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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Lughnasadh Magic – The Alpine Crops Cutters

SensenAs many of you know, one of my major interests is finding traces of Celtic tradition and lore in the Alpine region, home to the Hallstatt Celts and their successors. Since there are no written sources telling us that such and such an Alpine tradition is of Celtic origin, often enough the only way to find out is to compare existing local customs with those of the British Isles. If there seems to be a commonality, often only found after stripping several of the many layers of spiritual and mundane development over the past 2,000 years from the tale or practice, am I sometimes able to draw conclusions on the possibility of a Celtic origin of a particular tradition.

With the current seasonal festival that is widely celebrated under the name of Lughnasadh, this method proves rather difficult. It’s not like there are no customs that are being observed in the Alps at that time of year, but they are certainly different to what is known about the Lughnasadh traditions in Ireland.

Therefore, since there is no 1:1 comparison possible, I need to do what I could best describe as identifying the different layers of meaning each festival has. For that purpose, I found it helpful to approach a festival – or anything, really – as though it has three circles around it similar to the circles of Abred, Gwynvyd, and Ceugnant of the Welsh traditions. The circle of Abred, or the realm of necessity, would be the old Irish customs of the festival of Lughnasadh, as they were conducted in Telltown in Co. Meath. There, the actual “Assembly of Lugh” was celebrated as “A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariot, with adornment of body and soul by means of knowledge and eloquence”. When this Assembly of Lugh in Telltown in Co. Meath equals the Circle of Abred, the epicentre, then all the traditional celebrations honouring Lugh in the other lands of modern Celtica would be the Circle of Gwynvyd. This is the realm of spirit, where the people celebrating Lughnasadh do so under the spirit of Lugh, no matter their specific customs. And then there is the widest Circle of Ceugnant, the realm of infinity. There, we can explore the basic meaning of the celebrations, void of any local manifestations. This is where we talk about Lughnasadh being a festival in honour of the beginning of the harvest time, a time to be aware of the gifts Mother Earth presents to us and to ask for a bountiful yield of crop.

In the Alps, the traditions observed around this commencement of the harvest time, particularly the Schnitterfest (the “cutters’ festival”) would be the local Circle of Abred within the wider Circle of Gwynvyd of all such festivities on the north-western part of the European continent. And as such, this circle would again fit in the overreaching Circle of Ceugnant of this Quarter Festival. (Again, I am using these Welsh Circles just to illustrate how traditions in very different locations can still be connected to each other, even if it’s “only” the underlying idea of the festival that the customs have in common.)

So, the Schnitterfest itself is practically just a social gathering of the rural community to celebrate this beginning of the harvest. As with most such festivities, food, drink, music, and sometimes an official Church blessing, have replaced the original significance of the festival. But there is still something tugged away in lore that hints at the Magic of these times of year, when we celebrate the change of seasons and honour the Old Ways. In the case of the Schnitterfest, it is a set of stories that tell us of the importance of the main tool of the Schnitter, (“[corn]cutter”), the scythe. Obviously, a huge focus here lies on the sharpness of the blade, so that it can run smoothly through the stalks, and the Schnitter can do their work fast and efficiently. Much of the farmer’s income and livelihood depends on the crops being cut, gathered, and brought in from the fields while completely dry. Grain stalks wet from rain break and bend over, making it hard to cut. And grain kernels that have been lying on the ground and have gotten wet can easily mould, affecting even corn that has been brought in under dry conditions. At the same time, the summer heat of August in the Alps often causes local thunderstorms. I remember weeks in summer when there was a thunderstorm every late afternoon after beautiful summer days. It is therefore extremely important to cut and gather quickly, which means, again, that the blade of the scythe needs to be sharp like a razor.

To be most efficient, cutters would line up next to each other, a little less than a scythe-swing-radius apart from each other to ensure overlap. Then the cutter farthest to the left would start mowing, and when they have gone a few steps into the field, the one to their right would start and follow the first cutter with just enough distance that their blade wouldn’t hack into the heels of the person in front of them. Then the next cutter would start and so on and so forth.

