No Maypole? No problem! Tips on celebrating the Feast of Flowering

A maypole in East Frisia, Germany, by Matthias Süßen - Own work

No doubt they rose up early to observe

The rite of May, and hearing our intent

Came here in grace our solemnity.

-- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

The great hinge of the year swings to Beltaine, the Feast of Flowering. The cows head to the summer pastures, driven between the smoke of two fires. Flowering branches are brought indoors, to spread the blessings of the green on all therein. Deft hands weave crowns and garlands of blossoms, ornamenting all for the rite.

At modern Pagan gatherings, Beltaine is commonly celebrated with the weaving dance of the Maypole – and the inevitable laughter when the ribbons tangle or someone heads in the wrong direction. Contrary to popular belief, Maypoles aren't an ancient Celtic tradition; they appear to be native to Germanic societies, although the concept of a sacred tree – bilé in Irish lore – is found in cultures worldwide. That doesn't mean, of course, that modern Druids can't have a Maypole in their rites; maypoles have certainly become an entrenched part of Beltaine traditions through the decades, and that's unlikely to end soon.

Flowers, of course, are a traditional part of May Day festivities, as are visiting holy wells. Beltaine, however, is primarily considered a fire festival; the name is often translated as the “fires of Bel” for the Gaulish Belenos or the Irish Bilé, although whether Bilé is a true God is subject to debate. The “fire” portion of the name – tine in modern Irish – is uncontested, however.

Why fire? Beltaine heralds the start of summer, as Samhain does winter in Celtic tradition; the flames are reminiscent of the waxing sun – and perhaps more importantly, the rising tide of life-force. While modern Pagans tend to think of Beltaine as “that sex festival,” it also has themes of purification and protection, as animals and their associated humans leave the bounded home of winter and venture out into the wider world. Fertility is, of course, part of the festival – as are tricks and spontaneous connections with spirits, especially the Sidhe. As with Samhain, the spirit-world is close and many Celtic tales are associated with this time of the year.

Photo by Cypresseyes

I've been Pagan and a Druid for quite some time, and have seen Beltaine celebrated in a wide range of ways. In that spirit, I offer the following thoughts for those who struggle to find a way to celebrate the season.

You don't have to do that sex thang.

Pagans in general are a fun-loving folk, and Beltaine can bring a gamut of randy jokes and flirtatious behavior. For individuals with trauma or pain associated with sexuality, this can become uncomfortable or even frightening. For those of us who lack an appreciation of juvenile humor or reserve our sexual impulses for significant others, a lot of common Beltaine “customs” can just be flat-out annoying.

I admit: I became discouraged by Beltaine as a young woman, when I literally had to hide in a horse stall during one ritual to avoid unwanted attention. (No, not exaggerating – sadly.)

Good news: You don't have to celebrate the holiday that way.

When I celebrate the Feast of Flowering, I honor Boann – Goddess of the river and wisdom – and her husband Nuada, the Sword-God and light of truth. I focus my celebration on the Earth itself, making and offering caudle – a type of porridge – to the land, and bannock with nine knobs to the critters, one species each knob. Most often, that latter is preventative in nature: “I give this to the carpenter ants, so they don't invade my house this upcoming year.” I also walk between the smoke (or at least the light, if I'm doing this indoors) of two fires and relight the hearth-candle for the season.

Key concepts: The awakening Earth and her creatures, light, fire, and the purification and protection offered by fire.

Alternative Maypoles

Let's face it: Maypoles are pretty impractical, even for those who want to celebrate the traditional fertility festival. Yes, there are instructions available on how to build and install one of PVC pipe for even the smallest of backyards, but not everyone is particularly handy with that sort of thing. If I tried to install a Maypole by myself or with a small group of grove mates, chances are that I would end up in the ER after doing something clumsy and Youtube-worthy.

Enter the Alternative Maypole! (Not to be confused with alternative facts; a pole and maying are actually involved.)

One year, White Cat Grove decorated its own interpretation of a Maypole: a seven-foot tall branch. Rather than dance around it, grove members decorated it with ribbons, feathers, beads and butterflies as the ritual act; we also decorated a wreath, which we then attached to the top to symbolize the union of male and female. Afterward, you can offer your creation to the Earth or the fire, or keep it around as a power-object. (I have the pole and wreath to this day in my ritual room.)

Key concepts: Male (something linear), female (something circular), ornamentation, joy.

Cloths tied to a tree near Madron Well in Cornwall. Photo by Jim Champion via Wikimedia Commons

The well-dressed well

Boann is, of course, a river goddess; Nuada is also associated with fresh water, as well as the light of truth and possibly clouds or the sky. Belenos/Bilé, the God most often associated with Beltaine in Keltria, is associated with bonfires as well as trees. With this in mind, you you can choose to focus your Beltaine ritual on the intersection of fire and water or, alternatively, tree and water, sky and water, etc.

Consider well-dressing: Decorate a watery place (springs are traditional, but a bowl of water would work just fine) with flowers, cloth strips known as clooties, even candles if you're working with a bowl. In this polluted age, the waters could use the extra blessings and energy.

Key concepts: April showers bring May flowers, the purity and protection of our water sources.

Do I have to do the May Queen thing?

Personally, I've never enjoyed the selection of May Queen and May King, although I understand the concept. There is a beauty of embodying community's energy for the year – which is how I've often seen this interpreted in Pagan groups – but there also is a weight of expectation to it. The Queen and King dyad can be especially problematic for groups with an unequal number of men and women, and the genderqueer also can feel left out.

Perhaps it's childish of me, but I admit there's also the current of “Crap, I never win anything” associated with it. (Fun fact: I won exactly one drawing-by-chance in my life. The prize: A potted daffodil. My luck ends there, at least when it comes to winning stuff. Needless to say, I don't bother playing the lottery.)

