Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Amanita article finally available

Back in the mid-90s I was doing quite a bit of research into the potential links between mushrooms and filidecht. One of the results of that was my 1997 article, co-written with Timothy White, titled Speckled Snake, Brother of Birch: Amanita Muscaria Motifs in Celtic Legends. For a long time, I've wanted to be able to make it available online, as it has been rather influential and cited in a number of books over the years. Until this point, it's only been available by ordering the back issue of Shaman's Drum in which it appeared, or in a French translation that was previously available on my Preserving Shrine website. While the front page and the article page have not yet been updated, the article itself is available for viewing from the link above.

Early this month I spent some time scanning it and turning it into a pdf file so that the original English version is openly available to anyone wanting to read it. Please note that it was co-authored and that Timothy's position on "Celtic shamanism" is somewhat different than my own, but I felt that getting the research out there was more important than worrying about exact definitions of shamanism. I expect to also make the French translation available again sometime soon. 

I think it's also important to note that the article only deals with Amanita muscaria due to space limitations. My feeling is that other fungi could very well have been involved in the seeking of knowledge, but there was no way to include everything in the article that either of us wished to present. Psilocybe species certainly do, and did, grow in Ireland and Great Britain at the time. At some point, I may expand on this material, possibly as an appendix to the book I plan to write on filidecht. That, however, is something for the future and I can't really project too much about it at this point. My research on the geilt material is occupying a great deal of my attention at the moment.

I'm pleased to be able to make the article available online, finally. I think the research deserves a much wider distribution than it has previously received. It'll be interesting to see what comes of its new availability, and the dialogue that could potentially develop around it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Results, thoughts and meditations from Monday's work

I am firmly convinced that "discipline" does not have to mean getting up at the crack of dawn. The only reason I should ever see the sunrise is because I'm getting ready to go to bed. In fact, I find that the earlier I get up, the more miserable I feel, hence the desperate unlikelihood that I will ever become a monastic in the tradition of "discipline = misery".

Getting up at 10 am, for me, is kind of a challenge. I can do it but, for the most part, I honestly don't see why I should have to put myself through that kind of pain. I'm lucky enough to live a life where I mostly only have to get up in the ante-meridian occasionally and/or because I genuinely want to. This morning I rose promptly when the alarm went off and proceeded through the shower/dress/purifications/dog-walking routine right on schedule. The fact that I was shambling like a zombie should be swept under the carpet and left unremarked, but there are no carpets in my house. More's the pity.

I got out and walked around the lake (and, incidentally, dropped off things at the post that urgently required mailing out this morning) in freezing, crisp, bright clear daylight. It was gorgeous, but the sidewalks and much of the roadways were still slicked with ice anywhere that wasn't extremely heavily trafficked. This means that crossing streets was a bit dicey. There weren't many people out during my constitutional given that most adults were at work, most kids at school, and the rest of the world was sanely inside -- unlike me.

I kept warm during the walk though my mind, like my body, wandered rather a bit during the course of my excursion. Between paying attention to my footing and soaking in the rare winter sunlight, my eyes were occupied constantly. At intervals I tried to focus my mind on songs and some chanting, though with only minimal success. I'm used to better footing when I do this sort of movement meditation and that broke my concentration frequently. Despite this, it was a lovely walk and I had a delightful time. It did help me make a complete break with my usual complacent morning routine, particularly in waiting until after I'd returned to the house to have my morning herbal tea.

By the time I got home, I was ready to sit with a hot beverage and meditate for a while until my face rejoined the land of the living. During this time, I read some excerpts from 
Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writings by Thomas O'Loughlin. This belongs to my roommate but it's on my Powells wishlist of books I want to get at some point. The chapter I read was on "The Litanies: Petition, Procession, Protection" and in fact had some relevance to the ideal of walking as meditation that I was pondering while out in the snow and ice around the lake. I found the reading quite fruitful and will be pondering it with a mind to creating a litany for myself for while I'm out walking, to help introduce more formal meditative techniques to my exercise and incorporate that physical activity deliberately into my spiritual life on a more frequent basis.

