There are three ways to know the coming of winter: the flip of a calendar page; the rising of the Hunter in the night sky; frost defying the morning sun.
There are three ways to know the coming of winter: the flip of a calendar page; the rising of the Hunter in the night sky; frost defying the morning sun.
People who do magic, who really roll up their sleeves and have altar dust under their nails, know that is not a certain thing. I’ve been searching for a holey stone since I first heard of them over seven years ago. The are primal talismans, formed by wind and water cutting a perfect window into living stone. Lucky is the Druid who can find one. Like any magical geegaw, they can be bought online, but that seemed like cheating. Power comes from rarity and from the effort in acquiring an object.
Push finally came to shove, and I needed some sort of holey stone for a particular piece of magical tech that I have been hankering to craft for nearly a year. That stone was the only thing holding me back from having quite a useful little ally in the ol’ esoteric toolbox. I’d been feeling called to visit Salem, and have found many strange and wonderful items along the beach and quay where the period ship is docked. And indeed I had seared for a holey stone there before, but never had any luck. This time I decided to prime the metaphysical gears thoroughly before I even set out on the journey.
I did a full Hekate supper in preparation that morning, calling upon the Fates, making offerings of eggs, honey, and incense. I asked the Weavers to help me find a holey stone in Salem, whether it be on the beach, in a shop, from a friend, or from a stranger–any (legal!) way they could deliver it into my hands.
What followed was a serendipitous series of events. Salem is always crazy this time of year, with the Halloween season bringing in witches and occultists of all shades of black white and gray. Despite arriving shortly after lunch on a Friday, there was no place to park. I crawled the car all the way to the top of a four-story garage and found nothing. Puffing out a sigh I began to creep my way back down and no sooner had I turned the first corner than I found not one, but two cars pulling out!
I headed for the Friendship of Salem, a replica ship that docks in the old harbor, but it sadly was out of its harbor for repairs. The New England sun cast four o’clock shadows though it was only 1 PM. I began making my way to the gravel and storm debris that lined the sides of the quay. I began on the eastern side, chanting “holey stone, holey stone, holey stone” in my head as my eyes scanned the deposits of rocks from the last summer storm. I had the image in my head of a thumb-sized rock, the hole perfectly centered, just laying there in the afternoon sun, begging for me to snatch it up. The angle of the light made it easy to see possible candidates, as any divots cast shadows across the surface of the pebbles.
Time and again I was disappointed. I did find a chunk of chert, an anomaly in the extreme. The only chert deposits in Massachusetts are far out to the west. Could it have washed up from down in Alabama? Could it have been carried across the Atlantic from the rich deposits in England? An eerie feeling stole over me as flint/chert nodules are one of the symbols I associate with closely with Gwynn ap Nudd. The piece in my hand had a deep groove and I wondered if perhaps I would have to make my own holey stone after all? But I kept going, finding pockmarked pebbles galore, but none with holes that went all the way through.
Reaching the lighthouse at the end of the quay, I paused to feel the water and wind. A busload of teenagers raced by, trying to push each other over the edge, arms wheeling and shirts grabbed. The water was cold, and, I fancied, hungry. I enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my back, the wind rough on my cheeks. Though I still had the beach proper to comb, I was getting anxious. Hekate’s rosary thumped on my hip as I walked; I still stopped occasionally but was no longer under the trance that had propelled me to the lighthouse.
Almost to the beach, a low patch of mugwort, young and green, called. Picking some, I asked her to help me in my search.
Sister Mugwort, open my eyes,
help me find the hidden prize.
I inhaled her chrysanthemummy scent and felt myself slipping back into that walking, seeking trance. There were some long bones, maybe from a pig, and some smaller ones, likely from the chicken. Scattered all over the beach were these little round thin cardboard washers. I feared that perhaps the spirits had mistaken these for true holey stones. Or, perhaps they were just screwing with me.
I made three passes up and down the moon curve of the beach, and it was on the fourth that I spied an acorn resting atop a mat of seaweed.
That, right there, is what you call a sign.
It was the only terrestrial seed I had seen on the entire beach. I felt like I was being hit with the proverbial clue-by-four. Her voice said, “Dig deep, little druid, dig deep for what you seek. An acorn marks the spot.”
I scooped up the acorn and began sifting though the flotsam until I reached a layer of pebbles. I worked methodically, like I had been trained–though without the benefit of a GPS-sighted 10 m x 10 m grid system. Minutes passed. Breathe in the mugwort. Breath in, breathe out, dig deeper, dig wider.
I picked up yet another cratered pebble like the scores I had uncovered before it. This time, light shone all the way through near the very edge. But when I held it up to my eye, I couldn’t see anything. The angle was such that the light could pass through but I still couldn’t see through the hole.
