Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A very Happy Hogmanay to you all

Here's to a very Happy Hogmanay and a wonderful new year!

While I take a break from watching Batman and getting everything ready for seeing the new year in this evening, I thought I'd do a quick post (and celebrate the fact that I finally found the charger for my camera, which I "put somewhere safe" after we got back from Ireland in July and hadn't seen since. I tried buying a new one, which never arrived, and finding another one proved difficult, so I'm glad it turned up. For future reference, behind the bedroom mirror is apparently a "safe place." Who knew).

I'm feeling rather introspective and thankful as the year comes to a close. As years go, 2014 hasn't been a terrible one at all, especially now that we're finally getting back on our feet, financially, after Mr Seren lost his job in 2012 (and let's hope that continues). As years go, that one pretty much sucked donkeys, but we got through it I guess.

But it's certainly not all been sunshine and roses this year - not least for the fact that Eddie finally popped his clogs. As these things go I guess it could've been worse, but a new addition to the family takes some of the sting away:

This is Oscar, a "border collie" puppy (honest) who's probably only a wee bit sheep dog all in all... We think there's a good chance he has a fair bit of Jack Russell in him, and Mr Seren's convinced there's a bit of husky in there too. His fur is very soft and fluffy like that and his tail does curl up like a husky-type dog, but I think it's wishful thinking on Mr Seren's part there. Either way, we think he's going to end up about sheep dog sized, but aside from the markings on his head there's not much that's typically "sheep dog" about him, aside from the boundless energy, maybe.

We weren't planning on getting another dog so soon after Eddie, but as it happened looking at cute puppies helped cheer me up and I saw that Oscar needed a home only a few days after Eddie died. With the kids so young it's difficult to get a dog through rescue centres, since they tend to be very cautious about rehoming older dogs and puppies are few and far between. We'd prefer to get a rescue, but if that wasn't going to happen we didn't want to go out and just buy a puppy. As it happened, Oscar had been with a family for three weeks, but one of the kids, who's autistic, wasn't coping with the change. They'd previously had a sheep dog so thought he'd be OK with it, but as with any puppy, Oscar's pretty full on at times and it proved too much for the kid. He started locking himself away and self-harming, and eventually the parents decided that it was better if Oscar was rehomed before something terrible happened. So I emailed the family and introduced myself, and they got in touch straight away. Two days later, after a couple of chats on the phone, we went to see him and brought him home with all of the bits and pieces they'd bought for him.

He was eleven weeks when we got him - he's just coming up 15 weeks now, and a bit bigger than he is in the photo there - and he's obviously been well looked after. He came from a farm - friends of the family, who gave him to them after their old dog died - and he's a very confident and outgoing little dog, and he's picking up commands and cues quickly. Though he often has a bad case of selective deafness... Hobbies include chewing, chewing, and more chewing.

Mungo's taken to him well and they've become good friends, and Mungo's a lot happier having someone to play with. With Eddie being as he was towards the end, he wasn't up for running around the garden play-fighting, and so on, so it's nice to see Mungo feeling a lot perkier these days. He was a little nervous of Oscar at first but Oscar's not exactly shy and Mungo was attempting to sit on his head and show him who's boss in no time.

Redding the house with a puppy to keep occupied has been an interesting challenge, to say the least. Tonight the kids are staying up to see the bells in, if they're good, and we'll be going to the in-laws for the usual steak pie tomorrow (probably with Oscar in tow). We have the candles lit and there's shortbread ready to go out as offerings after the bells have rung. Then we'll sweep out the old year and welcome in the new, and in the morning the house will be sained after a good breakfast.

If you check out the Hogmanay tag here on the blog you'll find some blessings and saining prayers I've posted over the years, if you're looking for inspiration. One of my favourites is:

Mor-phiseach air an taigh,
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 taighe,
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.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Yet more videos...

With the year drawing to a close it seemed apt to finish off our series on the festivals, and so in good time for the solstice and Hogmanay, Gaol Naofa has released two new videos (conveniently dealing with the solstice and Hogmanay respectively), which complete the festival year in the Gaelic calendar.

Considering the fact that a number of the festivals we've covered aren't Gaelic or pre-Christian in origin, it's no surprise to find that not every Gaelic Polytheist celebrates every single one. Each of them is significant in some way, when considered as being part of the bigger picture, as part of the continuum, but that doesn't necessarily mean all of them mean something to us on a personal, individual level. In the case of this particular festive period, I tend to pay more mind to Hogmanay than the solstice itself, because of the fact that it's a huge deal here in Scotland. Though with the kids finishing school today, and Mr Seren being on holiday as well, we'll inevitably end up having a whole festive thing, of sorts, until they get back to school come January...

Kathryn has a great post over on her blog that goes into some details about the traditions surrounding Hogmanay, and the Hogmanay video itself gives some details as well as a bit of context and history:

The music is by Clanadonia, who are good friends of my husband, so please support them! (This particular song is used in the first episode of Outlander, and at least one of the band members is in it as an extra. Just so you know...).

Anyway. Our video on the solstice has an overview of the origins and influences of the celebrations, and some things that you can do if you want to:

As Kathryn noted, I've used some of the photos I took during my visit to Ireland earlier this year (although I can assure you, the really good ones like the preview pic above aren't mine!).

Here, at home, we might indulge somewhat in a squidgy chocolate Yule log over the next few days (a family tradition I grew up with), and then there will be the usual cleaning and tidying - redding the house for the new year - and the lighting of many candles, which will fall to Rosie as her duty. The old year will be swept out, and the new year welcomed in, and then house will be sained, along with all of us in it. There will probably be the usual steak pie on New Years' Day at the in-laws (as is traditional in these parts), so we'll do some baking so we can take something with us as a gift. Tom loves baking, so he can take point on that. And we have a new puppy! So there will be a good opportunity to brave a trip to the beach and some other spots around the village so we can make some offerings and collect some water from the dead and living ford (there's one not far from here). All in all, there's plenty of things for us to be doing.

As always, I hope you enjoy the videos as much as I've enjoyed making them. While these two videos finish off our series on the festivals - thirteen videos in total - we intend to carry on with more, tackling some other topics in due course. We've had some requests for videos that people would like to see, and any more ideas are very welcome.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Saying goodbye

One of the first things I think I wrote about at the start of this year was about our old and ailing dog Eddie:

My dog, really, since I've had him since he was a pup. 

Although he'd begun to slow down and seemed to be struggling with hills at the start of the year, a change of food seemed to bring something of a revival. For how long that would last we didn't know, but as long as he was happy we decided to carry on.

This last month or so he'd begun having trouble with his eyes constantly gunking and then crusting up, which he wouldn't let me clean no matter what I did. In spite of a healthy appetite he was losing a lot of weight, as well, and his back legs were becoming a lot weaker. The pads of his feet seemed to have lost any kind of traction on smooth surfaces so unless he was in his bed or on carpet he'd get himself stranded if he lay anywhere else - usually in the kitchen, where the floor is tile or wood, so too slippery for him. A couple of times I had to rescue him at 4am or so and put him back to bed.

