contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Celtic spirituality

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/

DEATH (THE APPLE WOMAN)

In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.

Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.

In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.

For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.

Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.

Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

ATLANTIC ANCESTORS

I am beginning to feel the pull of Samhain. It is not here yet, but its themes are drawing my attention. One of these is the remembrance of ancestors.

A recent post by poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers (1) has prompted me to look again at Barry Cunliffe’s work, and the book I have to hand is Facing the Ocean (2). It is about early human history in Atlantic maritime Europe. including Britain and Ireland. One of its threads concerns living with the ocean. Another, related to the first, looks at communication by sea at a time when land travel was difficult. I will follow up these threads in future posts. In the meantime, Cunliffe’s sense of the interaction between nature and culture is shown in the extract below.

“To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience. We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be. Wonder is tempered with reassurance: it is an end, but we are content that the cycle will reproduce itself the sun will reappear. The sea below creates different, more conflicting, emotions. True, there is the comfortable inevitability of the tides, but there is also an unpredictability of mood, the sea constantly changing, sometimes erupting in crescendos of brute force destroying and remoulding the land and claiming human life. The sea is a balance of opposites. It gives and takes. It can destroy quickly and build new; it sustains life and it can kill. Small wonder that through time communities have sought to explain these forces in terms of myth and have attempted to gain some puny influence over them through propitiation.

“Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the legends and folk traditions of Brittany. In the howl of the wind can be heard the screams and laments of those drowned at sea, and much of human life – birth and the gender of the newborn and death – was believed to be conditioned by the tides. Below a thin veneer of Christianity lie beliefs deeply rooted in time. A century ago, in the parish of Ploulec’h on the north Breton coast, the first Sunday in May saw the people in procession climb to La Croix du Salut – an isolated landmark that could be seen from far out to sea offering assurance of the approach to a safe haven. Here the sailing community gave thanks for their safe returns before descending to the chapel of Notre-Dame across the bay on the headland of Le Yaudet. In the church today, fine model sailing ships hanging from the roof beams are among the more evocative offerings made to the Virgin by grateful mariners. The deep underlying awe of the ocean is poignantly expressed by the Breton poem

War vor peb ankenn

War vor peb peden

(Sur la mer toute angoisse, sur mer toute priere

At sea all is anguish, all is prayer).”

(1) https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/britain-begins-debunking-the-myth-of-celtic-invasions/

(2) Barry Cunliffe Facing the Ocean: The *Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 Oxford: the University Press, 2001

*NOTE: I wish the subtitle had specified ‘eastern Atlantic’, since every corner of the Americas has been populated for periods ranging from 12,000-24,000 years. The western Atlantic coastal people amongst them are not my focus, but in a post about ancestors I don’t want them to be implicitly erased.

AUTUMN EQUINOX 2020: HAZEL, SALMON, AWEN

In the outer circle of my mandala of the year (1), hazel presides over the days from 16 September to 8 October.

In the middle circle, divided into quarters, the one beginning at Lughnasadh/Lammas is represented by a salmon.

In the inner circle, where there is no sub-division, I have three seed pearls standing for the Awen. The Autumn Equinox is a time when images from the three layers of the mandala line up particularly well. (See NOTE below)

The lore and legend surrounding hazel have a stronger hold on me than the physical tree, though I do find hazels in my locality. For the ancient Celts, the tree was linked with wisdom and known as the food of the gods. Irish tradition (2,3) speaks of the sacred salmon who swim in a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees. This pool was known as Conla’s Well or the Well of Segais and it is the source of the River Boyne. When the trees drop their nuts into the water below, the salmon eats them and so carries them into the sea and back in their annual spawning run. “The cycle was seen as a metaphor for the passing of wisdom from age to age and from person to person” (2). The ancient Druid temples of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are to be found in the Boyne Valley.

Ireland and Western Britain are watery places, well-located for intimations of wisdom in watery forms. In modern Druidry, circle work makes links between the west, water and autumn, understood as the quarter following Lughnasadh/Lammas. There are suggestions, too, of love and intuition flowing together in harmony. The Autumn Equinox stands at the point where the light half of the year gives way to the dark half – not suddenly, or violently, but as part of a gentle transition, where the qualities are more or less balanced on both sides of the divide. Tradition also gives us the image of the Well of Segais  as “a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it” (3). Here, the invitation, at least for ‘the folk of many arts’, is to drink from the five streams (the five senses) and from the fountain itself (the source of life). In a nutshell, our wisdom is best served by drawing on both the life of the senses and on the flow of inner inspiration (Awen). Neither needs to be sacrificed to the other.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

(3) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition London: Fireside, 1994 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

NOTE The two pictures below give a rough sense of the mandala, and of relationships at the Autumn Equinox, though not the way it looks as a mosaic in my innerworld. The tree images are taken from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). They stand in for the ones in my mandala, which are more naturalistic and sometimes involve more than one plant: hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west, yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west. The selection as a whole is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. The elemental images are from R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey.

