Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ancestral Way: My Spiritual History

Many mysteries the cold has taught me,
Many lays the rain has brought me,
Other songs the winds have sung me;
Many birds from many forests
Oft have sung me lays in concord;
Waves of sea, and ocean billows,
Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation,
Oft have been my guide and master.

-The Kalevala
* * *

Where Do We Turn?

I am a modern Pagan. I don't consider myself a "neo-pagan", because that conjures up notions of eclectic, new-agey and non-serious "fluffy" types, but from another perspective, I have little choice but to be "neo"- because I am, like all modern Pagans, a new Pagan. I am a "new" Pagan by virtue of belonging to a new and modern (and very loosely organized) social and spiritual movement, which is certainly inspired by the history and legendry of the ancient past, but which is existing here and now, within our modern day realities.

We live in a Western world that has largely been "monotheitized"- the native faiths and spiritual worldviews of Old Europe were replaced through various means and for various reasons by monotheistic revealed religions. Some of us today- the physical sons and daughters of Europe, but also the spiritual descendants (those who have been shaped by European cultures)- feel a driving need to unravel the puzzle of the lost wisdom of the past. Such people seek for alternative ways of living, alternative life-ways, for many reasons. They seek these older models to satisfy a variety of impulses, but for myself, I must say- I have no idea why I do.

I just feel that I must. Most people wouldn't be satisfied by such a situation or an explanation, but I don't question these sorts of things anymore. I seek the wisdom of the past partly because I have seen what Christianity has to offer and I am not impressed: from the error-filled, patchwork "bible" that is clearly a product of unqualified myth, political manipulation and (sometimes) outright fantasy, to the serious flaws in basic Christian philosophy (such as the impossible and nonsensical scenario of "creatio ex nihilo") and ending with the scriptural sanction given to subjugation and attacks on women, homosexuals, animists, sorcerers, people who believe in Gods other than the God of Israel, and countless others, I can have no union or peace with Christianity. And I'm not afraid to say so, and to seek answers elsewhere.

Christian apologists like to tell me that I'm "not understanding it right" or "not understanding the context" and a dozen other cute apologetics; the fact remains that the book and the religion are (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed, fundamentally shaped by a mentality that is no longer appropriate to our world (if it ever was, which I doubt) and the fact that this religion requires endless mental gymnastics and apologetics to get the "true" message out of it also shows its fatal flaw. By the time so many "patches" and bandages have to be put on a religious edifice to keep it relevant and useful, you have nothing but a mummy.

The few Christians that I can actually get along with are the ones that either don't take their religion literally, or don't take it seriously. That's a sad state of affairs! Those I encounter who do take it seriously can never offer true equality to other religions and philosophies- they may act friendly and even open-minded, but their notion of "dialogue" is never anything but a clever session of trying to convince others that they need to drop what they're doing and convert.

Christians begin their approach to the world with the core belief that other people have to change. They believe, in some shape or fashion, that they will physically get up and fly out of their graves one day, and live in a perfect world with Jesus, and yet have the audacity to call primal peoples around the world who maintain their ancient beliefs in tree-spirits or animal-spirits or in their various Gods "primitive" or "superstitious".

This situation is unacceptable to me, and to any truly thinking person who faces with full consciousness and bravery the enormity of the spiritual and cultural error that has consumed the West for so many centuries. Where do we turn, once we realize that we have been deceived, and the true spiritual traditions of our ancestors- ones that didn't require us to change other people to suit our personal definitions of "righteousness" and which accorded other people the right to worship as they willed, and to be human beings without fear or shame- what about them?

Are those traditions, or the wisdom they contained, still within our grasp? We descendants of the west have a native spirituality, an animistic and polytheistic spirituality that we owe much to- and which can still help us today. It doesn't have one form; it took many forms, many unique forms that were expressed in many unique ways by the many cultures of ancient Europe. These complexes of ancient worldview may be our key to survival in the future. I know for a fact that they can be a key to sanity and peace here and now.

Finding An Ancient Wisdom For Our Modern Day

Reconstructionist Pagans, arguably the most "serious" of neo-Pagans, began looking back to the various cultures of ancient Europe, for alternative answers to life's most fundamental questions. Many other kinds of "pagan" have done the same, though without the same scholarly vision or focus of the reconstructionists. What these seeker-scholars have discovered is enough to base a new religious vision upon; we have seen a vibrant revival of Indo-European Pagan life-ways.

