Monday, 20 February 2017

Spirit of The Drum, Words of The Pythoness


I am that serpent-haunted cave 
Whose navel breeds the fates of men. 
All wisdom issues from a hole in the earth: 
The gods form in my darkness, and dissolve 

From my blind womb all kingdoms come,
And from my grave seven sleepers prophesy.
No babe unborn but wakens to my dream,
No lover but at last entombed in me shall lie.

I am that feared and longed-for burning place
Where man and phoenix are consumed away,
And from my low polluted bed arise
New sons, new suns, new skies.

- Kathleen Raine

It is a well known fact that the beating of a drum, between approximately 4 and 7 hertz (cycles or beats per second),  has the potential to alter our state of consciousness and that when we align honed intention with this altered state of consciousness we can step out of this reality and behind the 'veil' that separates this world from The Other.

In short, with a drum in our hands, we can find the door to the house of the spirits, we can open that door and go in. We can communicate with those we meet there, listen to their wisdom, receive their teachings and healings, and if we are of a particular type, perhaps give voice to those spirits in this reality,  This is the work of the Pythoness, Pythia or Oracle.

It is a partnership with Spirit.

"The drum was the means our ancestors used to summon the goddess and also the instrument through which she spoke. The drumming priestess was the intermediary between divine and human realms. Aligning herself with sacred rhythms, she acted as summoner and transformer, invoking divine energy and transmitting it to the community." Layne Redmond

Plutarch, the Greek Philosopher and writer who was himself a priest at Delphi (AD 46 - 120) wrote in his 'Moralia' (De Defectu Oraculae 51 - On The Decline of Oracles) of the Delphic Oracle: "Whenever, then, the imaginative and prophetic faculty is in a state of proper adjustment for attempering iself to the spirit ... inspiration in those who foretell the future is bound to come;"

"In some lands, the prophets - Merlin or Moses, Thorbjorg or Fedelm - operated independently of any setting, but in the Mediterranean, the emphasis was on the oracular site and the deity who resided there. Although we know the names of a few of the men who served as priests at Delphi or thespodes at Claros, the prophets and pythias themselves remain anonymous. What mattered was the origin of wisdom, not the channel through which it was received."  Diana L Paxson 'The Way of The Oracle'.

All are agreed though, that the crucial preparation for the Vate, the Pythia, the Pythoness, the Oracle, is to "Know Thyself" (as was written above the entrance to the temple at Delphi).  Whether one's service was to a particular liminal location, a deity, or a tradition, the first steps of the journey must include becoming a man or woman who knows exactly who they are (particularly necessary so that they may also recognise when they are who they are not), to become balanced, whole, so that the connection to the Divine, the Spirits, may flow through unhindered. Here again the drum can help us, being the primary tool for a practice of shamanic journeying which can indisputably help us speedily along the path to gnosis.

The great oracles of the past have been silent for many generations, their sacred sites reduced to tourist traps, their teachings unheard. But right now it seems that the moment for re-connection has arrived. In her wonderful book 'If Women Rose Rooted' Dr Sharon Blackie tells the tale of the demise of the Well Maidens, initially through the rape of one of them by the King. "It was his duty to keep the well-maidens safe, for they were the Voices of the Wells, and without the wells the land would lose it's heart. But Amagons wasn't much of a man for duty, and the day came when he broke faith". She then sends out a cry, one which is echoed all around the world at the moment, in many voices. "We were the Voices of the Wells, we can take up that old mantle. We can take up our golden grails again, and offer their life-giving drink to the world."

I have been working with a small group of women for some years now, bringing the oracular, vatic, pythic services of The Pythoness out from behind the veil, out to where she can be of service.

In this work, the drum is my ally and friend. "There was drumming in the hills around Edinburgh. A 1684 account published in London to prove the existence of witches and spirits describes a lad named 'The Fairy-Boy of Leith in Scotland' who took his drum every Thursday night to a hill between Edinburgh and Leigh. Here the 'boy of the fairies' beat his drum while men and women passed through invisible doorways into another realm.." - Tom Cowan 'Fire in the Head'.

So I thought I would share some of them here with you.

In the hopes that you might be inspired to take one up too. If we remembered "that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of it's many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted like trees." (Sharon Blackie, 'If Women Rose Rooted')

And if we rise up rooted in Earth, then who knows what wonders we can bring about - speaking on behalf of those who currently have little voice, or those whose voices are not being heard.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon...
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.
It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments

By Oriah © Mountain Dreaming,
from the book The Invitation

Monday, 30 January 2017

Imbolc and Getting Lost and What I Found

We've been making and creating and tidying and dreaming in green and the mostly yellow and white petals of what looks like it could be the soft whiskered nose of an early spring. We have been raising our faces to the sun and the sun has been smiling down on us, making floods and puddles magically disappear and birds sing at the top of their warbling lungs.