We had him checked over at the vet and she gave him antibiotics for his eyes, and noticed that there was a growth or mass of some sort near his back end. It was clearly painful and he wouldn't let her take a close look, but the writing was on the wall. Presumably that had a lot to do with his sudden decline. With the weightloss he was heading towards becoming dangerously underweight, and given his age and condition he wasn't going to survive any kind of surgery, whatever the problem was. I wouldn't want to put him through that, anyway. 

So he came home with antibiotics and strong painkillers, with instructions for us to bring him back the next week. For the first few days he perked up a lot, and seemed to have a lot more energy, but we didn't kid ourselves - it was never going to be for long. The aim was to make him more comfortable, and that was it. It wasn't clear how long he had, but at least we could hope that he wouldn't be suffering.

The antibiotics helped improve his eyes, but it wasn't enough to cure it. The next week the vet decided not to continue with them, because it was only going to end up leading to a resistant infection, which would make the situation a whole lot worse. In spite of our best efforts, he'd lost yet more weight and was now at the point where he was borderline. The vet said we could try giving him some puppy food, but while it would be high in calories, it was also high in protein and that would put a strain on his liver and kidneys. If we wanted to try it, we could, but either way with the infection and the mass... it was time to have the conversation and think about what we wanted to do for him. If he lost any more weight then he'd be dangerously thin. She tried having another look at the mass and said it was likely his prostate, but by this point there could be other things involved. Without further tests it was hard to say.

We brought Eddie home again, with more painkillers for the next couple of weeks before we had to take him back. And I thought about what to do. My main worry was his weight, because at a certain point his body would basically be unable to support itself, and I didn't really have any way of knowing where that point was, I just knew it was close. If the weighloss continued at the rate it had been, he wouldn't last a week. Another worry was the mass, and the obvious discomfort it was starting to give him. Even with the strong painkillers he'd started to randomly yelp out in pain when he moved. It wasn't long, once he was off the antibiotics, that his eyes started to gunk up again, which was making him miserable. I decided I couldn't let him suffer. I couldn't watch him decline even further just for the sake of a few more weeks, if that. As much as he still loved to go out for walks, as much as he still liked to sit out in the rain for hours on end, it was obvious he was tired. So, so tired. 

And so I made the call. I booked him in for a few days later, when Mr Seren happened to be working from home, so he could take us to the vets. And those few days were awful. There were a lot of tears, and a lot of effort put in to try and keep the kids from knowing, because it seemed unfair to put them through that. Sometimes, just for a moment, I'd convince myself we could put it off, because look! He's all happy to go walkies! And then he'd yelp. He'd collapse down in his bed and look fed up as he nuzzled at the fabric of his bed to try and clean his eyes. As soon as I tried to clean them he'd just cry mournfully. 

The day before we took him in, I took him and Mungo for a long and final walk, through the woods and then down to the beach. More than anything, Eddie loved to swim. In his younger days he'd go out and rescue stick after stick, my little selkie dog:

His mass of fluff and fur would slick down and reveal his small frame and his skinny legs with his silly feet, tufts of tan fur that always stuck up between his toes no matter what. 

But rivers, canals, ponds, the sea - you name it, Eddie would swim in it. His first time swimming in the sea was when we were staying with my mum down in Suffolk, and my sister and her family had come down as well. We went for a trip to the beach and my brother-in-law spent hours with him in the sea. Eddie drank a little too much sea-water that day, and as we were going through an amusement arcade the sea-water came right back up with a full English breakfast my brother-in-law had snuck him that morning. Eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms... Probably a bit of fried bread and tomatoes, too. Eddie must've inhaled it instead of chewing it, and no wonder he was so thirsty. But as the incriminating evidence lay on the floor for all to see Eddie just grinned and wagged his tail as I told my brother-in-law off. Dogs eat dog food for a reason, Jeremy. 

To be fair, though, Eddie never tried drinking the sea again. 

When Eddie wasn't colluding with my brother-in-law or rescuing sticks he would be singing the song of his people:

A proud and happy song of excitement and (probably) sticks that needed rescuing.

So I decided it was time for one more trip before the inevitable. He had a wee bit of a swim, but mostly doddered about while Mungo did Operation Rescue Stick. It's not that it's December now and he had a sudden burst of common sense about freezing his bits off in the water all of a sudden, he just wasn't up to much more than doddering around. Common sense has never been Eddie's forte. 

He sang his song one last time:

And chewed on a stick (the only way to stop him singing his song) before we took one last stroll over the rocks. I stopped for a while and said some prayers for him - to Manannán and Clota of the river and sea, and to Donn - and made some offerings to them before we came home. It was a thankfully quiet day so we weren't disturbed.

The next day, after the kids went to school, we took him in. The vet checked him over and shaved a bit of his foreleg, and then gave the injection while I stroked and fussed him. He went quickly, and peacefully, and a fair bit of my snot got blown into tissues as I said my goodbyes. And that was it. It was a moment I'd been dreading, being there as he died. Seeing his lifeless body. It's not how I wanted to remember him, but at the same time I felt I had to be there, as an honour to him. We'd been through so much together, how could I not? Mr Seren offered to go in with him, or else the vet would have done it without us. But I couldn't not be there. 

The house is strangely empty and quiet now. No more little snuffles and snorts, or incessant sneezing and snuffling as he's being fussed. No more happy noises as you find the tickly spot on his belly. Mungo's been subdued, wanting to be left alone in between reassuring cuddles; I'm not sure if he knows what's happened, really. Part of me wonders if he's sulking because Eddie's obviously having a really long walk, and it's not fair, or maybe he's worried he's going to be next. Grumble (the cat) is sulking because now there's one less dog to torment or steal food from. The kids have taken it well, though. I wasn't expecting Tom to be as upset as he was, but I think it's more because he knew how upset I was than he was feeling sad for himself that Eddie had gone. There were tears, and questions, but they'd known it was coming at some point soon so it wasn't a total surprise. 

He was 15 years old, a good age for a dog. Especially a dog like Eddie, who did his damnedest as a puppy to give himself as short a life as possible and may or may not have given himself mild brain damage after choking on a bead (twice). Before I took him on, I hasten to add. At the time, the vet said not to expect him to live beyond seven or so, given the neurological deficits. I think in the end it turned out he was just not the brightest dog this world has ever seen...

He's been with me longer than Mr Seren has, and he was with me through some particularly tough times. And I wish I could think of something deep to finish off with, but all I can think to say is that I miss him already. But at the same time I'm glad for him, because I know he's not in pain anymore. He's not suffering, or struggling, or wasting away before our eyes. As I said to the kids, it's just the way things go, isn't it? We live, we grow old, and sometimes we get to do the kind thing for our pets. 

I'm still pretty agnostic when it comes to the whole afterlife deal. I'm not keen on the whole eternity thing, really. On the one hand, I can get on board with the whole reincarnation idea, though. On the other, I kind of like the vagueness of just "going west," out across the waves to the House of Donn or wherever else it might be. It's certainly easier to think that Eddie would be out there, frolicking in the waves.

