Month: July 2013

The Way of the Druid is amorphous, meaningless and rife with footnotes

I don’t often give up on books. No, my philosophy is akin to that of a parent at the sidelines of a T-ball game. No matter how awkward the child is or whose it is, you cheer. You stay the whole game. You resist the urge to check the stock reports on your smart phone while Jimmy or Janey is up at bat.

But after 100-plus pages of Graeme K. Talboy’s The Way of the Druid, alas, I had to give in to temptation. I had to — metaphorically, at least — pick up the smart phone and check the stock reports. And Facebook. Or read the back of a cereal box — anything but read that damn book.

Amazingly, it received a scad of good reviews on Facebook, which makes me scratch my hair and wonder if we were indeed delving into the same tome.

One hundred pages into the book, and the reader has no idea what modern Druid orders actually do or believe (other than, say, the importance of truth and justice — which, I think, is endemic not only to all religions, but all cultures anywhere and anytime. I mean, who doesn’t think their culture is based on truth and justice, no matter how perverted the actual applications may seem?) Flipping through the book, near the end it contains the description of the usual “Pagan Eight” cycle of holidays, and touts meditation. Admittedly, this is a rather short section and, as mentioned previously, in the back of the book.

So, what does the book actually contain? It does have the standard rundown of Celtic history, with the Saxons painted as genocidal monsters and the Romans as imperialistic monsters. (Frankly, I hate that kind of tarring. Both the Saxons and the Romans were a complex people with complex — and polytheistic — cultures. And the Celts weren’t some kind of pacifist angels. They, too, were warriors and conquerors.)

Admittedly, we don’t know the nuts and bolts of Celtic religion — or Druidic practice — because they were based on an oral culture; the Celts had a writing taboo for matters of the sacred. This doesn’t, however, keep Talboys from waxing philosophical on all of their deeply held beliefs, which he claims he knows by looking at their artwork and cultural artifacts. In fact, waxing philosophical appears to be the entire purpose of the book, including the entire meaning of religion, the “personalistic” and “organicistic” nature of the Celts (his words, not mine), etc. A peeve of mine: English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. You don’t need to make words up. If another language encapsulates meaning better than the English word does, you steal it and use it; that’s how English has historically worked.

In short, the book is a string of pretty language and footnotes that ultimately means nothing. It’s going on the library book sale pile. I’m profoundly disappointed, considering the aforementioned positive reviews.

I am not against Pagan philosophy. Brendan Myers does it well in The Other Side of Virtue as does John Michael Greer in a very different book, A World Full of Gods. They use copious examples from literature, religion and history to prove their points, even if those points are complex. At no point do they ever assume a set of beliefs for an entire culture sans evidence — also known as, in more direct terms, making shit up.

I admit that I have a disconnect with books written from the British traditions of Druidry, which are far more akin to Wicca than, say, Celtic polytheistic religion. A case in point is another recent read, Penny Billington’s The Path of Druidry, in which Druidic practice consists largely of taking walks in the woods. Now, connection with nature is important to many Pagan paths, but where are the Gods? She does include archetypes from the seasonal cycle (similar, again, to Wicca) and excerpts from the Mabinogion, but the specific identity of those Gods — presumedly Welsh, judging from her cultural sources — is absent. It’s not an awful book; there are things that I can recommend in it, but…. I’ll end the sentence with a sigh.

I find it rather odd that it’s the British Druids who are airy-fairy, freeform hippies and the American ones who are set on the more religious aspects of the faith (the Gods and spirits, offerings, loose reconstructions of ritual structure, even if those reconstructions are probably historically off-base). Stodgy American Druid — I embrace it.

In the meantime, I am having a much better experience reading Oryx and Crake and SuperFreakonomics.


Awen, imbas and trance-horses

It’s incredible to witness a full trance-possession, with the “horse” — as the human component is generally called — gyrating and dancing wildly, his or her conscious self stabled elsewhere as the deity or spirit takes over. It’s incredible, but it’s frightening, too: the lack of control, the white-garbed horse crashing to the ground or caught like a rag-doll in the arms of the watcher, helpers plying him or her with water, rum or a dash of Florida water.

There are many commonalities in trance-possession faiths. Neo-Pagan and traditional Pagan (as in Vodoun, Santeria or native faiths) trance-manifestations bear many similarities to the gyrations done in Pentacostal and other evangelical churches, in which the congregants are inspired, ridden or otherwise possessed by the Holy Spirit. The deities and beliefs may be far different, but the core experience — ekstasis, standing outside one’s self — seems to be the same.

