Welcome to the Sidhe Mound. On this page, you can find the current monthly article appearing in The Celtic Connection.
Truth Abounds in the Harvest of Lughnasadh
By C. Austin
And July becomes August. Summer slips away with the twilight on Lughnasadh, the eve of August and the Celtic autumn. Summer meets its moment of truth - seed becomes fruit - and fruit becomes the harvest of Lughnasadh.
A change of seasons, a coming to pass, is a "moment of truth" an act of courage, inevitability or constancy?
From what little we know, Truth, as an ideal, was a pervasive principle to the pre-Celts and the Celts. In the Agallamh na Seanorach,or Colloquy of the Ancients, a 12th century Irish narrative, the ghost Caeilte tells Patrick that the Fianna, the heroic warrior band of Fionn mac Cumhaill, sought "truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues." Truth was the in-sight, discernment and self-knowledge to guide action. Even today, Irish dead are considered to reside in a place of firinne, of Truth.
The symbol of a cup of truth is found in world mythology, often as a vessel used to cement alliances and relationships. The "Cup of Cormac" in Celtic mythology is a golden goblet given to Cormac mac Airt by the sea-god, Manannan mac Lir. The cup broke apart with the telling of lies and was restored with the pronouncement of truth. Perhaps it is in the fragmented pieces of the cup of Cormac that we might find the "moment of truth," that we refer to today.
Truth itself is a slippery subject. No two people can ever feel or think precisely the same way about any object, any event. Though we may believe similarly, or be "common-minded," we are all solitary voyagers while inside our skins.
There is personal truth and there is cultural truth, and very often the two do not meet. The cultural standard of a "good wife," a "good friend" or a "good employer" may be backbreakingly impossible to meet in today's world of rampant neediness and expectation.
Like a two-headed Janus figure, the most difficult truths are relative and found only in the fluid perception of the individual observer.
As to a "moment" of truth, is its singularity a deception? Just as the eternal song of crickets on a hot summer night distracts us from a sultry background, do "moments" of truth distract us from the reality that truth is an unbounded field available to us at any juncture - if only we had the strength to admit it? Does a morse code of momentary truths in life compose a larger message that points back to what we were missing all along?
Returning to Cormac's cup, it is a golden vessel, a solar container for what has become conscious, what has taken form. The cup stands distinct as an object, a thing discerned from the deep, flowing world of the sea-god. The truths that bind the cup of Cormac are a gift from the unconscious, having no shape until they are contained, embraced by authenticity.
It requires courage to stand up for the truth one believes is authentic. Oftentimes that truth seems weaker than the persistent progression of our day-to-day charade of human life. But when called by destiny, concern for what is wrong gives way to the clarity of what is right, the Fianna warrior Caeilte's "truth of the heart," which is both inevitable and constant.
That "moment of truth" represents fruition, a harvest that has been slowly and honestly growing for a season, or decades, that emerges to be seen, heard or felt. It is veritas, the truth of the heart and when spoken, represents one's love for Self and for all others who seek Truth, in this life or beyond.
When we speak our truth, like Cormac's cup, we become whole. By
divine craftsmanship we are transformed, rejoined and rejoicing in the
freedom, the personal illustration, that only such a moment can bring.
Indeed it is a long-sought harvest, a harvest that we must store for
difficult times to come. With freedom comes responsibility, the task
of staying to the deepening path of one's life. The moment will come,
sooner than later, will your cup hold?
Life Transformed in Light of the Summer Solstice
There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
By C. Austin
On June 20, at 10:47 PM PDT, the sun will reach its most northerly point, a pinnacle, a victory, a defeat - all in one moment of time, the summer solstice.
Celebration of the solstices is a solar affair, a thing of consciousness. The word "solstice" derives from "standing sun," a perceptual suspension of time. Like the sun, consciousness is always on the move, pausing briefly on occasion, then moving on. Funny how those moments of lucid consciousness, of "standing sun"- when an instant feels unending - seem to occur at the highest and lowest points of our lives.
And one could say that it isn't even the sun that is moving, it is us, the matter, the dust of this earth - that instead revolves around consciousness. But our sun has its own orbit around this galaxy, its own business, just as we do in our lives. An "orbit," "a track, or a course" - all things moving imperceptibly in relationship to each other.
Summer solstice is the beginning of the season in this hemisphere. It is also old European midsummer, when the Oak King, the mighty, expansive monarch, is nearing the end of his own track, his course in the turning of days. The earth has been clad in green, sun shines abundantly, the frozen stillness of his youngest days in winter, a memory.
We also have lived our lives, some have lost them too soon. We clothed our time, we served it in freezing snow and sun. Our youngest days, a memory. We too expanded into life, or we tried to, and in doing have gained the stories and sorrow that make us who we are.
Like the Oak King we are nearing a change in track, a turning of seasons when attention is drawn inward, to what rises from within, not without. The Oak King, bright and conscious, shakes his magnificent head in disbelief, but he too can feel it as he looks out on the wide world.
There is a time in all of nature's works when old modes no longer fit. Old relationships and worn ways may feel reliable, comfortable and known, but no matter how many years one tries, meaning has melted away with the seasons. That vague discomfort, impending change, moves one like a caterpillar instinctively toward transformation.
Born anew each year, neither the caterpillar nor the Oak King can know the future. Both know only there is change ahead, one in internal dissolution, the other in external combat. Anxiety, fear and hope tear at the breast of anyone who can feel these sorts of departures, these leavings.
At our zenith, our moment of "standing sun," old modes give way - we are at our greatest clarity - every step of our lives leading to this moment. And at that instant the Oak King dies in battle with the Holly King, eyes closing on his beautiful world, now lost to memory. Like the caterpillar, we turn in, giving ourselves over to change.
But eyes open again, on a new world - strangely similar - though altogether changed. No longer expansive, no longer external, the Oak King reawakens in the Holly King whose great world is that of essence, of essential nature, rather than expansion. The lowly caterpillar, whose future form was always held in the soup of its dissolution, emerges a creature of both earth and sky. And the fixed horizons that drained our lives of vital meaning, have now become mutable.
Despite incessant movement, nature grants structure to all orbits - a certain predictability in the means by which one transforms. From caterpillar to butterfly, or from embryo to you, nature's gift, along with unending orbit is inherent structure.
Those exalted or fearful moments of "standing sun" can be faced, we
can live our gain, or our defeat - accept transformation - knowing
that our business, like that of the sun will persist. It is our
nature. Grace to all who face change in coming times.
Gift of the Heart Found in the World's Illusion
By C. Austin
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep. --John Milton, Paradise Lost
Disguise is a prevailing wind in our day. In literature, the arts, cinema and our lives, disguise features prominently. Disguise speaks to illusion and to the elusive. We are all the wiser for the adage "things are rarely what they seem."
The use of guise permeates the ground of mythology. Deities and mortal alike don disguise to test civility, gain a boon, seek a treasure hard to attain or to gain affection, among other ends.
Perhaps disguise speaks to a fundamental doubling of human nature. When adversity strikes, we make meaning by finding the "silver lining." When lover turns cad, we didn't see their "true stripes." Like dreams which show us our backs, there is often something we just didn't discern, but which exists if we had been looking from a slightly different perspective.
Below that doubling of ego and environment resides the quieter domain of soul. Original spirit is perhaps the real truth, the sine qua non, behind the doubling, disguise and elusiveness. The energetic, divine soul carries on within, timelessly, affected by and affecting all that we do, feel and accomplish. It is the flutter of those wings, whether they are of heaven or hell, that brush our face, or illuminate our heartsight from time to time. When we cross paths with that energy in our day-to-day life, we sometimes attribute it to the passing of what we call an "angel."
Throughout time to present day, immanent and transcendent spirits have enjoyed widespread popularity and acceptance. Of course, agreeing on a precise definition of an angel is about as useful as disputing the number of them that can dance on the head of a pin, but most people apparently feel or hope they exist.
And they do. Why, I encountered one in a big-box grocery store just last week. Arriving early on a drizzly day, I was mulling over my own lack of vision, the loss of direction in my life. I shopped to my list, carefully scrutinized my fistful of coupons, assayed the sales and arrived at the check-out in time to join the queue waiting in the one open lane.
An older man wheeled up behind me, his cart stocked with frozen dinners and soda pop for himself and his 18-year old son. There is a moment in this type of encounter, when one understands that a stranger needs to talk - whether it is on a plane, on the street, or in a big-box grocery store. A decision is always made - either to politely demur or to politely listen. It also happens that individuals of this type sometimes continue to talk despite a polite refusal - but that is not this story.
As mentioned, my own energy was dim that day. The man spoke quietly and sadly without pause, about his wife of many years who had passed away three winters ago. She had battled cancer for a decade. The story of the progression of her illness kept time with the progression of the grocery line.
As I listened I physically turned to face him directly and some type of energy uncrinkled. "Body-language" it seems, does not just speak, it meets as well. He seemed to realize at the same moment how he was talking and said a bit sheepishly, "sometimes it just helps to talk about it."
As I began to unload my produce onto the checkout belt, his story picked up again. He seemed to have a pressing question about the once happy house he now lived in alone. In the years since she passed, it seems the fellow felt that his wife was still present in the house. He sometimes heard a piano tune that only she played, sometimes heard her voice as if at a distance, sometimes noticed small things rearranged.
The canned goods were bagged, only the cereal was left and he asked me somewhat urgently the question that had been on his mind all along. He had made plans to sell his house and move north, closer to relatives, but now he was afraid to, afraid that he would leave her behind. Did that sound strange?
I took my time answering, the steady beep of the grocery scanner seemed distant as I looked him in the eye. The question was there. I slowly told him that I was certain that she was in the house and that I was just as certain that when he moved, she would move right along with him - that neither of them would ever be left behind again.
He looked at me for a bit and something shifted, or maybe I just thought something had passed through or passed by. By then it was time for me to ante up my money and my crumpled coupons and close the deal. I turned to him again before I left and wished him a good day. At the same time, we both said "it was good talking to you."
I trundled my cart away to hear him greet the check-out clerk with a hearty "and how are you, young lady?"...
Any onlooker could easily have found his story sympathetic and my patience admirable. But as I wrestled my cart out the door I realized there was a warmth present in my heart that I had noticed missing earlier that day, earlier that week. Entangled and disguised in a loving story was energy, a frequency, a data stream or a random occurrence that I needed.
In myth or lore this would have been the encounter with the
marginalized old man or woman asking for help from the dummling, or
youngest brother, who unquestioningly gives what he has, realizing
later that his act of kindness saved his life or his quest. I
appreciate how lucky I was to encounter this soul willing to share,
able to give me this gift. Would he feel any different? I'll never
know, but the glimmer in my heart tells me that angels come in many
guises - isn't it so that help sometimes comes from the most
Love Wins - the Soul Turns Home at Beltaine
By C. Austin
My heart basks in the illumination of a new season. The shadowy, brittle grip of winter - a winter that seems to have lasted years - retreats before the brilliance of Beltaine.