Maybe the next time we're down at the beach we'll hear an echo of his song. I do hope so. My little selkie dog. 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Book Review: Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry

As I mentioned a good while ago, I treated myself to a copy of Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland, which was released earlier this year. I've been working my way through it sloooowly because as much as I'm enjoying it, it's not exactly light bedtime reading. And I'll be honest, in an effort to encourage Tom to branch out from the reading a set of I Wonder Why... books so much he can now recite them almost verbatim, I bought the full set of Harry Potter from the charity bookship at the train station for him, and read the whole lot myself. So I got a bit sidetracked (but it did pique Tom's interest and he's on book four now, so it worked...).

Anyway. I'm about half-way through the Celtic Cosmology book, but in between working my way through articles from there I've been doing some other reading. One of those is Kenneth Jackson's Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, which doesn't have the most exciting title, but it does have some good stuff in there, so I think it's worth a review.

Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry
Kenneth Jackson

Kenneth Jackson was one of the big names in Celtic Studies from the 1930s up until the mid-twentieth century, and he was a linguist as much as a historian. He studied and translated early Irish poetry and mythology (along with works in other languages), and gave a hugely influential and inspirational lecture in the 1960s that declared the Ulster Cycle "a window on the Iron Age." The lecture was so well-received at that time that it was then published as a small book. This isn't that particular book, but I think it's an important point to mention, because it shows where he's coming from. Jackson was one of the great Nativists, as they're called these days, and he viewed the myths that survived in medieval manuscripts as evidence of a conservative and thriving oral tradition. Academics have since challenged his views on this and other things, but his work remains an important contribution to the field.

This is a book that was first published in the 30s, so it's difficult to consider it without accounting for its age or context. It's something that I've never really had the chance to sit down and read from cover to cover before now, though I was familiar with its contents, but I'm glad I had the chance. In spite of its age, and the fact that yes, he's calling it "Celtic" when he's really only talking about Irish and Welsh poetry, there's some genuinely good stuff here. Some of it may be outdated now, but it's worth a read regardless.

The book is split into two parts (kind of), with the poetry given first, followed by a number of essays that discuss the various themes that crop up in them. As the title suggests, we're dealing with poetry that focuses on nature in particular, and the poems are split into Irish and then Welsh translations. It's a shame the original Irish or Welsh isn't given as well, but in theory, if you know where to look you can find a good portion of it online at (the Irish, anyway. I really couldn't say about the Welsh). It seems that this book isn't out of copyright itself yet, but much of the source material is.

Jackson gives his own translations of the poems and there are some notes that explain where and why he's chosen to translate something differently to other versions that are available (by authors like Kuno Meyer or Whitley Stokes, for example). This helps give some clarity to the way he's rendered some verses, and over all he seems to have a good feel for poetry so he does a good job of giving the intended (or apparent) meanings while making the translations readable. That helps the beautiful imagery and turns of phrases to shine through, and while I don't have a head for poetry myself, I can appreciate those who do. I do think you lose something without being able to see the verses in the original language, but still. It's better than nothing and this is the way it was often done back then, in books intended for a more general audience if not in articles you find in journals.

In some cases I wouldn't be surprised to find that the translations Jackson has given are still the most up to date and widely available versions, but I couldn't say that for sure. The poems are grouped together so examples that are of a similar age or focus can be found easily and that allows for quick reference and comparison, especially if you want to look back over the poems as you read the commentary given in later chapters. Some of the Irish poems are very obviously hermit poetry - poems written by Christian hermits who chose to take themselves out of society, to live alone in solitary spiritual devotion - and as such the poems talk about the surrounding the hermits could see as they sat in their hut. In their isolation, the birds and animals become their companions, and in the absence of the monastery kitchens they talk about the rich pickings they might forage for in the forests around them. Some of them are more obviously secular, and these are the ones that raise some of the most interesting questions for me.

Jackson's theory, in one of the chapters that follow the poems themselves, is that these secular poems that announce and seem to rejoice in and celebrate the arrival of the seasons, are evidence of the kind of hymns or carols that may have been sung in a pre-Christian setting. It's certainly tempting to want to believe that, in spite of the lack of hard evidence, but Jackson's fervour on the subject makes me easily convinced. Plus there's no real reason to think they wouldn't have songs like that, when it tends to be such a universal thing, and so far it's not something that's really been discussed much. In that respect, I think the poems are going to be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists because it raises questions on how we ourselves might greet the seasons, and how we can incorporate the poems or liturgy into that. Or, for those of us who have the head for it, compose our own poems or songs. I'll leave that endeavour to people who won't butcher the good name of poetry and poets everywhere, don't worry.

But I think this book is a good one to have on the shelf, even if some of it needs careful consideration as a product of its time. It's not a hefty tome, and it's a fairly easy and engaging read as more academically focused books go. Although I can't really comment much on the Welsh side of things, even if it's not my focus or real area of interest there's no denying that there are some beautiful examples there, too. Although Jackson himself doesn't really go into it, one of the big things in Celtic Studies at the moment is looking at just how much influence and feedback between Ireland and Wales there really was at the time, so that's something to consider too.

I think this would be of interest to anyone, whether a beginner or someone more advanced, who may be looking for insights into the kind of attitudes there may have been towards the immediate environment, the turning of the seasons, and for possible inspiration when it comes to devotional pieces or liturgy. This one's definitely a keeper for me, and one I'll get good use out of in future.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Auntie Pancake's Samhainn party

Samhainn started early for us here, with a flying visit from my nephews (brought here with my mother, who was on babysitting duties for their half-term holiday). Their journey up here was fraught with difficulties and delays - first mum blew two wheels on her car during an attempt at avoiding a pheasant, and had to postpone her travel plans by a day to get them fixed, and then they got stuck on the motorway after a traffic accident closed the whole northbound side of the road. Then, just as they approached Glasgow as it was getting close to midnight, they discovered that the motorway that would take them to here was closed for the whole night. Mum gave up and got a hotel in the end.

So they got here over a day late in the end, and it put our original plans a little off kilter. The most important order of business for the weekend, however, was going to happen come hell or high water, and you'll have to excuse the poor quality of photos because my camera charger is still missing, so I had to rely on my mother's expertise with her tablet. I'd promised the kids a Hallowe'en party, and aside from the chocolate pancakes (which my youngest nephew insists must happen for breakfast everyday when he comes to visit, and he now calls me Auntie Pancake because he loves them so much, and as far as he's concerned it's probably all I'm good for, but oh well. Who doesn't love a good pancake?), the party was all that had to happen that weekend. It was a little disorganised because I'd hoped to prepare a bit more before we did it, but the kids wouldn't wait. I'd managed to put up some spooky decorations beforehand, at least.

Once mum arrived with the boys we took some time to catch up and have lunch, and mum unloaded the car of all the officially tasteful crap she was offloading on me (I now have a decorative cow bell that needs a home...). She'd brought a photo album of all of her relatives (and some of my dad's) so we took a look through all of those and she told me who they all were and so on. Most of them I'd seen before, but until now they were always just faces in old photos. Mum told stories and memories she had of each of them, and Rosie was especially interested in it all, and found "Gertrude" ridiculously hilarious as far as names go. We spent a good hour looking at all the pictures and talking about family stuff.

