Month: July 2010

Today’s ramble: Why I’m not Wiccan

To an outsider, Druidic practice — at least the kind I engage in — probably doesn’t seem all that different from Wicca. The unfamiliar eye and ear catches the strangeness, the exoticism of Pagan practice: multiple deity names, altar images, incense, drums. They may see a difference between a Wiccan circle and a heathen sumbel, but not dramatically so, and not in a way they can name, finger, analyze. It is Other: strange, appealing and ultimately the same in that Otherness. Differentiation only comes with familiarity.

Like many Pagans, I had a quasi-Wiccan practice for years. If you go back far enough, however, I worshiped the Gods (Greek, since that was the pantheon I was exposed to, as many children are) from a very young age, long before learning about Wicca. As a child, I prayed to Artemis, to Demeter, with simple offerings of things I found. I was open to the Gods’ messages as they spoke. There was no ritual, no implements set aside, no incantations, only a child’s devotion in the face of the multiverse.

That changed when I was 12, when I discovered books on modern Witchcraft in the library — what we now call Wicca, although that’s a specially-created polite-for-company term. “This must be the way,” I mused, and tried to remake that simple practice. Enter energy-working, magic, ritual with implements cobbled together from a child’s means. I didn’t know in my heart  why I really needed an athame, but the books said I did and the reasons behind it, so I found one. I adopted the ritual circle and the usual accouterments, leading a coven of fellow children in an improvised practice.

In my later teens, my interest in feminism led me to Dianic Wicce, which I followed through early college and still maintain an interest in. I dabbled in Reclaiming-style Witchcraft, inspirational and artistic — and still my soul felt unfulfilled. I knew what I was seeking, you see, but couldn’t seem to find it in the feast offered to me.

I speak of my own experience, mind you, and don’t mean to denigrate anyone else’s practice. That needs to be said.

In the end, I found Wicca to be too much about power, with a decided lack of devotion. Magic, and not relationship. People worship Gods not out of love, but out of the gifts they desire: calling to Aphrodite for love, for example, or Athena for help in their studies, but having little other relationship or devotion outside that request. The same, too, with plants and stones, read according to a checklist of properties and use-value — not the immanent value that they have, that the Gods have, that we all have.

Because so much of popular Wicca concerns itself with the fulfillment of desire, it seems hollow to me. Is the sacred just the fulfillment of desire? If so, how is it different than a lottery ticket or the flashing lights of consumerism? Are the Gods — and the fairies, to go along with the popular conception of them — some kind of wish-fulfilling magic rock?

Or, to put it simply: Isn’t the value of a gift the relationship it reflects? If there is no relationship other than a correspondence chart, what is its value? Is there anything in the universe worth more than your own desire? What happens when all your desires are fulfilled? Are you a better person?

if there is one thing I simply cannot stand, it’s having people value me only in terms of what I can do for them rather than my unique self. I imagine, from my own small perspective, that the Gods feel the same way.

It’s not a gift for a gift, as the heathens say. If I give you a gift, it’s to show my love and appreciation for the unique being you are, whether human, divine or my cat with her brand-new scratch pad.

Granted, you can’t expect the Gods to reciprocate if they feel they’re not getting anything in return; that’s simply mooching. But I see a troubling escape-hatch for that problem, too: People regard the Gods not as spiritual being(s), but as psychological archetypes existing only within themselves. Ergo, they are only asking themselves for a gift, a la The Secret. I find this philosophy sometimes in Dianic Wicce as well: the Goddess as sort of a divine juno, the in-dwelling spirit of Woman.

Frankly, I find the situation perplexing, although somewhat understandable. In an atheistic, science-driven world, what conceptual place do we leave for irrational belief? It must be justified, stripped of its mystic heart, turned into some kind of psychological explanation.

