Saturday, 9 June 2012

Stick!

I have just returned from a wonderful holiday in Cornwall. More about that later.

At the start of May I set out to make my staff. I decided that it should be ash and that it would be a thumb stick so that I could take it walking, and later on it came in very handy on the Cornish cliff paths.

I walked to a local woodland not far from home carrying a drink and a sharp bill-hook. When I got there I searched all over for some ash trees. I was certain I had seen some before but mostly found horse chestnut, beech and birch. I finally came across one large standing ash tree and one that had fallen. I thought I could see some young trees in the undergrowth beyond a tangle of brambles and nettles. I fought my way through and over the fallen tree and came upon a clearing full of maiden ash trees.


A maiden tree is one that has grown from a fallen seed, rather than one cultivated, and they are considered to have more power. It took some time to select a sapling, especially one with branches in the right place for the fork of the stick. I held the tree and closed by eyes, asking in my thoughts if I could take part of it for my staff. I said a few words too, asking permission, blessing and inviting the tree to impart power and work alongside me in the form of a staff. Then I made my first cut with an upward motion. Once I had the stick I gave thanks and planted an offering of money and a beautiful crystal pebble found on a beach. I returned to the fallen tree, trimmed off the small side branches and stripped the bark. It was still green and the white wood beneath looked like bone.



I then went down to the stream an the bottom of the cutting and washed the stick in the water. The water comes from a spring and it is salty because it runs through unerground deposits. This was especially good as it matches the wiccan idea that things can be consecrated by salt and water. In Nigel Pennick's East Anglian Magic, sacred spaces are cleansed with salt-water. I immersed the stick completely and then took it out and held it up to the sun.

Then I scambled up the slope and sat in the woods a while with my eyes closed, enjoying the birdsong and meditating.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Magickal Paraphernalia

Whilst searching for general info on all things pagan it is impossible not to bump into the growing phenomenon that is Wicca. The true origin of modern Wicca and who founded what is sometimes debated and what actually existed pre-Gerald Gardner is hard to pin down I guess. All I know is that Gardner and Co laid down some modern foundations and standardised some practices. At the same time they developed rituals and tools. Some of these must have had origins in the far past. Nobody could deny that the broomstick has been associated with witchcraft for many hundreds of years. The use of a sword or similar blade probably came from high magickal or hermetic practices. Again, the purification and use of water and the sanctity of salt has ancient roots. Although all the tools and paraphernalia seem valid I do wonder if they are all needed. When I think about the average wise woman or cunning man in a village in the middle ages I can't imagine that they would have been able to afford many of these tools, especially a sword! Wills made in the past testify to this - most people were lucky to leave behind the clothes they died in and perhaps a pewter spoon, knife and bowl. So I have been wondering about getting back to basics.

Reading Pennick's East Anglian Magic, I was struck by the simplicity of the ritual tools. Many were taken from everyday life, like the broom. A knife is needed for cutting and perhaps some string and hazel sticks for marking out ritual areas. A bottle of water is needed and this can be purified with salt. Other than this, an ash staff seems to be the only other essential, for drawing a magical boundary, directing power and will. The ash staff is a very magical thing, being associated with the world-ash Yggdrasil and as a conduit between heaven and earth. Ash was thought to attract lightening, drawing and directing power. So the ash staff is an axis mundi, a world pillar or centre. It is interesting to imagine that for a moment in magical time the whole world spins around a humble staff. The magical associations of the ash tree are too numerous to list here, but it has been a holy tree for millenia, long before the norse and Yggdrasil.



All this rambling brings me to my intention to make an ash staff for magical work and this will be my first and principle magical tool.

I will need to cut some wood. Before I do this I will find out how this can be most respectfully done, what I should cut with and if it should be consecrated. Can anyone offer advice in this regard?

Back

Its been a while, but I am finally back at the blog. Time really flies, especially when work an personal life get busy. But it hasn't been a bad couple of months. On the contrary its been pretty good. Work life has improved and I have actually enjoyed it for a change. And there will soon be a move to a new house with a wonderful garden and two beautiful silver birches.

Despite being busy my spiritual journey has not suffered. I continued to read, study and generally bimble about looking at all sorts of stuff. In busy periods Youtube has been particularly useful, not as a source of sound information but as a window into the lives of some of the pagans out there. I know there is a bias in this as not all pagans would go on Youtube, to preserve anonymity, they don't get on with the technology, or it's just not their cup of tea. And it's the same with blogging, not everyone can blog or wants to blog. But I think this is telling me that a next step in my development might be to get out there and meet some real life practicing pagans and get a real feel for the community and its diversity.

Freyja Again

A while ago I wrote a post about finding some amber and feeling some kind of connection to the Goddess Freyja. I am pleased to say that she is still around and my thoughts keep returning to her. I have read norse mythology on and off since a child, and although powerful and interesting she is often sidelined in favour of gods like Odin and Thor. In fact her "race", the Vanir are often masked by the much louder, brasher Aesir, so much so that even her brother Frey cannot always be heard above the din. Now she has stepped forwards and is leading me to explore the much older world of the Vanir. The Vanir probably pre-date the Aesir, they are connected to the earth, fertility, wisdom and divination. It is also interesting to note that the Anglo Saxons were identified as worshiping the Vanir during the Christian missions to England. The fact that they are older, nature gods appeals to me very much. Perhaps in Frey and Freyja I have found my Lord and Lady figures.