I appreciated mum bringing the photos up, and hopefully one day I'll get copies of them so I can make my own album and write stuff down about everyone. I only have a few photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents that I can show the kids, and we look at them each year at Samhainn as part of the ancestral focus for the festivities, so for once we could go a bit further back and now I have a few more names to add to my prayers.

For the kids, though, the best bit is the games and the food, so after an afternoon out we got down to the fun stuff. First of all we had to do the costumes. I'd bought them all matching pyjama onesies with glow-in-the-dark skeletons, so they put those on (even my eldest nephew, who's not so keen on dressing up). Then we had facepainting - Tom opted against it, so he brought his scythe out so he had something "special" for his costume too:

After that we did some lantern carving. I took charge of the tumshie while the kids got on with the pumpkins, and we talked about why we carve lanterns, and why I was carving a tumshie instead of a pumpkin. My mother, who's always insisted Hallowe'en is an American invention, made a point of sniffing loudly in disapproval.

We initially divided the kids into two teams so they could scoop one pumpkin each, but Tom's always been squeamish about pumpkin innards and soon lost interest. Rosie and my youngest nephew eventually decided it was hard work and they'd rather design the faces we were going to carve, so Tom joined in with that instead. My eldest nephew went at the pumpkin guts with gusto, though:

We have a deal now. He's going to come up every year to help.

After we'd got the faces carved, we lit our lanterns with great ceremony (the kids let off Hallowe'en themed party poppers I'd bought them as I lit the lanterns with a quiet prayer), and then we filled the room with candles so it was all atmospheric. While dinner was cooking - just a load of finger foods and stuff like that - we started on the party games. There was the requisite dookin', which my nephews had never done before and who thought it was the best thing ever:

Youngest nephew wasted no time trying to "help" his older brother, as you can see.

After the dookin' and then Lots of Food we had a disco in the dark (so they could see all of their skeletons glowing), and more games, like musical statues and that kind of thing. Eventually we wound things down with Dr Who and popcorn before bedtime.

And that was part one of our celebrations. Part two came the week after, on Oidhche Shamhna itself, and once again the house was tidied and made ready, fresh lanterns were carved in preparation, and I was forced to get up way too early to do Rosie's facepaints so she could look the part in the school parade that day:

Tom was originally going to go as an Enderman from Minecraft (following on from his Minecraft Steve costume last year), but in the end he was rather taken with the scythe and the costume he ended up with, so he went as the "Master of Doom" instead. Rosie went as "Devil Girl," which is based on a personalised character she likes to play in Minecraft.

The kids were keen to go guising that night, and we invited one of Tom's friends to join us - he lives on a quiet street where nothing much goes on, so we offered to take him around. We invited one of Rosie's friends as well (just to be fair), but she was going to her dad's that evening, so the friend's mum invited Rosie round to play and go guising a bit early on their street instead. She returned with a good haul, and she and Tom tucked into some spooky strawberries I'd attempted while they waited for Mr Seren to get home, and for Tom's friend to turn up. A friend sent me a link to some spooky foods, but in the end I only had time for these and some lychee "eyeballs." The kids were impressed, though, although I still suck at piping chocolate:

As it got dark we lit the lanterns and made some offerings to get the evening started, and when the friend turned up we had a bit of a disco while Mr Seren had a few minutes to sit down and take a deep breath after getting home from work. Then they went out, leaving me to hand out treats and do battle with Mungo, who was determined to say hello to everyone no matter how much I tried to keep him out of the way. Doors are trivial obstacles when there are people here to give Mungo fuss.

Most years we have loads of kids come to our door, so I'd prepared a load of goodie bags to hand out in advance so I could stay on top of things and - for once - not have to panic about running out too soon. Obviously that meant that I got about half way through the goodies when it started humping it down outside - it was an absolute torrential downpour. Most people gave up after that so we were stuck with masses of treats leftover, along with all of the goodies the kids brought back.

Going by experience now, I didn't bother cooking a huge meal seeing as the kids would be so loaded on sweets, and tired, by the time they came home. So we just had a wee picnic in the living room, with some fresh bread, cold meats, and finger foods etc. The kids shared their sweets out and traded the ones they didn't like with each other, and we watched a bit of Casper together while they chilled out before bed. I was going to let them stay up so we could have a wee vigil together, past midnight, but they were so exhausted after all the excitement they didn't make it past ten. At least that left me with time to myself, to do some devotions and my own observances without distraction. I was too tired and sore to sain the house, so that happened later on, but a little time for some contemplation was just what I needed.

I woke up early the next day - before dawn - and got up to see the sun rise. It was a little chilly that morning, but pretty still and dry, and I was greeted by the birds swooping around and enjoying the first rays of light. I made some more offerings, putting the food I'd left out overnight for the ancestors, and sained the house later on.

As busy as it all was, it felt like a quiet, but successful celebration this year. The only thing we didn't get done was finishing off a hobhouse that Rosie wanted to make to replace the one she made a while ago. The salt dough we used that time just hasn't lasted, so this time we went with proper clay (I offered to help Tom make one too, but he opted to sculpt a dinosaur instead, to keep a mosaic dinosaur he made recently company). The hobhouse is just waiting to be painted and then put in place, but Rosie's procrastinating on it because she's worried it's going to be horrible and it's all going to go wrong, and the brownie will be unhappy with it. Such is the nature of Rosie. She's been asking to write a blog, though, and while I think she's too young to have her own blog online, publicly, I've suggested that she could write a post about making her hobhouse, which she can post here once it's all done. She's keen to do that and she's also wanting to give the brownie their new home, so hopefully that will happen soon.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Getting ready for Samhain

For as long as I've been doing this - for ten years now - I've been striving to find a good balance between focusing on doing (or more to the point, figuring out what the doing entails) and experiencing.

To begin with, in the early days of figuring out what I could do and how I could express myself in ritual as I celebrated the festivals, I concentrated an awful lot of energy on making sure I did stuff and making sure that what I was doing was as authentic as I could make it. Was I doing it all right? In the right order? What if I missed something out that was really important? Over time I learned - with a little wisdom from friends - that perhaps I was concentrating on the details a little too much. I realised that I needed more of a balance between doing stuff and actually appreciating why I was doing these things. I realised I was getting so caught up in trying to make sure I was doing things right that I was getting distracted from actually appreciating the experience.

So from that point I eased off on worrying about the details and focused more on the experiential side of things, focusing on why I was doing all of this, and who for. And I suppose it became easier to do that because I had a little more experience anyway - once I accepted that not everything was always going to go according to plan, not everything would be able to fit in nearly, I realised that I'd managed to figure out a comfortable rhythm and pace for my ritual expressions, and had a better idea of the kind of things that worked for me, things that didn't, and where my own limits were. I was becoming more confident, which helped free up space to concentrate on finding more of a connection with the gods, spirits, and ancestors. I'd finally accepted that it's all well and good trying to fit a bunch of stuff in, but if you try to do so much that you end up too focused on ticking off things on your To Do list than actually appreciating why you're doing any of it, things will always be more stressful than spiritual. Which kind of becomes self-defeating, really.

