Mead and Mistletoe

Thoughts on Pagan Spirituality from an ADF Heathen Druid

Tag: fyrn sidu

Celebrating Beltane/ Eostre/ Blostmfreols 2018

Happy Beltane/ Eostre everyone. So this year I am trying something new – I’m trying to follow the old Anglo Saxon calendar rather than the traditional wheel of the year. An interesting coincidence this year is that the celebration of Eostre (which falls on the full moon of EostreMonth) is actually on April 30th this year – the same date as Beltane eve.

The Anglo Saxons split the year into two seasons – Summer and Winter, rather than four, and their summer started with the celebration of Eostre (just as their winter started with the celebration of the the Winter Full Moon.

Throughout April I have been going for a daily walk, and noticing how things have been changing in nature. It is as though this month nature officially woke up. At the start of the month there were very few flowers around or leaves on trees, but now everything is bursting into life – blossoms are around, the bees are busy searching for nectar, almost every tree has leaves on it, the woods are full of flowers like bluebells, lesser celadine, wood anemones and ramsons (as well as many edible foods). It has become warm enough at some points to go out without a coat. I’ve been able to start planting things out on my allotment.

So let’s look at some of the Lore surrounding Eostre and Beltane. Beltane, meaning “bright fire” is one of the four great fire festivals of the ancient Celtic cultures. In ancient Irish culture it was the time when both the Tuatha De Danaan and the Milesians came to Ireland and was originally celebrated when the Hawthorns began to blossom. Half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, it marks the start of the light half of the year and heralds the beginning of summer. According to historian Ronald Hutton, “the ritual of Beltane was found in all Celtic areas of the British Isles, but also in pastoral regions of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.” The historical evidence for the celebration of this festival is much better than for others. The earliest references to it are from 900AD which state “lucky fire i.e two fires Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against the diseases of the year to those fires” and “they used to drive cattle between them.” Another reference says “a fire was kindled in his [Bel] name at the beginning of summer always, and cattle were driven between two fires.” Like the other three Celtic festivals, Beltane is mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and the ritual of lighting bonfires at this time survived right up until the 19th century. Like Samhain, it was seen as a liminal time “when fairies and witches were especially active, and magical devices [were] required to guard against them.” To the welsh, it was one of the “spirit nights.” Hutton says that “rituals were conducted to protect…against the powers of evil, natural and supernatural, not merely in the season to come but because those malign powers were supposed to be active at this turning point of the year.” Other celebrations in English areas at this time include “bringing in the May” and dancing around a Maypole. Bringing in the May dates back to at least the 13th century and refers to gathering flowers and foliage to bring home and celebrate the beginning of summer. Hutton says that there is no evidence for when the Maypole came to Britain but it was first recorded in a welsh poem in the mid 14th century and is also recorded in Scandinavia so probably originated from the continent. The May Pole was not a phallic or world tree symbol but was most likely simply a “focal point for celebrations” or something to hang garlands on.

Beltane marks the beginning of the pastoral season, the time when farmers traditionally moved their herds to summer pastures (driving them between two fires for blessing and protection first) and people could go outside because of the milder weather. The crops were being put into the ground now and it was traditionally the beginning of calving season. There was lots of milking to do and making dairy products like butter (in fact the Anglo Saxons called the month of May “Trimilchi” – three milkings.) It was the busiest time to visit water sources to collect water for healing and good luck. It was also a time for the renewal of rents.

Learning from historical practices, Gaelic reconstructionists celebrate this time by extinguishing a flame (ideally a bonfire) and relighting it. If there is no bonfire or hearth fire, it is a good time to buy a new hearth candle for your altar and ritually extinguish the old one while lighting the new one. They eat a feast, usually including bannocks and oatmeal porridge or soup with soft cheese and shoots of new herbs and salad greens such as wood sorrel. They also decorate their houses with greenery and yellow flowers like buttercups and collect dew or water in the morning (considered potent for healing and maintaining a youthful appearance). They also make offerings to the gods, carry out protection rites to sain their house and land while warding the boundaries, and make charms of rowan. Some groups also see this as a time to renew their bond with the land goddess (the nearest river) by giving her offerings at her river bank. In Welsh myth this is the time when Taliesin was found in a river after being reborn from the goddess Ceridwen, and some pagans may choose to read his story on May eve.

