Druid Gatherings – A Case for Order-Membership

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Seeing an old friend again (Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of OBOD)

 

Last weekend, more than a hundred members of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) and guests gathered in the Poconos forests of Pennsylvania, for the annual OBOD East Coast gathering. Over four days, our time was filled with re-connecting with old friends and making new ones. Folks came as far as Oregon and California in the West and from Greece and England in the East. There was a litany of rituals, ceremonies, and an agenda packed with workshops.

 

After having the opening ritual carried out by my “Mystic River Grove” (the oldest continuous OBOD Grove), we initiated a number of Bards, Ovates, and Druids into their respective grades, and celebrated the coming of age of a member’s teenage daughter and the rite of passage into their last segment of life for some nine women with a big and moving ceremony. Actually, I do not know what happened during one half of that rite, because that was for women only. But I was proud to have been chosen by the family of the teenager and the “crones” to lead the “co-ed” parts at the beginning and at the end of the ceremony.

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Mystic River Grove at the Opening Ritual, representing the animal kingdom of North America

When I, still buzzing from the energy of the gathering, stumbled into a discussion on Facebook today about whether or not one needs to be a member of an Order to become or be a Druid, my first reaction was: ‘Can’t you see? How can you have an experience like the Gathering without a community around you?’

 

Obviously, that wouldn’t be a satisfying discourse, so here are some thoughts I’d like to offer:

Anyone has the potential to embark on the path of Druidry. Not everyone is equipped to do so, or stay on it, naturally and right away, but the potential is inherent.
Yet when does one become a Druid? Is it after a certain time of study? And how much would one have to study, and what exactly? And how do we know that that person has comprehended the material, mastered Druidry enough to be considered a Druid?

If someone were to choose the path of Hedge-Druidry, i.e. a path walked alone, studying from books and being taught by nature, that person will certainly gain a great body of knowledge and insight, without doubt. And, would that person then decide to practice their Druidry as a service to their community, that community might very well consider the person a Druid, for what they see may fit their expectations. Not unlike with “shamans” (as a placeholder for the local expression) of indigenous people, who are considered shamans by virtue of the community’s opinion. Folks see what the shaman is capable of, and therefore accept them as theirs.
This is where shamanism and Druidry are a bit different. Druidry is also a mystery school. In antiquity, the established Druids held secrets they only revealed to their students when they appeared ready to deal with these mysteries. Today, these secrets are held by the various Orders and they reveal these mysteries through initiation rites and teachings meant for the ears of Order members only.
That’s why the community, who didn’t and still doesn’t know these secrets, wouldn’t be able to tell whether these secret mysteries were revealed to someone on the Druid path yet or not. And without that knowledge, the community couldn’t make a definite decision on whether someone is a Druid. Only those who know the secrets can.

Why is that important? Druidry is a path of service. The tribes of old didn’t feed and house their Druids so that they can withdraw from their communities and search for their own enlightenment. They needed the Druids to work for them, as judges, diviners, keepers of the tribe’s history, teachers and so on and so forth. And it can only be in the best interest of the community that a person or a committe that knows everything, i.e. also the secret mysteries, is the judge of whether or not one has mastered the path of Druidry enough where it’s safe to be let loose onto the community. Was that judge the old, established Druid in antiquity, so it is the Orders today that make sure the candidates have the necessary body of knowledge and skills, and the integrity, to fulfill important roles in the community.

That is why I wholeheartedly think that anyone on the Druid path should consider membership in an Order, (almost) no matter which one.
But even if you still disagree with my ramblings, let me tell you that we had great fun and great mead, heard spell-binding stories, and listened to awe-inspiring music at the nightly bonfires at our Order’s gathering.

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Eisteddfod at OBOD East Coast Gathering (Photo by Gerfalc Hun, 2017)

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Dr. Who and How We Think of Our “Self”

BlurrySo word is out that the 13th incarnation of Dr. Who is in a female body. And with this announcement came the oh so predictable shit-storm. Dr. Who – a woman? The outcries reverberate through servers worldwide, make the guts and brains of the internet shiver with an overload of (mostly misogynist) opinion.
But why, if I may ask. Let’s put all agenda-driven bias aside and do what’s best in such moments: peel the onion to reveal the core.