Things evened out a little and I felt more settled. But then as the kids got older and began asking questions, I realised that while my personal practice was sorted, all of a sudden I was having to figure out how to explain things to the kids and engage them as well. The good thing about all that is that it keeps things fresh. As their perspective changes, so does mine. The hard part is that as they're constantly changing and growing (mentally, emotionally, physically), you have to readjust your own ideas about what they can really grasp, and try to gauge just how much they can take on board at any one time. But on the whole, as a family, we have a good rhythm going when it comes to celebrating the festivals now - I know what I'm doing (hurrah!), the kids know what to expect, and rub their hands with glee at the prospect of yummy food and fun stuff to do. And so on. So that's good. Something's working.

At the same time, I'm still trying to maintain that balance between the doing and the experiencing, as well as balancing the needs of my kids along with my own. As much as we have the bare bones of our festival practices down, I like to add in a few different things for each festival so things stay fresh. It's easy (for me, I guess I should add) to get complacent about what we're doing when it's all been done before, and I don't want the kids to get bored, either. So finding new stuff to do - even if it's just trying out a new recipe or two for the feast, buying new cookie cutters to make different kinds of decorations or treats this time round, and so on - is something I always try to think of, to add to our festival repertoire and make the occasion special.

So for this Samhain, I've started getting things going already. One of the things I like to do for each festival is clean and tidy the house from top to bottom - as best I can, considering I'm not always physically capable. At the moment my back's in an OK state (touch wood) so I've decided to get on with some of the bigger tasks that need dealing with. First off, there's decorating the kitchen, which we haven't done anything to since we moved in, and it was starting to look shabby. So all the dents in the walls have been filled in and smoothed out, and painted over. All of the random crap that accumulates on the kitchen sides has found a home (or been stuffed into a cupboard or drawer if it can't be thrown out, more like), and pictures that have needed a place to hang have finally gone up (including the very tasteful cow-themed coasters I got last Christmas, which I vowed were too good to use and needed to be framed).

Next up is tackling the hallway, which is also looking a little worse for wear as well. We have some more bits and pieces that need to find a home up on the walls, but also, since we're getting to Samhainn, I want to finally get around to making a dedicated space for my ancestors. I'm pretty limited in what I can do there because I don't know much about most of them (my grandad was adopted, my nan won't talk about her family except in general terms, so there are big gaping holes there). Things are a bit less murky on my mother's side, but I don't really know any names beyond my grandparents. I know mum has a fair few photos, though, so I've asked her to send me some. Most of them are pretty crap in quality, but there's enough that I can get started with - if not up on the walls, then in a photo album that I can annotate, or something. My original plan was to put them up in the kitchen, on the wall opposite my wee shelf shrine, but Mr Seren isn't too keen on the idea of eating his dinner in the presence of a wall of dead people (least of all his mother-in-law's relatives, I guess!). So I'll figure something out.

And finally, my nephews are coming up this weekend for a short visit with my mother (it's their half term next week), so I'm planning a Samhainn party for the kids this weekend. With the kids wanting to go guising with their friends at Hallowe'en it's much easier to do the partying separately now. We've yet to sort costumes out for the day, but Tom has a glow in the dark skeleton onesie that he wants to wear for the party and I might get my nephews and Rosie some matching outfits so they can all dress up. I have some pumpkins and tumshies at the ready for carving, and I'm looking up some ideas for vaguely traumatising party food - Frankenstein's finger sandwiches, ghostly fishcakes and "eyeballs" made out of lychees to go in some witches' brew, that sort of thing. Seeing as I was never allowed to celebrate Hallowe'en as a kid my mother will no doubt disapprove, but tough.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

New video: Samhain

As soon as the leaves start to change colour, everybody starts getting excited about Samhain...

So continuing on with the series of videos we've been doing on the festival year, we've just finished the latest one in plenty of time for Samhain. This is the longest one to date, but that's because there's just so much to talk about and it's difficult to do it all justice in five minutes or less. Kathryn took the lead on this one and did an amazing job - I think this is my favourite video so far:

We asked people over on the Gaelic Polytheism group to help us out and contribute some photos and we got an amazing response from folks. We couldn't fit everybody's contributions in, but we appreciate every single photo that we received and we hope we can find a home for them in future videos. Thanks to each and every one of you for your support!

Hand in hand with this video I think it's a good time to repost one of the videos we released last time, around Lùnastal:

The Prophecy of the Morrígan from Cath Maige Tuired is as relevant to Samhain as it is to Lùnastal, so it's well worth a watch (again)! Also in our festival playlist, we have a video on turnip carving if you're looking for some pointers; you can find it by clicking on the wee arrow next to the "playlist" link in the top left of the video, then scroll down towards the bottom, or else I've done a walk-through guide over on Tairis. Some links you might find useful:

Those of you in the southern hemisphere might find this video worth watching instead, however, as you head towards Bealltainn:

The Samhain video completes the four Quarter Days in the Gaelic calendar, and we have two more videos to come on Midwinter and Hogmanay traditions to complete the festival year as a whole. After that, we intend to come full circle, as it were, and do a video on the festival year in general (which is probably where we should have started, but oh well!). And then... Who knows? If there are any subjects you'd like us to tackle, that relate to Gaelic Polytheism in some way, feel free to weigh in on the comments!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Lùnastal and Vikings (Yarr)

I haven't updated much recently so there's a bit of catching up to do...

Lùnastal was celebrated, and it was kind of an odd affair in some ways. We celebrated on time, getting the house in order and having a festive meal, making the bonnach Lùnastain:

Saining the house and playing some games, offering to Taillte and Lugh. All the usual stuff we do for Lùnastal.

It kind of snuck up on me, but now I'm more experienced I don't tend to take as much time planning and generally flapping and flailing about making sure everything's ready as I used to when I was just starting out. But over all the festival seemed more drawn out than usual. It's not unusual that we might take a few days to celebrate a festival, so we can fit everything in and get it all done without overdoing it, but this year Lùnastal was more drawn out than ever. I'd had an idea that we'd have a family celebration and then carry on with the festivities at my great-niece's first birthday party, which would involve lots of games and things for the kids to do that tie in with the festive theme, and that's what happened there (the kids had a great time at the party, in spite of the slightly disturbing giant Peppa Pig who came in with the birthday cake...). But although everything was successful and our offerings and songs seemed to be well received, there was a feeling that things weren't finished.

Usually, given the fact that it's a festival of first fruits, I like to incorporate that into the festivities and make it the major focus, and I never really felt much of a connection to Lùnastal until we moved here, to where we live now, and I was able to start a vegetable patch and put in some fruit bushes. Harvesting our own fruits and veg helped reinforce the significance of the festival, and bring it closer to home. But this year, I didn't have anything to harvest from the garden, really. The long winter and late spring we had seems to have put paid to any blueberries this year, and I decided against growing any vegetables because I had to admit to myself that I just can't manage it - there was too much work needed with replacing the containers and compost I've been using for the veg, and it was pointless trying to fudge it and do it anyway because the containers were clearly going to fall apart as soon as I touched them. I just decided to accept that we'd have to make do with a festive feast made with seasonal foods - the first new potatoes of the season, and that kind of thing - from the supermarket instead.

