What Makes a Druid a Druid?

Druids Cutting MistletoeBrowsing through the Druidry related groups on Social Media, most of us have probably seen this question — in many variations — pop up every now and then: “How do I know whether or not I am a Druid?” This is a very important question, actually, one that shows that the one’s asking is not blindly running down a path, hoping that it is the right one. Rather, folks asking that do have the appropriate level of skepticism and self-doubt that is so important for seekers, to stay on track and not get lost.

It is equally important for those who have been on the path for a while to give actual, helpful advice. Yet, we all face the problem that there is no silver bullet, no one-and-only way to answer this question. I certainly don’t have this all-encompassing elevator-speech-length answer that explains it all. But I can offer food for thought.

Obviously, one limitation to giving a comprehensive response is that in Social Media, particularly Twitter, there is the inherent need to be extremely concise. Too concise in many cases, to be perfectly honest. So, here is the long(er) answer.
To make things easier, let’s first ask:

What Does One NOT Make a Druid?

Before we go a little more into detail, let me just give anyone new to Druidry this advice: There are typically two types of answers that should be taken with quite a load of salt (a grain is not enough).

There are the no, just no responses. You see them as “If you feel you’re called to be a Druid, then you are one” or “When you know your are” or something like that.
No. Druidy is a path. There are steps. And since it’s a long path, there are many steps. Some are harder than others; most of them require some level of learning. What that learning may be depends on a few factors, but let me assure you of one truth: You won’t become a Druid without work.

Then there are the yes, but answers. You spot them easily, because they are short and concrete. “Hug a tree.” “Seek the truth.” Or “Take a walk in the forest.” Well, they are not wrong per se, but neither single one of them will make you a Druid. I know many tree huggers who don’t even want to be Druids. They just want to hug trees, for whatever reason. Pretty much any person following any spiritual path (including religions) is seeking the truth. They may come to different conclusions, but their intent is just the same. Some of them might be offended if you were to call them Druid. My grandfather was something like a hunter-forester. He took walks in the forest almost every day, no matter the season. Not a Druid.  Yes, any  of these responses state something you most probably will do on your Druid path, but one single one of them won’t make you a Druid.

And finally there are the don’t even go there responses. When you read something like “You must have Celtic DNA” or “You must come from a direct line of Druids” just simply move on and forget these answers. Actually, don’t forget them, but research why that’s totally bogus and let anyone who posts such ignorant nonsense know what’s real.

So, How Does One Know?

Well, as with all Druidry, there is no straight forward answer. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t come to your own conclusion. It’s just that this, whatever it is, is your personal opinion. Yet, the more this opinion is based on knowledge and rational thought, the closer it’ll come to the truth.
One way to approach an answer is to consider the three major eras of Druidry and look for clues there.

Ancient Druidry: In “Druid antiquity” and early mediaeval times, very roughly 500 BCE to 500 CE, one would first become an apprentice of a Druid or a student in a Druid College (Anglesey comes to mind) and learn history (in form of hundreds of epic poems) and genealogy, music, law, brewing, the healing arts including herbalism, divination, how to tell and predict time with the Sun, Moon, and the Stars, how to conduct rituals, and how to teach all this stuff. All that learning took about 20 years. When your Druid teacher(s) deemed you ready and learned enough, they gave you the insignia of the Druid (certain clothes, a branch with bells) and sent you off to serve a clan, tribe, or kingdom. While it was very easy to figure out what made one a Druid, our problem today lies in the details of the “how”. They didn’t write down anything, and their Roman and Greek contemporaries weren’t nit-picky like the modern anthropologist. One of them, Claude Levi-Strauss for example dissected one single story from a Native American tribe into a mathematical formula and wrote a whole book about it with mindboggling details. Herodot, Caesar, and Pliny, to name a few, did not only have some ulterior motives and hidden agendas, but were just fine with writing down what they heard that someone heard someone say. Pliny, whose description of the ritualistic cutting of mistletoe might just be one of the most detailed accounts of Druid work we know, probably heard that from some travelling folks in what’s Marseille, France today, without ever venturing into Gaulle to see himself. When it comes to trusting Pliny, consider that he also reported in his pompous historia of some folks in the Sahara who have only one leg with one enormous foot. When the Saharan sun got too hot around noon, they would lay on their backs, stretch their one leg into the air and use their large foot as a sun umbrella. Fact checking? Not so much.
All that is to say that while we know what made one a Druid in antiquitiy, we have too little information on how one would go about this work.

There is much more meat in the mediaeval literature helping us figure out what Druids did and how they worked. Yes, the fact that Christian monks wrote it all down and threw a “Christ” and “Holy Spirit” into the text here and there makes those accounts not too reliable, but at least we know some details on the Insular-Celtic Gods and Goddesses, divination practices and so on. Again, still not in the detail we would like and are used to today, but more than what we have from the Greeks and Romans.

What remains is that becoming a Druid meant a lot of learning, and being a Druid meant providing an important service to their community.

The Druid Revival: If one were to determine what it means to become, and be, a Druid through the lens of the Druid Revival (approx. 18th and 19th century CE), one would get an entirely different picture. While folks back then did know about the writings of the Roman and Greek historians, the conclusions they drew from those sources where a bit different than those we think are the right ones today. For example, Pliny’s account of the Druid climbing the tree and cutting the mistletoe clad in white led to the well-known picture of the Druid as the bearded sage wearing a long, white robe with a sickle in his belt. As good an image as any, but it’s not like that we have an actual description of the white garment Pliny claimed to have seen; could’ve been a robe, could’ve been breeches and a shirt. All we “know” (with the limitations stated above) is that the garment was white.
The Druid Revival happened in the era of Romanticism, so much of the old reports was fantastically embellished and dreamed up under that somewhat bombastic lens (and as far as the the Welshman Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg was concerned, also under the influence of laudanum).
But Druid fashion was not even the focus of the Revival era, it was poetry. The Bardic arts were core and center of Druidry during that time, which is why the Welsh Gorsedd, the Olympics of the poets so to speak, was revived back then. Healing and the occult arts, like divination, played a lesser role, if at all, and the Druid jobs of old — judge, brewer, or counselor to the monarch — were already outsourced to normal, non-druidic people. The Revival Era Druids were for the most part Christians, despite some interest in Pagan life and belief. The service element that was so important to the Druids of antiquity was reduced to forming clubs in which they collected donations from the members; money that was either used for a member falling into poverty, of for charity.
One other component of Druidry next to poetry did flare up in that time: ritual. Especially ceremonial rituals, for larger groups, partly accessible to the public. Since there was nothing to be gathered from the accounts of antiquity, the new Druid-Poets borrowed a lot of ritualistic elements from the Free Masons. It worked for them, and if nothing else, the work the Druid Revival Druids built the base for us even talking about Druidry today. There is a good chance that without them, the idea of Druidry may have been lost completely.

Thus, if you were to define “Druid” from the vantage point of the Druid Revival, being an excellent poet, knowing masonic ritual, donating money to charity, and participating in some club would make one a Druid.

Contemporary Druidry: While some refer it to Neo-Druidry, I prefer the former expression. Neo would indicate that it is something new, an idea that wasn’t there before. Contemporary, for me, just indicates that “this is what we do now“. Even if you were a staunch Celtic re-constructionist, you live now, and act out your Druidry today. Since it might be somewhat difficult for you to slaughter a pig in public and divine the future from its steaming and still twitching entrails, even the reconstructionist would either have to adapt to today’s world as well or just don’t practice.
Contemporary Druidry is much based on the Revival, and somewhat on what the Druids of antiquity and of the early mediaeval era did. And it brought back an element that was missing at least in the early days of the Revival period: Magic. That was in part a direct result of the uprising of occult and magical societies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Celtic Golden Dawn, lead by figures like Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune. Later in the mid 19th century, the very good friends Gerald Gardner (Wicca) and Ross Nichols (Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids) took this element of Magic and wove it into their respective spiritualities. With that, Nichols’s contemporary Druidry became a conglomerate of history (ancient and mediaeval Druids), masonic ritual, witchcraft and magic and the occult arts. All that within the framework of philosophy, ethics, and integrity, ensuring that, should such a contemporary Druid in fact offer their service to their community, this is done without harming people left and right.
Started in the 1950ies, this version of Druidry has developed manifold, not only in Nichols’s own order, but also by Druid Orders that were founded since. In essence, they are very similar, and is mostly their focus that distinguishes them from one another. One order is more into psychology, another into shamanism, a third has a more priestly orientation, and some are focusing on reconstructing their heritage, locally or often enough by emigrants in remembrance of their homeland.
In addition to these organized bodies, the Orders, there are the independent Druids, the hedge Druids, who derive their knowledge from a variety of sources; books, the Internet, or simply from Nature and Spirits.

