Thursday, 1 May 2008

Archive: Bealltainn 2008

Last year's Bealltainn celebrations were a little unfocused thanks to having a one month old in the house, so I think pretty much anything I did this year would have been an improvement - and considering my similarly unfocused efforts for Là Fhèill Bhrìghde just gone, I was determined to make more of an effort this time round. I have no excuses now - we're all moved in, sorted out and life in general is a little bit more certain, so I don't have those distractions to take up all my spare energy. Now Rosie's had her first birthday I'm starting to wean her as well, so Baby Brain is also starting to recede and my brain is starting to feel a little less fuzzy compared with the fog I've become so accustomed to. Being able to drink actual caffeinated coffee again also helps considerably. Seriously. I missed my old friend.

I digress. Shocking, I know.

I started off taking the kids for a walk yesterday, hunting for some rowan which I found easily. It seems like a mild winter and living on the west coast and right in the path of the Gulf Stream makes a whole lot of difference because in previous years I've had a hard time being sure that what I think looks like rowan really is rowan, because without the leaves, I'm a little less confident on these matters. I'd brought some cheese along as an offering, so after asking I broke off some dead bits that seemed to be about the right size and gave thanks for it. I would have preferred to have taken the wood from a tree I'm more familiar with, so as not to risk offending the spirits so much, but the rowan I've planted in the garden is still basically a stick with leaves sprouting from it and I don't think I'll be able to touch it for a few years yet to allow it to establish itself properly.

It so happened that a young crow drew my attention to the rowan trees in the first place, so I took it as a good sign. I was heading for a different bunch of rowans that I was fairly sure were what I was looking for, but I followed the crow instead. Tom was mightily amused by its squawking and the way it scratched its scruffy feathers with a claw as if mimicking the dog (and so was I, I admit), so it was hard to ignore. Having got what I came for, I decided to explore the woods behind my house instead of heading down to the shore as I was intending, and I'm glad I did because I found a nice bit of woodland that was relatively untouched. The woods in the village, where we usually take our walks are nice but heavily overmanaged by a well-meaning group of people who've taken it upon themselves to 'improve' the woodland, and while the paths they've put through it are handy for me, with a pram, I'm not sure the flowerbeds of daffodils are entirely keeping with a 'wilderness'.

Anyway, this less-than-tamed woodland took us on something of an off-road adventure, which was very exciting given the torrential rain we've been having, given the resulting mud, combined with my complete lack of grace and agility. There were bluebells everywhere, which are very much a Bealltuinn thing to me because they're a sign that spring is progressing, summer's on its way, so I was pleased to see them and took it as a confirmation that it was time to celebrate.

And the moss...One thing I love about this place we've moved to is the moss. It's everywhere, thick and soft, just glorying in the fact that it's moss. I'm tempted to prod it and poke it, but I don't think the wee beasties would appreciate it, and I prefer not to get so up close and personal with them...

Yeah, the pictures aren't great, but I thought I'd post them anyway. It somehow seemed appropriate to try and capture the spirit of the place.

We got home fairly late, so dinner was put on with haste and I cleaned and tidied the house. I'd meant to get some lamb but there wasn't any when I went shopping so we ended up with chicken instead. Mr Seren surprised me with some Belgian chocolates, which were greatly appreciated - I'd like to say I was restrained and savoured every last one, but sod that. Gorging is good (though my waistline disagrees)...

Anyway, with our chicken feast devoured, the kids eventually put to bed and Mr Seren surgically reattached to his computer for the evening, it was time to start things proper. I started with a right-hand turn and a Good Wish to bless the proceedings, followed by the extinguishing of the hearth flame, which I then ceremonially relit with blessings that I kind of made up on the spot, taking the songs from Carmina Gadelica as inspiration.

From that flame I lit nine candles (in a candle holder given to us by my sister-in-law that I've used before) that I could move outside for a 'bonfire' later on, and got out the rowan I'd collected earlier along with some red thread to make some protective charms, based on McNeill's description and pictures in The Silver Bough. I made the sticks of wood into equal-armed crosses, which I tied together with the red thread to hang above the front and back doors of my house (and here's a picture of my slightly lopsided efforts...).

As I hung them up, I said a charm for protection that I made up for the occasion:

I hang this charm
To ensure no harm
Comes to me or mine

Away away
Today today
Forever and all time

I'm not a poet, mind, but it seemed to help me focus and set them as proper wards for the year to come. It's something I haven't done since we moved so they're long overdue, aside from the plants and tree I put in the garden with a view towards protecting and warding. One of Mr Seren's friends, when she came to visit, commented on the rowan and said I should put it in the front garden for protective purposes ("because it guards against the wee nasties, y'know?"), so I might get another for the front garden because it looks like some of the plants there have died and there should be room now. I'll make new charms to hang up next year and transfer these to the loft (attic) to protect against fire. There wasn't enough rowan to collect to make one for the loft this time, or one for the car to ensure safe journeys as I'd initially intended, either, but that's something I can work on later on.

Next came the bannocks and caudle, which I make for festival occasions based on what Alexander Carmichael outlines in the Carmina Gadelica, along with the traditional lore that John Gregorson Campbell outlines in The Gaelic Otherworld. Each bannock I make, I ask for a blessing for the person it's meant for, and any meal (fallaid) that's leftover makes the bonnach fallaid, which is meant to be made with a hole through it to discourage the Good Folk from entering your house. For Bealltainn I make another, larger 'family' bannock with nine 'knobs' on, for offerings. Then I make the caudle (a custardish type drink with oatmeal) for drinking and libation. In previous years I've tried applying the caudle to the bannocks as a sort of glaze, which is attested to in certain parts of Scotland, but from my experiments I prefer making the caudle as a drink for a libation.

With the bannocks made (I added a little sugar and mixed spice this year, to try and make them a bit more tasty - sweet versions like the Selkirk bannock evolved over time from the plain, savoury, versions apparently - and I was very surprised and pleased with the results. I made them very thick and cooked them very slowly this time, which also worked well, my new pan helped spread the heat more evenly), and the caudle, I went outside with the nine candles I'd lit earlier to act as my 'bonfire'. I broke the family bannock into nine pieces, tossing each piece behind me as described by Carmichael, along with extra offerings to the gods, spirits and ancestors. The caudle (which I experimented with as well - it ended up very tasty, but a little too thick) was shared as a libation, and after spending some time just being outside and mulling things over, looking for any signs or messages that there might be for me, I jumped over the 'bonfire' for luck and went back inside.

First thing in the morning I collected some water and used it to perform the sop seille ('spittle wisp', also from Campbell) - water mixed with my own spittle, spread around the thresholds and house with a piece of straw to protect the household from harmful influences. Tom was up early so he followed me around as I did it, taking great interest and waking Rosie up...I thought hard about when I should do the sop seille. It seemed to make more sense to do it the night before, at the start, but given the fact that the first water of the morning holds so much significance and power, it seemed better to do it in the morning once I'd gathered it.

After doing our everyday stuff - breakfast, shower, toddler group, lunch, an unusual nap for Tom - we went off to the seaside with Eddie. I took the remaining caudle and bannocks, along with some cheese as an offering to the river and the sea, the gods and the spirits of this place that I'm now calling home (and is becoming home to me, too). It seemed like a good way to round off the day, making my offering in such an inbetween place (on the shore, neither land nor sea, at the Firth, both sea and river in some respects) on such an inbetween day as Bealltuinn is...

Before I took the kids and the dog out, I picked an ogam to see what was what, and whether my efforts have been well received this year. First off I picked h-úath, which concerned me. Overall it's not a good sign, but then there seemed to be a certain ambiguity because of its associations with hawthorn, its protective qualities and generally more positive associations with Bealltainn that suggested luck and protection for the coming year (as I was aiming for with everything I've been doing). I picked another few to try and clarify, and got ruis, reinforcing the protective aspects from h-úath with its association with elder, but still otherwise generally negative. Either I've done the right thing with putting more emphasis than I usually do on warding and saining, or I'm being squeamish about the more overtly negative meanings associated with the two. Still not sure, I picked another one and got coll, which seemed to be saying that I should trust in my initial judgement...That's what my gut instinct was telling me, but I think I'll sit on it.

So that's pretty much it...It's late and I need sleep, so anything more that even borders on being coherent will have to wait, for now. Night night.