Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book Review - Travels Through Middle Earth: the Path of a Saxon Pagan, by Alaric Albertsson

Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan is a lovely introduction to Saxon Neo-Paganism. Many different aspects of the path are covered, from the Deities and the Spirits all the way to making your own mead! I did read the other recommended books for an Anglo-Saxon hearth culture (Brian Branston's Lost Gods of England and The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates) but was left unfulfilled - Branston's work was very academic and interesting, but lacked spiritual recommendations; and Bates's book was a bit too loose with history for my tastes. Then I read Travels Through Middle Earth, and it was exactly the kind of book on Anglo-Saxon Paganism that I had been looking for; a good mix of scholarship and the personal experience of a man who has been walking this path for many years.

Travels Through Middle Earth is an introduction to Anglo-Saxon Paganism, and because of that it contains a lot of the usual 101 information - basic overviews of deities and holidays, many of which you can find in other Pagan introduction books. But where this book stands out is Alaric's careful attention to the mindset and world-view of the Anglo-Saxons. I particularly resonated with his point about language and culture; they are inextricably intertwined in the common phrases we use every day, without thinking. And of course, a people's religion is intimately bound up with their culture. This makes the English-speaking world particularly suited to the worldview of the Anglo-Saxons (though of course not limited to it - I myself also honor a Celtic hearth culture, and I wasn't raised speaking a Gaelic language).

Alaric also, while introducing the usual 101 holidays of the Wheel of the Year, goes deeper into their older meanings; and even talks about some interesting holidays that are much less well known in the general Pagan community, such as Mother's Night, a celebration of female ancestral spirits. He also gives many good ideas for celebrating these occasions, while staying true to the history and allowing for the fact that most of these customs are much more recent than our Pagan ancestors, but still applicable.

I have used some of the ideas in this book already in my own practice, setting up a wéofod (shrine) for Thunor and Frige. I appreciate Alaric's emphasis on consistent practice, and the book has inspired me to be more regular in my interactions with the Deities and Spirits. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in Anglo-Saxon, or any sort of Germanic Paganism; I feel Travels Through Middle Earth is a fantastic resource to those who may just be starting out, and also contains some wonderful gems for those who have been walking the path for awhile now.

Q is for Quarters

The Eight-Fold Year!  Though I'm on a Druidic path now, I come from a Wiccish background, and have been celebrating these eight holidays for more than ten years now.  And still, I cannot for the life of me remember which are the cross-quarters and which are the quarters!  So today I'll write about all of them, or the idea of the Wheel in general.

Isaac Bonewitz, the founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin, my Druidic home, wasn't crazy about Wiccan techniques in his system of Druidry.  Not that he had anything in particular against Wiccans, but he set out to create something different.  There are no circles cast in ADF rituals, no calling of the four elements, no duo-theistic divisions of God and Goddess.  But the one thing he did keep was the holidays of the Wheel of the Year.

For starters, it helps that the holidays the Wheel is based on, mostly ancient Celtic and Germanic practices, are a part of the Indo-European cultures Isaac was building his religion on; so it wasn't unreasonable to keep them as main holidays.  But there are many other Indo-European celebrations that could have made the cut for High Days as well.  Though Isaac and the early members of ADF were adamant about a more accurate ritual structure, they also wanted ADF to become a public religion, a face of Paganism to the general public - and this meant a certain amount of unity with other Pagan practice.  And so, the eight holidays of the Wheel of the Year became the sanctioned High Days of ADF, on which every Grove must hold a public ritual.

Of course, there are many individual ADF members who choose not to mark some or all of the eight days for their own reasons; and since personal practice is just that - personal - nobody minds.  But I still follow this calendar, and I am happy that the original ADF members chose to adopt it.  Though there are very few ADF members in my state, I can still go to other rituals for these High Days and have fellowship with a larger Pagan community, and also find some personal meaning in the rituals as well.  Though my practices are largely different from the majority of Pagans I've met near me, I can still share this commonality with a larger group, and that is something that strengthens and deepens Our Own Druidry.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Q is for Quartz (and Thor)

Q is for Quartz - and since discussing it and all of its properties is a bit much to bite off, I'd like to talk about its relation to Thunder and the Germanic deities associated with it.

