Mabon – The Myth of Progress

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Sabbats originally written in 2011.

Mabon, the autumn equinox, is something of a blank slate. In the Wheel of the Year, the “cross-quarter days” are Celtic fire festivals; the other solar festivals – the solstices and the vernal equinox – are grounded in proto-Germanic cultures. In those Germanic cultures, though, the autumn equinox has no strong history of celebration; it doesn’t even have a distinguishing name. To keep the Wheel of the Year in balance, Gerald Gardner included the autumn equinox, but left most of the details open to interpretation. The name Mabon, drawn from Welsh mythology, came into common use later on, but doesn’t do much to specify the nature of the festival.

As a result, different ways of interpreting the multiple harvest festivals have sprung up. Some groups focus on the Celtic roots of Lunasa and leave the harvest symbolism to Mabon; others describe Lunasa as the start of the harvest and the equinox as its end, and may call the festival Harvest Home instead. [1] Still others describe Lunasa as the grain harvest and Mabon as the fruit harvest. It depends on the group, and the bioregion, and the weather. This multiplicity of interpretations is one of the things I love about Paganism: each open space is fertile soil where multiple myths can take root and flourish simultaneously.

Understanding and relating to Pagan myths has taken practice, though. When I first became Pagan, I used to be confused and sometimes downright irritated when I read tales of deities who didn’t seem very godlike, coming from a monotheistic perspective. I mean, they get drunk, they have fights, and they cheat on their spouses, not always in that order. They’re not exactly the kind of example we’d want to imitate in most cases.

As I grew in my practice and engaged more with the myths and with different kinds of stories, I gradually reached the conclusion that my assumption – that myths are stories about gods whom humans should seek to emulate – was a holdover from my Christian past. In Christianity, religious narratives about Jesus or good Christians are presented as exemplars for followers to emulate. This approach is very god-centered, and when taken to its (il)logical extreme, it can almost erase the adherent by reducing her to a mere reflection of the beatified.

I’ve come to see the older myths as human-centric stories. The gods act like humans – and do they ever! – except that the gods are bigger and stronger, so when they screw up, they royally – or maybe deifically? –  screw up. The myths reflect humans back to themselves, but enlarged. The stories don’t minimize the bad in favor of the good, or vice versa; they magnify all the parts and possibilities, or they add unique features that weren’t present before.

The myths give both storyteller and audience the chance to engage with human stories in an exaggerated setting so that they’re more interesting, more exciting, more dangerous, more tragic and more amazing. Throughout, though, they are fundamentally human stories.

This approach also helps me understand why so many overlapping, contradictory versions of the same myth can co-exist. The myths are no longer central; the teller and audience are, so it is natural for the people to adapt the myths to tell the stories they need to tell. No one is trying to find the single unchanging standard for behavior; the multiplicity of myths encourages us to adapt our responses to the situation, just as the storyteller working on the fly might have to alter the ending to fit the narrative corner she backs herself into. What matters is that the story works, that it’s good enough, that it fits its context.

The most encouraging thing about this approach to the myths, though, is that because we’re telling them, we can change them. They grow with us over time. And that’s important, because my favorite myth is the myth of progress.

Historian Laurence Keeley, in his book on prehistoric warfare, wrote that modern people tend to view prehistory in terms of two competing myths: the myth of the golden age or the myth of progress. [2] The myth of the golden age conceives of the world as continually declining. It leads us to assume that the past was always better than the present – if not in hygiene or life expectancy, then in some in some ineffable but presumably more important characteristics like social structure and morality. The myth of progress supposes the polar opposite: it tells a story of continuous development, usually with technological and social development being used as evidence of the present’s superiority.

It is quite accurate to describe both of these worldviews as myths; as the Slacktiverse’s motto says, it’s usually more complicated than that. Depending on the period and place that a historical narrative tries to describe, and what the narrative’s author views as “good,” it may seem that these myths take turns driving alternating ages of development and decay, or that one is predominant for all the period under consideration, or both, or neither.

For example, the history of Europe in the centuries after the end of the Roman Empire is usually told in accord with the myth of the golden age, while the history of the time around the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is usually presented as progress. Neither of these is entirely true or entirely false, especially depending on who and what the person telling the story considers important. Each framing, though, highlights some aspects and supports some conclusions, while pushing other matters into the background.

For the present moment, I try to make narratives that loosely fit with the myth of progress. I think that trying to tell our own stories as a part of the myth of the golden age is fundamentally discouraging, but trying to tell them as part of the myth of progress is a fundamentally optimistic position which can not only make us feel good but inspire us to do good.

To me, starting from a position that assumes the past was better seems like an invitation to despair; we can’t get back there, after all, and if you think, as I do, that a certain amount of change is inevitable, then we may not even be able to hold on to the fragments of it we retain. The ability to learn and the ability to change are tied up together. An attitude of suspicion about all change seems to me to be inherently resistant to learning, and hence to growth.

The myth of progress, by contrast, is an invitation to hope. We can’t change the past; we have to acknowledge it in all its beauty and grandeur, its cruelty and despair. But with that acknowledgement, we free ourselves to work on what we can change: the present, with an eye towards the future. As Terry Pratchett wrote, if we do a good job of changing our own present, when we get to the future, the present will “turn out to be a past worth having.” [3]

In this way the myth of progress is more than an invitation to hopeful feelings: it is an invitation to hopeful action, to hope and love enacted. The myth of progress, and the mindset that comes with it, help me tell my stories in ways that guide my actions. Because I continue to have hope, I continue to put forth effort to make the world – and its stories – continue to improve.

