Yule – Sustaining Rebirth

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

Six months ago, I told a story of Litha being destruction averted, because although it is easy to associate warmth with the very energy of life, it is important that we not be overwhelmed by it. [1] Yule, by contrast, is a celebration of life being created anew, and created again, even in the midst of cold and darkness. It is a time when re-creation leads, appropriately, to recreation.

People in temperate climates have a long, long history of celebrating the days when the sun seems to stand still, halting its northward journey and then turning southward again, promising longer days and an end to winter, even if it is a long way off. [2] Midwinter solstice heralds a fresh start, and the promise of the whole world coming back to life – not miraculously restored after just a few days, but gradually reborn through the more mundane magic of germination and gestation.

Of course, this isn’t the only time of year we talk about new life coming into being, but it is one of the most poignant and symbolic times. I’ve seen so many rituals, both at Yule and other holidays, that speak to people’s desire for rebirth in their everyday lives. It’s easy to want a fresh start, a sudden and dramatic change – just like magic! – which will remove our obstacles and change our bad habits in one fell swoop. It’s easy to create a ritual that panders to the most unexamined form of this yearning for a quick fix, to assure people that if they simply want it hard enough, or light enough candles, it will happen. Worst of all, it’s too easy to let this devolve into the idea that the universe is a vast wish-granting machine, and that if you don’t get what you want, either someone is out to get you or it’s all your fault. A similar idea is at work in the secular custom of New Year’s resolutions, and they are famously ineffective.

The natural world doesn’t work that way. The sun doesn’t suddenly spring back to its position at the height of summer – and it’s a good thing, too, because that kind of transformation without transition would be incredibly traumatic. This is true for humans, too. Sudden changes and fresh starts do occur, but they’re not always something to be yearned for, and they’re seldom as easy as we would like to imagine. More often, rebirth is not an instantaneous process. Usually it arises not just from our wishing but from our working. New life and ways of life usually require that we make choices day after day, again and again, choosing anew and working in support of that choice.

We experience this in our relationships, too; they have to be nurtured on a regular basis. A marriage vow, for example, isn’t something that magically forges a lasting, loving relationship between two people. It’s choosing to live out that vow, again and again, choosing to love, to forgive, to be patient, that keeps the relationship alive, helps it be reborn day by day. It’s not that every single choice, or word, or action has to be perfect, but that enough of them are good enough to tip the balance. It’s not the making of the vow but the keeping of it that provides the warmth of love in the heart of the family, just as it’s not the single moment of Yule but the gradual lengthening of days that warms the world for springtime.

This kind of gradual progress can be frustrating. The day after Yule isn’t noticeably longer, and it’s going to go on being cold for quite a while. In the face of that, it’s important to celebrate the magical moments, like the days when the very sun stands still and then changes course. But often, our culture puts too much weight on the single moments, with unrealistic expectations leading to inevitable disappointments: the big dinner must be a time of jollity and familial love, the long-awaited present must be perfectly surprising and satisfying all at once, and so on.

Instead of trying to force Yule, or New Year’s, or any other single moment, to give me instantaneous transformation, I try to follow the Sun’s pattern. On this shortest day, I take time to pause, to stand still and just be present. Then, when I want to renew or re-create my life in some way, I do it gradually, gently, a little at a time. That kind of sustained rebirth, a daily, incremental newness of life, has a name: growth. Growth, and the precious knowledge that it continues, even in the cold and dark of winter, is what I celebrate in this season.


[1] At this time, the Northern Hemisphere is approaching the winter solstice, while the Southern Hemisphere is approaching Litha, or summer solstice.
[2] Solstice comes from the roots “sol,” meaning sun, and “sistere,” meaning to come to a stop. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=solstice

Samhain – Learning to Listen

I am continuing to republish a series of articles originally written in 2011. I wrote this piece only a few months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it is especially poignant in light of her recent passing.

May you be blessed with communication with all you love this Samhain.

I see Wicca as a religion of relationship. Samhain is the Sabbat that teaches us about the challenges and ineffable fulfillment of living in relationship.

Samhain has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter. It is also the festival of the dead – not of death, although it does acknowledge that we live our lives in the midst of cycles that include death – but of the dead, especially those close to us who have died.

