The long dark night.

Winter-Solstice-Stonehenge

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

In 2019 December 22nd is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night.  Tonight the Sun dies and tomorrow it is reborn.

This is the night of Druantia, the white goddess, the Celtic tree goddess, the moon goddess, the triple goddess of Birth, Love and Death, the muse of the Celtic poets. Queen of the Druids, Wiccans and Neo-Pagans.  Virgin, drudge, whore, muse, hag and crone. Daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, fertile cornocopia or barren spinster.  She is the queen of the faeries and she is personified as a Wren.

In Celtic Druidic tradition the “Hunting of the Wren” was a ritual to see out the old and see in the new as the darkest day of winter passed.  The Christian Church in Ireland worked hard to eliminate the Celtic practice of Goddess Worship.  They made the wren into a traitor, who revealed the hiding place of St. Stephen who was then stoned to death.

 

To Juan at the Winter Solstice; by Robert Graves

There is one story and one story only
that will prove worth your telling,
whether as learned bard or gifted child;
to it all lines or lesser gauds belong
that startle with their shining
such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
or strange beasts that beset you,
of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
below the Boreal Crown,
prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
from woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
the never altered circuit of his fate,
bringing twelve peers as witness
both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
all fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
when, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
how many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
whose coils contain the ocean,
into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
battles three days and nights,
to be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow if falling, winds roar hollowly,
the owl hoots from the elder,
fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
do not forget what flowers
the great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
but nothing promised that is not performed.

Imbolc Eve

imbolc

February 1st is St Bridgets Day in Ireland, celebrated by school children making St. Bridget’s crosses, like all good little catholic children do in Ireland.

Only it is a pagan celebration, a pagan symbol and a pagan goddess.  Brigid was an Irish Celtic Goddess long before the Christians came.  The “St. Bridget’s Cross” is in fact a pre-Christian pagan sun motif, celbrating the arrival of spring.  Brigid was a goddess of fertility.  Imbolc is the first cross quarter day of the Celtic calendar, lying halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Brigid had a sanctuary in County Kildare where an eternal flame was kept forever burning.  The sanctuary was surrounded by a hedge.  Any man who attempted to enter the precinct could not pass through the hedge without becoming confused, being driven mad, or dropping down dead.

Irish Celtic women never needed a feminist movement.  They were boss.

Brigid was also the Celtic goddess of smiths, healing, midwifery and poetry!

 

 

The Macbeth of animals

bear

Say my name!

Actors performing in Macbeth will never, out of superstition, say the name of the play.  Instead they call it “The Scottish Play”.

In similar vein the wizards of the Harry Potter novels refer to their great enemy as “You know who” or “He who must not be named” because to speak the name Voldemort gives it power.

There is a tradition in Celtic society of refusing to give power to a beast by giving it its name.  If a village was terrified by an animal, real or mythical, they would name it “the beast” or “the monster” until it was slain.  Only when dead could they give name to the beast.

Which brings us to the Bear.  You may think you know the bear but in truth you do not.  So terrifying was the bear to primitive society that people would not speak it’s name.  Instead they called it simply “the brown one”.

So successful was this refusal to say the name of the beast that we no longer know the name.  “Bear” simply means “brown one”.

The Two Bears; by Hafiz

Once
after a hard day forage
two bears sat together in silence
on a beautiful vista
watching the sun go down
and feeling deeply grateful
for life.

Though, after a while
a thought-provoking conversation began
which turned to the topic of
fame.

The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
and travels from city to city
in a golden cage;

He performs for hundreds of people
who laugh and applaud
his carnival stunts.

The other bear thought for
a few seconds
then started
weeping.

 

Groundhog eve

Spring

Guess what just sprung?

Yes it is Feb 1st, Feast of Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of Fertility, or St Brigid if you are a Christian revisionist.  Celtic festival of Imbolc, thought to drive from “i mBolg” which means “in the belly” where all the spring lambs, calves and babies are.

Outside my window I hear a colt nickering in the field next door, full of the joys of the burgeoning summer.

Spring And All: by William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast —

a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

 

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

 

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines —

 

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches —

 

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind —

 

Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —

 

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

 

But now the stark dignity of
entrance —

Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted they

grip down and begin to awaken

St John’s Eve

Bonfire

Last night was St John’s Eve.  In rural areas of Ireland it is  bonfire night.

This is a classic case of a pagan festival that the catholic church tried to muscle into the Christian sphere by shoehorning a Saint into the mix.  It is remarkable in that it celebrates the birth of St John the Baptist.  Most Saints and Martyrs are commemorated on the day of their death.

St John’s day replaces a Celtic Summer Solstice festival which honoured the Goddess Áine.  She was a goddess of light, fertility and kingship.  The concepts of fertility and kingship were inexorably linked in the Celtic pantheon.  The Lammas Kings (also known as Corn Kings) were “married” to the land (and celebrated at Lughnasa).  They lived the high life as long as the land produced.  But they typically reigned for only seven years.

In some traditions the king was sacrificed for the continued fertility of the land.  In other traditions young clansmen could compete for the opportunity to challenge the corn king in single combat to the death.

It is easy to see how this ancient tradition of Kings tying their lives to the fate of the people could be molded and replaced with the central mystery of Christianity, a saviour who dies on our behalf.

The festival of Áine was marked by bonfires lit on the solstice, the shortest night of the year.  The Christian festival shifted out three days.  Who knows why? Maybe to separate the Christian and Pagan traditions?  To identify those holding on to the old ways, so they could be targeted for conversion?

In the Pagan Lammas tradition the Solstice might have represented the last celebration of the existing Corn King, before he faced sacrifice or replacement.  Indeed the bonfire tradition may have originated from the sacrifice of the Corn King.  There are many details of Celtic religions lost to us because they were not documented, and they were expunged by Christian proselytisers.

If you go to the cities in Ireland nobody will know that this is bonfire night, especially in Dublin.  But rural people live close to the land.  They retain old traditions, especially those linked to the fertility of the land.  Always good to have a backup deity on standby 🙂

So if you want to celebrate with a bonfire on St John’s Night go to the most rural areas of Ireland.  Go west!

Bonfire 2

Wren Hunting

wren

Happy St. Stephens Day. The Irish Countryside tradition is one of hunting. Fox hunting for some and Wren hunting for others. The Wren was the Celtic symbol of the old year, and was sacrificed in ancient Druidic tradition. Later this practice was Christianised by having the Wren responsibile for revealing the hiding place of the Martyr St Stephen.
In the best traditions the Wrenboys dress in motley outfits and go from door to door with a fake wren on a pole. They then sing songs, dance or play music to collect contributions which are used to fund a big party on St Stephens night.
It may be from this tradition that we get the practice of Christmas Carollers calling door to door collecting money for charities.
In Ireland the Wrenboys put pressure on the ‘donors’ with a rhyme or song such as this one below.

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.

An Irish Giant

Columbanus_at_Bobbio

Ireland is often called the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’.  The reason for this is Celtic Orthodoxy.  During the dark ages, and the 5th Century in particular, civil systems in Europe broke down.  The Roman Empire fragmented under the migrations of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Lombards etc.  The Christian Church in the West lost cohesion and direction in this period.  Heresies flourished in the vacuum of central control.

Continental reformists tried to hold it together, the most famous being St Augustine (who resolved the Faith Vs Belief dichotomy and established the “City of God” as an ideal that could withstand the loss of place) and St Benedict (who gave the best known of the Monastic rules).  Benedict died in 543 AD, the year in which St Columbanus was born.

Columbanus is the monk who most represents what people mean when they talk of the isle of saints and scholars.  Columbanus brought Celtic Orthodoxy to Europe.  The Irish Monks began a pagan conversion mission with Germanic tribes that can be argued to have persisted in one form or another until the Eastern and Western Churches met in the Baltic States in the 14th Century Northern Crusades.

The story goes like this.  Christianity came to Ireland in the early 5th Century, when Europe was in turmoil.  A strong Celtic monastic tradition was founded and the monasteries were the dominant clerical force in Ireland.  The Irish Monasteries were insulated from the turmoil in Europe, and the invasions of pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes experienced in England.  They acted as a reservoir for orthodox Christianity.  They also served as a well of education.  Nobles from all over Western Europe sent children to Irish Monasteries for an education in a safe environment.  Many of these children returned to their own lands as educated Christians.  They were a cohesive force for the development of Christian cooperation, and paved the way for the ascent of Christian kings in Europe such as Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.

Arianism was more pervasive than Catholicism in the Frankish courts when Clovis came to power.  His alignment with Catholicism was controversial and may have lost him some military support.  Ultimately it gained him allies from non-Frankish races, such as the Britons and the remaining Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

Without Clovis we would not have had a unified Frankish kingdom in the West.  Without the Franks Charles Martell could not have risen to power.  The Armies of Islam could have smashed Europe unopposed in the 8th Century.  We would never have had Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Irish Monastic Education system was the little acorn from which the Holy Roman Empire grew.

From Ireland St Columba established missions to Britain from his Monastery in Iona in Scotland, seeking to convert the pagan Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England.

At the same time St Columbanus took Irish missions to mainland Europe.   The significance of his mission might be suggested by the fact that he took 12 companions or ‘apostles’ with him.   Of these two Columbanus can be seen to have had the more significant effect on the wider stage.  In Europe he established Celtic monasteries in France and in Italy.  He challenged the emergence of heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism.  In doing so he was criticizing Papal Authority, because he questioned why the Papacy was allowing the dilution of orthodoxy.  He established an Irish monastic tradition on the European mainland which demanded a response from Rome.

Many Celtic practices differed from those in Rome.  The rule of Columbanus was stricter than the rule of Benedict.  The tonsure was visibly different, the Celtic monks shaving the front of the head and the Romans shaving the crown.  The date of Easter was calculated differently also.  All of these things brought the Irish monks on a collision course with Rome.

Columbanus, by coincidence, was born in the year Benedict died, and died on this day in the year 615AD.   Over the following decades the Papacy rebuilt its influence and Roman practices replaced those of the Irish.  It was 50 years before the clash between the Celts and Rome was fully and finally resolved by the Synod of Whitby in the Jute Kingdom of Northumbria, in England.

The legend of Ireland, as an isle of Saints and Scholars, was attributable to actions that happened largely in a period of only 50 years but had impacts over thousands of years.