Recently I was reading Alaric Albertsson's Travels Through Middle Earth, which details a possible Anglo-Saxon Pagan path.  He mentions that quartz crystals,  in the England of the Anglo-Saxons, were called Thunderstones and were considered sacred to the god Thunor (who is roughly equivalent to the Norse god Thor), because they were placed in the ground by Him when lightning struck.

I've been honoring Thunor for a while, trying to build a friendlier relationship with Him and a few other Anglo-Saxon deities.  He was very much a deity of the people, honored by many commoners and farmers, and has a reputation for being approachable.  This has been my experience as well.  But it was difficult for me to connect His status as a thunder god with one of His other roles, that of protection.  Reading about His connection with quartz crystals really solidified it for me.  I've carried a small quartz marble in my pocket for a few years now, because of its ability to absorb negativity and output a positive energy; this is almost the definition of 'protection' for me.  Taking away the bad, bringing in some good - that is the role of a protector.  Since I had never found a good image of Thunor (or Thor) that I really liked, I now use a quartz sphere to represent Him on my altar, and both He and I appreciate the connection.

I'll be writing my review of the book I mentioned, Travels Through Middle Earth, soon; but for now I'd like to mention that it's a great read for anyone interested in a Germanic path.  It's pretty 101, so easy to understand, but there's little tidbits like this one about quartz hidden within it that make it a valuable read for just about anyone!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

High Holy Day Essay: Lughnasadh

I began my year of High Day celebrations on Lughnasadh, celebrating with a group called Pagans of Nebraska.  The ritual was typically Wiccan, beginning with a sage smudge to purify those entering the circle.  Once everyone had entered and formed the circle, four people standing at the quarters called the four elements: Air, Fire, Water and Earth.  Then a man and a woman standing in the center of the circle called on the God and Goddess respectively, and thanked Them for the gifts of the harvest.  After the leaders had finished, they went around the circle distributing water and cinnamon bread to the participants.  Then the God and Goddess were thanked again and bid farewell, and the elements were similarly thanked.  The circle was closed and the participants free to socialize.
This was my first foray into public ritual, and honestly I didn't much enjoy it.  There seemed to be very little energy; possibly due to the poor reading of many of the invocations, or the seemingly disinterested and cellphone-glancing participants.  The ritual leader at one point had to stop and turn off his cell when it rang in the midst of the ritual.  The setting also left much to be desired; a little green patch of grass between two parking lots, a rather busy road, and a brick building.  All in all, I was rather disappointed in the experience.

Friday, August 9, 2013

P is for Parenting

Because as a Pagan parent, it's impossible for me to write up anything else for the letter P :p

I've been doing a lot more thinking about Pagan parenting lately as my oldest daughter prepares to go to kindergarten in less than a week.  Like most any parent, I worry about my kids, and my oldest is especially sensitive.  And we as a family are pretty strange in the middle of white bread, midwest America.  She has dark skin at a school with less than 10% minority population.  She doesn't eat pork in honor of my husband's Muslim roots.  She has different holidays, as we're celebrating Eid tomorrow and this last weekend attended a Lughnasadh circle.  She does have church and Sunday school, but it's at the local Unitarian church, and she doesn't know much about Jesus besides his name and a lunch-time prayer my mother taught her.  She's incredibly precocious and is already doing division and reading chapter books at home.  We don't have much money but are lucky enough to live for a cheap price in a nice neighborhood, which means she'll be going to school with a lot of kids with a lot of money.  She's about as different as you get around here!  And I fear, terribly, that it will leave her the odd girl out.

How does one reconcile their Pagan faith, and a desire to pass that down, with the stronger desire to raise a happy and well-adjusted child?  My strategy has been to teach her to be as strong and self-reliant and proud as she can be; to take great joy in her traditions and differences.  I've been reading The Pagan Family by Ceisiwr Serith recently, and it's convinced me that the two greatest weapons we have in the fight for our children's happiness are Family Traditions and Pagan Community.  Children need a sense of stability that is easily imparted by established religions with dogma and traditions and community laid out and easily accessible; but for Pagan parents it's much more difficult.  We have to make our own traditions, and stick to them.  We have to make our own community, and hold it together to the best of our abilities.