And although some of the stories we tell are ones we really don’t want to live through, sometimes we tell ourselves stories that we do want to live up to, stories that inspire us to be better than we thought we were. I think America’s founders did that, for example, telling themselves a story about how things might work out much better in a society where religious liberty was guaranteed to all. The ones who found hope in that story were able to convince the ones who wanted to preserve an imaginary golden age of state-sponsored Christianity, and so there are clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution which prohibit government establishment of a religion and guarantee free exercise to all.

But even at the time the Constitution was written, the story of free exercise for all religions was not the literal truth; it was in some ways a myth. Native Americans and slaves were not granted the rights the founders proposed, at least in part because they were seen as not really citizens and not fully human. State-sponsored Christian prayer continued in schools until the mid-20th century. Today, the US still lives up to that lofty ideal only imperfectly, but it has made tremendous strides towards making what was once a myth into a reality for more and more people. That gives me hope.

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?


[1] Here I use the modernized Irish spelling for this holiday rather than the “Lughnasadh” spelling most Pagans are used to seeing.

[2] Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1996, p 4-5.

[3] Pratchett, Terry. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper Collins, 2010, p 336.

Lunasa – John Barleycorn

But John Barleycorn proved the stoutest man
Though they did all that they could
So raise up your horn and praise John Barleycorn
And we shall drink his blood
Yes, we shall drink his blood!

– Heather Alexander’s version of old English folk song “John Barleycorn”

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

John Barleycorn is one of my favorite versions of a god archetype that is particularly relevant at this time of year: the god of vegetation who dies and is reborn. There are innumerable versions of the poem and folk song that tell his story, including one by Robert Burns. [1]  The story is a metaphor for the agricultural cycle of barley, and by extension nearly any grain crop, personified in “little Sir John.” [2]

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sabbat at the start of August is called either Lammas or Lughnasadh, and under either name it is a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, and especially the beginning of the grain harvest. The consistent theme at these celebrations is thanksgiving that there is a harvest to be gotten in, and that communities come together to do the hard and vitally necessary work of harvesting. In the Southern Hemisphere, this Sabbat is Imbolc, which is also a festival of change, but in a different way, focusing on poetry and inspiration, and the end of winter, rather than preparing for the coming winter as we in the Northern Hemisphere must do at this time.

Lammas comes from the Old English for loaf-mass, the offering and blessing of the first symbolic loaves made from the newly-reaped grain, representing the whole harvest to come. Lughnasadh is the festival of the Celtic god Lugh; he is said to have instituted the celebration in honor of his foster-mother after her death. [3] As far as we can tell from surviving information, in old Celtic cultures this was a time for communities to gather and engage in games and contests of skill, especially martial skill, but it was also a celebration of the harvest.

The Lughnasadh festival was considered a good time for people to come together in more ways than one. Because the harvest assured people that they could plan for the winter to come, this time of year was appropriate for finalizing all kinds of arrangements, including living situations from renting lodgings to setting up marriages and handfastings. A handfasting, according to some sources, may have been a kind of trial marriage that lasted for “a year and a day” and could be dissolved without prejudice at the end of that time. [4] In a largely agricultural society, the gold of the grain was more important than a gold ring to making it possible for a couple to live together.

The song of John Barleycorn – a story of violence and death – may seem like an odd tune for these festivals of fresh bread and new weddings.  The conflict is resolved when we realize the story is not just about death, but death and rebirth. Little Sir John comes back in many forms, none of which are exactly the same as the life he lost. He is reborn, not resurrected.

John Barleycorn is another face worn by the Green Man, the god of living things that are green and growing, things that live and die and live again, year in and year out, around the Wheel. The Green Man or the vegetation god often appears in art, especially carvings, as a face made of leaves, sometimes with vines and grasses growing from his mouth or flowing as his hair. As I have found common in Paganism, he “speaks in leaves,” that is, in complex symbols without a single, simple allegorical meaning, so there is not just one story but many going on simultaneously as we try to read his story in the leaves and in his songs. [5]

In the song, John Barleycorn, the seed, is planted and buried, by men who are vain enough to assure themselves that he is dead. But because Barleycorn knows that the tomb is also the womb of the earth, he sprouts and begins to grow. As the grain begins to ripen, it is described in some versions as the figure growing a beard. This is a literal description of ripening grain, which grows long thin protrusions called the beard or awns, but it could also be a symbol of puberty, with all the attendant metaphors between sexual and agricultural fertility. In Burns’ version, though, he describes this growth as “pointed spears” that are Barleycorn’s defense, until he ages and becomes weak in autumn. In either telling, Barleycorn’s ripening marks the point that he has become useful to others, and by the same token, it is the time that he is beginning to be ready for his next death.

Then in great detail the story and song describe the cruelties inflicted on Barleycorn, all of which refer to the activities of preparing grain for human use: cutting the stalks, binding the sheaves, loading the grain, threshing, and milling. But here the song departs from the Lammas theme of the importance of bread. Burns’ version gives away the difference by including the step of malting the barley over a fire before it is ground, which makes it ready for brewing beer, which will be the ultimate rebirth of the barley. Some versions insist that Sir John was not only made into the everyday beer, but also into stronger stuff such as uisge beatha, the “water of life,” better known today as whisk(e)y.

The song ends with a verse or two about how everyone partakes of Barleycorn’s reborn “spirit,” pun very much intended. This is why I describe Barleycorn’s process as a rebirth, rather than a resurrection; the parts of the grain that are used, whether for bread or for brewing, are completely transformed. Only the small portion reserved as seed will give birth to new grain next year. Even then, it will be cut down in turn, in the repeating cycle that closes the circle of the song and of the Wheel of the Year.

