contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Celtic Paganism

GWYN, GWYTHYR AND CREIDDYLAD: A STORY FROM THE OLD NORTH

This post reblogged from Peneverdant looks at the traditional stories of the northern British (especially in north west England and southern Scotland) and surviving material from these stories in later Welsh literature.

From Peneverdant

Cherry BlossomCulhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.

Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.

This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…

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BOOK REVIEW: THE SALMON IN THE SPRING

41-SK1+8TrL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_This is the review of Jason Kirkey’s Salmon in the Spring which I wrote for Amazon in 2010 (and for Touchstone, the OBOD in-house journal). It was the book that introduced me to The Great Song/Oran Mor – earlier explored in Frank MacKeown’s The Celtic Way of Seeing and The Mist-Filled Path. MacKeown wrote the foreword for Kirkey’s book. Kirkey revises the traditional sense (in the Christian centuries)  of the Oran Mor as a name for God. He says, rather, that “immanent in material processes is the implicate order of the cosmos: spirit, divine ground, Oran Mor (Great Song)”. I will say more about what this has meant both experientially and conceptually for me in future posts.

The review was a 5 star review and I strongly recommend it, as a book that manages both to be clear and to accommodate complexity.

“At the age of 12, Jason Kirkey had one of those ‘light bulb’ moments that can set a direction for life. A relative told him ‘nature does not require our belief. It is right there for us to experience’. Jason is from Massachusetts, of partly Irish ancestry and over time his new found awareness lead him to discover the ‘interplay of nature, story and ancestry’ as a practitioner of ‘Irish Earth-based spirituality and shamanism’.

“Jason presents personal story a thread within a larger, collective story; one in which spiritual traditions are moving through a process of re-imagination – of integration into the new story of the 21st century’. He describes going through a ‘dark night of the soul’ when an over-identified ‘attachment’ to his own tradition became narrow and constraining. He found resolution through the practice of sitting meditation and study at the Naropa University in Colorado. It wasn’t a matter of moving from one tradition to another, but of integrating the qualities of both.

“The Salmon in the Spring explores traditional stories – including the second battle of Maigh Tuireadh, Connla’s Well and the Song of the Silver Branch – in a process of creative revisioning for Celtic spirituality. It is a pioneer’s book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the possible futures of Celtic spirituality, Druidry and other paths in which the old stories are coming alive in new ways.”

Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the Spring: the Ecology of Celtic Spirituality San Francisco, CA, USA: Hiraeth Press, 2009

FUINN II: THE POETRY OF PRACTICE

I’m a Pagan Druid, happily placed in a tradition that values poetry and seership over dogma and system building. I experience my practice as a sort of poetry. In this poetry of practice, I am held in a compelling myth of origin, an ever-now origin, and I have found a new way of working with it.

My new collection of Fuinn (Ceile De chants in Scottish Gaelic) includes a very simple one which goes A Hu Thi (ah – hoo – hee) repeated over and over again. The Ceile De interpretation, a Celtic Christian one, is that this chant “represents the three stages of the unfolding of creation … A– the Great Mystery draws in its breath … Hu – that breath is breathed out, and creation is born from out of the Mystery … God becomes matter … Thi – the Divine nature, beingness and intention acts within the field of intention … Some Ceile De would say that this final stage represents Christ Consciousness.”

It’s a bit different for me. I’ve been working with this Fonn daily for a couple of weeks now.  I don’t chant. I use slow deep breathing with a silent awareness of the sounds. I find that for me, the A sets up a sense of latency, a subtle pulse and vibration on the brink of becoming. I feel it in the quality of my inbreath, as a kinaesthetic song. Hu the outbreath feels more vigorous and intentional; there’s a real sense of movement, expressed as exhalation – the breath moves out from my body, through my nostrils. Thi breathed in feels like the delighted expression of a new reality, one that I share in, distinct yet inseparable as a sentient being. This generally brings up feelings exhileration, gratitude and joy. It leads me on to the use of another Fonn as a contemplative and devotional prayer, which I wrote myself using my collection of Fuinn as a model.

A Brighde, A Brighde, solus an domhain; A Brighde, A Brigdhe, Brighde mo chridhe

A Vree-jah, A Vree-jah, solus an dowan; A Vree-jah, A Vree-jah, Bree-jah mo cree

Brighde, Brighde, light of the world; Brighde, Brighde, Brighde my heart

Brighde is the breath, the practice and the Fuinn. When writing my Fonn I wanted to build a felt sense of Brighde as cosmic birther, initiator into being, with a seat in my heart.  Her name evokes power and the prayer invokes relationship – identified as She is with primal generativity and the deep powers of life and land, and also One who inspires skill and accomplishment in those She supports and fosters. Through my experience of relationship and connection, deep levels of feeling and intuition are satisfied, in some way met. I feel empowered, with a sense of having more resources available to me. Why would this be? I don’t really know. What I do know is the value of practice as poetry, and the magic it holds.

