Autumn Equinox – Hearth shrine

Even though I celebrated the autumn equinox with an eclectic pagan group, I always try to keep my hearth decorated appropriately for the season. Above are two photos of my home shrine.

1st photo – a personal offering made in the forest at SweetWood. I set this up inside the ritual space as a votive for Artemis and the woodland spirits. This is about as simple as it gets: a candle, my olivewood bowl of keys and coins (I take these everywhere as they are personal power symbols and blessed for spiritual use only), and a bunch of acorns I gathered in the forest.

Photos 2 & 3 – I use a small cast-iron saucepan for my well, a living plant for my tree, and a candle for my fire. There is incense, some fresh-picked flowers, acorns, and berries, and personal tokens as an offering, and my current deity symbols (a rabbit and golden pillar). There is also a jar of water from a sacred well here in Wisconsin, some decorative items, and of course, Papa Smurf.

 

SweetWood Temenos

The closest ADF groves in my neck of the woods are two hours north or two hours south of where I live.  So if I want to celebrate a High Day with the community, I have to make a rather long haul to one of the groups I can reach or celebrate with other pagan groups that are closer to home.

My original plan was to drive out to Circle Sanctuary and celebrate with their community. The nice thing about Circle’s festivals is that they have activities from morning to night, so it’s worth the drive in order to have a full day of engagement.

The weekend before the equinox, I ran across a brochure for a pagan sanctuary called Sweetwood Temenos. Their website indicated that they were hosting a weekend of camping, fellowship, and ritual for the equinox. It was a bit of a hike from where I live, a three hour drive into a part of the state I’ve not yet seen. But was in the mood for an adventure.

 

The website stated that all first-time visitors needed to call ahead in order to get directions. I did, and had a nice conversation with Jack, one of the two founders of the Temenos. I told him that I was affiliated with ADF and he asked me if I’d ever met Isaac or Ian. He seemed to hold them both in high regard.

So things were off to a promising start. I must have made a good impression because I was invited to join the group and given directions to the campsite. Saturday morning arrived, and off I went.

The drive up to Sweetwood was gorgeous. As a Southerner who relocated to the Midwest, my biggest complaint about my new home has never been the winter: it’s the flat land. Growing up near Chattanooga, I was used to rolling hills and complicated terrain. The drive into northwestern Wisconsin was the perfect remedy. This was farm country, which here meant plenty of corn and few people. This was a quiet place, marked by swollen hillsides and stunning Wisconsin forests.

I was able to locate the sanctuary with no trouble. It is a secluded place, off a county road and set back off the road between farmland and forest. The place offers a very private setting.

Upon arrival, I was greeted warmly and given a tour of the place. The temenos consists of 40+ acres nestled between farmland and forest, and includes

  • a spacious, wooded camping area
  • a large covered permanent structure that can serve as either a dining area or ritual space
  • an enormous permanent ritual circle
  • a shower house with flush toilets and hot water, handicapped accessible
  • a number of small shrines throughout the woods

All of the facilities were well kept and clean.  The ritual space was large enough to accommodate quite a sizable group (I’d estimate 50 or more could easily fit inside the circle) and I was told that standard capacity for the camping area was around 100. With some adjustments, I was told they could nearly double that capacity. I assume this meant extending the tent camping area beyond the wooded area and into the adjacent field.

The people I met at Sweetwood were kind and accommodating in every way. I very much enjoyed getting to know them. Most seemed to be interested in or influenced by the Church of All Worlds. I was the only Druid present at this time, but I’ve since learned of other ADF members who have spent time at SweetWood.

SweetWood is definitely a place to which I want to return. It’s a great location, excellent facility, and the company was second to none.

I’ll write a separate post about the ritual and fellowship.

Midsummer with Wild Onion Grove

Midsummer altar with Wild Onion grove.

I drove down to Chicago to spend Midsummer with the folks of Wild Onion Grove. This was my first time celebrating with the group and, with one exception, my first time meeting everyone from WOG.

The hearth culture of the day was Hellenic, with a focus on Athena and the festival of Panathenaea. We met in a city park in what is probably the most public ritual space I’ve ever been in–there were several other celebration going on within a few steps of us, including a family reunion and a birthday party.

The group that gathered seemed to be eclectic and not entirely ADF, but the ritual did not reflect this. It was ADF style through-and-through. We began by consecrating our time and space, first with a musical signal and then by processing into our space and marking the sigil on each other. We then offered honor to Hestia and the Earth Mother, and the goddess Iris as the gatekeeper. (I usually honor Hecate as gatekeeper in my personal rituals, so this was new to me.) Apollo was petitioned as our bardic inspiration, and I made the offering to the outdwellers.

For the central part of the ritual, libations, praise, and storytelling were offered to Athena. For my part, I brought some homemade crackers that I baked for the occasion (didn’t have spelt flour, alas!), some olive oil from my kitchen,  and told the legend of how women lost the right to vote in Athens.

According to Walter Burkert in Greek Religion, the people of Athens decided to hold a vote to see which deity–Poseidon or Athena–would be the principal patron of the city. The women supported Athena, while the men wanted to honor Poseidon. When the votes were cast, the women outnumbered the men by a single vote. So the city went to Athena. However, in retaliation, the men took away the women’s right to vote from that day forward. Not the most encouraging story from a humanist or feminist perspective, but it is part of the lore and a story which few know.

After our offerings were made, the omen was taken. The consensus among the group seemed to be that the omen was positive and the offerings were accepted, but some believed it also called attention to Apollo. Since Apollo is one of my principle deities, I was not sure what to make of this. After all, I think it’s always a good idea to call attention to Apollo!

And so we shared a blessing cup and some fabulous herbal cookies, closed our ritual by thanking all of the deities, spirits of the land, and ancestors, and having a simple meditation and grounding. Because of our location and people’s schedules, we did not have much time for fellowship afterwards.

So I am grateful to be able to join fellow Druids in celebrating the solstice. I hope we meet again soon.

 

 

 

My Indo-European ancestry

For many Druids and other Neopagans, ancestry is a focal point of their spiritual practice and one that determines the tradition or culture in which he or she practices. They feel a direct connection to their ancestors and try to honor their ways as best they can.

My experience has been quite different. My family did not preserve records of our past, and information about my heritage beyond three or four generations was difficult to obtain. This is due in part to illiteracy, poverty, and unreliable record keeping up through the beginning of the 20th century. My people had no family bibles to call upon, no important historical figures to which our name was tied, and no close relatives in another country to help keep our past alive.

To illustrate, I have copies of my third great grandfather’s enlistment and discharge papers from the Confederate Army. He was a wheelwright by trade, but a sharecropper in reality. He was illiterate and could not sign his own name, so the land owner to whom he was in debt had to sign for him. My grandfather simply marked an “X” for his signature. I believe my grandfather needed his landlord’s permission because he was in debt to him. Unconfirmed, but I’d place a wager on it.

So when people are not creating their own written records, the past gets lost. I have long suspected, based on the surnames present in our family tree, that my family was predominantly Western European, with an emphasis on the British Isles. So I did one of those DNA tests, and…

Wow.

The test confirmed my suspicion that much of my family originated in the British Isles. About half of my DNA is common in Ireland, Britain, and Wales. But the other half, well there were some surprises there.

The remaining half of my DNA comes from across Europe and Western Asia. I have genetic connections to Finland, Greece, Eastern Europe, and Turkey.

In short, I’m a Euro mutt.

 

 

Imbolc at Circle sanctuary

There isn’t an ADF Grove near me so I decided to visit Circle Sanctuary and join their community for my Imbolc celebration. It’s a two hour trip from Milwaukee, but I had the day off and it was a beautiful morning for a drive.

Even though I’ve never been to Circle Sanctuary (CS), this community was instrumental in my early pagan development. Growing up in the conservative South, it was not easy to make connections and find resources on Paganism. At some point, I got hold of a book (probably something on Wicca) which included the contact info for CS and I was able to order a subscription to what was then called “Circle Sanctuary News.” I remember this newsletter well because it offered me my first glimpse into the larger Pagan community. I must have been around 16 or 17, because I was still living with my parents.

The CS Imbolc celebration began with an opening ritual and welcome, then moved into a  workshop on bread making, which included history, lore, and practical information on creating sourdough starters. The teachers walked us through the process of bread making with a batch that was later baked and used for the cakes and ale portion of the main ritual. The sourdough starter they used was cultivated from the previous Samhain celebration, and incorporated water from Brigid’s Well, a sacred water source at CS. Anyone who requested it received a portion of this sourdough starter to take home. Mine is in an old strawberry jam jar.

After the bread making workshop, we conducted a “burning of the yule greens” in a small bonfire outside. This was my favorite part of the day, because we made our way to the fire while someone played the bagpipes. It made for a beautiful moment, at once both solemn and festive. 20170204_123824

Afterward, CS hosted a community potluck, which was an excellent opportunity for me do some much needed networking. There were a handful of people from the MKE area, although I was disappointed that I did not run into any other Druids. Still, it was a delicious meal with good company.

During the afternoon session, Selena Fox gave a presentation called “Brigid: Fire Through the Ages,” in which she explored Pre-Christian, Christian, and contemporary history and culture of this goddess. This was followed by another presentation, “Brigid of the Cross: Daily Spiritual Practice.” I enjoyed this workshop very much because the presenter (Ana) stressed the importance of weaving pagan practices into our everyday lives and was an outstanding storyteller. She is a university chaplain from a college in Illinois and a practicing Pagan.

At 4:00, the schedule called for a guided meditation on “Brigid of the Well.” Instead of attending, I took the liberty of exploring the CS grounds on what turned out to be a nice snowy walk in the woods. I went down the sacred well and collected some water for my own hearth, and spent the next hour roaming through the woods and listening to the sounds of snowfall and wind rustling in the trees.

Things have been so hectic lately that I haven’t had (or taken) many opportunities to get out of the city and into the woods. My gut told me to get out there and enjoy some quiet time among the trees. There was a gorgeous silver sun, of which I am particularly fond, as well as a few birds and squirrels flitting about. But the real treat was the simple quietude and solitude.

The structure of the main ritual was Wiccan, including invocations to the directions, power raising, chant, and cakes & ale. The energy of the group (about 40 people) was vibrant. I’ll definitely find my way back.

 

 

 

 

Essay – February Feast

The February Feast celebrates the first stirrings of the coming spring, which can be difficult to detect in the upper Midwest at this time of year. Although my northern and western European ancestors may have been delighted by the availability of fresh milk after the first part of the winter, my experience in an urban environment of the 21st century does easily not lend itself to such a connection.

As a Druid working in the Hellenic tradition, the February Feast poses a second challenge. How do I incorporate a holiday into my practice that derives from Celtic, Gaulish, and Germanic traditions? Although there are similar festivals in the Ancient Greek practice, differences in agricultural, economic, and social realities do not readily lend themselves to a clearly compatible celebration.

To resolve this dilemma, I focus on the hearth customs of the season and the festival’s associations with fire and purification. In Hellenic paganism, Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth and the figurative representation of the hearth fire, plays a crucial role in the spiritual lives of the people. Although there are virtually no myths about Hestia, her prominence in the lives of the Ancient Greeks is evident in the many offerings she received within the household and the critical importance of keeping the home hearth lit at all times.

The hearth fire was, for all Indo-European peoples, the center of domestic life. Fire protected people from predators, it provided warmth and comfort, and was the means by which food was prepared. In short, the hearth was an instrument of survival.

While my friends in the larger Neopagan community are celebrating hearth culture in the Celtic or Germanic traditions, I find it natural to do the same. I focus on giving thanks to Hestia, on celebrating the coming spring, and purification.

Psychologically, the February Feast plays a critical role for me because I know that astronomical and meteorological spring are not far away; the long dark of winter can wreak havoc on my mood. So I use the February Feast as a time to clear the mental slate and prepare for the brighter days ahead. This is my last real winter rest.