Now, I don’t focus on this song to imply that everyone ought to drink alcohol; although alcoholic drinks may have been healthier than plain water in the past, today that is (thankfully) no longer the case for most people in the developed world. And although beer, sometimes called “liquid bread,” may once have been an important source of calories, grain-based foods are seldom in short supply these days.

The important point is that the song ends with examples of people doing work together and celebrating as they share “little Sir John in the nut brown bowl,” or as Heather Alexander puts it, “raise up their horns.” This beer is more than a health measure, a source of calories, or an intoxicant. Its importance comes from its place in shared celebration. This sharing in the harvest is more than just a source of sustenance. It symbolizes the way we also need hilarity and opportunities to socialize, to join with other people in feast and festival.

From start to finish, the song subtly reminds us that we need each other. It’s not just one man fighting against John Barleycorn; it’s three men who plow him, and then all the different people involved in the processing of the grain. And at the end, when the singer or poet addresses the audience directly, it is an acknowledgment that we are all human together. Just as these festivals weren’t instances of individual and private devotion, none of the harvest tasks could be done by one individual alone. The cooperation of the entire community was necessary to have enough to eat, let alone extra to brew into celebratory beer!

We’ll see these themes of work, life, and rebirth played out over the next few Sabbats, culminating in Samhain and Yule, but this is the start of that process, and a clear sign that the Wheel is turning to such matters as the harvest and the very heart of some of the most human Mysteries of all. As we go into them, it is important to note that what matters is not that John Barleycorn is resurrected in some perfected, idealized, changeless form that will exist forever. What we find is rebirth, like the rebirth of John Barleycorn, the irrepressible spirit of life that continues to renew itself in myriad forms and through myriad generations.

That is what I worship about the vegetation god, and it is the starting point that helps carry us through the darkening part of the year. No matter what happens in those many deaths and rebirths, we remain children of Earth, connected to the cycle, and always alive in the sense that something carries on – although it may be greatly changed in form.

The deepest meaning of the song, to me, is that when John Barleycorn rises again, his spirit rises within each of us. When we eat bread and whether we drink beer, or tea, or juice, we are partaking of that spirit of irrepressible life, which flows into each of us to make our own lives possible. It is the very interconnections in which we live our lives, both in relationships with others and in relationship with the world around us, from which we draw sustenance and to which we will return. On this Sabbat, we come together in celebration to acknowledge that cycle and to reaffirm our role in the shared work and shared rewards of the harvest.

—–

[1] ^ This video has a good performance of the song with reasonable sound quality; you may want to listen while you read.

An Ulster variant speaks from the point of view of the barley itself in some verses, a good reminder that at times we are the harvester, and at times we are the harvest itself.

This Morris dance to the song has additional Pagan symbolism. The character in the center wearing mixed colors is Barleycorn and the four around the edges are the Elements. Yellow, in the East, is Air, red in the South is Fire, blue in the West is Water, and the brown-green in the North is Earth. (The video is taken from the south side of the circle, facing north.) At the beginning, the central character clacks sticks with each Element, invoking its power, and they all interweave in the dance, finishing together, centering on Barleycorn, to show the way all living things (and all things, really) partake of all four Elements.

Versions of the lyrics may be found here and here for the Heather Alexander ones.

Burns’ version and a comparison to a conflated version of the usual song lyrics is at this site.

[2] ^ Note that throughout this article and the tales of John Barleycorn, “corn” means grain in general, not specifically maize as it does in the US.

[3] ^ The god and festival are respectively spelled Lu (with accent) and Lunasa (which means the month of August) in modern Irish, and pronounced “loo” and “LOO-na-sah.” The tales of Lugh are many and complex.

[4] ^ This was also a marriage contracted by agreement between the couple themselves, rather than their families, with or without a specified length attached, and without the need for clergy. This type of marriage has a long and contested history in Europe. Contemporary Pagans have adopted the term for nearly any relationship commitment ceremony.

[5] ^  King, Laurie R. The God of the Hive. New York: Bantam, 2010, p 48.

Imbolc: Make a Brigid’s Cross ritual

It’s almost Imbolc! In honor of Brigid’s day, you might want to read my stories of Brigid, think about making an affirmation to engage Brigid’s gifts of fire and poetry in your own life, or try this simple ritual. Whatever you do to celebrate the day, enjoy, and may Brigid bless you richly!

Ritual: Crafting a Brigid’s Cross

Making Brigid’s crosses is a traditional Imbolc activity. In this ritual, we use strips of paper and empower each strip with an intention that we send to Brigid. Each strip can be a separate matter, or you can weave together multiple intentions all related to a single project or issue.

Materials:

  • Strips of paper. You can make these using regular typing paper, but I recommend construction paper if you can get some. Try multiple colors! Cut the strips lengthwise, about a half inch wide. If possible, use a ruler and pencil to sketch straight lines and cut with a long pair of scissors to make the strips even. You will need about 12 strips to make a single cross.
  • Writing instrument that will show up on the paper chosen.
  • Tape to seal the ends of the cross, or glue.

Ritual:

Cast the circle and call the Quarters. You can focus your invocations on Brigid and the theme of Imbolc, or tailor them to fit the intentions you will be instilling into your project.

Invoke Brigid with a poem, chant, or song. “Way to the Well” and “Holy Well and Sacred Flame” are especially well-suited to this Sabbat.

