Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Hogmanay blessing

Although it's not quite certain, it's thought that the name "Hogmanay" - which is what the Scots call New Year's Eve - comes from the French word "hoguinane," which itself is ultimately related to the Old French word "aguillaneuf," or a New Year gift. In addition to giving gifts - special gifts that symbolise prosperity, warmth and good will, like food, drink, salt or coal - there is a strong tradition of blessing and divination, and all of these things can be incorporated into a Gaelic Polytheist practice, I think.

One of the most interesting customs that could be revived (because as far as I'm aware it's not done anymore) - in groups where there are enough bodies to do so - is the merry band of the gillean callaig or 'Hogmanay Lads.' The gillean callaig would come round the houses with their songs, bull-hides and sticks, to solicit donations of food and drinks from the household in exchange for a blessing and saining. The sticks would be used to beat around the house as they went around sunwise and called the inhabitants to come out - on the one hand the whole thing was to get the household's attention, but on the other, with the noise and the sunwise turn, and someone dressed in the hide of a magnificent bull, there's the sense of a protective rite, too, scaring away the evil spirits with the noise and a bigger, scarier beast (the bull) as anything that might be around, perhaps. The bull - typically the hide preserved from the winter bull killed at Martinmas - might also symbolise the winter itself, and all of the things that loomed in the season - cold and want, death and illness. The household, in giving the lads hospitality, effectively paid it off, in the hopes of avoiding any of the wintry dangers in future.

Once inside, the bull-hide might be singed and the smoke wafted around the room, just like the juniper and water that would be used the next day, and every member of the household would lean in to inhale the fumes and stench. If the household gave the gillean callaig hospitality to their liking, the lads would leave with a blessing, like this example given by Alexander MacGregor:

Mor-phiseach air an tigh,
Piseach air an teaghlach,
Piseach air gach cabar.
Is air gach ni saoghalt' ann.

Piseach air eich a's crodh,
Piseach air na caoraich,
Piseach air na h-uile ni,
'S piseach air ar maoin uil'.

Piseach air beann an tighe,
Piseach air na paistean,
Piseach air each caraide,
Mor-phiseach agus slaint dhuibh.
Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter of it,
And to every wordly thing in it.

Good luck to horses and cattle,
Good luck to the sheep.
Good luck to every thing,
And good luck to all your means.

Luck to the good-wife.
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend.
Great fortune and health to all.

This would be said as the head of the gillean callaig went around the hearth (or a proxy - a chair set out specially for the job if the house didn't have an open, central hearth) reciting the blessing, as the rest of the group beat their sticks. Later on in the evening, the household might take to making a right racket themselves, opening the doors and windows as midnight struck, and making as much noise as they could to scare away any evil spirits (and all the negatives of the old year) again. 

A large part of this kind of Hogmanay rite relies on the giving of hospitality. There's an element of challenge at first - the lads beat their sticks and sing their song, demanding to be let in, and it's up to the household to let them in or not (and face the consequences). It all becomes a kind of dance, everyone carefully following the steps in order to maintain a balance at a time when order and chaos are very much hanging. There's an interesting article on all of this - the giving of hospitality, the threshold, and Scottish 'thigging' (sanctioned begging) here, which is well worth a read if you're interested in looking into all of this further. For now, though: Bliadhna mhath ùr dhuibh uile! Agus na h-uile la gu math duibh. Happy New Year everyone! And may all your days be good.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The end is nigh!

So as usual I have all of these plans for things to do and be all spirichual, and two snottery children hacking up chunky stuff and complaining about their ears come along and pretty much scupper all of that. Which was fun.

Not surprisingly, there's not much been done on the whole sprucing and preparing front, then. As yet. In fact, I haven't even had the chance to get any obligatory presents for their teachers or friends for their last day of school today. Rosie was back at school yesterday (just in time for her Nativity play, and to meet Santa; but not the real one, Rosie wisely informed me. He was clearly a fake Santa) and Tom's gone back in for the last day today, so I should be able to do a little bit of organising today. Thankfully - as yet - whatever horrors the kids were subjected to haven't manifested in their snottery glory in myself. But all in all we've had a wee celebration for the season, which coincides with the end of term for the kids, so it's doubly festive for them. From now until Tuesday they'll be pretty much bouncing off the walls and strewing the front room in Lego in anticipation. Yay.

In the meantime, with the kids not having much of an appetite lately and a shitload of buttermilk about to go off in the fridge, I decided it was as good a time as any to try some drop scones (or Scotch pancakes, if you will) last night. I've never had much luck with them, but having an old recipe to hand that I've not tried before, I figured it was worth a go; the recipes using milk just never seem to work for me. But these:

Oh yes. These came out quite nicely (cooking-wise I consider this a personal triumph; drop scones have been my final frontier, as it were). Mr Seren was out so it was just the kids and me for our impromptu Midwinter eve feast, with a choice banana, honey and apple (a pretence at being healthy); I was initially going to do a proper dinner but the recipe left me with so much batter I figured I might as well make the pancakes the main course. The kids were extremely impressed, and have declared that we should have them for dinner at every festival; I suggested they shouldn't count on it, though. I saved some for breakfast this morning, and set some aside to put out as offerings too, just as the day was dawning (and the world really wasn't ending, unsurprisingly).

I'm not sure what the weather's like in Ireland but if it's anything like here then once again the sunrise at Newgrange will have been dull and cloudy. There's still time for the cloud coverage to clear for the sunset alignment at Maes Howe, though, but the pictures from there so far aren't looking too hopeful on that at the moment. Maybe next year?

If you're feeling festive and looking for inspiration, I've put up an Old Irish poem for midwinter over on Tairis Tales, and Treasa has a great post on things for Gaelic Polytheists to do, and discussing the relevance of the festival to a Gaelic focus. Kathryn points to the Morrígan's (or Badb's) prophecy, which mentions Newgrange (or Brú na Bóinne), and which we recently published in our prayer article, while Nefaeria has posted a run-down of some things too, including a video on mumming and guising that I haven't had a chance to watch yet, but looks good.

Whatever you're up to, have a good one!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

My eyes!

Winter is happily settled in now, and it's feeling moody and dramatic:

But also mostly calm. Lots of frost and ice, a little snow now and then (a flurry on Friday but it didn't settle), but otherwise compared to last year and the many storms that came our way, things have been quiet. Given the frost and ice I've not been out around the village as much as I'd like but the kids and I have had a few trips out and about at the weekends at least.

This weekend, however, the kids were at their grandparents so my mother-in-law could take them to a sing-a-long pantomime sort of thing ('tis the season), and so I could get stuck in to redecorating their bedroom as an early Christmas present. My son, now seven, has decided that he's too old for decor like this:

Which is what I did for them when we first moved in here and they were both considerably younger. The decor has certainly seen better days now and some of the stickers have taken off a chunks of the paint so it's as good a time as any to try and fix it; Tom, being a Big Boy now, has asked for bunk beds for Christmas (just like his cousin), and seeing as he will probably stay in this room when it's time for the kids to have their own space, we decided that he should have first dibs on the colour scheme. His first choice was an airport theme, replete with runway and two planes crashing in mid air and the beginnings of a fire ball emerging from said crash. While imaginative, that got vetoed in short order. Oddly. So did Rosie's desire for pirates and mermaids (I'm flattered by their faith in my artistic abilities, but aside from the amount of paint that would be And in spite of Tom's assurances that there were no serious injuries, plane crashes are an immediate no).

In the end, they were given a choice of two colours, to be agreed on by them both, and I can only describe them as closely akin to "Communist Red" and "Veering Towards Mustard." It's vibrant, you might say:

Although the terrible lighting in this picture doesn't quite do the colours justice (I wanted to take a picture for posterity, before the kids took over; I figured it would never be as clean or tidy once they took up residence once again). Thankfully the yellow has mellowed now it's had a chance to dry.