At this time of transition, as he days and nights transform themselves into the darker, cooler times of winter, folklore tells us that the Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. At liminal times like Samhain, as we move from the world of summer to the world of winter, it becomes easier for the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination, to make themselves felt in our normally real world. The Otherworlds are home to the spirits of our beloved dead as well as potentially many other kinds of beings, depending on the stories and traditions you know follow; they may include the Good Folk, the puca and the bean-sidhe, the kelpie of the well and the hinkypunk of the marsh, and other kinds of creatures as well.

These creatures and their tales inspired many of the traditions of Halloween which play on the possible relationships between humans and spirits. For those of us who have lost loved ones, though, it is the thinning of the Veil between us and our beloved dead that is the most important feature of Samhain. It makes this the time that we pay special attention to our relationships with those who have passed over.

During one conversation someone asked me how I could have a relationship with someone who isn’t alive anymore; how would that work, without the other person responding to me? Relationships with our beloved dead are certainly different from relationships with those who are alive, and more challenging to maintain, but the effort that goes into them teaches me more about what it means to live in relationship with others. Most of all, it helps me learn to listen.

The lack of active communication with my beloved dead does not represent, to me, an insuperable barrier to being in relationship. After all, we maintain what we think of as ongoing relationships with living people with whom we communicate infrequently; just because I haven’t spoken or written to someone in months doesn’t necessarily mean I have stopped relating to her. If my partner and I were separated by circumstances, no matter how infrequent communication was, the intensity of my relationship with him would not be dissolved simply by time and space. The ways we related during that time would be changed but not totally removed. When I think about, remember, hope and wish and pray for those I love, I am in some way relating to them. The challenge is to stay open to who those people actually are, not just who I might wish them to be. This is the importance of listening.

When I interact directly with people who I haven’t seen in some time, I am often struck by how their presence is more vivid than my memories or imagination of them. I may remember the prejudices, the follies, the foibles, as well as the charm, the wit, and the mannerisms, but distance often dulls those recollections, like a reproduction of a vibrant oil painting sketched in misty watercolors. When the impact and essence of the original impose themselves on me, it can be a shock to realize how much I downplayed or disregarded an aspect. This happens for both good traits and bad; seeing a relative in person reminds me that she is both kinder than I think about sometimes and more nauseatingly guilt-inducing than I would like to recall.

This, then, is the challenge of trying to be in relationship with someone without active input from the other side. We run the risk of wearing down the memory to just the parts that are comfortable for us, evening out all the sharp edges and unexpected valleys of the other’s personality into a featureless, indistinguishable lump. But it is worth noting that we can also do this wearing-down process perfectly well with people who we relate to on a regular basis: a relationship between people who see each other every day can eventually break down when one person says “You’re not who I thought you were.” Even for those who are alive, it’s easy for us to choose to relate to our image or caricature of a person rather than the person herself.

This is why learning to listen is at the heart of living in relationship. It’s a challenge to seek out the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the unusual, the unknown. We have to make the effort to acknowledge that someone with whom we’re in relationship is really an other – someone separate, distinct, different from ourselves and our ideas, images, and imaginings. This process of learning to listen, learning to be open and aware beyond ourselves calls us to be more than just ourselves as isolated individuals.

One of the traditional ways to relate to the deceased at this time of year is the dumb feast, where places are set for those who have passed over and the meal is held in silence. It combines a fundamental human kind of connection through shared food and drink with an explicit example of listening, of recognizing that for such a connection to be shared, we have to make space and time – and silence – for others. This form of contemplation is especially appropriate as we begin to move into winter, a time when the world as a whole becomes more quiet, more still. Trading speech, perhaps the most-used form of communication between people, for silence encourages us to engage in other forms of communication, forms which may be more amenable to other kinds of awareness and relationship.

Striving to be in relationship with people who are not immediately present is also a way to learn to be in relationship with others whose voices are hard to hear. In Wicca, I am in relationship with the land and water, with plants and animals, all of whom communicate with me in non-verbal ways. Like with an absent person, it is easy for me to hear only what I want to, to disregard the reality of these parts of my world in favor of the more comfortable constructs inside my own mind. But if I take time to listen, especially in non-verbal ways, they do speak to me, confronting me with the reality of their situation, more vivid and amazing than any imagination of my own.

Opening to this awareness also teaches me about how to be in relationship with those whose voices are too often silenced: people who are not like me, people who are underprivileged, people who are far away. When I challenge myself to remember the complexity of the people I love who have passed over, it makes me better prepared to acknowledge the complexities that someone else’s life may hold. It teaches me to seek out their voices, to be open to hearing from them in ways I might not otherwise expect, and even to be open to hearing things that make me uncomfortable, because I realize that is an essential part of an ongoing relationship.

