Breaking the Rules, Part 1 – Elder Wren’s Response

Disclaimer: These are my opinions and come from the perspective of someone who has actively served the Henge of Keltria for over twenty-five years. I was a member of the original Keltrian Grove, and co-leader of subsequent Groves as Tony and I moved across the country. I’ve also served as President and Vice-President of the Henge. I do not speak for Elder Tony or Elder Karl. However, it would be irresponsible of me to allow so much misinformation to be published without comment.

Jenne raises a few good questions for the Council of Elders to address, and we will. The Elders are responsible for guiding the theological and spiritual direction of the Henge of Keltria. Only the Council of Elders is empowered to alter Keltrian theology and practice if such actions are necessary and deemed beneficial to the Henge as its members. These elected Elders also are the only ones authorized to make appropriate adjustments if general societal changes warrant action, and again, only if those actions are in the best spiritual interest of The Henge of Keltria. That said, the Council of Elders can't answer questions that no-one asks. We are approachable people who are willing to answer questions and offer practical advice. All it takes is an email to any one of us or all three. No-one is ever abandoned to "struggle with the rules" alone.

Jenne's editorial refers to the Book of Ritual, but doesn't mention the Book of Keltria except in passing as "…other Keltrian texts." The former is a manual for performing Keltrian rituals that was never meant to stand alone. The latter explains Keltrian theology in detail and the reasoning behind it. What began as an overhaul of our correspondence course in 2000, evolved into the Book of Keltria. Individual correspondence course lessons were updated and dovetailed into chapters. We published this book to accommodate people who were curious about us, but not interested in working with a mentor and doing the required course work.

The Book of Keltria is the product of fifteen years of serious research, debate and personal sacrifices made by a team of dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the Keltrian tradition. Sure, historical blanks needed to be filled and gaps bridged, but always with careful consideration and accepted scholarship. By popular demand, a chapter was added that chronicles the history of our church. This chapter gives an honest account of what we did right as well as what we did wrong. Some of our sincere efforts backfired magnificently. The Book of Keltria is required reading for anyone who seeks to follow the Keltrian path.

The Book of Keltria provides detailed explanations of what we do and why we do it. For example: Why do we celebrate Bilé who is not a member of the Tuatha dé Danann? Truth be told, the founders weren't completely satisfied with this choice, so they felt it was necessary to look outside of our chosen pantheon. Bilé wasn't, isn't and will never be promoted as an Irish god. In fact, one of the assignments in the new Keltrian Course of Further Study is to research old Irish mythology and present a better candidate. It's quite possible that another, more appropriate deity could be found in which case, the Council of Elders would consider making a change in Keltrian theology. This is not unprecedented. In the past, swift alterations have been made when newer sources indicated that previously accepted scholarship is proven to be in error. Rest assured, there certainly is no "unverified personal gnosis" involved. That said, any adaptations would become universal for all Keltrians.

However, one important aspect of our church's foundation must be taken into consideration before irrationally tossing Bilé out with the bathwater. Acknowledgment of the four phases of human life is an original Keltrian concept and the basis of our founders' choices of which matrons and patrons to celebrate. Bilé and his association with Beltane were selected to represent the unencumbered young man sowing his wild oats before assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood. Where in the old Irish mythology is the story that portrays Nuada Silver-hand in this light? Likewise, Aine is a finest-kind sun goddess, but is she a mother goddess? The English translation of "Tuatha dé Danann" is "tribe or people of Danu" so we often refer to ourselves as "the children of Danu." She cannot be arbitrarily replaced. Chapter 2 of the Book of Keltria addresses the importance of the four phases of life in Keltrian theology and Chapter 4 discusses whom we celebrate and why. No individual ever has the right to make unsupported, unilateral changes in Keltrian theology. If they do, then in my opinion, they are not practicing Keltrian Druidism and, therefore they are not Keltrian Druids.

The disposition of offerings can be a dilemma for urbanites and suburbanites who are unable to conduct rituals outdoors with a sacred fire. Fire is the force that transforms offerings into a state that our Gods and Goddesses can easily receive. When Tony and I led a Grove in suburban Atlanta, circumstances dictated that we hold our rituals indoors, so we collected offerings in a fresh paper bag and burned them later. If we were planning to attend a festival, we waited for that event. If not, we placed them in our backyard brazier after the Feast. The theological reason for burning offerings is important to us, but how important is it to Keltrian practice? I can't answer this question myself, so the subject is on the agenda for the next Council of Elders meeting.

Whether to use one or two chalices in ritual is another subject that the Council will debate. I have my reasons for using two – one for the matron and one for the patron. Although, I will say that if one chalice is used, it should be filled with spring water for its purity, not personal preference. Use a paten – especially when doing outdoor rituals - to assure that no winged protein commits suicide in what you plan to put in your mouth.

