Celtic Reconstructionism

When history adds to your modern practice

Today I dived head first down the rabbit hole of Google Scholar and a wide array of historical academic papers that are available to read. While saving a whole bunch to read later, one caught my eye.

Washing and Bathing in Ancient Ireland

A. T. Lucas

The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Vol. 95, No. 1/2, Papers in Honour of Liam Price (1965), pp. 65-114

I am relatively well known to be a woman of Feasting, as I consider food, the acts of hospitality and feasting to be a huge part of  my spiritual well being. There is however another portion that is likely not as well known because it’s just not something that I was able to concretely connect as “Gaelic” in my practice. Certainly it is something that has always been a important aspect of my practice, but I chalked up a lot of that to be unique to me. Sometimes, you read something and then you make historical and spiritual connections you didn’t “know” were there but were completely there and now can consider more ways to incorporate it. In this case it’s, Ritual bathing.

Since childhood the pleasure and just comfort of a good hot bath has always had a place in my heart. My household regularly used hot showers and baths as a way to help aid the healing process of headaches, colds, flu, muscle aches, and pretty much everything under the sun. There is the vinegar bath for a bad sunburn. The oatmeal and milk bath for chicken pox. The Epsom salt bath for other illness. When I moved out of my parents house, I started having intense migraines and stumbled on the remedy of showers where you turn the water to as hot as you can stand and then as cold as you can stand, repetitively. You kinda feel like your getting torn apart and are exhausted afterwards but for a long time it was the only relief I could find.  Along my witchcraft path I learned the value of purification baths, and adding a variety of other herbal and stone items for magical purposes. Likewise I discovered that while I sucked a meditation and trance work, I could easily slip into trance and meditation in a steamy shower or bath.

At that time, it made sense to me, in that water, especially running water, is a gateway to the Otherworld, and steam seemed associated with the mist and fog that is also seen in Irish myth and folklore to be a portal to the Otherworld. The act of bathing seemed to create a liminal state of its own that I’ve always felt connected to and it’s been a useful way to de-stress and in general keep emotionally balanced over the years.

But I had never made any stronger connections to Irish mythology or lore until recently. A few years back, my partner was experiencing some intense stress at work. Anyone who has a lot of stress in their lives, know how it just starts to take a toll mentally and physically. For some reason, I called to mind the story of the young Cúchulainn returning from battle still in his battle frenzy and being dunked/bathed in three vats of water to cool his furor and return him to a more human state. I felt a connection with the stresses and dehumanizing aspects that service jobs can reap upon a person and the inhuman state of Cúchulainn in the story. It seemed to me that the act of being bathed ritualistically as the young hound was, was a way of bringing him back into the fold of his people. Bringing him back to peace and civilization in some way. I started to use showering in this way, after work. A way to wash away the grim and rat in a maze feelings that Corporate America can bring, and return to a state of comfort, balance and humanity. It helped. It became sacred and essential in our comfort rituals.

The article highlights some facets of bathing and washing in Ancient Ireland and in Irish myth that I hadn’t taken the time to ponder before. In particular it’s connections with hospitality and even feasting(!).

It outlines various examples of how a bath was one of the requisite amenities given to a guest as part of the rules of hospitality. We are given the example of the bad hospitality of King Bres Mac Mac Eladain who had a poet of the Tuatha dé Dannan visit. He was conveyed to a small house which was narrow, dark and dim, there was neither fire, nor bath, nor bed. Three small cakes, and they dry, were brought to him on a little dish. The next day he rose and he was not pleased. From this and the other examples tales of Cúchulainn, King Donn, Mael Dúin, being greeted with lavish beautiful welcomings the included lovely women to bath them, the argument that having a comfortable and plush bath available for guests was considered the mark of a good household.

Comfort is one of the tenets of hospitality, and while I have generally considered my mother’s propensity for buying copious amounts of soft bath towels and having over flowing baskets of colorful washcloths available, to be her desire for a magazine type home,  I now look at it at it as being very gracious. If I were to show up at my mother’s house unannounced with 5 or more guests unexpected and we all needed showers, she would have clean fresh towels and cloths ready and waiting. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for my own. In fact to own the truth, my house has only a handful of towels and they are almost never all clean at once. Something to consider.

The article also make the connections to prestige and honor to be the first to bath, making several references to chieftains and kings being granted the right to “the first bath and the first drink” at a feast. There is some interesting information that makes a strong case that bathing of somekind (whether full body or hands and feet) were done prior to feasting. This makes sense in a logistical and hygienic sense, as well as adding a layer of ritual cleansing to feasting that just makes energetic sense. It also reminded me a lot of a podcast I was recently recommended, Dark Ages Feasting – The British History Podcast. Which, while predominately looking at Anglo-Saxon traditions, covered the ritual handwashing that took place before eating at a feast. He also pointed out how uncouth many of we modern folks are in comparison, how often do you actually wash your hands before a meal? More things to consider ;

The article only briefly touches on the connection of ritual bathing by women being connected to healing and magic, but there is enough to make note of and keep an eye out in further reading.

There is a lot of minutia of daily life in ancient Ireland, that perhaps not everyone would consider interesting lol, but I love it.  Things like theories of what sort of detergents they used, how they heat their water, what the tubs looked like, the different words that meant different types of bathing. These things don’t necessarily add anything to my modern practice, but they help to provide another piece of the puzzle to a worldview of the past. I feel like that helps to create a depth of understanding that solidifies my modern practice.

