Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I was a listener in the woods,
I was a gazer at the stars,
I was not blind where secrets were concerned,
I was silent in a wilderness,
I was talkative among many,
I was mild in the mead-hall,
I was stern in battle,
I was gentle towards allies,
I was a physician of the sick,
I was weak towards the feeble,
I was strong towards the powerful,
I was not parsimonious lest I should be burdensome,
I was not arrogant though I was wise,
I was not given to vain promises though I was strong,
I was not unsafe though I was swift,
I did not deride the old though I was young,
I was not boastful though I was a good fighter,
I would not speak about any one in their absence,
I would not reproach, but I would praise,
I would not ask, but I would give."
Cormac begins his beautiful litany with a focus on the sacredness of the natural world- and the attention and respect he paid to it. He continues with an account of his "skillfulness" with respect to how he dealt with people- always matching others with equal force and treatment.
He ends with an account of how he always kept his word, but, more wisely, how he never over-extended his word in promises he knew he'd never keep. He never became overly boastful- always keeping his focus on respect. This sort of balance is a rare thing in our days; we can all learn from it. It is a gem of the wisdom of the past, living deep into the Christian era.
It's clear that the Ancestors had no trouble with boasting- warriors were expected to, as a show of their excellence- but the key to their boasting was in how well they could support their boasting and defend it against all contrary voices. They took fair credit for their deeds. "Boast" today has a negative connotation; the reason why largely lies in how far Christianity (in line with ancient Hebrew thinking on the matter) devalued and downplayed the ability of humans to create things of value and to excel- it is hard, indeed, to applaud humans who must consistently "fall short" of the glory of "God".
But humans are channels of the divine, like all other living beings, and all other things besides. Many things come into being through the wondrous interactions of our living system, and that is how sacredness and even "perfection" comes to be, in the range of our senses. It is all here, before us, dancing in the sunset, and in the poetry inside us. If we "fall short" of anything, it is only because we have been told that we must, and held to impossible standards born in human fantasies about what "sacredness" really is. I know what it is, like my ancestors did- and it is well within our range, because we are part of it.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Bha nafhallain ann sa choinnicli,
'S ioma linn a chuir ini romham,
'S gur mi comhachag bhochd na sroine."
("I am old as the oak . . .
whose mossy roots spread wide:
many a race have I seen come and go:
and still I am the lonely owl of Srona.")
"If you take the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our bible is the wind and the rain."
* * *
Religion, for a lot of people today, is largely a matter of which building you go to. Sometimes you'll go on Sunday mornings; sometimes you'll go several times a week, but your church or mosque or synagogue has a fixed address; so does your temple, your meditation hall, or your spiritual "center".
When people ask- which people rudely do, in my parts- "where do you go to church?" They are asking many things, but the answer, if it is given, often comes in the form of a location. That answer tells the asker what "religion" you are, because in most areas, they know the names and addresses- if you go to "First West", you're Baptist; if you go to "Our Lady of Mercy", you're Catholic. If you say "White's Ferry Road", you're a member of the Church of Christ; if you say "I don't go to church", then you're nothing.
This came up in a conversation I was having with a friend the other day. People who belong to organized, revealed religions need to know your address line and affiliation, or you're "nothing". What? You mean you're not Catholic or Baptist? You don't go to the Assembly of God? You're just... nothing, then.
I've already pointed out that it's the nosy and narrow people in my neck of the woods that love to ask total strangers where they go to church; but the deeper issue I'm sensing is this idea that if you can't affiliate with a well-known (Christian) denomination, you're "nothing". To "be" a religion in the modern West implies association with a structure. "Unstructured" religious people- if they are at least Christian- are passed off as "non-denominational" in the US, and if they are not? Then, in the words of a lady I met in the park near my home:
"Well, I don't know where you belong, or what place you'll have one day, after the Lord has come in glory. But when your knee is made to bend on that day, I hope He's merciful."
I'll pass over the totality of the foolishness in this remark to focus on the first part- "I don't know where you belong." How could I tell that woman that I belonged right where I was, standing on the green earth, seeing the wind in the trees, and hearing birdsong? Her confusion stemmed from the fact that she had no conception of what natural spirituality is- for her, spirituality is not natural. It is taught; revelations and laws are shared from the source of revelations and laws (churches, books, and clergy) and people born naturally ignorant of them are made enlightened.
The Natural Way
My "religion"- my spiritual life-way- is natural. It is with you from the womb; it is also the womb; it was with you before the womb. You can't join it, because it has always had all of us. A person can be ignorant of it, or become aware of it, and choose to ignore it or defame it, but no one leaves it, because no one "came into" it. Because the world exists, and because we exist, it exists. It wasn't created, just as this world was not and we were not.
It's such a terrible thing to say that someone is "nothing" if they don't conform to the institutional definitions that this person or that person accepts as authoritative; it is a veiled attack, in many ways, on the basic sanity and natural confidence people have, buried deep inside them, which can yield lasting harmony in their lives. We have become so used to feeling like there is no guidance outside of the walls of revealed religious institutions that we have no trust in something deeper and more essential.
The voice of Sovereignty inside us is silenced. It was silenced for a reason- a calculated reason on the parts of some, and an ignorant obedience on the parts of others. The hearts of most of the "obedient" are good- but they are imprisoned by the machinations of others without realizing it. Some of the worst features of human nature have found a home in a righteous-seeming house. And they will try to get your address, every opportunity they can. If they can't find your address- if you happen to consider the world your home- they will try to reduce you to nothing.
