Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Spring in the woods

Not being up to much lately, I took pity on the dogs yesterday and dosed myself up and hobbled out to the woods to see if the bluebells are out yet. It's my favourite time of year when the woods are awash in a carpet of blue(ish), so it's something I always look forward to and come hell or high water I'll get out and enjoy it dammit. And being the caring sharing type, I took some pictures to put on here...

The bluebells seem to be a little late this year (compared with previous years, anyway), but they are indeed just starting to come out:

This is from the woods right behind my house, which gets pretty boggy in places, and I think I found some marsh marigold as well:

Or, in Gaelic, lus buidhe Bealltainnthe yellow plant of Bealltainn. Tempted though I am to go back and pick some to hang above my front door for Bealltainn, I've been brought up to think that picking wildflowers is Bad, so I'll leave them be. Way back when we first moved here I'd hoped to get some for the garden, but I couldn't find any at the local garden centre, which is a shame. But as the almost unfurled flower there shows, summer is very nearly here.

Along with the bluebells and the budding marsh-marigolds, the ferns are starting to unfurl, too:

Over the mild winter we had, it seemed quite a few of the ferns lasted a lot longer than usual in the more sheltered spots around the village, but the cold snap at the start of the year killed them off. Soon they'll be back again, trying to take over my flower bed.

Along with the ferns and the bluebells, there's a smattering of wood sorrel (again, I think...) here and there, hanging around in clumps at the foot of trees:

Our walk yesterday started off sunny, then came the April showers. It's good for the garden, at least; we've had some beautiful weather lately and things have started to get a little parched. Not usual for round here at all!

And then we have some golden saxifrage, which seems to like hugging the side of the woodland paths wherever the bluebells and ferns take a break:

There's not much else in flower yet, but there's plenty of fungus around, helping the dead wood rot down:

Just as I did a year or two ago, I'd like to get back into learning more about the local flora and the rhythm of it as the months roll on. Learning more about the bioregion, as it were, to keep in touch with the place. If I get anything wrong then please let me know!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book review: A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200

A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200
Edited and with translations by David Greene and Frank O'Connor

Not too long ago I reviewed Kenneth Jackson's Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, which I really enjoyed. This book here would make a nice complement to that volume...

I'll start this review with the caveat that I'm not a poet. When it comes to poetry I both suck at it and have very little clue when it comes to the technical stuff beyond the fact that "poems don't always have to rhyme." I covered early Irish poetry as part of my studies at university, but since I both suck at it and have very little clue about it I can probably sound pretty convincing when it comes to pointing out alliteration and the kind of tricks that were used, like starting a poem and finishing it with the same word... And that's about it. Metres? Technical terms? No clue...

But this book starts off with a good introduction to the history of Irish poetry and covers some of the tricks and techniques that were used as they evolved throughout the ages, and even a person like me could understand it. It's not jargon heavy, so won't overwhelm, but at the same time it's perhaps rather superficial. In fairness to the authors, this book isn't intended to be scholarly -- aimed at an academic audience -- so that's hardly a surprise. It gives just enough to allow for some context and that's about it.

Greene and O'Connor mark out four distinct periods of Irish poetry, giving a basic idea of the different kinds of techniques, genres and phases the came into or fell out of fashion with each period. These kinds of things can help identify a timeframe for a particular poem, which is useful when looking at language alone might not be helpful; sometimes poems are written in a deliberately archaic fashion, so they might appear older than they actually are, etc.

After the introduction we move on to the poems themselves, each of which have a brief introduction to them and are then given in the original Irish and then the translation. This was one of the downsides of Jackson's book I noted, so here it's a definite plus. It's worth noting that the editors are selective with some of the poems -- the more difficult pieces, or the longer ones, aren't necessarily presented in their complete form, and any mention of truncation is usually just in the opening commentary rather than explicitly marked out. They don't necessarily go into the whys and wherefores of the editing choices they makes, so if you're looking for something that gives a rigid academic approach with copious notations and references, this is not the droid book you're looking for... *mystical handwave* But they are up front about this and they do give references so you can hunt up the full version if you want to (most of them are scattered about online).