As I read "Breaking the Rules…," the phrase "Keltrian beliefs" caught my eye. The word "belief" appears in outdated Keltrian publications; however, the revamp of the old correspondence course provided an opportunity to review what was working in the Keltrian tradition and what was not. The Council of Elders dropped the term "belief" from Keltrian theology for several solid reasons. For one thing, "belief" as a condition of spiritual participation is a form of mind control. We do not dictate dogma and never have. There is also the consideration that relying on "belief" is often used as an excuse for not taking responsibility for choices of behavior and subsequent consequences. After lengthily considerations such as these, the Council of Elders substituted the word "hallmark" because it is defined as a principle or standard that describes a code of ethics rather than a list of what Keltrians should think – i.e. believe. Our hallmarks are calls to action rather than marching orders.

I also took a close look at two paragraphs that apparently are intended to support Jenne's argument for unilateral augmentation of Keltrian thought and practices. Her idea is that it's "appropriate" to reinterpret old Irish "lore/myths/scholarly materials" and make subsequent changes. When she points out that there is "great room for interpretation" of scholarly speculations and archeological finds. My mind immediately flashed to David Macaulay's book, Motel of the Mysteries. In USA, in the year 4022, a group of archeologists uncover a no-tell motel. They quickly determined that TVs were altars because there were bodies in front of them. They also determined that toothbrushes were ceremonial earrings, and a toilet seat was obviously part of a high priest's regalia and worn around the neck. Even bathtub plugs were meaningful artifacts. Sounds silly, doesn't it? It does to me, too.

Hallmark 9 describes our dedication to accepting new, proven scholarship even if it means changing core practices. In the end, and above all else, new knowledge is only adopted if it's sensible and enhances Keltrian Druidism. Only the Council of Elders can approve and implement alterations. Hallmark 9 also acknowledges that ancient, present and future Druids were, are and will be vastly different. Although, all three would have profound experiences when encountering a giant sequoia for the first time. Even so, how they describe their reactions would be very different. Jenne goes on to point out that religious practices change, which is also addressed by this Hallmark. A viable church must respond in relevant ways to the needs of its membership, and Keltria pledges to do this. Both the issues of scholarship and cultural/personal evolution are already covered by this Hallmark, and procedures are set in place to address them. I don't understand why Jenne mentions these subjects as if we have never considered them.

Jenne lists several "downsides" to practicing Keltrian Druidism although these impress me as simple excuses for not going "by the book." Quite frankly, I see little in her article that doesn't have a common-sense solution. Keltrian practices are adaptable in many ways to accommodate circumstance, location and health issues. In the case of alcoholism or being underage, as I mentioned before, spring water is the best substitution for mead. When practicing in a place where candles are banned due to safety concerns, battery operated ones are quite convincing when it comes to creating the ambiance necessary for a ritual frame of mind. Hand-sickles are available for under ten dollars in hardware stores. When it's not possible to use a sickle, such as in a public park, or for that matter any Keltrian rite, a hand cupped to form a sickle shape works just fine. The sickle is a hallow and cannot be replaced to perform Keltrian consecrations, nor can the branch. Our Keltrian in Singapore described the danger in procuring a fresh Sacrificial Branch for each Feast observance, so she picked up a fallen branch. Even so, she was nervous about making that a practice because it could be misconstrued by local authorities followed by dire consequences. When asked, we suggested that she decorate the branch she had with ribbons and trinkets appropriate for the season and re-use it. All it takes is a little creative thinking and transformative magick – another subject discussed in the Book of Keltria – to practice Keltrian Druidism. If no viable solution for an obstacle presents itself, email the Henge office and ask an Elder. We're always willing to look for an answer that is within the realm of Keltrian theology and practice.

I recognize that following the Keltrian tradition can be a challenge, but this is not a negative aspect. Jenne mentions the lack of land, but that isn't a downside - it's a reality of life for most of us. Outdoors is the gold standard, but not always an option. I'll wager that most of us conduct our rituals indoors for reasons that are beyond our control. For many Keltrians, a separate ritual room is a luxury. I've seen cupboards that function as altars when indoor space is at a premium. I've also had to move furniture to make enough room to hold rites, and then put it all back again. Most physical challenges can be accommodated when it comes to performing our rites. Although, when I consider the hypothetical celebrant with an incense allergy, I have no simple solution. I do have to ask, though, why would someone attend a church that considers the use of incense an integral part of their observances? Let's say this person decided to be a Catholic. Would she approach the priest and ask him to ban the use of incense? Probably not. Why then, hypothetically, would it be acceptable to leave it out of Keltrian practices? It's not. Incense is essential for receiving the blessings of the Gods and Goddesses of our tribe. Even if a celebrant performs a Keltrian ritual alone, incense burning must be a part of it otherwise it's not a Keltrian rite. There are solid theological reasons for every element of our observances and these are explained in the Book of Keltria. The bottom line is that if health issues or other circumstances prevent performance of our rituals, then Keltrian Druidism is not the right path to pursue.

