Friday, February 28, 2014

E is for Eostre the Goddess

Ostara by Johannes Gehrts
Eostre, the fiery dawn,
the waxing sun,
the warmth of spring:
Open the gates and bring to me
the growth of joy,
the light of life,
the glow of beauty.

Though it's a bit early in the year to be talking about Her (even earlier than most Pagans might think, but that's a topic for the next 'E' post) the letter is 'E' and it is coming up on spring - so Eostre it is!

Eostre is a rather elusive deity.  In the lore, She is attested to only by the Venerable Bede in De Temporum Ratione, where he talks about the Anglo-Saxon month of Ēostermōnaþ; claiming it is named for the Goddess Eostre who was honored that month.  Normally, if all the evidence we had for a deity was one post-conversion scholar, I would probably dismiss it.  But the curious thing about Eostre is, though Her existence is not attested to by other authors or place-names, She is rather easy to trace through the etomology of Her name.

According to Ceisiwr Serith, an expert on Proto-Indo-European religious reconstruction based on linguistics, there was probably a PIE Goddess whose name was similar to Xáusōs - in fact, She's one of the only PIE Goddesses we can pin down.  Her name, and probably Her functions, are the etomological source of many Indo-European Goddesses, such as Eos, Aurora, Saule, and our Goddess, Eostre.  This indicates that She is a Goddess related to the dawn - to the liminal time between light and dark - but it does not tell us anything specific about an association with the spring.  No other Indo-European dawn Goddesses that I could find have specific spring associations.  However, Bede tells us that the entire month (near our modern-day April) was named after Her.  Her association with the season was apparently so strong in Anglo-Saxon England that Her name supplanted the more traditional, and Christian, European name for Easter (variations of Paschal).

It is my opinion that the Anglo-Saxons who dedicated the month of Ēostermōnaþ to their dawn Goddess did so because of the symbolic connections between dawn and spring - dawn is the beginning of a new day, of light and warmth, just as spring is the beginning of a new year, of that same light and warmth.  I'll discuss this more next week as well; but until 1751, the new year of the British calendar began on March 25th, the traditional date of the vernal equinox - making an obvious 'beginning' connection.

In this way, I think of and honor Eostre in Her dual roles: that of Goddess of the Dawn, and also Goddess of Spring.  Her associations with eggs, flowers, and rabbits have been touted for years, but I feel it's also important to recognize Her fiery sun aspect, and also Her association with in-betweenness and liminality.  Straddling the gap between day and night, summer and winter, She is the Goddess who is ultimately responsible for the changing of unfortunate circumstances into blessings.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Crafting the Runes: Eoh

From the Runic Tarot
by Caroline Smith and John Astrop

The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.

In the old Anglo-Saxon languages, Eoh translates to 'yew' - making it the first rune I've studied to be directly named after a tree.  There are a few others in the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, indicating that trees are an important part of the way the tribes we now call the Anglo-Saxons viewed the world around them.  There are many Pagans who associate this rune with death and transformation; because yew trees are often found in graveyards in the British Isles.  In my research, I've found no evidence that this is a pre-Christian tradition; which doesn't mean I will automatically discount it - but the rune poem quoted above seems to paint quite a different picture of the Anglo-Saxon idea of the yew tree.  In fact, the yew tree is portrayed differently in each of the rune poems; in the Icelandic it is described as "bent bow, and brittle iron, and giant of the arrow", a clear reference to the making of bows out of the wood of the tree, not mentioned at all in the AS poem.  In the Norwegian we come a bit closer to the AS: "yew is the greenest of trees in winter; it is wont to crackle when it burns" - as this also references yew's use as a firewood.   

Considering only the AS rune poem, the yew is described as outwardly rather unremarkable, or even unpleasant.  Its bark is rough, not pleasant to feel.  Yet, the poem goes on to tell us that despite its gruff exterior, the yew tree is honored by virtue of its deep, lasting roots.  Yew trees are one of the longest-lived plants in Europe; some are possibly as old as 2,000 years (if we could reliably talk to trees, Pagan reconstruction would be so much easier)!  It is also described as being a useful firewood, which is possibly the reason that it is so desired to have a yew on one's property - though it could also be because of its long-lived, deep-rooted nature.

In divination, I think I see this rune two ways.  The first is a bit like Ben Weatherstaff from The Secret Garden - a gruff man, as old as the earth and deeply connected to the spirit of the place where he lives.  Though he is a bit rough on the outside, his connection to the land and its plants and animals ensures that he cares deeply about all who are equally deep-rooted there.  The second way is a bit like JRR Tolkien's Strider poem: "all that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost".  That is, appearances can be deceiving.  Tolkien's poem, by the way, goes on to include the line "deep roots are not reached by the frost".  The yew is ancient, and here to stay.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: The Clann Bhride Book of Hours

Logo for Clann Bhride
It's no big secret that my home-away-from-home on the internet is the eCauldron forums - there's always interesting discussion and good people to talk to.  I'm also a member of the Cauldron's Cill, a group of people devoted to flametending for the Goddess Brighid.  Some members there have been working on beginning a Brighid-specific religious group separate from the forums for awhile, and recently they launched - the group is called Clann Bhride.  It's not what I'm looking for in a religious group, but I very much respect the people behind it and their tremendous efforts; so when they released a book of prayers, rituals, and essays surrounding Brighid and Her lore, I immediately downloaded it.

