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).

Poem: After the Solstice

Clent standing stones, winter sunset, by Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons

The night lies heavy now, a starless quilt
that holds the gloom close. Candles in windows
call the errant soul home and light the way.

Know, too, that the geese are still flying south,
writing their great letter in the dawn sky.
See the field mouse creeping across the road.

See the goldfinch and his mate greet the Sun.
Know, too, that She is pushing back the night
minute by minute each sunset and dawn.

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

Ogham Poem: Sail, the Willow

Willow tree in spring, England, by Sb2s3 via Wikimedia Commons

Willow tree in spring, England, by Sb2s3 via Wikimedia Commons

This is the latest in my series of Ogham explorations through poetry. For interpretations, I rely on Erynn Rowan Laurie's Weaving Word Wisdom, which -- in my view -- is the best book on Ogham currently available. For her interpretations, she relies on traditional poetic phrases associated with the feda; these are what I draw on in my poetry. Sail, of course, means willow. I use the Latin salce (pronounced sul-chay) to mimic Verdi's "The Willow Song."

 

Your long hair swinging, you sway over

the mere to peer in its murky depths,

the bees singing the song of your name

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

and the branches underneath the dun

forge the faces of the dead, beloved

and gone, humming with the bees their song

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Music is the delight of the dead.

Fleshless skulls sing from under the skree

send tendrils to the waters below

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

The heavy scent of your garlands mask

the compost of misplaced desires, sins

and crimes. Even maggots make their place

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Make a garland of your hair, a harp

strung of its gold that tells always truth

the muddy pond steals back from the sky

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Garland dead lovers and living seers --

The moon pulling the tide to ebb

unveiling the dead under the foam

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Nine times nine, a chorus of witches

hums with the bees and the mighty dead

under that ghost light, that lamp of time

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Let your voice rise with the time and tide,

rush like waters under the tree,

lave the unclean, unshroud the hidden

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

Your long hair swinging over the hole

that mirrors the sky, you sing with the bees

"Music is the delight of the dead"

O salce, salce, salce, O --

 

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!

Bibliography

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). http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T106500D/

Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions.” Celtic Literature Collective, Mary Jones. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/lebor5.html 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.

Poem: Red Woman (for the Morrigan)

How you tremble at the Red Woman!
You fear the guest at the door who breaks
the arbitrary rules that bind you

the technicalities that keep you safe.
You never know how she will appear:
eel, gray wolf, red-eared cow, crow, the wind,

your fresh-faced daughter holding a blade
under her smile, your mother, the lady
at the deli counter with her knives --

You never know what she'll do, that one,
even if you pretend. She is not yours
in any shape, and oh how you fear!

By Artist Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 - 1951). Cropped and colours adjusted by CorbieVreccan. Via Wikimedia Commons

By Artist Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 - 1951). Cropped and colours adjusted by CorbieVreccan. Via Wikimedia Commons

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.