Learning to listen pushes us to cultivate empathy and to cultivate a kind of joint awareness of ourselves and others that may even begin to blur the boundaries of what is self and what is other. This is where listening is not just the absence of talking. This is how listening becomes an act of awareness, of being present with and in the relationships that surround us.

To work with reality, as a good Witch must strive to do, I must first be aware of that reality. And that reality is a reality of relationships, the reality that our stories are all told together. We may try to shout more loudly, to assert complete control over our own narrative, or we may try to stop our ears entirely so that no one else’s story can interfere with our own. But either way, we deny ourselves the ability to live fully, because our lives are stories of relationship, stories told in dialogue.

An essential part of dialogue is listening. This listening is not an absence, but a fullness, a presence that participates in being together, in relating to the others in the dialogue. Like the not-so-empty space between things that is full of potential and interaction, and the silence between words that makes meaning possible, listening between beings is is what makes relationships possible. And that is the basis of life, for beings, like words, interenanimate each other. This is why I try to listen – to my beloved dead and to all the beings I live with in relationship.

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.

Litha – Destruction Averted

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

Litha, the summer solstice, is one of the Sabbats that can be a challenge to celebrate. Yule, the winter solstice, is usually easy to celebrate, because northern and western European culture is inclined to fear winter. Yule, when we begin to see the first evidence that winter will not last forever, makes it easy to celebrate: “We’re not going to freeze to death!” is definitely good news.

By comparison, summer is usually regarded as pleasant and positive. Stereotypically, kids love being out of school, people love spending time with their families, vacations are always fun, and all of that makes summer the time for recreation and enjoyment.

Of course, this can make it easy enough to celebrate Litha. If summer is such a good time, then not much more excuse is needed. [1]

But Litha reminds us that summer will end, so it can also feel like a letdown. The contrast is especially jarring for those who love summer but hold to the current astronomical definitions of the seasons, which use Litha to mark the beginning of summer: Yay, summer’s here! Now the days get….shorter? Huh?

This is one of several reasons that I use a different definition of the seasons. The way the eight Sabbats fit together, there are four derived from old Celtic fire festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh) and four from astronomical events (Yule, Ostara, Litha, Mabon). Historians have correctly pointed out that no Indo-European culture seems to have celebrated all eight; in particular, Mabon, the autumnal equinox, has relatively few roots in pre-Christian European culture. Yule and Ostara derive from Germanic roots, and the Germanic tribes and Celts spent more time bashing each other than sitting down and having respectful multi-cultural dialogue about how to celebrate joint festivals. [2]

But when Gerald Gardner was “improving” the material from the coven that initiated him, he added in the astronomical events, and in a fit of symmetry included even the less-celebrated ones. [3] Mostly, the idea of having a reason to party every six weeks or so is a pretty good one, so I can’t complain too much, and it gives us lots of leeway to adapt the celebration of the Sabbats to a wide range of four-season climates. As a result, there’s no one coherent mythical cycle that incorporates all eight Sabbats that has come down to us, so we find and make our own.

Anyway, astronomers have decided that it’s better to use astronomical events to define the seasons, so they mark each season as starting with its definitive event, which is utterly predictable and convenient for them but weird for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who think that when it’s freezing and snowing in November, winter’s probably here already. Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense to say summer has started at the exact moment when the sun starts to spend less and less time in the sky every day.

Instead, I follow the older Celtic idea of the seasons that says the four fire festivals, which lie (pretty) neatly in between the four astronomical events, are the days when the seasons change. So for me, summer started at Beltane, Litha is its midpoint, and it will end at Lughnasadh, at the start of August. This means summer is the period when the sun is highest in the sky, both immediately before and immediately after the solstice. Just like “day” doesn’t start at noon and “night” doesn’t start at midnight, each season has its waxing and its waning.

Even understanding Litha as Midsummer means acknowledging that it marks the turning point and the year is inevitably turning towards winter once again. Wicca’s roots in Northern European culture include the implicit preference for summer and fear of winter. The term most Wiccans use for the afterlife, or place of rest and peace between reincarnations, is the “Summerland.” [4] If “heaven” is like summer, that makes a pretty clear statement that summer is much to be desired and while we might enjoy some parts of winter, it is mostly to be endured.