Right about on time, I finished up my mint tea and the chapter and got to the cleaning up portion of the day. In addition to the sweeping and dusting of the chamber, I swept the floors in bedroom and bathroom, and in the hallway as well. After that I put fresh water and candles on all my household altars and lit them up as a meditation on allowing the sanctity of the everyday more effectively permeate my consciousness as I went about my work.

I found this was a really useful exercise because it meant that pretty much everywhere I went, there was a flame in or at the edge of my field of vision. It was a very effective reminder of my intentions and of how I try to surround myself with the memory that everything is sacred.

I sat down a little after 1 pm on the couch to decide what I wanted to do for the ritual purification and consecration. Over the next few hours I brought together some of the tropes I frequently use in ritual -- 
muir mas, nem nglas, talamh cé, the five rings from Scéla Éogain, and the five provinces, four winds construct from The Settling of the Manor of Tara. I also wrote bits for Manannán, Brigid, and Airmed. Given that I'll be doing some plant-based work in the chamber, it made a great deal of sense to include her in as the patron of herbal medicine and magic.

I'll admit that I napped fitfully on the couch off and on during this process for about an hour or so, given how groggy I was feeling after having got up at what is, for me, a very early hour. Unfortunately, afternoon naps often leave me feeling crankier and more creaky than not taking them, but my eyelids were at half-mast through a lot of the composition of my ritual and I didn't want to fall asleep while I was in the chamber trying to work, so napping was the better part of valor here.

By the time I got started with ritual in the chamber itself, it was about 4:45. This wasn't too much later than I estimated for a start time, so I felt I was doing well. I went into the chamber and did the ritual work of the purification and consecration, which included the prayers and some ogam sonic work. In invoking the energies of the five rings of protection, I used sonics for h-úath as a hedgerow to keep the space protected, and gort within that ring for fertile work.

Taking a leaf from some accounts of the initiation of poets with imagery of graves and rebirth, I invoked the chamber as the grave of every ignorance, the spring of every vision, and the womb of every wisdom and followed that with sonics for ailm and coll.

The ogam oracle for this part of the work was the oceanic current of Nin -- networking, connecting threads, and building bridges. This was very much in line with the intentions I was putting forth so I felt good to go on.

I should note that next time I do this, I'm not starting ritual before at least 10 pm. Trying to work when you live below people raising elephants upstairs is a bit challenging. It was at this point that I really would have given my left arm to be able to be doing this somewhere in the woods where it's 
quiet. Between somebody running a bath, people shouting (at dogs or kids, I wasn't sure) and galloping children, it took me a while to really get into the swing of the rest of the ritual and my concentration got jarred from time to time throughout the process.

Thus, not worrying about getting up at 10 am and not starting incubatory ritual in the chamber until 10 pm is going to be my order of the work from now on. *grumble*

I did some work with stone on the belly stuff pretty much as described in my ogam book. This was good and steadying, as well as energizing and focusing to a certain extent. It did help as I tried to push through the distractions later in the ritual.

The cauldron breathing work was nine breaths of fire in each cauldron with one deep breath between each to raise the flame up a level to the new cauldron. At the end of this I slowly let the warmth suffuse through me and felt prepared to try the next step.

The oracle for this part, concerning whether I had done enough preparatory work to continue, was chthonic edad. In this case it was about creating the tools for the journey, which was literally what I was doing in making the incubation chamber, so I felt this was a confirmation and moved on to the meditative work.

I smoked salvia (dried leaves) and kept a few of the leaves under my tongue, then lay back and let myself go into the mist. The tealight candles lit earlier in the day literally died out into darkness as I finished the pipe and set it down to go into the incubatory part of the work. Perfect timing.

The first thing I noticed was a sense of vines growing along the walls of the chamber. This lasted for a while as I contemplated the presence of Airmed. It felt very comfortable and welcoming, growing and green and protective. She's been a presence since the beginning of my explorations of Irish and Celtic spirituality and has been a guiding hand, though a much more subtle one than that of Brigid or Manannán. I was very glad to include her specifically and work with her this closely in something that was so manifestly a part of her being.