A person who doesn't follow the Keltrian ritual format and/or whose behavior is in direct opposition to the Keltrian Hallmarks and bylaws is not practicing Keltrian Druidism. Twenty years ago, we were contacted by some people who wanted to join Keltria. We were pleased about that - it's rare to have an established group want to join; however, after further communication, we were told no, they didn't want to do Keltrian ritual. They already had their chosen deities and rituals. They just thought the name was really cool and wanted to use it. We respectfully turned down their request but admired their honesty. More recently, I accepted a student who was pushing hard for initiation. He swore up and down that he read our book, understood the contents, and no, he had no questions. That struck me as odd and I doubted his word when he seemed to be unaware of rudimentary Keltrian theology and practices. He also balked at taking our course because of the required work involved. Eventually, he admitted that he wanted to combine Keltrian Druidism with a Christian sect that was his first allegiance. I had no choice but to say no, and he evaporated.

Modification of the Keltrian ritual format is never "necessary." A "modified" ritual may not be "inferior" as Jenne points out, but it's certainly not Keltrian. Jenne's choice of a title for her article is……..unfortunate. The word "rules" is synonymous with "hallmarks," which are the core of Keltria's theology and practice. There are plenty of opportunities for creativity and self-expression within Keltria without "breaking the rules." The purpose of the Book of Keltria is to strengthen spiritual relationships with other Keltrians by sharing a common practice. Dismantling Keltria's core practices and hallmarks for convenience or personal preference effectively breaks the heart of Keltrian Druidism. If celebrants are encouraged to whimsically satisfy their sensitivities and sensibilities, eventually we will have nothing in common to keep our far-flung tribe together – the Henge of Keltria will cease to exist.

Jenne describes going "by the book" as another negative aspect of what we do and poses a question: "You've read the lore and continue to practice – and come to different conclusions than listed in the official texts. Are you still a Keltrian?" My response: No. Keltria fosters freethinking and provides a framework for self-exploration and growth. This is the essence of Hallmark 8. It never occurred to me that someone would take liberties with what we have carefully crafted over years of trial and error. If a person is not thriving within the Keltrian system, we have ordained clergy who will listen and offer suggestions. When members come to different conclusions after serious study, it's not "perfectly appropriate" to alter established theology and practices. It is appropriate to contact the Council of Elders and discuss why a change is warranted.

I filled out a registration form for a festival recently. One of the lines was this: Do you have any food allergies (NOT dislikes). This came to the forefront of my mind as I read Jenne's essay. Eliminating elements of the Keltrian ritual outline because they are inconvenient or making other changes for personal preference is not an option. Picking and choosing what is attractive in any spiritual practice and leaving out what isn't dilutes the tradition and dishonors it. The Henge of Keltria is a religious order, not an umbrella group for members to do what they will in Keltria's name. I fought very hard for that distinction.

Following the Keltrian path is meant to be spiritually fulfilling, not easy. If the Keltrian experience is found lacking, cutting and pasting deities and ritual elements to suit personal preferences is not the answer. We encourage our members to evolve spiritually and recognize the possibility that they may outgrow our practices and theology over time. So be it. I often say, "Let's walk the Keltrian path together as we honor, revere and celebrate our Triad. If the time of parting comes, let us do so in peace and as friends."

Breaking the rules, part 1: Modifying Keltrian practice

My Feast of Flowering altar to Boann and Nuada last year.

A confession of sorts: When many Keltrians honor Bilé at the Feast of Flowering, I instead welcome Nuada Silver-hand. Similarly, instead of Danu for the Feast of Fruiting, I honor Aine, the Sun Goddess. When I lived in an apartment, I didn't make my offerings to a sacred fire, instead leaving them at the foot of a designated tree after the rite. When I had a working study group, we didn't use mead and water, but opted for a single chalice of an agreed-upon beverage: New York apple cider (non-alcoholic). I've never had "patens" for my chalices, and admittedly have never been truly clear on what they are.

If you have read the Book of Ritual, you're probably smiling by now -- or frowning, if you consider yourself a strict traditionalist. The uninitiated (metaphorically speaking) may grouse: "Wait, you're the Vice President of the Henge. How come you get to break the rules?"

Naughty rule-breaker, including narrative rules

I've meant to write an essay on this topic -- perceived ritual rule-breaking -- for a long time, but never quite knew how to broach the topic. I couldn't come up with clear research other than the "unverified personal gnosis" (UPG) so dreaded in Reconstructionist circles, or a tidy introduction like I so often do in my academic articles on the Gods.

So, abandoning my usual literary reserve to the wind, I'm just going to hack at it, piece by piece.

By the book, the good and the bad

Altar - Keltrian Druid - Gathering 2012

Altar - Keltrian Druid - Gathering 2012

When you're just starting out on a path, there is a natural tendency to go "by the book," using it as a guide to all matters. In many cases, this is a positive development. Adhering to the suggested rituals -- the language, the progression of seasonal deities, the format -- year after year can help you impress Keltrian traditions upon heart and mind. You become part of the culture and its traditions, sharing the waters of the Well of Knowledge.