Clearly, this wide spectrum in Contemporary Druidry makes it inherently difficult to define what a Druid is. This openness, certainly amplified by the structural culture change in the 1960ies and 1970ies, is why we find us confronted with this question in the first place. What was clear — yet entirely different — in antiquity and in the Revival Era, has become a bee hive of attempted answers in Contemporary Druidry. Granted, within the structure of an Order, things are much clearer. You have a body of work to go through and learn, you were initiated, and exposed to the order’s mysteries; at some point, folks invested with the power to administer your Order would check your work and hopefully deem you ready to go out and druid away. But for those outside any Order, how are we supposed to know, how can we trust that they are what they claim they are?

Putting it all together

Personally, I am always one who goes the middle path. I like some reconstructionism, and therefore the clear order of Druid antiquity; I also like the Druid Revival’s call for creativity (poetry or otherwise); and I like the freedom of Contemporary Druidry to practice in a way that helps me along the path, and supports my work for my community. If I were to define a Druid thusly, I would say:

  • They have to awake their creativity; become learned in the lore of the Celtic lands as much as in that of their own culture (if that’s different); embed themselves into the seasons and their cycle; and understand the basic elements of life.
    In other words, they would become a Bard.
  • They have to learn about the healing arts, including herbs and magic, and at least one occult technique of divination; they have to understand how time and death play into our lives; and learn the language of the trees.
    In other words, they would become an Ovate.
  • And finally, they would begin to understand the ethical implications of their work and study to some extent the laws of old; they’d learn about chronometry, based on the movement of the celestial bodies, and how to determine the time for celebrations; and they would dedicate their lives to serving their community, possibly as celebrants.
    In other words, they would begin the life-long journey of the Druid.

These are, of course, just the roughest bullet points, and they contain a myriad of detailed learning. Druid Orders follow these schematics, some switch the first two. But even for Druids outside any Orders, I would say that having touched upon, if not deeply studied these components of Druid learning, and, more importantly, having the will to delve ever deeper into these mysteries, is what makes a Druid a Druid.


The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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About the Very Old Gods

Brunner-5In this year’s East Coast Gathering of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (Autumn Equinox 2018) I held a talk and workshop about the Very Old Gods. I have thought about sharing it here for a while, but it wasn’t until one of the workshop attendees posted on Facebook that my talk inspired her to write a poem, and to publish it on social media.
I am utterly flattered!!!

The purpose of the workshop was not to give a lecture on names of, and details on, some old Gods we know of. Much rather, it was designed to offer a different angle in our eternal struggle to understand the Gods. Insofar, it didn’t matter that much if people thought of Gods us Jungian archetypes, ancestors embellished in story, entities of their own – or even non-existent. My hope was to give any one of those ideas additional food for thought. May that be to confirm people’s own thinking, or revise it.

The first exercise of sorts was to dot down five word associations to the question “What does God or Goddess mean to me?” I had the following pentagram mind map prepared for everyone, and asked people not to think too much, just jot down what came to their minds.

GodsMindMapThis was just for themselves, and particularly to revisit after the workshop to see if anything has changed.

Then I asked the audience to shout out some names of Gods and Goddesses they know of, worship, or are drawn to in any way or form. We heard the usual suspects (Dagda, Brighid, Cerridwen, Lugh, Odin, Thor, Zeus etc.) and some of Hindu provenience. One Mexican participant knew of the names of ancient Mexican Gods.
While I had to admit that I knew nothing of the latter two, we found that the common denominator of the ones of European descent was that we (or most of us) imagine them in human form. And they all have very human stories.

It is this very fact, their humanlike appearance and history, which makes them “new”. Not because the Gods and Goddesses are, but our human perception of them is new. Which means, we, as a human species, must have had a different, an older perception. It was this very perception that I wanted to explore with my fellow Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

A good example of a story that sings of a Goddess in both the old and the new way ist the first tale of the Mabinogi, Pwyll Prince of Dyved. Here, the prince (whose name means “caution”) observes a lady riding very slowly a white horse. He mounts his horse and rides after her, but she disappears. The next day, the prince sends one of his men from the hunting party to bring her to him. But as fast as the man rides, he is not able to reach to slowly riding lady. This goes on for days. Ever better riders on ever faster horses are not able to catch up with that woman, even though her pace is beyond slow.
This part of the tale is about Rhiannon being the Moon, who travels ever so slowly over the firmament, yet one will never reach it no matter how fast one rides. Although we have already a human form attributed to the Moon, this part of the tale is still about this heavenly body.
As the story goes on, though, the Moon, Rhiannon, assumes more and more human form and behavior. She marries the prince, has a child with him. Kidnapping, accusations, punishment, and redemption follow. Here, the humanization of the Moon in this story of the Goddess helps us understand ourselves.

But that wasn’t always how we perceived the divine.

Let’s rewind history a bit, say about 32,000 years. Back then, some artist sat on the bank of Danube River (this is made up, maybe they sat on the fence of the pig sty, who knows) and wanted to express something they didn’t have a word for. An abstract thought: fertility. When we study languages of present day indigenous people, we learn that some don’t have words for abstract things. And even the English language shows clearly, that the olden Anglo-Saxons must have lacked such words, because in English, they are mostly borrowed from Latin. In German, we have a similar situation, just more of Greek provenience.

So, what to do when you want to say something that is an abstract concept, and you don’t have a word for it? You borrow something from your immediate surrounding and use that as a metaphor. In our instance, the person wanting to express fertility, the magic of creating life, looked around and, lo and behold, half the tribe was able to do exactly that: create new life. In order to express that magical phenomenon, that person therefore carved a statue of a woman out of sandstone. And to emphasize the concept, they exaggerated breasts, buttocks and vulva manifold. But omitted a face. So its not a statue of an actual tribal member, but the artistic expression of something that is beyond human. Fertility. Lush and giving and faceless like the Land.

From here, it is just a small step to attributing that concept to the divine, to a source so powerful that it needs to be appeased, worshipped, and given a story. Gods and Goddesses.
In the next 30,000 years, that very basic concept was developed further. The core elements of the environment were understood as having an animus, their own spirit sparking their activity throughout the seasons. Next to the Land, the Mother Goddess, was the Sun, the Sky (really as the weather), and the forest (which we call Nature now). They were all larger and much more powerful than humans. We were dependent on them  – for food, shelter, rain and warmth, and game to have meat – but they were also uncontrollable. So we needed to develop a relationship with these forces. One step in this relationship building was to give them names of sorts. Some are really not names in the common sense, more descriptions. The Sun became “The Shining One” — Belenos. The Earth Mother was addressed as “The Eternal One” — Danu. The forest was named Cernunnos, and the Weather and Sky became Taranis.
Let’s talk about Cernunnos for a  moment. Back in those really olden days, Europe was covered with a dense forest. People lived in clearings, tilled the land there and had the cattle graze in the village common, in the center, to keep them safe from predators. Around the clearing was the forest, with the thorny bushes (bramble, hawthorn, blackthorn) as a natural barrier between the woods and the farmland. Going into the forest was a dangerous adventure. You go there to hunt, but as soon as you step into it, you become the hunted, too. The forest sings its own song of existence, and it is not necessarily a song that is welcoming to humans. That’s why you need to appease its spirit, Cernunnos. We call this idea no longer The Forest, but Nature. Everything else stayed the same.

And then there are two more core elements of human life that have to have an animus as well. One is The People, as a whole. While we have our chieftains and kings, who rules them, and all humanity. Well, that would be Teutates, the People’s God.
And then there is death. While the flesh stays, the spark of life must be going somewhere. Where that is we can only imagine, but surely there needs to be someone ruling that realm. We called him Esus.

Such was the pantheon a certain Gaul war chief Brennus knew, about 300 BCE, when he reached Macedonia with a large host of warriors. There he was shown most beautifully crafted statues of men and women. Upon his question who they were, he was told by the Greek that those were their Gods.

And Brennus laughed. Not because he thought that it was silly of the Greek to have and worship other Gods than him. But because the Greek obviously thought of their Gods in human form. How could they? For him, the Gods were still the Shining One, the Wild Forest, the Giving Land. Not a muscular Apollon or a beautiful Athena.

The interpretation of a Celtic story, probably by a Thracian artist, artfully driven into silver plates and then assembled into a cauldron that was later found in Denmark, in Gundestrup to be precise, shows further development of the understanding of the Gods by the Gaulles. Here, the Gods have already a human face. They are only faces and half their upper body, while the people on the cauldron are whole, yet rather small. But why? What was accomplished by this humanization of the Gods? When you look at the cauldron, you’ll see that the same Gods appear on several plates. How do you know? Because the faces have the same hair and beards, and one set of divine images has breasts. So we know, which God is on the plate we are looking at. And which images are that of the Goddess. That helps us understand the story.

