Soul Weaving

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I am someone who has always been obsessed with yarn. From the moment my mother taught me to knit age 5 years old, fibre and the things that can be done with it have been how my soul expresses its passion and creativity. My husband will tell you stories about how my yarn stash is taking over the house and he regularly threatens to insulate the loft with my fleece. I think he is only half-joking.

But a story about a fibre obsession is not really the subject of this post, more a way to set the scene for a metaphor for the soul that I have been working with over the past year, with a fabulous group of women; that of the idea of the soul as a woven tapestry. A tapestry that is constantly being woven, shaped and created as we live, from the different colours, textures and fibres of our actions, interactions, inspirations and relationships, and that can be to varying degrees consciously patterned, rather than a process that happens purely within the unconscious. We call this conscious practice ‘Soul Weaving’. This is not a new idea, in fact it is very old, and it offers us a glimpse of how our  heathen ancestors may have conceived and worked with the concept of the human soul and with methods for healing, integration and understanding.

Within the modern Northern traditions, the spinning and weaving of fibre and fabric is a revered art which in itself carries undertones of the sacred. The very act of taking fleece through the process of being cleaned, sorted, washed, carded, spun, woven and finally stitched into a garment is quite an undertaking and anyone who has been a part of the process, particularly if you have done it from beginning to end, will appreciate the stupendous amount of time, dedication and energy required. Perhaps it is this understanding and reverence for the sheer effort involved that originally brought the imagery of weaving and spinning into the metaphysical, creating a body of knowledge, myth and story entwined through the rich body of lore of the Northern Traditions.

In both Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology we are told of the Nornir, three women, possibly more, who are responsible for weaving the web of all existence on their loom, measuring, weaving and cutting the threads that make up each individual soul ~ human, god, plant and animal, nothing is outside of, or exempt from, the threads of Wyrd that weave us into the web. This great web is often termed the Web of Wyrd and an understanding of it is absolutely central to Heathen cosmology. The three Norns who appear most often are Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, whose names can in the simplest of terms be translated as past, present and future. They are the goddesses of fate and destiny who determine the lives of men and the other gods alike. We also have stories of Frigga, wife of Odin and one of the primary deities of this body of lore. Spinning is also seen to be sacred to her with the three stars which hang from Orion’s belt often being called ‘Frigga’s distaff’, a tool used to prepare flax for spinning. Although not attested to in the lore, many Heathen folk will honour Frigga as the preparer of the threads for the Norns to weave.

The modern practice of Soul Weaving is to work, through vision and journey ever more wakefully, with our own tiny piece of the vast tapestry, and to learn intimately the different strands and threads that are woven into it, the history and origin of how each stitch came to be. In this way the soul tapestry becomes a map of our own consciousness, which we can use to effectively manipulate the strands of wyrd and our own existence as far as that is possible. The Soul Weaver aims to take ultimate responsibility for everything they do and the soul tapestry becomes both the tool and the medium with which to become increasingly more awake to this process. For some this work begins by completing a journey or path-working and asking to be taken to see their soul tapestry. When I first started Soul Weaving, I was shown a vision of a tapestry that had largely been woven for me, the work having been completed by gods and guides or by my own subconscious, where I had been unable to do it myself. It was a bit patchy, the colours and patterns did not always match and there were areas that without doubt needed darning! At the time I was going through a process of dismantling and re-naming myself, unsure who I was or where I was headed and this was clearly apparent in my soul tapestry. Little by little I began to start mending, working out which threads could safely be removed and replaced, the places that discordant colours or patterns could be fixed or exchanged, taking responsibility for each stitch. I also learned much about what could not be changed, what was set and where the whole thing would just disintegrate if I messed around with it too much. As I worked I found that each thread corresponded to old patterns, buried emotions, lost and present people. At times the work was and still is painful, bringing up parts of myself that I thought were long dealt with ~ that argument I had forgotten about, the time I seriously messed up, old wounds and negative emotions were all to be found there alongside shining and beautiful achievements, relationships, loved ones, happy memories and soul connections. For a woman obsessed with fibre the visions made perfect sense and provided me with a language for some of the most profound healing I have ever experienced. Good Soul Weaving sisters helped with that too.

