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[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/13/13]

Most U.S. witches live in cities.  This probably holds true for most of the western world, since urbanization is on the rise and predicted to grow.  I recently found myself back in an urban environment.  Granted, Austin prides itself on its small town vibe, and funky eclecticism, but it’s no rural Ireland!  The sounds I hear, and the other-than-human-persons I encounter, are different.  Yet, they are still animate, and very eldritch.

Since I plan for this to become a multi-part series, let me start by defining my terms. I’m an animist. My philosophical and spiritual approach incorporates a world view of relationality: a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human. Within this relational experience, I practice a form of traditional witchcraft steeped in folklore.  I don’t engage my witchcraft as a religion. Rather, I experience it as a reclamation of the wisdom traditions passed to me through my blood, from the Ancient Mothers.

Now, for urban spirit roads.

The concept of the spirit road is found in most of Europe.  In Ireland, the principle can be seen in the folk practice of placing a pile of stone at each corner of a new house site before construction begins.  If the stones are disturbed, you know its a path used by the Good Neighbors, and you should resite the house. In other parts of Europe, you find special paths used only to carry a coffin, or to act as a processional way for the funeral. * The idea is that there are person specific paths;  human-persons make and use paths, as do Other-than-human-persons.

It goes back to the Old Irish concept of “right order.”  Each world has a right order, and each person, a right place in that order.  

There are alleyways in my neighborhood.  It’s also a heavily treed neighborhood, one that borders a system of wet weather creeks that run all the way out to the Hill Country, west of town.  Many Other-than-human-persons use those creek beds as pathways.  A local biologist found coyote scat in one not many years back.  She went looking after a rake (Irish Slang Alert: rake means a lot of something) of neighborhood cats went missing.

So, the other evening I was strolling home from a local cafe.  The sound of the wind in the trees was just right: familiar and sensuous.  The temperature, and humidity level, was just right: my body recognized it.  The quality of light, filtering down through the urban tree canopy from the few inner neighborhood street lights, was just right: familiar and comforting. I was taking in my environment using all my senses.  This is an embodied process, and one that connected me to a Place I know intimately. This is my Place, and my body knows it well.  And then I walked past an alley.

Down the black tunnel was a stirring.  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.  I paused, reached for my phone, and snapped; hoping to capture an image, or glowing eyes.  I don’t know what other-than-human-person was down that dark urban spirit road, but consciousness perceived me and looked back.

Adhering to the right order is tricky in an urban environment.  In the country, you know the right order.   Human-persons have the day, and other-than-human-persons, the night.  In the city? Well, I suppose you risk being disrespectful …. or meeting the Other world.

* To read more about the topic, you might enjoy Paul Devereux’s book:Fairy Paths & Spirit Roads: Exploring Otherworldly Routes in the Old and New Worlds.

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/07/13]

museum in my neighborhood : replanted with native grasses

While the northern latitudes just opened the Door to the dark time, the dead of winter, we Texans greeted the cool Ancestral breath that offers welcome respite.  Here in central Texas, and I can only speak to this one tiny geographical part because our state’s as big as most countries (including most of the U.S.)—now here’s a Texas Tall Tale—heck, you could fit most countries inside our borders and I would still have room for a hundred head of cattle in the back pasture!  Where was I?  Oh, yes…

Central Texas has two seasons, hot and cool.  Notice I didn’t say ‘cold’.  That’s because, while we do get Blue Northers, our cool season is what most of y’all call summer!  It’s a refreshing time of year for most folks.  A time to stroll outside, leisurely, without running from one speck of shade to the next.  You can leave things in your windowsill without them melting.  And we get to revel in the betwixt-and-between rains.  Our rains generally come at the two turnings of the year: between hot and cool, and cool and hot.  In this way, they align with the two major Gates in modern witchcraft: Samhain and Bealtaine.  So, while European, and other northern, witches might have multiple points on their wheel, Central Texas has two.

native Indian grass flower heads sway in the breeze above little bluestem, sideoats grama and other natives

I live north of the river in Austin; in a little neighborhood with towering trees, wide residential streets, and plenty of community feel.  I ride my bike down to the local grocery where I purchase locally produced foods, or pop into one of half-a-dozen cafes to sip something refreshing, and maybe hear live music. I rise early in the morning to walk down to my bus stop, three blocks away, and marvel at the colours in the sky.  My ramshackle little house has tilting wood floors, and bright walls in rooms with fun names (the Spice room, the Purple room, the Gray Lands — ok, maybe that last is rather gloomy).  My gardens are an overgrowth of possibility, and I swear numerous critters live in my attic!