I choose instead to follow faith, seeing it not opposed to science but simply different. They don’t dwell in the same conceptual worlds. The lack of agreement between those two worlds leads to confusion, hesitancy, insecurity — painful things that I open myself to during my exploration of the sacred, the mystery of the Other.

A painful question: Would I love my Gods even if I fell upon hard times, if they gave me nothing more than my basic life?

I’d like to think I would, although I’d probably be lamenting like Job. That is one Biblical story I find interesting for its human element, by the way (although it paints Yahweh as a royal jerk): the love of a man for his god even when the chips are inexplicably down.

To fall to your knees for a favor is slavery. To fall to your knees in the ardor of love is devotion — and the heart of spiritual ecstasy.

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invocations to Goibhniu and Manannan

Just some invocations to share for Manannan and Goibhniu, the smith god. They were originally written for the Feast of Age, but I use one or the other during rites that invoke them.

The grove focuses on Manannan during the full moon, and this is the main invocation we use. As deity du jour, he’s invoked twice during the full moon rite — first as gatekeeper and then as “main squeeze,” so to speak; the Manannan invocation here is for the latter purpose. To use either invocation for general purposes, omit the language in parentheses and substitute the name of your own grove, or yourself. Whether you light candles for each as listed below is up to you; it can be a nice gesture.

Goibniu invocation

Goibhniu, smith! The maker of blades in three blows, and of Nuada’s silver hand. Repairer of broken arms, brother of Credne, Luchta and Dian Cecht. God of great skill! Builder, cook and loving father, brewer of the ale of immortality, the patron and support of the worker, we welcome you! You whose feast wards off age and death, we welcome you!

It is we, White Cat Grove, who call you in love and honor. (We call you to join in our own Feast of Age, a humble commemoration of the great rite you hold among the Gods. Share with us the sweet flesh of the undying swine, the full-bodied brew of ale, as we celebrate the immortality of the Gods and the longevity of man.)  Accept the offerings we bring you and the Kindreds, and the merriment we make in your honor.

We light this flame as we receive you here. Welcome, welcome and thrice welcome!

Manannan invocation

Manannan Mac Lir, Lord of the Wave and the Isle of Man, possessor of the cloak of invisibility! You who hold all secrets in your Crane Bag, whose boat skims the waves as a chariot does the grass. Lord of the Tuatha De Danann, husband of Fand, father of Niamh! Boundary-walker, lord of the mists whose swine sustain warriors and rise anew and reborn on the morrow. We welcome you, lord of the sea, puller of tides, master of the gates between worlds!

It is we, White Cat Grove, who call you in love and honor. (We call you to join in our own Feast of Age, a humble commemoration of the great rite you celebrate among the Gods. Share with us the sweet flesh of your undying swine, the full-bodied brew of ale, as we celebrate the immortality of the Gods and the longevity of man.)  Accept the offerings we bring you and the Kindreds, and the merriment we make in your honor.

We light this flame as we receive you here. Welcome, welcome and thrice welcome!

Terror, fairies and the daily ogham pull

Since March, I’ve tried to pull an ogham fid every morning. It was an offshoot of my Keltrian homework, truth be told, but I’ve found personal value in it aside from the official documentation of effort.

Simply put, the morning pull deepens my relationship to ogham. I use the set made by Skip Ellison, although I don’t use his interpretations; instead, I keep Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book close by to fill gaps in my pre-coffee addled knowledge. (I’m usually pretty good, though.)

It’s one of three sets I own. The first I use only in ritual; I made it myself on Popsicle sticks colored green for cthonic, blue (and a few red when I ran out of blue sticks) for oceanic and gold for celestial, in line with Laurie’s system. This set of feda only reads well for me; I’ve tried using them for the grove omen, but no go. The third set I haven’t used much, although they’re a beautiful set from Electric Celt in a green silk bag. However, they don’t contain the forfeda (which I do use, unlike Laurie) and don’t have their names burned on them, relying instead on the outlines of leaves surrounding the letter-image. Alas, my knowledge of leaf-shape isn’t what it could be and I don’t use ogham as a tree alphabet.