With that, we come back to the one thing we get out of the stories of the Gods: the understanding of ourselves, of our human species. And since we are a complicated species, the Gods and Goddesses of old began to specialize. Were we content with the Sun, Mother Earth, the Sky, and the Forest in the beginning, we eventually needed the Smith, Poet, and Healer; not only the bright Sun, but also his ray, his arm coming to Tara and requesting to participate at the feast; the God of Love, the Trickster, the Seeker. We needed the Moon to be also a queen from whom we learn about our Angst of separation when the child leaves the household (As in kidnapped in Rhiannon’s tale). As our lives became more complicated, so did our Pantheons.

Still, we can, and should, build our own, personal relationship with the Old Gods as well, to better understand the new ones. For that, I sent the workshop attendants into a meditation, guided to a certain point. Before you go there — if you so choose — decide what you will ask. Do I want to meet one of the Old Gods? Or learn about them from a Guide?

As you sit down comfortably and quiet the chatter of your mind, you find yourself in the deep forest of old Europe. Walking along a large stream you come to a point where another river flows into it. You turn south and see, in the distance, the blue mountains you have heard from so often, the Alps. One of the mountains there, with a particular triangular shape that misses a piece on the top, sparks your curiosity. You start walking towards it. Soon, you notice, that your pace has become much faster, that you rush through the forest and leap over bushes. Your head has become heavy and as you stop for a moment to drink some water from a small well, you see the reflection of a mighty set of antlers on your head. You have become Stag. With renewed energy, you make your way towards that mountain. Eventually, a large boulder forces you to walk around it, and when you have, a beautiful wide valley filled with a turquoise lake opens up before you. You notice the sheer rock walls on either side of the lake and realize, that the valley was shaped by a glacier. This landscape was formed during the last ice age.
You walk into the lake and when the water has reached your chest, you start swimming. Ever faster you go, for you have become a swift lake trout, making your way to the pronounced rock wall on the left side of the lake. Once you reach it you look up and see a falcon hovering over its top.
Suddenly, you see the same scene from the falcon’s eye, soaring high over the rock, taking advantage of the updraft. With your keen eyes, you spot some movement on top of the rock wall. And you dive down there in neck breaking speed. Landing on the branch of a pine tree, you see a cloaked person next to a stone altar in the grove. Turning back into your human form, you jump down from the branch on which you were sitting, approach the hooded person, and they bid you to follow you into the deep forest.
Walking next to them, you ask your question…

Once you feel that there is nothing left for you to learn in this session, bid the guide – and the God or Goddess – farewell, thank them for their lesson, and draw your consciousness back into your physical body. Wiggle your toes, shake your hands, and be sure to write our insights down into your journal.


The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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The Neo-Nonsense

Altar

What Does “Neo” Mean Anyway?

More often than I care for, someone in online discussions about Druidry (and other paths, particularly Pagan ones) deals out the neo-card.  “Oh, that’s Neo-Druidry” or “Neo-xxx” they say and that way typically discard another person’s opinion or path entirely.

But what are they trying to communicate? On one level, it’s plain and simple a way to put down someone you disagree with, at the same time uplifting one’s own self, path, and viewpoint. And by putting someone else down, one’s own lofty grounds appear that much higher.

The problem with this is, though, that the self-indulgence in feeling superior has no merit. At all; no matter upon what the reason for this inflation is based.

There are, for one, the hardcore reconstructionists. Not those of us, me included, who use reconstructionism as a valid tool to inform oneself of the history of the path one is walking; and use this information as guidance and inspiration for their spiritual work today. I mean those who disregard anything, absolutely anything that cannot be proven to have been practiced by the old ones, in my case here the ancient Druids. Which turns out to be, since we have relatively little trustworthy available to us from that era, next to nothing.
Here’s the twist in that line of thinking: pretty much anything, even the Druidry of the late 20th century, and definitely the Druidry of the revival era (17th – 19th century CE) is older, i.e. less “neo” than reconstructionism. That movement is the most “neo” of all.

Were There Ever Druids That Weren’t “Neo”?

But not only that. It is absolutely inconceivable that the Druids of Old, even those in early mediaeval times on the British Isles, would have practiced reconstructionism. Yes, teaching their Druid apprentices tribal lore, law, genealogy and other things reaching back in time was essential to their learning, and to keep the traditions. But that conservatism of the past was not a self-serving practice; only meant to keep the history of the tribe and land in people’s awareness.
Otherwise, the Druids of old must have been confronted with, and sought after, the most modern methods in divination, brewing of sacred beverages, in the healing arts and so on and so forth.
And I say that not because there is written proof of that somewhere to be found hidden in an ancient, almost rotten chest, covered with the dust of centuries and webs of spiders long gone. I say that with confidence because no progress can be made without seeking, evaluating, implementing, monitoring, and adapting new methodology. It would have been a major disservice to the tribe if the Druid would hinder any progress because “that was not done so in the ‘olden days'”. Imagine an ancient Druid counseling their chief not to use iron weapons, for that’s not what the previous generations wielded. ‘Use bronze swords!’ they would cry, “Because iron swords are ‘neo’, you eclectic warrior fools!”

Rather, we can assume that Druids were for all intents and purposes current; at least, if they didn’t even attempt to be on the cutting edge of divination and healing, if for nothing else than to give their tribes an advantage against others and any invaders.

The Term is Current, not ‘Neo’

Current. Now that’s a term I like and can live with. I am a current Druid. Yes, I research what was going on in the ancient world of the tribes called “Celts”; particularly in the area I call home, the Austrian Alps. Talk about little to no records there.
This is my own little reconstructionism. It anchors me, informs me, sometimes amuses me. I even feel the urge to share it. But it doesn’t limit me.
KoenigskerzeWith all that reconstructing, I am still a current Druid. I would even go so far that just sticking with what is proven to be of ancient Druidry or other magical work could bring me in the realms of highly unethical conduct. Imagine I would counsel a young woman to take the root of mullein that has not bloomed this summer (mullein is a biennial plant, gathering strength in the first period of vegetation and blooming in the second), cover it with gold leaf and wear it around her neck to avoid getting pregnant. While that would be reconstructionist practice, I’d rather be a current Druid and advise her to use a condom.

That’s just common sense (and ethical for that matter), and to dismiss that as “neo” would be a major disservice.

But I Do Like Reconstructionism!

When reading this you might think that I am against reconstructionism. I am not, far from it. I just have a different use for it than some. I let it inform, but not rule over me. For me it is an ingredient as is this very modern instrument which I am using to type these lines. Traditions, lore, as well as modern technology and thinking make me a “current Druid”. No need for this “neo”- nonsense.

And…when I think of drawing a line in the sand, as a Druid, I don’t see it as a straight one, but a circle. So when I just drew the line placing the extreme and unforgiving version of reconstructionism outside my inner circle, I need to finish drawing it to also keep out the other extreme, which would be letting literally everything become Druidry. I will contemplate that in the next blog post.


If you’re interested in my personal reconstructionist work, consider my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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Betrayal, Gifts, and Imprisonment

How the Ordeals of the Goddess in Story and Myth Reflect and Affect Human Life

We have been mystically orphaned of the Mother and denied the wisdom that we would have gained from her. When Goddesses are dethroned, leaving only the presence of Gods, all society suffers.

Caitlín and John Matthews , Walkers Between the Worlds

In Trilithon, volume 3, I had the pleasure of introducing a gem of ancient Goddess worship hidden in a song still sung by women working the fields on the steep mountainsides of the Austrian and Swiss Alps. In this article, I would like to explore some of the many other ways the Goddess has survived in story and myth in the German-speaking lands, particularly in the southern German regions of Bavaria and Austria.

The Goddess

Before we delve deeply into the ways the Goddess appears in song and lore still sung and told in German-speaking (and that includes Anglo-Saxon) Europe, let us first explore why we are talking about a female deity in the first place.

To understand the origins of Alpine Goddess lore, we need to go far back in time. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution, for nomadic tribes following the migration patterns of wild game, the worship of deities may have been related to the animals that were hunted. An ancient bear goddess, who later morphed into a god, possibly called something like Artus (eventually giving the name to the mythical King Arthur), may just have been such an animal deity of the hunter-gatherers. But with the rise of farming as the main source of food for bigger social units (i.e., beyond one family or clan), a new understanding of the pantheon seems to have emerged. Just as women give birth to children, the soil, dark and fertile as a woman’s womb, gifted the tribes with her offspring, edible crops of all kinds. The little 30,000-year-old figurine called the Venus of Willendorf seems to indicate that people back then already worshipped the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the land that fed and sheltered them like a mother. The goddess Gaia of the Greek pantheon, for example, who brought forth Uranos (the sky) herself and then, with him, gave birth to the Titans, among them Kronos, the Titan of the harvest, father of Zeus, is just one of many pieces of clear evidence that European people of old revered a great goddess from whom all life stems. This concept spawned numerous strains of lore. In those originating from the British Isles, we find her in stories of kings being married not only to their human queen, but also mystically with the sovereign of the land, herself again the spirit of the very soil the people inhabiting the kingdom live on, and from.

