I’ve had several requests for a transcript of the talk I gave last weekend at Leaping Hare Pagan Conference in Colchester, Essex. So, here you go! x
Nemetona: Goddess of Boundaries and Edges, Sanctuary and Freedom
In this talk I am going to explore the goddess Nemetona as the Lady of Boundaries and Edges, and also her role in personal freedom and sanctuary. Not much is known academically of the goddess Nemetona: there are a few inscriptions at sacred spots such as at Altripp, Trier and Eisenberg in Germany. There is also an inscription to her at Bath. She was known in Gaul and in Spain we find the Nemetatae tribe. The word nemeton or similar versions are mentioned throughout Europe, especially in place names. Nemeton means Sacred Grove, and in this regard she is sometimes connected with Druids. However, this talk is not an academic discussion of this particular goddess, but an experiential one. We will explore boundaries and edges of ecosystems and of our own selves, our own nemetons, inspired by the goddess of the sacred grove, where the edge of the wood meets open space. We will see where those boundaries meet, touching soul to soul and awakening awen or inspiration. My perspective comes from a Druid tradition, languaged as it is within a religion that is animistic and polytheistic.
A Druid looks to nature in order to find inspiration. Authority is found in nature rather than in human constructs and society. Our relationships are inspired by the natural connection we see in everything, the threads of the web that connect us all. We realise that we do not exist separately from the world – we are a part of it, a thread in the tapestry. We know that without other beings we could not exist. Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls this Interbeing – that we inter-are with everything on the planet. Nothing exists separately. We live in ecosystems, living environments that support and sustain us. It isn’t human animals that define how the Druid interacts – the land provides us with a way to be in the world, teaches us of co-existing in harmony, in the flow of perpetual change and in the times and tides of life. It can be regarded as anarchic in that sense, but it is not a disregard for the laws of humanity that keep a society together, a cohesive social order – rather it is more seeking the wisdom of the oak, as the word Druid means – dru, meaning oak, and wid, meaning wisdom. Gods of nature, of an earth-based religion inspire us in different ways from the secular world. The gods are both brutal and beautiful.
Working with the gods, the ancestors and the land we learn about harmony, about ecosystems, about where edges meet and how it works co-operatively. Nemetona teaches us this as we explore our own nemeton. Our personal nemeton is that space around us, sometimes called our aura, that we only allow those we trust to enter. That space is sometimes expanded in ritual, to create a sacred circle or sacred space, where we find ourselves within the greater cosmos, defined in a smaller, set form and boundary which is easier to understand. In that boundary we are safe, we are free.
Nemetona teaches us of that perfect freedom. In Wicca, it is often said that one enters the circle “In perfect love and perfect trust”. We open our souls wide within the limits of our circle, guided by the gods to inspire and receive inspiration. In that perfect freedom we know our true selves. As goddess of the sacred grove, Nemetona teaches us of this perfect trust, and how it relates to the rest of the world. Calling to her to help hold that space, we explore the nature of our own self, coming to truly know it and understand it. Having secured our sense of identity we can then work in the world from strong standpoint, where we know that the world doesn’t end at us – we work in service to the world. We have to step beyond the boundaries of ego and self-importance if we are to work for true harmony.
Working with edges, our own and understanding how to use them to benefit the whole is at the heart of what Nemetona teaches us. Our personal nemetons will change their appearance according to our current lives and how well we are at using them intentionally. If we are unaware of our nemeton, then we often find we clash with other people, or have a hard time connecting with others, or withdraw into ourselves so much that others may pass us by when we would like them to acknowledge us. Conscious manipulation of our nemeton can indeed change the way we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived. As with everything in Druidry, this must be done with honour and integrity.
Opening our nemeton requires a level of ability and trust. We close ourselves off on so many levels each and every day simply because of the sensory overload that we are exposed to through people, media and more. We have so many demands on our life that if a stranger came up to us in need after a hectic day, we may shut ourselves off completely from them and not provide the help that they might need, however simple and genuine their request may be. Our cat may come to us for a cuddle, and we don’t even notice as we are too busy distracting ourselves with television and high fat or sugary food. We switch off constantly, and we must relearn how not to do this, and instead be aware and mindful of our nemeton and how it interacts with others.