There are, however, downsides. For one, you might be physically unable to conduct the rites as suggested, due to a lack of land and resources, health considerations, and more. If you're practicing in a college dorm, candles are out. If you have allergies, burning incense might be off limits or practicing outside in an oak grove when the trees are pollinating. You might not be able to locate a sickle or even a sacrificial branch. (A Keltrian living in Singapore, where the cutting of trees is prohibited, has run into the latter problem.)

In short, strict adherence "to the book" would disqualify many people from Keltrian practice -- and that's not the intent at all.

"The Druidess", oil on canvas, by French painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1890)

In such cases, modifications to the ritual format are necessary. I would like to emphasize that a "modified" ritual is not an inferior ritual. It is not less-than, a poor substitute, the equivalent of No Frills versus name-brand. It is simply different.

There is another downside to going "by the book" that can pop up later in your spiritual development. You've read the lore and continue to practice -- and come to different conclusions than listed in the official texts. Are you still a Keltrian?

If your conclusion is that the Lebor Gabála Érenn is foretelling the arrival of the Great Spaghetti Monster, probably not. Keltrian beliefs and practices are centered on the Gods and Goddesses of the ancient Irish, so it's not appropriate to worship deities from other pantheons in the context of Keltrian ritual, although I'd like to point out that this doesn't mean you can't honor such gods outside of Keltrian ritual. (So, if you like to chant to Ganesha after your yoga practice, go for it.)

But if you're taking the same lore/myths/scholarly materials and interpreting it in a way that's supported by the lore (or myths or scholarly materials), that can be perfectly appropriate.

The fact is the Druids didn't write anything down, and much of what we "know" is sewn together from little scraps embedded in half-remembered myths, scholarly speculations based on related Indo-European cultures, and physical artifacts unearthed by archaeology. There is great room for interpretation. What's more, we can't follow these interpretations to the letter because we don't live in the same world as the ancient Celts, with animal sacrifices, a presumably hereditary priestly caste and sacred kings.

That's OK. Another pesky fact: Religious practices change. If Druidry existed in an unbroken line, what it would look like today would be far different from what it looked like when Julius Caesar came invading. Case in point: Hinduism derives from an unbroken Indo-European polytheistic tradition, and has changed dramatically over the past 3,000 years. Vaishnava Hindus today are vegetarians; 2,000 years ago, they sacrificed animals as part of their religious rites. (These traditions are preserved in their oldest texts, the Vedas.) Druidry would have adapted to the end of monarchies, democratization, urbanization and other realities, should they have developed on its watch.

This doesn't mean that "anything goes" when it comes to Druidic belief and practice, but it doesn't mean "my way or the highway" either.

Looking ahead

I hope to make this essay the first in a series on the issue, looking at how we can make Keltrian ritual more accessible -- and also more adaptable.

I would like to emphasize that these efforts are not a criticism of the Book of Ritual or other Keltrian texts. I love Keltria and I find value in it; I wouldn't have stuck around if I hadn't. If you consider yourself a by-the-book traditionalist, all the Gods' blessings upon you!

But these reflections are intended for those who are struggling with the "rules" and, consequently, their place in Keltria. I've been there, truly, and I say to you: Yes, you are welcome here. Even if you live in an apartment, can't do rituals with mead due to substance abuse issues, or question Bilé's interpretation as an Irish god.

Some of the topics I hope to write about (eventually) are:

  • The non-negotiables. What you really do have to abide by to be a Keltrian Druid.
  • Ritual adaptations due to health concerns, physical realities or personal philosophy
  • Choosing different Gods and Goddesses for seasonal rites (but still Irish, of course!)

Beannachtaí!

Keltrian Druid Altars and Shrines

Altar, in the traditional sense, means a place of sacrifice. Keltrian Druids, like most modern religions, find the modern altar to be more of a ritual tool storage table than anything else. It is still a sacred place, and the objects on the altar are made sacred through consecration before being placed upon it. The tools used during the ritual are there, used when needed, then replaced.

Keltrian Druid altars may be as simple as a table with a couple of candles, a pair of vessels for Earth and water, and an incense burner. Other altars may hold many optional tools such as a candle snuffers. In either event, the altar holds the tools during the ritual. An altar is populated with sacred tools before the ritual begins. The tools are removed immediately following the ceremony and, once the tools are removed, the Keltrian altar is dismantled.

Shrines, on the other hand, are places that remain set up indefinitely. Typically, a shrine is a place dedicated to a specific entity of awe and respect where that entity may be venerated. The most common Keltrian Druid Shrines are dedicated to the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, or the Gods. They too can be simple or complex. I have neighbors who don’t know I am Pagan and have seen my Ancestor Shrine, which is a wall in my den with photos and some mementos of my ancestors on it. Nothing spooky, just photos and objects that remind me of my ancestors. I see the shrine every day and think of them. When people visit, I often point out each of my ancestors to the visitors and explain how they are related to me. My earliest ancestor image is a circa 1881 drawing of a 4th Great Grandfather.

pencil sharpener water pump

Water Pump reminder of my great-grandmother.