So as with anything else, I've approached the decorating with a spiritual bent. "Sunwise for everything" goes the saying, so the paint goes on around the room in the appropriate direction, as does the ceremonial hoovering and cleaning of the carpet. Seeing as I had to strip the whole room bare I had to remove their rowan charm temporarily (it goes nicely with the new decor, eh?):

So that went back up with some words, once everything was ready to go back in. I ran out of time at the weekend but at some point I'll probably sain the room with some silvered water too - maybe after Christmas when the kids get a few final bits and pieces to finish the room off and it's all done and final. Aside from muscles that haven't been used in a good long while complaining loudly, my back held up admirably with all of the prepping and sanding, base-coat and then paint that was needed. But just now it would like me to sit down for a bit, thanks. Putting the laundry away's OK, though.

Before the kids went away we made a fat cake for the birds - just suet and bird seed mixed together:

With added cow bell
Which has now been put up in the garden as an offering from us, as part of my new moon rite - the last one of the year. They both helped to make it but only Rosie wanted to come out with me to put it up, so after the fat cake had been put in place and just as the new moon obligingly peeked out through the clouds, I encouraged her to make say hello and make a wish if she wanted to. She did (we both did, together), and then almost immediately she shouted excitedly, "My wish came true!" So I asked her what it was, and she said she just wanted the clouds to lift so she could see the stars up above. Sure enough, a clear patch had appeared right above us.

While I was decorating there were lots and lots of birds hanging around noisily outside - they're not shy in letting you know when you're slacking in the bird food department - so it seems doubly apt to put something out for them to finish off my sprucing up. The weather forecast seems to suggest that it's going to be a cold winter so I like to make sure they're fed, and as I see them as messengers it's only appropriate to look after them too. The cow shape (from a silicone jelly/cake mould) was Rosie's choice, and as cows are very Celtic it only seems apt. Rosie's always a good barometer for Appropriate Choices like this.

Decorating and getting the house in order is very traditional at this time of year - sprucing things up for the New Year (start as you mean to go on) - so it's a good opportunity to do a few things around the house to make sure everything is in its place. It always seems to me at this time of year that everyone is busy concentrating on Christmas so normal life goes out of the window; everything else gets put on hold until the Hogmanay hangover has been dealt with, so in this liminal sort of timeframe it feels like it's a good time to think about seeing out the old year and preparing for the new. It's a little earlier than I usually start but seeing as the kids will be finishing school at the end of the week it makes sense to get a head start while they're not around as much.

For many different reasons I'll be glad to see the back of this year so I'm keen to start the new year on the right sort of footing, and a little extra effort in that respect wouldn't go amiss. It's also one of those times where I'm feeling reflective, and while I'm looking forward to the new year, I've been thinking a lot about all of the things I can be thankful for from this year. In spite of all of the not so good things that might happen, I always try to think of all the good things that have happened, too. One of the biggest things I'm thankful for is this family I've found myself a part of - my husband's family, which is one of the main reasons we moved here to this part of Scotland: For the sake of giving the kids the kind of life and support we've wanted to give them. The in-laws have been a huge support throughout all of my back problems and the things that life has thrown at us this year, and though I've married in to the family they've always made me feel like I'm welcome and one of them. My mother-in-law had a minor stroke earlier this year - she's recovered well, thankfully - and it's one of those things that makes you think about what people mean to you, I suppose. With the next generation on the way next year (I'm going to be a great aunt, if all goes well), it will continue to be an important theme, I think - not just the kids, but everyone - especially now that Rosie in particular is becoming increasingly keen to involve herself in my practices.

For now, though, it's time for a good clean and tidy, and fixing up a few things here and there. Once I've had a wee rest...

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


A heads up from Gaol Naofa:
While it may seem we’ve been quiet for a while, much has been happening behind the scenes as we’ve celebrated five years as an organisation. Our council has been very busy, creating new content for this site, as well as for private use by the members of Gaol Naofa. All of the site documents have been updated and restructured. While much of this site will still be familiar to our long-term readers, there is a lot of new material here.
If you happen to hang out on our Gaelic Polytheism group on Facebook, you'll already have seen the announcement, but otherwise: Gaol Naofa Uachtarán Treasa, Kathryn and I have been busy Doing Stuff over the past year or so in particular, updating and expanding the website and figuring out a few things. There's more in the works, but we're at the point where the first lot of Stuff is ready to be unleashed. You can read the proper announcement at the Gaol Naofa link above, or on our new page over on Facebook, but here's an overview of what's we've put out so far:

The Gaol Naofa FAQ
The link above will take you to the main page, click on the link for the pdf file (we had to put it in a pdf because it clocks in at a good 90 pages long). The FAQ has been substantially expanded and outlines the nitty gritty of our organisation and our vision for it, and it also goes into some of our beliefs and outlooks on certain areas. In that sense it might be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists in general, but I hope it's clear that the contents of the FAQ (as with everything else we've done) speaks to our own points of view as an organisation and no one else's. Even though some other groups might overlap with us in places, that doesn't mean one size fits all.

Then there's:

Rowan and Red Thread: Magic and Witchcraft in Gaelic Cultures
Again a pdf (I think it's fair to say that the length of this one is pretty much my fault), clocking in at a more modest, but still meaty, 57 pages... We cover the general gist of the article in some of the questions in the FAQ, so this offers a bit more of our thoughts on this, with plenty of references and historical goodness. It's a huge area, though, and this is really only scratching the surface, for sure.

And then we have:

Prayer in Gaelic Polytheism
Another pdf but a bit shorter than the two above. The title is fairly self-explanatory, so we go into how we approach prayer and how we make our prayers, and the kinds of sources we look to and how we deal with the problems those sources present. Some examples of prayer are given, with a suggested reading list at the end as well.

As you'll see on the articles page, the Offerings article has been slightly overhauled recently, and there is an article from Treasa and Kathryn yet to come (soon!). Elsewhere on the site you'll find that the reading list has been expanded, and the "About" pages have been overhauled too, and to celebrate five years of the organisation, Treasa has given the website a bit over a makeover with new headers and icon thingies...

A big thanks, once again, to everyone who helped us out and supported us during the first, second and however many final drafts we got to!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Healing (revisited)

To recap: I had a "microdiscectomy" in September, after spending 18 months dealing with disc problems that doctors were convinced didn't exist (next time doctors tell me I have a 5% chance of having such and such a problem asymptomatically, I'll laugh in their faces)...

So anyway. It's been a long road, and I'm by no means at the end of it but I'm (touch wood) well along it. So far I've successfully weaned myself off one kind of medication completely, and I'm in the process of reducing my morphine intake gradually - slowly but surely so far. The nice doctor I saw last month or so tells me that given the type of surgery I've had and the healing process etc, it might be more realistic for me to anticipate that I should reduce the morphine to the point where I might go back onto Tramadol and then - perhaps - lesser drugs before weaning off the painkillers completely, but I'm taking things one step at a time. Given the length of time and the levels at which I've been on the morphine, I'm in officially in "difficult" territory as far as coming off it goes (though not impossible), so reducing it by levels seems to be the easiest way to go. Easy, ideal, and doable are entirely different things, however. So I'm taking things a day at a time in that respect and I'm not looking into The Google, as my doctor charmingly calls it, too much, so I don't really know what to expect. I figure that way I can still feel like I'm me, rather than a bunch of symptoms or side-effects, even though most days I feel like I have PMS and then some...For a few weeks after reducing things, anyway. The pain increases for a while too, while I adjust, but in a way it's a good thing because it keeps me going with the physiotherapy I've been given.

So I've reduced things to a level I'm comfortable with so far and I've just reduced things again. Apparently, less morphine makes me a tad grumpy, which makes me a bit anti-social. That's part of why I've not posted much over the last month or so, I think. Hopefully some of the other reasons will be announced soon.

Anyway. As I mentioned in my last post about all this, while I was in the middle of it all and looking for answers, I tried looking into prayers and charms as a way of trying to deal with the situation and perhaps improve it. Post-surgery, my daughter made me a wee charm, along the lines of the thread a ban-fiosaiche had made for a journalist as described by Mary Beith in her book Healing Threads (I highly recommend it - it's a great read):

Which I've been using as a key ring, it being a slightly more practical way of carrying it around. It's a little delicate and I don't think it would stand much wear as a bracelet.

