A green way of dying

I know I’m reblogging a lot from the Green Hedge Druid at the moment, but that’s because their stuff is great! Death positivity is one of my other interests with a good deal of overlap with a nature-honouring Druid path, and this article gives a good introduction to some of those concepts.

The Green Hedge Druid

One of my many interests in life revolves around the death positive movement. Want to know what that is? Well the Order of the Good Death will sort you out.

Fundamentally, modern burial practices are incredibly destructive to the living, the dead, and to the planet. The peculiar obsession that we have in the West with embalming our dead, burying them in an incredibly expensive coffin, and then having that bank breaking coffin break down in the ground and leach any chemicals from it and the embalmed loved one contained within into the surrounding earth is just madness. And if you’ve spent some extra money and bought a plot so that your loved one is effectively enshrined in cement, never to return to the earth at all, well…there are some unpleasant truths about what happens in that particular instance that I will let you discover for yourself.

Whatever happens to…

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Explorations in Ogham: Week 9 – Coll, Hazel

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On Wednesdays, 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 second aicme, the ninth letter overall:

9. HazelColl (pronounced “Cull”), which corresponds to the letter C.

“A few of knowledge, creativity and inspiration” (Greer).

Coll means “Hazel tree”. There are around 15 Hazel species, and the Latin name for the genus, Corylus, has a linguistic connection to the Irish Coll. The most common Hazel in the UK is, unsurprisingly, Common Hazel, Corylus avellana.

Often coppiced or used in hedging, if left to grow Hazel can reach up to 12m and live for around 80 years. If coppiced, a Hazel’s lifespan can be greatly extended to reach several hundred years.

Hazel can be recognised by its oval, toothed, hairy leaves which turn vivid yellow before falling in autumn; and by its large yellow catkins which appear around mid-February before the leaves develop, and which hang in large clusters to spread pollen by the wind. Bees find it difficult to collect Hazel pollen and can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen is not sticky and actually repels one grain against another.

Hazel also produces nuts in autumn, which are edible by both humans and other animals. In Druid myth, Hazelnuts are seen as bestowing wisdom and inspiration. There are numerous variations on an ancient tale that nine Hazel trees grew around a sacred pool, dropping nuts into the water that were then eaten by a salmon, who became the Salmon of Wisdom (later caught by Fionn MacCumhail).

Hazel provides habitat for caterpillars of many moth species, and has long been associated with the dormouse (sometimes called the Hazel Dormouse). Not only are Hazelnuts used by dormice to fatten up for hibernation, but the dormice also eat the caterpillars that live on the leaves.

Hazel wood is used for fencing, and making the frames of traditional coracle boats. In spring, the young wood is so flexible it can be tied into a knot without breaking. Older branches are strong and sturdy and used for making walking sticks.I have a Hazel hedgerow in my garden, and my Druid staff is made from Hazel, which given its associations with wisdom and inspiration seems an appropriate choice.

In divination, Coll can signify knowledge, wisdom, talent, transformation and flexibility, the beginning of a new stage in life, communication and teaching.

Feminist pedagogy and paganism

Another excellent post from The Green Hedge Druid. Druidry is more gender-balanced than people think, but we could do better. The image of the old man with a beard is still the most prominent in media depictions of Druids, and the “Druid” archetype is often seen as male, especially contrasted with the “Witch” archetype as female. Let’s hear more diverse voices!

The Green Hedge Druid

I’m currently taking a short course in feminist pedagogy for my day job and so far it is really interesting, but also got me thinking about modern paganism. In a nutshell, feminist pedagogy is:

“…a perspective on teaching which is anti-sexist, and anti-hierarchical, and which stresses women’s experience, both the suffering our oppression has caused and the strengths we have developed to resist it”. (Berenice Fisher)

How does this relate to modern paganism? Well those who ascribe to this teaching approach also argue that:

“knowledge, truth, and reality have been constructed as if men’s experiences were normative, as if being human meant being male.” (Personal Narratives Group)

And it is that interpretation of reality being inherently patriarchal that really struck me. Because of course it is true. A book that I am currently reading for my course expands this idea further:

“Men traditionally have epistemological privilege. Epistemological privilege means that…

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30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 9 – Relationships: Ancestors

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The first thing most people think of when they think of “ancestors” is their immediate familial ancestry, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and the like. But in Druidry, the concept of who the ancestors are can be expanded, seeing our place in the wider tapestry of life, and our connection to a past richer and more expansive than we may have thought.

