Beltane Encounters with the Otherworld

The energy of the ritual still hung in the air, shimmering in the light of the Beltane full moon. I was alone in the garden, tidying up the lanterns and getting ready to put the fire to bed. As I walked down the garden steps, my offering of milk and honey in my hands, I made my way across the lawn to where the altar and offering place lay beneath the canopy of an old beech, its leaves just beginning to bud. I said a quick prayer as I entered that sacred space, with nine small stones delineating the boundary of this “faerie circle”, a minilithic stone circle that I built last year.

As I walked into the circle, I felt the air thick with the magic of the evening. I knew something was about to happen. I laid the food and drink upon the altar, and gave my thanks to the spirits of place, and to the Good Folk. No sooner had the words left my mouth, than a rustling in the hedge all around me began, as if some strange wind was shaking just the coniferous boundary of my garden, or a small army of badgers were all coming through the little holes in the hedge at the same time. My heart pounded in my chest as the moon shone through the branches of the beech above me. Frozen in place, excited and both frightened to see what happened next, I tried to see into the darkness of the hedge, shadowed from the moon’s light, but I could perceive nothing but the inky blackness.

The rustling all around me stopped, and I found I was able to move. I knew that something had come through the hole in the hedge, but I could not see it. Slowly I walked towards the firepit, hoping to see what had come through by the light of the fire. I cautiously approached the dying flames, and peered into the shadows about ten feet away. I could see very little, but I felt a presence, someone – male – standing by the birdfeeder and the hole in the hedge, standing shoulder-height to me, dressed in shades of brown. Suddenly, even as I looked and felt his presence, he moved without a sound like a dark shadow in the blink of an eye back into the hedge, and there from the depths of the green and black two eyes shone a whitish/green, reflecting the light of the fire. Whatever that being was, he had changed into the form of a badger in the blink of an eye, to watch me from the depths of the back hedgerow.

“Beltane blessings,” I murmured. Unsure of what to do next and still very much afraid and alone, I curtseyed and then covered the firepit with its iron mesh guard, walking back slowly towards the house. I had wanted to ask for his friendship, and for that of all the Good Folk, but my courage failed me on that night of the full moon, as the powers of Beltane and the Otherwold flowed through the land.

I only hope that he will return, and soon.

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.

 

 

The Myth of Duality

It’s hard to escape the ingrained duality of our culture and mindset in the Western world. For so many hundreds of years we have listened and taken as fact that the mind and body are separate, that the individual is separate from nature. This is a concept that abounds even in Modern Paganism, which in my opinion hinders the way forward for many people who are truly trying to integrate, to live in harmony with the natural world. By creating a divide we are instantly alienated from a world to which we have a natural birthright.

Even some proponents of non-duality still can get caught out on certain issues – take the Otherworld for instance. If we truly believed in an inclusive and shared reality, a shared experience in which there is no subject and object, but instead a collection of subjects in shared experience then we come close to the core of animism. However, many Pagans still believe that when we die, our soul splits from our bodies and goes “somewhere else”: The Otherworld, the Summerlands, etc. What I would posit is that there is no “other”, just as there is no such thing as “away”. I am fully aware that not all Pagans are animists, but for me personally they go hand in hand.

Jason Kirkey touches on this subject in his book, The Salmon in the Spring. He sees the Otherworld as a different mode of perception, more than a physical place that is different to this world. By opening our perception we can see the Otherworld, which really is our world in its full entirety, unhindered by concepts of dualism.

We live in a shared reality, though many choose not to accept this. We are, in each and every second, undergoing a shared experience. There can be no such thing as a solitary experience. We are in contact with the world each and every moment. As I sit here typing, I am experiencing the clack of the keyboard and its plastic keys, the light from the monitor, the air around me, the draft from the window, the light filtering through the cloudy skies, my cat complaining for more food. I am experiencing all these things, and all these things are also experiencing me. In this context, there is no subject/object, for in order for there to be an object there needs to be separate reality and experience entirely isolated from everything else. This is simply not possible – no one lives in a vacuum.

When I am walking to my Tai Chi class in the rain, I am experiencing the rain and the rain is experiencing me. When I am in class, I am experiencing the instructor and other class members, and they are experiencing me. When I place my foot carefully on the floorboards of the hall, I am experiencing the floorboards and the floorboards are experiencing me. As an animist, for me there is no such thing as inanimate objects, or even objects at all – everything is filled with energy in motion, which creates mass and density, and everything is subject to the world around it.

