Explorations in Ogham: Week 4 – Saille, Willow

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Each Wednesday, I’ll be exploring one of the original 20 Ogham letters and the trees associated with them. If you want to catch up on last week’s, follow the “Ogham” tag at the bottom of this post, or see the link HERE.

As always, I’ll be using my wonderful set of Ogham fews made from the correct corresponding wood by Green Woman Crafts, and two books: The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer, and the Collins Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More, as well as the Woodland Trust website.

This week let’s look at the fourth letter in the first aicme (NB: there is some debate about where this letter fits in the Ogham alphabet. Several sources* including my Druid College course materials and my own Ogham set have Saille as the 4th letter, while Greer, following Robert Graves, places it 5th. I’m going with the majority interpretation here):

4. WillowSaille (pronounced “Sahl-yuh”), which corresponds to the letter S.

“A few of grace, fluidity, receptivity and response” (Greer).

Saille is associated with the Willow tree, Salix spp. There are over 400 species of Willow, ranging from trees to prostrate sub-shrubs, which grow on all continents except Antarctica.

In the UK, the majority of native willows are either Crack Willow, Salix fragilis, or White Willow, Salix alba, although due to ornamental planting the non-native Chinese Weeping Willow, Salix babylonica, is quite popular as well.

The Crack Willow and White Willow are difficult to tell apart, and can produce viable hybrid trees. The one in the image above is Salix alba, the White Willow. In both cases, mature trees can grow to up to 50-60 feet and have an appearance suggestive of a large branch stuck in the ground. The leaves are slender, elongated ovals, and are deciduous. They are both dioecious, meaning that “male” and “female” flowers are found on separate trees and need to cross-pollinate. Both males and females produce catkins, with the male ones tending to be more yellow. The Crack Willow gets its name from its brittle branches which crack easily in winter.

Willows grow in wet ground near rivers, lakes and ponds. Their roots are known to help stabalise riverbanks. They support a number of caterpillars, pollinating insects and roosting birds. Willow is often used for weaving and can be easily shaped to make fences, wickerwork, or boat frames.

Hippocrates, Galen and Pliny the Elder all affirm the use of Willow bark to ease aches and pains and reduce fevers. The bark can be used to make teas or tinctures, and contains the compound salicin, which is the active ingredient in aspirin.

In folklore, Willow can be found associated with inspiration and prophecy. The word “Witch” or “Wicca” may derive from the same root as “Wicker”, with suggestions of bending and shaping like the Willow.

In divination, Saille can signify moving with the flow of events; intuition; dreaming; the unconscious; letting go and responding to the moment.

 

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30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 4 – Foundations: the Three Realms

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Barefoot, the Druid stands on the shoreline. The sand and small pebbles shift beneath the soles of their feet, embracing them. The gentle waves of the cool ocean reach their toes, each one a greeting kiss, bringing stories of far-off places and unfathomable depths. The Druid raises their arms to the sky stretching out far overhead, the light wispy clouds moving slowly by, the gulls wheeling and calling high above. They fix their eyes on the horizon line, and the headland reaching out towards it. Land, sea and sky tremble together, breathing as one.

The three realms of Druid tradition, as I understand and practice it, do not refer to an “upper”, “lower” and “middle” world, but to the Celtic division of Land, Sea and Sky. Unlike the vertical axis of the three worlds model, these realms exist together, here and now. The classic Celtic image of the triple spiral, or triskelion, illustrates the Three Realms nicely, each one separate yet connected to the others, each one co-existing only because of the other two.

The three realms speak to us of radical interconnectedness and interdependence. As John Muir said; “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

The land beneath us is fed by the waters around us, the great cycle of rain, rivers, groundwater, ocean, evaporation. The waters are moved by the air, in clouds, and that same air gives breath and life to the land. Everything is part of everything else, and we stand on the same land, drink the same water, breathe the same air as our ancestors, human and non-human, for hundreds of millions of years.

The three realms point to the liminal, the permeable, the trembling boundaries that are at the heart of Druidry, and the source of inspiration, magic and wonder.