The Ceile De can be found on http://www.ceilede.co.uk

IMBOLC LIGHTS

I’m reflecting on the difference between ‘Light’ and ‘lights’.  Yesterday evening my partner Elaine and I had an Imbolc ritual. We’ve decided to move through the seasonal festivals in this way, customising a joint practice as we go.

I reflect now on our time in the festive circle as in part a feast of lights. Not ‘Light’, but lights. We can have Light at the throw of a switch, one easy taken-for-granted ‘Let there be Light’ gesture. It’s very powerful and very useful – and effortlessly normal in our culture, at least for the time being.

But it isn’t a feast of lights. A feast of lights requires multiple, small sources. It requires the co-presence of darkness and shadow. It requires variation, degrees of light and darkness. It requires change and play.

We had two basic light sources, during the ritual. The one that attracted my attention most was an array of night lights positioned around the room in various ways. We had nine on the altar (one at the centre, eight at the circumference – with one at each station of the eightfold wheel of the year). And there were others around the room, grouped in threes. Very simple. Very traditional. Very minimal. Very meaningful. Very beautiful. These lights tended to be bright and a high yellow, glinting in some moments, softer and more diffuse at others. Each had its own aura. All tended to flicker in even the smallest current of air. And each had its sphere of influence, fading porously into the surrounding dusk, with no clearly defined or specific boundary – the transitions being so gradual, so gentle. Thus light and darkness were differentiated without being polarised and they cheerfully shared their debatable lands. The play of ambiguity was part of the feast.

The second source was the fire, a wood burner, well-established by the time we began the ritual and happily placed in a north-easterly hearth. Also very traditional. Very simple. Very minimal. Very meaningful. Very beautiful. And for the most part, in this mature phase, a deep red, in a way a dull red, though the word isn’t right. A potent light, a subliminal light, almost a kinaesthetic light. Not a very light sort of light at all. Its presence radiated through the room, bringing our centre of gravity, even in terms of luminosity, closer to the earth.

And that is a feast of lights. It was almost a shock, in the tidying up aftermath of the ritual, to return to the Light.

BOOK REVIEW: FOLLOWING THE DEER TRODS

jhp5423fc87b679cThe full title of this book is Following the Deer Trods: a practical guide to working with Elen of the Ways. It is written as part of Moon Book’s Shaman Pathways series, and is positioned as a stand-alone introduction to its topic, which includes working methods for the aspiring practitioner. As such this book certainly meets its criteria.

I personally think it works best in tandem with Elen Sentier’s other book on the topic, also a Shaman Pathways book, Elen of the Ways; following the deer trods – the ancient Shamanism of Britain, which I reviewed in July 2014. This earlier book establishes the overall context much better and for me they belong together.

Following the Deer Trods begins with a summary of the ideas offered in Elen of the Ways. This works well, even magically, in the opening pages – but I was saddened by a seeming loss of perspective when we get to the Romans and beyond. The author shows no recognition of Christianity as a diverse, complex and internally contested path, not least in the Celtic lands; or of the effects which holding political power can have on religious traditions, regardless of the actual faith. There’s also no clear flagging of the extent to which the positive, Pagan side of the story is necessarily reliant on intuitive reconstruction, relevant records being sparse and problematic, oral traditions highly mutable over time, and material remains providing only limited insight into hearts and minds. There is so much we don’t know, and will never know, about our ancestors, their traditions and what it was like to be them. When talking about them, we do best to avoid the language of certainty.

For me the book picks up from that point, providing the promised guide to working in a series of well-organised practice chapters. The main areas covered (in my language) are meditation, energy work, service, shamanic journeying, relationships with familiar spirits (power animals), and working with trickster figures. The author also discusses the ‘journey horse’ or method of trance induction – and the relative merits for this purpose of drumming, the sound of waves, rain, or a flowing stream; the steady roaring of wind; the recorded purring of cats. That bit of the discussion is a true gem, reflecting a lot of playful trial and experience.

These chapters also lay out a basic cosmology for the work – a cosmology of three worlds (middle, lower, and upper) on the vertical axis and four elements radiating out from the middle world on the horizontal, with the nigh universal notion of the world tree/tree of life very much in mind. Elen describes the image of the six armed cross as a means of bringing them together. She talks about her understanding of the inner world of the journey as a place of ‘interface’, the portal which she, as awenydd, and the Otherworld co-create as a meeting place between them.

