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

An Autumn Equinox Update

Happy Autumn Equinox/ Mabon/ Harvest Home/ Alban Elfed everyone. I am just writing a quick update about my plans. I know I haven’t been blogging regularly for the past year, but that is going to change soon. I have been traveling across Asia, Australia and now New Zealand, but my travels come to an end at Samhain and I will be back in England and ready to focus on this blog once again. I should end up blogging a lot more regularly from November, especially on the previously mentioned Through The Books series, and hopefully a few more articles on Pagan Monasticism too (and one on Daoism). I am also planning to join the OBOD Bardic course in November, as well as begin the ADF Generalist Studies Path (I will document my progress on my ADF blog linked above).

The Autumn Equinox is a traditional time for a Pagan thanksgiving, a time to remember what we are grateful for. So here are some things I’m thankful for this year.

  1. I am thankful for you, the readers of this blog, who inspire me to keep writing.
  2. I am thankful for the chance to travel to new countries and experience different cultures. And to learn lots about different religious traditions in those countries that can help me in my practice of paganism.
  3. I am thankful for the many other Pagans who regularly blog on the internet and help me to think more deeply about my religious path and practices.

Have a great day everyone.

harvest

What Pagans can learn from the Aboriginal People’s – How to re-enchant the land!

Recently I wrote a post called – What Pagans can learn from Asia. It was a summary of the things I discovered about people’s religious ideas in Asia. Since then, I have traveled to Australia and as my time here comes to a close, I am reflecting on what I have learned here. Interestingly it appears that others are having similar thoughts.

For the past two months in Australia, I have taken a particular interest in the Aboriginal cultures. The aboriginal peoples have been here over 70,000 years and are one of the oldest surviving cultures on earth. Despite the best efforts of European colonisers to convert and “civilise” them, a lot of their culture has survived. I believe there are several lessons we can learn from them as Pagans and apply to our own religious practice.

The aboriginal people’s believe that in a period called the “Dream-time”, a time before time, ancestral beings such as the rainbow serpent traveled across the land and created the different parts of it – the land and rock formations, the rivers and seas, the plants and animals. Because they are created by the ancestral beings, part of the spirit of the ancestral beings remains (in fact they turned themselves into them) and these places are therefore sacred places.

Lesson 1 – Stories
There is a lot of talk in Paganism at the moment about “re-enchanting the land.” The question, of course, is how to do so? In my opinion the Aboriginal people’s offer the answer – tell sacred stories about the places around you. The aboriginal people’s tell stories of how each aspect of their landscape was created by ancestral beings/ gods. These stories not only contain the laws of the tribe, thereby preserving their culture, but also are the literal scriptures of the people – their stories are their scriptures and reading the land is reading the scriptures. So, as modern Pagans, what can we learn from this? The importance of stories! Research and find out the stories of your local area, of the significant events and places there, but more importantly, think about the gods, ancestors and nature spirits who were worshiped on this land, and look for the interesting features of the landscape, then write stories about those places. Write stories about how those places came into being. Did Thor fight an ice giant and throw that big hill down on top of him? Did that river come about because a goddess wanted to give water to her human lover who was struggling to farm? Did the sacred fox teach an important moral to his cubs under that tree? Meditate and write stories about the gods and spirits you worship, the local animals and plants, and the interesting places in your land. Then put them up on the internet or share them with your pagan communities. Connect with the land through discovering or telling new stories. Make the land an enchanting place again.

Lesson 2 – Land Management
The aboriginal people’s had a very close connection to the land and managed it very well for tens of thousands of years. Part of that is down to various religious practice they had. First was the principle of reciprocity (a very important one to modern Pagans too). The principle of reciprocity is give and take. It is asking plants/ trees/ animals before we take anything, but also giving something back in return. And giving thanks. If we get something from the land, or we want something from the land, then it is only fair that we give something back in return – it is simple “resource reciprocity.” Ideally something of equal or greater worth, which helps to ensure the land survives and benefits in perpetuity. Like the aborigines, we must realise that we belong to the land, that our story is written in the land, and that because we belong to the land, we are responsible for it’s well-being. There is also the aboriginal saying that “if you look after the water, you look after the land.” In other words, we should prioritise looking after our local rivers, streams and springs. It wasn’t for nothing that the ancient Celts saw their rivers as their mother goddesses, and their springs as inhabited by special spirits worthy of worship. We must look after our mother earth, and the best way to do so, is to look after the waters that sustain us. A third aspect of land management for some aboriginal tribes was giving each person a local totem plant or animal at birth. This helped them to connect with the land, but it also helped ensure that particular thing was protected and not over-harvested. Maybe this is something we can do too?

The aboriginal people’s have a lot of wisdom to share with us if we will listen. They can teach us how to re-enchant our land and how to manage it sustainably. We don’t need to appropriate their culture, we just need to learn a few of their wisdom lessons and it will help us in the rebuilding of our western Pagan religions once again.

What is Paganism?