Of course the process of Soul Weaving is never-ending, a life’s work. The tapestry is constantly being woven through every moment of living another stitch is created, another thread woven in. But the vision of the soul tapestry can provide us with a magical method of envisioning the conscious process of unfolding Wyrd and of our own connection to the vast web. Those familiar with shamanic ways of practicing may well be familiar with something similar; this deep soul and self work is not unique to Northern Tradition practices.

Much of this modern Soul Weaving practice is intimately connected with a body of lore, drawn from various sources which describe the soul as being composed of constituent parts, woven together to create the seamless whole soul. Again work with the soul parts enables us to delve ever deeper into our own consciousness, discovering ever more deeply how we are woven together. Many will know or be familiar with the soul parts by other names yet the Old Norse or Old English names may stir other understandings and older truths within us if we are conversant with their stories. The physical body becomes the Lyke (our likeness), our astral body or nemeton becomes the Hyde (literally hide or skin), the vast bank of memories we hold becomes our Mynd (the mind) and our passions and inspiration becomes the Wode (possibly a kenning for Woden himself). There are many more, and too many for a single blog post, but an article on each will follow. I would love to hear from anyone else who works in this way and explores this body of knowledge. My experience of it to date has been of extraordinary healing, connection and understanding of my own soul consciousness and relationships within the web.

 

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Easter Is Not Named After Ishtar, And Other Truths I Have To Tell You

It takes a lot for me to reblog something, but this is just perfect. Having watched this meme float about on the internet for a year or two now, I have been frustrated and irritated by it in equal measure. I have a rather soft spot for the goddess Eostre so seeing Easter quite incorrectly attributed to Ishtar is annoying. I don’t suppose Ishtar’s followers are overly impressed either. Imagine my surprise on hearing that the meme had been posted to Dawkins own Facebook page perpetuating the misinformation to thousands, presumably by his own fair hand, without having stopped to think critically about it. Oh the irony. To me this illustrates precisely what is wrong with Dawkensian Atheism, a polemic against all religion which, when closely examined is actually just informed by Abrahamic Monotheism and usually misinformed at that. As a pagan, I usually find myself baffled and amused by his thinking. Either way, this is a great article from The Belle Jar about something very seasonal, so I though I would share.

The Belle Jar

If there is one thing that drives me absolutely bananas, it’s people spreading misinformation via social media under the guise of “educating”. I’ve seen this happen in several ways – through infographics that twist data in ways that support a conclusion that is ultimately false, or else through “meaningful” quotes falsely attributed to various celebrities, or by cobbling together a few actual facts with statements that are patently untrue to create something that seems plausible on the surface but is, in fact, full of crap.

Yesterday, the official Facebook page of (noted misogynistandeugenicsenthusiast) Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science shared the following image to their 637,000 fans:

Neither Reasonable Nor Scientific Neither Reasonable Nor Scientific

Naturally, their fans lapped this shit up; after all, this is the kind of thing they absolutely live for. Religious people! Being hypocritical! And crazy! And wrong! The 2,000+ comments were…

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Skadi of the Snow.

Skadi’s longing for the Mountains

Far from here, and away to the wild north mountains, beyond the ice floes and the scree slopes lies a hall named Thrymheim; Storm Home. It is the place where winter lives, where the frost and snow retreat, biding their time whilst the land below bathes in the gentle warmth of green summer, the corn sways in the fields until the cycle turns and winter creeps its quiet way down from the mountains to swathe the earth once again in white and grey. The king of this mountain realm was Thiasi and he lived there with his daughter, Skadi of the shadows. Skadi was a huntress, and she liked to be alone. She spent her days skiing in the mountains with her bow and arrow or fishing on the ice. Skadi loved no man but her father, whom she adored, for she was a solitary creature and her heart was made of the stuff of winter.

