Saturday, 25 February 2012

A general guide to getting started

So you've read the CR FAQ and the brand spanking new Gaol Naofa FAQ along with a few other bits and pieces (oh, I dunno, like my site? How about the rest of Gaol Naofa, too? All good places to look, if I do say so myself...). You think you've got the basics down, and you think this is the right kind of path for you. You want to start doing stuff, but...where do you start?

I thought perhaps putting out a few thoughts together on this might come in handy for the beginner (although I can only claim the following to be my opinion); things are better than when I was starting out, but I think it can all still be a little bewildering for those who are still trying figure things out. Getting into the swing of Gaelic Polytheist practice can be a bit of a jarring experience at first, because part of the process involves getting used to an entirely different take on day-to-day life. So the first bit of advice I'd give is: Go at your own pace. Do what you're comfortable with, and build on it as quickly or as slowly as you feel works for you.

The second bit of advice I'd give is: Step away from the Llewellyn-type books. Any neopagan books, really. Seriously. Modern pagan books on 'Celtic' paganisms may offer some ideas and easy answers, but they are all terrible as far as research is concerned - even the ones that are better than most. They are almost always aimed at a Wiccan or wiccanesque audience, which is not a bad thing if you're Wiccan or wiccanesque in belief and practice, but Celtic Reconstructionism doesn't come under that particular umbrella. In many respects, CR's outlook, approaches and beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of Wicca or Wiccan-derived paths. Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, what you find in them has nothing to do with what you're now trying to put into practice, so it's kinda like looking to Catholicism in order to learn about being Mormon...Or whatever analogy fits best there...

The best place to start is with daily practices. Gaol Naofa has a good article on this, with some practical ideas, and I've given a few rambling ideas too, including a bit of rambling about the kind of sources you can look at to make your own prayers. It's good to get into the habit of making daily devotions because these can help you keep centred and connected. Prayers can be said anywhere - in the morning, over a coffee before you leave for work or school, before bed, during your morning run, or while you lie in bed mustering the will to get up and start the day. Even as you make your breakfast, lunch or dinner, clean the house; there are all kinds of different rites you can incorporate into your day. This article on Prayer in Gaelic Polytheism over at Gaol Naofa is especially helpful on the finer points of how and why we pray as Gaelic Polytheists, and it's well worth a read.

It can help to have your own space set aside for devotions. This can be a space for a candle, as well as a dish or plate for offerings and some items that represent the gods, spirits and ancestors, the three realms, and the place around you; things that articulate your beliefs and worldview, making a sort of microcosm, as it were. I have a shelf in my kitchen, which I see as a kind of central hearth for the home; the spiritual centre, if you will. I tend to make my offerings outside so rarely leave them on my shelf (or else I put them outside immediately after finishing ritual), but I focus a lot of my indoor devotions and rites there.

In addition to daily prayers, offerings (daily, weekly, or however frequently you feel is appropriate) can be a good practice to get into as well. Making offerings to the gods and ancestors is a good idea, but it's also important to build a relationship with the land spirits around you. Bioregionalism is a popular buzzword in the pagan community these days, and it's one that has a lot to offer the Celtic Reconstructionist. It's about trying to live in harmony with nature, and it's a process that begins at home; in doing so, it's a good way to start building a relationship with the nature spirits - even if you live in a very built up area.

You can honour the local spirits by making offerings to them, but you can also honour them in other ways, too, if these are possible: For example, buy local produce; look after your garden and try planting species that are native to your area, including ones that are attractive to bees, butterflies and all kinds of insects (or if you don't have a garden, try a window-planter, put out bird boxes and bug hotels, bird feeders and the like); grow your own fruit and vegetables - it's a good way to keep in touch with the seasonal cycles; feed the birds (a lot of folks incorporate these into their offerings, since a lot of different kinds of birds are commonly seen as Otherworldly agents); pick up rubbish as you find it in your area; and/or make an outdoor shrine for offerings and devotions. The general idea is to build a positive relationship with the land, and making offerings to the spirits, tending to the land and looking after it are all good ways of going about it. It's not always possible to do everything, for whatever reason, but you can do something.