As a Druid priestess, I have been “overshadowed” by deities many times. By that term, I mean sensing their presence in vision — whether internal or external — and, especially, in feeling. You open yourself up to them, and let their grace and power fill you. But rather than true ekstasis, it’s a form of inspiration, a term that literally means “to breathe into or upon.” In Welsh, the term is awen, which also comes from a root word meaning “blow” and is connected to the word for breeze.

Druids often use awen as a meditative sound, akin to the Hindu Om. The sound of the word lends itself to that use, and it can be very effective. Awen is also the name of the three-lined symbol seen in the sigils of many modern Druidic orders, and was allegedly created by the infamous Bard, mystic and forger (yes, forger) Iolo Morganwg. I forgive the forgery; in the time period in which he dwelt (the mid-18th to early 19th centuries), one couldn’t just become the priest of a new religion based on pieced-together lore and re-imaginings of the old. Neo-Paganism wasn’t a possibility yet. While Iolo’s work never particularly appealed to me, I do believe that it was inspired — and I choose that word deliberately — in a manner common to practicing Pagans today.

Irish-based Druidic traditions often use the word “imbas” instead of awen, although the three-lined symbol is still referred to by the latter name. Imbas, however, is different in quality from awen and inspiration; it means, instead, “great knowledge.” While it was often used in literature in connection with knowledge gained through mystical means, the focus is not on the process itself, on the breathing-in, but on the information acquired. Such mystical overshadowing is not breathed-in from the grace of the Gods, but presumably learned through the long-term mastery of a process. In a way, it seems suitable for Druids, whose education spanned far more than a decade.

Of course, even in the lore, prophecy and the like were given through what seems to be an inspirational process, whether it’s Cathbad giving the fates of Deirdre and Cu Chulainn, or Fedelm telling Maeve that “I see crimson, I see red” when asked to give the outcome of the famous cattle raid. Great knowledge appears to arrive through the setting-aside of one’s self and one’s usual means of perception, whether that involves chewing on raw meat or your thumb, or walking to the threshold to gaze out.

With the possible exception of Cu Chulainn’s battle-fury, however, I don’t see as much god-inspired ekstasis in Celtic Paganism as in the Afro-Caribbean faiths. Our gods seem rather reluctant to use worshipers as full-on horses — defined as being totally taken over, and having little memory of the experience afterward. It just doesn’t seem to be the way they do things. They can overshadow, yes, and even speak-through, but they don’t tend to ride worshipers fully.

Interestingly, in Welsh myth, it’s the goddess Rhiannon who is ridden. The Irish horse and sovereignty goddess Macha takes on human form and races with horses herself, but she rides no one — although she does give the men nasty labor pains in times of crisis by way of a curse. The Gaulish Epona is the goddess of horses, and is depicted as riding one — although not human worshipers. Even the Morrigan, who takes various shapes and presumably inspires battle-fury, doesn’t seem to physically ride people, although she may corral them toward their inevitable fates.

While there are accounts of seers that are possessed by Gods in some European cultures — the Delphic oracle springs to mind — I don’t have any good indications whether this was the case for the Celts. “Great knowledge” doesn’t give a hint as to the ultimate source. In Norse traditions, modern volvas are resurrecting oracular and trance-possession practices, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in most Druidic traditions I’m aware of. It just doesn’t seem to fit the nature of our gods, and how they choose to manifest.

What are your thoughts?

Tinne/The ingot

In dreams begin responsibilities,
the poet hammers, the blows echoing
through the damp halls of a benighted past.

He is dead now, and the words are deader.
The hammer still in the forge, the anvil
furred and silvered with dust. All fool’s gold now.

Or are you, then? Perhaps hidden under
a crust of charcoal lies the ingot, soft
and flaming. Fire waits for you to stoke it.

The coals wait for your breath. Not machine, no —
let your lungs be the bellows, the midwife.
Let your sweat be the ink that writes the world.

Your will, the hammer arcing down, thunder
itself. Your mind, the anvil that cannot
be moved. The ingot is what you make it.

An axle that turns the galaxy’s wheel.
The flat ice of a thirsty blade, singing
its want to the dissolving forge. A crown —

Or something more simple. A holly bough,
a gift of green in the heart of winter,
berries as red as the forge. A starling

among its spikes, claws balanced and light, as
the Milky Way wanders in its feathers.
You are the master, the smith and the fire.

Rise, then. The fire waits for you to stoke it.
The anvil awaits your choices. Go now.
In dreams begin responsibilities.