When news came to Skadi, one day, that her father had been killed in a dispute with the gods of Asgard she was distraught, her ice heart shattered. For many days and nights she walked the passages of Storm Home crying her grief and rage into the wind, her tears sparkling in the ice of the walls and floor. Skadi felt that she would never laugh or find happiness again and she found herself lonely in the empty draughty hall. Finally as the storms of her grief abated, and her heart froze over again, she resolved that she would have her revenge on the Aesir for Thiasi’s death. She dressed in her warmest furs and a mail coat, took her bow and arrow and her skis and began the journey down from the frozen mountains to the plains of Asgard.

As she headed south, the wind grew warmer and summer settled on the land. Skadi found herself unsettled, longing for the darkness and ice of the mountains. But her resolve was strong and was strengthened further when she arrived in Asgard to find the Gods relaxed, making merry and enjoying the warmth. They looked up in alarm as Skadi swept through the gates, bringing with her a blizzard that withered the grass and blighted the crops with hail, a shadow steeling across the landscape behind her; they knew immediately why she had come and were keen to keep the peace. Odin greeted her at the steps of his hall, Valaskjalf and the other gods gathered around. One-Eye inclined his head, ‘your father was a powerful man, I regretted his death. Will you take gold as your payment?’ Skadi laughed, a sound like the creaking of glaciers, ‘Gold?’ she sneered, ‘do you know nothing of my father? He was so rich that when he died his brothers divided his fortune by measuring it in mouthfuls, and I have my share. I will not take your gold.’ The gods were confused, ‘what will you take from us then?’ they asked. Skadi looked at Baldur, the most beautiful of all the gods, fair and young with hair like the sun, and she felt how alone she was and how Baldur might melt her heart. ‘I will take a husband,’ she said, ‘and one of you must make me laugh.’

The gods took a while to consider this for it was not the settlement they were expecting and they were uneasy that one of them might have to marry this ice queen. Odin said, ‘you may choose your husband from among us, but you must do so only by looking at his feet.’ At this Skadi smiled, for she knew that being so beautiful, Baldur would have the most exquisite feet and her task would be easy. The gods removed their shoes and stood in a circle around her. Carefully, she searched among them for the feet she thought would be Baldur’s, finally she came to the one she was sure must be him. They were strong and slim, brown and well-shaped. Skadi had never seen such beautiful feet in all her life. ‘I chose you,’ she said looking up into the face of her husband. But instead of Baldur, she met eyes that were grey, blue and green, their colours shifting and changing like the ocean. He had brown and weathered skin from working a lifetime as a sailor and an expression that was gentle, strong and kind. Njord, Lord of the Seas smiled at her. Skadi was angry ‘you have tricked me’ she snarled, yet there was something in Njord’s face that stopped her, and she found herself fascinated by him, drawn to the smell of salt on his skin and the bitter tang of his hair, the way that he looked at her… and she felt her heart soften. Odin nodded in satisfied agreement, ‘a good match,’ he said. Skadi then smiled a bitter smile, ‘you have forgotten the second part of our bargain, one of you must make me laugh. For since you took my father from me, I have only felt sadness.’ Odin turned to Loki, ‘Trickster, can you make this woman laugh?’ Loki stepped forward a little sheepishly, wondering how much Skadi knew about his own hand in her father’s death. Loki said, ‘I have the perfect remedy, for only this morning at market I bought this goat, after all, what is funnier than a goat?’ Loki capered in front of Skadi and she looked at him suspiciously. Loki continued ‘only, I had my arms so full of other wares, I had to lead her home like this!’ Loki took one end of the rope and tied it to the beard of the nanny goat and the other end he tied around his testicles. The goat bleated in rage at being tethered and set off around the courtyard yanking Loki along behind her who squealed and bleated louder than the goat. The other gods were helpless with laughter. Finally the two came to a halt in front of Skadi, Loki fell into her lap and looked up at her with a ridiculous expression on his face. In spite of herself, Skadi laughed; a laugh that rose from her belly and melted her heart and for the first time in months she was glad and so forgave the Aesir. Then, Odin feeling that he still wished to make further amends for the death of the great giant Thiasi, took from a pouch two milky white globes. Skadi gasped, recognising them instantly as her fathers eyes. Odin said, ‘I know how much you miss him,’ and he flung the eyes far up into the heavens where they settled as two bright stars. ‘Now you will always be able to see him and he will always watch over you’. Skadi was satisfied, her father avenged and remembered. She turned to Njord, ‘I will gladly take you as my husband but I cannot live in Noatun, your Sea Home, we must live together at my home in the mountains, for I fear that my heart would break all over again for the missing of it.’ Njord knew this would be hard for he had spent his life at sea, but he loved Skadi and wished to make her happy, so he agreed.