The Clann Bhride Book of Hours, written by Aster Breo, Finn, Gilbride and Sage, is a fantastic resource (and free!) for anyone interested in the Goddess Brighid (and may be of interest to many others, for reasons I'll get to in a moment).   It's a fairly quick read, clocking in at around 140-some pages on my Kindle, but is absolutely packed with prayers, rituals, lore, and reflective essays.  It is a very practical guide to a spiritual practice devoted to Brigid.  The book begins with a dedication ritual, and then gives possible prayers that can be used throughout the day; and then goes on to describe occasional prayers and practices, such as flametending.  A new concept that I hadn't heard of before is called well tending - caring for or donating towards the care of a body of water.  Of all the possible practices laid out in the book, this was my absolute favorite, and I'm already thinking of how to incorporate it into my life.  Various festivals (generally Celtic) and their relation to Brigid are discussed, and some possible rituals and prayers for life events such as births, deaths, and rites of passage are given.  In the second part of the book, there are some wonderful essays discussing both practical practice and theology surrounding Brigid.  My personal favorite was "Brigid: Lady of Our Hearths, Lady of Our Hearts", in which the authors present a wonderful list of all the different deities, saints, and mortal women in the Celtic lore who bore a name or title etymologically related to Brigid; and the general idea of their stories and attributes.

The main issue I had with the book - and it can hardly be called an issue, as for some it will certainly be a positive point - is the tendency of the authors to universalize Brigid, associating Her with Goddesses such as Vesta and Minerva.  This is not necessarily a problem - and happily makes the book applicable to those who worship a hearth or fire related Goddess - but is far enough from my personal view of the divine that many of the prayers would need some modification to work in my personal practice.  She is also often associated with the creation of the cosmos, and also the moon and stars; which doesn't apply to my experience of Her.  I want to reiterate that these things are only a drawback for me personally - I imagine these aspects of the book will actually open it up to many others who aren't drawn to honor Brigid in a Celtic-specific or hard polytheist manner.

Overall, I think the Clann Bhride Book of Hours is an excellent resource, and I can't say enough good things about the people behind it.  Full of beautifully-written prayers, wonderful practice concepts, and brilliant essays; it's absolutely worth a download - especially at its current price of FREE.  There's also a paperback version available for a small fee to cover printing a shipping.  If you're even remotely interested, pick it up!  It's absolutely worth the time.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Blogosphere is Erupting Again

There has been a lot of talk in the Pagan community lately about privilege, specifically the privilege that those who follow a Wiccan-based path (eg, circle casting, elements, etc) have in the Pagan community.  Last spring, Yvonne Aburrow posted on Patheos that the Pagan umbrella is leaking, referring to some hard polytheists (or devotional polytheists, there are a few terms used to describe the same basic idea) choosing not to also be identified as 'Pagan'.  Than this fall, Ruadhán posted about (and I believe coined the term) Wiccanate privilege (referring those who follow a path that has many outward commonalities with Wicca).  Then at Pantheacon, Don Frew and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus hosted a discussion about the same topic.

I can't speak to the Pagan community at large - and by that I mean that big, over-arching community that somehow seems to form up across geographical barriers (and is especially apparent at festival-time, a privilege I have thus far been lacking in).  I can only talk for those small corners of the world which I do know fairly well; but I do have quite a bit of experience in those small corners.

When I first started looking for real Pagan community in my area, instead of being a solitary forever, I attended a few rituals and study-groups for a group called Pagans of Nebraska.  Now, I don't want it to sound like I am bad-mouthing them or complaining - one of the admins is a good friend, and I think they are doing some important work in holding open, public rituals anyone is welcome to attend.  However, I did have a few difficulties there that has led me to drawing back - I haven't attended an event of theirs since October.  The first difficulty was study groups.  Though the group's very name, Pagans of Nebraska, makes it out to be a pan-Pagan organization where any path would be welcome, at discussion groups, my input about Heathen holidays or Gaelic traditions was either ignored or interrupted to talk more about Wicca-esque ideals - not by the other participants, but by the leaders of the group.  I was frustrated, but figured the name was disingenuous and just went about my business.  I'm a big believer in "when in Rome, do as the Romans", and so when the group was petitioned for Quarter-callers, I agreed to call the East.  When dismissing, I ended with (what I think is a fairly Wicca-standard!) "hail and farewell!" and.. crickets.  While all others had gotten a rousing "blessed be!", my friend was the only person to repeat the phrase.  If a Heathen at a supposedly pan-Pagan ritual can't even get a response to "hail and farewell!", I just didn't think I had much of a future there.  And so I quietly resolved that the hour drive just wasn't worth it, and stopped coming to events.  I didn't make an effort to talk about why I had felt excluded, or point out the problematic element of the group's name if they only intended to do Wiccan-style rituals and discussions; because that would have caused drama - and I hate drama way more than being (probably unconsciously) excluded.  But that's Wiccanate privilege.  For a person on a path that shares many practices with Wicca, all they have to do is show up to the group and enjoy.  For me to have rituals or discussions that applied to me at all, I would both have had to bring up the topic and strongly resist attempts at being shut down - not because the leaders didn't like me or wanted me to leave, but because they were genuinely uninterested in what I, whose personal spirituality is not Wiccan in any way, had to contribute.