Joanna van der Hoeven points out that as Druidry developed in Britain and Ireland, the central focus on the three realms is simply a natural growth of people’s relationships with the land: “As an island, surrounded by the sea, with a vast range of geography ranging from wetland to mountains, dry heathland to deep ancient forest, the presence of the three realms is all around us at all times.”

The three realms are often honoured in Druid ritual, not just as an external appreciation but as a way of changing our awareness and consciousness of our place at the centre of them all: the land that sustains us, the water that nourishes us, the air that we depend on.

They can also be honoured by the Druid in practical action. You can honour the land by picking litter, growing wildlife-friendly plants, composting, walking the old ways, protesting desecration of the land by fracking. You can honour the sea by supporting charities like the Marine Conservation Society, participating in beach cleanings, taking care not to use more water at home than you need, exploring your local waterways and coasts. You can honour the sky by reducing the amount of pollution you put into it: cycle, walk or take the bus rather than drive when possible, fly very infrequently, support clean air laws.

The three realms are not just a poetic metaphor, they are this land, these waters, this sky. To stand at the centre as a Druid is to enter into relationship with the three realms, to honour them not just in ritual but every day.

References:

van der Hoeven, J. The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices. Moon Books, 2016.

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Explorations in Ogham: Week 3 – Fearn, Alder

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Each Wednesday, I’ll be exploring one of the original 20 Ogham letters and the trees associated with them. If you want to catch up on last week’s, follow the “Ogham” tag at the bottom of this post, or see the link HERE.

As always, I’ll be using my wonderful set of Ogham fews made from the correct corresponding wood by Green Woman Crafts, and two books: The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer, and the Collins Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More, as well as the Woodland Trust website.

This week let’s look at the third letter in the first aicme (NB: there is some debate about where this letter fits in the Ogham alphabet. Several sources* including my Druid College course materials and my own Ogham set have Fearn as the 3rd letter, while Greer, following Robert Graves, places it 4th. I’m going with the majority interpretation here):

3. AlderFearn (pronounced “Fair-n”),  which corresponds to the letter F or V.

“A few of oracular guidance, protection and transitions from realm to realm” (Greer).

Fearn is associated with the Alder tree, Alnus spp. There are some 30 species of Alder, of which the most frequently growing in the UK is the Common Alder, Alnus glutinosa. Alders are conical trees which can reach around 20m and live for 60 years. The bark is dark and often found covered in lichen. Purple-grey leaf buds grow on long stems, which can be sticky to the touch. The leaves are dark green, leathery and shaped like a tennis racquet. Alders produce catkins between February and April.

Alder naturally grows near rivers, ponds and lakes and thrives in damp cool areas, where its roots can also help protect against soil erosion. Alder supports the caterpillars of several moth species, the catkins provide nectar for early pollinating insects, and the seeds are eaten by small finches. Alder trees, especially in wet conditions, provide home for mosses, lichens and fungi.

According to the Woodland Trust, Alder is noted for its symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Frankia alni, which is found in the root nodules and improves soil fertility.

Alder bark contains an anti-inflammatory called salicin, which can be used to treat insect bites and skin irritations.

Given the mysterious wet and marshy locations where it grows, Alder has mythological associations with faery. When cut, the wood turns deep orange-red, giving the impression of bleeding. As such, Irish folklore considers it unlucky to pass an Alder tree on your journey.

In divination, Fearn can signify protection and guidance; a bridge across deep waters; steadfastness; good advice from others or your own inner depths; spiritual guidance and insight; the presence of the gods; an unexpected way through a difficulty.

*Other sources for the order of Ogham fews:

Ancient Scripts: [http://www.ancientscripts.com/ogham.html].

Dangler, M. The ADF Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010.

Herne, R. Old Gods, New Druids. O Books, 2009.

Jones, M. “The Celtic Tree Calendar”, Jones’s Celtic Encyclopedia, 2004 [http://www.maryjones.us/jce/celtictreecalendar.html].

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30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 3 – Foundations: Nature and Earth

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“Druidry…is not only about scholarship, ritual and magic; it is also about connecting with the land and the Earth Mother who birthed and sustains us. Druidry cannot be divorced from nature, nor should it be” – Michael J. Dangler.