As for the poems, some of them are pretty obvious choices that you kind of have to add to a book about early Irish poetry -- The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, The Deer's Cry... Yes, you'll find them in most volumes on early Irish poetry, but the translations/interpretations given here may be of interest, to see where Greene and O'Connor's efforts might differ to other translators, and in some cases there's some useful commentary given on what certain words mean, or how interpretation may be ambiguous, and so on.

Otherwise, there's a selection of early Christian poems, nature poems, excerpts of poetry from various myths, and some excerpts and fragments taken from marginalia in manuscripts, a selection of the triads, and so on. What you get is pretty diverse, which gives a good overview of Irish poetry in general, and amongst these there were a number of poems that I've not seen anywhere else. Some of them are of interest to me as a Gaelic Polytheist -- there's the poem by Blathmac where the famous line muir mas, nem nglas, talam cé (translated here as "the fair sea, the blue sky, the earth") comes from, which is often used as an example illustrating the concept of the three realms (I'd wondered about the context of this line -- for reference, it comes from a poem on The Crucifixion). There are a couple of casual references to deities that I wasn't familiar with, too -- a reference to Donn in the afterlife in a poem that's otherwise full of Christian references. Some of them are just interesting because they're beautiful, or because they illustrate the time and place they come from so perfectly. Or they're just amusing -- my son found this satirical quatrain to be hilarious:
A-tá ben as-tír,ní eprimm a hainm;maidid essi a deilmamal chloich a tailm. 
There's a woman in the country (I do not mention her name) who breaks wind like a stone from a sling.
To be fair, fart humour is a guaranteed winner with a ten-year-old (OK... and his mother...but if you're interested it's discussed in Robin Chapman Stacey's Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland), but I'll give this as an example of the formatting as well -- the translations aren't given in the same layout as the Irish, which is kind of annoying. I suppose on the one hand it doesn't matter because you won't get the same sense of rhythm as you would in the original, but I like to see how the sentences are split up if I'm looking at a poem in more depth, and it's not east to see like this.

I only have one more comment to make, and that's on the rather overly critical nature of the commentary by the editors at times. While on the one hand the editors show a genuine appreciation for the poetry, there were some bits that struck me as a kind of undercurrent attitude of "how quaint" that some of these poems, that are so beautifully written, may be the product of people who weren't professionals in such a field: "Their aim was instruction and edification, and the literary beauty which they so often achieved might almost be described as accidental. The author of the versified 'Apochryphal Gospel of St Thomas,' for example, was unaware of the stupidity of the text on which he was working, but he wrote with the freshness and charm we associate with the beginning of literature in any country." That kind of commentary, to me, does a great disservice to the authors of those poems, the movers and shakers of their day. It also seems a little simplistic to say that their achievements were "accidental," even with the qualifier of "almost" thrown in. But if you disagree with their assessment, as I do, then it's not a huge mark against the book over all.

If you're interested in Irish poetry and looking for inspiration then this is a book I'd definitely recommend. Although you can find almost everything in here online, you have to know where to look and the translations given -- if any -- may be out of date. Here, you'll certainly find them in a more convenient package. I'd say it's one for the bookshelf for sure.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stuff and things in the garden

As Bealltainn approaches I've had a mind to get the house and garden ready. For once, I'd like to be on top of things instead of having to do a mad dash at the last minute. Seeing as the garden's been somewhat neglected in recent years there's been a fair bit to do...

Oscar, Exhibit A:

Is something of a digger. So in spite of my initial plans to plant some vegetables this year it seemed a little pointless seeing as the remainder of the grow bags I've been using are now in something of a state -- age and Oscar combined have had their way. So instead I've decided to recycle the remainder of the compost and try to condition the soil in the flowerbeds a little, and try to save the few strawberry plants that have miraculously clung onto life after Oscar rehomed them on the ground. I managed to mow the lawn without breaking myself as well, which is no mean feat for me.

Things are a little overgrown in the flowerbed so I've tried to tidy things up a little without overdoing it. Which mainly involves throwing compost over the weeds and pretending it's all neat and tidy now... But the raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants seem to be springing to life again without my help, and while the primroses seem to have suffered somewhat, the cowslips are blooming:

The rowan might be blooming in time for Bealltainn this year:

After a trip down to England to visit my sister and her family, Rosie's decided we need a pond like they have (but BIGGER), so instead of replacing the veg containers we might concentrate on that instead -- a raised pond (we don't have the soil depth to dig a proper one, and I don't envisage Mr Seren going outside for any length of time to dig one anyway. The sun. It burns the precious...). There's a rush plant that needs rehoming, and we could put some other plants in as well, with some sturdier pots planted with some bee-friendly plants to give some foliage around it, perhaps. Hopefully it will give a nice outdoor space for devotional work, too, although Rosie's already had the idea that instead of a pond, per se, maybe we could just recreate the whole of the well at Kildare in our garden...

