Month: April 2011

A sex-free Bealtaine?

It’s perplexing, in a way. I love spring but have historically detested Bealtaine — which is utterly unfair to the holiday.

It’s the hinge of the year, the start of summer according to the old reckoning; its counterpart, Samhain, was the other hinge. Being pastoral, the Celts divided their year into two rather than today’s four: summer and winter, light and dark. Summer is when the cows went out to the far pastures and the young people followed. Winter is when the cows come home.

On Bealtaine, the cows and the people who followed them were driven between two fires or leaped a single fire (depending on context) to mark the transition. As with all transitions, it’s a vulnerable spot calling for protection — in this case, the warding offered by fire. For the agriculturalist, the holiday also honors and promotes the land’s fertility. Flowers bloom and birds court, a marked departure from the stillness of winter.

But I have to say I’ve been pretty uncomfortable about how certain parties in modern Pagan culture appear to view Bealtaine: the sex-fest. I’ve never known May Day orgies, reputation aside, but I have been in places where the holiday is an excuse for cheesy pickup lines and unwelcome invitations. But we’re honoring the land’s fertility!

You can keep your fertility to yourself, buddy.

Yes, it can be a time for trysts and trial marriages, although the real thing was contracted at Lughnasadh, a tribal festival; Bealtaine marriages were unlucky. Maybe I’m not “sex positive,” as they say, but I’m uncomfortable with the making of assumptions about a person’s status, character or willingness.

What I do as a private, married individual is my own damn business. I may want to honor that in private rites, or I may not.

So how to these thoughts affect my own honoring of Bealtaine? Our grove of two — three, in spirit — will honor the pastoral tradition of the purifying flame. We’ll honor the land and its creatures through the offerings of bannock and caudle, although I’m not a good enough baker to actually make the nobs on the bannock look like nobs…. We’ll honor Danu and Bel/Bile, the Earth Mother and the Holy Tree.

There won’t be any maypoles (not Celtic anyway), May Queens or trysts with strangers in the woods. We’ll let the May bushes decorate themselves with forsythia blossoms and leaf buds.


Spring: A ditty

Rain and thunder, thunder and rain
Comes the spring with its mud and its pain
As the hull cracks and the new leaf, raw
pokes through the ash in delicate awe.

The robins cry: Enemy, away!
Trilling threats, masculine display
attacking reflections trapped in glass
and landing on their robin-y ass.

(OK, so I’m not Mary Oliver!)



To give forth, from the Old English “forgiefan.” What are you giving forth? Your pardon. Freedom from the obligations of paying you back, or of fulfilling the mandates of justice.

It’s never been a virtue that has appealed to me, I must admit. I don’t see it on a lot of Pagan virtues lists, either. It smacks too much of Christianity — of sin.

It needn’t be Christian; “sin,” from its Old English roots, simply means “offense,” and we’ve all offended people. We’ve screwed up, been less than our best selves, did what we knew was wrong because we were tired, cranky, what-have-you. In this case, the offense needn’t be the fact of your tainted birth, as original sin is conceived of in Christianity. But since sin is bound up in punitive spiritual terms, I’ll stick with the term “offense.”

Forgiveness, then, involves the offense of others, especially if it impacts you in some way.  In the ancient world, an offense required justice — and often bloodshed, sometimes lasting for generations. And modern concepts of justice and legal recourse aside, our primate brains still work in this way. For a good example, read the Internet comments posted at the bottom of any news story dealing with the commission of a crime — any crime. They’re bloodthirsty.

A world without forgiveness is a violent one, one in which people are seen as unchanging, incapable of redemption and intrinsically vile. It’s a world in which retribution rules, and can power conflict for generations. It’s a world where there are no innocents, because everyone is related to someone, somewhere, who has committed offense — and is thus intrinsically vile, wrong, Other by that association.

It’s the dark side of tribalism. We defend our Own against the Other, unto death.

“An eye for an eye,” Hammurabi’s code goes, although there were more subtleties to Sumerian law. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi sagely noted.

And Gandhi is a good example of forgiveness, which is the underpinning of non-violence.

Forgiveness is the refusal to seek vengeance, justice or even reparations. It doesn’t erase the memory of what occurred, or invite the offender into the enclosed garden of your heart.

But it means you look into the eye of the offender and see his or her basic humanity — the humanity you both share. There is no sacred tribe of Better Than You and thus no Other. It’s a recognition of shared spiritual value, of an intrinsic commonality of being. Forgiveness is born of humility, in that it counteracts a sense of superiority. You forgive an offense because you, too, are an imperfect creature capable of wronging others, even if not in the same manner as the offender.