Once you've got used to doing your daily observances, then it becomes easier to get on with adding a few more in. Ritual and prayer doesn't have to be lengthy and elaborate, and Gaelic Polytheism allows for the individual and individual groups to formulate their own liturgy so to a certain extent it can be built around your own needs. This is partly why there isn't an awful lot of liturgy out there, because a lot of folks prefer to find their own understanding and articulation of practice, and other people's words aren't necessarily helpful to your own circumstances. Having said that, it's probably fair to say that it's also partly to do with the fact that liturgy is a deeply personal element of practice and not everyone is comfortable with sharing such personal and meaningful material with strangers; that's a common view in the traditional cultures as well. So in spite of the fact that there may not be much out there, that's not to say that liturgy isn't important. It's just personal. There's nothing wrong with sharing liturgy, if you so wish, but there's no obligation to (there are some examples given in the Prayer in Gaelic Polytheism article if you want to take a look, though).

However you come to find your own words for prayer and ritual, looking to traditional sources is the best starting point. Since we are about tradition, that means we are focused on the kind of rituals and prayers that can be said again and again; repetition is important. Tradition is what gives us roots; it steadies us and gives us a solid foundation. By looking to traditional sources, by rooting our own practices in them, we might see ourselves walking in the footsteps of those who went before us; that is what tradition is about.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Book review: The Good People: New Fairylore Essays

The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Peter Narváez (Ed.)

The short version: This is a really good book and I'd recommend it to anyone. Be prepared for a dense read, though, but bear in mind that since this is a collection of essays you can dip in and out of it as you like. It's a much better read if you have a good grounding in the basics, so it's the sort of book that's good for when you want to go beyond the basics.

The long version: I think there's something for everyone here, and right off the bat I would say that I've found this to be an incredibly useful book during my researches for various different articles. Three or four of the essays have been particularly useful, while a few more have been a very interesting read in general. Not all of the essays are in my areas of interest, but some of them had a lot more to offer than I anticipated and they're well worth taking the time to read even if the subject matter doesn't immediately grab you.

There's a good spread of essays and different subject areas tackled, and one of the most interesting areas for me was examples of folklore survivals in Newfoundland; the diaspora is not something I know too much about, so that was particularly illuminating, and I think it can be safely said that anyone who tells you that the daoine sìth don't travel are full of the proverbial...There are a good selection of essays on Ireland and Scotland as well, and as far as looking for evidence on pre-Christian survivals in Ireland, Ó Giolláin's 'The Fairy Belief and Official Religion' is especially good reading. Margaret Bennett has some good offerings as usual, and there is also an article on the differences between witchcraft and the charms of the wise-women and wise-men who act against witches, which is extremely useful.

More recent permutations of fairy and folk belief are dealt with as well - the essay on the Cottingley Fairies fraud was interesting, looking at the claims and the reality surrounding the famous case, and the implications as far as survivals in fairy belief are concerned, etc. While it isn't particularly relevant to my own interests it's a subject I kind of grew up with, so that was a good read. All in all, though, this section was the part of the book I'm left feeling not especially enthused about - aside from the fact that my son's just lost his first tooth and the essay on the Tooth Fairy was topical, it's not the kind of thing I'm particularly interested in studying. The articles are good if that's the kind of thing you're looking for, but I have to admit that things like UFOs have never been topics I've found fascinating, really. I'm not sure I can do that section justice in review.

What really sells the book for me is everything but the latter part of the book, to be honest. Being a thoroughly academic tome some of the articles are surely a bit too dry for a spot of light reading, but I wouldn't say that this is a book that really needs to be read from cover to cover. I don't think you'd regret it, but certainly you'd still get your money's worth from it if you bought it just for the value of having it for research purposes, to dip into. Using the Google Books copy to search for whatever you're looking for is especially handy.