Write your intentions, wishes, or prayers on the strips of paper. Don’t worry about filing them all; it is better to have a few blank ones included than to have too many to work into a single cross.

Leave one strip blank, or just write Brigid on it. Lay it down in the center of your space, pointing up and down.

For the next strip, read it aloud, and say, “Brigid, hear my prayer.” Fold the strip in half with the words on the inside, folding it across the center strip with the ends pointing to the right.

Rotate your cross a quarter-turn counter clockwise. Now the single center strip is pointing left and right, and the strip you just folded is pointing up.

Read and bless the next strip. Fold it in half across the previous one with the ends pointing to the right.

Repeat the previous two steps until your cross is a size you like.

For a visual example of the folding, see these instructions or this example with pipe cleaners.

When you are done, use a little bit of tape across the ends of the arms to hold all the strips in place. (If you prefer to use glue to glue together each strip as you go, follow the instructions in the first link above.)

Holding your completed cross, repeat your poem, chant, or song and give thanks to Brigid.

Thank the Quarters and open the circle.

Afterwards, keep the cross and hang it somewhere where you can look at it and draw on its energy. If this is a short-term project, then when it is completed, dispose of the cross by burning, recycling, or composting it as a thanks-offering to Brigid. It is especially appropriate to burn it on one of the fire festivals (Beltane, Lunasa, or Samhain) if you can. If the cross relates to a long-term project or concern, dispose of the cross at the next Imbolc, and make a new one if you wish.

Happy Mabon! The Myth of Progress and a book review

Happy autumn equinox to everyone!

The Myth of Progress is my article about Mabon at the Slacktiverse:

This is what I love about Mabon; more, perhaps, than any other Sabbat, it is a festival about which Pagans are actively making their own myths, in all their many forms. Mabon is an opportunity for us to look at our myths, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world, our past, and our potential futures. And since Mabon is so open to reinterpretation, it reminds us that if we don’t like those stories, or where they’re going, then maybe we can start telling the story differently, trying many versions, until we find the ones that we can live with and live in.

So, what’s your myth? How do you use a myth – of progress, or something else – to tell your own stories?

And the latest issue of Eternal Haunted Summer includes my review of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan:

For readers who want to spend a lot of time inside the head of a stereotypical twelve-year-old boy, these books will be a fun romp. The stories might inspire kids to go on and read the original myths, and they are fine as light entertainment, but they have plenty of problems, too. If I gave these books to children, I would also have some very serious conversations with them about some of the subtler messages conveyed, and I wouldn’t use these books as a first introduction to the Olympic pantheon.

Down in the mud at Beltane

Some days I think that no one in her right mind would want to be a Witch and a priestess – unless, of course, she was called to it, and it was as much a part of her blood as the cells that carry oxygen to keep her moving even when she’s tired and heartsore.

Another family that my partner works with just lost a baby at term. It was one of those accidents that just happens; no one is at fault, there’s no real cause to look for. It just happened. I’m volunteering to help any way I can, and what I could do today was bake bread.

So I did: I took water, which is most of what we’re made of, and added salt, for the tears the family is crying right now. Then I added honey, for the sweetness and healing that will come later, and milk, for the nurturing the mother was going to give to her child, and the nurturing the couple needs right now, and oil to ease the transitions. Yeast came next, because baking is about life, in the midst of everything. And then flour: the body of John Barleycorn, whose offering of life sustains us all.

I mixed it, and when it started to stick together, I kneaded it, turning it, folding it, getting it stuck to my fingers, feeling it transform in my hands. And I sang: I sang my sorrow, and my concern, and my care, and my love, and my support right down into that dough until it was folded in among all the physical parts. I let it rise, letting the life of the yeast do what it’s supposed to, and when it had risen, I punched it down and kneaded it again, shaping it into a loaf. I laid the loaf in the cradle of its pan. When it was ready, I baked it, using the fire to further transform and then fix the physical form as well as to seal my intent.

And after I dropped it off for the family, I went to TRI to have a rest and talk with the Lord and Lady. I found a spot in my favorite corner of the island and was sitting on a rock dipping my toes in the Potomac, thinking about what it means to be a Witch and to live on boundaries, in the in-between spaces, when a family came by on the path. One of the little boys clambered up on top of some rocks and then jumped down again from about his height onto hard ground. He had a rough landing, but he didn’t seem to hurt himself, although my heart leapt up into my throat to see him do it. Then he started crying, and I thought maybe he’d bitten his lip – his father turned to him (had just been advising the other son not to climb on the rocks like that…), but the boy was crying too much to tell him what was wrong, and then I was moving, trying to get to them and mentally reviewing the first aid kit in the car and how quickly I could get to it if he had a serious laceration. It turns out he just bit his tongue, but I was at least able to tell his father what had happened, and he comforted his son.

On the way to them, I dropped and broke my sunglasses, and got one foot in the river’s mud, and I didn’t care, because as Nanny Ogg said, “Is a witch someone who would look round when she heard a child scream?” Of course she is.

As I continued walking around the island, I was acutely aware of the ways the rain and soil have been interacting lately; there was plenty of mud around, and while that’s not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Beltane, it was obvious that the mud was part of the waking up of the land and the life just as much as the pretty flowers and new leaves. I thought about the ways that Witches describe themselves as living on the edges, or being there when life is on the edge, and things can go either way. Those edges aren’t a distant place on some far-away periphery, they’re the edges in the middle of everything, like the mud is the edge between the water and the land. As Granny Weatherwax would say, that is where the soul and center of Witchcraft is: down in the mud.