Patrons

Whilst exploring the web-based pagan community I have come across people who say that they have a patron Goddess and/or God and that they feel drawn to them or feel that they have called them in some way. Can anyone else share any stories about this? I would love to get comments on how people came to find a patron and what it means to them.

Freyja and Frey, Norse statuettes.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Goddess Statue 1

So, following on from my earlier post about making things I have finally started my Goddess statue. I wanted to try and make my own, partly to impart more meaning and partly to see if I could.

I bought some air drying clay as I don't have access to a kiln. This has taken some getting used to and I have had to build it up patiently as it tends to crack and crumble. My plan is to case-harden the statue in the oven with some hardener stuff I also bought.

To start off with I made a rough wooden base and a wire framework.


I wanted a pose with the Goddess stepping forward with her hands in the "Goddess Pose". This framework turned out to be flawed - the wire was too flexible and couldn't hold the weight of clay on the upper body. Also, it flexed under the clay and cracked it at the limbs.

I ditched this approach for a simpler frame made of coat-hanger wire.













The fine wire still had its uses in framing detail like the hands.


I tried to relax and let the figure come to me. It occurred to me that I had no idea what she should look like so I asked the goddess to show me. I ended up with a pleasant, joyful face, framed with copious hair and quite youthful. Fitting given the approach of spring.


As I have gone along the body and pose have developed. I wanted her to be curvaceous, and a curve to her belly - hinting at the fertile promise of spring.





Something told me she wanted lots of hair.

As I have gone on, the pose has come out. So too has the base. I have included a standing stone behind her. This is a favourite beach find. In front of her I have made a cup or hollow. The idea is to place a charcoal brick and insense in the hollow and let the smoke billow up and around her. Or I could put a small candle there, or a container of water or some stones to represent particular elements - not sure yet.

There is still some sanding and trimming to do to the figure as it stands and I will have to air dry it for around four days now. So it's far from finished. I will post again when I case-harden the figure and start to paint it.

It's been fun so far and I am looking forward to making a Horned God to go with her. I might even make other Goddesses, perhaps in different aspects-as mother or crone.



Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Reflection

Having started the blog with a burst of activity I find myself in a period of quiet reflection. This is partly forced by yet another head cold and lethargy, but its good taking time out to just think. I got into a work state of mind last week thinking: "it's been ages since my last post, I must do one." Must!....its funny how we start to tie ourselves up in imagined obligations, something I do too much. I'm working on judging myself less harshly though...

Anyway, this quiet period has meant time to read. Following on from my thoughts about Anglo Saxon paganism and Freya I have just finished "The Secrets of East Anglian Magic" by Nigel Pennick. It was a fascinating look into native English magic as practiced in past and present and there were lots of Saxon survivals in the belief system, but I liked how he stressed that it is a living system, still open to change and improvement. Next up is "The Real Middle Earth" by Brian Bates.

Also of inteterest lately, the archaeologist Francis Prior presented his theory on the introduction of Saxon culture to England in his TV programme Britain AD. I think he is on to something when he says it was not through invasion but through interaction that fashions and culture changed. And now there is growing evidence that pagan Romano-Brits lived alongside Saxons and that they shared many beliefs. They also lived alongside Celtic Christians. If this is true then the so-called dark ages were a time of tolerance, change and creativity.

I will carry on reading in this direction and see where it takes me. At the same time I need to return to my first intention- an exploration of the male mysteries.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Freyja

About 16 months ago I suffered from a bout of depression. It is still with me but things are very much brighter now.

I was off work for 13 weeks, and in that time I did alot of thinking about my life and spirituality. I got a great deal of comfort visiting the local country park where there are woods and a lake. One fine day in early September 2010 I came upon a quiet clearing of oak trees where the Rose Bay Willow Herb grew high enough to obscure me from the path. I did a bit of drawing (a green man) and sat and closed my eyes for a while. In the same clearing was an old oak tree. It was a V-shape: one large branch was leaning away from the clearing and another had at one time leant towards where I stood. It looked like it had splintered and fallen, so the rangers had lopped off the remainder. In the stump was a hollow containing a small pool of water. I determined that this would be a small shrine and that I would make an offering. I made a small request to the goddess for help and deposited some small change.

A few days later I went with my partner for a walk by the sea. The tide went out and out and we followed it. We picked up shells and driftwood and explored the pools. The sun was shining and the air was bright and clear. When we got to the water I had an overwhelming urge to jump in - despite the cold. This was strange for me because I had not swam for years, a paranoia brought about by bullying and body image. My partner watched dumbfounded as I took of all my clothes and ran naked into the water waving my underwear over my head and whooping. The water was shallow but I managed to swim a little. I got out, put my sagging underwear back on and donned my clothes. I felt great.