The first book on Paganism I ever read, by Joyce and River Higginbotham, describes Pagan religions as “Earth-Centred”. This was one of the main things that appealed to me about Paganism, and Druidry in particular. Druidry is explicitly a nature-focused path. The word “Druid” may derive from Celtic words for Oak, Duir, and Knowledge, wid, meaning that “Druid” can loosely translate as “oak-knower”, one who carries the wisdom of the oak and, by extension, the wild.

Druidry takes inspiration from the natural world; an old Druidic triad speaks of three candles that illuminate all darkness: nature, truth and knowledge.

As an Earth-based path, Druidry does not seek to transcend the world, but to engage with it as it really is. “Nature” as a concept can easily become a symbol of some pristine wilderness out there somewhere, and not the litter-strewn pavements, overgrown vacant lots, city parks and back gardens we pass by every day. It is easy to forget that all this is nature too, that we are also nature, and that all of it is sacred. As Joanna van der Hoeven writes in Paganism 101: ” I am a part of the collective world. I am a part of the landscape, along with the plants and animals, the spirits of place, the furniture. I am not opposed to nature. I am nature. I cannot be separate from it”.

Many Druids hold to an animistic philosophy: that consciousness, or personhood, exists in all things. John Halstead writes: “Animism posits a world full of persons: human persons, yes, but also hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons…and yes, tree persons.”

For the animist, a person is “a being that exists in relationship”. For the Druid, we are in relationship with the Earth, with nature, every moment of our lives. If Druidry is to be really about “loving nature and allowing that love to inspire us to live our lives accordingly” (van der Hoeven), then that worldview comes with responsibility.

As humans are part of the ecosystem, and as human consumption is causing ecological damage, those of us who walk Earth-based paths have a responsibility to work towards healing the Earth, and so doing, healing ourselves. We can do this by changing how we live, by taking less and giving more back. Following Canadian ecologist David Suzuki‘s “Nature Challenge”, ten steps we can do to make our lives greener such as recycling, choosing energy-efficient appliances, using public transport rather than driving where possible and reducing meat consumption, is a good place to begin. The Druidry Handbook extends this to twenty steps to a more natural life, and while I’m not at all 20 yet, it is a good thing to aim for.

Druids can also work politically to protect the Earth. While some feel that Druidry should not be political, I would argue that as the ancient Druids were known to be advisors to chiefs and kings, and could stop wars, it is incumbent on those of us who claim the name today to do what we can to stand in that heritage. We may not advise kings, but we can write to our elected representatives to encourage them to support environmental legislation. We can vote for parties and candidates with sound ecological policies. We can join or support protest movements and campaigns, like Druids Against Fracking and the Warriors’ Call, who are on the front lines defending Albion from fracking right now. We can donate to environmental charities such as Greenpeace or the Woodland Trust, with our time or our money (or both).

One movement I want to highlight is Mission Lifeforce, a “growing international movement of Earth Protectors” based on a legal document, the Earth Protectors Trust Fund Document, who are collectively working to create and pass an international law making Ecocide (defined as loss or damage to, or destruction of ecosystem(s) of a given territory(ies), such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.”) an international crime. I saw Jojo Mehta from Mission Lifeforce speak at Druid Camp last year and was inspired by her dedication, belief and optimism that one day this law will be passed and the Earth can be legally protected.

As Druids, as Pagans, as people of the land, we do not just connect with the Earth in ritual and meditation, we live within the web of nature, the global ecosystem known as Gaia, and we can all try, in our own small way, to help make our little corner of nature that bit greener, that bit more safe for all persons, human and non-human alike.

References:

Dangler, M. The ADF Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010.

Greenfield, T. (ed.) Paganism 101: an introduction to Paganism by 101 Pagans. Moon Books, 2014.

Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: spiritual practice rooted in the living earth. Weiser, 2006.

Halstead, J. “Do trees have rights? Toward an ecological politics”, Gods and Radicals, 2018 [https://godsandradicals.org/2018/01/30/do-trees-have-rights-toward-an-ecological-politics/]

Higginbotham, J. and Higginbotham, R. Paganism: an introduction to Earth-centered religions”. Llewellyn, 2008.

