Voice

As we move into the new moon, the moon I know as White Waking, we remain in the thick of winter. The dark and cold are still very much with us although the days are noticeably lighter now and the snowdrops cover the ground in my garden. Looking out over the fields at the back of my home I see heavy grey clouds, the grass thick and wet, the trees bare, and the mud… The Saxon folk, as usual telling it like it is, called this month Solmonath; Mud-month. If I hadn’t had first hand experience of rural life: trudging up and down the tow path to the boat with logs and water, squelching and slipping, cold hands, leaky boots, frost flowers on the inside of the windows, I would be tempted to say that I could only imagine how it was for our ancestors. But despite now living on dry land, the misery of this time of year is now imprinted in me too. It feels to be a time when all our energy is put into just surviving, try as I might I am yet to find the joy in February.

At this time, our focus shifts from the depths of the heavy earth where we have been hibernating, to the air around us where we stretch, open an eye and find ourselves awake. We breathe the cold air and really feel the new cycle begin, infusing it with the winds of change that start to shift, encouraging us to move; fresh, cold, biting and clear. If of course we are able to extrapolate ourselves from the mud. I remember sliding my way down the towpath last year, frustrated when I finally arrived at my car and my wheels spun uselessly in the mud, thinking that surely the mud must have a purpose. That is not to say that the gods of the mud, magical alchemy of rain and soil don’t of course have their own very good purpose for their own very good reasons, but surely there was some useful sense I could make of it? I came to the conclusion that mud did the very useful job of slowing us down. For country folk, walking anywhere off the beaten track takes twice as long, boots are heavy, the floor needs constant cleaning, and there is more washing that doesn’t dry, the only thing to do seems to be to sit by the fire a while longer. Nature calls us not to speed up, not yet. This is not the time of year to be hailing the sun and the return of the spring, pushing too fast and too far. It is a time to consider everything in its own time. That only the snowdrops and perhaps the odd brave crocus are out, tells us something about the probability of the sharp frost biting off the first tender shoots that venture out too early. Nature reminds us to take our time. So as we open a groggy eye, stretch and take those first breaths, we use the time we have to dream. We have the space to imagine what the new cycle could be like, fill it with potential and hope and begin the process of crafting it consciously in the darkness. As we find our in-breath with which to infuse it, so too do we find our out breath with which to sing it, speak it, tell it; rusty at first and unsure, childlike stumbling over the words, we breathe it to life. Slowly but surely, our energy is rising toward Imbolc.

Perhaps inevitably at this time, through breath, I am moved to look at my voice. As Druids, the craft of the bard is central to what we do but how often do we imagine that craft to be confined to songs, poetry or performance? I am not looking only at the creativity of songs and poetry here though, but at everything we create with our voices, The conversation with a friend on the phone this morning, the email tapped out to a work colleague, the Facebook update, this blog post… our voices have such power and so often we are not aware of how we appear to others. Do we complain too much, are we unnecessarily sharp, short, whiney, arrogant, grumpy? How do we make others feel when we behave this way? Where do we provoke, where SHOULD we provoke and where should we stay silent and where can we be a valuable force for change? We have such ethical responsibility as far as our voices are concerned, in considering how we use them well. In the past week I have had wonderful conversations, full of challenge, insight, a willingness to listen, explore and be moved where discussion has meandered releasing the need to be right, where exploration is the only thing that matters. Such discussion is the one of the cornerstones of my craft. I’ve learned a lesson where I wrongly assumed another was open to questioning and exploration but missed the signs that they weren’t, and been provoked myself into irritation by the voices of others on numerous occasions.

