After a month's hiatus, I'm back with the next installment of The Vegan Pagan series. If you haven't read the previous installments, you can find them here:
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Next week my coven will be celebrating the Winter Solstice and instead of writing this blog post I should be writing our sabbat ritual. I'm sure the inspiration will come, eventually, but for now I'm going to continue to procrastinate (and perhaps daydream about an Oak King/Holly King scenario)....
Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, it was the early 1990s and I was still living in Sonoma, California. I had some great times at heathen festivals Ravenwood and the Ostara gathering in the Marin headlands, and the CAW Convocation.
A quote from my memoir:
“There were two campout festivals a year, one in the spring on the beach, where we rolled out our sleeping bags on metal cots in an old World War One bunker in the Marin headlands, where we gathered at dawn to ignite a model longship loaded with eggs and nickels and push it into the sea as an offering to the goddess Ran, the other in the summer, where we pitched tents in the redwoods, held toasting rituals called sumbel, and a general rite to all the gods. At the summer festival, the feeling was very much that the rituals were an excuse to get together, hold discussions with people who actually knew what we were talking about when we spoke of our personal discoveries and academic theories about our religion, and of course to sing pagan songs by the campfire all night, the selections becoming progressively more bawdy as the night wore on. One year the summer festival happened to be Fourth of July weekend, so we all drove up to the bare top of the hill in a van and sat in the warm breeze, looking across the water to San Francisco. All we could see of the fireworks display was colored lights in the heavy fog that clung to the City, though the rest of the bay was clear. Pink, green, blue, yellow, the fog flickered. We called it “wizard lights” and made jokes about how our primitive ancestors would have interpreted them. We laughed all the way back down the hill. I was one of very few who did not pair off for the evening, either with someone they brought with them, or an old acquaintance from other Festivals, or a perfect stranger they would not recognize in the morning.
Nighttime in the redwood forest, before the music and dancing started up for the evening, held an otherworldly quiet. Fog came in like muffling cotton. The torches under the trees cast rings of light through the mist, seeming to splinter into rainbow-edged crystals as from far away came the ancient, dragonish sound of drummers heat-tuning their bodhrans over the fire. It was a moment of pure magic. All seemed still and at the same time I saw air moving across the firelight, for the mist off the ocean looked like air grown visible. The eldritch woods, black against the starry sky, the red flame of torches, the glowing gold mist; it was an elvish night.”
I also attended pagan festivals as well as heathen ones.
A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:
“Because the heathen group Ring of Troth was based in San Francisco...I also looked for any pagans closer to home, and came across The Church of All Worlds, which was based on... a science fiction novel. The devotees of Stranger in a Strange Land did not, of course, practice cannibalism, as did the Martians in the book. Water drinking was their main activity, and nudity as weather permitted. I did not actually join their group formally, but I did attend their meetings for a time, mainly because they were held in Sonoma. I was originally attracted to them after attending one of their beach rituals, where the priest invoked the god into himself and I sensed power there. It seems odd that there could be such eloquence in the mere flaring of nostrils, but that is what I chiefly remember: when the god awoke within him, tasting the wind as if newly after a long time discorporeate, and then opened his eyes and spoke, I really felt I watched an entity larger than time squashed down to three dimensions.
"The CAW Convocation was held on some private land north of Sonoma. I went as a vendor. ... I spread my mummy bag right on the dry summer grass, and left my glasses on so I could look up at the stars before I fell asleep. It was a wonderfully dry night, and I did not wake up covered with dew as I’d worried. I joined a small group cooking by the edge of the flat area, looking down into the oak and madrone woods below. Some fog was starting to roll up the hillside, which if it reached us would turn the whole Convocation dark and cold and wet. A dark-haired man named Duncain positioned his folding chair facing the fog and announced he was going to stare down the fog bank and save the festival. Several hours went by, while everyone else cooked, hauled water, put tents in order, and so forth. Someone asked him to help with something, but he said not to break his concentration, he was pushing away the fog. At midmorning the bank of ground clouds started receding, and by the whole woods below were visible. Everyone cheered and proclaimed him a successful weather witch, and gave him the eke-name Duncain the Fog Bane, by which he was called from then on.”
Around '94 or '95, after I started studying the Bersarkr martial art and magical tradition, I performed the Bersarkr dance to festival drums one night at the Ostara gathering.