Samhain, the advent of the Celtic winter, commences on November eve. Summer begins at Beltaine, on May eve. These are the two greatest Celtic festivals, dividing the year, and sometimes our lives, in half.
In November, the harvest is done - fruitful potential is long spent - its energy returned to the ground. Dissolution, disguise and death fly before us, a reminder of our debt to time, change and the necessity of doors that must close before others can open. Though rightful, there is nothing comfortable about Samhain, it represents the loosening of norms and entrenched ways of coping that bind our world in place.
In the Celtic world, day emerges from the dark, the reason all Celtic festivals begin at twilight on the day preceding. Just as the drudgery of relating to this world must be undertaken before true companionship can ever be found, so it is from the howling stillness of Samhain that the magic dew of May Day is borne.
While territories dissolve in the bedlam of Samhain, Beltaine is a celebration of containment, in the arms, the eyes and the boundaries of the Other.
The sacred premise of Beltaine is love. Perhaps not the love that may, or may not, be found in the captivity of marriage, but the love between souls that regenerates all of nature. This is love undisguised, the precinct of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage and love act that renders participants Creators as they share each other and the divine without self-consciousness.
The moments in which soul touches soul render the world new, dependent not upon what came before nor measured by what will come after.
Beltaine is a time of "re-bounding," of clearing grievances, of settling debts and the literal resettling of space by the repair of fencing. To "rebound" in this context is to re-form, to find one's own ground and contain it, to leave enough wildishness to thrive, but enough safety to settle. Blessed is the soul that has the courage to hold another when she or he is broken, to mediate the special energy that accompanies hurt and to enfold that other in claimless love.
After the pyrotechnic appreciation of life has worn down, when the
incessant approach and recession of life, like a late-night bonfire,
holds one in thrall - is the reverie, the reciprocal perception that
we see as we are seen. Here is communion, here are our souls, our
lives at this moment, rotating under a starry sky on a small blue
planet. Welcome a brighter season, long may it stretch in our hearts.
Eternity Found In the Signs of the Times
By C. Austin
Whence and wither, whence and whither...
From where - toward where? As tidal as the seasons we flow like bits of sea glass and flotsam into a new season at 4:45 AM PDT on March 20.
Outside the diagram of the everyday there are few guides by which to navigate being - time and symbols are two. Cut loose from those and few could pilot this difficult spanse called life.
Like our distant kin, from childhood on we stream our life to the hours of a day, the days of a year, the years of mortal existence. We learn from family, our culture and ourselves what signs are important, which have meaning and what that looks like.
Over time those signs become deeply embedded as symbols, encoded in neurological history, in the rich ground of memory that persists across millennia. Symbols manifest in stories, dreams and day-to-day speech and are understood to mean something more than the object or quality for which they stand.
Perhaps because they represent spring, the symbols of the vernal equinox, of the Irish celebration of St. Patrick's Day, remain familiar - the shamrock, snake, fairy folk, St. Patrick, gold and green.
And we know some history behind them, the interwoven story - an original triune matriarchal divinity - its transformative power felt in the moon and the snake. And we know of the Elder gods, the Tuatha de Dannan who receded before another god's emissary, Saint Patrick.
But the significance of a symbol is found not only in its history, but in the energy it can still conjure. Symbols that lose this energy are relegated to history and "bygone days."
Part of the reason our minds explore symbols, wrote psychologist C.G. Jung, is that we are "led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason." It is the "ideas beyond reason" that confer symbols with ongoing energy and resonance.
So, other than as cute fodder for bumper stickers, inexpensive votives and a colouring for malted beverages served on March 17, what, if any, relevance do the symbols of St. Patrick's Day still carry?
Guessing a bit around the edges of your answer, I will tell you that it is a trick question. Symbols operate on (at least) two levels, that of the personal and that of the societal, of the collective. From society I can purchase a green plastic bowler and some shamrock window clings. But that which is personal is precisely that.
At their depth, symbols can guide us to what cannot be expressed, what is beyond reason. The shamrock - vegetative, green and three. Three is a number of dynamism, of something started but never finished, a thing that gathers experience and refinement, that which is supportive and pleasing in proportion - it defies duality. Might there be something of that nature in your life? Was it an idea you set aside, a hobby or even an event or person that had a particular energy that you wish you had attended to? What lies beyond three in your mind at this moment?
What of the snake? Do you not wish you could transform? Why can't you? Simply lose that skin, leave it where it lands, dry and used, and step forward as who you want to be. Leave them laughing and move ahead of your fear. Stay close to your ground, rest, coil and conserve creative energy for the future. Recognize where you are in your life, how your energy presents itself - is it ascending or descending, what do you make of that? What might you change and how might you move forward?
Ah, the cute wee folk, the drunken leprechauns. "Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit" roughly speaking "bidden or not bidden, god is present." Residing in each mind, regardless of cultural background, are splinters of archaic divine energy. More powerful than so-called "free will" these splinters call and guide a soul's destiny. They are both possessory and liberating, they saturate our lives with a vague secrecy and they absolutely reside beyond reason.
Green and gold - life's mystery and solar consciousness - the very essence of renewal. The colour of the land, of Eire herself and the spirit of our small planet in consort with our closest star, the sun, the light of our minds and our day. The measured combination of the two can lend form to the greatest dreams of humanity and provide a bountiful legacy for the generations that will someday regard us as distant kin.
There are many such symbols, some light, some dark, which represent the wellspring of human experience. Our personal interpretation of these common figures infuses our lives with passion, clarity and texture, imparting an extraordinary light on ordinary, yes, even tired looking symbols.
Take a second look this spring. When the "signs of the season"
appear, consider where they have been, and where you might be going
and how that "whence and wither" might help set you on your way.
Imbolg Heralds the Springtime of the Heart
By C. Austin
Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.
Though winter lays still heavy on the land and in the heart, there are signs, there are signs. Imbolg, the fire festival of Brigit returns on February 2, the quarter-day that marks the advent of the Celtic spring.
Solstice has passed us now, the light was seen, irrevocably noted, and so there is not to do but go forth from darkness into light. The hand outstretched into the unknown, the hand let go. Seasons change.
Brigit, the muse of all who create, is goddess of emergence, of inspiration. It is she who crafts and uncovers the tools, the events that teach and nurture humanity. Brigit, that captures and works the spark that it may be used by those who accept with hope and without condition.
Laid beside the hearth, Brigit's archaic corn dollies were intended to attract the goddess and her consort to ensure the fertility of the household. To us, her dollies and the intersecting arms of Brigit's woven cross represent the creative act - the timing, the meeting - that to us seems miraculous in coincidence but when seen from the vantage point of eternity, was never in question. How much more fervently we pray when we are in need.
Even as the snow falls, the sun shies low in the sky. Brigit holds
the bitter, the dulled and the grieving heart. It is time to grow
young again, let go, reach out your hand and find your faith in the
firelight, in the warmth that is growing back to you, as it always
will, in spring.
Time Passes from Darkness into Light
By C. Austin
Time turns and history is made. In the turning and the making is "chronos," the basis of our word for "time." In that dusty, chronological time we are now approaching the time of Kings, the winter festivals.
The winter solstice this year occurs on December 21 at 4:05 AM PST. At that moment the sun will move as far south as we can observe from the northern hemisphere, giving us our weakest light, our shortest day. Mythologically at the winter solstice, the sun reaches its fullest expression, its greatest potential, and then collapses in the next moment - born again an infant, a Prince of Light, carrying the hope of the world.
Throughout history the winter solstice has served to illustrate the decline and rebirth of the kings to whom we turn for illumination. Solar kings, like our own consciousness, are transformative. They are born, they age and serve, and when their energy, their ideas wane, they are overthrown.
We generally do not sacrifice old kings any longer, we soundly vote them out of office and replace them with a new king - a Prince of Light, whose vision and energy better suits the times in which we live. "The King is dead, long live the King."
But the old King was once the new King and as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen." The energy that ran through the old King is present too in the new King, it has simply changed form.
Historically, the months of December and January are populated by senex or Holly figures. These are positive masculine figures that represent age, bounty and wisdom. They are spirits that exist on the ancient border of time and our world and include Santa Claus, Old Nik, Saint Nick, Odin, the Green Knight, the Grail King, Father Christmas (in his many European aspects), the Holly King and Father Time.
Reflect on any of these figures and one will find structure and order. Holly kings reward civility, punish the stingy and represent a societal and moral order. These are elderly figures and though one might find compassion and generosity here, one will not uncover a great deal of vision, enthusiasm and energy. These Holly figures hold their place and their structure in the wintertime of our ideas - when a vision has found its fullest expression and is flowing back into the heart of the community through the actions of the individual.
The birth of the infant solar king at midwinter is the delivery of the Divine Child. Posed along with Father Time and his scythe, the Divine Child represents the vision and revelation that Father Time has concretized. Having only recently taken form, the Divine Child is still connected with the world of spirit and potential. There is an intuitive quickness, aesthetic, vigor and breadth of perspective that accompanies the Divine Child, but the steady containment of patience, structure and order will come only through the slow maturing of the year. The Divine Child, the Oak King, finds its place in the springtime of our ideas, where image is newly born and energy, warmth and fertility pour into the heart of the individual from the supportive landscape of a generative community.
In the story of the Holly king and the Oak king, the dark and bright months of the year battle for supremacy at midwinter and midsummer. Each king, each season of life, prevails in its rightful time. The youthful Oak king is vanquished, as youth always is, by age at midsummer. The aging Holly king himself passes away in the dark brightness of the winter solstice, to be born anew in the coming season. From this tale we might find the natural cycle of our best ideas, dreams and visions. If we can hold our creative energy, it will mature, grow and yield at the right time, then pass away, transforming into new energy and fresh ideas.
A midwinter tale by the name of Perceval, the Story of the Grail finds a young masculine sun-hero, Perceval, on a quest for a mythic cup, the Grail. His adventure leads him to the dry and wasting landscape of the Grail king, an old, maimed masculine spirit. Perceval, finally perceiving the suffering all around him asks at the right moment, "what ails thee?" healing his elder and the landscape. The insensitive energy of youth has matured, and that maturity turns the tide of sorrow to joy as Perceval ascends the throne with the old king's blessing.
The elder is a figure of the material world, the youth, of spirit. Together matter and spirit form a transformative pattern where vision develops into experience that matures into wisdom which transforms once again into vision. In order for these disparate figures to be fruitful they cannot be split off from each other.