Os is the Rune that I feel most powerfully to embody this time and all that it represents. Implicit in its Anglo-Saxon name ‘OS’ carries the sense of a mouth or an opening, that word continues down to us today in its context of birthing as a cervical os, the mouth of the womb which opens and dilates so the baby can be born. The name in Old Norse where it appears as Ansuz suggests a god, or an As, one of the Aesir. Within it then are echos of a sense of divine communication inspired by the gods, as the Old English Rune Poem suggests;

Os byth ordfruma aelcre spraece
(Mouth is the source of all speech)
wisdomes wrathu ond witena frofur
(mainstay of wisdom, comfort to wise ones)
and eorla gehwen eadnys and tohit.
(a blessing and joy to everyone)

(translation my own)

Clearly for the Anglo Saxons, although we cannot hope to know exactly what this rune meant to them, the verse tells us of the wisdom of considering carefully how we use our speech and language. If you have ever watched a good story-teller, it is magical to experience how the audience is swept up in the words, every intonation and cadence pushing and pulling the audience with the emotions of the story. This effect can be even more profound when you don’t understand the language and can release into the patterns, feeling the story as it unfolds, disengaging our need for words for a while and experiencing the full flow of pure language. Listening to Beowulf in Old English is completely extraordinary, we can learn to feel the sense of the words through the emotion of the teller and the language is just close enough to Modern English for us to almost believe you can understand it word for word.

As a flow or a power of nature described by the rune, I experience Os as both the open mouth and the exhalation of breath; it is slow considered and musical or whispered into the stillness, blowing across a puddle and watching as the words spread like ripples across dark water. It reminds us, wherever we are, whomever we are speaking to and in whatever medium, of the importance of crafting the story of our lives in a creative and honourable way. If we slow down, inspired by the mud, our words considered rather than spilling out in a jumble, we stop complaining, understanding that it’s just not a good story to listen to, and instead learn to narrate a tale far more interesting. We share how it is for us rather than just offloading,  we are more able to communicate effectively and watch the ripples as they spread, observing their effect and moderating our behaviour accordingly. Gradually we begin to learn when it is right to speak out and to challenge, how much and when, and when there is wisdom in silence.

Ragnarok – The End of the Gods

A.S. Byatt

ISBN 978 1 84767 064 9

I first read about this book in a wonderful article tucked away in the Guardian newspaper and knew immediately that I had to read it. I waited for it with anticipation, hoping that it would offer as much as the article suggested but concerned it would be as disappointing as much of the modern writing on Heathenry and it’s related mythology that I have read recently.

When it arrived it was as a beautifully presented little hardback. From the first page I was utterly enchanted by the deceptively naïve and simple story. It is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl who becomes immersed in her mother’s copy of ‘Asgard and the Gods’ at the time of the Second World War and her evacuation to the countryside. Consequently, Byatt takes the myths of the northern Europeans and places them firmly in the English landscape. I found a deeply personal reason for loving this book; the author knows and writes of what it is like to be a child who sees gods, giants and spirits in the natural world around her and is left cold by the teachings of the church. This story will appeal to any natural pagan who felt the call of the gods, of the wild, as a young child.

The myths are wrapped in the most beautiful poetic prose, describing nature in all of her darkness and majesty. It is at times uncomfortable and gruesome but always, delicious. In particular the descriptions of Yggdrasil and Randrasill are quite extraordinary. There is no sterile, tired re-telling of the myths here, these are the gods of fire, and sea, wind, frost and human nature brought vividly to life.

The book follows the thread of story from the Eddas that takes us from creation to Ragnarok and all of the events that lead to it in a vivid re-imagining. As the author herself writes,  ‘if you write about Ragnarok in the 21st century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we are born into.’ As with all of the best mythology we see ourselves as the gods, in all their struggles to halt the end of the world, but those struggles only compounding the inevitability.  Within the pages we find a new relevance to the tale, to our lives in the here and now.

This book could so easily have been solemn, a warning of the downfall of humanity, in war, destruction and environmental crisis. But actually it’s beauty and simplicity ensures this is not the case. More, it is the story of the small things we lose and never find again as well as the huge world altering events that change lives forever. The inevitability of this though, is as comforting to us, the reader, as it is to the little girl in the story.

I highly recommend this little gem for its vision, originality and for being one of those stories that in the reading of it, one finds the world is not quite the same as it was before.


