contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Celtic Paganism

BENDIGEIDFRAN (BRAN THE BLESSED)

Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, is a legendary King of the Britons. He is best known to us through the medieval Welsh text The Second Branch of the Mabinogi (1). The primary theme is hope betrayed, most chillingly by Efnysien, Bran’s “brother on his mother’s side”. A marriage feast ends in a series of disasters. But this is not the whole story.

The marriage is between Bran’s sister Branwen and Matholwch the King of Ireland, intended to bring the two kingdoms together in peace and amity. But Efnysien mutilates the Irish party’s horses at the celebration hosted by Bran. It is among the worst things he could do.

In one savage, impulsive act, Efnysien opens the space for an outpouring of resentment, suspicion and hostility – eventually, from both the Irish and the British people. Bran’s efforts to resolve the situation through explanation, consultation and negotiation end in failure. The level of compensation and apology he offers is too much for the British and too little for the Irish. The time comes when Branwen is seriously abused in Ireland. The absolute breakdown of trust between the two countries leads to a bitter, brutal war.

After the war, Bran returns from Ireland with seven surviving companions, his only victory being that he has got them home. Ireland is completely devastated. Bran has been wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, probably a mortal wound. Bran makes a radical decision, leading to a period of healing and renewal for his companions and a new protective role for his country. “Bendigeidfran ordered his head to be cut off. ‘And take my head’, he said, ‘and carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (the White Mount, now the Tower of London) and bury it with its face towards France. And it will take you a long time; you will feast in Harlech for seven years, with the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And you will find the head to be as good company as it ever was when it was on me. And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door to Aber Henfelin, facing Cornwall, you can remain there, and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer. Make for London and bury the head. And now set off across the sea”.

Bran has never been an average human. Too big “to fit inside any house”, he wades across the sea to Ireland “carrying all the stringed instruments on his back”. Later, he bridges the River Liffey by lying down across the river: “hurdles were placed on him, and his men walked on top of him to the other side”. Bran is more than a physical giant. There is something numinous and otherworldly about him, built into his name Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed.

The term ‘blessed’ points to something other than it would in the life of a Celtic saint. Caitlin & John Matthews call Bran the Blessed a “titanic god of the Celts … a god of earth and mountain” (2). R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson describe him as a “primal guardian deity” (3) enacting a role of sacred king traditionally concerned with music, poetry and bridging. In the narrative world of the The Second Branch, such roles are alluded to rather than fully described, but the world is full of magic and spiritually ambiguous, with formal religion little mentioned.

The decapitation of Bran is a magical act. It has two successive effects, both of them benign. The first is when the presence of the head enables an extended period of protected respite for Bran’s companions: the seven years when they feast and hear the birds of Rhiannon (4), and then eighty years as “the Assembly of the Noble Head”. During this time, they forget “all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, [and] … any grief in the world”. Life is pleasurable and delightful and no one seems to age.

It has to end, for the story to continue. The western door is opened, by Heilyn son of Gwyn, driven by curiosity. Grief, loss and ageing return to the companions’ world. They hasten to London to complete their destined task. As long as the head remains buried, no enemy can conquer the kingdom. This is where The Second Branch story ends. Bran, through the agency of his buried head, is confirmed as enduring protector of the land.

There is a coda. It is said that King Arthur dug the head up in later days in the belief that no one but he should protect the country, and that subsequently the head was lost. In later days, the power of the head was transferred to the presence of resident ravens. Bran’s name means raven (also crow), which allows the ravens to take on his power. He is them. They are him. Ravens are kept in the Tower of London to this day, a practice insisted on by Charles II, concerned for the preservation of his country as a kingdom. During World War II the ravens fled after a bombing raid, and every effort was made to ensure that they were swiftly replaced. Seven ravens, the responsibility of Ravenmaster Chris Skaife, live in the Tower now. (5).

(1) The Mabinogion Oxford: the University Press, 2007. (Translated with an introduction by Sioned Davies)

(2) Caitlin & John Matthews The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition London: Arkana, 1985 (Foreword by Gareth Knight)

(3) R. J. Stewart & Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford/Cassell plc, 1996 (Colour illustrations by Chris Down)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/8/4/a-bird-of-rhiannon

(5) https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/the-ravens

DANCING SEAHORSES II

I have already written about the Dancing Seahorses image (1) found on a Pictish stone from Aberlemno in the Scottish county of Angus. After seeing the stone on a visit there, in 1992, I bought Marianne Lines’ painting. I have felt strongly involved with this image ever since. I think of it as a friend and guide. In a sense, this post is about the modern use of archaic images by people, like Druids, who are drawn to them.