MR. BRAMBLE

In my mandala of the year (1), I have sixteen trees. In the quarter from Lughnasadh (or Lammas) to Samhain, these are apples, blackberry, hazel and rowan. Blackberry presides over the days from 24 August to 15 September.

My choices have as much to do with personal memories as with natural processes, traditional lore, or the ogham alphabet in which Blackberry is Muin. In England we have an August Bank Holiday in which the weekend is extended to include the last Monday of the month. This year it will be August 31st. I have early memories of blackberry picking walks during this holiday, with family groups doted around a wooded hillside, and an air of informal ritual. Although balmy days might follow, this was the final act of summer.

The plant, of course, is with us throughout the year. The Druid Plant Oracle (2) names it as Bramble. “If you have ever tried digging up Bramble roots, you will know how tenacious they are – they travel long and deep, and some root systems can cover a wide area and be of great age”. Blackberry was said to be the bush into which Lucifer fell when he was thrown out of Heaven. Bramble provided a challenge for the prince in Sleeping Beauty.

Bramble also provided much needed sustenance for the famished wayfarers in The Voyage of Maeldun. In Joanne Harris’ Blackberry Wine (3) a small rural community in the south of France is saved from unwanted gentrifying ‘development’ through the prickly stubbornness of key individuals. These, quietly supported by most of their community, defend their own vision of how to live in the face of personal, commercial and threatened legal pressures. Neglected flora, overlooked forms of intoxication and a little magic all contribute to the holding of a much loved space. Mr Bramble is a good friend to have.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

(3) Joanne Harris Blackberry Wine London: Black Swan, 2000

(4) The image at the top is from John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003

THREE TREES

On recent walks I have been noticing trees in nearby woodland, and becoming aware of how I experience them at this moment in the year. The three tree pictured in this post illustrate my story for later August.

In the first, I saw my first real hint of autumn, as green starts to turn yellow and brown. At this stage, it is a subtle shift affecting only a few trees. But it is a harbinger, like street lights at 8.30 pm.

My liking for this time goes back to my later childhood. It was still summer and I had a lot of freedom. My hay fever was gone. Temperatures were a little down. It was easier for me to spend longer periods out in the sun. I felt at home in my environment. In these precious days, I felt expansive. The world was on my side, and a hopeful place to be in.

In an earlier post (1) I talked about this as being a time of apples in my Innerworld. This is true of my outer world too. I grew up in Somerset, in England, where apples are abundant. It is cider country, and the summer country of Arthurian romance. My home town, Yeovil, is 19 miles from Glastonbury, aka Avalon. When I was small, I was puzzled by injunctions not to take apples from the tree or eat the ones which fell on the ground, though these might possibly be cooked. Only the ones in shops were truly safe. Commerce made them righteous. For me, this got a little mixed up with forbidden fruit story in Genesis 3, since “the tree in the garden” was identified as an apple in our part of the world.

For all the autumnal qualities of this time, it still offers a naturalistic ‘tree of light’ experience if I am open to it. I experience this most when sunlight catches green leaves, especially if they shine from recent rain. I am glad that the metaphor of the tree of light – like those of the tree of life, or world tree – does not remove us far from our experience of the living world. One of my attractions to Druidry is that even its more esoteric, Otherworldly dimension stays loyal to nature.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/18/harvesting-in-mixed-weather/

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

LUGNASADH 2020

Lughnasadh (or Lammas) marks an important moment in my year. I move from a season of ripening to a season of bearing fruit. At the point of transition, both of these processes are happening. My distinction between ‘ripening’ and ‘bearing fruit’ is a soft one, allowing for continuities. But I know a harvest when I see one, and I celebrate it when it comes.

The Celtic fire festivals have a stronger hold on me than the solstices and equinoxes, with the exception of midwinter. I don’t know why this is. The quarter beginning in Samhain is one of dying and regeneration. I am happy to start and end my year in the middle of it: I have moved from the dying of the year to its point of regeneration. But it is the quarters that tell the most compelling story: from the time of dying and regeneration, to one of early growth – and then on to those of ripening and of bearing fruit.

August, though very much a summer month, comes with a withdrawal of light and intensity, very noticeable to me, where I live, in the last ten days of the month. September and October continue this whilst including fine and balmy days. Throughout much of my life, this is the quarter that has especially moved me. All periods have their magic. Compared to its predecessor, the quarter beginning with Lughnasadh has, at least for me, a quality of reduced intensity and greater subtlety.

2020 specifically continues to be odd and unsettling. I have not had my usual summer. I was essentially housebound for four months. I have not left my town since February. My upside, as a contemplative, has been an unseasonable permission to turn inwards. I have refreshed my solo Druid practice and I feel re-grounded in Druid culture.

I have recently crafted three forms of sitting meditation for use within my daily practice: I describe them as Light Body, Living Presence and Wisdom’s House. I will write more fully at a later date. This development marks a return to an older contemplative approach – I have moved away from formal sitting meditations in recent years. Each meditation is based on, or descended from, a practice previously used over a long period. This work has tenacious roots yet happily feels new and fresh. I look forward to its fruits.