As we walked back we scanned the sands for more treasures, perhaps a shell or a piece of driftwood to take home (I love driftwood). Then I saw it. Something I had always wanted to find on a beach.....a piece of Amber. We were not sure at first but when I felt its texture and we held it up to the sun we were sure. Fresh from the sea it was strangely sticky and smelled intensely of pine resin. We were smelling a forest from 40 million years ago! Now, its not unusual to find amber on a British beach if you are on the east coast. There it is often found, around East Anglia in particular. But we were in the North West, hundreds of miles away. Perhaps there is a small deposit in the Irish Sea, or maybe it was carried over land to coast by ice age melt waters. Perhaps a ship lies off the coast, sunk with a cargo of Amber still aboard. It had travelled some way because it was worn round. A very, very rare find and a good size too. Here is a picture taken on the day.





The Amber has now dried out, shrunk a little, lost its smell and developed a surface patina. I gave it to my partner, she loves Amber, but we both treasure it.

Now to the present time. I have been thinking about pagan spirituality and reading about the different paths followed by others. Thinking about the God and Goddess and what kind of path I might follow. From the start I have felt firmly British. When I think about this I guess I don't feel particularly Celtic. I have some Scottish forebears but this doesn't mean Celtic (especially in the Viking-raided Western Isles). So I feel more English. I have always loved the Norse myths but feel more Anglo Saxon in character - again more English. So I have always been interested in Anglo Saxon spirituality. To this end I have been looking into Anglo Saxon magic.

Yesterday I was reading and came across reference to Freya being venerated in East Anglia. I then read about how she wept for her lost husband and where her tears fell on land they turned to gold and over water - Amber! And her father was Njord, god of the sea. And she has an amber necklace, Brisingamen that shines like the sun (we live near Alderley Edge where Alan Garner set his classic book "The Weird Stone of Brisingamen"). And Freya as a primal goddess appeals to me, and her twin brother Frey as her male counterbalance. Even references to them as Lord and Lady (the balance I am looking for between male and female principles).

I am a big sceptic, and coincidences can happen, but could this be the Goddess contacting me as Freya?

What do you think...........?

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Re-awakening

Not much blogging this week and couldn't find the time to do much at Imbolc. I am not too worried about this, as I have said I am starting over and re-exploring pagan spirituality. But it does bring home the realisation that a deeper engagement with this in the future would mean that I would not have to find time, but make time to mark and celebrate the quarter and cross-quarter festivals. This is something I would like to do, not just to celebrate or venerate, but to mark out the year and bring more structure to my busy life. I will eventually have to make a greater commitment, but right now these thoughts, feelings and concepts are only just re-awakening in me.

So I guess a parallel could be drawn between my present condition and this time of year. This struck me on a woodland walk last weekend. At first it was frosty and it seemed that we were still in the grip of winter.

And there were remnants of last year.









The copper beech hanging on to its leaves.


But the sun was shining and on the ascendant and there were signs of new life stirring everywhere. In places the ground was breaking with the first shoots of new growth. All around, life was forcing its way back into the woodland. And taking time to stop and close your eyes, you could hear and smell it too. The faint smell of wild garlic already, the birdsong. You could sense the approach of spring and the promise of renewed life.

And I suppose this is how I feel about my path at the moment: renewal, growing potential, but still early stirrings.

I don't have an altar or know any spells, but maybe on this walk I celebrated the spirit of Imbolc without realizing it.














Here are some more pictures (the fungi are dedicated to Moma Fauna)




Thursday, 2 February 2012

Imbolc

I haven't had much time to blog recently, but Happy Imbolc to all.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Making Things

I had planned the walking meditation today after shopping but it did not happen. But whilst shopping I picked up a few art materials. I have always been into art and draw alot but it comes and goes. Lately I have had the urge to make things...maybe its a New Year thing?

Anyway, I bought a good quality blank note book that will fit in my pocket and have made my own diary for 2012. I wrote the month headings in Anglo Saxon lettering and decorated them (I found some nice pens too). I will add the yearly festivals, moon phases and anything else that marks the turning of the year. Making my own diary is a good reminder of the cycle of time and how precious it is. It's also nice to customise it to my use, with space for notes, wish lists and drawings. Plus I so need to be more organised!

Here are some scribblings:


I also picked up some air-drying clay and hardener. The plan is to sculpt my own God and Goddess statues. I am quite excited about this as I have not messed around with clay for ages and I will able to add my own interpretation, so I hope they will mean more than something bought in a shop. There is also scope to make pendants, plaques, runes, anything that comes to mind. The only thing I need is more time!

When I am making these things I will ask for inspiration, try to concentrate on their purpose and meaning and hope to imbue them with some power.

I think I will post the making in steps so that I can look back at the creative process.