Dr. Who is an alien! What in the name of Taranis do we know of the sexes and genders of his species? Who says they have the same genetic code as terrestrial mammals such as homo sapiens sapiens? For all we know, “it”, the real Dr. Who, could be totally grossed out when assuming any human-gendered body, male or female! It may have just chosen the male version in the 1960ies because it has learned that (back then more so than now, but still pretty much) the male sex has a slew of advantages in the world.
You see, for some reason, we just assume that this possibly gender- and sexless alien is male because that’s how the series started. And also because, well — except for my daughter, who once asked, when she saw a male doctor for the first time, “Men can be doctors, too?” — most just have it stuck in their heads: doctor = male.
Yet, just to stick with the logic within the realm created in the Dr. Who series: it is absolutely not logical that this alien must select one sex over the other. That it chose males in it’s first twelve incarnations may just have been totally arbitrary. It might even hated it from the very beginning. Who really knows?

But that’s not what is so fascinating about this discussion. We get to a way more interesting level of depth when we consider for what Dr. Who is a metaphor: Re-incarnation. And some, again, assume that whatever “it” is that time and body-travels must be male because it started as male. Yet, what is this “it”? What is actually travelling? Especially when we don’t stay within the context of Dr. Who and “it” being an alien there, but if we cast a wider net and ask ourselves: If there was re-incarnation factual, what is reincarnating?

To approach an answer to that question, we need to first ask ourselves: What actually determines our “I”, our “Self”.
Is it our physical body, this blob of cells that is from it’s very first formation guided by one of two combinations of chromosomes, xx or xy?
Is it our mind, our ability to form thought – more or less rational? And which determines our gender, the way we consider ourselves in relation to our biologically determined sex. May that be in line with traditional association xx = female and xy = male, or not.
Or is the Self our spirit, our soul, the energy of our consciousness? Which typically cares about other things than sex and gender, even though it thrives on sexuality as much as on other forces.

Well, a good way to look at these question is to ask ourselves what happens with these three – body, mind, and spirit – when we die. Clearly, the sex-determining body seizes all functionality and decomposes. Even Dr. Who leaves the body of its previous host behind. And we clearly see the parallel here: the body with its xx and xy chromosomes is nothing but a host for the mind and spirit. Which pretty much rules out that it can influence the gender of those two, and what the destination of the reincarnation can be. Think about that for a moment if you ever ask yourself why sex (biological body) and gender (mind) do not necessarily have to follow each other.

So that leaves us with the mind and the spirit. But when you think about it, the mind is very much dependent on the host as well. You can tell during your own lifetime when observing what your mind does when your body sleeps. It just turns off. Or something. A couple of times during your sleeps some synapses fire away randomly, aka dreams. But other than that, your mind is gone. And so it is when you die. Not a reliable resource for transmitting your previous gender to the next reincarnation either, I would say.

So we arrive at the spirit as the remaining – and only possible – force that can travel from one body to the next when reincarnating. And here you have to ask yourself if it makes any sense, at all, that our spirit, our soul, has a sex or a gender. And that our souls would choose the same sex and gender of its previous incarnation for the next one.

Personally, I deeply hope that my spirit has better things to do than being concerned with the sex and gender of the host of my current incarnation. I happily leave those worries to my mind and body. And, how would my spirit ever get the “whole picture” if it were to only reincarnate in one particular sex? I – as in my soul – would never be done!

 

Christian Brunner is also author of “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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That Spell – A General Discussion

trumpspellRecently, many of us in the Pagan community have been invited to participate in a particular activity of witchcraft: casting a pre-designed spell to promote change in the current US administration. We were invited to participate in a worldwide effort to bind the person currently occupying the post of the highest public servant of the United States, President Donald Trump.

Throughout this campaign, several interesting issues have emerged which show me first and foremost: The Pagan community is one that takes its work seriously, and does not sheepishly follow someone’s lead without giving it some thought.

Mind you, this shall not be construed as an opinion on the spell itself, or the intent to cast it. It just means that everyone is not only encouraged to voice their thoughts about an idea, people actually also follow through with this encouragement. Let me therefore explore some of the issues that have surfaced.