Skadi and Njord returned to Storm Home and for a while they were happy, they found that they loved each other completely and delighted in being together. But slowly, Njord became restless, he missed the salt of the sea, the movement of the waves and the bustling shipyard. Skadi noticed this and not bearing for him to be miserable asked Njord what was wrong, he replied ‘I hate the mountains, we have not been here long but it is dark and I am so cold. I cannot bear the howling of the wolves, they sound so ugly to me compared with the song of the swans and all I see is grey and white.’

Njord’s Desire of the Sea

At this Skadi too despaired and wondered what to do, she knew that she could not leave her home forever but knew that she could not keep the man she loved from the sea. Eventually they agreed that they should spend nine nights in Storm Home and nine nights in Njord’s Sea Home. So the two made the journey back to Asgard and Sea Home. This was how they lived for a few years, traveling back and forth between the two, always moving, never settled. Each of them at times happy and at times sad, but rarely were they happy together despite their desperate love for one another, for one of them was always homesick. Eventually, Skadi became more and more miserable, and Njord, noticing this and not bearing for her to be unhappy either asked what was wrong. ‘I cannot sleep here,’ she cried, ‘the sea is always restless, the gulls are always mewling and the ships creak in and out of the ship yard, day and night. There is no peace in this place and I can stand it no longer. I must go home.’ Njord held her close and they both cried, knowing that they could not live together, knowing they could not bear to be apart, understanding how hopeless it was. So they agreed to stay married, but to live apart, Skadi in Storm Home and Njord in Sea Home and so it must always be; for though summer and winter will always make their sacred dance, bringing the cycles of growth and stillness to the earth, they cannot exist in one place together, just as sea and mountain cannot.

Occasionally, the lovers meet and spend a few short days together when the ice and snow creep down from the mountains bringing the shadow of winter with them and summer retreats. But it only serves to remind them how impossible their love is and that it is easier to be apart where distance and forgetfulness salve the wound, yet they cannot let go. Skadi is once again alone. Her heart, melted for a short time by the wild abundance of the sea, is made again of the stuff of winter, ice and hail, the grief of passing and she has frozen it over once more. She has returned to hunting the wild, silent places on her skis with bow and arrow, or she fishes out on the wide ice floes where the wolves call and her tears fall. Njord often sits on the shore, soothed by the call of the gulls and the constant ebb of the tide, but he stares out to the grey mountains and the place where his heart has gone.

Authors note.

I wrote my version of this story, inspired by a snowy walk across my local landscape which, after making the first few tender movements towards spring was swathed once again in the cold of deep winter. It felt as if a shadow of peace and a cloak of stillness had been laid over the land and there was a grief too for the things which had come up too soon and may not survive. Skadi’s name could be traced back to the Old English ‘Scaedu’ or Old Saxon ‘scadu’ meaning shadow, which for me expresses her nature perfectly as a goddess of winter, grieving, and broken hearts. She is an enigmatic figure, a frost giantess who appears at various points in the Prose Edda, but her story is not complete, it is fragmented and must be pieced together as with many of the female figures in the old stories. I have here remained faithful to the tale, changing nothing, only adding my own flesh to the bones and a woman’s understanding for why Skadi does as she does. The story of her marriage to Njord expresses the interplay of summer and winter but also, as all good myths do, it carries a lesson within its essential tragedy, a warning against a frozen heart, and our tendency to isolate ourselves through hurt or fear. It is an ancestral story of the heart rending relationships that just do not work however much we might want them to and the of the absolute necessity of letting go.

