Second High Day recap: Spring Equinox

Home shrine set up for the Spring Equinox. Photo by me

Home shrine set up for the Spring Equinox. Photo by me

The sky was too cloudy to see the Solar Eclipse, but as the day brightened up later it started to feel like Spring at last, as I celebrated the Equinox with a small Druid ritual. I had written a script for the rite, following the steps outlined in ADF’s Core order of ritual, and based on the rites suggested in Michael J. Dangler’s Crane Breviary and Guidebook.

My home shrine was decorated with daffodils and wildflowers from the garden, which brought nature indoors and gave it a real Spring feeling.

Possible depiction of Nemetona and her consort Mars at Bath.

Possible depiction of Nemetona and her consort Mars at Bath.

The rite was focused on Nemetona, the Celtic/Gaulish goddess of the Sacred Grove. Little is known of this goddess, who is thought to be the deity of the Nemetes tribe in what is now Germany. There is also evidence of her worship here in England at places such as Bath. Her name connects her to nemetons, sacred places, and she is often seen as a goddess of sanctuary. Dangler’s ritual honours Nemetona as she who “awakens the forest” at Spring as well as blessing any sacred place, including a small home-shrine.

As an agnostic and naturalist, I don’t believe in the literal existence of the Pagan deities, instead seeing them as mythic and archetypal representations of natural forces and aspects of human experience. So for me, Nemetona is the “essence” of any sacred place. In the rite, I offered grain to Nemetona, to represent the bounty of the land that feeds all creatures.

As well as this main offering, I offered oats to the Earth Mother and organic Golden Ale to the three Kindreds. The “working” section of the rite, as suggested by Dangler, was a blessing of tools. He writes that “in ancient days, the folk would bring their tools to the priests who would then charm them. This charming or blessing would keep those tools in working order throughout the year, and would thus sustain the lives of the folk through the always dangerous time from planting to harvest”.

Ogham reading for Spring Equinox. Photo by me

Ogham reading for Spring Equinox. Photo by me

For the omen, I drew three staves from my lovely new Ogham set (which I am using daily in my morning meditations, and which has been really helpful in giving me plenty to think about). I love the feeling of using these wooden staves, it just seems so much more tactile and “Druidic” than cards.

The symbols I drew were willow (liminality, intuition), reed (healing, cleansing tools), and hazel (wisdom). I’m far too sceptical to assign magical significance to divination, but the reading seemed very appropriate to a liminal, tool-blessing Equinox rite!

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Second High Day: Spring Equinox

Fern frond. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Fern frond. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Spring Equinox occurs around 20/21 March and marks the point when day and night are of equal length. The word equinox comes from the Latin for “equal night”. From this day on, the days will be longer than the nights, making the Equinox the start of the light half of the year.

Astronomically, the Equinox occurs when the plane of Earth’s equator passes the centre of the Sun. At this moment, the Earth’s axis neither inclines towards nor away from the Sun, causing day and night to be exactly equal.

Equinoxes. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Equinoxes. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Equinox can be seen as the start of Spring, and signs of the new season are all around. Flowers are blooming, trees bursting into leaf and birds are singing louder to attract a mate. In many Pagan traditions, the Spring Equinox is celebrated as a festival of new life. Higginbotham states that “most of the Spring Equinox traditions that we observe today relate to fertility and renewal of the life force. The most familiar is the colouring of eggs”. Eggs are an ancient symbol of life, and their traditional meaning has been co-opted into the Christian celebration of Easter.

In some Druid traditions, the Spring Equinox is known as Alban Eiler, the Light of the Earth, while many Pagans refer to it as Ostara. This name, according to Bonewits, comes from the Germanic goddess, Eostre (also the source of the name Easter). This name is attested to by the monastic historian Bede, but does not appear in other sources. Hutton writes that Eostre may have been “a Germanic dawn-deity who was venerated, appropriately, at this season of opening and new beginnings”. It may also be the case, however that the name simply referred to the month itself.

Solar Eclipse. Image from The Guardian

Solar Eclipse. Image from The Guardian

This year, the Spring Equinox coincides with a Solar Eclipse, where the moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and blocks (occults) the Sun. It was too cloudy where I am to see the Eclipse, but it did go noticeably darker and the birds fell silent. The combination of Equinox and Eclipse would no doubt be seen as significant, and auspicious, by ancient Pagans.

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s essential guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel, 2006.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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Farewell to a great Wizard

Terry Pratchett has a game with Death. Art by Paul Kidby.

Terry Pratchett has a game with Death. Art by Paul Kidby.