Possible Undue Influence

Many reacted to the call with the concern that a spell like that may unduly change the trajectory of a person, or a group of persons. Many of us were taught, and have to come to understand, that changing another individual’s life trajectory without them requesting such interference is unethical. I have lived and worked under these guidelines for over three decades now, ever since I have started on the way of the Pagan naturopath. I have found it particularly difficult to adhere to that standard whenever I clearly have seen that a person could need help (and I mean in terms of spiritual healing, not helping an old person across the street).
So generally, casting a spell, for the benefit or the detriment of another person, if not specifically asked by that person, would – under this guideline – technically constitute unethical behavior.

However, this is not such a case. It’s a bit more complicated. Effectively, we have a large number of people desperately asking those knowing and practicing witchcraft to change their (the requestors’) trajectory. Some of those asking for help are, of course, member of this community practicing witchcraft themselves. Nobody has only one demographic marker. There are Witches and Druids that are affected by this administration because they are also immigrants, African American, Jewish, LBTQ, you name it. Their lives and their livelihood are at stake today as it was 50, 100 years ago. And I will say it out loud here: people will die due to the shenanigans of this incompetent administration. People know that they might die, and they absolutely have all the right in the world to ask for magic as a means to avoid death and misfortune.

What we as practitioners of magic have to do, therefore, is weigh whether the request is justified, a fair ask that saves people’s lives. If practitioners feel that the importance of the request outweighs the fact that the spell influences one person’s trajectory, their question whether such action is undue or not is effectively answered.

The Law of Harvest, The Wiccan Rede, Karma etc.

Should the practitioner decide that the request is fair and that it justifies influencing another person’s life, or free will as some have put it, they still have to consider that the spell could harm the person it targets. Independent of one’s opinion about the legitimacy of these laws of return, the spell may just simply be harmful. Obviously, for many of us the harm in this particular situation- Trump would be impeached and live the rest of his life as a “normal” billionaire – cannot really be viewed as hugely damaging. More a first world’s billionaire’s problem than harm. For the purpose of these laws, however, it’s not how we estimate the harmfulness, but how the person affected by the spell experiences it.

So, harm will be done. There are several possible approaches to that dilemma. But before I go into those details, I would like to like to discuss one theme that commonly pops up. That of “I don’t believe in the Law of Harvest, the Wiccan Rede, in Karma”, or whatever term one’s path has in store when it comes to direct consequences for harmful activity. It doesn’t really matter whether or not one believes in these mechanisms. They exist independently from one’s belief. Like gravity. Whether or not you believe in gravity, the apple will fall towards the ground. Why I am so sure about its existence? Explore the lore, the mythology pertaining  to your path, or to the ethnicity in which your path is or has been embedded. You surely will find ample accounts for how harmful magical action strikes back at the one wielding such magic. Or take the widely known ancient fairytale, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White. Clearly, the harmful magic of the evil queen causes her ultimate demise, and her darkness is eventually replaced by the union of the Sun with the Land, represented by the Prince in shining armor kissing awake the slumbering Maiden. It’s a universal concept, and people with much more knowledge than we can claim having today were already aware of it. Pretty much world-wide. Doesn’t mean that they would always stick to it, and we will get to that momentarily.
One quick thought about the Rede and Gardner, though. It seems that the fact that Gardner formulated it gets confused with that being an indicator of the age of the concept. Yes, Gardner penned these words onto paper. But he didn’t come up with the idea. Again, the concept itself is as old as story and myth. The Rede is just a modern version of it.

But let’s explore how one could deal with these laws:

  • Some people may disregard these old stories altogether, and just don’t believe in the laws of return (threefold or less). What I would ask, though, “Isn’t that isn’t much like fooling oneself into a convenient position of blissful ignorance?”
  • Some people may just don’t care. Like warriors that don’t know fear, their endeavors become meaningless, though. If you don’t care, why even bother with casting a spell clearly designed to benefit the Greater Good?
  • For some people, the buck stops here and they would not do any magic work that causes harm. But how much of that strict approach is that we are afraid of the return, of the consequences?
  • Others feel that only spreading unconditional love will have any effect, while any attempt at harmful magic is doomed to be futile. I truly believe that this approach will bring one closer to any form of enlightenment. Yet I have my sincere doubts that drowning Trump, Bennon, Spicer & Co in love and light will affect any change. For the followers of this approach the big question (which they can only answer for themselves) is if the personal goal of getting closer to enlightenment warrants disregard of a situation that will, definitely and without doubt, harm many.
  • And then there are those who are very much aware of the laws of return, believe in them, know of the consequences, and still take it upon themselves to cast a spell that is designed to cause harm to, or even only bind, another person. In a sense, they put themselves into harm’s way to promote change.