Beltane, botany, and desire

Hecate recently asked how we know it’s almost time for Beltane. She has an answer in terms of the deep relationship she has with the oak trees in her location. I haven’t lived in one place long enough to have the same specific awareness that she does, so my answer is more internal. I know it’s almost time for Beltane because of desire.

This year, though, I have a botanical example. The tulips by the Netherlands Carillon are beautiful.

Field of red tulips with Washington Monument in distant background.
Tulips at the Netherlands Carillon

I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Pollan investigates and meditates on the relationships between humanity and four different plants, each one catering to a different human desire. For the desire of beauty, he selects the tulip. In the opening of the chapter, he talks about how he had long preferred to tend food plants in his garden. The flowers of these plants, only a brief stop along the way to the bell pepper or tomato that he really wanted, he calls “teleological flowers.” In contrast to these purposeful plants, he sets out to rediscover what people see in flowers grown purely for their beauty.

This stands for that: flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a meadow of wildflowers brims with meanings not of our making. … Sometime long ago, the flower’s gift for metaphor crossed with our own, and the offspring of that match, the miraculous symbiosis of desire, are the flowers of the garden.

And although Europeans tried to find teleological uses for the flower, they failed: “The tulip was a thing of beauty, no more, no less.” He speculates about why this particular beauty captured the Dutch in the famous tulip mania:

I also think the particular character of the tulip’s beauty made it a good match for the Dutch temperament. Generally bereft of scent, the tulip is the coolest of floral characters. In fact, the Dutch counted the tulip’s lack of scent as a virtue, proof of the flower’s chasteness and moderation. Petals curving inward to hide its sexual organs, the tulip is an introvert among flowers. It is also somewhat aloof – one bloom per stem, one stem per plant. “The tulip allows us to admire it,” Herbert observes, “but does not awaken violent emotions, desire, jealousy or erotic fevers.”

Red tulip

Herbert was only partially right, as Pollan goes on to describe in the tulip mania. Today, when even the tulips look like wanton displays of desire, I know it’s time for Beltane.

Red tulip with outer three petals folded back

Ostara Ritual

This is the script for the Ostara ritual that I led this evening. The actual ritual had some changes along the way, as usual, but this is a pretty good representation of it.

Pre-ritual introduction: Welcome to Sacred Circle’s Ostara ritual. I’m Literata, the ritual coordinator, and I wanted to give you a heads-up about a few things that will be happening in ritual. We’ll be using music at a few points: if you know the tune or pick it up along the way, sing along, or clap, snap, or tap your feet! There are a few ritual phrases that whenever anyone says them, everyone echoes: Hail and welcome; hail and farewell, and Blessed be! For the ritual food and drink this evening, we have apple juice and bread with anise and lemon flavors. The bread is not vegan, but the rice cakes on the additional plate are. Any questions? Ok, please turn off your cell phones. I’m going to put on a short song, and you can use that time to settle in, to ground and center, and then we’ll start!

Song: Laydies Bring Your Flowers Faire by Heather Alexander

We are here to celebrate the spring equinox, the midpoint of spring when light and dark are in balance. The first buds are beginning to open on the trees and seeds are germinating.

Circle casting: Weave and Spin by Ruth Barrett as all hold hands.

Quarter calls: Powers of the East, Element of Air, your breeze caresses and refreshes us, and spreads the sweet scents of spring blossoms. Come to this circle to bring us inspiration and wisdom. Hail and welcome! (All echo.)

Powers of the South, Element of Fire, your warmth heralds the oncoming summer, and you give energy to everything that lives and grows. Come to this circle to bring us vitality and passion. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the West, Element of Water, your tides flow through us with every heartbeat, and your spring rains soak the fields to help the seeds sprout. Come to this circle to bring us emotion and intuition. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the North, Element of Earth, your solid form is our constant support, and you provide nutrients to questing roots and grow the food on which we depend. Come to this circle to bring us strength and nurturing. Hail and welcome!

Deity invocations:Gracious Goddess, Mighty God, Beloved Lord and Lady, hear our call to you! We invite you to join us at this moment when the growing light and waning darkness are balanced, as the buds are opening, at this turning point of the Wheel.

Come to us as the Spring Maiden, young and beautiful as a newly-opened flower, whose footsteps awaken the grass to grow again, whose breath is the spring breezes. The Lady is come, and welcome!

Come to us as the power of the growing Sun, the energy of days that are becoming longer than the nights, whose warmth feeds the rebirth of life. Lord of the waxing year, you are young and your power is still developing, spreading warmth and encouraging growth. The Lord is come, and welcome!

Guided meditation: Sit down so that you can be comfortable. Close your eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath. And out. And another. And out. And another. And out. Feel your connection to the earth below you, to the sky above you, to your brothers and sisters around you.

Now see yourself as a seed – a single grain of wheat that was harvested at Lammas and has been stored over the winter. Before you know it, you find yourself planted in the earth. It is dark and cool, and the earth surrounds you, embraces you.

Then the rain comes. It soaks through the soil, and it soaks into you, through your hull, and you begin to expand, as you drink in the water. After the dormant time of winter, your cells become active, beginning to grow, beginning to divide.

You grow so much that the seed hull can no longer contain you: it cracks open, and now you have tendrils that begin to move through the soil, questing, seeking for more water, for the nutrients you need. Although you are tiny, and the earth is heavy, it is moved by your persistence, by the strength of the life that is in you, that begins to grow. Some of your tendrils sink deep into the earth, becoming roots, moving through the earth to find the food you need to grow.