If you have made it this far in this much longer ramble than anticipated post, all of this is to say that I recommend the article lol. It has opened some ideas in my head as far as ritual feast  activities, and that I for sure need an lovely washing station in my future feasting hall. It reinforced  my I practice of using bathing for sacred ritual purposes as well as for community and hospitality building in some ways. More food for thought on how to relate to the every day life and I suppose a little window in how I break out academic articles and relate them to my practice.

Sacred Places: The Stream

Sacred Waters Jan 2016 (14)

I recently visited another of my sacred sites in the area. It is the new year and thus a new batch of sacred water is needed. This sacred water is gathered from a sacred stream and I use it in various ways through out the year. Sometimes, I make a couple trips throughout the year if more is needed, but generally one batch can last a whole year.

We first stumbled across the stream and trail when we were relatively new to the Bay Area and desperately needed to find escape from the house and troubles we were living with. This trail and the stream provide a respite, and an escape to tranquility. It very much has the feel of a fairytale trail and there are many bridges and picturesque scenes that tempt and sooth the mind and soul. I have found a lot of comfort  here and over the years have seen it change just as I have changed.

Sacred Waters Jan 2016 (22)

The trail is easy to miss off the side of the rode. Tucked away in a ravine close to where the stream meets the sea. This time of year there are usually less people out and about, and this day was a wash with rain and sun. The trail itself was lush green in some parts, and scorched brown in others. A testimony to the drought and dry conditions we have been experiencing. While there were ripe young little ferns soaking up the recent moisture and wet, there were also large withered mature ferns for whom the rain came too late.

Sacred Waters Jan 2016 (2)

The Guardian of the Stream and Trail

The Stream has many Guardians that come in a variety of guises. This particular entrance to the trail and stream however is watched over by this magnificent Boulder and his tree companions.  There is no mistaking his presence, and it is important to pay respects and offerings before going further, especially if you intend to be gathering anything. The Old boy looked tired but content on this trip. His craggled face covered in new life, while the old ferns lay limp at his base. We stopped for a bit and chatted, paid our offerings and looked for ill omens. The moss was thick and happy on the trunks of his tree companions and we were all just happy to be there.

Once you pass the Guardian it is a short walk to cross the bridge to the Otherside of the stream. It had never really dawned on me before the significance of this, but this time as we crossed over the dark wet bridge I could markedly feel the shift. We receive the blessed water from the Otherside. I don’t particularly have any lore to back up this intuitive knowing, but it certainly seems correct and there is plenty of stories of the power of crossing moving bodies of water.

The sacred area that I have spent much time just resting with and feeling the purification of the place is a little corner of the stream. The stream itself seems to be unconnected to it’s “Official Gov’ment” name and has thus far been blissfully silent on any other name it might prefer. I am sure it has a name, but it is one that I am not meant to know it seems, and that is alright with me. It seems content to be The Sacred Stream in my own thoughts, and maybe someday I will discover a word beautiful and joyful enough that it would be pleased to have as a nick name. Until then it is the Sacred Stream and one of it’s places of power is where the Living Bridge crosses it’s small rapids. The Living Bridge is a massive Redwood twin that at one point far far in the past fell over the stream and continued to grow.

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The two Redwoods are spectacular to behold and are perfectly happy in there location. The stream itself is a paradise, enticing you with it’s crystalline water and lovely pools. I fantasize about bathing in it’s waters every. single. time. However the waters are generally too cold to such naive desires. But it is soothing to rinse your feet, scoop up some icy water and bath your face feeling rejuvenated instantly.

We dallied and made offerings, cleansed some of our favorite stones in the cold water and in general enjoyed ourselves. At length we gathered up our water and made our way back to the realms of men and the sea. There were more adventures ahead of us and Manannán was working some breathtaking scenery out in the ocean. It was one of those days that you are just happy to be living and enjoying. As Imbolg approaches and Bridgit’s Holy Day with it, I’m sure this sacred water will be put to good use and doubly blessed. I remain ever grateful to have the chance to touch and see such amazing clear water flowing. May it continue to be so and flow evermore.  

 

Táin Tuesday: The Wealth of a King

This is a continuation of “How Conchobar was begotten, and how he took the Kingship of Ulster” but whereas the first part of the story I feel is more his mother Ness’s story (of being a mastermind and all around sharp lady), the second part of the story tells us more about what is to be expected from Kingship, idealized and legendary kingship, but in the paragons of myth we can find the lessons of the mundane. The first paragraph extols Conchobar’s virtues and how beloved of Ulster he was. There are the things you would expect such as:

There was no wiser being in the world. He never gave judgement until it was  ripe, for fear it might be wrong and the crops worsen. – Kinsella

Now later on we may talk about how true this statement actually is in reference to some the judgments he actually makes as King. But for now it is a telling piece of what is valued in a leader and very neatly and simply showcases the connection between sovereignty and the land.  This is a theme that you might have heard espoused before, especially if you have been looking into or have any connections with any of the many Irish Sovereignty Goddesses. Cue the Morrighan, Macha, Aine, just to name a few. I feel like there is a lot that could be said about this connection, but the one thing that strikes me in this reading may be the simplest. The sacred connection between mankind and the land.