My physical engagement with the Place that is Austin is less about the city and more about my immediate region.  In fact, I rarely travel outside my little neighborhood.  I don’t own a car, and this forces me to be more embodied. It’s how I learned the different scents in each yard, those made by plants and those left by dogs, as they mark their own unique trails.  My ears are not deafened by the noise of TV or radio–I don’t own either.  Instead, I hear the sounds of the wind, sirens, the dogs next door, the sweet night birds and the even sweeter dawn chorus, the neighbor practicing guitar or piano, loud sex next door, and children laughing without shame.  A few days ago I even heard a fox!  A cry I would not have known had Fox not recently introduced herself to me, back home in Ireland, on that silent night deep in the dark down the lane.

Tonight, as I walked home from the coffee shop, I breathed in the feeling of this neighborhood, my Place in Austin.

 It is a sensual experience.

One I have parred away the extraneous noise of modernity in order to BE in.  Human-persons shaped this place, to be sure.  Other-than-human-persons live here, as well, but this is truly a place of the Human. (As much as my little lane in East Cork was shaped by the Human–it certainly was not wild land, left in the shape Nature made her.)  And I like this Human place — with her wild creativity, infectious optimism, pretentious hipness, and lust for life.  We are a hot climate, and the blood moves quick and lively here.  There is room for everyone, unless they are nouveau riche.  Speaking of, here’s another Texas Tale.

The state built a Formula One race track just out our side door.  It seems people with lots of money like to attend those races.  In downtown Austin is an historic old stone building, operated under the name of The Driskill.  Now, the story goes, one of those rich types waited till the last minute to book his hotel accommodations, which was lazy of him, and he rang The Driskall expecting them to make room just for his precious little self. Unfortunately, they were all full and aghast at the notion of canceling another guest just for him.  So this rich guy decided he would just *buy* the hotel.  The folks down at The Driskall?  Well, they just laughed at him.  That’s not how things work down here.

My Place is also with my People.  Part of it is about cultural understanding, and influence.  Culture is defined as a complex integrated system of beliefs, values, and behaviors common to a large group of people, and includes adaptive responses, a shared language and folklore, ideas and thinking patterns, as well as communication styles.  Texas is a specific culture, and so is Austin.  Both share much in common, but those specific cultural values shift as you move between places, even within this one state (but then again, that’s not surprising…we’re really the size of a country!).

So, as I move into the season of welcome rest and recuperation, I thank the Ancestors for sending their cooling breath.  All living things around me heave a collective sigh of relief.  And for the Ancestors that passed away this year, the over 300 million Trees—ancestors to us all—that perished in the Great Heat, I send a kiss and my love.

What is remembered lives.

Thirst :: thirstart.org

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 10/17/13]

As we approach the Irish festival of Samhain, I want to share some little known lore.

Then on the eve of samain (November 1) precisely Mongfind dies.  So this is The Death of Mongfind the Banshee.  Hence samain is called by the rabble Féile Moingfhinne  “Mongfhionn’s feast”, for she was a witch and had magical power while she was in the flesh; wherefore women and the rabble make petitions to her on samain-eve.
Stokes, Whitley (1903). Revue Celtique 24: 179

A prominent hill called Cnoc Samhna “Hill of Samhain” also known as Ard na Ríoghraidhe “Height of the Kingfolk” south of Bruree, County Limerick is associated with a tale connected to Mongfind. Also, “Anocht Oíche Shamhna Moingfhinne banda“, a children’s rhyme from County Waterford, translates as “Tonight is the eve of Samhain of womanly Mongfhionn”.

Several important mythological happenings or changes occurred at Samhain:

  • Oengus mac ind-Og was born on Samhain
  • An Dagda mated with the Morrigan on Samhain, just before the Second Battle of Magh Turedh (which may have also been on Samhain)
  • The invasion of Ulster that makes up the main action of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) begins on Samhain. As cattle-raiding typically was a summer activity, the invasion during this off-season surprised the Ulstermen.
  • According to the Dindsenchas and Annals of the Four Masters, Samhain in ancient Ireland was associated with the god Crom Cruach. King Tigernmas (Tighearnmhas) was said to have made offerings to Crom Cruach each Samhain, sacrificing a first-born child by smashing their head against a stone idol of the god. The Four Masters says that Tigernmas, with “three fourths of the men of Ireland about him” died while worshiping Crom Cruach at Magh Slécht on Samhain (p.43).
  • Irish kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae both die a threefold death on Samhain, which may be linked to human sacrifice.[1]
  • In the 10th-century Tochmarc Emire (the Wooing of Emer), Samuin is the first of the four “quarter days” of the year mentioned by the heroine Emer.[p.232]
  • The 12th century tales Mesca Ulad and Serglige Con Culainn begin at Samhain. In Serglige Con Culainn, it is said that the festival of the Ulaidh at Samhain lasted a week: Samhain itself, and the three days before and after. They would gather on the Plain of Muirthemni where there would be meetings, games, and feasting.[2]
  • In Aislinge Óengusa (the Dream of Óengus) it is when he and his bride-to-be switch from bird to human form, and in Tochmarc Étaíne (the Wooing of Étaín) is the day on which Óengus claims the kingship of Brú na Bóinne.[1]
  • In Echtra Neraí (the Adventure of Nera), Nera undergoes a test of bravery on Samhain.  King Ailill offers his own gold-hilted sword as a prize to the man who would leave the warmth and safety of the hall, to make his  way through the night to a gallows where two prisoners had been hanged the day before, tie a withe around one corpse’s ankle, and return. Where others had failed, Nera fulfills the task and other adventures ensue!  Taking etymology into consideration, it is interesting to note that the word for summer in the Echtra Nerai is samraid.
  • In many folk tales and in some late Fionn tales, it was the day that the Hollow Hills would open and the sidhe would walk about.
  •  The winter season (Samhain to Bealtaine) was and is the time for seanchas; the time when the seanchaí share their wisdom over a pint or near a turf fire. In fact, it was and is taboo to tell stories in summer.

Some of the All Hallows’ Eve folk traditions of the Ulster-Scots

  • Traditionally regarded as the end of the year.
  • The onset of winter in late October, combined with the harvest of the fruits of summer growth,  determine a personality for this season.
  • Before mechanization made these customs impractical, the last stalks of the oat crop (referred to as corn, and which were harvested with hand sickles) were considered the last sheaf, and referred to as the calliagh, granny, or hare.  It was plaited where it stood, then the men took turns tossing their sickles at it, until it was cut down. The person to have done the ‘killing’ placed the plait around the neck of the mistress of the house, as an implied threat that required reward with food and drink. The last sheaf was stored over winter in the house of the man who had cut her down,
  • The booly parties, with their cattle, returned from the summer pasturage in the mountains.
  • Bonfires, children visiting houses (guising or rhyming), and parties with special games and food (vegetarian) that had a particular focus on divination (especially of marriage and death).
  • Pranks and practical jokes abounded.  Notable stories include removing the field gate and reconstructing it on the neighbor’s roof, or taking apart the cart, then reconstructing it inside hooked to the donkey!  These were closely tied to the belief in supernatural activity during this time.
  • To ‘protect’ children on this night of spirit activity, older people would place a pile of salt on the child’s forehead.

Koch, John T. The Celts: History, Life, and Culture. 2012. p.690
Hutton, Ronald (1996) Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-288045-4, p. 361.

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 10/10/13]

My years in Ireland were like graduate school.  They challenged my thoughts on spirituality, witchcraft, and culture.  While living outside my culture of origin, I chose to drop my identifiers and preconceived ideas.  I sought to experience my culture of residence with fresh eyes and an insider perspective.  Irish mythology and folklore have shaped much of our understanding, and practice of paganism.  The very names used for significant seasonal celebrations are influenced by Irish language and custom.  Yet what I learned about those seasons, while living on that island, forever altered my practice.  I am finally becoming naturalised–a concept I heard Steven Posch use to describe a paganism that more accurately reflects our living Place, as opposed to some far-away homeland (or fantasy of that homeland).

I began this journey years ago, when the knowledge that American culture is shaped by western Christianity first awoke in my consciousness.  It was the first time I questioned how my upbringing in the U.S. had shaped and informed my world-view, and how intertwined that was with the philosophy of western Christianity. Steven Posch is quoted in the article linked above as saying, “Much of what passes for Pagan these days is actually a bad translation into Pagan of some variety of Natal Monotheism or, worse, Pop Culture.”  Once I realised (and agreed with) this, I began to examine how my culture of origin shaped my personal experience of paganism.  In what ways was I continuing to behave and think like a monotheist? I also began to examine how this world-view shaped my government, the systems operating within my society, relational and social constructs, and the science that informs my understanding of the cosmos.  It was a profound and powerful journey.  One which decimated my entire structure of belief and perception.

The Great Stripping Away (or untangling) was ongoing when I moved across the pond to the Emerald Isle, a land I mythicized for years.  Yet,  when finally able to experientially connect with the land on a daily basis, the stories I had read with a sense of disconnection, and almost romanticized wonder, took on an unexpected immediacy; they became embodied.  I soon came to realize that the persons referenced in the ancient stories were as real as the Knockmealdown Mountains I could see from my front garden.  In fact, one or two of them actually were those strong peaks!

But seeing the landscape anthropomorphized in the stories was not enough. I began to look behind those ‘new’ tales for the Old Gods, the Elder Gods, the gods of the witches who are the Great Powers: wild, untamed, and untamable.  The far-side-of-the-hedge ones.   And, I found them!