Kathryn pointed me to a traditional prayer for "sprain," which you can find in the Carmina Gadelica amongst other places. It has a very long pedigree, being found in Irish myth, and Vedic and Germanic sources too, and the formula of repairing bone to bone, flesh to flesh, sinew to sinew etc works nicely with the kind of operation I've had. So the prayer is something I've been using when I feel like I need it.

And as I noted in my initial bletherings on all of this, there's a folk remedy for sciatica recorded in North Uist:
Some of the natives [of North Uist] wear a girdle of the Seal-skin about the middle, for removing the Sciatica, as those of the Shire of Aberdeen wear it to remove the Chin-cough.
Which I airily dismissed at the time, and then again in my second post on the matter, seeing as seal-skins aren't exactly ten a penny. Plus, it's kind of frowned on these days, really. But in the mysterious ways of the world, what should arrive in the post - not long after my surgery - but this:

My wonderful and wise friend Judith happened to have saved an old seal-skin belt some years ago, and upon reading my post in September decided the belt had finally found its purpose. When the belt arrived in the post I showed it to the kids and they were fascinated by it at first, until it sank in that an animal had died for the sake of it (originally, at least). They were kind of horrified for a bit (Tom decided it was mean) so we talked about it, and I explained that the seal had died a long time ago, and that now it's just sitting around not doing much. We agreed that while there wasn't much we could do about the poor dead seal now, we could at least give the belt a good home and put it to good use, and I made some offerings for it. Every now and then the belt disappears and I find it up in the kids' bedroom, where Rosie's been looking after it (she likes to stroke it, to "look after" the seal because it might be missing its mum).

And so as I do my physiotherapy, I can put the belt on and feel like a bit of a fanny as I stretch and step and look a bit bonkers, but so far it's all good (and it's not like anyone's watching). Many thanks, Judith!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Best laid plans and all that...

After all my planning ahead and idle musing on things a few weeks back - and then feeling all smug and organised - Samhainn rolls around and we here in our corner of the universe celebrate it with the delightful aftermath of Norovirus.

Which was nice.

If ever there's a sign that winter's here - you know, aside from the frost and snow we've had - the dreaded Great Affliction is pretty much a dead giveaway, I suppose. So things were a little more scaled back than planned, although all of the important stuff got done, fun was nonetheless had, and I think it was - all in all - a success.

The downside of being a parent is that your kids will inevitably bring varying kinds of snot and bugs home from school so you get to live it all vicariously through one child and then another before you get to experience the delights first hand (my child-free friends are grinning smugly at me through the internet, I can feel it...). By the time it comes around at least you know what to expect, I suppose. On the plus side, by the time the eve of Samhainn rolled around we were all over the worst of it and we were all feeling just a little tired and delicate rather than properly unwell, so at least we were able to celebrate. The feasting element of the proceedings were not something I was particularly keen on, though; nor was Mr Seren. But for some reason, as if my own body was trying to tell me something, I'd had a real craving for gingerbread at the weekend so I'd done some festive biscuits:

And that was all I could really stomach on the eve itself; the ginger helped settle any rumblings quite nicely. I was originally going to let the kids decorate them but Rosie couldn't stomach it and Tom only decided to help out once I'd done most of them. He was very proud of his efforts, though. "The red's blood, mum," he said helpfully. I'd baked a whole load of cake with the intention of sculpting a festive cake, too, but that just wasn't going to happen in the end - so much for great ideas.

But the morning before the big evening rolled around, the kids came bouncing in excitedly to wake me up so they could have breakfast and get ready for the Hallowe'en parade at school. Tom was going to go as Optimus Prime, but after wearing the costume to the Hallowe'en disco the week before and finding it way too small he opted for his old Power Ranger costume instead. Rosie went as "Bat Cat," as planned. She wanted some face paints to complete the look so I did what I could there, with the hasty help of Google that morning:

So long as she had whiskers she didn't really care, so she was very pleased with her look in the end. I managed to drag myself along to the parade later that morning to cheer them on, and the school was awash with anticipation. And also Norovirus, probably. 

There's nothing like a good bout of lurgy to motivate a thorough housecleaning session, is there? So the house was shipshape and in good order for the evening festivities, and I got some decorations up at least, in between a nap or two during the day. While we did get round to making some more decorations during the half-term holiday we haven't done a seasonal mural yet; our Great Affliction scuppered any plans to do it at the weekend, along with a Hallowe'en party Tom was invited to and the party games I'd had planned.

My mother-in-law had got us a large pumpkin for carving (they were on special offer so she got us one spare), so I'd bought two smaller ones for cooking - in the comments of my previous planning post Judith suggested a bread and butter pudding baked in a pumpkin that sounded delicious, and I was going to give that a go until the Great Affliction happened. The other small one was intended for soup and another lantern if I could manage to get the flesh out without having to cut it up. By Samhainn eve I'd already scooped out one of the small pumpkins so I could use the flesh for soup, which I'd done at the weekend while the kids were ill (and my husband promptly ate the whole lot before anyone else got some, barring a small mug I'd had, to see how it was). By Wednesday, although I had at least one pumpkin ready to carve I wasn't convinced I could stomach doing even that one. Mr Seren chipped in and carved the big one into a Stormtrooper's helmet (ish), though, so I knew we'd have at least one. But when I picked the kids up from school the fresh air did me good and I knew I'd have to keep them occupied until they could could go out guising, so they were set with the task of designing a lantern each. The flesh from the second smaller pumpkin went to another batch of soup, instead of pudding. For that we made do with cake (or the kids did, anyway).

I usually carve the lanterns the night before Samhainn, as a way of kicking off celebrations. That night I usually devote to the ancestors in particular, while I carve and make some opening offerings. But given the delicate nature of my condition that evening, carving was out of the question then. I didn't have the opportunity to get any tumshies at all so this year there were no turnip lanterns - that was a real shame, but while I wasn't convinced I'd manage the pumpkins, to begin with, I knew there was no way my nose/stomach would stretch to accommodate the stench of turnip. But what we ended up with still did the job nicely:

Tom designed the cross-eyed one, and Rosie decided the scariest thing she could think of was a spider after flicking through Google and being told that no, butterflies weren't scary and E.T. was way beyond anything I can manage. I royally ballsed up the legs on hers, but I think Tom's came out pretty good.  Young sir was very pleased with it, anyway, and we had fun talking about all the scary things that would be afoot that night as they got creative.

By the time the carving was done it was time to do dinner - I did stovies, since the soup needed a bit longer to cook (we had that the next day). And then we lit the lanterns and put them in the windows at the front of the house to let the guisers know that they were welcome, with great ceremony and excitment. Mr Seren did some games and dancing with the kids while I was doing the fiddly bits of carving and then dinner, but we just didn't have time for party games proper in the end. Seeing as many of the games are food-based, that was probably for the best! But after dinner the kids did go out guising and that's really all they wanted to do, so as far as they were concerned it was the best Samhainn EVAR. For me, though, it's another year without having tried treacle scones. A sad Gaelic Polytheist am I.

While Mr Seren was out with the kids, I had the opportunity to get my ritual on. The guisers were very thoughtful and managed to space their visits out between my opening offerings, then my prayers and devotions, saining and putting up some rowan and so on. It was a little piecemeal in some respects, but none the worse for that.

For once I could sain the kids' room properly without disturbing them - I usually have to do it after they've gone to bed, so I had some luxury to be more thorough there and give the room a good sprinkle. This time, seeing as no one was in the house, I tried burning some juniper, too - I couldn't do too much to get a good smoke going and fill the house, but I have to say the bit of smoke I did generate certainly has a powerful quality to it.