Some of your tendrils begin to feel warmth: the rains are over and gone, the sun is shining again. Your main stalk races towards the light and the fire, shooting up through the earth towards the warmth you crave, and at last you emerge into the air.

Here, you begin to unfold, leaves spreading wide to be caressed by the spring air, getting energy from the sun, drawing on your faithful, sturdy roots as you grow, as you embody the spring miracle of returning life.

Feel how much you have changed since you were the small, hard seed, buried in the earth; feel how the Elements and the power of life have enabled your transformation into a new form, one that is active and growing.

Now slowly begin to become aware of your own body again. Feel its boundaries, its shape. Feel how the experience you’ve just had applies to your own life.

Since we’re not actually plants, we experience the process of sprouting in different ways. But one thing remains the same: the opening up. When we draw down the moon or the sun, when we draw spirit into ourselves, it is a way of planting a seed, a seed of love, within ourselves. And when that love germinates and grows, it opens us up from the inside out, changing us, cracking open our preconceived notions and things that were holding us back, helping us break out of the shell that had surrounded us.

Think about how you want to experience sprouting in your own life, and settle on one intent. When you have that intent firmly in mind, take a few more deep breaths, and when you’re ready, open your eyes.

We’re going to do a self-blessing based on that idea as a way to plant the seeds we want within ourselves and within our own lives. How we do the self-blessing is to touch each of our chakras, the power points of the body, in a line from the root, near your groin, to the crown, on top of your head. I’ll say a short blessing for each one, and you can personalize your intent for what you want in your life.

Self-blessing: (Touch root chakra.) Lord and Lady, bless our roots, for we draw on them to support us and to nourish the seeds we plant. Blessed be!

(Touch second chakra, on belly.) Lord and Lady, bless our bellies, as your love and ours lets us plant the seeds of our desire within ourselves. Blessed be!

(Touch third chakra, at solar plexus.) Lord and Lady, bless our energy so that it feeds our growth, as the seeds we plant begin to sprout. Blessed be!

(Touch fourth chakra, over the heart.) Lord and Lady, bless our hearts so that as we grow, our hearts are opened to feel love. Blessed be!

(Touch fifth chakra, over throat.) Lord and Lady, bless our throats so that as we grow, our throats are opened to speak the truth. Blessed be!

(Touch sixth chakra, over third eye.) Lord and Lady, bless our vision so that as we grow, our understanding is opened to awareness. Blessed be!

(Touch crown chakra on top of head.) Lord and Lady, bless us, from root to crown, that this springtime nurtures our growth. Blessed be!

We have planted the seeds of love and new life within us again with the coming of spring!

The Great Rite: (Holds juice, lowers wand into juice.) This juice was pressed from apples which were the fruit of last year’s growth.

(Holds bread, cuts bread with knife.) This bread was made from wheat which was the bounty of last year’s harvest.

Seeds and fruits were transformed into food to nurture our bodies and spirits. (Pass bread and juice around circle.)

Song: We Are the Flow by Ruth Barrett

Let these be for us the blessing of the Lord and Lady for the seeds we have planted within ourselves today!

Thanks and farewells: Lord of the waxing year, thank you for your presence here and your blessings within us. Hail and farewell!

Spring Maiden, thank you for your presence here and your blessings within us. Hail and farewell!

Thanking the Quarters: Powers of North, Element of Earth, we thank you for your presence here and your blessings of strength and nurturing. Hail and farewell!

Powers of West, Element of Water, we thank you for your presence here and your blessings of emotion and intuition. Hail and farewell!

Powers of South, Element of Fire, we thank you for your presence here and your blessings of vitality and passion. Hail and farewell!

Powers of East, Element of Air, we thank you for your presence here and your blessings of inspiration and wisdom. Hail and farewell!

Circle Opening: May the Circle Be Open by Robert Gass.

When we actually did ritual, I cut the first and third songs because they weren’t necessary with the smaller group we had. Four people did the quarter calls from notecards I handed out; thank you very much! I know I read the guided meditation much too quickly; my apologies for that. I’ll learn better. A blessed Ostara to all!

Review: Farrars, Eight Sabbats for Witches

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. Eight Sabbats for Witches: and rites for birth, marriage and death. Phoenix, 1981. Hardback, 192 pages.

This classic of Alexandrian Witchcraft deserves its place as a classic. Thirty years after its publication, it is a work that belongs on the bookshelf of every coven and ought to be read, or at least skimmed, by anyone who wants to be connected to the roots of Wicca. Combined with The Witches’ Way, it is reprinted in The Witches’ Bible. Witches and Wiccans can argue about the appropriateness of that title, but the material remains a seminal and still relevant pillar of contemporary Wicca.

Janet and Stewart Farrar were taught and initiated by Alex Sanders, who derived his material from Gerald Gardner, probably in a less-than-wholly-ethical manner. Regardless, the Alexandrian tradition is one of the earliest offshoots of Gardnerian Wicca, and the Farrars were early students of Sanders’. After they started writing and publishing, they got in touch with Doreen Valiente, renowned poet who worked with Gardner to create not only “The Charge of the Goddess” but in fact the majority of Gardner’s finished rituals. Part of what makes the Farrars’ work priceless is the way they were near the original sources of contemporary Wicca, but also distant enough to be able to cast a critical eye over material, including Gardner’s Book of Shadows. They explicitly state that they do not want to impose their forms on anyone, but that Gardner’s material is “very sketchy indeed” when it comes to ways to celebrate the eight Sabbats. (15) In this work, the Farrars provide their own material as they have developed and refined it in coven practice in order to enrich any and all practices of Wicca, probably much as Doreen Valiente saw her published works.

The Farrars were living in Ireland at the time they wrote this, and as a result they use the Irish Gaelic names for Sabbats and draw on Irish lore explicitly. This isn’t a generic “Celtic” tradition, and it’s not attempting to be an ancient revival. It’s what the Farrars came up with, drawing on Irish lore as it was being retold in the 1970s. Like all such amateur anthropology, the accounts are slightly dubious, but they’re certainly more authentically Irish (and Celtic) than much that has been drawn on since. Moreover, the Farrars are interested in describing the sources for their material. Where they rely on individual accounts, they say so; when they use a bit of folklore in common usage at the time, they say so. They identify the sources of poetry, even describing how parts of the opening ritual from Gardner is derived from Mather’s The Key of Solomon. They are not trying to deconstruct Gardner; they describe the adaptation by saying, “like most of Gardner’s borrowings, they suit their purpose admirably.” (fn 1, p37) Rather, they provide sources in an attempt at transparency, letting the reader judge for herself whether the adaptation is appropriate or not.

Although this book is seldom referenced explicitly today, it may have started the trend of seeing the Sabbats as a “framework” common to all Wicca, regardless of lineage or tradition. (13) To bring this framework together, the Farrars created a coherent myth out of the ideas implied but not worked out in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. To this end, they present the dual deities of Wicca as a consort pair; they study and incorporate the ideas of the sun’s cycles and the distinct but closely related vegetation god who appears as the Holly and the Oak; and they describe the Goddess’ aspects and their interaction with the nature of the God throughout the cycle of the year. The God, in two persons, experiences a sacrificial mating and rebirth at the beginning and end of summer. The Goddess “does not undergo the experiences so much as preside over them.” (25, emphasis in the original) These fundamental ideas of Wicca are nowhere explained in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows; Witches who would understand the Wheel of the Year have to return to its first full explication in this work.

The title is appropriate; the book is not so much on the idea of the Wheel of the Year as it is a collection of ritual scripts for the eight Sabbats, plus necessary material to make sense of the Wheel, and the basics of Gardnerian ritual. The Farrars start their year at Imbolg (as they spell it), and each chapter has a section on relevant history and mythology; practical advice for the ritual that follows, including how to obtain or make necessary props, and details of staging; then a script of the ritual; and suggestions for games after. Oh, yes, the Farrars include games – as they write, “every Sabbat should develop into a party.” (21) Their rituals are formal, in the Gardnerian/Alexandrian style, and full of poetry and ideas that everyone will find useful, even those working in the most informal way possible.

In fact, this book also includes some trenchant observations on the conduct of ritual and the magic of the Sabbats that many more recent works are entirely lacking. The Alexandrian ritual always includes Drawing Down the Moon, and often includes the Great Rite. The Farrars’ discussion of these practices is insightful, especially the way they emphasize the importance of privacy to the Great Rite. Any Witch wanting to learn more about either the mystical meaning or the nitty gritty of performing these rituals could search a whole shelf full of more recent books without coming up with half the information provided here. As an example from the Sabbats where the Holly King slays the Oak King, or vice versa, they point out that they are “careful to include in each ritual the formal release of the actor of the slain King…and also an explanation of what happens to the spirit of the slain King during his coming half-year of eclipse.” (27) This differentiation between the actor and the role is the height of practicality in magic and ritual design. Similarly, as they point out, not enacting a closing to mirror the opening of ritual is “bad manners…bad magic…and bad psychology.” (55)

In the additional material, they also include rituals for Wiccaning, or baby blessing, Handfasting, or marriage, and a Requiem, or ritual for those who have died. They carry through their attention to detail in these areas, noting that the Wiccaning is not a commitment made on behalf of the child, as it is in many christening ceremonies, but rather a request for blessing as the child grows and finds his own way to relate to the divine. The Handfasting includes material adapted from Dion Fortune’s ever-popular novels, and the Requiem includes an enaction of the myth of the Descent of the Goddess, one of the most appropriate uses of that myth that I have ever seen.

In short, although some of the material may seem dated, and it might very well be borrowed from a library or belong to the coven’s library rather than bought by every Witch, this is a treasure trove of material for anyone who wants to write rituals, run a coven, or develop her own understanding of the Sabbats. It is a product of its time, but one with enough quality material and adaptability to have gained a slightly timeless relevance that makes it much more applicable to contemporary practice than the average reader might suspect.

Planting Time: A Poem for Brigid Poetry Festival 2011

In the belly of the Mother, deep within the earth,
seeds are being planted while the ewes give birth.
Drinking the new milk, suddenly I know
the spark of an idea: the fire in the belly grows.

This poem was also published in the Order of the White Moon’s publication, Seasons of the Moon, in the Imbolc 2011 issue.

Stories of Brigid

This evening I participated in Sacred Circle‘s open ritual for Imbolc by telling the following stories of Brigid.

Sit down, sit down, make yourselves comfortable; you should be comfortable to listen to the stories of Brigid, because Brigid always wanted people to be comfortable.

Now, the stories of Brigid have no single beginning. Some people say Brigid was a goddess, the daughter of the Dagda, the good god. And the goddess Brigid was born to the mother goddess Danu, whose people are the Tuatha de Danaan; and Danu is the one who pours out the rivers that flow through the lands. And some people say that Brigid was a woman, the daughter of a druid, or maybe just born to a serving-woman in the druid’s household. And maybe both stories are true.

