Category Archives: Paganism

The Ways of the Underworld

“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect
They may not be questioned”

These lines have been in my head a lot in recent days. Partly because of the Dark Goddess book I’ve been reading. The words have settled on me with a weight that I cannot ignore, a sense of presence and truth that overrides everything else that has been going on for me. The ways of the underworld are perfect…

It’s been a tough few weeks, and my blogging about what’s happening has been fragmentary. Partly this is because I only tend to write about things when I’ve properly processed them and think I have something useful to say. Partly because I’m not the only person caught up in this and I can’t check in about what it’s ok to say, because that’s part of the problem. I am not the only one to have taken a sudden and very intense underworld journey.

My own journey has taken me through issues of what happens when my most basic needs aren’t met or respected. I’ve been into the darkest places of PTSD triggering. I’ve questioned everything. I’ve stared into a future that looked like no kind of future at all. I broke down, and wept and broke until there came a point where I could break no further, and breakdown shifted, dramatically and gloriously into breakthrough and healing.

It was a bloody tough journey, but there was no way of getting from where I was to where I am now without something on that scale. The ways of the underworld are perfect. Terrible, terrifying, but also perfect.

At the time of writing, it’s left me in a strange place of simply having to trust to that perfection. I’m not the only person on an underworld journey, and the shape of my future may depend a great deal on how others emerge after walking their own dark roads. I can’t do that for them, or with them. All I can do is wait and trust, that what is happening is what needs to happen. That’s not easy either, and so I come back to those lines, over and over – the ways of the underworld are perfect, they may not be questioned. All of this is beyond me, bigger than me, and I get no vote in a lot of it. All I can do is surrender to the process, and accept it, and wait.

But, that’s actually a choice, that’s not simply passivity. There have been choices all the way in this journey. Letting go is a choice, fighting is a choice, belief is a choice. Even hope is a choice and often it’s hard to see that those are things you are choosing. But they are. My recent journey has revealed them to me as deliberate choices, over and over. The choice to get up, again, to move again no matter how much it hurts. The choice to love and trust and hope no matter how irrational that seems. I write this from a place of peace, settled into that irrational love, hope, trust combination, accepting the perfection of the journey in all of its emotional brutality and challenge.

The instruction to be quiet isn’t a knock-back, or a denial of the experience. It comes to me as comfort. Quiet, Nimue, the ways of the underworld are perfect.


Temporary temples and sacred spaces

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live somewhere that had temples I could go to. Sacred spaces that are relevant to me. There are some prehistoric sites locally that I visit. There are churches – which are not part of my faith but are part of the faith of my ancestors. I love Gloucester cathedral as a sacred space, and going there is a relatively short pilgrimage, but it isn’t my temple.

I make temporary temples – I build labyrinths that are in place for a few hours only. I’ve made ritual spaces out of circles of people, a temple constructed in the moment as people hold hands and commit to the idea of being in sacred space and time together. I’ve made altar spaces, but in this tiny flat, I can’t justify taking up much space with that. I’ve made temporary altar spaces outside working with whatever happens to be around. Sometimes my temple is made from the act of lighting a candle or burning incense. Sometimes my temple is a youtube playlist.

As a nature worshipper, I feel I should be able to hold a sense of sacred space any time I am outside. Woodlands should be my cathedrals. The hills are my temple. The sky is my church. Etc etc. And on a good day, that’s fine. On a day when I feel grounded and connected, I experience sacredness and I know how to be a Druid and it’s all good.

But, there are other days. Days when pain and exhaustion overwhelm me. Days when depression cuts off my roots and makes me small and unable to connect. On those days, I could really do with a fixed sacred space that I don’t have to make for myself from scratch. On those days, it would be wonderful to have a designated prayer space I could just go to, ideally with a friendly priest who might offer me counselling, guidance, support, or just an encouraging smile. On the days when I am threadbare and lost, I wish for somewhere to sit and admire the inspiring Pagan art on the walls, or the beautiful Pagan stained glass windows, or just the way the light falls on the stone. I crave the sound of other Pagans singing or chanting or dancing or drumming together. I just want to be able to turn up and listen to a service.

