Tag Archives: ancestors

Seeking magic in the land

We all know of places that are officially important, magical and powerful. Stonehenge and Glastonbury being two obvious examples. Ancient sites, ancestral sites, places of extraordinary beauty. Places that attract people. Wonderful though these sites can be, they are also problematic. For a start, having lots of people in cars visiting a site will change it. Car parks, visitor centres, toilets, ice cream vans and the loss of peace and atmosphere that comes with a steady stream of tourists. The carbon footprint of your pilgrimage always needs considering.

Important sites can create political problems. They can cause tension between Pagan groups and people with authority – again there’s a long history of this at Stonehenge. Even a small, obscure site can become a source of tension if two different groups want to use it. If you undertake ritual in a place, it is easy to feel a sense of both ownership and entitlement. A desire to identify yourself as The Druid for the site, and try to see off other Druids who might want to make the same claim.

All of this can also have the consequence of encouraging most of us to feel that the important magical places are away. Somewhere else. A sense of magic as other and unavailable of course gives more power to anyone who has some influence at an important site.

All land has history. There are ancestors in the soil everywhere. There are stories connected to landscape in even the least promising of places. And if there aren’t, you can take the place names and land features and start making your own stories. Everything has to start somewhere.

Get an ordinance survey map and you’ll easily see where all the ancient sites are. Some areas are richer than others in this regard, but you may be surprised by how much there is. Ancient trees can be found sometimes in the corners of otherwise unremarkable fields. Stone formations, caves, springs, magical pools in streams, tiny waterfalls, owl haunts… there are many kinds of magical places to be found.

You don’t have to get out into the wilds for this, either. One of my favourite magical places as a child was a pool supplied by a drainpipe on the side of an old industrial building. It was covered in ferns, and it had a discernible atmosphere. More atmosphere in fact that the pool caused by a spring alongside a much prettier and more ancient building nearby.

Magical places can be secret, they can be hiding in plain sight, they can be right on your doorstep. I think it’s much more exciting and rewarding to have a personal relationship with a place not so many other people even know about. Or a place other people can’t see. I like to go to a spring with a fairy hawthorn. It’s somewhere that gets a lot of footfall, but it is even so a secret place, largely invisible to the passer-by.

Finding the magic that is with you and around you has so much more to offer than assuming that it must be somewhere else.

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Maiden, Mother, Grandmother identities

When you are a maiden, you have a name of your own. It may have your paternal name with it, but it is a distinct name, and it is yours. People will call you by that name.

Babies do not automatically call their parents mother, father, mummy, daddy. You have to teach them. You may have to teach them by naming yourself as mummy in front of them. It is easier for the child to learn that you are mummy if they do not hear other adults calling you by your name. Your maiden name. And so you may start calling the father of your child ‘daddy’ and he may call you ‘mummy’ and to other adults in your life you may also be ‘mummy’ for the benefit of your child. I didn’t go this way, but I’ve seen it done.

Granny is not a life change that results from your own action in the way that becoming mummy does. Being granny may mean that the people who once called you mummy are now calling you granny so that their children learn to call you granny. Other adults in your life may choose to reinforce this. You may find yourself calling our own offspring mum and dad for the benefit of the grandchild.

Of course there’s a similar pattern for men. However, men have traditionally had roles and identities outside the household. People to call them by their names and treat them as distinct individuals. Inside the house, trapped in the domestic sphere, there is a lot less room to be anyone other than mother or grandmother. Not a specific, named identity. Not a distinct person. A title. A job description. A loss of personal identity into the ocean of mothers and grandmothers.

Names have power. I wonder how many of our female ancestors lost their sense of personal identity to the titles given them.


Druidry and the ancestors – some excerpts

Druidry and the Ancestors is a wander through the challenges and possibilities of working with our ancestors. Ancestors of blood, of land and tradition. Also the ancestors we imagine, or long for, and what they can tell us and how they can help us.

In some ways it is easier to explain what this book isn’t, than to begin by pinning down what it is. This is not a history book in the sense of having lots of dates and hard, dependable information about the history of Druidry in it. It definitely isn’t a linear narrative history of Druidry at all. It is, however, a book about history, with the emphasis on the story. This is an exploration of how we imagine and construct our ancestors, and what the implications are of the ways in which we think about them. Anyone interested in the history of Druidry, I would suggest reads both Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe and Graeme K Talboys’ The Way of the Druid, which are highly informative and offer very different understandings of the subject. It’s not the facts of history I want to explore, but what we do with them.