So that was my first example of Wiccanate privilege, and it left me pretty frustrated.  Luckily, I had also been attending another group - the Order of the Red Grail, which is explicitly Wiccan (lineaged from Gardner, actually, though not Gardnerian).  How this group that is explicitly Wiccan got to be more open and accepting of other forms of Paganism than a group called 'Pagans of Nebraska' is beyond me, but that's how it is.  They even sponsored a new-ish local Heathen group, Nebraska Heathens United, so they would also be able to utilize the facilities of the UU church with minimal cost.  Some group members will attend every NHU event, even their educational classes which talk specifically about Norse-related subjects.  And in response, the Heathen leaders almost always attend Red Grail events as well!  It's fantastic.  The leaders of the Red Grail know a lot more about Heathenry than I'd guess most pan-Pagan group leaders do.  I've had to do a bit of education on ADF Druidry vs. the Celtic-only, romantic Druid standard, but they're willing to listen.  After a few confusing conversations, everyone remembers and is really good about me honoring Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic deities.  After a few months of attending their Full Moon rituals, I applied to be a student - for a few reasons, the biggest being that I was thankful to have some Pagan community, especially one that was so welcoming to other paths; and the other important one is that whole Pagan clergy thing I'd like to do.. I kind of have to know a bit about Wicca to do that, because that's the majority of Pagans!  (*grumble grumble* wishing that all Pagan clergy felt a need to learn at least something about the diverse religions under the umbrella *grumble*).  But one of the High Priestesses attended our Protogrove's Yule ritual and told me afterwards that it was lovely, and very interesting as well.  The Red Grail here is using its privilege (privilege gained not only by being Wiccan, but by having been around 20 plus years) to lift up and empower other Pagan traditions here in Nebraska, and I couldn't be more thankful that they are willing to do that.  This shows me that progress can be made - that it is possible for diverse groups to come together without erasing or watering down the various paths represented.  I understand that's not what many on either side want, and that's certainly their right; but I do honestly think that the Pagan (and polytheist) community would be better off keeping its diversity.

Coming up this fall, I am a committee member for Omaha Pagan Pride Day.  Last year, there weren't a lot of groups with tables, and those that had them were the usual Wiccanate.  But I did meet a Heathen from an Omaha kindred there, and my friend was able to give a presentation on ADF, and that gives me hope for this year.  I'd love to be able to get Nebraska Heathens United to have a table, maybe a spot on the presentation list (I haven't spoken with them about it yet, but I think it's so important that a diverse group of traditions come).  I want to reach out and see if I can find some other practitioners in the community who may want to present - I just met a Celtic Reconstructionist in the area, and I know a woman who does Kemetic stuff as part of their practice.  My personal attitude is bring it on!  All the diversity!  Though I know programming slots are limited, and I'm only one of five committee members, so I'm sure compromises will have to be made.  I'm just hoping to steer those compromises in the direction of more inclusion rather than less.

A common criticism leveled at those who talk about Wiccanate privilege is that other traditions just need to get involved, and the problem will naturally solve itself.  Since I started getting out into my local religious community, I've done nothing but get involved.  I am part of interfaith group discussions at the local UU church, I blog openly about my practice, experiences and beliefs, I attend and volunteer my time for many rituals of many different groups and traditions, I have held public Pagan gatherings in my own home for pete's sake!  Honestly, I don't have even a second of spare time to get more involved with the Pagan community.  I know there are many others who are not Wiccanate, who are giving all they can to the Pagan community, and they deserve to stop being told "just show up and things will be okay!".  Because it hasn't always been okay.  There is definitely a problem, shown by my earlier experience - and the first step to fixing it is taking the time to listen to people who practice differently from us.  When we listen, instead of assuming qualities like an earth-centered practice or belief in the unity of the divine, we learn something about the people we're interacting with - who may have none of those qualities at all!  Or they may have all of them.  But the best way to figure it out is to listen, instead of telling someone else what they believe, or how they must practice.

Friday, February 21, 2014

D is for Disting, and other Heathen Holidays in February

Heathen holidays are always a going to be a bit different depending on the pantheon a Heathen honors, or the group they are a part of, simply because of the many regional variations in customs and holidays throughout the northern European world.  However, this is the most obvious in February, the time of the year when there are so many different Heathen holidays, it's hard to keep them straight!

The most popular is probably Disting, primarily celebrated by Ásatrúar, but observed by many other Heathens as well.  A tradition that has survived in Sweden since before recorded history, it is now a market, but according to Snorri Sturluson in the Heimskringla, it originally had many other functions as well.  Held in Uppsala, also the location of a great Heathen temple, it also coincided with a Swedish celebration of Dísablót, a celebration of female ancestral spirits.  Today, it has become customary for Swedish-based Heathens to honor their Dísir (the female ancestral spirits) around this time, and many Ásatrúar celebrate this holiday as an anticipation or welcoming of spring.  Snorri also states that the date of this market had been changed to Candlemass, which is how we know to celebrate it at this time.