Men and Stereotypes

Over the past few days I have been reading other blogs and getting a feel for the pagan blog community. The vast majority of blogs are by women, hardly surprising as there are more women than men in the pagan community. One exception seems to be among the Druid community, where I have found more men, perhaps this will be turned upside down as I explore further, or maybe men connect Druidism with being male (this would be strange given classical references to powerful female Druids). Maybe we all want to emulate the greatest Druid of all:

(I hope I am not offending Druids, but I loved reading Asterix as a Kid)


Modern paganism certainly appeals more to women and this makes sense when you consider the intuitive aspects and how it follows the cycles of the year, the moon and life. Some articles say that it is because modern paganism is Goddess-centric but I disagree. I don't think any man who thinks about his beliefs follows the male Judeo-Christian God just because he is depicted as a man, or because there have been wars fought in his glory. It is true that Judeo-Christian religion leans towards male control and this is a shame. It is as much a shame that some modern pagans desire a lean towards female control. Some men might think this is already an established principle and be put off. In either case, imbalance feels wrong. There must be a place for men in neo-paganism for the sake of balance.

So how do you explain the prevalence of the female? The fact that the Goddess is considered powerful and equal to the God, an undisputed place leading practice and worship, the cyclical nature of the year and holding intuition in high regard might be a few reasons that women are attracted to the Old Religion. There is also a lack of dogma and plenty of free debate - so women have a strong voice and there is room for discussion - and women are great communicators and society builders, more so than most men.

How could men be put off Pagan ways? The first is mentioned above, the impression that it is completely matriarchal and that men are not welcome (although this is obviously untrue). Perhaps men have lost touch with the cycles of the year, society is less agricultural, and even the seasons can be side-stepped with modern techniques and tools. Seasonal food is available all year round. Fewer people follow hunting seasons (not a bad thing). We leave an air conditioned house, get in a car, go into an office, sit under strip lighting and drive home without experiencing the world outside. The seasons seem to merge. Of course this still happens to women, but women seem more naturally attuned to time, cycles and change and this might simply be because of the menstrual cycle. Perhaps modern women have this last, vital thread linking them to nature - a lifeline! Men probably have bodily cycles, but we are less attuned and the changes are probably more subtle. In the past men marked the cycle of time by task: ploughing, planting, harvesting, hunting. Now, unless we work outdoors, tasks are independent of season and weather.

Another thing that might put men off is the use of some quite kitsch Pagan imagery. Nowadays, some Old Religion archetypes are presented in a childish or camp way that does not have wide appeal with adult males. Lets take the fairy as an example. Most non-Pagan men, especially those with children, see fairies like this:


Now, if they have looked further into fairy lore they might be familiar with:


Still quite cute!

Unless they have read further, much further, they wont have seen fairies like this:


Or this:


Lets face it, Tinkerbell is aimed a little girls. She is cute nowadays, although J.M. Barrie originally depicted her a pretty jealous, selfish and vindictive. They start out liking Tinkerbell but this might lead to a broader interest in fairies and fairy lore as they grow up, culminating in a deeper knowledge of Fae Folklore. An interest in fairies might never develop in a male as he is never introduced to them. Also, the "darker" images of fairies might never crop up in a non-Pagan's life, unless they find them by some other path - as a folkloreist, goth or metal head.

And so we come to another sticking point for many men - Camp.

To lots of men, the Pagan world can seem quite camp, or even retro-camp. Dressing in robes, chanting, dancing in groves all seems a bit over the top. Of course some of it is just imagined. Now, unless you come from a culture that already celebrates campness, this can be a bit disconcerting. Many Pagans I have met also love rock and metal, already a heady mix of masculine and camp.


If you can see the irony in all this and are secure with your sexuality then there is probably no problem. Gay men seem to have no trouble with this and they too revel in the camp - they are famous for it! And why do they feel unabashed at celebrating this side of themselves? Probably because they can see the irony and fun in it, or are open to different ways of being. They can accept different types of sexuality and therefore different ways of thinking and expression. And I think that it is partly because of this, that there are many gay male pagans (not because they are like women, as some heterosexual men seem to think - in my view all men are equally masculine unless they feel trans-gender).

Paganism is heavily stereotyped and it takes a unique individual to see through all this, quite often a person who is stereotyped themselves!

As well as being stereotyped as cute and a bit camp, the history of Paganism is often sanitized. Even the darker stereotypes have become camp classics, aided by the horror genre. How camp (and admittedly cool) is The Wicker Man? (not the latest one, that was crap). But were the original wicker men camp, not if you were burned in one! And what else did the Celts enjoy? Collecting heads. And some of our heathen ancestors tied their enemies to trees by their own entrails. Tolund man was strangled. Odin lurks at gibbets and talks to hanged men. The list goes on...

I am not suggesting that Neo-Pagans should practice this in the modern age, we live in more enlightened times, but we should avoid presenting a squeeky clean Pagan past where everyone lived in blissful harmony with nature and where more gruesome practices were a perversion introduced by men. There are plenty of Goddesses and female deities that deal in the darker side.


Paganism Disney style has alot to answer for.

Unfortunately the average man (and often woman) in the street will see all this and conclude that Paganism is just silly. They might even feel threatened by it, express hatred for it or react violently against it.