Objects you keep with your shrine may be directly related, that is to say something from the individual, or the object might be something that reminds you of something about the ancestor.  For example, on my Ancestor Shrine, I have a metal pencil sharpener in the shape of a hand water pump. In the early 1960s, my great-grandmother still had a hand pump in the kitchen drawing water from a shallow well.  Whenever I see the pump, I remember her and my helping by priming the pump and getting the morning water started. I think remembering her and the morning ritual helps keep me in touch with my great-grandma and my other ancestors.

Do you have a shrine? Is it a Keltrian Druid Shrine?  If so, who is it dedicated to; the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, or the Gods and Goddesses?

Below is a photo of an altar from a Keltrian Gathering. Please share a photo of your Keltrian Druid or personal altar, ritual table, or shrine. Tell us a bit about it and why the objects on it are important to you.

Walk with wisdom,
- Tony Taylor

Altar - Keltrian Druid - Gathering 2012

Keltrian Druid Altar (Gathering 2012)

  • Three cauldrons, for Ancestors (water), Gods (charcoal & incense), and one of Nature Spirits (earth).
  • Grove Candle and a God candle and a Goddess candle.
  • Two Chalices (one for water one for mead).
  • Sacrificial Branch and Sickle.
  • Bell Branch.
  • Shell for calling Manannán mac Lyr.
  • Offering Bowl.
  • Oil for blessing, mistletoe extract, and incense (also spare charcoal).

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 HH-Editor@keltria.org or dulcimergoddess@keltria.org.

Name Poem: An exercise for the poetically-minded

I recently finished Lunaea Weatherstone's Tending Brigid's Flame, a truly wonderful book about my matron Goddess. I can't recommend it enough, truly.

One of the many explorations and exercises Weatherstone recommends is the creation of a name-poem, similar in spirit to the Song of Amergin or the Song of Taliesin. The poem captures your essence of self -- your attributes, perhaps the turning-points in your life if you choose to include them -- in imagery that speaks to your spirit.

Weatherstone doesn't go into the purpose of the poem, specifically, but I imagine it can be used to give strength when you are weary and courage when you are afraid. It sings the soul back home, and changes when you feel that you need to change it -- like your life.

My name-poem follows. What is yours?

I am the fox that escapes every hound

the speckled veery on its forest perch

the tune of a song threaded by birds

 

I am the ink that scribes the words of truth

the artisan of the air, beading words

and music into a vast creation

 

I was born of blossoms in the sun's heat

the much-cherished daughter of the heavens

who bears a name of ill-repute and boldness

 

I am a warrior of the wind

who lands no blows but sends the opponent

into the diamond net of gravity

 

I am the pale phantom and the noose

whose borrowed name asks: “Who is like god?”

I am the namer and the describer.

 

I am the walker in dreams, the changer

behind the veil of sleep, the traveler

in my coracle of harp string and drum

 

I am a fisher-cat for fierceness

and an owl for grace. I am the great leaves

of borage, the blue stars of its bloom

 

I am an oak tree, a green stone, a stoat,

a spear, the strength of the arm and the foot

I am a priestess of flame and delight

 

I hold the dream-spear of the Red Woman

I wield the sword of the Fisher King

I serve at the altars of all the Gods

the_arts_poetry

"Poetry", part of the series The Arts, by Alphonse Mucha (1898) via Wikimedia Commons

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 HH-Editor@keltria.org or dulcimergoddess@keltria.org.

 

The Breath of a Poet: Breathing as a spiritual tool

By Jenne Micale

Pause and be still. Take a moment simply to listen to the play of sounds around you, and then within you.

There is one sound always present: Your breath, swelling then ebbing like ocean waves, or the whisper of the wind through leaves. This gentle sound has been with you from your first emergence into the world; when its music finally ebbs into silence, you will die. Every inspiration is an echo of this first breath, this first emergence, the creation of yourself and the creation of the world. Every expiration is an echo of this last breath, your passage over the Sunless Sea into the Otherworld, the dissolution of the physical world, self and name.

When you breathe in, you write your name and your message on the sands of time. When you breathe out, the waves wash the words away.

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Practicing pranayama in yoga. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In our day to day lives, we don't often notice our breath unless something disrupts it – whether a shocking moment that takes our breath away, fear that compresses our chest and makes it difficult to draw air in, or a medical issue such as an asthma attack. Breath control, however, has a long history in the mystical traditions of the world, and provide us with a Druidic tool for transformation and healing.

Of course, there are practical uses for breathwork as well. The Lamaze technique for childbirth famously uses breath as a way of dealing with and dissipating the pain of labor, and patients with pulmonary diseases such as COPD are often given tips on how to regulate their breath to maximize their airflow – and minimize the panic that comes from not being able to breathe freely. Breathing is also used to lower blood pressure, and there are handy apps as well as medical devices that teach you to do that.

Classically trained singers also learn to how to most efficiently draw in breath, modulate it so as to perform all manner of vocal techniques, and place each in-breath in the appropriate spot in the song so that it flows smoothly and without interruption. There is evidence that Celtic bards worked in much the same way. “(F)ive words are adjudged to be a breath of the poet,” the grammarian Longarad writes in the Auraicept na n-Éces, or scholar's primer, which reputedly dates back to seventh century Ireland (Jones). A professional fili, or poet, would have paced her breaths when reciting so as to preserve the rhythms of the work, augment its art and power, and draw attention to the intricate play of language.