This is also not a book designed to teach a person how to do Druidry. It is, I hope, something that would be of use to anyone exploring a Druid path, to people in the wider pagan community, and to anyone with an interest in the ancestors. We all have ancestors and, for most of us, that can be a complicated issue. This is a book about making peace with the ancestors, understanding their legacies and their ongoing presence in our lives, and exploring how ancestry impacts on community, and ideas of race, nation and culture. For someone looking for a book that will help them begin the study of Druidry, I recommend Graeme K Talboys’ The Druid Way Made Easy and Robin Herne’s Old Gods, New Druids.

One of the things I do want to do is raise the issue of how we access history. Many pagan readers and authors alike are self taught people. Working outside formal academia, dependant on what we can find and not always aware of where the cutting edge is, we are a community vulnerable to misinformation and being horribly out of date. Mistakes made by authors fifty or a hundred years ago still surface in pagan writing and new examples of that surface all the time.

 

Most of us know who our immediate ancestors were, but the precise details soon peter out, leaving only a vague impression of those who lived as little as a few hundred years ago. Although genealogy is a popular hobby, for most of us, those people before our immediate ancestors are an uncertain, amorphous lot, colored by whatever we learned of history at school, who we imagine our people were, and the odd focal story – a famous predecessor, a family legend, some speculation based on names.

I have a huge family tree, mapped out by my uncle and delving deep into the past. Names, dates, jobs and occasional details are in the mix. It’s interesting, but beyond those tantalizing glimpses, it tells me relatively little about how they lived, felt and thought. There aren’t many facts, and the facts are not that informative. Unless people leave detailed letters and diaries, this is often the way of it. The ancestors remain mysterious. For many of us, ideas held about ancestry are intimately connected to ideas of race and culture. Those on the far right believe in ancestry as a contained, defined thing, linking certain groups of people whilst distancing them from others. This seems to me a rather short sighted view of the past. Humans have been mobile and interbreeding for a very long time. We are all humans. But even for people who do not hold overtly racist views, race is important, perhaps connecting them directly to the history of a country, an area of land or a religion. The trouble is that recorded history is actually sparse, and as a percentage of human history, represents a very small bit. The further back you
go, the less there is by way of written record. The countries and religions we have are relatively recent innovations, but our most recent history is inevitably the most resonant, and the most divisive. For anyone wanting to uphold the idea of division and separateness, recent history must be treated as more important than the ambiguous millennia preceding it. For anyone wishing to work with ideas of commonality, it becomes necessary to push
past recorded human history in search of a time when perhaps ideas of race and culture did not divide us. A past we can only really imagine and can never hope to prove.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/Druidry-Ancestors


What makes a good community?

I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about how we might do a better job as Pagans of being a community. So, here we go again!

Modern Pagans often only assemble to do Pagan things – moots, rituals, festivals, camps, conferences… I think this is true for people of other faiths too, in the west at any rate. We don’t live in our faith communities, our lives are fragmented and we do different bits of it with different people. Our Pagan ancestors lived together. They worked together, celebrated together, dealt with sickness and injury together, grew food together, and ate it together. They sold their wares to each other, married each other, gave life to the next Pagan generation together, raised their young folk together. We don’t do that.

For me, one of the defining qualities of a real community is that it has depth and breadth. People are involved with each other’s lives, interdependent, and connected in multiple ways. Now, with the way the world works at the moment, we can’t have Pagan villages to re-enact ancestral lifestyles. However, we can do more to create threads of connection between us.

Communities need to come together as big groups where people may only be loosely affiliated with each other. They also need to be able to hold within them many smaller groups, sometimes overlapping, where people are more closely involved. There has to be some room for fluidity – movement in and out of the big group, and movement between small groups, with new small groups forming at need and ones that are no longer needed falling away.

For a while when I lived in the Midlands, I think I managed something that worked on those terms. There was a moot, a folk club, a local ritual group, and a bigger more centralised ritual group drawing from a wider area. There were several meditation groups, the people who made the wicker man each year, and numerous musical configurations overlapping with those groups. It wasn’t all Pagan, but the Pagans tended to be the core of a lot of the things going on. It had a real energy to it.

It’s very difficult to run that as a top-down operation. I don’t recommend it. This kind of breadth of community works better and is more sustainable when it occurs in a more organic way. Key to developing it is good communication so that people can get involved with various aspects. It is really important that most of it does not end up too cliquey and exclusive. It also depends on no one being too power-hungry. If there’s someone who runs The Moot and it is their moot and the only moot in town, a new moot running on different terms for different people may cause unrest and trouble. If there’s someone who thinks they alone should run ritual in the area, or someone who objects to the Pagan knitting group as too fluffy, it can be hard work getting things sorted.

