Winter Solstice and Ancestral Voices in the Wind

P1010980The Wild Hunt has been riding most evenings here around my home by the North Sea. The wind whips around the house and the rain pelts against the window panes. One night it comes from the north, the next from the south, then the east followed by the west. Each wind brings different scents and different temperatures but all are certainly wild at this time of year. You don’t want to go out in it, that’s for sure.

It’s at this time of year that I feel closest to my ancestors, my blood ancestors from Western Europe and Scandinavia. Their voices and stories are whispered in the dark mornings and early evenings, sometimes howled down my chimney in the evenings and every morning as I sit by my hearth altar, lighting a candle and praying to the gods, the land spirits and the ancestors. They call me to honour them, to know them once again, to say their names. And so each year I do, though this year feels different.

Winter 2This winter I feel called to explore the spiritual traditions of my ancestors in greater depth. Though I’ve lived here in Britain for twenty years, all of my blood relatives come from Western Europe and Scandinavia. DNA testing has revealed some fascinating stories, and the picture is growing of my blood ancestors, changing as more information and DNA is submitted. I’m finding family from all walks of life, from all over Europe, gradually adding to my own family tree as records become electronically available and I am able to fill in the gaps where personal records have gone missing. It’s been a great exploration this year and looks to continue for many years to come.

So for these winter months I shall be exploring fully the pre-Christian religious and spiritual traditions of my ancestors. These are Germanic, Danish, Frisian, Belgian, Norwegian and more, which fall under the modern category of “Heathenry”.  I’ve studied Heathenry for many years, but never developed a full practice; it’s always been more of an academic exercise. And so, this winter I shall bring it to life within my life, honouring the land wights and house wights, the ancestors, the gods and the goddesses. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the goddess Frigge, the lady of right order, whose nature I feel is close to my own. As well, Skadhi and Ullr I have honoured many times while out snowshoeing and skiing in Canada and Norway. Tyr’s justice and compassion hold great meaning for me, and Freya’s seidr magic speaks of mystery, beckoning me further. It is with these gods that I shall be working over the winter, as well as the tomte and nisse of the household, and the land wights of the heathland and forest where I live. (I have already, obviously, done so in a Druid sense, so I will see if this changes slightly).

Already, I have found many similarities between Druidry and Heathenry. They almost seem to be talking and doing the same thing, just in different languages. The groves they worshipped in, the poetry and art, the warrior and the wise cunning folk, all of these seem to have resonance with each other, but expressed slightly differently. As well, much of the magical lore and tradition found in East Anglia I have found stems from Northern European magic, such as seidr.

It will be exciting to explore these traditions and heritage in practice. It will be interesting to connect to my blood ancestors more fully, exploring and expanding upon my family tree and widening my practice even more. And so, here on the coast of the North Sea, I will call to my ancestors, to the gods and goddesses of the North, to the land wights and house wights and see who answers.

I wish you all a very blessed Yuletide! May the longest night bring you peace, may you find strength and courage in the darkness, and hope in the growing light of the sun.

Winter 1

 

Fire in the Head

Well, the manuscript has been handed in for my next book, Zen for Druids: A Further Guide to Integration, Compassion and Harmony with Nature. I’ve just come back from a fabulous weekend of teaching at Druid College. It’s been a busy few weeks, to say the least! Everything is coming together, after the nourishing rains and sunlight, both in the inner worlds and the outer. The bluebells are out in full force, the awen is flowing and the sunlight every growing. Beltane is near.

These past few years I have learned so much about my local environment, having moved from the city to the country back in 2010. Being a country girl at heart, it was like a huge sigh of relief, getting away from the concrete and out into the sweet-smelling air of the rural countryside. I have explored the ancestors of place, finding ancient Celtic settlements, henges and tumuli. I have also discovered that my ancestry, with regards to ethnicity through DNA testing, is 56% British (“native” British people are usually 60%), which was a shock as I had pretty much thought all my ancestry would be Western European, seeing as I could trace my family history back to the Netherlands for at least 250 years. Does this give me a deeper sense of belonging to this land? It does, and it doesn’t. I feel less like a visitor, but then again I have been living here in the UK for nearly twenty years. When does someone become native? Is it justified by a length of time, by ancestry?