It is a shame that many men feel like this and do not get the chance to explore beyond their preconceptions and assumptions. If they did, they might discover more about themselves and how the sacred male and sacred female in all of us balances and makes us who we are.

They might also get to thinking about the male principle and its place in the universe. Despite the apparent dominance of the Goddess, the male is still present. He courts the Goddess, is her lover, a father, a seer. He dies and is reborn. He brings light and fire, but also destruction. He is the Lord of the wild hunt. These are the male mysteries and I can't wait to explore them.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Labyrinths

For the past two days I have been thinking about walking. For a long time now I have been saying that I must take more time out to walk, if only to get fitter. There is also the idea that I could relieve alot of stress through some kind of walking meditation.

I have tried the sit-down kind of meditation and it has got me through some rough patches in the past, if only because it calms and focusses the mind. But walking meditation would be new. As well as being a new relaxation-meditation it should also enhance awareness, an eastern/Buddhist concept to which I wholeheartedly subscribe but practice too little. I spend so much of my time unaware, or maybe I just switch off with the sensory overload that seems to be around sometimes.

The advice I have is to begin the walk with steady breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, and follow the breath as in regular meditation. But as I walk I am to observe physical and mental feelings. First starting to observe the pressure of weight on my feet and root myself to the earth and then begin to walk, feeling the feet, ankles, calves, thighs, working upwards, and note both pleasurable and uncomfortable sensations right to the top of my head. It is also advised to note the distribution of weight, balance and posture. And the environment - is it windy, cold, damp, how is this affecting me? Thoughts might occur and I can acknowledge and dismiss these if I wish, or mediate on a single idea.

These ideas about walking got me thinking about Labyrinths. These are fascinating to me and another example of an ancient and wide reaching human concept. They are found across cultures and there are three types: 7 circuit, 11 circuit and 12 circuit. As you walk the path you can meditate, perhaps on a problem. With each 180 degree turn the brain swaps focus from left to right. On reaching the centre you can linger and meditate some more or head straight back out and continue your perambulation back and forth.


They are a great symbol for journeying and this seems appropriate to this blog as I set out on a spiritual path. As I say, they appear in all cultures and periods, from ancient Crete to the Celts and in medieval Chartres cathedral . But they also feature in the native American tradition. The Hopi indian Labyrinth represents the enfolding energies of the Earth Mother. The straight line represents the child. The child is not enclosed, even at the centre, showing that we are free but supported.


Hopi Labyrinth



I think the Labyrinth is something I will keep coming back to. Next I would like to find one near me and walk it, and if I can't find one I'll just walk. Eventually I think I will trace one out in a garden. I'll record the outcome of my walk here I think.

My final thought about the Labyrinth is this: "it just looks right". There is something fundamentally beautiful in certain symbols. Maybe it's in the geometry of the thing, it just feels like a bit of the universe expressing itself.

(see links on right for more Labyrinth info)

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Books

As I go along I will be reading a great deal, using books and other blogs for inspiration and information. There are many books that have brought me to this point but I have forgotten many of them. Each one opens up a new path, a new adventure. A book can even change a life.

So as I write I want to review the books I have read and share some of my thoughts and feelings about them.
First up, I just have to mention "The Book of English Magic" by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate. I have dipped in and out of various magical traditions all of my life and have been fascinated by various practices and groups on and off. It has always been pretty directionless though and I have always craved an overview - this is it.

This book delves into English magical tradition in summary, giving history and some basic practice, but it is approachable and very entertaining. It is also very well researched and written.

The book takes us on a journey through England's magical landscape and history - people and places. It is packed with interviews with contempory magicians too. There are links to information, recommended reads and things to try, even make and do (e.g. dowsing).

I would also recommend this book to people not embarking on a magical path, its interesting and entertaining in its own right.

The principal author is Philip Carr-Gomm - leader of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids.



UK


USA

Friday, 20 January 2012

Beginnings

These ramblings have been a useful exercise and have allowed me to get things straight. Without labelling myself a specific type of believer I can definitely say that I am drawn to Earth based religion, a religion like that of my native, British, pre-Christian ancestors. British because this is where I was born, it's where I grew up, it's a familiar landscape and I am already steeped in British folklore and culture.

For the most part I can only speculate how my ancestors went about their religious practices, but I think there is just enough remaining in the landscape and customs of this country to allow me some interpretation. I might even be able to ask my ancestors for guidance. And there are always new discoveries. The rest of living a good life is down to my own integrity.

So what are the central tenets so far:

1/ God and Goddess duality.
2/ Female Goddess as lover and mother.
3/ Male God as lover and father.
4/ Earth as female.
5/ Sun as male.
6/ Spirit and communication with spirit.
7/ At least two worlds.
8/ Communication with the otherworld.
9/ Passing into the Otherworld at death.
10/ Birth, death and rebirth.
11/ Attunement with the seasons.
12/ Honouring the ancestors.

This is enough to be going on with and it gives me a foundation for further study, there is so much more to explore and I will record it here. It is likely to be much less structured from here on in as I will dip in and out and record ideas as and when they come up.