It's been a really warm and sunny summer this year, though, and that means the blackberries have been exceptionally early and there are tons of them, too, extra fat and juicy. I had an idea that the brambles were going to ripening earlier rather than later, but hadn't quite anticipated that they'd be ripe and ready well before the end of August. Usually they don't ripen until mid-September, but this year they ended up ripening by mid-August. So a couple of weeks after our Lùnastal festivities began, we were able to finish things off with the harvesting of our first lot of autumn fruits, which the kids insisted had to become a blackberry and apple crumble:

And if I do say so myself, it's the best one I've ever done. It didn't last long...

Harvesting the berries gave a sense of closure and the sense of rounding things off that had been otherwise lacking, and with hindsight I kind of wish I'd waited a few weeks and celebrated a little later. In between the start and finish, things just felt a bit up in the air. The kids had fun, though, and the heavily laden bramble bushes are just about the best thing ever as far as Rosie's concerned, especially. Free food. To her mind, it should be autumn all year round.

So that's Lùnastal all caught up. Then came a local festival at the end of August, celebrating the final defeat of the Vikings in Scotland (the decisive battle happening just down the road from us, where the festival takes place). So I dragged the kids along and they had fun at the fair, both of them choosing a bow and arrow set as a prize for Hook a Duck, having a run around one of those haunted houses and so on, and then we went to watch the re-enactors demonstrating some Viking "battle" tactics and fighting techniques. I think it's fair to use the term "technique" loosely there...

There were all kinds of stalls, too, and the kids got to stroke some owls at one of them:

Including Hedwig, I think?

And then we went to the Viking village, where the re-enactors do a bit of living history, demonstrating how they lived, slept, ate in those days, and so on. Rosie was fascinated by the wolf and fox skins on the bed:

And was torn between being sad at the fact that the animals were dead, and loving how soft and snuggly they feel. Check out the very authentic Viking wall hanging at the back there...

The kids also had the chance to have a go at some archery again:

Tom's enthusiasm makes up for his lack of expertise, I'm sure. He thought the target on the left was hilarious (it's a naked dude covering his "winky" with his axe. I've no idea where Tom got "winky" from...):

It was a good afternoon out and we brought Mr Seren some fudge back with us (he was working).

Now, as the autumn's well and truly under way, thoughts are inevitably turning to Là Fhèill Mìcheil and then Samhainn, which I might waffle on about in another post. Hopefully soon we'll have some more videos to post as well.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Tairis really is back up this time...

Tairis really is up and running again now... Or perhaps not running as such, but limping awkwardly.

Thanks to a number of technical things beyond my understanding conspiring against us, the initial update and reinstall crapped out spectacularly. All I know is that it wasn't my fault, so that's one thing, I guess. But it means that at the moment the website's back up on a very basic template, so some of the formatting may be a little wonky here and there and it won't be looking its best. Aside from not looking too pretty, it also means that there are a few things that need fixing - namely all of the internal links and footnotes. I'm hoping that once Mr Seren has some time going spare he can fix things with his website magic, but if that just doesn't happen any time soon then you're going to have to bear with me while I fix things manually. I'll keep you posted with any further developments.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Book Review: A Single Ray of the Sun

Apparently it's been a whole year since my last book review...

I haven't had much of an excuse to splurge on books and fun stuff like that in quite a while, but this last week I decided it was time to treat myself. It was only going to be so long before I gave in and splurged on Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland, and if you think about it, waiting a whole month or so after its official publication is actually pretty restrained of me. Right?

I'm still waiting for that one to arrive, but the other two I ordered came pretty quickly. The first one I picked out is The Cailleach of Sligo, and I'm only two chapters in but finding it thoroughly disappointing. Oh well, you can't win every time, I guess; if I ever end up finishing it, I'll probably review it but I can see it's the sort of book I'll only ever be half-hearted about tackling. The second book I ordered is the one I'm reviewing just now, John Carey's A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland. It's a short and quick read, and I really enjoyed it. It was also only a fiver, so yay.

A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland
John Carey

I'd heard pretty good things about this book for a while now and I've always enjoyed John Carey's articles and the other books I've read by him. He tends to deal with areas that are especially useful for Gaelic Polytheists (for a start, I'd recommend getting your hands on his articles, 'The Name "Tuatha Dé Danann,"' and 'Notes on the Irish War-Goddess,' if you can), mostly dealing with the way Irish literature has evolved, and how it reflects pre-Christian ideas, and so on.

To be fair, this book focuses more on early Christian thought than anything pre-Christian, but there's still plenty of food for thought. The book is really a collection of three essays by Carey, collated here into one cohesive volume: The first essay (or chapter) is called 'The Baptism of the Gods,' and this is the most interesting and useful from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective. The second essay, 'The Ecology of Miracles,' has a few tidbits that would be of interest (a few references to druid teachings that will pique your interest if that's your thing), while the final essay, 'The Resurrection of the World,' doesn't have much to offer from the perspective of pre-Christian evidence, but it's one of those things that's good for background on some of the sources that deal with early Christian cosmology.

The first chapter is the most useful because it talks about the different ways the medieval writers, who recorded all of the myths in the manuscripts, dealt with the issue of the gods. There were obvious concerns about how the gods of their pre-Christian past could fit into a Christian framework, but the Irish seemed quite happy to embrace the gods and preserve their stories, tweaking them here and there to accommodate a Christian perspective. Carey talks about the two main ways the gods were dealt with - euhemerisation and demonisation. Euhemerisation was basically a way to argue that the gods of the pagan past were really human ancestors, who were elevated to divine status by the pagan Irish at some point because of their amazing deeds or achievements. That makes it easier to view the pre-Christian Irish as simply being mistaken, allowing the gods to be remembered for their merits while demoting them to human or Otherworldly status. In some ways it's a more forgiving way of reconciling them, because it allows for their being mistaken by virtue of the fact that the word of God hadn't got to Ireland yet. Demonisation is pretty self-explanatory - viewing them from the purely Christian perspective as demons who tricked and deceived the pre-Christian Irish into worshipping them as false gods. It's a less forgiving way of interpreting them, but although both viewpoints are articulated at various points in the myths, Carey argues that unlike elsewhere the Irish never really embraced either view wholeheartedly, which is why the gods persisted so stubbornly - in early Irish prayers, for one, but especially as the aes síde.

The whole subject is important to us in how we look at the myths and interpret the way the gods are portrayed. The gods are explicitly referred to as gods many times, in contradiction with Christian doctrine, so when we see them being reduced to nothing more than Otherworldly beings it raises questions. How do we reconcile all of this? How do we deal with it? We can't see them as less than divine, because they clearly are divine. But there are also hints (when we consider the idea of the Dé ocus an-Dé, for example) that there were always distinctions between divine and non-divine, but still Otherworldly, beings.

One of the things that really caught my eye is that Carey mentions that references to the mortality of the gods can only be dated to the end of tenth century, in a poem by Eochaid ua Flainn, and the concept then recurs in the Lebor Gabála Érenn a century later. So the implication is that this idea of their mortality is Christian in influence, not pre-Christian, and a product of euhemerisation. When we consider the references to their deaths, we can't take them literally, then.