In his book Travels Through Middle Earth: the Path of a Saxon Pagan, Alaric Albertsson writes about an Anglo-Saxon holiday called Ewemeolc, meaning literally "ewe's milk".  He posits that it comes from the similar Celtic holiday of Imbolc, and gives ideas for celebration that are quite similar.  In looking for historical sources that talk about this holiday, I was unable to find anything - though that certainly doesn't mean there aren't any!

Personally, as an Anglo-Saxon Heathen, I celebrate the Charming of the Plow in February.  The Venderable Bede writes in 725 in his De Temporum Ratione that Solmonath (around our modern February, see more calendar info here) can also be called the Month of Cakes, because the Heathens would offer cakes to their Gods in that month.  It directly translates as "mud-month", which many have speculated is due to newly-plowed soil combined with the typical English rains.  I have written a Paganized version of the Æcerbot, a ritual recorded in England in the 11th century that my children and I perform in our own garden on this day - including some offerings of cake!  I celebrate it on the first full moon in February, based on the idea of the Anglo-Saxons having a lunar calendar in which months begin on the new moon - this year, we began at sunset on the 13th and celebrated through the 14th.  The Charming of the Plow is not limited to Anglo-Saxon Heathens, though - many Heathens celebrate this same idea, though non-AS practitioners will probably not borrow so heavily from the Æcerbot!

And that's just the Heathen holidays I'm aware of in February!  Unlike Imbolc, which has a pretty standard spring-milk-Brigid celebration structure for many Pagans, Heathen holidays around this time of the year are incredibly varied, and have many different purposes.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Crafting the Runes: Jear

From the Haindl Rune Oracle

Summer is a joy to men,
when God, the holy King of Heaven,
suffers the earth to bring forth shining fruits
for rich and poor alike.

Jear, the rune most symbolic of peace and plenty.  Though the Anglo-Saxon rune poem devotes a fourth of the lines describing it to the Christian God, the Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems give the same basic idea without describing God at all.  They all describe the idea of plenty, or having more than you need to survive.  The Icelandic poem says, "boon to men, and good summer, and thriving crops," while the Norwegian poem invokes the story of Frothi, a great king who upheld a long peace for his people (though it was later ended by his own greed).  And yet the rune itself does not translate to 'plenty'.  It instead translates as 'year'.  I think this, taken together with the notes about summer and the story of Frothi, paint an interesting picture of this rune.

Though the poems talk primarily about plenty and good fortune, and I think this is a large part of the rune's meaning - in Northern Europe, there can be no summer without first there being a winter.  This rune describes the whole year; how plenty comes and how, like in Frothi's story, plenty also goes.  It is great while it lasts, and as the Anglo-Saxon poem describes, it is helpful to rich and poor alike.  But eventually the year turns, and this peace and plenty are no longer available - there are times we must make do with what we have.

In divination, or in using runes for magic, I think it's fair to say this rune is mostly positive.  However, it's also good to be aware of the possible connotations; like the yin-yang symbol in Chinese culture, the rune Jear seems to carry the seeds of its own opposite.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Charming of the Plow

This past Saturday, my children and I gathered in the garden to perform an old Anglo-Saxon ritual - the Æcerbot, first recorded in the 11th century.  As recorded, it is rather Pagan with a thin Christian veneer; but it has become a seasonal celebration for us because of a passing mention by the Venerable Bede in De Temporum Ratione in 725.  In the passage, he describes the month Solmōnaþ, roughly equivalent with our February and beginning and ending on the new moon.  He translates the name as "cake-month", because he says that the English would offer them to their Gods in that month.  Fast-forward to the Æcerbot a few centuries later, and we see that the ritual calls for digging a furrow in the garden to be planted, and offering cakes to Mother Earth.  And so, we celebrate this holiday - called the Charming of the Plow because it is a common Heathen name for holidays at this time of year, and because the original Æcerbot ritual does just that.  I like to position the holiday and corresponding ritual near the full moon of February; it seems like the best way to condense what may have been a month-long practice into one holiday.  Here is my re-Paganised (and slightly simplified for modern life) version of the ritual:

After sunset on the night of the full moon, go out and dig four small holes in the four corners of the garden, saving the soil.  Mix together oil, honey, and yeast.  If you have any perennial herbs or plants, use twigs from those to drip the mixture onto the soul three times; otherwise, use twigs gathered from nearby trees, saying this each of the three times:

"Grow mightily and fill this earth with fruits; Nerthus bless this soil with your great power."

After that, leave the soil out in a sacred place overnight - perhaps at the foot of a mighty tree or a nearby creek.

The next day, write or inscribe the rune Berkana onto each of the four twigs reserved for this purpose.  Place one into the bottom of each hole, putting the soil back into place, and saying "Grow" nine times over each hole.

In the center of the garden, stretch your arms to the sky and turn clockwise three times, keeping your face lifted to the sky.  Say:

"This soil is filled with plenty.  May its fruitfulness nourish the bodies of me and mine, and may my efforts give honor to the spirits of this place, the land wights, and the Earth, mother of all."

Take some seeds that you are planning to use in that land, and place them in a bowl on the soil before you.  Then say (feel free to substitute some of your own plants for those listed):

"Erce, Erce, Erce, earth's mother,
May Nerthus grant you
fields growing and flourishing,
propagating and strengthening,
tall shafts, bright crops,
and red tomato crops,
and soft sage crops,
and all earth's crops.
May Nerthus grant you
that your produce be guarded against any enemies,
and that it be kept safe from harm,
from poisons sown around the land.
Now I bid the Mother, who shaped this world,
that none shall overturn the words thus spoken."

