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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Beltane and ritual

Spring blossom. Image by me.

Spring blossom. Image by me.

This Beltane, I did my first OBOD Druid ritual for a long time, using the ritual booklet that came with the Bardic course materials, and to be honest, it felt…off.

There was a bit of language about “mothering” and “fathering” and “birth” that squicked me out a bit given my childfree life choices. This is something I’ve come across in OBOD a few times before, and while it is possible to interpret fertility metaphorically, or in terms of the fertility of the land (as I did in my ADF Virtues essay on the topic), when it’s presented in pretty blunt terms of male-female-child, it becomes harder to see it in this way.

So, I removed those references and re-worked the main rite a bit, but even so, something just didn’t quite work. The traditional format of the rite included circle casting, honouring the four cardinal directions etc which was a bit fiddly. Making sure that I was walking the right way around the central altar and facing the right way at different points took me out of the spirit of the ritual a bit and reminded me of the “sit, stand, kneel” motions of Catholic mass.

In the end, I went ahead and added an ADF-style toast and libation to the Three Kindreds, because the rite otherwise felt a bit empty, a bit too cerebral and didn’t have much in the way of practical action.

So, an underwhelming experience to be sure. Now, I’m not going to discount the entire OBOD course or tradition because of one bad ritual, and to be honest, Beltane has always been one of those festivals that’s a bit lost on me, with its usual associations with (heterosexual) sex and childbirth. But it was an interesting experience to find myself missing the ADF style of ritual, and way of “doing” Druidry.

Maybe there’s a way to combine the best of both worlds, and indeed the AODA rituals given in John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook seem to have elements of both OBOD and ADF style Druidry. I might try writing my own ritual for the next High Day at the Summer Solstice.

Other than that, I had a lovely Beltane! The weather was amazing and really felt like Summer is coming, and I had a great day out at a local food and drink fair, which was one of those community traditions that I always think of as “folk Pagan”.

Hope you had a great time this Beltane too!

Eighth High Day: Winter Solstice

Image from livescience

Image from livescience

The Winter Solstice occurs on or around 21 December, and marks the point of the shortest day and longest night of the year. This is due to the axial tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun. At the Winter Solstice, the northern hemisphere is inclined away from the sun, even though the planet is actually closer to the sun by some 9 million miles than at other times of the year. It is this axial tilt which causes the days to grow darker and shorter until the Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer once again.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin sol sistere, meaning “the sun stands still” as it appears to do so in the sky. The season of the Winter Solstice is celebrated by cultures throughout the world and in many forms, from the Norse Yule to the Christian Christmas.

The date of Christmas was not set until the mid 4th century CE, and may have been deliberately chosen to coincide with, or co-opt, existing Pagan festivals celebrating the birth of the sun at midwinter. Many existing Christmas traditions, including decorating homes with evergreens, lights and mistletoe, feasting and giving gifts, may have originated in Pagan celebrations of the Solstice.

Bonewits states that “while the Celts don’t seem to have paid much attention to it, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic cultures certainly did. Also known as Yule or Midwinter, this is a day sacred to sun, thunder and fire deities”. It is also likely that the pre-Celtic megalithic cultures of the British Isles celebrated the Solstice, as monuments such as Stonehenge and Bryn Celi Du are positioned in such a way as to be illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun at the Winter Solstice.

In some forms of modern Druidry, the day is called by the Welsh name, Alban Arthan, and Hutton points to Welsh literature as providing evidence of a “new year’s feast” celebrated at this time. In most modern Paganism, however, the day is called by the Norse term, Yule, a word that has connections to “wheel” (as in the wheel of the year) and also the word “jolly”.

Higgenbotham writes that “Yule traditions include the burning of the Yule log, which represents the increasing light of the season. It is a common practice to keep a piece of it to light the next year’s Yule log, and to scatter some of its ashes over the fields”.

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 Press, 2005.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-centered Religions. Woodbury, Llewellyn Publications, 2008.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Image from sodahead

Image from sodahead

Seventh High Day: Samhain/Winternights

Image by my other half.

