Bardic Initiation

S. lighting the way for the initiate. Used with permission.

Wednesday night a few of us Grovies gathered to initiate B. into the Bardic Grade, or more specifically to reignite his journey on the Druid path. The site which watched over us is one the Grove has been using for many years, and you can feel the openness of the place, and the welcoming breeze to our work. A beaver splashed noisily as we set up the circle, which entertained my son no end.

I love our Grove for so many reasons: the camaraderie, the pool of knowledge, the creative spirit…but most of all I love the humor and kindness that all of our Grovies possess. We can pull of sober when it’s required, but if someone flubs a line, it is always smoothed over with a smile and some fancy word-work.

This was my first time acting as Grove Mother, with my friend A. as Head Druid. Part of me feels like I should have been nervous, but most of me was just excited to give B. the best initiation experience that we could. I think we met that goal.

Each of the Grovies had a gift for B. once the ceremony was completed. Mine was a set of meditation beads set up around nines and threes. The center bead was a “thunder egg” aka geode, the large rounds were banded agates, the counter beads were petrified wood, the start/end bead was ceramic, and the three tail beads were red jasper. Our initiate was a Pisces, so I hope this brings some Fire and Earth to his studies.

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Geode, red jasper, banded agate, petrified wood, ceramic, glass, silk.

Afterwards, we did as all good Druids do: we hit the local pub for post-ritual noms. Grounding and centering never tasted so good! May B. complete his Bardic journey with the love of the gods, goddesses, and all goodness.

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An Imbolc Story

Rorschach Brighid, reposted with permission from S. McNeill Spuhler

 

This story is adapted from a ritual that I wrote for our Grove’s Imbolc celebration.

When the time came for Brighid to take her place amongst the gods, she went to her father, the Dagda, to see what skills were needed in the world. After looking at his daughter and considering for a long moment, he said, “I think you would do well in the realm of poets. Go visit the Hawk of the East, who trained your brother Ogma in the way of words. Seek what learning you may from him.”

So Brighid traveled into the rising sun, climbing up and up rocky slopes showered with spring petals, until she reached the nest of the Hawk of the East. The Hawk was singing the Song of Dawn to her young, coaxing them to open their eyes and beaks to greet the day. With tears in her eyes, Brigid knelt and said, “Never have I heard such sweet music. Will you teach me your song?”

The Hawk trilled softly. “The Song is a gift to be given freely. But know this: once you know this Song and have sung it, you must be prepared to teach—for once you make its words, its rhythm your own, it is not something you will be able to hide away from the world. The brightness of this Song will radiate from you, and many will seek you for inspiration and guidance. Do you still wish to learn?”

“Yes. Teach me and I will become the patron of all poets and musicians, that this beautiful Song will never be forgotten in all the time of the world.”

Thus Brighid came to teach mankind the way of poetry and song. But one task was not enough for her. Soon her heart cried out that she could do more, be more. When summer came, she set off to the south, where she knew her brother Dian Cecht had gained great healing knowledge from the proud red Stag that dwelled in the tangled woods. Though he led her a merry chase, the young goddess was swift and fleet of foot.

After many miles, the Stag still was not able to outdistance her (though she was not able to catch him, either!) As the sun rose to its zenith, he bowed his great rack of horns to her, saying, “I know what it is that you would seek from me. And if you had given up the chase, I would not even consider teaching you the arts of the physician. You will need the same tenacity to battle illness as you would to war against the Fomorians.”

Out of breath, Brighid panted, “I have fire in my heart, in my limbs, and I will not falter in my care.”

“Then you shall be goddess of the healers, the physicians. Inspire their craft, remind them of the heart that resides at the core of their vocation. For without the human spirit, the healer can heal no one.”

Now Brighid tended both poet and doctor. Yet soon she was restless again. She wanted to learn more, her thirst for knowledge driven by the fires of her spirit. She decided to travel west to the Salmon, who Brighid knew had helped her mother Danu give birth to the Dagda’s numerous children. Perhaps there she could quench the fires that burned in her heart.