January is named for the Roman god Janus and it is in that month that the old year has just passed away, the New Year recently arrived. Experience of the past and hesitation over the future are both at hand. The tension of that reality can be felt in the symbol of the Janus-head, a figure with one face looking forward and one looking back.
If the voice of experience cannot speak to the vision of the future, if the two Janus faces cannot relate to each other, a schism is created. The senex dries and hardens, developing an attitude of power toward the preservation of his structure and order. The youth, without mature containment, loses his valuable vision to dispersion and folly. Polarization, within the psyche and within society is the result.
The two faces, gazing different directions must relate. Looking at the Janus-form more closely, we find the symbol earlier belonged to Carmenta, who fittingly, was a Roman goddess of childbirth and prophecy. Considered to "look both back and forward," Carmenta was midwife to both matter and spirit. She brokered the delivery of life by seeing deeply into the past. Indeed it is the goddess, in her many forms, that gives birth to the Divine Child at the winter solstice.
Thus it is not just senex and youth that broker the difficult transition from past into future, it is also eros, the relating feminine factor, that aligns energies to broker emergence, the continual patterning of vision into form. Not only Father Time transforms with the New Year, but the underworld crone Cailleach, who emerges as Brigid, the maiden goddess of spring, bringing new form and life to our world.
These times remain dire, though a new light is dawning on the
western world. I come to understand more deeply each year that
chronos time is impossibly and unalterably connected with numinous
patterns, cycles and energies that we cannot see, rarely comprehend,
and that some would call divine. May we have the courage to hold our
past and use it fruitfully to make the most of the future. Blessings
of the Solstice to us all.
Divine Eyes Shine Through November Darkness
By C. Austin
The sun shines through a partially overcast sky. As I glance up, I see the sun while simultaneously the middle of my chest "sees" the sun as well. The image my body sees of the sun is an eye, an oculus, that is viewing me through the same eye through which I am viewing it.
The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.
It is said that it is "a gift to be seen." It is November and the baleful eye of the Cailleach, the Celtic "loathsome lady" is cast across the landscape. What do we know about that chilling vision? Who or what is it that is seen?
In 1973 Frederick Frank wrote "a non-creative environment is one that constantly bombards us...with noise, with agitation and visual stimuli. " Franck's writing presaged the environment that most of us find ourselves in today. Competition for our attention span - for our mere glance - extends to any venue where there might be space to advertise an opinion or a product. But what is it we are looking for?
Jungian analyst Marialuisa Donati writes of the "withdrawal of aura" from our world. "Aura," in this case is the implication that "in every glance is the anticipation of the glance being returned. To feel the aura of something means to give it the power of returning our glance." Donati continues that, if objects and experiences in our world seen meaningless, they have "lost their aura," becoming objectified and exploited like the lifeless stares of beautiful women and men from magazine and webpages. We look, we do not touch and we do not see.
Franck wrote of taking students to sketch scenes on the grounds of a college. They sketched vistas and scenic settings. Then Franck instructed, "Now, open your eyes and focus on whatever you observed before - that plant or leaf or dandelion. Look it in the eye, until you feel it looking back at you. Feel...that it is the most important thing in the universe, that it contains all the riddles of life and death. It does! You are no longer looking, you are Seeing..."
Seeing, not mere looking, is an act of participation. Participation enables a correspondence between the seer and the seen, a relationship between all that is encountered, whether animate or not. To truly see or to truly be seen, one must participate.
There are many ways to "see." The eyes have been considered the seat or mirror of the soul throughout history. Cross-culturally the eye, or oculus symbol spans time as a powerful image of omniscience, enlightenment, all-seeing divinity, synchronicity and the gift of intuition.
Archeologist Marija Gimbutas speculated that primitive Paleolithic representations of the eye were meant to "transform and spiritualize the body to surpass the elementary and corporeal." That is, depictions of the eye were intended to signal a transformation, a journey into something beyond the bodily sense of sight. The image facilitated the participation of the individual with that which stands outside consciousness.
Eye symbolism figured prominently in Neolithic grave goods including urns and pottery combining feminine features with owl markings. Birds are messengers of the Otherworld and the habit of associating the owl, with its prominent eyes and nocturnal habits, with the death goddess is as old as mankind. It is the fearful eyes of the underworld goddesses, Sumerian Ereshkigal, Hindu Kali, Greek Gorgon and Celtic Cailleach (and her lesser sister, the banshee) that blow out the fragile flame of human life.
Why is it so terrifying to be seen? What vision could lay a heart so cold as to form a basis for the phrase "if looks could kill?" As Sylvia Brinton Perera writes "[t]hese eyes see from and embody the starkness of the abyss that takes all back, reduces the dancing, playing maya [of life] to inert matter and stops life on earth."
In the face of an all-seeing divinity, Edward Edinger writes that the eye strikes terror in any soul "trying to evade full self awareness." Perera remarks that the eye of the underworld goddess is the "eye of the spirit in nature...it is awful and yet bestows a refined perception of reality to those who can bear it."
And to those who can withstand a glance of the infinite comes exacting vision, an objectivity found only in nature and in our dreams "boring into the soul to find the naked truth to see reality beneath all its myriad forms...and defenses." It is death as a moment of initiation - death of a purely corporeal, ego-driven existence, birth of the liberty to find the unique, divinely driven expression that is your life alone. Thus then, to see or be seen, one must not only participate, one must sacrifice.
This is the vision for which Inanna, sister of Ereshkigal sacrificed herself to be hung on an underworld peg and for which later Odin, the Norse god, sacrificed himself on the world tree Yggdrasil. Not surprisingly, the bright Celtic god Lugh is kin to Odin.
Lugh slew his infamous grandfather, Balor, the one-eyed king of the Formorians, himself identified with Goll mac Morna. As well, both Eis Enchenn (distant sister to Kali) the hag adversary of Cuchulainn and Goll Essa Ruaid, the salmon of knowledge, among others, carry the Celtic distinction of a single Otherworldly eye.
We see then with our eyes, our courage and our participation. Writer Michael Dames believes the eye of the Goddess is found in the form of the largest man-made mound in Europe. Enigmatic Silbury Hill in Wiltshire County, England, is a tiered chalk land form standing 40-metres high. The mound is named after "King Sil," who was purportedly buried there. Upon excavation the mound was not found to hold any human remains and its purpose remains a mystery. It is interesting to ponder the similarity between the name of the hill and the Old Irish word for eye, "suil."
In Ireland, Dames reports that bonfires lit on the summit of the great hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath, were echoed by answering bonfires that were lit on neighboring summits. The resulting topographic web of fire stretching from the omphalos of Uisneach outward to the coast of the Ireland, created a "fire-eye," a divine oculus mundi, or eye of the world through which the goddess of Ireland, Aine, could once again see and be seen.
Of monumental landforms, mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, "to be seen in the eyes of the Goddess and to move upon [her] as she revealed herself in hill and vale was to be part of both time and timelessness, matter and spirit."
Moments of creation are marked by a dual sacrifice - when divinity, the Self, sacrifices its limitless nature to form an image, a definition, in our limited world and when we as individuals, sacrifice our limitedness to be dispersed into that which has no definition, the limitless. This interpenetration of worlds - of the anima mundi, the "soul of the world," with our individual soul - becomes the "all-seeing eye" through which one sees divinity with the same eye through which divinity sees us.
To see and to be seen calls for both courage and vulnerability. Though being profoundly seen, as by the underworld goddess Cailleach or simply by a good friend, can be a withering experience, it can also - like the season - hold the seeds for an entirely different perspective. To see requires cool objectivity, to put your own spirit to use in perceiving how it is, neither critical nor flattering, but simply how it is.
Both modes ask for your participation in the moment-by-moment
creation of life. It is your option to look away or to see in. After
all, as is said, "what you see, is what you get."
Every Heart Responsible for Zeitgeist of Chaos
By C. Austin
Around us our world is dissolving - our communities, the environment, the roads, the financial markets of the world - our sanity. What little efforts are made are too modest to withstand the cascading disintegration that ripples across this small blue planet.
Samhain, the time of dissolution, is upon us with a crushing grip. Turn away now if you seek the turnips, pumpkins and rich Celtic traditions that usually occupy this space at this time of year, this year the darkness is too great.
Those whose thoughts resonate with Celtic tradition are generally of a "double" mind. Life unwinds as it does but every so often another world washes in and its result is either a richer existence - an awareness of the beauty and gift of our lives - or a greater sorrow, the burden of the felt understanding of the pain of the world.
This "doubling" is not to be cured, resolved or "dealt" with, it just is and it is as great a gift as it is a curse, because it confers choice. One can blindly live the day-to-day or one can step out of it and take a painful look at what one has created. Too many people are turning away from the pain they are pouring into the world, pain that returns in newspaper headlines, ecological havoc and death tolls.
The interior life of every single soul shapes external phenomena -"reality" - our "world" merely reflects back our own internal state, and it is an ugly sight. Our physical world is attuning to the image we ourselves are producing and we have created a zeitgeist of chaos.
Samhain is bounded - by the end and the beginning of the Celtic year. Thus we are at the end of something and we cannot yet see what is to come. If we hope to avoid eternity in this disintegration between end and beginning, we must construct our own containment.
This isn't someone else's problem - it is your problem, it is my problem - it is for us to see, feel and act upon, not to sit lamely by and wait for someone else to do something. For the hope of our world, our children and our selves, we must, like the season, bound ourselves. To bound is to contain our own shadows instead of ceaselessly driving those unkempt energies into the world.
The bounding of our times can only come by choice, choice of the individual to turn back and take a good hard look at pain, take responsibility for what is wrong, both within our personal lives and without. Participate passionately in life - stand up, speak out, help someone - put something good back into life.
A great fire - of compassion and responsibility - must be kindled in this dark Samhain season, a fire that we must all tend. Throughout this night we will feed it with good works until it rises to force back the darkness. And when the dawn of the new Celtic year rises, we will still be standing, dirty and tired in the ashes, but knowing that we did our best.
Either illuminate the darkness or be swallowed by it. The choice
Seasons of Time Blow Gently in Autumnal Breeze
By C. Austin
The billboard sign flashed by on the highway almost before I could read it. "Festival of the Turning Leaves" - a quaint, albeit descriptive, name. Somewhere close by a harvest festival was in the planning. Some leaves are already turning and the summer wears thin. A beautiful as the days have been, as endless the skies, time is catching up.
The Celtic autumn arrived on August 1. The vernal equinox on September 22 at 8:46 AM, PDT ushers in the midpoint between autumn and winter's start on November 1.
On a morning not so long ago I stood in a breeze that swept between spring and summer and marveled amidst hundreds of swirling maple and ash seeds as they dashed by and beyond me.