Being academic, there isn't much in the way of romanticism about the daoine sìth or anything like that. The contributors almost all approach their subject from a very detached view (Margaret Bennett is always an exception, though, I think), so of course you're going to be reading very objective and analytical essays that rationalise the beliefs. I can imagine that some people might find this rather unsympathetic, but I think I'm used to that kind of thing (and it's not that the authors don't have a point really - from an objective point of view, stories about the daoine sìth really can be seen as tools as much as tales of real or imagined experiences).

You should be able to find this book at a reasonable enough price, and it's definitely one I'd recommend unreservedly for the bookshelf; no, it won't answer every question you have, and it's not the sort of book that makes a good, basic introduction to the subject, but it's great for when you want to go beyond those basics. It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend for beginners, then, unless you really have a thing for academic articles (whatever floats your boat, m'kay?), but it's certainly one you'll want to get hold of at some point.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Children's ditty

I'm only posting this because I like cows and the idea of mooing in Gàidhlig tickles me. And baaing too, really. It's interesting how different languages articulate sounds like this differently. The ditty is from Speaking Our Language (Book I), but no tune is given:

Mo, mo, mo, chunnaic mise bò
Shìos air cùl a' ghàrraidh, mo, mo, mo.

Woo, woo, wooo, chuala mise cù
Bha e 'g ithe cnàmhan, woo, woo, woo.

Miau, miau, miau, ars an cat 's e 'g iarraidh
Iasg airson a dhiathaid, miau, miau,miau.

Thuirt an coileach gog 'nuair a fhuair e sgleog
'S bha a' chearc a' gàgail, gog, gog-gog, gog-gog.

Mea, Mea, mea, ars a t-uan an-dè
'S e air call a mhàthair, mea, mea, mea.

Iho, ars an t-each, 's ruith Iain beag a-steach
'G èigheachd mòr ri mhàthaair, O, mo chreach, mo chreach.

Moo, moo, moo, I saw a cow
Down beyond the garden, moo, moo, moo.

Woo, woo, woo, I heard a dog
He was eating bones, woo, woo, woo.

Mew, mew, mew, said the cat demanding
Fish for his dinner, mew, mew, mew.

The said gog, when he got a shock
And the hen was clucking gog, gog-gog, gog-gog.

Maa, maa, maa, the lamb said yesterday
When he lost his mother, maa, maa, maa.

Neigh, went the horse, Iain ran into the house
Shouting to his mother, Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Book review: Irish Customs and Beliefs

While I haven't had much time for reading recently, at least the latest one is a good one.

Irish Customs and Beliefs
Kevin Danaher

It's difficult to review a book when all you can think of to describe it is to say that it's 'charming.' And then wondering how patronising and twee it might be to use such a word...

Seriously, though, this is a book that's full of anecdotes and funny wee stories about Irish customs and beliefs, brought together by Kevin Danaher in a short but sweet volume. This is perhaps not what you'd call essential reading for the reconstructionist, but it's enjoyable nonetheless; it's the sort of book I'd recommend for anyone looking for an easy and relaxing read after they've spent a while concentrating on some heavier reading. It offers a nice change of pace from a lot of the more dry, academic sort of books that tend to go on reading lists, and while it isn't perhaps as helpful for the beginner looking for ideas of what to do, it's the perfect sort of book for someone looking to build on what they've already learnt.

This is not a book that concentrates on anything pre-Christian or even much that's older than 'living memory' in terms of the customs and traditions that are detailed, so anyone looking for that kind of thing needs to look elsewhere. What the book does do is give the reader a glimpse of Ireland of the past; an affectionate, slightly romanticised, but somehow at the same time very realistic, memory of a simpler time, captured by the kind of stories that you might hear at your Granda's knee. There's a little bit of everything - stories about old standing stones, castles, ghosts, the Good Folk, butter churning and day to day rhythm of life as well; Danaher covers all sorts of things, and the old tradition of the summer pastures is especially illuminating in some ways, because it deals with people's memory of it, not the technical aspects that are usually covered in the more academic books.