Éire

They were wherever my eye would see or my ear hear.  Strange and frightful, yet as alive as me: each tree–Blackthorn, Oak, Ash–the strong West Wind, the River Bride.  Each with a voice, and a story of their own.  The ancestral voice, rich and deep, reverberated with remembered history. These beings are alien, so unlike human-persons that it is hard to fathom them.  Yet they hold a perspective and an experience I can not gain on my own.  As a witch, I am interested in understanding the powers of my world; as an animist, I care about living in right relationship with the other-than-human persons I share space with.  As a human-person, I want to learn about the world I inhabit.

As these changes to the way I interact with my world unfolded, I came to realize my paganism was diverging from what I saw around me.  My practice began to look less and less like what I had been taught, or what I read of ‘mainstream’ paganism.  I was moving backward on a time-stream into a more primal thought that was, nonetheless, influenced by the modernity I am part of.

If there had indeed been pagans of our ilk in Europe during the Hidden Years, and if those old paganisms had managed to survive in backwaters here and there, and if they had undergone the usual kinds of culture loss and internal innovation, and if the old ways had been influenced as one would expect by the new religion, and if those ways had managed to survive into modern times, and if our ancestors had brought those ways with them to the New World in their heads, hearts, and steamer trunks, and if those ways had become naturalized to the local weather patterns, vegetation and wildlife, and if those ways had been influenced by the lore of the indigenous peoples, and of other incomers, and if those ways had survived industrialization and the Wars, and if they had managed to come down intact to us today in the second decade of the so-called twenty-first century: then what would our paganism look like?

Texas

That is the question I want to answer for myself.  As I prepare to return home to Texas, I also prepare to naturalize my practice.  In so doing, I may create a new tradition, a new spirituality.  One shaped by the comings and goings of Little Brother and Little Sister: he who brings rain and cold, she who brings fiery heat.  A spirituality shaped by the Wild Mother, whose winds blow fierce.  A year divided by two turnings: rich fertility that gives way to the long hot, and ancestral breath which offers cool respite.

What is the spirituality of your Place?  Have you naturalized?

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 09/12/13]

Down my lane is a Well.  It’s an Old Well, long venerated and hallowed; a place of quiet contemplation and healing.  This Well, now dedicated to St. John, is an eye Well; it’s known for its eye cures.  The rounds are held in August, they say to commemorate the beheading of St. John, but we know it was a Lughnasadh Well, don’t we.  Think about it:

  • Turas (Patron or Rounds) traditionally done at the end of August (remember, that is the date for Old Lughnasadh – before the calendar change)
  • Associated with beheading (harvest death, anyone?)
  • Healing for the Eyes – um, well, two out of three ain’t bad!

I suspect this was an inauguration site because of the presence of SO many of the required items (ok, this may be fanciful imagining, but I buy my argument!).  At the Crossroads is the site of an old church, following northwesterly up the ridge (and the lane) you find the Well where once a clootie tree stood, down the ridge near the stream, and almost directly across from the Well, is a Fulacht Fia (which I believe were used for ceremonial bathing).  Continuing northwesterly up the ridge (and the lane) you bump into three large Lios, in quick succession, with the last one being set apart by a standing stone.  If you continue following the ridge (and the lane) you run into two more LARGE, flat-topped Bull Stones before you reach the burial mound.  Oh, and stones were found in the excavation of the Well that contained both hand and feet prints–another curious inaugural element.

To read more of what I have to say on Bull Stones and the date of Old Lughnasadh, see my personal blog.

Now, may I introduce you to St. John’s well, Templebodan, east Cork!

 

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 09/05/13]

Croagh Patrick : by John Nolan

One time they [the king of Ireland’s three sons: Ruide, Fiacha, and Eochaid] went to talk with their father at the Grave of the Druids [fert na ndruadh] to the northwest of Tara. Where have you come from? he asked them. From Echlais Banguba in the south, they replied, from the home of our nurse and guardian. They were dressed in beautiful cloaks: a green cloak on the eldest, Ruide; a fringed woolen cloak from the Land of Promise on Fiacha; and a blue one on Eochaid, who had a band of shining silver fastened across his chest with a golden pin.

Young men, asked the king of Ireland, why have you come? To ask you for land and territory, they replied. The king was silent for a while before he answered: No father gave me land and territory, but my own ability and determination. I will not give you land. You must earn it yourselves.

They rose up as one and went to the green of Bruig na Bóinne where they sat with nobody near them.

What is your advice this night? asked Ruide.

Our advice, said his brothers, is that we fast against the Tuatha Dé Danann to be granted a kingdom, estates, land and great wealth from them.

