Exploring Liminality; An Intro

Recently I read The Well of D’yerree-in-Dowan, in which three brothers are sent out to find a sacred well at the end of the world which would heal their father, and whichever brother brought back the water from this well would follow as king. After reaching the first crossroad, only one brother ventured forth, while the other two remained at an inn. The brother, Cart, travels throughout the day, and as night is falling, comes upon a house in the woods and is boarded by an old woman. She sends him on his way to find her older sister. After two more visits to the older sisters, Cart then encounters a brother, who leads him to island the well is on. Cart collects some water, kisses some ladies, and returns to his father. And in the end, after some problems with his brothers, he is recognized as the heir. While there are many relevant points we can take away from this tale, the one I want to focus on is the Otherworldly, liminal aspect. Cart is tasked with undertaking a journey to the end of the world, which we can understand to be in an Otherworld. The help he encounters along the way is found at liminal places (crossroads) and times (dusk). These themes are not exclusive to this story; rather, they are very common in many Irish tales, especially echtrai and immrama. So what is it about liminality that we can incorporate into our modern practices?

In the course of our daily, secular lives, we encounter many liminal places. Every time we take a drive, whether to work or school or the grocery store, we come across a crossroad. These intersections were once a place where many travelers from different places, going different places encountered one another, something that may have never happened had they not been journeying. Even today, where inns at the crossroads have been replaced by restaurants and shopping malls and coffee shops, we can still encounter people who are outside our spheres of influence. And in acknowledging that openness of the crossroad, we can also be open to interacting with spiritual creatures.

With liminal times, such as dawn and dusk or any transition of season, our perception of the world in which we live is altered, to the point where it is almost as if we are in another world. It is during these times of transition that the world in which we live and the Otherworlds are closest. Not only are these optimum times for which to undertake spiritual journeys, but also for communicating with spirits, Ancestors, and other various Gods and Ungods, and, of course, for spiritual workings.

Advertisements

The Height of Winter and the Cailleach

“Summer of youth in which we have been
I spent with its autumn;
winter of age which overwhelms everyone,
its first months have come to me.” –The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare

It’s finally winter in my area of Ohio; we had some snowfall around Thanksgiving, but most of December was spent in the 40’s and up (it was 60* Jan. 3). Two nights ago, the temperatures plummeted down to the teens, and we had our first real snowstorm move through. While we don’t get as many inches as places up near the Great Lakes, we do usually have a power outage or three every winter that affects not only the rural-er areas, but many of us townies (I hate being a townie). Last year, both my husband and I slid off the icy roads; blessedly, neither of us were injured, though I was eight months pregnant at the time and driving about 60mph, and he almost went down the hillside and tore off the back bumper. But when I talk to people that don’t live or have never lived in Ohio, we aren’t one of the states that comes to mind when the term “extreme weather” is thrown out. Yeah, we don’t really get 18+ inches of accumulation in one night, and we don’t have to deal with hurricane force winds and flooding, but the idea that what experience isn’t “extreme” is completely subjective.

Before modern communication, we had very little means of knowing what was going on in other areas of the country, let alone the world. So when regions discussed contingency plans for what to do when something extreme happened, it was always in relation to the immediate area. Extreme weather, or any sort of extreme circumstances, are situations that largely interrupt the normal course of life and pose serious threat to life and health. And our season of extreme weather just began.

And with the onslaught of winter comes the need to discuss the Cailleach. Seen as a title, a name, or a group of land deities/spirits, most forms of this being point to her sovereignty during the winter months, the season of potentially deadly weather. And unlike many other deities, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get on her good side.

The Cailleach reminds me a little of one of my grandmothers, and my husband’s grandmother. While there is a 20 year difference in their ages, they are both old women (I think of old as more a frame of mind than an age). They are fond of complaining about their ill-health (most of which is self-inflicted), the lack of care they receive from family (neither of them are isolated or abandoned), and their inability to do the things they once did (because they are the only ones who have ever grown old). There is no reasoning with them, and what compassion and empathy you could once muster has been exhausted by the deaf ears and ungrateful hearts it fell upon. But you keep going back, you keep trying, and you keep helping, because they are family, because you love them, and because someday you too will be faced with growing old. And you will have to decide how to take that.

Interacting with the Cailleach is like interacting with these grandmothers; it is a very one-sided relationship (hint: the one side is not in your favor). Unlike most relationships outlined in old Irish culture, there is no reciprocity and no way to get out of this one when the other side doesn’t contribute. You enter in with no expectation of personal reward, you prepare to just give, and you hope to weather the storm. Sometimes, you receive some recognition or personal fulfillment, but it’s always fleeting. You just have to keep giving.