We are all our own priests and priestesses. That’s intrinsic to modern Paganism. While the autonomy is good, it doesn’t take into account how much work is involved in being even a mediocre priest or priestess. It doesn’t allow for how we all need support at times, and how we may become weary and threadbare, how life may grind us down so that we need solace and reassurance.

All I can do for now is make temporary sacred spaces. But, it has been on my mind for a long time that I would like to make something permanent. Something others can just turn up to for comfort, affirmation and inspiration.


Animism and urban landscapes

I live in a small town, and I’m conscious that much of my writing is nature-focused and I don’t talk much about urban Druidry. The majority of us are to some degree urban, and I think it’s important to explore the realities of being a Pagan in an urban context, and it’s something I’ll try to write about more often.

Yesterday I went from my home on the outskirts of town, to the centre. I used to be something I did a few times a week, or more.  Since the impact of the virus, I’ve not been into the town centre very often at all, and when I have, it has been very quiet. Stroud has a distinct character – an energy of its own and during lockdown the absence of that felt strange.  There is a land-energy to the town centre, but Stroud is most itself where the interactions occur between people and place. The mood on quiet days and at night has more in common with the busy days than it has with the atmosphere during lockdown.

Yesterday I passed by Lansdown Hall. It’s a building that looms large in my life. We did a Hopeless Maine exhibition in the gallery there a few years ago. I’ve performed on the stage during the book festival. My fortieth birthday party was there.  The Tai Chi class I went to was there. I’ve danced there many times. I also worked in the office for a while and have worked there in evenings on many occasions. I’ve been there for films and all kinds of community events. It is a beautiful building, and one I feel a deep connection with.

Lansdown Hall is still closed. I’ve never wanted to hug a building before. I’ve never previously felt the urge to press my cheek to the stone and tell a place how much I love it and how deeply I have missed it. I settled for putting my hand on the building and drawing less attention. It is a place that is distinctly itself and that I experience as an individual.

I have feelings about many of the buildings in town, but mostly that has to do with what I’ve done there or who I’ve spent time with. Lansdown Hall is different. It is a friend in its own right, and someone I miss spending time with as much as I’ve missed human friends in recent months. Someone I would like to hug. Hopefully there will be some future opportunity to be back in the hall on my own, able to talk to it, and to be with it.

As with human relationships, it’s not being able to do the things that define the relationship that is hardest. I have found out whose hugs I needed most and who I most need to sit down with at the same table.  I have learned things about where I need to be. The embrace of a building was not something I’d recognised before, but I know now. Perhaps I’ll go back at a quieter time and press my cheek to the door.


Why I’m not doing Sashiko

Following on from my previous post about boro –  https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/craft-culture-and-boro/

Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery tradition, and it is gorgeous and well worth looking up. As far as I can make out, the whole thing is based on a fairly simple running stitch so it’s quite accessible and easy to learn the basics. It does however use specific kit, a needle and  a totally different kind of thimble from the ones I am used to.  These are easy to find, but I have concerns about how my easily-hurt hands would respond, so that’s one reason I’ve not dug in. The other is that I’m doing non-traditional sewing inspired by boro and using fabric far heavier than you’re supposed to use for sashiko, so, it’s not going to work for me.

When I first became interested in these traditions, I found a lot of western people writing about them. I had to dig a bit to find Japanese sources.  Appropriation is something I’ve thought a lot about from a Pagan perspective and it is just as relevant for craft as for Craft. I’m greatly in favour of learning from other cultures, practices and traditions, but how you do that clearly matters.

One of the things I learned from my adventures with sashiko is this – if you learn the surface of a thing you may get a bunch of rules that teach you how to make something that looks like something. If you dig in to learn about the history, use, purpose and context of a thing you can end up with a totally different approach.

