Paganism’s Messiah Complex

[originally published A Sense of Place, 01/02/14]

Or, the Anthropocentrism of Western Paganism

Occasionally, within pagan circles, I happen across a troubling component of the western centric world view, and one that I find particularly antithetical to pagan values: anthropocentrism.  The belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways.  Most of us would balk at the outright notion that our species is superior, yet I often hear how humans have a divine role as mediators between worlds, or even how we are tasked with saving our planet.  I don’t disagree that we do have a responsibility to live rightly and within our means; or that our species seems determined to remove itself (to our detriment) from the circle of life; or even that it is possible for us to shift our consciousness in such a way as to glimpse into other worlds.  What I heartily disagree with, however, is the subtle notion that our species is the only one listening.

Crom Stone

This past Lughnasadh, I stayed the night in one of the Carrowkeel megalithic mounds in south county Sligo.  As I settled into the southwest recess where the Crom stone is placed, I noticed three red moths.  They were resting on the Crom stone, near to one another, with wings spread.  I went to great lengths not to disturb them, as they were there first.  As I pondered the Red Moths, I wondered why they might be visiting the monument.  They were in a dry, protected place, but so was I.   These incidental details told me nothing about their motivation for being inside the mound, anymore than my presence could be accounted for by these details.

Since all things are made of the same star stuff, I perceive all as possessing consciousness in some form. That form may be radically different from the way I perceive my own consciousness, but conceptualizing it in this way enables a starting place for relationship, and my animism is about relationality within a community of persons, both human and other-than-human.  What IF the Red Moths were there mediating between the world of the ancestors and the world of the living?   What IF the Red Moths were there praying to their own god, to intervene in the changing climate? What IF the climate doesn’t concern the Red Moths, and they were there to sing, or have a party?

Red Moths

Anthropocentrism creeps in when we, as pagans, view the presence of the Red Moths as somehow specifically and exclusively connected to us, as humans.  If I had seen the Red Moths as a ‘sign’ to me from Crom, I would have removed their agency and transformed them into a lesser species, whose sole purpose for being there was to send me a message.  What a load of colonizing BS that is!

I realize that saying paganism has a Messiah Complex is applying really strong language; after all, the state of mind characterized by the belief that one is exceptionally unique, with a predestined mission, is delusional, and can even be schizophrenic. But might the actions of The Human (our species as a whole) be seen as delusional, and more than a little pathological, by other species looking in at us?  After all, our record for ruining habitat, the very ecosystem we depend upon for survival, is less than sustainable.

Even though my argument is over simplified, and reductionist if taken too simplistically, it is a line of thought we ought to grapple with.  I hear too often in our conversations the same mindset we chafe against in dominant culture: one that perceives itself as superior to, and privileged over, another.  So the next time you encounter one of your neighbors, be that sister Bird, brother Wind, or cousin Tree, take a moment to consider what their world view is, and how they view you, as the strange alien moving within their sphere of life.

[originally published A Sense of Place, 12/05/13]

This article is a reprisal of one of my first on Patheos.  It’s my “Top 10 Tips” for cultivating a sense of Place in an urban environment; a feat that did not come easy for me.  I was reared on a family farm with hundreds of acres as my garden.  I roamed barefoot from sun-up till sun-down, engaging in more risk-taking behavior than my parents would ever want to know about!  Snake spoke to me, coyote sang his eerie song, and bobcat warned me about what happens when you meet Other, out past your bedtime.

I am a country girl, and my spiritual awakening happened in a rural environment.  My journey toward an animistic world view began as a child; a child in nature doesn’t need to be told the world is alive, she hears that living world all around her.  I also discovered witchcraft (I define this term for myself here), and reclaimed the line of my ancient Mothers, while still living in the countryside.  My interaction with the living world nourished me, and when that landscape changed (with my move to the city as an adult), it was a jolt to my system.  It took me years to adjust!  Thankfully, witch-craft taught me the tools of Connection and Presence–but you don’t have to be a witch to use them!


The ability to connect and be present in the midst of chaos is important.  I first cultivated this skill while living in my cup-runneth-over-house with four Little Bigs.  I sharpened and honed this tool living within the constant pulse of the city.  Connecting with Place–the ground beneath my feet–in the city required more than foundational grounding and centering. It required research, digging, and the courage to change my thinking and my lifestyle.

All those years ago, when I struggled to hear this land’s voice — this bit of earth under the layers of asphalt and concrete; the cacophony of road noise woven with live music; the fabric of cowboy boots and hipster plaid — I longed to feel the heart connection I’d felt in the countryside. After engaging in the following practices, I found the love and appreciation I sought: a connection with this sauntering, swaggering city called Austin.