So I heard the news yesterday that Terry Pratchett, author of the witty, satirical and insightful Discworld series, died of Alzheimer’s aged 66 yesterday. His writing was an ever-present companion through my life, and I devoured Discworld books whenever I could get my hands on them. His thoughts on life, politics, religion and philosophy were profound and stood out amongst the humour in his books. Through them all ran a thread of sheer human goodness and a sense of the wonder, and the absurdity, of life.

For me, Pratchett’s best creation is his personification of Death. Not a fearsome Grim Reaper, but an empathic, gentle and oddly comforting figure.

I think his portrayal of Death, especially as it evolved in later books, was a mirror to his own growing awareness of mortality, and it certainly helped me come to terms with the fear of death and dying.

It is fitting, therefore, that his Twitter account notified us of his death in the style of the Death character, speaking in all caps:

AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

Home shrine set up as a memorial to Terry Pratchett. Photo by me.

Home shrine set up as a memorial to Terry Pratchett. Photo by me.

I never met the man, but his work meant so much to me that I felt compelled to do something to mark his passing. I created a small shrine with books and depictions of Death, and offered a Hobgoblin ale as a libation, hailing Terry Pratchett as an ancestor of inspiration.

I don’t believe (and neither did Terry Pratchett, a committed Humanist and agnostic) in an afterlife, but I like to think that this small gesture meant something. It did to me.

The Pagan news site, The Wild Hunt, has a lovely article about Pagan responses to Terry Pratchett, a writer who, while not a Pagan himself, definitely understood Pagan sensibilities.

As the official statement said, “This world has lost one of its brightest, sharpest minds”. He was the closest the world may ever see to a real Wizard. Terry Pratchett once wrote that nobody is truly dead while the ripples they create in the world continue to be felt. His ripples will be remembered for a very long time to come.

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Meditation and mental discipline

"Between two diamond white birch trees Buddha meditates in Broadview, Seattle, Washington, USA." Image by Wonderlane on Flickr (CC2.0)

“Between two diamond white birch trees Buddha meditates in Broadview, Seattle, Washington, USA.” Image by Wonderlane on Flickr (CC2.0)

Ah, here it is – the challenge I’ve been dreading. The DP requires five months of consistent (at least weekly, preferably daily) meditation or other mental discipline practice. While I have practised a bit of Zen meditation very sporadically before, I’ve never been much good at it, or at keeping to a regular routine of practice.

That said, I have always wanted to get better at meditating, as I have read studies that show it has physical and mental health benefits and can contribute to overall well-being and happiness. Joanna van der Hoeven’s writing on Zen Druidry has also inspired me to give meditation another go. Perhaps doing it for a specified requirement might help me with the discipline I need to stick to it.

According to Michael J. Dangler, the mental discipline requirement can be completed in a umber of different ways, including daily rituals instead of simple seated meditation. I have decided to combine the two approaches. I recently bought the e-book of A Crane Breviary and Guide Book, also by Dangler, which contains complete solitary ADF rituals for the High Days, Moon Rites and Daily Shrine Rites and which now lives happily in my phone. So I’ve started this week doing the Daily Shrine Rite in the morning and drawing an Ogham stave as my “omen” to give me a guide-thought for the day ahead. In the central part of the small rite, I am including a short (3-5 minute) breathing meditation.

While Our Own Druidry suggests various ways of counting the breath, I find that in itself to be distracting, so instead I am simply trying to be aware of my breathing, its pattern and flow, how it feels in my body. When thoughts emerge, I notice them and then try to shift my awareness back to my breathing (not an easy task for someone prone to constant overthinking).

So far, I’ve been finding it fairly manageable and a very relaxing start to the day. It definitely helps me get off on the right foot for the day ahead. Let’s see how I find it five months down the line!

I’ve also been continuing my Nature Awareness, going for regular walks along the river on my lunch break, and in the local woods at the weekend. This weekend, I went to a small pond nearby and saw a whole host of spawning frogs and toads, a sure sign that spring is in the air! I plan on returning to that spot each week to check on the progress of the tadpoles as they hatch.

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Home Shrine

My shrine. Also pictured: my Dedicant Path textbooks. Photo by me

My shrine. Also pictured: my Dedicant Path textbooks. Photo by me

Setting up a home shrine is an essential part of the Dedicant Path. It provides a central focus or hearth for your Druid practices and acts as a reminder of the path.

My home shrine is a simple set-up on a low table in the living room. ADF don’t use the common four elements system, which comes via Wicca from ancient Greek philosophy. Instead, ADF Druidry is based around a “triple Hallows” of fire, well and tree, which I have placed at the centre of my shrine.

The fire is three candles in red and white, the well a blue glazed ceramic bowl with a seashell in it, so that the water is symbolically connected to the ocean, and the world-tree is currently just a fallen branch from the old willow tree at the bottom of the garden. I hope to replace this with a hardy indoor bonsai at some point soon, as I feel a living tree is easier to connect with.