They were not long there before they saw a … young man coming towards them.
….
What is your name? they asked.
Bodb Derb, son of the Dagda.
It was made known to the Tuatha Dé Danann that you would come here tonight to fast for lands and great wealth.
….
They stayed in that fairy mound for three days and three nights.
(Agallamh na senórach ‘The colloquy of the ancients’)

Four nights ago I slept inside the mound. My head, resting hard, on stone which once cradled cremated remains of the Mighty Dead. My back to the West, and the stone of Crom–fashioned in the likeness of the reek, Crom’s holy mountain, now a pilgrimage site to Patrick, the “driven, tormented British eccentric”–I arranged myself inside the recess, fetal like, and there I spent a long, dark night.

The weather on the west coast had turned cool and cloudy. The long forgotten valley, which leads to the cairns, is like another world; the narrow quarter of the speckled mountains. The path winds up through boggy ground, and as you leave the houses and road behind the necropolis appears suddenly before you. Cairns claim place of honor atop every ridge and peak. I was overcome by a feeling of watchfulness, and immediacy, as the cairns come into view quickly, without warning.

As I began my ascent up the bumpy mountain, the cairns slid from view. My attention was then drawn back down the valley, to the north and the horizon. A vast expanse of small undulations spread below me, like a green ocean, and in the distance danced rock islands of strange proportion. Benbulbin loomed furthest, with its flat top and long, sharp-toothed sides. The Ox Mountains, with their strange shapes (reminiscent of the raised hairs on a wild boar’s back), hurried between me and the jaw-shaped Benbulbin. The scene brought to mind the story of Diarmuid’s tragic end. It was on Benbulbin that Fionn, jealous of Grainne’s love of Diarmuid, tricked him into hunting boar, though he was under geas not to. Diarmuid was gored, and though water could have saved him–and Lough Gill stretches long nearby–Fionn refused. This story is written in the landscape, and I watched as dark clouds, full of Grainne’s tears, rolled in from the Atlantic.

In the night I heard the rumble of thunder, deep in the rocks; I heard high pitched cries, insistent with their repetition; and the whistle, and moan, of wind dancing across the peaks. The repeated cries, only inches from me in the dark, woke me. Quickly my light went on. On the back of the recess clung three red moths, in front of me on the lintel were another two, but the cries continued. I shone my light into the chamber, expecting anything, but only space and shadow greeted me. Off went the light, as I sat, until I felt from deep in the earth an expectancy.

To understand the placing of offerings in storage pits, it is perhaps helpful to think of corn storage itself as, in a sense, a ritual or religious act, whereby the grain was given into the safe-keeping of the chthonic or underground gods. […] The animals which rotted in the ground, their blood and vital juices seeping into the earth, nourished the earth-gods in whose territory the pits were dug. – Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Miranda Green.

I shifted myself then to the antechamber, a liminal space between the narrow birth-canal passage and the expansive inner chamber. As I sat there in the returning dark, my eyes slowly adjusting to the faint glow of night sky barely visible at the end of the passage, a blur of motion soared above my head: another and another, wings quick on the chill air. Bats were leaving the cairn for the hunt, darting around and above me, yet so close I could feel the subtle wind currents set in motion by their wings.

There is a saying that if you sleep on a mound you will either die, go mad, be replaced with a changeling, or become a poet. But in the tale of the King of Ireland’s sons, they went to the dwelling of their ancestors to demand a boon. That night, under a waning crescent moon of Lughnasadh, I sought the Ancients–who were long venerated here–to make a pledge ….. and to seek a blessing.

WARNING: If you visit an Irish megalithic structure, do NOT burn candles near the rock; do NOT climb on the mound (internal collapse can happen–these are 5000 year old temples!); do NOT remove stones (in fact, the tradition is to bring a stone to add to the cairn); do NOT etch your name into the rock; and remove ALL rubbish you find or brought. They are watching you!

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 08/29/13]

Monday night, shortly after midnight, I was pulled from my bed by the strangest sound. I had been reading when I heard it, and at first I thought it was a cow, or maybe the sheep dog down the lane. But when it came again I didn’t recognize it, so I crawled over to the window-seat and leaned out of the upstairs window, hoping to hear more clearly. The valley below was shrouded in a thin mist, which was illumined under a cloudy sky. It was deathly still, with not a whisper of wind. Then the call came again, just behind the house, either on the lane or in the pasture, between the house and the Ring Fort.