The seeds that flew by me were so uncontained. Anyone watching would have been struck by the random motion of the seeds, so much like the seeming random events in our lives. But those maple seeds did not dance for nothing, the ash seeds did not cloud the wind for show. They, like us, are purposeful in their rotation, even if their full trajectory is unseen. Their best attempts, like so many of ours, are in pursuit of good ground.
It is fruitful, sometimes, to consider where the seeds of our own lives were released, where they traveled and where they grew up. Where did you come from? How is that place now? Was the ground you found to put down roots more fertile than the place you left?
Seeds appear to fly without a frame, without structure. But they are held to their course, as are we, by their own internal purpose. They skirt this world and that, the past and the present, the spring and the autumn. This year's seeds, next year's trees - rising in my mind the same way the autumnal leaves now fly and scatter before me. A festival of turning leaves also turns memories of seasons passed.
With the equinox comes balance. The sun illuminates half the
earth, from pole to pole with neither extremity tilted toward the sun.
In those rare moments of illuminated balance, sometimes we can
remember the seeds, sometimes we see only the trees. If we might,
just for a moment, hold the image of both, we might find the unique
dance of life that is ours alone. Celebration of the equinox is a
reverie to what is, what was, and what will always be between - may
the autumn breezes blow kindly on us all.
Seeds of the Future Found in Harvest Abundance
By C. Austin
It is late summer of a year, like every year, that is running fast. The season turns soon to the Celtic autumn, on Lughnasadh, August 1. Seeds planted in spring will soon come to fruition - harvest - and the seed-corn that remains will lay in wait for another growing season.
The tradition of Lughanasah involves the labours of Tailtu, the last queen of the Fir Bolg, the mythic settlers of Connacht. Tailtu cleared the land, gave birth to fields of grain then died of her efforts. Historically, clearance of woodland always precedes the planting of crops and the settling of an area. Ongoing, but gradual, immigration of Neolithic settlers from the mainland displaced earlier Mesolithic inhabitants of Ireland. Tailtu, as an early indigenous goddess, may represent those early Irish inhabitants whose clearance of land allowed for easier cultivation by later settlers.
Wheat is a primary harvest crop. Emmer wheat is a domesticated form of wild wheat that was one of the first crops domesticated in the ancient Near East. Emmer wheat has strong husks called glumes that surround its grains of seed. Primitive emmer wheat has a curious ability to self-sow, utilizing the effect of humidity on its husks to push itself an inch or more into the ground once it has fallen from its stalk. The cultivation of emmer wheat and barley spread in the Neolithic era across Europe and into Ireland by about 4000 BC. Traces of emmer wheat and impressions of these cereal crops, such as barley, have been found on Irish Neolithic pottery.
Farming and the movement of wheat and other cereal seed across the Old World was a turning point in human societal development. There is evidence of farming of cereal grasses around 8000 BC and the development of reliable crops marked a period when people who previously hunted and gathered, settled into larger communities and self-sustaining societies. The importance of wheat was not lost on these ancient people and the bequest of wheat upon humanity figures in many a mythological tale.
In Greece, in approximately 1700 BC, a mystery cult rose that we today call the "Eleusinian Mysteries" and which flourished for over two thousand years. Evidence points to earlier cults that commemorated grain goddesses, including those of Isis, in Egypt, but the best known of these today was located in Eleusis, in ancient Greece. The Mysteries are believed to have been dedicated to Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain, fertility and the harvest. Her Roman counterpart, Ceres, gave her name to our word "cereal."
Like Lughnasadh, the greater ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries took place at harvest, around mid-September. Little is concretely known of this tradition. Although initiates were sworn, on pain of death, to secrecy, its members from all levels of society maintained an unusual level of faith to their vow of silence. The mythic bestowal of wheat and the art of agriculture by Demeter on the young prince Triptolemus are thought to have figured in the ritual and some believe one of the sacred objects presented was a sheaf of wheat, accompanied by the words or message "within silence, the seed of wisdom is gained."
In Ireland at harvest it is the pre-Celtic god Crom Dubh that equals Triptolemus. Crom Dubh's timeless task of ferrying the harvest from the womb of Aine was taken over by the bright god Lugh, whose golden spear reflects the pointed shafts of the sheaf of wheat. It is not Demeter in Ireland, but Tailtu who cleared the path for agriculture and Eithne, the Otherworldly mistress of "golden corn" who joins Crom Dubh in the underworld from Samhain to Imbolg. Lughnasadh, the harvest, bears the name of "Lugh," but it is the bestowal of shining, life-giving wheat that is celebrated.
Any pattern, word or character that is complete within itself bears
a second look - it is of the distant past and the future. Of
parthenogenetic goddesses who bestow their gifts, of primitive wheat
that develops to become the bread-wheat upon which we depend, what
comes around shall continue to go around, in silence the seeds of our
ideas, our desires will be planted and come, someday, to fruition.
What was sown in the past nurtures the present and holds the promise
of the future. Soon will be harvest, soon again will come planting.
Summer Solstice Illuminates Footpath of Life
By C. Austin
Astronomical events are interesting. For one thing, humankind has marked celestial events, such as solstices, eclipses and the like, for millennia. What is seen in the heavens above is often considered to be experienced in the temporal world below.
Solstices, like the one on June 20 at 5:01 PDT, are particularly shifty. Solstices occur when Earth's tilt is oriented directly away or toward the sun - giving us our "shortest" and "longest" days of the year.
The summer solstice then, is the pinnacle of the summer, it will get no brighter and the days now begin to shorten. But things are not as bad as they seem because the summer solstice is also the beginning of our summer "season," thus we can look to beginnings rather than endings. However, June 20 is also "mid-summer," located as it is, between the commencement of the Celtic summer on May 1 and its conclusion on August 1. Perhaps not an end, or a beginning, but a middle.
Or perhaps all three. In the Celtic worldview, a thing that encompasses its own beginning, middle and end represents a cycle of time - like a year and a day - and is thus eternal.
An eternal moment then - that is what summer solstice must be, the dizzying height of our sun, our own destiny. A moment of clarity after which all moments should be modeled, where we sense our time and the tide of the universe - that which directs our feet. What are we here for? Where are we going? A moment, a life rich in meaning...except when there is an eclipse, like one that will occur on August 1.
An eclipse is also a celestial event and it occurs when there is an alignment between a star and two other bodies, like the sun, the moon and our earth. As the moon moves between the sun and earth, light and energy traveling between the sun and the earth diminishes.
For us, the interloping object that occludes our energy and view of the path might be a relationship - the overwhelming energy of the Other or it might be events long passed, it may even be our own shadow, a deeply profound lunar expression.
The world "eclipse" comes from the Greek "ekleipsis" meaning an absence and "to leave out." How often do we leave out what is important to us, the meaning of our life because we are "eclipsed" by something other?
Those familiar with European mythology will recall the symbolism of the Holly and the Oak king - twin brothers who duel at the solstices. Theirs is not a polite demur, a "guilt trip" or a quiet forgetting of purpose under the influence of an oppressive personal or work relationship - it is battle. A heated conflict when change is at the fore. There is a winner, there is a loser and there isn't a happy, fuzzy, negotiated ending - one wins and one dies...at least for six months until the sequel come out.
We cannot forever stand in the light of our brightest moment, but we can accept the wisdom offered us in the stars. By acknowledging the shifting status of each moment we can move more freely through and out of the shadow of those energies in life that would eclipse the unique light of our own journey.
The dark Holly King (having been drubbed by the bright Oak King in
December) holds sway at the summer solstice and the solar and
vegetative year moves imperceptibly toward decline. Change has come.
From the heavens above, to the souls below, change has come.
Celtic Spirit Rides the Tide of the Universe
By C. Austin
The construction crane towers past the 7th floor hospital room window from which I look. From this corner room I can see construction on all sides. Despite the bleak economic conditions of this city, here is a place of vigorous building.
Inside the window is a quiet room punctuated only by the sound of my son breathing lightly on a hospital bed two feet away.
With machines that deliver IV fluids and log vital signs, sliding curtains and plastic bagged medical supplies, I find little Celtic "spirit," to calm me. The wind is locked out, I'm floors off the ground and there is no artifact of my home or heritage to be found here, save what is in my heart and on the bed in front of me.
Anyone who can recall the sudden hospitalization of a loved one will remember the surreal habitat of an emergency room - the questions, the fatigue, the speculation, more waiting.
Like the word "emerge," the word "emergency" derives from the Latin "emergere" to "rise out or up," and "mergere" (merge) meaning to "dip, plunge or sink." There is motion in the word emerge - a rising and falling. The word contains the energy to create out of itself. In the case of "emergency," there is both rise and fall and its meaning "unforeseen occurrence" makes good, albeit disturbing, sense.
There is a note on my refrigerator that reads that Celtic people have "an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains them through temporary periods of joy." Though it is no better than a bumper sticker slogan, its message has always resonated with me.
To feel the tragedy and joy of life in the same moment is the curious ability to view two sides of the coin of life at once. Those who can be mindful of joy in times of sorrow and those that can feel the play of mortality even in life's lightest moments are a step away from the mainstream.
Sigmund Freud once said of the Irish that "[t]his is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." There is a certain kind of disassociation in being able to ride the tides of the universe - letting the kite string out and away while the body travels a dusty path. That melancholic swaying through life is the legacy of Celtic peoples. Sometimes that ability to sense vast swings of experience proves too much - and the soul is cast adrift, careering from one end of the spectrum to the other. But the soul that can navigate those tides will find the gift of emergence in the forms and patterns that become visible in unlikely moments.
It is that penetrating flexibility and vision that holds me now. In the emergency room I watched the fall and rise of energy that answered my son's need for help. In the hours that passed, information and thoughts became visible and receded. Decisions I made were based on the convergence of that which had gathered around me - people, information - the flow of things.
I marveled at the perfect arrangement of things unknowable that made the best possible situation for my son. There was an ever present feeling that the whole of the story had been told, I just had to follow the unseen path to the right conclusion, the stumbling of humans against the background of a greater story.
At the conclusion of surgery, it had gone well. Yes, it was appendicitis, yes, that appendix had burst - it was fortuitous that no further time had been lost in stopping the spread of toxins into his body.
My job wasn't to do - it was to see - to see the whole of what was playing out through the magnificent arrangement of the individual parts and players. It wasn't for me to be trapped in the role I play in life, but to sense the moving energy and hold it long enough to help another living thing, which in this case, was my son.
That is the gift that I hold close now in this room far above the ground. It is the middle of the night now, the panoramic city lights glitter through the window, far beyond this episode, which will become smaller in memory as the days pass by.