Eventually I began to feel encapsulated in a chrysalis. This seemed to generate a new stage of the meditation. I felt very safe in there despite a physical feeling of some constriction and being lightly wrapped within a winding of some sort. At that point all I had was a small blanket over my legs, so the feeling was not reflective of physical reality. The imagery of enclosure and transformation here is very significant. The creation of this space and the first meditation and journeying within it are only a beginning. It's fitting that I felt enclosed within the chrysalis, but did not get further than that during this meditation.

During this time I had a very brief flash of airships of some sort, then equally quickly flashed momentarily to skeletal images of fish and other aquatic life. This was too brief to really get more than an impression. I'm including it here in case something rings bells later.

After this, the sense of being cocooned faded and I felt more like a seed that had been planted in the ground. The chamber itself manifested as the soil I was buried within and there was a sense of sprouting and hidden growth below the ground. This led me to thinking about embodied theology, how theological discourse needs to be grounded in bodily experience and wondering about how to articulate a Gaelic-based Pagan theology of the body drawing from all the rich bodily imagery in the tales and the traditions.

Eventually this slow feeling faded and I lit another candle to make some notes. The oracle for this point was h-úath, which said I wasn't finished, so I offered prayers of thanks to the deities and to the ancestors specifically along with the spirits I usually work with. After that, the oracle was chthonic fern, a physical shelter and protection -- the goal of the work for the day.

Emerging from the chamber, I checked the time. It was about 6:15, so I'd spent nearly two hours in ritual. I think that's pretty good for a first time working this solo. I'm pleased with what I got and am thinking about what happened and what I perceived, as well as the warning to remember to thank everybody at the end. This, I suspect, is a persistent flaw in my approach to ritual that needs to be corrected.

My general feeling is that I'm on the right track. I feel I need to add a few more layers to the work I did in consecrating and dedicating the chamber itself as I do more work with it, but it does seem that places worked with consistently build up a charge of ritual energy that increases with time. I also felt that I should be working in there at least once a month at minimum for the moment. This doesn't seem to be too unusual with the other folks I know who are following similar paths. There is a lot more work to be done, but I expected this to be a bare beginning, so I'm content with my day's efforts.

I was ravenously hungry when I got out. Experience told me I should eat rather than waiting until midnight to break my food fast. Electronic communications could wait until midnight, though and I was okay with that. I used those hours to get some more reading done on topics relating to the project and to my geilt book, some of which was quite useful. A couple of the books had only an article or two that I needed to look at, so I got two of them crossed off my list and finished up Mac Mathúna's 
Imram Brain.

Some of the questions I have now regarding body and theology:

How is the body used as a symbol in Gaelic texts?
How is it transformed and how are those transformations experienced in age, gender and species?
How do mutilation (Bóann), monstrosity (Cú Chulainn, Suibhne, et al), and artificiality (Nuadha) inform what might be theologies of Gaelic Paganism?
How are bodies both as wholes and as parts perceived spiritually in practices of contemplation, transmission of wisdom, and presentations of spiritual and magical power?
How does an individual practitioner identify with these bodies?
What devotional practices do these potential theological theories suggest?

Food for thought. Don't expect answers anytime soon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Incubation chamber dedication tomorrow

Since my roommate will be away tomorrow and not coming home until Tuesday morning, I've decided to use that day/night to do the dedication for the incubation chamber. Today I'll be doing some work on the ritual and putting together the order of activities for the work itself. It's been a longer, much slower process getting here than I'd expected -- or wanted -- but the time has finally come to take the plunge. 

Some of the hesitation has been uncertainty, I know. There are no models in CR for this at the moment, but that's not at all unusual for us. What little we know about incubatory practice describes meditation in the dark, but nothing about how or even if the spaces were prepared in any particular way beforehand or what the meditator had to do before going into the meditative state. This is where we have to experiment and create dialogue, taking some inspiration from what we might find in closely related cultures where it's available.

