Home Shrine update

It’s been a while since I posted a picture of my home shrine, and it has changed somewhat since I first set it up. For one thing, it’s moved room and is now in the study upstairs, making it set apart from the “everyday” a bit more and also easier for me to see and use first thing in the morning. The (blurry) image below shows the new set-up:

Home Shrine updated. Photo by me on a rubbish phone!

Home Shrine updated. Photo by me on a rubbish phone!

The shrine is still set up with the key symbols of ADF Druidry: the fire, the well and the tree. My current tree is an ash sapling which was growing wild in the garden and I re-potted and moved indoors. I hope to be able to train it as a bonsai if it thrives. The ash is symbolic, as it is often associated with Yggdrasil, the Norse world-tree.

The Three Kindred are also represented, with a skull for the Ancestors, a clay mouse for the Nature-kin and my little Thor statue I picked up in Norway for the Shining Ones. I am feeling more drawn to look at the Norse hearth-culture since that trip, and Thor is a good reminder of this for me. The stone next to the tree is one I picked up from a beach by a fjord in Flam, and I intend to add little stones, shells etc. from other places I visit.

The cloth bag on the front right holds my Ogham set, which I use daily, drawing one stave to give me a “thought for the day” to reflect on.

The shrine has certainly developed and changed as I’ve gone on with the Dedicant Path, in a way that I think reflects my own developments as I explore Paganism and Druidry more fully. There are still some changes and additions I would like, such as a nice incence holder and an offering-bowl, but they will come in time. Much like the Druid path itself, I think a shrine is never “finished”.

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Personal Paganism

Standing stone on Tresco. Photo by me.

Standing stone on Tresco. Photo by me.

This week, the Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year book asks me to reflect on the questions I considered way back at the start of the DP course.

Looking back, I wrote that I hoped to learn new ways to connect with nature and the seasons, and create a meaningful relationship with the natural world. I think that the continued Nature Awareness exercises have certainly made me more aware of nature in my local area, and the fellow-creatures I share my space with.

Meditation has proven to be difficult, as I expected, and I’ve stopped and started the Mental Discipline requirement several times. Currently, I’m working more on doing a short daily devotional in the mornings, with a very brief meditation, rather than anything more intense. Showing up to the shrine is half the struggle!

The DP allows you to personalise your Paganism, to focus on what speaks to you and develop a relationship with a particular “hearth culture”. Despite my Irish heritage, the Irish/Gaelic gods have never really seemed accessible to me, and for a while I worked with a Gaulish/Brythonic culture, as it is the closest historically to the area of the UK in which I live. But after visiting Norway recently, I am feeling drawn to explore a Norse hearth a bit more, especially the Vanir as they seem more like the “gods of nature” as opposed to the Aesir as “gods of civilisation”. What this might lead to in time, I have no idea.

As I have written before, I consider myself a naturalist and a deeply sceptical agnostic (I joke that I’m a godless heathen), so I don’t see the gods as literally existing beings, but as mythic personifications of the forces and powers of nature itself. In this way, Thor (for instance) is not a “god of thunder”, he is the thunder itself. This is probably a minority view in ADF, and I do occasionally struggle with the language of realist “hard” polytheism used, but I take comfort in the fact that the DP handbook says:

None of this ‘doctrine’ is required for the work. We present it here only as a core game-rule around which are systems have been developed, and by which they operate.

I am happy to use this language and “game rule” as a thought experiment for now and see if my experiences change my views over timeThere is an exercise given for this part of the DP to attune oneself to the Three Kindreds by way of a simple ritual. I intend to do this in place of my standard daily devotional for the next few weeks, so I will let you know how it works out!

The other thing this week asks is to reflect on the First Oath, supposed to have been made at the start of the course.I’ll admit I’ve been putting this one off. I have started and drifted away from other Druid or Pagan study programmes before, and feel awkward about making any oaths or promises, but I should really revisit this at some point soon.

Sign in woods near Bergen. Photo by me.