Dig up a small portion of the land - or more, if you are planning to plant that day - and say:

"Whole may you be Earth, mother of men!
May you be ever-growing and ever-fruitful,
with food filled for the needs of me and mine."
Placing the cake in the soil, just as you would normally plant seeds, say:
"Field full of food for me and mine,
bright-blooming, you are blessed
in the holy name of the one who gives all fruitfulness,
the Earth on which we live;
Nerthus, the one who made the ground,
grant us the gift of growing,
that for us each fruit and leaf might come to use.

Then say three times: "Grow, in the name of Nerthus, be blessed."


Spade or shovel
bucket or container for soil
twigs from perennial herbs or trees on property
four twigs or small branches to use as rune staves
a few early seeds or bulbs for planting, or seeds for later planting if seasonally appropriate
cakes - these can be either like pancakes or cookies, but flavored with honey rather than sugar

Here's a possible recipe for the cakes, based on a recipe from New Varangian Guard, a re-enactment society in Australia:

Honey Shortbread
1 cup flour
1/4 cup corn starch
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup honey
Mix the ingredients and form a dough, spoon into a well-greased pan.
Bake at 325 for 30 minutes, let cool and cut into pieces.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Imbolc with Prairie Shadow Protogrove ADF

Logo by Amber Doty
On a bitterly cold February evening, Prairie Shadow Protogrove ADF hosted our first Imbolc ritual.  Luckily, the wonderful Amber managed to find us an indoor location, so we stayed warm!  A Celtic ritual, I put it together to honor Brigid, an Irish Goddess commonly associated with Imbolc.  I was so excited, because this was our first ritual with some real participation!  We had volunteers who welcomed the Earth Mother Danu, and also helped with opening the Gates.  To me, it helped the ritual feel that much more communal - less a performance, and more of an actual gathering to honor the Kindreds.  We invited Manannán mac Lir, my favorite psychopomp, as Gatekeeper - and I didn't spill any water anywhere!  After Yule's water disaster, I'm very grateful.

Though I didn't write the ritual (more cobbled it together from ADF sources), the idea for our main working was my own, and one I hope was as powerful for others as it was for me.  Both some Germanic and Celtic tribes had a tradition where all the hearth fires in the village were extinguished, and re-lit from one common fire - this tradition in Kildare is centered around Brigid's eternal flame.  Though this is a tradition attested to around Imbolc, Beltane, and even Samhain, the NeoPagan celebration of Brigid and Her flame at this time of year makes it seem an appropriate custom.  Though we had to use LED candles as our Fire given open-flame restrictions, the idea and energy were strong - the Fire was built of several large candles and many tiny ones, making it a lovely source of light.  After the Blessings, each participant came up to take their own piece of this communal Fire, to carry it back home to their own practice.  In this way, our bonds as a community were strengthened by tying us all together not only in ritual, but also outside of it.

As our third official ritual, Imbolc felt much less new-and-exciting, and more a standard, enjoyable ritual with a nice group of friends.  We had some new faces, and some previous attendees unfortunately couldn't make it, but the Protogrove is starting to form a core group of sorts, and I love it.  Despite the weather and some other cancellations, twelve people attended!  After the ritual, we held potluck as usual, and I had a great time chatting with all the awesome people who came out.  We talked blogs, Pantheacon, being new to Paganism, and parenting - a great range of topics, and I really enjoyed hearing some new perspectives.  I also got to try some homemade hummus, which really made my night.  All in all, it was a lovely time, and I'm so grateful to everyone who made it - especially, as usual, the best Grove Organizer ever!

Friday, February 14, 2014

D is for Dates with Deities

No, I'm not writing about about Valentine's Day or Godspouses - instead, these 'dates with deities' are one way I've found to help create and maintain a consistent practice.  Picking a certain day of the week or month on which to give offerings to a deity or spirit, it becomes easier both to remember and stay motivated to do that.

I first realized this when I began Flamekeeping for Brigid.  My Cill uses a 20-day shift, which means that every twenty days, I have one full day set aside for honoring Brigid.  Having one day specifically set aside, combined with the fact that my Cill-mates were relying on me to tend the flame on my day, made it so that I haven't missed a shift.  Noticing this, I decided I would experiment with one more 'date' - every Thursday, I make an offering to the house spirits.  Once I decided a day on which I needed to make an offering, it became so much easier to consistently do it.  Since then, I've added a few more days for other deities and spirits, and it's amazing how helpful it's been to my spiritual practice.

Though it may seem crass or undignified to some to schedule time for the Gods, when you have a busy life or tend to procrastinate, you have to find a way to make time for those things that are important to you.  If scheduling days for specific deities doesn't work for you, even scheduling a specific time during the day to do devotionals can be helpful.  Whether you wake up early, stay up a bit later, or if you have an extra bit of time mid-afternoon, setting aside some special time helps to create and also establish a routine that you can stick with even when things get busy - and that's the core of any devotional practice.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

TC Blog Project: Family

This time of year, we start to hear a lot of talk about love.  And love in February is almost never referenced as the love between friends, the love of family, or even *gasp* a love for things.  No, our entire culture frames Valentine's Day - a celebration of love - as celebrating only romantic love.  Those who don't have romantic partners are said to be "alone on Valentine's", whether they will actually be physically alone or not.