While we didn't have enough men – well, any – for the May King, White Cat Grove did select a May Queen one year with the traditional bean in the cake. The next time, we said “Screw it” and unanimously elected my cat Missy as the May Queen. She had a blast that year, greeting everyone at the door when they arrived and even walking between the two fires.

So, as with everything Beltaine, you can skip the whole May Day royalty bit if you want to.

Key concepts: If it doesn't work for you, screw it. (Not literally, unless it's consensual.)

Happy Maying, all!

Sword, harp and singing bird: Aonghus Óg

Edain came out of Midhir’s hill, and lay

Beside young Aengus in his tower of glass,

Where time is drowned in odour-laden winds

And Druid moons, and murmuring of boughs,

And sleepy boughs, and boughs where apples made

Of opal and ruby and pale chrysolite

Awake unsleeping fires; and wove seven strings,

Sweet with all music, out of his long hair,

Because her hands had been made wild by love.

When Midhir’s wife had changed her to a fly,

He made a harp with Druid apple-wood

That she among her winds might know he wept;

And from that hour he has watched over none

But faithful lovers.

– William Butler Yeats, “The Harp of Aengus”

Amid the falling snow, the light lengthens; buds began to swell on the icicle-laden branch. The green force of life trickles and then flows in tandem, rising forth as winter’s cloak melts from the land.

It is at this time – the birth of spring and its slow swelling – that Keltrian Druids honor Aonghus Óg, the Young Son with the swan wings.


A painting of a Victorian era description of Áengus mac Óg, via Wikimedia Commons. Painter unknown.

His name has been variously spelled, and variously interpreted. Scholar and linguist Marie-Louise Sjoestedt interprets his name as “unique force,” while Celticist Mary Jones translates it as “Chosen One.” Writer Aedh Rua, drawing on other research, connects it to the old Celtic/Gaulish name Oinogustus, interpreted as “one choice” or, occasionally, “one strength.” His title is a bit more consistent: Mac Óg means “young son,” and Óg simply “young.” There are, however, variants: Mac ind Óg “son of the young/son of youth” and even Mac in Dá Óg, “son of the two young ones,” which perhaps refers to his parents, Boann and the Dagda (Sjoestedt 41-42).

He is associated with swans, which appear in a variety of myths, as well as four birds that continually circle his head, bringing joy and love (Rolleston 121). Some descriptions have him playing a harp of gold, drinking the ale of immortality and using his cloak of invisibility to protect chosen lovers (McKillop 138). In a larger sense, he appears to be the same god as the Welsh Mabon and Gaulish Maponos, the Divine Youth whom the Romans interpreted as Apollo. To draw on a wider range of Indo-European mythology, he has qualities in common with the Indian Kama, the Slavic Lado/Yarilo and the Norse Baldur.

But don’t let the swans and the flowers fool you; Aonghus is more than a winged Victorian Cupid figure. To use a Greek analogy, he’s equal parts Eros, Apollo and Hermes: the lover, the poet and the trickster. His is the primeval force that shatters the arbitrary chains of tradition — a bit like sex itself. Love may have swan wings and a harp, but he also carries a sword. And he’s not blind; in fact, he’s sharp-sighted and pretty darn smart.

A love that crosses boundaries 

Aonghus Og, from the 1914 book "Heroes of the Dawn," via Wikimedia Commons

Aonghus’ parents, “the Two Young Ones,” are the river-goddess Boann and father-god Dagda. There is a catch, however; Boann is already married to a god named either Elcmar or Nechtan, who may be the same as Nuada Airgetlám, the Tuatha de Danann god associated with rulership, justice, the sword and law. Associated with fresh water and a magic well that eventually transforms Boann into a river, Nechtan must be tricked the allow Aonghus Óg to be born; when the Dagda sends him off on an errand, the gods stop the passage of time to make a single day last nine months, allowing for the birth of the Young Son, who is then sent to his brother Midhir (“judge,” whom I interpret as the Celtic moon god) to raise. Upon his birth, his mother said, “’Young is the son who was begotten at break of day and born betwixt it and evening’” (Rees and Rees, 216), the origin of his title and also a hint of the god’s interesting relationship with time.

While Boann never leaves Nuada, it is perhaps telling that Aonghus is born of an affaire de coeur rather than a sanctioned partnership. He later helps his foster-father Midhir in his own matters of the heart, winning him the hand of lovely Etain (or Edain) via a series of impossible tasks with some help from dad – and conveniently ignoring the fact that Midhir is already married to the goddess Fuamnach. His brother and new wife live with him for a year, perhaps circumventing the rule in which the elder wife would be able to work her will on the new bride during the first days of partnership. When Fuamnach turns Etain into a jeweled insect, he provides Etain a home and protection in the form of a glass room. When the elder wife tricks Aonghus and Midhir away from Etain and blows the latter away with a Druidic wind, it is Aonghus who seeks vengeance, ultimately beheading Fuamnach in a rare act of violence (Heaney 25).

In short, propriety and social rules do not matter to the Young Son; throughout myth, he supports the path of the heart, no matter the cultural ramifications or consequences. He’s probably a great fan of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, although he’d likely give the titular couple more time together before the inevitable disaster.

He does meddle in human affairs of the heart, although in a protective role rather than the typical Cupid-armed-with-arrows image. His foster-son, Diarmuid of the Love-Spot, has the magical ability to inspire transgressive love, which he tries to curtail by keeping the infamous spot covered. He inevitably slips up and Grainne, new bride to his chief Finn, falls in love with him – although, dismayed by an arranged marriage to a man older than her father, she was admittedly on the lookout for a better opportunity. She forces Diarmuid to run away with her via a potion and a geis, over his protests. Interestingly, Aonghus seems to bless this love – spiriting the couple away in his cloak of invisibility over the heads of Finn and his men, giving Diarmuid advice on how to keep one step ahead of Finn, and later also spiriting away Grainne alone as Diarmuid fights on. As Diarmuid fights, he uses Aonghus’ sword, Manannan’s spear and a hefty dose of trickery to win the day.

Swan in snow. Photo by Jenne Micale

Love and Time

Aonghus has a complex relationship with time and its manipulation. As seen above, his birth comes after an alteration of time – an illusion that allows a day to last nine months. He is also heavily involved in the myth of Midhir and Etain, which involves the repeated transformations and ultimate reincarnation of the latter, who is continually gained and lost by her love, a cycle reminiscent of the waxing and waning moon.

He gains Brug na Boinne, his home, through the verbal manipulation of time-concepts. He asks the occupant at the time, the Dagda, to borrow the house for a day and a night. Feeling generous as Aonghus does not have a sídh mound of his own, his father grants the request. When he shows up the following day, Aonghus won’t hand over the house-keys. Irish, as it happens, has no article that differentiate “a day” from “day” itself. Or as the god explains it: “’It is clear,’ said the Mac Óc, ‘that night and day are the whole world, and it is that which has been given to me’” (Rees and Rees, 88). It’s a bit of trickery that would make the Greek Hermes proud.

From his conception, Aonghus alters the perception of time – although not time himself. He doesn’t stop the sun’s passage or count the years of Etain’s loss; other gods do that. Instead, he’s an illusionist, making us question the reality of what we see and experience and to look to the loopholes in the contract. In some senses, the Young Son stands outside of time, a perspective that influences the One Choice that must be made. These choices aren’t only limited to love; he advises his father, for example, to trick the ravenous Fomorian satirist Cridenbel by mixing gold coins in his food (Blamires 101), thus poisoning the Fomhoire and providing an alibi all at once. Standing outside of time and recognizing the limits of perception are, in essence, the key to cleverness.

Aonghus interacts with time in another way: by freeing the light and warmth of spring. According to a Scottish myth, the Cailleach – a goddess of winter – imprisons his sister Brighid in the mountain Beinn Nibheis, and Aonghus rides on a white horse to save her (Kondratiev, 152). The god associated with youth, poetry, love and springtime frees the fire-goddess, and together they bring the spring to the wintry land.

The fort of the yew-berry

While Aonghus plays a role in many myths, he’s the focal point of Aislinge Óenguso, the Vision of Aonghus. For a year, the god sees a beautiful woman in a vision or dream; she plays the lute or harp. He falls deeply in love with this vision-woman and begins to pine away, unable to rouse himself from his trance-state. Physicians call in his mother Boann, who searches the world for this woman to no avail. Then they call in his father, the Dagda, who has a rather comical, if pragmatic, response: “What is the use of talking to me? … I know no more than you do” (Celtic Miscellany, 94).

The Dagda, however, calls in another of his sons: Bodhbd (Bodb) Dearg, whose name means “Red Raven” and who is associated with arcane knowledge. Bodb’s search is successful and he finds the woman at Loch Bél Dragon, the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth. Her name is Caer, a name that appears to be connected to the word cathair, which means a city or rocky fort; she is also called Ibormeith, or Yew Berry. Bodb takes his brother to the lake, where he recognizes the woman of his dreams – who wears a silver band around her neck, connected by gold chains to 150 other young women.

Unable presumably to catch her attention, Bodb refers Aonghus to the rulers of the land, the famous Maedhbh (Maeve) and Aillil, who summon Caer’s father, Ethal Anbhuail, to their hall. He refuses to come, and their forces – aided by the Dagda – overun Ethal’s sídh. Amid threats to his safety, Ethal tells them that he cannot give Caer to them, for she is a shapeshifter whose own power exceeds his own – and possibly that of Aonghus. After a little ungentle prodding, he admits to them how she may be approached: she changes shape each Samhain at the lake. Caer’s hand, as it turns out, cannot be won by either force or trickery.

Come Samhain, Aonghus goes to the lake, where he picks out Caer from 150 identical swans linked by silver chains. He simply calls to her, introduces himself and asks her consent to the match. She gives it, provided that he permit her return to the lake. He happily grants this and they fly off together in the shape of swans, singing the song that puts all into blissful slumber for three days. “The girl stayed with him after that,” the eighth century version of the tale ends (Celtic Miscellany, 97).

In some senses, the story is reminiscent of the Roman Cupid and Psyche, save that the roles are reversed; it is the god who must pursue the vision of his soul and win her hand. Force and flattery cannot win her, only the ability to choose the beloved correctly from others – a task that resurfaces in Midhir and Etain, except the king mistakenly chooses his own daughter rather his wife. After the choice is made, the beloved is asked her consent, which she gives in exchange for free will. Perhaps tellingly, she never leaves him – even though she has the right to leave and return to her lake at any time.

The Rees brothers compare this story to Indian tales of Gandharvas, or nature-spirits who appear as half-bird and half-man; their wives, the Apsaras, are water-nymphs (276). Kama, the Indian god of love with his flower-tipped arrows, “is also called ‘The Gandharva,’” they note (278); Aonghus turns into a swan alongside his bride, in essence, becoming a nature spirit. To take a larger view, shape-changing swan-maidens persist in folklore throughout the world, as part of a larger theme of animal brides.

The Fort of the Yew Berry is obviously something other, a boundary-crosser with great power, the last according to the admission of her father. Where, or what, is the City of the Yew Berry? James MacKillop provides this answer: “Her nickname Ibormeith (yew berry) implies something of the nature of her character. The long-living evergreen yew is commonly a symbol of immortality in European tradition and is still often seen in Christian cemeteries. Wood from the tree is hard to burn and was the favoured material in druids’ wands” (167). The City of the Yew Berry represents a kind of immortality, the numinous, shape-changing power of spirit that lies behind magic.

The story of Caer and Aonghus can be seen as the definition of ideal love: seeking, finding, asking consent and granting free-will. It can also be seen as the artist’s pursuit of the “Muse,” the creative spirit behind the work. (MacKillop, interestingly, sees Aonghus as a god of poetry rather than love.) It can also be interpreted as the sacred’s courtship of and relationship with the soul, who has her own free will and agency.