A Cosmology Continued: The Veil Between Worlds

There is clearly a barrier between this and the Otherworld but it is not impenetrable. Some describe it as a veil, a translucent barrier that separates but allows flow back and forth. Some believe that the veil is thinner at certain sacred times, at Samhain (Halloween) for example.

We are able to look into the Otherworld and sometimes pass into it. The later is a dangerous practice as attested by myths and legends. People that pass into the land of the fairies become trapped or find that moments spent in the Otherworld equate to hundreds of years in the mortal world.

As for the location of the Otherworld of our ancestors, we are probably best looking downwards rather than up. A heaven in the sky is a Judeo-Christian concept. To many in the ancient world the Otherworld lay beneath their feet, deep in the earth or below this plane of existence. This makes sense if communication with Otherworld spirits begins in caves. The Sun also sets and disappears behind the horizon each day, does it pass into the Otherworld below? And does the Moon rise out of the Otherworld each night? Gods and Goddesses are later thought to inhabit a world below our feet, their power expressed in tremors, eruptions or water rising through hot springs, as at the temple of Sulis-Minerva in Roman Bath for example.

Our prehistoric ancestors drew abstract and strange depictions of some spirits and beings, and in later periods any number of mythical beings were accepted as living either in the Otherworld, or belonging to the Otherworld and coming into ours. They can help us, harm us or are indifferent. Some protect sacred places. They are too numerous to discuss here.

But the Otherworld also contains the spirits of plants and animals as found in our world. Importantly, a belief in a life beyond death leads us to suppose that our ancestors pass into the Otherworld. It is a reflection of our world.

The word reflection is important here. Before the invention of mirrors, the only place that our ancestors would see a reflection of our world would be in water. They probably also noted that things were reversed in the reflection. If this were the Otherworld looking back, could some dualities be taken to be reversed? Perhaps a short time in the Otherworld was long in ours, maybe death became life. And given that you could glimpse the Otherworld in water, was water a conduit to that world? The answer is probably yes, for we have so many legends of Otherworld journeys through water and so much evidence of offerings being placed into water, right up to the 14th century in England (Witham Fens, Lincoln). Places near and in water were important. Wells and springs were sacred places of worship.

Aside from water are there other gateways to the Otherworld? Caves and underground places were definately gateways and these interact with water too. Water flows into the ground at some places and out at others. And can things reaching deep into the earth be gateways, things like trees and rocks? And can we erect gateways in this world that are reflected in the other, things like standing stones?

Recent theories on the meaning of standing stones lend weight to the idea that they are a conduit between worlds. It is suggested that the stones represent ancestors and are places representing our death in this world. This is based on archeological study into the interrelatedness of ancient sites and current anthropology. Only yesterday I watched a YouTube clip of a native American Ojibwa Grandmother talking about a walk around the great lakes. They came across seven rocks on which their ancestors had left carvings and she described the rocks as Grandparents. She also talked about the sacredness of the waters and trying to get men to help in the journey (that elusive male principle again).



So when we touch standing stones are we touching ancestors on the other side? Can we send them messages through the stones, do we honour them at stones and are they aware that we do? And when we erect a stone on this plane of existence is there a mirror image on the other side? It is tempting to suggest that there is when we find sets of standing stones, banks and even a central hearth arranged like a house as at the Ring of Brodgar, Stenness in Orkney. Even the entrance is aligned to face the local settlement linking the living with the dead (or perhaps the still alive).


In contrast to stone circles it seems that wood henges were used to represent life. At wood henges there is evidence of large gatherings and feasting involving numbers well in excess of the local population. Maybe this is where thanks were given for life and abundance, or perhaps where blessings were received. Could ancestors in the Otherworld send blessings through the wood from one world to the other? The henges were made of trees, beings with their branches in the sky and their roots in the underworld. Beings that cross worlds, as the ash Yggdrasil does in Norse mythology. Was fertility, health and prosperity transmitted from the Otherworld into the henge and the surrounding land?

Stone Henge and Wood Henge on Salisbury Plane are linked like this. It seems that life was celebrated at Wood Henge and death at Stone Henge. The two were linked by a watery journey down the river Avon. Perhaps the dead were feasted at wood henge and taken to Stone Henge for a final blessing. Stone Henge is also aligned with the sun, that symbolically dies and is reborn on the winter solstice, a fitting metaphor for passage to the next life.

So ancestors were clearly important in ancient belief and were very much a part of everyday life. We know this because our own ancestors kept theirs very close. Burials are seen in doorways, under hearths and even in post holes. It is only later that burials take place away from the home in cemeteries, perhaps as beliefs in haunting become prevalent. The Romans belived that ghosts or Lemures could roam and cause problems so they buried outside their city walls. But for the most part our ancestors kept their ancestors close.

The great tombs that housed our ancestors show that they were honoured. And could these tombs have been a conduit to the otherworld? Some are erected around standing stones so could the tomb be a portal to the Otherworld? Again, alignment with the solstice sun might suggest that the illumination of the remains at a time of death and rebirth could facilitate transit. Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Orkney are the most famous examples.