Of course, every human endeavor will bear the marks of its humans; I don't lament this fact, because in my way of seeing, being human is a pretty great thing to be. We command a majestic creativity, a great capacity for love and beauty, and a power for creating truth and meaning. We also seem to have a predictable capacity for doubting ourselves, which has caused us more trouble in the past than can be expressed.

When I was in my "Pagan formation" stage, so many years ago, I was always attracted to Celtic strains of Paganism, though by now, I know that so many of the things called "Celtic" back then were nonsensical creations of new-age fantasy. I was fortunate to encounter good, solid sources of scholarship, and to be blessed with a good, strong internal guidance- guidance I know was spiritual.

I also had a natural (and unexplainable) disdain for new-agey things, and avoided them in my reading almost instinctively. Ironically, it wasn't books purporting to be about Celtic Paganism that ended up being my best sources, back then; it was certain issues of National Geographic magazine that had articles and special reports on the Celts, sumptuously illustrated with paintings of ancient Celtic daily life and war, and great color photos of dig sites and artifacts. I got far more out of that than I did the popular "pagan" literature on "Celts".

I chalk it up to the fact that I've always been a simple sort of guy- not needing much more than campfires, cloudy skies, forests, good books, sturdy boots, a warm bed, and a few good friends to make it through life happily. The new-agey stuff seemed a bit over-complex and dramatic. It just wasn't earthy enough. In no world could I imagine sitting outside under a tree at night, "visualizing energy." "Energy", to me, belongs in a science textbook, not in the poetry of the soul.

People begin searching for the old ways for many reasons, but as I said above, I have no idea why I've always been this way. I have such a powerful surge inside me- even today- to bask in the legends, symbols, myths, and life-ways of the past, and no explanation for it. Some would say that this was a case of some "past life" issue; I don't believe in new-agey "reincarnation", but I do believe in rebirth through ancestral lines, so maybe there is something of that. I don't know, or really care to know.

I just know that I'm forced to do what I do and seek what I seek by something buried inside me, which I didn't choose. It's just part of who I am, or what I am. And it's part of what I am becoming and what I will become. I sometimes feel that it's some sort of guidance from the Otherworld. I can never be fully certain.

I do know that it has shielded me from harm, trauma, pain, and fear, giving me a sense that I belonged somewhere, that I was intended for something. I know that it has kept me safe and comforted through very hard times, and always been there as a friend to me.

Like-Minded and Not-So-Like-Minded

The first formal "Paganism" that I was seriously devoted to was a "Celtic" form- a blend of Druidry and "Celtic Reconstructionism" which was, in those days, in a very early stage. Erynn Laurie's book "A Circle of Stones" had just come out, and I was quite impressed by it.

Sadly, what I went on to encounter in the later years with the "CR" people was not quite what I had hoped. While I respected their insistence on dividing themselves away from the "new agey" stuff, and loved their focus on language and culture, I discovered that their "CR" movement was slanted to their particular perspectives on life, politics, and historical reality- which is all very understandable, as I said above. I encountered a group of well-meaning people who had no time or acceptance for people who strayed too far from their orthodoxy, so I was left to gather what fine resources I had discovered, and go my own way.

The straight-out "Druids" turned out to be a good bunch of folk- and helpful in their own way, even if many in their various movements were a bit too "hippie" or new-agey for me. It was curious to me that a single segment of ancient Celtic society like the Druids should be used as a name describing an entire religious and spiritual movement; that is still curious to me. I see Druidry as a wide, somewhat loose perspective from within the broad umbrella of many Celtic cultures from the past, not a monolithic, organized thing.

Of course, many modern Druids would agree with me on that; I have had the pleasure of recently reading an excellent work by Graeme K. Talboys, called "Way of the Druid", which is certainly the sanest and finest work on the subject I've ever seen. The modern "CR" people who dismiss Druidry too quickly are really making a mistake, in my opinion: some of the finest spiritual writings I've seen did come from modern Druids.