I'll spend some of today and probably a good part of tomorrow searching for appropriate texts from the Gaelic traditions to use as blessings and protections for the space. There will be a purification with juniper and fire. I'll do invocations of the particular deities I'll be working most closely with in that space and asking their guidance and protection for the proceedings.

Once I feel the space is properly consecrated, I'll be doing some shorter meditations in the chamber; mostly breathwork and feeling out the space in trance. I'll likely do some sonic stuff as well -- chants and songs intended to aid the process of meditation and trance. 

During the day after I get up and take care of morning devotions, I'll be doing a fast of everything but liquid so as to focus my attentions and energies on the purpose of the work. I'm also considering being incommunicado online and turning the phone off for the entire period as well. Obviously I would not have the phone on during ritual proper, but removing myself from all distraction and maintaining silence aside from ritual song and speech will likely be useful as well. This means no music being played during the day. I'm just hoping the elephants upstairs will be marginally cooperative, but doing this on a Monday should mean the kids aren't there through much of the day at least.

A lot of this has been brewing in the back of my mind for the past year, though it's been difficult to set any of it down in firm terms. I'm hoping that it will feel more settled once I get into the work itself tomorrow. Tonight I'll be doing some outlining and will probably do a walk around the lake tomorrow after morning ritual in preparation for the internal focus. I need to get some contact with the outside world and with nature before I close myself up in a dark, quiet space to provide some psychological contrast, I suspect.

After I finish up the ritual work, I may let myself back online to journal a little about the process and the results. It's difficult for me to write longhand for more than a few paragraphs because of the pain it causes, so if I'm going to get the insights down about what worked and what didn't, and about what happened, it will need to be with the computer. That said, I may just write in a doc file and post on Tuesday evening, depending on what feels appropriate. For me, online activity is so much an everyday activity that separating myself from it during this period is important as a part of the fasting, though when I break the fast I may break the communication fast as well, given that they're of similar import.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Life of the Poet

The process of writing a poem represents work done on the self of the poet, in order to make form. That this form has to do with the relationships of sounds, rhythms, imaginative beliefs does not isolate the process from any other creation. 
-- Muriel Rukuyser, from The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukuyser's words express, in my opinion, one of the great secrets of filidecht. The poet and the poem are intertwined. Every act of writing undertaken with intention creates some subtle change within the body of the writer; it sows the seeds of evolution in mind and spirit. 

Using writing to create deliberate change is an act of magic at its root. Words change the world and so by their nature they also change the self. When we look at the concept of the "connecting thread of poetry" found in the early Irish laws texts we find the rationale for how that change may be seen to take place. Tug on a thread and the rest of the web will feel it. As writers and poets, we cannot help but shift and change within ourselves as we find the words to express what's in our hearts and minds. To write, to recite, or to compose is to incubate the images we store within us and ripen them into expression. 

When we contemplate the images as we work toward a poem on the page we are learning to understand them. Writing, like teaching, so often forces me to confront my knowledge so that it can be enumerated and expressed. To leave it unwritten or unsaid in some sense leaves it incomplete and untried. This is part of how writing the poem changes the poet; it creates within us a matrix for understanding that may not have previously existed.

Rukuyser speaks of how she took eight years or more to write a particular poem, starting from a brief note taken of an image, and living with that image in the course of her everyday being. As time went by, it became more nuanced. It gained accretions of experience and resonance. Eventually, words began to take form on paper, slowly thought over and edited, opened out and explored. The poet who produced the final poem was changed by that process, no longer the same person who had noted the initial, sparking image that grew into the finished piece.

What we turn our thoughts to in our writing will, in many ways, influence who and what we become. As we brew those images and experiences in our internal cauldrons we extract nourishment from them. They grow like reefs within us, changing our internal landscapes and structures. They wound us or heal us as we carry the shadows of them within. The best of our poems and our other writings recreate us and make us anew. We are reborn.