Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories

When this column started, it was all about exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories. It's still very much an alternative wheel, but there's a developing emphasis on what we can celebrate as the seasons turn. Faced with environmental crisis, and an uncertain future, celebration is a powerful soul restoring antidote that will help us all keep going, stay hopeful and dream up better ways of being.

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That mistletoe Druid thing

This is me and my chap at last year’s mistletoe rite. It was cold, hence my failed attempts at rolling into a ball like a hedgehog. Midwinter is usually a tough time for outdoor ritual, but the attraction of Druids to mistletoe means outdoors is where you need to be. I’ve been to rituals working with pre-cut mistletoe, and it isn’t at the same. It’s a much more immediate experience when you’re in the process of removing a living, parasitic plant from the tree branch it has grown on. We go to an apple orchard, where there is a great deal of mistletoe, singing, and good cheer.

Rituals often raise interesting issues about what we do for real, and what we gently fake. The Great rite is a frequent case in point. We turn suspicions of historic sacrifice into corn dollies, offer wine and mead to the earth and not blood. Often a Druid ritual can seem less like an encounter with raw and wild nature, more like something safe and on the edges of familiarity. But then, England doesn’t have much wilderness, most of our more dangerous wildlife is gone – no bears and wolves round here, and I’ve not seen a boar.

The Romans recorded Druids cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle. It’s a nice image, but gold doesn’t take a sharp edge, and mistletoe does not yield to fools. It’s a tough little plant, and you need something sharp, with a decent amount of force behind it. Bundles of mistletoe sold in shops tell you nothing of how resistant the mistletoe is. It’s a secretive plant, too, often unnoticed during the greener part of the year. Only in winter, when tree leaves are down does the mistletoe show up with it’s still green leaves. That it fruits in this season made it an obvious attraction for winter festivities.

So what does the mistletoe mean? What does it tell us? That even in the middle of winter, something is still green, life is still hanging on. It reminds us that life can cling to the oddest of niches. This plant will never put its roots in the earth, tapping instead into the tree. It is charming, attractive, parasitic and quite poisonous although allegedly the Druids of old called it ‘all-heal’ – and I have no idea how that works.

 

Being a modern Druid is not simply about trying to replicate what we know of the past. Not least because some of what we know is wrong (see golden sickles). Trying to find a way to be and a place that stand that connects us to what was and makes sense of what is... is not easy. I spent a whole book poking about in this one and still have far more questions than answers. So we go to the apple orchard, and cut the mistletoe and bring it home to wonder about it and watch it transform itself by slow degrees into the golden bough and reflect on all the great many things that will never be clear or certain.

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Nimue Brown is the author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors. Pagan Dreaming, When a Pagan Prays and Spirituality without Structure. She also writes the graphic novel series Hopeless Maine, and other speculative fiction. OBOD trained, but a tad feral, she is particularly interested in Bardic Druidry and green living.

Comments

  • Linette
    Linette Friday, 05 December 2014

    I'm not a recon, even so, I run into similar issues. We live in this age, in this culture, and our rituals are often honed to THIS age and THIS culture. I don't know how it could be any other way, though living off the grid can make some of those things easier.

    I am a pantheist who worships the Sun, and there have long been pantheists, and probably always been Sun worshipers, but I have so much more information than people of ages past about the Sun and the nature of the Universe. They inform and transform my rituals.

    Mistletoe is a great example. I live in the American SouthWest, in a desert where there are very few deciduous plants and even fewer hardwoods. We have one small variety of oak, but I've yet to see mistletoe on it, but there is a misteltoe that grows on the juniper trees here, and very much mimics the juniper itself. Each year, during this season I collect some for my Solstice altar. It's nothing like the green fleshy great bunches of mistletoe I am familiar with from my years in the South East, but it is mistletoe just the same, and it turns golden just the same.

    Like the mistletoe, people of faith grow where they are planted, taking the form of the "tree" that they draw life from. Some in the forest, some beside a stream, some of us in the desert. Carrying on the old ways in a new and different place, no less faithful or aware.

  • Nimue Brown
    Nimue Brown Sunday, 07 December 2014

    We have to be where we are and work with what we have - I had no idea about the juniper mistletoe - as we don't get that here. There is such wonderful diversity out there, and its good to celebrate that.

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