Tom was the first to come back, dashing in to go to the loo (and having to do battle with his costume first). Mr Seren and Rosie arrived not long after, Rosie sporting the manic grin of the happily E-numbered and well-sugared. They had been very successful on their tour of the street, with lots of generous treats from neighbours - it was a fairly quiet night compared to some years previous, but I know a lot of the kids' classmates had also been laid low by the bug that we'd had, too, so like us I think folks had a bit more to hand out to those that did turn up. Mr Seren said the kids did well with their entertaining; at the first couple of houses they were pretty much bricking it and Rosie didn't get much further than the first couple of lines from Twinkle Twinkle Chocolate Bar before trailing off into the Shy Mumble, but by the fifth house or so Tom had already fired into a festive cupcake and had to be held back by Mr Seren before he ended up spraying crumbs over whoever answered the door while Tom tried to do his joke through a mouthful of cake. I'd thought about going out with them, but I'd had such a busy day already I didn't want to over do things - my back is doing a whole lot better but I'm still being a little cautious.

After the kids were back we all gathered in the kitchen to share out the sweets (and a good number of apples and nuts, too), then it was time for homework while the last of the guisers knocked at the door, and then it was bedtime. For once, I didn't have to take the lanterns away from the window because the sweets had run out.

Seeing as I'd already done my ritualling before the kids went to bed I had the opportunity to spend a quiet, candle-lit evening in contemplation and just relaxing. Of course for Samhainn there's a big focus on the ancestors and I had a candle up in the window and invited them to come for a visit if they so wished. I had food out for them, and made offerings to them, and I spoke to them and drank a toast to their memory. And the same to the spirits too, with offerings of peace.

I made offerings to the Cailleach and an owl (the cailleach-oidhche in Gàidhlig) struck up a thoughtful song in the woods nearby. I made offerings to my ancestral deities and a crow cawed off in the distance. I thought back on the year and gave thanks for all the good things that have happened, and thought about the maybe not so good things too. I prayed for blessings, for my family and friends. And I looked up at the stars and out into the night and I listened for a while, and breathed in the cold, slightly smokey air, and that night I slept like the dead, and if I dreamed I've no idea what it was.

At the weekend we went to the beach and I made my offerings to the river and the sea. On Monday night - Bonfire Night, here - the fireworks filled the sky, and as the air was heavy with smoke I chopped up the pumpkin lanterns and buried pieces of them at four points around the outside of the house. I can't beat the bounds around the house with a flaming torch but I can reinforce the boundaries in my own way. We didn't manage to get to a fireworks show (they were at the weekend and we didn't realise, but the local event was Disney-themed anyway, so it was probably for the best - we don't do Disney in this house), but one of our neighbours always has a display in his back garden so the kids didn't miss out. Poor Mungo practically had a nervous breakdown, though, wrapped in a towel and cowering beneath Mr Seren's desk. Our older dog doesn't mind them (plus he's basically deaf now) but Mungo can't stand fireworks.

So that was Samhainn. Not quite how I'd planned but it all came together in the end, I think.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

An Cailleach Bheara

A post on Samhainn will follow shortly, but in the meantime I just wanted to bring a beautiful short film to your attention.

I can't embed the video here, it seems, but follow this link to watch it - it's only eight minutes long and the visuals are quite beautiful. The film references a few traditional stories about An Cailleach Bheara, although it concentrates on one in particular; I found this ages ago and meant to post it, but lost the link and it's only now I've found it - in good time for the season, perhaps!

Anyway, if you haven't seen it already, enjoy.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Gruagach, the Guaigean and the Geige

 A gruagach is a local land spirit in Scotland, who is said to look after cattle in the summer pastures, to make sure they don't wander off and come to any harm. It seems that to a certain extent the gruagach has come to be conflated with a brownie, which is probably not too much of a stretch considering the fact that they are both helpful to humans (with caveats), and will both take themselves elsewhere if you give them clothes.

In a lot of lore about spirits, you tend to find that offerings are very much encouraged when trying to build a relationship with them, but too much gratitude will backfire spectacularly. The gruagach is helpful so long as they are treated right; it is traditional to leave some milk for them in the hollow of a special stone, with offerings given to them at Bealltainn as well, and in some places the offerings are kept up (though unfortunately the one video I've seen about it has now been taken down). Traditionally, if their offerings are neglected the gruagach might not look after your cattle, or worse - they might deliberately lead them to harm. In many ways, the gruagach bears all the hallmarks of a pre-Christian local deity, even if their name might not be known anymore, but according to some the gruagach may be a ghost of someone local, who haunts the glens and looks kindly on people.

Thomas Pennant and Martin Martin both write about the gruagach in their work dating back to the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and you can find an essay on the gruagach in one of Pennant's volumes. Their name refers to their long hair (a motif that points to their Otherworldly nature), and usually they're female. In some parts of Scotland, like on Skye, they're more likely to be male (and tend to be the default explanation for how a pretty young maid might have got pregnant out of wedlock while she was up on the summer pastures).

So in general, they seem to be the kind of spirits that we want to propitiate, and it all seems quite simple. Looking through the Carmina Gadelica late one night last week, though, I found some interesting notes on the gruagach in Volume II, which have coincidentally good timing for Samhainn:
Gruagach, a supernatural female who presided over cattle and took a kindly interest in all that pertained to them. In return a libation of milk was made to her when the women milked the cows in the evening. If the oblation were neglected, the cattle, notwithstanding all precautions, were found broken loose and in the corn; and if still omitted, the best cow in the fold was found dead in the morning. The offering was poured on 'clach na gruagaich,' the 'gruagach' stone. There is hardly a district in the Highlands which does not possess a 'leac gruagaich'--a 'gruagach,' flag-stone--whereon the milk libation was poured. I have seen such stones in Arran, Kintyre, Gigha, Islay, Mull, Lismore, Kerara, Lorn, Iona, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Heisgeir, St Kilda, Harris, Lewis, Sutherland, Ross, at Culloden, Cawdor, Lochaber, and in various other places. All these oblation stones are erratic ice-blocks. Some of them have a slight cavity into which the milk was poured; others have none, the libation being simply poured on the stone. In making the oblation the woman intoned a rune--

'A ghruagach, a ghruagach,
Cum suas mo spreidhe,
Cum sios an Guaigean,
Cum uap an Geige.'

Brownie, brownie,
Uphold my herds,
Keep down the 'Guaigean,'
Keep from them the 'Geige.'

There is probably no district in the Highlands where the 'gruagach' could not be fully described. A woman living in the remote island of Heisgeir described her so graphically and picturesquely that her interested listener could almost see moving about in the silvery light of the kindly moon the 'gruagach' with her tall conical hat, her rich golden hair falling about her like a mantle of shimmering gold, while with a slight swish of her wand she gracefully turned on her heel to admonish an unseen cow. At intervals he seemed to hear her mellow voice in snatches of eerie song as she moved about among the grassy ruins of the old nunnery--all silent now of the holy orisons of gentle sisters.

The thing that interested me the most was the mention of the 'Guaigean' and the 'Geige' - it's not something I've seen much about in Scottish lore in general. In another note from Carmichael (at the same link, as above), there is a description of the Geigean:
Geigean, Righ Geigean, Geigean, King Geigean. This was the term applied to the man who presided over the death revels. These were held in winter. Lots were cast, and the man upon whom the lot fell was elected king of the revels, over which he reigned from midnight till the old cock crew. A tub of cold water was poured over his head and down his throat, after which his face and neck were smeared with soot. When the man had been made as formidable and hideous as possible, a sword, scythe, or sickle was placed in his hand as an emblem of office...

A rhyme common among boys at play says:--

'Thaine mi o chri-chas,
Thaine mi o chruai-chas,
Thaine mi o Ghigean,
Thaine mi o Ghuaigean,
’S thig mi uat-s’ ma dh’f haodas mi.

I came from small peril,
I came from great peril,
I came from Geigean,
I came from Guaigean,
And I will come from thee if I can.

'Gigean' and 'Guaigean' are probably forms of 'Geigean.'
So the immediate conclusion seems to be that the offerings to the gruagach are in the hopes that the gruagach will then protect people against the Geige (or Géige, as it should be - Carmichael was terrible for not bothering with accents in the first two volumes especially) and the Guaigean. Considering Carmichael's comments on the Righ Geigean we might suspect that the latter perhaps represent spectres of wintry danger or death, effectively. And/or, considering one of the tales in the first link, of the ghostly gruagach who protected against murrain, she works against sickness spreading.