As we are all learning, though, more heat is not always a good thing. Global warming isn’t just bringing higher temperatures: the increased energy in the atmosphere is changing climate patterns and making weather events of all types – from frost to drought – more intense. And when it does bring higher temperatures and longer summers, it reminds us that we can no more live in the midst of constant scorching heat than we can in the midst of perpetual deep freeze.

On the other hand, constant, temperate stability isn’t necessarily the best thing, either. Even if the extremes are no place for us to live for long, perpetual balance isn’t automatically better. The examples of nature show us that we need the heat, and we need the cold, and we need the alternation between the two, just as we need day and night, not perpetual twilight. The flow, the change, the give and take between seasons and influences is an integral part of the dynamic, adaptive kind of balance in which living things find their active stability.

This helps us understand why Litha is a time to celebrate, not to mourn: we know that the waning year it ushers in is more that just a necessary but annoying interlude. But that intellectual knowledge doesn’t easily translate into the language of emotion and symbology, into the stories of myth, so let me put it this way: Litha is a time when we see destruction averted.

In many cultures, myths of creation and destruction are paired or linked. Some myths paint destruction and even death as not just the counterpart but the predecessor and catalyst for creation, such as the Babylonian myth of Marduk making the world from Tiamat’s body, or the Norse myth of the world being made of the body of the frost giant Ymir.

Other stories cast destruction as a consequence of actions that the created beings take: one Egyptian myth tells how Sehkmet was created by Ra to wreak destruction on the world and kill the humans who conspired against him, and the story of the Flood in Genesis is explicitly linked to the sinfulness of humanity.

Of course, these myths are never purely about destruction: Sehkmet was stopped; the Flood gave way, and Yahweh promised never to try that again, even hanging the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his relinquishing rain as a weapon. But in the primarily linear conception of time that dominates most Western culture, these myths are mostly before-and-after stories. Even the Biblical flood, which can be seen as ending in a restoration of Creation, is a dividing point, one that is explicitly promised not to come again.

In Wicca’s focus on cyclical time, there is no single creation myth. The idea of rebirth at Yule serves a similar purpose, with the allegorical connection of the Sun and the vegetation god making the winter solstice a myth of re-creation every year. This idea of constantly dynamic life-cycles occurs on many scales simultaneously, too, from the rising and setting of the sun to the phases of the moon, to the turning of the year, to the lifespan of a person, and even to geological time.

Just as there is no single creation myth but an ongoing story, there is no single myth of the world being spared a disaster. Instead, the twin forces of creation and destruction are seen as parts of an ongoing cycle, feeding into each other. We face destruction from both extreme heat and extreme cold (and other forces, if they get out of balance), and Litha and Yule are both celebrations of destruction averted and the ongoing re-creation of the world.

As MadGastronomer’s article on the Eleusinian Mysteries pointed out, Southern European cultures, where great heat made summer the barren period, told their stories of destruction averted around summer, and Persephone was not the maiden of the springtime but the advent of the autumn planting, the return to the growing season that would get the Greeks through the next summer’s drought.

That sense of the necessary interplay – the way that the barren period is not just the counterpart to, but inextricably linked with the fruitfulness – is what we ought to try to express and celebrate at Litha.

Raj expressed how a similar cyclical view is at the heart of Hinduism: “The Hindu Supreme Trinity consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the More Complicated Than That. Shiva is often called The Destroyer, but he is not an evil being seeking the destruction of the world for his own gain. He is, after all, part of the Supreme Trinity. His role is to transform that which is into something new. In doing so, he does indeed destroy, but the destruction he wreaks is destruction for the sake of new creation.

“What this means is that in the Hindu worldview, as in the Wiccan, destruction is an integral part of the process of creation. Acknowledging the role of destruction in the reality we inhabit isn’t always a pleasant thing to do, and we are certainly not obligated to celebrate destruction whenever and wherever it occurs. We can, however, remember that a lot of the destruction in nature results in creation, so that ultimately, while destruction is ongoing, utter destruction is averted because creation, growth, and renewal are also ongoing.” [5]

While it heralds the sun’s waning, Litha is not about light or dark winning victories over each other, even temporarily, or about one end of the polarity between ice and fire being the “good” one; it’s about the constant interplay in the dance that is the turning of the Wheel of the Year. That cooperation and interaction are the real story of destruction averted, and not just averted, but transformed into the ongoing process of re-creation. Now that’s something to celebrate.

