Fifth High Day: Lammas

Lammas, not Llamas! Image from Google.

Llamas, not Lammas. Image from Google.

The August “cross-quarter” High Day is often known as either Lammas or Lughnasadh. While the two terms are used interchangeably in neo-paganism, they are not generally considered to be related.

Lughnasadh is the Irish name for the festival, held in honour of the god Lugh and his foster-mother Tailtiu. The festival is one of the great “Fire Festivals” of the Celtic year and is often celebrated with bonfires, the ashes of which would be used to bless the fields and give thanks to Tailtiu, who died after clearing the plains of Ireland for agricultural crops. The festival has a harvest theme, and celebrates the abundance of the fields. As Lugh is referred to as “many-skilled” it is also a time for sports and games of skill and strength.

The name Lammas refers to the Anglo-Saxon festival of “Loaf-mass” that was also held around this time. The first loaves of bread from the Summer’s grain harvest were baked and blessed at this time, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Lammas as the festival of “first fruits”. Hutton writes that the festival is very likely pre-Christian in origin and was celebrated “in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon and Norse Britain”. While etymologically unconnected with Lughnasadh, Lammas is also a great harvest festival, a time for coming together and sharing the bounty of nature and hard work.

In some Asatru sources, this time of year is also the festival of Freyfaxi, dedicated to the god Freyr, who as one of the Vanir can be seen as a god of nature, of fertility and the harvest cycle. ADF states that this was also the time of “Thingstide, also known as Hlafmaest” and was the time of the great Thing, a gathering of the people to discuss matters and to share fellowship.

In all cases, the festival is associated with the general concept of the harvest, and is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and the farmers who labour in the fields to provide it.

Harvest. Image from Pixabay (CC3.0)

Harvest. Image from Pixabay (CC3.0)

References:

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

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

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Second Book Started: Modern Paganism

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Having finished the first required book for the ADF Dedicant Path, on the topic of Indo-European Studies, it’s time to move on to the next.

The second topic to study is Modern Paganism. Michael J. Dangler writes that “the main idea is to help you understand where Neo-Paganism has been, because you will be part of where it is going through your work in ADF”.

The book I’ve chosen for this topic is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton. I’ve read some of Hutton’s works before, and highly recommend them, especially The Druids and The Stations of the Sun. Hutton is an academic historian at the University of Bristol with a deep interest in modern and ancient paganism and how it interacts with culture.

The book’s focus is British Wicca, and the reason I’ve chosen it from the reading list is that many of the other books focus on American pagan movements, which are not as relevant to me here in the UK. While I am not Wiccan, Wicca is the source of much of modern paganism, and its ideas and symbolism have percolated popular culture to an astonishing extent. Yet some of it is rooted in outdated scholarship and debunked theories of witch-cults and goddess-worshipping matriarchies.

According to Our Own Druidry, Hutton’s book “serves as a counter-balance to much of the information and theories that are likely to be encountered when reviewing Neo-Paganism in general”.

So, I just need to finish Joanne Harris’ Gospel of Loki, which is brilliant by the way (srsly go read it!), and then I’m going to work through this.

Non-literal heathenry

Himar Orn Himarsson leads an Asatru procession. Image from humanistic paganism.

Himar Orn Himarsson leads an Asatru procession. Image from humanistic paganism.

So there’s often a lot of talk in some (usually American) pagan and heathen circles that a literal, “hard” polytheism is the natural, proper or even only way to be a “real” heathen. The belief in literal gods existing out there somewhere and acting on the world through some supernatural force, often confidently asserted without any compelling evidence, seems to me to be quite naive and does not fit with a modern, scientific understanding of the world.

Sure, our ancestors probably thought that, but our knowledge has moved on. I don’t see paganism or heathenry as an attempt to go back in time and ignore centuries of scientific (or moral) progress. It’s inspired by the past, but not enslaved by it.

For some, this difference of opinion is enough to cast damning vitriol on humanistic/naturalistic pagans and heathens, calling us “peddlers of garbage” and accusing us of “blasphemy” or “poison”. Those are all quotes from real internet comments, by the way and no, I won’t link to them.

However, I am not alone in holding to a non-literal form of heathenry. When I was looking at the recent hate mail Asatruarfelagid have been recieving from US far-right heathen groups who oppose their blessing of same-sex marriage (now overpowered by a wave of support I’m happy to say), I was reminded of something else I like about their approach.

In an interview earlier this year, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the chief priest of Asatruarfelagid, stated that:

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

This brought about the inevitable over the top backlash from some hard-polytheist heathens, who wrote about how “disgusted” they were that Asatruarfelagid had “sh*t on our faith”, but this goes to show that a leading figure in arguably the world’s most successful heathen religion (hey, they’re the only ones to have overwhelming popular approval and the first heathen temple in over 1,000 years), can hold to a non-literal, metaphoric belief about the gods.

Hilmar’s view is very, very close to my own and if he can be a non-literalist heathen, then so can I! You don’t have to believe the myths and the gods are “really true” in order to see value, beauty and meaning in them.

I’m not one to tell people what to believe and if you want to be a literalist polytheist, if that makes sense to you, then good for you (but please don’t denigrate those who aren’t), but it is reassuring to see prominent pagan and heathen leaders show that there is another way to interpret the myths of the gods in a heathen context.

“Humanistic Heathens defend their support of marriage equality” by John Halstead

Their LGBT positivity is of many reasons why I love the Icelandic Asatruarfelagid. It saddens me that other Asatru groups could be so closed-minded and fundamentalist as to send them hate mail.

Humanistic Paganism

This past February, I shared a report that an Icelandic Heathen group, Ásatrúarfélagið, also known as the Ásatrú Society of Iceland, was building the first pagan temple in that country in 1000 years.  The report was of interest to Humanistic Pagans, because the high priest of the group, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, had been criticized by both theists and atheists — including some Pagans — in the U.S. for his statement that the the gods are “poetic metaphors” and “manifestations of the forces of nature and human psychology,” a sentiment which resonates with many Humanistic Pagans.  This was something of an embarrassment for some of the more dogmatic Polytheists in the U.S.  Some further investigation revealed Ásatrúarfélagið is a non-dogmatic faith, and that the beliefs of its adherents may range from atheism to pantheism to a tepid sort of theism.  It was clear though that the group’s high priest, Hilmarsson, wished…

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Nine Virtues: Courage

Image from Photobucket

Image from Photobucket

Courage is the first virtue in the second “Triad” of ADF virtues, and is often considered a “warrior” virtue.

Our Own Druidry defines courage as “The ability to act appropriately in the face of danger”, while the Oxford Dictionary for Students defines it as “The ability to control your fear in a dangerous or difficult situation”.

One version of the Asatru Nine Noble Virtues states that “by facing life’s struggles with courage, we constantly extend our capabilities, Without courage nothing else can be done”.

None of these definitions are exclusive to warriors either ancient or modern, and are applicable to anyone who faces a difficult situation in their lives. “Danger” does not have to mean physical fight-or-flight danger, and courage is needed in the world in many other ways than in battle. Pacifists who object to conscription in war, even if it means imprisonment, are just as courageous as any warrior. Standing up for what you believe in, and campaigning for issues like LGBT rights and environmentalism takes courage too.

It is interesting that none of the definitions given involves not being afraid. Fear is an essential part of courage, as the virtue s developed not by being fearless, but by facing one’s fear and confronting it. The “ability to act appropriately” does not necessarily mean rashly charging ahead either. Deciding when to back down, retreat or not take a particular course of action has its own form of courage, tempered by other virtues such as vision and wisdom.

I am no warrior, and don’t have to use the virtue of courage in a life or death context most of the time, but as a first aider, I have to have the courage to stay calm in an emergency and take responsibility for a patient in the first instance. I try to demonstrate courage in other, simpler ways too, such as going caving or rock-climbing on holiday and placing myself in situations that I find challenging in order to overcome them.

I have social anxiety, so going out in a crowded place, meeting new people and speaking in public all cause a great deal of fear for me, up to the point of panic attacks, so the virtue of courage is definitely called upon in those times as well.

It seems that all pagan cultures valued courage highly, from Classical heroes like Odysseus sailing to unknown lands or Thor fighting battles in defence of Midgard. These heroic narratives remain culturally important today, as can be seen in the huge popularity of superhero comics and films. For me, the figure that springs to mind as an example of courage in the Norse mythos is Tyr, not for his battle prowess, but for the tale in which he agreed to put his hand in the mouth of the wolf Fenris as he was being bound. Tyr knew that the wolf would take his hand, but he did it anyway, knowing the necessity of the task and the greater good. In Tyr’s case, courage was about making a hard sacrifice to help his fellow-Asgardians in a time of need.

While we may not do anything as dramatic as that, small acts of courage can still be cultivated in everyday life, and form an important part of any ethical system.