My first thought was to wonder if the rite described might have something to do with Samhainn (since the festival marks the start of winter); Carmichael was notoriously leery of mentioning Samhainn at all, albeit for a brief entry in the notes in volume II and a few other passing mentions, so he's unlikely to spell it out and it wouldn't be any wonder that he was vague on that point. Pulling out my trusty copy of The Gaelic Otherworld, Ronald Black's notes refers to the Righ Geigean ritual as being performed, specifically, at the beginning of winter (see p457), so that seems to confirm it. It's interesting that the taking of lots seems to mirror a similar practice from Bealltainn, where the men would come together and take turns, blindfolded, to pick out piece of bannock from a basket or cloth. In this case, at Bealltainn, whoever got the burnt piece of bannock called the cailleach beal-tine would effectively take on the burden of failure in the coming season; it would be assumed that they would struggle, in order to allow the rest of the community to prosper. It seems a similar idea is intended for the Righ Geigean - they suffer, so others don't have to.

It's not the only instance of Samhainn practices echoing those found at Bealltainn; it seems the practice of making offerings - by throwing pieces of bannock over the shoulder, with a prayer said - to keep away threats from livestock and family was performed at both Bealltainn and Samhainn. Interestingly, according to Dwelly, a guaigean can be defined as either "a thick, little round cake," or else "a short, stout man or boy." A géige, on the other hand, is primarily a branch or sapling, but can also refer to "a young, superfine female, nymph."

I've not found much else on the Géigean, aside from some hints that it may have been related to the urisk (or ùraisg) who often get lumped in with the brownie and gruagach as a kind of helpful spirit. This is a little confusing, because the ùraisg seems to have something of a more mischievous reputation than the others, but is generally harmless and solitary, preferring to hang around waterfalls or streams. If they happen to live near a farm they might also help out around the farmstead if given milk or cream. So not much like the dangers hinted at in Carmichael's prayer. They tended to have a wilder appearance than the gruagach, though, sometimes being described as half-goat, half-man or quite frightening to those who could see them. According to John Gregorson Campbell, at least some of them did have some association with wintry elements:
"A man passing through Srath Dubh-Uisg (near Loch Sloy at the head of Loch Lomond) on a keen frosty night heard an urisk on one side of the glen calling out: Reoth, reoth, reoth. "Frost, frost, frost."

This was answered by another urisk calling from the other side of the glen: Ceige-reoth, ceige-reoth, ceige-reoth. "Kick-frost, kick-frost, kick-frost."

The man, on hearing this, said, "Whether I wait or not for frost, I will never while I live wait for kick-frost." And he ran at his utmost speed till he was out of the glen."
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p106.

Ronald Black's notes on this say that Reoth and Ceige-Reoth more than likely refer to the names of the two urisks in the glen - Frost and Jack Frost, "as it were" (op. cit. p363). Furthermore, Ceige-Reoth here refers to the Géigean, ceige meaning "a mass of matted hair" and - aside from Ceige and Geige being very similar - the word denotes the "wild figure" of the Géigean himself.

All things considered, confusing though it might all be, it offers some food for thought for the coming season.

See also here, if anything, in case you're wondering how to pronounce guaigean!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Planning ahead

Seeing as Samhainn is a pretty Big Deal round here it's one of the few festivals in the year where everyone gets excited and I can really make an effort to Do Stuff without appearing to be a complete loon. There's everyone putting up the terribly tasteful decorations and carving tumshies or pumpkins, there's the Hallowe'en parade at school and the guisers coming to our door...It's a great occasion and especially good for being able to get the kids involved.

Considering the fact that it's a pretty Big Deal it's going to require a bit of planning ahead. We got some really huge tumshies last year, which were perfect for carving, so hopefully we'll get some more this year. Seeing as they're quite tough to carve (instructions for carving here, if you're looking for tips) they're not really something I can do with the kids just yet so I've tried to carve a pumpkin over the last few years as well. Maybe it's just the crappy plastic tools we have for the job but they're quite tough too, but while the stench of tumshie is quite evocative, shall we say, the innards of a pumpkin reminds my son of brains, apparently:

We couldn't get one last year but I've promised Rosie a pumpkin soup at the least this year. Seeing as I've no idea how to do that I still need to figure that one out... The kids want to go guising this year, for the first time, so if it's cold (we've already been having frosty nights so there's a good chance) the soup will be good for warming them up when they get back. The kids can help me make it, and some Brodick bannocks to go with it too. And maybe some butter - they have great fun yelling out the rhymes to make the lumps come.

Seeing as the kids want to go guising, they'll need to prepare some jokes or songs if they want their sweets (or hot dogs - one of the houses handed out hot dogs last year, they were very popular!). Trick or treating isn't really a thing here; you only knock on doors that have lanterns put out to indicate that guisers are welcome, so sweets are pretty much guaranteed, and you have to perform a piece of entertainment or the people you're prevailing on can tell you where to go. As the song goes:

Tell a story,
Sing a song;
Dae a dance,
Or oot ye gang!

Although jokes and nursery rhymes are what you'll probably hear, there are plenty of traditional songs too. "Tell a Story" is one, but I think the best known one is Heigh Ho for Hallowe'en:

Heigh Ho for Hallowe'en!
When the witches a' are seen,
Some black and some green,
Heigh Ho for Hallowe'en!

There's another one I quite like:

Hallowe'en a nicht o' tine
A can'le in a custock.

A howkit neep wi' glowerin' een
To fleg baith witch and warlock.

(Or: Hallowe'en a night of fire/A candle and a cabbage stem./A tumshie lantern with scowling eye(s),/To scare both witch and warlock.)

But I suspect the kids might decide to sing "Twinkle Twinkle Chocolate Bar" because they like doing the actions. I think that's about all they'll need to know about guising for now - they can get up to the mischief part when they're older...

We made some decorations last year but seeing as it's the October holiday I think we might just make some more...I think it's going to be a long week ahead this week. We also have our seasonal mural to think about, and now we have a fish tank in the way of where the murals tend to go I think we'll be adapting it to make a background for the tank.

It wouldn't be a proper Samhain without some games for the kids, so a bit of planning is required for that, too. I'd like to try the divination game with the crowdie, where you whip up a big bowl of the cream, honey and oatmeal and mix some charms into it for everyone to try and dig out. Before now I've felt the kids have been a bit too young for it - small parts being included and all - but my youngest is five now and I think she's old enough to get the gist of things and not end up having to make a mad dash to hospital. I'll need to figure something out because I don't have any charms yet, but that shouldn't be too difficult. I might also have to adapt the game slightly because there are worse things in the world today than getting a charm that suggests you won't ever marry. Otherwise, we'll have the usual games - dookin' for apples, blind man's bluff, musical statues and musical bumps and so on. I also have what looks like a decent recipe for treacle scones I can use for that game, so hopefully I'll finally get around to trying that too.

So as usual there's a lot to fit in, including time to do my own thing, of course. Some of our plans will probably fall by the wayside, as it usually happens, but at least I'm in a more physically capable state to make a go of things this year. With the kids wanting to go guising the feasting part of the proceedings will probably take a backseat to the more important aim of the kids making themselves feel thoroughly sick, but I like to round off the celebrations with a nice meal the day after too, so that can still get done. Then of course there will be saining to be done and offerings to be made. And perhaps a story or two to be told, for the kids.

A pretty big deal

Delving into politics here...

The news yesterday was quite momentous for Scotland, with the announcement of an agreement between the Scottish parliament and Westminster about the referendum on independence. There has been a lot of debate in the past few years or so about how the referendum is going to happen and some of the major points were agreed yesterday, with potential for other points to be put in place as well..

The general gist of the agreement is as follows:

  • The referendum will take place before the end of 2014
  • There will be one question asked
  • The possibility of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds is still on the table
This is basically what Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, was hoping for. Over all the news is positive from Scotland's point of view, although the agreement on a one question format has led to some upset. Up until now debate had mainly focused on what the question is going to be - the devil is in the detail there - but also on the kinds of options that could be offered. Broadly speaking, the referendum question could be a simple case of asking voters to decide whether or not they want to vote in favour of Scottish independence, and in case, it's a simple yes/no answer. Alternatively, the question could get a bit more complicated and voters would be offered a choice between independence, staying in the union, or choosing door number three. 