Where is your liturgy? Your sacred book? Your church? Your congregation? Where is your allegiance? Without them, you cannot compare to us, the bearers of legitimate tradition- without them, we do not recognize you. You will wait in heathen ignorance until the last day, and may God have mercy on your soul...
...And this sad state of affairs is maintained by churches and other revealed religious organizations teaching children every day that "outside of these walls... there is no salvation" or the many variations on that theme that are intended to command people out of fear. There is a fear that keeps people in, and a fear that is projected at outsiders to draw them in; but more than the fear, is an ignorance that renders people helpless feeling. Without those walls around them, they cannot feel holy, forgiven, hopeful, or "on the path."
The apologists love to tell me how "fear" is not at all an issue, but sober people observing the situation can see full well that it is. Fear of being rejected, by man and by God on the last day; fear of being separated; fear of being condemned; fear of being removed from the eternal company- fear of being wrong. The Bible says it best:
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling."
Love and fear cannot live in the same house, I say. I know the truth of this; I have seen it, lived it. I will teach my children this; I will share this with all who ask, and I will die believing it. I will not go to the ancestors and the powers of the Otherworld having disgraced my duty to love by mingling it with fear, and using fear as a tool against others.
Our Little Group Has Always Been...
Anyone who wants to belong to my spiritual path need only realize that they've always been a part of it. There are no initiations and terrible vows on the pain of hell or death. There is no fear of rejection by the natural way; there is no fear that it will not accept a man or woman. The natural way is not just a human way; the birds and beasts of the field belong to it, as well. They are part of my "gathering of the faithful."
The Spirit of all of us has belonged to the natural way for all time. It never entered that way; that way and it are together timeless. For many ages we have seen so much come and go- each of us who still follows the Old Way is like the lonely and wailing Owl of Srona, watching from the trees of time- and the collected essence of that wisdom we have accrued lives now forever in the poetry and lore of the past, and in the flame of poetry that smolders in seed-form inside us.
When we feel natural revulsion at people defining their religion by the address of a building or some institutional grouping, it is because the wisdom that runs deepest is speaking to us. It is moving us away from such dangerous powers of limitation, and re-asserting its belonging in the wide earth and sky- the only two altars that are suitable for the most sublime sacredness.
No building can contain the sacredness of things. No building can contain a God or a Goddess. No single human heart or soul can contain it; only all things together can express it; their wondrous inter-relationships are the constant speech of the sacred. No book can contain the most sacred poetry of the natural way; I will never give power away to books and congregations and "spiritual authorities". To do so would be to betray the most powerful and precious forces that my ancestors held in awe and veneration. To do so would spell the life-long death of spirit and poetry.
Placing the Omnipresent
The lady in the park couldn't "place" me, because she has strapped herself down to a place. My spirit (like hers and everyone else's- no matter how much they remain unaware of this) is not held down to a place or a name. The great arch and spiral of my spirit passes through everything, all times and places. The more I realize it, the more I surrender to it, the more I become a conscious participant in the sacred.
The more I realize it, the more painful the narrowness of others becomes, and the more I realize how important it is to live by the natural way and pass its peace onto others who are ready to accept their true place in things- that place that can't be given or taken away; the place that can't be accepted or declined.
Where is my "spiritual center"? It has no address... my center is everywhere. My church's walls are made of wind. The stained-glass windows I gaze at are made when sunlight passes through clouds and water droplets. The meditation gardens I wander through are forests; my congregation of spiritual partners walks, runs, flies, hops, crawls, slithers, gallops, prances, bounds, swims, leaps and grows.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
* * *
Thrice-radiant maiden of flames, golden red
To your keeping is given the home, warm seat of kin,
The health of children and lowing cattle,
The bounty of kettle and hay,
The protection of houses from wicked powers,
And the comfort of weeping hearts.
Thrice-beautiful daughter of morning,
A sacred ground for you there is, where fire is built
And bulls and cows have trodden down the grass;
Where women weave and smiths beat metal;
Where poets make art with words;
Where men carry weapons in strife;
Where healers collect water and herbs;
Where children sleep after drinking milk.
Brigid bless them each fairly like the hearth fire
Which offers warmth and light to all.
Monday, April 20, 2009
-Tom Cowan, Fire In The Head
* * *
Right Before Your Eyes
Some people spend a considerable amount of time looking for the "mysteries"- "mysteries" here meaning the secrets of the cosmos, the occult secrets or occult knowledges that many believe exist in some objective form, which can transform us from the sorts of people who "don't know" into the sorts of people who "know".
My understanding of "mystery" has become quite different these days. The term "mystery" has had many meanings in the Pagan world- from the runa of the Teutons to the hidden spiritual messages in mystery plays and dramas from the ancient Mediterranean. But for me, as for many of the other primal peoples I've studied, it has come to be known as something far more immediate and intense: the mysteries are everything that I experience.
There are two sides to experience- and I am talking about everything, up to and including you reading this blog right at this moment. There is the actual experience, and then there is the simultaneous and habitual "meaning generating" reaction that your mind and person has as soon as it has experienced, or while it is experiencing.
