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 Even today, where inns at the crossroads have been replaced by restaurants and shopping malls and coffee shops, we can still encounter people who are outside our spheres of influence.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.

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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.

Reawakening- Reflections on Imbolg

So this winter has been wild. I saw a week or so ago that three cities in Ohio were among the 20 coldest in the US, one of which is our nearest metropolitan center. Early last week, schools and businesses were closing due to the extreme cold, and tonight we’re being told to look for 6-10 inches of snowfall. I don’t know about anyone else, but I definitely feel like the Cailleach has her hands all over us this winter. It has been wild and unpredictable and extreme, yet I do see that coming to an end. It was in the 50’s over this past weekend, I totally felt like Brighid gave us a bit of a respite, a sign that, yes, this winter shall end.

Things have been a bit chaotic in our house, and so we didn’t celebrate Imbolg in any particular way. With having the poultry out at the in-laws, I do try to at least make time for some small rite to ensure their continued health and fertility (that’s my goal for this weekend). We just bought a house (closing next week!) and have been busily packing for our move. That, along with my return to school, E’s busyness at work, and the cabin fever and minor illness that has just lingered through the winter (sniffles, colds, and sinus issues), have just not made for a “good” time for celebrating. Though one could argue that it’s the perfect time to celebrate, we made it through the winter! I’m just not in the mood to be in charge of that celebration, and I think this is a hang-up all solitaries face.

But I have been reflecting on what it means to be pregnant at this time of the year. During my last pregnancy, I spent this time freaking out and going over all of my options (abortion, adoption, carrying to term), and didn’t spend much time thinking about how awesome it is to be pregnant at Imbolg.  We see the first signs of returning life, the first sheep are coming into their milk, soon we can put down our cold weather vegetables, and winter is nearly over! While winter itself is cold, we retreat into the warmth of our homes until we can reemerge into the bright warmth of summer, like a babe emerging from the womb. Due to the circumstances of my son’s birth, it is medically inadvisable for me to carry past my due date. So I know this baby will be here by Earth Day, we will be moved into our new home (hopefully) long before then, and we can take that time to welcome in the fullness of spring and the reawakening of the Earth. But for now, I can feel the baby getting bigger, and I know his time is coming, just like the Earth is awakening and preparing for another year of richness and abundance.

Sovreignty and Marriage- Part I

I had an awesomely vivid dream last night. Nothing supernatural about it, pregnancy just does this to me. But the entirety of the dream involved my husband and I beginning to hike the Appalachian Trail up in Maine. Just us getting stinky, hiking through the woods, along a dried river bed that was muddy in some places and turning to hardpack, then having to swim across a lake to reach the other side of the trail. I remember jumping in the lake and tasting the water, not clear and springlike, but slightly muddy, algae-ish, lakewater. And my husband climbed back out and looked at me and asked “Wouldn’t you rather rent a canoe?”. Then I woke up. It was so awesomely normal, and us, it was a great reprieve from the completely whacked out weather we’ve been experiencing in Ohio lately (it’s 40 degrees today, but was -10 on Monday). But I feel like this dream not only came from my need for some idyllic nature time with my life partner, but from some of the ideas that have been bothering me lately.

One of those ideas has been marriage counseling. Especially, spiritually based marriage counseling. Like, why do we not have this available in the Pagan community? Other than the fact that we have such a diverse collection of religions and beliefs, but why do we not have this within the individual groups? We were married by some awesomely out of the box Christians, and spent a few months right before our wedding with them doing some pre-marital counseling. Then spent a couple months this past summer in marriage counseling with them again. Yeah, the first year of marriage is hard, and it definitely was taking its toll on me. And I was taking it out on E. This was good for us, and especially good that we were able to go to a couple that knew us, and our somewhat unique situation, for advice. They obviously drew their advice and inspiration from their Christian beliefs, but never pulled out a Bible (they’re somewhat anti-Bible people) to back it up. They’re believers of “Do-er” faith, not book faith. This is why we connect. But where are the Pagan equivalents? These are normal people, without degrees, who have training in counseling. Something anyone who was dedicated to offering this service could do.

While most of us don’t have a sacred book, we do have our myths. And a recurring theme in Irish mythology is the importance of the marriage of the king with the land. Definitely not advocating a submission of one partner to the other, I don’t believe at its core that’s what this marriage is about. But the importance of partnership and accountability to the health and fruitfulness of the family/community/land/etc. While the land is often referred to as female, and the king as male, there is an interesting attribute to these myths that one doesn’t usually see in effect in certain other religions. If the king fails in his duty to protect and nurture, the land sickens, and the people depose (or kill) the king. Not advocating killing your husband. But I think it shows the seriousness of of accountability in marriage to your partner, and your family. One person isn’t just declared head, and can do whatever they want, with little to no repercussions. Its a duty to always be encouraging and nurturing everyone else toward fruitfulness, before the self. That is the sacred duty of the king. Who, I feel, need not be the male, or more “masculine”, partner.