Today I want to take a brief break from the “Through The Books” series to write a post on “What is Paganism?” I had planned to do this a long time ago  and make a Youtube video too but I never got round to making the video so I never wrote this post. Today I am going to do so.

So what is Paganism? How can we define it? People say that if you ask 10 pagans to define Paganism you’ll get 11 answers. And anyone who tries to define it will  invariably miss someone out. Well probably but I think we should try anyway. In my opinion, the best explanation of Paganism comes from the Pagan Federation. It defines Paganism as:

“A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”

So a Pagan is someone who follows a pantheistic or polytheistic religion. Someone who honours multiple gods and/or nature. In my opinion, Paganism is based around five key areas – Pantheism, Polytheism, Animism, Ancestor Veneration and Localism. Not all Pagans will adopt all of these, but most will adopt most of them.

Pantheism
Pantheism comes from two Greek words “pan” meaning all, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Pantheists believe that all is god. Pantheists see the earth as sacred and the universe as divine. It is the foundation on which nature worship and veneration is built, and it is an important inspiration for environmentalism. Many scientists are pantheists, as can be seen from James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory. Pantheism can be both “naturalistic” or “supernatural”. It can see deity as personal, but more often views it as impersonal, more akin to a force like the Dao.

Polytheism
paganPolytheism comes from two Greek words “poly” meaning many, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Polytheists believe in many gods. Polytheism itself can be split into three groups – hard polytheism, soft polytheism and archetypal polytheism. Hard polytheists are those who believe that there are many gods, that the gods are real, existing individuals with their own personalities, thoughts and plans. They are distinct from each other. Soft Polytheists are those who see the gods as aspects of one or a few gods. They might agree with the statement “all gods are one god”. Hinduism is a good example of this. Many Wiccans are also soft polytheists (duo-theists) who see the various goddesses across cultures as aspects of the one goddess, and the various gods across cultures as aspects of the one horned god. Finally Archetypal Polytheists don’t believe that the gods are supernatural existing individuals, but rather that they exist in the collective unconscious, that while they are bigger and more powerful than us, they are not separate from us. It is important to note that archetypal polytheists don’t see the gods as just symbols. When polytheists talk of their gods, they are not the same as the monotheistic god. The gods of polytheism are more powerful than humans but they are not all-powerful, all-knowing or benevolent. Polytheists also tend to be more tolerant than monotheists due to their ability to acknowledge the existence of other people’s gods without worshipping them.

Animism
Traditional animists believe that there is spirit or soul in everything, whether tree or sun, rock or clouds. A modern version, new Animism, interprets things a little differently and talks about “more than human  persons”. New animists argue that each thing has person-hood rather than spirit – in other words, there are human persons, rock persons, sun persons, cloud persons, hedgehog persons, oak persons, bee persons and so on. They have an inherent worth and we are naturally in relationship with them. We can build those relationships up. Interestingly some philosophers support a version called “pan-psychism” or “pan-experientialism”which argues that the ability to experience, or even some form of consciousness, exists in everything from the smallest electron to the largest universe. In ancient versions of Paganism we can see animism in their worship of the spirits of trees, plants and animals, in the spirits of home and place, in the belief in land-spirits, elves, dwarves, fairies and the Sidhe. Modern Pagans also honour these spirits.

Ancestor Devotion
Ancestor devotion is arguably one of the world’s oldest religious practices and it was important to ancient pagans too. Honouring ones parents, grandparents and ancestors
back through time is a vital part of Paganism. It teaches us important values, like familial piety, gratefulness and respect for others. Modern Pagans particularly honour their ancestors during the winter period. Our ancestors can also include all life forms back through time to the first living thing. There are ancestors of blood (our family), ancestors of place (those who lived in the same area as us in the past) and ancestors of spirit (those who have inspired us or our culture). Pagans today research our ancestry, have ancestral altars, and pray to them when we need help. For many Pagans, ancestors are the first point of call when we have a need because while gods are mostly interested in the universe and their own plans, the ancestors are much more concerned with their family lines i.e. us and can therefore be powerful sources of help and wisdom.

Localism
Finally we have localism. One thing I have discovered over the past 18 months of traveling is how difficult it is to practice Paganism when you are on the move.
Graham Harvey, in What Do Pagans Believe, argues that “pagans know their local landscapes and build relationships with it and the spirits who inhabit it.  “the original meaning of ‘pagan’ – ‘ an inhabitant of a particular place’ – has encouraged a new focus on locality in modern paganism. A classical pagan was someone who belonged, some one who celebrated where they lived, someone who knew their local shrines, springs, hills, trees and neighbours, and could trace their decent from local ancestors. These pagans lived in both urban and rural places; the important thing was belonging to an area.” Practicing Paganism is about knowing your local area, and connecting with the land and spirits there. It is about celebrating the seasons as they change there. It is about maintaining an altar there.

So these things define how I see Paganism and all are important elements to my practice and worldview as a Pagan.