As well, my shrine has a singing bowl which I use to start and end any workings, an incense holder, a small pottery mouse to represent the Nature-kin and a wooden Buddha. I know, I know, Buddha isn’t a Druid, but he represents a big influence on my philosophy and practices for years, so he stays! Joanna van der Hoeven has actually written a rather good short book on “Zen Druidry” which explores how to combine the two paths.

Beneath the tabletop, my shrine has two shelves which hold my ADF course books and other important things (like matches).

Ogham set from Green Woman Crafts on Etsy. Photo by me

Ogham set from Green Woman Crafts on Etsy. Photo by me

I also recently acquired a lovely Ogham set, in the correct corresponding woods, from Green Woman Crafts on Etsy. She is based in Glastonbury, a place very dear to my heart, and she works with found and windfall wood only. It’s a beautiful set, and I have been wanting to get into Ogham for a while now. It just feels so much more tangible and “Druidic” than clicking on the Druid Oracle app on my phone (although that certainly has its uses). I plan on drawing one stave at random each morning to give me a “thought for the day”. I want to get to know what the fews mean, and the best way to do that is to work with them!

 

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First Book Started: Indo-European Studies

Antique books. From Woodward on Flickr (CC2.0)

Antique books. From Woodward on Flickr (CC2.0)

One of the things I especially like about ADF and their approach to Paganism is the emphasis on learning and sound, up-to-date scholarship. Our Own Druidry states:

The Pagan revival has been troubled from the beginning by shoddy scholarship and indulgence in esoteric fantasy. When wishful thinking and poor science take the place of true knowledge, all of Paganism is harmed.

This is why it is important to learn about actual, historic Paganism and what we know of the Old Ways of Europe through modern archaeology, history and evidence. I’ve come across many books on Druidry and Paganism that make bold claims without a shred of evidence to back them up, or which are still working within an outdated and discredited 19th century paradigm. To this end, the Dedicant Path requires you to read, and write essays on, three books on different areas of Paganism: One on Indo-European history, one on modern Paganism and one on a “hearth culture” of your choice. To give a solid foundation of knowledge, the Dedicant Path tends to start with Indo-European history.

A History of Pagan Europe. Image from Goodreads.

A History of Pagan Europe. Image from Goodreads.

The book I’ve chosen to start with is A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick (1995), which seems to be a good summary of what we do and don’t know about the pre-Christian Pagan cultures of Europe, from the Celts and Norse to the Romans and Greeks, with a chapter on the modern Pagan revival too.

I’ve read a bit around the subject, but I am looking forward to learning more and perhaps dispelling some of the common Neopagan myths out there.

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Nature Awareness

Willow by riverbank. Photo by me.

Willow by riverbank. Photo by me.

Nature is the greatest focus of my Druidry. The reason I felt drawn to Druidry at all is that it seems to be one of the most explicitly nature-based Pagan paths out there. So I was very happy to learn that developing nature awareness is a key component of the ADF Dedicant Path. I spent the past week or so getting outdoors as much as possible and paying attention to what I could see and hear around me.

I’m very lucky in that I live close to some woods, and that I work in a beautiful location right next to a river, with large gardens and grounds to wander in. I’ve spent a good few hours this week walking in both locations. Walking itself has become a meditative practice, as I try to ignore distracting thoughts and simply become more aware of my surroundings.

Snowdrops emerging. Photo by me.

Snowdrops emerging. Photo by me.

So what have I noticed? As it is coming into Spring, I have seen the first signs of the new season. Snowdrops and aconites are emerging from the ground and some of the trees are starting to develop buds and catkins. I’ve noticed a lot more birds singing in the mornings, including robins, blackbirds, various tits and even a green woodpecker.

Down by the river, things are changing with the seasons too. The currents are stronger and the river is swollen with snowmelt and Spring rains. The Canada geese, our Winter visitors, are amassing along the banks in vast flocks, ready to make their long journey home now the cold of Winter is drawing to a close. Coots and moorhens are starting to gather reeds for their nests, and I even saw a water vole one day scurrying along the tangled bank.

Canada geese gathering. Photo by me.

Canada geese gathering. Photo by me.

I intend to keep up my nature awareness practice throughout my Dedicant Path work, as I feel it is important for any aspiring Druid to know the patterns of nature in their local landscape, and I look forward to seeing what changes the different seasons will bring.

The main course text, Our Own Druidry, also talks about nature awareness as being about finding out important facts about your local area: where your water comes from, where your waste goes, what the prevailing winds and native plant species are etc. I hope to cover these points in future weeks.

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