Why not? A good example is h-Uath, often associated with hawthorn. Ellison’s system pegs its divinatory meaning as “counseling, protection and cleansing.” I’ve seen other systems latch onto the hawthorn and the tree’s fairy associations, linking the fid to the Otherworld. But its name actually means terror! The briatharogan, or word oghams (I usually render the term as “kenning,” not appropriate linguistically, perhaps, but most English speakers understand what I’m getting at) aren’t friendly as well. A pack of wolves. Whitening of faces. Most difficult at night.

Hardly the image of a flowery springtime or butterfly-winged fairies, eh?

I use h-Uath because most New Age tree alphabets peg that as my “birth ogham,” a system similar to astrology and not supported by any literature before Robert Graves. I do feel somewhat amused at being born under the sign of terror, though.

Sometimes, my morning ogham-pull reflects my dreams, or has no overt bearing on the day other than meditation. Others seem to have a direct bearing on the day’s events. Ceirt days, well, suck — they’re usually marked by fatigue, ill health, nagging stomach problems, etc. While muin may stand for “love, esteem and trickery,” it always ends up as the “back of the ox” — a long day of hard yet productive work. Uillend usually means I have to be flexible about the day’s plans, such as when one of my husband’s out-of-town friends unexpectedly dropped by. I usually pull ngetal when I’m working a healing rite for someone and lus during my Brighid vigil.

Ellison tosses in three extra feda — land, sea and sky. Today I’ve pulled land. I usually use those as an indication to pay more attention to one of the Kindreds, but they’re sort of blank spaces without divinatory meaning for me.

Just an update on some of my random spiritual work!

Fisticuffs in my brain: vegans versus WPF

This week’s reading selection is “Full Moon Feast” by Jessica Prentice. As an argumentative sort, I’ve coupled it with online research into “The China Study,” although I can’t say I read that book. Being involved with yoga, however, I’ve run into its claims quite a bit.

Why argumentative? “The China Study” is written by vegans who advocate the elimination of all animal proteins from the diet. “Full Moon Feast” is written by a member of the Weston Price Foundation, a group established in the name of the original “holistic dentist,” who did his  research back in the 1920s. WPF advocates local foods, especially raw milk, meat and animal fats. They’re opposed to veganism and soy products.

In other words, I enjoy having a maelstrom of clashing opinions settling their differences with fisticuffs in my brain.

The two philosophies have some aspects in common: An opposition to processed foods (good); a call to support local farmers with sustainable practices (good). And, perhaps most importantly: A yen for cherry-picking or manipulating statistics to prove dubious health claims (not so good). That last factor seems to undergird most extreme eating philosophies. They also have a tendency to misrepresent themselves — not outright pointing out their connections to the WPF or to vegan organizations, for example. (These groups often hide behind innocuous-sounding names to conceal the underlying philosophy and give them “neutral cred,” so to speak. Why? Because otherwise the reader would know what s/he is getting into, rather than assume it’s information based on objective research.)

My contradictory reading has inspired this morning’s philosophical discussion with my husband.

I can completely understand either philosophy on strictly moral grounds; you can argue that veganism, for example, is spiritually less harmful than meat-eating, a claim common in the yoga community. You can argue that supporting your local farmer is correct on the human level (keeping dollars in the community), environmentally (smaller footprint from transporting and processing goods) and in regard to animal rights (happy cows versus factory-farmed cows). And really, the moral impetus is what it’s all about in the end.

Health claims are where it gets sticky. Frankly, people are living longer today than ever before. We need never experience famine, for example. We regularly live into our 70s and beyond. Most of our children make it to preschool alive and well.