I'd rather talk today about one of my favorite aspects of Heathenry: familial love.  For a long time, I considered myself the 'odd duck out' in many Heathen circles, being generally the most leftist of the US-politics liberals.  It's taken awhile, but I've come to realize that perhaps I found Heathenry because some part of me understood that, deep down, I actually hold a few traditional values.  One of the most important of these values, to me, is the importance of family.

Growing up, my immediate family was sort of the odd one in the extended family.  We were poor in a family full of middle-class, my mother was too Evangelical and my father too atheist, us kids were socially-awkward brainiacs and always wanted to play with the wrong genders.  And yet, despite the unspoken uncomfortableness surrounding those topics, the entire family was always warm and welcoming.  We were weird, but it didn't ultimately matter, because we were family.  There weren't any family feuds or in-fighting; we all got together on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter and made generally pleasant dinner conversation with each other.

Growing up, I didn't exactly appreciate how rare and precious a family like this is.  When I went to college, I basically cut all ties with everyone - I didn't speak to even my parents for about a year.  It wasn't until I found myself pregnant, faced with beginning my own family, that I began to appreciate just how amazing a good family can be.  The biggest recent influence on my concept of family has been my mother-in-law; she comes from a very traditional culture where it is a woman's duty to care for her house and her family.  She welcomed me with open arms, took me in as her daughter, claimed me as part of her family.  She cares for her elderly mother together with her three local sisters, all of whom work full-time, because it is her duty to love and honor her mother the way her mother loved and raised her.  I have watched her pour out her heart into the food she makes for our family dinner every Sunday; all of her love and good wishes and affection goes directly into the meal.  She holds the most love for family of anyone I've ever known - and though I aspire to be like her in caring for my own family, I must admit that I seldom hit the mark.

I'd like to be clear that by valuing family, I am not referencing only a traditional nuclear family.  That's how mine worked out, but it's certainly not the be-all, end-all.  I spent a large part of my life with my mother and step-father on one hand, and a single father on the other, and we were just as much family as anyone else.  Same goes for gay, poly, or whatever relationships - if you think of yourself as a family, you are.  This is a special kind of love, and no matter how some conservatives would like to play it, it is there for everyone to experience.

I try to give my children the good things I had growing up, while skipping over the worse ones.  We eat dinner together every night, no TV or other interruptions, and talk about our days.  I make it a point to talk to my kids in the car when we're driving somewhere.  I plan family celebrations - not just for my own holidays; I throw a darn good party for Eid twice a year too!  Just as my mother and grandmother did growing up, I tell stories of the ancestors I remember, and those that are still with us but who we don't have the opportunity to visit.  These are all religious acts for me.  The simple act of loving my family - and expressing that love by caring for them, cooking for them, making sure their lives are organized and also enriching - is a big part of my religious devotion.  In Heathenry, your family's honor is incredibly important - it is simultaneously your legacy and your gift to your ancestors.  Caring for my children, loving them, and teaching them the ways of my ancestors is an offering to those who have gone before.  It is also an offering to those I will leave behind.

Monday, February 10, 2014

High Holy Day Essay: Imbolc

For Imbolc, I once again put together a ritual for Prairie Shadow Protogrove. We had a Celtic ritual honoring Brigid, held in the study space of a local metaphysical store, since the weather was unfortunately below zero. We had a processional through two candles, purifying the participants with fire. We honored Danu as the Earth Mother, gave offerings to the Fire, Well, and Tree, and welcomed Manannan mac Lir as the Gatekeeper. We welcomed the Three Kindreds to join us, and invited Brigid as the Being of the Occasion. The omen was read, and stated that our offerings were accepted, and the Kindreds gifted us with strong, creative passion in the coming days. We asked for the Blessing on the Waters of Life, and gave some to each participant. Afterwards, each person came up to take a bit of the Fire, so each person could take home a piece of the community flame. We thanked the Kindreds and each deity and spirit we had invited, and closed the Gates.

 After the Yule ritual, I felt much more confident about performing public ritual. This time, I wrote the script to include another more participation from another ritual leader, and also included a few parts for any attendees who volunteered to read. I feel like opening it up to more participation really helped the ritual to flow better and encourage the energy contribution of those attending. Also, I made sure to include many key phrases that I had put in the last ritual - especially phrases the participants were asked to repeat - and I feel like the growing familiarity of the Core Order of Ritual among those attending changed the feel of the ritual greatly, so that it felt truly profound, as I imagine most liturgists and ritual leaders hope ritual will feel. We had twelve people attend despite snow and bad temperatures, and the potluck afterwards was great to get to know those who were there for the first time, as well as to talk more with those who I'd seen before.

Crafting the Runes: Is

From Ralph Blum's Rune Deck

Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.

The rune Is is translated to mean 'ice'.  It is one of my favorite stanzas in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, with such striking imagery I always imagine an ice castle or how magical icicles looked when I was younger.  Ice is almost always so very beautiful; sometimes here on the prairie it comes as a freezing rain blown about by fierce winds, which leaves the bare tree branches coated - in the morning when the sun shines, everything sparkles like rainbow fire.  Something the Anglo-Saxon poem does not address, though, is the danger of ice.