Sign in woods near Bergen. Photo by me.

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Nine Virtues: Piety

Prayer. Image from WIkimedia Commons

Prayer. Image from WIkimedia Commons

Piety is defined by ADF as “Correct observance of ritual and social traditions, the maintenance of the agreements (both personal and societal) humans have with the gods and spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and study”. The  dictionary defines it as “reverence for God and devout fulfillment of religious obligations; dutiful respect or regard”.

I struggle with the inclusion of this particular virtue in the list. As an agnostic, naturalist and sceptic, I tend to think of the gods as mythic personifications of immense natural forces, which while I can feel reverence, worship and piety towards, I cannot “make agreements” with. It is interesting to note that neither Ian Corrigan’s list of virtues, nor the Asatru Nine Noble Virtues, both reproduced in the ADF handbook, include piety in their lists, which show that it is not a “universal” Pagan virtue in the same way as wisdom, for instance.

Coming from a background of strict Catholicism, piety has always been bound up with notions of guilt and sin, and abasement before a moralising, judging god, which makes me somewhat uncomfortable to say the least. Of course, this is not how piety is understood in Druidry, but words carry powerful associations.

The phrasing of the definition above is also a slight concern. If keeping societal agreements with a god is part of piety, then should I be going to the Church of England, as it is my society’s official state religion?

I feel much more comfortable with the latter half of the definition, “keeping the Old Ways through ceremony and study”. In this case, regular meditations, rituals and study can be seen as a manifestation of piety in themselves. Rather than the archetypal monk at prayer, a pious person can be one who searches, questions, looks inward to the self and outward to the world.

It is worth noting that the word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, which meant something like “devotion” and was applied to parents, kin and country as well as to the gods. It seems fitting, then, to apply pietas to nature as well.

Awe, wonder, reverence. Image from Mylifeyoga

Awe, wonder, reverence. Image from Mylifeyoga

I think that “piety” might better be construed as “reverence”, for something greater than oneself, whether this is thought of as a god, or a force, or simply nature itself. This reverence, to be of any value, has to be expressed through our actions. This is the heart of what I would think of as true piety, which is about how we act in response to the great mystery of reality.

Piety in this way can be about respect and building relationships, and encompasses the Buddhist ideas of “right action” and also “right thought”.

References:

ADF, Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009

Oxford English Dictionary for Students. Oxford University Press, 2006

Michael J. Dangler, The ADF Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010

 

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Third High Day recap: Beltane

FJord in Norway. Photo by me.

Fjord in Norway. Photo by me.

This Beltane was the first High Day that I did not celebrate with formal, ADF style, ritual. This is because I was on holiday in Norway over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

However, getting close to nature by sailing on the fjords and hiking in the woods and alpine meadows, which were starting to bloom with spring flowers, certainly felt more down-to-earth authentically “Pagan” than saying scripted words at my Home Shrine.

On Beltane day itself, I found myself in a small village in the hills by a fjord called Flam. I sat on the pebble beach by the water’s edge and did a simple “Two Powers” meditation, feeling the land beneath me, the waters around me and the sky above me. The sense of connection and energy felt doing this exercise out in the wild, in one of the most beautiful natural locations on earth, was definitely more powerful than doing it at home, and made me think a lot more about doing meditation and/or ritual outdoors much more in my daily life.

Flam brewery pub. Photo from Visit Norway.

Flam brewery pub. Photo from Visit Norway.

In modern Norse Paganism, the corresponding festival to Beltane (sometimes called Walpurgisnacht), is often seen as sacred to Freya, and as I was in Norway (and on Friday, Freya’s day), I drank a toast of lovely local craft beer to Freya in a brew-house built in the style of a Viking hall.

The rest of the day was spent in the company of my lovely other half, hiking, getting a train up to the snow-covered mountains, and generally enjoying being away. I bought a small Thor statue who now lives on my Home Shrine, although I am not a devotee of the Norse hearth culture, he is a nice reminder of a fantastic trip away, and a country that still seems deeply in touch with its pre-Christian Pagan heritage.