The nemeton is a sacred and holy space. When we interact with others, we must always bear this in mind. Using our nemeton to gain attention needlessly or simply to get what we want is dishonouring both ourselves, others and the Goddess.
We must honour the nemeton of others as much as we honour our own. They are all sacred. By discovering where our edges lie, we can also learn to see where and how other nemetons work, and in doing so work honourably with them.
Nemetona teaches us to open ourselves. She also teaches us how to listen. Listening is one of the greatest teachings in Druidry. We need compassion, which is basically simple understanding. We need to listen without judgement in order to work with compassion. We see how relationships work in nature. We study the way things work in order to better understand them. We see how sometimes relationships don’t work, in nature and in our own lives. If it doesn’t work, we find out why it didn’t work. If we are working with the soil, we know that some things simply won’t work in our home environments. We cannot grow bananas in the UK. The soil in my back garden is very acidic – I have to know and understand the soil in order to know what will grow best in that environment. Some relationships just can’t thrive in certain environments, and it is up to us to quest for the understanding. Sometimes we simply have to let go of relationships that don’t work. We cannot continue to try growing bananas in our backyards if we try repeatedly and fail. We must understand why it doesn’t work and move on in order to nourish and be nourished.
When we are rooted in our selves, finding our place in the environment, working with our edges we understand where we came from. With that understanding, we can reach out to others, where soul meets soul, when boundaries and edges touch. In that touch there is relationship and inspiration. In Druidry we call that awen, where soul touches soul and the spark of inspiration occurs. Where the seeds lands on the soil, where those edges meet, something wonderful happens and new life occurs. When we meet another human being with honesty and compassion, utterly awake and aware to the connection around us we are inspired. If we are aware of where we come from, aware of our ancestors, the land upon which we live, we can work from a place of deep connection. As the Tao Te Ching states, “Stay at the centre of the circle and let all things take their course”.
But it doesn’t stop at the self. Self-improvement is not the goal in Druidry. Nemetona teaches us to root and find our edges in the sacred grove, but then nudges us to go and seek out those edges in the wider world, where we can truly be inspired. Self-focused creativity is not as inspiring as that which is connected to the whole. Getting the self out of the way is key in this learning, of learning to live in service. We need to find out how and what we can give in order to have sustainable relationship.
Giving is essential in a culture and lifestyle that takes so much. We live in a consumer culture. We need to balance consumerism with the inspiration we receive from nature, where if we take too much it dies. If one creature starts to take too much the whole ecosystem is affected, and is at risk. As homo sapiens, the beings that are supposedly aware, we still take too much. We can look to nature to find out how to work better in and with the world. The curse of self-awareness means that we are often so focused on our selves that we do not see the wider world. We are so busy looking inwards that we forget to look outwards. We forget that what benefits us may not benefit the whole, and we are a part of that whole, therefore selfishness can be so detrimental – if only we are able to look beyond the self (and we are). Relationships require a give and take. We cannot always give nor can we always take. We are honour bound to give back for what we have received if we are working from a place of deep connection. Nature shows us how. Otherwise it is simply not sustainable. A forest is able to sustain itself without any human interaction. The sacred grove in the forest, where the edges of woodland meet open space are filled with potential, able to sustain itself with integrity.
Nemetona allows us that sacred space to explore our emotions and find ways through the internal formations of our minds so that we can act with intention in the world, rather than living a purely reactive life. This is the blessing of self-awareness, one that we should use much more often than we do. By taking time to explore our boundaries and edges and where they meet in the world we turn what could otherwise be a solely inward-focusing exercise into pure integration with the rest of the world. Within the circle, within the sacred grove we are able to work clearly. Human emotion can often overwhelm us, causing us to act out in ways that are not sustainable, in ways that are dishonourable. Anger, rage, love and lust can consume us if we are not aware of where our edges meet. In sacred space we can come to understand them as forces of nature that need to be worked with creatively to transform them, thereby benefiting the whole. Druidry is about seeing the bigger picture, stepping beyond our selves and our own internal worlds through a deep knowledge of the self, working from a place rooted space and time. We can serve the world best if we are working from a place of strong, honourable intention.