Or something like it.

Umm. No. Much as I'd love that, it's a little beyond our budget.

But after discussing things with the kids, we've decided we want to put in a new tree as well. A fruit tree, like a plum tree. When I was a kid, I grew up in a house with a pretty big garden that had been part of an orchard before the houses were built there and we had a champagne apple tree, two Victoria plums, a yellow plum (that I can't remember the name of) tree, and a damson tree (or bush?). Every autumn we'd fill up bags and bags with the plums from the tree and we'd end up giving them away because we had more than we knew what to do with. Sometimes people would come into the garden at night to steal them... But I miss having that (the fruit, not so much the thieves), and the kids like the idea of free fruit. So why not.

So big plans are ahead, tidying the garden has been continuing apace. And it was all going so well until Exhibit A decided to join us on a walkies when he wasn't invited -- I was supposed to be taking Tom to Judo and Oscar shot out of the house as we were about to go. After running half way up the road and having a sniff around inside someone's garage (the owner was very understanding, thankfully), we managed to corner him and grab him by the collar, and I had to carry the wee sod back home. My back is none too happy about this, although on the upside I have some lovely drugs making me feel extremely relaxed right now. On the downside, I was supposed to be doing my civic part in a few weeks time by serving jury duty and I'm having to excuse myself now.

So it seems that Bealltainn will probably be a simple affair for us again this year. I was planning on doing a roast lamb with some bannocks and a bit of veg and we were going to churn some butter, make some decorations and rowan charms, sain the house, maybe get a tree in time to plant it. The minions kids will be able to help a bit more now so we'll see just how much we get done.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Links and things for Bealltainn...

Now that Bealltainn is officially less than two weeks away, I thought I'd do a round up of some bits and pieces that you might find useful if you're looking for some inspiration, or an idea of what the hell it is!

First off, last year I did a video for Gaol Naofa's Youtube channel that gives a good introduction:

And if you want to do some reading for a more in-depth view then you might find the two-parter I did on Tairis a while ago useful:

There's also a piece on Celebrating Bealltainn, and a short article on Rowan and Red Threads with a ritual for hanging the charms as well.

Over on Gaol Naofa, there are some songs and ideas for Bealltainn crafts. The songs include:

The latter link is a churning song (with links to a few others), since churning butter at Bealltainn is an important activity. Bannocks and caudle also form an important part of the celebrations (in Scotland), and you can find more information, along with some good reads about Irish customs, at the following links:

There's also a wealth of poetry relating to the coming of summer that can provide inspiration and make a nice addition to celebrations and devotions:

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Book review: Myth and Magic: Scotland's Ancient Beliefs and Sacred Places

Myth and Magic: Scotland's Ancient Beliefs and Sacred Places
Joyce Miller

This book is on the Gaol Naofa recommended reading list, but until now I hadn't had a chance to read it myself.

Over all, this is a nice little book and an easy read, and I think it makes a good introductory book for anyone looking to learn about things like sacred places (both Christian and pre-Christian) and the beliefs associated with them, along with a bit of an overview of the Good Folk and other Otherworldly beings, and the kinds of charms, amulets, and talismans that are traditional to Scotland. It's going cheap, second-hand, so that's always a plus, too.

Some of the chapters are effectively lists of different kinds of places around Scotland, while other chapters give an introduction to different kinds of subjects -- healing and holy wells, festivals and rituals, stones, amulets and talismans, superntatural beings, and so on. We start off with one of the chapters that lists places of interest -- shrines and pilgrimages in this case, which I found a little off-putting to start with. A little preamble about them first would've been nice. Each entry in this chapter is listed by the saint we're dealing with, and there's a brief overview of the site (or sites) they're associated with. Then we move on to a more conversational sort of chapter, detailing the ways in which healing and holy wells are used. I preferred these kinds of chapters, as they were more informative and the listed chapters were a little repetitive, going over material or sites already covered elsewhere, and I'm not sure the choice of listing them by saint, or name of the site, is terribly useful. If you want to look up sites in a particular area or location then it gets fiddly...