Great acts of forgiveness — forgiving the witness who lied and sent you to jail for 10 years for a crime you didn’t commit, or the spouse who beat you, or the drug addict who murdered your child — attract our attention. The small acts of forgiveness — when a friend says something wounding, or your dog pisses on the floor, or a loved one lets you down — attract very little notice or comment. We forgive as a matter of course.

If you’re like me, the large acts of forgiveness seem almost alien. Start small, then. Start by recognizing the many times you’ve taken offense and forgave, or you gave offense and were forgiven. The small acts make the larger possible. The small acts blunt the spear of never-ending war.

Swan and singing bird: Aonghus Og

Lately, I’ve been contemplating Aonghus Og. In part, it’s because of my experiences on Mean Earraigh and the subsequent inspiration for poetry and music. His nature reminds me of a spring bubbling up from the ground or flowers thrusting upward into the light: magical, both powerful and light. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas puts it.

His stories sing to me. He was born of trickery, of the Mother of Waters (Boann) and her fling with the All-Father (Dagda) when her husband Nechtan, god of fresh waters, was away. To conceal his birth, the gods had the sun stand still for nine months, after which the young god was fostered with his half-brother, Midhir (whom I honor as the god of the moon and measurer of time).

He is accompanied by sweetly singing birds and wears a cloak of concealment that he uses to hide forbidden lovers on their trysts. he’s clever, and tricked his father out of Brugh na Boinne by asking for it for day and night — since Irish has no articles.

And he is devoted. He dreams of the love of his life and searches the world over for her, sick with longing. After many trials, he must choose the shapeshifting Caer Ibormeith from a lake of 150 identical swans — and does so easily. He turns into a swan and flies off with her, returning home victorious.

Marie-Louise Sjoestedt translates his name as “unique force.” And so he is: a force that swells and rises, whether its the lover’s lust, springtime or music. There’s little of the traditionally masculine; Aonghus bears no weapons and fights no battles. He does sire children; his daughter Maga is the grandmother of Conchobhar mac Nessa and CuChulainn. Perhaps befitting of a love god’s daughter, she has two husbands: Ross the Red and the Druid Cathbad.

I love the brightness of Aonghus — the essential sweetness of love, the devotion it inspires, its ties to dream, music, shapeshifting, magic. He protects those who risk everything for the sake of the heart. He inspires beauty, joy, the warmth of summer.

All hail the god of love!

A meditation to share: Brighid’s Well

The following meditation is one that I frequently use for myself, as well as use in rituals for White Cat Grove. The central images are Brighid’s well and the bile, or sacred tree, upon which strips of cloth are hung. In Ireland, wells are sacred to Brighid – the goddess and later the saint – and the destination for pilgrims seeking healing even today. As Irish monk Sean O’Duinn notes in The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint, strips of cloth were frequently hung on the sacred trees located beside holy wells, perhaps as means to transfer illness away from the body.


On a practical note, solitaries performing the meditation can either record it themselves or, if more experienced, memorize the basic sequence of images and see where it takes them. I’ve included pauses for those who are reading the meditation to others. The best way to make sure the pauses are long enough is to go on the journey yourself, splitting your consciousness just enough to read and see at the same time.


Use whatever trance induction works for you. The one I use most frequently is descending a staircase into the Earth, with the stairs shifting from red to orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and then white before ending at the gate to the Otherworld. I use a frame drum as a trance “steed” or ritual tool; feel free to use your bell branch, a rattle or go without, as your spirit calls you.


Follow the beat of the drum, deeper and deeper into the Otherworld. (Pause.) Settle yourself under the Otherworldly Tree, the World Tree, the axis mundi that links the worlds within and without. Settle in and let yourself see or feel this tree; let your mind wander until the vision comes into focus. Let the drum guide you, focusing your attention. How does the tree appear to you? (Pause)

The tree is the starting place on our journey today. Breathe in and out, in and our. 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? (Pause)

Today, we shall journey to Brighid’s well, her holy well of healing. Call for a guide to come to you, speaking from the depths of your heart. (Pause) Who or what is this guide? Greet your guide and ask to be taken to the well. (Pause) Your guide begins to lead you there. Where does the road lead you, through what landscape, in what direction? Notice your journey, for the path has meaning in and of itself. (Pause)

You arrive at the well. See how it appears to you. Does it have the rough-hewn loveliness of nature, or has it been ringed by stones or decorated by human hands? Is it open to the sky, or covered by a roof – the thatch of the countryside or the majestic shaping of stone? (Pause)

On one side of the well, you see a tree decorated with ribbons and streamers of cloth. They are clooties, prayers to Brighid tied on its branches. What sort of tree is it? Look closely. (Pause) At its foot is a basket containing ribbons. Take one and notice its color. (Pause) If you feel moved, tie one on the trees branches to ask a prayer of Brighid. (Pause)