There’s a sense in these philosophies that the “ancients” had it right, and we need only return to their ways to lead perfectly healthy lives. A society without refined sugar may indeed have better teeth, as Weston Price claimed — but still have high infant mortality rates, diseases and a relatively short life span, which is something he didn’t stick around to explore. If you look at the facts throughout human history, life was pretty darn short. Women usually died in childbirth and most children died before the age of five. People wasted away from unknown cancers, caught diseases, pricked themselves on rose thorns and got tetanus. Old folks  — those who were lucky enough to survive or avoid accidents or disease — often had few teeth.

The “good old days” weren’t all that good, health-wise. Food stability was limited as well. If the crops failed, you starved.

The “good old days” syndrome is coupled with the old New Age saw about creating our own realities. If we make all the right food choices, we’ll live damn near forever and never get sick, the thinking goes. “We can change our DNA!” I’ve literally heard a few New Agers shout.

Except … we can’t, at least not in a positive way. Genes and the environment play a role in ailments, as does the simple fact of time’s decay. Nature has no vested interest in keeping us alive forever. Nature does have a vested interest in having animals live long enough to raise their young, thus ensuring the survival of the species. Nature doesn’t care whether you’re a Mongolian herder who drops dead of a heart attack at the age of 52 or a Western mother who dies of cancer at the age of 47; she’s given you ample time to make your genetic contribution to the species by that point. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to keep living despite of that; we (and our families) certainly have a vested interest in maximizing the quality of our lives for as long as possible! My point is that it’s not important on the macro scale.

Here are the basic facts: We will die sooner or later. For many of us, it will be an illness — and not of our choosing. Cancer, heart disease — symptoms of an aging system breaking down.

Take care of your body while you’re inhabiting it. Eat what makes you feel physically healthy and, if you have the means, spiritually nourished. Make your decisions — whether it’s to eschew animal products or buy beef from a local farmer — based on joy, health, spirit, community. Don’t buy into the bullshit that says you need to feel like guilty scum if you don’t adhere to set principles of moralistic purity determined by some group or another. You’re not going to hell for eating a Snickers bar once in a while.

Be mindful and grateful for what you have, even if it’s processed foods from the local soup kitchen.

End of rant du jour!

Brighid breath: Using seed-sounds in meditation

Wrote this up for the Henge:

Brighid breath: Using seed-sounds in meditation

The flames of a hearth fire or ritual fire can be mesmerizing, trance-inducing. Yet somehow, simple tratak eludes me.

Tratak is the Indian term for the one-point gaze, in which the meditator fixes her concentration on a single visual object – often a candle flame. The exercise stills the mind, emptying it of thought and allowing it to rest in meditative bliss.

At least that’s the theory. In my own practice, I light the candle and then obsess: What’s that noise? Am I doing it right? Gosh, these are those relighting birthday candles; how do I blow them out? Occasionally, I’ll pause with a stern thought – thinking! – and then try again to forcibly purge my mind. And the gerbil wheel will continue on its squeaky little way in my cerebrum.

Tratak doesn’t work for me, likely because I am more attuned to sound than I am to vision. While doing yoga, the sound and rhythm of my breath combine with the physical asanas, emptying my mind of that pesky gerbil wheel. In other spiritual practice, I can chant and sing myself into ecstasy, or hold a silent mantra throughout the course of my prayer beads.

In yoga, mantra – whether recited out loud or internally – provides an easy pathway for the sound-oriented into the meditative state. Many mantras are specific to Hindu or Buddhist religious philosophy, such as the archetypical “Om mane padme om.” Some mantras consist of a single “seed sound” such as Om or Gam, the sound essence of the elephant God Ganesha.

A polytheist outside the spectrum of Eastern religion can adopt the technology of mantra to deepen her own meditative practice. In my own practice, I pair a simple focus on breath with the name of Brighid, using “breej” as a seed-sound. As I inhale, my mind chants “Brighid,” drawing out the syllable of her name. The process is repeated on the exhalation. For a more relaxing practice, try drawing out “breej” to encompass both the inhalation and exhalation.