Drowning in Love and Light

I do have to go into that a little bit more. Because, while it seems so straight forward, this approach is a bit complex. Considering it from the angle of “undue interference” we have to stop for a moment and ask ourselves if there is truly a difference in the kind of interference when it is a binding spell or love and light. The technique of Magic as I understand it is a manipulation of energy that is beyond the laws ethics. Like nature, Magic itself does not know morals. This is the very reason why the laws of the return in their various forms are so important. Magic alone does not guide us to do the right thing, these laws do. That’s why it’s so difficult, and important, to truly understand this spell, indeed any spell, and what the intended and – almost more importantly – the unintended consequences are.
Therefore, drowning someone in love and light who does not want that, even despises it, creates this mindboggling dilemma that a perfectly “good” intention inflicts something that is viewed by the recipient of that love and light as harm. As I mentioned earlier, even seeing someone suffer and being so propelled to help is not a priori beneficial, as much as the wish to help burns under the fingernails.

The Role of the Druids

I have read, and been involved in, many a discussion about whether or not Druids always promote peace and only peace. I for one think that peace is, in the end game, the only goal worth fighting for. On the surface, contemplating a spell that may harm an individual cannot be considered peaceful? Yet, what if peace itself is in danger unless we act not peacefully (i.e. casting the spell)? This is the very dilemma we’re stuck in. Doing nothing seems almost reckless at this point, and spreading love and light may just not be enough to promote peace!
As so often (at least for the educated), history may give us a hint. When the Roman legionnaires approached the Druid island of Ynys Môn, today known as Anglesey in Wales, the Druids and Druidesses there stood at the shore and cast spells at the soldiers in their galleys. Initially, they were able to strike fear in the common legionnaires, but the officers, hardened by having committed, and commanded, genocide on the Gaulles previously, ordered the horrified soldiers to attack anyway. What this story tells us that the Druids of old, when pinned against the wall and having to choose between extinction or harming their attackers with spells, clearly chose the latter.

Obviously, we have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight today, which allows us to judge the situation as “murderous Roman soldiers slaughtered Druids and people left and right in Britain and Gaulle”. Thus, we can easily pass benevolent judgment on the action of the Druids. With Trump, we don’t know yet. But I do want to put out there that I, as an Austrian, was exposed to many a detail of the rise and fall of the Third Reich throughout my education. And as such I can’t but see almost too many parallels between the current administration and the manipulations of the Nazi leadership. Suffice it to say, the Third Reich ended in a World War, costing the lives of 80 million people. I would consider that – as a probable future for us – quite a bit of harm, especially when weighing it against the harm inflicted on the ego of the Billionaire in Chief.

Again, we are in a dilemma here. Keeping the peace with the situation, with the current US administration, may just lead to the end of peace itself. And at some point, we have to, as carefully as humanly possible, choose which kind of peace we need to support.

Counter-Spells and Prayer Against the Ritual

Yes, there are also many who take it upon themselves to counteract the activism of those casting the binding spell in question. It is their right to do. It is my right to question the motivation. As to the chaos magicians I am truly at a loss. Is it because they feel they, or their magic, is more powerful because of chaos and destruction around them? Do they thrive on chaos and therefore want this situation to continue, no matter the negative impact it could have on so many? I am not sure, but I wouldn’t be on that side of history.

That Christians and maybe other groups following revealed religions react against anything Pagan with counter-prayer is understandable. But to those who pray for Trump’s “success” let me just through out this: We don’t know what Trump and his friends, particularly Bennon, view as success. It could be a most horrible police state that caters only to the few rich buddies of him, while everybody else croaks in poverty and agony. Sounds far-fetched? Well, dismantling regulations that protect workers from harmful work environments and consumers from cheaply produced and therefore harmful products; selling out land to corporations for them to destroy forest (you know, the lung of the planet) and wildlife with impunity; reserving education for the rich (aka defunding public schools to promote charter schools); polluting air and water as a result of going back to 19th century coal energy and so on and so forth will not make our lives better. And what if the Trump administration sees war as “success”? With countries (including their own – don’t forget the might of China) destroyed and millions of lives lost. I know Christians who want to halt the spell with prayer for success mean well. But they do need to know that the “success” could be the biggest harm of all. And at some point, they have to defend to someone that they prayed for that.