Hardangerfjord. Photo by me.

Hardangerfjord. Photo by me.

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Third High Day: Beltane

Image from FC Nikon on Flickr (CC 2.0)

Image from FC Nikon on Flickr (CC 2.0)

The “cross quarter” day of Beltane occurs on or around 1 May, in line with the folk tradition of May Day which is still celebrated throughout Britain and Europe with May fairs and the crowning of May Queens. This day marks the point halfway between the Vernal (Spring) Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and celebrates high spring.

At this time, flowers are in full bloom and trees in leaf. Birds sing loudly from every hedge and bush, declaring territory and calling to impress a mate. Philip Carr-Gomm writes: “However old we are, springtime can make us feel young again, and at Beltane we jump over the fires of vitality and youth and allow that vitality to enliven us”. Jumping over the fire here refers to a folk-tradition of doing just that at Beltane, which is often considered a “fire festival”. The flames symbolise life and fertility as well as the growing warmth of the sun at this time of year.

Higginbotham writes that, in modern Paganism, Beltane is “an exuberant holiday that celebrates sexuality, fertility, energy and the unfolding of spring”. While a narrow literal emphasis on heterosexual procreation is undoubtedly outdated for the 21st century, sexuality and sensuality are still a major focus of this High Day, which marks a noted difference between Paganism’s celebration of embodied human sexuality and the Christian concept of sex as “sinful” except in certain, restricted, circumstances.

“Fertility”  can also be understood metaphorically, as Carr-Gomm states: “we might use this time as an opportunity to connect to our sensuality in a positive creative way”. ADF also state that fertility, one of the nine Virtues, can refer to “Bounty of mind, body and spirit, involving creativity…[and] an appreciation of the physical, sensual, nurturing”.

Maypole dancing. Image from Geograph (CC 2.0)

Maypole dancing. Image from Geograph (CC 2.0)

A particularly well-known Beltane tradition that is still practiced today is the Maypole dance. The pole, possibly originally a phallic symbol, is danced around by men and women with intertwining ribbons. Higginbotham sees the dancers as representing the forces of life and death being interwoven together, as Beltane balances out Samhain, so life balances out death. Hutton suggests that the Maypole was a late introduction to British folk tradition, possibly arriving from Scandinavia in the 14th century, and was not linked to early Pagan tradition. Either way, it is part of modern Pagan customs and folklore.

Much of the mythology surrounding Beltane, such as the first settlement of Ireland by Partholan, and the later invasion by the Tuatha de Danaan, can be interpreted as having to do with “the forces of light/safety defeating the forces of darkness/danger” (Bonewits). Beltane can be seen as a time for uniting opposites, for connecting to the light and dark of the year, and for celebrating the beauty and bounty of high spring.

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.

Carr-Gomm, Philip. Druid mysteries: ancient wisdom for the 21st century. London: Rider, 2002.

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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Nine Virtues: Wisdom

Wisdom by Frederic Bisson on Flickr (CC2.0)

Wisdom by Frederic Bisson on Flickr (CC2.0)

Wisdom is the first of ADF’s Nine Virtues, which together form the ethical framework of ADF Druidry. Our Own Druidry defines wisdom as “Good judgement, the ability to perceive people and situations correctly, deliberate about and decide the correct response”. The Oxford Dictionary for Students defines it as: “The quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgement”, which is a very similar definition.

Wisdom may seem odd as a “first” virtue to write about, as it can be seen as the culmination and integration of all the other virtues, but it can equally be considered to be the foundation of any other virtue. To live a virtuous life, to participate in Aristotle’s eudaemonia, is to be both grounded in, and reaching towards, wisdom. The path of philosophy literally means “love of wisdom”, and wisdom itself seems to be something that comes with reflection, knowledge and experience. Plato’s Theaetetus quotes Socrates as saying “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and wisdom begins in wonder”.