Creating a division, between Us and Them, between animate and inanimate is a huge cause for the troubles we are now experiencing politically, environmentally and socially. When we realise that everything is shared experience, then we automatically work for the benefit of the whole rather than ourselves, for we realise that there is no such thing as just “ourselves”. We are an integral part of the whole, and being integral it only comes as natural that we should live our lives in service to the whole.

This is the main focus of Druidry for me in my personal life. Living a life in service means thinking, acting, living for the whole rather than the self. It’s not done in an altruistic sense, but in a holistic sense. By dropping the illusion of separation I can experience the world on a much deeper level, and have a greater relationship because the illusory barriers and boundaries of dualism have simply disappeared.

In my opinion, Descartes has a lot to answer for.

Samhain, Death and Dying

Raven’s Hollowby Wyldraven © Wyldraven 2011- 2014 http://wyldraven.deviantart.com/art/Raven-s-Hollow-208469580

In a blog post written last year, I wrote about my contemplations on the Samhain tide of the year, touching upon the nature of death and the Otherworld.

As the darkness closes in with earlier nights and later mornings, thoughts and feelings seek out the lessons to be learnt in the growing dark, where boundaries fall away and where we know nothing at all. Walking through the garden at sunset, shuffling though the fallen beech leaves, greeting my cat at her gravesite (who passed away last Yule), watching as my garden plants return the energy to their roots, I am surrounded by death as much as I am surrounded by life.

Thoughts inescapably turn to death during the Samhain tide, where in Druidry it is recognised and not shuffled away, never to be spoken of in conversation, turning it “morbid” or filled with superstition that the mention death will bring. Death comes to us all, whether we talk about it or not. Might as well talk about it.

My first thoughts turn towards the concept of the Otherworld. Many within Druidry believe in such a place, or places, where our soul goes to rest, to party, to do whatever it is we believe it does, perhaps before we reincarnate. While I do believe in reincarnation, my belief is much more simplistic that this.

More and more I come to realise that, at least for me, there is only this world. There is no Otherworld. There is no veil between the worlds, for there is only this world. And what a wonderful, awe-inspiring world, filled with gods and ancestors and life and death.

The belief in reincarnation, that our soul lives on to occupy another body at a certain time either in the future or in the past, is based upon the belief that there is a place where our soul goes when we die. For me, there is no such thing as “away”. We cannot throw our garbage “away”. We cannot be “away” with the faeries. Our souls cannot go to a resting place before coming back to this world. There is only this world. Let me elaborate.

Using nature as my teacher, I look deeply at how death occurs, the process and the stories that unfold. Death is all around us, from the earth we walk on that is made up of millions of dead things, to the death that we ourselves create with our very existence. Life is also all around us, things coming into being and growing, being nurtured and nurturing in turn. When something dies, it returns back to the soil, to transform into another way of life. Essentially, for me this is what reincarnation is all about. Changing our form. When I die, my body will be devoured by bacteria and worms, become plant food and be drawn up through the roots of trees to be exhaled into the deepening twilight. This is change, this is reincarnation, becoming incarnate in another form, becoming incarnate in a legion of other forms.

My body is made up of a similar legion of other forms, dating back to when we were all just star stuff. Everything on this planet has an original ancestor of star material, and whatever came before stars. My body is made up of living things and dead things. In my bones are stars, in my blood is iron from the hills where I grew up. All these things are living through me, and will continue to live even when I die to be expressed in a different form. They don’t go anywhere but right here.

The human crisis of self-awareness has led to a clinging of the ego which convinces us that without the idea of a separate identity, a sense of self, an “I am” we are simply lost in complete annihilation upon death – that we cease to be. Screaming for attention, it feeds upon the fear and insecurity that the knowledge of our own deaths bring in the darkness. A few religions, philosophies and spiritualities overcome this fear, learning how to transcend the ego, to let it go in order to become one again with the universe. As a Druid and Pagan, this feels right to me, for this leads to a life that is completely integrated with the natural world around us. It drops the illusion of barriers between us and the environment, and allows for full immersion into the present moment where we can be awake and aware to every shimmering drop of existence.

Yet in modern paganism the focus is usually on the “I”, the personal transformation into a better being and a better Pagan, to search for the truth of our souls and to live that truth honourably in accordance with our tradition. Self-actualisation is a big thing, not only in Paganism but also around the world. Based on concepts of the self, a return to the self and coming into our own power, we work on our selves constantly. This in itself is not a bad thing, but for me it needs to go one step further. We have to look inside our selves to understand the nature of the self, and then we can be rid of it. Emma Restall Orr discussed this in a very poignant essay, “After Paganism”, in Moon Books’ Essays in Contemporary Paganism (2013).