I do not know the intentions of the original carver. beyond celebrating beings who are half of this world, half of the otherworld, and who embody powerful water energies for Celtic peoples on the Atlantic coasts of Britain, Ireland and Brittany in ancient times. They are remembered in folklore to this day. I do know that the carving made a strong impression on me, when I first saw it on the stone itself. It stayed in my imagination, and over time has deepened and grown new meanings.

Four years after acquiring the painting, I had the image tattooed on each arm. By that time I knew of the way in which it had influenced the cover design for R. J. Stewart’s The Prophetic Vision of Merlin (2). This variant form was used to refer to the story of the young Merlin at Vortigern’s subsidence prone tower in Snowdonia, prophesying his way out of becoming a human sacrifice, and identifying two contending dragons under the foundations. In the book illustration, there is a yin-yang reference, with a suggestions of interdependent primal forces, each of which already contains the seed of the other, seeking balance and alignment. In the Western Mysteries quest for healing and transfiguration, the energy bodies of the land and of humans are deeply interwoven.

There is another, more recent level of understanding, that I derive from the painting and tattoos, but not evident in The Prophetic Vision of Merlin. I see both the dancing seahorses and a second image, behind and containing the immediately apparent one. As I wrote before, “the space where the horses legs are raised defines a shape, suggesting a head. The very emptiness there is a paradoxical mark of presence. To me it became the head of a goddess, with the seahorses then becoming her body. Still clearly appearing as a water being, her arms – if they are arms – are raised in blessing”. I would now add that in this way, she demonstrates the dance of emptiness and form. They are balanced. Neither is privileged over the other. The Celtic knot points both to interconnection and infinity.

I identified the Goddess whilst gazing directly at the original Dancing Seahorses picture, which hangs of a wall directly above my altar. However I believe I received a subconscious nudge from the High Priestess card in The Druidcraft Tarot (3). She wears the image herself. Her hands are raised. She stands as the Goddess. In the Druidcraft narrative, she “represents the magical power of stillness and depth”. For me, the Goddess in Dancing Seahorses represents the ultimate union of emptiness and form, and the rebirth of the cosmos in each moment. Her representation combines the aware potential of the void and a primal aquatic generativity that can inhabit other elements. The Druidcraft priestess is human, but one who wears an image that bespeaks the divine to me, and her role asks for “stillness and depth”.

In my work, the entry into stillness and depth is, firstly, to enter into I-Thou communion with the primal Goddess (Modron) and then to recognise my own true nature, as (mythically) her divine child (Mabon) – sensitive and busted open to the world. This recognition becomes a prayer of gratitude and a surrender of my passing private concerns to Who I really am.

Words and pictures are not enough, but, cherished and contemplated lovingly over time, together they can point the way..

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

(2) R. J. Stewart The Prophetic Vision of Merlin London & New York: Arkana, 1986

(3) Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druidcraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

BOOK REVIEW: CERRIDWEN CELTIC GODDESS OF INSPIRATION

Highly recommended. Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration (1) is by Kristoffer Hughes, Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order (2) and a prominent figure in modern Druidry and Paganism. His aim in this book is to “provide you an in-depth exploration of Cerridwen, where she came from, the landscape and peoples that perpetuated her, and who she is today”.

Hughes, born in Anglesey and a first language Welsh speaker. is a scholar and practitioner of his inherited tradition. He has also embraced Druidry as an international movement within modern Paganism. He is at ease, too, with the Cerridwen of modern witchcraft. His whole stance is one of cultural generosity and active support for “appropriate appropriation”.

In its quest for Cerridwen, the book combines close reading of Bardic texts dated from the post-Roman period to early modernity; personal sharing of Hughes’ own path; and opportunities for experiential work. Like many people, my introduction to Cerridwen was through Charlotte Guest’s English version of the late-appearing Hanes Taliesin (Hughes provides his own version early in the book). This shows Cerridwen as a noblewoman skilled in the magical arts, not a Goddess. Like many people, I assumed that this was a demotion going back to the Roman period or the coming of Christianity. Hughes does not share this view. He cannot find Cerridwen among the goddesses of Celtic antiquity, but he welcomes her recent apotheosis within neo-Paganism and witchcraft. He is a devotee himself, and writes: “the New Age traditions, whilst inspired by the distant times, do not need or require to be authenticated by the past; it is a living, breathing spirituality … if it works, keep doing it, and the more you do it, the more life you breath into it”.