The importance is placed on holding, holding space not only for ourselves but for others. That is the role of teaching and guidance. In learning, in deep learning held in a place of sanctuary we work beyond the realms of language into true experiential learning. Coming from a safe place, we begin to realise that we know nothing, and in that knowing is exquisite learning, an openness to all of reality as it really is, aware and wide awake, both eyes open, all our senses open. In Zen this is often called Beginners Mind, where when we realise we know nothing at all our horizons are expanded, the self is dropped and we are open to endless possibility. That word, possibility is so evocative. From the latin, possibilis meaning “that which can be done” and posse “be able”. The door is opened and it is for us to walk through. It is a call to action.
Shunryu Suzuki wrote a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and there are many beautiful expressions of possibility therein, showing how we can move beyond our selves. One such quote is “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”. He also states ““A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits it not open to things as they are.” Going deeper into ideas of attachment, he states “Not to be attached to something is to be aware of its absolute value. Everything you do should be based on such an awareness, and not on material or self-centered ideas of value.” When we able to step beyond ourselves we perceive reality as it really is, and can work from a place of understanding and compassion. If we come from a viewpoint that everything is sacred, if we learn to perceive the sacredness of everything, we will be inspired to have sustainable relationship.
Community is important. Right here, right now in this very room our edges are touching, blending, breaking or standing fast against each other. There are also non-human edges that we are coming into contact with – the chair, the floor, the air around us, the ancestors. Learning to work together, inspired by the gods and by nature, by the earth-based traditions that we belong to we can work with an awareness of the sacred in our own community. There is strength in that awareness, making the community itself strong. We can show how sustainable relationships work. We can walk our talk and inspire others. We can’t live only for ourselves – we have to be individually strong yes, but where we work together, our edges touching is where the true strength lies. Finding authority in the natural world helps us to build this strong awareness and community. Learning to work with boundaries, co-operative work and practice is tantamount. If we are simply focused on the self, our community suffers. If we focus solely on the community, the self suffers. Balance and harmony, the wider perspective, is what is needed.
Leading by example through sustainable relationship can be the greatest inspiration, the greatest motivator. The energy of connection in relationship is where the real power lies. The inter-relatedness of everything is where the true strength is found. The root of the word community comes from communis – meaning common. I am not important. You are not important. Humans are not important. But where our edges meet, whether that is with another human or tree, mountain or beetle, where we find relationship is where the power lies. In our interaction is where there is the greatest potential. Nemetona teaches us of this power, by working co-operatively we can find new ways to trickle that energy up through the various social strata and spheres to affect the whole. The way we treat each other, run our businesses, live our lives and relate to each other can and does affect the wider world. We are not self-contained units. We are part of the whole.
The Celts had a very strong sense of personal and social responsibility. There were honour prices to be paid if someone had wronged another of the community. This implies a very real sense of ownership to one’s behaviour. Not working or living in a world isolated, working together requires us to acknowledge and work with the edges of other people, human and non-human in a myriad of ways. The Celtic metaphysic demonstrated that we simply cannot do as we want – being part of a whole, we have to consider others in every aspect of our lives. There is a strong notion of free-will, but the important thing to remember is that everything is a choice. When we choose with a wider sense of perspective we lean more towards benefiting the whole rather than just the self. Co-incidentally, when we benefit the whole we are also benefiting ourselves. Working in a society that focuses on responsibility, rather than punishment can lead to a better society in which everyone is an active participant, rather than being taken care of by a nanny state. Without personal responsibility, such as in our current judicial system, someone else will take care of it. There is a passiveness in our relationships with each other.
I remember seeing on the news a couple of weeks ago how the driver of a car ran into someone on horseback. A man and his wife were out for a horse ride, she in front and he behind down a quiet little country lane. A car came up, driving too fast, and the man on horseback had two options – move his horse out of the way and let his wife and her horse be hit, or take the impact himself. Tears fell from my eyes as I imagined what it would be like to be in his predicament, where no matter what you do someone you love will die due to the carelessness of another. And the horse that he was riding, to not bolt or run away at the danger, to believe in his rider so much that he would take the impact was just overwhelming in its power of relationship. Needless to say, the horse died, but the man and his wife, and her mount survived.