It takes a lot of people with will and patience to make a real community. It takes people who are not willing to be told what to do by people who want power over them. It takes a willingness to nurture diversity, make mistakes, give up on ideas, try new ones… and as we argue, negotiate, experiment, and evolve our way through various forms and configurations, we stand a chance of becoming something a bit more recognisable to our ancestors.


Fair Weather Pagan

I admit it, I’m a fair weather Pagan. My willingness to go out and celebrate the seasons depends highly on weather conditions and temperature. This summer we started a monthly venture of going out to celebrate the full moon in a bardic way. The last session was in September because by October, the idea of standing round outside, at night, for an hour or so to share songs and stories, held no appeal whatsoever. We’ve moved to the pub, where there is less sense of the magical natural world, less of the shining full moon, but also less risk of accident, injury, or just getting very cold.

Having had chilblains during several winters, my willingness to stand around in the cold is not what it might be. Having fallen on the way out of a session in the dark – painful and embarrassing – I’m in no hurry to put myself forward for that again. Being out as a bard by the light of the full moon is a glorious thing, in the right conditions, but during a British winter, the prospect does not inspire.

There are always balances to strike between connection and viability. The younger, fitter, healthier and better resourced we are, the easier it is to do more extreme things. Gone are the days when my body can easily bear the experience of a sleepless night on the cold side of a hill.

I’ll continue to connect with the seasons, but I have to do so on terms that work for me. Daytime rituals and gatherings in the winter mean better light levels for dealing with the more slippery ground conditions – be that mud or ice. Staying warm, not being out for as long, not being as far off the beaten track, are all part of how I respond to winter. Waterproof trousers and thermal socks, a flask of something warm and a flashlight. These are not things my ancient Pagan ancestors would recognise, but then that’s true for the larger percentage of how I live my life.

‘Getting back to nature’ is something we as modern Pagans can often only do because we have a car to get us there and a washing machine to deal with what nature does to our trousers. It’s easy to kid ourselves that our particular work-around is somehow more natural, or more authentic – be that ski gear, energy drinks, or thermal underwear. We don’t live close to the land and seasons in the way our ancient ancestors did. Most of us don’t have the physical capabilities, knowledge or experience to live as our ancestors did. Doing what makes sense to you is fine, but don’t avoid looking at what you’re doing.

I think it’s better to be honest about what we are, and aren’t, and to modify ritual behaviour according to what we can genuinely cope with. Driving out to ‘nature’, dressing up in expensive, modern kit and knowing we can warm up with something hot from the microwave when we get home does not mean being especially in tune with our ancient ancestors. It just means we can afford this stuff – not everyone can. It’s worth thinking about the kinds of effort involved in winter rituals, and being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. It makes more sense to me to have a practice that reflects how you live, rather than having to do things that are otherwise quite unnatural to you, (or prohibitively expensive) with the idea that this will bring you closer to nature.


In our ancestry

I know that when my maternal grandmother was young, there was an odd double standard in that her brother always got cream cakes, while my grandmother was given buns. My great uncle was, undoubtedly, the favourite. It’s possible the double standard is older – go back to my great grandmother’s mother and we’re back somewhere in the 1800s, where double standards around gender were much more normal. My grandmother would buy posh biscuits for my brother, who could eat a whole packet in a session, but would tend to offer me something plainer, cheaper, more in line with the bun.

It’s easy to talk about the food choices, but they represent something deeper, something about the way women in my family teach their children to think about gender, perhaps. The women of my family tend to prioritise the menfolk, and I grew up understanding that masculine validation was essential.

We pass beliefs and ideas down family lines alongside the genes. We hand down stories about who we are, and what we can expect, and the same flawed myths can mess up generations. Little phrases can encapsulate a world view. “Neither use nor ornament.” “If you were a horse, we’d shoot you.” “Getting too big for your boots.”

Our family background, whatever it is, forms our first impression of what ‘normal’ looks like. It’s our reference point for making sense of the rest of reality. It often isn’t helpful.

If you’d like some tools for unpicking what’s in your ancestry, do have a look at my Druidry and the Ancestors, and Jez Hughes’s The Heart of Life, which explores shamanic healing for family legacies.