And the view? Young buildings are rising to the sky, older
buildings fade from view. Though the older sections of town are
lovely, the future belongs to that which is emerging, scaffolding its
way into our world, through the events of our lives and the lives of
those we love - through the "unforeseen occurrences" that happily and
unhappily sometimes bring a greater perspective into view.
St. Patrick's Day Renews Spirit of Return
By C. Austin
The tides of March are upon us once again. The vernal equinox will tilt our world toward spring at 11:50 PM PDT on March 19. The celebration of St. Patrick's Day, equinox and Easter combine this month to bring us a hearty reminder of renewal and return.
St. Patrick's Day on March 17 is a festival of all things Irish. Though named for a man named Patrick who led a Christian mission to Ireland in about 450 AD, St. Patrick's Day in our time has much to do with the tenacity of the Irish spirit and the appeal of Irish culture.
In 1845 a highly infectious, fungus-like pathogen called Phytophthora infestans (commonly known as "Late Blight") changed the course of Irish history. In the mid-1800's Ireland was a generally poor country that supported a population of about eight million, one-third of which was either entirely or significantly dependent on the cultivation of potatoes as a staple food. By 1901, after the Famine era, the population had fallen to four million.
The crop failure that occurred during 1845 coincided with a period of Irish population growth as well as economic stagnation. The potato failure of 1845 should not have had a lasting effect on Ireland. However, the lack of effective intervention by Irish landlords, merchants and most importantly, the British government, transformed the crop failure of 1845 into a famine known as An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger).
Successive crop failures between 1845 and 1851 and an inability or unwillingness to provide assistance to the poor and destitute brought unimaginable pain, disease or death to over two million souls who fled into Ireland's underworld arms or sailed beyond the ninth wave to find a new life in countries such as America and Canada. Tragically, many of those seeking to escape the famine died on disease-ridden vessels known as "coffin ships."
Ironically, the pathogen that caused the potato famine itself came from the America's (central Mexico) and traveled across the Atlantic to Belgium where it began its deadly devastation of European potato fields in 1843. The ravages of poverty, pestilence and politics permanently changed the lives of those who call themselves Irish.
Millions of people fled Ireland's broken hearth during and in the years following the Great Hunger. Carrying their culture and their connectedness with them, these immigrants took up residence all over the world. The fortune, political clout and identity forged by these immigrant populations abroad has served to sustain their ties with Ireland. Whether or not the descendents of these immigrant families ever physically returned to Ireland is not of consequence. As Ireland turns, so turn her people, wherever they live.
Despite the sentimentality of the occasion, it is telling that on March 17 of each year, "all the world is Irish" - there are no celebrations of similar magnitude of other immigrant populations. With no geographic borders the Irish psyche remains connected over boundless space and time.
March is indeed a time of return - the return of thoughts to the man Patrick who bravely carried out his Irish mission despite great hardship. For many, so also returns faith - in a mythological saint who assailed the creatures and characters of another time to bring monotheism to Ireland. But to all of those living beyond Ireland, to the descendents of the Irish Diaspora, our thoughts of admiration, courage and appreciation return to those who are responsible for the lives we lead and the character that we can call our own.
Spring is again with us - may the sun shine warmly in your heart
and inspire the creativity of the next new season of our lives.
Creation Found in the Winds of Spring
By C. Austin
February has arrived and with it the Celtic spring on Imbolg, February 1. Winter is not quite so bitter, the storms not quite so lasting. The spirit of the growing year plays about the branches and the bare ground where a crocus might soon appear.
In days long passed, there were February festivals of spring - of purification and renewal - that insured the vestiges of the old year were swept away and that new energy would bring renewed abundance and fortune.
Among these festivals were Lupercalia, St. Valentine's Day and of course, St. Brigid's Day and Imbolg, known too as Candlemas and Oimelic.
To populations dependent upon agriculture and livestock, the return of the greening spirit to the world was of vital importance. From February into March, winter's grip lessens in northern Europe and it was a time of lambing and an availability of milk.
The corn dollies of Brigit were clothed and left near the household hearth on Imbolg eve that she might bring fortune and health in the coming year. With her dark, underworld origin, the smithy Brigit is an archaic deity, but her generative qualities are equally expressed wearing the halo of St. Brigid.
While we can appreciate the concerns our forebears had for the renewal of their lives and fields, I wonder how many reading this article noticed Imbolg at all? Surely some did, but February first might also have been the domain of a large sigh that time is passing quickly and that happily the winter is too. But is the springtime just a lovely turn of the season or does it stir thoughts as to how creation is expressed in your life?
Humans have long sought to explain their physical existence and the cycle of creation that attends life. Some of the greatest of stories are those that explain how we came into being. Genesis, the myths of the Rig Veda and Hesiod's Theogany tell us how light and matter formed, appeared or crossed out of darkness.
For the Irish, in the beginning there was...or perhaps there wasn't. Unlike most ethnic groups or influential tribes, the Irish Celts and the Celts in general, have no myth of creation. The 11th century text, the Lebor Gabala Erenn (known as the "Book of Invasions" or "The Book of the Taking of Ireland") is a pseudo-history of the origin of the Irish race. While the book is a combination of Judeo-Christian theology, medieval history and revisionism, it is considered to contain some valid pre-Christian content.
As Ireland is historically considered to have been settled by gradual migration, it is believed that the succession of invasions cataloged in the Lebor Gabala Erenn may parallel the waves of immigration that came to represent the Irish people.
Here lies some agreement between history and mythology - that the psyche of the Irish people came into being over time, not abruptly, but out of movement - a continuous crossing over from one form to another that continues to present day. The lengthy record of Ireland is one of process.
Today, the domain of creation has shifted from the theologian to the scientist. The divine has fled the cathedral and can now be found, some say, in the serotonin receptors of the human brain or in the inflation of dark matter in an ever expanding universe.
Science is a vast field in which to look for beginnings, especially if what we are interested in is something that speaks personally, to the shifts, starts and stops of everyday life.
But from science comes the idea of a "participatory universe," advanced by physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr - that we set up the conditions for the information we will derive from the methods of observation that we use. Another physicist by the name of John Wheeler commented on their finding noting that "so the old word 'observer' simply has to be crossed off the books, and we must put in the new word 'participator' (let me be clear that use of these observations is purely metaphorical and not meant to translate important scientific theories into metaphysics)."
The idea that we are all participants in the world we are creating is a far cry from the commonly held thought that life is impersonally and mechanistically done to us, that destiny is outside of us. It recalls those days long past, when periodic renewal of the bond between human and divine was paramount.
Life is a participatory process. Like the continuous crossing and migration of populations, so ideas rise, change form and carry on. Just as our forebears purified their space to make way for new energy, so we must "spring clean" - dispose of old thoughts and arrangements that take too much from us.
Just as they performed rituals to welcome the energy of life, let us be reminded that the way that we welcome and use our thoughts creates our day-to-day life and subtly contributes to the greater world in which we live.
Just as the mythologic period of time, "a year and a day," stands for eternity, so inside each of us is held the universe - waiting to cross that threshold from darkness into light, waiting for creation.
The beginning of time is as it always was, a divine exhalation into
a mortal world. With every breath comes a chance for a new beginning,
a different thought, an altered outcome. Change, like springtime, is
always just around the corner.
Finding Light in a Season of Darkness
By C. Austin
On a recent evening I watched the moon. It was beautiful- clear and full and fast against the mountainous clouds of night. It was younger than me then, but the cycle of time will see its brightness wane. So too our star, the sun, has waned from our northerly view in the past six months and that loss of light has cooled and darkened our landscape.
The winter solstice can be observed this year at 10:09 PM, PST on December 21. The winter solstice occurs at the moment that the sun reaches the southernmost observable limit of its journey across the earth's sky.
The commemoration of the winter solstice stretches long into human prehistory. As befits a moment that gave birth to several of the world's religions, the solstice carries great truth. In an instant, darkness finds its fullest memory while simultaneously light, weak but present, returns to the world. It is the journey - both end and beginning - that is held in that eternal moment, duality is vanquished as two become one.
The mythologic expression of the solstice is found in the symbolic conflict of the Holly and the Oak King and the quest for the Holy Grail. Both of these traditions call for the recognition of darkness before light can once again find its place. Indeed, at winter solstice the sun, consciousness itself, turns back to rediscover its path, made new again by a light unique only to this cycle.
For us too, there comes a time when a limit is reached and to go forward, we must turn back to retrieve vital fragments, pieces that were dropped long ago. Like the newly reborn sun, we return to the dark paths of our lifetimes. Only this time, we can use the strength of new consciousness to perceive the distant figures that formed our past and to illume the dim figures that present our future. It is a queer light to be sure - but it is in that strange, growing light that pieces are found, perception is altered and life is genuinely created anew come spring.
And as that perception unfolds, we come upon the insight that it isn't just the sun - solar consciousness - that has made the great journey. It is us - we of earth and matter. It is the earth too that has reached a turning point in its annual trip around the sun - we who have walked patiently into darkness to find the light. We so often see daily life, with its drama or sunny props, as something that happens to us. When in truth, all of life is our own inner script cast upon nature, so that we may encounter it physically in a world outside of ourselves.
This is a time of light in the darkness. May you find peace and may
its vision hold you throughout the year. Blessings of the solstice to
November Wind Blows In Hungry Ghosts
By C. Austin
The sun is shining and the clouds rove the sky with a vigor that speaks little of summer's long gone pleasantries. Sunny in this moment, cloudy the next. Moving almost as fast as the seasons themselves, once it was summer and now it is not. Time, and clouds it would seem, wait for no one.
It is the season of phantoms - all those for whom time has moved ceaselessly on. For our own part, we measure time as the mechanical repetition and accumulation of cycles - night and day, 24 hours, a week, a month, a year - a life.
The tribes we call "Celtic" seem to have measured their time as beginning with the night. Their year began in the darkness of winter on November 1. But their time was also attached to place - to the landscape on which their lives transpired, where their crops, cattle and children grew, and where, like the growing season, they died back to the ground. The year itself revolved, like a pilgrimage, around various stations of life, death, renewal, birth, planting, harvest, the hearth. On a greater scale, authors such as Michael Dames have suggested that the Irish year rotated around features and sites in the landscape such as Cnoc Aine and the Hill of Tara as seen from alignments on the central hill of Uisneach.
It is to the landscape, the terrain where the energy of life is spent, that the ghosts of the season return. The rituals of Samhain call for the respectful and welcoming treatment of flickering ghosts, to curry favor and luck from them in the coming year. Phantoms are those who are literally "out of time." Like all creatures of the Otherworld, the space they occupy is infinite, their time is irrelevant.