——

[1] ^ In US culture, Memorial Day has mostly become a similar celebration of summer, although ten years of war have created quite a few families with someone to memorialize and plenty of additional performances of often-empty patriotism.

[2] ^ Imagine the “barbarian” opponents of the Romans in Gladiator and the Celts from Braveheart trying to spend time together. The result would either be massive carnage or an all-night drinking bout that would end in…massive carnage.

[3] ^ I haven’t written much about Gardner. That’s on purpose. He’s considered the “founder” of modern Wicca. He said he was initiated by a millenia-old survival of prehistoric witchcraft; that may have happened, but he probably wrote a lot of the rituals himself, and is apparently the originator of many recognizeably Wiccan practices.

He had many personal foibles and some seriously objectionable beliefs and practices (most notably sexism and Orientalism). Personally, I think getting rid of some of that dross he mixed in is one of the signs of progress in Wicca in recent decades, but that’s just me. Wicca has changed and diversified tremendously since Gardner, so don’t judge all of Wicca or all Wiccans on the basis of Gardner.

[4] ^ Adopted from Spiritualism. Wiccan beliefs on what happens after death are complex, highly individual, and not necessarily coherent, but it is common parlance to speak of someone “going to the Summerland” or “being in the Summerland” after death. Wiccans who think about reincarnation may describe the Summerland as a place of rest and joy between incarnations.

[5] ^ I would like to thank Raj for his excellent contribution here and even more for his tremendous help in discussing the ideas behind this article with me. Our conversations and his commentary on Hinduism made it possible to develop these ideas fully, and to expand the scope of the inter-religious aspect beyond solely Western ideas and practices. I am deeply indebted to him for his cooperation and look forward to collaborating with him again.

Beltane – In My Hands

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

The Pagan celebration of Beltane, May first and second in the northern hemisphere,  is a fire festival and also a very earthy and bawdy celebration of physical love and pleasure. It’s easy to think of Beltane in big terms: huge bonfires with whole communities dancing in ecstasy, both vertically and horizontally. For the moment, though, I’d like to put it in smaller terms based on something I discovered recently: the motion I make when I cup my hands around a candle to protect it from the wind is the same as the gesture I use to cup my beloved’s face before a kiss.

The full moon after Ostara (in 2011) was a “supermoon” when the moon was full at nearly the same time it was at perigee; its nearness to the earth made the full moon bigger and brighter than usual. I decided to do my personal ritual marking the full moon outside, on the rooftop patio of my apartment building. I took my portable altar kit upstairs and and settled down to watch the sun set and the moon rise. I was a little irritated by the fact that the densely urban area where I live creates a lot of light pollution, so the supermoon wouldn’t be as impressive as it would be elsewhere, out in “real nature.”

Well, Mother Nature must have heard me thinking, because she decided to remind me that even in the middle of a very human-constructed and human-influenced environment, she can still play tricks. Thankfully, she was gentle and only sent wind, but it was an erratic wind that snuffed my candles at frequent but irregular intervals, spaced out just enough to let me think I could relax and meditate a bit before another gust came. It became something between a game and a competition as I frantically relit candles from each other, and finally I let two of my candles go out, but sheltered the third one in my cupped hands to keep it going until the moon rose, majestic and beautiful and just exactly the same shade of ruddy yellow brilliance as the flame.

This was a good reminder to me not to let myself get caught up in “living room Wicca,” where we practice indoors and all too seldom actually experience the nature that we claim to revere. Living room Wicca leads to all sorts of silliness, especially from ultra-urban Wiccans who can get all overly romantic about the purity of nature. I’ve got news for people who think that way: the idea of the wilderness, and especially the idea that it is in some way better than the settled areas, is a social construction from the Romantic period. After the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 20th century affected the distribution of isotopes in the air and water of the world, there is no place on earth that is completely unaffected by humankind’s actions. Even the moon in which I admire one face of the Goddess has had men walk on it.

The purity of nature as distinct from humanity is a myth, just as the idea that humanity is distinct from nature is a myth.  Humans are creatures of flesh and blood, bone and sweat, tears and urine. What wildness does exist is valuable and a vital part of the planet’s biosphere, but it’s not necessarily nice or comfortable or beautiful, any more than humans are necessarily rational and logical creatures.