Discover the pre-history of your Place.   Which other-than-human persons once lived on the ground beneath your feet, and now rest within its substrata?  Many of us learned this information in school, but for those who have migrated it’s important to acquaint yourself with the beginnings of the land you now call home.  Visualize those waves of ancient migration, the shift of flora and fauna, and expand your awareness out a few paces to notice the patterns and story that emerge from that knowing.  Let the land tell you its stories: Listen.

You don’t need to be an expert, but learn a thing or two about the primordial shaping of your Place.   What forces created the significant landmasses? What type of rocks lie under or within your topsoil (do you have topsoil)? Often it’s difficult to imagine soil under the asphalt and concrete, but it’s there.  Heck, even the asphalt and concrete are organic material (as in, organic chemicals).  I like to imagine the roads and sidewalks as band-aids (plasters) covering the skin of the Earth.  I then stand on sidewalk and grass, in turns, while holding this image.  Try it!

Many pagans base their ritual year around a seasonal procession not in sync with their local weather patterns or agricultural year.  Do you utilize seasonal change within your system of praxis?  Why not craft a localized ritual year?

Central Texas does not follow an 8-fold wheel of the year.  The first time I broke with the revered British tradition was nerve-wracking.  ’Everyone else’ was doing it the ‘traditional’ way.  I was afraid that being an outlier within such a fringe subgroup as ‘paganism’ would push me into Lonely Land.  It didn’t, though my personal practice no longer matches that of the wider community.   But hey, I’m a witch and well used to being different!

Do some research on the human history of your city.  When did the indigenous population arrive, and who were the immigrants (or colonizers)? There are often amazing, heroic, tragic, and humorous stories associated with the settlement of our cities.  Dig them up!  Your local University is a great resource.  Check-out their history department, and ask whether they hold public lectures or symposiums.  Also, visit your local library.  I bet they can direct you to a local historian more than happy to share their knowledge!

This is a fun step, and another realm of myth-making.  Who were the archetypal Mothers, Warriors, Wise Women & Men, or Tricksters?   I  loved discovering the stories of Austin.  Texas was already rich in mythic imagery, so I was delighted to learn of the Austin buffalo hunt, Mrs. Eberly and her cannon (pictured above), and the house of ‘ill repute’  in my neighborhood.

Don’t shy away from People
Cities are the anthills of humanity, areas of  condensed human creativity and enterprise.  Some of us are introverts and need to carefully craft our excursions, but don’t let that deter you from connecting with other humans.  Get out and meet your fellow ‘ants’! This makes us feel grounded in our physical place, as opposed to a fantasy land of our imagining.  It’s tempting to be an internet pagan, or witch, but don’t stop there!  There is so much more out there.  Don’t read – DO!

Get out of the box
Get out of your house, your car, your office, your coffee shop.  Get your body out of the center of the anthill and up on the surface where the sun shines and the wind tousles your hair. This is vital for a Witch.

The most important step for me in building a sense of Place within an urban environment, and a major turning point in my relationship with the city, was selling my car and buying a commuter bicycle.  My first commute to work was an epiphany!  Each garden I passed was a unique scent experience.  I became intimately acquainted with the environment by stepping outside my box, and removing the barrier.

Visit Landmarks
While you are out experiencing the plants, weather, and other-than-human-person creations in the city, visit the sites that commemorate the history and myth of the area.  These stand as temples and altars of our urban landscapes.  You might be surprised what shrines speak to you, and what places whisper your name.

Eat Local
Put into your body the produce of your bioregion.  We are what we eat– literally.

You are part of the anthill that is your city.  Find your work; your part to play; your art; your unique offering, and Do It!  Contribute your time and energy to the activity and organization of the human city.  By getting involved, you become invested: you feel connected to others who are part of Place.

Embrace Your Humanness
Finally, relish in your humanness.  We can be pretty amazing animals.  While the countryside is the anthill  of…well, ants, the cities are our places. These wondrous works deserve our active participation.  We can make them better than we ever dreamed, but only if we engage and connect: with ourselves, the humans around us, and our other-than-human neighbors.  It’s about relationship, being present, and building sacred connection.

Go forth–be fully present in your location, and Cultivate Place!

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/28/13]

There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared by word of mouth.  Most of us were illiterate.  That word has such a nasty taste in the mouth now, doesn’t it?  It conjures all sorts of images, from gross ignorance to the cruel acts committed by those same ignorant individuals.  I don’t like those conjurings, so I’m going to make-up my own reference phrase (which may have been thought of already by scholars who also ponder such things).   Let’s begin again…

There was a time, not so long ago, when information was shared orally, when we were all Other minded, and animatedly literate.  We saw the world in pictures: a tapestry of sound, vision, taste, texture, all woven into a unified, and sacred, whole.  During this time, my vocal sounds blended and joined the vocal sounds of the Other animals that lived around me, along with the verbal sounds of the environmental Other: the wind, the trees, the water.