What happened to the car driver? Nothing. He didn’t even get a caution, or a ticket for careless or reckless driving. Now, I’m not saying that the man needed to be punished, but what I would like to see in our society is personal responsibility. If we still followed a society where personal responsibility was paramount to honour and integrity, an honour price should have been paid to the man who lost his horse. Whether in money or work, it doesn’t matter. The driver should have found some way to make amends. Instead, our society is at the hands of a judicial system which encourages passive behaviour, seeing just what we can get away with and allowing others to make the decisions for us. We live in a world where personal responsibility requires reinforcement from an outside authority. We need to take personal responsibility back into our own hands, taking our authority from nature. Perhaps then we will move from passiveness into lives filled with intention, even as the bluebell opens out to the warming sunshine.
We have to learn how to communicate, and here we see how the words community and communicate come together. Each community is different, each ecosystem balanced in different ways. Only through communication can we work and relate honourably in different ecosystems. The winds, the smells, the flora and fauna in the ecosystem of my home are different to that of Ipswich, only 15 miles away. Coastal, heathland and forest – I find systems within systems in my very own backyard. We have to learn about each system, how it works to relate properly and effectively to the whole and not just tramp all over it, devastating it with our own self-centred arrogance. We have to learn to recognise each other’s edges without putting our own projections onto them. Working with others, working with the self, working with Nemetona we find how to be of service without ego getting in the way.
I have seen the goddess Nemetona in the principles of permaculture. The basis behind permaculture is something I’ve been talking about all along: how to take what we see in natural ecosystems and use that as a model for our own living, creating sustainability and diversity. Permaculture acknowledges that it is at the edges where there is the most potential, the most diversity. The edge of a forest is where you will find the most plants, where the herds of deer wander. It teaches of self-regulatory systems where each element has its own personal intention which also works to the benefit of the whole. The diversity of beneficial relationships is what makes an ecosystem work and be self-sustaining.
We may already have all the elements necessary to have a self-sustaining ecosystem – all they may need is a little rearranging in order to create harmonious relationships. We are a part of nature, therefore we need to re-learn how to be in nature without messing it all up. Permaculture begins with working with what is already there. Then we can research and study what works best and help to create a system that is sustainable. This is what we do when as Pagans when we are working with our own personal nemeton, and also when we are in larger groups, perhaps even group ritual. The diversity, the edges are at the heart of all interaction. We can create systems that are healthy and balanced simply by paying attention. Within permaculture, each species of animal or plant has what is known as a niche – its own function within the ecosystem in relation to other species. Likewise, we all have our own talents and abilities that we can contribute in relations to society at large. When we see each other’s niches we can work around and with that, recognising their edges and creating new ways of being in the world that work co-operatively instead of competitively.
In permaculture, where one ecosystem meets another it is known as the edge effect. Conflict between what could be seen as competing plants due to finite levels of light on a forest edge are overcome naturally by having different plants growing at different times of the year. This acknowledgement of space helps all to thrive in their own time. Imagine how our human world would be if we could adopt these same principles! I think it would be more courteous world, to say the least.
Where woodland and grassland meet, we find some advantages coming from both ecosystems. The berry-producing bushes at the forest edge make the best use of the greater amount of light than that found deep within the heart of the wood. Birds of prey nest at field and forest edges to benefit from the security provided by tree cover and the food provided by open spaces in the form of voles, mice and other small animals. Deer, as mentioned previously, favour the edges as it gives them the best of both worlds – grazing and shelter from predators. Permaculture learns how to lessen the rigidity of edges, so that there isn’t a strong forest meets field edge, but rather a co-operative blend of the two as would be found naturally, instead of the forced edge of a farmer’s monoculture field and that of ancient woodland.
Becoming aware of your edges is only the beginning to coming to an understanding of this sacred Goddess. Once we know where our edges are, we can also be freed of them in the right environment, finding immersion in our landscapes that it utterly exhilarating and deeply inspiring, at one with the rest of the world and in perfect harmony.
Blessings from the edge to you all.