Month: March 2010

Of clapboard dogs and pita cows

Lately, I’ve been reading Ceisiwr Serith’s latest work: Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

It is a fascinating read, I must say. Perhaps owing to my long years in ADF and deep love of ancient history, I’m intrigued by his ideas — the PIE pantheon, ritual elements such as soma/haoma, etc. I love thought experiments, and prefer reading this text as such. As a thought experiment and exploration of an imagined proto-religion, it’s wonderful.

… but as a ritual system, it’s ridiculous. PIE religion, as constructed, relies heavily on animal sacrifice — expected due to the times and circumstances of the people. As quasi-nomadic people of the steppes, they likely made temporary altars of turf and had few ritual implements. All this I understand and accept.

The reconstructed rituals also revolve around animal sacrifice — except that pita bread is substituted for the animal, called by the name of the animal and even tied to the ritual stake before it is “slain” by an ax-bearing champion. The altar is made of turf and a set of ritual poles is pounded into the ground, a ditch dug, etc. Two pieces of leather take the place of actual cattle and are addressed as such. The liturgy is in reconstructed PIE, which largely looks like gobbledygook without vowels. Only the gods know how it’s pronounced, pronunciation key in the appendix notwithstanding.

And soma/nektar? Mead with powdered barley and ghee. A waste of good mead, that.

My favorite part so far was the horse sacrifice, which involves a stripped-down pinata with a bottle of soma/nektar/mead inside; the severed pinata head is put on a stake. The ritual also involves a dog sacrifice — in the form of a clapboard cut-out dog that’s ritually bisected with an ax and then either buried or sunk in water. Burying or sinking ritual implements is mentioned in several places in the book, which doesn’t quite seem eco-friendly.

The ritual format prizes form over function. Serith readily admits that no one really knows why the dog is ritually killed and cut in two, for example. Maintaining the rudiments of the reconstructed ritual is more important than, say, understanding why such actions are done or even the spirit in which said actions are performed. (This is one of my big beefs with ADF as a whole, cow pun intended.)

At the end of the day, our world no longer resembles the supposed world of the PIE people. And I say supposed because, in the end, it’s a linguistic theory. Scholars are still arguing over the purported people’s homeland, for example; we truly don’t know who these people were, or if our reconstructions are especially close to their lived reality. In some senses, it’s an ancient version of Esperanto, expanded to religion and culture.

We no longer live in a world where our food is kept on the hoof for preservation and transportation purposes. Cows are no longer a measure of wealth, and we no longer migrate from pasture to pasture. We have few ax-wielding champions and no bona fide kings. To enact such things in ritual is akin to playing dress-up: form before function. Ritual substitution makes sense if you usually have a sacrificial animal for a rite, and cannot due to (temporary) circumstances under your control. To always have bread instead of an animal truly requires a ritual revision. In a non-herding culture, why isn’t, say, homemade bread a worthy sacrifice? (I’m starting to sound like Cain and Abel!)

In the end, the Gods don’t need our cows or our pita bread; they need our love, attention and respect. The relationship should be about love — the Hindu bhakti or devotion — not “I’ll give you this so you give me that.” Our physical offerings are piddling things to the divine; it is the act of giving with the whole heart that counts, the acts of praise, love — the treatment as family and friend.

And while I was especially fascinated by the PIE gods, I can’t imagine worshiping them. Why worship Westya, when you can worship Brighid, Hestia, Vesta — hearth-goddesses whose names, rituals and meanings are known, even in part? Why worship Perkwunos instead of Thor, Taranis, Perun, Dagda? Dyaus Pter instead of Jupiter, Zeus, Tyr, Nuada? In other words, why go for the reconstruction when you could go for the attested “real deal”?

I suppose the fact that I consider historical deities the “real deal” and reconstructed ones as, well, reconstructed is part of my failure to make the cognitive leap. I’m quite simply an unbeliever when it comes to the PIE experiment and happy with Brighid, Morrigan, Aonghus and the whole Celtic crew, as well as the non-Celtic deities I worship (Ganesha, Hera, etc.) I love the history that comes with the Gods, the unity — perhaps imagined — with worshipers in other times and places. Perhaps some folks get that with PIE gods; I don’t, although I love reading about them.

In the end, I do highly recommend the book, although I’m not quite finished with it yet (I’ve a third to go). It’s a fascinating thought experiment.