For me, I think it comes down to relationship. If I have soul-deep relationship with the land, if I am connected to it on every level, then I am home.

Where I live there are the songs of Celts and Saxons, Normans and Friesians. But it is the songs of the Celts that I find harmony with more than most, and being able to connect to these ancestors through blood, place and tradition brings an even deeper level of understanding to my being. I love living in Boudica country. I love learning more and more about the history, the theology. These have always got my fires burning, all throughout my schooling years as a child into adulthood. Now they feel a bit more solidified, a bit more a part of me than someone else’s stories.

Our teaching at Druid College combines the history and theology of both ancient Celtic and modern-day Druidry. I am blessed to have a co-tutor who is, in my eyes, the leading authority in this area (and many other world religions): Robin Herne. I feel that together we have created something that is truly special, truly unique. I have the most amazing students this year, our inaugural year, who inspire me in a beautiful cycle of awen and creativity.

Everything feels like it is coming together in wonderful synchronicity, in beautiful symbiosis. Flowing with the currents of awen, walking with honour and responsibility, ever inspired by the wonder of existence I simply cannot take anything for granted. The fires of Beltane will soon be lit. The fire in the head simply will not quit.

And so this Beltane I hope to travel out to the local ancient sacred spaces, to spend the night with the ancestors, lighting a fire and sleeping out under the stars, walking between this world and the Otherworld. The fire in my head will not allow me to do otherwise, it seems. The fire in the belly keeps me stoked. The fire in the cauldron brings potential and awen.

And if I’m not back in a hundred years, you’ll know where to find me!

The Song of Wandering Aengus

By William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

 

 

Samhain trials and tribulations, initiations and revelations…

10463010_10153728632559228_6463239705937211598_n (960x720)We’d walked up to the Celtic Iron Age burial mounds, just after the sun had set. Owls were hooting in the distance, pheasants squawking and fallow deer stags calling their challenge into the evening air. The sky held the last bright tinges of deep pinks and purples, and dusk had settled firmly in.

We went into the darkness beneath the oak and chestnut trees that grew around the burial mounds. There stood a firepit and some logs around it to sit upon. We had gathered some wood the week before, and now lit a fire, honouring its spirit. Saying our prayers to the ancestors, honouring our blood lines, the lines of our traditions and the spirits of place, we spoke softly into the night. We made our offerings and then sat in silence as the fire died, allowing the darkness to enfold us as we meditated upon the ancestors.

It was a simple, beautiful little Samhain ritual. No scripts, no plans other than bringing offerings, we were wholly and utterly in the moment.

Opening my heart and soul to the ancestors, I laid myself bare as I faced outside the firelight towards the burial mounds, saying my prayers and allowing my soul deep integration. Sometimes, however, it is not so good to forget oneself if one has been pushing too hard in their lives. Often, we can forget to take care of ourselves in order for us to function properly. We have to take care of the functional ego in order to let the representational ego fall away… and that means the functional body too.

The body lives in the soul.

And so, as we walked back down the bridleway, an old track that leads to other, later Saxon burial mounds made famous in the middle of last century by the discovery of a longship and treasure hoard, I felt a pain begin in my chest. I thought it was the mist that was rolling in, being quite susceptible to the damp after experiencing bronchitis a few times in the wet but wonderful land of Wales, where I had lived for a few years. I loved that landscape, but it wasn’t all that healthy for me to live in.

The pain in my chest only got worse as the night progressed, and into all the next day. I took it easy, but when on Monday I experienced numbness in my left hand it was time to go to the doctor’s straight away. Series of tests showed that it wasn’t a heart attack, thankfully, and there was no sign of infection either. All the doctors could say was that it was myalgia (muscle pain) in my chest.