Image by my other half.

The Pagan festival of Samhain corresponds with the Christianised, and nowadays fully secularised, festival of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, and shares many similarities. As Halloween celebrates the eve before All Souls Day, it is a time for remembering the dead and reflecting on our ancestors and on our own mortality. While some of this is lost in modern Halloween, the ancestor veneration aspects can be seen in the related Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos.

Samhain is a Celtic name, meaning “Summer’s end” and as such, is a seasonal festival, the final harvest feast of the year. Higginbotham writes that “this is the time of year when agricultural societies decided how many animals to slaughter based on available grass and feed, the number of breeding livestock needed for the following year, and the amount of meat required to survive the winter. Serious mistakes in these calculations could mean death and starvation. For the ancient Pagans, then, Samhain was a time of death in a very real way”.

Hutton suggests that similar end-of-season feasts were celebrated “in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland”. Bede refers to the month of November as “Winter-fylleth”, which may be one source of the Norse/Germanic name for the festival, Winternights.

Winternights is similar to Samahin in its focus on ancestor veneration and preparation for winter, but was not the start of the new year, as Samhain may have been for the Celts. For the Norse, the year started around the Winter Solstice, at Yule. The name itself is no doubt appropriate for the cold climes of Northern Europe, when, by November, winter was well and truly on its way, but in the South East of the UK, we are in the full flow of autumn, and still experiencing mild and sunny days. For a place-based practice, perhaps the name “Autumnights” might be more fitting.

In Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year, Nicholas Egelhoff writes that, “darkness sets upon the world as winter grows closer; we come together at this time to remember those that came before us, those whose blood and love flows within us, who helped to shape the world that we now shape”.

While this festival can be celebrated with all the fun and games of Halloween, Higginbotham reminds us that “it is also a time when we come to terms with death and are openly encouraged to process our fear of it”.

References:

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

Egelhoff, Nicholas. Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year. Columbus, Garanus Publishing, 2012.

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

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.

Sixth High Day recap: Autumn Equinox

A candle lights the way. Image by my other half.

A candle lights the way. Image by my other half.

Autumn Equinox has always been one of my favourite seasonal celebrations, marking as it does the start of my favourite season, a time of blustery days and still-warm sun, of golden leaves and crunchy woodland walks.

This year, my local village green held an Equinox Labyrinth, an interactive art installation by Kay Barett, of Kay’s Pathway. The Labyrinth was marked out in birdseed (so it would be eaten by wildlife once used) on the grass, in a Celtic spiral and after dark, was illuminated by dozens of candles in glass jars to mark the path. Visitors took a conker (horse chestnut) from a pile outside the Labyrinth and walked the path to the centre, to lay it down in the middle, forming a “conker cairn”.

The night was calm and clear, and the candles on the Labyrinth emulated the stars overhead, and the whole experience was very peaceful and beautiful. I saw the conker as an offering to Nerthus, the Earth Mother, and I briefly knelt and touched the Earth as I lay it down on the central cairn.

The Labyrinth seemed to bring a lot of people from the village together, from older folks slowly walking the path deep in thought, to young kids running in circles.

Labyrinth path. Image by my other half.

Labyrinth path. Image by my other half.

Once my wife and I returned home, it was time for an ADF  druid ritual for the Equinox. I used the Core Order of Ritual to create a short, stripped-back ritual outline suitable for a home shrine rite. Keeping to the Norse hearth culture, I honoured Nerthus, the Earth Mother and Njord, the god of the sea and shore. Njord was chosen because in traditional British druidry, the Autumn Equinox is known as Alban Elued, the Light of the Shore, and is seen as a liminal time, so celebrating both Earth and Sea, personified as the (possible) siblings Njord and Nerthus, seemed to fit well. Offerings were made of honey ale and seasonal apples.

All aglow. Image by my other half.

All aglow. Image by my other half.