Restorer of the soul

On swan wings, we alight on another of Aonghus’ roles: the restorer of the soul. Caitlin Matthews considers Aonghus as a powerful “healer of souls” (283), and a primary guardian of the soul-shrine with his sister Brighid (328). In support of this, we may remember the songbirds (or swans, depending on the story) that circle his head, whose tunes inspire joy, love and release from depression. Aonghus and Caer also bring bliss and restful sleep to all those who hear them sing. In some tales, when his brother Midhir loses an eye breaking up a quarrel, Aonghus is the one who brings the physician Dian Cecht to restore him.

Matthews in particular cites Aonghus role in protecting Etain when she was in the shape of a fly, and thus vulnerable to Fuamnach, and his treatment of Diarmuid after his foster-son’s death. While Aonghus cannot restore him to human life, he brings him to the brug, where he breathes the spirit into him every day, allowing the two to converse for a while. Diarmuid experiences, in short, an eerie kind of half-life similar to that of the speaking head of Bran the Blessed in Welsh lore. To Matthews, “Aengus is concerned with the harmony which should be in the soul-shrine” (328), which perhaps explains his violent reaction to the repeated disharmony caused by Fuamnach.

As spring edges into fullness, allow your soul to listen to the song of Aonghus – his birds and his harp, his longing and his love. Like springtime itself, he is fresh and new – the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as poet Dylan Thomas puts it. That force – chi, prana, spirit – is a powerful one binding us to the cosmos and its cycles as long as we live, and to art, love, music and visions. Aonghus Óg is a manifestation of this force, which is not limited to lovers or the young, but feeds all who drink from its sweet waters.


A Celtic Miscellany. Ed. and trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson. New York: Penguin Books, 1951.

Blamires, Steve. The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition. Cheltanham, UK: Skylight Press, 1992, 2012

Heaney, Marie. Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Jones, Mary. “Óengus mac ind- Óg.” Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia. Accessed Dec. 29, 2015.

Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003.

MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook.Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1994.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1917.

Rua, Aedh. Celtic Flame: An Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008.

Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Celtic Gods and Heroes. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.

“The Wooing of Etain.” from Heroic Romances of Ireland Volume II, ed. and trans. A.H. Leahy. London: David Nut, 1906. Published on, Accessed Dec. 30, 2015.

From the President: Happy Solstice!

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. By Mark Grant, via Wikimedia Commons

In the hustle and bustle of this time of the year, amidst endless demands for our attention and dollars, and in the manufactured tension between “political correctness” and expressions of individual devotion, let’s remember the reason for this season. (The malcontent complainers are hardly a credit to their faith, whichever it is.)

In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest time of the year and, at the solstice, we anticipate the rebirth of the sun. The Unconquered Sun is the reason the emperor Constantine declared Sunday (day of the Sun) as the official day of rest – now celebrated by most Christians as the day of worship -- and December 25 was only fixed as a Christian celebration during the fourth century. The Solstice had been long celebrated as the birth of solar deities and was a fitting time to mark renewal through the birth of the Christian and Mithraic (Roman) icons. Gift-giving was already a part of the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia. 

From Northern Europe comes the tradition of the shaman who, at the time of the Solstice, rode his reindeer-powered shaman’s sleigh into the heart of the Sun and returned to his people to bring gifts and guidance – the original figure who has become known today as Santa Claus.

So, let’s get beyond these petty late-coming internecine squabbles. No matter with what sectarian group we identify and may pretend is the original or truest, let’s remember what pre-dated them all: the cycles of life where, out of the darkness of the year, is born divinity originally found in Nature as the renewed Sun; where light arises out of darkness, life out of death. The words we put on these cycles are but clothing on the body of the Great Mystery of life, death and renewal. 
So, Happy Solstice, along with whatever else you may be celebrating!

Light in darkness: Ritual ideas for the Feast of Rebirth

Photo by Cypresseyes

Photo by Cypresseyes

The snow drifts down, light and powdery with the breath of the cold. Dawn tarries and night hurries in.

Now is the time of Meán Geimhridh, what the Henge of Keltria terms the Feast of Rebirth. Traditionally, we honor the Dagda (the Good God, as in "good at everything") and Brighid (her name has been interpreted as "exalted" or "she who rises") for this feast day.

If you have Keltria's Book of Ritual, you'll notice that they don't include suggestions for "Grove's Choice" for the Feast of Rebirth; you're meant to come up with your own ideas here. Grove's Choice is essentially the symbolic act at the heart of the ceremony, and is up to the practitioners; since most people operate as solitaries, I like to call it the meat (or tofu) of ritual.

So, what's my tofu like for Meán Geimhridh?

This year, I'm doing something different: Making a set of prayer beads, according to the instructions set forth in Lunaea Weatherstone’s Tending Brigid’s FlameThe making of the beads is part of the ritual. From my script:

I call upon you, Brighid Bean-Goibhne, Brighid the Smith, for your inspiration in this work. I call upon you, Dagda, the Good God, who is good at all things. Bless my work.

Afterwards, I will immediately use the beads for their intended purpose. Later on in the rite, I will also light candles and chant to strengthen the waxing light, which is something I do every year. The chant (which I always sing, rather than speak) comes from the lore, although the melody is my own:

Peace up to the sky

Sky down to earth

Earth beneath heaven

Strength to everyone

The prayer beads are a new innovation. We'll see how it goes this year. As I make the beads, I plan to play a mix CD I made for Brighid some years back. (Yes, I do make mix-tapes for the Gods. I also have a Morrigan mix and Aonghus Og mix about.)

In previous years, I've tried different innovations. I've honored Brighid as the Goddess of the Hearth and the Dagda as the Lord of Abundance by holding the ritual in the kitchen, baking bannock and meditating on the Gods of the Season while the bannock baked. I've done a trance-meditation on the light reaching the spiral in the heart of Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange).