Anyone who actually lives there will tell you that it takes a lot more work to live in less-developed areas. It’s even a hard place to do ritual: the flames get blown out, nothing is level, the rocks are sharp, the ants carry off the sacred bread, you discover what a dead frog smells like, and when you start chanting “We all come from the Goddess / and to her we shall return / like a drop of rain / flowing to the ocean,” she takes you at your word. People who succumb to living room Wicca run the risk of being like the young Wilderness Explorer in the movie Up!, who complains that the wilderness is just too wild. It takes a keen appreciation of the ridiculous, as well as deep familiarity with your environment, careful planning, and a high degree of flexibility to do ritual outdoors successfully.

In that way, it’s actually a lot like making love. Robert Farrar Capon wrote that “the unrehearsed and unrehearsable ritual by which two people undress each other for the first time” was one of the few things “not worth describing seriously,” what  with all the fumbles and uncertainty and mishaps: clothing gets tangled, zippers stick, and jewelry breaks. Even after that, our bodies don’t always keep pace with our thoughts and emotions, sometimes zooming light-years ahead, sometimes lagging, frustratingly slow to respond. It almost never happens smoothly, as if choreographed; sometimes it hardly seems like it’s worth the trouble, and that it might be slightly ridiculous to bother about it at all.

And the ultimate ridiculousness can be found in Beltane’s opposite – Samhain, the festival that recognizes death and its place in our lives. After all, as Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” So why should we bother, why take the risks, why expose ourselves emotionally to the dangers and difficulties of loving, let alone physically struggling with the acts of love?

And yet somehow, we still keep trying, and we believe it’s worth the trouble. Because here and now, we are alive, and in love.

These two great mysteries, love and death, are closely intertwined, although we try to separate them, to idealize the one and ignore the other. But no matter how much we try, they exist in dialogue with each other. The only real response to the fact that death happens is, “I love you.” And all I have to believe is that that’s enough. All I have to believe is that love can be the basis for me to build a meaningful life and relationships.

And this is true: we have proof that love is amazingly, tremendously powerful precisely because it happens in the face of silliness, and ridiculousness, and impermanence, and death. It is worth the trouble of popped buttons and of broken hearts, because love is what makes new life possible. This is true in the literal sense, obviously, of creating new lives, but it’s also true in a metaphorical sense.

Capon argued that grace, which I regard as the ultimate manifestation of divine love, makes sin utterly irrelevant. For Capon, the grace of the divine love is forgiveness that not only settles the score but throws out the idea of keeping score at all. Although the concept of sin is no longer particularly meaningful for me, the concept of forgiveness still is.

For me, the most incredible forgiveness happens when I love someone enough that I want my relationship with them to go on, regardless of what has happened to hurt me. I’m so in love with them that I’m willing to let the old me die, so that the me who was owed a debt by the offender is simply gone, and the debt will never be called in. If we go forward into that together, our love can create a new life for us both, and for our relationship together.

That’s why this year, especially when Easter and Beltane are so close together, it seems appropriate that Beltane occurs at the new moon, not the full moon. It’s a reminder that both are celebrations of love over death, reminders of the love that transcends death and helps us make life meaningful, in the face of all the fumbles, and the pain, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Beltane and the love it embodies are about light, and fire, even in the darkest moments of a moonless night. After all, that’s why it is called the new moon and not the empty moon.

Even in those very dark moments, I find the newness of life in the simple motion of cupping my hands. I light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness, and cup my hands around it, nurture it just a bit more, get it to glow a little brighter. I cup my hands around the face of a child, and wipe away the tears, and replace them with kisses, nurturing the young life that is just barely taking hold but promises so much potential. I cup my hands around the face of my beloved, and nurture the flame of our love. And when I do, that brilliance blazes up into a light that illumines my life, and I have the answer right there, in my hands.

Ostara – Seeds of Love

I’m going to start posting a sequence of articles about the Sabbats that I wrote for another website. This entry has been lightly edited to bring it up to date. Please note that this entry in particular was meant to focus on inter-religious connections between Wicca and Christianity for an audience that was not very familiar with Wicca.

In my yoga classes, one of my teachers has been emphasizing the metaphor of resting at the end of a practice as a time of germination. In his words, we choose the seed by setting an intention, then we prepare the soil – the body – by doing our practice, and then we rest and reaffirm the intention, planting it within the body and spirit. After planting it, we have to give it time to germinate, to begin to grow. That waiting period can be difficult, and that’s the way I’m experiencing it this year.

