Celebrating Imbolc 2017

Happy Imbolc everyone. Known as Imbolc or Candlemas, the 1st of February is one of the four great festivals of the Celtic year. It marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring. At this time the first signs of spring are appearing in nature – buds are beginning to appear on trees, animals are waking up from hibernation and early spring flowers like snowdrops and daffodils are beginning to bloom. The day is also known as Oimelc which is Gaelic for “ewe’s milk.” The ewe’s are lactating and the lambs are beginning to be born. Milking can begin again, which in ancient times, when food was hard to come by in winter, offered people a lifeline. The sun is getting stronger and the days are noticeably longer. It is time to celebrate the awakening and rebirth of the earth, as well as new beginnings in our own lives.

In the tale of Tochmarc Emire, in which Emer is wooed by the hero Cu Chulainn, Emer talks of “Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning.” Historian Ronald Hutton says that “The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. He does point out that is has something to do with milking as ewes began to lactate and that “it is reasonably certain that behind this alleged holy woman [St Bride]…stands a pagan goddess of the same name.” He further says that there is uncertainty whether she is one goddess or a triple one, but in legend she is “associated with learning, poetry, prophesying, healing and metal-working, and was in general the most pleasant Irish female deity.” A fire was kept burning at her Kildare shrine during medieval times, but Hutton points out that in legend, the goddess “was not especially associated with fire.” By the 1700’s it was believed that she visited households on the eve of her feast to bless people if they were virtuous and many customs of this time are recorded. For example, feasts to mark the last night of winter, bread and butter left outside on a windowsill as an offering, Crosses made of rushes hung up over the door as a sign of welcome or put in stables so the animals would be blessed, and a bed of twigs made so she could rest. There was also a custom of putting up cloth or ribbon the windowsill overnight for her to bless.

However there are other festivals associated with this time that have helped shape how we celebrate it today as modern pagans. Hutton’s book on the Stations of the Sun looks at Candlemas, a Christian feast of purification with a ceremony of kindling candles. He says this was a “celebration of returning light” and that later medieval services use images of “rebirth of light in the dark time of the year” and the “promise of better times not far away.” Meanwhile Bede said that the pagan Anglo-Saxons called February “Sol Monath” ie cake-month as it was a time to offer special cake to the gods.

Historian Peter Berresford Ellis points out that according to Rennes Dinnsenchus, St Brigit was a “ban drui” and was said to have been nourished on the magical milk of Otherworldly cows. She later became a Christian and created a religious settlement at Dumcree. He says that in a biography of her in 650AD, her “cult was mixed with the Irish goddess of fertility, Brigit, after whom she had obviously been named” and that her feast day was “grafted onto the festival of Imbolc….sacred to the goddess Brigit on January 31st and February 1st. He explains that this feast was connected with ewes coming into milk and so “was a pastoral or fertility festival.” The goddess Brigit was a daughter of The Dagda and was a “divinity of healing, poetry and arts and crafts” as well as divination.

There are many customs recorded throughout history in Gaelic countries which honour her and may date back to the time of the ancient Celts. In Scotland, a cold day on Imbolc meant warmer weather was soon to come. Offerings of milk were made to the earth and porridge to the sea to ensure a good yield of fish and seaweed in the coming year. A St Brigit doll was made of corn and dressed elaborately e.g. with snowdrops and primroses. A bed was made for her and she was invited into the house, while a white birch want was placed alongside the bed to represent the wand she used to make vegetation start growing again. Ashes in the hearth were smoothed and left overnight. In the morning, these were checked for evidence she had visited and if not incense was burned to her. In Ireland, celebrations were similar. Imbolc represented not only the beginning of spring but also the fishing season as the storms of the sea were supposed to have been over by then. While some farmers would turn over a sod of earth in a symbolic act to hurry up warmth, the feast was known as a “holiday from turning” and so any type of turning such as weaving, ploughing and spinning was forbidden out of respect for Brigit who it was said had taught women how to spin wool. The house was cleaned thoroughly beforehand and sained or warded, while water was brought from a sacred well to sprinkle around the house. A feast on the evening included sowans, apple cake, dumplings, colcannon and most importantly, butter. Later mashed potato with butter and onions was added. A place was laid at the table for St Brigit and a portion of food left out for her. Items such as ribbons or cloth were left on trees and bushes outside for her to bless and the fire was kept burning with the door open so she could come in and warm herself. St Brigit’s crosses were made of rushes or straw and hung up for protection. It was also a time of charity and hospitality.