Seasonal changes are another important observation dating from the Neolithic that we still find in fairy tales. Other than regions close to the equator, the temperate climate zones on this planet are subject to an annual cycle of changing weather and rising and falling temperature. In order to successfully grow and harvest crops, people were forced to submit themselves to the realities, and challenges, of this yearly rotation of seasons. And, to make sure that future generations could benefit from the experiences of the previous ones—to avoid reinventing the wheel every year, so to speak—people packed their knowledge about the Goddess and about the seasons into stories.

The Goddess as a Single Figure: Frau Holle

Let us start with a mythical expression of the mother goddess that still treats her as a single personification of the land, not a trinity, like other, later manifestations of the same deity. Her name alone is of linguistic interest. “Holle” has its etymological roots in the Indo-European word *kailo,  meaning something whole, uninjured. From this root derive words like holy (German heilig), holly, hail (the greeting), to heal (German heilen), and German words like the noun Heil (salvation) or the adjective heil (safe). The German words for the elder bush, Holunder or Hollerbusch, are other examples of such derivatives.

Of the many stories about Frau Holle, the one that made it into the collection of German fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is probably the best known. There, a girl, tasked by her wicked mother to spin as much wool as humanly possible, loses her spindle. It falls into the village well and the girl has to jump after it into the dark abyss. She loses consciousness, and when she awakens, she finds herself in a meadow. In the distance she sees a house, and walks toward it. Along the way, she is asked to perform a few tasks of compassion—shaking the ripe apples from a tree that can’t hold on to them much longer and taking bread out of an oven before it burns. When she arrives at the house, Frau Holle offers to employ the girl as a maid. The girl is particularly diligent, and so Frau Holle lets her perform some Goddess magic: The girl is allowed to shake out the pillows filled with goose feathers, whereupon snow falls down on earth. After a year and a day, the girl, stricken by homesickness, asks to be relieved of her duties. The Goddess discharges her, yet not before she showers the girl with gold.

In this fairy tale, we don’t learn much about the Goddess herself, but we do learn about her devotees, or even priestesses. Clearly, a person worthy of the gifts the Goddess will give must be able to overcome her fears—in this case jumping into a dark void—to travel into the Otherworld. One of the most striking pieces of evidence that the girl is in the Otherworld is that she had to travel downward to get there, but, against all laws of physics, she finds herself in a realm above the land, where she learns to make it snow. Because the story also tells about the girl’s sister, who is the opposite of devotion and therefore eventually gets fired and punished by Frau Holle, it has been categorized as a 480D fairy tale, “stories about well-behaved and naughty girls” (Aarne & Thompson, 1961). While this categorization is not wrong per se, it is a stark simplification of the depth of the myth and obviously does not take into consideration the otherworldly aspect of the tale, or the philosophical question underlying the plot: is it worth it to suffer and devote my life to a deity?

We can find a number of Frau Holle myths, probably older than this particular fairy tale, in the area around the Hoher Meissner, a mountain in Hessia, Germany. While archaeologists have found several grave sites of Celtic origin in Hessia, this region is certainly on the northern continental border of the Celtic lands, with heavy influence by Germanic tribes. Nevertheless, on the mountain in question, there is an extremely deep, yet small body of still water, called the Frau Holle Teich (Frau Holle Pond). The myth sings about the pond being an entrance to Frau Holle’s underground realm, with a castle made from silver and vast gardens filled with flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Frau Holle is said to seduce hunters to come down with her into her realm. These are all themes typical of Goddess myths, and we will hear more about romances between the Goddess and men later on. Young women would take a bath in the pond as a fertility ritual.

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Frau Holle statue at the Frau Holle Pond near the Hoher Meissner in northern Hessia. Photo by Dirk Schmidt, 2009

Often, the giving nature of the Goddess comes through in the stories of Frau Holle. In some, however, we learn of her dark side, the one that takes lives. Particularly, it is said that she takes the lives of children and of women giving birth, taking their souls down with her to her underworld kingdom. However, the souls of the taken do enjoy a bounteous life with the Goddess. In some tales, young women disappear from the world for years, during which they are educated by Frau Holle herself to become her priestesses upon their return to the world of the living. Sometimes, these women are empowered to wield some magic themselves (Göttner-Abendroth, 2005).

The Goddess as the Sovereign of the Land: The Salige Madln

As folk on the path of Druidry, most of us are familiar with stories in which the land appears as a lady, to kings, to their sons, or to the unsuspecting young man for whom she has some great feat in store. For the purposes of this article, I would like to introduce another, Alpine manifestation of the spirit of the land.

Frau Holle is a figure of lore and myth mostly in central Germany (Hessia, northern Bavaria). In the Alps we know of the Salige Madln. Let us begin again by linguistically deciphering the meaning of this term.

First, Madln (mawdln) is the plural form for Madl, Austro-Bavarian dialect for the German word Mädchen (girl). There are two important concepts in this one little word that we need to explore. One is that we are talking about more than one figure, and it is no coincidence that usually three of them appear in the stories. The other concept is that the term “girls” almost seems dismissive when we are referring to holy ladies of the land. However, there is a very good reason for that. But before we delve into this apparent blasphemy, I would like to ponder the question why three of these girls so often appear in stories.

Sometime between the carving of the Venus of Willendorf and the painting of church altarpieces in remote valleys of Tyrol depicting three women with the names Wilbet, Ambet, and Borbet, the thinking of people of old seems to have evolved from worshipping a single Goddess to venerating a Goddess trinity. We can only guess why, but one thought would be that folks began to understand the different natures of the Mother Goddess. On one side she creates, provides, and on the other she takes. The land produces crops, feeds the people. And at other times the landslides down mountainsides, burying people underneath. The Goddess enchants women with her force to create new life, but every single one of us is taken by her again eventually.

Refining this dualism yet a bit further, these myths observe the fertility patterns of a woman’s lifetime as well as the yearly turn of the seasons, distinguishing three major segments: growth (spring), maturity (summer and autumn), and rest (winter). We will come back to this theme later, but for now the most important factor is that Alpine lore often talks about three godly figures representing the land, expressed in the plural form Madln.

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Salige Maidens Fountain in Innsbruck, Tyrol, Austria. Although a more modern sculpture (by Hans Plangger, 1958) it shows the deep connection people in the Alps still have to these mythical figures. Photo by Leitzsche.

And then there is still the issue of why we call the goddesses “girls.” This can only be understood when considering the Christianization of the region. To refer to these deities as goddesses, or even ladies, would be contradicting Catholic Church dogma, which—in plain and simple words—was a dangerous, even life threatening, thing to do. To avoid the appearance of heresy, stories were crafted to be less threatening. Who could complain about stories where a young hunter runs into three beautiful girls deep in the forest?

The attribute Salige offers further context. The word means seelig in Standard German, which, in the context of religion, is the state one is in—and must stay in for several years—before being pronounced holy, a saint, by the pope. In essence, the Salige Madln are almost, but not quite, holy; almost, but not quite, ladies. And as such, they are no threat to the church and thus remain untouched in lore. They remain beautiful, while other former gods and goddesses are turned into brute giants, mean gnomes, and wicked hags. Salige Madln have long blonde hair, are clad in white, and appear with a divine vibrancy. That is not misogynist dreaming, but simply an idealistic image of women in this area of Europe. The long blonde hair has significance, as only unmarried women are allowed to wear it in public (or unknotted). Once a woman is bound in matrimony, her hair is braided into elaborate knots and no longer flows freely. Only her spouse may see her hair unbound in their private chambers, and only in the labor of childbirth are the knots undone to allow energy to flow. The Salige Madln are generally not bound in matrimony (except sometimes for a while); they are virgins (Jungfrauen, “young women”) in the original sense of the word: not at all untouched, but definitely unbound. Sometimes they are therefore referred to as Wilde Frauen (wild women). (Haid, 2002)

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Rural woman in Austria with typical braided hair knot. Photo by author.

Following are a couple of tales that tell us, secretively as it were, of the lady of the land in her appearance as Salige Madln or wild women.