All this is important to envision in order to understand the Magic stored in the lore of the Schnitter. All these tales sing about cutters who are not fast enough, and there are two main themes in these stories of old. One is where the cutter enters a deal with the devil to get a perfect tool. Now, whenever we encounter this theme of “deals with the devil” – even more prominently featuring in witch-lore – we can assume that the people who are making these deals did, in reality, hold on to the old faith. They were simply known to, or even been observed, invoking a Pagan deity to request for help with skill and equipment. These probably very basic pagan rituals were demonized under the Christian Church, and recorded in the tales thusly.

The other typical theme is where an empathetic gnome gifts a poor and underprivileged cutter with some magic to get back on track. Or we encounter a knowledgeable person who, with their magic, can improve the tools’ performance. In the tale below, it is a blacksmith who has knowledge of such magic. However, in these particular songs of old the cutter only receives the gift under the condition that they may not use it to get too far ahead of his peers. These rules are related to what was explained above about the line-up and mode of work of multiple cutters. If the cutter behind another one is faster than the person in front of them, they put a lot of pressure on them, and may get so close that they do cut into their heels. Cutting in a group is intricate clockwork – none of the cutters must be too fast or too slow for it to function properly.

Since such tales not only sing of the Magic, but also often bear a sublime moral meaning, they report of what happens when a cutter, driven by greed, gets carried away and falls out if line. Below is an example of such a tale:

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.

In the second part of the tale we are reminded again of what was said about the way a cutters‘ lines work. Clearly, the cutter in question did, due to his magically enhanced scythe, endanger his peers by injuring them, and so the Magic gifted by the black-smith was taken away again.

Of course, the Magic around the skills and tools of the Schnitter are only one of the aspects of the celebration of the Begin of Harvest. But I can easily imagine that the Schnitterfest was not only a gathering of farmers and cutters around a table filled with food and drink, but also – and maybe even more so – ritual to ensure a quick and efficient gathering of the crops, without injury and equal profit.

For more about Alpine festivals 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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Geeking Out With Druid Math

AncientPathsImagine you lived about 2,000 years ago and you were one of the few far and between who had pretty much all the knowledge that was available back then. And don’t even begin to think that wasn’t quite a lot. You knew 350+ stories verbatim, the law (all of it), herbal remedies (all of them), you knew medicine, and how to augur from the flights of birds, from a sheep’s shoulder blade, or the entrails of an ox. You not only new the heavenly bodies, but could also calculate their path, and knew what their relation to the zodiac and to each other meant for you and your tribe. You were a Druid.

And as such, you also knew math.

Not just adding and subtracting, but geometry, sacred geometry. You knew π, and the number you had was pretty close to what we know of it today. And you knew about the Pythagorean theorem, that the three sides (a,b, and c) of a right triangle always follow the formula a2+b2=c2.

Well, if all that knowledge feels like pressure, how about this? You and your fellow Druids apparently mapped out at least Gaul and the British Isles – and I propose also Gallia Cisalpine – using this formula, π, and the angle of the Sun’s rays at the Winter and Summer Solstices, the so-called solstice lines. And when I say “mapped out”, I really mean you founded your tribal centers and built the roads in between them based on this math. You used a triangle with a=11 and b=11 (in Gaul) to represent the slant of the solstice line, and you used these lines together with meridians and latitudes to build a fascinating web of communities all over Western Europe.

Now, if you think all that and the following mesmerizing facts sprang from my own head, you think too high of me. It was the British author Graham Robb who about the details of this scheme underlying the Celtic lands on over 300 pages of enthralling druidic – how should I say – geekiness.

I have read a lot of fascinating books on Druidry in the past five years, but this one book by Graham Robb, ‘The Ancient Paths – Discovering the Lost Maps of Celtic Europe’ has struck a special cord in me.