Mimir’s Well

Over the past few days whilst reading and researching the chapter I am currently writing on mythology and ancestors and proof reading a friend’s deliciously challenging book, I have spent time in that (for want of a better term) marvelous ‘head-fuck’ space. It’s a wonderful place where everything seems to dissolve, leaving a new layer of meaning and understanding to be explored and exploded at a later date. It is at the same time extraordinary, requiring an openness and acceptance to have ones perspective so utterly dismantled and scary to feel the ground so uneven beneath the feet. It is humbling to find that our world is built so entirely upon our own reactionary perceptions, the reassurances we create in order to function; and to recreate that reality with just a little more consciousness and free will that that new understanding provides.

Over the past few years within paganism, even Druidry where the deeply philosophical is a defining tenet of our religion, there has seemed to be a worrying move away from the deeply philosophical and the need to think. To work out why we are buffered and carried by the currents that push and pull us all directions rather than helplessly surrendering to the flow, to think rationally about our motivations and ethics, to wonder at the nature of the universe and our gods, is for me absolutely central to my Craft. I am not talking about the simple exploration of new age texts and guided meditation that abounds within modern pagan culture, but the real need and drive to devour the old texts of writers and thinkers, scientists and philosophers, learn, pull apart and rip open our souls to go ever deeper, using those past writings, human reason and our own meanderings to open the doors to our own deeper religious understanding. For just as every new discovery about the innermost working of lover or friend can bring us deeper into relationship with that person, where we share more, love more deeply; the same is true within our wider relationships with the world. When we explore, led outside the comfort zone, and often we do need help, the writings or guidance of others, to shift our perspective sufficiently in order to do it, we are challenged to expand our own horizons and perspectives and are led into deeper and more extraordinary relationship with our gods.

Sadly, all too often the terms ‘navel gazing’ and ‘semantics’ are levelled at thinkers in a world where it is easier to find affirmation and ease in cake and television, than be challenged. Within the new age movement which sadly permeates a good deal of paganism, the focus on is the self-satisfaction and false reassurance of learning to love oneself, to deny the blocks and darker parts of our nature in favour of love and light rather than focus on devotion to our gods and the places that the dysfunctional parts of ourselves can take us in the quest to explore and resolve them. For me, there has never been a sense of ease within my spirituality there is an itch that must be scratched, a driving need to go deeper. The relationships that I value the most in my life, are the ones where I am challenged, deeply and uncomfortably provoked with the why’s and wherefore’s. I crave to know who I am, who my gods are, what they are made of, how do they taste and smell? Within a religion focused on relationship, I am constantly looking for how I can do it better, more honourably and sustainably, to be of less impact and to be of more use to my gods and community. To be always searching is to ensure that we stay constantly humble and awake to the fact that we know nothing, there is always more to learn.

This week’s head-fuck came from reading C.G Jung of all people, the often misunderstood and misquoted Swiss psychiatrist so loved by Wicca and other manifestations of pagan old hat. I had previously discounted his theory of the collective unconscious, archetypes and treatise on myth as the attempt to de-spiritualise the human mind into it’s nuts and bolts and cardboard cutouts of the gods, so loved by the psychotherapy movement. But as I read I understood, in a way that only going back to the original texts would allow, the essential religious nature of his words, his utter wonder at the divine forces of nature we find buried deep within our human soul. The vast ocean of memory that is our shared (to borrow Emma Restall Orr’s term, for there is no better) Human Song, a well of conscious memory that has life. He may well have been bound by ‘the spirit of the times’ (his words) which was undoubtably a prevailing Christian, dualist culture, but his words, beautifully express my own understanding as an animist and held that door open for me to dive in. I highly recommend him if you’ve never actually read his words.

