Paganism, Rules and Dogma

BlurryIt seems to me that my Druid colleague John Becket and I are more often than not picking up on the same vibes. Once again, as I was struggling with this blog post, John posted one that helped me come to terms with what I was trying to say (thanks, John). In one of his blog posts, “Pagansim Doesn’t Need Unity” he lays out that the important element of paganism is not unifying behind one holy truth, but to create enough robust versions of Paganism so that the beliefs and practices survive in the future.

That is all good, and I wholeheartedly agree with John. I also do so on another stance of his, where he writes:

While we have an obligation to respect the religions of others (at least those that are worthy of respect – I don’t respect Christian fundamentalism and I don’t respect Pagan folkishness) we also have an obligation to examine beliefs and practices in terms of their truth and in terms of their helpfulness.
Sometimes this means we tell someone “if that’s helpful to you, fine, but it’s not true.“

This is where John struck the string of my mind’s harp, and it resonated with a recent discussion on social media. There I read a lament of a Druid friend of mine, where he shared his horrible experiences at a Pagan gathering in the Midwest of the United States. In his account of what he witnessed he mentioned that there were constant physical and verbal altercations, spell-cursing, heavy drinking and other substance use, and general alt-right behavior. My friend summarized the attitude at the gathering – the name of which he didn’t share – with the words:

After all, pagans aren’t supposed to have ‘rules’

And…let’s stop right here. Because no, that is absolutely not what Paganism is about. Because, no. because that’s where I would say, if I was as nice as John, “if that’s helpful to you, fine, but it’s not true!”

For me, it’s not even “fine”.

I guess in the land of the free one has to accept this kind of thinking as much as any other, but please don’t be mislead that unruliness makes one a Pagan. You can be unruly, rude, violent and generally a jerk as a member of any faith. No need to convert to Paganism if that’s what you’re after.

Yes, I do get where this idea comes from. Paganism is not dogmatic. There are no rules as in “if you’re a Pagan, then you have to believe x”. But that’s it in regards to anything that could possibly fall under the “no rules” attribute of Paganism. Any other moral value of our advanced society as homo sapiens sapiens still apply when you’re Pagan. Beating up your camp comrade (as it seems to happen at such Pagan gatherings) makes you as much of a jerk as it did 2,000 years ago in pre-Christian times.

And don’t be fooled that while the times back then were rougher, that there were no rules. There were quite many, and freedom of speech, just as an example, was not one of them. Unless you were a wealthy land owner with their own homestead and entourage, you pretty much didn’t have any say in anything, and just worked your butt off 16 hours a day, seven days a week. No vacation to go to a Pagan camp, mind you.

Oh no, there were plenty of rules in Pagan times; what you can wear, where you can sit, with whom you can talk, what piece of meat you get at the feast etc. etc. And general unruliness got you killed by those in power – which were not necessarily those with the greatest physical strength.

Again the behavior described above is simple unruliness, while what makes Pagan attractive to many, and should attract more, is the lack of dogma. That you can find what’s true for you by choosing your own path.

But even there some extend the no-dogma idea beyond what it is meant for. I say that because what I read and hear frequently in discussions amongst Pagans is the claim of some that they don’t follow one essential rule – we might even want to call that almost a dogma – the rule the Wiccans call Rede, the Druids call the Law of the Harvest, and many call by the more general term “Karma”.
Again, “if that’s helpful to you, fine, but it’s not true!” Or, more precisely: It doesn’t really mean anything when one says “I don’t follow these rules.” It’s like if you’d say, “I don’t follow stop signs.” That doesn’t make the stop signs disappear, does it? And it sure as hell does not exempt one from the consequences when breaking the rule and being caught. So, even if one claims not to follow these particular Pagan rules, that does not affect the rules as such. The stay in place, and you will be subject to them, no matter your personal belief (or non-belief). You can ignore them, but that will not mean they will ignore you.

So please, in our quest to bring Paganism to a more robust place in society, embrace the non-dogmatic essence of our movement, but don’t discredit and possibly destroy it with mere unruliness.

DSC00082

 

Unless it’s December 5th and you’re one of them. But that’s an entirely different story.