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Indian sadhu in meditation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There are hints, however, that the Druids may have used breath for more occult reasons, much as the Indian sadhus. One method that survived in the poet-training schools of Scotland and Ireland involved spending all day inside a shuttered room with eyes covered and a heavy stone on the belly while composing verses (Laurie 182, Colman 151). On the surface, the stone on the belly could be seen as a tool to force proper bardic breathing techniques for composition: the five words of the poet, as the traditional texts point out. But combined with the darkness and the shrouded eyes, this breath-control technique may also have led to a trance state that wouldn't be unfamiliar to the modern practitioners of yoga.

Breath and the Subtle Body

Unlike most asana, or modern postural yoga, breathwork has ancient roots in India. The Upanishads mention the use of breathing to control the mind with the earliest mention perhaps dating back to the third century BCE (Singleton 26). Breathwork, or pranayama, is a mainstay of hatha yoga, which is “concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay” (Singleton 28). So, all those postures and breathing techniques you do in a yoga class aren't intended to just give you great abs or a sense of calm after a tough day at work; they're supposed to make you immortal! (Author's note: I have practiced yoga since graduate school and, sadly, I am not immortal – yet.)

How does breathwork make you immortal, so to speak? To answer that, we need to explore some of the “subtle body,” as it's often called. Prana, or breath, is the same as chi or ki in other parts of Asia. The Latin word for breath is spiritus, which has the same meaning and implications as the ancient Greek pneuma. Breath is connected with spirit itself – the animating force that keeps us alive when we are embodied, constitutes our substance after physical death, and allows us to perform physical, intellectual and spiritual feats. It's no coincidence that inspiration and expiration mean so much more than just breathing in English! Modern Paganism usually calls this force magick. As Druids, we may wish to call it awen (in Welsh) or imbas (in Gaelic).

Different cultures provide different anatomies of the subtle body and how prana, chi or spirit runs through it. Because the techniques I will explore below are yogic in origin, I will focus on how the subtle body is viewed in India.

There are two main channels of energy in the body: Ida, on the left, associated with the moon; Pingala, on the right, associated with the sun. In between, along the column of the spine, is a hollow tube called Sushumna. The seven chakras – you may have heard of those! – lie along the path of Sushumna, and are the nexus where Ida and Pingala flows meet. Of course, there are a lot of smaller channels that course through the body, similar to veins and arteries; these are called nadis, and they traditionally number anywhere from 72,000 to 300,000 (Singleton 29).

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The seven chakra in the body. Nepalese painting, 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Once it's absorbed from the larger universe, prana flows in the body in five great winds, which are in some ways similar to the “organ systems” of Chinese medicine. Prana-vayu, the forward wind, is seated in the heart and deals with inhalation, and the “rising energy of reaching out and taking in,” as Richard Rosen puts it (24). Apana-vayu, the downward wind, is seated in the pelvis and deals with exhalation, elimination, and energy that falls, gives out or gives away. Samana-vayu, the middle wind, is situated in the belly behind the navel and deals with processes of digestion, assimilation and incorporation, whether of food or experience. Vyana-vayu, the circulating wind, circulates energy throughout the body and, in Rosen's words, “is the glue that holds us together.” Upana-vayu, the upward wind, is seated in the throat and represents the energy of expression, speech and the mind.

Some traditions of yoga speak of kundalini, or the serpent-like cosmic energy, that sits at the seat of the nadis, usually at the first or second chakra. Spiritual disciplines such as meditation and pranayama cause the kundalini energy to rise to the crown chakra, leading to a state known as samadhi, when you are completely merged with all-that-is and the mind becomes completely still. The raising of kundalini energy also heightens magical and “psychic” abilities, which can be profoundly destabilizing and leads to all manners of warnings in yogic texts. Here is an example from B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal text, Light on Yoga:

Pneumatic tools can cut through the hardest rock. In Prāņāyāmā the yogi uses his lungs as pneumatic tools. If they are not used properly, they destroy both the tool and the person using it. The same is true of prāņāyāmā (431).

If the warnings seem over the top, it's because they are not based in physical reality. For most healthy people – without, say, asthma or COPD – it's difficult to injure yourself with breathwork. If you hold your breath too long or hyperventilate, you may pass out – and then, the body will begin breathing again normally on its own. However, if you channel kundalini energy improperly, you can wreak all sorts of magical havoc on yourself and others; at least, that's how the thinking seems to go. You don't want to screw up the process of becoming immortal, if that is your aim.

Iyengar yoga in particular takes an especially cautionary approach to pranayama, encouraging students to learn it only from a teacher, practice at certain points of the day and only at least 15 minutes after physical exercise, etc. Other traditions of yoga – such as the type I practice – have a much less timid approach, and encourage practitioners to try it out. In fact, the rules that are hard and fast in one tradition – no yoga before postural practice in Iyengar yoga, for example – are often completely different in another. (In Sivananda Yoga, you do breathwork before the physical practice, not after.) So, go with whatever works for you, or is part of a tradition you follow.