Family traditions are super fun, and great, but you have to commit to them.  You must perform them each year (or each month, or whatever set length of time) for them to truly become a tradition.  It is this stability that will help anchor a child when others bring up more mainstream traditions.  Sure, their friends go to church every Christmas Eve and then go home and read the nativity story before the family dinner the next day; but our daughter helps me light the candles the night of the winter solstice, then we turn off the lights and sip hot cocoa while watching the cold outside world and waiting for the new dawn.  Then the next morning we all go out to greet the sun and come back in to open presents and have a special solstice feast.  If my daughter has something similar to talk about when other kids are talking about Christmas, there's much less chance of her feeling left out or weird.

The other really essential thing is Pagan Community.  This is great if you have a local community, especially one with other kids, as I have been really blessed with the past year or so.  Teach your child a useful skill he or she can bring to gatherings.  My daughter practices drumming with me, and when we go to circles she brings her own drum and helps us raise energy.  She's learned some of the chants we use in circles and helps to sing along.  BUT this is something you can accomplish even if the "community" is only the two of you.  My husband is an atheist and isn't really comfortable taking part in rituals, so for a few years my daughter and I were all each other had spiritually - and it was okay.  The important thing is to talk about it, openly with your children, and not make Paganism seem like a touchy or strange subject.  Take them for nature walks, have them help with recycling, make them aware of the world and get them involved in your Paganism.  I think this is the best defense against proselytization and bullying for Pagan children.

After one year of preschool, my daughter is still proud and confident of her differences - but that was three days a week, two hours a day.  I'm not sure how things will pan out in a full-day kindergarten, where her dietary differences will be much more obvious, and we'll be pulling her out of school for a few holidays.  Like everything else in parenting, I try my best and wait and see how it turns out!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review : A History of Pagan Europe, by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick

A History of Pagan Europe is an all too brief but tantalizing overview of the evolution of Pagan religions in Europe, from Greek and Roman to Celtic and Slavic cultures.  Each culture is covered from its earliest archaeological and recorded history, until the arrival of Christianity and the conversion of the people.  In covering this incredibly diverse group of peoples, it is impossible to go into much detail, but the overview gives a fascinating picture of the many differences and also many similarities between the disparate cultures of historical Europe.
             This book is particularly significant because of the invaluable information that can be gained by looking at these cultures in parallel.  By virtue of being adjacent and closely related to one another, each culture has influenced and affected others around it, and before and after it in history; and seeing these cultures all in one place helps to compare and contrast them in a way that is more informative then studying the cultures in isolation.  As a Pan-Indo-European organization, this book is particularly well suited to ADF and its members; we can all gain valuable insight into the practice of our ancestors and also of our fellow ADF members.
            This is the book that helped me to choose my hearth cultures.  In learning about the Paganism of the British Isles, and the many different traditions and cultures that have dwelt there over the years, I was drawn in and truly inspired.  My maternal grandfather is of English stock, and my father's family has maintained strong cultural ties to Ireland; and I found it fascinating to read of the history of these peoples.  I haven't really studied history before, and so A History of Pagan Europe, especially the chapter on the British Isles, opened up my mind and made clear so many things that I'd only vaguely understood about my distant ancestors before.  This book inspired a few conversations with my grandfather about his ancestors living in England and coming over to America; which helped me form a closer connection with my ancestors then I had had before.  I'm now looking more deeply into both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon histories and cultures, and making offerings to some of their deities, just as my ancestors would have done.
            I really enjoyed this book, and would absolutely recommend it to those who were new to ADF or uninformed about history, like I was before reading it.  It did seem to be rather simplistic, as it certainly had to be in covering such a broad subject, so I might not recommend it to someone who already had a good amount of knowledge on the subject.  I also did notice some biases when reading the text, particularly an anti-Christian bias.  Perhaps this is a reaction to the anti-Pagan bias of much of the source material, but nonetheless it was bothersome for an academic text.  Also, I found that one of the stated purposes of the book - to show that Pagan culture and religion survived to this day in some form - didn't really pan out as the authors seemed to have intended.  I enjoyed the overview of history, but I didn't feel that nearly enough evidence was presented to support that conclusion. 

            Overall, I loved the book and found it very helpful to me, both in my general knowledge of history and in inspiring my personal hearth culture search.  I think it's a great addition to the Dedicant Path reading list, and would encourage most of my fellow Dedicants to take the time to read it.