New Year Musings

  • Accountability… I’m such a failure in this. We had our monthly meet-up, which I’ve kind of become the organizer for since the other gal that I was originally working with just had a brand new baby. And I was 40 minutes late. And no one was there. I did hang around for about an hour, just in case someone wandered in late. But I didn’t have my cell on me, and no internet until I got to the coffee shop, so no way to send out last minute reminders. While I acknowledge I dropped the ball on this, what about the people that had RSVP’d they were coming? Just because it’s an informal event, doesn’t give a person leave to just not show without some contact with the organizer. This mentality has been a big deterrent in my desire to offer workshops, or work with Pagans on their personal learning tracks. As you can gather from my last post, my husband believes I already stretch myself to thin between projects. Why would I take on the further responsibility of teaching, whether just a short workshop or a long-term commitment, when those who so adamantly shout for more, better, accessible teaching aren’t willing to prove they can hold up their end of things? Three years ago, I was that person. I hate that I was ever that way, but we can always grow out of our shortcomings. I hope I am well and truly on the other side of that one.

 

  • Beginner books… This just popped up on me today. I see so many people recommending “beginner books” or “101 books”, but they all seem to have the same flavor. It’s eclectic witchcraft, pretty bland, trying to encompass the entirety of the Pagan movement, or at least not delve too far into any particular branch. But is this really how we should always approach “Paganism 101”? I have yet to read “Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions”, but shouldn’t we start new Pagans off with books talking more about what Paganism is/can be, instead of “here, cast this good luck spell”? Then offer introductory books that are more path/tradition/culture specific? I just find it frustrating to be faced with circumstances where Pagans are ignorant of the other branches out there because their introduction to Paganism was focused on spellcraft and deity worship, and not about Paganism.

 

  • Thoughts on the priesthood in modern paganism… I reading an article the other day (probably on one of the blogs I follow, but I’m not sure) discussing the evolution of the priesthood in Christianity. How at the time of inception as a religious force, the priesthood was trained class, separate from the masses it served. Then with the Great Schism and Martin Luther’s break with Roman Catholicism, we see the introduction of the laity into the priest class. Then it branched off into the Anabaptist movement (which would be the groundwork for the Amish and Mennonite cultures), and the idea that everybody is equally equipped to join the priesthood, So we’ve gone from the specially-called elite group to the ordinary everybody group. And I wonder what parallels can be drawn in the Pagan community.

I find myself looking mostly at American/eclectic Wicca, and the prevalence of the term “Priest/ess”. It seems that everyone is/claims to be a priest, or is at least a priest of such-and-such deity. And of course your coven cannot be legit unless headed by the High Priest/ess. Now, I realize that it just may be the Wiccans I’ve had the opportunity to come in contact with, none of whom are in traditions that are even similar to BTW or any other secret/initiatory traditions, but what it begs the question “What is a priest?”

For me, a priest is a person that has taken vows in the name of a specific deity, tradition, or spiritual/religious belief. And with those vows comes a caveat of service, to deity/tradition/belief AND the community based around deity/tradition/belief. If one were simply to focus solely on the deity/tradition/belief, I would argue that one is more of a monk than a priest. I also feel that there should be a formal ceremony/acknowledgement of those vows, even as simple as members of the community bearing witness to the priest’s vows.

I feel like there are others in the community working towards a more formal structure for Pagan priesthood (I’m talking Cherry Hill Seminary), but, just as not all Christians can afford to attend seminary, not all Pagans can either. I do find it especially troublesome that they still aren’t fully accredited (I believe they are as a distance learning school). It is one of the major turn-offs for me, as someone sitting on 20k in undergrad debt, with more to come before I have my BA in hand. If I am going to pay even more for graduate level work, I need  it to mean something to people outside the Pagan community. (After writing this, I think it was a post by Sam Webster that started this off)

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!

This Blog is Terrible (But Samhain is Coming!)

For anyone reading my ramblings, I really must apologize for how awful my blog looks. The sad thing is, I work in design (I know, yikes!). Sadly, while this little project is usually dearest to my heart, it often gets pushed to the side for the bigger, more important projects. My dear, wonderful husband (who I could happily flail for this) decided to move everything around in our shared office space, and completely disrupt all of my organization (even though I work solely out of the house, while he doesn’t). So for the past two months, very little progress has happened on any of my projects. I have laid plans however, to free myself some time to really get down and reorganize everything, which will hopefully lead to a prettier, better blog and more content. I also spent much of August praying to the porcelain god after having found out we are expecting another baby in April. To all the women who work through severe morning sickness, bless you, you are an inspiration to us all. And the one’s who don’t understand just how terrible this can be, I loathe and envy you. I was never this sick with A, to the point where I couldn’t function.

But autumn is finally here in Ohio (yay!), and that means Samhain is coming!! Sorry, we didn’t celebrate Mabon, A’s birthday usually falls on the first day of autumn, and I’m still wiped out from his party last Sunday (2-year-old birthday parties are surprisingly demanding). Since Mabon isn’t one of my “big” holidays, it kind of gets swept under the rug (also, I’m lazy and I hate balancing more than I have to). But I am gearing up for our first Samhain celebration as a family! I’m such a backslider pagan, I was always on top of the holidays before having a family, but these past two years have just been figuring out parenthood and marriage. I did tell myself when A was two or three, I would begin teaching him about my spiritual beliefs, because while I want him to be well-rounded, I do want to instill morals and values from my spirituality. Obviously, I think they’re important. So E (my husband) and I will be spending some time discussing our approach to raising A in our separate spiritualities without feelings of condemnation and guilt. But I’ve started planning our Samhain festivities, and am planning on recording much of what we do to share online. Keep an eye out sometime between Nov. 2 and Nov. 9 for that (though I hope to have some more posts before then).

Hopefully I will get into a more disciplined routine of posting, and this blog will look better by the end of next week. Now I need some pumpkin coffee and to start cleaning my office.