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Trance to Aonghus Og

 Follow the beat of the drum, deeper and deeper into the Otherworld. Settle yourself under the Otherworldly Tree, the World Tree, the Axis Mundi. The Celts called it Bile, the Norse Yggdrasil. Even the Mongols had words for it, for it links all the worlds within and without. Settle in, and let yourself see this tree; let your mind wander until it focuses. How does it seem to you? Remember this tree, for it is the first thing you will see when you access the Otherworld.

The tree is the starting place on our journey today, a journey to the heart of love, to the Young Son and his desire. Breathe, in and out, in and out. Standing beneath the tree, let your eyes skim the landscape of the Otherworld. What do you see? What sort of land lies before you? Is it day or night? What season is it?

You see a swan, white and majestic, the bird of beauty, love and desire. It inspires an upswelling of longing, a pull of the tide. The bird is everything that is beautiful to you in the world – but other, its own self, not under your control. It takes flight into the sky of the Otherworld, leaving you on the earth.

But you have your talisman – white feathers, a touch of the beauty that brings you power. As the drum beats, use your talisman to change shape. Breathe into this change. Arms to wings, hands to flight feathers, neck lengthening. As the drum beats, complete this change.

Take flight, spirit-flight: soar into the sky as a white bird, swan or dove or owl, or another of your choosing. Let your heart guide your flight, until you come to a lake mirroring the heavens – the pure blue of the upper world. See this lake, and land on the floor, resuming your shape.

The lake is filled with swans, as beautiful as the bird you followed – the bird you know is among them. And so Aonghus Og stood on the shore and his task was a difficult one: to decide which of the 150 birds gathered there was Caer Ibormeith, whose name means yew berry – the goddess who had come to him in a dream and drove him mad with heart-ache until he found her. But know this: each of those birds on the lake is love, someone or something with whom you may share your heart. There is no shortage of love objects there. But know also, each swan is a being in its own right, one who cannot be cajoled or controlled. Each will fly back to the lake once its time with you is through, because that is the nature of love.

And so. Pick one – beckon forth the swan. And as it touches its foot upon the shore, it turns into your desire – your dream, your yew-berry. What does your swan look like? What lessons does this being bring to you, what wisdom? As the drum beats, explore this.

The being changes back into a swan and returns to the lake. But you find you are not alone: Aonghus Og, the young son, has some wisdom to give you. How does he appear to you? Take a moment with him.

He bears a wand in his hand. At its touch, you are back at the foot of the Otherworldly Tree, the beginning of your journey. As my drum stills, ground yourself in the earth and return.

“Blindfolded, I would know….”

Grian’s sun-face lights the leaves and limns the branches as the robins strike up an orchestra.

Last night, I was reading Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers when I came upon this poem, which seems appropriate for Aonghus Og and Caer Ibormeith, the subject of contemplation lately — and apropos in its own right, since Sunday was our wedding anniversary. It’s by Maude Meehan and called “Choice.”

Blindfolded
I would know
the touch
the taste
the smell of you
among a thousand others
and knowing, choose you.

To me, that choice is both the defining moment of myth and of love itself. In a field of swans, he chooses the right one, without hesitation. They look identical to our eyes, a sea of long necks and white feathers — but to the eyes of love, the swans are not the same. The heart can pluck the beloved from a sea of strangers.

Another poem, this one by Yeats, that I frequently use to invoke Aonghus Og: “The Song of Wandering Angus.” You can hear Donovan singing a version of this here. 

March thaw, the Lovers

stream
Shreds of white lay on the leaf-litter. The rhododendron has shucked its ice-coating and unfurls its evergreen leaves, but the world is awash still in brown and gray. Gray sky, gray rain, the gray swell of rivers and stream against the gray slats of stone in the streambed.

Stores have their pastel plastic Easter eggs, their faux vernal hues. But for me, Mean Erraigh is all about that wet gray: the first full thaw, the annual flooding of the rivers.

And so, it is apropos that we make offerings to the Mother of Rivers on Mean Erraigh. We will toss unseasonable blossoms into the gray expanse, singing her praise and asking her mercy during the moon of the flood. For the Mother of Waters is also Moon-Mother, puller of tides, the White Cow of above and below.

