am different.

The tales tell of my skin being deep blue black, of my teeth with red stains, of my one eye like a deep pool and my tangled hair like the frost covered roots of Aspen. Do you know what that means?

Perhaps my skin is the darkness of the deepest caves, perhaps it is the midnight sky or the blackest of storm clouds over the sea. Is my hair the fall of hail in a storm or is it the milky stream of stars across the sky? Perhaps my one eye is the moon or perhaps it is the sea and the whirlpool of Corryvreckan is its centre. Perhaps my teeth are the cliffs of the coast or perhaps the red tinged clouds at sunset. I no longer know.

You think me harsh and cruel. I am a mother. Can any mother afford to always be loving and kind? Sometimes she must show she can be angered for her children to learn. Have those parents among you never had to discipline your children? Does that mean you no longer love them? No, of course not, you love them all the more.

I have been forgotten. I have been pushed into the form of the dark winter crone. My tales are those of winter and harshness but that it not all there is to me. I care more than you can imagine for this land and those that live upon it. I have mourned when my children have been torn from me. I have shrieked out my anger and pain in the storms. But I have danced too in joy at each new life born to me, sang in ecstasy when my children have returned to me. I weep with you in your loss and sing with you in your joy.

I speak now through the heart and mind of one of my children who has opened her heart to me. Listen to these words. Remember them. Remember me once more.

Between 2007 and 2009 I continued in my quest to learn more of this ancient being and investigations took me into Welsh myths and stories looking for similar figures to A’ Chailleach. There are figures similar to the Irish Banshee and Washer at the Ford in Welsh folktales but which culture developed these stories first I have no idea. I was looking for a figure linked to the land or tribes who is described as the mother of gods. After all much of Scotland spoke Brythonic languages so felt it possible that in Welsh folk tales I might find the answer I sought.

In the Welsh lore there is Don, mother of the smith, farmer and magecraft gods – Gofannon, Amaethon and Gwydion. In Aberdeenshire we have the river Don, a possible link but it’s impossible to be sure. Other river names such as Dee and Tay derive from the ancient British word *Dewa meaning goddess and it’s not so far fetched to have rivers named for a particular goddess, the Cyde was after all. Don could easily have been known of in what is now Scotland. And if She was then the being I know as A’ Chailleach of Scotland may, just possibly, have once been known as Don, ancient, primal mother of the Brythonic Gods. Regardless of whether this supposition is correct I still refer to that ancient being as A’ Chailleach and She seems happy for me to do so.

Towards the beginning of 2009 I developed my first regular devotions for A’ Chailleach. On the day after the full moon I would make a libation in Her honour and spend a little time in silence thinking about Her. This practice was linked to other lunar observations I made on the two previous nights for Brigantia and Epona. The practice gradually deepened my love and sense of connection with this ancient Goddess.

 

To be continued in the next post

 

Honouring Epona Ritual

Last month I wrote about plans I had to host a ritual Honouring Epona on Saturday 3rd October in Glasgow. I had made a Facebook event for this and circulated it in a number of Facebook groups. I was also moved to try emailing Galina Krasskova about my plans and she was kind enough to add a post on her own blog Gangleri’s Grove about this. Somewhere Sable Aradia also saw this and she added it to her blog Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch. I received a number of requests from people in various parts of the world interested in a copy of the words I had developed for this rite and hopefully all of them received emails from me.

I feel deeply privileged to have begun something that so many others in so many places have been interested in.

Here in Glasgow seven of us gathered at a venue called The Old Barn at four in the afternoon. The Old Barn is just next to riding stables so it seemed like the perfect venue for a rite for Epona. Indeed during the rite we heard the voices of the horses in nearby fields as well as bird song and at moments that fit beautifully with what we were doing. To me it felt as if the horses and birds were joining us to honour Epona.

One of those gathered had travelled from Preston to join us, another had become lost in the park next to the venue trying to get to us but reached us in the end around 4.30 pm full of apologies for being delayed. It wasn’t a problem, we knew he was on the way and we had plenty of time so waited for him to arrive before we began the rite.  Each of us had journeys of some kind to be where we were.

As is my habit I had a script prepared for the rite. It was slightly tweaked from the version I had sent out to those who had asked for a copy. However, as is also something of a habit for me, once we began I put the script down and spoke from my heart and my memory as the guide for this rite.

The rite was begun and completed with the sound of a Bullroarer. This is an ancient instrument that has been found in many areas across the world with a very distinctive and evocative sound. This was the first time we had used this in a more public ritual although my fiance (whose bullroarer we used) has used it privately a couple of times. Following that libations of spring water from the Campsie Fells were poured out for the spirits of the place we were in. I’ve been to the site before and had communed with the spirits then and been given the strong impression that they liked water which is why I had chosen local spring water for their libations. The area we used was a roughly square grassed area at the back of the Old Barn. I was moved to pour some of the water at each corner and the last bit into the fire pit that sits in the centre of the area.

A libation was also offered to Epona as part of the rite and initially I had thought I would use spring water for that too but a couple of days before I had the inspiration to use some of our home made plum wine instead.  This was our first time of making plum wine.  It was begun in September last year using Victoria plums from the tree in our garden and we had not yet bottled any of it.  The libation was made from the first bottle of this golden coloured liqued. After the rite we all had a taste of the wine, not from the portion offered to Epona I hasten to add, and it was rather good.