All auditory stimulation combined to communicate something to those who listened.

My ancient ancestress would have been acutely aware of the water listening to her.  The rain that fell outside the house heard her mumblings and hummings and murmurs and sighs.  The water paid attention, and knew.  The trees also.  They looked in at her, through the door opening, and heard her speak words out-loud to herself, or to her children.  They listened, and knew.  Oh, how careful was she in what she said.  How deliberate was her choice of word and phrase.  All of the animate, living World heard her.  What would they think?  What might they do?

During this time of animate literacy, information was shared from human to human by way of Story.  These beautiful mnemonic techniques, used to pass important knowledge, allowed for abundant creativity and ingenuity.  Shared around a toasty fire, over a hearty meal, they were comforting entertainment and essential reminders.  Most of the world’s indigenous population told these sacred stories—which very often involved warnings and wisdom about the natural world—during the winter.  It may seem they were told during winter for purely pragmatic purpose.  What else was there to do?  It was dark and cold and we were all indoors, under a skin flap or in a wood hut.

Ah…but why else might winter have been the time to share stories about the living world?

That world was asleep!  The tree who peeks her knowing eyes into my hut during summer, sleeps deep within her trunk in winter.  She does not hear the warnings shared about her nuts and leaves, thus the humans do not offend her.  She rests, and we respect her by not gossiping within ear shot!  Yes… I like that notion.

So, we communicate in order to share valuable information, to pass on customs, express affection, request help, process emotional pain, and pass the time.   All those are important reasons to communicate but it seems what I want to say has nothing to do with that; rather, I seem concerned with the power of our communication.  Namely, why it is vitally important to use words respectfully.  As a witch, I work with the natural world as both part and parcel.  I am the natural world.  I am one with it, and I am a component of it.  Just as I hear the Grackle whistle, perched high in our native Pecan, she likewise, hears me.  Just as I hear the south wind sing through the corridors of living buildings in downtown Austin, he likewise, hears me.

Mutual respect and strong relationship are important to my work and life as a witch, and as a human. 

I need a harmonious relationship with the elements, and all other-than-human-persons.  What in the world would the north wind think if she heard me bad-mouthing her?  My word!  She wouldn’t be any more desirous of working with me than I would if I heard a friend gossiping behind my back!  And let’s not forget the rain!  He eventually winds his way back to the ocean, and I certainly would not wish to offend Her!  A wise witch minds her words and communicates to ALL beings with respect and courtesy, never speaking more than is needed, and remembering the wisdom of the ancestors: some secrets are best woven into Story and those Stories are best shared when the world sleeps.   ssssshhhhh

[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/21/13]

Decomposition : creative commons

In Ireland,  the chthonic energy of decay is experienced as Crom Dubh, the dark, bent one who takes the grain under the ground.  He was a sacrificial god heavily associated with Lughnasadh.  In fact, while many Irish people may never have heard of the ‘festival of Lughnasadh’ (apart from the movie), they have certainly heard of Crom Dubh’s Day: Dé Domhnaigh Crum-Dubh.  This is a day of pilgrimage to the high places: a custom maintained with the yearly climb of Croagh Patrick.  More anciently, Crom was associated with sacrifice: King Tignermas offered human sacrifice, and there is a long history within antiquity of scapegoat sacrifice to underworld powers.  In more modern folk practice, Crom was the ‘old bent one’ who lived in the rings and forts, waiting to receive the Lughnasadh offering of the strangled black cock.

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 underworld gods. […] The animals [or humans] 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.

It’s about exchange, right order, and living in balance, so as not to draw undo attention.  The powers were never seen as playthings to be called for fun; rather, great lengths (taboos, social customs, etc) were gone to so the world of human-persons and the world of Other did not meet.

The Power, or force, of decay is also seen in urban environments.  When a building, a living structure, is no longer occupied, it is reclaimed by the force of decay.  When vines or other plants begin to grow up a structure, the force of decay rides with them.  The order we create is in constant peril, under siege from the Powers of decomposition.

Austin experienced severe flooding at Halloween this year.  People I know had water seeping into their homes.  It was a dire situation, because the Other world was coming into direct contact with the human world.  Fast action and decisive measures were taken to remove the water, and  prevent the Power of decay from getting a foot-hold: industrial fans were rented, high-powered vacuums used,  sheetrock stripped, carpets ripped up.