As the philosophers of the Celts, wisdom was undoubtedly important to the ancient Druids, and should be important to modern Druids as well. In Celtic legends, wisdom is often sought for, but seems to be gained by those not looking for it. Finn MacCool accidentally gained the wisdom of the Salmon of Wisdom when he burnt his thumb cooking the fish for his mentor Fintan. Likewise, Gwion Bach received the Awen by accident, also burning his finger when three drops of the boiling potion flew from the cauldron he was tending for Ceridwen. Perhaps this hints that the way to wisdom is pradoxically to not seek after it. By contrast, in Norse mythology Odin gives up an eye and hangs himself from a tree for nine days and nights to gain the wisdom of the runes, suggesting that wisdom is hard to achieve and worth making sacrifices for.

Obi-Wan Kenobi. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Obi-Wan Kenobi. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Wisdom is more than simply knowledge of accumulated facts, as it implies a deep understanding and the ability to discern and make good judgements about your actions to bring about the best consequences. In this way, it is linked with the Buddhist concepts of right thought and right action. Being wise requires years of experience of the world and it is no coincidence that when we think of a wise person, the image that often springs to mind is of an aged sage, a Gandalf, Merlin or Obi-Wan type figure.

Wisdom is not a “thing” to gain once and for all, but a process of acting, reflecting and growth.

References:

ADF, Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009

Oxford English Dictionary for Students. Oxford University Press, 2006

Michael J. Dangler, The ADF Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010

Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Benjamin Jowett, Delphi Classics, 2012

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Ancestors

Celtic cross gravestone. Image from geograph.

Celtic cross gravestone. Image from geograph.

The Ancestors are one of the “Three Kindred” in ADF Druidry, and are honoured at every rite. It is tempting to think of ancestors as only one’s own parents and grandparents, the immediate family. However, the ancestors can be thought of as being in three categories.

The “Ancestors of Blood” are those of your own genetic lineage, not just immediate family but ancient ancestral groups like the Celtic peoples as well, all those who made *you* possible. In my case, this involves mostly Irish, Spanish and Polish ancestors.

The “Ancestors of Place” are those people who lived on the land you now live on, whose bones lie beneath the soil on which we walk. Here in the South East of the UK, this includes not only about a thousand years or so of Saxons and  Normans, but also Celtic tribes such as the Iceni, led by Boudicca.

The “Ancestors of Spirit” are all those whose lives and works inspire your heart and your path. These can be ancient Pagans, but they can also be people who have influenced us, including philosophers, scientists and writers. For me, this would include Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, Charles Darwin and others.

As a naturalist, I do not believe the ancestors live on after death as spirits. But they are ever-present in our thoughts and memories, as well as (for ancestors of blood) in our own bodies and genetic heritage. Philosopher and Druid Brendan Myers writes in Paganism 101:

A scientifically-minded person might want to deny that [the ancestors] live on as disembodied spirits…As an alternative, we could say that they live on in the form of a discernible presence embodied by the habits and characters and stories of their living descendents today. This alternative requires no supernatural element to be intelligible. Yet it seems to me no less spiritual.

Evolutionary tree. Image from "all creatures"

Evolutionary tree. Image from “all creatures”

Besides all of our human ancestors, I like to think about our evolutionary ancestry. Darwin’s glorious revelation showed that we are all related, and we share a common ancestor with all humans, an older one with all animals, and an even older ancestor (the Last Universal Common Ancestor, or LUCA) with all life on earth some 4 billion years ago. Looking at the deep roots of evolution’s tree of life, we can honour all our ancestors right back to thee origin of life itself, and recognise that we are kin with all that lives today.

Honouring the ancestors, whether by rituals such as leaving offerings for them at Samhain or visiting their graves, or by simple acts of remembering and telling their stories, is a vital part of being human. The ancestors literally and spiritually connect us to our history and tell us where we came from and who we are.

References:

ADF, Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009

Michael J. Dangler, The ADF Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth. Bantam, 2009

Trevor Greenfield (ed.), Paganism 101. Moon Books, 2014

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