Libertas – Freedom in Service

For every blessing there’s a burden, and devotional relationships are no exception. The latest over at Gangleri’s Grove talks about some of the highs and lows in a devotional life, and I personally found that it resonated quite a bit. Check it out!

I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I […]

via Libertas — Gangleri’s Grove

Advertisements

Survivor? Or Pioneer?

*Note: I am specifically speaking about polytheisms centered around PIE religion and the descendant IE faiths. There are other polytheisms out there, of course, but they’re both a) not nearly as commonly practiced by those identifying as “Pagan” or “polytheist”, and b) far beyond the scope of this post AND this blog. I’m also American, so writing primarily for that audience. Thanks for understanding.

My deepening study of Proto-Indo-European religion is resonating through my life in some interesting ways. I’m constantly finding new bits of info or perspectives that challenge what I thought I knew.

It was through that study that I was suddenly able to see a perspective so ingrained in modern Paganism/polytheism that I didn’t even know it was there until I had an alternative for comparison.

It boils down to this: When we practice our faiths, do we see ourselves as Survivors? Or Pioneers?

The Survivors

When it comes to modern PIE-descended polytheism, Survivors see the world like this:

The Survivor Scenario.

At one point in history Proto-Indo-European religion ruled the day, at least for a specific part of the world. It was a polytheistic faith, and it established the ground rules for all the derivatives and variations that came after. 

Over time different descendant groups developed distinctly different playbooks, but they were all still for the game established by the PIEs. The Romans and the Celts and the Norse were all different from each other, but they retained their polytheistic roots and were built on that original Proto-Indo-European framework.

Then Monotheism came in like an atomic bomb, blowing all of those beautiful, distinctly different polytheistic faiths to smithereens. BAM! PIE-descended polytheism (with the exception of the Vedic, which took a completely different route) disappeared from the world entirely, leaving us unmoored and adrift from the traditions that came before.

It was a polytheistic apocalypse, and those of us claiming polytheism today are the last survivors. Like the folks in Mad Max or Waterworld, we scavenge the ruins of once-great civilizations for whatever glimpses of authentic meaning still remain amongst the wreckage, because however tattered those remnants are they’re still better and/or more authentic than anything existing in the here-and-now.

Gathered around a campfire in a blown-out hellscape.

“Back before the world ended, people came from all over for training in the Great Mysteries! How amazing would that have been?” “Right? SO much. I was born too late, dammit!” *tosses another stick on the fire, brooding as the sparks fly*

This view – the Survivor Scenario – is why so many Pagans enter their practice with a sense that they’re either reliving or attempting to revive a bygone era. They believe, consciously or not, that the Golden Age of polytheism has passed us by. For Survivors, modern polytheisms will always be fundamentally inferior to ancient polytheisms, and our efforts will at best get us within shouting distance of what our ancestors once had. We often despair of doing even that.

It’s a view of polytheism that forever looks back and never ahead.

The Pioneers

I’ll admit, the Survivor Scenario is the one I’ve been working with for years now. It permeates modern polytheism so strongly that I didn’t even know it was there until I started getting more into my studies. Once I saw it, though, I was able to see an alternative to the Survivor Scenario. I call it the Pioneer Scenario.

Pioneer Scenario

Most of us who claim polytheism today rarely go back to the original PIE culture (at least as far as I’ve seen), instead focusing on individual hearth cultures that came from it. Even worse, we tend to look at the entire body of knowledge belonging to each culture as monolithic. It’s like we think these cultures sprang fully-formed from the ground and didn’t have any growing pains at the beginning, that they didn’t have centuries to develop, that they didn’t have to start somewhere.

We never consider that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans were a migratory people, and every time they reached a new place to settle they were again faced with the task of adapting their practices to fit the circumstances of their new home.

When we see that, though, we begin to see Modern America as simply one more culture in a long line of them. We’re attempting to do the exact same thing with our polytheism our predecessors did – plant it in a new homeland and grow it into a faith that’s rooted in tradition but relevant to the here-and-now.

Like any of the other groups we’ve got a mixed bag of challenges and blessings that will shape how our particular polytheism grows, but to make anything lasting we’ve got to ditch this idea that our culture is inherently inferior. It’s different, to be sure, but it’s not deficient.

Once we accept that, we can venture beyond merely copying what worked for the other PIE cultures. Doing so won’t work, not in the long term, because it’s not ours that way. We have to seize the opportunity to create new traditions that both honor our PIE heritage and this new cultural landscape in which we find ourselves. Just as our ancestors did before. Otherwise we really will be the last polytheists standing.

Lewis_Clark

“What new adventures lie thataway?” “I don’t know – let’s go find out!”

Our challenges and blessings are both significant, though, and we’ll need to keep both in mind if we’re going to succeed in establishing a uniquely American polytheism.

As far as challenges go, our ancestors had the benefit of living in a world where polytheism was the norm. We don’t. It’s also true that we no longer have an unbroken chain of inherited knowledge for any hearth culture. I can’t go to my local Druid, spend 20 years learning the lore, and practice Druidry the same way ancient Druids did. That opportunity is long past. Only a tiny portion of all the writings that once were have survived the passage of time, too, and a huge swath of oral history is forever lost. These losses are truly tragic.

Instead of dwelling on the losses like the Survivors, though, the Pioneer asks “What unique blessings can this new cultural landscape bring to the PIE table?”.

And there we have quite the list.