Meanwhile Bede said that the pagan Anglo-Saxons called February “Sol Monath” ie cake-month or mud-month, as it was a time to offer special cakes or loaves to the gods. This is the time when Heathens will celebrate the Charming of the Plough or Disting. Taking inspiration from the Anglo Saxon Aecerbot Charm, many will bake special cakes and then plough the soil for the first time that year, putting the cakes into the soil as offerings to the earth mother for fertility of the land in the coming season. The plough itself is also blessed for the coming season. Some Heathens also honour Weyland the Smith God and the dwarves. The dwarves in particular are seen as dwelling under the earth (which seems apt at this time), but also as the crafters of many important objects for the gods with the metal they find there. As with the Celtic Pagans who honour Brighid, a goddess of crafts and the forge at this time, and see it as a time to bless the tools of their trades, so Anglo Saxon heathens will honour the first breaking of the Earth with a metal plough by honouring Weyland and the dwarves. Consequently, this is a great time of the year for prayers and offerings about our jobs and careers, as well as blessing our altar and work tools. For Norse Pagans, this is also Disting – when the female ancestors known as the disir are honoured and a Thing is held to decide important matters.

This time can be seen as a feast of the hearth, a time to celebrate the rekindling of the world’s hearth fire and the return of light, a time to purify the home, a time to prepare for spring planting by blessing tools and fields, and a time to give offerings to the Earth Mother. Alaric Albertsson in Travels through Middle Earth suggests that this is a good time to honour Earde, the Anglo-Saxon earth goddess. Meanwhile, Neo-pagans celebrate by doing a spring clean, eating spicy or dairy foods, honouring Brigit and placing candles in all the windows of the home to represent the growing strength of the sun. I like to go for a walk on this day to search for the first signs of spring – especially snowdrops. Imbolc is also a time to create poetry and songs or to make candles for the coming year. It is traditionally the time to begin buying seed potatoes and chitting them ready for planting.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

Tairis – http://www.tairis.co.uk

Gaol Naofa – http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

Gaelic Folkway – http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm

A New Year

OK, its nine days into the new year but I didn’t really have much to write about on 1st so I’m doing a blog post today.

Since returning from traveling in October, I have felt quite lost inside and unsure where I want to go with my life. I have already achieved the two big dreams I had when I was younger so now I’m not sure what to do, where I want to live, or what I want to get out of life or do for a job (could also be that I’m coming up on my 30th birthday and that’s making me more reflective). I started a new job last week but dislike it already and will look for something else. I think once I get sorted with a job I don’t hate, I will feel more settled and be able to focus on developing some new goals for my life.

awenOne thing I have got clear in my mind though, is the desire to spend the next few years developing my Paganism much more deeply than it has been. I have joined OBOD and the first part of their Bardic course came today – it looks pretty good and hopefully I’ll learn a lot and develop spiritually. I have also restarted doing the NOD Bardic Grade which I had previously started when I first became interested in Druidry. And I plan to begin studying the Generalist Study Path of ADF. So a lot of courses running side by side but hopefully I’ll have time to do them all and learn a lot from them.

I am also trying to add meditation and prayers to my evening routine in order to develop closer relationships with the Kindreds.

After a year of my Paganism having to take a back seat due to travel and the lack of a set address, I want this year to be the year I dive back into things deeply and really grow spiritually. And maybe when I’ve got that foundation set in my life…the rest of it will start falling into place.

Celebrating the New Moon – for Heathens and Druids

In ancient times, the New Moon was celebrated as the beginning of the month. Nowadays we have adopted the Roman calendar of set days, but in many cultures from ancient Greece to Anglo Saxon England, the new moon would most likely have been used to mark the new month. The ancient Greeks had a particularly interesting set of festivities to mark this time and I think there is a lot we can learn from them in creating new traditions for our modern Anglo-Saxon Paganism.

The ancient Greeks had a three-day festival around the new moon that involved preparations and then offerings to different household deities on particular days. They would celebrate the new moon itself two days after what we now call the new moon, because that is when the first crescent of the moon would be seen again. This timing of the celebration of the new moon is similar across a range of ancient cultures and therefore I think it makes sense to celebrate the new moon (and therefore the new month) on this date – the day when the first crescent of the moon appears in the sky.