Image from pickthebrain.com

Image from pickthebrain.com

References:

ADF, Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009

Oxford English Dictionary for Students. Oxford University Press, 2006

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths. Penguin, 2011

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

 

 

Nature is my church

Catterig Force waterfall: a truly hidden and sacred space. Image by my other half.

Catterig Force waterfall: a truly hidden and sacred space. Image by my other half.

I’ve recently returned from a walking holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, which really helped me get away from the stresses of the workday life and back into connection with nature and the land beneath my feet.

What this trip helped me realise is that, while I am happily walking a Norse path at present, what drew me to druidry and paganism in the first place was the focus on nature. Nature is my church and my goddess, and for paganism or heathenry or druidry or whatever to be of any significance to me it needs to be more than books and blog posts and ancient myths.

It needs to be a path of nature worship, of walking the land and the wide open spaces, of finding the hidden sacred groves and caves, of understanding the ecology of a place and knowing its creatures, of sunlight and rain, of land, sea and sky.

All the gods and all the myths and all the essays and books and arguments in the world are only signposts on the path, pointing beyond themselves to the numinous and transcendent wonder of nature itself. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the sea of often heated words online. Close down the computer, put the books back on the shelf for now, put on some walking boots, and get outside to meet the world.

Rolling hills, trees and an amazing sky. What more could you want? Image by me.

Rolling hills, trees and an amazing sky. What more could you want? Image by me.

Heathen Round Table: July

Image from Reddit.

Image from Reddit.

This month’s Heathen Round Table question is: “What are your beliefs about deities from other religions/pantheons, both polytheistic and not? Do you honour any, and how do you balance that with heathenry?

Well, I don’t consider myself a polytheist, or a theist of any traditional sort to be honest. I am a naturalist and agnostic, and sometimes joke that I’m a “godless heathen” or a “polyatheist”: there are thousands of gods I don’t believe in! Some may say that means I’m not a “proper” heathen or pagan, but that depends on your definition.

I try not to hold beliefs, but rather have opinions and working models. Opinions can, and should, change according to new evidence and ideas, whereas belief can become dogmatic and fixed. As paganism (certainly within ADF) is about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy, belief doesn’t really play that much of a role in my practice.

So, in my opinion, which could be wrong, the gods of pagan and heathen cultures are mythological figures, personifications of powerful natural forces (such as thunder or the sea) or of aspects of human experience (such as war or love). The names given to them in one place and time are different from those used in another place and another time, but the underlying aspects, or “numinous personified forces” are the same. Thunder is still thunder whether you hail Thor or Zeus, the sea is still the sea whether you honour Njord or Mannannan.

Now, this doesn’t mean all gods are one, they are clearly distinct figures within their own myths. Thor is not Zeus, Freya is not Aphrodite. But there are fuzzy boundaries as cultures overlap. Thor may not be Zeus, but he could be Thunor, Donar, or even Taranis.

My tradition is ADF, which describes itself as “Pan Indo-European” in focus, and has “hearth cultures” for everything from Celtic to Norse to Hellenic to Vedic paganism. In practice, most people work within one hearth culture at a time, and pantheons do not tend to be mixed in ritual. This makes sense to me, as it disrupts the immersive experience, or the “flavour” of a ritual to jam a deity from one culture into a ritual context from another. However, multiple pantheons and cultures are honoured within ADF, and different ones may be the focus of different High Days. This allows a freedom and flexibility for ADF members to find what works for them. In my own path, I have moved from Irish to Gaulish to Norse and “shopped around” to find what felt right for me.

ADF does not honour non-IE deities, but does not prevent members from doing so in their own personal practice. I suppose if you’re a polytheist, you would believe that all gods exist anyway, and for me as a mythicist, I recognise them all as archetypal figures. I just choose to restrict my own practice to the Norse (and occasionally Gaulish) hearth culture, for convenience as much as anything else.

I have some issues with “Christopaganism” and incorporating Christian monotheism into pagan or heathen practice, but if it works for you then go for it, just don’t expect me to join in!

One of the joys of paganism and heathenry for me is that, unlike monotheism, there is no commandment to only honour one god, and no threat of punishment for those who believe and practice differently. So I’m content to do my own thing as an agnostic nature-worshipper and let others do theirs.

Gods of Asgard by Erik A. Evensen. Image from godsofasgard.com

Gods of Asgard by Erik A. Evensen. Image from godsofasgard.com