For example, Robb – who actually did much of his research by biking all over France and Britain – found that there are hundreds of towns in Celtic Europe, from Hungary to the Hadrian’s Wall, which were called Mediolanum back then, and whose names today still refer back to their old ones; Milan in Italy being one of the most famous one of them. Yet, most of these Mediolanums weren’t really important tribal centers. It turns out, they were more there to measure out the lands.  AncientPathsInnen

Look at the chart to the right, where within a roughly 28.5 km radius around one Mediolanum, today known as Molliens-Dreuil, several other Mediolanums and additional “middle places” can be found. These Mediolanums were like the geometer’s measuring points we find today in our streets and everywhere.

Well, these are just the measure points for a much bigger matrix. As Robb lays out, Alesia, the big tribal center famed for the battle in which Vercingetorix lost and conceded to Gaius Julius Caesar, not only lies exactly on a Winter Solstice sunset line trajectory from another Mediolanum, today Châteaumeillant, but also exactly on a Winter Solstice sunrise line from the famous Italian Mediolanum, Milan, and further down southeasterly, the Greek Oracle of Delphi. And I mean on an exact line. There are 300 pages about these lines, how they all play together, and how they are all seen as the path of the Sun-God-Hero Herakles (or Hercules), who wandered on a line parallel to the Châteaumeillant-Alesia line. This “Heraklean Line” starts at a point in Portugal at the most Southwestern point of Europe – and follows the a=11 b=7 trajectory northeasterly, going right through Andorra and ending on a mountain pass in the Alps, the Matrona Pass, whence he turned southeasterly back to Greece. History buffs amongst you would say now “Wait a minute, this is exactly the way Hannibal and his elephants took when he marched against the Romans.” Why yes it is, because if the path was good enough for a God, why shouldn’t a general follow it?

Again, there are hundreds of jaw-dropping eye-openers in this book, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But here is the real beauty of the book. With what you learn in there, you can map out your own point of interest, as long as it lies in the lands of Celtica. So, for me, there were two facts of great interest so far, facts that are not described in the book per se, but I have found out since. Hallstatt, you know, the little town after which the earlier Celtic culture is named after, lies on the exact same latitude as Alesia, which you will learn to embrace as quasi the axis mundi of the Gauls (if you read the book). And the other learning is still in progress. Because right now, I am trying to measure out where the famous city of Noreia may have been, the center of the Noricum, the Celtic kingdom within which Hallstatt lies, and my home town the Romans named Aquae, near the Celtic town Vindo Bona, the White Castle, today better known as Vienna.

What else this ancient knowledge reveals, I don’t know. But I think it may be much more. So, my advice would be: get the book and geek out with Druidic math!

For other ancient Celtic magic, 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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Knowing the Unknown Unknowns

dnaA couple of days ago, I had a pretty good idea who I am when I woke up that morning. Going to bed later that day was a different matter. Much – and nothing – has changed. How so? Well, I got an email from Ancestry.com that my DNA heritage analysis was done and that I could see the results on the web.

Now, why did I do that in the first place, you may say. What’s so important about one’s ethnic heritage?

It’s not important at all, but interesting. And a little more different from what I thought it would be.  It also conveniently confirms certain believes I have had all along.

Let me start with telling you what my ancestry is, ethnically speaking………….Really?
Sorry, no, I am not going to tell you what it is. Because it does not matter. Most is not surprising anyway, only one is in the sense of “Oh, who would have thunk!”, and another one in the sense of “Now that’s surprising!!!”. And the latter is the only one I am going to share. As it turns out a part significant enough to not being categorized as “trace” is European Jewish. And I say “In your face, Schicklgruber Dolferl (better known as Adolf Hitler). Can’t imagine how many of your fellow “pure Aryans” had that as well, desperately trying to cover up their ancestry so to not fall victim to their own genocidal schemes. And you feared you did as well, for a good reason, didn’t you, Schicklgruber? Had the SS look into that because you weren’t so sure, were you?” (I call him Schicklgruber because that was his father’s actual name, himself being born out of wedlock by a Maria Schicklgruber. Later on, Dolferl’s father took on his mother’s husband’s last name.)