A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:
“In the evening, when Diana and her group set up for seidh in the bunker and most of the people at the festival went inside to watch, a small number of people were left around the campfire. Some people started drumming, and I found myself tuned into Angela’s drum. She was a heartbeat drummer, regular and unchanging as time. I felt myself caught by the power of her drumming, and I began to dance. The berserker trance came over me, and I leapt into the air, doing martial arts kicks and then coming back down to land growling and moving to the rhythm. I got overheated and dumped my cloak and sweater on the table, and I was vaguely aware that I no longer had my glasses on, but I could still see, and that was a peculiar sensation. Occasionally the drums stopped and I headed for the bench like a spent racehorse, but then they started again, doing a different style, but each time Angela’s drum caught me and held me and the trance returned. Each time I jumped back up, feeling exhausted somewhere inside but unable to stop, unable even to moderate my movements as I would have if I had been dancing some other way than entranced. I continued to dance at full force, leaping and gyrating and kicking.
Berserker folklore says one does not recognize one’s friends while berserk, but I recognized Vlad when he approached within the thirty foot circle all the others had the good sense to give me. Then he stopped cold and stared at me a moment, and retreated. I continued to dance. Then it was over. I felt boneless as I staggered toward the water faucet to relieve the burning of dehydration. Then I came back to the picnic tables by the campfire and sat down, and put my glasses back on. I felt wobbly all over. “How long was I dancing?” I asked.
Angela replied, “About three hours.”
“Hours?! I usually can’t sustain the berserkrgangr for more than one song. And why didn’t I have an asthma attack?”
Angela asked, “Fox?”
“I thought it was something small and furry.” She nodded to herself.
“Most people can’t, you know,” I said. “In old stories they say berserkers are shapeshifters, but only the psychically gifted can see the change. Though I should have expected you could, since you’re such a powerful drummer.”
It was only then that I noticed the naked man. He was busily cutting himself on the arms, legs, and chest with a straight razor.
“What’s with him?” I asked Angela.
She replied, “He says he’s letting the goddess Diana have her way with him.”
“Hmm. I’ve never met a male Dianic before.”
Through all this, despite getting language back right away, I had had to work at slowly unbending my fingers from their clawed state. Now the fire threw a loud popping spark and I jumped up and my hands clawed up again. Vlad offered a sheathed knife as a pry bar to unbend my fingers, and it actually worked.
“I forgot,” I said, “it’s Loki’s Day. April first. He had to show us he was around.”
At the time, that was not a controversial thing to say. Like in Icelandic and European Asatru, there was nothing remotely controversial about Loki in the American Asatru that I first encountered in California in the 90s.
As I grew closer to Odin while studying the Bersarkr tradition, I started receiving more inspiration for my writing. That's another story, and will be the subject of my next post, Poetic Inspiration.
With the Winter Solstice approaching, and in the cold dark months of the year, we have an excellent opportunity to reflect upon the deeper parts of our existence, those shadowy elements that seem to fade away so easily in the heat of the midday sun, those thoughts that require darkness and the teaching that it can bring. Thoughts such as life and death, darkness and light and the cyclical nature of existence are all excellent themes to meditate on at this time of year, with a natural introspective element to this season allowing us to perhaps go further, deeper than we could or would in the warmer, more outwardly focusing half of the year.
This season, with the increasing darkness and the lack of light here in the UK brings more sharply into focus thoughts of death and dying. It is often said in Western Paganism that the Sun God dies at Samhain and is reborn at Yule, when the days begin to lengthen and the light in our lives is increased. However, lately my thoughts have abandoned the concept of death, as well as birth, into a more Zen-like “No Birth, No Death” frame of mind.
Having meditated on this for a couple of months now, and seeing it reflected in nature around me, as a Druid this is how I internalise the teachings. For me, nature is the greatest teacher. I look to no other authority other than nature. It is the core of my religion, the core of my being. Having looked deeply into the nature of death and dying, of birth and living the concept of no death, no birth makes a lot more sense to me right now. Let me explain.
For Tuatha Dea, one-upping the success of the music video for "Long Black Curl" is a hard act to follow, but they pull it off with the second video from the Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae album, "Wisp of a Thing."
Winter in Britain – it’s dark and it’s wet. Not very cold, compared to what I grew up with in Canada, but the damp just seaps into your bones. It’s a different kind of winter, one that I still sometimes have trouble getting to grips with.
The darkness is the first thing that my body has difficulty coping with. If it’s dark outside, my body wants to sleep. I’m very much a daytime person. Here in the UK, at a latitude of 52.0594° N (where I grew up it was 45.9500° N) it gets dark a lot earlier than what I’m used to, and it’s not light outside much before 8.30 or 9am in the darkest part of the year. Hibernation mode kicks in. I struggle to get out of bed even though I’ve had a great sleep if it’s still dim out. Come summer, and it’s light at 3.30am, I can get out and greet the sunrise no problem.
The darkness has a real thick, heavy quality to it sometimes, with overcast skies and damp air all around you, sounds hushed in the shadows. Like a blanket, it can completely cover you and, if you like your head above the covers, can seem stifling. I’ve had to learn to work with the darkness, to enjoy it, to see its beauty.