sionnachuighim

Turn the Volume UP

There is much rubbish about ‘Celtic animal totems’ on the internet, and while fox does play a role in some Irish folktales, there is scant mention in the mythologies. Yet there are tantalizing glimpses of Sionnach in some Irish historical manuscripts, as well as in the remains of human sacrifice! The 17th century historical chronicle, The Annal of the Four Masters, notes a descendent of one of the southern branches of the Uí Neill gaining the nickname “An Sionnach“, which was then passed down to his son, Bec An Sionnach Odhar and eventually stuck as a surname. There is debate as to how the original man, “The Sinnach Finn, i.e. Tadhg Ua Catharnaigh”, came by the nickname “fox” but it was either his skill at ‘acquiring’ land, his murder of an esteemed poet, or his B.O. (seriously, it could have been because of his strong smell). If the name was associated with skill in land ‘acquisition’, it reinforces the image of fox as wily. If the odor bit was the cause, well what can I say — fox is known for his strong musk (and so are some Irish men)! But, the murder bit is really intriguing. In Ireland, poets were of high social ranking. To kill one put you on the path of outlaw–someone ‘outside’ the bounds of ordered society–as the Fianna were seen to be. And notice, the original ‘Fox’ was referred to as “The Sinnach Finn”. Which leads me to human sacrifice….

The Lindow Man, a bog body found in England outside modern-day Manchester, is a great example of an Iron Age sacrificial victim. He suffered a triple-death (throat cut, strangled, and hit on the head), was placed in a liminal space (bog), and was found naked, except for the strip of fox fir on his left arm. Leslie Jones, in a paper presented at the March 2000 Celtic Conference in California, argues that fox fir was used to identify the victim as a ‘sacrifice’. She offers historical evidence, from other areas of the world that also practiced human sacrifice, demonstrating that the fox arm-band was “part of the rationalization process involved in the performance of scapegoating a human sacrifice”. Fox is seen as an ‘outlaw’ animal, living on the periphery of human society, neither domesticated nor fully wild. It is this ‘outlaw’ function, by breaking societal taboos or living outside them, that warrants the sacrifice–or allows it.

So, just how are Tadhg Ua Catharnaigh and human sacrifice relevant to my hearing Fox cry at midnight, in the deathly quiet of a Lughnasadh night?

sionnachuighim

I play the fox.

 

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 08/22/13]

This was a heartbreaking time. I still mourn for the ringfort, and blackthorn grove. My heart was truly broken. It was not long after this break-up that I suffered a catastrophic health condition.  Be mindful of the relationships you build! 

 

I am leaving my little house, and the lane with the standing stone and ring fort.  I won’t be taking autumnal walks under the hazel thicket, or lounging in the arms of the blackthorn grove during winter’s darkest hours.  Instead, I will stroll under the tall heads of pecan and elm because I am returning to the sauntering arms of a Texas sunbeam.  This week I packed my first suitcase and the physicality of the act brought the reality home.  As I retreated to the cozy stone sitting room, to process my swelling emotion, I heard a loud and terrible crash upstairs.  Rushing up to find what had fallen, I discovered a slat in my built-in bookshelf had been dislodged and an entire row of books sent flying.

Had this bookshelf been any other, I would have chalked it up to poor craftsmanship, or age.  But these wooden slats are tight fitted, and wedged into thick stone walls.  The force required to dislodge the wooden slat, and heave the heavy books out across the floor, would have been significant.  Also, there had been an equally mysterious book incident the day before, as well as an eerie smothering of a perfectly warm peat fire.  Taken together, these signs sent me immediately to my altar, and my ancestor stones.

I have a set of small, self-gathered stones carved with signs that sit near my larger ancestor stone and offering cup.  I use these small stones for divination purposes, and to ask direct questions of my ancestors.  In this instance, I wanted to know if someone was upset with me or trying to get my attention.  It turned out both were true!  Apparently the spirits of the house, and land immediately surrounding it, are upset that The Human is leaving, as they have grown accustomed to interacting consciously again with The Human — as once was more common and prevalent here!

Many years ago I journeyed.  On my deep and cold voyage I met a Lady who showed me many sights.  One of these marvels was Her great belly surging upon the land, washing tree and home and creature out to sea, as she wriggled and writhed in ecstasy.  This vision troubled me, as you might imagine, and in that moment She taught me the lesson of reciprocity and the concept of wholism.  You see, the Lady viewed those living beings as a whole, not as individuals: The Palm, The Macaw, The Human.

As a witch, I walk between my own world, that of The Human, and the world of Other.  I walk this hedge because I choose to see a third path, and to stride alone in a space both uncomfortable and uncharted for the sake of curiosity, creativity, and relationship.  I’ve met many wonderful persons, human and other, on these unfamiliar roads, but I’ve also acquired wounds; exploring dark places is risky.  I’ve often been the one left lamenting the departure of an ally, or a change in circumstance.  Now, I am the one causing the unease.