Once upon a time, a wild woman came to a farmer in Heimbach in Tyrol and worked as a maid on his farm. Since she was so capable and diligent, the farmer’s son soon asked her to marry him. She gladly agreed, but with one condition: “You must never question me when I do something odd, even if you do not understand why.” The young farmer promised and happily married his beautiful bride. For a few years, everything went very well. The cattle increased, and the fields, the stable, and the household were under a lucky star. One morning, the wild woman said, “Today we need to cut the crops!” But it was only early summer and the harvests were not yet ready. The farmer did not understand that at all and asked, annoyed, “But why?” At that instant, the wild woman left the house and was never seen again. (Falkner, 1963)

The theme of the marriage between a man and an otherworldly woman is well known in the Celtic lands. As in this Alpine tale, the man often fails to keep a promise he made her upon their wedding. The stories of the first Doctors of the Pheryllt, sons of an earthly man and a lady of the lake, come to mind, or the tale of the selkies. But here, there is another layer that I would like to uncover. In this legend we learn that the farm prospers significantly after the farmer’s son and the Goddess entered the bond of marriage. In other words, the farmer is committed to treating the land as if it was his loving wife, caring for it as if married to it. Thus, the gifts of the Goddess are plentiful. But then the farmer begins to challenge the wisdom of his wife, and in essence his old beliefs, because a new faith has arrived in the land, a faith that questions and belittles the old one. At this point, the wife, the Goddess, can do nothing but leave. When she does, there are undesirable consequences. Readers of Trilithon, volume 3, will remember that I described a similar caution in the “Song of St. Margaret”: The land withers when the Goddess leaves.

But there are not only stories lamenting the olden days, warning folks of the disastrous consequences of denouncing the Goddess. The next tale about a Salige as the sovereign of the land tells us about the interactions between farmers, their wives, and the Goddess.

The old folks of the village of Tschachoritsch near the river Drava in Austria’s most southern province, Carinthia, tell the story that one of the Salige Madln often came to the farm of the local  stove fitter. One time, the wife of the stove fitter found the wild woman sleeping in the couple’s marital bed. Because the wife knew that this was a Salige Madl, she let her sleep, and picked up the woman’s blonde hair that reached all the way down to the floor. When the Salige woke up, she thanked the stove fitter’s wife for her thoughtful gesture and gifted her with a ball of yarn, saying, “The yarn shall never end until you say that you’ve had enough.” (Graber, 1941)

Clearly, the stove fitter’s wife’s reaction to finding another woman in her marital bed is somewhat remarkable. There is no jealousy. The woman even makes sure that the Goddess’s hair—note that hair was once believed to hold a person’s magical powers—does not get dirty on the floor. When we consider that the Salige Madl is in fact the land itself, the relationship between the stove fitter, himself a farmer (as craftspeople were typically both in those days), is only of a quasi-sexual nature. This second marriage of the farmer with the land, in the form of a Salige, ensures the survival of the family. Thus, the woman is not at all jealous, in fact even understanding and supportive, of this extramarital relationship. As a thank you for this deep understanding, the Goddess presents a magical gift to the woman.

There are hundreds of tales of Salige Madln in Alpine lore. As the saying goes, each valley has its own version. Later I explore another typical Salige Madln myth.

Stories of the Cyclical Nature of the Goddess

While the tales of Frau Holle and the Salige Madln focus on the activities of the Goddess and her interactions with humans, both in her form as a single deity and as a trinity, respectively, there are also stories about her life, as it were. In the temperate climate zone of northwestern Europe, we can observe major yearly changes due to the angle at which the sunlight hits the ground, warming the soil. The lower the angle, the colder it is. This is when we experience winter. On his daily path, the sun just skims over the horizon. When the path of the sun rises above a certain height, and the angle gets steeper, the soil changes. This is first recognizable at the beginning of February, when the Irish—and with them many in the Pagan community—celebrate Imbolc. In the Alps, we acknowledge this moment with the Lichtmess festivities, which literally means “light measurement.” Farmers would stick poles vertically into the ground and measure the length of the shadow to determine the right time to begin particular farming activities. During spring, the sun climbs even higher in the firmament, causing the first flowers to bloom and the winter seed to break through the surface of the soil. A few months of heat and rain cause the crops to ripen, harvest follows, and with that a sinking of the sun’s path toward the horizon once again. The land eventually dies, only to be awoken once again by the sun in the next year.

Now, with this cycle of nature in mind, let us look at some well-known fairy tales and how they relate to the seasons of the year.

Snow White

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Illustration of Schneewittchen by Alexander Zick, 1886. The image shows the connection between the Goddess and the animals long before Disney made this feature an integral part of his commercialized version of the story.

We all know this old fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It tells the story of very special girl, born to a loving queen and king. The mother dies, and when the princess matures, her stepmother, the wicked queen, grows jealous and tries to kill her. It takes three tries to put Snow White into a deep, unresponsive sleep. Winter befalls the land. But when a young knight in shining armor arrives, the maiden awakes again, and with her the land.

Laying the seasonal changes in the temperate climate zones over this fairy tale, we see the birth of the girl and the death of the queen, her mother, as the winter of the previous season. Quite literally, the wish for a child happens in winter, when the queen pokes her finger while embroidering, sitting at the window framed with ebony wood. The queen then asks for a girl with skin as white as snow, lips as red as the drops of blood, and hair as black as the ebony of the window frame. We will get to the meaning of the colors momentarily, but for now let’s stick with the flow of the story and how it relates to nature. The girl grows—spring—to become a woman, old enough to be fertile and to provide—summer has arrived. This is when she becomes a threat to her antagonist, the evil stepmother. The wicked queen learns from her magic mirror that she may be replaced by the maiden for good, and so she plots Snow White’s demise. That takes a while, but she is closer to success every time, just as it takes autumn a while to cool down the land, before the freezing grip of winter can kill off vegetation. At the same time, Snow White has retreated into the land, expressed by her journey to the dwarfs, dwellers in the Underworld. When the evil queen—and we can surely equate her with the Snow Queen of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same title—finally succeeds, winter has come once again. And it is a long one. But eventually a knight in shining armor, a symbol of the sun, arrives and reawakens the maiden (Storl, 2014).

Snow White and Rose Red

I have already mentioned the combination white, red, and black in the story of Snow White. Snow White, herself bearing a color in her name, has lips red as blood, skin white as snow, and hair black as ebony. In German, Snow White is called Schneewittchen. In this story, “Schneeweisschen und Rosenrot” in German, we have two sisters, one with “white” and the other with “red” in her name. And there is their mother, a widow, who is therefore wearing black. Again, the color combination we touched upon in the previous section.

In my article in Trilithon, volume 3, I explored this unity of three women wearing white, red, and black dresses. These are the women depicted in the sacral paintings mentioned above, who morphed into the three saints St. Katherine, St. Margaret, and St. Barbara. The women in the church pictures are dressed in these significant colors and carry the old symbols of a wheel, a worm or dragon, and a tower representing the castle keep. In even older paintings, their earlier names appear next to them or in the title: Wilbet (with reference to the wheel), Ambet (or One-bet), and Borbet. It is also interesting to consider that “borm” is the etymological root for words like warm and womb. “Bet” means “eternal.” Some might translate their names as the Eternal Wheel or Cycle, the Eternal One, or the Eternal Womb. In later pagan literature, these three figures, goddesses really, are also referred to as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The Maiden wears the white dress symbolizing virginity and innocence, the Mother’s red dress represents her fertility, and the black dress of the Crone indicates the inevitability of the grave (Kuttner, 2003).

This is one reason why we can be so sure that Snow White is primarily a story about the Maiden, although she carries the colors of the Mother and the Crone as well. After all, she becomes both when she matures like the land in summer and withers in the realm of the dwarfs, dwellers in the mines, which are nothing less than Mother Earth’s womb.

And in Snow White and Rose Red, we also have three women, living together in a house, carrying the Goddess’s colors either in their name or as their garment. The story is about this family of three who hosts a bear (an animal often associated with the Goddess, as I noted above, not least of which because it retires in a cave over winter just like her), to give him shelter against the cold and to keep him safe from a hostile gnome. In spring, the bear has to leave, but when he walks through the gate, his fur rips and gold shines through the tear. Soon, the bear comes back as a prince clad in gold—once again, the return of the sun—and takes Snow White in marriage

Again, we find a description of at least two seasons in this fairy tale. The story seems to be much newer than Snow White, and therefore much less replete with symbolism.

Sleeping Beauty  (Little Briar Rose)

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Gustave Doré’s 1867 engraving showing the court fast asleep after Sleeping Beauty fell victim to the spell.