Mission Lifeforce [https://www.missionlifeforce.org/]

Suzuki, D. The David Suzuki Reader: a lifetime of ideas from a leading activist and thinker. Greystone, 2014.

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Imbolc

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If you use calendar dates for your festivals, today marks Imbolc, the first festival of Spring, a feat of the home and hearth associated with the goddess Brigid, patron of the flame and the well. I tend to mark the “cross-quarter” (i.e. non-astronomical) festivals by natural signs, so for me Imbolc is when the snowdrops and aconites emerge from the soil, signalling the end of the dark, wet winter and the beginning of the lighter seasons.

The name “Imbolc” comes from “ewe’s milk” and signifies the start of the lambing season. In The Awen Alone, Joanna van der Hoeven writes: “This is a time for preparing the seeds of what we wish to achieve in the coming year, dreamt up over the long winter nights, but not yet ready to plant – we must still keep these dreams safe.”

Imbolc is a time for rituals of renewal and cleansing, for house cleaning and house blessing, for working in the garden to clear away the remnants of winter and prepare the ground for new planting. The Imbolc ritual in The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer states:

Now is the time of the first plow, the birth of lambs in the pastures, the washing of the face of the Earth, and the blessing of candles. The torches burn as the young goddess returns to the waxing day.

May Imbolc bring you blessings and peace.

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Explorations in Ogham: Week 2 – Luis, Rowan

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Each Wednesday, I’ll be exploring one of the original 20 Ogham letters and the trees associated with them. If you want to catch up on last week’s, follow the “Ogham” tag at the bottom of this post, or see the link HERE.

As always, I’ll be using my wonderful set of ogham fews made from the correct corresponding wood by Green Woman Crafts, and two books: The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer, and the Collins Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More, as well as the Woodland Trust website.

This week let’s look at the second letter in the first aicme:

2. RowanLuis (pronounced “Lweesh”), which corresponds with the letter L.

“A few of protection, discernment, and inner clarity” (Greer).

Although the word Luis can be translated as “Herb”, it is associated with the Rowan tree, Sorbus spp. In the UK, the most common Rowan species is Sorbus aucuparia, also known as the Mountain Ash due to the fact that it grows well at high altitudes and the leaves look similar to the Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), although the two species are not related. You can often see them planted as street trees or in parks as well as growing wild, particularly in highland areas.

Rowan trees can live for up to 200 years. They have smooth silver bark and pinnate (feathered) leaves which are long and oval in shape. The leaves are often eaten by caterpillars, the flowers provide nectar for pollinating insects, and the berries are food for birds in Autumn. They are also edible by humans and are high in vitamin C. The berries can be used to make sauces and preserves.

In mythology, Rowan is often used for protection against spirits and evil magic. Its old Celtic name was fid na n’druad, meaning “wizard’s tree” or “Druid’s tree”.

In divination, Luis can signify clarity and attention to details; concentration on the task at hand; purification; a danger to be avoided or overcome; a choice between two paths.

 

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30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 2 – Foundations: Cosmology

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The word cosmology has both a scientific definition and a philosophical/religious one. In science, it refers to the study of the origin of the universe and its structures and dynamics.

As a modern Pagan, and a lover of science, I see scientific cosmology as being not only true, but thrilling. The big bang, the expansion of the universe, the formation of planets and galaxies from swirling cosmic dust, the origin of heavy elements in exploding stars, the fact that we are all, quite literally, made of stardust, the awe-inspiring and terrifying inevitability of the heat death of the universe…these things are truly amazing and make me feel both inexpressibly small yet also unbreakably connected to everything.

In contemplation of the vastness of space, I feel the Sacred – not a God, but something much older than any concept of deity; Dante’s “love that moves the sun and other stars”.