The Snowdrops have turned up right on time, and so have the first of the lambs and the calves.
This chap is looking pretty pleased with himself, and rightly so. There's a fine crop of his descendants skipping around the fields in the morning mist.

Have I already told you that I love sheep? I don't really know why, it's not a rational thing, but when is love ever a rational thing? Perhaps it's exposure at an early age to the joys of bottle feeding lambs. Or perhaps it's just that their furry faces always look so very friendly, I can't imagine a sheep ever looking judgemental, I'm sure no sheep ever voted for anything other than the common good.

I'm constantly in awe of their capacity to withstand the weather, whatever the dance between Earth and Sky, bucketing rain, blowing a hoolie or simply frozen solid; sheep simply stand there, munching away, until the moment (as any sheep farmer will tell you) that they suddenly decide to keel over and die, for no particular reason. It is said that sheep die for fun, just because they can. But mostly they don't.

I followed a sheep track out onto the moor last week, wending my way along the ribbon of tiny hoof prints. I deliberately allowed myself to be lost for a while, it was a strange but beautiful feeling walking a familiar landscape from an unfamiliar direction, taking feral and seemingly random turnings at this hillock or that patch or gorse as the track led me, losing that sense of time which is somehow marked by the known and the predictable.

I was in a part of the moor that I know pretty well, so I mean lost in the most minor sense of the word, but bimbling about with no guide but the sheep track for a while, brought me a whole new perspective. It reminded me about trust, and the importance of knowing where you're going, or not, which seems particularly relevant at this time of the year when most of us are thinking about new beginnings, new projects, new directions, planning what we'll plant for the growing season..

There are large and obvious land marks, not least of which is the ancient stone circle of Scorhill

This stone circle - when you are reflecting on pathways as you follow sheep tracks across the moor - is the Ancestors, It represents all we think we know, the certainties we take for granted, our moral, ethical, social compass.

We are living in incredibly uncertain times, the ground is shifting under our feet in strange and possibly frightening ways all over the world. So perhaps we're all a bit lost, there doesn't seem to be a map for where to go and what to do when everything is trundling ever more quickly down the hill to hell.

 The moon rose as the sun set and I wondered if this circle has a particular alignment to either of these great heavenly bodies, I don't know. Perhaps you do? There will doubtless have been a reason that these great stones were hauled to this sport and placed in exactly the places that they stand. We no longer necessarily know what that reason was, but we trust that it was good enough for the people of the time.

It seems to be a commonly held belief that the great structures of the past, those that still mark the land, were placed there for sacred or ceremonial purpose. We believe, I believe, that these structures come from a time when people listened to spirits much more than we tend to. Not only the disembodied spirits of the otherworld, but those of river and raven, sea and shore, tree and timeless tumbling brook. There is a beautiful polarity in living this way, there is always a signpost, a path, always a guide to the next step and yet there is also the freedom of not necessarily having the big picture, the whole of the map, When your intention is to live in harmony with nature, you don't need to know much about the distant future, you just need to listen to what is needed here now.

 I'm not at all suggesting that we should all stick our heads in the sand, or under our wings, or anywhere else that hides our view of the mess were in, but I am suggesting that looking at the signposts and considering the next step and only the next step is sometimes more empowering, emboldening perhaps, than trying to take the long view. Perhaps we need to get a little lost, so that we can find our way to somewhere unexpected, somewhere we haven't been before.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Here We Go A Wassailing.....

Here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green, 
He go a wandering so glorious to be seen, 
Love and joy come to you and to you a wassail too, 
And god bless you and send you a happy new year, 
and god send you a happy new year. 

Wassailing is an old country tradition, one among many that marked the minutiae of the passing of the year - in this case one that acknowledged Winter is still here but so is the New Year, so on the one hand it's to welcome in the new year, but more importantly we're hoping that spring will come, so we go to the orchards to wake up the trees. It seems that everywhere that there is a strong tradition of cider making you will still find wassailers, the length and breadth of the country.  Here in Devon there's plenty of it about, those of us who love cider are to be found on old twelfth night (17th January), or thereabouts, making sure that the apple trees are honoured and acknowledged so that they bear fruit plenty of fruit in the coming year.

We went a wassailing a little early this year, I didn't realise until I started researching it for this post that there is a date, an actual date rather than guidelines, that is commonly associated with Wassailing. I think for many of us it just takes place at some point in the first couple of weeks in January, whereas for others it's the 17th of January or be damned!

