Month: April 2010

Merlin’s Return and Monique Wittig

What makes a story sacred?

I’m pondering the situation, in that others find RJ Stewart’s tale of Merlin’s return as meaningful while I do not. I admit that the ritual work it depicts — integrating slain soldiers into the Otherworld — is meaningful work. But why isn’t the telling?

There are several principals involved. One involves good storytelling — in that you must show, not tell. Myths often depict a series of actions, for example; the motivations are left up to the listeners to figure out, if they indeed wish to. Of course, there are exceptions, but most myth doesn’t opt for the psychological realism of the modern novel. It’s not about realism.

For me, sacred story is one that leaves space — for wandering, for imagining, for exploring truths and realities. Jeannette Winterson’s works read to me as sacred story, as well as that of “magical realists.” I’ve had moments with Charles de Lint, Ursula Le Guin, Gita Mehta’s “A River Sutra,” even Patricia McKillip. Certainly Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères.

And it’s perhaps the last that gives me my basic principle for sacred storytelling: “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember… You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

Yes, it’s “telling” the reader, but it’s doing so in the language of poetry, which seems to transcend the whole notion of pedantic-telling. It leaves room for imagination, room for you to spin the details, the meaning in your own life. “Merlin’s Return” just doesn’t have those qualities, at least in my reading of it.

Sacred storytelling merges, on many levels, with the art of poetry. It uses language — often repetition of themes as well as phrases and sounds — to beguile the mind out of its normal state. Note the repetition in Wittig’s famous passage, and how it lulls the mind.

I admit that I have an inherent bias against Stewart’s story in part because I’m sick to death of Merlin and medieval-type settings. Granted, there are times I like these familiar settings, but I’ve just been over-exposed through the years. However, “cliche” isn’t alien to sacred storytelling; the presence of the familiar is actually a key for the listener. What makes it something other than cliche is the feeling that there’s always something valid in the experience, whether it’s a fresh perspective or an old memory.

End of the day: the style of writing wasn’t poetic enough to appeal to me and I just don’t like Merlin stories. Your sacred storytelling perspective may vary. 🙂


Falling short

Falling short.

Whether we’re spiritual beings or no, we eventually find ourselves in this predicament. We fail ourselves, our Gods, our beliefs. While this can be grandiose and terrible — say, committing a murder in a moment of passion — most often, it’s small, insidious. To focus on the spiritual, it is the things we forget or neglect to do: put off devotions for a night reading comic books, forsake our art out of laziness or distraction.

On a personal level, I’ve run into it lately. being so caught up in the mundane round of work, chores and all-around weariness, I haven’t made adequate time for my personal rites and devotion, which consists of journey-work and the creation of music. And finally, I pissed off my ever-patient matron, Brighid. During the monthly vigil (I’m a member of Ord Brighideach and keep a vigil every 20 days), I got a stern message. From my journal:

the vigil candle burns, and Brighid is angry.

the ogham twist in many hands, all bad in answer to the question: what can i do to deepen my devotion to you? i see her mouth in a straight-line; i understand the answer as i pluck Sail.

time, attention. they are important quantities. light the candles and the smudge without the proper attention, and it’s all just random acts. she’s a wife who’s been neglected for the big game, or ball season. patience wears thin.

and i pluck my harp strings, sing “Hearth and Heart” in her honor even as i beg forgiveness. i offer prayers whenever i can and don her silver necklace, not caring for once that the public may think it’s a swastika.

and i wonder, how much of my repentance is born of devotion? how much is sheer fear of pissing off a god?

cthonic ruis/redness, i pluck: shame.

perhaps there’s always that ambiguity when you’re the smaller entity. i do feel love and devotion. life without Brighid would be a life in monochrome: there, with its beauties even, but not in a full spectrum. but yes, when you’re the mortal, there’s always fear involved. the other party, regardless of inclination or desire, has the ability to harm, and that goes only one way.

perhaps, in some ways, that’s how our cats regard us. they may love us, but at the end of the day, we’re ten times their size.

so i sing and bow and scrape, offering the beggar scraps from my heart. i try to ask her nothing for myself, although i offer prayers for my mechanic, who’s been dealing with financial and medical issues, and those i love. “you are not a wish-granting tree,” i say.

but i need to pay attention — to Brighid and the Kindreds, to my husband, to my friends. to music and ritual in my daily life again, not just reserved for weekends. somehow, i’ve a poverty of attention. i’m not sure where i spend it. am i too self-involved? or just in la-la land?

hard questions. ruis indeed.