This third option is called "Devo Max." Instead of going for outright independence - full autonomy - voters could instead decide to choose to opt for further devolved powers being given to the Scottish government. In broad terms it could be seen as just one step shy of full independence, essentially giving full fiscal autonomy to scotland, but otherwise staying within the union. 

Devo Max has a few advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it's a baby step towards independence - a step in the right direction for those who like the idea of independence, but not too big when you consider all the things that might go wrong and start to worry about them... It offers a something of a safety net in case of disaster, and so on. On the other hand, it's not independence and it would mean that the Scottish tax payer would still be footing the bill for things that aren't popular here, like nuclear arms, and so on. It is argued in some quarters that this option would be financially wasteful, duplicating expenditure on some things that would remain as part of the UK infrastructure, simply for the privilege of staying under their care. 

To a certain extent, there are a number of folks in both the Yes and No camps who view Devo Max as an unnecessary compromise. In theory it leaves the door open for a further referendum in future, paving the way for a yes vote, so it's not a solution for either side, really. A no vote, on the other hand, is seen as putting the question to rest in a fairly final manner, at least for another generation, anyway. And a yes vote is a pretty final solution too. So neither side really see Devo Max as an end in itself, and ultimately it doesn't solve anything. 

It's also possible that offering three options would have split the vote and we would still end up with a "No" on our hands. The people who didn't vote No might then be unhappy because their vote combined might have given a different result, so all in all it seems that a basic Yes/No sort of question is both simpler - and therefore less confusing for the average voter who doesn't want to deal with complicated options - and potentially safer and more decisive in the sense that the vote can only go one of two ways.

Still, it's a tricky one. Seeing as the agreement has ultimately played out in favour of Scottish parliament, there are some who are saying that Westminster has basically handed the referendum to the Yes vote already. I'd say the vast majority of current Westminster policies are doing the job more than anything right now - with a Tory government (albeit in a Lib Dem coalition, but they're basically ineffectual) in Westminster right now, much of what they're doing really goes against the grain of the average Scottish voter who tend to be more left leaning than the Middle England voters Westminster generally tends to court. That, more than anything, will prove to be a big factor in however people decide when it comes to it, I think.

The potential for opening the vote up to 16-17 year-olds is also controversial and weirdly, from what I've seen on the news so far, it's the one thing everyone is concentrating on. They don't pay taxes, why should they vote! They won't think for themselves, they'll vote however their parents do! And all sorts of silliness. I don't see it as an inherently bad thing but there are surely pros and cons to that too.

The bottom line is, this is a momentous occasion, it really is. There are still plenty of things that need to be hashed out but we now know that the referendum will take place, and while we don't know what the question is actually going to be, we know it's going to ask for a Yes/No answer. Polls so far generally have the yes vote hovering around the 30% mark, but that doesn't mean much right now. Two years is a long time in politics and there are a lot of undecideds and people who won't get their preferred option of Devo Max who will now need to have a rethink. And many might change their minds repeatedly up until the day of the vote itself.

If you want to read up on things, here's something from the BBC with further links to explore on the page. You can also view the agreement itself. Wikipedia has a decent article explaining the basics of Devo Max if you want to look at that more closely, too.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Book review: Celtic Curses

Back at the start of summer I got a good haul from the library that I planned on working my way through for reading or research purposes, and of the ones I decided to read all the way through, I got an lot of good stuff from them, which is always yay-making. I didn't manage to read two of them before I had to take the haul back so I decided to renew them and I've been making a concerted effort to get through them as fast as I can, and now I'm one down with half of the other to go.

Like the other books I've reviewed from the haul so far, these two are relatively recent publications, so they're more up to date than a lot of the recommended reading on Celtic Reconstructionist reading lists and I think they'll make good additions to any wish list. The one I'll be reviewing just now is from 2009 and of the two I think it has a wider appeal. Gaulish and, to a lesser extent, Brythonic or Welsh Polytheists will benefit from this book as well, I reckon.

Celtic Curses
Bernard Mees

Going by the title alone it's the sort of thing that could go one of two ways, being either the kind of book that would be more at home amongst the likes of your common or garden variety ye ancient Irish potato goddess fluff, or else one that lurks on my wishlist for many a birthday until I can justify splurging on it. Or, y'know. Get a job. Considering it's the latter, the title seems a little provocative and I think to a certain extent it is. But I'll get to that.

Just like the title suggests, we're dealing mainly with the subject matter of cursing in Celtic contexts. The "Celtic" in question is primarily Gaulish to start with, before moving to Brythonic areas (particularly the evidence from Bath), and then Irish evidence. Some Scottish and Welsh gets a look in, but that's mainly incidental, to be honest. Other kinds of magical practices are considered too - ones that might also share some sort of similarities with cursing that might indicate common origins in practice, or perhaps even direct influences. In these cases we're especially looking at Irish evidence like gessi and lorica prayers, and things like the Song of Lugh and the Morrígan's (or Badb's) prophecy from Cath Maige Tuired. Gessi and loricae get chapters to themselves, but things like the prophecy and the Song of Lugh get a few pages or so in the penultimate chapter "Incantations."

The first part of the book primarily deals with the Gaulish evidence while the latter half concentrates more on the Irish and (to a lesser extent) the Welsh evidence, although there are frequent cross-overs. As far as the Gaulish evidence goes we're primarily looking at defixiones, and Mees argues that while the practice certainly owes a lot to Classical influence, Gaulish defixiones also bear the hallmarks of "indigenous" beliefs at play as well. This is mainly borne out by the fact that Gaulish defixiones are often metrical, where as they aren't in Classical practice. Mees also points to the fact that the Irish word for charm or incantation, bricht, also refers to poetic metre of eight syllables, implying the metre itself was originally an integral part of magical charms, and the Gaulish word brixt which is clearly related to the Irish bricht suggests that the metrical element is ultimately a Celtic feature of magic in general. 

This is where the slightly provocative part comes in; from the beginning Mees makes it clear that he views the evidence as a continuum between the earlier and later evidence - i.e from the early evidence in Gaul to the later evidence in Ireland. In supporting this theory, Mees sets out to show coincidences and possible continuity in the evidence (like with brixt --> bricht) in order to argue that such practices bear underlying "Celtic" features. I'm sure there will be strong critics of Mees' idea, and I think it's safe to say that some points are more convincing than others. One of the quibbles I had is that in some places there is very little discussion of the kinds of issues affecting the sources we're looking at, and it seems assumed that because it is written, it must be authentic and representative of actual practice. Given the amount of issues that affect Irish myth in particular, this could have done with being addressed in a bit more detail than it was.

All in all it's a fascinating read and the author gives plenty of examples of curses in discussing the kind of forms they took, the context they were found in, and the features that could be considered to be specifically "Celtic" or specific to a particular Celtic culture and why that might be. In most cases the original language is given alongside with a translation, which is extremely useful, and considering the fact that the language can often be very obscure or difficult there's good discussion of how the translation was arrived at, and the kinds of symbolism and meaning might lurk beneath the techncial terms used. You also get the delights of the kinds of phrasing that people chose to use - one Gaulish example invoking a curse on various things belonging to their intended victim, including their lunch box.

For the most part we just look at what the curses say and what that tells us about cursing and concepts like fate or destiny that must be manipulated in order to effect the curse. This is extremely useful in itself, but I couldn't help but feel that it would have been more useful with some discussion of the religious context they were performed in - not just how the curses were made, who did them, and so on, but also the underlying cosmological and religious concepts they drew on. There is some discussion, but more would have been better. I was also slightly disappointed about the fact that bullauns don't get a look in - or really any kinds of more modern "pishrogues" and folk practices. Cursing wells get a brief mention as the final chapter, but that's about it.