So when making offerings to the Cailleach, you don’t really try to form a relationship or get anything back. You just try to ease through the season, knowing soon enough it will be over.

Samhain- In Review

I’ve had bits and pieces of this post lying around for the past month, and just now am finding the time to sit down and organize it all. Even starting as early as I did with my planning, Samhain still snuck up on me and I wasn’t totally prepared. Though, honestly, who is? But I would definitely call the celebrations a success.

So here’s how our family observance was going to go: I was going to wake up early and totally scour my house, saining as I went. A and I were going to spend the day listening to traditional and tribal music, make parshells, and go around in costume. Them I was going to cook a lovely dinner, lay out the Feast for the Dead, and eat with the family. After E and A went up to bed, I was going to bust out my drum, and do some meditating before launching into my solitary ritual service. Sounds like a wonderfully laid plan, right?

Here’s what really happened. A spent the previous week adjusting his sleep schedule from waking between 8 and 8:30 to around 6/6:30. I am not a morning person, ever, so waking up early was shot to hell. But we did get up, and what could have been cleaned in about an hour to an hour and a half, took a little over three. I’m convinced toddlers exist to disrupt cleaning. But the house was cleaned, if not sained, and ready for company. We did listen to some music, but then A decided he needed to watch every Thomas the Tank Engine movie ever made, so off went Pandora. We made no parshells, and my attempt at the masks I wanted to make flopped. But hey, the house was clean, and I kept the thought of the Ancestors foremost in my mind that day. I did make a lovely, delicious dinner, and invited the Ancestors in, and laid out leftovers as offerings outside for any Folk about that night. And then I crashed.

I did have the opportunity to attend ritual the next evening with a group that are Celtic/Norse influenced within a Neo-Wiccan/Eclectic framework. I absolutely loved their group dynamic, and the energy flow during the ritual. It began with calling the quarters and such, but there was an altar for the Dead, individual cleansing, deity invitations, and toasting, all of which I practice personally. Attending something like this that is led by a group that obviously has an understanding of the cultures and deities they were working with was a pleasant experience. Near the end, we went around and announced what our New Year’s resolutions were, and within the energy raised and the group focus, it felt binding. Mine is to find discernment and empowerment in the projects I undertake, to not let myself become overwhelmed, to let things flow away that I can’t control or worry over at that moment in time. So far, I’ve felt empowered, but not so discerning, because I still find myself taking on (what I feel to be) too much.

A few days later, I believe it was November 12th, we had our first snowfall of the year, and it was a real snow, not just a super light dusting that was gone by midmorning. I skimmed a bowl full of snow, and once it was filtered and melted, I ended up with about 6oz. of water. At least I now have water for saining.

Samhain II- Noble Ones, Sidhe, and Outsiders

There are some times where I just feel so blessed to live where I live. Even though we have such a small Pagan community, if it even constitutes a community because it seems that NO ONE knows each other, we have so many opportunities before us. We aren’t really imposed upon by long-standing groups that make the community at large feel that they have to be a part of a specific group to be accepted into the Pagan community. And we have so many rural traditions and events, that connection with the land and community through simpler means is readily at hand. Last weekend was the Atwood Fall Festival, one of my all-time favorite craft shows/festivals. And every year, they host the Moccasin Trail Pow Wow. Now I am someone that really has no clue about Native American/First Nations tribes/cultures/practices, so I can’t tell you if its one tribe or many represented there, or which ones. But I love attending for so many reasons. Every time I go, I’m participating in a living culture with oral tradition, which is how most of Celtic Europe was. I love the drumming and dancing, I love feeling the rise and ebb of the group energies. And I love the hand-crafted wares, which sadly are dwindling in favor of mass-market, mass-produced crap. But I was super excited to find some small, hand-crafted hoop drums. I had to have one, and the maker gave me an awesome deal on the one I purchased. I’m still getting to know my drum, but its deep and new and is so beautifully unique. Even though I’m not Native, we can’t move forward assuming any culture existed in a void, and careful actions to bring in new ideas and merging them with our existing cultural/belief system is what keeps spirituality growing and dynamic.