 

Sixth High Day: Autumn Equinox

"Autumn". Image from Pixabay (CC 2.0)

“Autumn”. Image from Pixabay (CC 2.0)

The Autumnal Equinox usually occurs around 20/21 September, but this year is as late as the 23rd. It marks the second point in the year when day and night are of equal length, the first being the Spring Equinox. The word equinox comes from the Latin for “equal night”. From this day on, the nights will be longer than the days, making the Equinox the start of the dark half of the year.

Astronomically, the Equinox occurs when the plane of Earth’s equator passes the centre of the Sun. At this moment, the Earth’s axis neither inclines towards nor away from the Sun, causing day and night to be exactly equal.

The Equinox marks the first day of Autumn. The word Autumn comes from the Latin Autumnare meaning “to ripen”, which neatly describes what is going on in nature at this time of year.

Blackberries.  Image from Wikimedia commons

Blackberries. Image from Wikimedia commons

The Equinox is the time of the second harvest: of fruits, nuts and berries. Ronald Hutton writes that harvest festivals were often held around this time of year, involving feasting and rejoicing in the bounty of nature that is stored up at this time to prepare for the winter ahead. In parts of Britain and Northern Europe, the whole month of September was called “Halig-monath”, meaning “holy month” because of the religious significance of harvest festivals.

The Autumn Equinox is known by many names in Paganism, including Mabon, Second Harvest and Gleichentag (literally “even day”). Some modern Druids call the day Alban Elfed, meaning “the Light of the Water”, since the day sits on the western point of the traditional Wheel of the Year and in Celtic myth, the Western Isles mark the point where the sun sets, and are associated with the Otherworld.

No matter what name it is called, the Autumn Equinox is a liminal time, not light nor dark, not summer nor winter. By this time of year, the earth is beginning to show signs of the descent into winter’s cold: the temperature starts to slowly drop (although it remains warm for a while yet) and the first few leaves begin to turn gold and red. Squirrels begin to gather nuts and store them in their caches, and migratory birds prepare to leave for warmer climes, while other, Northern, birds, arrive in Britain to take advantage of our relatively warm winters.

In my own personal paganism, I always feel most “pagan” and connected to the land at Autumn. The whispering of the falling leaves, and the activity of the local wildlife really remind me of the life that is all around us, even in a time of year often associated with death.

Coifi, of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, writes:

This is the time of the turning of the Light into Darkness. Let us step forward into the darkening days holding before us the divine promise of new Light at the end of the Dark Days, from year to year and life to life.

References:

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

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

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

Fifth High Day Recap: Lammas

Home shrine with Lammas bread and honey ale. Photo by me

Home shrine with Lammas bread and honey ale. Photo by me

As the name Lammas comes from the Anglo-Saxon feast of “Loaf-mass” and has connections to Hlafmaest, the Norse feast of loaves, it seemed appropriate to bake bread to celebrate the day. I celebrated the day with my lovely other half, and we baked a loaf of pumpkin seed bread (which was delicious).

The ritual was held at our home shrine as always, and was one I wrote myself based on the work of Michael J. Dangler, and the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I like simplicity in ritual, so I kept the essential features of the ADF Core Order of Ritual, but cut a lot of the “optional” steps. The gatekeeper was Ratatosk, the squirrel of Ygdrassil, and the three kindred were hailed with ale.

The rite was held in honour of Thor and his wife Sif. Some myths suggest that Thor and Sif were married at this time of year, which was the time of the great Thing (part civil meeting, part harvest festival). Sif has associations with being a grain/fertility goddess due to her hair, “golden as the fields of wheat”, and Thor can be seen in his Thunderer role as bringing the late summer rains that ripen the crops, so together they fit a harvest festival well.

The main offerings were honey-ale for Thor and the first slice of our home-baked bread for Sif. The bread was later taken and scattered outside around the four corners of the home, a traditional Anglo-Saxon custom of blessing for good harvests ahead.

The omen was taken by Ogham (since I don’t yet have a rune set), and the general overview was one of new beginnings, strength and movement, which I took to be a very positive outcome.