Month: December 2011

Meán Geimhridh, the hearth

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

— Christina Rossetti

The snow still coats the garden and the leaves on the house's north side as an ice-bright sun gazes down.

Meán Geimhridh: the heart of winter. Of the eight holidays on the great wheel, it has long been my least favorite, too evocative of the forced merriment endemic to the season. The Christmas Monster, clad in wrapping paper, credit cards and Advent candles, ordering everyone to be happy or else.

Traditionally, Meán Geimhridh is a time for me to put on a Druidic rite and either a.) fumigate the house with smoke or set it on fire, or b.) set myself on fire. The Gods laugh at me during midwinter, probably because I take everything too damn seriously. 

This time, I took a different path. I joined a women's hearth group set to put on the local Pagan community's Yule celebration. The focus was on the skills of our female ancestors — growing and preparing food, and the like — with the intentions of sharing the Hearth Goddesses' and ancestors' blessings and skills for the winter solstice.

And so. The year didn't turn out as expected. The wettest year on record prevented many of us from achieving good harvests. Life — including devastating flooding and its aftermath — prevented us from diving whole-hog into food preservation and the like. The ritual itself shifted and changed.

But it went well. It was probably the best Meán Geimhridh I've been to in a long time: simply a party, in which we made holiday decorations, chatted and feasted, and toasted the Gods and ancestors. We boasted, too, sharing our blessings, even those who struggled to find the year's blessings. I tended Brighid's altar throughout, a sacred duty I was glad to perform, and showed off my prize squash.

And this is really what the season is about, whether you call it Meán Geimhridh, Winter Solstice, Yule, Christmas or Saturnalia: the sharing of laughter, food and company. If we were forced into primitive self-reliance — on what we would have produced during this bleak, rainy year — we would have starved and sickened. The Hearth Mother warms us on the darkest night, lighting our way not because of our solitary piety, but the animal warmth that marks us — all of us, no matter how reluctant — as social animals. We congregate near food, warmth and company, as creatures turn their faces to the sun.

Have a blessed Meán Geimhridh, all.

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Druids and canon

There is an ongoing discussion in the Henge of Keltria concerning whether Druids have a canon, or sacred texts. Some of my thoughts, culled from my response to the list and fleshed out:

I think, back in the wilds of history, Druids once did have a canon, covering liturgy and ritual at the least, if not theology, etc. As a point of comparison, consider another class of religious persons: the brahmins of classical India. Like the original brahmins — before someone took an inkwell and parchments and started recording the Vedas — knowledge would have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. I’ve seen theories that many Indo-European cultures in antiquity had taboos against writing down sacred lore. Interestingly, modern brahmins still memorize their sacred knowledge and recite from memory during ritual.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, recently went to a Hindu temple-blessing rite, an hours-long ceremony involving multiple offerings. The pandit chanted and performed the offerings in the right order throughout — strictly from memory and without missing a beat. It was amazing to watch. That is the tradition Druidry most likely had, and lost once the Romans and then the Christians intervened.

In short: There’s a reason that it took twenty years to train a Druid; there was a lot to remember!

Time-travel to today. Our Northern neighbors in the modern Pagan world, the Asatruar, at least have the Eddas to draw from; although Snorri Sturleson was a Christian, he kept a good deal of Christian philosophy out of it (albeit not all, I’m told; the concept of the end-of-days may have been Christian in origin). What modern Druids, at least those following an Irish/Scottish path, have are the myths and sagas — the Tain, Midhir and Edain, etc. — written down by Christian monks. The other elements we have left to us include folk tradition from out-of-the-way places, such as the Hebrides.

There’s the ogham, too, but there’s no indication that this was extensively used during Pagan times. Heck, there’s Biblical interpretations of ogham as well; it’s not just a tree alphabet. But yes, if you like, throw that into the concept of “canon.” Throw in the various Celtic languages and the concepts contained within its words; throw in the poems and other literature stemming from ancient times, even if Christian.

However, there’s a caveat; much of this isn’t some sort of sacred compendium, but shreds of lore mixed with a whole lot of Christianization, which needs to be winnowed out. I use comparative Indo-European mythology for that purpose.

As Keltrians, I’d suggest our canon is actually the ritual process and its order. In my personal rites, I often do it from memory alone.

Ultimately, though, the concept of canon may have a limited usefulness. It derives from the “Peoples of the Book,” the Abrahamic traditions and their texts. Pagan traditions can have sacred texts, true, but rarely a single one. Think of the sacred literature of the Hindus: mythological epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the hymns of the Puranas, the philosophical explorations of the Upanishads, the ritual instructions and hymns of the Vedas. There are many sacred texts and they’re being written all the time.

“Canon” implies that there is a single revelation of truth: the teachings of Christ, or Mohammed, or Moses, with everything thereafter following a set pattern. The universe is created, once and for all; the truth is revealed, once and for all. However, I don’t believe polytheism necessarily supports this view. Creation and destruction are ongoing, dancing back at forth, a spiral that may emulate but not repeat the infinite past as it swirls into the infinite future. There are many Gods, spirits, truths — many worlds and ways of being.

So, to expound, there is no “canon” in Druidry, in the sense of Ultimate Revealed Truth Without Sequel. The myths, triads, poetry, etc. provides a cultural commons — a place we all share, which helps us define ourselves as, say, Keltrian Druids rather than Hellenic Pagans, Zoroastrians or eclectic Wiccans. But there is no sense that this is the one truth, the only truth, the sole revelation.

One, two, three, four, five…..

My latest book-journey is Gabrielle Roth's "Maps to Ecstasy," which — in its way — goes into the metaphysics of her Five Rhythms trance-dance method. I sporadically do Five Rhythms as a workout; the type of ecstatic dancing I do under its influence is highly energetic, sweaty and interesting. But for Roth, the Five Rhythms — flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness — are more than themes for a dance; they are the very stuff of the universe, imprinted in the patterns of our lives in myriad ways.

It is, in short, another way to divide the world by number. Some thoughts on particular numbers:

One is monism, brahma/atman, the universal spirit and total reality, seen and unseen, the undivided.

Two is dualism. It can be the benign dualism of Wicca's God and Goddess, the Yin/Yang, the moon and sun, the male and female. All too often, however, it is hierarchical dualism, which follows a dyad of good/bad, strong/weak, pure/impure, God/Devil. One half is seen as the antithesis of the other, and the goal is dominance. It's a sort of perverted monism, the undivided becoming divided and reflecting the structures of power.

Hierarchical dualism underlies most patterns of oppression. The question, then, is how to get away from it? My answer: we need to build our cultural models and thought patterns on something other than a base-2, either/or model. One is hard to grasp outside of mystical revelation, and often lends itself to the simple conceptual division of two. Two lends itself to abuses, probably due to our primate mind. 

And so. We need complexity.

Three is the number of the Druids: the land, sea and sky; fire, well and tree; the above and below and what joins them. It is the three worlds of the shaman: upper, middle and lower. It is the upright human seeing the world, the three tribes of spirits: Gods, nature spirits, ancestors. It is the triquetra knot, the three legs of the triskelion, the number of Fates, Norns, Graces, Graiai and Furies. It is time: past, present and future. Three mediates.

Four is solid: the base of a house or a pyramid, not likely to topple. It is the four directions, the four winds, the four cities of the Tuatha De Danann and their treasurers, the four elements of the Witch and the ceremonial magician. Four grounds us in space, the land — a map unrolling under our feet. 

Five is the four elements plus the spirit that unites them. It is the star that represents the limbs of the body and the head, the "number of man" in Christian mysticism. It is Roth's five rhythms, the five elements of the Chinese system, the provinces in ancient Ireland — one for each direction and then the center. It provides a center to that map of the land.

Six is a strange number, one that I've never had deep mystical connection with. It's the interlocking triangles of the figure we call the Star of David — upward and downward triangles uniting. A triad of dualities, a duality of triads, the Flower of Aphrodite, sex and sin, the Christian Number of the Beast. When I was a kid, I had an odd fear of sixes and twelves; I considered them unlucky numbers.

Seven is the mystic number, the number of visible planets in the ancient world. The Seven Directions take the map of the world into three dimensions: North, South, East, West, Above, Below and Center. It is the different notes of the diatonic and heptatonic musical scale, the Pleiades, the chakra system, the sacred number in Middle Eastern traditions as three is of the Celts. It contemplates.

Eight is four doubled, and thus an even firmer foundation. It's the map of winds rendered more complete, the medicine wheel, the bagua in Taoism, the solidity of that-which-is.

Nine, in a similar fashion, is the threefold three — the same energy of the triad, but rendered stronger, more complete. It is the Muses, the strongest wave that breaks on the shore, the sisters who rule the Fortunate Isle in Arthurian myth.

And zero: zilch, egg, absence, discovered rather late in the human endeavor. It's nothing, no-thing, nirguna brahman, the supreme reality without form. It's potential: it can be anything, but it isn't yet.

And that's enough driving myself nuts, for this morning anyway.