The practice: Breathing techniques

There are many, many different types of breath in yoga, and the names vary depending on tradition. I'll go into some of the more common kinds based on my own experiences. My very first teacher was trained in Sivananda Yoga, so those are the basis of the techniques I have learned; they are also common to most traditions of hatha, or physical, yoga. Iyengar Yoga has its own extremely detailed take on pranayama, which you can consider the Ph.D. progam of breathwork; like actual Ph.D. programs, a lot of people just don't have the patience for it. Kundalini Yoga offers similar techniques when it comes to pranayama, but they're used in different ways.

Sometimes, breathing techniques are performed in accord with three muscular locks, located in the perineum, the abdominals and the neck/throat. These locks are called bandhas. Other techniques involve the use of specific nostrils, which control the energy flow through the Ida or Pingala channels. That's beyond the current scope of this article, but you're more than welcome to read up on them.

Unless otherwise specified, breathing is done using the nose. Sometimes, you may breath in or out of your mouth to regulate temperature, but that is usually specified in the technique. If you're prone to congestion, blow your nose or use a neti pot to clear your nasal passages before practice.

Preliminary cautions: If you have respiratory problems, be cautious with breathwork for obvious reasons. Even if you're otherwise healthy, stop if you feel lightheaded, dizzy or otherwise unwell, and begin breathing normally again. You don't need to worry about destroying yourself with pneumatic tools, but respect your body and your limits.

The four-part breath

Let's start with the basic four-part breath. Breathe in slowly, filling first your lower abdomen, middle abdomen, your sides and back, and upper chest and clavicle area. Then, just as slowly, breathe out, starting with your upper chest and shoulders, your middle chest and back, and lower abdomen.

When you're ready, you can add the pauses. Breath in fully, from the lower to the middle to the upper abdomen. Pause, when you're full of air, the height of the flow of life-energy. Breathe out, from the top of your lungs, your middle chest, your lower abdomen. Then pause again, once you are empty. Repeat, with the pauses both after full inhalation and after full exhalation.

The four-part breath, usually called the yogic breath, is a good way to get in tune with the basic flow of energy. Do you feel the energetic difference between full inhalation and full exhalation?

This breath is calming, and helps your lungs function at full capacity. If you want to explore, you can adjust the length of the inspiration, the expiration and the pauses. Generally speaking, inspiration enlivens and exhalation calms and relaxes. The retentions allow the prana to circulate through your body. Feel free to explore different ratios of breath, always keeping your health and safety in mind.

The victory breath

You'll commonly encounter Ujjayi breathing in yoga classes; some teachers ask you to do this throughout your postural practice. Ujjayi means “victorious,” and this breath is used to relieve tension and slow the heart rate, as well as address insomnia (Redmond). If you have heart disease, don't combine Ujjayi or other breath techniques with breath retention or the use of the bandhas as this can create issues with internal pressure.

In Ujjayi, you will contract the muscles in the back of your throat – the glottis – slightly, creating a sound like ocean waves. You'll do this both during the inhale and the exhale. Breathe long and evenly, just as you did with the four-part breath.

'Skull-shining' and the Bellows Breath

Now let's explore two less-calming forms of breathwork. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are both heating and energizing. They raise energy in the body, warm you up and sharpen your mind. They can also lead to hyperventilation in excess, so be mindful.

Kapalabhati means “skull shining” and it's also used as a purification process in Sivananda Yoga. One of my former teachers called it Kapala-snotty because it's really good at clearing gunked-up nostrils, so practice with a box of tissues handy! In Kundalini Yoga, it's usually called the Breath of Fire, which can give you some indication of its more occult uses.

To perform Kapalabhati, take a full breath in, and then breath in and out in tiny inhales and exhales. Pump your abdominals on the exhales; you'll sound a bit like an oncoming train. Start with practicing three rounds of 20 Kapalabhati-breaths, and you can eventually work up to 60 (Sivananda 72). After each round, take a few deep, full breaths to re-balance yourself.

Bhastrika, the Bellows Breath, is similar but even more focused on the forceful nature of the exhale. It's performed in a variety of ways, but I like the version that uses the arms.

Here's how to do my version: Take a deep breath in and put your arms at your sides, bent in right angles. Then, do a short, forceful exhale, bringing your elbows down into your ribs to get even more air out. Inhales are short and silent; exhales, assisted by your arms, are short and hard. Unlike Kapalabhati, the breath pattern is a hair longer; keep a steady rhythm and don't speed up. Start with three rounds of 10 Bhastrika breaths, and work your way up to longer sessions.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

A_style_of_nadi_suddhi

If you have a pranayama practice, it's good to follow Kapalabhati with alternate-nostril breathing, as the former clears out those clogged nasal passages. Alternate nostril breathing is usually called Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma, and sometimes involves breath retention or the use of a mudra on the hand that's pinching your nose.