We brought sops and cider, song, fire and friendship to our trees. Also our eternal gratitude for the mammoth harvest they so often give us.

We put the sops in the branches of the oldest tree and poured a libation of last years cider onto the roots.

It's delicious stuff!

We sat around outside in the twilight, ciders in hand, wondering about the many tales of the apple: Perhaps she is the personification of the Goddess, perhaps she contains sacred teachings (have you ever cut an apple in half sideways?). Perhaps the humble apple is the fruit of immortality, of the Gods, of the fall of Eve. Certainly the practice of wassailing was considered a pagan threat to the christian church and there was an edict banning it in 1577.  Our conversation moved to crumble and custard and ways to make the cider press work better - Fergus and I can always be relied upon to bring the conversation back to our bellies in the end and the fire was easily good enough to roast a potato on. The bonfire, or a flaming torch, is part of the traditions of wassailing as it represents the returning sun. Bless him and his warming, lighting, ripening, apple growing ways.

And when we came in we realised we'd forgotten the bit about banging saucepans to drive away the evil spirits and went back out to do it.  If your wassailing in a community orchard you are likely to find lots of noise in the shape of morris men and plenty of merriment; here's a little film of wassailing a community orchard in Colwall in Herefordshire last year.

Most importantly, wherever or whenever you are a-wassailing there must be sops in cider. This is usually a piece of toast these days - which I think may be a hilarious misunderstanding of the expression 'toasting the trees' - but it might not be. It seems that bread was placed in the cider glasses in many places, as much to prevent all the murk from the bottom of the glass from ending up in your mouth as anything else.  The cider soaked bread (toasted or not) is then placed in one of more of the trees, for the good spirits and for the Robin who is guardian of the orchard.  A libation - last years cider poured upon the ground and the roots of the trees in  honour of the Spirits - is offered and threaded throughout all of this is the constant shout of "wassail" and the singing of the local wassailing song.  The word wassail is derived from Old Norse 'vest heil' and means "be healthy", "be you hale". The traditional response is "Drink hael!". 

I came across this wonderful old film from the 70s about British mid-winter traditions, from Ash Faggot burning to Wassailing. If you let the YouTube get on with it the whole film will play in 5 separate pieces.

According to the community featured here wassailing was regarded as simple good husbandry. The oldest tree in the orchard would be blessed, gun shots would be fired to scare away the bad spirits and sops soaked in hot cider and ginger placed in it's branches to entice good spirits to come - thus ensuring a good crop of apples in the coming season. Hurrah!

May all trees be fruitful this year; yours, mine and those that belong only to themselves.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Visible Face of Spirit

Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,

to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,

the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver

running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants

cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.

This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
through forever;

you can never be dispossessed.
— Derek Walcott

Everything is connected, everything is made up of the same stuff, everything is of spirit and in spirit and containing spirit. Everything is the visible face of Spirit, even you, even me. 

In the ancient stories of the northern lands of Europe Squirrel scampered up an down the world tree, delivering messages between humanity and The Gods. 

Is it easier to identify those that we share our lives with as messengers of the Gods when we know who they are, when we can name them? I believe that it is. It seems to be the little one's, the humble one's, who are acknowledged as the bringers of messages, as omen bearers.  Magpie, Robin, Squirrel, (to name just a tiny few) we all know what these look like.  The notion that the other-than-human denizens of the land are bearers of messages seems to be as ancient as time. I've spent some of today looking at an exquisite on-line facsimile of a book called 'Birds in legend, fable and folklore' by Ernest Ingersoll. In this Ingersoll cites hundreds of different examples from all over the world at all stages of human history of Birds being regarded as omen bearers of one sort or another.

And I see that the anthropomorphising of stones, trees, hills - anything that is part of our Earth - helps us to connect, to literally give a face of the guardian Spirits of place and so to know and remember them. 

 "Stripped of it's stories, the land is beginning to fall mute. No longer an expressive, animate power, the local earth soon comes to be seen as a purely passive background or backdrop against which human life unfolds."  (David Abrams in his introduction to Martin Shaw's wonderful new book Scatterlings)

He continues  "what better way to become native to a terrain than to open one's senses to the innumberable tales secretly unfolding themselves under the hill, emptying one's ears toward the fluid articulations of the burbling stream and the quiet laughter of the jackdaws?" 

And better than that, what if once again we make the landscape personal, make it ours, know it's names, know it's stories, it's griefs and it's joys. Walk within it and allow it to walk within us, rooting us deeply in the sacred and in the here and the now. These are the only places that good things are really happening; here, now, in partnership with the sacred.