There really isn't much else like this out there that's so readily accessible, so in many respects the few negatives are forgivable because it's very much a beginning in looking at this sort of subject, and there is only so much you can fit in to one book. As far as things Gaelic go, the chapter on "Breastplates and Clamours" has a lot to offer, and so do the chapters on ''Geasa and Binding" and "Incantations" (in spite of my aforementioned reservations about how the myths are approached). In a lot of the Gaulish curses there are deities that are called upon that results in good discussion that I think will be of interest - for Ogmios in particular.

If you're at all interested in how magical practices might look in a reconstructionist context then I'd highly recommend it. I've not seen it going for very cheap but if you can get your hands on a copy then I don't think you'll regret it.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Notes: Early Irish Attitudes toward Hair and Beards

Early Irish Attitudes toward Hair and Beards, Baldness and Tonsure
William Sayers
ZcP Volume 44 (1991)

There's something about reading an article that's entirely devoted to hair and beards in particular that...well, it points to a level of geekery bordering on the ultimate, does it not? If that's the case then I shall wear my Official CR TonsureTM with pride...The trick with the styling is to get the right balance of lime and urine. Just FYI.

Anyway, in case you didn't already know the medieval Irish took their beards seriously. I mean really seriously. See for example: Geisi Ulcai: The Prohibitions of a Beard. But as amusing as it might be on the surface to think of the fact that somebody went to all that trouble over facial hair, it really is serious business when you get down to the nitty gritty of what this kind of thing represents. This is where Sayers' article comes in, because happily enough he lays out the major points quite nicely.

Firstly, he notes that the word for hair - OIr folt (in Gàidhlig today it's falt) - can also mean 'foliage, thatch'. In cosmogonical terms (creation myths), where it's speculated that the Proto-Indo-European creation myth involved the dismembering of a giant or primordial being (each part contributing towards the making of certain things - in this case the hair of the giant or being making the world's trees and grass), it can therefore be seen to have an extremely deep significance. There's a Dindshenchas tale about the first hair cut in Ireland, incidentally, which is analogous to the clearing of plains, reinforcing the creative potential.

In the relationship between hair and grass/trees it's easy to equate hair with the over all physical and social condition of a person. Long, glossy hair suggests a healthy, fertile person, and also denotes beauty. It also implies a high social status, having the luxury to take care of such hair to keep it in good condition. Those of lowly status, or the unfree, have shorn hair - a sign of their bonds, but also their position in society; no muss no fuss. Baldness, on the other hand, is utterly shameful, and it is one of the penalties for failing to attend the fair of Carmun. Being a harvest festival, the associations of hair with fertility brings us back to the cosmogonical overtones of hair's significance.

Different styles of hair can express certain relationships, and lots of sources refer to a kind of "druidic tonsure" that serves as a marker of the druid's station. Early on in the Irish Church an argument broke out of the appropriate form of tonsure, with different styles being favoured by two different factions. The "Celtic" tonsure had the front of the head shaved back to a line going across the way from ear to ear, but with a "fringe" at the front which reached round to the side, connecting the fringe to the hair around the ears. The druidic tonsure was said to have been similar, but with more of a "tuft" at the front, so they Celtic tonsure was clearly seen to be related to that, although it came to be called "Simon's tonsure" after Simon Magus. Ultimately, the other method - the Petrine tonsure (with the bald spot on top of the head, the resulting ring of hair supposed to resemble Christ's crown of thorns) - won out.

Sayers notes that warriors are frequently described in terms of general appearance, stature, and the state of the hair - generally long locks that are combed backwards and shaved at the front. Conchobar is described as having long, wavy, yellow hair befitting his royal status, whereas warriors are often described as brown-haired. Cú Chulainn is described as having three colours in his hair at points, both brown, red and gold denoting the way he straddles all levels of society and beyond (with his semi-divine origins). Or:
The progression from inside to outside, top to bottom, and the three colours, black, red and gold, may be equated with the three estates of agriculturalists and herdsmen, warriors, and priests and kings. Cú Chulainn's semi-divine origin and responsibility to defend all Ulster during the debility of its king and hosts account for his subsuming all three functions, as does, in other instances, the king.(p160)
Red hair is typically associated with Otherworldly figures like Da Derga, while yellow or gold is often used to describe the English (Anglo-Saxons) if it's not being associated with kings. Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically blond to one degree or another, unless clearly Otherworldly.

Different hairstyles denoted different things as well, and mention is made of the fíanna or díberga (brigands) wearing distinctive hairstyles that were supposed to give a lupine or ursine effect. Warriors are frequently referred to as having bristly hair, especially during battle when the stiffness of their hair is made to reflect their virility and resolve; there are comments that if apples, crab apples or even nuts were to fall on their head, not one would reach the floor because the spikes of the hair would impale them, but they might also braid their hair or model it along an equine mane or that kind of thing.

Fertility and virility equals strength and power. Slaves and lowly servants have a certain type of short or reoughly cropped hair, while charioteers have a special filet in their hair "reflecting the glory of their masters," as do poets. Picts apparently had cropped hair, of equal length at the front as at the back (a bowl cut, then!), and jugglers or fools were bald. I presume that means their heads were shaved. Not that they became jugglers just because they were bald; either way, the lack of hair is an indicator of their subservience. In the case of tonsures, partial baldness was indicative of their sacrifice (in return for knowledge and wisdom) and dedication to the gods, or God. Craftsmen and and farmers weren't supposed to have long hair or beards; these were reserved for the upper classes, warriors.

One of the most interesting bits, perhaps, is the implications of age and hair length. Long hair is associated with warriors, boys only being able to keep their hair long if they showed bravery and courage. In the case of beards (as per the Geisi Ulcae), beards are only appropriate for warriors or poets (a mark of maturity, the ability to fight or carry wisdom and the appropriate knowledge for their art/profession), but the warrior is only worthy of a beard if they observe the appropriate proscriptions. Cú Chulainn, being exceptionally young, occasionally had to fake a beard so that he might be able to fight; without a beard other warriors wouldn't fight him, because killing a mere boy would be a stain on their honour. Sometimes he used berry juice, other times he sang spells over grass (the hair:grass theme recurring once more).

In the case of women, their depictions are fairly uniform, yellow, gold, red-gold in colour, and aristocratic women tended to have long hair, plaited or loose (men might also wear plaits). Women's pubic hair is often described as well (the woman/goddess who arrives at Da Derga's hostel is described as having pubic hair down to her knees), and the penalty for shaving a woman's pubic hair was "two thirds of the éraic, plus her honour price if she is violated." Other fines covered offences to eyebrows, eyelashes and the hair or hair-pieces of "shorn girls", as well as against the beard and body hair of men. Seizing of hair during a fight between a wife and a concubine was not a punishable offence, however, given the understandable circumstances of the disagreement. For clerics, even touching their tonsure was a punishable offence.

So in general, hair articulated a few things - your social status, your station in life/profession, and sexual maturity. Cutting the hair appears to have marked various milestones of age and legal maturity, while hair colour could be very symbolic. Over all, the kind of hair you had helped to mark out your identity, and as such is an important motif in myth and legend.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Out and about

I took a walk in the woods at the weekend and conveniently forgot to charge the battery in the camera...But luckily things were so exciting (LOOK AT THE LEAVES, MUM!!!) Rosie wanted to go again yesterday, and it wasn't like the dogs would complain, was it?

This time I remembered to charge the camera battery in advance, all the better to capture the colours of autumn:

Crunchy leaves underfoot.



And red red hawthorn berries.

Sometimes it's the simple things, like showing a five-year-old that sycamore seeds fall like "helicopters" (and I suspect a couple of helicopters might have been buried in the garden by now...), that bring the greatest joy.

Friday, 21 September 2012


Last week I finally had surgery to try and help fix my back problems and I can say with absolute certainty that I still hate hospitals with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. It's not something I'm particularly keen to repeat, let's say.