Here's the simplified version: Pinch your left nostril shut. Breathe in slowly through your right nostril, a full deep breath. Pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your left, breathing out slowly. Once you have fully exhaled, breath in your left nostril slowly and fully, pinch both nostrils shut, and then open your right nostril, breathing out fully. That's one round. Sivananda Yoga recommends starting with three rounds and building up to 20.

Remember Ida and Pingala, the two main channels of energy? Anuloma Viloma balances these channels.

The cooling breath

While Kapalabhati and Bhastrika heat us up, Sitkari and Sithali cool us down. In these techniques, you will inhale through the mouth and exhale out the nose.

To prepare for Sitkari, touch the tip of your tongue to your palate. Take a full breath in through your mouth, keeping your tongue planted. Close your mouth and hold your breath as long as you can, and exhale slowly through the nose. Repeat five to 10 times.

Not everyone can do the next breath, Sithali, for genetic reasons. Instead of touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you will instead roll your tongue and breathe in slowly through the “straw,” close your mouth and hold, and exhale slowly out your nose. If you're not one of the genetically blessed, you can simply stick your tongue out and breathe over your tongue instead, or just practice Sitkari. As in Sitkari, repeat five to 10 times.

Interestingly, Sitkari is supposed to give you a beautiful face. These techniques are also used to relieve hunger and thirst and cool the body (Sivananda 74).

Bee Breath

Bhramari, the bee breath, is one of my personal favorites; the name actually means “she who roams” (Budilovsky and Adamson 189). It's soothing and calming, and can induce trance states and psychic sensitivities; Layne Redmond recommends it early in the morning or just before bed.

It's done in a number of different ways, but I prefer Redmond's method. As a preparation, make a gutteral, clicking aaaahhhh or groan in the back of your throat; you've likely done this as a kid. Breathe in, close your mouth and begin the back-of-the-throat groan, then send air and sound through that groan. This creates a clear, humming buzz that sounds a lot like a Theramin; it's essentially throat-singing. Start with five to 10 rounds of this, taking a full, deep breath and doing the buzz on the exhale.

When you're done, I guarantee that you'll feel the buzz!

Uses of breath of Druidic work

Add the above techniques to your Druidic toolbox; they have a variety of uses. Ujjayi, alternate-nostril breathing and the four-part breath can be done prior to ritual to calm the chatter of the mind and get you in a meditative state. They and Brahmari can also be done just prior to trance-work. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika are good tools to raise energy, while Sitkari and Sithali can follow energy-raising as cooling and grounding techniques.

Celtic reconstructionist Erynn Rowan Laurie uses breathwork in much of her spiritual work. In one particular exercise, called “Sparking the Cauldrons,” she uses breath – combined with simple hand-gestures similar to mudras – to raise energy in the Cauldron of Warming, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom, which are essentially the Celtic version of chakras (Laurie 183-6). These cauldrons and the energies they represent are described in the Cauldron of Poesy, an Irish text dating back to the medieval era.

Laurie describes using deep, even breathing to spark the cauldrons in a series of nine breaths each. In my own exploration, you can use different types of breathing techniques to imbue the cauldrons with energy. Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, for example, would fill the cauldrons with spiritual fire, while Ujjayi would lead to a calmer, more watery and reflective character.

See where your experimentations take you! This spiritual tool is always available for your use, as long as you are alive and breathing.

Bibliography and suggested resources.

Budilovsky, Joan and Eve Adamson. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga, Third Edition. New York: Alpha, 2003.

Don't let the title put you off! This is a very accessible and thorough book on all aspects of yoga.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

The yoga classic. Iyengar also has another book, “Light on Pranayama,” which is specifically about breathing practices.

Laurie, Erynn Rowan. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom. Stafford, England: Megalithica, 2007.

A must-have book on ogham and Celtic reconstructionism.

McColman, Carl and Kathryn Hinds. Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Press Books, 2005.

Redmond, Layne. Heart Chakra Meditations. Sounds True, 2005. CD.

A wonderful CD by the late drummer Layne Redmond, who leads you through a variety of meditation and breathing practices.

Rosen, Richard. The Yoga of Breath: A Step-By-Step Guide to Pranayama. Boston: Shambala, 2002.

The “gold standard” of books on pranayama in the Iyengar tradition. Rosen's practice is very cautious and slow-going, however, and may not appeal to the types who prefer to dive in.

The Sivananda Yoga Center. The Sivananda Companion to Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

My first yoga book. The Cirque du Soleil positions they demonstrate may scare you off from the practice, however. It's a period piece, as they say.

Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2010.

Not a “yoga book” per se, but an actual scholarly history that shows you the origin – sometimes ancient, more often modern – of the yoga practices common today.

Teixeira, Nubia. Pranayama: May Our Breath Be Our Prayer. Sounds True, 2005.

Another great two-CD set with a variety of breathwork practices.

The Scholar's Primer.” Celtic Literature Collective & Jones's Celtic Encyclopedia. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/scholar_primer.html

A translation of the Auraicept na n-Éces.