Ostara, the name of the Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox, comes from an old Anglo-Saxon goddess of the springtime or of the dawn named Eostre. The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede noted that during the process of Christianization in England, the people had transferred the goddess’ name to the new Christian celebration of Easter, which occurred at about the same time as the older spring festival.

The Christian celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred at this time of spring because it was immediately after Passover, the Jewish celebration of the exodus from Egypt. The date of Passover is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, and as a result, Christians celebrate Easter on approximately the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox.

The equinox itself is the time when day and night are of equal length, in perfect balance. Days have been getting longer ever since the winter solstice, of course, but now they finally catch up with and overtake the nights. But the celebrations around this time of year aren’t very much about the sun and moon; they’re actually very earthy, with all the imagery of bunnies and eggs and things growing and bursting forth.

The celebrations are much more about agricultural concerns and very human needs and desires than about where the sun is.  (Of course, this is all from a Northern Hemisphere perspective; in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the autumn equinox, celebrated in Wicca as the harvest festival of Mabon. With such earthy, personal matters, though, I’m going to write from my own perspective.)

Depending on your latitude and climate, Ostara might be the time of preparing the fields, doing the planting, or the time that the first shoots start to show the promise of later bounty. In Wicca’s mythological cycle, these processes are all celebrated at Ostara, along with the cheerfully reappropriated bunnies and eggs.

Wiccan mythology places a lot of emphasis on fertility, both literal and metaphorical, after all, and most Wiccans aren’t shy about the bunnies and eggs being blatant fertility symbols, nor about celebrating the feeling that like the ground and the plants and the animals, our bodies too are waking up after a long winter’s sleep. The larger metaphorical theme of life’s renewal makes the Jewish celebration of being freed from slavery and the Christian celebration of Jesus coming forth from the tomb a natural fit with the seasonal imagery of budding and germination and hatching.

Of course, everybody’s so excited about this – and it is exciting! – but in the flurry of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and pastel eggs, even nature-oriented Wiccans often miss how much dramatic change is going on. Chicks have to break the shell of their eggs to hatch, and seeds that germinate don’t just break rocks – they have to split their own hull first.

We’re all happy about the increasing sunshine, but sometimes the accompanying changes are harder for us to accept. Sometimes it feels like we’re not just the chick that’s hatching – we’re the eggshell. Or, at least, the shell is a part of our life or our mindset being pecked at and cracked apart, and even if we want the result, the process isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable.

This is how love works. Love transforms us from the inside out. It makes something inside you swell and move and never give up until it cracks open the old you and something new and full of life emerges.

It’s like when you’ve been having an awful, furious argument, and then the other person finally gets through to you that your comfort comes at the price of afflicting him. The new realization blossoms inside you and splits open your prejudice, your stereotyping, your assumptions, until they fall away like the chaff they are. Your understanding and your empathy and ultimately your love change you, from the inside out.

My teacher is right about the importance of the rest phase, though: usually this process of germination happens much more slowly. There’s another Christian celebration, a less well-known one, that’s actually tied directly to the vernal equinox: the Annunciation, which was a life-changing piece of news for Mary if ever there was one. The process of pregnancy isn’t just about birth: it lasts nine months, and likewise, although germination happens quickly, the growing wheat also takes more than that glorious moment of the hull splitting open to get all the way through to the harvest. But now, at Ostara, we celebrate because we know that process is starting again, and that’s what matters. We know, too, that change in our lives isn’t easy and is rarely instantaneous, but we know that it happens, and maybe we can feel it starting again right now.

The occurrence of the Annunciation in the middle of Lent is one of the few times that the Christian liturgical calendar really seems like a cycle. It’s a reminder that Easter and Christmas are deeply, intimately related. Wicca, on the other hand, characterizes sacred time as explicitly cyclical: the Sabbats make up the Wheel of the Year, after all, and it is constantly turning and constantly coming back to the same points.

We know that the days will become shorter than the nights again at Mabon, but we know that after the Mabon there is also another Ostara coming. That knowledge gives me hope that even when the transformation of love seems to have stalled halfway, when it seems like the shell is too thick to crack, that even then I can believe in the process continuing, and I can work for it and with it.

Ostara is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, of life over death, of that which is moving and growing over that which covers it up and holds it down. Ostara challenges us to believe that love can make huge transformations and even new life possible. It isn’t easy to believe that. Sometimes it’s hard not to reinforce the shell and ignore the chick, and it’s hard to go down deep into yourself and plant the seeds and nurture them rather than staying on the surface and making more mud bricks to build the Pharaoh’s walls. And it’s even harder to do that for others.