 Falling short can be deliberate — such as choosing to break one’s magical ethics by hexing someone who’s angered you, for example. Most often, though, is based on a lack of mindfulness, distraction, fatigue. Correcting it takes, at its heart, attention.

It’s important to give ourselves slack, and to even view falling short as a human failing, not proof of our personal unworthiness. By submitting to self-hate, you lose the energy and initiative needed to correct the situation. And what’s needed to correct it? Simply: attention. From attention springs all the other solutions: making time, making the effort, fulfilling vows, journeying deep.

The first step is simple attention. Breathe deep and center yourself. Open your eyes and look in the eyes of your beloved, human or non-human, divine or mundane. Share the bright flame of your consciousness; turn it outward, a gift to its object. Don’t judge; don’t dwell on the Other’s usefulness. Simply give the gift of your attention.

That isn’t the entirety of the practice, but it’s the start.

Review: Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids


Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids is a collaborative work by R.J. Stewart and Robin Williamson. I picked it up with high hopes, since it was recommended on a Druidic reading list (precisely which, I have since forgotten). I also have a soft spot for Stewart’s previous work, Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, one of my few mementos from a trip to Salem at the age of 18. The latter book has some truly wonderful pictures and, to the best of my memory, seemed true to its subject matter.

Celtic Bards also features artwork. Alas, Chris Down — while amazingly talented at Celtic knotwork and semi-abstract patterns — doesn’t have a talent for the human figure, and his drawings were a distraction rather than a draw. Otherwise, the book has two main functions: as a collection of tales and stories translated and/or collected by the two authors, and a collection of several essays putting the Bardic and Druidic traditions into context.

The tales are decent enough — the ancient ones, as well as some of the folk tales. Of course, there are compilations aplenty of Irish and Welsh stories and myths; in that regard, this is a relatively slim and modern addition to the field.

I don’t care as much for the authors’ modern poems and stories. I don’t object to their inclusion — after all, part of the book’s purpose is to illustrate storytelling as a sacred art — but they simply aren’t to my taste. An example: the lengthy story, “Merlin’s Return,” depicts the wizard conducting magic to send the spirits of modern soldiers to the afterlife. It reads as the typical anti-modernity fantasy, in which the dysfunctional modern world finds its salvation in quasi-medieval myth and magic, a time believed to be healthier to the land and the human spirit. Personally, I don’t believe in romanticizing the past. (Being a woman, much of human history wouldn’t have been conducive to my personal development, health or basic sanity, but that’s a rant for another day.)

The rather simplistic modernity-is-bad theme seems to run as an undercurrent throughout, which irks me. Also irksome were the essays, which rehash Iolo Morganwg’s cosmology of the three rings of existence and his vision of the Bardic system. It wasn’t the inclusion of Morganwg’s works so much that bothered me, but the belief that his vision represented an ancient system and the true origins of Druidry. At worst, he was a plagiarist and liar; at best, he invented a working system that is meaningful to people today. No matter what way you hash it, though, Iolo didn’t unearth ancient lore.

Stewart’s final essay, “Magical Story-telling,” was intriguing in its premise: storytelling is a magical act and can be used as such. It certainly does help a culture transmit its sacred knowledge and understandings to the next generation. And oral tales do make use of the ancient “art of memory,” which relies on visual content to cue the storyteller’s memory. Is the art of memory magic? You can use it for such, perhaps, but in its day it was eminently practical; it was a way to remember information before the written word. (Ogham, which he doesn’t mention, was used for that purpose as well.)

As an aside: he uses the tarot as an example of sacred storytelling; on the contrary, tarot was a secular card game, not a storytelling device. (Since regular playing cards can also be used for divination, its history as a card game doesn’t take away from its usefulness as a magical tool. Anything that creates random patterns can be used for divination.)

