My Ancestors

Today is the full moon and once more I shall make a pot of tea for my ancestors.

In particular today I remember my grandfather George who died this day last year and my grandmother Pauline who died two days ago.

It is poignant that my grandmother’s funeral will take place exactly one year to the very day of her husband’s in the same church, with the same minister. She will then lie with her husband once more.

Love and death

Last year on 4th September my beloved grandfather died after being ill for some time. Today almost a full year later his wife of many years, my grandmother slipped away in her sleep in hospital.

Many are the memories I have of both of them. He was a loving gentle man who enjoyed nothing more in later life than a comfy chair, a cup of tea and a slice of cake. He spent his early years on Jersey and returned there for holidays every year he could. That is also where his loves of steam trains and cream teas began. He had a special wave for myself and my brother. So many memories…

My grandma was strong willed and loved being the centre of attention. She was a wonderful amateur actress and had performed in many plays when younger and directed a range of things with the W.I. in later years. In the last few years in spite of problems with her eyes she took art classes and loved it – she did well too. She loved clothes and jewellry and shoes and had a pretty large collection of all three. I have some bits of jewellry and some shoes she passed to me.

In her youth my grandma sang with a big band, she also served in the second world war in the signals if I remember correctly. She loved the films and recordings of Deanna Durbin and introduced me to some of them when I was much younger.

As many reading this will know I love to sing. My grandma encouraged me in this and paid for singing lessons for me when I was younger. One of the last things I was able to do for her was sing something to her over the phone. I picked “On Wings of Song”. The words I learnt seem to be a bit differnt to those I can find online.

On Wings of Song I’ll bear thee
Enchanted realms to see
Come oh my love prepare thee
In dreamland to wander with me
A garden I know of Roses
By moonlight silver’d o’er
Upon that lake reposes
A balmy lotus flower
Upon that lake reposes
A balmy lotus flower.

The bending violets whisper
Their fragrant secrets there
Waiting for thee their sister
Still closed are their blossoms rare
With wistful glances are peering
The bright eyed slender gazelle
The rushing tide is nearing
Upon the breeze it swells
The rushing tide is nearing
Upon the breeze it swells

And there we will sit and rest us
Under the palm trees shade
And dream that love has blessed us
And joy will never fade
And joy will never fade
Never fade.

For Pauline Elizabeth Potter 1925 – 2009.

Sleeping with strange men and horses

I realise that the above title could get a few raised eyebrows but when I mentioned to a couple of colleagues at work what I would be doing one weekend in July, raised eyebrows was the least of the reactions.

One of the members of Brython, Francis, invited folk to gather on his land in Wales for a weekend camp. Only a few of us could make it and as I planned to go down I realised that it was possible I would be the only woman there. I was going to an unknown place and staying with people I had never met except online. There would be one person I had met before there for a bit during Saturday evening and it was possible Francis’s wife might join us for a bit but as they have two young children I was aware that she might not be able to join us at all. I was also going to be dependant on those present for food and shelter as I couldn’t carry much with me on the train.

Francis picked me up at a near by train station on arrival and in spite of not having exchanged mobile numbers or descriptions we had no problem at all recognising each other.

The field we camped in is part of a flood plain area with a range of wild grasses, flowers and reeds. Along one side of it is the raised river bank and the other side has trees and bushes growing along it. The view across the river is of hills and mountains. The area is very peaceful and extremely beautiful.

Francis had set up a large tipi tent for sitting in the event of rain (which I also slept in) and had prepared wood for a fire. He had also brought some food down.

The sun was very warm that Saturday afternoon although the ground was still damp from the rain during the previous week. The few of us that arrived earlier in the day sat around and chatted about general things getting to know each other a little better.

Towards the evening a few others arrived. The fire was started in a fire bowl and the wooden hand turned Brython bowl was filled with mead and passed round, each person passing to their right.