As Mavis Staples sings, “Isolated and afraid / Open up, this is a raid. / I want to get it through to you: / You’re not alone.” We know that germination and hatching have destruction as the necessary accompaniment to change, even positive and amazing change like new growth and new life. We resist that change, often times, even when it comes from people who want to help us. And when we’re struggling through those changes ourselves, and trying to offer help to others, and we keep getting rebuffed, it’s easy to become jaded and give up.

But Ostara teaches me another response: planting seeds. My worship is a way of planting the seed of deity, and deity’s love, within myself. I want deity to grow within me, to transform me from the inside out. And then I want to go out into the world and be a seed myself, a seed of deity’s love that will transform the world from the inside out.

I want to be a chick making a change. Ostara teaches me that even when the shells of intolerance and cruelty and fear seem too tough for me to crack, deity is within me, and within the world, and that deity’s radical, transformative love is how I work in the world, pecking away at that shell, a little bit at a time. And the more that I celebrate deity in myself, and in everyone as I do at Ostara, the more I grow, the stronger I get, to peck a little bit more.

So for now, I’m planting seeds, in myself and in the world, that will grow, with each Ostara, even though there are winters in between. I believe in the chick, and I believe in the seed, and I believe in the love I’m trying to embody. Ostara reminds me that even when it’s scary and transformative, that love is the beginning of new life, of something beautiful and wonderful and worth every bit of effort.

Ostara Ritual To Find the Sun

Eggs are strongly associated with Ostara and its images of fertility and growth, and dyeing hardboiled eggs is a wonderful tradition to use for this Sabbat. This ritual uses the egg in a slightly different way to symbolize the release of restraints in order to promote growth and development.

Personally, I am so very, very tired of winter here this year that I am going to use this ritual to break away the snow and cold and ick in order to usher in a reasonable, gentle summer.

Materials:

  • Hardboiled egg. Whether you dye it or not is entirely up to you. If you do, you can spend time while the egg is submerged to meditate on the way that snow melts and begins to reveal the colors of springtime.
  • Plate or bowl and knife to cut the egg. (Be careful when handling knives, especially if there are kids involved.)

Ritual:

Cast the circle as you chant

The earth, the air, the fire the water
return, return, return, return

Call the Quarters with words like these or your own:

East, Powers of Air, blow through me with the winds of a fresh start! Hail and welcome!

South, Powers of Fire, burn in me with the energy to grow and change! Hail and welcome!

West, Powers of Water, flow through me with the courage to ride the waves! Hail and welcome!

North, Powers of Earth, ground me with the strength to break free! Hail and welcome!

Pick up your egg, and visualize its shell as the constraints that have been holding you back, especially anything that has been restraining you this past winter. Put all of your feelings about those situations into the shell (just the shell, not the egg!). Visualize your new energy as the egg itself, ready to be set free from that shell.

When you are ready, crack the shell with a sharp rap against the plate, and visualize your the constraints breaking. Peel the egg, and visualize all that has held you back falling away, allowing you to break free and emerge into a period of new growth and development.

Cut the egg in half. See the golden yolk inside as the sun, which is returning to its strength and bringing energy to fuel the growth and change of spring. Say, “The sun returns!” and celebrate!

Eat the egg to take that energy into yourself.

Thank the Quarters for their presence and blessings.

Open the circle.

PS – if you’re looking for something different, there’s also a more meditative ritual that uses seeds as a metaphor that I wrote a while ago, or a salt scrub.

Magic for the buds

Tonight I’m snuggled up and trying to stay warm while (yet another) snowstorm hits, here in February when we might expect things to be getting if not spring-like then at least a little milder. Tonight I will chant the names of plants and animals, and include many a prayer for the ones I do not know. Tonight I murmur over the unknown names of the people who are out of doors for any reason. Tonight I chant the names I know of my landbase, and include silence for the names, to borrow Eliot’s words,

…the names that you never will guess;
The names that no human research can discover—
But the land itself knows, and will never confess.

Tonight I say the names, and I keep the silence, and I pray my prayers to the nearly-full moon, and to all beneficent powers, to be merciful to the buds which have just appeared, and to the people who are out of doors, and to the land.

budsWhat are you doing to turn the Wheel?

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.