The concept of a vast shared human soul and it’s comparison to water is an old one. Jung himself says that over and over we find the Archetype of a water container or a well as an allegory for that shared human soul, that which contains all of the memories of human ancestry. In the Poetic Edda we find Mimir’s Well (Mimir literally means ‘The Rememberer’ in Old Norse’). Mimir, a Giant known for his knowledge and wisdom was beheaded by the Vanir (the gods of nature) in a feud with the Aesir (the gods of human nature and civillisation). The head was returned to the Aesir and Odin who embalmed the head with herbs to preserve it’s knowledge, threw it into a well where Mimir became an oracle, consulted often by the gods, but always demanding a sacrifice. Like the path of the questor, philosopher and thinker, the attainment of knowledge can be painful and is never easy. Odin sacrified his eye for it.

For me, Mimir himself is the water within the well, the power of memory itself and in particular, human memory. Within his body of water are my grandmothers, and grandfathers, the fragments of their lives bound up within that great water. He is the stuff that holds the coherency of the collective human song. He holds the stories, the writings, the kennings of the ancestors, all that has ever been written and imagined and lived. Mimir’s water is often a place I go to journey, for clarity, help or the comfort of knowing that this particular crisis or joy I am living has been lived before by another woman in another time and place. Through the magic of the human soul, it is possible to reach out to her and remember a story which is bigger than me, flowing like a current through our shared humanity. To share it makes it tolerable, we can cope with the pain and the crisis when we have company; in Mimir’s well we are never alone. The mouth of his well is a way into the churning waters of my ancestral soul. I don’t have to travel elsewhere to find that well for it is deep within me and the ocean of my blood.

To sacrifice comfort and the certainty of sure ground is to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors who had the courage to do the same. To think, learn, crave knowledge and understanding with all of the philosophy and reason that we have been gifted with as humans is not to ‘navel gaze’ but to journey deep into the waters of the well, deeper in and further out adding our own experience and understanding to our collective Human Song.

Druidry and the English Tradition

One of the subjects that seems increasingly topical within modern Druidry, at least within the circles I am familiar with, is the move away from a Celtic centred perspective which some Druids seem to be currently exploring. Traditionally seen as the native religion of the Celtic Peoples of the British Isles, in particular since its modern revival, Druidry is most commonly associated with the mythologies, gods and stories of the Welsh and the Irish. It is an ancestral tradition, one based solidly upon the reverence that the people of these islands have held and continue to hold with their landscape. Whether we believe that its roots stretch back directly in an unbroken line to the ancient Druids, or whether we work with the understanding that our tradition is a modern construction which uses the old stories and writings from those cultures to construct our version of modern Druidry, the importance of ancestors and landscape cannot be understated. I am seeing this exploration outside of widely accepted Celtic culture happen within a variety of settings from online forums and gatherings, to the conversations I have with other pagans and the kind of speakers invited to Druid events. But, what I am not seeing is a great amount of writing on the subject, perhaps because it is a new school of thought and the ideas are not yet developed sufficiently, perhaps there is a fear to rock the boat a little. But for the time being at least, this seems to be a grass-roots movement, not widely articulated, yet it is there, real and growing.

So what has provoked this exploration outside of these mythologies and where are folk looking for inspiration? Mainly I am referring to the cross over between Druid and Heathen practice which is becoming increasingly common. Personally, and within my own craft, this has developed for a number of reasons. Firstly it has been with the understanding that history may well not be as we have been traditionally led to believe, where the ‘Celts’ and the peopling of the British Isles over the last few thousand years has been concerned (a whole new blog post in itself). Secondly, as an English woman, practicing my Animism within the Druid community, where do I look for the songs and stories of my own ancestors and nature? Where are my mythologies upon which to base my relationship and reverence with landscape? These two questions are of course inextricably bound, as Druids, our understanding of where we have come from and who we are profoundly affects our interaction with the world and where and how we find sanctity within it.