When I desire an even deeper communion with my matron, I will couple the Brighid breath with visualization, focusing on the internal image of Brighid or her symbols, such as fire in water or the reed cross. Sometimes, I will visualize laying offerings at her white feet, a kind of inner puja, to use a Hindu term.

The combination of breath and seed-sound certainly can be used for Gods other than Brighid; practitioners seeking to connect with Lugh can align his name with the breath, for example. For deities with longer names, I advise going with the gut. “Danu” can certainly be broken up into “Da” on the inhalation and “nu” on the exhalation, while Manannan can be condensed to the seed-sound “Man,” – conveniently the name of his sacred island. While not the name of a God, “Awen” or “Imbas” makes a fine focus for chant and breath-work; Awen’s sound properties are similar to Om, making it easy to chant in a yoga class!

When it comes to meditation, it’s important to find what works with your nature rather than swim upstream, so to speak. If you’re frustrated with mental chatter and can’t focus solely on visual stimuli, I suggest giving the Brighid breath a try.

thoughts on summoning the rain

The heat baked the ground, leaching the grass of its green. It’s uncharacteristic for the Great White North, a disordering of the pattern.

Looking at my paltry garden, I joked to my husband that I’d get a mop and a bucket of water, and summon rain on the porch via intense chanting-cum-screaming. After a giggle, he asked if I’d ever done weather magic. I paused and said, “No. I wouldn’t. Mother Nature knows better than I.”

And that’s largely been my philosophy of large-scale magical acts that monkey with the atmosphere. There are several different factors in my reluctance. For one, it seems awfully foolish. I’m one small monkey; who am I to boss around Danu with her vast reaches and mind-boggling complexity? The sky? The innumerable nature spirits, both incarnate and Otherworldly? To even think that I could is hubris, plain and simple.

Secondly, what if I were successful in drawing rain? Would it cause a drought somewhere else half a continent or even half the world over? If I try to save my garden with a well-timed thunderstorm, does that mean an elderly woman in Iowa has hers scorched beyond recognition? Is my prayer for rain more important than hers?

Granted, I think there are cases whee weather magic is acceptable — on a tribal level, so to speak. If mass numbers of people will starve due to crop failure, go for it. If the forest-fire is threatening your home and you’ve exhausted other options. In short: matters of intense deprivation, hunger, death. Hobby gardens and landscaping simply don’t apply.

And in such dire straits, the act — even if hubris on some level, or blatantly ridiculous and unworkable due to the smallness of the individual in comparison with the vast multi-verse — the act becomes art. It expresses the innermost need; it is a prayer sung from the heart’s blood, from the sweetness of life that seeks continuance. That doesn’t mean the prayer will be heeded. We are tiny parts of a complex whole, destined to die in one way or another. Our lives aren’t more important than the Pattern. Harsh truth, that. Consciousness resists it.

Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”

I am quite enamored of this poem, as I am of all of Mary Oliver’s work.

Judging from some of the catty Internet commentary appended to the bottom, the idea of a grasshopper as something interesting, beautiful and even holy is appalling to some. After all, it’s an insect — and one that can be quite destructive to gardeners and human aims in general. We think of plagues of locusts, not the prism of their eyes, their interesting jaws, their love of cleanliness.

We see them as use — or lack of use.

To pray, as Oliver writes it, is to walk through the field and simply notice, taking in its beauty as a lover does — a lover of the world. Everything is beautiful, complex, multifaceted as a grasshopper’s eyes. That noticing, that taking in, is our most essential spiritual work.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

And here is why: It is all transitory. Even if you believe in reincarnation, you are only yourself — your particular self, with your particular circumstances, just this one moment. You shift and change in the next moment and the next. When your souls go to their respective realms after your death, they do not realign into the same being. Your suld soul — to use the Buryat term — remains in the Green World as a nature spirit and does not return to the cycle with the other two.

And so, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?