Keeper of Secrets

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Image of badger hand carved from driftwood

New life I have been given
Carved and shaded
Shaped with delicate detail
Spirit reborn from dreams

I grew tall in a forest
Whispered with my siblings
Felt the rain and sun
Breathed deep

I fell into a river
Tumbled and bounced along
An otter played with me
Then left me to the sea

I soaked in the waters
Felt the sun’s warmth
Was swept into currents
Travelled with the tides

Washed up on a shore
I waited…

Found and taken
I waited…

I dreamed and waited
Mysteries of the land
Secrets of the sea
Wonders of the star lit sky

I dreamed of a cub
Grey in the night sky
Snuffling at the roots
Buried beneath me

I dreamed of a badger
Walking the land
She felt my dream
And I took form

I whisper to another
Of mysteries and wonders
For I am reborn
As Keeper of Secrets

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Second image of badger hand carved from driftwood

Badger beautifully hand carved by Of half imagnined things

Words by me.

Approaching Samhain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 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.

New patterns of devotion

Last summer I started feeling the presence of a few other deities to those I have regular patterns of devotion with.  One was a being I had a little experience of but others were new to me.  What they have in common are the seas and oceans.

The one I had some experience of is Manannán.  I had heard about him in various myths and in previous years had felt His presence by the shore and when I took a ferry to Arran.  Last summer I felt Him more strongly, particularly when we took a ferry to the Isle of Mull for a short holiday. His presence ebbed and flowed like the tide but last year His presence began to feel much stronger. If you are new to His name then you’ll find an overview here. For a much better introduction though I recommend Morgan Daimler’s book “Manannán mac Lir: Meeting The Celtic God Of Wave And Wonder“.

The other beings that made their presence strongly felt were from the Norse pantheon and the strongest of these was the Goddess Rán. I’ve written before about Loki entering my life but up to last summer none of the other assorted beings from Norse pantheon had made their presence felt so I had thought that Loki was going to be the only one.  That didn’t bother me in any way as I still thought of myself as primarily Brythonic.  Now I started to realise that maybe that wasn’t going to be the case long term. Along with Rán I also felt the presence of what I knew were Her daughters.  It wasn’t until I got home from Mull that I was able to check my feelings with information on the lore.  As the summer progressed into autumn it seemed like Rán and Her daughters had drifted away but then they drifted back again. Over the last year their presences have continued to ebb and flow in my life.

It got to the stage where I felt I needed to set aside some devotional space for beings of water and in particular the seas and oceans. My main altar was already full though so after a bit of thought I set up one of a set of three nested coffee tables as a shrine to being of the seas, oceans and rivers. I brought an indoor water fountain as the main focal point and added a small statue of a leaping dolphin, some sea glass and a hag stone.  The sea glass and hag stone were collected on beaches I have visited.  Since the photo below I’ve also added a shell from a more recent beach trip.

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Photo of my shrine to beings of seas, oceans and rivers.

And for a while that was it.  I felt the urge to make offerings occasionally but nothing regular. Last week that changed while I was out for a walk round my local park.  I was musing about the ebb and flow of these developing relationships and whether to try and make more regular offerings. I wasn’t sure how anything new would fit into the patterns I already have and suddenly I had a realization.

Ever since I had changed from a lunar patter of devotions to a weekly one I had struggled to keep touch with the lunar phases in the way that I had previously.  I used to make offerings to my ancestors on the dark moon, to Brigantia the day before a full moon, Epona on the full moon and An Cailleach the day after the full moon. When I started to make offerings to Maponos on Sundays my patterns began to shift to a weekly devotional cycle and I started to lose touch with the lunar cycles a bit. This sudden realization was that honouring the beings of ocean and seas would fit beautifully into a lunar pattern of devotions.  After all we are very aware of the influence of this planet’s moon in the cycle of tides.  Using a lunar pattern made sense, it felt right.

And so on this last full moon I began to add a new pattern into my existing devotional practices.  First I made my offering, prayed and communed with the deity of that day and then I turned my focus to the water shrine and made an offering there. As yet I have not developed any particular prayers for Manannán or Rán who are the strongest of the presences that drift in and out.  The shrine also has images honouring Rán’s nine daughters and her husband Ægir. My intentions are to now honour Manannán, Rán and her daughters and her husband Ægir at both full and dark moons.

 

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.