We in the modern era have archaeology and psychology and sociology, biology and chemistry and physics, to deepen our understanding of our world far beyond what our ancestors had. We can use that to fuel our polytheism. We can share information between continents, in real time. I’m sharing this blog post using a system containing information that rivals the most celebrated libraries of the ancients, and almost 90% of our population can read it. We’re not just locked into studying one hearth culture to the exclusion of the others by virtue of our physical location alone – we’re in the enviable position of being able to study all of them, simultaneously, from the comfort of our own homes, and we can use that knowledge to inform our practices.  We may not have the depth of information our ancestors did, but I’m betting we’ve got way more breadth, and that information is available to damn near everyone regardless of class or family lineage. And while social progress can be debated, I am thrilled to live at a time when it’s more acceptable to challenge traditional gender roles, or openly live as LGBT+, or to hold any number of other individual perspectives that can enhance our collective experiences.

Personally, I think focusing too much on the Survivor Scenario hampers our ability to adapt, and it impedes our ability to appreciate where we are as much as where we’ve come from. Which makes it harder for us to build something that will carry us into the future.

I’m doing my best to reject the Survivor Scenario entirely. It doesn’t serve anyone. I’m consciously choosing instead to focus on what modern America has to offer as we take our place with the other hearth cultures at polytheism’s table. I’m excited to see what this branch of the PIE family tree will one day grow into, and I’m eager to do what I can to help.

What about you?

Prayer Ritual Basics

Since posting about my upcoming Prayer Ritual I’ve gotten several requests for a how-to guide. I figured the best place to start would be an explanation from the one who inspired me to do this, Stevie Miller over at Feathers in Amber. She graciously provided the below explanation and photos of her techniques. One of the things I most like about her practice is that she’s not afraid to experiment with different approaches, so you’ve quite a few examples to start with!

Starting an Open Prayer Ceremony
Stevie Miller

If you have spent any amount of time on social media–and really, who hasn’t?–you’ve probably seen a surprising amount of people asking for prayers. It might not occur to you, as it didn’t for me, until you start looking for it, but these requests are everywhere: sick and injured friends and family, job searches, hurting relationships, house fires, cars breaking down. In a circle of just a couple hundred people, things like this can be going wrong every day.

As a spirit worker, I seem to have something of an “on duty” sign that lights up when people specifically ask for prayer. Even if the people making the request are from different traditions than mine, or outside of polytheism altogether, I often feel moved to help. But since I didn’t want to impose my beliefs on others, I wanted to come up with a way to figure out who wanted that kind of help from me, and how I could offer it on a regular basis without it taking over my life.

A simple prayer ritual to Odin with an offering of mead and incense.

A simple altar layout for a prayer ritual, featuring an offering of mead and incense.

Enter the weekly open prayer ceremony. I let people know that I will be lighting candles and reading out petitions once a week and that I’m open to requests. Suddenly, those requests came flooding in from every direction–more than I even had candles for! People loved the idea, and I even got asked if others could pray for me in return, and if I wanted donations to be offered to any charities in return for this sacred work. I was also asked to write the article you’re reading now.

I also found that this practice has benefitted me. The routine is fantastic for ensuring that I’m offering to and talking to my Powers regularly. Social accountability–that is, other people expecting that you’re going to do something, and your posting evidence of it–is great for establishing and maintaining a good habit. It has also made me feel much more connected to others. Spirit work, especially when you serve a really niche tribe–and in my case, a discarnate, non-human tribe–can be an extremely lonely path. But with this, I’m using my skills to do good for others, and hearing back about how it has helped them. It has been starting to make me feel like I really do have a community, and they need me.

This picture shows the Odin candle, an offering of mead on top of a prayer list, and a piece of knot magick representing all the prayers made.

This picture shows the Odin candle, an offering of mead on top of a prayer list, and a piece of knot magick representing all the prayers made. She kept the cord on the altar for a week so that the Gods could watch over everyone’s intentions.

The Gods, Ancestors, and Spirits seem to enjoy being needed too. I’ve consistently gotten messages over the years, both intended for myself and intended for others, along the lines of “Ask Us! Come to Us when you are in need! We want to be a part of your lives and your works. You don’t need to do this all alone.” Calling on the Powers regularly for the people has strengthened my bond with Them too.

I wholeheartedly believe the world will be a better place when more of us are praying for each other and offering to the Powers. So if you’d like to start an open prayer ceremony of your own–which I would strongly encourage!–I’d like to offer some tips.

Define your community: Maybe you just want to open your ceremony to people close to you, or maybe you want to make it public. I post publicly on social media about it, and, odd exceptions aside, accept every prayer petition I receive. You may want to do it differently. Whatever you choose, figure out who you’re offering this service to and how you will let them know about it. An alternative is to simply gather up the prayer requests you see and hear in day to day life. You’ll be surprised how many you encounter once you start looking for them.

Set your boundaries: What Powers do you want to work with? Will you let people request prayers to a specific deity or spirit? What kinds of prayer requests will you accept? When will you accept prayer requests? What is your maximum capacity? These are all things you will need to define for yourself and your audience if you’re going to do open prayer ceremonies.

19787525_10155016198656939_8935482493483566081_o

A beautiful altar layout utilizing nine candles to represent the collective prayers said. Note the rune stones in front of the candles – she drew a general omen for everyone she prayed for and shared the results.

Create your ritual: I’ve found that it’s easiest for me to deal with open requests if I keep my ritual format simple. I do a simple invocation, I make offerings to the Powers I have invoked, I read the petitions of the people while lighting candles, and I thank the Powers for Their blessings. Sometimes I will add a component where I take an omen, such as a three rune pull or a card draw, or a component where I meditate and listen to see if the Powers have any messages for just me personally or for all the people being prayed for. That’s it.

