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Celebrating Samhain With a Good Book: The White Raven

Samhain is in the air, and with it a new year to celebrate life and read! For this installment of Well at World's End we'll take a look at the Pagan themes in Diana L. Paxson's novel, The White Raven, and specifically the depiction of ceremony filling the pages. It is the perfect book to begin the new cycle, as the story begins and ends on Samhain. To read along, you can visit: (If you're a Diana L. Paxson fan, you'll be happy to know I'm working with her on an in-depth interview, which is forthcoming in Witches & Pagans Magazine. So stay tuned!)  

The White Raven retells the story of the lovers, Tristan and Iseult, depicted in the book by their Celtic names, Drustan and Esseilte, who are later betrayed by the king. It is told through the eyes of Branwen, the White Raven, who is raised alongside Esseilte by the Queen of Eriu. Paxson's story is steeped in history and Celtic lore. Here we see the junction of the Old Ways and Christianity. Steeped with Pagan themes, it is the depiction of ceremony that makes this a treat. Let's look further. 

Beginning in chapter three, the Queen of Eriu takes Esseilte and Branwen to visit a sacred well. It is a site that has been important to the people long before Christianity, and as far back as anyone can remember. The well is surrounded by hazelwoods, and birdsong fills the sound. The queen explains to the girls, "Folk come here from all about this country to walk the pattern at the Feast of Brigid that begins in spring." Surrounding the well are fourteen flagstones, which the girls are instructed to kneel before and pray. The queen further explains to whom they pray, "She is the water and the well, the pattern and the prayer." They are told to drink the waters and make an offering, then they will understand.

The scene culminates when Branwen, having reached the well receives a vision. "Brightness burned Vision upon vision then, and I saw nothing but a Face which was the old Brigid and the new, the Lady of the Well and the Mother of God..." Paxson is weaving the magical moment of ceremony, attainable with an open, persistent heart. If we go deeper, we can visit the well ourselves and experience the ritual, and bring its importance into our daily lives. 

The White Raven is filled with similar moments that bring out the imagery of ceremony, allowing the reader to perceive it in its original form. In one sense, it is almost like a step-by-step guide, a template to build new (but old) traditions, like this excerpt, when the queen casts a circle with the girls:

"Mairenn (the queen) had removed her dark cloak... she unlocked the chest in the corner, and from it took three fat candles made from some grayish waxy substance, several small silk bags, and a shallow vessel bound in tarnished silver that looked as if it were made of bone. These she placed on a linen cloth that covered the whitewashed step built out from the wall beside the hearth ..."

From here the queen adds incense to the coals, brings forth the water and cauldron, and begins to sing a spell. Through Branwen's eyes we see the potion come to fruition. The ceremony, although exciting to read, is part of a larger plot tying the story together. It is part fantasy, but part realism. 

All in all, The White Raven takes readers on a voyage through the Celtic landscape, through the sacred holidays and sites, through love and betrayal, and some history, too. Certainly one to put on the reading list to start the new year. 

(If you're interested in contacting Hunter Liguore to see what she'll be reading and blogging about next month, or to discover her writing, please visit: Skytale Writer.)

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Hunter Liguore, a multi-Pushcart Prize nominee, earned an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in History. Her work has appeared internationally in a variety of journals. She is the editor-in-chief of the print journal, American Athenaeum, which is dedicated to publishing "voices" that ultimately inform our times. (To view current submission guidelines: She revels in old legends, swords, and heroes.


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