At this time in my life, 1995-1998, my own studies of shamanism and efforts in trance-working began to yield powerful and life-shaping results. I had become enthralled with the possibility of survivals of Pagan esoteric practices and beliefs, embodied in the persistence of "witchcraft" (not wicca) in Britain and Europe. I was fortunate to contact non-wiccan Witches from Britain, and gain detailed and powerful insight into precisely what their hidden art represented.

This passion, and the visionary experiences I had related to these studies, led to the body of work for which I am best known today, but it only represents a part of my spiritual "picture", as it were. I quickly realized that true "traditional" witchcraft or paganism wasn't what most people dreamed that it was, or said that it was- I encountered both a brilliant world of folklore and beautiful aesthetics, and a dark world of people dealing in lies and egomania in the name of "Craft".

Witchcraft in the traditional sense of the word has always been linked with my studies of anthropology, and acted as another springboard for my study of older belief-patterns. At this stage in my life, I also encountered the (then) strongest "reconstrucionist" faith available: Asatru, to which I also felt an ancestral connection. Asatru, both then and now, boasts a great strength: many adherents, and a good, clean, historically-backed religious structure, which makes it very accessible. With my good friend Grettir, I began participating, and was pleased to discover, as my Germanic studies began, that what I had known as "Witchcraft" really had its true origins in the Germanic pagan past.

After a rather nasty encounter with a nest of radically elitist "Gaelic Traditionalists", I turned my attention more to Asatru and for years, was pleased and edified by it. But hovering behind it the entire time, was the call of Ireland and Britain, my mother's family's homelands. Of course, Ireland and Britain were also home to Vikings and Germanic settlers; the "matter of Britain" is not a simple matter of "Celtic" or "Invader", no matter how much Marion Zimmer Bradley's books may have convinced the neo-pagan world of this!

A Sacred Journey And A Turning Point

My actual physical journey to Ireland and England was the second-to-final step in my years-long path of realizations. Just a few years ago, my wife and I spent a month between Ireland, Wales, and England, and a new phase in my story began. Words cannot capture the power of those experiences, but my book "The Flaming Circle" contains many of the spiritual treasures I returned with, chiefly an interview with a modern-day lorekeeper of Ireland's secrets, or should I say, County Sligo's secrets. This great man, this woodcarver and story-teller, showed me how the Land could open, and the way of facing its tests.

The final step was, of course, the birth of my family, the birth of my two daughters. Great changes overcame me; the Asatru kindred that I had worked with for so long was now harder and harder to keep pace with; I will always maintain my spiritual bonds with those noble people, but a more profound and intimate "kindred" was with me- my wife and children. The "hearth" of the family is the most fundamental (to me) "location" of spiritual experience. Between my wife and I's British Isles heritage, and my experiences overseas, and all the years of experience I had put aside studying Britain and Ireland and the Northern Path, I came to a turning point. Life had new requirements for me.

I had to distance myself from formal "reconstructionist" movements, but not because they are bad or flawed somehow; I realized that the titles and tired arguments and politics were interfering with my experience of the sacred, as embodied both in this sacred land I live on, and in my family. Asatru, for all its greatness, has a flaw: it requires group participation to truly deliver its potent spiritual punch. I loved my time in a kindred, and I love my continuing association with them; I had some of the greatest experiences of my life. But my kindred was scattered partially by a hard fate that sent one of the other families in it far away, and we never truly "got back together" after that. Bad choices had affected our other bonds; things simply changed.

And they changed just in time, for me: I had to move on to my family's needs, and my own new needs. Fate, it seems, has never stopped working out well for me and mine. I was able to transition away from some of the rigidity and find a new fluidity- a new freedom to place poetry and direct experience of nature and the sacred first, and love and joy in the home came to ride alongside that.

I realized that a "new language" was needed to describe what I and my family were experiencing. Overly specific labels were part of the problem I encountered in the past- what do we do today, when we have more than one sort of ancestry? Can we be Asatru fully if we have Celtic or Italic or Slavic ancestry? I think so, but there are so many pressures- including people- telling others that they can't. Trying to belong to more than one religion is perilously difficult and time-consuming; wavering back and forth between them is just as difficult, and it wins you few nice remarks from either side of the fence. What do modern people do?