My relationship building is selective, and not trivial or fanciful.  I believe all living persons, human and other-than-human, are worthy of respect and dignity, but I may not want to hang out with them all. I also do not see myself as the center of anyone else’s world but my own.  The persons who live near me do not exist for my benefit, nor am I the focus of their lives or attention. Not all other-than-human persons even notice me, let alone desire to get to know me, or (as many view it) The Human.

At some point in the distant past The Human formed relationship with this land and built long-standing, meaningful structures upon it.  When I moved here, I wanted to respectfully foster those relationships–and isn’t that the romantic, oft sung part of being a witch?  Yet the harder work is what we do with those relationships once they are forged. How do we treat the persons we are in relationship with, and why have we sought them out?  Did I only foster that connection for prestige, for the introductions he could make at a dinner party?

In this instance, as is the case in many human-human relationships, one partner must make changes that impact the relationship.  There are no easy answers, and nothing we can do to make these transitions easier– except lean into the discomfort, and be thankful.

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 08/15/13]

Last week I was in London.  It was my first real visit to the city (layovers at the airport don’t count), and I was like the proverbial kid in a candy shop.  I wanted to see ALL the things, have ALL the experiences, and, probably somewhere deep in my heart, I wanted London to rub off on me.  So many British cultural icons emerged from London that the city itself has become iconic.  It represents an idea of ‘coolness’, a playground for ‘cutting-edge’ artists and cultural creatives at the fore of social experimentation. Perhaps the reality is vastly different from the image, but that’s what icons are all about–they inspire through their symbolism.  So London, like all cities, is about the human-persons who live there; what they create, what they build, and how, as a collective, they shape Place.

When I travel, and especially when I visit somewhere new, I like to attune myself to my surroundings. I adjust my antenna to the same frequency as my new place, to better connect with and understand the identity and character of both the geographic area and the cultural landscape.  This process can take anywhere from two hours to two years, and have an impact on my body.  You see, sometimes the vibration is like a stream, gently skipping over a shallow bed of pebbles. Sometimes the vibration is like punk music screaming out of a too close speaker.  The difference often being whether I’m in town or country.  London definitely screamed Sex Pistols at me, but I was prepared.  I drank plenty of water, I took frequent breaks the first day, and migraine treatment was administered at the first sign of cranial tightening.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere , human-persons living in cities may struggle to connect with the larger construct, or energy, of the city as a whole, but they can easily connect to Places Within Places.  In my post on the “Top 10 Tips For Cultivating Place In The City” I broke-down how to engage 10 simple practices intended to cultivate immediacy and connection in the midst of urban chaos.  During my five days in London I used many of these tips.  Their use contributed to an authentic experience and sense of connection – I love London!

I began by focusing on ‘home base’.  I knew I was staying in Battersea, so I began with a little research on the history of the area.  I was already vaguely familiar with the history of Londinium, and then modern London, but my strategy of focusing on Places Within Places required I be more specific, so I looked for information about the village of Battersea.  Turns out, Badrices īeg (as it was known in Anglo-Saxon times) was an island settlement in the river delta of the Falconbrook, which connects into the Thames.  This sounded perfect!  An ancient human settlement located at a liminal space, a connecting point; a smaller, more intimate, experience flowing into the larger body.  I also learned it was a working class industrial area, settled from the sixteenth-century by Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in Europe.  This was enough information for me to feel a sense of human connection.  So when I walked out of the tube station the day I arrived, I focused on attuning, and as I walked down the tiny lane to the house I had rented, I searched for clues to the areas modern story, so I could incorporate my sensual experience with my research.

I used this approach repeatedly, and with much success. When I visited Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank I first focused on the areas history as an ‘arts centre’ (theatre and public entertainment were outlawed within the City walls, so artists flocked across the river Thames), and then attuned myself to the modern sense of place.  The same applied to King’s Road in Chelsea; St. Paul’s Cathedral in the ‘City of London’ (which is distinct from the modern megacity); or even Soho in the City of Westminster.  It was helpful that London, like cities everywhere, swallowed neighboring villages and towns as it expanded (now engaging what sociologists call ‘edge city growth’, with satellite towns or bedroom communities feeding into the larger city), because it gave me a named, smaller bite to chew on.  As I ventured into each new ‘borough’, I took time to readjust my antenna — not viewing these landmarks as part of one large city, but as Places Within Places.

There are many aspects of modern city life that I disagree with, and think we could do better, but as edifices they truly are the anthills — or bee hives — of our civilization.  Their buzz and efficiency can be quite alluring.  They also each possess unique systems, reflecting the priorities and cultural perceptions of those human-persons who occupy them.  As an animist, and a witch, the environmental impact of cities is hard to take.  Yet, they are not leaving us.  I believe as we embrace them, and come to work intentionally within our cities — instead of dreaming ways to escape them — we can find the connection to place we seek, and shape our human ‘beehives’  in ways that reflect our pagan perceptions and priorities.