We use our language and our words to "give meaning" to what we experience. We let feelings inspire words and descriptions; we let intellectualizing shape them; the words come from many places, and are positioned to give meaning to what you experienced- meaning for yourself, and meaning you can try to transmit to others with words.
What few people stop to become consciously aware of is the fact that we don't know what the experiences themselves are, at all. Strange that! Every experience is a mystery, even the most commonly repeated ones that have long ago been explained away and named away with words. When we recount our experiences to another, we never offer the experience- we only offer our memories and impressions of it, with our words. We recount the words and descriptions we applied to it to give it meaning and presence in our memories.
So there are the mysteries- here they are; everywhere you look. Every thing you hear or feel. This brings up one of my favorite subjects: the Gods.
What are Gods? We can experience them in many ways, but what are they? They are as mysterious as any other thing we can experience- but not more mysterious than anything else. To consider it like that would be to lose track of what I'm saying. Everything is mysterious.
We don't actually know what the Gods are; we only know what we've said of them, or what's been said of them. We know what we remember, but we remember in line with the meaning-granting words and labels we applied. In no manner should this suggest that the Gods are not real; they are as real as any other experience that has been draped in the sorcery of words.
Near, Vast and Deep
This brings up the next point of knowing the mysteries in this way- the sheer immensity of the Otherworld. Part of my religious experience is feeling what I describe as the "immensity" of the unseen- for every gnarled oak I stand in front of, or every star I gaze at, for every person I meet, I sense the vastness beyond. When I focus on a "thing", I always try to remember- and oftentimes spontaneously do- the great vastness of what is "not this thing", and beyond that, what is unseen, past what is seen.
We are gazing, every moment, into the immensity. Thinking like this orients a person to the Otherworld's presence, and makes things like poetry, prayer, and invocation take on a new meaning. We drape intention and feeling and yearning in words, and launch those words into the vastness of what we call "the world out there" and "the world unseen"- but even these "things" of ours- intention, feeling, yearning- are mysteries. There is a lot of power moving here- as us, in us, through us, all around us- but we are only being "let in" on the tiniest amount, on the most surface of levels.
How do we "go deeper"? In my view, we go deeper when we remember the mystery of it all, the vastness of it all, and stop trying to imagine that we grasp things perfectly. We disguise things with words, apply meaning to mysteries that may or may not have anything to do with what word-sorcery we use. We are making cosmic guesses and staging cosmic stage plays, with powers that run deeper than we can imagine.
If we accept this and focus on it, we go quiet- we begin to listen more than speak, and feel more than we ever thought we would. We have to become comfortable with uncertainty again. We have to remind ourselves that we have limits, and with a twist of spiritual irony, realize that adjusting ourselves comfortably and respectfully to limits opens up new, greater vistas in us than we could realize. The truths we win may not be things of the head, but things of the heart. Is this not so?
Great Poetess beneath the hills and lakes, Mother of inspiration in the boundless deep, give us our sense of wonder back! Let us know our smallness, and through it, our vastness- for nothing exists which is not a part of all else. Let us know the depths that remain hidden to our eyes; let our hearts be the channels of truth and wisdom.
How will we cross over? How can we answer the impossible riddle which bridges two seemingly incompatible things: the seen and unseen, the seemingly predictable with the absolutely unpredictable, the worlds of words and opinions with the worlds of mystery?
We will cross over on an impossibly narrow bridge which only reveals itself to those who release themselves from addiction to the notion that "things" must be one way or another- they will shatter the boundary, part the hedge, and find the way. The seemingly impossible things to reconcile are that way because we believe they are. What if their reality was something totally different?
Tom Cowan recounts: "In the Welsh tale of Llyn y Fan, the hero sees a faery woman on a lake who refuses his gift of baked bread. So he resorts to giving her dough. This too, she refuses. Finally, he offers her a loaf that is half-baked- bread that is "both baked and not baked." The she accepts him, and his world of ordinary reality and her realm of enchantment are united."
The "either/or" duality is shattered by the "both/and" complementarity. What is this? It is the ultimate expression of inclusivity and wholeness. I "have" the mysteries through my experiences, but don't have them at all, with my words and memories.
And yet, through words, through the sorcery of words, poetry, and song, something strange comes about- I become oriented to a place that is both here and not here- an open "space" of mind wherein my own experience may occur. I am both alive and not alive; I am both here and not here; I am both foolish and not foolish; I am both human and not human. This poetic door continues: "I am both animate and inanimate... there is nothing of which I am not; there is nothing I have not been."
This is the spirit talking. It's time we began listening and believing.
Solitude Teaches About the Gods
Those people are very smart who can hear the words of poems and songs and make good sense of them, and unlock their hidden layers of meaning.
But they are very wise who can hear the silence, too. The space of silence between each sound is as much a needful part of the song or the poem as the sounds and words. Without silence, no words or poems or songs would be. Silence is, in a sense, the mother of sound. Silence is a corollary to the "space" or the womb of things, which is the mother of everything. Every great truth told with words is a finger pointing to something silent and unreachable with words. Every word, like every tree, or stone, or person, is a child of something greater, more silent and immense, something deep beyond.
Tom Cowan tells of Matsuwa, a Huichol shaman, who teaches of the need for solitude in the wilderness. He says "If you want to learn to see, to learn to hear, you must... go into the wilderness alone. For it is not I who will teach you the ways of the Gods. Such things are learned only in solitude."