Now, we go to the side of the well for a prayer. If you wish it, your guide will offer you a ball or tablet of clay to shape into a prayer for healing. You can shape this into an image of a body part or person you wish to heal, or use a stylus to write your prayer on the tablet. Take some time to do this, if you choose. (Pause)

Now, walk up to the well and gaze into it. What is it you see? (Pause) Place your prayer into the waters. There is a ladle at the side of the well; you can use it to drink its waters or pour them over yourself. Take a moment to do this, if you wish. (Pause)

Your guide beckons that it is time to go. Give your thanks to Brighid, the well, the tree, this holy place. (Pause) Follow your guide back along the path, back to the Otherworldly Tree where we began. (Pause) Take a moment to thank your guide. (Pause)

Now slowly open your eyes. Shake yourself out. Slap your cheeks, pull your earlobes and stamp your feet. Welcome back!



My apologies for the wonky formating. No matter how many spaces I add between paragraphs, wordpress won’t recognize them. If anyone has any suggestions on how to fix this, please let me know.

digging in the dirt: humility as a virtue

It’s time to explore a lost virtue, one that doesn’t make it onto any Pagan list: humility.

We associate humility with Christianity, with traditions that espouse a concept of sin, with self-abnegation. Monks in rough-woven habits, flagellating themselves in a dark cell while begging for mercy from a judgmental god. A serf laboring under a master’s whip. An elderly widow begging on the side of the road.

Where the heck is the virtue in that?

“Humility” and “humble” are ultimately linked with “humus,” the earth itself — an ancient word that has Indo-European roots including the Russian zemlya, part of the name of Moist Mother Earth; the Sanskrit ksam; the Greek cthon. To be humble is to be close to the Earth: small in stature or bent to the ground in labor. It is the virtue of the third function, the farmers and laborers — the antithesis of the arrogance or pride manifest in warriors and nobility.

Humility is out of fashion. Our talk is more of pride — pride in our gender or religion or race, pride in our nation, pride even in our ability to endure suffering. “Proud” comes from an Old English Word meaning arrogant; it’s roots ultimately derive from the Latin “prodesse,” to be of worth.

When we are proud, we feel our worth. When we are humble, we feel our insignificance.

It is through humility that we forge relationships — with other humans, with the spirits, with the Gods. It is our humility — the sense that we, as individuals, cannot define or encompass the Other and instead must approach it with openness and vulnerability — that makes true relationship possible. It is a recognition that we are, indeed, close to the Earth in stature, that we are born of her and will die back into her, that all we are and all we have done shall dissolve into dust.

Humility is a recognition of mortality and our identity as mortals. It is the reality of the ground under our feet rather than the headiness of our illusions and delusions. It is the virtue of the stablehand mucking out the stalls, the farmer plowing in the rain, the mother cleaning the shit off her baby’s ass time and time again. Humility is the recognition of the “dirty” work we do to survive — dirty because it comes from the Earth, and underscores the rules behind bodily existence.
A humble man doesn’t expect to piss rosewater. He recognizes, too, that he can make mistakes and it’s his duty to make amends. He doesn’t expect others to bow to his will, and so asks for what he needs.
I’ve heard of some warrior-type reconstructionists who refuse to bend a knee to the Gods, rejecting the concept of humility. In ancient times, such an act would have inspired gestures of warding from his neighbors to keep off bad luck. Without humility, one can commit the error the Greeks called “hubris,” which essentially means insolence. Hubris inevitably brings a cosmic counterbalance to remind the culprit of his or her mortality. Or as the Christians say, “pride comes before the fall.”
Hubris is the foundation of tragedy: Bellerophon reaching for Olympus on his winged horse, only to end up as a cripple. Phaethon, struck by his father from the chariot of the sun. Gilgamesh insulting Ishtar and watching his lover Enki die for it. CuChulainn insulting the Morrigan, only to fall into her web of geas-breaking inevitability. Hubris is thinking that your ambition, emotions, self, desires, needs override all else. It is losing what Aedh Rua calls “misneach,” or perspective.
The correction can be brutal. I’m reminded of a passage from Stephen Crane’s excellent story, “The Open Boat,” which concerns a shipwreck and the struggle to survive:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no brick and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.


Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.”



A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

Humility, then, is a subset of truth, of honesty. It’s a recognition of what we really are — individuals, yes, but one among billions, no more important than anything or anyone else. The powerful can be rendered powerless. The fit can become frail. Nothing is permanent except our vulnerability and our mortality.

It’s an unsettling truth, and one that’s actually essential — at least in my view — to deep spiritual experience.