But we are not creatures of the Otherworld, neither our space nor our time is infinite. Yet we have ghosts. Ghosts whose time is long past, but who yet reside in our present. They wait for us in the dark, in our memories, in our relationships and they scare us at the most unexpected moments. Theirs is the energy that was cast away, that even time couldn't burn off - the fear, the grief, the horror. They might be something that was done, they might be something left undone, they flit, they hide and they suck your breath away when you recognize them. They reside in the landscape where they spent the most time - in your mind and in your body. And no amount of repetitive cycles of days or months or years will make them go away.
They are the hungry ghosts and this is their season. If you are unlucky and don't give them their due, they'll stay with you throughout all your seasons. But though they be specters they, like all of us, seek only return. They too appreciate a warmly lit room, a heart with space to feel the pain, their memory. Darkness has its place, but it is a hard place to spend forever. Despite their dread look, recognize that light in their eyes - it is yours, after all.
Once it was summer, now it is not. Our time continues to turn. We
have darkness and a difficult world around us. Draw close, hold
friends and family dear, and spare some warmth and compassion for the
ghosts that gather at your door.
Autumn Blows Away in the Winds of Samhain
By C. Austin
Though the sun remains bright, the wind is picking up. The season, time itself, blows likes leaves through our hands. On Oidche Shamhna, the night of Samhain, we once again peer through the frame at our own dark nature.
Samhain, on October 31, marks the end of the Celtic year. Most people are unaware that the trick-or-treat, witches, mayhem, costuming and pumpkins of Halloween are vestiges of this great festival. But like so many things Celtic, Samhain has evolved to suit and to survive in our society.
Perhaps one of the reasons Halloween remains on our calendar is because of the pull of Samhain – the call to darkness, the shiver of mortality on an otherwise fine autumn night.
Samhain stands as a threshold - the year and the autumnal season fade into history at dusk on October 31. By dawn of November 1, winter and the New Year have arrived. On that threshold we can rest while all that is before and behind swirls out of our reach.
Though the essence of Samhain is chaos, that chaos is not entirely unbounded. The festival of Samhain is the frame through which we can recognize and honour disintegration. Like looking through a holed stone our attention gradually becomes focused on the Other, on the weirdness of the dark season. We can look out at dissolution, we can look in on our own confusion, but we will not fly apart, held safely in the frame. A fractured world can be traversed, a broken heart healed when it is viewed through a window that will not break.
In the old world it was the holed stone, “An cloc cosanta” or “luck stone” through which some sought a safe glimpse of the Otherworld. The natural world abounds in frames – be they of trees, shorelines or the hollowed stone arches where Nature holds her own space. In our culture, those frames are often built with a therapist or with family or a good friend – anywhere one can go to set for awhile and safely experience the chaos within and beyond.
Samhain is rich in its antiquity, in its darkness and even in its
hope. Through it one can renew ties to loved ones departed and in
turn, be seen and held by the divine light of the Samhain bonfire.
Whether as a community or as an individual, as long as we recognize
the need for change and the disorder it brings, there will always be a
light in the darkness. May peace and health be yours in the New Year.
The Tides of Summer Swirl into Autumn
By C. Austin
Like many, I took a summer holiday at the beach. Suntans are fading even as scattered sand remains as a reminder.
It has been many years since I had the opportunity to watch the waves roll in over the sand - not just for a few hours on a sunny afternoon, but for a week, as wind, tide and weather plied their trade on the oceanic view. I looked forward to the break.
From a wooden stairway above the beach, my first view of the water was breathtaking. The western water stretched endlessly as the late afternoon sun danced a path to the horizon. The reflected glitter was almost blinding to my dull senses and it was easy to understand why early humans believed that water captured divine properties of the sun and moon.
As it does in Ireland, the wind off the western shore has its own feel, especially at twilight. The fabled paradise Tir na n'Og is located in the western ocean. For hero and mortal alike there is wisdom to be gained in the west - but it is found only by those who suffer for insight, the wisdom of the west is wrested from loss.
Ireland, Britain, Scotland and Wales are island communities. Surrounded as they are by water, the ocean is the boundary between this world and the Other. To voyage beyond the "seventh wave" was to go beyond the known world and most immigrants, like my relatives in the 1800's, would not see their homeland again.
The following morning I mustered our crew down to the beach to watch the Perseid meteor shower at 4:30 AM. The lack of artificial lighting created a perfect venue for shooting stars that I didn't want to miss. Alone at the beach we watched the celestial show amid the ceaseless motion of the darkened waves.
Under the stars, the unlit presence of the waves pulled at my attention - shadowy timelessness lapping at the grains of mortal life, forever wearing, forever murmuring in a language understood in the body, not the mind.
Much later that day we returned to the beach, sand toys and towels in hand. The sun had replaced the darkness and the value of water and waves was calculated in terms of adventure and recreation - energetic children in the water with adults reclining watchfully on the beach.
The water that I watched carried echoes of its own path. Not just of the fog and mist that enveloped primordial life, but ages of ice and eons of mountains, rivers and rain. With every drop of spray, water holds the liquid memories of eternity and of all those adults, like me, whose dearest childhood days were spent playing in its tides.
I was not long for the beach, I never could resist the siren song of the waves. Soon I crashed among them with my children. Children play so easily in the water, they go in, they come out, they return - they are fluid. Just as waves flow in and out, hesitant to pass their own high tide mark, so adults move toward the sea. They come down to water's edge, they walk along the shore, but they are often hesitant to cross into the water, cautious of immersion. Both are tidal in their own way - humans and waves.
The next day dawned grey and windy. Finding myself with a bit of free time I made for the beach. Before I saw them, I felt the waves calling. With surreal haste I pressed against the breeze and down to the waterline. The waves, much larger than on previous days, crashed with impunity. Like horses, the foaming green-grey water raced diagonally as well as straight on toward the beach, forming whitecaps even to the distance.
The turbulence of the waves seemed to reflect a widening turbulence within my own self. Half expecting an answer I asked out loud, "what is it?" Disappointed at the lack of response I paced the shore for some time with the same uneasy question. Happily the beach was deserted, saving onlookers from the specter of a middle-aged woman attempting conversation with the near roaring surf.
I found my answer that day, not in the counterpoint to my question, but in the nature of my disquiet. A symmetry arose when the unrest within me resonated with the breaking dissonance outside of me - a symmetry I created by answering the call to come. My answer had been in my own response to attend to the waves - "as within, so without." Even as I write this, the uneasy door opened that day remains ajar and time, I imagine, will eventually lead me through it.
Later that day our group again visited the shore - the sky sunny, the water swirling and choppy. I was repeatedly knocked down by the waves, surprised each time at the energy behind each swell. Retrieving my senses at some point I thought the better of the battering and retreated to my towel.
After nightfall the unsettled weather ushered in a thunderstorm. Sitting at an overlook I watched the weather moving in from the west. Lightening flashed within the clouds, revealing the restless water below. In the still clear sky to the north a meteor flashed long across space and within my reach, fireflies blinked on and off.
Such marvels, these flashes of light, those moments of revelation. In our dark journey through life we occasionally receive grace - like a firefly, a quiet enlightenment in our personal lives, or vibrant lightening enlivening our culture or the atmosphere in which we live and more rarely, a sudden radiant shooting star, an event or understanding that streaks across universal consciousness. Three gifts of illumination for three spheres of life.
On the following day the weather cleared, the water a dazzling tempest. A walk along the wet sand gave rise to the inevitable thoughts about footprints, how heavily we travel at times and how easily our path is erased. Such a thin line between where we walk and where we walk no more, where mind meets enduring mystery.
But it is along that line where the significance of life can be found. The word "equinox" means "equal night," and refers to the momentary balance of the length of day and night. The autumnal equinox occurs on September 23 this year, at 2:52 AM PDT. Balance along that line might mean to look with one's heart to the western ocean at the same time one's mortal feet remain on this side of eternity. Dispense with duality, and find, for one divine moment, the symmetry in one's Nature, within and without.
That evening we had a bonfire on the beach. Sparks spiraling up
from the fire mingled with the fireflies. On the horizon, a crescent
moon appeared dusty red as it set in the thickening air. The next
day, our last full day, a weather system pushed through bringing heavy
rain. It rained with an intensity I had not recently experienced,
drumming the rooftops and anyone splashing through it. The waves
welcomed the returning water - a cycle complete - and I couldn't help
but feel the rising tide of the days to come.
Lughnasadh Heralds Harvest of the Soul
By C. Austin
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Throughout the seasons we ramble away our days walking an obscured path. Our passage is fueled by equal parts hope, destiny, biology and futility. One step forward, sometimes two steps back and on into the dimming light of a dusty summer day. The Celtic fire festival of Lughnasadh on August 1 commemorates that enduring trail forged between nature and humanity - the labour that is required and the bounty that is received.
Lughnasadh, the last celebratory Fair before years' end, marks the beginning of the Celtic autumn and falls between the solar celebrations of the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Though it might seem a harvest festival principally commemorates a diminishing sun, it does not.
The solar events of the Celtic year, the solstices and equinoxes, look to consciousness - to that which is bright, an orbit delineated by clear thought and reason. The lunar events of the Celtic year, the four great fire festivals, are darkly illuminating. Bringing forth their wisdom from the underground, from the unconscious, the fire festivals renew the bond between flickering human life and the deep generative power of nature.
Lughnasadh originated far in the Neolithic past with Tailtu, the last queen of the Fir Bolg, the mythical settlers of the province of Connacht. After clearing the land, Tailtu gave birth to fields of grain and then died from her efforts. Like many primitive earth goddesses, Tailtu came from and returned, like wheat chaff, to the land. Over centuries divinity rose heavenward from earth to the sky and Lughnasadh, once a funerary Fair to Tailtu, became a celebration of the sun god, Lugh.
If we look beyond the brilliant halo of Lugh, the original story of Tailtu gives us clues toward living a creative life. Tailtu was the last queen of her kind, a feminine energy that felt the longing of humanity. Even today that profound feminine energy lives on within us, alert for hunger or hurt. Tailtu chops wood and clears the landscape of our psyche, crafting places where ideas and food for the soul can find root. When the time is right, Tailtu gives birth, delivering shining sheaves of wheat - harvest for a hungry soul. Then she dies, a need fulfilled. Soon she will rise again.
There is another from whom Lugh inherited his great festival - the dark harvest god Crom Dubh, known as "Black Stoop," or the "dark bent one." He emerges from the underworld around the first of August and it is on his back that the first bundles of wheat are carried. Though it is the creative feminine that gives birth, it is the masculine that carries new energy into the world.
Both Tailtu and Crom Dubh are earthbound, and like us, follow the
cycles of nature. We toil as they toil. But a harvest cannot be had
from a seed that was never planted. Celebration, good fortune and a
balanced life do not descend from on high because we wish it to be so.