Mother of solitude, let us be unafraid.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Our discussions together are always laced with "perspective" talk- the needful talk of epistemology. Being a modern Pagan means embracing an epistemology which is at odds in very fundamental ways with the dominant paradigms of our day- but there is something else hidden beneath the fact of having a different perspective: it is one thing to have a different worldview, but something else to truly see the world differently. It sounds as though I'm being redundant, but there is something subtle here that language can't capture easily.
The Old Way of Seeing
Over the years, I've become painfully aware of one of the hardest issues to overcome when we study the Old Religions of pre-Christian Europe: the fact that primal peoples of the world had a different psychology- or should I say, a different psychic orientation, which we in the modern day cannot begin to enter or comprehend because the assumptions of our dominant epistemologies and modern contexts have changed us psychically and fundamentally.
We can study the Old Religions of the Indo-European past, but even the Pagans had their own "ancient past"- the past in which we find the megalith-raisers and the henge-builders that long preceded them. How much did the Pagans of the last 2000 years really understand the primal peoples that were 8000 years before them? Were the Pagans psychically different from their own distant ancestors, as we are so psychically different from ours? Did the ancient Pagans look at the old megalithic sites and wonder, as we do, at the ancients who raised them, and for what reasons they did?
When we stare at the cave paintings of primal peoples- such as the famous Sorcerer in the Trois Frères cave in Ariège, France, or any of that type, we are seeing ancient images cast upon these cave walls by men and women whose minds did not perceive the world at all the way ours do. Their assumptions about the world were not at all like ours. What was the real meaning of these paintings? We can't know for many reasons, but chiefly because we cannot re-create those ranges of consciousness in ourselves, or those deep, primal epistemologies.
Perhaps I should say, we cannot re-create them easily- for any range of consciousness is still possible to us. We all are, as I like to say, "shape shifters"- capable of reaching out to all forms and ways of being that are, or ever have been, and perhaps ever will be. But the hidden, green and dark paths in the mind that lead to those old reaches of awareness are well overgrown now with obfuscating leaves and branches and cobwebbed up. They are ancient inner roads that are now very hard to find.
At any rate, I was discussing the nature of the Gods with my friend. She was confused- confused in the way that only a modern westerner can be- about "what" the Gods specifically "were". We were discussing the Goddess Danu, and her connection with rivers. This friend was confused about whether or not I- and the ancients- believed that Danu was the same as the river, or different from it, like the spirit of a river or rivers. She didn't understand if a God or a Goddess was "literally" the same as the various phenomenon associated with them, or not.
My perspective- which I shared with her- was that a river was a river, and the Goddess Danu is the Goddess Danu. You can never separate the flowing, watery, living power of rivers from Danu's great power, and still, Danu is not merely a river. And yet- on the occasion that you invoke her or worship her on the banks of a river or a body of flowing water, at that time, in that moment, Danu is the river.
That's confusing to most! But it all makes sense, if you practice seeing the world in a different way, such that you finally come to accept a new epistemology on a pre-conscious level. Can this be done? Yes. Is it easy? No. Is it necessary? Perhaps. It depends on how far down the rabbit hole you really want to go, towards understanding the real meanings of the mythical messages that the ancestral lore has bequeathed to us.
Danu and The Flowing Power
The reconstructed lexis of the Proto-Celtic language as collated by the University of Wales suggests that the name "Danu" is likely to be ultimately derived from the Proto-Celtic *Danoā. This Proto-Celtic word connotes the semantics of ‘Giving,’ ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Flow.’ Others say that her name may mean "Great Mother", and others still associate her with the Vedic Danu, a goddess of the waters of heaven, the great waters of life. It all goes to the same place- a poetic seed is planted here when you integrate the meanings of her name with an open mind. It's all perspective, of course, but perspectives are valuable, seeing as we must use the sorcery of language.
I always try to go to the possible meanings of names when trying to understand the mystery of the Gods and Goddesses- and Danu, for me, is the primordial "flowing" of life, the first mother-flow from which all things come. Thus, when I see a river flowing, or feel a flow of creativity, or see the flowing of sap, or of anything, I suddenly sense a connection between the essence of this Motherly mystery and what I am experiencing at that moment.
This is why I said "A river is a river, and Danu is Danu"- they aren't the same, from one perspective, and yet, from another, they can't be seen as truly separate. Nor can the flowing of blood or fluids or creativity in this body and mind be seen as truly separate from Danu. This is because one of the supreme truths that I know is the truth of wholeness- all is part of a single whole, and the true "self" of human beings- or any being- is the "extended self", that is, "self" and "nature" undivided.
We draw "lines" between ourselves and nature, to make the "simple self", but the true "self" is found when we realize that the "line drawing" capacity of the mind is only perspective; when we drop the effort we unconsciously make to see ourselves as absolutely separate from the world, we realize that the sense of separation is only relative. We are one with all- entities that extend into every place and world and possibility- but entities that entertain many strange notions of "separation".
The "hows and whys" behind how and why we learn to mentally and perceptually separate ourselves from everyone and everything else, and how our concepts of "self" come into being, are all part and parcel of a very important discussion that we should all be having.
We often fail to recognize how our "western education" and our meaning-generating modernistic perspectives interfere with deeper spiritual realizations and the acquisition of wisdom. We fail to take into account how our everyday "self concepts" are not the only way that we can live or exist or perceive- people have certainly existed in different ways, seeing the world in different ways for countless millenia- and we often don't see the vital role that language and cultural assumption plays in constructing "self" for us, in the particular way we construct it.