For the most part the information given is pretty solid, and there's some genuinely interesting stuff in some of the chapters that I've not seen elsewhere. The chapters towards the end of the book - on stones, and on talismans and amulets, and the one on supernatural beings offered the more interesting stuff, for me, but it's a shame there aren't any references given anywhere in the book. There's a short, but pretty solid bibliography, but that's about it.

This problem with lack of sources is especially unfortunate when it comes to some of the more interesting tidbits I found in the book. In the second chapter Miller mentions a St Triduana, who she describes as a "Pictish princess from Rescobie in Angus... Triduana had converted to Christianity but she was desired by a pagan prince Nechtan. The prince particularly admired her eyes but, rather than submit to him, Triduana is said to have plucked out her eyes and sent them to her admirer on a thorn." As far as I'm aware there aren't any names of Pictish women recorded, so this reference piqued my interest. Looking into it further, however, I can't find any agreement that Triduana was actually a Pict. So just be aware that sometimes the author seems to put her own spin on things.

One serious niggle I have with the book is in the chapter on festivals and rituals, which gives some rather dodgy information:
Imbolc or St Bride's Day was the feast of the Celtic spring goddess, and celebrated the first day of spring. Beltane was associated with the feast of Bel, ruler of the Celtic underworld, and celebrated the renewal and growth of crops and the land. Lugnasad, or the feast of Lugh, was the same as Lammas and marked the start of the harvest. Samhain -- the feast of the dead -- marked the end of the yearly cycle and the first day of winter.
I mean, at least it doesn't say that "Samhain" is a god of the dead, right? But Bel just isn't a thing and Lúnasa and Lammas are two separate (though admittedly similar) festivals, and "Celtic" just isn't a useful term to use here... So although I'd recommend the book, I'd also recommend taking the information given with a pinch of salt unless you're already familiar with what's being talked about from other sources, or you follow it up yourself. For the most part it's really OK, but there is the odd clanger here and there. It's not a major downer, and it's par for the course in any book, but it needs noting, I think.

The title kind of implies that you're going to learn loads about pre-Christian belief and practice, but if you go in expecting to find this then you'll be disappointed... What you will find is a good overview of Scottish folklore and folk practice, and in this respect it's a good complement to F. Marian McNeill's The Silver Bough series, in particular. Miller covers much of the same ground, but gives a little more detail here and there, especially when it comes to places, so I think if you're looking for a more rounded view of Scottish folklore then it's a good book to get hold of. All in all, a good read with a few caveats.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

New article!

Gorm's already made a wee post over on his blog, but time zones being what they are it was a little late to get round to it on this side of the Pond last night...

Gaol Naofa's latest article is up on the site! The article is by Sionnach Gorm himself, and it's titled History, Myth and Genocide: Real and Imagined; Or The Pagan Problem with Patrick. As you might guess by the subject matter, the original aim was to get the article up in time for St Patrick's Day, but alas, deadlines? Meh. So we're putting it out now because it's just too good to sit on until next March.

The article takes an in-depth look at the history of St Patrick and the way he's presented in the sources we have about him, as opposed to the less... realistic... view that's often circulated -- he's a genocidal maniac! He killed the druids! Weugh! Arg! I give you exhibit A as evidence:

Which I moaned about myself in a post last year. Although, as we note in the announcement over on the Gaol Naofa website, the wailing and anguished gnashing of teeth has died down somewhat in recent years, the recent theft of the statue of Manannán prompted some rather ignorant comments about "Christian's trying to finish what Patrick started," which shows that there are still misconceptions about who Patrick was and what he actually did during his time in Ireland. Gorm does a great job in showing that this kind of view just simply isn't based in reality, and I think it's a really important piece that needs to be read.

This article is the final part of a trilogy from Gorm, with part one on Gorm's blog titled Leprechaun Vomit… or why I hate St. Patty’s, and part two up on the Gaol Naofa site titled Pagans, Polytheists, and St Patrick's Day. They're all well worth a read!