I would definitely recommend this one for the bookshelf, for anyone looking for an unassuming, undemanding read (just what I needed). There are a few gems in here that makes it a nice compliment to the drier sort of books, helping to give a more practical idea of customs that are otherwise something that are things of a bygone age. Maybe you won't be blown away, but the charm of the book is hinged on Danaher's humour and his own way of sucking you into the past with him; let him take you along for the ride and I don't think you'll regret it.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Where clouds are made...

There's something about this time of year that makes it both the best and the worst of the seasons for me. On the one hand we get the bitter winds that chill you to the bone, the endless grey skies and dreary rain, frosty mornings and black ice just lurking in the most inconvenient part of the road so you're guaranteed to slip over...

On the other, the sun is starting to get stronger and (on the rare occasion it comes out) when it shines you can feel it warming you up, and it all the moisture everywhere starts to evaporate and we get:

A place where clouds are made, where the land, sea and sky meets:

And then those clouds don't want to leave. For a while:

Perhaps Manannán is awandering.

I've been wanting to go down to the beach for a while; the air, the view, the sun on my face...There's something restorative about it. I've come a long way to live with this view almost on my doorstep, in lots of ways, and now I don't get to enjoy it as much as I'd like. I can't remember the last time I came down here and it was starting to make me restless, wanting to get back here and make some offerings, breathe in some fresh air and peace. Ahhh, at last.

Along the way, with the dogs and Rosie in tow, we marveled at how the mist was rising from the trees and the grass up into the sky, and I took Rosie on an adventure along a seekrit path where I showed her one of the amazing hidden things that kids should know about for when they're old enough to go off by themselves. The old steps to nowhere:

They really don't go anywhere, there's just a bit of greenery at the top, and then it's fenced off for gardens. Where it used to go I'm not sure either, but there used to be a castle round here somewhere and it's probably part of the old grounds. Now it's just home to the gangies and dens, the castles of kids' imaginations.

And on we walked down towards the sea. As part of kicking myself back into gear I'm going to try to take a walk around the village at least once a week so I can get back into making my offerings at certain points around the place. I might not always manage it, but something is better than nothing.

On our way home, we found a shiny green square of thick glass (some sort of tile or something) on the pavement; treasure as far as Rosie's concerned. Much nicer than stumbling across a dead crow in the middle of the street, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Là Fhèill Brìghde

Spring has been stirring already - unusually early for these parts considering previous experience - so celebrations began on time this year, and with less panicking than last year.

The trees are starting to grow their tiny leaf buds:

And the bulbs are proudly poking up through the ground and there are even some early daffodils thinking about blooming already. Aside from the storms I've been mentioning, we've had an exceptionally mild winter. There is snow on the mountain tops, across the water from us, but here we've only had a few slushy flurries so far. That's all changing, though; right now we're in the middle of a cold snap, which has finally necessitated putting the heating on to encourage ourselves out of bed in the morning.

We're getting an arctic blast just now, and apparently it will be hanging around. The day has dawned bright and frosty - sunny but bitter - I'm not sure whether that counts as fair or foul considering the weather prognostications for today, but according to the Met Office there's plenty of wintry weather yet to come.

Still, life is stirring.

The preparations began with the usual cleaning and tidying, and then, while Tom was still at school and it was just me and Rosie for the afternoon, we set about making our dealbh Bride. We all made one last year, but this time I didn't have time to include Tom in the preparations (I'm generally at my most able in the early afternoon, so I have to seize opportunities as they present themselves). I used his icon last year anyway, so this time I decided we should use Rosie's anyway.

She chose the colours and the materials for decoration, and I cut and bent things as necessary, and this is what we ended up with:

As we made the icon, I told Rosie about the story of Brigid, and how she would be coming to visit us in the night. I told her that the little icon we were making was so that Brigid would know she was welcome and that we were ready for her visit. This got Rosie very excited. "Mummy, we should make her a bed, in case she gets tired!" Thusly, Rosie set about with feathers and paper and glue to make a comfortable 'bed' while I did the fiddly bits for the icon. As she went about her work she said, "Can we put some food out for her as well? She might be hungry." Yes, I said, I will leave some of our dinner out for her, and pudding too. Sometimes it amazes me how a child's mind works.