Sturluson S (Translated by Faulkes A, 2000) Edda, Everyman, London.

Pictures by WG Collingwood (1908)

Druidry: Ancient and Modern

Over the last few days within the Druid community, there has been much discussion about what essentially constitutes Druidry. It is a wonderful and interesting discussion and one, I believe,  that is not at all new particularly since the 18th Century Romantic Revivals. Whilst I have not been following the many discussions on Facebook and the online forums, I have been following the more stately and considered pace of the blogsphere where opinion is perhaps slower and more considered. The discussion surrounds, in the main, whether the practice of Druidry should centre on devotion to the Celtic Gods of Britain and if the many other gods that the majority of folks I know work with, are diluting the tradition beyond all recognition. For other view points on this subject see http://www.rosher.me.uk/wordpress/?p=776&cpage=1#comment-46597 http://www.kristofferhughes.co.uk/1/post/2012/01/dilute-to-taste.html http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/druidry-and/

My interest in the discussion is piqued because in many ways, my Druidry could be seen to fall outside the accepted norms although it is still wholly within the definition of the constitution of the Druid network http://druidnetwork.org/constitution which was agreed at the time of its publication by every Druid group it was sent to, and there were many hundreds consulted. It has been copied and pasted in to countless Druid websites around the world helping others to define and refine their own particular strand of Druidry. I hold a proud, firstly English and secondly British, identity, I am not immersed in the Celtic culture of Wales or Ireland or indeed Scotland and I am more interested in the landscape of my immediate locality than the Welsh mountains or valleys (although I am fond of them too), which for my ancestors would have been a week or more of hard walking away, if it ever even occurred to them to go. If I work with named gods at all, they are most likely to be those of my English ancestors: Freya, Frigg, Ing, Nerthus and Woden, Skadi and Njord, because they are the most immediate to me, singing within my ancestral blood and reflecing my home landscape. I say usually, but it is not exclusively; there too are my relationships with Rhiannon and Cerridwen, Black Annis, Isis and Pan. So am I one of the folks diluting Druidry? I guess many with a Celtocentric view-point would say ‘yes’ but that too depends on how you would define Druidry, and I know many more who would say ‘no’, understanding that a part of the tradition’s essential nature is diversity and perhaps always has been.

My firm belief (for it is important to remember that what we are working with here is belief and individual interpretation of source material upon which even the historians don’t agree) is that Druidry as a religion, from which the 18th Century revivalists drew their inspiration, finds its historical roots, as a priesthood with a recorded history, in Iron Age Wales. The Druids, as far as we can say anything about them, were the intelligensia, priests, philosophers and teachers, perhaps a sophisticated cultural movement in themselves. Yet where did the inspiration for this tradition come from, where are its roots? I for one do not believe that it appeared fully formed from nowhere, or that pagan religion in Britain began with the Welsh Druids in the Iron Age as a complete expression of a tradition that must be followed to the letter today in order to retain any authenticity. What of the priests of the British Isles before this time? What of the folk, the beliefs and traditions outside Wales in the Iron age and back further into the mists before the Iron Age migrations to Britain? As is widely acknowledged in the Druid Network; ‘Druidry was the native spiritual tradition of the peoples who inhabited the islands of Britain and Ireland, spreading through much of Europe. Though many consider it to have been a religion or political force that came to Britain with the influx of culture concurrent with the Iron Age, it is increasingly understood, and within the Network acknowledged, to be of an older indigenous if ever-evolving religious tradition sourced within these islands’. And this for me hits the proverbial nail on the head; an older, indigenous, if ever-evolving religious tradition. Druidry comes from the place where people and landscape find a relationship and that is true for the whole of the British Isles and probably beyond. It is older than the first records of the Iron Age Druids and has been here as long as there have been people in these Islands, long before the stories of the Mabinogion were thought of, let alone written down. It is the wind and the sun, the sea and the moon, the crops and the cycles, but most specifically it is our relationship of devotion with them.