Throughout the days with which we are blessed we must plant our seeds,
our best ideas, our worst fears, and we must work them, cultivate them
and bring forth our own harvest - the shining sheaf of wheat, the gift
of Lughnasadh for any season.
Solstice Arrives Amid Ever Changing Conditions of Life
By C. Austin
There is a certain reverie to the blending of seasons. Though our calendar points to June 21 as the official beginning of summer, the Celtic summer has by then already reached its midpoint. Spring into summer and the turning at the summer solstice toward autumn - conditions are always changing.
Weeks ago I cycled down a tree lined path on my way to somewhere. A flash of orange caught my eye and I stopped to glimpse a Baltimore Oriole, a brilliant bird of orange and black. As I watched the bird fly off, I noticed the sights and sounds of a nearby marshy space. Tadpoles scattered excitedly around reeds that poked up everywhere, bejeweled dragonflies hovered at a distance, glistening frogs of green and grey sat camouflaged in the sun, water pushed further back toward the trees and all of life seemed abuzz in the muck. It was an impressive display of creation for such a small vignette.
As I cycled the same area just a few days ago, I remembered the scene and slowed at the spot. To my surprise, the condition of the place had entirely changed. The warm weather that pushed though recently had dried up the watery melting pot that gave life to so many. The reeds were dried and broken, the water had receded to a few damp muddy spots and the frogs had disappeared. Life had contracted.
The conditions under which we live are not so different as those of the frog pond. There are seasons of moisture, of ideas, of change and the coming of new life. And there are brittle seasons, where moisture has receded and one retreats to a deeper place to wait for more favorable conditions. Sometimes the change in conditions is brought about by our own folly, more often it is not.
In the early Irish narrative tradition, the imposition of conditions, of gessa, was not uncommon. Gessa are the peculiar conditions and strange taboos that are laid upon demi-gods, kings and heroes by others, commonly women, sometimes a druid and oftentimes at birth. Gessa can be made for positive purposes, such as causing a man to elope with a woman -- but more often they were circuitous, enigmatic conditions such as those laid upon Conaire, a legendary high king of Ireland. A geis placed upon him warned that he "shalt not go right-handwise around Tara and left-handwise round Brega" and "three Reds shall not go before thee to the house of Red."
Possibly a geis had an institutional purpose. Some suggest a geis may have allowed a marginalized segment of society, such as women, to assert their rights based upon a "code of honour" that existed within society. This idea relates to the tradition of the banshee, the feminine spirit who warns of death. As the tradition goes, if a man out late came upon a banshee, he was well advised to be polite and move along. Those interfering with the banshee would likely meet their doom with little delay. In this way, a certain "code," was made known through the narrative -- it is not wise to be out late nor is it wise to accost and bother women. Violation of the code, just as with violation of the geis, almost certainly meant death.
The early Irish conventions of tabooing, satire and punning are complicated modes of communication. The taboo, or geis may be beyond rational explanation because we no longer have access to the mindset that produced (or even copied) the narratives. It is also possible that there is nothing "rational" about gessa. Perhaps the conditions placed upon these heroes and thus our ancestors were not so unlike the ambiguous and conflicting conditions that we all face from time to time.
Like the warm wind that dried up the frog pond, or a capricious turn of events such as a lost job or a troublesome co-worker or neighbor, a geis may have been an attempt to express something about ambiguous causes. "Why does this always happen to me?," "I'll never get a break," or "my life changed after that" -- all statements of sometimes frustrated wonder about that which we cannot control or even understand.
Although the geis, and sometimes the turn of events in our lives may seem fickle, it may be our perception that is problematic. By focusing upon the local, personal view, one misses the larger picture, the greater interconnected tapestry of which we all are a part. Writer Alwyn Rees pointed out, "the discovery of points where unrelated things coincide is one of the great arts of seers and magicians." The heroes of Irish myth and they who created them were part of a larger story, as are we.
Gazing at the now quiet frog pond, I thought it a loss. Upon
closer view though, I noticed a pair of eyes in the mud --
still a frog here and there. Beyond that, small pools of water yet
remained, almost hidden under the trees. Life was not finished here,
only the conditions had changed. Though less expansive, life
deepened, though less fluid, life adapted. Less visible but still
present - waiting for the conditions to change, waiting for the next
season of life.
Bright Festival of Beltaine Renews Hope for the World
By C. Austin
The brightest festival of the Celtic year arrives on May eve. Beltaine (pronounced ("bel-ti-nuh") ushers in the fruitful half of the year as the Celtic season turns to summer.
The festival Samhain, on November eve, signals the advent of chaos, of endings and reckoning with outdated ways. A grim psychic and physical reality accompanies that great festival in the form of the Cailleach, the hag of winter.
But where Samhain heralds dissolution, Beltaine brings reaffirmation. Reaffirmation that the fields of nature and the heart will once again bear fruit, that eyes that have seen too much darkness can once again delight in the greening of the world. It is Danu, the Mother, who walks with us now.
At its centre, Beltaine is a celebration of life, and the potential of a bountiful harvest. For those who lived on the land, the month of May did not mark abundance of food and comfort, but rather the potential for it, the changing of conditions such that long awaited hopes and dreams might come to pass. For us, those dreams may have been forged a lifetime ago and it is only now, in this season of life, that the door opens once again.
Fire is essential to the four great festivals of the Celtic year. The great bonfire that blazes from the hilltop and burns through the seasons of the year is the "oculus mundi," the eye of the world through which we see our divinity and that divinity sees us. The "brightness" of Beltaine is not the strength of the sun, but the strength of return, of faith and hope for a new way. No season and no life is brighter than one that has hope.
Beltaine is not for the stingy, it is for those that love. They
that love life, its riches, its journey. Welcome Beltaine, may you
bless us with abundance.
Divine Message Found in Otherworldly Songs
By C. Austin
Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?
At twilight not long ago I watched a flock of birds take wing against a brilliant scarlet sky as the sun was setting. In silhouette, their flight took them through and beyond the threading branches of bare trees. A brief but thrilling vision, I could see neither where they came from, nor where they went.
The Greek philosopher Plato thought of the mind as a cage. To him, the birds that flew across the vault of that inner sky represented thoughts. In the Celtic tradition, indeed throughout the world, birds represent transcendence, the freedom of the soul or spirit to rise above and beyond earthly limitations.
The ability of birds to navigate air, land and sea gave them special prominence in Celtic mythology. From the swans of the enchanted children of Lir, to the death-eating crows of the Morrigan, to the robin as Oak King who guarantees the sun's return at winter solstice, the Otherworld teems with divine messengers.
It is said that the early Irish poets understood the language of the birds, even the language of Nature herself. From the wind, from the trees, from the songs of birds came the prophecies, riddles and tales that earned the poet high esteem in Celtic society.
Today the wind yet blows, the trees still whisper, but where are our poets? Who will translate the mysterious murmurings of nature for us, or are we now uniformly deaf to that imaginal world that should be our inheritance?
I recall a balmy morning last spring in an older garden as I sat on a sunny bench with my eyes closed, listening to the birds. Screeches, twitters, birdsong - all blended together in the background around me.
As if in a daytime dream, it occurred to me that it wasn't background, but varying voices speaking more directly to me than if someone had been talking straight to my face.
Each voice was different, as if trying to point out one particular feature of a mystery that was obvious to them and invisible to me. Together they clustered about singing "look here, look here" at this unknowable thing.
The birds, like Plato's thoughts, and the messengers of the Celtic world, mediate the expanse between worlds - between a divine world of potential and an earthly world of being. The actions that result from inspired thoughts render the mythological world visible.
These "messengers" draw our attention to what we cannot know by ourselves - that which is beyond our reach. Like a dream image, they rarely reveal outright, but they gather around that which is unconscious within us to caw, hoot and croon, giving us a chance, if only momentarily, to notice that something is indeed there.
Where do they ceaselessly fly from and where do they roost? You may know them as that "same old feeling" that rises with your awareness every few years to distract or torment you before the awareness and its familiar song blends again into the background of a busy life. The unfinished or unstarted business that is too deep to stir, that is inaccessible on one's own - the birds sing of what wants to be known.
It is the work of the poet to translate the wisdom of Nature. We
must become the poets, we must hear what the birds have to say.
Destiny Waits in the Wound of a Thorn
By C. Austin
I like to garden. Many people like to garden. In fact, gardening is the fastest growing hobby in North America. And because I like to garden I was sitting in a classroom last week listening to a fellow talk about shrubs and trees. This was particularly devoted of me given that the last half of the class involved an hour long walk outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.
Nonetheless, the discussion veered onto the topic of roses. I like to look at roses. I like to smell roses. But I don't like roses in my garden. Why? Thorns, of course. Why in the world do people purposely put plant material in their garden that hurts them? Roses and other prickly sorts of plants are not to be blamed, however, because as we know, thorns were developed by plants as defensive mechanisms.
This got me to thinking about "prickly" sorts of people. Thoughtless, bitter, even nasty individuals whose world view extends only to the tip of their nose. We all know them, and some of us purposely plant them in our lives. Some people marry thorns - repeatedly. Some people wear thorns to reveal their pain. Some have a great stiff bramble rooted in their hand, foot or heart and they simply need help pulling it out. And some people, like the rose, develop thorns to avoid being eaten up entirely.
And then there are "thorny" situations, those uncomfortable settings that we all steer clear of - when we can. No one in their right mind would dive into a sticker bush (or plant one in their yard), but sometimes we don't realize it until we're sitting there pulling out thorns. But in these circumstances, thorns can be enlightening. Thorns, like demons, can make excellent guidance counselors.
The rose, the fairy hawthorn, the gorse - all beauties with a stinging touch. But energy waits in the thorn bushes of life. Sometimes there is a bite attached to the beautiful things we long for most. History tells us of a young boy kidnapped into Irish slavery. He lived to become a missionary, the patron saint of this month. His thorn held his calling.
Abuse, accident or illness - all are painful thorns that signal destiny is afoot. Surviving the wound of the thorn enables one to help others survive the same - to make use of the unintended gift that the thorn gave when it pierced your life.
As our class concluded, our quite frozen group came upon a small
hawthorn tree, its buds just beginning to swell with the splendor of
the coming spring. The instructor reached up to point out its rather
hefty thorns and noted that there would soon be hawthorn trees bred
without thorns. What a shame.
Celtic Spring Stirs in the Ashes of Time
By C. Austin
Out my window I see white. A wintry white sky fuses with the pallid earth in the field beyond my home. It is broken only by the dull, dirty outlines of houses and the grey reaching of trees. Even the evergreens seem dreary and burdened. The world feels ashen.