So belief in an Otherworld was essential to our ancient ancestors and it remains with us today.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A Cosmology Continued: Spirit World

Did our most distant ancestors believe in a spirit world, what many call the "Otherworld"?

If we assume that they believed in a spiritual God and Goddess, a special world outside our own could be assumed to be a requirement, somewhere for them to reside.

Cave art suggests that they believed in a spirit world and that they could express glimpses of that world through painting. Images of grids and dots are found in some of the deepest and most inaccessible parts of cave complexes, in places where they might never be seen by others. Our ancestors clearly went to a great deal of effort making these images. They would first have to obtain and grind pigments, some of which must have been precious. Then they would need a carrier for the pigment, such as fat or water. Also implements to paint with. They would carry these and a light source deep into the cave, risking injury, and paint images metres above the cave floor. And these images were often very abstract, occurring as dots, lines, grids, zig-zags, catenary curves and filligrees. In recent years it has become possible to induce visions of similar patterns in the minds of modern people by variously stimulating the retina and visual cortex of the brain. These are called entoptic phenomena. They can also be achieved using hallucinogenic drugs. So our ancestors were seeking altered states of conciousness. They might have used hallucinogens or could have induced visions through sensory deprivation deep in the caves. Perhaps they sat and waited until visions came to them out of the mysterious darkness. These visions must have been strange to them as they did not match anything in the known world. Perhaps they came from another world?




So seated deep within the womb of Mother Earth they revceived visions, perhaps glimpses of another world, perhaps messages. Their senses must have been spinning, we have all been in dark barely lit places and seen strange shadows, heard strange noises, felt the hair stand up on the back of our necks, felt a presence. Many shamanistic cultures still seek visions like this, inducing trance through sensory deprivation, fasting, hallucinogens, chanting, drumming and meditation in dark or exposed places. Did our ancestors enter the cave with questions and come out with answers? Were they leaving messages or offerings from our world to the spirit world? Were they being initiated and leaving the cave reborn? We will never know for sure, but for them there was clearly another world that could be communicated with.

For many years it was thought that our ancestors might have been asking the spirit world for direct intercession, carrying out sympathetic magic to help them in hunting. It now seems that this is not the case. The remains of prey animals do not generally match animals in the cave paintings. For example, the inhabitants of the Lascaux caves mostly ate wild goat. Far easier to kill than bison, and safer too! So they were seeing very clear visions of animals in their mind and representing them on cave walls in two dimensions. Most of the animals depicted are in profile and although they have colour, there is no shading, no perspective and no composition. They are making a very clear image of the animal and its physical characteristics so that there is no mistaking it. So rather than asking to kill such animals, they might have been asking for their help or some of their power. And if this is the case they might have been trying to link with the animal spirit.


Today, shamans still attempt to link with animal spirits and many people claim to have animal spirit guides. Shamans and initiates in all sorts of cultures don costumes and masks and imitate animal spirits. Much later mesolithic finds from Star Carr hint at shamanistic rites - deer skulls with holes drilled could be head dresses or masks.


Animal spirits are not just about food, they bring messages, power, help and guidance. The movements of animals are also interpreted in divination. Even today, people see a single magpie as a portent for bad luck. In many cultures the gods can disguise themselves as animals (or even plants and objects).

So cave artists were certainly depicting visions of things imagined and real. Later beliefs in the spirit world suggest that it was believed that these came from somewhere else, outside of the artist. It is interesting to note that many modern artistic geniuses have described the feeling that they are just channeling their art from the outside and even describe a trance like state - they are a conduit. Given the beauty, accuracy and skill of the prehistoric cave painters we could attribute genius to them. Afterall, on entering the Altamira caves Picasso is quoted as saying: "after Altamira, all is decadence"......."we have learned nothing!"

A Cosmology

In trying to get my thoughts in order I have been attempting to formulate a workable cosmology that combines the fundamental beliefs that seem to have endured through the ages in Britain B.C. Much of this is based on prehistoric studies and what we know about the artifacts, legends, customs and religion of later copper, bronze and iron age peoples. If we start at the beginning of the Paleolithic this covers a vast time span. From the first evidence of religious belief to the rise of civilization there are around 26,000 years to cover (depending upon school of thought). And for the vast majority of this time period we know nothing absolute about religious belief or spirituality. Much is inferred.



We will never know exactly how our most distant ancestors viewed the cosmos but some beliefs seem to have endured through time. Ancient peoples had the same brain power as we do now and probably had similar motivations and emotions, so perhaps we can assume that they made observations and drew comparisons as we do. Whenever we have a new experience our brain searches through its archive for similar experiences. We describe things as being "like...", we use metaphor. I think that one of the earliest comparisons drawn was that between the Earth and the Mother. Both nurture developing life and bring it forth.