He ends with an exploration of magical story in modern times, but cautions against the use of magical story for psychotherapy. Such stories must have roots in tradition, he claims. And with both, I ask myself: Why? Who determines tradition, or what constitutes “therapy”? If the use of a story is profoundly healing to an individual’s psyche, is that not transformative, mystical, powerful? The movie Avatar deeply touched many viewers; could that story not be sacred to them? Or superheroes, which people have followed religiously since childhood? Or, in my case, Elfquest or Tolkien?

What makes a story sacred?

Stewart tries to answer this, but he comes off as wagging a finger at modernity and not answering the larger questions. I might try to think about and process that a bit, coming up with my own answers.

In final summation: the book earns two and a half half-told tales out of five. You could do better and you could do worse.

trance-journey to Caer Ibormeith

Settle in, to yourself, your bones. Breathe in and out, in and out. Loosen what is tight and make yourself comfortable as you breathe – in and out, in and out. Follow the beat of the drum, deeper and deeper into the Otherworld. Settle yourself under the Otherworldly Tree, the World Tree, the Axis Mundi. How does it seem to you? Remember this tree, for it is the first thing you will see when you access the Otherworld.

Sweep your eyes over the Otherworld. How does it seem to you? Is it day, or night? What season is it?

Today, we shall follow the path of the swan – the path of beauty, mystery and delight, of magic and longing. We have gone this way before with Aonghus Og, the young son. Today, we shall greet Caer Ibormeith, whose name means Yewberry, the shapeshifting lady of magic, the swan of desire.
Her emissary comes: 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. Upon its sinuous neck, it wears a chain of gold that glints in the light. It takes flight into the sky of the Otherworld, leaving you on the earth.

You stumble after on your own two feet in the direction of its passage, feeling its loss. You have no wings, but only your feet on the ground. How can you find it?

An answer comes: a white feather left in the grass. You reach down to pick it up. As you do, you lift your eyes and see a vision of beauty, something that catches your attention. What is this vision, this beautiful thing you see? (Pause)

Treasure the vision; let your heart enfold and keep it within the vault of your soul. You see the swan in the grass and it again takes flight and you again follow, although it is soon out of sight. Where does your journey take you this time – a city, a town, a forest, a roadside? As you continue to walk, you find another white feather. You reach down to pluck it from the ground, and your weariness falls from you as you see another vision of beauty. What is this vision, this beautiful thing you see? (Pause)

And again, your head turns and you see the swan, which takes flight. Your weary feet are again pulled in the direction of its passage, pulled until you reach the shores of a lake filled with swans, with white wings. This time, though, you needn’t choose among them. The one with the gold necklace stands on the shore, waiting.

As you approach, the swan shifts into a beautiful figure, the dazzling form of Caer Ibormeith, lady of magic and mystery. What form does her beauty take for you? She opens her palm, asking for the feathers – for beauty can never be kept, but always shared. You place them across her palm. She smiles and then parts her soft lips, readying herself to speak.

What message does Caer Ibormeith have for you? (long pause)

When she is done speaking, she takes a feather and brushes it against you. In a cloud of white wings, you find yourself spiraling backward to the Otherworldly Tree, to yourself sitting beneath it. Around you, a ring of wildflowers has sprung, a reminder of the small yet profound beauties that surround us, always, if we open our eyes to see.

Slowly open your eyes. We will now sing in praise of beauty and to invoke its healing energy into our lives.

reflections on Caer Ibormeith

tree swirl
It was a dry well until I pulled the ogham.

I’m planning the grove’s Mistletoe Rite. rather than doing the same thing each time, I generally try to find a focus. The rite is always about healing, but sometimes it’s about the heart, the body, rest, community — any number of different aspects, the healing we not only receive but offer to ourselves, our tribe, the world both human and non.

I pulled Gort/Garden, and glanced over the associations. One stuck out: the swan, geis or eala. The symbol of Aonghus Og and his beloved. And clicking around for “swan poems” on the Internet, I stumbled upon one of my favorites, from Mary Oliver:

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

A call to Caer Ibormeith, shapechanger and swan, white-winged beloved of the Young Son.

