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. The four stages of the day long ceremony in the Acerbot charm is 1) Hallow, bless and anoint the plough, 2) plough the land for the first time, 3) pray to the earth and 4) offer special cakes by putting them into the freshly ploughed earth. 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 Earthe/ Nerthus, the Anglo-Saxon earth goddess.. Meanwhile, Neo-pagans celebrate by doing a spring clean, eating spicy or dairy foods or making bannocks (oat cakes) and colcannon (kale and leek), 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, as well as to bake cakes to put in the soil as offerings to the gods. And it is the time to bless the tools of your trade, and honour those who help us with them – Brighid, or Weyland and Nerthus.

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

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Honouring Mother Earth

Imbolc is on Thursday. For me, the main deity I honour at this time is Nerthus, the Earth Mother as she begins to awaken and we get the land ready for the growing season. Here is a prayer to her that I have written and will use in my ritual on Wednesday eve …

Yule and Ritual 2017

On Thursday it is the great feast of Yule, the rebirth of the Sun. Each festival I do a ritual using the ADF format. My outline of the format can be found on my ritual page here.

When it reaches the “Statement of Purpose” section, I do the following…

Say: “As I stand here on this celebration of Yule, the sacred wheel of the year has turned once again and it is now midwinter. As my ancestors did in times before, so tonight I honour the old ways. It is the Solstice, the longest night and shortest day. Today I celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. Though the night is dark, and the Earth sleeps in winter, I await with patience the return of light and life to the world. Since the summer, it has gradually become colder and darker, but from this time forwards, the days shall get longer and lighter and warmer again. The Solar year has run its course and completed its cycle and a new year begins, bringing light, life and hope to the earth.”

Celebrating Samhain/ WinterNights 2017

Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, Samhain or Winter Nights is the festival on which the ancient Celts and Anglo Saxons 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. In ancient times there is evidence of the practice of burning grains on the graves of ancestors as offerings, and it may also be a good time to do “sitting out” – sleeping on old burial mounds or graves in the hope of receiving a message from our ancestors. Anglo Saxon pagans often hold a Sumbel at this time, with toasts to the ancestors.

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 often 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. In nearby Cornwall 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.

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

Celebrating Harvest Home 2017

The Autumnal Equinox, also called Harvest Home, Mabon or Alban Elfed is a time of transition and change, a time of honouring the changing seasons and a time of reflection and thanksgiving (in fact it is often called “The Pagan Thanksgiving”). It is also a time of balance. The Autumn Equinox is the midpoint between the summer and winter solstices, when the day and night is of equal length and light and dark are balanced. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year for the northern hemisphere, when nights are longer than days.

By the time of the Autumnal Equinox, the earth around us is showing the signs of the journey into winter – with later dawns and earlier sunsets, the weather is cooler and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn wonderful colours. The animals are busy preparing for winter – squirrels collecting nuts and acorns while birds prepare to migrate to warmer climates. Most of the grain and fruit harvests have been gathered in and its now time to harvest the apples, grapes, squashes and nuts, to preserve them for winter.

Historian Ronald Hutton writes that the end of the harvest was often celebrated in the medieval times with a harvest feast or supper and ceremonies involving the last sheaf of corn. It often involved a lot of drinking. According to Bede, September was called haleg-monath (holy month) for the ancient Anglo Saxons and Hutton says “it can be surmised that this was derived from religious ceremonies following the harvest.” Bede further says that this was the month when the heathens “paid their devil tribute in that month.” Interestingly Jason Mankey has suggested the Autumn Equinox could be renamed “Halig” after Bede’s original name for September – I really like that idea.

I am not aware of any evidence or mythology to suggest that this day was celebrated by the Druids in ancient Gaelic cultures. However, there are a few ancient Irish temples which line up with the sun at the spring and autumn equinox which suggests they might have considered the day sacred. It is also very close to the time of Michaelmas which may have absorbed previous festivities in ancient Irish culture at this time, for example – picking carrots on the eve before, an emphasis on giving to charity and the beginning of the apple harvest and hunting season.

In modern times, Druids honour the Green Man of the forest by offering cider libations to trees. It is also good to celebrate this time by visiting an orchard to pick apples, making jams and cider or eating a meal of autumnal fruits and vegetables, especially carrots, apples, nuts, grapes and squashes. It is a time to make gratefulness lists and also to remember those who have a lot less than us and to perhaps volunteer or give some food away to others. For heathens, it is the time to honour Frey/ Ing as god of the harvest, Idunna as goddess of the apple because today begins the apple season, Njord because its the end of the fishing season, Aegir as god of brewing or Nerthus/ Hertha the earth mother and to leave the last sheaf of the harvest as an offering. Meanwhile Neo-pagans celebrate it as a day of balance, when the night and day are equal and nature is declining. In Christian cultures it has become known as Michaelmas (celebrated Sept 29th).

