contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

CAILLEACH

I was on a train and had reached my destination. Descending onto the platform at 5.30 pm, I found myself in complete darkness. It might as well have been midnight. I understood that winter had come.

The Goddess in her cailleach, or crone, aspect presides over this time. She it is who determines the length and severity of winter. She is also embodied in the dark woman of knowledge who facilitates both death and transformation (1).

In the context of my contemplative inquiry/blog, I am experiencing a process of this kind, seemingly in a minor key. I want to call it ‘hibernation and renewal’, though I cannot predict how it will really be. In any event, I have decided to do no more posting until the new year. What happens then depends on what I am inspired to do at the time. But now is a time for surrender to endarkenment and sleep.

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

A DANCE OF LIGHT AND SHADE

Sunday, 31 October. Hallowe’en. Greetings of the season! A chance for a ghost tree to move and dance?

Where I live, a change in clock time has made the morning a little lighter, wet and gloomy though it might be. The evening, of course, will be darker. It will launch an endarkening seven weeks for those open to the spiritual opportunities of this time.

I am noticing a dance of light and shade, at moments not defined by heavy cloud and rain. In these recent pictures I sense a yin/yang contrast where clear shafts of light illuminate, but do not dominate, spaces inclined to be shady. For me there is a living balance here – one thing that still pictures do not show is that the detail is constantly changing.

I celebrate the miracle of existence – my ability, or life’s ability, to see a world and be immersed in it. To respond to it and to share it. Sometimes this seems enough, with no need for any framework to explain or contextualise this astonishing fact. Here, from identifying a dance of light and shade, I can notice how this dance has different effects in different settings, a small sample of the vast diversity in our living world. As we move without illusions into the Cop26 summit, may it be preserved and protected!

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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

IOLO MORGANWG: 3 RAYS OF AWEN

According to Kristoffer Hughes, the three ray symbol for Awen, as it appears today: “is mostly inspired by the efforts of one individual, a Welsh bard of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries called Edward Williams, who took the bardic name of Iolo Morganwg*”.

Hughes goes on to tell us something of Iolo’s story: “I touch briefly on the Awen-filled story of this remarkable individual, for it sings loudly of the power of Awen to transform, not just an individual, but the future. His symbol for the Awen has become directly associated in Neopaganism with Cerridwen, making an exploration of his influence a valuable exercise in our understanding of Awen in the modern world.

“Iolo Morganwg was a stonemason from South Wales, an imaginative, poetic genius who made elaborate claims of ancient documents and wisdom that he had discovered and preserved for the world to see. Blighted by ill health, he was addicted to the narcotic laudanum for over fifty years of his life, spending most of his days in a drug-induced state, and yet poems in their thousands fell from his frenzied mind onto scraps of parchment. He composed elaborate poetry, inspired prose, but falsely claimed that some of the poems were written by ancient bards. … And yet through all of the accusations of forgery and deception, Iolo dreamed something into being that those in the different streams of Celtic spirituality today, both monotheistic and polytheistic, are descendants of. He dreamed a new mythology into being and planted seeds that would gestate a profound wisdom in the future.

“In a time of great social crisis, he dreamed an identity for the Welsh that took as its foundation that the bardic tradition of Wales was a direct line to the ancient Druids of Britain, who he perceived as the true ancestors of the Welsh. He longed for his people to connect to the might and power that the Romantic movement imagined the Druids to express. And, in doing so, he deliciously imagined a new identity that the Welsh could be proud of: he blended fact with fiction, legend with history, myth with reality. His bewildering array of notes and journals continue to baffle modern academics who strive to make sense of this enigmatic figure.”

Reflecting on Iolo’s story, Hughes concludes that, “in a profoundly logocentric world where new thoughts and ideas were expected to be substantiated by manuscripts, Iolo simply invented a past that we, as the Welsh, could be proud of . … He carried the seeds of Awen and profoundly influenced a future he could not have imagined. In the twenty-first century, those drawn to the Cerridwen and Taliesenic mysteries (2) who may artistically express, understand, or wear the symbol of the Awen all carry the dream of Iolo Morganwg. He is testament to the Awen’s consistent stream and how it too changed its countenance to meet the needs of different people at different times. The period he occupied was a cauldron of new ideas, with the new era of bardic tradition in its infancy and occult fascination among the learned of the time increasing in popularity”.

(1) Kristoffer Hughes Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2021. See also my review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/26/book-review-cerridwen-celtic-goddess-of-inspiration/

(2) See also: John Matthews Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: Aquarian Press, 1991. It includes a complete English translation of the Hanes Taliesin (Story of Taliesin) and English translations of the major poems of Taliesin Pen Beirdd from The Book of Taliesin as well as other medieval Welsh and Irish material. In the Taliesin story, the three rays of Awen become three drops from the brew in Cerridwen’s cauldron).