Another fairy tale, much better known than Snow White and Rose Red, is Sleeping Beauty. Again, it is about the birth of a princess—the sovereign of the land to be—and an adversary who tries to kill her. In a version known under the title “Little Briar Rose” that is older than the one collected by the Brothers Grimm, it is also a fairy who casts the spell on the ill-fated princess, but the circumstances are much more complicated than in Grimm’s variation. In Grimm, it is just the thirteenth fairy that was not invited to the naming ceremony because the court didn’t have enough place settings. However, the older version of the tale sings of the oldest of the fairies, whom the king and queen had invited, but who was absent, nowhere to be found. It was apparently typical for aging fairies to travel far and wide. But the oldest fairy still came back in time for the naming festivities, angry though about the procedural faux pas that the invitation was not extended to her, but to the twelve other fairies below her in rank. The last and youngest fairy hid behind a curtain when the oldest fairy cast the curse that the girl would die when she turned eighteen. And thus, the youngest happened to be the last fairy to make a wish for the newborn, and that wish was to reduce the death curse to one of a long sleep.

Because the curse entails the girl pricking her finger with a spindle when she is eighteen years of age, thereby falling into a 100-year-long sleep, the king orders all spindles to be removed from the kingdom. Of course, upon her eighteenth birthday, the maiden explores remote areas of the castle and finds an old woman at a spinning wheel—the ancient image of a goddess spinning the thread of fate comes to mind. The maiden does not know what that instrument is, because no such thing is allowed in the kingdom. She points at it and pricks her finger on the sharp top of the spindle. The curse is fulfilled and she falls asleep, and with her everyone else in the court. In the following 100 years, hedge roses completely cover the castle. A few princes and adventurers attempt to cut their way through the thorny hedge, but fail and die, caught in the ever-growing thicket of deadly thorns. The land turns barren and cold. Only when the 100 years have passed does a prince in shining armor—once again the sun—cut with his mighty sword—the sunbeam—through the rose hedge, finds the maiden Goddess, and kisses her awake. With this kiss of warmth, not only the lady, but also her land awakens to the bliss of spring.

Keeping the Goddess Alive in Story

All these tales of Frau HolleMs. Holy, the Salige Madln as the trinity of the lady, the sovereign of the land, the Goddess, and of the cycle of the seasons articulated in the lives and plights of the Maiden—are attempts to keep the knowledge of the Great Mother alive. The stories have survived the Catholic Inquisition, Martin Luther’s puritanism, the rise of science in the Era of Enlightenment, and even Walt Disney. We all ensure—in most cases without knowing—the survival of this awareness of the giving nature of the Great Goddess and the wheel of the year simply by sitting down at our children’s bedside and singing to them these old enchanted myths. And I would propose here that it could be seen as one of the challenges of the bards among us to deeply delve into these old stories, to learn them—their older versions—by heart, and tell them to a spellbound audience, children as well as adults.

A Plea from the Goddess

In this last section I explore two versions of one myth—there are many more to be found in Alpine lore—that open up a treasure box of knowledge about the Goddess.

Where we find the village of Grabenweg near Pottenstein in an idyllic valley in the Austrian province of Lower Austria today, snow-covered barren rocks once towered on either side of the desolate land. Only a few folk lived in this unforgiving area, in which only scraggly sheep could find a few clumps of grass here and there. A young shepherd knew of a few patches tucked away in the mountains and herded his flock there every day. Once, on the day of the summer solstice, he sat on a boulder and played his flute. With a great thunder and a glistening flash, a sparkling crystal palace appeared right in front of him. The door flew open and a beautiful maiden with long, blonde hair and dressed in shimmering white invited him in, telling him that he had broken, in part, a cruel spell with his song; a spell that kept her imprisoned in the crystal palace. Then she asked the astounded shepherd if he were up to lifting the curse entirely. The young man, falling in love with the maiden immediately, agreed to come back at the next summer solstice.

When he returned the next year, the crystal palace appeared again after the sun set and the church bell had finished ringing. He entered and at once an enormous snake slithered hissing toward him. But remembering his promise to the maiden, he kissed the snake on its head, losing consciousness at that very moment. When he awoke, he found himself alone in the mountains again. But now, they were no longer covered with ice, and the barren rocks were not as high and desolate any more. Another year went by, and when the shepherd returned at the summer solstice, he once again entered the palace. This time, a monster with gnashing teeth approached him. He was so frightened that he almost forgot his promise. But then he mustered all his courage and kissed the monster’s head. Awakening from his unconsciousness, he saw that the remaining rocks had given way to green rolling hills.

The last year went by and, as promised, the young man came to the spot where the crystal palace appeared after the sun had sunk beyond the horizon. This time, there were three maidens with long, blonde hair and dressed in shimmering white. One of them, with whom he had fallen in love years before, waved encouragingly at him. The shepherd entered the palace. But this time, a gigantic dragon hurled itself against the young man. All his bravery left him at once, and he fled from the monster. He was so frightened that he didn’t even hear the whimpering calls of the maiden.

Soon, the people from the valley began to miss the young man and it was not until the summer solstice of the next year that they found his corpse where he had run from the dragon. The valley, however, has been covered with lush, green meadows ever since.

Not unlike events in the story of Frau Holle, we encounter an innocent person—the shepherd—who is asked to perform some deeds of devotion to the Goddess, here clearly represented by a Salige Madl. We can just infer from the circumstances of where she lives that there are two others like her, and that she obviously wields some powerful magic. Playing music on a liminal day, a day of major change (the solstice) out in a remote place can only lead to entering the Otherworld, in which the young man is suddenly able to see the land as represented by its sovereign. He can also see the dark side, and the power, of the land. When asked to face these powers, he does, albeit only up to a certain point. His devotion to the Goddess prompts her to change the landscape for the better for the people, her children. This detail, the changing landscape, is rather unusual, yet it is exactly why I have chosen this particular one. It shows us very clearly the power of the Great Goddess, and also the power of devotion to her.

As practitioners of Druidry, we embark on a journey beyond time and space. Liminal times and places make it possible for us to enter the Otherworld. Like the farmer’s son in the earlier Salige Madl tale, we can not only visit the spirit of the land in our travels into the inner realm of our consciousness, we can also choose to enter into a deep relationship with that spirit, expressed in the story as a marriage. If we honor the Goddess like the stove fitter’s wife does by caring for the Salige Madl’s hair, or by returning to her place frequently to face the challenges of devotion, we will surely be gifted with some of her magic; whether that be a resource such as the never-ending yarn or something as large as a change in the land for the benefit of all.

The next tale suggests that there is another great achievement in store for us as the people who celebrate different facets of Druidry. It sings of devotion, courage, and failure, and most importantly of a favor the Goddess asks from us. It is a favor that will benefit us greatly and, if we are willing to fulfill her request, mustering all our courage, may also benefit the land and all people. The following story is—in its core—very similar to the previous one with the shepherd, yet it is not so much about the powers of the Goddess. This tale, of which there are many varieties in the Alpine region, speaks about a plea from the Goddess, one that is not easy to fulfill, but that would offer us immense wealth.

Where the Reinegger Farm is located today, three Salige Madln lived within its walls many years ago. Passers-by would sometimes hear them lament and cry and sing sad songs.

About a hundred years ago, the owner of the farm walked around the courtyard late at night to check if the barn and stable were locked. All of a sudden, she saw a beautiful woman with long, blonde hair standing in the moonlight. Her stature was majestic, but her face expressed sorrow and grief beyond words. “Do not be afraid,” the phantom said in a friendly voice. “I will do you no harm. You have been chosen to free my sisters and me from our prison. I therefore ask you to come with me to the ruin up there on the hill.”

“I can’t,” the farmer’s wife replied. “My heart is trembling with fear.”

Now the beautiful woman started to cry bitterly, fell to her knees in front of the farmer’s wife and begged, “If you take pity on me and my sisters, you will make yourself unbelievably happy. There is only one thing that might frighten you: a large snake will come toward you and slither by. It has a bunch of keys in its mouth. When the creature is close to you, muster all your courage and take the keys away from the snake.”

It took a while for the frightened peasant woman to get past her fear, but she finally agreed to partake in the adventure. With that, the Salige Madl disappeared.

At midnight, the countrywoman stood alone in the eerie, dark forest, and lo and behold, a huge snake slithered down from the nearby rock. Its scaly body glittered horribly in the moonlight. The creature slowly came closer, and soon the farmer’s wife heard the jingle of the keys. But then, gripped by unbearable horror, she exclaimed, “All the good saints praise the Lord!”

At that moment, the serpent disappeared and the forest was once again immersed in deep silence. And as it had been for a hundred years, people could hear the lamenting and crying from behind the walls of the ruin. (Graber, 1941)

If you feel so inclined, interrupt your reading here, prepare for Druidic contemplation, and meditate on the meaning of this tale, especially the key. What does it unlock? And why is it brought to the farmer’s wife by a snake (a “worm”)?