Many would query the validity of this, as for them the be all and end all is their sense of self, what they can do and what they have achieved in the world. Without this sense of self, would they be able to make their dreams come true, to work for political and environmental causes, to further their own desires and needs?

While I do not, as yet, have an answer to this question, it is still one that is worthwhile in the asking. I truly believe that we can, at least for moments, perhaps days or weeks, months or even years to drop that sense of self in order to integrate fully with the world. When we have, we can come back to the world with a sense of self that is not separate, that observes but does not judge, that is wakeful and aware without needing to fight for its own existence.

Returning to the subject of death and dying, if we have sufficiently come to terms with the notion that the self is not separate, and that there is no need for an individuated self to exist then when we die, we simply return to the earth. That spark that is human consciousness, that allows us to think about life and death and the self, that too returns to the earth. I seriously question whether humans are the only beings on the planet with the capability of questioning on these subjects, for it my belief that we simply have not been able to language this with other species, out of ignorance or human arrogance, or perhaps both.

Everything returns to the earth. Everything. My consciousness will seep into the soil even as my blood and bones, hair and nails. In this, complete and utter integration will occur, a reincarnation into a myriad of forms. My songs will blow with the wind. My eyes will be in the heads of flowers. My heart will be deep in the darkness of the soil. I will not leave, I will forever be here, in this world, in a multitude of forms. The ego “I” that I speak of will be long gone, released willingly into the night, but the sefless “I” will still be here.

There is comfort in this, in the knowledge that when we die, we don’t go anywhere. The ancestors are always with us, everywhere. Everything that has ever lived and ever died is still here, in another form, whether pebble or mountain, horse or mouse. You can’t create something out of nothing. You can evolve, but that’s a different story – our story is one that is shared universally.

Some would say my thinking is based upon a materialistic view of the world, however, when everything is inspirited, when everything has a consciousness that is not separate, there can be no question that it is wholly animistic. It’s not just the case of “the worm crawls in, the worm crawls out, the worm plays pinochle on your snout” – there IS more to it. Death is not stopping. Death, or dying, is an event that takes place – it is not a “forever”. Death is not the opposite to life – the opposite of death is birth, a singular event. Life has no opposite.

If there is no opposite, then there is no need for other worlds. Everything is right here, right now. The gods of nature are all around us, in the sunshine and in the rain, in the air that we breathe, in the storm and in the drought. So too are the ancestors, our ancient ancestors and our grandmothers who all are letting go of their stories into the soil, to be told again in other forms.

I realise that my words may not be in tune with the majority of Pagans, however, they are spoken with the utmost respect. And in the darkness I breathe, deeply, until there is no longer anyone breathing.

Samhain Musings…

Samhain, the time when the veils between the worlds are thin… I’ve been wondering about this term of phrase lately.  Why, on certain dates of the year, should the veil be thinner than at other times? Is there even such a thing as a veil between the worlds?

More and more I lean towards the negative – that there is indeed no veil, that the dead and the living walk side by side.  That there is no Otherworld, that the Otherworld and this world are all the same – it’s only our perception of it that makes it “other”.  We like to separate things, we human beings, to classify and put them in a place where we can understand them from a stand-offish perspective.  I would posit that, looking at nature, nothing is that simple, or can be tied so neatly to an idea.

Taking inspiration from the natural world around us, we see the living and the dead working together all of the time, whether it is autumn, winter, spring or summer.  Things are dying around us constantly – there is no specific season for it. Animals die, plants die, cells die – it does not wait for autumn. I admit, in the Fall we see the foliage around us withdrawing into itself, the leaves falling, the grasses returning to their roots, energy moving in different directions, from out into the sunlight to deep within the earth. This is not a death, however it may appear – simply a reversal of direction.

Like the double helix, energy is always moving, and never in one direction only. When everything appears to be dying here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is beginning to come to life in the Southern Hemisphere. The tides and times of life follow no one set of rules.

I may die in the autumn, I may die in the spring. Whenever I do die, my body will in turn nourish the soil, plants, fungi, animals and legion of other living beings on this planet in that great symbiosis of simply being. It does not rely on a season.  I do not cease to be, either. I simply cease to be in some form or other – my body will take on a new form. My soul – I believe that too will take on a new form, if nature has taught me anything.