After the mead had all been drunk (it went round 3 times before it was all gone) I sang a couple of songs for the gathered tribe. This was something I felt I needed to do while we were all gathered. Francis then took us all on a short walk along the river bank pointing out some aspects of the landscape as we went and telling us of the folklore linked to those areas. Coming back into the field at the other end meant jumping (in my case practically falling into) a ditch. Assistance was provided in the form of strong helping arms to those of us that had problems jumping. We then went back to the fire and started some more formal and in depth discussions about Brython. I won’t go into that here but if you are interested you will find a bit more on the Caer Feddwyd forum.

As it happened one of the others who could only come for a bit in the evening brought his partner with him so I wasn’t the only woman there for the whole time – just most of it.

Later in the evening those who were unable to camp left, the rest of us sat round the camp fire until the rain started at around midnight and we went to our tents to sleep.

The rain continued on and off all night and it was still raining lightly the next morning. We gathered in the large Tipi and sat round chatting as the weather was so poor and a couple of us had to leave by midday. Conversations varied from chainsaws to wind turbines to what sort of thing happens at Druid Network camps (I’ve never been to one and this was a chance to hear a bit more about them from folk that had gone to a few).

Later in the day Francis guided us to the nearby village of Betws-y-Coed where we had hot chocolates and gained further appreciation of plumbing and running hot water.

As we sat drinking and chatting the rain finally cleared up and we went to see a bit more of Francis’s home territory.

Francis first guided us to the area he and others use for summer grazing for their sheep. It is high up and wild with stunning views across the valley and further. On clearer days Snowdon is visible between two nearer peaks but it was obscured by the low clouds on that afternoon. Francis told us how in the past, not that long ago, the whole village would turn out for a celebrations and the trek taking the sheep and cattle up to summer grazing at the beginning of May. They would usually be brought back down at the end of October. The journey up to the summer grazing used to take a couple of days but now it is a matter of hours with livestock in trailers. Also livestock tend to be brought down earlier than they used to be to graze on silage fields where in the past such fields were often used for growing oats.

Our next stop was the beautiful Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall and while walking to the waterfall from the nearby car park Francis told us about the Giant chasing his daughter and her suitor that gave rise to that name. In summary Welsh giants don’t like their daughters marrying because that usually means they die. In this case the giant’s daughter and her suitor fled on a grey mare with a razor, a comb and a mirror. The first time the giant got too close the daughter threw the razor behind them and it became a chasm, the second time she threw the comb down and it became a forest and the third time she threw down the mirror which turned into a lake. The giant was close enough to reach out and make a grab at them and he caught the mare’s tail which came off in his hand. He threw it aside and it transformed into the waterfall Francis took us to see.

The last place we had time to visit was the woods Francis owns and in particular a little clearing with a fire pit and a fantastic view over the valley.

Then it was back to the field for a final goodbye and Francis then took me to the train station for my journey home.

What about the horses? Well the field we camped in had three Welsh mountain ponies in it for summer grazing much to my absolute delight. The stallion was incredibly friendly – so much so that Francis did say he is likely to end up as a riding pony for someone before long. The two mares were much more wary. For me the friendliness of that stallion was a magical experience and if he does end up as a riding pony then I hope it will be for someone who can appreciate the warmth of personality he showed to us over the weekend.

Some may think I am a bit reckless to go off into an unknown territory and meet up with strangers only known from forums but I knew I would be safe. I’ll admit I was nervous but then I often am a bit nervous when meeting people I want to like me for the first time.

I am incredibly grateful to Francis for his hospitality and generosity in both hosting us and sharing something of his bond with the land he lives and works on. It was for me a very magical weekend and it’s wonderful to be able to put some faces to names at last.

Reconstruction, reconnection, reinvention

Recently on the Caer Feddwyd forum there have been a few threads that stretch into realms of scholarship that I have difficulty keeping pace with. We are blessed in having some truly fine minds sharing information in that forum. These minds raise issues that I either didn’t know about before or hadn’t really considered and then I’m left reeling, almost battered by a storm of ideas and thoughts. If I’m lucky a ray of sunshine breaks through and in a moment of calm I see the world anew, bathed in splendour.