Let the land truly be your home. Let your heart and your knowing fall deeply into the land of your body and let your body stand or lie gently on the body of the land. Let her hold you, you are part of her, you are one of her's.  Listen. Watch. Feel. Learn her stories.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Samhain, Death and The Cailleach.

I have been keeping company with the Cailleach these last few weeks; she's the Hag, the bringer of winter, the old woman, the crone, and contrary to expectation (perhaps) she is one of the most welcome visitors I can think of. I love this time of year, when the glorious, uproarious, pageant of summer makes way for the soft, quiet falling of leaves. When the composting of all the brightness and loudness of growth starts to invite us downwards, earthwards, inwards, towards death.

It's the time for taking stock, not in a counting your chickens sort of a way, but in that looking under your skirts to see who's really there way. For being soft with yourself - sitting on the sofa with a book when it's raining, singing soft songs to the mist in the morning, or going and gathering great armfuls of kindling in the bright soft afternoons, full of the rustles of dry leaves falling through nearly bare branches.

Death is inevitable, as immutable as change, in fact in many ways it is simply change. We see it as final and frightening and to be mourned and feared, but what's happening really? We are changing our state, crossing a threshold from embodied to not. It will come for all of us, but that does not mean it has to be unwelcome. Every part of life has it's deaths; from the big seasonal ones, to full moon and dark, the ending of the day or the turning of the tide.

Life, while we have it, is full of all those smallish but possibly painful deaths; relationships over, friendships petered out, jobs done-with, projects finished. There are all the things we have used up and thrown out, all the things we've eaten and even all the things we've wasted. Glasshouses full of the things we have forgotten to water.

But best are the deaths of those aspects of ourselves that we no longer need or better still the ones we no longer want, that we can relinquish freely and with an open and loving heart say "Goodbye, I hope you never come back." We can bow our heads quietly at dusk and say thank you for the lesson, thank you for the gift of my life, thank you for all that I am and all that I have.

Samhain is the time when we remember the dead, and in the remembering of the dead as a society we conjur shadows and shades, the ghosts of the past. Whilst these ghosts and shadows have been part of what has created our present, and whilst I encourage you all to remember your dead, with love if you can, I feel that it is the shadows of the present that we should be really looking at. It seems like the work of the moment is to let them out of the cellar, the cupboard, out from under the bed, and have a really good look at them.

We all know the truth of the pop-psychology that says that what you hide in your basement will go crazy and then run amok in your life - we see this writ large in our lives at the moment: There are a myriad of ways our cultural shadow is being shown to us every day, just flip to facebook, twitter, turn on the TV, be appalled at our behaviour.  And when you have finished weeping (and I urge you to make it a very short but effective weep, the kind that makes your face clean and your clothes wet, that wrings out the stored up griefs, too small to mourn on their own, the little ones that accumulate. The kind of weeping that torrents wildly though you and brings in it's aftermath peace.) weeping over fracking, nuclear power, refugees, the patriarchy, violence against women, the Dakota PipeLine and all that is happening at Standing Rock, the list goes one and on, so many reasons to weep. Then let's peck the flesh from these old bones and make them bare, let's look at what's hidden inside, let's really, really stand and face ourselves in the mirror

And then let us remember:
Everything is made up of the same stuff.
Everything is connected.

And so if each one of us takes a good look at what we'd like to let go of, especially core beliefs. Extra especially if those core beliefs reflect the culturally held core belief that our Earth is simply a resource to be used.

If we all ferret about under our metaphorical beds and find the things that need to come out and be looked at, and that then need to die. (Not everything under there needs to die, but I humbly suggest that it all needs to be looked at and given a good clean and a home on a shelf somewhere you can keep your eye on it.)

Perhaps we can grow something beautiful and useful out of the compost we will make.

To the ancient Celts, our ancestors in these lands, Samhain marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. They viewed days this same way, the day began as darkness fell, it gestated in the blackness, just as we do, and gave birth to itself with the returning of the light. So I leave you with this, for the New Year, as it sleeps quietly in the earth, I wish it for myself, and I wish it for you.

May a good vision catch me
May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me

May a deep and full vision come over me, and burst open around me

May a luminous vision inform me, enfold me.
May I awaken into the story that surrounds,
May I awaken into the beautiful story.
May the wondrous story find me;
May the wildness that makes beauty arise between two lovers
arise beautifully between my body and the body of this land,
between my flesh and the flesh of this earth,
here and now,
on this day,
May I taste something sacred.
—David Abram