I know what I did; I took shelter in the deepest, most important things to me- my love for my family, and the wisdom I won from the Land and the Gods. I stopped using labels that were overly specific, and instead adopted two things: the title "The Ancestral Way" to describe what my "religion" is (though I prefer the term "life-way") and I took four words and put them at the front of my thinking: "Poetry was once religion".

Because I had a spiritual awakening, of types. I'm not an ancient Anglo-Saxon, Norseman, or Celt. I'm an American of British Isles extraction, with a strong connection to those old lands. There's a song or a mystical touch in my soul that I can't place, and which I didn't write or create; I can only live according to it, or not at all. There's no need to claim that my life-path is "Celtic"; it is informed by my Celtic ancestry, and the spirit of their old ways, but it is its own unique thing. It is informed by other strands of ancestry as well, but the poetry and mystical power of the Irish and Welsh legendry that I have steeped myself in for so many years most adequately serves to express it. Another "half" of my spiritual vision had to come to fruition- and that has made all the difference.

Thus, "The Ancestral Way" is not really about being "Celtic". Celtic is too broad a term; it is about the ancestors of mine that lived in Ireland, Wales, and Bernicia. The things I know about them, and the experiences I've had of their lands, have given me a groundwork; the things that I have spiritually experienced have found a context within those grounds. My way is of the Isles, and of the unknown tribes and families that my own great grandmothers and grandfathers may have dwelled among. I don't need to name them to know their power and connection.

I describe it here, at my blog, in this way:

"Song of the Old Wanderer" is a blog devoted to expressing the moods, feelings, opinions, and religious experiences of myself- Cuan- a modern-day Pagan, and my friends and family. Together, we follow a contemporary religion or life-way (called only "The Ancestral Way") which is inspired by and shaped from the legends, history, and poetry of the ancient peoples of Ireland and Britain.

The Ancestral way is a modern "way of being" which is based partly on what we can read and infer about the older cultures of the ancestors, and partly on what inspirations the spirit of these older "ways of being" can make flow in us today.

The "recons"- both CR and Asatru- always talked about the needed balance between scholarship and inspiration, but in actuality, I only ever encountered the scholarship, and none of the inspiration. Those who seemed to have some inspiration were regularly shot down by everyone else, and labeled "fluffy" or "crazy". I know now how inspiration can exist, without tearing us away from the solid sanity of the ancestors. A person finds a place of peace, and after that, things fall into place on their own. The path opens, when our feet are ready to walk it in peace!

New Language, Old Poetry

Neither here nor in my book "The Flaming Circle" do I claim to be "doing it just like they did it"- no one today can claim that, just as no one today can claim that they have any certainty about anything in the distant past; history is interpretive and hardly a perfect recording of "what was".

I'm doing things just like I do them, and my family does them- and we have drawn our models from certain sources. I know that our beliefs are largely in line with what people (like scholars) think they know of the Pagan past of Ireland and Britain, because I know that I don't have any large disagreements with anything in particular that they believe the ancients thought. When I do have disagreements with the appropriateness of a certain belief or practice today (like slavery) it is only a matter of changing cultural context- and my new beliefs on the matter are precisely what my ancestors would have believed, had they had a shift in context.

I am a living person, the essence of my ancestors reborn, and life is water, not stone. It evolves, changes to suit the needs of its day and its environment. The ancestors changed. I change. All is well and peaceful with this fateful fact of life, and trauma only occurs when people resist it.

We know that the ancestors were true polytheists; so am I. I see that position, that view of the Gods, as far more logical and believable than monotheism. We know that the ancestors believed in life after death; so do I. We know (insofar as we can know, which is true of all knowledge) what values the peoples of their ancient societies upheld; I have no issue with any of those values, truly. I think there is a great wisdom and sanity in them. This is what makes me "one of them"- a Pagan in the modern day, following in the spirit of their ways- and, interestingly, these are some of the things that make me "me". It all goes together in a perfect wholeness.

Poetry was once religion; anyone who feels nature's great and sacred force, feels the Mistress of Poetry speaking and singing. This sacred source was the source of the ancestral "religion". I can't have a religious life without my family, and without my entry into a great and open "space" of poetic investigation of life. This puts me beyond clear-cut boundaries and labels like "CR" or "Asatru". It puts me only in "The Ancestral Tradition" and in love with the old lands of Britain and Ireland, but also in love with the sacred powers of the land of North America, which my ancestors came to, finally.