And who is Caer Ibormeith, the Castle of the Yew Berry? Who is that beautiful vision that beckons us in sleep, beckons us to adventure, to risk — to change our lives?

We can call her beauty, but she is not merely physical symmetry. Inspiration, the in-drawn breath, perhaps. The seduction, the lure that brings us beyond our boundaries, finding our own white wings, flying in spirit.

How does beauty heal, then, or inspiration? Ecstasy — the union with the object outside the self, the forgetting of one’s own smallness, the drawing-into-relation with the world and the Otherworld. Our lives are small and sick without mystery, that-which-calls.

Beauty calls and invites. It soothes troubled spirits and troubles complacent ones. It drives us to scale mountain passes on our knees for the glimpse of a white wing. It bids us to notice the Other, the divine, that-which-is-beyond — beyond ourselves, our smallness, the rounds of bank checks and dishes to be washed and misplaced words.

The Yewberry can poison, true. Her castle is the darkness of its evergreen boughs. You can embrace her, but not swallow her. You can follow her flight.

You can let her change you.

Oisin, at the shore, sees the woman

In truth, I do have some original things to express, and needn’t always mine my archives for the blog. But this weekend, I’ve been churning out Kwannon CDs… (You can hear their siren voices calling, “Buy me! Buy me!”) Hence, the review of Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids and sundry musings need to wait.

The below is a re-writing of a myth. Apropos to the above paragraph, it’s a prequel to my previous album, Oisin.

you stand on the white strand by your love, not noticing the spray soaking your cloak, the foam lapping your feet, the call of your companions, the cry of your hounds. you do not notice the gull wheeling white above you, the high proud heads of the cliffs.

for there is nothing but the hidden sun on her hair. her white feet, high-arched. her eyes first gray, then green, catching all the sea-colors in them, the gift of her father and mother, the wavewalkers of the boundary. her pale hand reaches out, its fingers rose-tipped.

your companions grab you back, grab your shoulder with their spear-roughened hands. they know who she is, and whisper her name, her line. you catch nothing of it. her name, to you, is the cry of the wheeling gull, the roar of the sea, the timbrel of your heart beating. her line is the smooth line of her hand reaching to you.

in the moment you take it, you know what is to be. you know: the three hundred years of joy, slowly edging to grief as the sun does toward its setting. the horse with its silver bridle, and the stumble that costs you it all. grave mounds gone green, and the old, old man, crumbling to dust on the loam.

but her hand is warm and she smiles, light dancing on wavelets. the calls and cries fade behind you.

you know what is to be, and you melt in its embrace.

the eternal Moon Goddess fallacy

Some more follow-up prattle from my archives. Once again, my apologies for the rambling nature and the lack of capitalization. It’s just a-musing. Since this was written, my own unverified personal gnosis has placed Boann/Bebhionn in the lunar position, with Aine/Grian as the solar. In effect, I worship both a female sun and a female moon. Interestingly, in Ceiswr Serith’s reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European mythology, the lunar deity is the male Menos and the solar is a figure whose name translates to Sun Daughter, although he cautions that she may or may not be the actual Sun.

Does the gender of the luminaries truly matter? Probably not in the cosmic sense, although it appears to be largely a reflection of power dynamics among the human genders.

lately, i’ve been pondering the eternal Moon Goddess fallacy, specifically as it relates to the Celtic pantheon. namely, that the moon is always female (to quote Marge Piercy’s wonderful book of poetry) and the sun is always male.

the assumption you see in many Celtic groups is that Lugh Samildanach is the sun god. with his thousands of handy skills, he certainly has an Apollonian character — a character that has traditionally been compared to day and reason, as opposed to Dionysian emotion, wildness and darkness.

there’s only one problem with this: Apollo was never a sun god. that’s right; Helios actually had that role, and his sister Selene was the moon. Apollo was — and is — certainly a god of culture, healing and prophecy, but he didn’t make a habit of mounting a chariot and wheeling himself across the sky each day. how then would he chase the nymphs he’s so fond of? the Sun’s a busy guy.