In our agricultural year and society here in the Northern Hemisphere, we are at the end of our harvest season, and in that time we are able to take a break as the final crops have come in.  But we are still making our preparations for winter. Is there really a time to rest, to relax, before the snows come?  For some animals this is the busiest season, the squirrels squirreling away their stores, for example.  I’m sure our ancestors would have been busy all throughout the year, just trying to stay alive.

I’ve often thought of autumn as a time of rest, of rejuvenation.  I see now that perhaps “rest” wasn’t quite right.  Autumn is more a time of reflection, of going through what we have learned through the year, and through all the years of our lives.  It is a time to not stop, per se, but to take stock.

Along the way, our ancestors, who are with us always, can help us, guide us throughout our lives.  Having a special time of year set aside to acknowledge them is a good thing, but I would posit that we should honour where we have come from, our stories and our heritage, all that brought us to this point in time each and every day.  It is not a one-off thing. Like the holiday of Thanksgiving, I really enjoy and appreciate the sentiment, but carry that same sentiment with me throughout the year.

All that being said, this IS my favourite time of the year. I love the colours, the smells, the feeling in the air of the approaching winter, the stories of summer lingering upon our lips in reflection and contemplation.

Side by side with the ancestors, I honour the season, the tides and times of life, death, and rebirth.

The Lure of Glastonbury

Glastonbury TorEver since childhood, I’ve always loved the stories of King Arthur, of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.  I loved the tales of swords proclaiming kings, of beautiful and powerful women living on mysterious islands bestowing great gifts, of sorcerers and magicians that could both give rise to and destroy kingdoms.  This love has never left me, though it has changed and developed the more I learn about these tales, and the land upon which I live.

One of the things that has always captured my imagination, and always will, is Glastonbury Tor.  It is a wonderful place, a place of great beauty and incredible mystery.  For me, it is one of the holiest places in Britain.

The landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen – rising out of the flat, drained Somerset levels is the Tor.  From a certain angle it looks like a woman lying down.  The Tor itself is a marvel, for carved into it are plateaus, in what appear to be a labyrinthine pattern rising to the summit.  On autumn and spring mornings, often the mist obscures the ground, and the Tor rises out of mist – we could easily believe we have been transported back to the Avalon of old.

What is inside the Tor is equally fascinating – the White Spring.  It is widely believed that inside the Tor is a large carvern, where the White Spring emerges, eventually making its way down into the town of Glastonbury.  Old records mention of a time when a small hole appeared in the top of the hill, and when things were dropped down, it took a long time before a splash was heard.  The White Spring was redirected and made inaccessible in the Victorian era, a large pumphouse created to supply the town and cutting off access to what was once a beautiful little spot where the spring emerged, calcifying everything around it, giving it a fey quality. Thankfully, in 2005 the White Spring Trust re-opened the disused pumphouse and has turned the small caverns, rooms and interiors into separate sites where one can once again pay tribute and honour the spirit of the White Spring.

Two monasteries or churches were built on the Tor in the Christian era – the first destroyed, I believe, due to the Tor itself shifting, causing the building to collapse.  Was the previous pagan site revolting against this new religion?  Or was it the sand and limestone ever shifting, finding a comfortable place to rest for the next 500 years?

All that is left on the Tor now is the tower, St Michael’s Tower.  The rest of the building was destroyed in the Reformation.  I both like and hate the tower atop the Tor – it looks beautiful, standing there all alone, a kind of spiritual trig mark; I hate the fact that anything mars the natural beauty of the Tor, and do think that the tower one day will also collapse, as nature reclaims her own.

Smaller hills surround the Tor, Chalice Hill and Wearyall Hill.  Chalice Hill is said to the be source of the Red Spring, which flows down again like the White Spring to Glastonbury Town, and has the most beautiful gardens built around it.  For a small fee, one can enter the gardens and see it in all its glory (unlike the White Spring, which is free).  It was said that the Red Spring ran beneath a grove of Yew Trees, the iron rich water reflecting the blood red sap of the yew.

The Springs are perhaps the most significant thing about Glastonbury – White and Red, the colours of the Otherworld.  From two separate yet very close sources, these two very different springs come down to Glastonbury and are separated by the smallest of distances – I’m certain that at one point they ran together, but now I believe a street is blocking the union of the two springs.  Perhaps one day they will run together again.

The Tor, rising out of the watery levels, connected the Three Worlds of Land, Sea and Sky. The Red and White Spring issued forth from the fairy mound, the Gateway to the Otherworld.  The labyrinth way to the summit of the Tor was the spiral of life.  This is only a taste of the wonders that very special place – what a magical place!

Is it any wonder why I chose it at the setting for my latest book, The Isle of Apples?