Whatever the results of your own contemplations, here is one suggestion for how to interpret this tale. For a brief moment, we have to put ourselves into the shoes of those of our ancestors who walked the soil of Europe in early medieval times, when Christianization began to reach from its stronghold in the urban centers into the rural areas. For many at this time, the new faith did not provide the same synchronicity with the seasons as the old one did. There was much resistance, and the old knowledge of rituals and ceremonies to ensure plentiful harvest went underground. Forced to adopt the new faith from far away, people wrapped their own, local belief into the mystery of song and story. And everyone had to hide their love of the Goddess deeply inside, imprisoning the Great Mother. Together with the campaign to suppress the Goddess came the further suppression of her human likeness, woman. Her power, finding expression in the snake, the worm, was demonized.

The story here expresses the hope, though, that one day someone will be strong enough again to look into the eyes of the big snake, with awe, yet without fear, and take the key to unlock the Goddess, Frau Holle, the Salige Madln, from their prison deep within ourselves. We could, as we embark on the path of Druidry, choose to be the ones to take on this challenge. The tale gives us much guidance for it. First, we would need to take on the task of searching for the Goddess, and it is suggested that we will find her deep in the dark forest of our inner self, dwelling in a ruin. In order to bring her back from this dreary place, we will need to muster all our courage to stare into the abyss of knowledge and wisdom. Not only are these two virtues hard to come by, they also require us to develop a strong ethical compass to withstand the taunting onslaught of this power of knowledge. We must learn to wield them in a way that benefits our community. Power is a shiny tool, glimmering like the scales of the snake that represents it, but we mustn’t get sidetracked by its seductive lure. And we must not falter. Because through knowledge and wisdom, which we gain through contemplation, practice, ritual, and service, we will receive the key that unlocks the memory of the Goddess, finding her alive and well. Then we are no longer orphans; we are reunited with the Great Mother.

 

References

 

Aarne, A., & Thompson, S. (1961). The types of the folktale: A classification and bibliography. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

Göttner-Abendroth, H. (2005). Frau Holle: Das Feenvolk der Dolomiten: Die großen Göttinnenmythen Mitteleuropas und der Alpen, neu erzählt. Königstein/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag.

Falkner, C. (1963). Ötztaler Buch: Sagen aus dem Ötztal. Published within the Schlern-Schriften. Innsbruck: Universitätsverlag Wagner.

Graber, G. (1941). Sagen und Märchen aus Kärnten. Graz: Lezkam Verlag

Haid, H. (2002). Mythos und Kult in den Alpen. Rosenheim: Rosenheimer.

Kuttner, E. (2003). Der Kult der Drei Jungfrauen: Eine Kraftquelle Weiblicher Spiritualität Neu Entdeckt. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH.

Storl, W.-D. (2014). Die alte Göttin und ihre Pflanzen: Wie wir durch Märchen zu unserer Urspiritualität finden. Munich: Kailash.


Download this year’s Trilithon, the issue containing this article, or earlier publications of the Trilithon here.


The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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Paganism, Rules, Dogma Vol. 2

KrampusKids

Can one be wild, Pagan, and still nice?

In a previous blog post (Paganism, Rules, and Dogma) I briefly mention the existence of the widely accepted, and also widely not accepted notion of the Wiccan “harm none” or the “threefold return”, the druidic “Law of the Harvest”, or the Hindu concept of Karma. In the article I say, in essence, that it doesn’t matter whether or not one believes in these rules, they still exist.

 

A reader expressed his hope that I would go further into that topic.

Dogma or Natural Law?

Obviously, this isn’t that easy. Otherwise we all would have agreed one way or another eons ago. So, let’s unpack a few things and see where we get.

Philosophically, this debate is almost like the one I stumble into on social media every now and then: Do the Gods exist per our human consciousness of them (i.e. they are only a product, a projection of our minds) or are they entities of their own, independent of what we think, and no matter if we think they exist?
But since we cannot answer this question with enough certainty for an unanimous yea or nay vote, let’s just use this as a comparison as a measure of the difficulty, and enormousness, with our little one here, “Is the harm none principle a man-made dogma, or a natural law?”

Well, let’s actually compare this to other natural laws. Like gravity. Aside from a few (the flat earthers, who think we travel upwards through space on our little disk, fast enough that when we jump, Earth catches up with us) we all know that gravity exists and, when we use it as a factor in calculations, we can figure out things like flight patterns. But even more mundane, we can describe the effect of gravity in a formula that lets us calculate with what speed an apple hits our head when it falls from a tree under which we’re taking a nap.

Now, someone who was really good in math and physics wrote that formula down, expressed this natural law in writing.

Why am I going on and on about this? Because whenever this debate over harm none erupts in social media or wherever, someone says, “But it’s just something that Gerald Gardner wrote in his books!”
Yes, he did. But if we keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about the natural law on falling apples (and anything else falling) written down by Isaac Newton in the 18th century, the question is not whether or not Gardner wrote it down, but why. Did he make it up from thin air? Or did he just pen down something that exists no matter if written down or not? Does this particular rule of harm none (in it’s various other wordings) exist on its own, or is it man-made? Is it natural law or is it dogma?

Honoring Ancestors and Traditions

Clearly, the fact that something is written down is not evidence enough that it is man-made. But we can, as a Triade tells us of the three tasks of a Druid, look back into history and see if people long before us had similar thoughts (the other two tasks are “living fully in the presence” and “listening to the whispers of the future”).

I touched upon this topic already in an earlier post (Finding Ethical Guidance in Lore) where I dissect one particular Alpine tale of a corn cutter, who receives a magical scythe from a smith who lives deep in the forest (obviously, because the smith is a magical figure), a scythe that allows the corn cutter to cut better than any of his colleagues. But the corn cutter must not take advantage inappropriately of his gift, the smith tells him, lest the magic disappears. Alas, he fails to adhere to the condition (of course), the smith does not equip the scythe with its magical powers any more, and the corn cutter falls back into poverty.

This is obviously only one example of a tale telling us what happens if one were to wield their magic in a way that harms others (in the story, the man keeps cutting into the heels of the cutters in front of him, because they are too slow – clearly harmful behavior). There are many such stories to be found in the Alps, and I am sure elsewhere. For example, pretty much any story where someone gets a gift or even access to treasures from a dwarf or gnome fails to use the gift humbly and wisely, and thus loses it.

All these tales predate Gerald Gardner by far, and they even predate say, the folks around Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg,  one of the initiators of the Druid revival era. So, the rules weren’t made up by these men, either.
Even further back in the mid sixteenth century, known witches (who actually performed the Craft) were acquitted at witch trials because they could prove that they didn’t harm anyone. Most prominently Christopher Gostner zu Sexten in Tyrol with his 30+ grimoires full of spells. But even back then the understanding was: you’re fine as long as you harm none.

All of this lore was originally penned down in the Christian era, one could bring up, which makes it difficult to discern whether this notion of doing no harm came up with Christianity, or was already prevalent in Pagan times, and Christianity just adopted it.
There is one thing to be considered, though. While these tales were written down by Christians beginning in  mediaeval times, their content is overwhelmingly pagan. Think about all the mystical and mythical figures appearing in these tales – Giants and Green Men, Blessed Ladies, mermaids and water sprites, dwarfs and gnomes, smiths and witches in dark forest (I could go on and on) – they are from times before and outside of Christianity. In most stories we learn that we should act morally and ethically, but we are not told to not interact with these figures at all. In other words, the tales all got some Christian tint, but their core meaning, harm none, might just be original, i.e. remnants of Pagan times.

But even if one would stubbornly claim that this harm none business must be a Christian affair, because that’s the era when these stories were gathered in books, we have still evidence of this notion in antiquity: the Pre-Christian tales and epics from Greece and Rome, for example. Think about the Trojan war, which is practically an account of punishment for upsetting societal norms such as marriage and hospitality. Or take Odysseus, who gets severely punished for his neglect of the rules (worship the gods, particularly the one ruling the oceans, even more particularly when you are sailing over one of his oceans).

Since antiquity, unethical, immoral, harmful behavior, especially in the realm of Magic and Spirits, has lead to consequences for the perpetrators. The concept is as old as stories themselves. In fact, the concept has been transferred through storytelling from one generation to the next for millennia. Gerald Gardner just took note of it when conceptualizing his version of Wicca. He didn’t invent it.

It All Boils Down to Ethics

I am painfully aware that I have yet to give a concrete answer to the question, “Is it manmade dogma or natural law”.
Well that might be because I – or anyone else, really – can’t say for sure. But I could give enough evidence, I hope, to make a case that neither Iolo Morganwg, Gerald Gardner, or any “New Age” Pagan came up anew with this idea. So, in the end, everyone needs to find an answer to the question for themselves. Hopefully after giving it the necessary thought that this question deserves.