Eostre is a time for fertility, fun and flowers. The birds have returned from their migrations, animals are giving birth to their young and all around us the world is turning green once again. It is a time when nature has officially woken up – the buds on trees are bursting, seeds are beginning to sprout up out of the ground, flowers are blossoming and there is a palpable sense of renewed life all around us. It is a feast of awakening and Summer has arrived. Bede said that the name Easter came from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre and the month was named after her. Hutton says that one could argue that “Eostre was a Germanic dawn-deity who was venerated, appropriately at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon ‘Estor-Monath’ simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings.’” He goes on to say that the practice of decorating eggs at this time does go back to at least the 1200’s but the chocolate version of the egg is a twentieth century invention. Eggs are a very apt symbol for this season as they represent new life. For agricultural societies, this is also the time when the extra light led to a big increase in egg production and was a welcome source of food.

For Anglo Saxon and Norse Heathens like Asatru and Fyrn Sidu, this festival is called Blostmfreols or Walpurgisnacht. It is a night when witches gather and magic happens. For some, it is a time to honour Freya, the goddess of magic and love. For others it is time to honour Eastre or Baldaeg (Grimm associates this festival in May with Balder in Germanic countries). It is also a time to honour the Landwights. Like the Gaelic Reconstructionists, it is seen as a time of supernatural danger, and is celebrated with feasting, bonfires and protective rites. Some modern northern polytheists see the 9 days between Earth Day and May day as the nine nights when Woden hung on the world tree to sacrifice himself in order to learn the mysteries of the runes. It is therefore a good time to focus on runic divinations and making runic charms. Along with this, some celebrate April 23rd as Sigurds Day (the norse equivalent of St George who slew a dragon) and some may choose to celebrate the ancient Norse celebration Sigrblot (victory sacrifice) which marked the beginning of summer and asked Odin for victory in war and good luck on journeys.

There are many ways we can celebrate Eostre/ Beltane

  • Dye eggs as an offering to Eostre.
  • Eat chocolate eggs.
  • Go for a picnic or walk in nature
  • Decorate our home, altar or hair with flowers
  • Do a ritual to honour Eostre or the Landwights
  • Plant the main crop potatoes.
  • Have a bonfire – or run between two bonfires/ candles for purification.
  • Create a maypole and dance around it
  • Eat seasonable foods – or even make a salad of wild edible foods such as dandelions, ramsons, jack by the hedge, nettles, goosegrass, hawthorn leaves e.t.c
  • Make a meal of new potatoes with asparagus.
  • Make lemonade.
  • Focus on the romantic side of life.

Worldview: The Principles of Paganism

Hi everyone, sorry I haven’t been updating the blog recently, life gets in the way sometimes and I’ve been struggling to find the right way to talk about this topic. Therefore I have slightly changed the title from “Worldview, Animism and Divinity” to “Worldview: The Principles of Paganism”.

What I want to look at here, are what are the defining characteristics of the Pagan, and specifically Heathen religion? How can we define it? What are the key principles that make up the worldview of a Heathen?People say that if you ask 10 pagans to define Paganism you’ll get 11 answers. And anyone who tries to define it will invariably miss someone out. Well probably but I think we should try anyway. In my opinion, the best explanation of Paganism comes from the Pagan Federation. It defines Paganism as:

“A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”

So a Pagan is someone who follows a pantheistic or polytheistic religion. Someone who honours multiple gods and/or nature.

Paganism (and therefore Heathenry) is based around four key principles that make up it’s worldview. These are – Polytheism, Ancestor Veneration, Local Animism and Pantheism. Over the following weeks we will explore then in more detail but today we will look at a general overview of them.

Polytheism

Polytheism comes from two Greek words “poly” meaning many, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Polytheists believe in many gods. Polytheism itself can be split into three groups – hard polytheism, soft polytheism and archetypal polytheism. Hard polytheists are those who believe that there are many gods, that the gods are real, existing individuals with their own personalities, thoughts and plans. They are distinct from each other. Most heathens, including myself, would categorise ourselves as Hard Polytheists.

Soft Polytheists are those who see the gods as aspects of one or a few gods. They might agree with the statement “all gods are one god”. Hinduism is a good example of this. Many Wiccans are also soft polytheists (duo-theists) who see the various goddesses across cultures as aspects of the one goddess, and the various gods across cultures as aspects of the one horned god.

Finally Archetypal Polytheists don’t believe that the gods are supernatural existing individuals, but rather that they exist in the collective unconscious, that while they are bigger and more powerful than us, they are not separate from us. It is important to note that archetypal polytheists don’t see the gods as just symbols.