If we concentrate down this, the king’s actions/words/being can cause crops to worsen and the people to suffer, we clearly see the ownership of stewardship in all things. We as human beings are not separate from the land that we live on.  This is a very animist view of things, and further gets complicated for those of us on U.S. soil and other places wherein colonialism has left us a history to have to weigh-in. But the solid foundation that there is a sacred connection between all of our actions and the land seems pretty clear and worth remembering. This simple foundation gives weight to the meaning of offerings, to seeing signs and omens in the day to day life, to cultivating the skills of wisdom and judgement. Because ultimately if you are taking on the mantle of personal sovereignty then you are taking up the mantle of your actions, your words, having profound affect on your world.

There are things that make the modern person raise an eyebrow and make a face, namely these:

So high was their regard for him that every man in Ulster that took a girl in marriage let her sleep the first night with Conchobor, so as to have him first in the family[…]Any Ulsterman who gave him a bed for the night gave him his wife as well to sleep with.

Ahhh Ancient times, when men were men and women were chattle. Now besides this being a very sexist way of showing the adoration and love Ulster had for it’s king it may also show a bit more of the practice of Ancestor worship and the ties of kingship. There is an interesting article written by Fedelm Cruithn titled A Semiotics of Kingship in the Tain which goes deeper into the topics that I am brushing over, but talks directly about this connection:

The Táin also indicates a very important relationship between the king’s popularity and his genealogy. The men of Ulster worship Conchobor so highly, they allow their new brides to sleep with him on the first night, in order to “have him first in the family.” (Kinsella 4) Try to imagine an Egyptian king sleeping with the wife of every man in Egypt! In this part of The Táin, there seems to be a break from the droit de cuissage or ius primæ nocti, (law of the first night), which reflects the right of a ruling man to “sample the wares” of his family subjects. In this instance, there’s a peculiar combination of a worshipful gesture made by free men honouring their beloved king and a genealogical insurance policy for the tribe: a figure of royal blood who shares his blood with the people of his kingdom. This points to the possibility that in Celtic kingship, unlike many other sovereignty traditions, the king was not only expected to be of perfect stock, but was also expected to revitalise and perfect the stock of the tribe. In this way, Conchobor becomes a prize breeding bull, woven into the very fabric of a story about the royal cattle theft of a sacred bull. (Mac Cana 52)

This idea of genealogy, of being descendants of legendary heroes, and even the Gods themselves, is not a new idea or one that is only found in the Celtic context. While overall interesting to think about on it’s own, for me personally it just throws more weight into the respectful practice of Ancestor worship. These Legendary Heroes and Kings were looked on as family, as kin.

Extrapolating further and tying this back into the ideas of personal sovereignty in the modern context, this close connection of king and people teaches me that those that I consider part of my tribe, my community should be treated as family. Again writing that out seems like such a given, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a family were taking care of each other is given. It is easy for me coming from that background to extend that outward to know that there are times when the good of the all is more important, and that these duties when founded in love hold great rewards.

The last part of this tale goes on in great detail on the houses and wealth of the mighty King. Of note that he had three houses each with a different task. Lets just go ahead and point out that three is a number of great weight in the Irish world and it will be something to look for in future. Craebruad the Red Branch, Tete Brec the Twinkling Hoard, and Craebderg the Ruddy Branch.

Craebruad, was where the kings sat and presumably where Conchobor lived. We are told that it is the Red Branch and red is for royalty. This is just flat out interesting to me and endearing to me. Red is not usually the color associated with royalty, that would be purple. It could very well be that there was not readily available dye for making purple at the time, one of the leading facts to purples elevation to royalty in other places and times. But I’m inclined to think not…I could be wrong, but having seen a lot of the craft work of Ancient Ireland and knowing that they did have some contact and trade with the outside world if only from Viking influence it seems far fetched to believe that purple was just not a color they could replicate. So then why the elevation of red? In Rome red was the color of the army, due mostly to the great availability and thus cost effectiveness of the color. Gotta love the Romans and their keen accounting skills. But then that is just it, red is the color of war. Red is the color of blood and passion. I would even venture to say that red is the color of courage. Could this also be a contributing factor to it’s royal associations in Ancient Ireland, where valor and courage were such prized items? Another interesting note is that red usually helps to depict Otherworldly things, White animals with red ears and so forth. Perhaps this too tied the Kingship and royalty to the spiritual and sacred.

All and all I find it a fascinating tidbit. Not the least of which is that Red is a color I associate very clearly with.

But what of the other houses? Tete Brec, is the place that holds all the beautiful and deadly weapons and armor of legendary heroes. Everything from Cuchulainn’s shield to everyone else’s and their goblets and javelins and swords beside. And in Craebderg is where all “the severed heads and spoils” were kept.  There are several ways that these houses could be analyzed, but again on this reading I am struck by Craebruad representing the King’s duties to politics and the people. Such a fine house with all it’s decorations and trimmings much play host to many heroes and Chiefs, foraging alliances and offering hospitality.  A point underlined by Gerg’s vat, from which at any time 30 men may be drinking from it in Conchobor’s room and the vat is always full. Such abundance and generosity are things that a sovereign must maintain. With Tete Brec I see the need to maintain protection, an entire house filled with arms and shields of mighty warriors, of whom may be called upon at any moment. It speaks to the bravery and the heroism that is idealized in sovereignty. And then Craebderg, the ruddy branch, where we see that bravery and heroism has been tested and proven true. This is not just a king who speaks of valor but who has the proof of those swords and shields in a house all of their own. The grandeur and glory must not be without merit.