The instructions for practice are highly specific and directive and therefore best-suited to people who are new to this kind of work, who don’t have access to hands-on teaching or established learning communities, and who need nonetheless to be strongly held as they begin their exploration. Other readers will look to the offerings provided as a source of new or variant ideas, or information about a specific way of working.

My heart didn’t sing, when I read this book, as it had when I read its predecessor. But it makes its contribution and, with the one significant reservation about the presentation of history, I’m happy to recommend it.

BOOK REVIEW. THE JOURNEY INTO SPIRIT: A PAGAN’S PERSPECTIVE ON DEATH DYING AND BEREAVEMENT

51bkGc06cCL__AA160_An important, multi-layered, deeply rewarding book. Especially useful for Druids and Pagans with any concern for death and dying, bereavement and grief, or what, if anything, lies beyond our 3D existence.  Also of potential interest to people with similar concerns in other spiritual traditions or none. Highly recommended.

Kristoffer Hughes says of himself: “In my spiritual life I have developed into a priest of the dead, a walker between the worlds, a psychopomp.” He is a priest of the Celtic Druid tradition who leads the Anglesey Druid Order. He is also an autopsy technologist working for the UK Crown Coroner’s Service. ‘The Journey into Spirit’, draws on both of these roles. It also draws on other, more closely personal experiences. These include the loss of near kin and friends, shared in a moving, loving way. They include the author’s ‘clairsentience’, a psychic gift that enables a felt sense of presence, or spirit, in relation to those who have died. All of these aspects together make for an unusual richness of narrative and subtlety of approach. The inclusion of ‘contemplations’ – reflective exercises – invites us to extend our own lived understandings. Hughes’ own conclusion is that “through death I have learned the meaning of life, and I am comforted by my understanding and experience of the hereafter”.

The book is divided into four parts, the first three based on the system of three circles of existence outlined in the ‘Barddas of Iolo Morganwg’. The first circle is Abred (AH-bred), the realm of necessity, the physical world of 3D reality. The second is Gwynvyd (goo-IN-vid), the realm of spirit, a psychic/subtle realm usually not perceived yet interwoven with Abred. The third is Ceugant (KAY-gant), the realm of infinity, a source or causal realm.

In the section on Abred, the author quotes the triad: “the three principal calamities of Abred: necessity, forgetfulness, death”. This is where we learn to be human, surrounded by life, subjected to death, governed by the cycle of birth, life and death. The author explores ‘apoptosis’ (the dropping off of petals or leaves) and the need for organic life to die to make room for new growth. Yet a divine spark continues to live in everything. The whole section explores life and the consciousness of death, including fear of it, and our questions about what if anything comes after, drawing on a wealth of knowledge, experience and anecdote.

The section on Gwynvyd looks at the grief process – including a wonderful section on the ‘seasons of grief’, more fluid than familiar ideas about ‘stages’ of grief, let alone medicalized views of grief that now want to treat it as depression after the first 14 days. Part of this is coming to terms with the reality and finality of death. Yet the section also identifies what survives. For the author, the personality dies with the body, yet a substrate of witness consciousness, understood as unchanging, continues in some sense as the stuff of spirit. The forgetfulness of Abred, held in the flow of experience, leads us to forget this substrate. Yet it is eternally there: never born, it cannot die. “What remains constant is the spirit, and upon it is the imprint of the human that lived and breathed here in this world”. This is where a felt sense of connection, if the feelings are strong and the senses attuned, is possible. Gwynvyd is also described as the realm of gods, archetypes, and any beings including discarnate humans who have a role in mediating between Gwynvyd.

Ceugant is the place, or state, of origin. “It is from Ceugant that existence originates and it is to Ceugant that the Universe sings”. Yet it is no-thing, like Ain Sof in the Kabbalah. The author says that this realm, or core reality, can be intuited through visions and meditations, but that no attempt to describe or point to it can be more than an indication. Hughes’ most suggestive metaphor is of a return to a primal sea of potential. In terms of English etymology, he links this to the word ‘soul’, originally a sea-referenced word – and it is universal soul, rather than any personal soul, that he has in mind. He does strongly hold the view that Ceugant represents an ultimate belonging for us all, and so is not something to be achieved through long arduous tasks and learning. It is just there, twice removed from us in our present state.

The final section offers a set of rituals and practices – including a vigil for the dying; preparation of the body; funeral for a Druid; saying goodbye, and a treatment of Samhain as a three day festival of the dead with appropriate practices for each day. Like the rest of the book, these are creative suggestions, based on experience and insight, which we are invited to look at and take on board to whatever extent is right for us.  A welcome text on a sensitive topic.

MERLIN AND CONTEMPLATION

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.

 

References

1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

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