“Not good enough,” I muttered, reburied it.
I shuffled further into the setting sun, shoved aside another patch of seaweed, dug down to the stone layer. More time passed, ankles sore, back hunched. Another dozen pockmarked rejects fly away from my frustrated fingers. Then.
A tiny, black pebble in my palm, a small hole board through and through its side, perfect in its asymmetry. I held it up to my eye, just to make sure. The tiny aperture warped the sun-striped beach, wavering my vision with the wind. A window to the Otherworld. He was not at all what I had imagined, but he was perfectly suited to the task.
Body stiff and cracking, I walked pack towards the low stone seawall. I poured out an offering of water, scattered some nuts for the birds. Ate some chocolate and fruit leather to bring myself back from that place where I dug into the Otherworld and with the spirits’ blessings, pulled a little piece of it back into my own.
Magic isn’t an easy thing. It’s rarely certain. At best it can tip Fortune’s wheel a bit more in our favor. At worst it leads to delusions and insanity. But when it works, when you have that bone-deep certainty that the Others have your back, nothing is more beautiful.
This is the tale that Mystic River Grove presented at the opening ritual for the 2017 OBOD East Coast Gathering. Instead of meeting the traditional guardians of the order, the Mabon carries out her (yes, her–our Mabon was a woman) quest for the Awen among the creatures of Turtle Island.
Many know the tale of Mabon ap Modron, how Arthur and his knights rescued the youth with the aid of the oldest animals in Albion, and how the Mabon in turn helped the High King slay the great boar Twrch Trwyth. Now, Mabon’s tale does not end there, for she was a great hunter and wandered throughout the land in search of game. Eventually, she grew bored as there was nothing left to challenge her.
So, as many youths do, she complained to her mother, Modron, about how bored she was. And as many mothers do, Modron told her to go outside and quit pestering her. And so Mabon did as she bid. She walked and walked, and eventually came to the sea, where she met her old friend, the Salmon. She complained to the Salmon of her woes and the Salmon said, “Swim far–far beyond the ninth wave. Swim until you reach a new land, and there you must seek the Awen. It is the ultimate prize for poet, king, and hunter alike. Once you have caught it, you will understand.”
And so Mabon, daughter of Modron, heeded the Salmon’s counsel and swam beyond the ninth wave, until she came to that new land. So much was strange about this place, different birds, and trees that looked as if they were on fire.
As she made her way to the southeast she came upon a sun-drenched glade, with a creature that looked much like a badger, with black and white stripes, but with a full bushy tail. Thinking it might make a fine meal, she stole up behind it, but the creature lifted its tail and began to stomp its hind feet in an odd sort of dance. Mabon heard it say, “Keep back, or I’ll spray you!”
“So?” said Mabon.
“You’ll smell worse than a decaying carcass. And you’ll smell that way for WEEKS.”
Mabon sheathed her knife and backed away. “I guess you won’t make a very good meal. What is your name? Do you know where the Awen resides?”
Skunk sniffed, sizing up the youth. “I am Skunk, if you must know. Searching for the Awen are we? I don’t know where you’ll find it, it’s different for every person. You’ll need to find your own dance and know your own worth to court the Awen.” Again the skunk stamped its feet and raised its tail. “The other animals are always making fun of my dance, but I don’t care–it’s fabulous and it’s all mine. Good luck and make your journey a tale worth telling!”
And so Mabon set out to the northwest, finding the forest growing darker and damper. Before long, she heard a soft chuffing noise and following it, came to an enormous creature. It had to be the largest beast she had ever seen, even larger than the wild aurochs, with a great rack of antlers and noble bearing. Again she drew her knife, though this time her heart fluttered with fear and uncertainty.
“Put away your knife, little Mabon. Though I am sure you could slay me, it would not further you in your quest for the Awen.”
“How do you know of my quest?” asked Mabon, still refusing to sheath her blade.
“Stories of adventure travel quickly–and wise Salmon swims far. Her waters connect us all,” replied the beast.
“Well then, what manner of creature are you? Do you know where I can find the Awen?” she challenged.
“I am Moose, little Mabon. It seems to me–in our short acquaintance–you are used to hunting alone, making your own way. I think, if I may be so bold, that you must seek help from others, learn to listen before you draw your blade. The Awen is fostered in peace and humility. Know when to ask for help and you may find yourself closer than ever. Might I suggest a visit to the Turkey Vulture? She holds the secrets to many things.”
Thus Mabon set off to the northeast, heeding the wise Moose’s advice. The land became rocky and steep. Circling above her were wide-winged birds, marked out in black and white. When one alighted in front of her to tear at the corpse of some unfortunate animal, she recoiled in disgust.