This speaks to the heroic morality versus the passive morality that is seen elsewhere, and was one of the key things that turned me away from Judeo-Christian religions. With them it is all about the things that you should not do. Whereas to me being judged and held to your actions is more in alignment with the make up of my soul. I am not a “good person” because I do not steal or any number of the other tenets of “Thou shall not”. It is through my actions based on the real features of the situations that mold and shape me. Just as it is that Conchobor’s actions, be them in judgement or on the battle field is what molds and shapes him into a legendary king.

The Cooking Hearth of the Great Queen – Lessons in the fire

The main error committed by those who have called the Morrígan a “war goddess” has not been in giving her that designation, but in defining it too narrowly. When one considers what war was for the medieval Irish, rather than in light of what war means now, or even to the Romans, the designation becomes as complex and nuanced as its subject herself. All the messiness, the intricacies, and the facets of the Morrígan are the facets, intricacies, and messiness of war as the Irish knew it. Nearly all the important narrative texts of medieval Irish literature, and Ulster cycle texts in particular, center on that enterprise. It is therefore no surprise that the Morrígan, as embodiment of war, would appear conspicuously in these texts. Fame and glory, gore and terror: in war, are all one. And so the Morrígan. — The Morrígan and her Germano-Celtic Counterparts A dissertation by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein

Ever since reading Epstein’s wonderful dissertation this quote has stayed with me. It helps to succinctly keep the mind open to all the possibilities and facets of such a complex goddess and culture instead of getting too trapped in single ideas. I am always looking to learn more and to more full integrate my spiritual beliefs into my everyday life. So when new nuances come to light and settle so harmoniously with what I already have in my life and methods it just helps to deepen those bonds that I have found and created.

Last year I was inspired to go on a ritual camping trip to honor the Morrighan. Having found a truly amazing location that would include a 3 mile hike to the campsite and then allow for a beach side ritual, I was deeply motivated and looking forward to the challenge that this camping trip would provide. I often find that physical challenge is something that I yearn for in my day to day life that is absent. Thankfully, I don’t have to struggle to procure food, or fight for my life. This is a privilege of the modern first world that I live in and I am grateful. Yet…there is a part of me that wonders if I can ever truly know myself in such comfortable surroundings. There is some nameless voice in my soul that believes that it is through adversity, danger, fear, that you temper your core and truly find yourself. Many a sleepless night I have wondered if I am truly living my principles by not fully embracing this belief.  Shouldn’t someone who believes such things dive head first into a life that would manifest these things? Shouldn’t I have joined the military? The Peace Corp? Any other of countless paths that would bring me face to face with what I describe? It is the paradox of my existence in that this belief and pull goes head to head with my belief that life is meant to be enjoyed. That I consider my life well lived if I and my loved ones are happy. I am a conflicted soul if ever there was one lol.

So here presented itself a safe but challenging opportunity to get out into nature and connect with myself and the divine. More I knew that there were others in my community that would welcome the opportunity for the same. In my public priestess work amoungst a  mixed crowd of personal paths I relish the opportunity to do things the way I do them and invite others along to partake. I spent some time trying to figure out who to invite and how open to make this trip. Ultimately it seemed best to invite those who worked with the Great Queen or had approached me about working with her and those willing to undertake the physical challenges.

Not surprisingly when you set out with the intention of holding a ritual camping trip with the Great Queen to challenge yourself, you are challenged…and expected to adapted.

The first location that inspired the trip was just flatly not available for the weekend for up to a year in advance. Being someone who has only ever done much camping in national forest situations I was shocked that a month in advance was not enough. That in fact a year was needed. Adapted or die, right? Lol

Interestingly as this first plan and rendition of the ritual trip fell away there was an extreme influx of emotional and personal challenge in our community and amoungst my dear inner circle.  Things were hard, everyday was an emotional roller coaster. Within my own house we are still grieving for the loss of the Lumberjack’s mother and the first year of her passing quickly approaches. As anyone who has suffered through hard times know that the stress, depression, anxiety and other aspects take their toll physically and mentally. During this time I continued to pray, and to hold that some how I would do my best to honor her and her glory.

It was the Lumberjack that had me look farther inland after spending so long looking for a good site on the coast. I wanted some place that was a little less populated than most state parks and also had some water source. Then as the emotional turmoil reached its peak we went for a long and much needed drive out to scout out prospective camping sites. There is something spiritually comforting to me about long driving trips. It probably hearkens back to my childhood spent driving from one side of the country to the other. Something about it can just rest my mind, pull me out of the drudgery and see the bigger picture of life. I have to say that is was exactly what the doctor order. Truly I am blessed to have the Lumberjack in my life willing to support me and tend to my emotional needs amoungst everything else.