*NOTE: Iolo Morganwg (=Ned of Glamorgan, his native county). In his own words, the Awen sign /|\ is “a symbol of God’s name from the beginning”. He goes on to say: “from the quality of this symbol proceed every form and sign of voice, and sound, and name, and condition”. It is when God pronounced his Name that “all the universe leapt together into existence of life, with the triumph of a song of joy. The same song was the first poem that was ever heard, and the sound of the song travelled as far as God and His existence are, and the way in which every other existence, springing in unity with Him, has travelled for ever and ever. And it sprang from inopportune nothing; that is to say, so sweetly and melodiously did God declare his name, that life vibrated through all existence, and through every existing materiality”. J. William Ab Ithel (editor) The Bardas of Iolo Morganwg: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of the Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 http://www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862, from notes and journals left by Iolo on his death at 79 years of age in 1826).

THE COMING OF AUTUMN

Walking in the woods yesterday I saw the coming of autumn, in the sky and in the trees. I felt it too, and not just in my physical sensation of coolness. I experienced a mood of loss and ending, not limited to the summer of 2021.

The natural wheel of the year, where I live, has classically been one of soft transitions. Our seasons have merged gently into each other, with September as a modified extension of summer. Leaves gently turn, but there is not much of a fall. For much of my life I enjoyed the sense of a predictable pattern in the the turning of the wheel. That sense has eroded in recent years and has now reached vanishing point. Hence the feeling of loss.

Summer 2021 seemed to die in August, after a short and faltering life. It may be succeeded by a once unseasonable hot spell, or it may not. Considering the effects of the climate crisis in other parts of the world, this is hardly dramatic. But this weird summer season, including a background awareness of developments elsewhere, has ended my already weakened feeling of security. The phrase ‘winds of change’ comes to mind. I think, what next? And when?

I feel challenged to be open to whatever happens, without obsolete expectations to confuse me. In the state of openness, I find that an inner peace and clarity are present. They act as my guides through a shifting, changing, world.

PEACE AS PURPOSE

This image, the 3 of Wands from The Druidcraft Tarot (1), is one of purposeful effort beginning to be rewarded. The process is gradual but the promise is there. A young man looks with confidence at the world in front of his eyes. He seems at ease with himself, a young man resting in peace.

He has never really died in me, despite the ups and downs of life. Indeed I am better connected with him now than when I was actually young. I sometimes bubble up with an energetic optimism unlinked to any particular context. Delusional? I don’t think so. It is more the sense of a true nature, ageless and timeless, sustaining me in every time and season.

The image on the card suggests a wider resiliency of nature and organic growth. The purpose and intention of the fire element is in alliance with the regenerative powers of the earth. The sun is seen indirectly in the health of the plant kingdom, and indeed of the young man himself.

I consider my own purpose at this time of my life. I think of some old Druid liturgy that I have re-written for my own practice, without much changing the original meaning: “Deep within my innermost being I find peace. Silently, within the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Heartfully, within the wider web of life, may I radiate peace”. I understand ‘peace’ to be an active agent in human affairs and not a passive or negative absence of conflict. It is a value, and stance, to understand and act on more deeply over time.

At the level of personality, I do not consider myself a natural for this form of witnessing and action. I am a work in progress, to say the least. Hence the importance of formal spiritual points of reference and a formal practice. I need these kinds of support. Writing this blog helps too. I see it as contributing to a peer community conversation. This community is not closely defined and is subject to change. It does not, in itself, provide any identity or role other than the reading and writing of posts. But it is good to have a purpose working within it. I aim, overall, heartfully to radiate peace, at least at the level of discourse and values.

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

DION FORTUNE: THE SEA PRIESTESS

I like to attune myself, imaginally, to significant moments in time, place and culture. I have always done this but I now think of it as an aspect of my Druidry. I have become more conscious about it.

Here I am contemplating an alignment of 1930’s Britain, Brean Down on the North Somerset coast (Bell Head in the book), and the occultist Dion Fortune. I am especially thinking of her determination to “bring back into modern life something that has been lost and forgotten and that is badly needed”. Rather than being a review of her book The Sea Priestess (1), this post is a reflection on spiritual ancestry, and an acknowledgement of her project’s success. As the publisher of the 2003 edition happily notes, “The Sea Priestess is a classic occult teaching novel with romantic overtones, and a foundation work for modern Wicca, paganism, and ritual magic”.

Gareth Knight outlines the main theme in his foreword to the 2003 edition. “The story concerns a high initiate, Vivien Le Fay Morgan – or Morgan Le Fay as she comes to be called – who is about to undertake a major work of sea and moon magic for which purpose she needs to find a suitable location upon which to build a temple complete with living accommodation. At the same time she needs to find a man suitable to train as her assistant in the magical work. With commendable economy of means, she kills two birds with one stone by selecting a local real estate agent, Wilfred Maxwell, who has the necessary professional contacts to find a location, together with sufficient skills to help her refurbish and redecorate it appropriately. He also has the temperament and personal circumstances that can make him a capable, if unlikely, magical apprentice.”

Wilfrid and Morgan get to know each other at weekends where he is busy turning an old army fort at the point of Bell Head, named Bell Knowle, into Morgan’s temple. They become close. But Morgan’s purpose is not personal. Working under the aegis of the Priest of the Moon, a discarnate being, she seeks to connect herself to “the ultimate spiritual source, known to Qabalists as the Great Unmanifest, the formless power behind the fount of creation itself. This in turn relates to the great zodiacal tides of the precession of the equinox, whereby in the coming Age of the Aquarius the old gods will be coming back, after another manner. Her own part in this is to make the way clear for the realization of the divine feminine as part of the cult of the Great Goddess, who, as our Lady Isis, comprises all goddesses – of the corn, of the dead, of the sea, of the moon”.