I’d experienced this twice before, to varying degrees, and been to A&E for the same reasons, done all the tests and, when the pain died down, sent home without any explanation. After doing some research, I discovered Precordial Catch Syndrome, which described my symptoms perfectly all three times it had happened over the last 20 years. Perhaps this is what I have; the doctor’s don’t want to discuss it with me, however, ignoring it when I bring it up. It seems to be taken a bit more seriously in North America, at the very least.

At this time of year, I am reminded very strongly of our human strengths and our human weaknesses. Holding the wisdom of the ancestors close to my heart, hearing their songs, seeing the continuation of life in all its manifestations, through birth to death and rebirth, I can work through the physical frailties of this manifestation of my body. The last three years have shown a pattern at this time of year, at Samhain, where the frailties bring me to a new realisation: in 2013, I had chickenpox with a fever that broke through habitual thinking patterns; in 2014 my back went out and I was laid flat out for three days, unable to walk, discovering the limitations of body but not of mind. This year I came very close to my own mortality, with three long days of tests, waiting for results and wondering if there was something seriously wrong with my heart. It brought me even closer to death and my feelings around it. On a very personal level, I had to deal with the fear of death, though with the strength of my beliefs and the ancestors with me, it wasn’t so much fear as sorrow if this ride had to end suddenly, for I am having such a good time in this current manifestation.

At any rate, it once again drives home the point that we need to be utterly present, in our bodies and in reality in order to see the magic of existence. It also makes the point that we need to listen to our bodies, to take good care of our bodies, so that we can hear the songs of the universe for as long as is possible in this current manifestation. We can’t take anything for granted.

One day I too will become an ancestor, but hopefully it will not be today. Today is a good day to die. But tomorrow is even better…

Emma Restall Orr on the ancestors

“The dead fall from awareness only when they are forgotten, so the practising animist acknowledges the ancestors with gratitude and open-heartedness, each and every day – whenever a task is to be done, whenever an old tool is lifted, a skill used, an old pathway walked. When a challenge or an obstacle arises blocking the way, when pain kicks in and weakness overwhelms, it is to the ancestors that the animist turns, and it is in the ancestors that courage is found, generation to generation, hand in hand, words of wisdom heard and experience shared. When crises are overcome, when love is found and joy fills a moment with delight, the ancestors are an integral part of the celebration.”
Emma Restall Orr, from her essay “Time and the Grave”, from the book This Ancient Heart.

A Pub Walk, Ancient History

The ancestors are all around us. Traces of the ancestors of the past, of those that lived upon this land, whose stories are heard upon the wind, whose lives are still reflected all around us can be still found if we simply open our senses to them.  At this time of year, as at any other time of the year, I walk with the ancestors, yet when Samhain approaches the urgency of their presence seems to fill my mind. I feel such a strong connection to the ancestors, of past, present and future.  A simple walk to the pub reveals the very real existence of the ancestors on the land where I live.

The Suffolk landscape is often synonymous with Saxon culture and history, from the graves at Sutton Hoo to the palace/village/town found in Rendlesham forest. But echoes of those who were here before the Saxons, the Celtic tribes still remain.  Though the term Celtic is currently undergoing much investigation, there is still much evidence of Iron Age life (and even before that) in this landscape from those who lived here, fished these rivers, walked this sandy soil.  When we think of the Celts today, we most often think of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  But here in the East of England the ancestors are all around us, from the history of Boudicca’s uprising to the gentler, untold stories of daily life in the marshes and heathlands that abound in this land.

A simple three mile walk to the pub can reveal a very deep connection to those who have gone before, and who are still present all around us.

With every footstep, we walk with the ancestors.

With every footstep, we walk with the ancestors.

“Hill” where Iron Age burial mounds overlook the heathland

Buried beneath this farmer's field is a henge.

Buried beneath this farmer’s field is a henge.

View of the heath from burial mound.

View of the heath from burial mound.

Site of Iron Age village, half a mile away from the burial mounds and sitting atop a hill, now a farmer's field.

Site of Iron Age village, half a mile away from the burial mounds and stitting atop a hill, now a farmer’s field.