So, while I’m not following the available rules about exactly how to do this kind of sewing, I’m trying to understand how the embroidery relates to the cloth, what it is for, what it does, and where that knowledge leads.  As a consequence I’ve learned a lot of things that I can take back to my own crafting. I also think this stands really well as a metaphor for what we might do with other people’s spiritual traditions. It’s worth thinking about how much time a person invests and where they learn from before they feel entitled to present as an expert  on a culture they are not part of.

I’m happy to talk about what I’ve learned, and what my journey has been, but I don’t think it would be even slightly appropriate at this point for me to claim I am making boro, doing sashiko or able to tell anyone else how to do those things.

But if you’re curious, here is a man whose family work with these traditions, and who has a great deal of insight to share… https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCraGC2n7qN31FlQSvXYI0JA

 


Perceiving Time

There are some interesting relationships between how our minds and memories work, and how we experience time. This seems especially pertinent at the moment. I hear from many people that lockdown is causing them to experience days really dragging by in a slow way, and yet somehow this year seems to have gone very quickly.

It’s to do with how we store memories. Our brains only store specific memories of stand-out things – this is why you are more likely to remember the first time you did something than the eleventh time. Once something becomes a generic experience, you won’t remember it as precisely. If you have routines, you’ll remember the generic routine, and only remember specific instances that stood out from it.

Time moves differently for us when we’re paying attention to it. A day with novelty in it, with different activities and experiences – some of which are not overly familiar – is a day that moves quickly and at the same time seems to last longer.

Life in lockdown has proved narrow for many people, and so time drags, but at the same time there are no stand out memories formed through recent months.

It would be fair to say that I’ve not had this experience personally – a great deal has happened for me, and I’ve had enough stand out experiences that March seems rather a long time ago.

What we do impacts dramatically on how we experience time, and that in turn can have a significant impact on quality of life and feelings of satisfaction. I find it interesting that we are encouraged from so many sources to have routines – especially around our spiritual lives.  A daily practice that is too routine will just tend to become a generic memory. A more varied approach may very well leave a person with a richer and more interesting sense of their own spiritual life and self.


Celtic Hospitality

We know that our Pagan ancestors considered hospitality a virtue. You don’t have to go that far back into human history for hotels, inns and other such accommodation not to exist. If you were on the road, you were dependant on the hospitality of strangers, so a lot of older cultures have all kinds of rules about the obligations between host and guest.

For most modern folk, taking in the stranger who knocks at your door is unthinkable. We see the potential danger, and that’s about it. That there are bed and breakfasts, hotels and so forth reduces the need for it in the first place.

I’m fortunate in that it is something I have been able to do repeatedly both as a guest and as a host. When you’re a not-especially-famous person doing events, accommodation is an issue. I used to run a folk club and book guests, and would often give that guest a bed for the night. It was normal, for some years, to have people I’d never met before turn up on the doorstep. I’ve also put up wandering Pagans in the same way – notably Pete Jennings and Brendan Myers.

Going to evens I’ve been accommodated by people I had never met before. It makes a huge difference if you aren’t being paid much, or the event is too small to afford accommodation. A free bed for the night makes it possible to come out ahead on small scale work, and that’s a huge blessing for people like me.

I’ve met some wonderful people this way, and had some fantastic experiences. I’ve never had a bad experience doing it. I think it helps that most of the time, my experiences of hospitality have been held by a wider community and culture.  When you are part of the same community, reputation matters and people tend to act in ways that will maintain theirs. If you mess up with this sort of thing, in a small community, people will hear about it. Equally, if you’re a good host you get a reputation as a safe house and people come back, or seek you out when they are in the area.

I think we’re better people when life requires us to cooperate and trust each other. We’re better people when other people can see and judge us, often. And life is more interesting with these sorts of opportunities.