“Oh?” said the bird. “Moose thought you had some potential. I can clearly see you don’t have the guts to attain the Awen.” Again the bird buried her head in the rotting flesh.
“Ugh!” said Mabon, holding her nose. “You must be Turkey Vulture. What can such an ugly creature possibly know about the Awen?”
“More than you, that’s for certain! I know that you have to be hungry for it–hungry beyond measure. You must feast upon your failures, choke them down until Awen itself bursts forth from your wounds. You have to court madness, perhaps death, for the slim chance that you’ll be one of the lucky ones who wakes with a fire in their head.”
“That…doesn’t sound so pleasant,” muttered Mabon. “But I’m hungry. I’m the hungriest I’ve ever been!”
“Indeed,” replied the Turkey Vulture. Before returning to her feast, she cocked her head to the side and said, “If you find you have the stomach to continue your hunt, seek out the Snapping Turtle. But I doubt you’ll get that far.”
Leaving Turkey Vulture to her meal, and having quite lost her own appetite, the Mabon set off to the southwest. Soon she came to a swamp, dark and humid and steamy. Insects bit and strung, and she futilely tried to swat them away. Before long, something that looked like a large turtle was shuffling its way across the path.
“Are you Snapping Turtle then?” called out Mabon. “Do you know where the Awen lies? And,” she added sheepishly, “do you have anything to eat?”
The turtle turned slowly. “I know how it comes to me,” he replied. “It flashes before me when I’m sitting in the depths of the swamp, surrounded by the silence of the water. Whether your quarry is fish or Awen, you need patience and tenacity. Come, I will show you.”
The Snapping Turtle handed Mabon a hollow reed to breathe through and the two of them sank into the dark, warm waters of the swamp. The sat, and sat, and sat some more, the turtle completely still with his mouth wide open, Mabon barely able to see or hear anything in the dim waters. The youth soon lost all track of time. Had mere moments passed? Or was dusk going to be upon them? Suddenly, she saw a glimmer of three lines through the water–the Awen, was that it?
And just as suddenly, the turtle’s jaws snapped shut around a wriggling fish.
“You see?” the Snapping Turtle asked around a mouthful of fish. “THAT is how you catch the Awen. Still all your senses and you will begin to see it shining before you.”
“That’s the closest I’ve been yet,” murmured Mabon, gratefully taking a portion of fish from the turtle. “I think I’m finally beginning to understand. All of you, Skunk and Moose, Vulture and Turtle, have given me pieces of your maps to Awen. But now I have to seek out the mystery for myself and chart my own way.”
And so, Mabon turned within, and with the blessings of the animals of Turtle Island, she began to write her own tale, and seek her own inspiration.
Now that you have heard this story, we pose to you a question…and a challenge: Will you dare to taste the Awen? Not by accident, but as conscious seekers?
This quest is not safe, it is not tame. Yet with the aid of your tribe and the blessings of the spirits, that risk can be lessened–that’s a fancy way of saying no permanent death, dismemberment, or insanity allowed this weekend, yes?
But here, in this circle and at this camp, we will each court the Awen in our own way. Some will dance. Some will sing. Some will retreat deep within the forest of their souls and return with untold treasure. And when we meet again here, in three days time, we will share that creative wealth with our brothers and sisters in the Grove.
Do you ever get those moments where you suddenly feel as if you’re floating above your body, watching events unfold? And this detachment is an undeniable sign that you’re making a decision which will change your life? That you’ve come to a turning point, and if you accept what’s being set out in front of you, not just your life will change, but your entire worldview? Sometimes it’s hard to heed that little bit of stillness, to realize the import of the moment as it’s happening.
I was driving up I-95 and listening to DruidCast, when Damh the Bard’s voice wafted over the podcast app, talking about the amazing upcoming Celtic exhibit at the British Museum. My gut tightened. This was one of those strange moments where time seems to stop and stretch out, and I knew, absolutely knew, throughout every cell of my body, that I had to go see this exhibit. That is was vitally important, for Reasons I couldn’t understand, but which were plainly being communicated through my visceral reaction to the description of the show.
I asked for the time off work and that was no problem. I asked my ex-husband if he could watch our son for a few extra days, and that was no problem. Getting cheap plane tickets? No problem. In fact the lack of problems throughout this whole enterprise was somewhat miraculous. The biggest “problem” that I’ve encountered with this trip has been an inability to write about it after the fact.
I bought tickets to the museum exhibit online, and based upon the reduction in airfare I could get staying a couple of extra days (an extreme hardship, I know), I decided to try to incorporate a trip to Wayland’s Smithy. Wayland had been a guide throughout my time in the Bardic Grade and continues to be a presence in my life, yet I had never been to his sacred site. I ordered a couple of books from the local library about hikes along the Ridgeway and the various Neolithic monuments, including the Smithy, scattered throughout the area. My excitement grew with each passing day as I planned out bus routes, walking routes, metro routes…ley routes. I hadn’t traveled by myself in well over ten years, the last time being in Athens, Greece during the Olympics. What began as a simple visit to the British museum had become a sacred pilgrimage, not only to London and Primrose Hill, but along the Ridgeway and through the Vale of the White Horse. By gods, I was going to make this an adventure!
When I mentioned my plans to my Grove Mother one day over tea, she immediately suggested that I stay with friends of hers (L. & B.) in Oxfordshire–who in turn were a bit horrified that I was planning on walking the entire Ridgeway–from bus stop to Smithy to the White Horse itself–in January. To be clear, it wasn’t the walking itself that struck them as a bad idea, it was the possibility of inclement weather! A few emails later, we had figured out a much more sensible itinerary, which would still allow me to walk the stretch along ridge between the Smithy and the White Horse, but which would also give me time to visit Avebury and West Kennet Longbarrow–something that would have been impossible in the original plan.
My Grove Mother also connected me with another Druid in London for a tour of the ley lines running through the city. He was actually our Grove Chief’s brother, and was as equally as generous as L. in helping me figure out what to see and where to go for a complete tour of esoteric London. In fact, he noted that the Air BnB where I would be staying was right on top of one of the major ley arteries running through the city. He suggested I pay close attention to my dreams.
It feels odd to be writing about this trip so long after the fact. It was simply a tale that couldn’t be told right away. Sometimes, an experience needs to sit by your fire for awhile, and you need to listen to its story unravel over time. Some gods and spirits just don’t reveal themselves on demand; they work on their own (seemingly geologic) timescales. Try to force them and, well, you may end up moving even more slowly just to prove you can be patient. The Smith, the White Lady, the Hunter, the Detective, and the Visionary all had lessons to teach on this pilgrimage. Perhaps now I will be able to speak them.
Making eclipse water for later magical use.
As close as we got to totality on top of Castle Rock, near Boston.
Eclipse though a colander.
Groovie Grovies doing the eclipse dance!
Apologies for the lack of post this week. I'm off attending that most spectacular of Lughnasadh celebrations, the Pennsic War.
So hope you all enjoyed the full moon and with any luck, begin to catch the Pleiades!
The subject of peace is a tricky one. Peace, or frith as the Heathens call it, is foundational to Revival Druidry, born out of the conflict between Welsh and English. In Iolo Morganwg’s “Call for Peace”, peace becomes a verb.
The Truth against the world,
Will you bring peace?
Your heart with my heart,
Will you bring peace?
Shout above resounding shout,
Will you bring peace?
Peace is not just something that you say, but something that you do (to paraphrase the words of the fabulously epic Kristoffer Hughes). This call challenges us as Druids to bring peace in the face of a world which denies truth. This call challenges us to stand heart to heart with one another, despite any arguments. And this call challenges us to hold fast to peace, no matter the cacophony that surrounds us.
Ideals of peace cannot be an excuse for cowardice or avoidance. The call to peace also does not abdicate one of responsibility to defend the helpless. Listening to victims, believing their stories, letting them be vulnerable in their pain–these are all acts of peace and compassion even if they feel almost violent in the moment. Understand that anger and fear are not antithetical to peace, but must be worked through and acknowledged before healing can begin. Hold peace, preserve the space where conflict and disagreement can be aired and solutions can be woven from the ashes of difference.
Peace is not the easy road, and it does not mean a life free of aggression. It does not mean avoidance of conflict or withdrawal from the world. Indeed, an intimate knowledge of physical violence is helpful to understanding peace, and just how dear its price can be. I practice a style of northern mantis Kung Fu. It is a martial art, an art of war, an art of harming others no matter how much some might want to pretty it up as “self-defense”. The notion that I would allow family to be harmed in the face of a physical attack is ludicrous. If I have the means to keep them safe, I will. I value their lives above my own ideals of non-violence. If I’m brutally honest, I value my own life above that of an attacker.
Yet it is not a choice to be made lightly. Every time we stand in front of the altar in the training hall, we repeat an oath: patience and control. It is quite literally the Chinese character for fire flipped upside down. A fire banked and fully mastered is a useful tool that we control rather than the other way around. What could be more fundamental to the fostering of peace than complete agency over one’s own violence?
As a Druid, I pray for peace. I pray for peace daily. In these Tower Times, I pray for peace, and prepare for conflict. For “those without swords can still die upon them.”