Fire

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“Let us pray with a Good Fire” – From the Rig Veda

The final element in the classical four-element schema is fire. Unlike earth, water and air, fire is of a different kind; it is a reaction, a creation from a source of fuel, a source of ignition, and a source of oxygen. Thus, unlike the others, you can create it at will.

Fire has always been part of many world religions, and the concept of lighting a candle as a prayer is seen across Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, various forms of Paganism and beyond. Perhaps this is because fire is a natural symbol for the “spiritual”, that which is beyond our grasp, ever changing and fleeting.

“She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes” – Pagan chant

It seems likely that fire was first discovered by early hominids in nature, as the result of a lightning strike or forest fire, but once humans learned how to make fire, to tame it and use it for cooking and heating, it was a great leap forward for civilisation and may even, as primatologist Richard Wrangham suggests in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, have led to the evolution of our large brains.

Certainly fire was seen as sacred by early Pagans, who had gods and goddesses of the hearth, the flame, the forge and the fire of the sun. Its ability to change and transform, to cook food, to burn wood, to melt metal to forge into new forms, was no doubt seen as a magical, even divine, gift (as in the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to give to humans).

Even today in secular society, we see elements of fire-worship remaining in traditions such as lighting candles on a birthday cake (to be blown out with a wish), putting lights (originally candles) on Christmas trees and, in the UK, lighting huge bonfires on 5 November.Wherever people gather, we tend to do so around fire, whether it’s a romantic candle lit dinner, a comforting hearth in a country pub, or toasting marshmallows around a campfire.

In ADF Druidry, a tradition I have worked with, fire is seen as really the one key essential for a Druid rite, and forms part of the “Triple Hallows” of fire, well and tree. Michael J. Dangler, an ADF priest, has an ongoing project called “The Flame of Hope”, where he and other ADF members are lighting one candle a day every day for the next four years, to shine a light of hope throughout the turmoil of the world. You can follow along on Facebook at Tending the Flame of Hope.

The Celtic triple element system does not include fire, focusing instead on land, sea and sky, but, as Graeme Talboys writes in The Druid Way Made Easy, “Fire is also present, but not regarded as separate. Rather, it is the spirit that inspires the rest of the world”.

May the flame of hope illumine our hearts in the darkest times.

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Image from Michael J. Dangler (Chronarchy) on Tumblr.

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Among the reeds

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So, taking my own advice, I spent the day yesterday out in nature, away from news and phones and the political world. Together with my wonderful wife, I went to a nature reserve nearby and spent the day wildlife-watching.

Getting out in the open air, out in a natural setting with the birds and creatures for company, reminded me what my Druidry is all about, and how important it is to put down the computers and books, to stop reading about Druidry and to experience real, wild nature in all its wonders, even on a freezing cold January day!

The sound of the wind rushing through the reeds was unlike anything I have heard before, and it really brought home to me the sense of air as the breath and song of the world.

I managed to spot a muntjac and several fallow deer, plenty of mallards, moorhens and coots, flocks of finches and tits, an unidentified raptor (possibly a hobby, but too far away to identify properly even with binoculars) and I heard the unmistakable sound of a barn owl.

When human concerns get too much, it is good to get out into nature and remember that we are but one part of an interconnected community of beings.

 

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The day something broke

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Something broke inside me today. Some wall, some shell, some badly forged armour or shield or something.

Since Brexit, since Trump, I have been broken. The world I love has changed, and I fear for it. That fear has paralysed me, despite all the good advice and keep-going hope I’ve been writing lately, I can’t seem to listen to myself.

I stopped. I stopped caring for myself, and saw this blank detachment from my own life as somehow insulating me from the horrors going on outside. It didn’t work, it couldn’t work, but there it was.

So my days became robotic, routine. Wake after a sleepless night, go to work, spend half the day glued to the car-crash unfolding on Twitter and the news, come home, try to escape into TV, go to bed, pretend to sleep. Repeat ad nauseam.

My Druid practice? Withered. Forgotten in the midst of fear.

My health? Ignored, wasted away to comfort-eating and sedentary nothingness.

The joy of life? Lost. Guilt tells me not to enjoy life while others fear for theirs.

But this evening, for no apparent reason, something broke. And I saw what I had become, and how far that is from what I want to be, need to be, in this world.

I don’t know how to move on from here, but I know I must. If despair wins, then the forces of evil win.

Self-care is not selfish. I’ve read the words a thousand times, heck I’ve written them. But now I need to embrace them, with my whole being.

And so, to restart.

Daily Druid practice, a small five-minute devotion at my home shrine in the morning (probably using Michael J. Dangler’s Crane Breviary and Guidebook as inspiration).

Daily exercise. Yoga would be a good place to start, followed by going back to the strength training I used to enjoy.

Eating better. Junk food is just that, junk. It does nothing for physical or mental health in the long run.

Spending more time outdoors, away from a screen. Getting back in touch with the land, the waters and the sky, the roots and heart of my Paganism.

Switching off the damn phone. I will still read the news to keep informed, it’s more important now than ever, but I don’t need to be on it 24/7. I need to step away and allow myself space to breathe.

Fighting where it matters. Going to protest marches and writing letters to my elected representatives rather than sharing online petitions that will be read by nobody. Focusing on one or two issues (the environment, LGBT rights) and not trying to solve every problem at once.

It’s going to be a hard few years, and burn out is a real danger. So is apathy. I hope that by doing the above steps, I can walk that fine line between the two.

And so it goes.

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Get out there

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“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet yet lucid air, sit quietly a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; you will outlive the bastards.”

-Edward Abbey (1927-1980), American author and essayist.