Now, Brigid was out one day, and when she came home, her cloak was wet all through. So she hung it on a sunbeam to dry. And it stayed there till it was dry. By that you know she had the power – not because she hung her cloak on a sunbeam, mind you, but because the sunbeam stayed there till the cloak was dry! For in Ireland, the weather can never make up its mind for five minutes altogether, and while you might get a sunbeam where you ask for one, it’ll never stay there when you turn your back on it. But I think that maybe the sunbeam just wanted to be helpful to Brigid, because Brigid herself was helpful to others. That’s how she used her power, after all.

And the power Brigid had, she used for her three great talents: the service of healing, the gift of giving what was needed, and the wisdom to inspire and change the souls of men and women.

Once a sick man came to Brigid to beg for food. Brigid asked, “Would you rather be king of all Ireland, or be healed of your disease?” The man answered, “I would rather be healed, holy Brigid, for a man who is healthy is his own ruler.” And she saw that he knew the truth of the matter, and she brought water, and washed him, and he was healed. In this she did the service of healing.

Another time, two widows, who were poor and sick, came to beg for food, and she offered them the one cow that she had, and bid them share it between them. But one of the widows was proud, and insisted that she would not share. The other widow let the proud one take the cow, and turned to Brigid, saying that she would be content if Brigid would just pray for her. Brigid did more than that: she put her hands on the old woman’s back, where it had been bent and sore these many years, and Brigid prayed, and the widow’s back was healed. Just as she was going out, another man who had been helped by Brigid came, bringing her a cow, and Brigid gave it to the widow who had been healed, and said, “See, because you were humble, you have a cow and your health as well, while the proud widow went away content with her pride.” This was the gift of giving what was needed.

Yet another time, two lepers came to beg for healing, and Brigid washed the first one, and he was healed, and she bid him wash his companion, so that he too might be healed. But the one who had been healed refused, and would not share the gift of healing, for now that he was clean and whole, he disdained to touch the ragged skin of his fellow leper. Brigid was angry, but she didn’t say anything; she just took the water, and as she washed the second leper herself, his disease went into the skin of the one who had refused to share the gift of healing. Now he cried out twice as loudly for Brigid to heal him again, and was sorry for his pride. She healed him again, and then he had gotten not only the service of healing, but the gift of what he really needed as well, which was the wisdom that good things are meant to be shared. This is wisdom that inspires and changes the soul.

A similar thing happened when Brigid was working in the dairy, for she was told to divide the milk and butter into twelve parts, but she divided them into thirteen, and made the thirteenth larger than all the rest, and gave it away to the poor and hungry. A woman working with her warned Brigid that the owners of the dairy would know that she had stinted the twelve parts, but Brigid said, “The Dagda, the good god, he will make it up.” Then the woman looked, and Brigid was right: the twelve jars of milk were full up to the brim, and the twelve portions of butter were overflowing. On another day, Brigid had given the milk and bread and butter for the evening’s dinner to feed a hungry woman and her children, so Brigid went out before dinner to milk the cows again. And although the cows had been milked twice already that day, and their udders should have been empty, but they gave milk in plenty, and as soon as Brigid put her hand to the churn, there was butter, as much as she had given away, and more.

As you’ve heard, a great many of the tales of Brigid have to do with cows and milk and butter, so it’s no surprise that her day falls at this time of year, when the first milk begins to come into the belly of the cows and ewes. Brigid’s day also comes at this time when we crave the beginnings of spring, when we are hungry for light, even hungrier for light and warmth than we are for milk and butter. We look for the light that was promised to us at midwinter, and Brigid brings that promised light, just as she and her priestesses tended the sacred flame at Cill Dara, the church of the oak, and still, today, in Kildare in Ireland, her sacred flame is burning, and with her three great talents, she lights the way for us.

And now, when they need her talents, the healers call on her, and they bless their water in her name, saying, Brigid, let this be the water of healing just as pure and as clean as if it came from your holy well. Brigid, let me serve others with my healing, and make them whole. Then healers wash people with the water of healing, serving with compassion and caring, helping others become whole. And in doing the service of healing, they shape the world.

And when the smiths need her talents, they call on her, and on her sacred flame, for smiths know that the fire doesn’t just consume things – the fire can give, too, and the fire can be used to make what is needed. The smiths kindle the fire in their forges, saying, Brigid, let this be a spark of your flame, let me use this flame to give to others. Then the smiths heat the metal and bend it and shape it into the tools that are needed. Thus the smiths give the gifts that are needed, and in their forging, they shape the world.

And the poets call on her too. Now you know what poets are like – they are people who feed their souls on beauty, and a verse that won’t run to its meter is as painful to them as a wrenched knee is to the rest of us. But a poet wants more, too – a poet wants a verse to go out and do some good; for the poet shapes the verse – which is what the root of the word poetry means, after all – but then she sets the verse out to do some shaping of its own. So the poets call on Brigid, saying, Brigid, heal my words so that they run to the meter, and Brigid, light the flame of inspiration so that I can bend the words to my purpose, but most of all, they say, Brigid, let my words go out to others to be a source of wisdom, wisdom that does the service of healing, and wisdom that gives the gift that is needed, and wisdom that inspires the souls of women and men.

So when we come together, on this, Brigid’s day, we who practice the craft of the wise, we who bend and shape the world, we honor Brigid. We give her praise and thanks, and petition her to be with us, so that she will share her power and her three great talents with us, as we strive to be healers, and smiths, and poets, that we too may shape the world, in her name.

The stories told herein are my interpretations of stories of both the goddess and the saint. Some are derived from these two groups of stories.