We fail to see the great extent to which the epistemologies that we internalize from early on (and unconsciously live "within") alter our ability to grasp the layers of message and meaning in the ancestral myths and stories. We don't often see how they change our ability to celebrate with the living primal peoples of the world today their most precious gifts to us- their sacred stories and life-ways, which could regenerate so much in us, if only we could suspend our typical "way of seeing" and see in new ways. As we see now, we can only scratch our heads at the strange and "primitive" ways of other peoples, and of the ancients.
Participation Mystique and the Extended Self
The concept of "extended self" is the gateway back to an older way of seeing, an older way of psychically relating to the world and understanding the Gods. What happens when the walls between the simple self and the rest of sacred nature are allowed to collapse?
What we experience as "inside" us (in such a situation of collapse) is now something very much outside, and vice versa- the distinction is lost. It may sound chaotic, but the mind and the human being can absolutely live while perceiving in this manner. And when we consider the implications of it, some ancient myths and stories begin to make more sense to us, whereas they make little sense to the hyper-logical and rational western mind that begins with a sense of absolute separation between the "subjective" person and the "objective" world.
As Jung pointed out in his brilliant work "The Structure of the Psyche", primal peoples regularly live in a state called "participation mystique" with the world- lacking strong, ultimate distinctions between the "insides" of themselves and the so-called "outside" world. They dwell, in other worlds, in wholeness- and thus, the mythical dimensions of their lives transcend the western understanding. We are in a hurry to classify off Gods and Goddesses as "this symbol" or "this inner archetype" or "this mind-state" or "this idea personified" and a dozen other ridiculous notions. But when nature and the "individual" are allowed to merge, a new situation emerges for mythical understanding.
Jung accounts a story in "The Structure of the Psyche" regarding a primal people called the Elgonyi, in Eastern Africa. He writes:
"If you can put yourself in the mind of the primitive, you will at once understand why this is so. He lives in such "participation mystique" with his world, as Levy-Bruhl calls it, that there is nothing like that absolute distinction between subject and object that exists in our minds. What happens outside also happens inside him, and what happens inside also happens outside. I witnessed a very fine example of this when I was with the Elgonyi, a primitive tribe living on Mount Elgon, in East Africa. At sunrise, they spit on their hands and then hold the palms towards the sun as it comes over the horizon. "We are happy that the night is past" they say. Since the word for sun, adhista, also means "God", I asked: "Is this sun God?" They said "no" to this and laughed, as if I had said something especially stupid. As the sun was just then high in the heavens, I pointed to it and asked "When the sun is there you say it is not God, but when it is in the east, you say it is God. How is that?"
There was an embarrassed silence till an old chief began to explain "It is so," he said. "When the sun is up there it is not God, but when it rises, that is God (or: then it is God)." To the primitive mind, it is immaterial which of these two versions is correct. Sunrise and his own feeling of deliverance are for him the same divine experience, just as night and his fear are the same thing. Naturally, his emotions are more important to him than physics... For him, night means snakes and the cold breath of spirits, whereas morning means the birth of a beautiful God."
(From Jung, The Structure of the Psyche.)
This powerful passage lets us back into a rare and ancient way of seeing and way of being- a perfect "participation mystique" with the natural world which is a reflection of the ultimate truth about each one of us- that we are all parts of the wholeness of things. We in the west have become malnourished by drawing such extreme divisions between our flesh and blood and the "rest of the world"- we are now just (from our limited perspective) buds or leaves on the Tree of the extended self, whose roots, branches, and great trunk are one with all things.
Peace and Chaos
When I walk outside at night, and my mind is chaotic and angry or sad, the night seems disturbed- but when I am at peace, and can hear the lazy chirp of crickets and insects and night-birds, and feel the coolness of the night, I am further at peace- because truly, my internal chaos is also "out there", a part of the world, but on the other hand, the great peace of night is also "in me"- it is my great peace. The more the walls between "me" and "other" fall, the more the great power of the world, including the peace of the night, becomes what I am. There is a secret seed of poetic inspiration here, waiting to burst forth as a great fire in the head.
Danu is the river, or should I say, all flowing, donating powers cannot be separated from Danu, including things that seem to flow in our perceptions- like rivers and streams, and even the waters of heaven, the falling rains, but also the flow of blood, passion, or creativity.
The two "flowing powers" are poetically parallel, and (from one perspective, at certain times) one and the same. Danu is not merely a blind natural force of flowing power, bereft of mind or personhood; she is a Goddess, a being of immense wisdom and depth of mind. How this can be so is not easy for people who associate the possibility of a "mind" only with the presence of a brain-organ. This is another failing of our modern epistemologies: mind can and does exist in ways far beyond what most of us dream. The Gods are truly beyond simple belief or explanation.
At this point, I feel the need to point out how absurd it is for us to attempt to pigeonhole the Gods and Goddesses into neat categories- we hear of the names of Gods and Goddesses from the ancestral past and immediately begin to pursue another Western habit: that of categorizing everything and everyone. "Who is the war God?" we'll ask- "and who is the Goddess of love?"