When White Cat Grove was more than just me, I also had each member present write a blessing on a slip of paper and put it in the bowl; they included such things as health, warmth, financial security, right livelihood, etc. Here's the meditation:

Dagda, the Good God, has a cauldron from plenty from which none ever go hungry. He is the father that feeds the tribe, lover and protector and nourisher. The Red One of Knowlege bestows blessings without stinginess, without fail, for all those who seek. And so, in this time of cold, let each of us follow example, granting blessings in a time of darkness.

What blessings does the world need most -- you, your family, your Druid sisters? Ask not for yourselves, but as the bestower of blessing. When the Dagda's spirit moves you, take up the paper and pen and grant four blessings on separate slips of paper. Then fold them and out them in the offering bowl

At the end of the meditation, each of us took one slip to show the Gods' blessings on our own lives. The rest went into the offering fire.

These are just some of the ways I cook my ritual-tofu for the Feast of Rebirth. Feel free to use any of these ideas, and to share your own!

Feed the fish: Drop your hazelnuts into the Well of Wisdom! We're always looking for submissions to the Keltria blog: poetry, photos, essays, articles, recipes, random musings related to the Henge and more! Share your imbas with your fellow Keltrians. Contact or

First ancestor, Lord of the Dead: Donn Tétscorach

From Wikimedia Commons: North Pacific storm waves as seen from the NOAA M/V Noble Star, Winter 1989.

From Wikimedia Commons: North Pacific storm waves as seen from the NOAA M/V Noble Star, Winter 1989.

Donn was the first to die.

Listen to Teach Duinn by Kwannon here.

The storytellers don't always say this, as they spin the threads frayed through time and broken tradition. Instead, they say, Éber Donn was the eldest of the seven or eight sons of Míl, brother of Amergin. Sometimes, they say he cursed his brother Ír as he rowed toward Ériu, causing the oar to break and Ír to drown – a crime that made his Druidic brother judge him as unworthy of landing (Jones). Other times, they say he landed and insulted the land-goddess herself, refusing to thank her for their victory. “Thank our gods and our own might,” he retorted (Lebor Gabala Érenn). In return, Ériu cursed him and his progeny to never benefit from the land.

When the Sons of Míl went behind the ninth wave to make their approach, Donn – some tellers say – planned to put the isle's inhabitants to the sword and claim the land for his people. But a great wind caused his ship to founder, drowning him and several of his brothers at the island of Tech Duinn (Lebor Gabala). It was, some storytellers say, due to his insult to the goddess or punishment of his bloodthirsty nature (Rolleson). In the Metrical Dindsennchas, Donn instead climbs the mast of his ship to utter incantations against the Tuatha de Danann, and is cursed by them with disease. Rather than allow the illness he carries to spread to the mainland, Donn consents to being left on the rocky shore of Tech Duinn. As in other tales, the magical wind causes his ship to founder and he drowns, and is later buried on the rocky island (Gwynn 311).

But beneath the unlikely mythic history of the Invasions runs another truth: Donn was the first to die, but not on the coast of Ireland. He is, in short, the first ancestor – the first human to suffer death, and thus the ruler of the land of the dead.

According to Caesar, the Gauls claimed to be descended from Dis – another name of Roman Pluto or Greek Hades – whom they claim as a common father (Chadwick 146). This is a teaching of the Druids, Caesar relates in The Gallic Wars. This identification with the dead influences their timekeeping system, Caesar notes: “Because of this they measure time by the passing of nights, not days. Birthdays and the beginnings of months and years all start at night” (Freeman 43). The First Ancestor thus continues to influence the lives of his many children, establishing their traditions and ultimately greeting them in death.

Abounding in furious horses

Akin to the Greek Hades, the Celtic God of the Dead is aloof, dwelling apart from the rest of the Tuatha de Danann. His name means “dark,” but also the color brown, the hue of the earth and graves. It's a name with old roots, deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root dhus-no for dark or dusky one (Lincoln 35). He was also called Donn Tétscorach, with the latter word seeming to mean “abounding in furious horses,” according to scholar James MacKillop (117). Those furious horses make an appearance in the lore: they are the swift steeds ridden by the three red men in the tale of Da Derga's hostel, whose appearance announces the High King's doom.

“We ride the steeds of Donn Tétscorach from the elfmounds. Though we are alive we are dead,” the riders tell doomed king Conaire Mór. “Great are the signs: destruction of life: sating of ravens: feeding of crows, strife of slaughter: wetting of sword-edge, shields with broken bosses in hours after sundown” (The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel). The omens of death are thus coupled with swift horses whom none can outrun, ridden by spirits between both life and death. It's an image reminiscent to that of the Wild Hunt: the wild dash of Otherworldly riders, associated with the dead.

Donn Tétscorach ultimately becomes conflated with Donn mac Miled of the Invasions, even down to the eponymous island off the southwestern coast: Tech Duinn, the House of Donn. In the pseudo-historical Invasions lore, the island host only the graves of Donn and several other children of Mil. In folklore, however, Tech Duinn is the grave of all mankind; it is Donn's hall, where he hosts the spirits of all those who died, whether on a permanent basis as the Land of the Dead or a temporary one as a way-station to other Otherworld lands or rebirth. The island itself is an inhospitable rocky outcrop, today called Bull Rock and home to a lighthouse

In County Limerick, Tech Duinn isn't an island but a hill with a function akin to a sidhe-mound: Cnoc Firinne. There, the god was known as Donn Firinne, and associated with weather, storms and – again with the equine theme – a white horse. Scholar Sharynne Paice MacLeod notes that people believed they would be brought into Cnoc Firinne after death (57), a function remarkably similar to that of Tech Duinn. Interestingly, Cnoc Firinne means “Hill of Truth.”