My little Schicklgruber-rant is not unrelated to why I had the DNA test done in the first place, though. Because, more often than I care for, I run into people and arguments on social media who come very close to being Schicklgrubers themselves. You know, those who insist on purity in heritage, and that this is the only thing that can determine the line of spiritualty one should follow. For them – if I were so misinformed to eclectically choose a path other than the one and only predetermined by my ancestors – I would be a plastic-this and a fraud-that.
And make no mistake, these Schicklgrubers can be found in many – if not all – ethnicities, not only those associated with Germany.

But now, with the results of my DNA analysis in my hands, I can confidentially say – evidence based as it were – what I have wanted to say all along: Total. Fail.

Why? Well, I am 28% of one big European ancestry, 23% of another big one, and 17% and 16% of yet two others, respectively. And then the Jewish aspect and a couple of traces. Now which one ancestry’s spiritual traditions would you permit me to follow, you little Schicklgrubers of this world?  Can I choose myself, or are you going to do that for me? Does it make your head explode that there is someone out there who actually could choose one, or, by all the Gods, pick and choose from many?

For those interested how it could be that I am so multifaceted, genetically: I was born in a region that, although once inhabited by Hallstatt Celts (as evidenced by a rampart near my home town, was Romanised early on. And only a few centuries later it started to develop into one of Europe’s biggest melting pots, Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vindo Bona, as the old Celts called her, the White Fortress, on the river named after the old Goddess Danu. People from all over the lands covered by the Habsburg realm made it to Vienna, may that be because they left their Alpine homesteads for a military career like my great grandfather, or their northern Austrian (almost Czech) rural dwelling simply to seek fortune closer to the Imperial Court. Like his wife, my great grandmother. And I have six more of those, of course. Bavarians, Hungarians and some I don’t know. No wonder my ancestry is all over the place…

So, with this mix of ethnicities – not one really manifested in a significant enough way to be called a majority – I can say with a level of conviction I could not muster without that darn test: DNA does not and should not determine your spiritual path! At all.
I much rather would advise to follow – as my friend and fellow Druid John Beckett says – the Gods that call you, even if They are Gods from different pantheons. And if you don’t believe in Gods, follow what’s right for you. Don’t listen to the Schicklgrubers.

I have found my path long before the test, and it led me to write “Mountain Magic”, where I delve into the traditions of my calling, DNA approved or not.

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

BuchVorderseite

And I can only say that I went to bed that day enriched in a way I could not have imagined when clicking the link in the Ancestry.com email, that said “View your results now”.

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Things To Know About The (US) Opioid Crisis

PapaversomniferumAs a Druid, a big part of my obligations falls under the wide umbrella of “teaching”. Therefore, much of my blog entries, talks, and workshops are about my personal interest of traces of Celtic traditions in Alpine folklore and customs. My obvious target audience for this are other Druids, but also Pagans in the widest meaning of the word.
Sometimes, though, I need to equate “teaching” with “informing the general public”, like here.

The difficulty in writing this was to walk the fine line between being open to suggestive correlations hinting at a major system failure, and not falling into the trap of conspiracy theories. And no, this is not about the Queen of England being a lizard from the Draco systems, as one major conspiracy theory claims (and which I poke fun at all the time).

The article is about the unprecedented surge of opiate related deaths in the US. This is a brutal fact, not a theory, and it is demonstrated visually by the graphs below, issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). You can see that until the early nineties, the rate of death by opiate overdose was still at about 2 per 100.000 people, roughly what it has been for two decades. Then it began to rush upwards.

CDC1

The first graph only goes until  2007, and shows all drug-related overdose deaths (including cocaine, roughly a third). The newer data in the second graph (only opioid related overdose deaths) shows that the rate is now (2014) at 9 per 100.000, 4.5times the level of 1992.

