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.

Poem: An Mhórríghan

Do you think you can scry with that glass ball?
Put it aside. It's a symbol only.
Simply close your eyes and slip through the veil

Do I surprise you, without my fearsome face?
You challenge yourself, face your fears boldly.
With a brave smile, you pull the thorns barehanded.

I breathe in life, exhale death. Carrion crow,
serpent, cow, crone, a woman soaked with blood --
I accept your praise and give you blessings.

Morrigan by André Koehne via Wikimedia Commons

Morrigan by André Koehne 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.

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.

 

From the President: A Happy Samhain to All!

Karl SchlotterbeckHow amusingly coincidental that our American elections come in the Halloween season when people dress in strange costumes of personas that they think will gain them treats from us and, in a curious twist, attempt to dress their opponents in mythologies which they themselves are often hiding. It requires a lot of effort to keep the Cup of Truth in my head from shattering but, rather than giving up, turning away or numbing out, I try to be an adult and sort through wasted words for some glimmer of truth that will help me understand what is going on beneath the surface, and what the potential might be for our long-term evolution. I hold out hope that a truth might grow in our consciousness that is worthy of the ancestors, respectful of nature and her spirits, and would be honorable in the face of all we hold as sacred.

Of course, we all know that this version of the darkening year derives from Celtic celebrations at the beginning of the first month of winter – Samhain. As Samhain approaches, we in the Northern Hemisphere are faced with that recurring theme of letting go and going into the dark. Although we might like to ignore the fact that death is always near, awareness of the changes of seasons in our part of the world (Northern Hemisphere temperate zone) shows us different kinds of transitions. Some only look like death, as life draws in and down, only to rise and blossom once more in the spring. Those that do die as individuals leave seed behind that becomes the new generation of their kind. It seems to me that there is also a kind of death in those who fight the darkening of this season and try to stave off their anxiety by pretending nothing is changing and use artificial light to continue on. Indeed, there is light in the dark, but it doesn’t come from strings of manufactured lights or from metaphors of death and resurrection (even if reflecting a reality), but from the light we each carry within ourselves and the capacity to receive inspiration (imbas). Imbas cannot enter if we close against the dark for, when we open to what is, we can recognize the greater truth and embrace our destiny.

May all who read these words find in their hearts the best seeds of their nature and dreams that they can nurture through the dark months and into the new seasons. But first, I raise a glass to the Dark and its embrace.

usedsamh14

Photo by Cypresseyes

Ogham Poem: H’Uath

'Huath' - Capel Lligwy, Anglesey. Photo by Kris Williams. Shared via Flickr.

'Huath' - Capel Lligwy, Anglesey. Photo by Kris Williams. Shared via Flickr.

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. H'Uath means "terror" -- an appropriate meditative focus around the Feast of Death.

H'Uath
The shine of the tooth, the hot breath lapping
your heel. You are the pale underbelly
exposed. No shelter will gird you now.

Not even clothes. There is nothing but stones
against your raw feet, nothing but the ink
of a moonless night spilled across your way.

Oh, do you think you can capture it here --
tame the wolves on the page, lasso shadow
into filigree of ink and poem?

This is no metaphor. Like that dream,
you jump the rail away from the monster
only to find the world unraveling

a threadbare carpet beneath you -- and you,
a bird naked with molt and no wings.
"Let the road rise up to meet you": a curse

as all blessings twist, forging their shackles.
The shine of the tooth -- the dog has turned wolf.
You are just meat in a human shape.

the wet paint before the jaws snap shut.
Your heart is the color of a bruise --
nothing but stones against your raw feet

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.

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A Legacy of Druids: Book review by Ulchabhán

Normally I am not drawn to reading collections of interviews - mainly because it is not easy to provide a cohesive narrative and I tend to get lost in a lot of the back and forth views. However, Ellen Evert Hopman’s book was a very pleasant surprise and an engaging and informative read.

a-legacy-of-druids-cover

Each conversation should be taken in the context of the time of each individual’s practice as well as the particular connection of their varied developed practices. I liked that Ms. Hopman put an obvious amount of thought into trying to organize the insights shared into approachable topics of interest.

While it is apparent from the well-researched variety of individuals who have been active in the Druid community over the decades that there is a great deal of diversity in what really constitutes “Druidism,” as a practicing Druid I felt a sense of underlying cohesiveness. As I read through each discussion, I enjoyed once again reviewing my own developed thoughts on what brought me on this journey. Each interview had its own flavor and presented a constantly morphing intellectual and spiritual case for all the threads that have woven our experiences into the truly rich and evolving Path I still walk with Joy and Gratitude.

This book should be considered part of any library touching on the fire, music and connection of being a Druid. This is one I will return to many times to catch the layers of meaning more fully.

Walk with Wisdom, Strength and Gratitude

Ulchabhán

GryphonSong Clan

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, HHSubmissions@keltria.org or dulcimergoddess@keltria.org.