South Indian depiction of Yama, via Wikimedia Commons. From E. A. Rodrigues, The complete Hindoo Pantheon, comprising the principal deities worshipped by the Natives of British India throughout Hindoostan

South Indian depiction of Yama, via Wikimedia Commons. From E. A. Rodrigues, The complete Hindoo Pantheon, comprising the principal deities worshipped by the Natives of British India throughout Hindoostan

Whatever his guise or mythic origin, Donn ultimately represents the oldest reality of all: that of mortality. As the ninth century poet Maél Muru of Othan describes his burial:

A stone cairn was raised across the broad sea for his people,

A long-standing ancient house, which is named the House of Donn after him.

And this was his mighty testament for his hundredfold offspring:

“You shall come to me, to my house, after your death.” (Lincoln 34)

Whether that last statement is viewed as a statement of the afterlife or strictly an allegory – all men must die – is left to the reader.

The Man and the Twin

Befitting the Lord of Death, Donn may be one of the most ancient gods in the Irish pantheon, with firm Proto-Indo-European roots. He has a good deal in common with the Indian Yama, a Vedic god of death who, like Donn, was also the first to die.

Yama means “twin” and in Hindu myth he is the brother of Yami, goddess of the Yamuna river. But Puhvel, noting that Hindu mythology tends to double figures in male-female pairs, believes that his twin is truly Manu, progenitor of humanity, who introduces both sacrifice and religious law. Manu, in fact, makes his twin the first sacrifice (Puhvel 286). Bruce Lincoln speculates that Donn's original name may be Emon, or Twin, in line with the Proto-Indo-European root Yemo, also the source of Yama's name.

Modern Druid Ceiswr Serith, in his reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European mythology and religion, names the pair of primordial twins Yemós (“Twin”) and Mannus (“Man”). Mannus functions as the first priest, making his brother the first blood sacrifice – initiating both religious law and the Underworld. “Yemós gets into the very structure of the world, while Mannus stays behind and starts history rolling,” Serith writes (57).

This pattern is repeated in the story of Donn and his brother Amergin. Described as a poet, the latter acts largely as a Druid priest: offering magical incantations that allow him to call the powers of the land and claim it for his people, as well as parlaying with the Gods (the Tuatha de Danann). His judgment of Donn after Ír's death – or, in the Dindshenchas, his statement that Donn will die of disease – could be seen as a death-curse, a magical sacrifice of his brother. In all the tales of the Sons of Mil, Amergin and Donn are opposites even as they are repeatedly shown together: peace and war, magic and physicality, life and death, sacrificer and sacrificed.

What is the nature of Donn's realm – the twin realm of the Dead? Bruce Lincoln describes the kingdom of Yemo as “a happy one, a paradise where sickness, cares, death, and extremities of climate are all unknown” (41). It is, in short, a paradise similar to other Otherworld isles: Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise; Mag Mell, the Delightful Plain; Tír na nÓg, Land of the Young.

Leader of the Wild Hunt, first ancestor, Lord of the Dead, Donn shows us the pathway to the Otherworld and greets us in his hall after our death.

Donn, the dark one, the brown one, hue of the Earth! Donn, the dark one, first of the Sons of Mil! First ancestor, first one to tread and tend Death's halls, you who entered the Otherworld through the waters of the southwest so soon after sighting Eriu. Donn, dark one, brown one, hue of the Earth! You who welcome us at the Western Isle of Tech Duinn as we make our passage from this life to the next. Father whose halls make room for all the mighty hosts, in whose house we rest at the end of our life-journey, be welcome, welcome and thrice welcome!


Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. New York: Penguin, 1971.

Freeman, Philip. War, Women and Druids: Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts.

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002

Edward Gwynn, The Metrical Dindshenchas: Volume 4 (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1991, originally 1906).

Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions.” Celtic Literature Collective, Mary Jones. Originally from Lebor Gabála Érenn: Book of the Taking of Ireland Part 1-5. ed. and tr. by R. A. S. Macalister. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1941

Lincoln, Bruce. Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1991

MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005

MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Myth and Religion. Jefferson, NC:Macfarland & Company, 2012

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, 1990 (originally 1911)

Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2007

Stokes, Whitney, Trans. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, c 1100.”

Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Ed. Paul Halsall. Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, 1998.

The Power and Pitfalls of Mythologies

Photo by Ulchaban

Photo by Ulchaban

Mythologies – recognized and not recognized – are powerful forces in all societies. They help tell us who we think we are and our place in the world, and how to relate to those within and outside our official circles. They inspire acts of heroism and terrorism, conquest and resistance to conquest. They give people hope and reason to live, ways to navigate our world, and a relationship with the Divine (or an image thereof). They are also used in the subjugation of conquered peoples to erase unwanted ideas or troublesome competing mythologies and languages.

Celts had mythologies that celebrated a direct connection with the land and the ruler’s responsibility toward that land. If the ruler was unfit, the land suffered.

The power of mythology is not limited to history or religious expression. Countries carry their own (often white-washed) mythologies, and their leaders use mythologies (via propaganda) to present a desirable image of themselves. We see negative mythologies created about the character and identity of others. Often we see an illusory image created by the opponents purporting to know the motivation and some secret agenda of the other. As a psychologist, it is painfully obvious that how much we are asked to make judgments on is based on little more than rumor, innuendo, accusation and a contrived image. Truth is an unwelcome guest at this table.

06-14-07-staugustine-281Of course, mythologies are not always consistent and will provide contradictory models for us. But those contradictions, I submit, simply show the complexity of human nature and the human condition.

Speaking of the human condition, our memories are often the mythology we use to explain who we are and how we came to be this way. We have constructed a mythological identity for ourselves, attributing influence to others, to ideas, to lessons, successes and failures.

The test of any mythology – religious, personal or secular – is whether it helps us navigate our world and allows us to draw inspiration from it. If not, it is just a social belief system; for genuine mythologies are alive, and enliven those who can embody them!

For Keltrians, do our myths live in us, inspire us, educate us? Do they help us relate to one another, to the Spirits of Nature, to the Ancestors, to the Divine? How personal is our relationship with any of the divine figures of our pantheon?