The issue that I have been thinking about the most is reconstruction and its place in modern paganism.

“In discussions of religions of antiquity, “reconstruction” refers to the process of building a model of previous historic and pre-historic traditions, and then examining that model for ideas of how to implement those traditions in a modern, practical sense. The specific definition of “reconstruction” which fits our usage best is, “an interpretation formed by piecing together bits of evidence”.”
From: http://www.paganachd.com/faq/whatiscr.html#reconstruction

“Pagan Reconstructionism (also known as “Recon”) is a lesser-known modern Pagan movement, that differs from other types of modern Paganism primarily on its reliance on solid academic and historical sources regarding deities, worship and symbolism.”
From: http://www.ecauldron.net/reconindex.php

My path at present is pretty heavily influenced by ideas within Celtic Reconstruction (CR). I’ve only recently come to learn that in all probability the reliance put upon many of the sources used in CR (such as surviving Irish and Welsh manuscripts) is probably much higher than it should be. Like many modern pagans I had brought into the idea that the Welsh and Irish myths were written down from older oral tales by monks who, understandably, put a Christian gloss on things. I’ve recently come to understand that actually many of these tales were crafted from scratch in medieval times. As I understand it some of them used names and basic characteristics of individuals in older tales but they also added in characteristics that suited the plot they were crafting. Not unlike the re-envisioning of Arthurian stories that has taken place in the fantasy genre of literature such as the well known Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

These Welsh and Irish stories are wonderful but they do not contain large amounts of information about how our pagan ancestors might of viewed the gods or about their ritual practices. There maybe the odd snippet but how to tell what is invention of the monk that wrote the story and what is an echo of something much older is probably going to be beyond the vast majority of pagans reading these tales in translated form.

Reconstruction implies a knowledge of what something looked like originally and frankly as far as I can see we simply do not have enough reliable information. I am coming to think that the best information sources we have access to are the archaeological and they are usually open to a wide range of interpretations.

So if we can’t really reconstruct what do we do? One possibility mentioned elsewhere which I like the idea of is Reconnection. This is the idea that we make new associations or relationships with Gods or spirits we know of from inscriptions on shrines and offerings found by archaeologists. We try and reconnect with these beings and learn from them. We try to reconnect with the land, learning to work with the natural rhythms of the land we live on. But reconnection is difficult and because it is about relationships it is also going to be highly personal. We may be able to share some things about our relationships but that doesn’t mean we are going to be able to develop a group perspective on any one deity or spirit. We might manage it eventually but I think it will take a great deal of trust and perseverance.

Perhaps it’s also time to stand up and say openly that what we also need to look at is Reinvention. We will need to create some things again, to remake them in a different form. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but we do need to be able to admit that in some cases we are simply re-inventing practices and stories for our modern age. What we need to be honest about is what parts of our practices are re-inventions.

Perhaps the best way forward will be to take the slender threads of information found by archaeologists and snippets in historical sources, combine them with our own experiences and personal relationships to build a chariot of knowledge and then re-invent the wheels.

Weddings

In the last week I’ve had the honour of being the celebrant for two quite different legal Pagan weddings.

On the summer solstice I joined with the Tuatha de Bridget group in Glasgow for a summer solstice ritual with a handfasting included. There was a mixture of members of the Tuatha de Bridget group and friends and family of the couple. The group is described as druidcraft – meaning a mixture of druidry and Wicca. This particlar ritual included honoring the earth, sea and sky and the spirit of the place we were in and calls to the ancestors, Belenus and Brigantia. The handfasting aspect of the ritual was heavily influenced by modern druidry which is what the couple wanted. I think it went well and everyone seemed to enjoy it. It was the first time I’ve done a handfasting or wedding within a seasonal festival.