Distance offerings: Since I’m praying for people who are scattered all over the country, I took up a practice that seems to be gaining popularity in polytheist circles: I promote offerings to charity in the name of the deity being honored that week. For example, the last couple times that I have worked with Odin, He has made it clear that He would like offerings in His name to be made to Alzheimer’s research. This allows people who are not present at your ceremony to take part if they feel so moved by giving something in exchange. Reciprocity is important in many traditions. It also helps you work on causes your Powers find important, which can only improve your devotional relationships, right?

Simplify: I keep the whole process simple because it’s easier for me to focus on the petitions, and to keep this process going without getting burnt out. For example, you don’t have to light an individual candle for every single petition. I sometimes use 9 which is a symbolically important number in my tradition; for many 3 is also a sacred number.

An image of nine tealights arranged in a pattern centered on an Odin jar candle.

Miller’s use of nine candles during a prayer ritual.

Offerings can be low key, like a nice beverage or some incense. I use Wednesday as my day of the week because that day is named after my Patron Odin (“Woden’s Day”). Keeping it on the same day each week makes it easier for me to remember (I’m lucky if I know what day it is!) and also makes it easy for people to know when their prayer requests need to get to me by.

After my prayer ceremony is over, I usually share a quick snapshot of the lit up altar just to let people know that their petitions have been spoken. I’ll share any commentary that I have from the rite itself, especially if I took an omen and want to share my reading of it.

In the future, I plan to work with different Powers and offer prayer ceremonies focused on particular intents, such as healing and abundance. I’m hoping to foster connections between people and deities or spirits they may not be as familiar with too.

I hope that this has been helpful and that you are inspired to start your own open prayer ceremony! Blessings to you and your communities.

Eclipse/New Moon Prayer Ritual

I’ve been inspired by Stevie Miller over at Grundsau Burrow. She’s been holding regular formal prayer rituals of late and I think that’s a damn fine idea. I’m hopping on the bandwagon and joining in. In these trying times we need all the help we can get!

That being so, when better than the coming solar eclipse? I’ll be continuing this practice on every new moon for the foreseeable future, but this seems like a great time to start!

solar-eclipse-clouds

This is an open call for prayers to be ritually made on your behalf on August 21st. If you would like to participate, please let me know your name and what you’re praying for so I can add you to the list and do the prep work. You can comment here, tag me on Facebook, PM me, email me, whatever makes you comfy. And feel free to share! I’m taking the whole day off to make this happen, so let’s get it rolling!

I will stop accepting prayer requests at 5:30a EST, August 21st.

*Note: I reserve the right to refuse prayers for anything I find ethically dodgy. Thank you for your understanding.

Ladies of the Fourth Branch: Goewin

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

CW: Rape. It’s fairly light in the “Goewin in the Fourth Branch” section, but much more graphic in the “Beyond the Text” section. Reader discretion is advised. 

The Mabinogi are a series of Welsh stories written in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their actual origin is much older than that, though, because the stories were based on the centuries of oral tradition that came before.

By the time the Welsh got around to writing these stories down they were firmly Christianized, and that Christian worldview was laid over the traditional stories to make them more palatable to the audience of the time. Luckily for us that Christian overlay is mighty thin in some places, and with some work we can pull it off the rest of the story too. When it’s gone we see that the entire thing is a sprawling saga rooted in Welsh polytheism.

My Lady is Welsh, so studying the Mabinogi is important to my personal practice. Her story appears in the book’s last section, the Fourth Branch, and combined with UPG gives me some important insights into Her motivations and character.

She’s not alone in that story, though. There are two other women in there too, each contributing Her own piece to the whole. Together Goewin, Arianrhod, and Blodeuwedd are the women of the Fourth Branch, and they’re connected by far more than a mere narrative.

But who are They? And how do They relate?

Let’s start at the beginning and find out.

Goewin in the Fourth Branch

The Fourth Branch opens at the court of Math son of Mathonwy. According to the story, Math could only live while his feet rested in the lap of a virgin. The only exception was when he marched to do battle, at which point he could go take care of business before putting his feet back up. In the first paragraph, we learn that the virgin serving Math was named Goewin (GOH-win), “the fairest of all the maidens that were known in her time”. Because of course she was.

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

Goewin as the foot bearer for Math son of Mathonwy.

The life of the king and the stability of the kingdom both rested, like the king’s feet, on Goewin and her chastity. A threat to her chastity was both an attempt on the king’s life and an act of treason. She was the most untouchable woman in the whole kingdom.

So of course, of course, that means some bastard had to take relieving Goewin of her virginity as a personal challenge. Enter the king’s nephew, Gilfaethwy. He went beyond infatuation with Goewin into full-on obsession. He couldn’t seduce her without bringing all kinds of hell down on himself, so he just heaved a lot of heavy sighs, refused to eat, and presumably wrote bad poetry in her honor while artistically crying into his wine.

Eventually, his brother Gwydion noticed Gilfaethwy’s distraction and called him on it. Once Gilfaethwy confessed his unquenchable thirst for Goewin to his brother, Gwydion decided to “fix” it.

I guess Gwydion’s solution was obvious once you remove all honor from the equation. King won’t leave the target – sorry, girl – unprotected unless there’s a war? Well, why not instigate a war then?

So they did.

Gwydion masterminded the whole thing, with Gilfaethwy riding his coattails (which honestly seems to be the usual way things went down with those two). The first step of the plan was picking a fight with a neighboring king. Once that was accomplished the two brothers sold their uncle Math on their version of events. Math, being a dutiful king who trusted his nephews, left his Court and went to win the war.