Brighid journeyed through the autumn woods, so intent on finding the Salmon’s pool that she was all but oblivious to the flaming beauty around her. Eventually she found the great hazel tree, and the spring that flowed up from beneath its roots. She looked into the waters, momentarily startled as a large fish broke through her reflection.

“Brighid, daughter of Dagda, what do you seek here in my pool? What has brought you so far from hearth and home to this wild place?”

Kneeling, Brighid replied, “Wise Salmon, I know not what I seek. But I do know that my heart is restless and discontent with the knowledge I have gained from Hawk and Stag. Is there something I might learn from you that will calm my soul?”

The fish waggled her head back and forth. “Child of Plenty, Daughter of the Deep Earth, all that I know will be but a drop in the great cauldron of your spirit. But I shall teach you. You will become the greatest of midwives, tending not only the children of man, but those of cow, horse, sheep, and all others who would seek your care. Your touch will sooth the labor pangs of the mothers, and your sigh will bring comfort to the fathers. But you will be unable to turn any away—your days and nights will no longer be your own, for new life waits for no one. Do you still wish to learn?”

Brighid exclaimed, “Oh yes, Salmon, please! I’m sure I will be so busy that my heart will be full at last!”

The Salmon looked shrewdly at the young goddess, but taught her all that she knew. Before Brighid departed, the old fish told her that if her heart still yearned come winter, to visit the Bear far to the north.

Brighid was actually content for a time—a whole year, in fact! But eventually, she became restless again. Her charges flourished—the poets sang like never before, doctors made new strides in medicine, and rarely did a creature perish under her hands. Yet the emptiness was growing again in Brighid’s heart. So remembering the Salmon’s words, and being a responsible goddess, she packed a satchel and asked her brothers Dian Cecht and Ogma to look after her duties until she returned.

Following the stars, Brighid traveled for many days until she came upon a great snow- crusted cave. Teeth chattering, she called, “Mighty Bear, guardian of the North Star, Salmon has sent me to you. My name is—”

“I know who you are, Brighid, daughter of Dagda, son of Elatha,” the Bear interrupted gruffly. “Salmon mentioned you might make your way to my home. Still not satisfied, eh?” Brighid stammered. “Ah…”

Bear snorted. “I should think not. You inspire others, heal others, deliver others’ children. But you don’t save anything for yourself. Come with me. I gave these secrets to Goibniu the Smith long ago, and he used them to wage war. I give them now to you. You may choose to use them as he did…or you may choose to make things of beauty and light. Or perhaps your tastes run more to the practical. Whatever. This is your choice, to be made out of joy and wonder and love, not duty.”

And so Brighid became the patron of smiths and craftsmen. In shaping the molten heart of the earth, she found her own core. Her time in the smithy filled her heart to bursting, and that pleasure spread throughout all of her other callings as well. And so her nature was complete, a guide and mentor to poets, healers, and artisans until the end of all things.

The Power of Birth

Three weeks ago, I gave birth to my first child.  I’ve been trying to find a way to write about the experience, but really, words aren’t enough to convey the intensity. The power of labor is unlike anything else—you really do enter a trance as your body works to bring the baby down into the world.  So much of what I remember occurred either as indescribable physical sensations or abstract visions of clay, water, light and breath that I doubt words will ever suffice.

Birthing a child is the ultimate act of creation.  I’m sure that there are those who would loudly disagree.  However, I’m going to stand by this assertion, as personally, I think it is difficult to achieve the same levels of physical, mental, and spiritual intensity as labor requires in any other activity.  Birthing is a peak experience, and, in the best of circumstances, the culmination of two people’s love made physically manifest as a new life.  And, especially with a first child, labor does not just produce a new human being.  It is also the birth of a new mother and father as well.

My midwife was fond of saying that the atmosphere at a birth should be as intense and intimate as the act of sex in which the child was conceived.  I think this is partially true—it is certainly as intimate.  But I would argue that birth is exponentially more intense than even the most earth-shattering orgasm.  In my case, it was more like every single moment of passion that my husband and I shared was condensed into thirteen hours of the hardest and most important work I’ve ever done, physically, mentally or spiritually.

Labor is so overpowering simply because, frankly, it is an involuntary process.  When allowed to proceed without interference, it is the single most potent experience a woman can undergo.  All pretense is stripped away.  She must set aside any illusions of control to give herself to an incredibly intense, wild process.  Birth is the ultimate act of surrender, the ultimate act of joy.  When the baby crowns, the mother becomes a conduit for unbridled, raw creative force, stars and space pouring through her, the waves of the labor surging and carrying the child towards his new life.

One of the things talked about in the Bardic Grade is Jung’s concept of synchronicity.  The “acausally connectable” coincidence of my completion of the Bardic Grade and the birth of my son within 24 hours of each other is probably the most powerful synchronicity of my short life.  During my labor, I finally found my voice, letting it vibrate through my whole body as I breathed the baby down.  Speaking aloud was always one of the most difficult things for me in the Bardic work. Now I find myself singing blessings to the local brook and getting excited about taking speaking roles in ritual.  I feel like Ariel getting her voice back from Ursula the sea witch!  It’s a gift I never expected to receive because I didn’t know it was missing.

So, these have been my many and varied thoughts on the labor experience.  I realize it’s not something that every woman wants to do, nor should it be—any more than everyone should have an interest in Druidry.  But I do think that for those who wish to have children, a natural, calm birthing experience will be one of the most profound acts you ever perform.

—A.V.

On Stuff

This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.
George Carlin

And now, from the Department of Sleep-Deprived Rants:

Why the hell do pagans need so much goddamned stuff?

I once attended a gathering where there was so much “stuff” for the altar, that it literally took anywhere between thirty to forty minutes to be carried to the site and set up in the appropriate manner.  When I asked about the possibility of someday doing a parred-down ceremony, the ritualist’s eyes nearly fell out of his head.  “But, but, we NEED these things.”

Well, the fact is that we don’t need “things” in order to worship the gods.  What we need is a little imagination and a touch of sensitivity to our surroundings.

My (non-sarcastic) theory is that since most of Neopagan ritual was heavily influenced by the rather 19th century sensibilities of magical groups like the Golden Dawn and OTO, the Victorian penchant for ornate clutter was one of the memes that has been passed down as a “pagan” aesthetic.  Just go into any Witch Shop in Salem, MA, and you’ll see what I mean.

Simplicity was, in fact, one of the challenges I set for myself to complete the OBOD Bardic Grade: perform an entire ceremony using only three man-made things (I actually did it with two, a lighter and a water bowl).  Everything else had to be found at the ritual site.  The first thing this did was allow me to become much more intimately acquainted with the site itself, and to ask the Powers who dwelt there for the loan of the items I needed.

First, I noticed a perfectly flat rock at the base of a huge old tree—presto! Focal point! Then, I found large branches and pieces of bark to outline the circle. I went walking around the area looking for symbols of the elements.  Another lovely rock served in the north; the first dandelion of the season was placed in the east; some dried sage from the garden served as incense in the south; and water from the nearby stream graced the west.  I also happened to find the perfect stick for an impromptu wand.  So with very little effort, I was able to conduct a full ritual with only a couple of items in my pockets.

Now, I’m not saying that every polytheist should completely wipe out their ritual cupboards.  (And of course this would be especially true for those practicing some sort of Ceremonial Magic.)  However, I think it’s possible, especially in personal rituals, to use a more simplistic aesthetic to great effect.  In my own practice, I’ve got through my sacred paraphernalia and gotten rid of anything that’s a duplicate—so now I own only one incense bowl, one libation bowl, etc.  It wasn’t easy as I have pack rat, I mean, collector tendencies.  But the freedom and clarity brought about by not having to decide between five sets of candle holders can’t be underestimated.

So with Spring, and the liberating qualities of the element Air, I encourage you to go through your own “stuff.”  Take stock of what you really need to honor the gods.  Sacrifice the rest.  It’s a scary step, but a worthwhile one, I promise.

—A.V.