How the present changes the past

“History changes, I’m telling you. OK, the things that actually happened way-back-when don’t really change, but our interpretation of them sure does. It’s amazing how much our understanding of ancient Minoan culture has changed in the century or so since Sir Arthur Evans first uncovered the ruins of the temple complex at Knossos.” Laura Perry – it’s a great blog post and you can read the rest of it here. http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-paths-blogs/the-minoan-path/how-history-changes-the-minoans-and-their-neighbors.html

The relationship between the present and the past is something that fascinates me. How we tend to look at timeframes that seem to resonant with where we are now, and how we read the past to make sense of the present, and read the past through the distorting lenses of currently in-vogue glasses.

Take, for example, the way we’ve made sense of the graves of the ancient dead. Weapons = warriors = men. Beads and mirrors = women. Start from that perspective and it’s not possible to think you’ve dug up a warrior woman. So the past can have no warrior women in it, which in turn validates the idea that women are passive and domestic things, and men do all the important, active stuff. Only now we can do DNA analysis its getting obvious that buried items and the gender of the body do not always match up this way.

Rare, exotic and costly grave goods buried with the ancient dead are understood as status, symbols of power and importance. As such, they ‘prove’ the existence of a ruling elite, validating the idea of a ruling elite as a timeless truth about how human societies are. It’s possible that our ancient dead had completely different ideas about the meaning of items placed in graves. Does burial have to relate to personal ownership? No. Do rare items neatly equate to kingship? No.

It’s very easy to make the past say almost anything we want it to. It’s especially easy to think we’re seeing evidence for things we already believe are true. I’m not a believer in the idea of one true way and I think truth is often complex, shifting and multi-faceted. But here’s a bit of personal dogma for you – if you can’t imagine more than one interpretation for something, you’re probably wrong, because you’re probably too busy seeing what you think is true to have thought about what’s actually in front of you.

For more of this sort of thing, Druidry and the Ancestors… http://www.moon-books.net/books/Druidry-Ancestors


Ancestors in the land

The presence and nature of ancestors in the land are going to vary a lot depending on where you live. For people of European descent living in formerly colonial countries, ancestors of land raise issues of appropriation, and of awful histories. Having never worked with this, I can only flag up the issue, I can’t really answer it.  I think relating to those who went before us as part of the land may help to make honourable relationships that take nothing, but maybe give something back in terms of respect. It wouldn’t be about visiting their places, but about recognising their continued presence, and knowing the stories of their presence in the land, and knowing what happened to them. As someone who lives in the UK, I’m not well placed to discuss these matters. Working with ancestors of place is certainly easier if there’s been no conflict between them, and your ancestors of blood.

Rather than trying to imagine all possible ancestors for all people in all places, I’m going to talk about my own experiences and hope people can use that as an effective jumping off point.

 

Ancestors in the geology

I live on Jurassic limestone. The internet is your friend when it comes to finding out about the rock where you live. Different rocks come from different eras and have different qualities, so there’s a lot to engage with here. Some of the soil here is thick clay, some is a more sandy loam, and there are areas of good topsoil for growing produce. Where it’s thin, sandy soil over rock, there’s often a history of quarrying, and a current presence of grazing livestock.

The Jurassic limestone is full of fossils – generally small sea shells, and other relics of a long departed shore. I’ve picked up fossilised crab shells, sea urchins, and all kinds of things that were probably plants. That these ancient ancestors of place can appear, so perfect and undamaged by time, is a startling thing. I cannot make any sense of the vast swathes of time between their lives and mine, and yet I can hold them in my hands. A dinosaur skull was found locally, some time ago, and I remain in hope of finding one myself. But then, having grown up on this limestone, I’ve spent much of my life finding fossils and longing for dinosaurs.

 

Ancestors in the archaeology

Prehistoric human life is only available to us as archaeology. I’m lucky – there are four barrows within viable walking distance, and more I have yet to visit. There are three Iron Age forts I can walk to from my home. I’m a short distance from a churchyard that was discovered to have a Roman villa on it, and an incredible mosaic, which is dug up at intervals – I have yet to see it. There’s a site reputed to be a Roman camp site, and stories and histories go forwards from there, becoming more certain as we go. Not so many miles away is the city of Gloucester, known to have been inhabited since people returned to these shores after the last ice age. Ancient ancestors are all around me, and visible. Much of the UK is like this.