Like the ancestors, I seek communion with my land. Like them, I believe in the land beyond, below this one, or to the west. Like them, I believe in bravery and loyalty to kin. Like them, I believe that the sacred divine powers are a part of this world, and that all things have a spiritual presence. Like them, I believe in the strange, incomprehensible power of the Otherworld, and I respect it.

As I hold all these beliefs, and live in love with my family, a life-poetry begins to stir in me. This poetry is so grand as to make old Taliesin's seem dry and amateurish, and though only my heart will ever hear it, it is the blossoming of my spirit. It defies and (in a way) transcends pantheons and our many arguments about who and what the Gods are or were- it is the core of the place that even the Gods sprang from. It is so sublime that even the Gods honor it.

The title "The Ancestral Way" is just vague enough, just inclusive enough, and just open enough to allow a person to embrace all the powers that swirl in their past, and all the powers that swirl in their land. It embraces many perspectives from ancestral times. And it leaves open a door that leads to the future. It does not shackle a person to a "position"; it is water, living water from the past and present, not the stone of a clique, not the stone of a reactionary movement, nor the stone of a prideful status-quo. It is just The Way of things, unfolding.

The Ancestors had no special names for their "religion", and truthfully, now, I have no special name for mine. I just seek the sacred poetry of life. Now, more than ever, I've joined with those ancestors and tasted the joy that my path always offered.

I'll always be "true to the Gods", but now I'm true to myself and my family, as well. The poetry of true spirituality travels; it goes anywhere, embraces any place or experience. Let my great poem continue now.


  1. If one could get to one's feet and deliver a standing ovation over the computer, I would be doing it.

  2. I just stumbled across this blog recently and enjoyed very much reading about your spiritual journey thus far. I always find the unique paths each of us walks to be fascinating, full of bends and unexpected bridges and dips. :)

    One thing that struck me, during your discussion of why you dislike Christianity, was your statement: "Christians begin their approach to the world with the core belief that other people have to change."

    The first time I read that statement, I missed the word "other" and so read it as "people have to change" (though I know plenty of Christians who do not think that others must change, in fact they vehemently defend religious tolerance and diversity while still holding their own beliefs dear). My very first thought when I (mis)read that sentence was echoed almost precisely later when you wrote:

    "I am a living person, the essence of my ancestors reborn, and life is water, not stone. It evolves, changes to suit the needs of its day and its environment. The ancestors changed. I change."

    Of course we change! Certainly Christians are not wrong to acknowledge this fundamental fact, even if they tend to emphasize others changing over personal change. I have my own qualms with the terms of "original sin" and other theological conceptions of the reasons for or mechanisms of this on-going process of flux and adaptation, of course, but I find it refreshing that we can find some common ground that gives some insight into why Christianity has been a fruitful and fulfilling religion for some folks over the past two-thousand years. I find it hard to believe most of humanity could suffer under such a huge collective delusion for so long if there were truly nothing of value in it! Plus, I think it's important that, as proponents of tolerance and diversity, we work to embrace all paths that help to guide people on their spiritual journeys, lest we find ourselves a few centuries from now to be the ones in power repressing and marginalizing those religions we deem "untrue," just like the Christians in power do today. (In other words, let's not condemn Christians for wanting to change the world, and then turn around and demand that they change simply because we find their proselytizing obnoxious! ;)

    And this openness, this willingness to allow for the possibility that even things we don't understand can have value and insight for other people, is also an aspect of sacred poetry. Where else do we find the freedom to explore and play with new ideas, or the space into which we can flow and change and grow? There are always things we don't quite understand, about the world, about other people and about ourselves. I have been writing poetry all my life, and it's safe to say that poetry itself is what led me to my current spiritual path, but first it led me deeper into the Catholicism of my childhood where I was challenged to sort out dogma from Mystery. There are plenty of Pagans now who are not open to that fluid current of inspiration, who don't challenge themselves to seek deeper into their own spirits, hearts and minds for that sacred poetic voice. I think it's wonderful that you have, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. :)

  3. Poetess Ali: Surely you understand the difference between the natural change over time, the change that occurs within a person, between that person and themselves and the spiritual powers that coalesce within, and the change that is motivated by missionaries who are trying to convince others to make radical changes that the person may or may not understand, or be ready to make, playing on fears or desires.