What now?

I know I have the tendency to say a lot without delivering clear guidelines. Maybe you feel more confused now, have more questions than before. Good. My work is done. As I said in the beginning: Pagan practice is not one of blindly following a leader. It is about deep thought, contemplation, and a firm decision that is defendable in the future. Go ahead, do whatever you decide to do, all the while knowing that your integrity was kept intact.

 

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Open #NoDAPL Letter to President Obama

There is so much going wrong with the situation at Standing Rock! I am terribly appalled at to what length politicians and law enforcement go to hurt people. People they have vowed to represent and to protect.

Therefore, I have decided to send another open letter, this time to President Obama. #NoDapl

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Contemplating Death

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In his volume “Barddas”, the 18th century author (amongst other things), Edward Williams, to many better known as Iolo Morganwg, lists several versions of a prayer that since has become a standard element in rites of Druids and Druid orders, and is also uttered at the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales. Whether Iolo Morganwg came up with the prayer himself, or it is older and stems from his vast collections of Welsh poetic material is of no relevance here. Only that it exists and that it has been used for about two hundred years shall matter for this article.

As we are remembering and honoring the departed during this time of year in the Northern hemisphere – some of us celebrating this quarter day as ‘Samhain’ while others may use a different name for their festivities – I would like to contemplate the first four lines of the prayer as they relate to death and the process of grieving.

Grant, O spirit, thy protection,
And in protection strength,
And in strength understanding,
And in understanding knowledge […]

When we lose a loved-one to death, our system is in shock. No matter if we actually experience our family member or friend’s spirit’s transition into the realm of the dead, and the parting of their consciousness from the material body, or if we have gotten that dreaded phone-call informing us of the passing of a loved-one – it is always the shock of separation that hits us first.

And more often than not, the first thing we do nowadays is following the dictate of the world we live in that tells us that first and foremost we need to know why. We want to know what happened. We employ coroners and pathologists to explain to us what physical condition brought an end to the symbiosis of body and spirit, especially when this happened suddenly and untimely. With surviving family members we discuss the lifestyle of the departed, hoping that we find some clue for his or her dying. Somehow we cling on the logic that our knowledge of the reason helps us understand why this death happened. And we feel as though we gain some kind of strength when we understand the circumstances of someone’s death, and with this strength we may think ourselves shielded, protected, from the onslaught of grief.

Knowledge – understanding – strength – protection.

Clearly, this is exactly the reverse sequence from what is suggested in the prayer, and one may think, ‘Well, then the prayer is not relevant for this particular situation, does not apply in cases of death and grief.’

Yet, when I sat back in my favorite chair recently and – faced with such a situation of a sudden and unexpected death of a family member – contemplated the relevance of the prayer in this situation, I came to a different conclusion. Maybe the prayer actually suggests the more beneficial order. Maybe it reminds us what we could do rather than submitting to the mechanisms of the typical, modern approach.

What if – when you witness, or learn of, the parting of a loved-one – your first step would not be to discuss what brought on death, but instead to call upon your spirit guides, your deities, or simply upon the power of Magic. You could do that quite consciously. Take a moment, invoke the God or Goddess you feel would be the strongest support in this moment; draw a circle around yourself and invite whatever spirit you feel grants you the most protection in this particular situation; call upon the powers of the directions. These are just suggestions. It is really about doing whatever you usually do to conjure energy of protection, about that being the first step before you take off on your quest of “knowing why?”.

At some point in the early grieving process, when the fog begins to lift and your numbness towards the rest of the world slowly subsides, you could again, in a ritual of sorts, call upon the protection of your spirits, but this time to meditate on the meaning of the cycle of life and death. Just that, nothing in particular, but very much with the goal to understand the importance of death for life itself. Kristoffer Hughes, being not only a Druid, but also a coroner and therefore having dedicated his life to death and our understanding of it, and also head of the Anglesey Druid Order, explains that in detail in his book “The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying, and Bereavement” (order here). A good example (from this book) for what you could meditate about is that our lives actually depend on constant death and regeneration of the cells in our bodies. In this very sense, we die and regenerate approximately every seven years, which means essentially that you are not the same person, biologically, that you were seven years ago (I am at the beginning of the eighth cycle of this process already). This is not only a fun fact, but extremely important for our survival. Because we not only need fresh cells, but when cells decide to not partake in this process, to not die to make room for new ones, it means we have cancer. Then, when our cells don’t die, we are actually at a risk of dying entirely. Things like this, and even more so  contemplating the spiritual aspects of dying (e.g. where do our spirits go?)  make good meditation topics to deepen our understanding of death.