Quote shared by BadHombreLandsNPS on Twitter, “Protecting rugged scenery, fossil beds, 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie & wildlife from two-bit cheetoh-hued despots.”

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Love (still) trumps hate

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“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” -Leonard Cohen

This weekend saw anger, hatred, ego and fear elevated to the most powerful position in the world. This week also saw threatening storm clouds at home, warning of hard and dark times to come.

Yet, in the midst of fear, this week also saw people who refused to go quietly into a dystopian future, who refused to give up hope. Around the globe, hundreds of thousands of women and men marched in solidarity in what is being described as one of the largest protest events in history.

These protests are not “sore losers” who refuse to accept a democratic outcome, as opponents childishly portray them. These are people who are using their democratic right to dissent, to speak their voice and to fight for their rights and the rights of others.

This is what democracy looks like.

I was privileged to be able to attend two small rallies in my home town this week, one to call for a strong EU and a halt to the damaging severance planned by the government, and one to stand up to racism and bigotry in the wake of ascendant and vicious fascism here and abroad.

These were both powerful statements against and powerful statements for. Against hatred and division, and for unity and love.

Even in times when evil seems to triumph, goodness flowers, as tenacious as a weed. This is the crack where the light gets in. This is the glint of hope shining like an evening star through the darkness of fear.

This is the future fighting to be born.

“And in Knowledge, the knowledge of Justice; And in the knowledge of Justice, the Love of it” -Druid prayer

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Air

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Following along my “journey through the elements” from Earth and Water,I have been spending time recently developing my connection to air. In some ways, this has been the most difficult element to work with yet, as it seems so ephemeral and insubstantial. It literally slips through your fingers if you try to catch it.

Yet in other ways, it is the element that we are all most intimately connected with at all times. Like a fish swimming in the ocean probably doesn’t notice the water, so it is easy not to notice the air all around us and our breath in and out as we exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide and fill our lungs with the breath of life.

In some Hindu myths, the universe is the exhalation of Brahma and it will fold back into itself on Brahma’s inhalation. This link with breath, air and creativity is found across cultures, from the Hindu prana to the Chinese chi, the Hebrew ruach and the Druidic nwyfre. Even the word “spirit” simply means “breath”. “Inspiration” is literally “breathing in”. Breathing meditations can provide a simple yet effective way of connecting with the very air we need to live.

Sitting under a tree makes this more effective, as we exchange in a relationship of mutual giving. The tree consumes carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, and we consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide. We inhale, the tree exhales.

Another way of connecting with air is cloud-watching. And, since air is traditionally associated with reason and the intellect, rather than mere daydreaming, it’s worth spending some time learning about the different cloud types and how each one is formed. Doing that can help you learn what the predominant clouds in your local bioregion are, and what they tell you about your region’s meteorology.

Cirrus clouds are delicate and fibrous and appear in patches or bands, sometimes called “mare’s tails”. Cirrostratus are thin veils of cloud that often cause halo effects around the sun and moon. Cirrocumulus clouds form the “mackerel sky” well-known to coastal folk. The big fluffy clouds of children’s drawings are Cumulus clouds, and the featureless thick grey layer that so often covers British skies and brings inevitable rain are Nimbostratus.

Learning about these types, and the science behind them, can help you connect with the great powers of the air and sky that in ancient times were mythologised as sylphs, and a modern, scientific understanding does nothing to diminish their wonder. If anything knowing more about the skies enhances the sense of awe and humility I feel when gazing up at the ever-changing clouds.

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Happy New Year

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After taking a break from blogging over the festive season, I wanted to check back in at the start of this new year.

2016 has been a difficult one, both globally and personally, and it looks like the world in 2017 will continue to be uncertain and challenging. Much of what we love will be under attack from politicians and big business, and there will be some tough times ahead, of that I’m sure.

But, hope is still rising. People around the world are coming together to do great things, to defend the planet and her people and creatures, and to fight hatred in all its forms.

For me, I plan on being more active this year, and also deepening my Druid practice to give me a firm foundation on which to engage meaningfully with the world.

May you all have a hopeful and happy new year, and may 2017 be the year we stand firm and put down our roots.

In other news, the book I contributed an essay to, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans edited by John Halstead, has been chosen by the Pagan Tama blog on Patheos (which is a seriously cool blog, discussing Shinto-Paganism among other things) as the Pagan Book of the Year!

Megan Manson writes:

Because non-theistic Paganism can be seen as rejecting Pagan deities on the surface, the idea of godless Pagans is controversial for some. Is it appropriate for atheists to define themselves as Pagan? Or are they misappropriating the term? The essays in Godless Paganism all reach the same conclusion: Rather than rejecting the idea of deities outright, atheist Pagans are re-defining what “deity” means within the Pagan context. Quite simply, they are Pagans who take great meaning and fulfillment from the nature-based and mystical aspects of Paganism, but want to reconcile this with 21st century rational, scientific outlooks on life…

Godless Paganism is a very valuable contribution to the world of Pagan literature – in some ways, an essential contribution, as it’s one of the few works out there in which non-theistic Pagans have openly expressed themselves and been given a chance to argue their case for this rather different interpretation of what it means to be Pagan. Not only that, but Godless Paganism shows a very real solution to the very real problem of reconciling modernity with tradition, and spirituality with science: by putting science and naturalism at the heart of spirituality, and by giving people the freedom to define their spiritual experience however they see fit.

I’m very proud to be part of this work, along with so many other incredible writers from across the Pagan community, and to share in giving voice to non-theistic and naturalistic Paganism to the wider world.

Godless Paganism is available to buy online via Lulu.

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