But, what if? What if it’s not a natural law? What if it was made-up all along, maybe as far back as pre-Neolithic nomadic hunter-gatherers? Does man-made not also warrant us submitting ourselves to something that sounds rather sane, intelligent even? We do that all the time. With much newer rules that are clearly man-made and not natural laws.
We humans have come a long way since the dawn of our species, and during enlightenment, at the latest, we realized that we, homo sapiens sapiens, are equipped with a tool – our rational mind – that lets us manage our day to day societal live in a way that is aims at minimizing harm. Yes, we fail at it. Everyone does every now and then. But in a grand scheme of things, it works out well. We don’t walk around murdering, raping, and beating each other up in droves, and doing so is not only regarded failure, but also punished. Even if it’s done in a sense of retaliation.

So, what does someone mean when they say they don’t accept, or adhere to, the principle of harm none, a rule that organizes us functioning as a society? No matter if that rule is a natural law or created by using our human intelligence? Does such an announcement acquit them?
Proper and polite behavior, being considerate rather than retaliatory, is simply a form of conduct we, as a society, have arrived, or at least try to arrive. It’s not fluffy. It is not New Age. It’s just what we should expect from each other.


The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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Leftovers in the Druid Kitchen

SpätzleTischHas that happened to you? You have bought this gigantic container of baby spinach leaves or arugula for that one fancy salad or as a garnish for a meal you made for your friends on the weekend. And now it’s the middle of the week, the half empty plastic receptacles clutter your fridge, and you just cannot have another one of these salads.

And throwing perfectly good food away is just out of the question; maybe because you’re on the Druid path, or otherwise tuned in. So what to do?

Well, one way of processing these leftovers is to work them into some nouvelle cuisine Spätzle. Because typically, you have all the ingredients for that at home.

INGREDIENTS

Spätzle (basic recipe)
2 cups of flour
3 eggs
1 cup of milk
Salt


Additional ingredients
Arugula, spinach leaves, or leek (1-2 handful)
1-2 cups parmesan (or other) cheese


Sauce
2 to 3 slices of bacon (optional)
Butter (if not using bacon)
Fresh garlic
(Light) Cream
1/8 Tsp dried stock (beef, chicken, or vegetable)
Pepper
For the Spätzle, put a large pot with water on the stove and bring to a bowl.

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, milk and salt. Add flour, the leftover leafy ingredients, and the cheese and mix with a cooking spoon until you have a thick, sticky batter.

SpätzleBatter
Basic batter. If you add other ingredients (green leaves, cheese), it’s easier to do that right away

While waiting for the water to boil, cut the bacon into small cubes and heat up slowly in a small, deep skillet. Fry until slightly crisp. For the vegetarian version, heat up butter until foaming. Add chopped garlic and stir. When the garlic turns light brown, add light cream (about a cup) and heat up (watch to avoid overboiling). Once the sauce is hot, add the dried stock and stir until solved. Let the sauce simmer on low heat to reduce.

SpätzleArugula

Chop leaves, but not too fine to create a crunchier taste

When the water for the Spätzle is at a roaring boil, add salt. Take a small wooden cutting board, dunk it into the boiling water, dunk a big spoon into the boiling water, and slap some of the sticky batter on the wet board. (The water on the tools helps avoid having the batter stick to them, so do that frequently).

Hold the board on the edge of the pot, and, with a straight knife or any tool with a straight edge (be sure to use one that doesn’t get hot, or has a handle), flatten the batter on the board, cut pieces off and slide them into the pot. After you have processed a load of batter (two big spoons full), let the water come to a boil again and wait until all Spätzle swim on the surface. See video below.

SpätzleKochen

Bring water to a heavy boil, but then take Spätzle out quickly, so that they don’t get soggy

Take the Spätzle out with a spoon with holes and set aside in a container. Repeat until all batter is processed.
SpätzleBratpfanne

 

 

In a heavy skillet, preferably a cast iron one, heat up some butter and brown the Spätzle. Serve hot with sauce poured over them.

Salad greens, maybe with tomatoes, radishes, and cucumber freshen up the meal.

The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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665 + 1 Omen

IMG_5751For the past few weeks, when my daughter’s team had a game on their home turf, and I stood at the edge of the field, subbing them in and out and frantically trying to instill into them the entire tactical concept of soccer while they sit on the bench for a couple of minutes, panting and gulping down some water, a crane (the bird) has flown over the field.

A crane. I’m a Druid. There are crane bags in Druidry. Cranes mean a lot to Druids. Does this crane flying over me every other Saturday mean something? Is it an omen?

No. It’s just a crane flying between a couple of bodies of water, probably with food for its kids in its stomach, which it will vomit out right into their throats. It’s not an omen. Nor was that owl in the picture above that visited us one evening in our back yard. We just have a lot of chipmunks.

When strolling through Facebook and Twitter feeds, I often run into questions posted like, “I’m at an amusement park, and see a lot of crows. Is that telling me something?”

I am really glad that more and more people build an awareness that there is much more to the reality we all experience, to the apparent world. It is healthy when we connect with the Otherworld, or just peek beyond the veil every now and then. Let’s just make sure that this remains healthy, and does get out of proportion.

So, let’s unpack this omen business for a moment.

When we talk omens, for example the meaning of the appearance of certain animals, we are already in the midst of talking about Magic. And every time we talk about Magic we talk about an intent and a mode of manifesting that intent. Typically, this mode is a ritual. Sometime, this ritual is highly verbalized, a spell. And then we need to understand that there needs to be a “transmitter” of the intent, so that, even though we sit here, the manifestation can happen over there. This transmitter is, in many cultures, seen as some kind of energy that flows through everything and everyone. The most commonly (relative to the world population) used term for that energy is ch’i or ki. Many other cultures have different words for that. In Druidry, we call it Nwyfre.

When we practice Magic, we manipulate that energy, that connecting life force. This manipulation is rather limited, comparable to manipulating wind when sailing. We cannot change the wind’s direction entirely, but a little bit by maneuvering the sail in such a way that the actual wind drives us forward, thus creating head wind. Which in turn, actually changes the direction of the natural wind just a bit, just around the boat. And faster we go.

So, if omens are part of Magic, there is necessarily some Nwyfre involved. It comes in as a direct link between the Omen and the person to which it presents itself. It’s just there for the moment, when the person and, for example, a crow are suddenly connected, directly linked by that life giving energy. For an instance in time a space, person and whatever presents as the omen share the same vibration of the life force.

Now, why does that happen? Again, we are talking Magic here, about intent and manifestation. And since the Omen is the latter, it follows that the Magus had to have conjure it through their intent. When we look at ancient reports, the first ones describing Druids of antiquity looking at the sky to watch the flight of birds and interpret it, we see clearly that this didn’t happen by chance. The Druid didn’t hopscotch through the village of thatch roofed roundhouses, chatting with the smith and the fish vendor about the latest gossip and whoops, a flock of birds revealed the fate of tribe.
No, the Druid would prepare for the public bird flight pattern viewing, don their Druid garment (probably not a white robe, but something official), maybe imbibe some psychoactive drink, have their helpers lead them to an auspicious place of observation, and invoke the Gods of old to ask them for an Omen. And whatever happened then, was one.
In other words, the Druid would have built up the energy, linked themselves into Nwyfre through ritually formulating their intent, and then observe its manifestation.
The stag that stared at the Druid last night when he took a piss at the edge of the forest during the feast was not an omen; just an animal weighing flight or fight.

I just described the situation using Druids. But the same counts for High and other Priestesses and Priests, Witches and what have you.

Intent – ritual (mode) – omen (manifestation).

However, sometimes it does occur that something happens out of the blue, like a murder of crows rises from the trees all around you, cawing like mad. And then you get one of these immediate insights. You know exactly what they meant. Yes, that’s an omen, too. And when you think about it, it most likely happened when you were somewhat spaced out, not really anchored fully in reality. Well, even though there was no conscious intent, there was one sub-consciously. And yes, you linked up with Nwyfre through your daydreaming (as some call it). These omens happen, but they are rare.

More often than not, if you want to conjure an omen, you prepare yourself for it, link into Nwyfre (or however you call that life energy) and see what happens. Caitlin Matthews describes one where you would, on a Monday morning before you do anything else, walk around the hearth three times, sunwise, then open the front door, and, while standing in the doorway, observe what happens.
So you have a liminal time (dawn at the beginning of a week), express your intent through a ritual (walking around the hearth), and position yourself in a liminal place (the doorway).
Or, an old Alpine tradition for a young woman to ask for an omen telling her whom she will have as a husband is to stand in the barn door (liminal place) on the night of December 24th (at the end of the three days of the Winter Solstice, a liminal time) and listen to the sounds around her. Sound will give her a clue of the profession of her future husband.

So, by all means, look for omens – intentionally. And be as much aware of omens you conjure through unintended spacing out in deep, meditative thought.

The rest of the time, don’t worry about the black cat crossing your path.

 

The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

BuchVorderseite

 

 

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