Now, armored with your spirit guides or gods’ protection, strengthened by their or your own Magic, and after having gained more understanding about death, you are ready to go on the quest of knowledge. Now you are much better equipped to take the autopsy or pathologist’s report to hand and learn about what was the biological cause for your beloved’s death; what brought them there. And you may feel that the impact of the knowledge you gain from these insights is not as shattering as it might have been when you were exposed to it without protection, strength, and understanding.

So, wherever this prayer comes from, whether it is “only” two centuries old or much older, it is effectively thoughtful guidance for many situations in life. And also in death.

Matters of death and dying are also discussed in my book “Mountain Magic”, available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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Alban Elfed – Lament for the End of Summer

In the Alps, particularly in Austria, farmers still keep their livestock high up on mountain pastures called Almen (singular: Alm) over the summer months. There, cattle and other grazing farm animals are held rather loosely to regenerate from the winter in the narrow stables. The grass on the high mountainside is much cleaner than near the villages and roads in the valleys, and interspersed with a myriad of wild herbs. The milk is thus much enriched with healthy ingredients. That the animals can roam around freely keeps them moving and therefore much more healthy as well.

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Typical “Alm,” the high Alpine pasture

If you ever have a chance to take a hike in the Alps, be sure to stop by an Almhütte (an Alpine hut) to get a taste of butter and cheese made from this outstanding raw milk. They usually also serve awesome bacon (Speck) and hearty dark bread. And the Alpine version of Schnaps (a strong, clear, double-distilled fruit brandy) will help you digest all that food.

Since the livestock doesn’t spend all its life up there, it has to be brought to the Alm – usually end of April or beginning of May – and, of course, be driven down again before snow begins to cover the mountaintops.

The latter is called Almabtrieb, and takes place during the last days of August and throughout September, particularly at the Autumn Equinox. It’s usually a big hoopla and I highly recommend putting participating in one on your bucket-list.

While nowadays it is mostly God’s mother, the Virgin Mary and her son, who are being thanked for a successful summer, in the days of our early ancestors, the festivities were probably the way to thank Gods and Goddesses for keeping everyone safe during the summer. It should be noted in this context, that farmers traditionally celebrate the Almabtrieb with guests only if neither family nor livestock became seriously ill, or died, during summer. If there has been illness, or a tragic loss, they will bring the cattle down without any celebration.

IMG_0399But if all went well, the Almabtrieb is celebrated in true Austrian – and maybe all the way back to Celtic – fashion. There is much feasting, music, dancing, and singing. When it’s actually time to herd in the cattle and start the descent into the valley, the animals are decorated with beautiful headdresses made of flowers and branches of evergreen, and the biggest and loudest cowbells are hung around their necks. While the animals are being readied, the dairymaids walk around the guests and hand out small cakes baked the day before, using up all the milk, butter, and flour that was left over from the summer. Nothing is to remain at the mountain hut and no one may refuse the dairymaid’s gift.

Finally, the farmer’s family, which often includes three or four generations, sings a lament about having to leave that beautiful place before everyone makes their way down the mountain with lots of noise from the cowbells. The video shows the family owning the Bürgl-Alm singing a lament about having to leave this beautiful place.

We close and lock the hut
And walk right down again
And we look forward to
The next time around

For more about Alpine lore and customs and how they relate to Celtic times, please consider my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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Finding Ethical Guidance in Lore

CounsellingLet me begin this blog entry with thanking all the folks who read the previous blog entry about Lughnasad Magic of the Alpine Corn-Cutters, and for their “likes” in the various apps of social media. For this piece, I would like to particularly pick out one moving comment that got me thinking. A fellow member on the Facebook group “Druids” wrote:

A wonderful article I plan to think on for a long while. It is easy to forget how your impatience or even aptitude can cause others harm.

Yes, the first part was moving in terms of ego, I admit, but the actually interesting portion is the second sentence! There are a number of topics to think about that come to mind, and I’d like to hone in on one of them: How much, if at all, does, and should we let, lore and customs give us moral guidance in our lives?