Joanna van der Hoeven writes about how;

“in Druidry, we honour not only our blood relatives, but also those ancestors of tradition (those who have shared our worldviews), and of place (those who are a part of our land).”

This wider view of ancestry appeals to me, as ancestor-veneration was always a sticking point for me in my Pagan practice. My relationship with my immediate blood ancestors is troubled at best, and there are scars there which, while time may fade, will never truly heal. While I respect certain ancestors for the gift of life, I choose not to honour them in memory. So, for me, to forge any relationship with the ancestors, I have to go beyond the immediate past and look to this broader conception.

My ancestors of blood are mostly Irish, descending from a line of local chief/kings in Munster, to the south of Ireland. Some of my genetic makeup also derives from the Spanish armada, who wrecked on Ireland’s south coast and in some cases, settled. I remain deeply proud of this heritage, and love Ireland very much. The other half of my blood ancestry is Polish, a country I know very little about but would be interested in visiting.

I think an over-emphasis on blood ancestry in Paganism can be unhelpful, and taken to the extreme, can lead to (or give unintended support to) racist ideas like only people with the “right” ancestry can practice Celtic or Norse Pagan paths. This is, of course, utterly anathema to Druidry. Knowing one’s own ancestry in no way means being against anyone else’s, or holding any concepts of superiority or purity. The Awen calls who it calls, and transcends boundaries of country.

My ancestors of tradition include Druids modern and ancient, but also for me anyone whose life and work has influenced me. So Charles Darwin, Terry Pratchett, Spinoza, Keats, Tolkien and many more who were not in any way Pagan are all included here.

Living in East Anglia, there is a long history of ancestors of place. Vikings, Normans, Saxons, Iceni, and other peoples have all lived here and left their mark in the landscape and the archaeological record.

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 in our own bodies and the soil beneath our feet. 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 descendants today. This alternative requires no supernatural element to be intelligible. Yet it seems to me no less spiritual.

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 the origin of life itself, and recognise that we are kin with all that lives today.

Joanna van der Hoeven also looks forward, to the “future ancestors”, those yet to come, and urges us to live lives that honour those future generations and the world they will inherit. I am childfree, and have made a choice to not have descendants of my own, but as Joanna writes:

“I will become a future ancestor of tradition, as well as having future ancestors of tradition, and the same can be said for being and having future ancestors of place”.

How we live today, the ethical choices we make, can have consequences that will be felt by those ancestors of the future, and keeping them in mind can help orient our decision-making, taking into account long-term effects not merely short-term gains. By doing so, we can craft a relationship which honours our past ancestors and our future ones.

References:

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

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

van der Hoeven, J. The Awen Alone. Moon Books, 2014

Explorations in Ogham: Week 8 – Tinne, Holly

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On Wednesdays, 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 second aicme, the eighth letter overall:

8. HollyTinne (pronounced “Chin-yuh”), which corresponds to the letter T.

“A few of courage, conflict and opposition” (Greer).

While the word Tinne has the literal meaning of “iron ingot” or “iron bar”, it is associated in the tree Ogham with Holly.

There are over 400 species of Holly, but the most common native species in the UK is the European Holly, Ilex aquifolium.

While often seen as a hedge or shrub, if left to grow Holly can reach up to 15m high and live for over 300 years. The leaves are very distinctive; dark green, glossy and oval, often spiky but smoothing out as the tree gets older. An evergreen plant, Holly is dioecious, meaning that “male” and “female” flowers occur on different trees and need to cross-pollinate to reproduce. Once pollinated, the flowers develop into the well-known red berries, which can remain on the tree throughout winter and provide an essential mid-winter food source for birds, especially the Mistle Thrush, known to vigorously guard the berries against other birds.

Both leaves and berries are toxic and can be harmful to humans and pets if ingested.

Holly is a common decorative plant, and is especially used to decorate homes around the Yuletide season, a custom still seen at Christmas time today. As an evergreen, Holly symbolises the continuity of life in the cold and dark of winter, and acts as the winter counterpart to the summer’s Oak, as the Holly King, ruler of the dark half of the year.

In divination, Tinne can signify conflict, challenge, a struggle against opposing forces, victory against the odds, a change of fortune and the need for decisive action.