Ogma — who is often termed Sunface — might be a better candidate for Sun god, but he also has the Apollonian problem. he’s more akin to the Greek demigod Heracles, albeit a far more eloquent Heracles with a penchant for pretty words and divination systems.

the unspoken problem is, of course, that the Sun needn’t always be male and the Moon needn’t always be female. among the Celts’ Northern neighbors, the Sun was female and the Moon male. in fact, we get our current words for the celestial bodies from Sunna and Mani, respectively. There is Saule of the Balts, married to the moon god. Amaterasu of Japan. the Hittite Sun Goddess of Arinna. Canaanite Shapash. various indigenous cultures.

and Celtic mythology offers some tantalizing hints. if Apollonian Lugh can be considered a candidate for Sun God, why not Brighid, who is similarly Apollonian and associated with fire? Brighid, as i have speculated previously (riffing off Jean Markale), might have been the same goddess as Sul in Bath — certainly a solar-type name, and similarly associated with healing, fire and springs. And then there’s Brighid’s well-tended and notorious Eternal Flame.

images of fire in water: the sun reflecting on the rippling surface of the well, setting it alight, warming it, infusing it with the gold of healing.

there are tales, post-Pagan, of Brighid hanging her cloak on a sunbeam to dry. she is known for her bright mantle, the flames shooting from the crown of her head upon birth. in some tales, she is the maiden kept prisoner by the winter hag, the Cailleach, in a mountain of glass. all of this is pointed out by Patricia Monaghan in O Mother Sun!

Brighid has just as much claim — if not more — than Lugh to the golden mantle of the Sun.

but even she might not be the true holder of that mantle. who is, then? Grainne or Grian, rendered a heroine; her very name means Sun. or perhaps the similarly named Aine, who is more commonly associated with cattle and summertime. they could have been two portions of one goddess, some surmise: Aine as the strong sun of summer, and Grian as the wan winter light.

the identity of an Irish Moon deity, however, is less clear. (And I am talking Irish here as opposed to Welsh, in which Arianrhod and Cerridwen would have a claim to lunar Goddesshood, and perhaps Olwen to the solar.)

perhaps the Moon God is cognate with Diarmuid, if Grainne is the sun-rendered-mortal. at any rate, it seems more likely to me that the Celts would follow a pattern similar to the Norse, their neighbors, as opposed to the peoples of the Mediterranean. Jean Markale claims there’s an older, masculine word in Gaelic for moon — although the current word, gaelach, is female — although a quick Web search didn’t unearth it, and Markale can get a little loony (ha ha, get it?) with his claims.

why, then, does no one explore this? in graduate school, i wrote a paper on Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark” and the Sun Goddess/Moon God imagery therein — appropriate enough, since Thea Kronberg’s name means “Goddess” and she was of Scandinavian descent. what i discovered in my research was an old bias, older even than the Victorians with their lacy piano legs.

misogynist cultures fear the concept of a female sun — cannot admit it within the realm of mind or possibility. and so, you see them trying to dismiss the Norse system or the Japanese as one born of mere misunderstanding or sheer barbarism. or sometimes they gloss over it: no, Baldur was the true Norse sun god. see the Apollonian attributes?

and so it goes.

unfortunately, Wicca — save for Dianic Wicce — has uncritically espoused the gender division of the sun and moon, as have most non-Wiccan Celtic Pagans. and since Wicca has a universalizing tendency, there seems to be this contention — to paraphrase Marge Piercy — that the Moon is always female and the Sun is always male, that these are the inherent divisions of the Lady and the Lord, cross-culturally. they repeat the old Mediterranean bias, and bias it is.

oddly enough, it could be that the Celts were a bit like the Hindus or Greeks in that their Sun and Moon deities weren’t as important as their culture deities. Hence, Apollo eclipses Helios (no pun there!) and Artemis, Selene. And Surya and Chandra/Soma are part of the Hindu pantheon, but not truly worshiped in the way one does Devi, Vishnu or Shiva. Grian/Aine and her male counterpart (assuming, of course, that the Moon would have been male, as Jean Markale would have it) weren’t all that important in the scheme of things.

and so. in my song “Brighid of the Healers,” i draw my own conclusion and address Brighid as the Sun. she certainly has solar attributes, although whether she is indeed the Sun is open to debate.

enough of my prattle….