Whilst I have Welsh blood and indeed a Welsh surname by birth, a Scottish grandfather and an Austrian great, great, great somewhere along the line, my ancestry for generations back is predominantly English. My family has nestled within the rolling countryside of Oxfordshire for hundreds of (probably a thousand or two) years; I can trace my eight times great-grandmother and beyond, back to the village where I grew up. My religious practice yearned for stories which were about the places I lived, loved and recognised. The tales of the Mabinogion and the wilds of Wales evoke within me a time and place that is not my own and Ireland, well I’ve never even been there, I don’t know about the mud, or how the rain tastes, the people are unfamiliar. That is not to say that I don’t find relationship with the Celtic gods at all, I do have one or two powerful relationships with those deities, just as many Druids profess a dedication to Isis or Hecate and Pan, but they are not the main focus of my practice. Where I name deities at all, nothing makes my heart sing or my blood race in the way that the gods and stories of the Saxon folk do.

This body of lore, writing and material is often referred to as the Northern, Norse or Germanic traditions, Asatru or Heathenry, certainly, it is not usually associated with Druidry. Personally I prefer the term ‘English Tradition’. ‘Northern’ or ‘Norse’ suggests to me somewhere or a people other than here, something which is not native, which I believe is actually misleading. ‘Germanic’ of course is a technically accurate term when referring to the English language, but it still conveys to me a sense of something which is not entirely of this land. For me there are differences in the mythology which at first seem subtle but on exploration become quite distinct, the landscape and people who inspired the stories and our interpretation of the them, is after all completely different from continental Europe and I believe that the English have explored and used these stories, differently, claiming their own versions of them for much longer that was previously thought.

So why do I not call myself Heathen or Asatru? Neither are terms which sit well with me, to begin with I am not ‘true to the Aesir’ as the root of the word Asatru implies, most often my gods are the Giant folk of wild nature, regularly shunned by those who work with the civilised gods of human nature that those of Asgard represent. But perhaps most importantly, just as for our ancestors, religion is not only about the gods that we are devoted to but about the community and culture we chose to inhabit. Of course, we are able to make a conscious choice about this to a certain extent, certainly within the context of our chosen religious communities, in a way that our ancestors perhaps were not. I am at home in the deep green environmental ethic, the focus on absolute personal responsibility, and culture of learning and philosophy inherent within the Druid community. I like the people, they feel like ‘tribe’. It is distinct from the Heathen community in this respect, at least I have never found those things to my satisfaction there. To use the language of the senses, simply put, Heathens smell odd, like someone else’s house. Not necessarily unpleasant, just different.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have met with all kinds of reactions to the phenomena of a Druid working with these traditionally Heathen gods. Everything from open hostility and the sense that it is somehow blasphemous, to confusion and misunderstanding, but also and more often than I would have thought, a recognition and understanding that others work this way too. I have to say that I don’t understand the blasphemy reaction at all. I don’t believe that Heathens have the monopoly on English gods, any more than Druids have the monopoly on Celtic ones, to imagine that we have a true enough version of history to accurately recreate ‘what our ancestors did’ is deluded and falls into the same traps of the atheist movement in asserting that there can be one truth, one way of perceiving which is right and unquestionable. How do we know that the few remaining Druids, from the time of the Saxon migrations of the 5th Century  did not adopt some of the gods of the incoming tribes as the people married and interbred, or that the Saxon folk did not adopt some of the gods they found here, finding relationship with the landscape as they moved across it? I would imagine that they probably did. As you may have guessed, I am not a Reconstructionist.

If we are to examine the perception that it is possible to achieve any kind of purity or historical accuracy of religious tradition through Reconstructionism (and I don’t believe it is), the question quickly becomes one not only of IS this accurate, but WHEN was this accurate, and at what precise point in history? Just as our pagan religious traditions do not stand still or constant now, those of our ancestors did not either, history is testament to that. It is so vital that we continue to explore, without fear of diluting a purity of tradition, when that idea of purity is an entirely modern construct, created by revivalists. As an Animist who bases her religion on the sanctity of relationship, it is entirely my relationship with the gods, my ancestors and the world around me that guides and creates the reality of my practice which shifts and changes almost constantly. As one who has always been fascinated in the dark mixed up brew of English Pagan Tradition it seems only natural, in the true spirit of the Craft and within the parameters of honourable and conscious relationship, to just use what works. I believe our ancestors most certainly did!

Edited 18:13 10/11/12 for clarity and typo’s