Dismembered

I dreamed I was a hedgehog. In the dream, I was being cut open, although I was still alive and aware. My innards were being removed, and my body cavity washed clean. Then I was rolled in clay and put in a warm place. This is the traditional way of cooking a hedgehog although I think normally the hedgehog would be more dead and less complicit. It wasn’t a painful dream, it just felt odd.

I don’t have the kind of identification with a single creature that features in many people’s Druid paths. There are creatures I feel strongly about and whose appearance deeply affects me – owls, otters, nuthatches, egrets, curlews, and of course, hedgehogs. An encounter with any living being is powerful for me; I love the foxes, the badgers, the deer, the rodents in the undergrowth… But I do not belong to any specific kind of creature nor has anything been present in my life as a specific guide or mentor.

There is an emotional truth about the hedgehog though. I have mostly been prickly on the outside and inclined to roll into a ball when I feel threatened. I tuck away the soft underbelly, I do not let most people near where I am vulnerable. It’s more of an emotional metaphor than a spiritual consideration.

In some traditions, dismemberment is part of a spiritual process and to experience it in vision or trance or as part of a journey is highly significant. I didn’t seek this out. But as a dream it is clearly significant. A necessary invitation to let go of my hedgehog self a bit. While the imagery sounds violent, I didn’t really experience it that way.

I’m going to take this as an opportunity to flag up with importance of not giving unsolicited dream advice. So much x=y thinking around dream interpretation depends on the idea that dreamer and interpreter share a common dreaming language. That’s a really unlikely thing given how many influences we are all exposed to. It’s also far too easy to assert the truth of your path in face of someone else’s experience. The hedgehog is a metaphor for me, not an active spiritual participant in my life. It was a dream that echoed the kind of thing that happens on other people’s paths, but it makes no sense to me on those terms because of my hedgehog relationship to this point. It was (I know) an invitation to let go of something, not to take more hedgehog in.


Re-reading The Owl Service

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, was a really important book for me as a child, and my entry point into Welsh mythology. More than that, it was resonant, and I felt a kinship with the woman made of flowers and turned into an owl. That kinship would define much of my teenage Paganism. It summed up for me the way I found my own nature contradictory. I still do. I’m still working on understanding what it means to be owl and flowers.

This is a book I’ve read repeatedly over my life, but I re-visited it this time as part of my re-enchantment quest. I was surprised by what I found. I had never appreciated before how much female rage there is in this book.

There’s Alison, a young woman central to the plot, who also own the house central to the plot but is never allowed her own voice and opinions. She’s talked over, spoken fork, bossed around, her anger is always there beneath the surface, but there’s never room for it to come out as more than snapping. Her mother never appears in a scene with other characters, but her anger is a constant presence – the fear of not upsetting her. Because her anger is only allowed out as distress most of the time. There’s Nancy – domestic servant, profoundly wronged and the only woman who is able to express her rage, or at least some of it, but nowhere near as much as she wants to. And behind all of them is the mythic figure of Blodeuwedd, wronged, and wronged again, and then wronged some more.

In all the years I have spent thinking about Blodeuwedd and her story, I’ve never really thought about her anger before – just as I’ve not thought enough about mine. How much anger this story should bring up. She is made of flowers and given to a man – which is ghastly enough, and then when she wants control of her body and sexuality, the only way she can do that is by getting the man who owns her killed. And while he comes back to life and her lover is slain, she is punished with transformation into an owl. At no point, in the usual version, does she get to say who she is. And in Garner’s novel, she doesn’t speak at all – which is a powerful way of expressing this.

I’ve always felt there must have been another story that pre-dates this one. A story about Blodewedd, who is owls and flowers and that the story we have is the story of men and feudal thinking taming that myth and getting the dangerous woman under their control. It’s a story I’ve wondered about, and wanted to know and tell. Perhaps it will come to me.