The drive up was beautiful and the location was stunning. It was a much more developed camping site than the original site, but still remote and next to an amazing reservoir. Stunningly blue and filled with pyrite and quartz. The location did not have the same wild rugged energy that had drawn me to the first location. Instead it was serene, inviting and ethereal. Standing on the banks looking out on the tranquil reservoir feeling that familiar welcomed feeling of finally being able to breath fully deeply, two ravens languidly circling the trees and I just accepted it as a gift. The time and energy of the present was harsh and tumultuous, here was the time and the place to gain respite. To nourish the soul. How often do such opportunities present themselves? And again should you limit the understanding and honoring of the Gods? No we would not be physically challenging ourselves, and meeting nature in the untamed wilds. But each and every one of us were being challenged in our daily lives. Having to self analysis, to face difficult situations, people and conversations and not turn away. It seemed more than possible that in the stillness and rugged outdoors we all would find a piece of ourselves that would help to preserve us through the challenges at home.

Bullard's Bar

With the new location came new possibilities. If the original offering of physical exertion and shear will to make this happen was no longer the center point, then naturally food would be the new center. Food is the center point of most of my offerings and connection to deity at home and I saw no reason why we shouldn’t feast to her honor. Luckily for me the group was equally eager to bring abundance and feast to the trip, and in the end we had so much food. We planned the meals together as a community. Marinated Chicken and grilled corn, plenty of sandwich meats and cheese for lunches and snack, pancakes, bacon and eggs for breakfast, and a Primal Heart beef stew for the culminating supper. No one went hungry.

We spent out days in the cerulean quartz charged water. Delighting in the refreshment and glitter. Quickly we found a treasure of pyrite laced clay mud. Smooth and glorious it immediately became a favored past time to cover ourselves in clay and search for quartz treasures on the shore. Beer, laughter, swimming, mud, I didn’t know these were things I needed.

The late days were spent tending the fire, getting the stew started and fighting off mosquito. I enjoy cooking on most days, but I have not had the pleasure of cooking over that many open flames yet. That is soon to change, there is something amazing and so heartening to throw hunks of meat into a cast iron pan over a roaring fire, hearing the sizzle, smelling the sear. There is a deep contentment in getting a large cauldron boiling and stirring into it the intentions of health and comfort for all.

Generally I associate my cooking with the Dagda. He has a shrine in my kitchen, and it well associated with food. His cauldron of plenty, his ever roasting pig, etc.  But over that fire, I felt her presence. There isn’t much more that I can say than that. Upon returning home from trip I was inspired to look up an article that was in my que to read for a while on Tairis Tales, I vaguely remembered it was about cooking and the Morrighan. Lo, indeed it was:

There is a popular belief that the Morrígan is a war-goddess and not much more than that, but like any other deity, things are never as simple as they might seem. Aside from her associations with war and magic there are some intriguing references in popular lore and the medieval manuscripts that associate her with the Fulacht na Morrighna, or ‘The Spit of the Morrígan’, often simply referred to as the ‘Cooking Hearth of the Great Queen’ (or variations thereof…). — Fulacht na Morrighna

Isn’t that just amazingly in alignment with just freakin’ everything? I laughed when I read it. Just laughed. But more it really did drive home the feelings and inspirations that I felt in that campsite. This part in particular:

It’s notable that the last paragraph in the excerpt above specifically mentions outlaws approaching the Morrígan, since the fulacht themselves are generally found in places that are not associated with settlements; they are commonly called fulacht fiadh, the latter word meaning ‘wild’, possibly referring to the location of them, or else the wild meats (such as deer) that were cooked and then consumed in them. Outlaws were usually young men who left their tuatha to live outside of normal society (and therefore the law and protections that such status within the tuath brought with it), and made their living as hunters and warriors for hire (or brigandage). 

We very much were outside of our normal community for those three days. We were outside of our homes, our families, and the usual titles and jobs that we tend to day to day. For those three days were were just in the “wilds” and had found comfort and solace at the hearth fire of the Great Queen. It is my hope that the other also felt this since of comradery and sanctuary amoungst the trees, the swooping birds, and dirt.

Over the two nights I told the tale of Cu Chulainn and his first meeting with the Morrighan and then his last stand. Probably not my best retelling but it was fun and heartfelt. Ritually I kept things simple and as I do at home just part of the natural weave. Offerings to the Land, Sea, Sky and Ancestors on arrival. Burning juniper on the first fire of the night for protection and blessing. Offerings to the Morrighan every night. Chicken hearts roasted over the open fire and joyfully popped into the mouth. Offered up on the open flames to the Phantom Queen. I sang her songs, and then we that felt called to sang their own inspirations. We asked for wisdom and visions that we might need. We raised our glasses in her glory and honor. We composed a new song to her in the dark by the light of the fire. We enjoyed ourselves, and washed our clay and oil caked hair in cool water. We laughed, we ate, and just lived in her presence.

One dim morning I sat up in my tent to brush my hair and listen to the wind in the trees. Just in time to watch a sleek regal raven swoop down and land on a branch above our camp and sweep a glance over us all before flying off towards the water. It was a moment of peace and I smile remembering it even now.

There are many small lessons that I took away from this trip. It was a subtle expression of what is usually portrayed to be a very catalystic deity. It was the light hearted stories of glory and triumph. It was the comfort of a well cooked meal found even so far from home.  I hold a renewed respect and love for my Queen. The Queen who demands self improvement at all times, who does not flinch at throwing adversity and terror to teach lessons. The Queen who knows, who sees, and who foretells. Is the same Queen who keeps her people fed, who shows that even in the wilds there is a way. There is always a way. Maybe just not the way you were expecting…

I look forward to more such trips. To trying my hand at returning to the original location and the different lessons learned there. But ultimately I am grateful I have the opportunities that I do.