Leave no trace – The Green Hedge Druid

You may have heard about the concept of leaving no trace when going out into nature. In a nutshell, you should leave things as you find them (if not slightly better in the case of others not following these rules and you needing to clean up after them!) and as if you were never there. […]

via Leave no trace — The Green Hedge Druid

(The excellent Green Hedge Druid has started regularly writing again, and I would definitely recommend popping over there and checking out their stuff. This post, on leaving no trace, carbon footrpints and practical environmental action, is a good place to start!)

30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 8 – Relationships: The gods

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John Michael Greer, in The Druidry Handbook, writes: “What are the gods?…Ask any three Druids and you’ll get at least six answers”.

Paganism in general, and Druidry in particular, has no specific theological stance on the existence and nature of deity. There are no creeds to recite, no doctrines to affirm. As a result, different Druids hold many different views about the nature of deity. There are polytheists, who believe in many gods, monotheists, who believe in one god, agnostic and atheist Druids who don’t relate to gods at all.

My own viewpoint shifts and changes with time, mood and experience. I try not to hold beliefs, as belief can too easily shift into a fundamentalist conviction of certainty. Sure, I have opinions, ideas, models, which can act as lenses through which to view the world, but I try not to hold on to them too tightly and to be open to new evidence, new experience.

I don’t believe in literal, personal, gods. For me, the idea of supernatural superhumans creating and/or controlling the forces of nature, answering prayers, occasionally doing miracles and the like, makes no sense. Pantheism would be the closest description to my own position. Influenced by the philosopher Spinoza, pantheism affirms that nature is all that exists, and that nature itself is divine. Spinoza wrote “deus, sive natura” (god, or nature) to reinforce the idea that what people may call a god is simply another word for the majestic wonder of nature.

In Living With Honour, Emma Restall-Orr writes: “For many Pagans, countless of the many gods are the forces of nature: the winds that race through the valley, the valley itself crafted by mud and rock and water, the ancient rivers that flow across and beneath the land, the woodland and meadows, the sun that holds our planet in thrall, and so on”.

The gods of Paganism, of our shared myths and tales, of ritual and song, of the ancestors and the land, are to me simply personifications of these forces of nature. Elsewhere, Restall-Orr writes how over time, “slowly the gods were coming to be represented in more human forms” as stories were crafted, told and retold, nature becoming anthropomorphised, a mirror to our own human condition and relationship with the wilder powers of land, sea and sky.

Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes that “in the ancient world, the gods were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with distinct personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience”. Experience, not belief, is central to Paganism, and to each individual Pagan’s relationship with the gods.

When I reflect on the named gods of myth and legend, I am “honouring and invoking their qualities, the virtues and powers they represent, in order to inspire my life and behaviour” as I wrote in my contribution to the anthology Godless Paganism. But I see these gods as symbols of nature, signifiers pointing beyond themselves, beyond the interplay of text and context, to that which is signified and which is, by experience, subjectively known.

My gods are the damp earth beneath my feet, the crashing waves of the ocean, the swift whisper of the wind. They are older than names, older than language, beyond us but intimately part of us as we are part of them. These gods do not need belief – they simply are. Like theologian Paul Tillich’s “god beyond god”, these gods do not exist – they are existence itself.

This is a non-literal view of the gods, of course, and would be no doubt seen by many of the more hard-edged polytheists as heresy (from the Greek αἵρεσις, meaning choice). Yet what could be more real than the powers of nature? Go for a barefoot walk across bracken uplands and you will be in no doubt as to the reality of the gods of thorn and rock, cooling stream and chilling wind.

Potmodernist theologian Mark C. Taylor, from whose work Erring I take the name of this blog, sketches the lines of a/theology, a point beyond theism and atheism, an “endless erring of signs, which issues in the radical relativity of meaning”. Perhaps the above can be seen as a poly-a/theism, each of the many gods being both an aspect of unified nature, and a symbolic representation of itself to itself, languaged through the inspired Awen.

What matters, at least for me, is not what anyone believes about that which lies beyond the horizon of the known, but how we live our lives, in relationship with all beings, human and non-human alike.

References:

Armstrong, K. A Short History of Myth. Canongate, 2005.

Cronin, R. “Myth and Meaning: a Non-Literal Pagan View of Deity” in Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (ed. John Halstead). Lulu, 2016.

Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Weiser, 2006.

Restall-Orr, E. Living With Honour: a Pagan Ethics. O Books, 2007.

Restall-Orr, E. The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. Moon Books, 2011.

Taylor, M.C. Erring: a Post-modern A/theology. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Tillich, P. The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, 1952.