I’ve seen a few discussions on land spirits, do we honor the spirits of the land where our ancestors came from, or do we honor the spirits of land the the original inhabitants of land? I guess this all depends on how you view Land Spirits. For me, Land Spirits are a special kind of spirit, the ones that can exist simultaneously in the Mythic Realm (aka: Otherworlds) and the Physical Realm. While they are a type of Sidhe (aka: fairy folk), the Veil Between Worlds has little to no bearing on them because of their strong associations with the physical Land. While I believe some of these Land Spirits directly/ physically manifest (trees, rivers, rock formations), there are others that act as guardians and wardens (think gruagach, trolls, the Lorax, etc…), and even more are linked to the cyclical changes or temporary states of the land (winter spirits, garden spirits, rain spirits). So with the idea that these spirits live in multiple Realms simultaneously, and if we believe that creating sanctified space in our spiritual/magical work is recreating the World Center symbolically and creating a true liminal space between Realms, I don’t see why the Land Spirits from our Ancestral lands can’t travel to new places. But I also see how the link of time and tradition would hold the original Land Spirits in their same space. So I guess the argument can be made for both types of Spirits to possibly be present. All the more reason to actually explore and connect with the Land around you.

You may be asking, what does any of this have to do with Samhain? The Festival of Samhain centers around Spirits; Ancestral, Land, Noble, cyclical, whatever. Understanding who the Spirits are, how they interact with the Physical Realm, and Their roles in the holiday are crucial for understanding my branch of Celtic theology and properly observing the holiday from that standpoint (ugh, orthopraxy). Now who are the Sidhe? The Sidhe are the spiritual/magical beings that originate from Otherworlds beyond the Veil. They are your Land Spirits, fairies, brownies, trolls, basically any non-human, non-god, and non-animal being. For some, the Veil is no deterrent to traveling between Realms; for others, liminal spaces and/or times are needed, and oftentimes a particular liminal space/time. When you read folktales of creatures that live at crossroads, fly along the edge of twilight, appear out of the mist, or dance along mushroom circles, you are hearing tales of the Sidhe. One of the defining things about Samhain is the thinness of the Veil, and the ease with which Spirits and Sidhe can cross it from the Otherworlds, not that the Veil is gone or the precepts for crossing are gone. Imagine wading across a river; it is significantly easier to cross the river when it is only up to your shins than when it is up to your waist or over your head. The Veil is like this; thin at certain times and in certain places, thicker at others, and sometimes impassible. And another thing a lot of New Agers won’t admit/accept, not all Sidhe (or fairies) are good/friendly/helpful. Sometimes, to us, they are downright evil. This is why costuming and masking at Samhain is practiced, if they don’t know you’re human, chances are the “bad” ones will leave you alone.

So who are these “Noble Ones”? The Noble ones would be the Lords and Ladies of the Sidhe (not gods). I would say most of our archetypal/station-based Spirits are the Noble Ones. The Gatekeeper, the Green Man, even the Earth Mother. These Spirits serve in a particular fashion or role; the Gatekeeper as the watcher of liminal places, the Green Man as the sacred gardener, and the Earth Mother as the foundation of life. Why do I not consider these beings gods (I need to find a better word than “gods” as well)? Because I view them to be many different Spirits that are joined in a common purpose, or possibly hereditary positions. Think of monks or soldiers. I do believe they are individuals, but are so defined and meshed with their station, that the title may as well be their name (think of the Mother Superior in a convent). These Noble Ones, like one hopes the more “noble” humans (presidents, ambassadors, cultural representatives), have a better understanding, and more patience/tolerance, of the different beings in existence than the lower Sidhe. So whole the majority of the Sidhe exist and live by their own laws and customs, regardless of ours, the Noble Ones at the very least understand our customs, and are more willing to work with us in a partnership fashion.

And lastly, the Outsiders. Samhain is as much for them as any other group. Outsiders can be from anywhere, any being. For us, Outsiders are the rejects of society; historically murderers, thieves, beggars, anyone that was not a contributing member of society. Not all Outsiders are necessarily bad though, the Fianna were considered Outsiders. While some of the more delinquent types used Samhain as an excuse to cause mischief, for the poor and hungry, it was a time where they could go to any door and receive food. There were rules for hospitality and proper interaction with Outsiders in medieval Ireland. On the other side, were the Outsiders of the Sidhe. Perhaps not outsiders amongst their own kind, these Spirits would be the less desirable ones to have around human communities. They are they ones we would place offerings for to leave us alone, and the reason we would go around masked.

So far, I’ve discussed the Ancestors, the Sidhe, and Outsiders in regards to Samhain. Next would be the Gods (which I wish there was a better term for), and the pastoral/agricultural aspects of the holiday. Keep counting down, there’s only 21 days left!