Looking at the word cosmology from a mythic, philosophical, Druid perspective, we can uncover something of how the ancient Celts and pre-Celtic “proto-Druidic” people might have considered the cosmos to be structured. We lack a clear creation myth from these cultures, but we can draw out some threads. The alignment of megalithic and neolithic stone circles and burial mounds to solstices and equinoxes evidences a clear and precise understanding of astronomy and the apparent movement of the sun throughout the year. Their circular form hints at an understanding of orbital motion and our place in the universe. Combining awareness of these earlier stone structures with philosophical insights from the continental Celts by way of the ancient Greeks, Druids may well have had a sophisticated “scientific” cosmology as well as a mythic one.

The mythic cosmology of Druidry seemed to centre not on a “three worlds” division as often seen in Indo-European religion, where you have a vertical axis linking the Underworld beneath, the Middle world where we live, and the Upper world which was the home of the gods (see the Greek Hades/Earth/Olympus or the Norse Hel/Midgard/Asgard). While you can see this in some Celtic tales, where the ancestors are thought to live within the burial mounds for instance, the Celtic schema is often more complex. The sidhe, or faeries, were also thought to live in mounds and under the earth, spirits of the dead could ride through the sky, and the gods were found in mountains, sacred groves, lakes, oceans and just about anywhere. On top of that, the distinction between ancestor, faery, spirit and god is often a blurry and permeable one.

The more striking division in Celtic cosmology seems to be that of three realms: the Land, the Sea and the Sky. Unlike the three worlds, the three realms exist on a horizontal axis, or perhaps the image of a triskelion or triple spiral would be more appropriate. The three realms exist here, in this world. John Beckett points out that “we can see and touch the land, the sea and the sky – the three realms obviously exist in this world.”

Rather than a vertical hierarchy, this three realm cosmology points to a radical interconnectedness and a sense of liminality and permeability. Gods, ancestors, spirits, faeries, mortals, all dwell in each of these realms at once: we live on the earth, we sail and fish in the sea, we breathe the air. The realms are not distinct: at the shoreline, all three meet and move together.

Within modern Druidry, some groups use a vertical three worlds model, citing the Indo-European roots of Celtic culture as a guide. Others make use of the classical Greek division into the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In Druid College, we consider the Land, the Sea and the Sky with the sacred Fire at the centre of them all.

Iolo Morganwg, one of the founders of the 18th century Druid Revival, wrote of a cosmology of movement between three circles of manifestation: from Annwn, the cauldron of creation, life was said to move to Abred, the physical world, and then beyond to Gwynfydd, a form of afterlife that was also the start of a new journey. Beyond that was Ceugant, infinity itself. Whether Iolo’s cosmology was “authentic” to the ancient Druids, it remains an influential idea in modern Druidry today.

In the end, of course, all of these cosmologies are myths – they are not intended as literal descriptions of the universe and how it works. They rather tell us something about ourselves, and offer imaginative illustrations of our place in the world of nature. And as such, they should be worked with, adapted, developed, and above all “wild-crafted” to organically emerge in relationship with the land where you live, right now. What the ancient Druids may or may not have believed is far less relevant than your own connection with this land, that river, those mountains.

As Gordon Cooper of the Ancient Order of Druids in America writes:

“The creation and realization of a personal cosmology is an element critical for the aspiring druid…The best advice for many would-be druids is to throw out all references apart from the Farmer’s Almanac (or a copy of Sky and Telescope), get a thermometer and barometric pressure gauge, buy an astrolabe, a basic drafting set with compass, graph paper and protractor, maps and a good compass, a box of 96 crayons and art pads to record the changing plants and seasons in sketches, and to try sleeping under the open sky for as many nights as possible.”

References:

Beckett, John: Unpopular Pagan Opinions: I Don’t Believe in the Three Worlds. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2018/01/dont-believe-three-worlds.html)

Cooper, Gordon: Wild-crafting the Modern Druid (https://aoda.org/Articles/Wild_crafting_the_Modern_Druid.html)

Greer, John Michael: The Druidry Handbook. Weiser, 2006.

Hopman, Ellen Evert: Two Seasons, Three Worlds, Four Treasures, Five Directions: the Pillars of Celtic Cosmology and Celtic Reconstructionist Druidism. (https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/other-paths/druidry-dharma/two-seasons-three-worlds-four-treasures-five-directions-pillars)

 

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