I invite us all to examine how we might – each in our individual way – engage with and celebrate our myths. We can re-read the stories, see where they come alive in us, how they speak to us and give us a glimpse into the source of wisdom and inspiration. We can celebrate our holidays and rites, and honor the characters that live in the mythologies and, perhaps, discover them already alive inside of us.

Karl is the ArchDruid Emeritus and current President of the Henge of Keltria.

Feed the fish: Drop your hazelnuts into the Well of Wisdom! We're always looking for submissions to the Keltria blog: poetry, photos, essays, articles, recipes, random musings related to the Henge and more! Share your imbas with your fellow Keltrians. Contact or


Shamanic Elements in Druidism

Shamanic Elements in Druidism: A Summary of a Workshop Presented by C. Leigh McGinley and Karl Schlotterbeck at the 2016 Annual Gathering – prepared by Karl Schlotterbeck.

This workshop carries forward ideas presented in a previous article (from September 2009) titled “Celtic Shamanism: Fad, Fact or Fantasy?” In this workshop, the co-facilitators first addressed the challenges inherent when people from one culture attempt to understand the activities of another culture without the language, perspective, experience and environmental realities of the observed culture. As in any culture, direct translation of language can be a problem with idioms, double meanings or nuances that are not recognized. It should first be noted that the term “shaman” comes originally from the Tungus people in Siberia and has been applied by anthropologists and others to similar practitioners in other cultures – even if they have their own word for these people.

An illustration of a shaman in Siberia, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

An illustration of a shaman in Siberia, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The first writers to observe shamanic activity in the New World were missionaries in the 16th through 18th centuries who dismissed it as “devil worship,” and called the practitioners jugglers, charlatans and imposters. When anthropologists began describing them in the 19th and 20th centuries, shamans were often described as “mentally deranged” or “tricksters,” although some saw them as “outstanding people” or serving as psychoanalysts to their people. The belief in animism was described as a concept for “lower races.” It was not until the 1950s, when anthropologists and others actually participated in shamanic activity that more respectful and objective descriptions came about. (See Shamans Through Time, edited by Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, Tarcher/Putnam 2001.)

Thus, observers saw only what they were prepared to see, based on their own reality-orientation, expectations, set of pre-existing ideas, and perspective.

A Mudang, or Korean shaman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Mudang, or Korean shaman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the elements of shamanic activity relevant to our discussion include:

  • The use of altered states of consciousness, and the induction of trance through drumming, singing, chanting, dancing, storytelling, sounds of nature, fasting, entheogens, etc.
  • Purposeful travel into the Otherworld
  • Shapeshifting
  • Interaction with spirits
  • Divination
  • Psychopomp work
  • Weather shamanism
  • Healing
  • The use of ritual dress – usually animal-based – to facilitate the transition of consciousness
  • The perspective of an interconnected web of life and that everything in nature is alive and willing to communicate

(Note that no one of these necessarily denotes a shaman as, over time, various functions have been appropriated for use by healers, channelers, therapists, entertainers and priests.)

Irish stories make reference to such things as shapeshifting, spirit flight, interaction with the dead and with denizens of the Otherworld, weather influence, healing, chanting, forms of divination, ritual and ceremonial dress, etc.

Some of the elements we see in Celtic literature and mythology suggestive of an orientation similar to that of shamanic societies include:

  • Mogh Roith who used bull hide, speckled bird mask and other “druidic gear” to fly and send fire to the enemy.
  • The possibility (suggested by Stuart Harris-Logan in Singing with Blackbirds) that the wheel mentioned in stories of Mogh Roith, as well as Fechertne’s claim that he traveled on “chariot without a wheelrim, on wheelrim without a chariot,” may have the double meaning of drum – similar to such references in other cultures.
  • The wasting sickness of Cú Chulainn who was beaten into a trance, as well as his “battle frenzy” and “magical heat.” Harris-Logan reads Cú Chulainn’s story as typical of shamanic activity: an initiatory sleep, visits to the Otherworld, a totemic name and the trance of his battle fury.
  • Fionn and company were described as using a chant (dordfhiansa) that would scatter the enemy and is described in a way that suggests Tuvan overtone singing.
  • The image of Cernunnos – with antlers and accompanied by animals, including a serpent with horns.
  • Shapeshifting, often into deer (which “Saint” Patrick is said to have done to elude capture).
  • Being “taken by the Faeries” as shamanic initiation (as suggested by Tom Cowan in Fire in the Head).
  • The use of the term “sleep” to suggest the activities of trance.
Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, via Wikimedia Commons

Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, via Wikimedia Commons

There is always discussion about the origin and meaning of the term “druid” and I believe it is a distraction from into a deeper understanding when we attempt to nail down one specific idea. I’ve come to believe that the many possibilities of translation reflect the many facets of meaning inherent in this word. Such meanings have included: door, oak, strong, true, knowledge, witness, experiential wisdom, and knowledge of the oak. This last descriptor – knowledge of the oak – has a double meaning as well: it could mean “knowledge about the oak” or “knowing what the oak knows” – or both.

There are some differences, to be sure, between Celtic society and common shamanic concepts. The need to journey as in our modern idea reflects our felt distance from the Otherworld, whereas in the Irish/Celtic, the Otherworld was immanent and we could stumble into it at any time. Thus, formal “journeys” were not so necessary.

There are various practices described in Irish literature suggestive of shamanic divinatory activity such as:

  • Imbas forosna, in which, after preparation and invocation, the individual chanted over his/her palms, put the palms over the eyes, and “slept” for an answer to a question while watched over by others;
  • Toghairm, in which the person was wrapped in a fresh hide, lain near a waterfall, given a question and left to divine the answer;
  • Frith, in which a process of moving “twixt and between” was used to divine an omen to answer a question;
  • And all manner of nature augury such as cloud divination, bird song, bird flight, the reading of entrails.