But this year, the main rite will belong to her son and his swan-wife, Aonghus Og and Caer Ibormeith. Swans, those most faithful of birds — they float on the breast of the Mother of Waters. They spin enchantments, mystery, adventure.

They are the Lovers — white-winged Caer Ibormeith testing Aonghus’ capacity to choose correctly. One older, less common interpretation of the Lovers card in the tarot is choice — the choice between loves or, in Aonghus’ case, of the true swan-maid from a lake of her sisters.

Why I don’t call myself a psychic

While I’ve been practicing cartomancy since the age of 9, I’d never describe myself as a “psychic.” The word makes me twitch; I much prefer “seer” or “diviner,” the old-fashioned terms.

Why? “Psychic” comes from the Greek word for soul, psyche — a beautiful enough word with a lovely myth attached to it. One of the definitions, conveniently listed at dictionary.com, is “pertaining to the human soul or mind.” This may seem an odd pairing with the traditional image of the boardwalk psychic and her crystal ball, but bear with me.

“Psychic” implies that the sacred — in the form of insight, wisdom, knowledge, etc. — comes from the practitioner’s mind and/or soul. In other words, the power is innate, within the individual. There’s the barest hint of what I’ll call “awesome power” — an assumed superiority, a supernatural agency.

And this is where I disagree. I have one power and one power only: to get myself out of the way and let the words of the Gods (specifically Brighid) flow through me. I am merely a conduit, a channel (although I don’t like that word either…) — a medium in its sense as a singular form of “media.” It’s a passive art, a surrender.

“Seer,” on the other hand, essentially means “observer,” or one who sees. That seems to be a more accurate description of the divinatory process than “psychic”; you are simply seeing the patterns that are there, opening yourself to the vision. “Diviner” correlates directly with the name of the process: discerning the will of the divine, the Gods.

Seer and diviner are good old words. There’s a certain sepia tint to them, perhaps a remnant of the time when individual agency wasn’t so lauded or lusted after. Whatever wisdom comes from divination arrives through the grace of the spirits and the glory of the larger pattern — a pattern woven by our own lives and choices and those of others, and others still, human and non-human, seen and unseen.

There’s no certification for diviners, no master status for seers. It’s a dynamic process and the reader is only a small part — the part that scoots to the side and lets the sacred show itself. That’s something you can learn, but not something another human being can teach to you. Learning it is a matter of learning to see, and your eyes (inner and outer) don’t come with an instruction manual. That’s part of the beauty, part of the path.

So, that’s my rant of the morning. 😉

the question in the heart

Bright-faced Day gleams off the white, watering the eyes. In like a lion and out like a lion: March in upstate New York.

I’ve been a diviner since the age of 9, when I first began telling fortunes with playing cards. I prefer the term “diviner” or “seer” to “psychic,” owing to personal beliefs about how seership works, but that’s a rant for another day.

Every month, I do a night of public tarot readings. While I practice other forms of divination, cartomancy is probably the most acceptable to the public due to its familiarity. More importantly, the infinite variety of card combinations allows me to do adequate readings without knowing the petitioner’s question.

And people do like to keep their questions to themselves. Think, for a moment, of what drives clients to that ridiculous and somewhat miraculous figure, the “psychic” with her hippie skirts and crystal ball. It’s not happiness, or certainty.

I ask clients to pick the question they want answered as they shuffle the cards. What I don’t say: it’s not the question you pick with your head, but the one that’s already in your heart that counts. That’s the one the cards answer, whether you want them to or not. In short, the spirits know your heart; this is why you needn’t speak your question aloud. The reader is simply the conduit for the information, not the purveyor.

Perhaps the key is knowing your own heart. If you did, chances are you wouldn’t need a reading. That’s what divination is best for, I think: articulating and facing what you know in your heart.

Can one truly divine the future? There’s no simple answer to that, but I personally don’t believe in predestination. It would be so simple if the universe were printed, bound, offered with some sort of publisher’s imprint, the answers available to anyone who can read. I see, however, the universe and its happenings as a dynamic work of co-creation. our choices and pathways affect our fate and others; so do others influence us.

The future isn’t a straight line; it’s a bowl of spaghetti, innumerable lines twisted up and around each other. This does not, alas, make for great sci-fi movies or books.

The future is simply a function of time-moved-forward, and time isn’t an element — either scientific or classical. Time is a measure of process, innumerable processes all going forward at their own rates, wheels within wheels.