I have never experienced anything in my visions or spiritual experiences that has led me to believe that such categorizations hold any water at all. Danu is not merely a "river" Goddess, nor merely a "great mother" Goddess. She transcends neat pigeonholes, just as Lugus transcends this or that category, or any of the Divine beings transcend such simple nets of words. We have to get out of that habit, and back into experiencing these living powers with more open, flexible minds. The Gods are shape-shifters; they can be anything or anyone that they desire- or should I say- they can appear to our minds as nearly anything. Such is part of their nature. They are as malleable and flowing and flexible as the things we call "forces of nature."
Belenos, Sun of Healing
In my song of praise to the God Belenos, which I gave in my last post here, I refer to him many times as the "radiance" or the "radiant light" or the "therapeutic radiance", and even the "godly light of healing"- I call him "fair and wholesome", "warm" and "clear-minded". I place him in the sky, on the trees as golden light, and call him "the sun", once. Why I did this is clear and easy to understand if you follow what I have been writing in this letter.
Belenos is not the "sun God", though many scholars and people addicted to categorizations have wanted to pigeonhole him in that way. I said to Belenos, in my song "To those in the cold grip of unhealth, you are the saving sun"- not to indicate that he was the physical sun in the sky, but that he is the experience of warm salvation from cold sickness, in much the same manner that a freezing cold person might experience the morning sun as a "saving" power. The poetry here is drawing upon human experience, and trying to capture the experience of therapeutic power, of healing.
Having said this, it is important to mention that for a person who experiences Belenos' power, he may in fact be the Sun- when we allow the boundaries between "ourselves" and "the world" fall away, for one poetic and sacred moment, the feeling of healing, of warmth, of salvation from cold, from sickness, the breaking of the power of illness, the breaking of night by sunlight- all these experiences become one in the great wholeness of things. Belenos indeed becomes the warming, saving sun, in that experience.
But until you've had that experience, or unless you are ready to let yourself enter consciously into participation mystique with the wholeness of sacred nature, as a part indivisible, you won't be able to understand how Belenos is not merely a "sun God", and yet, certainly seems to be described in that way or thought of in that manner.
The Gods are so intimately a part of us, a part of the wholeness, and "we" of "them" and "it"- so intimate, so full and complete, that the same ease of "knowing" some feeling in ourselves, or knowing some thought or seeing some dream is the same ease we can have of knowing or feeling them- for those who understand, the reality of the Gods is apparent, simple and easy to see, totally without doubt.
The river is a Goddess; the sun a God, the Earth a mother, the Raven or the Deer or the Hare also Gods and Goddesses themselves, or the spiritual messengers of Gods- at that moment, in that full experience. There is no separation or division. And yet, from another perspective, they are also rivers, the sun, the earth, beasts of the earth and sky. These animals and phenomena can be experienced so many ways- there is a mysticism and an emotion here, and so many possibilities of consciousness!
But to attempt to explain these things to western people who have absolute divisions between themselves and "everything else", and who seek rationalizations based on those boundaries, is very difficult if not impossible. In their world, the Gods are easily up for doubt, or for banishment to a place of "primitive superstition".
May the ancient roads of the older ways of seeing open for all of us who seek to know the Gods, and ourselves in new ways.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
As the father of a toddler and an infant, I was especially moved to help, and immediately put aside time for a sacrificial offering to Belenos, the God of the healing radiance. This British deity (as mentioned below) was identified with Apollo, and it is no surprise, for Apollo was the "Hyperborean God"- Hyperborea being Britain- who was likely the same God worshiped at the site now called "Stonehenge". Recent scholarship has moved towards accepting Stonehenge as an ancient site of healing, which my own spiritual vision and intuition encourages me to also believe.
Belenus (also Belinus, Belenos, Belinos, Belinu, Belanu, Bellinus, Belus, Bel) was a deity worshipped in Gaul, Britain and Celtic areas of Austria and Spain. He had shrines from Aquileia on the Adriatic to Kirkby Lonsdale in England. His name means "shining one" or "henbane god" and he is associated with heat and healing. He may be the same deity as Belatu-Cadros. In the Roman period he was identified with Apollo. His consort was Belisama. His name has been found on around fifty inscriptions. The legendary king Belinus in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is probably also derived from this god. The name of the ancient British king Cunobelinus means "hound of Belenus".
One of the promises I made to the Radiant Lord was that, in exchange for his help, I would write him a song of praise- and now, a few weeks later, the good news is back that the little girl had the heart transplant, and is doing well. I did the sacrifice and prayer on the very night of her surgery; now she is soon to be discharged. I respectfully and gratefully now keep my promise to the God of the Therapeutic Radiance.
* * *
"I sing a song of praise to the radiant light of the north lands,
The God that diverts the waters of pain and pestilence:
Gentle since time's cold beginning, bringing gold to trees,
And strength and sturdiness to human bodies,
The Godly light of healing has shone from beyond the wind
Onto the homes of the people of mountain and forest,
Onto the homes of the people of lake and river.
The good master of the healing radiance fills the skies;
He is wise, a shape-shifter and a speaker in dreams.
To all creatures, Lordly Belenos, you give release from pain
And freedom from the dark powers of injury and disease!
Warm like the springs of helping water from below,
As clear-minded as the physician and seer, you bless us.
To those in the cold grip of unhealth, you are the saving sun:
A young girl's life you have helped preserve,
In response to my sincerest prayers.
Far-shooter of arrows that disperse hateful illness,
Fair and wholesome like the joyful hearth in every home;
Light-spear and light-arrow, hunter and healer,
Great God that mankind forever relies upon:
Hear this thankful song in your honor,
And continue to bless us."
Here is the little girl: May all of her days be blessed.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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.
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.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
-Fiona Macleod, Orchil
The "slogan" that I have chosen for this blog-project, as well as for the religious orientation of my own life and hearth is "Poetry was once religion." These four words sum up so much that is (for me) emblematic of both the Old Religion and the quest for an authentic spirituality today. Most people today have grown used to "poetry" being nothing more than another writing exercise taught in English classes, or the content of literary reading assignments; most people don't understand what poetry is (or was) and conflate it with rhyming short sentences that may or may not have some cute point.
I don't think people today begin to comprehend the original sacred character of poetry. From the earliest appearances of what we in the west call "poetry", it had a sacred function- from the Vedas to the Gathas to Homer's Odyssey, words arranged in meter allowed for an easy marriage to human memory, thus allowing precious lore to be preserved from generation to generation- lore about the Gods, heroes, philosophy, history, and rites and rituals of various kinds. Homer and Hesiod- two of the West's first poets, made no secret of the source of their art: the Muses, Goddesses whose inspiration they channeled. Parmenides' great Muse, who inspired his sacred poem, was none other than the Queen of the Underworld herself, chief figure in the oldest Mysteries of Greece.
We know that the Druids of the North and West, as well as the Skalds and Poets of the Teutons, were given the authority of their positions largely through feats of memory- the memorization of kingly lineages, legends, stories, verse, and perhaps ritual requirements for things like sacrifices and the like: they were living vessels of the lore of the past as it trickled down the generations of life.
Those who study Irish and Welsh myths are treated to the finest poetry yet formed through the human mind and body: the inspired and sorcerously ecstatic utterances of Amarghin, the First Druid of Irish lore, and Taliesin, the Arch-Bard of the British tradition. Through their connection to the source of inspiration, they command the elemental forces of reality; they create words of power that win great victories for their people or (in Taliesin's case) his retainers. Their poems are spells of great power; their poems are pure magic, in the most ancient sense of the word.
The mystical poetry of these masters does more than add fire to a good tale; their words demonstrate for us so much about the inner nature of reality- these men/spiritually awakened beings were able to "be" so many different beasts and natural phenomena, able to self-identify with the land, precisely because there is already a connection there, waiting to be uncovered. But to uncover it and experience oneself as a full part of the wholeness of reality and all orders of sentient being is not something that happens upon command or because one intellectually accepts that their true condition must be so: it happens only when poetic inspiration is discovered.
Poetry is a power; it is not just an end product in the form of words and verse, but a "way of being"- it is an outlook, a "far outside of the box" outlook that helps people to see with great intensity and cleverness. It makes everything about perception and feeling "fall into place", and the source of this power is the source of all powers- the cauldron or well of life, contained mythically (and actually) in the Underworld, as well as actually in the hidden layer of the fabric of all realities. It is inside us; it is the grail-heart, the secret heart of human spiritual questing.
The Goddess of Sovereignty is connected to poetic inspiration, because true poetic inspiration cannot come apart from the majestic natural powers of the land, waters and sky, or the intensely complex natural realities of human nature. Whatever powers line up to create a path for poetry, the land, sea, and sky are all of the body of the Sovereign; and human nature is, too. So many sacred forces are able to speak through poetry, and what they say can be surprising to us.
A genuine poet will find him or herself surprised by what they produce; one cannot predict the vast and strange immensities of the Otherworld, nor can one predict the spontaneous nature of inspiration. One can only bask in it, for whatever time it chooses to flow. We hope it will flow forever, and for the greatest, perhaps it does- but we on the ground, still kindling fires in hearths, will wait for the passage of the divine inspiration and make ourselves open to it as we may.
And being open to it is the key; it is always there, at every moment- it is we who close our doors and windows and feel the isolation and despair that eventually accumulates. It takes courage to open ourselves as much as our hearts' deepest inclinations would have us; but eventually we all succumb to the ceaseless donation of sacredness that makes up our truest nature, and become poets ourselves.
There is no "ancient religion of Ireland or Britain" apart from understanding the sacred nature of poetry, just as there is no modern day religion based on the spirit of those old faiths, without understanding it. What we call "poetry" now was once the heart of "religion"- religion here meaning "that which brings together again"- that which the communities and families of old kept close and enacted to bring themselves together with the Gods, ancestors, and each other. All of these disparate forces- religion, sacrifice, community, nature, Sovereignty, awakening, memory, culture, history, and the human beings involved- all these things are bound together by poetry, somehow encapsulated in the great "outpouring" of the sacred that is passed down to us in the few precious words of verse given us in myths and recorded legends.
What poetry was lost? How much? I say much, but I say that it matters little- we have the examples we need, the start of a road that leads us to open the same doors inside that the ancestors opened, and for the same poetry to emerge through us, in forms suited to our present realities. Our present realities include different words and perspectives, but precisely the same spirits that have wandered the world since the dawn of time. The deathless powers are the same: the very essence of the sacred is the same. Nothing is ever truly lost or forgotten!
