In 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.
This 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.