We have a particularly strong and beautiful thread of Druidic Tradition in Wales and within the Mabinogion (although Druids are never actually mentioned within it) but for the majority of us, this does not exclusively define the tradition although it is a deep vein within it. It does not even do so historically when we look further afield to Ireland, Scotland and Gaul. That is before we even consider that the old texts were written in around the 14th Century, probably by Christians and the stories they tell may well not have been in any way recognisable to the Iron Age Druids, 1000 years is a long time in cultural evolution and oral tradition. They are a rich and strong source of shimmering inspiration, that has been foundational to much of my learning, but I wonder how many other threads of myth and legend have been lost; how different our picture of history and our tradition might be had we more of the old songs and stories that didn’t make it this far, fell beside the way. We can only build a picture based upon what we have, but we make a mistake if we assume that our version of history is complete, or that we know conclusively what happened and to whom, as the wonderful Ronald Hutton points out in his book, which vividly deconstructs Druidry and many of our strongly held notions of it. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Druids-History-Ronald-Hutton/dp/1852855339

Ultimately, if we are to acknowledge that the spirit of Druidry within these Islands is older than the Iron Age (and it is fundamental to my Druidry that it is), that it did not just rock up fully formed as the first, only and authoritative expression of priesthood in Britain; we must acknowledge that confining it to one pantheon, manuscript or location is to acknowledge only one facet of its breadth, depth and history. It is a tiny moment in the continuum of thousands and thousands of years of pagan tradition within these lands. I cannot imagine that we are not as different from the Druids of 2000 years ago, as they were from the Druids 2000 years before them, our attitudes, culture, gods and lore as distinct and different. It would be possible to confine Druidry to one pantheon, many do, and this is fine when it is not prescriptive. Because far from being based in truth and authenticity, this is a modern interpretation and perspective that does not well represent a tradition where every tribe in every valley of Britain probably had a different name for the mud. We might call her Rhiannon, we might call her Nerthus or Cudda; some may complain about the diversity but I think we know fewer names now than our ancestors did then and with archeological evidence of travellers and migrations to these islands stretching back as far as the first settlers, there is no reason to believe that Britain has been stuck in a bubble. New peoples and their gods have arrived and departed and settled many, many times adding new names to the cauldron, like the stones brought from all over Europe to create Silbury Hill. One only has to look at these many migrations to understand that in Britain, ‘native’ is a relative term with regards to humanity and the gods. Everything arrived here sooner or later except the land itself, even the Celts (and lets not even go in to deconstructing that one, here). I see Celtic culture as a part of the continuum, not the whole of it.

Through all of this I start to wonder how much, throughout history, the Druids have themselves been the suppressors or oppressors, dictating how and who a tribe worshiped, with constant squabbles over who is ‘right’. They wouldn’t have been the first priesthood to do so, organised religion is rarely without its corruption or power games. Against a violent and rapidly changing political Iron Age back-drop, I see no sense in romanticising our forebears, they were after all human, just as we are, the same drives and lusts, motivations and mistakes. We honour our ancestors for this very stuff, the stuff of being human. I hounour all my ancestors, every one who brought me to this point, The English, the scattering of Scotts and Welsh, the Cornish, the Devonians and those from Somerset. Their rich blend of heritage and culture and relationship with their lands is my religion. I don’t selectively honour the ones the fit the bill and discount all the rest. This tradition lives, it grows, it changes like the land which is not forever constant. If I am judged not to be a Druid by some, then so be it. Yet I was never one to toe the line or conform to the status quo, so I shall just continue to walk this path, serving my gods and ancestors.

If the Druids before us did occasionally play the role of the oppressor, dictating the gods we should worship and the way we should do it, lets chose not to make that mistake again now. If they never did before, surely let’s not start today. Rather, let us continue to allow folk to walk this path in freedom, expressing a Druidry that is bigger and stronger, deeper and broader than any of us individually. Somehow I imagine it will weather the storms.

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.


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