Photo by Elaine Knight. See also: https://elaineknight.wordpress.com/

ROWAN

Walking in the woods yesterday, I was struck by the vitality of rowan leaves and berries. I haven’t done this walk for a while, so I’m not quite sure when the berries became so vivid. All I can say is that they powerfully drew my attention. They were just what I needed, in this time of tentative emergence from Covid-19 lockdown. I look forward to their companionship as the high summer leans into autumn and beyond.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about tree lore. Too much lore can get in the way of living connection with a tree, or even displace it. But in this case it seems to fit. To me, rowan does look magical, and feels potentially protective. I am not surprised that our ancestors planted it for this use down the ages – to guard stone circles, sacred groves, churchyards and houses. The very name rowan is linked to the Norse runa, meaning ‘charm’. In Ireland, rowan was considered a Druid tree and linked to the blackbird as a Druid bird. The berries themselves present a pentagram image, linking us to notions of magical protection.

Rowan is said to be concerned with wisdom and foresight. Breathing in smoke from the burning wood was an aid to foreseeing danger. Rowan is associated with solar goddesses of wisdom, skill and fire energy: in Ireland, Brigid; and in Britain, Brigantia. Both are said to have possessed arrows of rowan, which could catch fire if necessary.

I find the presence of rowan subtly morale boosting as I negotiate a new normal with my wife Elaine and, together, with the wider world. We work with the knowledge that Covid-19 is not going away and that we do need to re-engage more directly with that world. The very physicality of the rowan tree is an invitation to step out, whilst also encouraging a sense of what to look out for, and how the next phase is likely to be.

MERLIN AND THE MIRACLE TREE

This is the last post in a series offering an overview of R. J. Stewart’s Merlin-related work. The Complete Merlin Tarot  (1) in the picture is the companion book to The Merlin Tarot (2). Together I find them a good way to engage with the images that Stewart derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s introduction of Merlin to twelfth century readers. For me it is an example of what Joseph Campbell (3) calls ‘creative mythology’, a feature of Western European culture from Geoffrey’s time onward. Creative mythology drew on traditional Celtic and Germanic stories, the classical inheritance of Greece and Rome, and elements from Gnosticism and Islam. It gave imaginative depth and freedom in an era of constraining religious formalism.

Geoffrey, specifically, made wide use of classical and British Celtic sources. In The Life of Merlin (4) both the wild man of the woods section and the contemplative observatory section point to something beyond the conventional spirituality of the day. Its cultural frame of reference is broader – the observatory motif points back to Stonehenge and east to the proto-modern observatories in Damascus and Baghdad.

In The Merlin Tarot, R. J. Stewart places Merlin imagery within a Kabbalist Tree of Life framework. His commitment to the Tree goes beyond simple observance of the Tarot’s structural conventions. Stewart affirms that Kabbalah essentially means “whispered wisdom, mouth to ear” (5). He talks of three streams of Kabbalah, Jewish, Sufi and Western. All, he suggests, predate the Abrahamic orthodoxies of the Middle East and Europe, whilst being influenced by them. Ultimately, the Tree of Life is “not a set of symbols, not a system of meditation and vision … not even a tradition … we are already the Tree of Life”. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Literature, a Miracle Tree that can change us “from a false and imbalanced state to our real and eternal Being”.

From an historical, record examining perspective, Kabbalists became visible in the urban Jewish communities of Languedoc, in South Western France (6), also during the twelfth century of Campbell’s creative mythology. Indeed, other Jewish scholars and mystics frowned on their eclecticism. Languedoc’s vibrant culture included the then flourishing Gnostic Cathars and was the heartland of the widely travelling troubadours. This was the day of the crusader kingdom in Jerusalem, and the partial adoption of local lifestyles by its own permanent military residents – next door to an Islamic world which tolerated religious minorities. It is a moment in the domains of the Latin Church, not destined to last, that was friendly to new ways of thinking and feeling. For me, there are sufficient cultural resonances  here to make a Kabbalistic framework for the Merlin Tarot images feel both appropriate and celebratory.

The tree is imprinted imaginatively within my body. I use now it in subtle healing and light energy work – choosing it over other systems like the three cauldrons of poesy or the chakras of kundalini yoga. The major trumps are likewise imprinted and related to the pathways between sephira. They will always be part of my spiritual story, thanks to an early, intense relationship with the deck and the understandings behind it. As part of my current consolidation, I have begun to use The Merlin Tarot again within my contemplative work, given its place in my history and its for me enabling association with creative mythology.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.

(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.

(3) Joseph Campbell The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976 (Original U.S. edition published in 1968)

(4) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(5) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

(6) Gershom Scholem Origins of the Kabbalah The Jewish Publication Society & Princeton University Press, 1987 (edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky; translated from the German by Allan Arkush. Original German publication Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1962)

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