In my personal religious life, and that of my wife and children, poetry takes the center place at the hearth, next to the flame, and the three gifts of the Mother of the Land: fertility, generosity, and wisdom. I cannot feel the movements of the divine, either the spirit in me or the Gods of my ancestors, without the beauty of poetry being recited, with my outer voice or my inner; when the spirit expresses real poetry, it matters not how. What Fiona Macleod wrote about "Orchil" above is (in my opinion) one of the examples of "pure poetry"- a perfect and full invocation of the Goddess of the Underworld and Life's Fate.
In so few words, so many doors are opened by Fiona Macleod in the mind and heart! The "sacred emotion" roused by the words place a person in spiritual connection to the object of the poem- prayer at its finest. The way that concepts like "time" and "eternity" and this "green world" are situated in relation to Orchil is a "making sacred" of things we normally let slip by us unnoticed; she creates, with the magic of these words, a mandala of the sublime for things. Those of us who believe in the Fate-weaver, the Sovereign Goddess, can understand her through Orchil- even if Orchil is a powerful symbol existing for Fiona alone.
Sorcery too, is poetry-dependent, though many may not see it. Poetry gives us a rush of power from what seems to be a trans-personal source; relatively speaking, it certainly is transpersonal; ultimately speaking, poetry restores us to the wholeness that consumes relative perspectives. That is real power, and it is a power for religion no less than sorcery- and it seems an afterthought now to mention that once, religion and sorcery were not so separate.
I can do no more to explain poetry, and I know that this description has been woefully inadequate, at least for me. I know I cannot capture what I wanted to say- I know that poetry is something that lifts me out of my "ordinary" and into a better comprehension of wholeness and the mystical. In that state, I know why I believe what I believe; I know them and myself better- in conjunction with all things. I feel it; I feel in a way that leaves me at peace. Our religion- or should I say, our "life-way" (the term I prefer) is nothing without poetry, for it was originally poetry and will always be poetry.
In my poem, "Song of the Old Wanderer", I intended to present an invocation of the timeless spirit in each man, woman, and child. The poem is not about a fictional character; it is about every human being, who lives and breathes at this very moment- and those who live in the "other" way, beyond the waters that separate the living from those we call "dead". The living and the dead exist in their own ways; the spirit remains evergreen, whether it knows living flesh at this moment, or the mysteries of the land of the dead. Perhaps the spirit wanders from flesh to flesh, or life to life in many places; no truth of the matter seems overly strange when compared to the others. At any rate, I know that the evergreen spirit lives always.
This is my belief, as it was the belief of others before me. I make no detailed apologies or explanations for this belief; why it should be, how it should be. It is just what a deep voice tells me, and what the heartblood of myth and folk-tale confirms. If I am wrong and the spirit turns to dust with the body, I will not be here to rue my mistake; if I am correct, and what peace and joy I feel in accord with my belief is an authentic path to fulfillment, then I will not have wasted my time.
Every spirit, from every time and place, is an "old wanderer"- wandering through many halls and estates of existence, and so timeless as to be called "old" from a mortal's perspective. However, the Gods themselves state that they are "without old age, without consummation of earth". So perspective is certainly the issue here, as with most things.
My song of the Old Wanderer draws upon the gracious and mighty poetry of the thrice-blessed Mabinogion, that sublime collection of British native legends and myths, layered with the colorful dross of centuries, and encoding so many subtle truths. In truth, any mythical body of lore could have been used; all myths encapsulate universal experiences and hidden truths, and no experience or truth can exist in the wholeness of things that our spirits have not entwined themselves with in the timeless way. In the fullness of things, every truth exists here and now; all quests are complete. Our access to this boundless wisdom is through the inner icon of the spirit, the tireless guide and lover to the soul that leads us on through days and nights of wondering and waiting.
I call the experience of reading myths and "placing oneself" inside them "mythwalking"- celebrating the spirit's eternal connection with those mysterious and beautiful themes in a conscious manner. To do this makes the mind fill with a noble light. Inspiration may follow on the wake of this light, leaving as it does trailing ripples in the medium of mystery. To recount the deeds of the spirit- and all spirits have accomplished so much- is to invoke the spirit, to bring something of the timeless closer to these mortal lives. I call it "mythwalking", but "mythseeing" or "mythbreathing" would be just as appropriate. The myth comes to permeate a person, when experienced from that inner first-person perspective.
Every myth is a personal experience waiting to happen, because in a sense, in a greater sense, it has already happened to you. What happened to the figures that we sense as the inhabitants of myth has happened to us- all their villainy is ours, and all their virtues and triumphs. There is nothing found in myth that is alien to us as human beings, for myths are the record of humanity in the most profound sense. Every myth is a book of invocations itself, a list of intimate encounters waiting to be remembered. Every myth is a sorcerous code of great potency. Every myth is a path into another time and place which (mysteriously) is never a time or place apart from where you happen to be: every point in time or space is touched and held fast.
Fiona talks about the eagle and the hill-fox as the "eldest children of the hill"- and she discusses the desperate search of the stag, the hawk, and the mountain hare as they prowl the vastness of the land- "seeking to know that which they cannot see beneath, seeking often for they know not what." These creatures are not alone; we humans are just like them, seeking the same thing as we wander day to day, looking for our own brand of happiness and insight. Often, we know not what drives us down our paths. Myths are sacred helpers to us in this search; I myself don't know how it works, but when one joins a mythwalk to the walk of everyday life, new roads and paths open. The dense hedge doesn't seem too impassible.