Leaving Goewin defenseless.

While the king was occupied, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion snuck back to the castle and together raped Goewin repeatedly in the king’s own bed. The next morning they went back to the battle like nothing had happened. The abused and defiled Goewin was left behind, a broken toy with which they were no longer interested in playing.

Many men on both sides died during the fight the brothers instigated (the Mabinogi calls it a “massacre”), including the other king to Math’s own blade, but Math’s forces were declared victorious.

Math son of Mathonwy fighting in the battle Gwydion orchestrated to rape Goewin. Art by Alan Lee.

Math son of Mathonwy fighting in the battle Gwydion orchestrated to rape Goewin. Art by Alan Lee.

Once it all wrapped up the king returned to his castle, eager to put his feet up again and get back to his regular routine. That’s when Goewin had to tell Math that she couldn’t be his foot bearer anymore because his nephews had raped her and shamed him in the doing.

She made it very clear that the whole thing was against her will, that she fought and screamed so that the whole Court heard it, but no one stepped in to save her. There was no one left in the castle who could. Anyone who could have prevented it was in battle with the king.

The king was shocked and, rare for both the time and a man of his rank, supportive. As her chastity had been stolen while under his protection he immediately married her, to both show that he still valued her and to reassure her that she should bear no shame for what had happened.

Then he magically punished her rapists, causing them to shift into three animal shapes over the course of three years and mate with each other like the animals they had proven themselves to be. They switched sexes during those three years too, so that each would know what it was like to be raped.

Once the sentence was served Math forgave them and welcomed them back into the Court, restoring them to their previous position and embracing them as kinsmen once more.

Math changing the brothers from wolves back into men.

Math changing the brothers from wolves back into men. Available here.

Beyond the Text

After the king says he’ll marry her Goewin is never mentioned again. We don’t know what became of her or what her life was like after that. Honestly, we don’t really know a lot about what it was like before! We can, however, infer quite a lot.

Goewin wasn’t born a foot bearer. Math had to find her. We learn later in the story that, when the king needed a foot bearer, he asked his courtiers for recommendations and then summoned potential candidates to the castle.

This tells us two things. One, to be recommended for the position Goewin had to have already been favorably known by a courtier in Math’s court. Two, replacing a foot bearer was common enough to have a system in place to do it.

The likeliest reason for Goewin to have already been known is that she was being dangled as marriage-bait by her parents. Aristocratic girls were married off pretty early in those days, as early as 12, so she would have been a very young woman when her name came to Math’s attention.

I can just picture a young Goewin preparing to leave her home to serve her king – who she may have never met – in a position of such importance. Was she excited? A little nervous? Terrified? Overwhelmed? And what did she do upon meeting the king to have him choose her from among the other candidates?

It states in the story that Goewin was “the fairest of all the maidens known in her time”, but I doubt that alone would have been enough to endear her to a king. After all, Math knew before he chose her that’s he’d wind up spending every waking moment with his foot bearer, and we all know a pretty face isn’t enough to make up for a slow wit or an irritating personality. Not for any significant length of time, anyway!

I can’t imagine anyone, especially a king, voluntarily saddling himself with a shadow who wasn’t at minimum intelligent, a good conversationalist, and kind. They spent too much time together for them to dislike each other.

Goewin was already in service by the time the story opens, so we’re not sure how their dynamic was at the beginning. Math would have been her official guardian, but how that manifested is up for grabs. Did Goewin see Math as a father figure? An uncle? An older brother? A friend or colleague? A star-crossed lover barred from her by chastity and magic? And how did he see her?

Regardless of how it started, by the time Math returned from the war Goewin trusted him enough to call out his kinsmen as her rapists, and Math valued her enough to marry her in apology. Neither of those is a trivial act.

Her time as a foot bearer would have been limited, though, and both of them would have known that going in. Foot bearers did eventually marry. That’s why they had to be periodically replaced.

I’m sure canny families with daughters who’d chastely served their king leveraged that into securing more favorable marriage contracts. It would likely be the only reason parents accepted their daughter’s serving at all. Additional exposure in the Court introduced maidens to many men of high rank. Being a close confidant of the king was definitely something a potential bride could bring to the bargaining table. And in addition to everything else, there would likely be a significant financial contribution from the king towards the maiden’s dowry when she “retired”. All of that together would allow her to marry (and her family to gain entry) into the highest levels of society.

That just adds to the horror of Goewin’s story, though, because those high social levels would have included Gilfaethwy.

It’s easy to overlook because they behaved with such depravity, but neither brother was an untried youth. Math physically couldn’t travel from place to place, for the same reasons he required a foot bearer to start with. Travel was customary for kings of the time, though, so he sent Gwydion and Gilfaethwy to represent him instead. They were trained and trusted diplomats, handling all the negotiations Math couldn’t physically attend and carrying news from their travels back to Math. They were trusted enough by the king to act in his name and held high in his esteem.

If Gilfaethwy had wanted Goewin for more than a night – or even wanted to honorably have her once – he could have asked for her hand in marriage. And he’d have likely gotten it! Nephew of the king, highest position it was possible to have in the government, a well-known diplomat … it’s unlikely Geowin would have found a better match short of the king himself. Sure he would have had to wait until Math found a replacement, but that’s a small price to pay to claim the object of your obsession. The story is very clear in stating that Gilfaethwy was pining away for want of Goewin – did honorable marriage never enter his mind?

Such a desire certainly never entered the story. Gilfaethwy instead helped his brother engineer a massacre and kill a neighboring king simply so he could rape the one woman he couldn’t immediately have. And somehow I doubt Goewin was the first woman either brother had raped, separately or together. She was simply the woman who had enough influence to have them called on it.

And not even having the ear of the king saved her from the pair of them.

Can you imagine what that night was like for her? I picture Goewin relaxing with the other women of Math’s court while the men were off at war. It was an extremely rare chance for her to spend time with other women without having a man’s feet in her lap. Maybe she danced, or walked the gardens, or simply sat around chattering the way young women do when there aren’t men around to listen in. The women would have been looking for ways to distract themselves from the battle they knew the men were off fighting, and what better way to do that than with the medieval version of a slumber party?

Into this serene female space came two men who weren’t supposed to be there. Goewin knew them, of course. They might even have been friendly. I’m sure the brothers had quite a bit of business with the king, and Goewin would have been there for all of it.

I have to wonder – did her inevitable closeness to Math color her feelings towards his nephews? Did she view them as extended family, or friends, or colleagues? Did they treat her like a little sister or an extension of Math or a piece of furniture? Did their attack on her feel like even more of a betrayal because she’d trusted them as Math did?

Whatever she felt for them, she couldn’t have known that Gilfaethwy had been lusting after her. He’d successfully hidden it from Math. Goewin wouldn’t have seen it coming either.

When the brothers banished all the other women except her from their presence she would have been confused, perhaps even concerned. It wouldn’t have been until Gilfaethwy grabbed her and started dragging her to the king’s bed that she would have known exactly what was happening. That’s when she would have started fighting, yelling and screaming and sobbing, but she had to have known it was futile from the start. There was no way an untrained teenager could have fought off one trained warrior, let alone two, and there was no one left in the castle with the authority or the strength of arm to stop them.

When they reached the king’s chambers it would have been Gilfaethwy stripping Goewin down, glorying in finally slaking his lust in her body despite her struggles. Maybe her struggles even spurred him on. Gwydion would have sprawled in a chair and smirked as he watched his brother rape a woman they’d literally created a war to get their hands on, a predatory cat waiting for his turn with the mouse.

The story doesn’t say when Gwydion decided to participate in Goewin’s rape. Maybe it was his plan all along. Maybe he saw raping her as his due, a prize he was owed for arranging things for his brother. Maybe raping women together was a regular brotherly bonding experience, their version of a beer and a game. Or maybe it wasn’t until his brother was finished taking her the first time, when she was naked and sobbing and bruised. She’d have been too exhausted and sore at that point to fight back much – maybe that’s what finally turned Gwydion’s crank.

The whys don’t really matter, I suppose. He did decide to participate, and by the time he was finished raping her Gilfaethwy would have been ready to go again. And so it went until the sky began to lighten beyond the windows. They could take their time and be as loud as they wanted. No one was there to stop them.

When they finished both men got dressed and went back to the battle they’d instigated. Mission accomplished.

The story doesn’t tell us what happened to Goewin in the immediate aftermath of her rape. Did anyone comfort her after her rapists had left, or tend her wounds? How many apologies did she hear from people who knew she was being attacked but didn’t try to stop it? Did she accept those apologies or find the words stuck in her throat? How many women commiserated with her pain? Were what men were left in the Court able to look her in the eyes when next she walked the halls? Was she able to meet their gazes? Did she feel vengeful and angry, or shamed and small? Was there anywhere in the castle she felt safe?

The next we hear of her is her telling Math why she could no longer be his foot bearer. To his credit Math is horrified by the news, immediately promising to make Goewin his queen. It was more than many rulers would have done in his place, no matter how much he valued Goewin and her service. Then he turned around and punished the two rapists in a rather elegant way, which is again more than Goewin might have expected.

When that punishment was served Math declared all forgiven and welcomed them into his home. Into Goewin’s home.

I have to wonder if Goewin was as forgiving as her husband. Somehow I don’t think so. No matter how well adjusted she was, it had to be difficult to be duty-bound to treat her rapists as beloved family and tend their needs.

Did she try to smile at them? I’m sure she had to. Were her smiles from her heart, or brittle? When she spoke words of welcome were they sincere or like acid on her tongue? Was she able to eat in their presence without feeling threatened, or sick, or fantasizing about killing them in their sleep? Did she pray for them to ignore her, or fend off their lustful looks or dismissive sneers when Math wasn’t looking? Did she see Math’s forgiveness of their crimes as a dismissal of her pain or did she eventually find her own peace with everything that had transpired?

Her rape forced her out of an honored position and shunted her into another vastly different role, with no notice and against any wishes she might have had to the contrary. Did she find it to be an equitable trade? How did it feel to see another woman sitting at her king’s feet, doing the job she was no longer allowed to do? Did she miss being a foot bearer and resent her replacement, or do what she could to take the next maiden under her wing? Did she long for the days of being included in all the king’s meetings and negotiations, or was she relieved by her exclusion and the freedom it brought?

Was her marriage night scary for her, or awkward? How did she and Math handle the abrupt adjustment to their relationship dynamic? Did it change at all, growing into a content marriage, or did it forever feel like something forced upon her? It’s likely that she slept with the king in the same room where she’d been raped, perhaps even on the same bed. Was she ever able to rewrite the bad memories with good ones? Did Math’s presence make her feel safe, or was even that safety taken from her?

Did she ever get a chance to flirt and tease, to be courted with music and sonnets, to blush over a man’s compliments and wonder if he meant them? Or did she obediently pass from young maiden to chaste foot bearer to devoted wife, continuously serving her king as her duty required without ever being allowed the freedom to grow into herself?

Above all, though, I wonder how she felt watching what happened to the next women to interact with Math and Gwydion, the women who came after her. Did their stories resonate with her own? Did she feel a kinship with them that went deeper than blood and duty? Did she envy their choices or scorn them?

What advice would she have given to Math, if he’d thought to ask?

Honoring Goewin

It both surprises and saddens me that there are three women in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, all with damn near equal page time, but only the latter two are commonly honored on Celtic altars. That’s even more upsetting when we realize that Goewin’s story set the stage for both Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd’s tales.

Thalia Took's image of Goewin.

Thalia Took’s image of Goewin. Available here.

In my practice, Goewin is the Lady of Duty and Honor. She represents sacrificing our wants and needs for the greater good, doing what’s necessary because it’s necessary and finding fulfillment in that.

She helps us understand the personal fulfillment that can come from fulfilling our duties and meeting our obligations. We pay bills because it’s a demonstration of our integrity. We call our parents even when we’re tired because it’s not always about us. We go to work and clean our homes and take the car in for maintenance and donate to charity and vote because it’s these actions that provide a foundation for everything else, just as Goewin’s lap was the foundation that allowed Math to rule.

It’s Goewin I turn to for steadfast resolve, for slogging through difficult times, for faithfulness in the face of despair, for trusting despite heartache. Sometimes the only way forward is through, and She understands that better than most.

Goewin shows us how to love others through service. She shows us that careful attention and devotion supports those around us, lifting them high without stealing their thunder. She shows us the value of grace and kindness and gentle wit when it comes to being a friend, the potentials of intimacy without and beyond sexuality, and how helping others creates support systems that in turn support us when we need them.

And She does all of these things while still sticking up for Herself when necessary and claiming Her due.

Goewin is ideal to call on for help with interpersonal relations and politics. She learned to negotiate and govern at the feet of a king and learned to influence the Powers That Be even when She officially didn’t have a voice. She understands etiquette and decorum, modesty and small talk, veiling our thoughts to keep the peace. She knows how to mingle, and persuade, and be the sounding board that provides clarity with the phrasing of a single question.

She also shows us that there is life after trauma. She shows us that things might be different, and might be hard, but better times do lie ahead even if they’re not what we originally imagined them to be.

Goewin is foot bearer and queen, maiden and wife, woman and Goddess. And She is the first of the triad within the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.

Seeing the Wheels

A close-up of the armillary sphere on my altar. It is on top of a black wooden box, and flanking it on either side at the bottom are two burning jar candles.

I recently felt a deep, overwhelming need to change up my altar. Specifically, I needed a statue to represent my Lady, Arianrhod.

Thing is, I couldn’t find anything that fit Her. The most common statue of Her simply doesn’t work for me. Nothing wrong with it – it’s beautiful work – but I can’t get over my quibbles with it enough to put it on my altar.

Maxine Miller's Arianrhod statue, in bronze, on a black background.

Maxine Miller’s Arianrhod statue.

Then I had a completely different kind of thought. One of the first concepts my Lady shared with me is that of the Center. It’s been fundamental to my worldview since I figured out what it is, and I always associate it with Her. She is the Lady of the Silver Wheel, after all!

Which is why an armillary sphere to represent Her on my altar is perfect.

A close-up of the armillary sphere on my altar. It is on top of a black wooden box, and flanking it on either side at the bottom are two burning jar candles.

The armillary sphere on my altar. Isn’t it awesome?

Once I got everything on my altar sorted and rearranged I lit some candles and settled in to spend some time with Her.

And then I had a vision. I Saw the Wheels, my Lady’s Wheels, and touched a Mystery.

After recovering a bit, I realized that this vision can be shared. You can have it too!

So here it is. I invite you to See the Wheels with me. If you don’t have an armillary sphere of your very own Google some images (or simply use the picture above as a reference) to see a manmade model of what I’m talking about. It’s worth the time.

The Vision

I open my eyes and gasp. I’m floating in space, surrounded on all sides by velvety black skies spangled with gleaming stars. They’re silver, yes, but also icy blue and blazing red and warming gold. Celestial fires burning, beacons in the dark.

A picture of a field of stars taken by the Hubble Telescope. These are from the Sagittarius sector.

Like this, all around me.

I wonder if I can reach out and cup one of those fires in the palm of my hand. They look so close I think maybe it’s possible. As I reach out I hear a voice like bells say “Not today!”, and lower my hands back to my sides. Maybe tomorrow?

I feel gentle winds caressing my skin and fluttering my hair. I’m confused for a second – since when did space have wind? – but I’m soon distracted by a glow at my feet. First I see a dot of light, growing ever larger, until it forms an arc. It suddenly clicks that I’m seeing part of a ring spinning around me. It contains all the colors I think I’ve ever seen, and it rotates clockwise as it rises to meet me. 

This is the first circle of the armillary sphere, the Wheel of the Day. In this Wheel is contained every moment of a day in my life. I even see a section of the Wheel that looks like my current vision! Sunrise and sunset, work and home and worship and sleep and play, all the seconds that make up my day, spin around me in a dance of light and shadow. 

Beyond the borders of the Wheel of the Day I see another glowing ring of light. It too rotates clockwise, although much slower, and it’s angled differently. This Wheel encompasses both the Wheel of the Day and me, still floating in the Center. It’s the Wheel of the Year! I see, in glorious procession, the flowers of Spring melting into the verdant fields of Summer, which meld into the golden fields of Autumn and then the barren snows of Winter. Along the ring are eight shining gems of light, and in them I see the colors of the surrounding seasons magnified and clarified. And I understand sabbat celebrations in a way I didn’t before. 

In a different part of the star-strewn velvet in which I float I see another arc rising, another Wheel spinning. It’s further out, and that ring encompasses me and the other two Wheels too. It too spins clockwise, but it’s offset from the others and rises on its own plane. Peering at it more closely I see it’s the Wheel of my Life. All the years I live, all together, with my memories in gleaming color and my future in shadows that are broken with seemingly random flashes of intense light. I realize that even here I can’t see my future clearly, because it’s not set. Those flares in the shadows show me that events are coming that cannot be changed, only managed, even if I can’t figure out what they are yet. My Lady’s presence surrounds me and I relax, knowing She is preparing me for them even now and will be with me when their time comes.

In yet another part of the sky I see another Wheel rising, on yet another plane. It too spins clockwise, but more slowly still. It gleams red like blood and flows like water, with an infinite number of glittering flecks swirling through it. This is the Wheel of the Ancestors. Every person who has ever lived is represented here, and the glittering flecks that glow most brightly are the people who have directly contributed to my line. They’re family! I see some flecks growing equally brightly, but in different hues, and know that these are family members of the heart instead of blood. It’s humbling to see all the people who have died so that I might live, and I promise to lift them high by living with honor and purpose. 

Beyond that Wheel I see another, also spinning and rising. This one is green and gold, copper and bronze, the dark brown of rich soil and the glowing red of molten lava. It glimmers with hidden gems and shines with metallics as it spins with aching slowness. This is the Wheel of the Land, and since Land moves in a timescale that’s hard to comprehend it’s only here that I can see it moving at all. It makes sense that this Wheel surrounds the Ancestors too, because without the Land the Ancestors would have no place to stand. I see the colors getting paler and dustier as this Wheel spins, like they’re losing saturation as it turns, and realize with a sinking sensation that I’m seeing the effects of humanity on the Earth. I see shrinking habitats and strip mines, pollution and disease and death, and acknowledge my contributions to the fading while vowing to do my very best to ease them.

At the very edges of everything I see another arc rising, another Wheel encompassing the whole. This one is crystalline and iridescent, and so bright that the only reason I can bear to gaze upon it is because I’m being allowed to See. This is the Wheel of the Gods, where all the divinities who have ever been dwell. I see Olympus, and Valhalla, and the Otherworld. I see nations rise and fall as the Gods play chess on a board, except I know both chess and boards and this is too incomprehensible to be either. The more I try to understand the brighter the light, until I have to blink to get the spots out of my eyes. 

Far beyond the edges of the crystalline Wheel of the Gods I see the shadows of other Wheels spinning, other cycles of which I am vaguely aware but are too distant for me to grasp. I feel blessed to have seen them at all.

I turn my attention back to myself, at the Center of all the spinning Wheels. With a bit of a jolt I realize that I too am a Wheel! I spread out my legs and arms like a starfish, like DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man, like a pentacle, and feel myself spinning within the Center of all the other Wheels. I peer into myself and see an endless number of Wheels spinning inside me too, each smaller than the last, and feel myself falling. Or am I flying? It’s hard to tell, and I start to get dizzy, so I pull my attention elsewhere.

I look at all of the Wheels together, for the smallest to the largest, and suddenly know that each and every Wheel’s spin is necessary to the spin of all of them. They’re interconnected and interdependent. Epiphany strikes. They’re not distinct Wheels at all! They’re all part of one big spiral! I hear my Lady’s laugh as Her hands continue smoothing and spinning the spiral, feel Her determination that it continues to spin, and know that I have a part to play in all of this too. But what?

I feel my Lady’s regard as She patiently waits for me to work through what I’m being shown. I gently spin for what feels like hours while I search for what She wants me to know, until suddenly it becomes obvious. By Centering myself, by opening myself to change while smoothing the spirals over which I have influence, I make Her job easier. In my own small way I contribute to the spinning of ALL the Wheels, even those I can’t clearly see, because I am one. I’m part of the whole. 

I hear her voice, full of pride, whisper “well done” as the Wheels flicker and vanish.

I open my eyes and gaze once more at the armillary sphere on my altar, serene and still as it represents this great Mystery.

 

Hierarchies and Devotions

When people first start establishing a devotional practice they often focus on actions they can take, such as extending hospitality, planning major holidays and festivals, and building altars and shrines.

How we think doesn’t usually rate a second glance until much later.

Here’s the thing, though. The hierarchies we carry around in our heads can completely derail our devotional work before any of those actions are even a blip on the radar. Even once we’ve got something established, those hierarchies can still spring out like a possessed jack-in-the-box and catch us unawares.

censored

I looked for a pic of a jack-in-the-box but creeped myself out. I figured I’d let you imagine your own horrors instead. YOU’RE WELCOME. 🙂

What’s a hierarchy? 

Hierarchies are the systems we use to rank things by status or authority. We rank everything: jobs, physical attractiveness, workplace chain-of-command, preferred handbag brands, etc.

We learn the importance of hierarchies as soon as we learn that our parents have authority over us. As we grow we add on to and refine that initial ranking system until we have an entire series of hierarchies, all nested together in our heads.

And we automatically use them to compare ourselves to other people.

high-school-social-hierarchy

Here’s an example of a high school popularity hierarchy. Did you automatically look for where you’d have ranked on this when you were in high school? I did.

It’s a pretty simple process. We rank a bunch of things from worst to best, or least desirable to most desirable, figure out where we fit in that ranking system, and then use that as a basis for how we feel about ourselves. The higher we are in rank the better we are as people.

Given how much we rely on these hierarchies to navigate our lives, is it really a surprise that we use tend to use them for our spiritual practice, too?

That makes sense. Why is it a problem, though?

For one, it’s dead easy to start ranking the ways different people practice according to some arbitrary scale we make up, compare ourselves to that ranking, and then start drawing conclusions based on whatever we come up with.

In other words, we either think our practice is lacking because someone else out there is doing “better” or we think our practice rocks because someone else out there is doing “worse”. That’s of course a completely ridiculous comparison to make, but people do it anyway.

Lots of people have talked about that particular issue, though. A more serious problem, to my mind, happens when we start comparing ourselves to the Powers.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, too. Once we start thinking of the Powers as individuals with Their own agendas and personalities, it’s really tempting to put Them on a hierarchy just like we do everyone else. Again, it’s just habit. And since They’re always at the top of whatever hierarchy we’re working with, we’re always beneath Them.

Some folks may feel so far beneath Them that they’re too intimidated to interact with Them at all. How can we have a relationship with Them if we can’t even talk?

It’s the exact same thing that happens when we’re attracted to someone at a bar.

girl

Maybe this girl? I dunno, go with me here.

We see someone who pushes all our buttons, who seems like the most amazing person ever. We look at them longingly from across the room. We ask the bartender about them, maybe, or see if our friends know anything about them. We fantasize about saying something hilarious to make them laugh, having a good time, maybe even getting their number.

Then the comparisons start, and our inner monologue runs amuck. “Should I say hi? Naw, they’re outta my league. Who needs that kind of humiliation? I need to find someone attainable.” We psych ourselves out before we make a move and let our internalized feelings of inferiority hold us back.

Or maybe we see a favorite author/musician/celebrity around town and want to gush about how meaningful their work has been in our lives. Once again we fantasize about what interacting with them would be like, once again we compare their place on our internal hierarchy to our own, and once again we psych ourselves out before making a move.

If we’re inhibited by a perceived distance between ourselves and other people, how much more inhibited might we be by a perceived distance between ourselves and the Powers? And how much more likely are we to avoid interacting with Them because of it?

It takes a different form with devotional work, of course, but it’s the same idea. The self-talk sounds similar, too. “I’m a mess right now. I’m sure the Powers are busy and have better things to do than talk to me anyway. If all relationships are reciprocal, what could I possibly bring to the table that would interest Them? I’m just human! I’m not going to ask Them for help. After all, if I was as together as They deserve or expect me to be I wouldn’t even need Their help. I’ll reach out when I’m not so embarrassed. When I’m not so scattered. When I’ve got a better offering for Them. When I’ve studied more. When I’ve accomplished more. When I know what I’m doing. When I’ve sacrificed enough to earn Their attention. When I’m better. When I’m deserving. When I matter.”

It’s a vicious cycle. We feel lesser, we feel intimidated, we avoid interaction. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Avoiding interactions with Them doesn’t exactly help our devotional practice flourish.

So how can we fix that? 

The answer is an easy concept with difficult implementation, but the more we do it the easier it is to keep doing it. Momentum is our friend.

Human hierarchies tend to be based on the things we can easily see and assess (socioeconomic level, appearance, accomplishments, etc). But we have to remember that the Powers aren’t human. Why would They use human-based hierarchies?

The hierarchies on which the Powers rely (at least in my experience) rank traits, or virtues, and judge off of that instead. The harder we try to meet the standards by which They want us to live, the higher the regard in which the Powers hold us. Our effort makes us worthy, not our perfection.

But what exactly do They look for? 

That depends on the Powers you follow. In my experience this is loosely answered on a pantheon basis – for instance, most of the Greek deities tend to value the same set of traits, and the Norse another set – but individual Powers within that pantheon may rank those traits differently.

As usual I’d ask Them first. What do They tell you?

Beyond that, I’d suggest consulting source documents or, if possible, living traditions. Most faiths with written records have some sort of “right actions” guideline to follow, whether it be explicit or inferred. That’s a fantastic place to start sorting things out.

For instance, as someone on a more Celtic path, I do my best to use a hierarchy based on a system of Celtic values (and wow does this need to be a post all on its own!). Wiccans and Wiccan-flavored Pagans often use the Wiccan Rede or Rule of Three the same way. Those on an Asatru-type path might prefer to work with the Nine Noble Virtues, while Egyptian/Kemetic folks might look to the Forty-Two Negative Confessions.

anubis-and-maat

After death, Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against a single feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of law and morality. If the heart is the same weight or lighter than the feather, it proves the deceased led a virtuous life and so deserves a reward. If it’s heavier… well, there are consequences for that too.

Outside of all that I can’t think of any Power offhand that doesn’t value Authenticity, Integrity, and Hospitality in some form or fashion. If nothing else start there and see what comes to you.

Make those right actions the basis of your life, and then assess yourself accordingly. Are you keeping your word? Are you working hard to meet your goals? Are you treating yourself, other people, and the Powers with respect? Are you living authentically? That’s where you need to focus your attention. The rest is just noise.

The beauty of this system is that even missteps and mistakes are ok because we show honor by handling them appropriately. Every single choice we make allows us to demonstrate right action, and thus further right relationships with the Powers. They bring us closer together instead of pushing us further away.

Once we’ve sorted this whole issue out we can then engage the Powers from a place of security and strength, making the devotional work we do even more meaningful and effective.