contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Celtic Otherworld

TREE MANDALA: GORSE

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).

I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.

Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.

Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.

NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple (4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/rowan/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/three-trees/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/mr-bramble/

A MIDSUMMER DAY’S DREAM

This post is about a midsummer day’s dream in the the Scottish border country, a dream which included a certain kind of waking up. I have written about it before (1,2) but this is the first illustrated version. Fourteen years have passed since that day, which in many ways determined the form which my expression of Druidry would take.

I was near Melrose. The wild rose was one of many on the banks of the Tweed. In this photograph, I am on a riverside path, with my back to the river. I keenly noticed then, as I notice now, the difference between a wild rose and the more familiar cultivated ones. I love both. But I remember feeling a particular delight at the simplicity of the native flower, a sense of easy integration into habitat, and of a plant not committed to being red or white.

Looking more deeply, I have said in my earlier writing how I had a momentary experience in which, gazing at a rose, subject/object distinctions disappeared and it is as if time intersected with eternity. I have identified this with the Seeing experience more systematically explored by Douglas Harding and the community built up around his work (http://www.headless.org). This was the beginning my sense that direct experience of the world, manifesting through a form of nature mysticism, would be my way forward, eventually becoming a contemplative Druidry and the backbone of my contemplative inquiry. I experience this as a direct and simple route to stillness, presence, resting in being., and identifying with source.

My walk amongst the wild roses had a prequel. Firstly, I had already spent time in the well-preserved ruins of Melrose Abbey. It was a building of Green Man carvings, but, sadly, neither the monks who occupied it nor the iconoclasts who abandoned it had access to the Gospel of Thomas (3) or the words:

“His disciples said to him:

‘When will the dead be at rest?’

‘When will the new world come?’

He answered them:

What you are waiting for has already come,

but you do not see it.” (3)

Here I see the abbey as a solid, material buildings, built with love and care. Even today, it belongs in its landscape, as much as the Tweed or the nearby Eildon Hills, with a semi-wild orchard of apple, pear and cherry trees. What I haven’t written before, in times when I was busy making distinctions between available paths, is that time and eternity intersect in this place too. But, on the day in question, I didn’t have that experience in the abbey grounds. I had it only among the wild roses, down by the river.

The Eildon Hills are also part of the same landscape, indeed a more primal one. But they are fairy hills and they can hide themselves. On that day, they hid from me. There was no invitation – or, rather command – from the Queen of Elfland, who had once ridden out to summon Thomas the Rhymer to her service:

“But you maun go wi’ me now Thomas

True Thomas ye maun go with me

For ye maun serve me seven years

Through weel or wae as may change to be.” (4)

At midsummer in 2007 I was looking for a spiritual home that offered both depth and simplicity. The grim half hidden hills were not appealing to me and I was closed to their magic, with an invitation or without one. I did not want to court danger by ascending into their conceivably treacherous mists. The low road by the river was the one for me.

It was a good decision, and good came of it. But I do also understand that on a different day, those hills could be seen in a different light. I do not now feel constrained to make a neat choice between a broad road, a narrow road and a bonny road. Two cycles of seven years on, well rooted in a nourishing life and practice, I find myself in a more open space, wondering what lessons this Otherworld might yet offer.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Kindle, 2014 See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/07/16/seeing-contemplative-druidry/

(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

(4) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985

TREE MANDALA: OAK

“Green man becomes grown man as flames of the oak

As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.

‘I speak through the oak says he'” (1)

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (2), oak covers the period from 16 June-8 July and thus includes Alban Hefin, the summer solstice. I am starting to bring it in. The oak has many associations – regal strength, for example – but for me the sense of the green man, the archetype of our oneness with the earth, speaking through the oak, is the most numinous. At Dodona in ancient Greece (3) an oak shrine was “guarded by priestesses who interpreted the future from the rustling of leaves on the great tree, the voice of the sacred spring that rose at its root and the behaviour of birds in its branches”. Celtic tradition describes a number of sacred oak trees, themselves roosting places for sacred birds. I like the sense that the oak does not stand alone and autonomous in these stories. For leaves to rustle, the wind is needed. Birds and springs may also participate in the ecology, of a distributed wisdom – a wisdom of interdependence, of interbeing. The oak’s great branches are matched by still greater roots, and therefore an underground network of communication and exchange that we now know sustains a mature forest (4).

The ogham name for oak, duir, means door in both Sanskrit and Gaelic (5). This can bespeak solidity and protection, for the oak can survive lightning. It was sacred to Taranis, the Celtic god of lightning and storms, to Thor in the Nordic pantheon. and to Zeus among the Greeks. But a door isn’t just defensive. It is there to be opened as well, with a sense of welcome and relationship. Dagda, father god of Ireland, was associated with the oak and never failed to give hospitality to those who asked for it.

For Druids (whose name means ‘oak wisdom’) oak was the central tree in their mysteries. There is a theme, in these mysteries, of communication between worlds, with a sensed Otherworld being less than a heart beat away. The power of the oak combines strength and sensitivity. My mandala links oak to the period in which the light has its greatest expression, and then gives way, at first very slowly, to its necessary descent into the dark. The tree bears witness as the wheel continues to turn.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/05/23/suzanne-simard-finding-the-mother-tree/

(5) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: a System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Editions, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

THE SACRED HEAD OF BLADUD

The historic city of Bath is about thirty miles from where I live and – from another direction – thirty miles from where I was born. It has always been part of my psychogeography. This post concerns both its ‘historical’ and ‘legendary’ past.

“A satisfying connection between modern archaeology, ancient legend, sacred kingship and Celtic religion is found at Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for Bath, England. In his legendary Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1) Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that King Bladud, grandfather of Bran and Branwen, founded the site and taught the druidic arts of ancestor magic and flight, eventually crashing to his death on the site of what is now London (the name Bladud means ‘light-dark’ or ‘bright-shadow’). In his Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (2), Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bladud and his consort Aleron (‘wings’) presiding over the hot springs of Bath, which are at the centre of the Bardic universe described by Taliesin to Merlin, forming the gateway to the Otherworld.

On show in the museum at Bath is a superb Celtic solar head (often inaccurately called a Gorgon’s head). The carving is a circular relief of an imposing male face with wild hair, long moustaches and staring eyes. He has wings on either side of his head and is surrounded by flames. Beneath his chin are two serpents, linked in the manner of a torque, the Celtic symbol of royalty. This solar deity is probably the being called Bladud in the legendary histories, connected to magic, flight and a fall from the heights to the depths. He has upon his brow the mark of the three rays, which are very often described as the primal three powers of universal creation.

The goddess at Bath, presiding over the sacred hot springs, was called Sul or Sulis, which means ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ (with a sexual connotation), for she is a variant of Ceridwen, the goddess of the Underworld. The entire Celtic/Roman complex of Aquae Sulis is an excellent example of ancestral Underworld magic refined by Roman politics into a temple of Minerva.

“The sacred or prophetic head is an embodiment of the relationship between the three worlds, for it is aware in all worlds, through all time. While we may have ideas that an anthropologist would suggest originated in primitive head-hunting magic, the theme of the sacred head becomes an allegory of divine and human perception and declaration.

“There is a further element to the sacred-head theme, for it is also interlinked with beliefs and practices concerning the regeneration of life, particularly with the cauldron. Titanic figures such as Bran, acting as sacred kings and guardians of the land, also partake of the mystery of the sun at midnight, light regenerating out of darkness. And this, after all, is the secret of inspiration, a sudden light born out of fruitful darkness.”

R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford, 1996

(1) Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966 (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011

NOTE: the first illustration is from R. J. Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003 , illustrated by Miranda Grey. The Bladud image is on the reverse of each card, implicitly re-ascribed to Merlin as embodying the same archetype in a different way. The second illustration can be found on http://www.romanbaths.co.uk – click on discover and then walkthrough.

ELDER (RUIS) ENDING A CYCLE

Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:

“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.

“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.

In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.

(1) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).

(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

HARVESTING IN MIXED WEATHER

This picture was taken early one morning, at a moment slightly defended from the heat of early August. I was walking through woods to shelter from the sun.

Those days, intense in their moment, have already receded into the past. After a period of somewhat lower temperatures, and of flashes and rumblings in the sky followed by modest rainfall, we found ourselves in a flash flood on Sunday evening. For a relatively brief period, the A46 (a main road, locally) turned into a fast-flowing river not far from our house. Guttering held, but needs attention.

It was as if, following a period of contest, water had succeeded fire as the prevailing element. Now, the situation is less clear cut. But we are in a cooler and wetter place than we were at the beginning of the month. Daylight hours are reducing. We are leaning in to autumn.

During this time I have been busy with my own harvesting. The meditations presented in my last three posts (1) complete a basic repertoire of formal solo practice in my renewed Druidry. I have been fruitfully indoors during both heat wave (beyond my comfort zone) and the return of rain. I have been inwardly focused.

In my own Innerworld wheel of the year, apple presides over the first three weeks or so of the post Lughnasadh/Lammas quarter. Apple, in many traditions, is a Goddess tree, associated with both wisdom and healing (2). It is linked to a visionary ability to see beyond the surface: perceptions grow wiser and the heart sees further than it might otherwise do.

In Irish myth, Lugh was sent to collect apples from a Tree of Light found in the Otherworld. In Britain, after the Battle of Camlann, Arthur was taken by three Celtic goddesses to be healed on the Isle of Avalon (=Island of Apples).

In a more everyday way, my meditations serve the same goals. The timing of my work on them wasn’t exactly planned. But it doesn’t surprise me that my commitment to living the wheel of the year has led to this result.

(1) Links to the meditations:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/09/meditation-living-presence/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/15/meditation-energy-body/

(2) See: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle: Ancient Wisdom from the Greenwood London: Conections, 2003

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