Morgan needs Wilfrid’s help in performing a ritual that depends on an exchange of sexual energy without involving physical sex. He needs to be in love with her, or at least infatuated, for the ritual to work. But there is to be no relationship thereafter. Morgan is completely honest about this with Wilfrid, but he finds it too difficult to take in. After the ritual, and the great storm and destruction of the temple that follows, Morgan disappears. Wilfrid is left with a brief letter re-emphasising that there is to be no further contact between them. There is no forwarding address. Wilfrid falls to pieces.

But this is not the end. Morgan has scrupulously adhered to an ethic of reciprocity in work of this kind. She has subtly nudged events so that he makes a connection with a young woman – his secretary at the estate agency – and they marry. There are pragmatic reasons for this too. Molly needs to escape from a violent and chaotic step father. Wilfrid (now aged 36) needs to stop living with his mother and older sister; he also needs to sort out his post-ritual depression and alcohol problems. Marriage as a solution is enabled by Wilfrid’s domestic neediness and Molly’s compulsive care-giving, shaky emotional foundations for a life-partnership. Morgan’s contribution is to lay the ground work for greater possibilities. She has already arranged to leave her magically imbued sapphires for Wilfrid’s wife to be.

After their marriage, the newly weds move out of town to Bell Head, where Morgan’s caretakers had kept a small farm. Morgan’s temple is ruined, but they inherit her books and magical working records. These influences inspire Molly to start “talking to the moon”. She begins to take on her own priestess role. Wilfrid recollects: “it was all different here from the fort, and yet it was taking on a life of its own. There was more of earth and less of the sea than out on the point, just as there was more of earth in Molly than in Morgan; yet it was cosmic earth, and I remember that the Great Goddess ruled both moon and earth and sea. Molly would never be a Sea Priestess, like Morgan, but there was awaking in her something of the primordial woman, and it was beginning to answer to the need in me.”

At the end of the book, on a midsummer’s night, the couple light a fire of cedar, sandalwood and juniper. Such a fire is known as a Fire of Azrael, first prepared by Wilfrid when working with Morgan. It enables trance states and communication with the ‘inner planes’, especially if blended with moonlight. Molly receives an extended transmission from the Priest of Moon, and her subtle sexual energies are enlivened. For “the Astral plane is ruled by the moon and the woman is her priestess; and when she comes in her ancient right, representing the moon, the moon-power is hers and she can fertilise the male with vitalising magnetic force”. Molly initiates the consummation of the couple’s magical relationship. They have now received the touch of Isis and the gates of the inner life are open.

I experience The Sea Priestess now, on the third of three readings separated by many years, as a voice from long ago. In some ways it isn’t. My parents were born within a few years of the fictional Molly, and had nowhere near this sense of gender, sexuality or spirituality, let alone magic. I suppose my own sense of temporal distance is partly due to the dynamic evolution of her influence, and that of others like her, in successive generations – not least in the thirty years since I first read The Sea Priestess. If she now seems old-fashioned, it is a back-handed tribute to the creative power she helped to unleash. Before we think of her being old-fashioned even today, we have to ask ourselves: compared to whom?

(1) Dion Fortune The Sea Priestess Boston, MA & York Beach, ME: Weiser, 2003 (Copyright 1935 Society of the Inner Light)

A TAROT CONTEMPLATION

An attentive juggler keeps two coins in the air. As I contemplate the coins, they speak to me of well-being, health, and blessing, rather than every day money. They are coins of a different order, and they draw me into the card.

I was glad to pick the two of pentacles, from The Druidcraft Tarot (1), in my first use of cards for many months. I knew I wanted only one card in the moment of picking it up. The image, when I saw it, gave me the pleasure of recognition, of something about this feeling right for me. A relaxed juggling of no more than two coins seemed spacious and doable. I thought, ‘I can walk into the picture and be the figure on the shore-line. I can put myself into this flow of movement and attention with these coins’.

Now within the image, I notice that I have my back to the sea, and I assume a prior knowledge that the boats are friendly and capable of outrunning bad weather. I experience pentacles as having a protective resonance, so long as I am active in my own protection. I feel that, somehow, my juggling of the coins is a part of that protection, and protects the boats as well. I do not have a story about why this should be the case, but I trust that it is. That is all I need to do.

Bringing myself back into my normal state, I feel trust in my current direction, even though I cannot fully articulate it. I feel trust in my existing resources, of which the Tarot and my ease with it are two. I think about moving between different states of attention, in ways that are spacious and not overloaded. My contemplative inquiry is not now about asking fundamental questions or exploring new avenues. It seems more to be about balance and flow and living from an underlying stillness.

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

HIGH SUMMER 2021

It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.

At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.

But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.

Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.

Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.

In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.

TREE MANDALA: GORSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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