On Friday (26th) I was the celebrant for a heathen wedding. I had to do quite a bit of research for it and I’ve learnt quite a bit. On behalf of the couple I called on Odin, Freya, Thor, Sif, Var, the Disir and the Norns. While I do not have any personal relationship with any of these beings I do feel that my words were heard. A libation was made by the bride’s daughter on behalf of the couple. The wedding vows were exchanged while the couple held an oath ring and they later made promises to their children using that same oath ring. It was quite different to anything I had done before and very enjoyable.

It was and is a pleasure and a priviledge to be part of such special days for couples and something I really enjoy doing. It is tiring because you put a huge amount of energy into doing the best you can for each couple but worth it when it all comes together of the day.

So to Rachel & Simon and Cassie & Drew long life and happiness to you and may your Gods guide and bless you.

Death and the continuity of the self

Recently I have been musing about death and existence beyond it. For as long asI can remember I have believed in the existence of something beyond this life we live and yet…

And yet I have nothing really that reinforces this belief. I have sometimes felt that I can feel presences around me of those I have known and loved who have died but is that just wishful thinking? I’ve never received any kind of clear message that confirms that there are ancestral spirits around me.

I like the idea of reincarnation in some shape or form but I have no explanation of how it might work. Apart from one strange instance where I either remembered being a tree or simply saw myself as one for a brief moment in time I have nothing really concrete to support the feeling that I may have walked this world before. I know some poeple that have experienced memories in regression that make them certain that they have lived before but for myself I am uncomfortable with the idea of regression. I think that even if I did seem to remember something I would always wonder if it was real or just my imagination fueled by the many fiction books I have read.

On my way home yesterday on the bus I was thinking about these things for what is probably the millionth time at least and I finally came to understand that it doesn’t really matter.

If I live beyond this life in some way I probably will not remember this life just as now I have no memory of any past experience. I have some knowledge of some of my ancestors, they live on in my blood and my limited memories of them. I have the precious knowledge of my own blood descendants, my children. If I can pass on stories of family members that they will never know to them then in some small way those people will live on. If, in their turn, they have children and pass stories of previous generations on then I will live on not only in their blood but in their memories.

I will never know for certain if there is anything else but it doesn’t matter to me any more (or rather that I will never really know the answer no longer matters I will simply carry on believing that there is more to existence than this life). What matters is my blood and something of my story. This is my legacy to the future just as my blood and the stories of my ancestors are my inheritance.

Priesthood

What is it to be a priest in a pagan community? This is a question I keep coming back to and I’m still not certain I have a convincing answer.

Most dictionaries I have looked at give definitions of a priest as one who act as a mediator between god/s and people and who perform rites of sacrifice and celebration. The word itself comes from the Greek presbyteros meaning “elder”. Some dictionaries will give a definition of someone ordained in a Christian church to consecrate the bread and wine for Mass.

In most pagan communities individuals are encouraged to develop their own relationships with their gods, to make their own offerings and sacrifices. Individuals are usually encouraged to develop their skills so that they can craft their own rites and rituals. My own experiences show that some simply don’t want to do learn how to craft rituals for groups or indeed for themselves but prefer to let others craft rites where they can take part.

There are also times in life where you don’t want to be writing and or leading a ritual such as a wedding or a funeral – most people at these times want someone else to act as a celebrant.

Some months ago a discussion took place on one of the forums I belong to on what a priest should be. The following is my summary of ideas from that discussion:

A priest would most importantly be expected to serve the community and the gods. They would expected be able to communicate effectively with both the gods and the members of the community and if necessary negotiate between them. They would be expected to be a well known figure in the community and an exemplar to all within it. They would be expected to be willing and able to share their experience and knowledge to aid members of the community in both spiritual and practical matters. They should be willing and able to share what they have learnt and to continue their own learning.

A priest within a community would be expected to enable members to celebrate ritual in a deep and meaningful way, they would not necessarily lead all rituals but would be capable of doing so as required. They would also be expected to be able to act as a celebrant for namings, weddings, funerals and other rites of passage as required.

I think the key to this role is service and in order to be a priest as defined above you must have a community that you serve and a community that recognises your service.