Let’s revisit the tale for a moment:

Once upon a time, a cutter was plagued by bad luck; his scythe was not sharp, ever. His peers were always faster when they mowed behind him, so that he had to cut much harder to stay on track. But the cutter had heard of an old blacksmith deep in the forest, went to him, and asked for help. The old man gave the cutter a new scythe and told him that he has to sharpen it as good as he can. Then he told him to cut the wooden handle of the sharpening tool. If he was able to do that, he’d have a scythe like no other. “But know this,” the old man said, “never torment the other cutters by mowing unfairly fast. If the scythe gets old come for a new one. But I will see if you adhered to my request.”

After years, when the scythe’s blade had been sharpened so much it was almost gone, the cutter returned to the blacksmith and asked for a new one. “Let me see,” said the old man, and he took the scythe and hit its point against the anvil. With each hit, the blade shrank, and blood dripped from it. “You did not follow my advice, you pushed your companions to mow faster than they could. Look at all the blood!” Thus, the cutter had to leave and mow with bad scythes until the end of his days.

(For those who haven’t had a chance to read the whole previous article, a quick explanation about the blood on the scythe: Schnitter, when working together, cut in a row, one cutter slightly behind the other. While this ensures best overlap when mowing, it is also dangerous for the person in front when the one behind mows too fast. Cutting into the heels of the person in front is an imminent threat.)

When looking at Alpine lore in big picture format, there are those stories that wag a blatantly Christian moral index finger at us. Staying within the set of tales about Schnitter (the corn-cutters who gather to commence their harvest work around the time other Celtic nations celebrate Lughnasadh), this would be the stories with essentially this core: A cutter does not have the physical strength or tools to at least stay afloat with his peers, slowing down the whole effort and drawing ridicule from colleagues and the maidens. Big thing, the latter. Instead of working harder or waiting patiently until their time comes, they strike a deal with the devil and get to the top immediately. With the price, of course, that the devil comes for the soul of the slacker after an agreed-upon time. Here, the first layer of moralizing is: work hard and don’t try any shortcuts. Almost too simple. The second layer is already a more serious warning: if you want to catch up with life don’t invoke the Old Gods. In Christian terms, any and all of them are the devil, and communicating with them, requesting their help (translated as “striking a deal”) can only mean one thing: you’re are hell-bound.

Of course, these themes are not only found in lore about Schnitter. Farmers and landlords, trades-people and even lovers all find their doom when dealing with the devil, aka commune with the Old Gods, requesting guidance and inspiration for their ordeals.

But this is still a far too obvious and superficial Christian moral message of these tales. Much more interesting is the guideline the magus gives the cutter in our story. Because, at this point, the tale has already left the realm of Christianity, and the moral compass is set by the Magus, who basically says, “You have journeyed to me in the deep forest (aka Otherworld) and asked for Magic enhancing your scythe. I will gift that to you, but it will only benefit you if you don’t abuse the Magic, if you do not upset the balance needed to work in a group, if you put the common good above your personal interests.” In very short, this song of old suggests, dare I say it, White Magic or doom.

I do have to say that, while moralizing is abounding in lore, one seldom finds such direct hinting at social best practice. Mostly actually, rewards await those who give to the poor, even when not wealthy themselves, or something along those lines. Charity and handouts are praised; submitting oneself to the interest of the Common, the Greater Good, as the Magus in the story recommends to the cutter, usually not so much.

But at any rate, the Magus clearly warns the protagonist of the consequences of abusing Magic; a warning that we also find in the Wiccan Rede, in the Threefold Law or in the Druidic Law of the Harvest to name a few. And while I will argue for anyone’s liberty to choose to not adhere to these moral guidelines, I myself am convinced that not doing so will slow down, if not hinder, magical progress. Going the road of Dark or Black Magic may prove to show stronger results faster, but it’s not a challenge. Going the ethical path is simply harder – which is probably why so many hate it – but I am convinced that it ultimately brings the practitioner further.

At any rate, what I cannot accept as an argument (any more) is that these concepts (Rede and Law of the Harvest and what not) are new, or Neo-whatever. Clearly, they are, as concepts, as old as the mountains.

For more about Alpine lore and customs and how they relate to Celtic times, please consider my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com

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