The later chapters have their own merits but I don't think they're going to be of much interest for all but the seriously ie-hard Irish Studies fans. I enjoyed them, but I've studied this kind of thing, so it's probably fair to say that it's a pet subject of mine and I don't expect that most folks would find them as enthralling. But all in all, the book is a quick read and it's reasonably priced, so I think it's worth the splurge - at some point - even if it's not necessarily going to change your life significantly. If you're looking for something to help flesh things out beyond the basics and you have a keen interest in this area then this is a book I'd recommend adding to your wish list.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Tairis is back


The site's back up, but there's still a bit of technical fiddling that needs doing, which is to say I have no real grasp of what that is so I'm just nodding and smiling at Mr Seren and doing as I'm told right now. Hopefully the fiddling won't result in further downtime, but if it does it should only be brief. I think. Touch wood...

Once all the technical bits are done there might be some formatting that needs fixing, and links updating, etc, but that shouldn't take too long to sort out (famous last words, right?). Thanks for your patience, though. While you're bearing with me, here's the internet equivalent of hold music:

Edit:'s down again. Guh.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

New videos...

Since we released a bunch of videos earlier this month, which took us up to Midsummer in the festival year, Kathryn and I have been working hard on the next batch so we can get them out in time for Lùnastal.

Picking up where we left off, then, now have a new video for Lùnastal (Lúnasa):

And then tying in with that we have a video on the Prophecy of the Morrígan - Badb's Prayer for Peace:

Following on from that, we get to Là Fhèill Mìcheil, which roughly coincides with the autumnal equinox:

As with the other videos, Lúnasa and Là Fhèill Mìcheil are intended to be a short introduction to the festivals, giving an overview of the historical roots, lore, and practices associated with them. Là Fhèill Mìcheil is primarily celebrated in Scotland, but we also touch on the broader points of the significance of the solstices and equinoxes in Gaelic belief, as well as the customs that are observed in some parts of Ireland at this time. For more information on the festival, you can always take a look at the article I've done on Tairis (link to the archive, because the site is still down - hopefully not for much longer...).

The music we've chosen for the Lúnasa are two different versions of a traditional reaping song, called Buain a' Choirce (lyrics and translation are at the link). The first version, by Martyn Bennett, is a fusion of a more modern musical arrangement, with the song itself sung in the traditional style by his mother, the Scottish folklorist Margaret Bennett, and the rhythm track uses a sample of an old 1920s threshing machine. The second version, by Síleas, is a more traditional rendition over all.

The second video, on Badb's prayer for peace, is intended to tie in with Lúnasa, as well as Samhain, as we explain in the announcement we released over on Gaol Naofa. Lúnasa is the one time of the year where peace is an essential condition of the celebrations and gatherings that are held in honour of Taillte, as Lugh instituted the festival in her memory. We've chosen this particular prayer, as sung by the Morrígan from Cath Maige Tuired, because the tale has many elements that fit in with what Lúnasa is all about, as well as Samhain. Historically, a failure to uphold the peace at Lúnasa would have risked being thrown out of your túath, which was a serious consequence in a time when your legal rights were heavily tied in with your status and standing amongst your people. Without a túath you effectively had no legal rights, making you fair game, basically. Given the seriousness of all this, it's something that we, as Gaelic Polytheists, should think about too.

More videos are still to come, at some point. All that remains to say is another big thank you to everyone who's helped us produce the videos, from those of you who've helped us find music we can use, given us feedback and general support, and those of you who've very generously given us permission to use your photos. In particular, I'd like to thank Ali Isaac for allowing us to use her photo of Taillte's assembly site in our Lúnasa video. Mòran taing!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Hill of Tara

Our original plan was to visit the Hill of Tara on our first day, along with Newgrange, but the whole Newgrange thing took up pretty much the whole afternoon. Seeing as we'd been up since 4am, it seemed prudent to reschedule Tara to another day, so we had to abandon our original Friday plans for Loughcrew and/or Uisneach so we could fit Tara in. Seeing as we'd already done Newgrange, another tomb complex like Loughcrew could wait.

We had to make our way back up to Belfast for the ferry for around dinner time, so we had plenty of time to play with and took a leisurely tour through Navan and stopped in at Kells for lunch and a wander round, and later on we stopped in the city centre of Belfast for dinner and a chance for the kids to spend their pocket money that their grandparents had given them. We took a stroll around Tara, but unlike Newgrange and Knowth, the kids were thoroughly underwhelmed. This place is truly an enthralling series of lumps and small walls, as Mr Seren would put it (though less on the walls, more on the lumps). So while I was enthusing and trying to describe what the place was for, and what it would look like, the kids were kind of, "Is it time to go home yet?" 

I have to admit, even as an archaeologist and all round geek for this kind of thing, the site itself is pretty underwhelming, especially when you consider its importance. This is the legendary place where the high kings are said to have been inaugurated, and like many sacred sites it has a long and complex history (and pre-history) of usage. They could do a lot more with it than have a couple of boards you need to read before actually getting to the site itself, so you read stuff without being able to see it or put a physical context to it, and when you get there the various lumps and bumps are simply signposted. There's a pretty abandoned, almost neglected feel to the place (though it's not). You can get a tour guide to take you round, and there's a heritage centre too, but there could be so much more here. That, of course, takes money and investment, and until it gets a fancy international status like Newgrange has, that's not really likely to happen. 

Anyway. Before I go into things, how about an overview of the site? This is an antiquarian sketch, thanks to Wikipedia, that gives you a bird's eye view of what you're about to see:

Each name comes from the work of the nineteenth century antiquarian, George Petrie, who took a great interest in the place and studied the Dindshenchas (placename lore) that details the various sites at Tara as they were known in the medieval period. Based on the descriptions in the Dindshenchas, he worked out the names of each mound or rath, and the scheme has stuck ever since. Really, though, the whole thing has little basis in fact. 

One thing to remember is that although the site's pretty large and complex, these aren't places that were all in use at the same time. The earliest features here are Neolithic, then bits were added in the Bronze Age and beyond as other bits fell out of use or were altered, and so on. The site was abandoned in the early medieval period, so all in all what we see today is a view of several thousand years of usage.

Once you arrive at the place there's a short walk up to it from the road, past the information boards, along a path, and past this guy:

Dear old St Patrick, with his shamrock. There's a church (now the visitor centre) nearby, too, which is walled off, and all of this is an obvious attempt at recontextualising the place, from pagan to Christian. The church isn't ancient - references to it can be found from about the twelfth century on - but it indicates how important the site was even after it fell out of use.

We went along the wall, up a path through a field and along a row of massive hawthorns, and arrived at this view:

Lumpy bits! (Actual archaeologist's jargon, that is, honest).

This is the bit marked Rath-na-Seanadh, otherwise known as the Rath of the Synods, on the overview by Wakeman, above. It gets its name from the fact that Saints Patrick, Rúadán, and Adamnán are said to have held synods here, but it was probably originally a burial mound which was then turned into a ring fort, possibly surrounded by three concentric banks and ditches with internal timber enclosures as well. Of all the so called raths at the site, this one is the only one that was probably inhabited on a permanent basis for any length of time. Over all, the Hill of Tara seems to have been primarily ceremonial in nature; people didn't live here all year round, but there were probably places to stay on a temporary basis when the site was being used ceremonially. 