Hughes sketches out Cerridwen’s history in the early written material. Sometimes her presence is only implicit – glimpsed, perhaps, as the Annuvian sow (hwch) who guides the magician Gwydion to the base of the world tree in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Sometimes we find her lauded and identified as the Mam yr Awen (mother of the Awen). Later, after Wales’ loss of independence and the decay of the Bardic tradition, we find her stigmatised as an evil hag with her connection to Awen erased. But when we come to the Hanes Taliesin, her connection to Awen, and to the initiation of Taliesin (radiant brow) is plain and clear. Her best time is now, though her modern strength lies largely outside her country of origin.

For Hughes, Cerridwen (pronounced Ker ID ven) is a goddess “of angular, bending magic”, and her cauldron is “a vessel of inspiration, a transformative device, a vessel of testing”. This Cerridwen is “the divine conduit of transformative, creative, magical inspiration gleaned from the cauldron of Awen”. Awen itself is “the creative, transformative force of divine inspiration that sings in praise of itself; it is the eternal song that sings all things into existence, and all things call to Awen inwardly”. Gwion, who tastes the three drops distilled from the cauldron in Hanes Taliesin, after a series of further trials becomes Taliesin, “the outward expression of the power, magic and action of the Awen”, indicated by his radiant brow. The final section of the book, Stirring the Cauldron: Ritual and Practise, offers readers a chance to meet Cerridwen and work with her Bardic mysteries themselves.

As issues relevant to Cerridwen and what she stands for, the book looks at the meaning of annwfn and its denizens the andedion. ‘Underworld’ and ‘Otherworld’ are not quite accurate as descriptors, and the andedion, though different from us, are not best thought of as ‘supernatural’. Hughes also explains that medieval Wales, except to a limited extent in the border counties, did not share in the English and continental persecution of witches. Swyngyfaredd (enchantment/sorcery/magic) was part of life and its practitioners respected. This changed only with the early modern Anglicisation of culture. Hughes also includes a chapter on Iolo Morganwyg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826) and his ‘awen-filled legacy’. It was he who invented the awen symbol /|\ and much else in modern Druid and Bardic culture. He is often remembered as a literary forger because he presented his contributions as a rediscovery of lost texts. They nonetheless revitalised a dying culture at a time when sensibilities were changing again, and becoming more receptive to the value of old traditions.

With all these riches, Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in modern Druidry.

(1) Kristoffer Hughes Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2021

(2) http://www.angleseydruidorder.co.uk/

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.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Y DAROGAN ANNWN

The image above is the cover for Lorna Smithers’ new collection of poems, Y Darogan Annwn, and it illustrates the themes of the collection. Lorna Smithers explains: “Daronwy, the Brythonic World Tree, is falling. Beneath its boughs appears Y Darogan Annwn, a child-prophet, who prophecies the end of the Age of Man. She must find the source of the poison, outwit the scientists of Gwydion, and release the destructive fury of the spirits of Annwn. Her ultimate decision will be whether to become one with her prophecy.”

Prophecy, like poetry, is a gift of awen, the inspirational energy of Brythonic culture. To be awenydd, open and dedicated to this gift, is to accept its demands. Y Darogan is a child of the gods and a daughter of dragons. She is a shape-shifter who can move through multiple identities, the most poignant of which is that of a little girl. She will never grow up. Her individual life will last for less than a year.

The collection contains 50 poems in all. Two are introductory and the others are arranged in seven sections providing a narrative structure: Lock and Key; The Forest of Daronwy; The Fisher King; The Golden Ring; Doomsday; The End of Days; and The Hereafter. Together they present a wasteland story for our times, drawing on British Celtic and Arthurian themes whilst subverting the patriarchal assumptions of the old texts. The individual poems are each relatively short, and likely to have most impact on people who have some familiarity with the Mabinogion and the Brythonic mythos in which it is embedded. However the wasteland confronted is that of our own times: its military industrial complexes based on a perverted science, and the current slide into climate catastrophe.