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[originally published A Sense of Place, 07/25/13]

We are approaching the Lughnasadh season, and bulls are on my mind.  We have several large standing stones on our ridge–the thick, curved variety. One of my neighbors recently mentioned a bit of local folklore about these stones. In this townland of east Cork, those large stones are known as ‘bull stones’. Our neighbor said that when she was a girl she thought this was because they tied the bull to them….

On the Dingle Peninsula a great assembly was held on Domhnach Chrom Dubh in the village of Cloghane. In the old days, the turas (pilgrimage) was made at dawn on the top of Mount Brandon–which would have required a night climb or a vigil on the hill (1). The ’rounds’ consisted of praying at the ruined oratory (Sáipéilín Bréanainn) and then encircling it and the pillar-stone and the ‘graves’ nine times while saying the Rosary, and ended by taking a drink from the well.

When these exercises finished, pilgrims went down the eastern slope to the village, where a famous Patron was held. This Patron was begun, tradition says, to commemorate the day on which the pagan chieftain Crom Dubh converted to Christianity. Crom lived at Ballyduff (Baile Dubh), about two miles from Cloghane. A stone carving, formerly kissed as a cure for toothache, in the wall of a local church is said to represent his head. In the OS Name Books for this parish, dated 1841, there is a note indicating that Croum Dhu was the god of the harvest whom pagans worshipped. His conversion legend tells of him slaughtering a bull in order to send the meat as a gift to St. Brendan.

Another story, this one from Galway, recounts how Crom Dubh (‘a false god whose law prevailed until Patrick overcame him’) was a wild speckled bull (tarbh breac) that killed travelers at Mam Ean: it attacked Patrick, but was driven by him into the lake in which it drowned (Loch an Tairbh – the bull’s lake). In Armagh there is the story of a bull that prevented Patrick from building a church, so Patrick cursed him and he went mad, was eventually caught and killed, and buried under a standing stone at Corran. This stone, part of The Bull’s Tracks, was once associated with the bull of Cualgne (from the Cattle Raid of Cooley), which makes sense because originally the bull that defied Patrick (Crom) and the bull of Cualgne were, if not one and the same, at least emanations of the same concept.

On an island north of Skye there was a tradition of sacrificing a bull in August, on a day dedicated to ‘going around some ruinous chapels, taking of omens from a hole in a round stone…, adoring of wells and … pouring of milk upon hills as oblations.’ – and the bull-killing associated with a cure for insanity(2). From Cois Fhairrge, we hear of a beef-animal skinned and roasted to ashes in honour of Crom Dubh (harvest-giver and weather-ruler), with the hide carefully preserved. For as we know from many Irish sources, sleeping in a bull-hide was a rite of divination.

I have read that a connection existed between the wild bull as guardian and dream giver, and an essential trial undergone by seekers.  Bull sacrifice was also made to The Great Mother, whose temple in Rome is located under the Vatican.

There are several large stones identified as, or with, Crom Dubh (Crom Cruach, Cromm Crúaich, Cenn Cruach, Cenncroithi), i.e. the decorated stone from the Cavan stone circle, and the large stone at the Grange circle in Limerick.

In a previous issue of the NRA archaeology magazine, they say this about standing stones:

Standing stones are thought to have functioned as burial-markers, commemorative monuments, boundmarkers and route indicators. … Previous excavations of standing stones in Ireland demonstrate a general association with prehistoric burial grounds and they are often interpreted as territorial markers. It has also been occasionally suggested that some are aligned on important landscape features such as local mountains. It has also been suggested that standing stones were intended to resemble the human form. The Ask stones may fall into one of two categories: ‘guardian’ stones to the site both warning of the entry into a sacred or supernatural space and protecting the outside world from the energies within, or ‘companion’ stones to the dead, marking the limits and extent of a sacred or significant place, such as a cemetery.”

Chrom, whose Holy Days are fast approaching, was associated here in Ireland with thunderstorms.  It was said to be propitious if it lashed rain, with thunder and lightning, on his day. The development of thunderstorms requires warm air, which in turn would have meant good growing weather.  But what was the significance to a pre-agrarian population who worshiped the Wild Bull? I don’t know.  But I can tell you this….

We have had a true summer this year in Cork, and last night….. lightning flashed across the sky and thunder rolled. Long live Chrom!

1. Manuscript of the Irish Folklore Commission 888, 390.

2. Mitchell, A., On various superstitions in the north-west highlands and islands of Scotland especially in relation to lunacy.

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