The graveyard attached to the nearby church has encroached on part of it, and it's also been disturbed by a group of "British Israelites" who tried digging bits of it in a search for the Ark of the Covenant between 1899 and 1902. No, really! The reason they dug here isn't as random as it might seem; their reasoning is that the daughters of Zedekiah hid the Ark of the Covenant, and one of the daughters was called Tea. Tara - in Irish, Teamhair - is named after a woman called Tea, according to the Dindshenchas. Obviously they decided that this Tea was the same as the daughter of Zedekiah.

Looking at it all close too, it doesn't make much sense these days, it's really just a jumble of lumps and bumps.  As you stand facing it, though, you can make out a linear earthwork, or what was once thought to have been Teach-Miodhchuarta, if you turn your head to your right:

One bank is right near the hay bales on the left, the other is along by that big bush to the right, and it runs down the hill. 

Teach-Miodhchuarta is said to have been the feasting hall, where the high king would have entertained the lesser kings and their retinues from all over Ireland. Medieval literature goes to great lengths to describe the layout and seating plan of the building, along with the different cuts of meat that each person was entitled to, all of which depended on each individual's status and profession, where they came from, and so on. The seating arrangements might also depend on who was high king - which túath they came from.

The basic idea might actually have some basis in historical fact, but the place at the Hill of Tara that bears its name was never a feasting hall. It's more likely to have been a cursus, or ceremonial, processional avenue, indicating that it was probably the main way people approached the Hill of Tara complex. Getting all theoretical, this is a way of controlling the way people approach and interact with the space around them. The banks at either side of the cursus blocks your view to either side as you approach, and keeps you looking ahead to where you're going. As you walk along your horizons are closed in, but once you come out, your view expands to take in the site itself, and the area surrounding it (which is expansive - very typical for this kind of site), so it gives the place more of an impact. Entering the site is as much of a revelation as the ritual you're experiencing is, then, so in a way it helps to focus and emphasise that aspect.

The cursus is oriented north-south, and you come from the north, heading south to the hill. It also forces you to approach the site and then enter it so you'd be most likely to process around the place in a sunwise direction. All of this is very much in keeping with the broader points of what we can glean of Iron Age ritual practice, so it's useful to look at all this and how it relates to us today - what we're doing as Gaelic Polytheists.

The raths that are marked on the overview near the cursus are actually ring barrows, not forts, and they're not very obvious from where we were stood as we entered:

They've pretty much been ploughed flat now, anyway. This picture would probably have a breathtaking view if the weather had been better, but I think the mist and gloom offers its own moody atmosphere, in its own way.

Turning left, from the Rath of the Synods, you head towards the main area of the site. You go over a bank and ditch, which is called Raith na Ríogh, or the Rath of the Kings (or just the Royal Enclosure), and this is the bank that goes around the Mound of Hostages and a couple of raths, one of which is home to the Lia Fáil:

That's the view along the bank just as you've entered the enclosure. Originally it would have been a bit higher, and the silted-up ditch situated right before it was dug right down to the bedrock, three metres down. Way more impressive than it looks now. 

If you turn left to face into the enclosure, you're confronted with a good view of Dumha na nGiall, the Mound of Hostages, which is actually a Neolithic burial mound:

Most people headed past it to the right, straight over to the Lia Fáil, but if you go round to the left you come to the entrance, which has been recently restored. Looking through the bars you can see a small chamber inside:

The megalithic art gives the feeling that it's maybe describing the surrounding landscape? Or a landscape. Whatever it is, it seems very similar to the megalithic art right inside the chamber at Loughcrew...

The Mound of Hostages was used to inter the cremated remains of various individuals for well over a thousand years, up until about 1700 B.C.E., and the entrance is apparently oriented to the sunrise around Samhain and Imbolc. Into the Bronze Age, it seems the small chamber began to get too crowded to continue using it, so the remains were buried into the mound itself. Around 40 Bronze Age burial urns, containing cremated remains, have been recovered from the mound, along with one skeletal burial from the same period.

In the Dindshenchas, the mound gets its name from the idea that King Cormac's hostages were buried there. These aren't the kind of hostages in the prisoners of war sense, but more like high status people from other túatha who were sent to live with the high king as a kind of political insurance between the two nations - behave, or the hostage gets it, mmm'kay? The age of the mound dates well before Cormac, so the story's pretty spurious, but the point about their being high status does hold some weight.  Going by the bits of jewellery and other objects, these people do seem to have been high status individuals, and some of the beads that have been recovered from the site can only come from a few places. The most likely location is Wessex, in the south-east of England, around the Stonehenge area, but whether it was just the beads, or the person wearing them too, that came that far, we don't know. They were certainly unusual items, and that generally means the jewellery indicates prestige and status.

Moving past the Mound of Hostages you come to the Forradh and Teach Cormaic, the two raths within the enclosure. Teach Cormaic is named after one of the most famous high kings of Ireland, Cormac mac Airt (the same Cormac who allegedly buried hostages in the mound), who's thought to have reigned sometime between the 2nd to 4th centuries C.E. He appears in tales like Cath Maige Mucrama, but again, his association with the place doesn't hold much weight in factual terms. His reputation as a good king means he's more likely to be associated with a site that symbolises the very concept than a bad king.

Both of the raths inside the enclosure are surrounded by two banks and ditches each, which meet each other. The Forradh (Royal Seat) is the one that's currently home to the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, which is supposed to have been involved in the inauguration rites of the high kings, and which isn't phallic at all, honest. It's said that when the rightful high king of Ireland puts his right foot on the stone, it should roar or scream its approval, which would be heard throughout the whole country:

Evidently neither Tom nor Rosie are the rightful rulers. We checked. Whether that has something to do with the fact that the stone's not in its original position, I couldn't say... Either way, it's thought to have originally been situated on top of the Mound of Hostages, before it was moved to the Forradh in "the modern period" (according to Barry Raftery, though he doesn't specify exactly when).

The current state of stone is one of the things that just goes to show how much investment in this place is needed:

You can still see traces of the red and green paint that was thrown all over it back in May, and the dents where vandals attempted to chip pieces off two years ago. As far as I know there haven't been any prosecutions over either cases.

Heading back to the car, Mr Seren took a walk through the graveyard and with the kids, as I hung back to wait for a group to get out of the way so I could take some photos of the Mound of Hostages. As he walked through, he stumbled across this:

Which he said seems to have been deliberately placed there. The grave it was on was relatively recent, so whether it had some kind of significance to the person buried there, or whether it was just moved "out of the way" or something, I'm not sure. I'm pretty sure it's a dead rook, so if the choice of deposition is deliberate, whoever's buried there probably wasn't so popular in life... Even Mr Seren was weirded out by it, and that takes a fair bit of doing.

But so endeth our trip! I hope you've enjoyed these posts (as much as I enjoyed going to all these places and taking the photos). I might have some more thoughts to chew on at some point, but for now that's it.