As we began decorating the icon, Rosie decided that the lady who was coming to visit us must be a princess, because she has such pretty hair and such a lovely long dress. Ladies who wear long dresses must be princesses. But wait! What about pants? (Underwear). We can't make an dolly to welcome the 'princess' in and have it knickerless, that would be rude!

And so Rosie set about making a pair of woollen pants for the icon of a goddess.

After that, we sat about making our seasonal mural, which I put up in the kitchen for the quarter. I put some paper out and asked her what sort of things she thought of when she thought about Spring. "Flowers." So flowers it was. Then butterflies. Then flowers still in bud, because lots of things are still growing. And sunshine. Oh, and sailboats, so she stuck down the sea and made a boat to go on top. Then she drew in the sailor, but something was still missing...a surf board! In that went too. And green hills, with sheep! But we need a fence...

And this is how it ended up:

For once, the picture is totally Rosie's own idea, rather than something I've come up with, hence the gigantic flowers to the right and the blue sheep in the middle...Tom wasn't too interested in doing his own picture (he's less interested in artistic stuff, unless it involves computers, and after a long day at school that sort of thing probably seems like more work for a six-year-old). Instead, when Tom got home we made cakes, and I let Tom decide on the colour of icing. He decided he wanted blue, but said that maybe we should do some pink as well, because Rosie likes pink. So both it was:

The first batch I over-cooked, so I had to do another batch in the end, even though everyone insisted the slight crunchiness was yummy, but no! Everything must be just so. The burnt ones are offerings to the land spirits, as is traditional...

Then there was dinner - to be honest I didn't have any because I can't stomach much at the moment, so I had a bit of veg and that was that. Communal feasting is difficult when one cannot sit or stomach too much food, but there isn't much I can do about that, really. Everyone else enjoyed it, at least. Rosie told everyone that a special lady was coming to visit tonight, and could she stay up to meet her?

After the kids were in bed I needed some time to sit down and relax for a bit - it had been a busy day by my current standards, so while I would rather have spent the whole evening ritualising and quietly contemplating, meditating and generally being, it was going to have be somewhat shortened and done before bedtime while the next lot of painkillers did their magic.

Thankfully the dealbh Bride had dried, and so after my usual offerings and Good Wishing and saining and so on, my devotions began. I sang (or...attempted to...), and prayed, and welcomed Brigid in. As I opened the door to invite her in one of our cats came in and proceeded to make an unholy racket. In the end, I couldn't proceed to placing the dealbh Bride in her bed (the feather bed that Rosie had made, placed in the clay cros Bride basket I made last year) without carrying and fussing the cat at the same time, so that was definitely not how I expected things to go.

I managed to do everything I wanted but didn't have the chance to take time to contemplate outside as I like to; just take the chance to breathe and feel and think after I make my offerings to finish things off for the night. I had to go lie down, so I took myself off to bed and did the contemplation there instead. I felt restless and unsatisfied with myself in a way, because I wanted to be able to do things like I usually do, but at the same time I had to admit to myself that I can only do what my body is capable of, and things are going to have be different from now on. I should stop being so bloody stubborn. On the one hand, I think things were successful, but on the other I think being in such pain as I was meant I wasn't as focused or in the moment as I usually am. It was there, thinking and letting my body rest that I was finally able to feel, and focus. It was then that I felt connected.

I slept surprisingly deeply and well - a novelty for me these days, to be sure. Getting up was definitely easier than it has been for a long while, anyway. Tom spent the morning complaining that his tooth hurt, and sure enough he has his first wobbly milk tooth. Perhaps very apt, considering.

Today I've done some more devotions and will do some more baking if I'm up to it - some bannocks, perhaps - and then more offerings to finish off. There may be some colder weather yet to come, but that's par for the course in these parts. Even so, in this house at least, spring has been welcomed in; its promise has not gone unnoticed. I don't know how much I will be able to do in the garden this year, but I will at least be able to appreciate the warmer weather and the sun on my skin in the coming months, and the idea of that - after all the wind and rain and the dark cloud we've had - warms by bones just thinking about it.