But how should we celebrate? Well I think it would be a good idea to take a few ideas from the ancient Greeks. First – on the day before the new moon, as the old month is passing, it is a great times to do preparations, purifications and to put one’s affairs in order. It is a time to clean our altar, our fridge or even our whole house. It is a time to settle outstanding debts and bills. It is a time to evaluate the last month and make plans for the new one. And it is a good opportunity to give something to the less fortunate.

On the following day, the new moon, we should do a special ritual to honour those gods and spirits important to our household – Frige as goddess of the family and household, the Housewight/ Cofgoda, and our Ancestors. It would also make sense to honour Mona, god of the moon on this day too. It is a time to ask for their blessings upon our homes and families for the coming month, and to seek a divination regarding the coming month. It is also good to celebrate with a special meal – perhaps of moon shaped foods, or seaweed (as it’s a time when the seaweed will be plentiful.)

So as we prepare our calendars for the coming year, here are the dates of the New Moon (first crescent) for you to add in and celebrate. (thanks to ealdrice.org for the information)

Æftera Géol beginneth December 31st
Solmónaþ beginneth January 30th
Hréþmónaþ beginneth February 28th
Éastermónaþ beginneth March 30th
Þrimilci beginneth April 28th
Ærre Líða beginneth May 27th
Æftera Líða beginneth June 26th
Þrilíða beginneth July 25th
Weodmónaþ beginneth August 23rd
Háligmónaþ beginneth September 21st
Winterfylleð beginneth October 21st
Blótmónaþ beginneth November 20th
Ærre Géol beginneth December 20th

Celebrating Yule 2016

Happy Yule everyone. Also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice, Yule has its roots in many cultures, including Roman Saturnalia, Christian Christmas and most importantly Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon Yule. It is the longest night and the day when the Sun is “reborn.” Since the summer, the days have been getting shorter and colder, but after Yule they begin to lengthen again as we approach spring. It is a time of light and hope in the depths of cold winter.

The first mention of a midwinter celebration is in the writings of a 4th century Christian who said that at this time pagans celebrated the birthday of the sun by kindling lights, giving presents, feasting and the closure of schools and shops. However this festival of Saturnalia only began in 274ad. By the 8th century there were 12 days of celebration at Christmas. There is little evidence of celebration in Ireland before the 12th century. However, Bede, writing in 730ad said that most important festival of the Anglo Saxons in England had been “Modranicht” or “Mothers Night” on 24th December. This was the night which opened the new year and “they kept watch during it with religious rites.” The word Yule came through Danish rule over England, however there is no mention of it in early Scandinavian literature. Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson says that there was a three day celebration at this time, including a sacrifice for a good crop. Historian Ronald Hutton says “the consensus between Bede and Snorri, that the winter solstice was a major feast of the ancient Scandinavian and Norse people’s, and opened their year, is still an impressive one.” There are many records from the 4th to 11th centuries of church leaders denouncing revelries, sorcery, divination, dressing in animal skins and feasting to excess at this time of the year. Across European society, it seems to have been a time for role reversal and the relaxation of norms. Hutton says that Welsh literature also shows good evidence for a midwinter “new year’s feast.” He further states that “it was the general custom in pagan Europe to decorate spaces with greenery and flowers at festivals, attested wherever records have survived.” These were often evergreens such as holly and ivy. Despite this, many of the traditional festivities we associate with Christmas now e.g. stockings, Christmas cards, paper decorations and crackers either were invented in the 19th century or came over from Germany at that time. Other traditional Christmas festivities such as the Christmas Tree (in the Rhineland), Yule Log and Wassailing the orchards can be traced back to Tudor times but no further.

While the Celtic people’s didn’t celebrate at midwinter as far as we know, the pre-celtic people’s who built monuments such as stonehenge and newgrange to align with the Winter Solstice, probably did have some kind of festival at this time. Celtic Pagans do sometimes get involved with Wren Day on Dec 26th, guising, lighting candles for this the longest night, honouring the winter hag Cailleach,  and the usual Christmas festivities.