There’s a great deal I cannot know about them, but I can walk the paths they used – some of the paths around here are 4,000 years old. I can visit their graves, and I can look at this land and try to imagine their lives in it. Currently, the Severn River is cut off from the Cotswold hills by a motorway, crossable on foot at only a few points. For much of history, there was no barrier to walking between the river and the wooded hills. It’s easy to imagine a mobile population doing just that – shifting out in times of flood, going where the hunting would be good, and coming to the hilltops above the river to bury their most significant dead.

Of course my imaginative engagement with them does not give me certainties about who they were and how they lived. However, I’ve walked from the river to the hills, I have a physical knowing of this place that must, to at least some degree, be held in common.

 


Sins of the fathers

I’m fascinated by the ways in which stories, behavioural patterns, beliefs and ways of being are passed down from one generation to the next. What we inherit can be totally invisible to us, and it can take years to spot that we’re playing out some other family dynamic in our own relationships, or perpetuating a family myth. Some people never know what it is that they are doing, or why. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpick the myths of my own family, and while I can now see some of them, I have no way of explaining them, I do not know where or when they started and can only guess.

When we know what the history is and who has made the story, we have a much better shot at not repeating it. This was all very much on my mind when writing Druidry and the Ancestors, but it’s a theme I’ve taken up in my fiction work as well. The current instalment of Hopeless Maine, book 3: Sinners, started life with the longer title ‘Sins of the Fathers’. Although sins of at least one mother are also very much part of the mix.

It’s interesting how often parents do not turn up in novels and fairy stories. The dead parents are such a routine feature. The absent or unknown parents crop up a lot. The young adventurer who is obliged to set out into the world and seek their fortune, somewhere else. They go somewhere they are not known, and where they can meet their destiny free from the implications of their birth. By this means, the sons of humble woodcutters may become princes and so forth. Anyone standing in for a parent, as a mentor, guide and guardian can expect the Star Wars treatment – to be suddenly cut down so that the hero must stand alone and face their destiny.

Real life does not deliver this for most of us. We will live our lives connected to our family roots, and many of us will deal with our most immediate ancestors in ongoing ways. The stories handed down to us about who we are and how we should act stay with us too. It’s one of the things I like about Hopeless Maine* as a setting – it’s really claustrophobic. Mostly the only way to leave the island is to die, and that’s not wholly reliable. Our young heroes, Sal and Owen, are living in a tiny world shaped in part by their parent’s actions, and obliged to deal with who they are, and where they come from. Granted, their troubles are not exactly akin to anyone else’s – Sal’s mother lives under the graveyard and only goes out at night. Owen’s father may be suffering from madness, or grief, or hatred, or possession, or love betrayed, or all of the above, and has means to express that, which aren’t available to most of us.

We live with the sins of our ancestors. We live after slavery, after the enclosures act that robbed the common people of Britain of their land. We live after highland clearances and colonialism, after Auschwitz. We live with a modern Israel whose conflicts have been thousands of years in the making. We live with the absence of the dodo, the carrier pigeon and the aurochs, with the poisonous legacies of industrial revolution and nuclear power. The sins of our ancestors are many. The choices they have made in fear, in greed and in ignorance shape the world as we have it now. There is nowhere else for us to go, no bold new place we can strike out to where they won’t know about our past or judge us for where we came from. We have to stay and deal with the consequences of things done in madness, in grief, in hatred and in fear. Either we change those stories, or we pass them on and see if our children are any more capable of being heroes than we were.

 

*Hopeless Maine is a webcomic, you can read it for free at http://www.hopelssmaine.com, the image accompanying this blog is the cover art for book 3.


At the Temple of Nodens

The ancestors did not speak to me, although I walked barefoot into their temple.

At the triple shrine, the Gods did not speak to me. I wondered who the other two might have been.

I sat in the grass and watched determined ants carry their eggs from the old place to the new place, wherever those were and for whatever reasons prompt ants to go to such great lengths.

I saw the tiniest grasshoppers I have ever encountered. They jumped, and I laughed like a child.

The wind that had come up the Severn played with my hair and chilled me until I could sit no longer. A raven and a buzzard soared over the site, calling.

I was not magically healed of my pains and woes. This did not surprise me. I did not stay for long enough for that to seem even slightly realistic. There were no revelations, but I do not know the words that were spoken in this place or the songs sung, and there were a lot of tourists, and it seems to be a lot to ask of a place just to wake up for me when there is no one to care for it from day to day or to sing its songs.

I left with no grand tales to tell, and no mission, and no particular insight. I left feeling blessed by the sun and wind, by the ants and grasshoppers, raven, buzzard, and all the small flowers in the grass.