For her self-introduction in the first verse, the infant Y Darogan uses pithy lines of power, reminiscent of The Book of Taliesin*, though with updated cultural references.

I have been a fallen star

and a tear in a river of tears

flowing through Annwn.

I have been hydrogen,

oxygen, carbon, nitrogen,

helium burning in the sun.

****

I have been dark matter

I have not been found by

the scientists of Gwydion.

By contrast, Doronwy, the Brythonic World Tree, is introduced in a prose poem, one of the longer individual pieces in the book. Together, these introductory pieces provide a point of departure for the story that builds over the seven main sections. Y Darogan’s mission of cleansing is itself a path of destruction, and “no Champion’s Light stands out on her forehead, just the darkness of the black hole”. Only at the very end is there a regenerative (rather than ‘redemptive’) note. The material demands verbal resilience in the face of multiple and unavoidable stresses, and even at its bleakest, there is power and magic in Lorna Smithers’ writing.

Oh Breath of the Wind

don’t leave me leave me please!”

She does not know how long

she has been wandering Pennant Gofid,

the Valley of Grief through ghosts and mist,

only that she found the treasure, became

the answer, and it’s harder to bear

than the weight of the crow.

The howling of wolves loudens.

The sky blackens with ghost-wings.”

Overall, I believe that Y Dorogan Annwn is a significant contribution to the re-visioning of the world’s great stories as we confront unprecedented challenges on our collective journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review it.

Lorna Smithers’ blogs at https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/ using the title At Peneverdant. Her About section describes her calling as an awenydd and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, God of the Brythonic underworld Annwn, of the dead, and of the Wild Hunt. The Y Darogan Annwn collection is now for sale as a PDF, see link:

https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2019/10/12/y-darogan-annwn/

  • The Book of Taliesin in The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 (Originally published in 1868, when the original material was translated and edited by William F. Skene)

BOOK REVIEW: AUSTRALIAN DRUIDRY

Highly recommended. Australian Druidry is a great introduction to modern Druidry in Australia. It describes the author’s journey to develop a Druidry for her needs. It shows all of us how to deepen into the wheel of the year, looking for cues in natural shifts rather than our calendars. As part of Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series, it is clearly and succinctly written.

For author Julie Brett, “modern Druidry is a path of nature-based spirituality being walked by many people over the world today. It centres on an understanding that is the ‘wisdom of the trees’ as the messengers of the natural world that can help us find guidance in our lives for peace, learning and personal development”. These principles can be taken to every part of the world, including the huge diversity of Australia itself, and customised to work any specific landscape.

Druidry is also a spirituality of recognition of our ancestors. Describing the people of Australia as “diverse as the landscape”, she defines the ancestors as “all the people who have come before us whether in our family or the lines of teachings we have received in our lives, or those who came before us in the land we live on”. This being the case, Australian Druidry is a not only a path “applicable to the Australian landscape and its inhabitants” but also an “invitation to explore and create”.

The author’s story shows a deep personal commitment to this path. This included ten month’s living in the UK, and particularly Glastonbury, England, where she tuned into the traditional landscape of Druidry, and apprenticed herself to local practitioners, before going on to develop her own distinctive practice in Australia. Returning home, she immersed herself in her own landscape, eventually creating a ‘coastal Sydney wheel of the year’. It is based around eight festivals, but with a distinctive resonance, not just up-ending the North European ones: Fire Festival, Storm Festival, Peace Festival, Moon Festival, Hardening Festival, Flower Festival, Wind Change Festival, Barkfall Festival.

The book includes sections on keeping a nature diary, animal symbolism, tree and plant symbolism, and forms of ritual practice. The emphasis is on offering possibilities rather than laying down a new template for people in the coastal Sydney area, or anywhere else. Having unleashed her own creativity, Julie Brett wants readers to unleash their own. At the end of the book, she invites us into the Druids Down Under Facebook group in the belief that sharing experiences inspires us. Australian Druidry is an inspired and inspiring book.

Julie Brett Australian Druidry: Connecting with the Sacred Landscape Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 (Pagan Portals)

SWEENEY’S SHAPESHIFT

Two extracts from Sweeney Astray, Seamus Heaney’s version of the medieval Irish work Buile Suibhne. Reflecting a time of religious change in Ireland, the first beautifully describes a shapeshifting transformation whilst making it the result of a curse. In the second, there is at least a suggestion that it might, rather, have been another route to holiness. Meanwhile Christian priests have taken on Druid powers and roles, – non-canonical forms of cursing and binding, the support of animal allies and directing peace negotiations.