I spent the past weekend removing, ending the life of, tree-persons who had grown too close to the house.  Their bark touching the exterior walls—the Other world touching the human world—opening a portal for the Power of decay.  This weekend I will rake and pile fallen leaves, for this same reason.  It’s why we paint or protect wood, embalm our dead, or get plastic surgery:  we wish to slow the Power of decay.

Yet we must remember the balance.  Decay and Death are necessary parts of the whole.  We do seek to dance with them, in a fashion.  One taking the lead for a song, or two, until it is time for the Other to lead.  Sensing this natural order, the rhythm of the dance of life and death, is what a witch does.  It is what any spiritually minded person living in a society connected to the natural world does.  And when we cease to hear the rhythm, or even remember there is one.….well, that’s when we invent things like cosmetic surgery.

As I pile my leaves this weekend, adding them to the bones of the trees I cut down last week, they will be transformed into a scapegoat offering.  In my compost pile, they are offered to the Powers of decay.  An act intended to nourish the Powers of decomposition in my soil, and as a religious act of thanksgiving to the Power of Death that brings Life.

Urban Witchcraft : Spirit Roads

[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.

[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

Oiche na Sprideanna Approaches

[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.

[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!


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?


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?

[originally published A Sense of Place, 09/26/13]

Each time I return from abroad, I am struck by just how different things are here in ‘Murica.  Spaces are large, cars move fast, and people are pointy.  Life in the U.S. is like an oil painting, with layered color, defined texture, and not-so-subtle edges.  Contrast this with the watercolor world that is Ireland, where I have lived for the past three years, and suddenly the two cultures, though shaped and influenced by shared or similar values and forces, appear at polar ends of a cultural spectrum.  On one end you have collectivist culture that values the group over the individual, and on the other end you have individualist culture that emphasizes personal achievement above group goals.

This spectrum is also found when considering what Place means, to both individuals and to academics.  Within some academic disciplines, a sense of place refers to the group experience, or to those symbols that help shape cultural meaning.  To others, it refers to a very personal experience of a specific landscape, or setting.  Even within these categories, or ways of understanding and relating to place, there are different ways to connect: biographical (birth place), spiritual (intangible sense of belonging), ideological (moral/ethical), narrative (mythical), commodified (self-selected based on lifestyle preference), and dependent (constrained due to lack of choice or ability).

As a human-person, I may experience my place in any number of values or combinations along these two different spectra, both in terms of my personal preference and of my cultural understanding.  My sense of place, of ‘home’ versus ‘elsewhere’, or ‘us’ and ‘them’, arises through my mobility, or potential of mobility–it is activated by my movement through my landscape.  Our scale of mobility, in a postmodern world, has changed dramatically.  Just 50 years ago, the notion that I could wake-up in Cork and go to sleep in Boston was alien and out of reach for most people.

At one time, human settlement was shaped by the landscape.  Now, we shape the landscape to fit our human settlements.  That shaping is determined, in large part, by our cultural connection, or relationship, with place.  I believe the modern world is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.  Our technology has so removed us from a sensual experience of our environment–an experience that is vital for health and wellbeing–that we have forgotten, or lost touch with, an embodied sense of place.  Our rediscovery of place, as a centre of felt value reflective of the aspirations of a people, is paramount, for environmental, social, and personal reasons.

I am still learning a lot about what place means to me, and what is personally important to my own sense of place.  One thing Ireland taught me is the importance of relationship, and connection, with other human-persons.  I always thought myself a bit of a hermit, and I am to some extent.  I’m very happy to sit at home for days on end, with no outside contact.  Yet, I need substantive relationships, with other human-persons, that are within reach when I need them.  The human part was a key, and new, insight.

My unique upbringing (a sense of having been reared by nature, not parents) led me to believe humans were not my favorites.  I still prefer sitting in the arms of my Blackthorn friend than around a table with many humans, but my experience in Ireland reminded me of our social natures.  We need each other.  We are relational beings, and there is no getting away from that.

The pull of relationship is what brought me to Boston, where I am staying for the next several weeks supporting a friend with her first baby.  While I am here, I have the opportunity to test culture and place.  Massachusetts may be part of the U.S., but it has a distinct cultural expression; and though this neighborhood is part of Boston, it offers a unique experience of place.

To connect with these spaces, I am using the same techniques I employ when connecting with any city (of which I have spoken on this blog), though I have added relationship building with the house itself, because my friend is quite literally building her ‘home’.   So far, my experience of Boston is of a fast moving river in a narrow bank.  It’s a little daunting!  My experience of this neighborhood, in particular, is of a hedge–a dividing line between places.  I look forward to seeing what the coming weeks hold, and how my experience and perception of America changes.

[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!