    Those are two very different sorts of change. I applaud the first, and abhor the second. I just had to point this out to be sure that you and I were on the same page.

    It's no surprise to me that you were once Catholic- the Catholic church has a deep tradition, and a way of making people like you- open-minded, liberal, searching. I grew up in a Catholic home, as well, and attended several Catholic schools, including a Catholic university- the best in the world, in fact: Loyola.

    The evangelical Christians I was discussing see not what is there, but what they want to be there, and are upset with what is there. They want to change others, but not in the good way, not the organic way, but in a contrived way. This "refusal to accept what is there" extends to other parts of their life- from their natural, biological urges onward. They have an "ideal" for themselves and the world that I believe is actively harmful to themselves and the world.

    And that ideal is rigid- it is not a living ideal, not an ideal that is "open" to the water of life. That is the consequence of dogma, but then, you know this already. You've either read or are reading (or put down in disgust) my book "The Flaming Circle"- and I talk about this need for open-ness a lot in that book, and I frame it in the form of being skeptical about words. I talk about words becoming prisons if people forget precisely what words are and what role they play.

    As a poetess, I think you, more than most people, already must know the wonders and dangers of words. Christians, even the really annoying kind, are people in every respect similar to us- but to them, words have different meanings. Powerful, no?

    And understanding the power of words, and the human power to literally create meaning with them, should help you to understand why an institution like Christianity could have existed so long. I don't think that "long life" is evidence of an institution's innate worth; I think it is evidence of the power of words to create and shape reality, and their power to trap people's hearts with hope- even if the hope is based on illusions or misunderstandings.

    I leave it to you to decide whether or not false hope is better than no hope at all. I myself want the perspective that allows me to find what is there, arrayed throughout sacred nature for myself, and to claim the peace that comes with it.

    I'm so glad you're around, Ali; you make me think. You help me to remember.

  4. Welcome to the post christian, post pagan new world. My wife and I started our journey a long time ago it seems, but ended in that amazing place you've entered. No dogma, only family ritual, honor the gods but honor your ancestors first. I look forward to your future writings.

  5. Hail to your Cuan, I just stumbled onto your link via Coloradocelt's blog. Wow. . .I am floored by the beauty of this post. It was inspirational to me, as if in your story I heard what my spirit has been trying to iterate all along.

    I was born into a very hardcore fundamentalist Evangelical home, complete with the NeoCon politics and fanatical militarism. Thus I still have many wounds that are not quite scars. I felt the call of Woden years ago when only 18. I ceased attending church as searched through the dusty tomes at the library for something to define me. I stumbled onto Asatru soon after, and fell in love with the tradition, however, as time has progressed, I have ceased to define myself as "Asatru". I am still true to the Gods of my Folk, but prefer to call myself "Heathen". I see you, myself, and Coloradocelt (among others) as being fellow travelers on a road to Revival. Reconstruction served it's purpose as a way to re-orient our spirits - to correct our spiritual compasses. Now we are seeing that our purpose is not to "reconstruct" the ways of Eld, but rather to Revive the beliefs and reawaken the Gods in our hearts, minds and bodies.

    I look forward to continuing to read your thoughts.

  6. To Kensai: Thank you for your comment. It feels great to find a new chapter in one's way. I look forward to sharing more, and to seeing more about you and yours.

    To Bjorn: You are 100% correct about what you say- we are all on a longer journey than we realize, and it happens that when you find a certain place you need or like on the way, you become very attached to it. But there's a danger there. I choose now to see all things and places as useful and powerful steps on the road to completion- and completion IS a road, to use the somewhat cliche saying- it is a road, not a fixed destination. Being "true to the Gods" is not a fixed point; it is a perspective, an evolving life-orientation. Glad to be here with you.

  7. Cuan, like you I am of both Germanic and Celtic descent and I have been struggling for a couple of years now with "what is the right" way. I truly enjoyed your post and it certainly helped bring me much closer to my own turning point. I still struggle with labels but I hope to put that behind me now. Thank you for a great post. May our shared ancestors bless you.