It's early days yet and it's too soon to tell just how successful the surgery has been but as it is, things are much improved and I seem to be healing up nicely; touch wood it stays that way. For now I'm enjoying the novelties of being able to do exciting things like sit and walk again. That's nice. But I'm also facing the prospect of being able to do stuff and have a life again. Yay! The idea is liberating and a little scary at the same time, in a way, because being only a little less than housebound has meant that I've been holed up in a safe little cocoon for going on eighteen months. My world has been small and predictable in many ways, and stepping out of that is an odd sort of thought to entertain. Maybe I can get a job and be a productive member of society once more? That's going to have to wait a little longer while I see how my recovery goes, but the possibilities on offer could invite big changes. As I've discovered in the last week - in more ways than one - change can be painful and stressful, but sometimes it's for the better. One can only hope, anyway.

In the meantime, one of the things I could do is get back into my Gaelic lessons; I had to give them up when my disc went but hopefully now I might be able to think about going back and pick up where I left off (with a bit of revision over the next few days...). Lessons start next week so if I continue improving then it might be doable and hopefully this time I won't get so frustrated at the slow pace. I'm ultimately hoping to be able to find a way to get some sort of qualification in it; I think for me it's the best way to stay motivated, but that costs money and these lessons are free...In the current economic climate I'm surprised they're still going at all but I'm certainly not complaining.

Going back to the whole surgery thing though: It's been a long journey to get to this point, mainly because my bog-standard, boring old prolapsed disc didn't present itself in the usual manner, which apparently confuses orthopedic surgeons who lack the imagination or foresight to actually listen to their patients (I'm not bitter...). Along the way I've tried to look into ways of dealing with it from a spiritual perspective, if anything to find comfort, and maybe grow and learn a little. I don't believe the gods are there to hold my hand and stroke my hair and make it all better, or shield me from the kinds of trials and tribulations that tend to come everybody's way now and then. Nor do I believe that when bad things happen that we're being punished for something we've done that's wrong...But I do believe that they can offer some comfort in the right circumstances while remembering that first and foremost, one must help oneself, because shit happens. And when it does, at least you're not alone.

So aside from seeking comfort and even perhaps a little wisdom and understanding in it all, I tried looking for the kind of things I could do. With limited success, to be fair (and funny how I revisit the subject almost a year to the day), but recently I did find something from an Irish source (though not too helpful to my circumstances) and an anecdote in Mary Beith's Healing Threads about a journalist who saw a wise woman about his sciatic problems back in the 70s, and he was given a thread to wear. Beith says that much to the man's surprise the threads worked until they got worn and broke, at which point the pain soon came back. So I thought that maybe I could do something like that myself; maybe not as effective as getting it from a bonafide fiosaiche or ban-fhiosaiche, but it's worth a try, right?

It so happened that while Rosie was helping me make the wind-chimes for the garden she found some extra wooden beads that were plain, so she painted them and snuck them upstairs to get Mr Seren to help her thread them. She then proudly presented them to me, saying I could take them with me to hospital and they'd help me get better. That seemed like the perfect sort of thing to adapt to my purpose, and so I have, though a bracelet isn't really feasible for a variety of reasons so I've made a sort of key ring instead.

And now...I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to get out and about; enjoy the beach, walk the dogs, take a walk through the woods and watch the autumn unfold...I managed to go pick some brambles just before I went into hospital and with the cold weather starting to bite hopefully I'll be able to go get some more soon. It's a bumper harvest this year:

I have some rounds to make, offerings and thanks to give. At times it's been a struggle to keep grounded and connected. I'm sure most people can agree that having to deal with pain or illness on a long-term basis can be incredibly wearing. Exhausting, at times. There are times when compromises have to be made, ambitions have to be lessened somewhat, or else there are just not enough spoons left to do much of anything at all. In amongst it all you can end up feeling a little lost or disconnected.

You learn to adapt, and work within your limitations as much as you can. You focus on what you still have - all the many wonderful things, and I'm not talking about faith or belief or personal practices, or material possessions or whatever; I'm talking about community as well. There's a ways to go yet but in amongst all of this the kind of support I've received from close friends (online or in real life, in or out of the CR community) and people I maybe don't know so well yet; people who've commented here with good wishes, or else listened patiently to me while I moan and wail, offered wise words and prayer, or sent the occasional wonderful surprise in the post that brightened my day more than you could know...I think in many ways those are the things have meant the most to me, and makes me realise not just how lucky I am, but how great this community can be.

I want to thank you all for that. Words seem a little inadequate, really. But seriously. Thank you.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Volume IV

There comes a point of blogging and trawling the internet where I'm not sure if I'm repeating myself...Have I said this before? Do I know this already? I'm not sure...I'll blame it on the painkillers.

Anyway, if I didn't already know this and haven't already posted this, then hurrah! Volume IV of the Carmina Gadelica is online:

Carmina Gadelica

It takes a while to load but the formatting is good. Volumes 1-3 are also listed there.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Plans for Gàidhlig-only village on Skye

I saw this on tumblr referencing The Times (which is behind a pay wall), and the only other source I can find on this at the moment is a teaser from The Press and Journal:

The new £40million village beside the Gaelic college at Sleat will include almost 100 new homes – from affordable to high-market seafront plots – college buildings for research and teaching, and a new conference centre. There are also plans for hotel accommodation, a retail outlet and cafe bar as well as sport facilities, a central green, and parks, paths and cycle networks.

But it certainly sounds like exciting news, and I just hope they can make this work without too much of a negative impact on the local environment.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


So this is happening on my rowan tree:

And some other rowans in the village, too. While the horse chestnuts and some other trees are already putting on their autumnal suits, the rowans can't decide on whether or not it's spring or autumn. It's not something I've ever seen before, though I'm sure it's not uncommon, and as far as the trees go it's only rowans that seem to be flowering again. The weather has been all over the place - further up north the first frosts have already been and gone, while here we're still basking in warm sunshine one minute, only to find howling winds and droves of rain hurling themselves our way the next. No wonder the plants are confused! The blackberries are starting to ripen but the main crop is still a week or two away, I think, unless we get more sunshine.

I've had to neglect the garden this year and things are pretty overgrown in the flower beds at the moment but I'm enjoying the wildness of it all, at least, and the bees certainly are too. This is the time where I should be cutting back all of the bulbs and so on that have finished flowering before they sow yet more bulbs to overcrowd the beds even further, but in the absence of being able to get my hands dirty right now, I'm trying to get out there and tend to things in my own way. I don't want to neglect my space completely, so instead of digging and pruning, decorating it is...

The rowan - which I planted four years ago now - has matured a little (after recovering well from getting Mungo'd in its first year - the dog managed to snap it in half in a manic frolicking session that ruined most of the plants. Sod) and the branches are thick enough to tolerate some things hanging from it. I think it will need a while yet before I can hang anything heavy, like a bird feeder, but some light decorations will do and I always intended to turn it into a clootie tree of sorts. So the first thing I've put on it are some 'wind-chimes', though I'm not sure bamboo can qualify as a "chime" per se:

I bought one of those do-it-yourself kits from the kids section of the local craft shop, and my capable assistant, Rosie, helped with the painting, with blues and reds for health and protection. A while before I'd found some tiny wee key charms with triskeles on them that I couldn't resist, so on they went too:

I was supposed to have gone back to my hometown for a visit last month but I just couldn't manage the journey at the time and in the end I had to cancel, so my wonderful friends posted me the belated birthday present they'd been holding onto - a paint your own birdhouse (thank you so much!). It was a lovely surprise and Rosie helped with painting that too (one of Tom's friends has decided to basically adopt us these days, so as usual they were busy playing together while Rosie and I were hard at work). With starting school last month Rosie's needed a little more quality time lately as she settles in to her new routine and she loves to do anything creative, especially if it provides an opportunity to do something good for the garden too. So the arrival of another wee project for us was great, and will make a great addition to the tasteful aesthetic I'm going for...

I've yet to find a home for the bird house, I'm still deciding on whether or not I should try putting in on the fence or maybe donate it to one of the trees in the field behind us, but it's finished now. I told Rosie that rowan berries can be dried and worn as a necklace (traditionally for protection, as with amber) and she's quite keen on the idea; I'm not sure making her a necklace is practical, but maybe drying the berries to make a garland for her room is something we could make a project of. I made the kids a rowan charm a while ago but their room is in need of redecorating, so it might be nice to add something new once it's done.