But before a baby is born man and woman unite and "something", an energy or life force passes between them. Here it seems sensible to suggest that the male power comes from the sun. People surely observed that light is needed for growth. It is interesting that the sun and then male gods, took on greater importance in the neolithic agricultural revolution, where the link between sunny weather and crop yield must have been more closely followed. It is probably true that the Earth Mother was the principle deity for a long time. Not only did life appear to develop within the Earth, everything was a child of the Earth. One can imagine our ancestors trying to maintain a balance between killing their fellow creatures for food and seeking the blessing of the Earth Mother. Afterall they knew that she could turn on them with flood and quake. It is appealing to think that they asked permission and honoured the "spirit" of the animals killed as some native cultures do to this day. Or maybe they considered themselves set apart and blessed by the mother? We cannot know for sure.

Although the female principle was probably dominant, the male principle was still present and needed for the creation of life. The male would also provide for the female, especially during the vulnerability of pregnancy and caring for infants. The male principle in the form of the sun was also capable of anger and retribution: he could parch and scorch the Earth making it barren, or he could absent himself, removing warmth and light.

So a belief in a balanced Goddess and God interaction seems sensible. We will never know for sure if the apparent absence of male images in Paleolithic art points at a dominant Goddess or matriarchal society (big debate). For all we know, depiction of the God principle was taboo, abstract or metaphoric. To a majority of people the balanced view is intuitively correct. This balance is probably best summed up by the Ying-Yang symbol used in Taoism. Ying often represents the female and yang the male. Each has a dot of colour from the opposite principle. They are balanced and interdependent. Of course this is a recent Chinese invention (500-600 B.C.) but the balance is pleasing.


A God and Goddess duality also fits in with archetypal stories from across the globe where male and female principals interact, particularly with the cycle of the year. An interaction with yearly cycles is particularly strong in northern european mythology because there are very clear differences between seasons. Sir James George Frazer picked up on this theme in his book "The Golden Bough" (1890) when he described a yearly rebirth of a God King, his union with the maiden Goddess, the creation of new life and then his death. Here the God King can be equated with tales of the holly or oak king, and in his vigorous youth he is sometimes seen as the green man, chasing and seducing the young Goddess. The cycle of his rebirth and death follows that of the sun at the solstices.

So deity was present, male and female, Earth Mother and Male principle (probably the Sun). These were balanced overall as each was interdependent, but the Goddess was given particular devotion as lover, mother and nurturer. Perhaps unsurprising as the presence of the male principle came and went through death and rebirth and could be mysteriously distant (probably in his shed ;). These could be personified in image and sculpture (although clearly male images were few). And abstract invisible things, "energies", passed between people, animals, plants and deities bringing about change and creation.

Pagan?

To anybody interested in matters religious, the words I have already written might have caused the word Pagan to pop into their mind. It's a loaded word, a them and us word.

Like most words of this kind it has a simple origin. The latin word paganus meant "country dweller" or "rustic". It became a pejorative term to describe those that had not adopted the new, sophisticated, imperial Christian religion. People clinging to old superstitions and polytheism, people considered backward. Religion aside, use of this word as an insult must have been pretty offensive to country people, but Rome was intensely heirarchical and engagement in civic life was considered the apogee of cultural achievement.

The word pagan does not seem appropriate to our age. In its literal sense it depends on where you stand in society and on having a contrasting, state sponsored religion generally accepted as "true" by all persons that are considered "normal" and part of "society". But our world view has grown since Roman times and normality and society are now accepted as variable and relative.

So I will avoid the word Pagan here. By all means consider me a Pagan if you wish. I guess I can be a little bit rustic at times...

In the spirit of exploring fundamental British beliefs and values I would urge the use of one word above all others:

Tolerance.

Always Back to Britain B.C.

Maybe it's a cultural thing, or a product of exposure to all things British because I am.........British, but I keep returning to the ancestral beliefs of our diverse, strange and amazing island for fulfilment. And the beliefs that most appeal are those that could now be considered folklore, tentatively linked to our distant past, some surviving Christianity as traditional and "quaint" customs. I have nothing against Christianity and it contains a great deal of beauty and wisdom, yes it has also inspired horrific actions but so have many religions, not because they are inherently bad but because of human interpretation, law making, power-play and dogma. But Christianity as it currently stands is not for me. I think sometimes that Christianity lost its way a very long time ago, perhaps at the moment of Constantine's conversion.

So I keep returning to the beliefs of Britain B.C., those that are lost but hinted at in the archaeological record and those that survive in stories and customs. Perhaps they are best called northern european beliefs because this country has always been a melting pot of culture, with multiple phases of migration, invasion and integration. And indeed some beliefs have a common thread and are seen in multiple northern european cultures, hinting at an older core belief, value or archetype.

Start

This is an exploration. A place to pull together my thoughts on spirituality.

Since a child I have explored all sorts of religious and spiritual approaches, some historic and passed, some resurected and recreated for our age and some that we consider an everyday part of life, society and even constitution. I'm no expert or theologian, far from it. Professionally I'm a scientist, so it could all end in atheism. I have no idea where this will go. But I do need somewhere to put my thoughts, I keep coming back to certain themes, values and gut feelings.

So here goes.......