During the rite a cup of spring water was passed round three times. The first and third times the cup was passed round in silence.  The second time each person had the opportunity to say something while they were holding the cup.

At the end of the rite I asked everyone to connect by touching hands palm to palm with the people closest to the altar I had set up placing a hand on the altar and holding their other hand up palm out to connect with the person next to them.  I had deliberately chosen this form of connection as more regular local seasonal rituals often involve group hugs at the end and I am aware not everyone likes hugging.  Some are uncomfortable holding hands too so I hoped this form of not holding but simply touching palm to palm would be easier for anyone present who might not be comfortable with more intimate physical contact and different enough to help us feel spiritually connected for that moment at least. I think it worked well.

After the rite we moved inside the Old Barn and had tea or coffee with biscuits and homemade gluten free apple flapjacks.

I have pledged to do this again.  I am not certain when but I will do this again.  I always do something at Eponalia on December 18th and maybe this year I will use these words although probably not as a physical group rite as there are so many other things going on at that time of year.

After I returned home I read posts on Facebook and other places from a few others who had used the words with their own rites and at approximately the same time as we had gathered at the Old Barn.

Finally I offer below the wording I prepared for Saturday’s rite to Honour Epona. This was based on a prayer which I have submitted for publication in a book devoted to the Gray Mare. That prayer was in turn was inspired by another prayer published in the Clann Bhride Book of Hours.

If anyone reading this wishes to use or adapt the wording of this rite for their own use in honouring Epona please do.


Ritual in honour of Epona Rigantona

Set up altar area in north west with statue of Epona, quaich, chalice and roses. Possibly include candle and incense. Gather people into a horseshoe shape with altar area in gap. Invite others attending to add anything they have brought to the altar area.

Guide:

Today we gather to honour Epona, by some also known as Rigantona or Rhiannon and simply as the Grey Mare. For those who are unfamiliar with Epona her name means Divine Mare. Rhiannon means Great Queen and Rigantona is simply the earlier Brythonic version of this. She is known from inscriptions and statuary from Roman times mainly found across what was once Gaul but She was also venerated in other places including at the Antonine Wall in Scotland as evidenced by a altar found at Auchendavy and on display at the Hunterian museum dedicated to a number of beings including Epona.

Epona has very strong links to horses and ponies, those who work with them and stables. The imagery on statues of Her that have been found also link Her to fertility, sovereignty and the passage from this life to the next. Some inscriptions refer to Her as Epona Regina (Queen Epona).

To me She is a guide for all types of journeys from physical ones to emotional and spiritual ones. The Mabinogion stories include a character named as Rhiannon who has links to the Otherworld and has singing birds that can put people to sleep. It is possible these tales carry fragments of lore connected to Epona.

There is some evidence for an Eponalia festival on 18 December in Epona’s honour and I usually try and do something personal at that time at least. This is different though, this is something I felt I needed to do. Maybe it will start something larger, maybe it won’t but today we honour Epona.

Using a bull roarer we will now focus on attracting the attention of the local spirits and begin this rite.

Libation offered to spirits of place following previous personal consultation with them after bullroarer sounds.

Guide:

Together let us call to Epona and invite Her presence among us.

All:

Hail Epona Rigantona!  Rigantona Epona Hail!

Guide: Epona of Horses,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Rigantona of the Land,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Epona of Sovereignty,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Rigantona of Journeys,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Epona of Stables,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Rigantona of the Otherworld,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Epona, Great Mother,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Rigantona of the Singing Birds,

All: We praise you!

Guide: Epona Rigantona, friend, guardian, guide and teacher,

All: We praise you!

Guide: May our words of praise ripple out across the Land

Libation is poured out for Epona into the quaich and the cup is passed round for each person to sip from.

Guide: Epona of Horses,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Rigantona of the Land,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Epona of Sovereignty,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Rigantona of Journeys,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Epona of Stables,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Rigantona of the Otherworld,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Epona, Great Mother,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Rigantona of the Singing Birds,

All: We honour you!

Guide: Epona Rigantona, friend, guardian, guide and teacher,

All: We honour you!

Guide: May our words resound across the worlds.

At this point as the cup is passed round if you wish to offer anything to Epona or request anything from Her (bearing in mind that if you are asking for a gift you should return something at some stage) this is the time to do so either silently or aloud for all to witness.

Cup is passed round a second time for each person to sip from and speak if they wish to.

Guide: Epona of Horses,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Rigantona of the Land,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Epona of Sovereignty

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Rigantona of Journeys,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Epona of Stables,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Rigantona of the Otherworld,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Epona, Great Mother,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Rigantona of the Singing Birds,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Guide: Epona Rigantona, friend, guardian, guide and teacher,

All: We thank you for your gifts and your presence here today.

Cup is passed round a third and final time in silence.

All: Hail  Epona Rigantona!  Rigantona Epona Hail!

Guide: Before we part can we take a moment to connect with each other? Please lift your hands and join palm to palm with the person next to you, not holding, just lightly touching and can the people next to the altar place their other hands on the edge of the altar.

Epona we thank you for your presence here today and bid you farewell for now knowing that should we seek, we can find you again.

We thank the spirits of this place for hosting us this day and bid them farewell as soon we shall depart.

Drop hands. Bullroarer sounds to close the ceremony.

Guide: This rite is now complete, I’d like to thank each and everyone of you for joining me here today to Honour Epona.

Food and tea/coffee to be shared.