For me, this is a time to give thanks for the abundance of nature. It is a time to party and celebrate with all the wonderful food that is around. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because its so beautiful at this time as the leaves are turning. I love to decorate my altar with fruits, vegetables, nuts and leaves, as well as making leaf garlands to hang around the house. I will have a big feast of waldorf salad (filled with autumn nuts and fruits like grapes and apples) with stuffed butternut squash.

Here are some videos…

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

An update

Just a quick update about what I’ve been doing.

I decided this month to get back into the OBOD and BDO Bardic Courses again. I had not been impressed with the OBOD one and had done little since May, but this time I decided to approach it from a less rational critical point of view and it seems to be working – I am getting more out of both the OBOD and BDO courses which compliment each other nicely. It has had the effect of making me want to explore my bardic/ creative side more. I don’t see myself as very creative so I resisted this, but after buying a Stephen Fry book on writing poetry, I sat down yesterday and actually wrote a Poem for the first time in years. It was very basic but I felt quite proud of it, and feel like maybe I have a creative side after all. I would love it if this exploration of the bardic path really did make me into someone who can regularly write poetry and be a bard.

I have also been doing a lot of reading and writing the ADF courses. I have submitted and passed two of the courses for the Generalist Study Path, and I have written a third but that will need editing once I get through Stephen Pollington’s The Elder Gods. I’ve decided to focus on the Bardic Studies course next so hopefully around the end of October I’ll have four of the ADF GSP courses done.

Finally, I had planned to launch a course on Building a Local Paganism, by Lughnasadh but it hasn’t happened as I have had little time to get it written. I am also probably going to change it into a book and publish it sometime in 2018 but I’ll keep everyone updated on that.

Now, its September so it’s time to go gather some sloe berries to make sloe gin, elderberries to make an elderberry tonic for keeping the flu away in winter, and for preparing for “nutting day” so collect hazelnuts.

Celebrating Lammas/ Lughnasah 2017

Happy Lammas Everyone. Lughnasadh/ Lammas is one of the four ancient Celtic Fire Festivals mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and is held on 1st August each year. It celebrated the beginning of Autumn, a time that ushers in the end of hunger and a bountiful abundance of crops. It is the first of three harvest festivals – that of the grains and potatoes (since they have come over from America). On this day we celebrate the first fruits of the season.

For the ancient Irish, Lughnasadh was named after the god Lugh, the Fair One, and is the only festival to be named after a deity. However, he is not a god of the harvest, but rather “a patron of all human skills with a special interest in kings and heroes.” It was said to have been started by him as a funeral feast and sporting competition in commemoration of his foster mother, the goddess Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says it was “an agrarian feast in honour of the harvesting of crops.” The festival evolved into a great tribal assembly where legal agreements were made, political problems were discussed and huge Olympic-style sporting contests were held. It was a time of peace and was also one of two festivals where hand-fastings have been traditionally held.

Anglo Saxons also held their feast of Lammas at this time. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle refers to it as “first fruits” and historian Ronald Hutton says that it was customary at this time to reap the first of the ripe cereals and bake it into bread. This is why the festival was known as Lammas or Loaf-mass. Hutton states that “it would seem very likely, therefore, that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date” and “the same feast was…celebrated in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon, or Norse Britain.” He goes on to say that in the middle ages this was an important time for holding fairs, paying rents, electing local officials and opening up common lands. For Anglo-Saxon and Norse pagans, it is a time to honour Thunor for the summer rains, or Tiw as god of the Thing.

Following historical practices, Celtic reconstructionists celebrate this day with games and races, visiting fairs, giving offerings to the gods and spirits and generally being thankful for the harvest. The first fruits of the harvest are taken home and pilgrimages are made to sacred sites, hilltops and water sources where bonnachs, flowers and garden produce are left. Cheese is made, bilberries are picked and the first potatoes are pulled up. It is a time to feast on potatoes, bread and berries. Traditional foods include Lample Pie and Colcannon made with onions, garlic, potatoes, butter and shredded cabbage. This is the Feast of the Warrior and it is a time for warrior games, martial prowess and equestrian activities. It is also the time when the Thing was held in Iceland.

Lughnasadh or Lammas is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and to remember that the hot days of summer are coming to an end as we approach the cold part of the year. It is the time to briefly rest before the hard work of reaping what has been sown begins. It’s traditional to celebrate this time by making corn dollies (ask a farmer if you can cut some corn), baking bread, holding sports competitions, selling your crafts at summer fairs and having bonfires on hilltops. It is also a good time to pray for or work for peace. Offerings are given to Lugh, Thunor or Tiw in the hopes of a good harvest. I will be celebrating this festival by doing an ADF ritual, making some bread (one for me and one for a neighbour as an act of kindness), opening the Mead that I brewed at Midsummer, having a feast of seasonal foods such as sausages, potatoes, sweetcorn and blueberry gravy, and spending time in nature. Sometimes I also pick bilberries/ whortleberries.

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.

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

http://www.tairis.co.uk

http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm