Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I haven't posted recently because the incubation chamber project has been moving slowly. It's been cold and rainy and even snowing, making airing out the bedroom and closet space a slow and unpleasant process. 

I just shipped a whole trunk full of clothing and other things (most of it from the former closet space) over to Goodwill this evening, clearing up the living room where it's been piled. Within the week I'll be starting the second coat of stain, this time with an intent to texture the walls so they don't look so stark. There will be photos again when that phase of the project is finished.

Imbolc is coming soon as well -- only a few days away. This year I'll be doing ritual that involves laying out the brat Brid and the Brighid's Cross for her touch as she passes by. There will be a fire for the night, and an altar laid out. I'll have candles and songs, food laid out for her, and offered to her in the flames.

This year also, a little later in the month, I'll be getting together with some local CR folk to do a ritual for the Imbolc of Brig Ambue. Brig Ambue is "Brighid of the Cowless Warriors" -- a Goddess who integrates outsiders back into the tribe. My friend Phil put together the ritual, which we'll be doing on the 11th (close to the old calendar Imbolc) and again at PantheaCon this year.

Imbolc is not entirely about the domestic cult, just as Brighid is not entirely a domestic Goddess. In some ways the holiday is similar to the Roman lupercalia, a festival of purification and renewal. This is what the Brig Ambue ritual signifies and incorporates; it brings in those parts of us that had gone walkabout, renews ties between the wild and the domestic, eases tensions between outsiders and insiders. So along with the homely and healing work of the brat Brid, there will also be purification and renewal, an acceptance of the wild and outlying parts of ourselves as we move into the burgeoning light of spring.

Darkness has begun to recede here, despite the overcast days and the dreich weather. It has snowed in the past two days and the remains of snow are still on the ground. Black ice is on the parking lot. Yet the days have been longer and buds are beginning to show on the trees. The season is in flux, and soon I'll be able to open the windows and the song of frogs will fill the nights.

I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Starting the project

Today I started working on clearing out the closet that will eventually be the incubation chamber. It was full of laundry, spare bedding, old photo albums and a bunch of other things that people keep in closets, including a lot of clothes I haven't worn in years or which no longer fits. So after having cleared out the dirty laundry, I took some photos of the closet in process.

First with general storage and some bedding that needs dry cleaning rather than tossing into the washer. As you can see, it's pretty crowded in there. I moved the hook for the robe onto the bathroom door. The bedroom door, when open, covers part of the closet door, but this shouldn't be an issue for my purposes.

More likely to be difficult is the fact that the closet door opens inward. This means that nothing can be in the path of the door, including cushions and such, unless I move them before the door opens. That may be an inconvenience, depending on where I end up placing the cushions that I'll by lying on. Most likely, that will go along the back of the closet. Altar stuff will likely go along the wall on the right hand side looking in, as there is room next to the door.

The next photo is after I'd pulled out the majority of the stuff on the floor. As you can see, there's still a lot of work to do. Clothing and storage items need to be removed. I'll also need to remove the hanger bars and the shelves. The hanger bars are right at the level where I'm going to whack myself in the head if I try to stand up under them. This is a Very Bad Thing when one is in a perhaps not entirely grounded state, so it's partly a safety issue as well as one of space. 

First I'd considered leaving the upper shelves, but they make the room feel claustrophobic when I'm in it and taking them out has made a big difference in how the room actually feels. There were a lot of screws and some nails to deal with. I'll be putting both the shelves and the hardware out into the garage because if I ever sell the place, I'll need to reinstall the shelves and bars for the next owner. I rather doubt they'll find much use in an incubation chamber in the master bedroom!

The third photo is of the room entirely emptied, except for the stepladder. I decided that the off-white was entirely too... something and so tomorrow I'll be painting the room with some sage-green stain. It'll mute the brightness of the room when the lights go on, and help with a more comfortable feel if I have candles burning on the altar for any reason. The bland off-white is a color I don't care for much and the incubation chamber should have as few non-ritual distractions as possible, so comfort and easiness on the eyes is important to me through this process. 

I'll be having my Very Tall Roommate and possibly his boyfriend help me with the painting, and it should go quickly. It's cold out and snowed late last night, but I'll still need to open the bedroom window to air the space out while the painting is going on, as well has having the bathroom fan going to help clear the air as quickly as possible. The door to the room will need to be left open, probably for several days, to be sure that I'm not going to keep the necessary out-gassing from happening. Paint fumes are nasty stuff, and that's not the way I want to alter my consciousness. I may end up sleeping with the window open for a night or two, with a lot of extra blankets on the bed!

As you can probably see even just from the photo, having the rails and shelves out of the room changes the feel a lot. What you can't see is that I had to remove a broken light dome from the fixture. That happened quite a while ago when I was trying to get something off one of the high shelves. I'll have to replace the fixture so that I don't have a bare bulb up there on the ceiling. 

Another issue is that if I'm going to have sound in the closet, I'm going to have to run an extension cord from the hallway. I have upstairs neighbors who have kids. Most of the time they're not too noticeable but now and then it's like elephants on the ceiling. I'm considering looking for cds with nature sounds on them -- not nature sounds with music but just nature sounds. Flowing water, ocean waves, or birdsong and wind in leaves would all be acceptable, so if any of you have suggestions for places to find this, that would be great. 

I don't want music over the background sound because that drives a certain mood and it also presents problems when the sound loops at the end of the piece with a CD or iPod on repeat.  I may also experiment with soft harp music or other instrumentals that carry an appropriate mood in them, intended for quiet contemplation or meditation. Harps are certainly a part of the tradition and if there was any sound driver for trance in the Gaelic tradition it was most likely harp, given the three harp strains of laughter, sorrow, and sleep.

I'll take suggestions on good harp pieces as well, and I'm sure some of you will have them. I'm very much open to experimenting with harp music for trance and healing work, and without a harper at my personal disposal at all hours, I'm going to have to go with recorded music. Damn the inconvenience! ;)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Practical incubation ritual

Inspired by one of my Hellenic Pagan spirit-worker friends, I'm starting a project to do experimentation with incubatory vision work. She's got a room in her house that she uses for her adyton or temple and that room has a closet that she's fitted out for incubation and oracular work.

Like most folks, I don't have room enough in my apartment for a whole temple room. I have a roommate living in my library, and the library takes up a lot of space all by itself -- there are books in every room of my house. But I do have a walk-in closet in my bedroom. So, soon I'll be working on rearranging my storage so that I can empty out that closet and create my own incubation chamber for work on some of the rituals from the Gaelic tradition that require darkness and isolation or intensive internalization. These rituals include the stone on the belly poetic incubation described by Martin Martin from the Isle of Skye in the late 17th century, the ritual of tarbhfeis (tarv-faysh or bull-feast), and the lengthy imbas forosnai (im-bus for-oss-nuh) ritual that could take as long as three or nine days.

My most intensive ritual experiences so far have been backpacking trips out to the coast in Washington and California. In both cases, I spent three nights camping and doing ritual during most of that time, even when "ritual" consisted of beachwalking while meditating and watching for potential information regarding my process. This will take my work in a different direction, but one that's necessary as a part of the practice of filidecht. Part of the work involves sensory deprivation of a sort -- isolation and darkness are definite steps in that direction. Entheogens may also have been a part of the practice of filidecht at some point in the past. The visionary experiences described certainly often read like entheogenic experiences.

If I want to be able to add fasting to the ritual preparation, I'm also going to have to look at the idea of giving up tea for a while, as caffeine withdrawal can cause bad headaches or even migraines, and going into a fast for spiritual purposes while dealing with migraines from withdrawal is just not a good way to get your visions on. Talking to a doc would probably be a good idea as well, due to my health constraints. I have fibromyalgia, migraines, PTSD and a variety of other issues including clinical depression that require a certain amount of monitoring, so hardcore fasting is something that I would absolutely have to work up to carefully rather than just jumping in and not eating for a couple of days.

In doing this kind of practical work, there will always be considerations of time, isolation, preparation, space, and ritual creation. We have rough accounts of these rituals, but the formats and ritual words are not preserved. In some cases we're told that four druids accompany the one seeking a vision, chanting "truth spells" the entire time the seeker is in trance. Human assistance may not always be available, so allowances have to be made for the "sound track" of the ritual. Precautions need to be taken in the case of both fasting and entheogen use as a solitary worker. Distractions have to somehow be kept to a minimum.

Later this week I should be posting some photos of the closet before and after clearing it out. After that, as I work on creating sacred space within it, there will probably be a few pictures of how the chamber develops. Not having a dedicated temple room may mean that I'll need to divide the closet into two "rooms" with a curtain so that there is a preparatory and post-incubation space as well as the space for the actual incubation itself. An altar, a comfortable cushion to lie on, warm blankies and other considerations need to be looked at. 