When we polytheists talk of our gods, they are not the same as the monotheistic god. The gods of polytheism are more powerful than humans but they are not all-powerful, all-knowing or benevolent. They are limited, have their own agenda’s (sometimes in conflict with each other) and may have moral flaws just like us. However they are much older and more powerful. One of the best advantages about being a Polytheist is that we tend to be more tolerant of other religions than monotheists due to our ability to acknowledge the existence of other people’s gods without worshipping them. We also don’t have to contend with philosophical problems like the problem of evil as we don’t have a god who is simultaneously all powerful, all good and all knowing (a contradiction in terms).

Ancestor Veneration

Ancestor devotion is arguably one of the world’s oldest religious practices and it was important to ancient pagans too. Honouring ones parents, grandparents and ancestors back through time is a vital part of Paganism and Heathenry. It teaches us important values, like filial piety, gratefulness and respect for others. Modern Pagans particularly honour their ancestors during the winter period. There are ancestors of blood (our family), ancestors of place (those who lived in the same area as us in the past) and ancestors of spirit (those who have inspired us or our culture – including honouring heroes such as from the Saga’s). Our ancestors can also include all life forms back through time to the first living thing. Pagans today research our ancestry, have ancestral altars, and pray to them when we need help, giving them offerings of food or drink. For many Pagans, ancestors are the first point of call when we have a need because while gods are mostly interested in the universe and their own plans, the ancestors are much more concerned with their family lines i.e. us and can therefore be powerful sources of help and wisdom. They can help us resolve difficulties, ensure good luck and prosperity in our lives and intercede on our behalf with the gods. If mistreated, it’s important to also acknowledge that they can bring misfortune too.

Local Animism

Traditional animists believe that there is spirit or soul in everything, whether tree or sun, rock or clouds. A modern version, new Animism, interprets things a little differently and talks about “more than human  persons”. New animists argue that each thing has person-hood rather than spirit – in other words, there are human persons, rock persons, sun persons, cloud persons, hedgehog persons, oak persons, bee persons and so on. They have an inherent worth and we are naturally in relationship with them. We can build those relationships up. Interestingly some philosophers support a version called “pan-psychism” or “pan-experientialism” which argues that the ability to experience, or even some form of consciousness, exists in everything from the smallest electron to the largest universe. In ancient versions of Paganism we can see animism in their worship of the spirits of trees, plants and animals, in the spirits of home and place, in the belief in land-wights, elves, dwarves, fairies and the Sidhe. Modern Pagans also honour these spirits.

But animism is not usually focused on honouring spirits as a whole, but on local spirits – the spirits who live close to you and often can help you out. One thing I discovered during 18 months of traveling is how difficult it is to practice Paganism when you are on the move. Paganism, Animism, Heathenry – these are all rooted in the local. Graham Harvey, in What Do Pagans Believe, argues that “pagans know their local landscapes and build relationships with it and the spirits who inhabit it.  “the original meaning of ‘pagan’ – ‘ an inhabitant of a particular place’ – has encouraged a new focus on locality in modern paganism. A classical pagan was someone who belonged, someone who celebrated where they lived, someone who knew their local shrines, springs, hills, trees and neighbours, and could trace their decent from local ancestors. These pagans lived in both urban and rural places; the important thing was belonging to an area.” Practicing Paganism is about knowing your local area, and connecting with the land and spirits there. It is about celebrating the seasons as they change there. It is about maintaining an altar there.

Pantheism

Finally, we have Pantheism. Pantheism comes from two Greek words “pan” meaning all, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Pantheists believe that all is god. Pantheists see the earth as sacred and the universe as divine. It is the foundation on which nature worship and veneration is built, and it is an important inspiration for environmentalism. Many scientists are pantheists, as can be seen from James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory. Pantheism can be both “naturalistic” or “supernatural”. It can see deity as personal, but more often views it as impersonal, more akin to a force like the Dao. In modern Paganism we honour the Earth Mother. While this is due to the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960’s, there are lots of traces of worship of an earth mother in ancient times, whether it was the Celts worshipping (and the king marrying) the local goddess of sovereignty represented by the main river in the area, or the Anglo-Saxon Acerbot charm calling on Erce (earth), Tacitus’ writings about the early Germanic people’s worshipping Nerthus who he called Mother Nature, or the existence of Gaia and Terra Mater (earth mother) in ancient Greek and Roman religion, it is clear that honouring the Earth Mother was an important of Ancient Paganism too.

So these four philosophical outlooks help to define the Heathen or Pagan worldview. It is a very different, and much more ancient, way of looking at the world, and over the coming weeks we are going to explore exactly how that manifests itself within the Heathen tradition and how I interpret and practice it from my perspective.

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