CDC Overdose
Deaths from overdose are only the tip of the iceberg, though, because for each single person dying from that, there are 10 people in treatment, 32 in ER treatment for heavy use, 130 people having an opioid dependency, and 825 are casual users. So, if there are roughly 1,000 opioid users per 1 overdose death, there were approximately 2,000 opioid users per 100,000 people in the US in the 1992. In 2014, where there were 9 such deaths, extrapolating the number of users from 2,000 to 9,000 per 100,000. That’s 9% of the US population using some form of opioids. Or, if you are at a party with 30 people, there may be three folks in the crowd you are hanging with who use such drugs. Even worse, if there are 29 friends of your kid partying in your house, there may be 3 rummaging through your medicine cabinet, looking for opioid pain killers. Statistically speaking; which is quite an important qualifier!

For those not familiar with the term “opioid”, it means any drug that is either manufactured from the natural sap of  Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy (like morphine), semi-synthesized products such as heroin, and fully synthetic drugs like Fentanyl. One can fatally overdose on any of them, prescription or not.

These are just the not-so-fun facts about this epidemic. And while I am empathetic with anyone dying of such an overdose, and with their families, this is not what angers me. I am not mad at the active users either, throwing their lives away, some because they have a compulsive disorder commonly known as addiction. I am also not angry at the physicians who, in many cases, are forced to clear the way to such an addiction. We’ll learn in a moment why they often have no other choice.

I am furious at the system that is behind this surge of deaths. And that part of this system are corporations which we trust in creating products that keep us out of harm’s way!

But let’s look at a few facts first that correlate – timewise  – with the rise of overdose deaths in the 1990ies:

  1. Medical professionals are now required, by law, to treat pain as a separate part of any of the pain-causing diseases that they are treating in the first place. For example, if one has arteriosclerosis, the physicians are required to treat the physical reasons for this disease, plus the pain that comes with it.
  2. Prescription opioids like Oxicontin hit the market.
  3. The Faces of Pain, a scale with emoticons developed for children (!) is widely adopted by hospitals and physicians. Look at the sample below, and you’ll see that there is no frown until the scale goes beyond five. painfacesTen, the worse pain, is reserved for childbirth, passing a kidney stone, and dislocation of bones. 8 and 9  is when the feeling, i.e. pain returns for a limb has been severed, or when vital organs are ripped apart by bullets (hence the morphine shots for soldiers). Now, without emoticons, people would rate their headaches or joint paints at 3 or 4 maybe. If you use the scale with emoticons, that would mean you’d still be in the smiling section. But nobody smiles when having pain! Ever. So, while this works for children (because you can stillmake them giggle when they have some pain) most adults overestimate their pain level and rate it above five. Way closer to “unbelievable pain that doesn’t go away” than necessary. Go back to the first point, and you’ll see why doctors have to prescribe hammer-drugs containing opioids when their patients rate their  arthritis pain or head-aches with 6 or 7, similar to large flesh wounds after a bear attack for example. It’s not that they aren’t hurting, it’s just that the scale coerces people to rate their pain according to the emoticon, leaving the whole section from 0 to 5 untouched.
  4. Consumer targeted advertising of pharmaceuticals hit the air waves. That’s the worst of the four. These are all the commercials on TV that ask you to talk to your doctor if you feel “x”. Like during the evening TV programming, they’ll ask you, after you have come home from a long day at work, if your back hurts, or your joints. Duh! Whose doesn’t? They show you people like yourself, aching and making frowning faces (like on the Faces of Pain  scale). And they suggest you should talk to your doctor to prescribe you pain meds.

Well, these are just four things that happened right before the curve of opioid related overdose deaths spiked in the US. Many in the Substance Abuse field say that this is not only coincidental, but a cause-and-effect correlation. And I concur with them.