Embracing the negativity

It’s a common thing in supposedly spiritual spaces – advice about how to free yourself from negativity, and how to avoid being affected by the negativity of others. It’s one of those things that at first glance looks like wisdom. Negativity doesn’t sound very spiritual, transcending it does. But let’s break that down a bit.

Who and what is negative?

People who are critical – and sometimes that is worth avoiding, but these can also be people who are trying to help and avoiding negativity because you don’t want to hear you’ve messed up, is not a path to growth, wellbeing or enlightenment.

People who are sad. People who are in pain and grief and depression, who have been wounded by life, who have no hope or confidence or the means to help themselves. These are people who often need help, warmth, companionship and compassion. Vibrating ourselves off to some higher frequency where we do not participate in that pain, is horrible. There’s no spiritual good to be found in protecting ourselves in this way, it is a selfish, privilege  rejection of the suffering in the world. None of us can fix everything, but we can be open, we can bring love and care, patience and gentleness where we can. A spiritual path that has no time for the distress of others, is a route to being inhuman, unkind and self absorbed.

People who are angry. Anger is a hard emotion to deal with, in ourselves and in others. Anger directed towards the self can feel threatening. But if we aren’t prepared to look at why that’s happening, we can’t learn, or improve. If people are angry and we make no effort to understand them, we may miss out important life lessons. If someone is maliciously angry all the time, seeking those higher vibrations to avoid negativity won’t really help, it may even serve to keep us trapped in dangerous situations.

People who don’t care. I admit this is the one I find hardest. It is perhaps the most subtle form of negativity. The people who don’t care, don’t respond, do nothing – they can quietly suck the life out of just about anything. It’s something I want to avoid, because I find it exhausting. But at the same time, these are people who maybe need lifting out of themselves inspiring, cheering and encouraging. It’s good to be able to show up for that at least some of the time.

When positivity is relentless it becomes toxic. It isn’t a force for spiritual good beyond a certain point. We are meant to feel more than just happy all the time, and the rejection of great swathes of what it means to be human does not make us better people. If you are somehow happy all the time, to be closed to those who are unhappy is not a spiritual outcome. It means being less compassionate. Love is a messy, complicated thing, spiritual love included and if we do not deploy our spiritual love to embrace those who are manifesting negativity, then what even is the point?


Apparently I have skin

It came as a bit of a surprise. There were a few hours, recently, in which I could feel my own skin. There is was, being the edges of me, being real and present, delicate and sensitive. It was a kind of feeling alive that startled me. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced my own skin in that way before.

I find embodied Paganism difficult because I’m not really embodied. I spent some years assuming this was just me doing it wrong. I should try harder. Get out of my head. Do more physical stuff as part of my practice. But the truth is, I don’t have any consciousness of my own skin unless something is impacting on it. It’s not something I can change at will. I’m not even sure what going around with an entire functioning skin would feel like because so far it has only been partial.

I poked about, found out about and looked up disassociation. Apparently this is a common trauma response that can last for hours or even, in more extreme cases, months. The internet has not told me what to do if you find it’s where you’ve been living for most of your life and you are curious about how to leave. Apparently I have skin. Or at least the potential for skin, sometimes.

I remember experiences around the age of fourteen, when I discovered, thanks to my first boyfriend, being able to feel my own body shape. It was a bit of a revelation, feeling grounded by someone else touching me. Experiencing my edges as edges for the first time and having a sense of my own physical presence. I look back at that now, and am wondering if that was normal, because I think it wasn’t.

I’ve never enjoyed being in this body, it has been something I struggle with, fight against, try not to be defined by. It’s never been a happy place, and I start to think there are reasons for this, and that the answer was not, New Age style, to love myself more. There’s something much deeper going on here, and working out how to have skin is going to be a process. I can see how a person could delight in their own body and their own embodied experience, based on that experience of having some skin. So, I shall stop beating myself up for being rubbish at embodied Paganism, and start trying to figure out how to inhabit myself differently, and what might help me achieve that.