Samhain I- The Ancestors

It’s October, yay! I don’t feel so bad about posting about Samhain, since it is less than a month away now. As a huge fan of Halloween (in secular practice), I always get really excited around this time of year. Which is something I think surprises my husband even now; he didn’t celebrate Halloween growing up (you know, because it’s Satanic), and I feel awful for him because it’s such a part of our pop culture. But now I’m faced with the dilemma of actually explaining Samhain to him, the kid who’s mom thought dressing in costume and begging for candy is all about the devil. And if you skim through some of the more readily available pagan books and possibly some of the more widely read websites, you see a lot of repeat and fairly shallow info on the holiday. Its the end of harvest season, the slaughter festival, the feast of the dead, and the time to look to the Crone/Dark Mother/pick your “dark” goddess.

While all of these tags have some merit, and I for one am very much not a subscriber to the idea of Maiden/Mother/Crone, none of them really delve into the meat or the “why” of any of these. So I’m going to commit a major research faux pas, and start delving a bit into my understanding of Samhain without citing my sources (I’m taking a day out of the house, and typing from a coffee shop), but I will try to remember to come back and add them in when I have a moment.

I want to start with feasting the dead, welcoming the Ancestors into our homes and honoring their life, death, and enduring wisdom. I know that there are some within the Reconstructionist movements that use the concept of ancestor worship/reverence as a front for racism. This is disgusting, and I think an awful, terrible concept. One should never be ashamed, ridiculed, or turned away from a spiritual path on something so trivial as ethnicity. With that being said, I believe that one of the ways we connect with our ancestors is through blood meditations. No, this does not involve slicing open my skin and bleeding myself to connect with any blood relatives in my past. For me, I combine visualization, rhythmic pulsing/drumming (recorded, because I don’t own a drum), and a dark room. It’s about turning my focus inward, finding myself, then reaching into my past through my blood to connect to the Ancestors. Now if you’re not of Western European descent, how does that work? I would argue that no matter our ethnicity, we share a common ancestor at some point. We also are impacted by archetypal Ancestors, who we can reach through ourselves but may not be blood relation. We know of instances of adoption and fostering Celtic Ireland and Britain, and my thoughts are that everyone that embraces a cultural spirituality is being adopted into the tribe (I do plan on addressing the concept of Outsiders this month). So we all share a collective ancestral tie. And just because your immediate ancestors may not be of Celtic descent, so what? That makes them no less important to you and your practice. While I, as a Pagan drawing inspiration from Celtic Ireland, Scotland, and Britain, chose a specific cultural group, its the mores and ethics that were held and have a rooted meaning in the culture that have kept me here. I just don’t think people should feel that they can’t embrace Celtic-based Paganism solely because they aren’t of that lineage.

While we say Samhain places a large focus on ancestor worship, how many of us actually see that as a part of many Samhain celebrations and rites? I know I haven’t, but I don’t have a connection to a diverse Pagan population. For me, worship and veneration of the Ancestors is the focal point of Samhain, especially those we have lost throughout the previous year. Samhain is about welcoming long-lost, and perhaps long-forgotten, family in for the feast, and assuring them of their continued legacy so they may rest easy until Beltane. Growing up, when I thought about death and heaven, I used to get really worked up about dying and being lonely. I obviously didn’t feel a personal connection to the Christian concept of God, so there really wasn’t a source of comfort in being with God. I knew my mom and dad, and all four of my grandparents (three of whom are still living), and numerous aunts and uncles. I felt really connected with my family, and to me, death was a wall between us. After finding a Pagan path, I’ve retained that connection (and actually felt more spiritually attached to my living family than ever before), but I’ve also discovered and developed a lifeline to my deceased family. We talk about the thinning Veil at Samhain, this is the time when we can use this spiritual lifeline to find our way to our Ancestors and help them to find us. It’s about finding and honoring family, the hospitality for each other, and the reassurance of enduring life and love. I honestly cannot think of a Pagan holiday more family focused than Samhain, and it just astounds me that it seems to be the hardest to find family-friendly rites for.

The heart of our Samhain rite in our household is inviting the Ancestors in for the feast, especially my husband’s wonderful great-grandmother who we lost this past April. Our son is so blessed to have so many living relatives (6 great- and step-great-grandparents, both sets of grandparents, numerous great-aunts and -uncles, an aunt and two uncles, and lots of extended cousins), and I want  him to grow up knowing this connection is deep and spiritual, and it lasts well beyond this thing we call death.