“There was a certain Ronan Finn in Ireland, a holy and distinguished cleric. He was ascetic and pious, an active missionary, a real Christian soldier. He was a real servant of God, one who punished his body for the good of his soul, a shield against vice and the devil’s attacks, a gentle, genial, busy man.

“One time when Sweeney was king of Dal-Arie, Ronan was there marking out a church called Killaney. Sweeney was in a place where he heard the clink of Ronan’s bell as he was marking out the site, so he asked his people what the sound was.

“It is Ronan Finn, the son of Bearach, they said. He is marking out a church in your territory and what you hear is the ringing of his bell.

“Sweeney was suddenly angered and rushed away to hunt the cleric from his church. Eorann, his wife, a daughter of Conn of Ciannacht, tried to hold him back and snatched at the fringe of his crimson cloak, but the sliver cloak-fastener broke at the shoulder and sprang across the room. She got the cloak alright, but Sweeney had bolted, stark naked, and soon landed with Ronan.

“He found the cleric glorifying the King of heaven and earth, in full voice in front of his psalter, a beautiful illuminated book. Sweeney grabbed the book and flung it into the cold depths of a lake nearby, where it sank without trace. Then he took hold of Ronan and was dragging him out through the church when he heard a cry of alarm. The call came from a servant of Congal Claon’s who had come with orders from Congal to summon Sweeney to battle at Moira. He gave a full report of the business and Sweeney went off directly with the servant, leaving the cleric distressed at the loss of his psalter and smarting from such contempt and abuse.

“A day and a night passed and then an otter rose out of the lake with the psalter and brought it to Ronan, completely unharmed. Ronan gave thanks to God for that miracle, and cursed Sweeney.

….

“After that, Ronan came to Moira to make peace between Donal, so of Aodh, and Congal Claon, son of Scannlan, but he did not succeed. Nevertheless, the cleric’s presence was taken as a seal and guarantee of the rules of battle; they made agreements that no killing would be allowed except between those hours they had set for beginning and ending the fight each day. Sweeney, however, would continually violate every peace and truce which the cleric had ratified, slaying a man each day before the sides were engaged and slaying another each evening when the combat was finished. Then, on the day fixed for the great battle, Sweeney was in the field before everyone else.

“He was dressed like this:

next his white skin, the shimmer of silk;

and his satin girdle around him;

and his tunic, that reward of service

and gift of fealty from Congal,

was like this –

crimson, close-woven,

bordered in gemstones and gold,

a rustle of sashes and loops,

the studded silver gleaming,

the slashed hem embroidered in points.

He had an iron-shod spear in his hand,

a shield of mottled horn on his back,

a gold-hilted sword at his side.

“He marched out like that until he encountered Ronan with eight psalmists from his community. They were blessing the armies, sprinkling them with holy water, and they sprinkled Sweeney with the rest. Sweeney thought they had done it just to mock him, so he lifted one of his spears, hurled it, and killed one of Ronan’s psalmists in a single cast. He made another throw with the second spear at the cleric himself, so that it pierced the bell that hung from his neck, and the shaft sprang off into the air. Ronan burst out:

“My curse fall on Sweeney

for his great offence.

His smooth spear profaned

my bell’s holiness,

cracked bell hoarding grace

since the first saint rang it –

it will curse you to the trees,

bird-brain among branches.

Just as the spear shaft broke

and sprang into the air

may the mad spasms strike

you, Sweeney, forever.

….

“There were great shouts as the herded armies clashed and roared out their war cries like stags. When Sweeney heard these howls and echoes assumed into the travelling clouds and amplified through the vaults of space, he looked up and he was possessed by a dark rending energy.

“His brain convulsed,

his mind split open.

Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings

and launchings came over him,

he staggered and flapped desperately,

he was revolted by the thought of known places

and dreamed strange migrations.

His fingers stiffened,

his feet scuffled and flurried,

his heart was startled,

his senses were mesmerized,

his sight was bent,

the weapons fell from his hands

and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion

like a bird of the air.

And Ronan’s curse was fulfilled.

“His feet skimmed over the grasses so lightly he never unsettled a dewdrop and all that day he was a hurtling visitant of plain and field, bare mountain and bog, thicket and marshland, and there was no hill and hollow, no plantation or forest in Ireland that he did not appear in that day; until he reached Ros Bearaigh in Glen Arkin, where he hid in a yew tree in the glen.”

 

The second extract, where the Church is represented by the friendlier Moling, describes the end of Sweeney’s life – still as a wandering bird.

 

“At last Sweeney arrived where Moling lived, the place that is known as St. Mullin’s. Just then Moling was addressing himself to Kevin’s psalter and reading from it to his students. Sweeney presented himself at the brink of the well and began to eat watercress.

“‘Aren’t you the early bird?’ said the cleric, and continued, with Sweeney answering, afterwards.

Moling: So, you would steal a march on us, up and breakfasting so early!

Sweeney: Not so very early, priest. Terce has come in Rome already.

Moling: And what knowledge has a fool about the hour of terce in Rome?

Sweeney: The Lord makes me His oracle, from sunrise till sun’s going down.

Moling: Then speak to us of hidden things. Give us tidings of the Lord.

Sweeney: Not I. But if you are Moling, you are gifted with the Word.

Moling: Mad as you are, you are sharp-witted. How do you know my face and name?

Sweeney: In my days astray, I ested in this enclosure many a time

…..

Moling: Look at this leaf of Kevin’s book, the coilings on this psalter’s page.

Sweeney: The yew leaf coils round my nook in Glen Bolcain’s foliage.

Moling: This churchyard, this colour, is there no pleasure here for you?

Sweeney: My pleasure is great and other: the hosting that day at Moira.

Moling: I will sing Mass, make a hush of high celebration.

Sweeney: Leaping an ivy bush is a higher calling even.

Moling: My ministry is only toil, the weak and the strong both exhaust me.

Sweeney: I toil to a bed on the chill steeps of Benevenagh

Moling: When your death comes, will it be death by water, in holy ground?

Sweeney: It will be early when I die. One of your herds will make the wound.

“You are more than welcome here, Sweeney, said Moling, for you are fated to live and die here. You shall leave the history of your adventures with us and receive a Christian burial in a churchyard. Therefore, said Moling, no matter how far you range over Ireland, day by day, I bind you to return to me every evening so that I may record your story.”

 

When Sweeney is indeed mortally wounded by one of the communities’ herdsmen, the rest of the community feel anger and grief.

 

“Enna McBracken was ringing the bell for prime at the door of the churchyard and saw what had happened. He spoke this poem:

“This is sad, herd, this was deliberate,

Outrageous, sickening and sinful.

Whoever struck here will live to regret

Killing the king, the saint, the holy fool.

…..

My heart is breaking with pity for him.

He was a man of fame and high birth.

He was a king, he was a madman.

His grave will be a hallowing of earth.”

 

Sweeney lives long enough to confess and take the sacrament. “He received Christ’s body and thanked God for having received it and after that was anointed by the clerics”. Moling who “with holy viaticum” has “limed him for the Holy Ghost”, also expresses affection for Sweeney and reveals that he, too, has learned something.

 

“The man who is buried here was cherished indeed, said Moling. How happy we were when we walked and talked along his path. And how I loved to watch him yonder at the well. It is called the Madman’s Well because he would often eat its watercress and drink its water, and so it is named after him. And every other place he used to haunt will be cherished too.

“Because Sweeney loved Glen Bolcain

I learned to love it, too. He’ll miss

The fresh streams tumbling down,

The green beds of watercress.

He would drink his sup of water from

The well yonder we have called

The Madman’s Well; now his name

Keeps brimming in its sandy cold”.

 

Seamus Heaney Sweeney Astray London: Faber & Faber, 1983

AUTHENTICITY IN MODERN DRUIDRY

“Contemporary Druidry is a flourishing creative spirituality that is inspiring people the world over. Is it a closed system that was only open to new inputs several thousand years ago? Or is it an open system that allows for development and evolution?” Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of OBOD (1) explores these questions in his foreword to ‘Contemplative Druidry’ (2) adding, “Scratch the surface of any religion and you find that it is made up of a number of influences and elements. Examine a ritual text or liturgy and you can see the bricolage at work.” Moving deeper into the world of Celtic spirituality, he goes on to say:

“Mgr. Mael, the founder of the Celtic Orthodox Church in Brittany … received a series of meditative physical exercises in a vision and taught these as a system of ‘Celtic Yoga’. Are such attempts valid? … And are they not ‘fake’, having been so recently invented, while the Eastern systems are clearly genuine having been around for centuries? As regards validity, a method that is valid is one that works, however young or old it is. As regards inauthenticity, if a method is pretending to be one thing, while in reality being another, then that is indeed inauthentic. If Mgr. Mael had pretended his system of Celtic Yoga was practiced by the ancient Druids, this would have been inauthentic. But since he clearly stated he had received the exercises in a series of dreams, his system is what he authentically stated it to be: a method received in an altered state of consciousness. A false claim to an ancient lineage made for a system that has only been recently created renders it inauthentic, but if no such claim is made, can we use the term Druid to describe it?

“… Modern Druidry has been growing and evolving for the last three hundred years and if we were to throw out any additions to its body of teachings and ritual practice made during this time, we would be left with a small and unworkable set of conjectures. If we didn’t allow ourselves to call something Druidic that has only recently been created, we would have no Druidry to practice. But this shouldn’t mean that we can simply call anything Druidic. Druidry has specific features which help to define what it has become and how it is evolving. … Druidry has developed into a spiritual and philosophical approach that embraces embodiment and does not deny the gifts of the physical world and the body. In addition, it cultivates both inwardness and outwardness – an appreciation of the inner and outer worlds that fosters an engagement with the Earth and with community as much as it encourages an exploration of the depths of the soul and merging with the Divine. The evidence of the centrality of this approach can be found in Druidry’s love of Nature, its reverence for the Earth, and its cornerstone ritual observance: the Eightfold Wheel of the Year. These characteristics define Druidry and they also tell us what it is not.”

Specifically on contemplative Druidry he suggests:

“When it comes to the subject of this book, contemplation and meditation within Druidry, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to talk in terms of ‘Druid meditation’ or to describe techniques and approaches as Druidic, if they fall within the ethos of Druidry, because that ethos is specific: it does not try to subjugate, transcend or deny they body. There is no emphasis on the illusory nature of the physical world. The goal in Druidry, and hence in meditation for Druids, is to enhance our engagement with our embodies life, not to distance or separate ourselves from it.”

  • Order of Bards Ovates and Druids druidry.org/
  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014 (Foreword Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: The Nature Mysticism of Druidry by Philip Carr-Gomm)

IMBOLC ADVENT

Erin nighean Brighde* has recently written about ‘Imbolc Advent’. I like this term. Where I live, mid-January could feel cold and dull and flat. It could be a time of post-festive blues, and a very long way from spring. My cure, from the early 1990’s, has been the eight-fold wheel of the year, now lived by many groups within and beyond the modern Pagan community. It has enriched me enormously.

For the last week or so I have been leaning in to Imbolc, the festival that, at the beginning of February (Northern hemisphere), celebrates the return of the light, the appearance of early flowers and traditionally also the birth of lambs. In Druidry, it is strongly linked to the Goddess Brigid. My leaning in to Imbolc this year has been interwoven with the transformation of three initially parched hyacinth bulbs (a late seasonal gift) in a pot of dry earth. The change began when I saw them draw water from a saucer. Its rapid disappearance was like watching a speeded-up film. Within a couple of days, stalks had burst almost alarmingly out of the bulbs, and it was not long before the scented bell-like lavender blue flowers emerged from the spikes. I realize that this was a contrived indoor event, but I have experienced it over the last week as a stunning display of life and growth, and hence an image of Imbolc Advent.

During the life-time of the Druid contemplative group, we tended to meet outside the festival times, partly to avoid clashes with other commitments, and partly to practice tuning into the year at other times. We could do this by taking the previous or following festival as a reference point and notice the mid-term difference, or we could more simply pay attention to the world we were in at the time of meeting. Over time, we developed a greater sensitivity to the rhythms and tides in the year as nature’s unfolding processes, since we were not focusing on the festivals themselves as events. Nonetheless, they remained important markers for our experience. They helped to provide us with a common language and orientation. That being said, I remember something special around Imbolc, out of all the eight festivals. The fire in the hearth, the arrangement and decoration of the space (snowdrops in particular) gave us a powerful experience of Brigid as a presiding energy, making Imbolc one of our most resonant times.

*Erin nighean Brighde https://hereternalflame.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/imbolc-advent-2018/

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