As a practical thing, I also have to accept that there will be some failures and false starts on this. In the hope of encouraging and informing others, I'll be recording the flops as well as the successes. I hope that my work will inspire others to do some research and experimentation with Gaelic incubatory ritual work. The more of us who are working on it, the more likely we'll be to develop successful technologies for it within the CR community. In my opinion, more successful ritual forms equals a more diverse and stronger community. 

Just as Celtic cultures have never been monolithic, I think that CR should be diverse in its practices so long as it stays true to the Celtic cultures that inspire it, even if there is syncretism and adaptation of technologies from outside the cultures. Nothing in this world has developed in utter isolation, and if one of CR's questions is "what would Celtic polytheism look like if Christianity hadn't come along", then one of those answers is very likely to be "very diverse."

Friday, January 4, 2008

"Are you a shaman?"

This is possibly the most frequent question I get asked when I try to explain filidecht to other people. Sometimes I'll just say "I'm a druid" because it's easy and people will at least have some idea that I'm into something Celtic, but that carries its own set of false assumptions and baggage. And these days saying you're a druid is likely to get you the same question.

My roommate got his Ph.D. in Celtic Civilization in Cork a year or so ago. Someone asked him if, when he was finished with his course of study, he would be a Celtic shaman. It's a frustrating thing to deal with. The assumptions can be very strange sometimes. But no -- neither of us is a Celtic shaman. He's a scholar. I'm a poet with mystic tendencies. 

I would say that I sometimes use techniques that could be classified as "shamanic" in my work. But then, so do some Buddhist monks, and your average person on the street doesn't consider them "shamans." For me, a big part of the issue is that Gaelic has any number of words for its pre-Christian spiritual practitioners. We really don't need to borrow words from outside. I've always felt that calling druids and filidh "shamans" made about as much sense as referring to Siberian shamans as "druids." They're not the same, no matter what John and Caitlin Matthews or D.J. Conway tell you.

I'm an animist. I'm a polytheist. I do trance work and Otherworld work and healing work and divination. To those ends, I call on spirits, ancestors and deities to help me with the work I need to do. The techniques I use vary depending on circumstances, and certainly some of the experiences I've had could be classified as "shamanic" but I can't see calling myself that with any sense of honesty. There's entirely too much baggage around the concept and it's so misunderstood that it brings up pictures in people's minds that have nothing to do with the way I do my work and how I follow my calling.

When I was at my book release a few weeks ago, a couple of people were in attendance who called themselves Celtic shamans. I don't know them, but one of them had a fake "Celtic" accent and didn't seem to realize that there were no ogam tracts in the Welsh language. He asked if I used ogam to cast my circles. I replied that I didn't use circles and didn't work that way. They were curious how I dealt with ritual, then.

"I work with spirits and the deities," I said. "I ask them for help."

"Oh, so you're a natural," the partner replied.

"No," I told her. "I worked long and hard to get where I am with this. I spent years studying and experimenting and talking with the spirits and the deities."

To my mind, shaman has become such a catch-all phrase for spiritual practitioners that it's become essentially meaningless in the Pagan community. I don't listen to drumming tapes to help me into trance. I don't have a "totem animal" or a "spirit guide." I've never done firewalking or had sensurround technicolor visionary experiences.

I go into the Otherworlds with caution, surrounded by spirits and with the permission of deity. I make offerings before and afterwards. I may sing my way there. I may go in dreams. I may use incubatory techniques based in sensory deprivation. 

I talk to spirits. Sometimes they talk back. I don't usually hear words, but more often just get a sense of presence and messages or images from them that aren't in anything resembling human speech. Sometimes one of my grandmothers shows up -- no, she wasn't a shaman either. She was a Polish Catholic, thanks. Admittedly, she wasn't a particularly churchy type, and she had a few folk customs up her sleeve, but she never taught them to me. She just shows up sometimes to see how I'm doing and help take care of me when I need it. When I was back east a couple of years ago I told my uncle that I'd seen and talked to her from time to time.

"Yeah," he said. "That runs in the family."

It had been a new one on me, but my dad's notoriously close-mouthed about just about everything and that goes double for family stuff. So maybe second sight runs in the family, but my uncle tends toward tall tales, so I'm not even sure of that, to be honest.

I write poetry. I talk to spirits. Sometimes the spirits talk back. 

That's what filidecht is about.