Táin Tuesdays : Nes the Mastermind

I think at this point it is safe to assume this will be a biweekly posting, as frankly dear people, my life is just too busy for weekly.

Now, I was originally going to call this post “Enter Conchobor aka Nes is a Mastermind” but then decided to cut with the pretense that I gave one boar’s fart about Conchobor in this at all. The tale for this tuesday is technically called “How Conchobor was begotten, and how he took the Kingship of Ulster” but honestly…the child Conchobor did just about nothing, it was all his mother. While yes Conchobor is the subject of this tale he is not by any means the driving force. Credit where it is due people it was all Nes.

And really no matter what version of the tale of the birth of the legendary king Conchobor this seems to be true.

Because my good people there is another version of the birth of Conchobor, one I have to say I much prefer, and one that showcases more of Nes’s prowess. For a run down of that tale (that I do not actually know where the original text is from) see here. But so that I don’t wander too far into the realm of “same story different version and all are true.” We will stick to what Kinsella chose to tell us.

In Kinsella’s tale Nes is out with her royal women and happens to pass the druid Cathbad and ask him what the present hour is lucky for? And in what my imagination can only conjure up as an ancient Irish smarmy bar line he replies with “Begetting a king on a queen.” Following that up with a prophecy about a son being conceived now would be legendary and known throughout all of Ireland. Nes seeing no other male around, takes Cathbad to her bed and is pregnant for 3 years and 3 months.

Now…Frankly this little part of the story gives me way more questions than anything else. Like, what is the meaning of this 3 years 3 months pregnancy nonsense? Is this just a literary device to signify to the the audience that Conchobor is in fact not like mortal men? If so talk about being heavy handed with your literary devices. I mean seriously that is a curse on Nes, is what that is. Granted I am somewhat pregnancy phobic but even the ladies that I know who have been keen on the begetting of children usually want to be done with it and threaten to forcibly remove said child by month nine. The womb and mind shutter at the thought of 3 freaking years. But I digress.

The other tid bit of this that makes me weep at my lack of knowledge is the mention of Conchobor’s birth at the feast of Othar. I have not been able to find anything on what exactly this feast is and I would very much like to as it seems mentioning it specifically must indicate something.

In any event Nes in this story takes the lead to making herself a son, a son who will be legendary, a son who will be king. Which I have to say is pretty interesting from ancient female character, and once again I am reminded that I need to pursue a more in depth study of women and their roles in Iron Age and Ancient Ireland. There was a book that I saw many years ago that seemed a good place to start but have since lost all recognition of. If anyone has recommendations on the subject, please by all means.

But from my unstudied modern point of view I have to say that I am impressed by the gumption that is shown here. In a lot of stories even today women’s motivation for having children is rarely ever cast in the light of being for glory or power. And if it is there is a certain amount of vilification that seems to be absent here. Men want children to carry on their lineage, to build empires in their name, that is acceptable and understood. But to see it here, and in this story coming solely from Nes, the mother is refreshing and interesting.

My interest is furthered peaked when the extent of Nes’s skills in political intrigue and the game of power come into plain view in the telling of how Conchobor “took” the throne. The long and the short of it is that Nes used her cunning and assets to gain the thrown for her son. She convinces the current Ulster King Fergus (you remember Fergus, the spirit of whom brought back the Tain in the future.) to let seven year old Conchobor be King in name for a year, so that his children could claim being the son of a King. Fergus agrees so that Nes will marry him and immediately Nes starts pulling strings to secure the throne for Conchobor. Kinsella tells us that she instructs Conchobor, his foster parents (that’s right she didn’t even raise the boy herself, take that gender roles!), and his entire household to steal from one half of the kingdom and give it to the other half. I have to say this feels like…something is missing. Mainly which half is being stolen from, and why are their no ramifications for this? Are they stealing from the rich and re-distrubuting the wealth? But that doesn’t entirely seem like a likely plan to win over the court. Are they stealing from Fergus supporters and then giving to people who will later be influential in who keeps the throne? This is about the time that I remind myself that this story was written down by Monks after generations of oral tradition and it’s entirely possible that many details have fallen to the wayside.

Needless to say this combined with Nes paying off the Warrior elite with her own money, led to the men of Ulster deciding that there were no taksey backseies for Fergus, and Conchobor was King.

Things that I love about this. Again Nes’s complete unabandoned power play here, bonus points for not a hint of wickedness being thrown her way for being so cunning and for being a woman. Which is kinda impressive considering again it was Monks writing this stuff down.

But also the rewarding of cleverness. Not just cleverness but downright trickery. I suppose this is an odd thing to like, as well in a modern light it appears to be awarding duplicitness, but it clearly shows that success is about being vigilant, and puts an emphasis on more than just strength. It acknowledges a different type of power than the physical. Which isn’t always something that is underlined. You don’t just get to be King because you are strong. You also have to have the support of the people. You also have to just be smart enough to not be tricked out of your position. It is the first showing that being in such a position of leadership and privileged and power comes with being constantly held to a standard, but more importantly that failure to meet that standard will in fact lose you that position. Again something that is illustrated in other tales.

It is this idea that is foundational to my own coda of living. Interestingly it was an idea of leadership that was first introduced to me by my Marine Corp father, and was a major connection that I had to Celtic mythology and history. It is an idea that leadership is not a given, it is not merely ordained by some higher authority, although clearly lineage is still a major factor here historically. But that lineage is not the end all deciding factor. The King is not ordained by god and thus unremovable. Now I don’t literally to the letter follow with the ideas of kingship/leadership as outlined in the Tain or other mythology cycles, as my modern sensibilities cannot get behind discounting a leader based on physical defect or injury. But I do believe and put a lot of weight in leaders having to be proven capable and continuously capable of their position.

Going back in this tale, the other take away I have from this is the validity and faith in Druids prophecy. Remember the whole start of this plot of Nes was started by a Druid giving an on the spot prophecy of the hour. Which illustrates the skill that is expected of a Druid, but also the weight that their prophecies held. Nes is now moving and making large political movements based on that prophecy, on that guarantee of what Conchobor will become. So true divination, true prophecy is a real tangible thing, and is something that is worthy of moving in congruence with. Now granted, I do not consider myself a Druid, nor do I actually think that Druidry is something that can be recreated in the modern world. But it adds to the importance of divination and being open to messages from the beyond. I would have dearly loved for the story to give us some hint into how Cathbad made his prophecy about the hour of the day, but alas.

Now there is still more to delve into in this little tale. A very detailed description of Conchobor’s kingship and what type of king he is and the houses he keeps etc. I have decided to go ahead and post what I have here and make that a separate post.

As before please go ahead and let me know your own interpretations or insights! Hopefully I’ll have the second have of this post up on Thursday.

 

 

 

Táin Tuesday: Before the Táin

Well this project took a little longer to get off the ground than anticipated. But now that I have both books in hand and have a few moments to peruse both I see that this isn’t going to be as straight forward as reading chapter by chapter of each one.

For the duration of this project I will be referring to the two versions by the last name of their translators. So, The Táin by Thomas Kinsella will hereforto be known as Kinsella and The Táin by Ciaran Carson will hereafter be known as Carson.

On the initial examination of both books it immediately struck me that the Carson does not begin in the same place at the Kinsella. Whereas Kinsella begins “Before the Táin” and includes the birth and rise of power of Conchobor, the story of the sons of the Uisliu, and the Pangs of Ulster. The Carson begins with the actual cattle raid with Medb and Aililli talking in bed. This is an interesting choice and I will go back and read Carson’s introduction to see if he explains that choice here. Maybe it’s the old stubborn person in me but I feel like leaving out those stories at the beginning leaves out a lot of the context for the cattle raid itself. Though I suppose I only associate them with the Táin because the Kinsella version was the first version I read. But to me they were world builders and set the stage for what was to come. Especially the Pains of Ulster! But then I am rather fond of that story and could be very bias at the moment.

But since I do find those stories to be important and since they are in the Kinsella, I will begin with my take aways and overviews of them and when the two version meet then we will have comparison. Seems fair enough to me.

With that said we being “Before the Táin

In Kinsella’s notes he attributes this anecdotal text to the ninth century text in the Book of Leinster. I have to say that it does have a different feel and sound to me than some of the other parts of Kinsella, but I wonder how much of that is Kinella’s own voice coming to the translation.

In any event this short little story tells us that the knowledge and story of the Táin itself was once lost or at the least not know in its entirety. And in the fashion of all good important myths and legends had to be quested for and sought out.

Now you may be asking “What can you possibly get out of this tiny little story?”

Well, not a huge amount but some things in my practice are certainly underlined and other things that I have known but not paid as great attention to are brought to the forefront.

In the start of this story it is plan that the “Poets of Ireland” have convened to see if they could all remember the story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. This illustrates that the poets or bards were very much the history keepers. This is something that my previous research already told me, but it is them all discovering that they only know parts of the story and then deciding it was important to go and find the whole tale again that helps brings few things into focus for me.

First, that people especially educated people, and I will go a step farther and say probably especially educated people who considered themselves or were considered by their community to be spiritual leaders, had A LOT memorized. And by memorized I don’t just mean they  had the cliff notes version that I could tell you off the cuff, I mean it was in verse. Word for word, line for line, verbatim. This doesn’t just apply to Ireland of course, the ancient world in general seems to have this trait. A trait that we of modern times have fallen behind on and something I would like very much to work on. This isn’t to say that I’m going to memorize the Tain line for line, but who knows maybe someday. But I do want to memorize more prayers and songs, reading this helps to solidify my dedication to that cause. Also to you know…write more lol.

Second is a little more…spiritual practice-ish. In the story Muirgen, the son of the great poet teacher who set the challenge before them all, finds the gravestone of Fergus mac Roich (deposed King of Ulster who aids Queen Medb in the Raid) and entreats him in verse to tell the whole tale. A mist comes over Muirgen for three days and three nights he cannot be found. In that time Fergus appears before him (dressed spectacularly I might add) and recites the whole thing.   Thus Muirgen is able to return from the quest victorious and the Tain is returned to Ireland in full.

There is quite a bit in that little story. We see that there is a strong ancestral connection, even to figures of myth and legend. That they are real, that they are able to speak and teach us even after death. That is something that I have always connected with. That tangible thread of spirit that links the living to the dead, and the living to their ancestral and mythical past. It is a huge part of what brought me to the Gaelic Polytheist path. I started out following the threads of these same stories and heroes. Ok maybe it didn’t start here it started over a bit of water with King Arthur and his lot but still it didn’t take long to find my way to Erin.  For me this underlines the already standing practice of honoring and learning from the Beloved Dead. It is something that a lot of CR sites and Gaelic Polytheist talk about. Clearly with good reason.

The other thing that I note here and just sort of put on my List-of-things-to-look-for further in this reading, is the mist. The mist came and then knowledge from the beyond was received. There are several different things I can take away from this. One is that there may be future connection between the mist/fog and the dead/supernatural. My other research and knowledge and just flat-out gut says that this is so, but I will make note of it here and see how often this occurs.

Because then I can start and pay more attention to the mist and fog. I live in an area where it is not a stranger to me. Perhaps next time I look outside and see the mists at my door I will leave out an offering to passing spirits. Or it occurs to me that in times when the mist is coming in may be a good time to try to contact the Beloved Dead more easily. Things to think on, things to see how they can fit in my life.

A different take on the time that Muirgen spent in the mist; is that a mortal was able to gain supernatural information from the beyond. Granted this was lost information that was already part of the mortal world but I don’t consider it too far a leap to see a parallel in this to the times that I go into a state of trance and come back with new inspirations, song and prayers. Now I’m sure for some that might be too great a leap in lines of thought, and that’s fine. But for me I can see how the literary use of mist that hides a person for 3 days and 3 nights could in fact be a way to describe a state of trance. Where the body remains and the mind or soul enters into the mist and beyond. Like I said perhaps too far fetched for some but it makes complete sense to me. Which makes it reassuring and helpful. It’s not something I have talked at length about as it’s hard to articulate, but I find a great connection to the divine in a trance state. Interestingly most of my trance states happen in the shower, where there is a mist in the steam and water. This is something else that is on my list of things to look out for. The connections of the divine and supernatural to water, mist, steam etc.

That my friends are my take-aways from this wee tale. Also a very good example of what the rest of this project will look like. So if this interests you please stick around! Let me know what you glean from these stories. What are the nuggets that leap out to your mind. I’d love to hear!

I’m already working on next weeks so I do hope to have these up every tuesday but you know there may be some flubs here or there lol.

Update: Dusting off the Blog

Clearly things have slowed down to a grinding halt as far as my internet shenanigans. Lots of different factors have attributed to it, life in general being one. The juggling that was required from the end of last  year to the now of this year just did not leave a lot of room for documentation and the time for sitting down in prose contemplation. This coupled with some anxiety issues made it just better all around to take a break from my usual plugged in time. But that is the way of things, and the rhythms of life work so that everything changes and flows.

I find myself now in a place of wanting to return to the basics and refresh myself on research that is the foundation of my practice. Gaelic Polytheism being one of those religions known for it’s “homework”. One of the immense perks that I see to the internet and the pagan and polytheistic community on the internet is being able to better share information and ideas. I don’t know how many times I have gone to the internet for research convinced that someone somewhere must be talking about this, must have some ideas of their own, and sometimes find very little. Because of that feeling I try and make it a point to put out what I can. Which was one of the many reasons I started this blog to begin with. Granted I’m not a great producer of content like some people, but I do hope that what I have to share may find the right person looking for it.

All that wordy preamble is to say that I will be posting my thoughts and “work” here on the blog. There are two larger projects that will be happening that in all likely hood will inspire more work on my part.

First, is that I will be re-reading the Tain (twice over actually). I recently dug out my old copy of The Tain by Thomas Kinsella, and felt inspired to go through reading it while making notes of my observations. The things that I find useful to my practice, or the things that I ponder about spiritually etc. But I also know that there is a translation out there that is more supported in the CR community, that is Ciarán Carson’s version. It seems entirely possible to me that by reading both versions there would be a huge chance of discovery in the comparison. So I went ahead and bought a copy and will by posting reviews and break downs story by story, starting next Tuesday. These posts will always be posted on Tuesday and will go on their own page titled Tain Tuesday.

Second, in my larger public coven work we have started smaller devotional groups amoungst the clergy that have dedications to the same or similar deities. This is another opportunity to further our internal interfaith work of being able to come together as people with different practices and create rituals and works around those deities and energies specifically. One excellent example of this is the Queens of Heaven, a devotional group that is dedicated to the goddesses that hold the title of Queen of Heaven (of whom Temple Witch is apart of) are putting together a zine Crowned by Star and Sky. Not surprising in both of my groups I am the only Gaelic Polytheist (lets be real in the whole coven) but everyone in the group is very much interested in pursuing some Celtic studies. We have decided to start with Barry Cunliffe’s, The Ancient Celts. This will be another re-read for me but the added discourse of discussion with other people will be awesome.  We are going to start in May, and again I will be posting my notes and reviews here.

Then in addition to this I have already started to collect my prayers and songs on their own page. I will continue to post new things there, and will be adding audio files for the songs soon.

That’s the plan thus far. Thank you to everyone who has stuck around in this little corner of the internet.