So, is this a conspiracy? Nah. Nobody is secretly trying to kill people to rule the world, to establish “The New World Order.” Pain should definitely be treated, for it could be – and most often is – counterproductive to the healing process. But then physicians and patients need a way to make the right choices, and not be guided by the fear of violating law. The nurses who invented the scale of pain did so with the greatest of intent, help little kids express their pain accurately and trustworthy. The adverse effect of possible overestimation of pain levels need to be known and communicated, though. Even if that means that Big Pharma makes less money because they can’t sell the more expensive stronger drugs. But subliminally suggesting to use dangerous drugs is just plain wrong.

We do need the pharma industry, obviously. But there is a very large range between “normal” capitalism and ruthless, neo-liberal capitalism. The one where maximizing profit (also a law in the US, by the way) makes CEO decisions reckless and cause large numbers of people to suffer and die. Something folks who make “free, unregulated enterprise” part of their  campaign should consider (just saying, in an election year).

Again, this is not the fault of anyone person or any particular group. It’s a system issue. Bet let’s not forget one  thing: We are not only The People, we are also the market. We are the system.
I am aware that systems don’t change that fast, so here are a few ideas how you can safeguard yourself against this particular issue. It may just keep you or your loved ones away from addiction and all that comes with it (loosing all your money and all your friends and family, criminal behavior, prostitution, Hepatitis C and HIV from needle sharing, homelessness, infections of the veins, brain damage, and possibly an agonizing death due to respiratory failure (the cause of death in an opioid overdose)):

  1. When your doctor or the ER personnel shows you the Faces of Pain scale, take three deep breaths, and think about your pain in numbers, not in smiley faces. You might just end up about two notches lower than the smiley face suggests. And you may still arrive at a painful 4.
  2. Ask your doctor about non-opioid pain treatment. There are other drugs that do not cause addiction.
  3. Have an “ER-buddy” who knows of your opioid-related wishes, even when you are incapacitated. As a parent, make sure you are the “ER-buddy” of your child, protecting them from opioids whenever possible.
  4. When you need opioid medication and you’re done with your treatment, bring your unused meds back to your doctor or pharmacist. Some communities even have places to collect them. Having them in your home is dangerous, for you, your kids (remember, they may have friends who don’t make good choices), and it may just lure criminals into your home.

There is one other thing that we all can do, over time. When your doctor suggests surgery and you don’t want that, there is a form that says that you were advised of the benefits and risks of surgery, and then you sign it stating that you decline it.
There is no form to decline pain management with opioids! If you indicate to your doctor that you have a high enough level of pain, they must prescribe the adequate meds. Opioids in many cases. If they don’t, if they have no record of the prescription, they committed malpractice, technically. You can rip up the prescription, but your doctor has to write it.
Let’s all ask our doctors if they have a form to decline pain management with opioids. Every time. All of us. Until they get so sick of this question that they pressure their lawyers to come up with something all can agree upon, even Big Pharma.

A little waiver here: Pain management with opioids can sometimes be the only valid option. Especially with cancer, or in cases where the pain is really high up on the scale. But it should be the last resort, not the first go-to. Not with the danger of fatal drug overdose at its end. And let me also tell you this. I did once pass a kidney stone. The opioid meds that I got (they didn’t have to use the Faces of Pain scale; with that pain you’re automatically a 10) where useless for me. I couldn’t keep the first one down, for my stomach reacted adversely, if you know what I mean. I didn’t even try another one. But there was an Ibuprofen alternative that worked. For a classic 10 on the pain scale.  For me, I should mention. I’m not saying this  this to show off. My body simply didn’t accept opioids, now matter the law. Couldn’t do anything about it. But I listened to my body, and sought an alternative. So, no, I am not saying ‘cancer – schmancer’ or ‘walk off your broken vertebra!’ I am saying: be aware and know you have choices.

The best prevention against death from drug related overdose is awareness, communication , and having a plan.

 

Christian Brunner
Druid
Concerned dad
Equally concerned community member
And also Dir. of Program Evaluation (i.e. cruncher of numbers and statistics) at the Pine Street Inn (a homeless service provider agency in Boston, MA)

 

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