Again, engaging in these activities wouldn’t necessarily make one equivalent to traditional shamans, but these are activities quite similar to those of shamans.

Maeve and the Druid. By Stephen Reid (Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulainn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maeve and the Druid. By Stephen Reid (Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulainn) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our live workshop, we were fortunate in being able to take these ideas beyond theory and guide participants in forms of divination such as imbas forosna, toghairm and frith. In addition, TopazOwl showed the use of a story – Heart So True – to effect healing, thus, demonstrating that the well-known practices of storytelling were likely used for more than entertainment.

In summary, as state by Harris-Logan: “Through their songs and chants, the Gaels displayed a complete spectrum of shamanic activity: from shapeshifting and sensory deprivation to healing extraction and totemism. . . The shaman is a specialist in the Sacred; one who fosters a personal and interactive relationship with the spirits. The druids did this, and so did the Gaels. (Harris-Logan, p. 122)

References used in preparation for this seminar included (along with personal experience):

Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, Tom Cowan, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade, Bollingen/Princeton University Press, 1964 edition/translation

Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magic, Jan Fries, Mandrake of Oxford, 2003

The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing, Michael Harner, Harper and Row, 1980

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, Michael Harner, North Atlantic Books, 2013

Singing with Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Traditions, Stuart Harris-Logan, Grey House in the Woods, 2006

The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook, John Matthews, Element, 1991

Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge, edited by Jeremy Narby & Francis Huxley, Tarcher/Putnam, 2001

Forbhais Droma Dámhgáire: The Siege of Knocklong, Seán Ó Duinn, Mercier Press, 1992



by Autumn Rose

Autumn Rose

Autumn Rose

A complete seasonal ritual includes a Seasonal Activity, also known as Grove's Choice when the ritual is performed by a group.  Below is a suggested Imbolc activity for a solitary practitioner, with a proposed variation for a Grove.

Fill a fondue dish with ice cubes.  Place the dish, along with its base, an unlit red votive candle, and matches or a lighter, at the front of the altar.

Elevate the dish of ice cubes.

Say: This is the frigid Land, stark and barren as the Cailleach holds it yet in her icy grip.  Set the dish down.

Light the candle and elevate it.
Say: This is the fire of Brigid, which warms the frozen Land that it may once again become fertile. 

Place the candle in the base and the dish on top of it.
Say: The struggle between Brigid and the Cailleach is an ancient one.  The Crone will not easily surrender her dominion over the Land.  But the fire of Brigid burns eternally, and only for a while can it be damped.  Now, as it does every year at this time, the struggle begins.  May the fire of Brigid burn bright and hot.  May the Cailleach be driven back to her lair.  I add my warm breath to the warmth of Brigid, to aid in her vital work.

Blow on the ice cubes.

Variation for a Grove:

At the beginning of the seasonal rite the Grove Tender distributes ice cubes to the participants, who then file past the altar and place their cubes in the fondue dish.  At the end of it  the participants again file past the altar, each one blowing on the ice cubes to assist Brigid in her task of warming.

(When the ice cubes are melted, you may wish to save the meltwater in a consecrated vessel to use in a cleansing ritual of your choosing, at Spring Equinox or some other time.)


Knitting is a Service Too

By Tony Taylor

Photo of Tony Taylor taken by Karl

Tony Taylor

I received an email from a long-time member asking what could she do for the Henge. Although she does not practice Keltrian Druidism, she loves the Druid way. She enthusiastically supports the Henge while celebrating with a local grove of another tradition.  She also has skills in many disciplines; she writes poetry and songs, shares her plant knowledge and lore with others, and gives psychic readings. Her degree in pastoral studies aids her in her daily work as do the Gods and Goddesses.  She also mentioned that she knits.  I went on-line and looked once again at examples of her knitting - impressive, beautiful work. Clearly, she is a very talented person and has much to share.

“Ah-ha,” I exclaimed aloud.

In Keltrian Druidism, we think of the Bard, Seer, and Druid as paths or areas of service rather than levels of accomplishment. That is to say, Keltrian Druids of all levels of accomplishment act as Bards, Seers, and Druids. Anything you do that honors the Ancestors, reveres the Spirits of Nature, or celebrates the Gods and Goddesses is a service to them.

For example, we celebrate Boann at the Feast of Flowing and at the Feast of Flowering.  Boann represents the woman cycle of life during which an individual takes care of self. We always need to be cared for like the Maiden, take care of others as a Mother, and take care of our community, which is the responsibility of the Crone. These are the four stages of care in our lives. Throughout all of our lives, we have times where we take care of ourselves; however, the other three phases of life are never excluded as we do so. In other words, the characteristics of all of the Gods and Goddesses are within you. They ebb and flow in their influence in your daily life. Similarly, you do things that fit the path of the Bard, the Seer, and the Druid every day.

The key to being a Keltrian Druid is service to the triad. Keltrian Druids, first and foremost, consciously honor the Ancestors, revere the Nature Spirits, and celebrate the Gods and Goddesses of the Irish Celtic pantheon. I encourage members to share their knowledge, skills, and abilities with the other members. Members can share through writing, song, photographs, workshops, pretty much any medium that will print.

In our knitter’s case, if she decided to knit a pouch for ritual use, she could write about the iconography she used. For example, if a Keltrian sigil, awen symbol, or maybe a cauldron representing The Dagda, were used she could describe why she chose that specific iconography. She could  explain the specific purpose for which the pouch is intended and the method used to consecrate and dedicate it for that purpose.  Photos of the pouch, possibly even in a simulated ritual setting, could accompany a potential submission for publication. (Note: Photos during actual rituals are not appropriate.)

Knitting as type of knot magic and is quite ancient.  Concentrating on the pouch’s use or the intended recipient while working on it creates an object of both beauty and power. Such a work is easily service to the Ancestors, Nature Spirits, and Gods as well as to the Henge.

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[Originally Published in Henge Happenings #100 - Samhain 2013]

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