Norse and Anglo Saxon re-constructionists celebrate Mothers Night (Modrinacht) as a time to honour the “Mothers”. In modern reconstructions, these “Mothers” are interpreted as goddesses and one’s female ancestors, however I think it is more likely the “Modra/ Matres” were the triple goddesses depicted on altars and votive offerings across northern and central Europe. They were linked with fate, prosperity, fertility and therefore probably similar to the Norse concept of the Norns.” Twelve days of feasting follow with the burning of a yule log, meditating on the nine noble virtues, lighting candles, doing divinations and making oaths on New Years Eve. Yule signified the height of the Wild Hunt, when a ghostly procession led by the god Woden/ Odin, and sometimes Frau Holla, marched across the night sky. It was a time when the dead were permitted to leave their mounds and return to the land of the living. In southwest England where I am from, this myth has evolved into a belief that it is hell hounds (known as Yeth or Wisht hounds) chasing sinners or the unbaptised. Similarly, myths surrounding Woden/ Odin and Thunor/ Thor may have contributed to our modern Santa Claus. Yule can be a time for honouring many of the gods – Woden who leads the wild hunt, Frige as the goddess of the home and hearth, Thunor for stopping the ice giants, Frey/ Ing for prosperity, Sunne and Baldur for the Suns rebirth and the winter deities Ullr and Skadhi.

Modern Neopagans like Wiccans celebrate this day with the myth of the mother goddess who gives birth to the sun god, while Druids tell of a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, in which the Oak King overcomes the Holly King on this day and rules until Midsummer.

In the deepest depths of winter, it is traditional to celebrate Yule with gift giving, spending time with loved ones, decorating with evergreens and lights, having a yule tree and yule log, drinking and feasting. Wassailing is another tradition and in medieval times, villagers in southwest England would go to orchards and wassail the apple trees to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the Autumn. To celebrate the cycles of nature and connect with the world around us, we can go out and watch the Solstice sunrise, ringing it in with the sound of bells. We can also go for a walk in nature, toasting the trees, and putting out food for the birds and animals struggling to find something to eat in the cold winter. Boxing day (26th December) was traditionally a time when the rich would give their servants the day off and provide food/ drink for them. I think dedicating this day to helping others would also be a great practice for Pagans.

My Yule feast usually includes a nut roast, sage & onion stuffing, mapled brussel sprouts with apple and walnuts, sweet & sour red cabbage, spiced swede mash, cranberry sauce and garlic & herb roast potatoes. I also often have a party with friends, burn a yule log, do a ritual, stay up all night in a candlelight vigil to greet the morning sunrise, go for a walk in nature and eat a traditional yule breakfast of porridge. I honour , the housewight and the Mothers on the Solstice eve, while honouring Sunne as she rises the next morning. Twelfth night (New Years Eve) is a good time for reflection, making plans for the next year, doing a cleaning of the house and eating a traditional New Year’s cake. It is also the time to have a big party with friends, to burn the yule log of the season and to wassail the apple trees.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

That time the Runic Talisman worked!

I just wanted to write a short post about something that happened to me recently. It could have been coincidence but I’m not so sure. Since I finished my travels, I have been staying with a friend while I searched for a job. I applied for around 100 jobs in a period of two weeks but hadn’t heard anything back except a few “no’s”. Then about two and a half weeks after returning, I was beginning to run low on funds and had to start eating into savings which I was hoping to keep for paying for a new place to live and a car if necessary. Now, I have paid national insurance which should entitle me to claim unemployment allowances, but the government changed the rules while I was away and now you have to be in the country for at least three months first. This “surprise” got me very panicky as I was unsure I’d have funds to last me anymore. In desperation, I decided to create a runic talisman – just a simple piece of paper with the “Feoh” rune (which means “movable wealth”) inscribed onto it. I placed feohthe talisman in my wallet and left it there. I also prayed to the gods and ancestors to ask for a job.

But then a strange thing happened – by the end of the next day I had five interviews booked in. One of the jobs I had applied for was a part time role, but the employer called and said it would be full time, and I managed to pass the interview the next day and get the job (albeit I asked to start in January instead of immediately as I was holding out hope for an admin job instead). A few days later my grandparents visited and gave me a surprise gift of money too. Now it could all be coincidence – but it’s strange that within three days of using the talisman I had a full time job offer and a gift of cash.

Interestingly many of the other interviews after that time didn’t work out so I have come to the conclusion that I’m meant to be doing this first job I was offered, even though I’d have preferred something else. I’m not sure why, but I am sure there is a reason and I will find out in due course.

 

Celebrating Samhain/ Winter Nights 2016

I’m finally back in the UK, after almost two years traveling abroad. I like traveling, seeing new cultures, trying new foods and exploring new places, but it’s very hard trying to be a pagan while you’re traveling, constantly changing between different seasons which are out of order and generally not being able to be a Pagan of place. I am glad to be back now so I can get in tune with the wheel of the year again and pursue my Paganism much more actively. So Happy Samhain everyone.

Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, Samhain is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter.

At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weakest animals are being culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over and winter is here. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts are about to begin and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits. It was a time to give offerings to the gods in thanksgiving for the good harvest the people had.

Historian Ronald Hutton says “A feast with ritual practices…was…well known in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland. There was, however, no common rite as there had been at Beltane.” He further states that “there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time a major pagan festival was celebrated” but that there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead or that it was the new year. Rather, the association with the dead came through Christianity and the development of All Souls Day. However, it was a time to guard against and propitiate supernatural forces.

Samhain is the most widely mentioned festival in Irish mythology and the Gaulish Colignay calendar also mentions it as the end of the pastoral year. It is mentioned as the first festival in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire as “Samhain, when summer goes to rest.” It is the time when the Morrighan and An Dagda mate in a river for victory at the second battle of Magh Tuiredh, and it is a time to honour Donn, the father of the Irish race and chief of the sons of Mil. He is the Celtic lord of the dead, the dark one who was drowned in the battle to invade Ireland. He now dwells on a small island named Tech Duinn, the waiting place of the dead before they journey to the Otherworld. In contrast, Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says that the god Bile is also a god of the dead who transports souls to the Otherworld. Another story related to this time of harvest is the story of why offerings are given to the Tuathe De Danaan. After the Milesians (ancient Irish) conquered Ireland from the Tuatha De Danaan, the land was divided up with the Milesians on the land and the Tuathe De Danaan under the ground. But the Tuathe continued to destroy the crops and stop cows producing milk so an agreement was reached with An Dagda so that the Irish offered a portion of their harvest to the Tuathe De Danaan in exchange for their friendship and blessing on the land. The Cailleach Bheur, the old hag of winter can also be honoured at this time.

Bede said october was named “Vuinter-fylleth” as it signified the beginning of winter, while November was named “blod-monath”because this was when the annual slaughter of livestock occurred to reduce the number of animals kept through the lean months. Hutton says that pagan Scandinavia held its own major festival at the opening of winter, called winter nights, on the Saturday between 11th and 17th of October, but that there is no evidence this ever came to Britain.

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. Just like Beltane, at this time the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and human world could interact. As a night of liminality, transition, uncertainty, chaos and danger, it was believed that many otherworldly beings would be roaming on this night.

While there were fires lit in some areas on Samhain eve e.g. Scotland and Wales, this was not the case in Ireland, where Parshell Crosses were placed in the entrance to the house instead. Other practices at this time have included communal meals, candles being lit and prayers said for the dead, drinking and games, putting pieces of bread on windowsills for one’s ancestors, taking precautions against witches, divination by casting nuts into the bonfire to learn about death and marriage, carrying lights around in turnips and dressing up as monsters while causing mischief. It is also a time to sain and ward one’s property by walking the boundaries with fire and making rowan charms.

Gaelic reconstructionists avoid going out on this evening as the spirits as most active, or if they do, its in disguise. They light bonfires and carry flames around their property to protect and sain it. They carve turnip lanterns, hold big feasts, do divinations, give offerings to the gods and ancestors, leave food out for the dead and light candles for them. Its also a time to play games, sing songs and make a parshell cross.

Neo-pagans often celebrate this time with a dumb supper to honour the dead. For Anglo Saxons and Norse heathens, its a good time to honour Woden as psychopomp and the leader of the wild hunt across the winter skies, or to honour Hel as the goddess of death as well as the ancestors and elves (the disir and alfar).

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of ancestor veneration, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. This practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It’s also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. I also put up my family tree. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I also usually have a party with friends, decorate the house and eat traditional foods like Pumpkin soup, Colcannon (mashed potato with kale or cabbage), baked apples and gingerbread. I also carve a pumpkin, leave out a meal for the ancestors and drink lots of mulled cider. Apples are a particularly good offering for ancestors to leave at grave sites or on your altar as they are seasonal and represent immortality in folklore. The nearest Celtic area to me is Cornwall and this time is celebrated there as Allantide, where it is customary to give an Allan apple to each family member as a symbol of good luck and children would often put it under their pillows. I will probably do that too if I can find some.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ellis, Peter Berresford.A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin Books, 1964.

http://www.tairis.co.uk/
http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/
http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm