Tag Archives: pagan

Down the Rabbit-Hole

Storytelling and its healing potential in modern society

Humans and nature: two things which many modern societies see as separate, in spite of the fact that we clearly remain very much a part of, and connected to, the natural environment around us. Just because you may not immediately sense the vast swampy wilderness beneath the city concrete under your feet, or smell the sweet, fresh tang of the mountains and wildflowers beyond the more immediate exhaust fumes and smog, it doesn’t mean that they are not there. The web of life is all around us and wild nature calls to us from within our own hearts if we just listen.

Our unique cultural advantage

Much of our modern society can be seen as far from perfect, and there are many aspects of our disconnection from nature which may be causing unbalance and therefore lack (or perceived lack) of abundance in our local ecosystems. Our ancestors rejoiced in the gifts of the wild forest and danced in the footprints of the animals whom they revered, adored and devoured; when compared to our own version, our fluorescent pre-packaged experience of food-gathering may sometimes seem a poor substitution.

Yet there are some things we have which are unique to our culture and which, if we use them in a considered way, we can use to help us to re-strengthen our connection to the natural world and all its abundant wonders.

Adventures and shamans

Communing with the ‘more-than-human world’ (1), finding balance and harmony within to strengthen the balance and harmony without, and healing yourself and your community as part of a wider healing, are all traditional roles of those members of ancient societies who have been termed ‘shamans’ by modern anthropologists, although what they call themselves differs from culture to culture. All of these things can be seen as of huge importance in today’s world to help us to gain the balance and harmony which we can achieve within our ecosystems if we are attuned to it. Yet ‘shamans’, even in their own societies, are not generally seen as ‘normal’; the role is not one which everyone partook in, and probably not everyone would want to. Many of the things which ‘shamans’ did may well be seen be much of modern society as signs of ‘madness’ (see for example 2).

Are we all then mad?

However, one thing to bear in mind about shamanic tools is that the vast majority of people in modern society, regardless of how little interest they have in ancient cultures, are very skilled at using some of them, and if these words are creating sounds of sense within your head at this moment then you are one of those people.

What I mean is, with the skills of reading and writing which many of us may take for granted we can engage in powerful creative practices, the likes of which the ‘shamans’ of less literate cultures would have had to ingest strong entheogenic medicines, deprive themselves of food or sleep, or engage in repetitive activities for many hours to achieve.

As Serge King, author of Urban Shaman (3), puts it,

” We are part of a unique society that has already, though
unknowingly, prepared us well…Ever since you started reading about Dick and Jane and Spot you were in training to be a shaman. Radio, television,
and movies have all helped to reinforce your skill. The development
of intentional inner vision took a long time in
traditional societies, because it wasn’t reinforced by the
whole society. Exceptional people like poets, storytellers, and
shamans seemed to be using magic when they evoked waking
visions in the minds of listeners to their tales, legends,
and inner experiences.” (3)

Weaving our own magic

It is this magic which we can use to help us to create what we imagine, and to give special attention to particular things, people, places or events which can help us to respect and honour them. Perhaps you do not believe in magic and that is fine, since, as King would say, “the world is what you think it is” (3). It may be worth considering, however, that our connection of literacy and magic is present even in our modern language – when we speak about how to write a word we talk of the “spell” needed to create it.

King says,

You, now, have the skill of reading, a rare skill in the history of mankind, which trains you to focus your attention and evoke internal experience on your own at will” (3).

What took a gifted few years of practice, dedication, meditation and art to achieve is now accessible much more easily to huge numbers of us because of this skill. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to learn how to use our imaginations wisely. We do, and this in itself, with the self-reflection and realisation that may come with it, may lead to what feels like madness, especially when considered from a societal point of view.

Treading the labyrinth

It is when we start to walk the path consciously that we may be most in need of stories to help to guide us. Luckily, such stories already exist in their thousands and many are freely available through that great storyweaving machine, the internet. The stories which we choose to resonate as part of our lives can help to sustain us and to heal our own psyches, thus enabling us to heal the outer world as well.  From this perspective even our most grotesque and seemingly destructive human creations can be seen to be a part of the web of life.

Big wheels and little wheels

How can we start on this path? How can we, as Joseph Campbell put it, pick up the golden thread left behind us by the storytellers of the past, and use it to help us find the way through the labyrinth? How can we step beyond the seeming comfort of a life half-lived and step onto the sword-edge of the path to our own bliss?

Perhaps a simple way to start is to consider what stories you wish to resonate with about the cycles of time in your own life. The moon and the sun are things which all humans have experience of, and in Europe the cycle of the sun was in the past by many and is by a few even now, closely followed and celebrated, with each stage having its own story and meaning, so that people could attune and resonate with the seasons and the unique gifts they bring. This ‘big cycle’ of the year, with its eight ‘feasts’ of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Bealtaine, Litha, Lammas, Mabon and Samhain, during which time the daylight present in the day goes from very little to a lot and then around again, is reflected on a monthly scale by the cycle of the moon, which is also noted and celebrated.

Sun is come

The ‘Wheel Year’ is celebrated now in Britain mainly by people who have picked up the threads of the old stories rather than as part of an unbroken tradition. This means that the stories are always evolving and reflecting our changing ways, and we can interpret them however seems fit to us. You may not care about the upcoming Litha or Summer Solstice, which is happening in the Northern Hemisphere tomorrow. Many people do, and in England hundreds shall gather at Stonehenge, in spite of the newly-introduced parking fees there, which were put into place even though they were fought in court by none other than King Arthur Pendragon (4). Those who wish to mark the Solstice by going to a special place but who do not want to ‘pay to pray’ (or who may find the crowds at Stonehenge not their cup of tea) may well choose to celebrate at any of the many other stone circles and ancient sacred sites around Britain.

All over Spain even nowadays, Midsummer’s Night is celebrated by jumping over fires, into rivers, springs or the sea, or in some places both. You may not be so interested in such revelry, but it may still be helpful to you in your own personal storytelling to acknowledge this shortest night of the year and reflect on its symbolism. What that symbolism could be is up to you; our pagan British ancestors probably (according to some sources (5)) associated the Summer Solstice with Ura or heather (ericaceae spp), a plant which needs fire for the seeds to germinate, so reminding us perhaps of the fire which gives us life, the sun which shines the longest on this day for the whole wheel year. In Spain and other parts of Europe the celebration is associated with St. John and his flower, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum) whose yellow petals and red juice can also remind us of the fire of the sun. It is also a traditional symbol of protection and of strengthening energy, perhaps reflective of the long days reminding us to gather strength ready for the darker colder times ahead.

Stories and spells

Whether you choose to acknowledge the Solstice tomorrow or not, you will surely continue to tell stories of your own, as well as being exposed to many others. How you choose to tell your stories is up to you, but as King would say, just by reading story books and watching films you have already started on a path which can aid you in healing, imaginative creation and gaining stronger connections to yourself and your world.

Your own way is yours to follow and your call will be unique. May you go with sunshine.

References

1. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-than-Human World.  Vintage: New York City, USA

2. Logan, K, 2017. ‘A Shaman’s View of Mental Illness’. Forever Conscious, 2017. http://foreverconscious.com/a-shamans-view-of-mental-illness

3. King, S, 1990. Urban Shaman: A Handbook for Personal and Planetary Transformation Based on the Hawaiian Way of the Adventurer. Simon & Schuster: New York City, USA.

4. BBC News, 2017. ‘King Arthur Pendragon loses Stonehenge ‘pay to pray’ court challenge’. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-40033998

5. Sentier, E, 2013. Trees of the Goddess. Moon Books: Hants, UK

 

 

Elemental Depths and ideas for how to dive into them

Explorations into our Relationship with Water

All photos by David Ashwanden

It’s all around us, flowing beneath our feet even if we do not see it and condensing far above our heads, weaving its way through our lives in our every daily task and cycling ceaselessly as part of our bodies, refreshing, revitalising, rehydrating.

Our ancestors praised this most basic of elements – the one we are grown within before we are born, and which comprises around 60% of our beings (1). Many cultures around the world still celebrate water and use it in an effective and regenerative way. Yet somehow a lot of current activities, both on a large and small scale, seem to be ignoring or misusing water, which results in a cutting-off from the flow and thus from an important part of ourselves.

How are we disconnecting from our relationship with water and how can we reconnect?

Why does it matter what stories we tell ourselves about water?

And what actions can we take to address the imbalance caused by those interfering with flow?

This article will attempt to answer some of these questions, with an in-depth look at the specific case of the Mekong River, though it is by no means a complete answer. Think of it more as a flowing stream to which you can add if you wish.

How we relate to water

Throughout history, and in many current resilient societies, water has been and continues to be revered. Our human cultures show countless variations on the personification of water as a deity, from Varuna, the Vedic god of water and the Celestial Ocean, who rides upon the Makara, a kind of magical crocodile (2), to the Aztec “jade-skirted” Chalchiuhtlicue, serpent-goddess of rain, purification floods and childbirth, to the Inuit Sedna, fish-tailed goddess of the ocean and the underworld (3), to the Chinese Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (4).

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A Naga guards the entrance to a temple next to the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. Photo by David Ashwanden.

Many societies throughout the world still celebrate and worship water and water deities, such as the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who celebrate Oshun, the goddess of sensuality, sweet waters and the moon, with an annual festival on the river which bears her name (5). Throughout South-East Asia there are various festivals dedicated to the Naga, which are serpent-formed water guardian spirits of Hindu origin (see for example 6). Many of these festivals have since been appropriated by the Buddhist religion yet the Naga still play an important part in the folklore of the region (see for example 7).

In Kerala, South India, the Naga are also remembered with the creation of “sarpakkavu” (8), sacred groves of trees dedicated to these spirits, while in the North of the country the goddess Ganga is remembered on a daily basis all along the river which bears her name, in particular in the holy city of Varanasi, where pilgrims come from all over the country to drink and bathe in the sacred waters, and into which the cremated bodies of the dead are also cast in order to be purified (see for example 9). In modern-day Mexico live the Wixarika people, known to Spanish-speakers as ‘Huicholes’, who follow one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (see for example 10). Though they now live many thousands of miles away from their ancestral homelands they still make an annual pilgrimage to the deserts which produce the Hikuri cactus plants which form the centre of their mythology, on the way paying homage the serpent-goddess Nacawé (11) at a number of sacred springs in which they bathe (12).

From 'The Dao Oracle'.

From ‘The Dao Oracle’ by Ma Deva Padma.

When it comes to tracing the origins of my own ancestral myths it can be a little more difficult as the pagan origins of my European culture are to a great extent broken, especially in England, the country of my birth. Many water-deities which were once venerated in Europe are now simply stories, such as that of Coventina, naked lily-bearing British goddess of abundance, wells and springs (13), or Danu, the fertility river-goddess and mother of the ‘Tuatha da Danaan’ or fairy people, whose name, some believe, is the origin of the major European rivers Danube, Dniestr, Don and Dniper (14).   Interestingly, Dewi Danu is also the name of the serpent-riding water-goddess of the Balinese Hindus (15).

 

What Are We Doing with Water and Why?

Water is so much a part of our lives that it may be sometimes easy to take it for granted. One thing which seems of paramount importance to remember is that water represents, both physically and metaphorically, the principle of flow. All water is constantly cycling throughout the world, from the clouds to the ground, to the ocean… and back again. As we are made up largely of water, we literally embody this principle and so it may be worth bearing it in mind next time you consider yourself stuck in any type of situation.

As water is constantly flowing, it can be seen as an infinitely renewable resource. Up until around 100 years ago, the way in which we used water reflected and supported this. Water would fall from the sky, and we would collect it, use it, and re-cycle it. Water flowed from the ground, and we would care for the spring, tend it and ensure that it helped to nourish the land around as well as ourselves. However, when we started using more groundwater, this balance began tipping.

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Groundwater is easier to pump up all in one place and to distribute in measurable amounts so it has become a favourite source for cities worldwide (16). The problem with this is that groundwater can only be replenished by rainwater filtering down through the land, which is currently happening in many places at a slower rate than we are pumping the groundwater up. groundwater also contains more minerals than rainwater so if it is the primary source for crop irrigation, it ends up in causing mineral saturation of the soil, which means you need even more water in order to flush through the salts so that the soil can stay fertile (16). At the same time, we design our buildings and communities to deal with rainwater, the fruits of the sky which we could easily be harvesting, not by catching it but by directing it away. Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, calls this modern phenomenon a move from the “path of abundance” to the “path of scarcity” (16).

Mekong Case Study: Controlling the sacred flow

A key example of people following this “scarcity” path is the case of the Mekong river. This giant, the longest in South-East Asia (17), starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China, then snakes its way through Myanmar and Laos, forming part of the Thai-Laos border (17), before entering Cambodia where it joins the Tonle Sap river, which it causes, once a year, to flow backwards, thus filling the Tonle Sap Lake (18). After this it passes through Vietnam where it splits into many parts at the Mekong Delta, a richly biodiverse area of around 39,000 square kilometres, whose fingers reach eventually into the South China Sea (19).

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Looking from Laos to Thailand across the Mekong.

The river is estimated to be around 4350 km long and is regarded as the 12th longest in the world (17). It is home to many water-species, and the source of livelihood as well as life to millions of animals and humans who inhabit the banks along its length. The humans are not as yet endangered, though many endangered species live here, including the Irrawady River Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, the Laotian Rock Rat  and the Indochinese Tiger (20). Because of its huge biodiversity new species are often discovered here, with the WWF reporting more than 2,216 newly discovered species since 1997,

“including a color-changing frog, a zombie-making “dementor” wasp, and the second-longest insect in the world”(20).

The name for the Mekong comes partly from the Thai or Burmese word for river, “meh-nam” (Thai: แม่น้ำ) which literally means “water-mother”, and it is along this river that the Naga water spirits are often celebrated, in particular on the night of Loy Krathong (7). This would seem to indicate that the people who live along the river have still some vestige of respect for the river and recognition of it as a giver of life. However, enough people in this region are following the “path of scarcity” that the Laos government has agreed to embark upon the Mekong river dam project, which involves building 11 dams along the entire length of the river. In the Chinese portion, there are already 5 dams which have severely disrupted the water flow throughout the rest of the river, causing drought and imbalance (21). Last year, construction began on the Xayaburi Dam (22), funded by Bangkok-based engineering company CH. Karnchang (23), and on the Don-Sahong Dam, a “joint venture of Malaysian company Major First and the Laotian government”(22). Both dams have been embarked upon without the permission of the Mekong River Commission, an international coalition set up to try to protect the river (22).

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Sunset over the Mekong

“If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world’s most important and iconic rivers,(21) according to Maureen Harris of International Rivers (24).

The construction of the dams has been severely impeded by NGOs and other actors who would prefer the river to stay fertile and to continue sustaining life. There are so many factors involved with why the Mekong is being treated like this that there is no one simple solution to the problem, however, it seems important to look at some key ways in which the river is viewed in order to understand how to solve it.

Holy water and its powers

Firstly, as mentioned, many Mekong people still celebrate its abundant waters. Why is this important? Just because a group of people believe that the river is home to the snake-formed gods of the water, doesn’t mean it will stay protected…Does it?

All of our human action comes ultimately from our beliefs and values, and these are grown out of our cultural stories and mythologies. Therefore, if we want to change the actions of people, perhaps we have to first look at the stories they are telling themselves, and if the stories are not effective, help them to change them.

It is clear that those involved in the dam are following stories of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough water and so it needs to be hoarded. This can very swiftly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and indeed can already be seen to have done so in Yunnan: the dams there have created water shortages downstream, thus justifying the dam-builders’ fears of water shortage. This type of story can be seen as a negative cycle of erosion which can ultimately cause severe damage to all who tell it. Of course the water shortage is in fact caused by the dam’s blocking of the water’s natural flow, and so if we wish to regain this flow we need to encourage travelling outwards from the cycle of erosion into a new cycle of abundance.

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Many of the water deities throughout history and around the world share characteristics- they are symbolic of fertility, of life, and of the joyous act of procreation. This can be seen in the fact that so many water deities from diverse and supposedly separate cultures are somehow associated with snakes or snake-like creatures, the snake being, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (25) would put it, an archetypal symbol of sexuality and procreation. Perhaps one way we can help to protect the rivers is to remember this symbology and recognise water as the basis of life, which cannot be contained in one place, lest it will become stagnant and sterile.

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Modern myths

Yet it is not enough to just tell stories. We need to be really living this idea of water as abundance, that is, really feeling our connection to water as a sacred and constantly cycling force. How we do this is up to us. Our ancestors did it by personifying the elements and associating them with particular animals, places or trees which we can protect as part of our reverence. That doesn’t mean that we literally think the rivers or rocks are home to spirits, but the spirits, whatever shape they are, can be a useful metaphor to help us to remember the holistic nature of life and how we can help to protect and regenerate the things which in turn protect and regenerate us.

An example of a much more literal stance is the case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which, four days ago, was granted the same legal status as a human being (26). This has been heralded as a ‘victory’ for the Maori tribes to whom the river is sacred (26), yet it seems to be missing the point somewhat. If the river has the same legal rights as a human, this means it has the right, to some extent, to be protected. But humans are also subject to laws which mean they can be locked up or have their lands taken away from them. Granting the river legal rights may help in the short term to protect it but throws up questions of the legal rights of all humans, and how they can be contravened. The Whanganui has always been sacred to Whanganui iwi tribe, who recognise it as a living entity. But enshrining this recognition in law must throw up questions about our relationship to all living entities, in an age where humans, animals and plants alike are locked in tiny boxes, killed en masse, exiled from their homelands, separated by barriers of earth and water, subjected to poisoning of all kinds, for reasons as varied as ‘farming’, ‘economic progress’, ‘doing a 9-to-5 job’, or ‘immigration’.

Part of our understanding of this relationship has to come from our understanding of our cultural and personal stories. Perhaps changing your own story is going to be easy, like moving one pebble to release a huge portion of flow. Or perhaps it will take a more careful and considered dive into your life-stream. Whatever it takes, it seems clear that this is an essential part of revitalising our relationship with water around the world, and hopefully restoring the balance and abundance which can so easily be a part of our daily lives.

For more practical ideas about how we can work with flow you can check out my Water Farming article (27) and be sure to check back for the second parts of both articles…

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Sources

1. Helmenstine, A.M (Phd), 2017. ‘How Much of Your Body is Water?’. ThoughtCo, 1/3/17. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-much-of-your-body-is-water-609406 

2. Naylor, S. T, 1997. ‘Varuna’.http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/varuna.html

3. Miller, M.E, Taube, K.A, 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson: New York, USA.

4. Condon, R.G, Ogina, J, Holman Elders, 1996. The Northern Copper Inuit: A History. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

5. Werner, E.T.C, 1922. Myths and Legends of China. Chapter VII: ‘The Myths of the Waters’. available as an e-text here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc09.htm

6. Elgood, H, 2000. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. Cassell: London, UK.

7. Lexa-French, I, 2012. ‘Loy Kathung: The Night of the Naga’. Travelfish, 26/11/12. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/laos/24

8. Menon, S, 2010. ‘Saparkkavu – Nature Groves in Keralan Homes’. KarmaKerala, 31/1/10. http://www.karmakerala.com/news/2010/01/31/sarpakkavu-nature-groves-in-kerala-homes/

9.  Varanasi Temples, 2017. ‘Importance of the River Ganga’. http://varanasi-temples.com/category/importance-of-river-ganga/

10. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abudnance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/

11. Austin, A.L, 1997. Tamoachan, Tlamocan: Places of Mist. University of Colorado Press: Colorado, USA.

12.  Allen, B, 2015. ‘Last of the Medicine Men: Peyote’. Our Amazing World, 2015. available in parts on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bb_YC8pmCI

13. The White Goddess, 2017. ‘Coventina’. http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/divinity_of_the_day/celtic/coventina.asp

14. Read Legends and Myths, 2017. ‘Danu’. http://www.read-legends-and-myths.com/danu.html

15. Lansing, S, 2006. Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali. Chris Baldwin (Director), Should High Productions.

16. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA).   

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. ‘Mekong River’. https://global.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River

18. Mekong Flows, 2017. ‘Tonle Sap Ecosystem’. http://mekongriver.info/tonle-sap

19. WWF, 2017. ‘Greater Mekong’. https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/greater-mekong

20. WWF, 2017. ‘Wildlife of the Greater Mekong’. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/

21. Rigby, J, 2016. ‘Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river’. IRIN News, 10/5/16. http://www.irinnews.org/news/2016/05/10/dams-drought-and-disaster-along-mekong-river

22. Fawthrop, T, 2016. ‘Killing the Mekong, dam by dam’. The Diplomat, 28/11/16. http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/killing-the-mekong-dam-by-dam/

23. CH. Karnang, 2017. ‘About Us’. http://www.ch-karnchang.co.th/en/#/about/us

24. International Rivers, 2017. ‘About Us’. https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/about-international-rivers-3679

25. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

26. Roy, E. A, 2016. ‘New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being’.The Guardian, 16/3/17.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

27. Haworth, C, 2017. ‘Water Farming Part 1: How and Why Can We Start Farming Water?’. http://permaculturenews.org/2017/03/20/water-farming-part-1-can-start-farming-water/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrations of Spring and the Sacred

This weekend marks an important festival in many traditions, called by various names and celebrated in different ways. The exact method of celebration varies depending on where you are; however, it seems clear to me that many celebrations have a similar resonance and perhaps even stem from the same archetypal ideas (see for example 1) – that now, in the Northern Hemisphere, is the beginning of Spring, the revolution of the seasons when the world begins to come to life anew.

Here in Italy the celebration is known to the majority Catholic population as ‘Pascua’ – a word which stems from the same root as the word for ‘Passover’ (see for example 2), showing the  links between the different Abrahamic faiths. The traditions of Passover differ from those of Pascua and the celebrations are different depending where you are. Here in Salento one tradition is of the ‘sepolcro’ or ‘tomb’. Following the story of Jesus Christ and his death, on Good Friday, the day every year when Jesus ‘dies’, every church dedicates one section as the ‘tomb’ and is open all night for people to visit to meditate on the death. The tombs vary in imagery but all have flowers and many which I visited had not a human being in the centre but a golden sunshine.

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To me this suggests the recognition of the metaphor which Jesus Christ represents as the sunshine returning to the earth after the ‘death’ of winter. In English, ‘Pascua’ is known as ‘Easter’, a word which stems from the ancient Germano-British Goddess of the spring, Ostara or Eostre (3). Every year, she brings the sunshine back after the death of winter, and life can continue another round. In many myths it is said that Ostara’s gifts of the golden lights of dawn are carried by bounding rabbits or hares (see for example 4), which could otherwise be known as Ostara bunnies (Easter bunnies?)

Ostara is a very old Goddess who has been compared to as the equivalent of Persephone, who in the Ancient Greek tradition descends into the underworld every winter to be reborn in Spring (see for example 5, 6). Many modern practising pagans celebrate her return to the Earth as part of the Wiccan calendar (7), placing the time of celebration around the time of the Spring Equinox.

Another notable celebration which happens at the time of the Equinox is the Feast of San Giuseppe. In Salento and possibly elsewhere in South Italy there is a legend that San Giuseppe once averted a famine (as far as I can tell the legend stems from Sicily) (8). This could be the roots of the Feast. Whatever the reason for it, it is clear that the people of Salento know how to celebrate this important time. In churches and community centres all over the region, offerings are made for San Giuseppe and other saints (I suppose he’s a generous guy and wants to share) in sumptuous arrangements which are quite breathtaking to regard.

 

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The Feast is not only for the Saints, however. Huge amounts of food are cooked and served to all who come to visit the offerings, regardless of faith or of anything else. The important thing is sharing the meal. Such recognition of the importance and sacredness of this often overlooked substance – the food that we eat – is quite moving.

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The Equinox is the day when, for the first time since before the winter, the hours of darkness and light are of equal length and the world begins tipping towards one or the other. Whatever your faith or beliefs, this changing of the light is directly observable with the senses. In the Northern Hemisphere it means the return of light and life to the Earth. You may not believe in Jesus, Ostara, Perspehone or anyone else, but if you believe in yourself you could use the evidence of your senses to celebrate the coming warmth and life.

As Joseph Campbell has said, “People ask me sometimes ‘what rituals can we have?’ You’ve got the rituals only you’re not meditating on them. When you eat a meal that’s a ritual, just realise what you’re doing. When you consort with your friends that’s a ritual, just think what you’re doing. When you beget a child or give birth to a child – what more do you want?!” (6)

We have opportunities to celebrate the abundance of life all the time. The coming of spring can be seen as a fantastic reason to gather together, eat, drink and be merry. So happy sacred spring time, wherever you are and whatever you prefer to do!

References

  1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City
  2.  Living Language, 2014. ‘Easter and Passover: Different holidays with a shared etymology’. Living Language, 15/4/14. http://www.livinglanguage.com/blog/2014/04/15/easter-and-passover-different-holidays-with-a-shared-etymology/
  3. Watkins 2006 [2000]: 2021.
  4. Elton (1882:408)
  5. Theoi Project, 2016. ‘Persephone’. http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Persephone.html
  6. Joseph Campbell, 1996, quoted in ‘The Mystical Life’. Mythos Series, Episode 5. Athena Studios: San Francisco, USA.
  7. Cusack, Carole M. (2008). “The Return of the Goddess: Mythology, Witchcraft and Feminist Spirituality” as published in Pizza, Murphy. Lewis, James R. (Editors). Handbook of Contemporary Paganism. Brill Publishers: Netherlands
  8.  Caffety, K, 2003. St Joseph Altars. Pelican: Louisiana, USA.

 

 

 

Seeds of Halloween

Halloween…

Pumpkins - A Potent Symbol of Samhain and the seeds we are carrying within us. Photo by Charlotte Haworth.

Pumpkins – A Potent Symbol of Samhain and the seeds we are carrying within us. Photo by Charlotte Haworth.

As we approach once more the mid-point between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, known by many modern cultures as ‘Halloween’ and by some pagan traditions as Samhain (pronounced ‘sa–ween’), the beginning of winter, it seems a fitting moment to be reflecting upon what we have been harvesting throughout the year, both physically and metaphorically.

Samhain, October 31st, is celebrated by some as one of the most important feasts of the year, being a time where it is said that any magic practised is more potent, when “spirits” can be easily felt, and when communication amongst ourselves is enhanced (1). Whatever your own personal opinion on this matter, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you probably feel at least some kind of tingling expectation – don’t you? –at the fresh chill beginning to paw at you in the morning air; at the scent of wood-smoke drifting through the trees, and the glorious red-gold-amber spectacle of gently dropping leaves.

It may be interesting for those living in Britain to note that although relatively few people in the British Isles still know the traditions of Samhain, the festival is ceebrated in Galicia, Northern Spain, as ‘Samaín’ – showing the strong cultural ties we share and the similarities in our symbologies.

Harvesting Seeds

Last week, an important step was taken for the co-ordination of growers in the UK and Ireland, as the Gaia Foundation (2) released their preliminary report on the feasibility of creating a UK and Ireland-wide seed programme, enabling increased communication, education and resource mapping throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland. The report shows that all involved feel that such a programme will be highly useful to help growers, farmers and co-operatives to network, and encourage wider participation amongst growers of all kinds in the seed-saving process (3).

Such a task has many perspectives and is not necessarily simple, especially when you take into account (as the report does) the difference between ‘organic’ (not using chemical products) and ‘certified organic’ (with a designation from a body such as the Soil Association) and the pros and cons of F1 hybrid seeds, and whether or not it is useful to produce them along with Open pollinated (OP) seeds (3).

Nevertheless, the report is clear on the fact that growers, campaigners, farmers and other interested seedy people throughout the land believe that a network can help to break the hold of multinational companies on the seed market who are contributing to a loss of agro-biodiversity, and instead encourage a community of commercial growers who are interested not only in short-term profit, but in regeneration of land, soil and ecosystem preservation, and genetic diversity.

Nurturing our Networks

For the next 6 weeks we shall be living in increasing darkness as the sun shines for less and less each day, culminating in the shortest day of Yule or Winter Solstice on the night of December 21st. It is a time traditionally for gathering around the fire and telling stories; imagining new beginnings and preparing for the return of the sun. In our modern societies such connotations are perhaps little more than metaphors, but they can be powerful ones even so.

Whether you are planning some pumpkin carving, a spooky party, a magical ritual or simply a normal Saturday night, Samhain seems an apt time to deepen connections amongst family and friends, and to begin new ones.

Whatever seeds we have at this time, if we nurture them now, they will grow strong once their time comes. There’s no need to hurry, though; the time of darkness is also a time for patience.

Happy Samhain…

Notes

If you wish to see the full report, please feel free to request it from me using the ‘Contact’ page.

References

  1. Sentier, E, 2014. Trees of the Goddess: A New Way of Working with the Ogham. Shaman Pathways: Gloucestershire, UK.
  2. Gaia Foundation, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/about-us – retrieved 17/10/15
  3. Strong, H, 2015. ‘Developing a Robust, Accessible and Diverse Organic Seed System in the UK and Ireland: Feasibility Study Report’. Gaia Foundation: October 2015

Springtime Sowing at Seedy Sunday

This past week we have gone through a key moment in the solar calendar as the balance of light begins to tip inexorably towards more light and less dark. Many traditions celebrate this time as one of the “quarter days” in between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The exact date changes depending on where the sun is but is usually celebrated (by those who still pay attention to these things) between the 1st and 3rd of February. The festival, known most commonly as Imbolc – pronounced “ee-molk” – is a recognition of the changing of the seasons; a time when life begins returning after the winter months, and when the ground begins to warm up sufficiently for seeds to be planted.

It is fitting, then, that the first Sunday of February every year sees the return of the UK’s largest seed swap, Seedy Sunday (1), held this year on Sunday 1st February in its usual location of the Brighton Corn Exchange. Seed swapping is an important way to help you to grow more and stronger varieties, and to help to preserve genetics of existing varieties as more than one person will plant them.

The Seed Swap table. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The Seed Swap table. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Er…why don’t I just go to the garden centre?

When you save seeds from your crops using open-pollinated methods you are preserving the variety of plant – be it flower, vegetable or other crop – and thus ensuring that the plant’s genes can continue to the next generation. By doing this you make the variety more stable and also you create a seed which is adapted to whichever environment you have grown it in, so you know it will do well there. However, being open pollinated, the seed will also easily adapt to other environments.

If you are a grower but you do not save seeds you will have to keep buying new seeds from a commercial company. There are very few commercial seeds available which have been produced using open pollinated methods; indeed, under EU regulations, it is currently illegal to sell such seeds without registering them for ‘Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability’ (2) and proving that the variety is ‘commercially viable’ (3). As open pollinated seeds are usually non-uniform and adaptable this is usually not possible; so the vast majority of commercial seeds which are available to buy will have been produced using other methods, usually hybridisation.

Such techniques are fantastic for producing a clear strain of crops which will all crop at more or less the same time and which need a specific environment to grow in, hence their popularity with farmers growing on a large, intensive scale. However, when you grow crops from hybridised seeds it is very difficult to save seeds successively from them, as the offspring of the plants will revert to either one or other of the parent genes and your seeds will not be true to type. If you want it to be worth planting your seeds – and even on a small, home scale it is still important that you utilise your energy and resources efficiently and effectively – there is little point in planting seeds which have been produced from a hybrid parent, as you have no idea how they will turn out. This, conveniently for the commercial seed companies, means that you have to keep going back to them for your seeds year on year. So seed swapping is beneficial even for no other reason than financially. For more on why it may be a good idea to save seeds, as well as practical ways to get the best from your saved seeds, please see my articles here and here .

This way for seeds! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

This way for seeds! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Brilliant! So how does it work?

One of the main ideas of Seedy Sunday is to create not only a space for people to come and exchange seeds, but to encourage education on issues around seed saving and exchanging, as well as creating links and networks with different groups from around Brighton and even further afield. The Corn Exchange (part of Brighton Dome) is a vast hall, almost ample for the number of different organisations who came along – although this year the event is growing so much that we had to have a few stalls in the foyer and cafe. On entering the Corn Exchange one is greeted immediately by a large barrow, alluringly spilling vegetables, from Barcombe Nurseries (3); then, after purchasing your ticket, which sets you back three pounds, you walk between light-bedecked twinkling trees – very appropriate for Imbolc as a time of celebration of light – and into the hall itself.

Lights in trees greet the attendees. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Lights in trees greet the attendees. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Greeted by Abundance. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Greeted by Abundance. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

What to do?

This year we hosted around 54 different groups, from commercial sellers such as Infinity Foods (our main sponsor) (4) and Foodshed (5) to charities such as RSPB Brighton (6) and Sussex Wildlife Trust (7); gardening groups such as Craven Vale and Whitehawk Allotment Society and Moulsecoomb Forest Garden (8); as well as exciting organisations involved in work to help people become more aware of food, seeds, and their role in gaining the most from them such as Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (9) and Brighton Permaculture Trust (10). All these, as well as campaigns like Beyond GM (11), and then organisations who may be more expected at a seed swap event: people selling plants and seeds such as Pennard Plants (12) and Special Branch Tree Nursery (13).

Along with the stall-holders came a whole host of activities; things to make, such as Seed Freedom’s (14) seedbombs, things to see, such as the numerous plant varieties on sale, and even taste, such as the recipes being demonstrated by the Community Chef (15), and the large selection of honeys on the Blackman Bee farm (16) stall. Children’s activities were also on offer from the Slow Food UK (17) stall and Infinity Foods Cafe (18) were set up in the corner for anyone fancying a breather. And a breather may well be necessary; having weaved your way with fascination amongst the numerous stall holders, you still have not yet come to the helpfully signposted Seed Swap table itself.

On arriving at the Seed Swap table, first thing to do is hand over your own home-saved seeds – if you have any. In previous years the Seed Swap has accepted pretty much anything which people bring, though we have decided to become stricter on which seeds are allowed at the Swap as we realised that some are not worth swapping. For example, commercial and other seeds from hybridised plants have much less value as they will only produce one crop whereas open-pollinated seeds can theoretically be re-grown every year. If you have not saved any seeds, you can still participate in the seed swap; all seed packets are given away for a donation so even first-time growers can get started.

Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Learn, save…celebrate!

As well as the seed swapping aspect, a key part of what makes Seedy Sunday special are the talks, helping to raise awareness of issues around seeds and seed saving, and enabling people to broaden their education on such matters. This year the ‘star speaker’ was a lady from the television – oh yes, we even have celebrities! Her name is Christine Walkden and she participated in a ‘Q&A’ session on gardening tips with Steve Bustin, this year’s chair of the Seedy Sunday Committee.

For those less star-struck but still thirsting for knowledge, we had talks on how to save seeds successfully from Pat Childerhouse and growing seed potatoes from Chris Smith of Pennard Plants (12). There was also a screening of some film clips from an upcoming film on seed saving – ‘From Seed to Seed’ (13) – by Nicholas Bell and Martina Widmer.

As mentioned on the Seedy Sunday programme, the whole event has recently been under threat by the proposed, though currently politically dead, EU regulation on Plant Reproductive Material (14). Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of seed campaigns across Europe as a reaction to the legislation, with the result that, dire as the consequences of the regulation would have been in terms of biodiversity of our ecosystems and freedom of our people, it at least encouraged many more people who were otherwise unaware of such issues to take an interest in them. For more on the proposed regulation, you can see my article from last year here and a more up-to-date one here.

Though the PRM regulation is politically dead for now, the laws of the United Kingdom and indeed of Europe and much of the rest of the world are still far from accommodating when it comes to seed saving on anything less than an intensive industrial scale, and to discuss these issues we had Ben Raskin from the Soil Association with a talk entitled ‘Why does the European Union keep trying to interfere with our seeds and what can we do about it?’

Such issues are important to maintain an awareness of if we wish to keep saving and exchanging seeds. Of equal importance, however, is the celebration of these activities as a celebration of life itself. That Seedy Sunday is held at the same time as Imbolc is no accident: this is the time when life begins returning, symbolically and also physically. I heard many Seedy Sunday-ers commenting throughout the day that they feel as though they are just beginning to wake up after spending the wintertime ‘almost asleep’: such feelings are characteristic not only because of the grim damp greyness which is the British winter but simply as a manifestation of the cycle of life. For many who attend Seedy Sunday the day is just as much a social occasion as it is for business; and to add to the air of festivity we had the Acabella choir singing periodically throughout the day, with a capella songs about plants, trees and growing.

Even the Corn Exchange decor can be seen as fitting to the event. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Even the Corn Exchange decor can be seen as fitting to the event. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Spring’s coming

So begins a new season: seeds, singing and socialising. Now is the time to start planting the seeds we have gained; both physically in the garden, and metaphorically as well. I trust all who attended Seedy Sunday this year had a thoroughly enjoyable day; any who missed it, why not consider attending next year, or, if you do not live in Brighton, finding your own local seed swap event. If there are none in your area, you may wish to consider starting one. Why not? Seedy Sunday may be the largest seed swap in the country but the whole thing is organised by a committee of just nine people, (including the newest member, me) who are all volunteers. If we can do it, you can as well!

References

  1. Seedy Sunday, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://seedysunday.org/category/about
  2. Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol. Available online here:
    https://www.soilassociation.org/blogs/latestblog/article/792/using-a-chainsaw-to-crack-a-nut
  3. Barcombe Nurseries, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.barcombenurseries.co.uk/about.html
  4. Infinity Foods Wholesale, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.infinityfoodswholesale.co.uk/about/
  5. Foodshed, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.foodshedbrighton.com/about.html
  6. RSPB Brighton, 2015. ‘District Local Group: Brighton’. http://www.rspb.org.uk/groups/brighton
  7. Sussex Wildlife Trust, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/about/index.htm
  8. Moulsecoomb Forest Garden, 2015. ‘About the Project’. http://www.seedybusiness.org/about.shtml
  9. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2015. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/
  10. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2015. ‘About’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/about
  11. Beyond GM, 2015. ‘Beyond GM’. http://beyond-gm.org/
  12. Pennard Plants, 2015. ‘Growing the Dream’. https://pennardplants.com/
  13. Special Branch Tree Nursery, 2015. ‘Local Origin and Why it Matters’.http://www.specialbranchtrees.org.uk/why-local-origin.html
  14. Seed Freedom, 2015. ‘Home’. http://www.seedfreedom.net/
  15. Community Chef, 2015. ‘About’. http://communitychef.org.uk/about/
  16. Blackman Bee Farm, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.blackmanbeefarm.co.uk/about-us.html
  17. Slow Food UK, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.slowfood.org.uk/about/about/
  18. Infinity Foods Kitchen, 2015. ‘About’. http://infinityfoodskitchen.co.uk/about/
  19. Bell, N, 2013. ‘From Seed to Seed: an educational film on the production of seeds’. Civique Forum, 19/4/2013. http://www.forumcivique.org/de/artikel/seed-seed-educational-film-production-seeds
  20. Community Plant Variety Office, 2015. ‘Draft New Plant Reproductive Material Law’. http://www.cpvo.europa.eu/main/es/home/news/press-releases-and-communications/228-draft-new-eu-plant-reproductive-material-law

On Christmas Trees

Now once again the time to take down christmas decorations is upon us, as the Northern world spins inexorably towards the springtime. According to an old English tradition, it is bad luck to keep your decorations past the Twelfth Night of Christmas, or January 6th. Other traditions say otherwise; and from a practical viewpoint, the local council where I live has set the deadline for throwing away your Christmas trees as January 29th.

It is whilst walking past the council collection points, where dozens of bedraggled conifers are left, or seeing their even more forlorn companions in some skip or alleyway, that the actual tradition of christmas trees and their rather careless fate begins being called into question. There are older traditions from which Christmas Trees originate; ones which speak of fire and passion, and though we may be seen by some to live in more ‘civilised’ times nevertheless speak of a more honest and authentic connection to one’s surroundings.

All of this musing culminated in a vision one evening which I shall share with you below.

A Tale of Real Christmas

I.

The evergreen symbol of a renewing world

The needles resplendent in shiny green

In times gone by, a potent story told

And now, as frost takes hold again, what does it mean?

II.

We used to cut the trees (not many) down

And use one or maybe two per town

To sacrifice as burning offering of light

A recognition of winter’s dark grip of night

And how we overcome this with fire, merriment, and delight.

 III.

The burning Yule log – that’s the Christmas Tree

The burning of our old fears setting us free

Welcoming New Years and filling us with glee…

Now come and see the sad reality…

The trees cut down, as in the old tradition

But each house takes one, and for every taken, a dozen unsold

The decorations sparkle and the tree’s condition

Is celebrated, until it starts to get old

Then thousands, millions make their way out to the streets

To landfills, incinerators, far away from those who tossed

Them away with all the other Christmas treats

A culture writhing in a story lost?

 IV.

Last night I passed one such pathetic pine

Sitting forlornly, bedecked with ice and dust

Beside a church. Yet as I watched, it reared its needled top, still fine

Raised itself, and began to move inside the house of the divine

The congregation, sparse and few, turned their heads in surprise

Their faces frozen, as the tree began its cries:

 V.

“If you will cut me down like this, think on!

Why did you take me from my snowy homeland

To reject me now your ‘festival’ is gone?

You should be respecting the trees and lives of your own land

But since I am here now, finish what you have begun!”

 VI.

So saying, the bedraggled thing came up the central aisle

(The vicar rushing forward, attempting some kind of authority)

And, still moving all the while, shouted

“So you want the celebration? Then burn me!

Take me and consume me with the fire of joy

The flames of warm acceptance of the season’s cold!

Take me now and set the fires together!

Before your indifference stops all stories being told!”

VII.

                                     And the people, numb with shock, took the tree

And did as they were told, though they made it outside for safety

And something happened as the branches began to blaze,

The faces of the congregation subtly changing

Each meeting each other’s eye with clear and honest gaze

And with the earth and sky

Once more engaging.