Celebrating Ostara 2015

Happy Ostara everyone. Also known as the Vernal Equinox, Eostre or Alban Eiler (Light of the Earth), this day marks a time of balance, when day and night are of equal length. Until now the nights have been longer than the days, but from here on the days are longer and warmer as we head towards summer. The vernal equinox is a day to celebrate the revival of life after a long cold winter. It is a time when birds are returning from their migrations, animals are giving birth to their young and all around us the world is turning green once again. It is a time when nature has officially woken up – the buds on trees are bursting, seeds are beginning to sprout up out of the ground, spring flowers such as daffodils are blossoming and there is a palpable sense of renewed life all around us. It is the feast of awakening.

Historian Ronald Hutton says that there isn’t “any reliable evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles during the time which became March and April.” However, it is important to note that Bede said that the name Easter came from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre and the month was named after her. Eastre signifies both the festival and the season of spring. Hutton says that one could argue that “Eostre was a Germanic dawn-deity who was venerated, appropriately at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon ‘Estor-Monath’ simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings.’” He goes on to say that the practice of decorating eggs at this time does go back to at least the 1200’s but the chocolate version of the egg is a twentieth century invention. Eggs are a very apt symbol for this season as they represent new life. For agricultural societies, this is also the time when the extra light led to a big increase in egg production and was a welcome source of food.

It is the spring feast, the time to bless the seeds and prepare the land for new growth. In Norse and Anglo-Saxon hearth cultures, Eostre or Idunna are honoured. Neopagans celebrate this day as a time of beginnings and action, doing magical spells for the future and tending their ritual gardens.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by giving chocolate eggs and sweets, painting eggs, planting new seeds and going for picnics and walks in nature. We can also decorate our altars with signs of spring – seeds, daffodils, eggs and symbols of baby animals like chicks, calves and rabbits. This year I am in Korea so my practices will be different from usual. I will still be doing an Ostara Ritual, decorating eggs and going for a walk in nature to search for signs of spring. But I am unlikely to be planting seeds or going out to hunt for wild food. Normally I would also eat foods coming into season too such as wild greens, spinach, spring onions and rhubarb crumble but this year I will eat a meal involving eggs instead.

Hutton, Ronald. 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.

Celebrating Imbolc 2015

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.

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 Hertha, 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

Stop It!

As if on cue, the online Pagan community has erupted into arguments yet again. This time it’s over who has the right to call themselves a Pagan and was sparked I believe by this article here. Other’s have got involved in the debate here and here. Now it’s always good to have a debate, I like debates and have them often. But every 6 months there seems to be another argument between atheistic pagans and hard polytheistic pagans within the community which probably leaves the vast majority of pagans bewildered. And it leaves some of us within those groups bewildered too. The constant bickering reveals an insecurity within both our groups. It always seems to be over who has the right to call themselves a Pagan. So let’s get this straight – the Pagan Federation defines a Pagan as:

“A follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”

So – if you want to be a hard polytheist who worships literal gods, then you’re a pagan. But if you want to be a nature venerating humanist who sees earth or the universe as in some way “divine” i.e pantheism, then you are also a pagan. One individual doesn’t get the right to define who is or isn’t a pagan. And we can learn a lot from each other.

Take me – I am a Naturalistic Pantheist Pagan. For the most part I accept the scientific naturalistic worldview and have trouble believing in anything that doesn’t produce some evidence. There was a time when I defined myself more as an atheist and was quite fiery in some of my debates – especially after first leaving Christianity and being exposed to the Youtube videos from more vocal hard atheists, but over time I’ve learned a bit more respect for others. Nowadays, I don’t define myself as an atheist although I have yet to see any evidence to suggest the existence of any gods or other entities. While it’s not something mainstream science would advocate, I see a lot of good in the worldview of Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism i.e. that mind or the ability to experience goes all the way down to the smallest atom or largest universe (but that’s a story for another time). Recently I posted about reading the book “A world full of gods” by John Michael Greer and he made some very good points about why Polytheism is a much more logical belief system than monotheism, and made me really think by the obvious implication that to really be an atheist, one must assume that the millions of people around the world who have religious experiences with what they perceive as the divine are deluding themselves – a claim I am really not willing to make. During the last few years as a Pagan I have been a member of ADF – probably one of the most explicitly hard polytheist pagan organisations in the world, yet I find a lot of value in their approach and have never felt unwelcome by their members. And I am not the only naturalistic pagan in that organisation. It is an organisation that values diversity and promotes scholarship. Over the past year I have felt more pulled to learn about Reconstructionist Paganism and particularly Heathenry. Heathens are definitely hard polytheists, but again I find value from the practices and worldview. And I am not about to go having an argument with them about whether or not Thor or Odin are real gods. I would have no problems joining in with a heathen blot (unless it involved literal animal sacrifice which I would strongly object to – as would many heathens) and honouring the heathen gods. I would just interpret the experience differently than they would.

I was attracted to Paganism for a lot of reasons, but the Pagan emphasis on tolerance, diversity and emphasizing practice over belief were very important factors. Since the revival of paganism a century or more ago, these values have helped to guide us and allowed us to build a stronger religion. Look at nature – it emphasizes diversity because that means more variety, more resilience, more innovation and more chance to find out what works best for people. Imposing a one-size fits all is to go against the way of nature, and for polytheists – against the way of the gods.

My point is this –

To my polytheist friends – if Naturalistic Pagans can find value in, and respectfully fit in with hard polytheistic groups without disrupting things, why not accept us and stop getting so defensive all the time.

To my Naturalistic Pagan friends – lets have some humility and accept we don’t know everything about the world. The scientific worldview is the best we have but there are still a lot of gaps. We don’t need to become Polytheists, but nor do we need to do regular battle with them. We have an awful lot to learn from them. Lets be respectful and in six months time when someone writes a silly article having a go at us again – lets rise above it and not respond.

Matt.