Month: February 2013

Pesky totems and gentle nature

As I make my morning tea, I glance out the kitchen window only to find a pair of dark eyes staring back. A doe and her two yearlings are making their way through our woods, stopping to nibble saplings and clean each other’s ears. One of the yearlings sees me, and we watch each other for a bit before I put my teacup in the microwave, breaking contact. They’re almost as big as their mother, and will likely be getting the boot from the family unit before the season’s end.

Although not a hunter myself, I have no hesitation when it comes to eating venison (although I can’t stand the smell of it as it cooks). As both a gardener and a driver, I’ve cussed them out: when they ate one of my Tahitian squashes, when one — and it may even be the same yearling staring at me today — bumped into my car when moseying across the road in the pre-dawn. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fawn I bumped is the same young deer that stops and stares long at me whenever our paths across; not with hate or fear, but with some expression I can’t name, not being familiar with deer personal expressions. I’m not quite sure what the staring is about, but I do hope it learns enough fear of humans — particularly the camo-wearing ones with guns — to make it through the season. I just don’t have the heart to inculcate that fear myself by screaming or beeping the horn. On the other hand, I don’t feed or encourage them in any real way, unless you consider talking to/at them as a type of coddling.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading: Penny Billington’s The Path of Druidry. As a Keltrian Druid living in North America, it has limited applicability; the writer is a member of OBOD, which is much more similar to Wicca than the polytheistic North American Druidic orders. Much of her focus seems to be alignment with nature, which can be applied to a number of faith paths and is positive overall. I just happen to be of the school that says Druidry isn’t just nature connection; there are two other Kindreds (the Gods and the ancestors) that are equally important. Other traditions believe differently, and that’s all well and good.

The nature she describes in the book is far more gentle than the one I’m familiar with, but that’s because the work is written by a Brit for a largely British audience. Nature has a much gentler face on that island nation: no larger predators than the fox, few or no poisonous plants or animals, relatively few severe weather events such as tornadoes, blizzards or hurricanes. Human beings have shaped the landscape via farming for more than 10,000 years. Now, North America certainly wasn’t empty and its native cultures certainly did shape the land, as Charles Mann describes in 1491. However, their agricultural and landscaping processes came much later than that of Europeans and took a different form, for reasons Jared Diamond explores in Guns, Germs and Steel.

In short, I wonder if it’s simply easier to “connect with nature” in Britain. Nature isn’t replete with critters that could hurt you, or make you sick or itchy, and people can boast of connections with a particular spot that go back millennia. When it comes to the last, only people of native descent can claim that in North America, and there are relatively few of them due to the “Germ” portion of Diamond’s title. The rest of us — white, black, Asian, Hispanic — can only claim to have lived here for a couple hundred years at most.

One of the few exercises in Billington’s book that speaks to me is mentioned offhand in a section on personal totems: “Now think of animals despised or feared by the human kingdom: make a short list and, for each one, try to think of one positive quality it has” (137).  This strikes me as a good idea in many ways, since we tend to value animals according to their use value, even if that use-value has to do more with our spiritual ego (“the wolf is my totem!”) rather than practical use.

So here’s my list of Pesky Totems.

* Mosquito: public enemy number one! If you think about it, mosquitoes can be seen as an emblem of motherly sacrifice. Female mosquitoes suck the blood of mammals to provide for their young; male mosquitoes stick to plants. They are also a good prod, spiritually or physically, to stop stagnating and get moving.

* Ants: the homeowners’ public enemy number one. Individual ants may seem largely mindless, but the hive is far from that. Ant nests are deliberately and even brilliantly engineered. Ants even have livestock: aphids. They reflect civilization and society as a whole, industry and organization, whether you’re dealing with corporations, armies or municipal government. Termites probably fall under the same set of associations, as well as most bees.

* Carpenter bees: They destroy our fascia boards every year. These chunky pollinators are good totems for woodworkers. Female bees form social groups and rarely sting; they’re also a good totem for girls’ night out.

* Groundhogs: My public enemy number one; these sons of marmots have wrecked my garden repeatedly through the years. However, they are also decent engineers, pretty damn smart (I know this, since I’ve tried unsuccessfully to trap them) and, from what I’ve heard, tasty albeit greasy. Their fur makes good hats, and they’re one of nature’s true hibernators. (Bears aren’t, by the way.) As a spiritual totem, perhaps they represent opportunism (not necessarily in a bad sense), persistence and engineering.

* Rats: Folks hate and fear rats as disease-carriers and food-destroyers. I’ve known several people who have kept domesticated rats as pets, and have found them intelligent and affectionate. They share many traits with us, including an aptitude for problem-solving and even a love-hate relationship with tickling. Rats are emblems of fertility, wit, subterfuge and problem-solving. The last is probably why they’re the vehicle of the Hindu God Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.


* Mice: Which brings us to a similarly feared and hated animal: the mouse. They can squeeze into spaces the size of a dime, which is why it’s so damn hard to keep them out of your house. As totems, they may symbolize stealth, the hidden and the discovery of secrets. My cats say they symbolize “tasty snack.” They also may be the totem for Jiffy peanut butter, since that’s what most traps are baited with.

* Ticks: I’m struggling with this one. If you have any positive association with ticks, please let me know. I imagine vampires might find them inspirational.

* Image “You can call me Flower if you want to!” The skunk is my favorite character in “Bambi.” Obviously, their personal weapon of olfactory destruction has made an impact on their public relations campaign. Skunks, however, are incredibly cute and pretty mellow, which is why they have been domesticated as pets. They don’t want to spray you, but will if you persist in being an ass. To me, the symbolize standing one’s ground.

* Weasels: I’ve never understood why people have hated weasels — unless, of course, they keep chicken coops, which would put weasels in the same category as fox. Weasels are perky, fearless and enthusiastic killers; the last might not seem a positive, but it certainly is when the weasel is clearing out the mice and chipmunks from your property. I don’t often quote Wikipedia, but I think their totemic value is expressed by this statement: “Weasels have a reputation for cleverness, quickness and guile.”

* Squirrels: These little bastards are personally responsible for the non-functionality of our porch lights, and are the bane of New England orchard-keepers. Gnawing aside, they are among nature’s best problem-solvers. They also plant a hell of a lot of trees.

* Chipmunks: They probably joined the squirrels in the porch light destruction party. They’re not as bright as squirrels, but known to be good housekeepers in terms of burrow cleanliness. They are a favorite prey animal for many species as well. As a totem, they may symbolize alertness and domesticity.

* Pigeon: Everyone’s least favorite bird. Pigeons, however, are very tasty and have been used to carry messages due to their navigational abilities. Doves — white pigeons — symbolize peace, and are also sacred animals to the goddesses Aphrodite, Venus, Tanit and Asherah. They symbolize domesticity, abundance, peace and messages from the divine; they may also be a good totem for drivers trying to find their way through city streets.

* Vultures: Also have a negative reputation, since they eat dead things. However, they are nature’s garbagemen and have a crucial role in the eco-system because of it. In ancient Egypt, vultures were the symbol for mother. To me, they symbolize cleanliness and recycling.

That’s my list of Pesky Totems for today. Which would you add?


Priestesses on the rag, and hidden ban-draoi

I’ve recently finished reading Joan Breton Connelly’s Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. It’s an academic book, and delves into the role of priestesses in ancient Greek cultures: their responsibilities and rights, their involvement with ritual, even their fashion choices. In short: priestesses were powerful people, and women’s religious roles in ancient Greece were both variegated and important. Despite their lack of overt civic authority — and I say “overt” because religion carried its own type of authority, which was deeply involved in civic life and which women shared in equal measure with men — women were sacred, and had opportunities to serve throughout their lives. Nor did they need the temple priests or priestesses as intercessors; every woman had the right and the ability to offer prayer and sacrifice at home — which, in fact, was a smaller version of the temple with its sacred fire.

Among the many things that interest me is the bastardization of priestesses’ roles and value by later, and mostly male, scholars. In one case, a French scholar claimed that women were forbidden to participate in animal sacrifices, even touch the animals, because they, too, bled via menstruation. This contention boggles my mind, since priestesses certainly do take part in sacrificial rites; they are shown decorating and leading the victims, and even sacrificing animals themselves in rites such as the Thesmophoria. It’s documented both in literature and in physical artifacts, such as vase paintings. But despite all this, some dude comes to that bizarre conclusion.

Now, it’s possible that women could be prohibited from participating in the sacrifice when they were menstruating — but there is no evidence of that, anywhere. Pliny the Elder pretty much said that menstrual blood was icky (albeit not in those words) and could sour milk and damage crops — although he also claimed that it made a handy insecticide (take that, RoundUp!). There is no mention, however, that Greek women were banned from sacred acts during this period, either in the temple or at home. To assume that they were is to project the taboos of historic Hindu, Hebrew and Christian societies backward in time, assuming that the ancients must have viewed matters in a similar way. 

Which brings me back to the issue at hand: why conceal or deny the importance of priestesses? In her conclusion, Connelly does explore this issue. By denying women’s role in ancient faiths, Christians were able to argue that their system represented a liberation for women — which most assuredly was not the case. Consider the resistance today to female priests in Catholicism and female ministers among Baptists; consider that even the denominations that allow women in ministry often had to face great and heated division in order to get there.

Interestingly enough, I have seen modern Muslims make the same argument; years ago, one handed me a flier on how Islam represented a step forward for women, in contrast to pagan times. When you consider that the three main deities of the pagan Arabs were female and that pagan Arab women had a whole host of rights currently denied them — including the right to divorce — I repeat, that is most assuredly not the case. The only way to claim that it is involves suppression of evidence.

Since this is a Druid blog, that brings me to Jean Markale. This French author’s books were on the ADF recommended reading list, and I could never understand why; Markale iwas no scholar in an academic sense. He was, quite simply, a high school teacher who thought he knew a lot about the Celts and wrote accordingly.

I only managed to make it through one of his books, Druids: The Celtic Priests of Nature. I no longer have it, but remember it well. He claimed that the Veneti, a Gaulish tribe, were not in fact Celts, but from Atlantis. He claimed that the Celts were decidedly not seafaring people, but entirely pastoral — a contention that would have confused many an Irish fisherman, I’m sure. And, above all, he claimed that women were never, ever Druids.

This contention is untrue. Rather than get into this, I will instead refer the reader to an excellent summary put together by my friend Ed Chapman. The image of Druid as a robed old man with a lengthy beard comes not from ancient times, but from the revivalist Druids, whose organizations began in the latter half of the 1600s. At that time, Druid orders were social clubs for men, by men, that had little to do with ancient religion; their customs had more to do with national pride than any sort of spiritual impulse. Revival Druidry ultimately became a spiritual movement, but that was much later and due to the efforts of individual visionaries or crackpots, depending on how you’d like to view them. Today, Revivalist Druids come in both genders.

Of course, this has little to do with ancient Druids, or the “reconstructionist” Druids of today. (And I use this term lightly — not in the CR sense, but in the sense of Druidic groups that are inspired by the ancient Gods, and not the system invented by Iolo Morganwg.) But it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Imbolc: the kitchen-temple

Cowled in white with coins tinkling about my waist, I head outdoors to the bitter cold, basket and brideog in hand. “Welcome Brighid,” I sing, my voice echoing off the white and brown of the branches, rising to the swirled blue and white of winter sky. “Oh, Brighid is come, Brighid is welcome.”

I duck inside to the kitchen, where I had set the altar. I’ve done many types of Imbolc rituals through the years, in various places: the hearth, where the fire is lit and the stone blessed. The ritual room, bedecked with candles or with a bowl of melted snow. I’ve often honored her alongside Aonghus Og, the white-winged God who brings the spring, apropos to a time when buds are contemplating the branch.

But for the past few years, I’ve set my altar in the kitchen and honored her there, along with her father, the Dagda, the All-Father with his cauldron of plenty, from which none leave unsatisfied. Shelter, warmth, a full belly: these are the blessings of the temple kitchen, the kitchen that is a temple.

It’s a place we rarely honor, seeing food preparation as a chore or, more often, not thinking of it at all as we forage through the cabinets. It’s the lowly place, the place of the mother or grandmother or domestic servant, hidden from the honored guests in the parlor. But for all its low regard, it’s the place that draws us; party guests gravitate there, drawn by the warmth, the light and, above all, the food. There’s nothing pretentious about a kitchen; it is pure function, mixed with the comfort of food and warmth.

Barefoot on the cold floor, I sang and played my harp in her honor, offering a bowl of herbs dried from the garden, along with nuts, beans, sweets. The core of the ritual, though, is domestic: making bannock, a simple oatmeal bread, and meditating as it cooks. The bannock is offering, ritual token and blessing, as well as a meditation in and of itself.

After I pull the bannock from the oven, I recite a poem — most of it, really — by Elsa Gidlow called “Chains of Fires.” It reminds me of Brighid, of the importance of the hearth fire, of the role of our female ancestors throughout time. It reminds me, too, of the vigil I keep in her honor every 20 days.

Each dawn, kneeling before my hearth,
Placing stick, crossing stick
On dry eucalyptus bark
Now the larger boughs, the log
(With thanks to the tree for its life)
Touching the match, waiting for creeping flame.
I know myself linked by chains of fire
To every woman who has kept a hearth

In the resinous smoke
I smell hut and castle and cave,
Mansion and hovel.
See in the shifting flame my mother
And grandmothers out over the world
Time through, back to the Paleolithic
In rock shelters where flint struck first sparks
(Sparks aeons later alive on my hearth)
I see mothers , grandmothers back to beginnings,
Huddled beside holes in the earth
of igloo, tipi, cabin,
Guarding the magic no other being has learned,
Awed, reverent, before the sacred fire
Sharing live coals with the tribe.

For no one owns or can own fire,
it ]ends itself.
Every hearth-keeper has known this.
Hearth-less, lighting one candle in the dark
We know it today.
Fire lends itself,
Serving our life
Serving fire.

(I do leave off the last verse, which is solstice-specific; you can read the entire poem here. Perhaps appropriately enough, Gidlow founded an artist’s retreat in California, dubbed Druid Heights.)

Imbolc is traditionally a domestic rite, centered on home and hearth. But other rituals, too, can be taken to the warmth of the kitchen and the resident hearth-goddess. Be welcome and offer welcome in the heart of the house.