Sunday, August 31, 2014

New Nemeton Report

Regular readers will know that we're building a new ritual space here at Tredara. Following Celtic (at least Gaulish) tradition we refer to these neo-Celtic ritual spaces as a 'nemeton'. While the form of that word clearly indicates its Gaulish derivation, the root that produces the word also produces a complex of words in Irias, such as 'nemed', indicating both 'noble' and 'holy' in different examples. So a nemeton is a noble place for sacred work, and that's what we're trying to build.

We just finished another work day, with several of our Grove mates showing up. The crew was about right - we were doing more detail work that grunt work, and we had some skilled help.
Here's where we left off. Looks good, but the salvage brick at the fire altar just wasn't going to make it. Also, the first big rain caused erosion in some of the brick-work on the eastern porch that holds the Well and Tree, filling the offering shaft with sand and collapsing some of the brick deck. So our job yesterday was to finish the firepit with the proper new brick we found, and repair the deck and offering shaft.

The Fire altar turned out to be easy. We started early, before the heat had grown too oppressive. AJ has actually mixed mortar, and we had three hands (two and half - AJ's in a cast) working it, so placing the brick went easy. We tried a trick on the top course, to create better ventilation and, hopefully, a neat light effect as the fire shines between the bricks.
The finished brick-work
and filled with dirt,
to raise the fire properly into the air

The traditional Euro-Pagan fire altar is a raised stack of brick or stone, with the fire on the top. The word "altar" means 'high place', and the central porch and fire-altar are, in fact, the highest spot in the nemeton's meadow.

The east porch and offering shaft were a more complicated matter. We needed to seal the lip of the actual pit to prevent erosion from filling it, and provide a solid base for the brick deck.
So we started here, mortaring a collar
of 'castle wall' salvage brick. this

We don't know much about ancient Celtic ritual, but we can be pretty sure that they made 'deposit offerings' into shafts dug into the earth. Archaeology has found gigantic examples - we commemorate the custom on a smaller scale. The 'shaft' receives offerings to the Underworld powers, and is part of the symbolic complex we call 'the Well"

We wanted a collar of brick to bring the shaft-top
up above level. Our skilled help was able to cut a proper
frame of brick, which I love.
Finally cementing the whole thing in place,
and ready for the capstone.

Finished East Porch, with cap on the shaft.
By the end of the day we had built the fire-altar, fixed the shaft, and even filled the holes on the new processional way. We should be ready to consecrate this baby at Fall Equinox which, come to think of it, is the Grove's birthday.

The view from the processional way, on entry.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sacrifice, Reciprocity, Gods, and Spirits

I encountered a discussion on-line concerning the idea of reciprocity between Mortals and spirits, anchored from John Halstead’s excellent article in two parts ( here and here). John is a humanist and atheist, though perhaps not a materialist in the most reductive sense. He strives for a Paganism that does not depend on a relationship with non-material intelligences. Regular readers will understand how different that is from my own interests in spirituality and sacred occultism. Let me say that I have covered a lot of my background opinion on issues surrounding sacrifice in an article here.

As I read John’s well-reasoned paper, I find that it is his original assumptions that make it flawed for me. Like many humanists he seems to have skipped the step where one discards the common monotheistic notion of God, and addresses the persons of the divine as specific, limited beings. Whether or not one ends up at pantheism or monism or even atheism (as many polytheists over the ages have done) I see value in moving from the idea that ‘gods’ are cosmic creator-owner-operators-of-existence, or cosmic background-principle-of-existence, to a model in which the divine is expressed locally and specifically. I think that is invaluable in reclaiming the essence of what pre-Christian religion was about, which is a goal that is still at the heart of my idea of Neopaganism. It seems to be a step that many Humanists simply don’t see, or decide to avoid.

Of course the Universe doesn’t give a crap about the horn of ale that I spill. I don’t worship the universe, and I don’t see what the point of doing so might be. To me, worship is a social exchange, and that makes sense only with beings that can know and respond to my worship. It makes no sense to me at all to ‘worship the divine in the sunset’ unless one understands the sunset to be a person who can respond to one’s worship.

I note that some branches of traditional Paganism, such as certain Buddhisms, reject such personal worship in favor of a discipline of contemplation and self-refinement. This seems to be a natural path for some folks, though the folk-religions that have been made on the Buddhist base almost all return to the core tradition of offering-and-asking. That tradition is so central to world non-Abrahamic religion as to be an identifying marker of religion itself. I understand, I think, that John isn’t trying to be rid of the practice but rather is reaching for a rationale that satisfies his humanist leanings. Nothing wrong with that.
Finding the living intelligence in the awesome beauty of
the land is rather the point for me. Why stop at the material?

Somehow I suspect that Humanist Paganism is no more likely to be interested in direct dealing with spirits of the Dead, or local Landwights. In my opinion traditional Paganism (which is my model) does not limit its religious work to the gods. There is no notion that only gods are worthy of worship in the ancient model – local spirits of the Dead and of natural features had at least as much to do with one’s fortune and life as did the poet’s gods. While any small worshipper might wonder whether an offering to the Highest Queen would be noticed the blessing of one’s lineage of ancestors, or the local Chief Tree is a much more intimate thing.

I suppose that a symbolist, materialist rationale could be devised for reciprocity between the idea of the Ancestors or local land-features. That is simply unsatisfying to me. I don’t bother with religion for the sake of community building or personal aesthetic satisfaction – I could get those without religion. I do magic and religion to engage with mythic reality (to use a rationalist description). I consider mythic reality a part of the natural world, and consider that to ignore it is simply to ignore part of the natural world in a system that takes nature for our revelation. So, whatever my own little philosophical opinions, I address the gods and spirits as the gods and spirits, and have repeated the experiment many times over the years because I have been pleased with the results.

Finally, let’s directly address some of John’s concerns. (John in italic):
The notion that the gods will grant worshipers material well-being assumes certain things:
• that deities exist (whatever that means) in some sense independently of you (whatever that means),
Good, as below we’ll take that as given, especially with the “whatever” tag. But I’d like to reduce this from ‘deities’ to ‘spirits’ if I can do it and preserve the sense. The divine is not expressed as deities alone.

In general, the culturally-universal history of human interactions with spirits, which has never ceased except in the more repressed segments of western cultures, makes me unwilling to replace mythic and traditional narratives with those of modern scientism.

• that your deity is aware of you,

Here, again, we have a difference of type and degree in a polytheistic or spiritist system. To get the attention of the highest gods, Olympians, etc, was always a Big Deal. The notion of getting on one’s knees and ‘praying’ to Athena seems silly to me. Why would such a great being notice such a small deed – unless the worshipper has come to the god’s attention through a more serious effort. Not all deities are aware of me, I suppose, but my formal efforts make me comfortable in assuming that my local deities are.

My Ancestors are linked to me much more intimately, of course, and I make some effort to enter relationship with the strange non-humans of my area. While the latter are quite local, they seem more alien in their way than the human-shaped gods we usually deal with. There is never a lack of Mystery.

As to how I know they’re aware, I trust both the results of my own technical vision-work, and the results in my life. They respond to me and stuff.

Even if we take #1 for granted (that your god exists), I just can’t see how you get through the rest of the assumptions.  Even if you have had an experience of a powerful personal presence which you identify as a god, how do you infer the rest of the assumptions from your experience?

• that your deity cares about you,
“Care’… I don’t concern myself with their emotional response. You functionally mean ‘will respond to customary approaches’. As long as they ‘keep the Old Bargain’ I don’t ask them how they feel about me.

• that your deity has the power to alter your life circumstances,
Here again we rely mainly on the testimony of tradition, though each practitioner will get results according to their effort and skill. We seek that general luck-splash blessing through community religious work, and that can be enough for most people. Some religions provide more technical methods of getting spirits to aid one’s work, and some systems call that ‘magic’ while others just call it part of religion. Magic, in general, relies only partly on the power of ‘gods’, often being more involved with non-deity spirits, and with the ‘occult powers of natural things’.
An altar arranged for a technical spiritual experiment.

Humans have the power to alter our life circumstances. With the aid of beings whose perspective and ability is different from ours (I think ‘greater' is fair) we can alter it more. Nothing is omnipotent - no spirit can bring that Palace of Gold (probably) but it is good to have strong allies.

• that your deity has more power than you alone have to alter your life circumstances,

Any two beings have more power than any one being. That one’s easy.

• that your deity will chose to help you under certain circumstances (i.e., in exchange for offerings), and
They have always done, and always said they will. There’s no reason to set aside the planet-wide pattern of traditional religion because it offends some philosophical position.

• that your deity’s influence on your life circumstances will be greater than other influences working in the opposite direction.
That’s a crap-shoot. Nothing is omnipotent. My allies and I forge ahead with skill and strength.

As to whether reciprocity ‘works’ when deliberately used for material benefit, I’d say that such experiments depend on a number of variables. We know that in material science an experiment will only work replicably if all the details are performed correctly and all the variables are controlled for. In general, if an experiment fails it must be because the operator ‘hasn’t done it right’. In art there is rather more leeway – a familiar melody can be approximated and result in a successful performance. Still in general an artistic effort must be ‘done right’ to achieve any specific effect. To wish there were a system that could work by wishing is merely… wishful. (sorry…)

It seems to me that John wants to measure religion by a different standard than material nature. Why doesn’t it make entire sense, in a model in which nature is our revelation of the divine that religious practices meant to produce specific material effects would be subject to some of the same rules as other types of human effort? Traditional Paganisms generally include a body of formal method by which devoted and skilled operators can get results beyond those of a dabbler. I suspect that dropping one’s silver in the wishing-well works as well today as it ever did – unless one has built a specific relationship with the spirit of the well, perhaps.

I don’t want to go too far into mythic psychology and the relationship between one’s chosen worship and one’s psychological condition. I’ll say that polytheism (as opposed to pantheism or other monisms) offer a menu of human potentials to be awakened through the long list of gods and spirits. I hold with “as above, so below” – when I bring a mighty power near me, the microcosmic mirror of that power lights up in me. If I need Motherliness, or Loverliness, or Coachiness I can get it. It is not regressive to make allies and to interact with them to improve and direct one’s life. My theism does not lead me to make the gods the big actors in my life’s story. I am the big actor in my life – the gods have stories that converge with mine, like any other being.
Here's a nice roadside shrine.

Here’s the deal for me – I want to bring the divine down out of the realms of Great Cosmic Wonder to where the rubber meets the road. I love those moments where I look out into the world within my heart and just Dig it All, for the sake of digging it, but I don’t consider that to have much to do with religion. I do religion to bring the power of the spirits (whether conceived as psycho-linguistic bundles or ethereal wights) into the common world, for the blessing of mortals. Again, for me, that means engagement with the mythic, regardless of whatever ‘rationalist’ discourse may say. I’ll always be more interested in the roadside shrine than in the mystic’s suggestions of natural wonder, but that's just me.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Cleansing Blessing

Public Purification Rite, Summerland Festival 2014

For many years L and I have attended the Summerland Festival, organized by our ADF kin of Sixth Night Grove in Dayton. Held at a pleasant 4H camp in the woods, the event features high-quality program, good fellowship and an excellent Saturday music night. This isn’t a full review of the event, but I want to tip my hat to the fine group of bards working in our region. Talent is best graced by skill, and the increases in skill and confidence to be seen are marvelous!

Our shady glen

 Summerland has given me the chance to do some of my favorite experimental magic over the years. I did early Core-Shamanism-style ally rites, introduced the 9X9 divination system and did the first Court of Brigid rite in the ritual space (actually the ‘camp-fire circle’ of that 4H camp) there. Not being an organizer leaves my mind available for real magical work – something I just can’t manage at, say, Starwood any more.

This year our program piece was a rite of cleansing and purification, based on work I wrote last winter. It is part of an effort to devise ways to use magico-religious work to affect change in the hearts and spirits of people.  I’m more of a teacher than a healer, by inclination, but the work of priesthood in our time seems to demand some degree of work focused on the ‘cure of souls’. In our time people come to spiritual work seeking personal healing, comfort and restoration. Maybe they always did, but I think that in ancient days they didn’t expect to get it from priests of the gods. However they did expect priests (loosely defined) to be able to relieve “ritual impurity” (See my previous article here). When life brings us into contact with traditional sources of impurity it is traditional ritual that relieves it. The script for the large rite I composed is here  .

Approaching performance of the rite our primary concerns were adapting it for a larger-group performance. The rite is really composed to be worked by an operator on an individual or small group of clients and their witnesses, and in that form the ritual gestures would be able to proceed smoothly and rhythmically. However we were mounting this for 30 – 40 people (final # about 36, if I counted correctly).
The Three Blessing Cauldrons, ready.
Most central, the rite calls for the hands of the clients (i.e. everyone, in this case) to have their hands laved with water from the blessed cauldron. My first inclination was to do the old receiving-line, and have folks parade past the big ritual cauldron to receive their cleansing. Boring. Finally we decided to set three Blessing Bowls up the center of the seating area, and hallow each of them with the blessing.

We decided that the clients would actual cleanse one another, grouping around the three cauldrons. To do this we would give each of them a spoon. My reading has taught me that traditions that cleanse with water frequently do not use their hands to do so – most usually a ladle or spoon is used to dip water cleanly from a sacred pot onto its source. So it was clear plastic spoons for all.

The rite also calls for the clients to cover their heads in a simple white cloth for a section of the work. For the larger audience this was reduced to 2” strips of cloth, draped over the neck. Both of these adaptations were a little scary – to me the risk was tipping over into silliness. Fortunately the real cooperation of the ADF audience prevented that from happening… much…

The offering table. Ritual waters on top, deity images, spoons
to the left, cloths to the right, offerings, and the set-up for
the three blessing fires.
The final adaptation of the original script was the choice to sing the two key incantations. My goal in the work was to induce trance with a minimum of spoken guidance, allowing the crew to find their own requirements for purification, and to focus solidly on the mechanics of the rite as conveying the blessing. The litanies of water and fire in the text seemed long to me – induction through boredom is doable, but doesn’t get return trade. So I decided to add intonation and a mantric chorus-sing to the water-blessing, and to sing the fire-blessing as a hymn.

We worked the rite on Friday afternoon, and the shadows of the trees had perfectly covered the seating area we were using for the rite. We encouraged the crew to group around the blessing bowls, and distributed the spoons and cloths. L and I opened the work with a simple offering to the Three Kindreds (Land-spirits, Ancestors and Deities, for new readers). In this we honored first the general category of each Kindred, then added a more specific call to beings proper to the intention.

In this the Landwights was the most difficult, and a contemplation of how they may relate to ritual impurity and purification might be proper. I note that I might have offered to the spirits of the material water and fuel which we used in the rite, had I thought of it. Along with a general call to the Ancestors we called to Grandmothers and Grandfathers, understanding them as keepers of custom and rule surrounding purity – ‘reproving and compassionate’. Along with calling to the Gods in general we asked Brigid and the Dagda to aid us. This choice will be obvious enough, especially given the core fire-and-water symbolism of the rite. In parsing the sources of power for the rite, I go first to the innate power of water and fire, to which are added various natural-magic components. Secondly the consensus and cooperation of the community empowers the purification and return to normalcy. To these are added the special blessing of the Kindreds, brought through sacrifice.

All in all, the performance went well. L and I were pretty well in-tune, and our ritual performance partnership is a reliable support. We worked the initial sacrifice unscripted, then resorted to scripts for the detailed invocations. All in all we could have used more hands. I found myself sitting down to drum and lead the intonation, and still required to speak parts. In terms of my own trance I was able mainly to channel intent into the singing of the choruses, my attention otherwise divided between aspects of the progress of the work. I was forced to rely primarily on the design and execution – I wasn’t pushing a lot of juice myself.

The scrum around the blessing bowls was not too bad. Everyone got their nine lavings accomplished in just a little longer than the performance of the Hymn of Cleansing. Perhaps having operators at each of the bowls would be helpful, but I do like the mutuality of the community cleansing one another.

The second phase of the cleansing is the purification by fire. In the Two Powers analysis of the rite’s formula, the Underworld Waters are first used to dissolve and wash away impurity. The Fire of the Heavens is then used to restore original pattern, empower the target’s system, and to ‘purify by sunlight’. So we prepared small, portable fires, by simply lighting very fresh incense cones and not blowing them out. My experience has been that this will produce a 5-minute, sweet-smelling flame that, even if it goes out, will produce a pleasant cloud of smoke. In this case we got all three flames back to the work-table intact, so that worked just fine. So did singing the entire Hymn of the Flame, though I could regularize the verses a little more.

The original script called for blessing and passing a cup on completion of the Water and Fire. We were afraid of going too long, and excised it. In the end the working took about forty minutes. That tells me I could leave that module in place – I like the idea of the newly-purified folk sharing a cup.

Oh, one radical element of the rite was the Confession. In keeping with what I have discovered about purification work, a Hymn of Confession was recited prior to the cleansings. This led the crew to admit to a series of abstract errors or failures of virtue, and provided a moment for each to contemplate what impurity they might bring to the work at hand. This feels controversial, and the final text was the result of some discussion here at home. In the end the folk made no objection, and it seemed a fit and useful part of the formula.

The feel of the rite by the end seemed properly blessed and joyful and, as we burned the cloths in the ritual fire, it seemed to me to lighten. The emotional responses in the crowd were varied, from obvious delight to some examples of tears and obvious introspection. Several folks took occasion to say that the rite had pushed some of the buttons that were targeted, and all in all I consider it a good first performance of a fairly complex rite with fairly complex goals.

I want to thank the Summerland folks again for the opportunity and support (and Sai for building and tending the Fire), and thank all who participated. May we grow in wisdom by the work.