The Icelandic rune poem describes Is as "bark of rivers, and roof of the wave, and destruction of the doomed".  It's easy to see which land had more experience of ice, and of severe cold.  In Iceland, ice covered the rivers like bark on a tree, even froze over the ocean.  It was inherently dangerous, because those who were killed by ice were considered "doomed" - there was no way they could have escaped the ice, their fate.

There is also the idea, not touched upon in either rune poem, that ice is one of the building blocks of all life.  In the Norse creation myth written down by Snorri Sturlson, he two contrasting elements, ice and fire, came together: the heat of Muspell met the great ice of Niflheim, and the fire thawed a few drops of the ice.  Fire and Ice come together to make Water, which grew into the frost giant Ymir.  Ymir is later slain by Odin and His brothers, and his body is used to make the world.

Though I try to stick with Anglo-Saxon ideas over those of other branches of the Germanic peoples, in this case I think climate dictates I look farther afield.  In the middle of the United States, we don't have the rather temperate climate that England experiences.  The weather ranges from -20 to -30 degree Fahrenheit wind chills like we had this morning, to over 100 degrees in the summer.  Our cold is intense, and often it lasts for four or more months of the year.  When ice comes in December, it tends to stick around until the first big thaw in March (unless we're lucky and global warming comes up with an unseasonably warm day).  I remember growing up, my neighbors never cleaned out their gutters, and an amazing icicle would form over the course of the winter months, as the sun warmed the ice in the gutters by day just enough for it to drip and freeze it into more icicle by night - some winters it reached all the way to the ground by the time spring rolled around!  It can be so beautiful; but also very dangerous.  It makes roads difficult to navigate, walking becomes hazardous; and one particularly memorable year, when everything froze early in October, the leaves of the trees were weighted down so much that many trees lost big branches.

In divination, I tend to think of Ice in all three ways - a dangerous force, a conduit for creation, and a beautiful art piece.  Sometimes the things that hurt us are beautiful and alluring, and sometimes out of our destruction, old pieces can be picked up and a new life made.  I attended a class on bindrunes by the local Heathen group, and one thing the teacher said has stuck with me: Ice, as that single upright stave, is the basis of all the runes.  It underlies everything.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Prayer for Manannán mac Lir

Photo by Robert Herring
Used under a Creative Commons License
As the winter drags on here on the cold and sunlight-starved prairie, I tend to lose a lot of my motivation and drive.  I'm naturally an introvert, so one of the first things to go is my desire to get out and engage in social things.  Some days I have a hard time bringing myself to open Facebook.  It's times like these that I find myself drawing inward, finding more time to sit and think rather than rushing to finish whatever task is next on my to-do list.  As I focus more on my personal spirituality, I am drawn more towards deities I honor that also have a strong sense of inner and spiritual work.

In contrast to the crochet I do for Frige, the house cleaning I try to maintain for Brigid, and the everyday writing I do for Ogma, in my UPG Manannán is a much less concrete deity.  I know for many He is like a favorite uncle, a God largely of laughter and good times - and He is that for me also, at times.  But much more often, He is the deity that calls to me when I am sinking in the dark depths of the proverbial ocean.  When I need to step back from the world for a bit, He is there to guide me to the deep sea - where no storms stir, where no light penetrates - only the solitude that is so refreshing to me.  In an effort to build a more consistent devotional practice, I've taken to writing prayers for each deity I honor; this I wrote for Manannán.  It is based on Ian Corrigan's call to Manannán in ADF's solitary Celtic ritual template, with the wavelets inspired by a baptism charm from the Carmina Gadelica.

Oh Manannán, powerful son of the sea,
holder of the magics of the crane bag:
a wavelet for sweet dreams,
a wavelet for laughter,
a wavelet for good song,
nine waves for Your graciousness.
Oh Lord of the Otherworld, bearer of the silvered apple branch,
I ask that you hear my call:
a wavelet for grief,
a wavelet for tears,
a wavelet for the dead,
nine waves for Your graciousness.
Mist-shrouded rider of the maned waves,
clothed in the sea-shifting cloak:
a wavelet for solitude,
a wavelet for wisdom,
a wavelet for oneness,
nine waves for Your graciousness.

Friday, February 7, 2014

C is for Courage

Born to be… by artmajor24, on Flickr. Creative Commons license.
ADF Druidry espouses a system of nine virtues: wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation and fertility.  Part of the work for the Dedicant's Path is to write an essay about each of these virtues. and since week is the letter 'C', I decided to write about Courage.  Now, all the writing for the DP can get a little long for the reviewers to read, so we're asked to keep our word counts reasonable; I could write a whole essay just on courage in my life!  But here it is in around 200 words.