To those who appreciate the diverse tribes of peoples that came to be known as "Celts," fire is a vital element. In October, at year's end, the great Samhain bonfire burned beyond the pale, blending seasons and years, the living and the dead, that which we see, and that which we resist seeing.
The fire blazed brightly, consuming the debris of our lives until it slowly died, leaving embers that were stingy with their heat until they too went cold, giving up only ashes.
As ashes can no longer burn, they are free from anxiety and passion. Taking themselves lightly, ashes are slight and mobile -- but they are empty and at an end.
Some who have suffered a great conflagration take comfort in the ashes, it is a relief not to feel. Others live in ashes and never notice they were hollowed, "burned out", some years before. The ashes are a fine location to endlessly rue circumstance, but they are a place and a season that is winter cold.
The Samhain fire that left this footprint of ash also lifted prayers upward in its smoke. Prayers for continuance, for help and for hope. From the ash now stirs the answer to those prayers in the form of the fire-carrying underworld goddess Brigit.
Brigit, muse of poet, healer and artisan, ascends from her underworld forge to our world on February 1. We call that day "Imbolg," and it marks the first day of the Celtic spring.
A maiden goddess, Brigit brings the energy of a world to come -- inspiring us to create each of our days anew. A tireless goddess, she works the ashes of the world into rich, black soil, allowing seed and soul to take root. An enduring goddess, Bright spans history as St. Brigid, remaining as constant for us as she did for those who toiled the land before the Celts.
Rising from the underworld, Brigit is a goddess of soot -- of the dark residue of life. She is the protector of the everyday hearth, of those who sift ashes. Unlike the crone Cailleach who ushers the world into darkness, Brigit shepherds us out of the winter and into the light of a life that has once again changed, for good and forever.
Soul's Quest Found in the Light of Winter Solstice
By C. Austin
Uncle, what ails thee?
From the darkest of days comes a dawn. With the winter solstice at 4:23 PM PST on December 21, the sun leaves off its southern journey to return north, reborn again to our thoughts and to our landscape.
With the shifting tide of December comes the season of festivals, most of which owe their origin to the winter solstice. Our cultural imprint lays heavily on most this season. Elevated expectations are oftentimes accompanied by deeper disappointments. Even amidst the packaging, loneliness and alienation are harder to hide during the holiday season. Though it tis' the season, compassion is too often in short order.
In the late 1100's, a French poet by the name of Chretien de Troyes set a story to paper. Part legend, parts fairy-tale and romance, it chronicles the quest for a mystical wonder object, much like the Philosophers Stone, that can heal a king and his kingdom that has been laid to waste. The story was called Perceval, the Story of the Grail.
Chretien adapted his poem from a document given to him by his patron Philip, Count of Flanders. Chretien passed away before finishing his text and numerous adaptations of the story were written in the years following, including Parzival by Wolfram Von Eschenbach. Chretian himself stated the Grail legend was the "best of tales," told at court. The poem is a Christianized narrative with influences that include Celtic and Welsh mythology, Eastern symbolism and ritual as well as archaic vegetative cult practices.
Much like a Celtic sojourn into the Otherworld, the Grail legend tells of adventure, peril and opportunity missed. It has the quality of a dream about it. Characters and oddities come to the fore and recede. Quizzical apparitions appear to beg recognition and are disclaimed. At the heart of it is the challenge to Perceval, a knight of "conspicuous excellence," to ask a particular question when he meets the Grail king.
Like other Celtic kings, the Grail king is symbolically married to the feminine image of the land. It is through union of the masculine spirit with the feminine landscape, or matter, that fertility of the land is assured. In this story, the old Grail king is maimed - masculine spirit has failed. The feminine landscape, thus abandoned, lies in devastation.
Enter the young hero Perceval. Perceval brings sun-consciousness, the bright masculine spirit that quests. Although he is surrounded by suffering, on his first encounter with the Grail and the maimed Grail king, he fails to ask what is wrong. Like so many, he sees the pain of another, but cannot respond to it. He is turned away from the castle and the suffering continues.
On his second encounter in the Grail castle, Perceval personifies a mature sense of discernment. He witnesses the painful situation before him and asks what ails the Grail king. In that single ripe moment, Perceval is able to make conscious the silent suffering that surrounds him. When he takes the anguish of another to heart, his voice gives form to the right question.
The compassionate question witnesses the wound and renders the king whole. As the Grail king's suffering becomes visible, the king is once again enspirited and disembodied meaning finds its home. The maimed king springs up healed.
It is not just the king who heals - the landscape is green once again. The king's spirit is revived and reunion with the landscape is possible. Perceval's empathetic question returns vigor to the wintry wasteland, sun consciousness brings rebirth - at the same moment that the winter solstice renews the promise of the coming spring.
It is destiny that the old king, the aged solar year steps aside. The young sun hero Perceval steps up to take his place as the guardian of the Grail. But in some versions of the Grail legend, there is one task remaining for Perceval.
Perceval has a half-brother, Feirefiz, who is strangely coloured black and white. Before Perceval may take up the kingship of the waxing year he must fight the heathen Feirefiz. Feirefiz's colouring of black and white marks this as a dual of the dark half of the year with the light half.
And indeed Perceval, the ascending Oak King, victors over Feirefiz, the Holly King, ruler of the dark waning year. But Perceval does not subjugate his brother, he establishes a relationship with him. Thus, opposites are held in a fruitful relationship, their energies fueling the turning of the year's wheel.
The Grail story is a legend of return, of the inner journey and the birth of light from dark nature. The quest lives on. The Grail is not an artifact of church or community but the rich container of each person's destiny. It still calls to individuals of true heart.
We can each be a hero, in this or any other season. When you sense
the suffering of another, or when someone has made a mistake - bring
their suffering to light, not to accuse, but to witness, to share and
to thoughtfully ask "what ails you?"
Chaos of Samhain Transforms the Celtic Soul
By C. Austin
You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.
With November come the shadows. From October's eroding edge we have descended into the season of Samhain, the realm of chaos, the darkness at the beginning.
Before darkness was consigned to hell, it was fertile. In many creation myths and in the worldview of the Celts, darkness is the original form. It is rich, unbounded chaos that gives birth to order. Recognizing that darkness begets light, the Celts began their day at twilight and their year in November with winter preceding summer.
In our era, light trumps darkness. We pour such light into the dark that the stars fade and creatures of the night lose their bearings. We have no season or festival that recognizes darkness, only winter, when nature goes to "sleep." Chaos is for those without goals, money, the proper citizenship, or enough sense. But chaos, like nature, does not simply go to sleep, it goes underground.
The underground is an interesting place, although virtually no one willingly goes there. It is the place where things rot, putrefy and, of course, crap flows downhill, so you have that as well. We are clean people. We have white teeth and pure souls, so our soiled thoughts and checkered secrets have to crumble their way down too.
Few of us deal with the large secrets of our lives during daylight. The large secrets are the things you couldn't help, they just happened. History created a wound so deep that your life, almost imperceptibly, orbits slowly around it year after year.
Perhaps you weren't heard, or weren't held, and thus life became a sifting for words, for pieces of soul and a safe place to put them. Perhaps you were never seen, which caused you to grow big and colourful to hide your invisibility. Or the damage was so hot and loud that you still seek its embrace later in life. Decorated loneliness, carrying water in a sieve - it is your essence, for better or worse. It is authentic and it is dark.
The alchemists called this essence the "prima materia," the original material. Alchemy is a system for observing substances and their differences as well as their relationships with each other. Aristotle called the prima materia, "something that isn't there," because it is unrefined and because its potential lies within itself, to emerge rather than be imposed. The shadowy prima materia is also known as the radix ipsius or the "root of itself" for the same reason - its form lies within and requires a growth process to develop it.
Though arcane, alchemy yielded invaluable insights into scientific and psychological processes. Alchemists such as Sir Isaac Newton had an enormous influence on science and the arts. Of all alchemical ideas though, none is more famous than that of the "lapis philosophorum" or the Philosopher's Stone.
Enigmatic and known by many names, the Philosopher's Stone can "dispel all corruption, heal all disease and bestow youth and wisdom." It is a "stone that is not a stone," and it can be as treacherous as it is miraculous. The Philosopher's Stone is brilliant, exalted and divine and it can only be fashioned from that very dark stuff, the prima materia.
Like the Celts, alchemists believe in darkness at the beginning. They call it "nigredo," the black chaos in which the "old, outmoded state of being is killed and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia." Nature can only restore itself after first dying away and we are no different.
Depression, alcoholism, job loss, illness, divorce - these are all disturbingly common harbingers of nigredo. Like the winds of November, tossing off what leaves remain, chaos supplies the disorder needed to break down our defenses. And that is what is needed - a dissolution of order - of the old rules and deceptions that keep us, again and again, from seeing our original wound. Psychologist Carl Jung noted "All error in the art arises because men do not begin with the proper substance."
Nigredo carries with it the opportunity to understand that disarray and our own vulnerability are at least as valuable as order. But in its role as the universal solvent, chaos also brings seemingly unending pain, fear and bitterest disappointment. It is the "nox profunda," the profound night, and from it, the prima materia begins to take form.
To the alchemists, the prima materia is both a physical and psychological substance. It is the matter from which everything is created. The first forms to rise from the prima materia are the four elements, water, fire, air and earth. Each of these carries an alchemical property of another element within it. For example, both air and fire can share heat.
Like factions of the human mind, the four elements are eternally warring with each other, overcoming, taking priority and then receding. But it is the fifth element, the prima materia, that flows through them all. That part of ourselves we seek to conceal, to forget and that we cast into darkness - the piece that we must navigate chaos to recover - is the very part that can turn our grey, leaden lives into gold.
In the heat and pressure of the alchemical process, the elements, like our most cherished misconceptions, begin to lose their identity. Upon release from their rigid form, they sense the similarities among themselves and rotate to take on the attributes of those elements to which they were formerly most opposed. That which is reviled is loved, that which is trapped is finally released.
In Alchemic, Buddhist, Celtic and other belief systems, the point where four territories unite is the area of divine chaos. It is a churning wheel where original material is ceaselessly being reborn, burned away and born again. It is the Tao, the course of things and perpetual change. It is universality - the lowly prima materia transformed into the Philosopher's Stone, a vast nothing that is everything, "a stone that is not a stone."
On a hill called Uisneach in County Westmeath, Ireland, lays another stone. It is a limestone boulder called Aill na Mireann, the "Stone of Divisions," named so because it marks the mythological centre where the four divided provinces of Ireland unite.
From our world into the next Aill na Mireann stands at the door. Where some find chaos, others find grace. The darkness of November reestablishes order. To the Celts, who so richly understood the joys and sorrows of life and the value of that renewing darkness, it is the end and the beginning.
I now know that in the beginning, chaos was ignited by an immense burst of laughter.
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