Courage is defined by Google as "the ability to do something that frightens one" or "strength in the face of pain or grief".  In my life, I've found my own definition of courage to be most in line with the first.  I grew up in a very critical environment, and unfortunately I often find myself afraid to try something because I know I can't do it perfectly, or I don't know exactly how it will turn out.  Often I have to make myself do things that I know objectively would benefit me or others that I care about, but that I am afraid to do.  A group I am part of locally puts on a Winter Solstice service for the UU church every year, and this year they asked me to play guitar for a song.  I'm a decent, though not particularly good player, but performing in front of others honestly terrifies me.  It took a great deal of courage to even play in front of others at our practices, but after several times I began to feel more comfortable.  In the end I summoned the courage to sit before 100 or so UUs and perform, and the added atmosphere garnered many compliments and has helped to grow the local community.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Family Imbolc Celebrations

Imbolc has come and gone (except for Prairie Shadow Protogrove's ritual next weekend), and it was a nice, though busy, holiday for us.  My daughter's birthday is in early February, and so she had a big party this weekend with all her friends.  Despite the cake-baking, cleaning, and decorating (all of which honor Brigid in their own way), we managed to find some time to celebrate the holiday together as a family.

I am part of a flametending Cill on, a wonderful forum I've been a part of for many years.  My shift was on the 30th, and the group as a whole tended flame on both the 31st and 1st; so I had Brigid's flame lit on my stove throughout the weekend.  I've always found flametending to be a wonderful tradition, easy to make a habit out of, and the presence of the flame is a constant helpful reminder to keep Brigid in mind.  Personally, I like to say a short prayer at sunset when I light the flame, and another the next day at sunset when putting it out; and in between I do cleaning and baking and home things while keeping the thought of honoring Brigid in mind.  There are so many other ways to do it though, and so many groups - I know ADF has a Cill for flametending, and I believe Gaol Naofa, a Celtic reconstructionist organization, does as well though they only accept women.

Together, my children and I put out some milk as an offering to Brigid, saying a short and Pagan-ised version of the Descent of Brigid (many examples can be found here at Brigit's Forge).  We also laid out a brat I received from a Imbolc exchange - a brat is a piece of cloth that is laid out overnight on Imbolc Eve, and is said to be blessed by Brigid when She passes by in the night.  Throughout the next year, it is used as a talisman for healing and comfort.  I've already had a chance to use it for my son, who is miserably fighting a cold today; laying him down in his crib, I gave him the brat to hold close to as he slept.

Next year, I'm hoping to be able to make some time for a full feast of corn beef and cabbage, and if I'm feeling adventurous, perhaps some homemade butter for our bread!  If I decide to attempt it, I'll be sure to document the process and let you all in on the craziness!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: Elves, Wights, and Trolls by Kveldulf Gundarsson

My personal spiritual practice has always been largely focused on local land spirits; and so when I began to explore Heathenry more deeply I was very interested in learning about nature spirits from a Germanic point of view.  Elves, Wights, and Trolls by Kveldulf Gundarsson is pretty cheap to pick up used, and is such a fantastic resource that, in retrospect, I would have paid 3 times the price.

As the title says, this book is a study of all kinds of spirits the ancient Germanic peoples would have classified as 'other' - or not Gods.  Gundarsson does a good job describing the fluidity that these categories had to the ancients that we, as modern peoples who like putting things in their little distinct boxes, don't often grasp right away.  Honestly, on picking up this book, I was hoping to receive some clarification on what exactly a Jötunn was, compared to a land wight, compared to the alfar, compared to a troll or any number of other words the Germanic peoples had for these beings.  There was not a lot of clarification, just an acknowledgement that the evidence seems to say that these categories were not at all distinct; and certainly none of them were definitively classified as 'good' or 'evil' to the Germanic peoples.  Gundarsson does give some ideas as to what the distinctions may have meant in the past, but this UPG is pretty clearly marked out.

There is a separate chapter for each type of being, mostly devoted to folk stories of the spirits, and appearances and actions in the lore that we do have.  Through these remnants, Gundarsson attempts to re-imagine what these beings may have been to the ancient Germanic peoples; and gives helpful suggestions on offerings, which spirits to propitiate with them, and which spirits to avoid.  My personal favorite was the portion on house spirits, which not only contains several folk tales, but many cautionary mentions that folk practice seems to suggest are prudent.  As someone who grew up in a home that still held some lingering beliefs about house spirits, it was very enlightening to see where some of these ideas and practices may have originated.

There are very interesting portions on the Jötnar, and Gundarsson is not hostile towards them in his writing.  He even suggests that Thor fought the Jötnar, especially females, in the lore because the main foe of the ancient Germanic peoples was the harsh environment they lived in - but now that humanity has shown itself capable of permanently damaging the environment, perhaps the scales ought to tip from malice towards concern for the Jötnar.

The one concern I had was Gundarsson's tendency to ascribe equal importance to all his sources - whether archaeology, ancient lore, or very recently recorded folk tales.  While interesting, there is certainly a vast amount of difference between the archaeology's conclusions about the culture of Germanic peoples around 0 BC and the culture of Northern Europe in the 19th century when many folk tales were recorded.  Gundarsson does make a great effort to reference his information, which diminishes the problem greatly, but I feel it still effects his conclusions in a way that I personally don't prefer.

All in all, it is a fantastic book, and belongs on the bookshelf of any land-honoring Heathen.  I also think it would be helpful to any Pagan looking to honor land spirits, even if they are not specifically interested in Germanic culture, because of its wealth of information - seriously, this book is just packed with info.  I've read quite a few books on the fae of Celtic lore, and none I've found have been so helpful or informative as Gundarsson's is on the land spirits of Germanic lore.