 

 

 

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

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

BuchVorderseite

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Gender Equality Is the New Alchemy

The-FferylltSometimes, when I lie still in my bed and sleep has not come yet, I have those deep thoughts. Questions, really. One example: “Why is gender equality so important to me?” And when I say “important”, it’s not just like that I say “I stand with women” in opportune moments, or click “like” on social media posts about gender equality. It’s more like that I get upset when I notice inequality, yap back at posters and go down rabbit holes with trolls even though I know it makes no difference. Or does it? It goes so far that I was personally touched, and proud, when a known feminist TV personality started following me on Twitter.

I mean, I am a man, right? A husband, father, boss, assistant soccer coach. For all intents and purposes, I should be happy about being privileged in terms of gender, too (I am also a Caucasian European). So wouldn’t me supporting gender equality be like shooting into my own foot? No, it’s not like that by far, but I do ask myself why.

So much so that, late at night, those darker thoughts and questions pop up, eventually.  Thoughts like ‘What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with me? Am I just brown-nosing women? Having ulterior motives? Or am I a weak specimen of my own gender? Or, what if I am subconsciously transgender, want to be a woman and just want to make sure that I wouldn’t lose out if I turned into one, in terms of privileges and money?’
I know, right? Sounds like psych-hypochondria.

Typically, I fall asleep before I find any answer to these questions, though.

But thanks to the Gods, there are two locations and times where answers come to me as easy as pie. In the bathroom, and, believe it or not, on the subway. The revelation about my question at hand came in the latter.

See, I am a modern Druid. So I have an app for Philip Carr-Gomm’s DruidCraft tarot deck on my phone. I use it when I do a tarot reading and need some help interpreting a card (much easier than schlepping the book with me). And, on my morning commute on the subway, I check the “Card of the Day” offered by the app. It helps me memorizing the deck.

So here I sit one morning on the T (as we call the subway in Boston, Massachusetts), rumbling along, and today’s card is XIV of the Major Arcana, the Fferyllt. In standard tarots that would be the Temperance card. And there I read:

The traditional name for [this fourteenth] card [of the Major Arcana] is Temperance, which comes from the Latin temperare, which means to blend and harmonize opposing factors. This process is fundamentally alchemical and touches upon the central theme of DruidCraft, depicted in the alchemical tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin, and ritually enacted within the Great Rite.

[…] You may find that you are in a position to restore harmony among competing factions.

And then, amidst all that shaking an bouncing on the train, the announcements for the next station and the chatter of people riding the T together, it dawns on me. The answer to last nights late contemplative and uncomfortable questions:

Gender equality, for me, is pure alchemy.

Not the alchemy of making gold out of lead. But the much grander alchemy of finding, nay, creating The Balance. Between everything really (race, age, ableness, what have you), and particularly between the masculine and the feminine. And it’s not like that this is just a philosophical quest. No, I need that balance around me, I thrive on it. It is that alchemical equilibrium what makes me feel well embedded in my environment, gives me the sense of a calm and serene surrounding that must not be tempered with. (And if that balance is disturbed, I let people know what I think about it.)

Have I mentioned that I am a Libra?

So for me, and hopefully for many more of my fellow homo sapiens sapiens, restoring that harmony between the genders, that equilibrium that has been out of balance for millennia, is not a mere progressive fad of the day, but a true Druidic calling.


 

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

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

BuchVorderseite

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Finding Solace in the Old Gods

Rauris GlockenblumenWE LIVE in somewhat tumultuous times. Not the most tumultuous times the world has ever seen, but certainly when I look back at the past 50 or so years of my own life. What it exactly is, I cannot really say. It’s just too many things adding up, and it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint it down to one particular cause. But it has certainly to do with the fact that we are so connected these days, through internet and social media. And with that, we have access to literally billions of opinions, making it harder and harder to decipher what is true, what is a spin of the truth, and what is just plain and simply made up.

Another factor in this mix of Angst and agony is terrorism. Obviously. Although I have to say that I have witnessed terrorism since I was about eight, when the assassination of Jewish athletes was carried out by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Later, I remember, as a student on a field trip, I was scraping out hand grenade shrapnel from the walls of the Synagogue in Vienna, years after a terrorist attack there. When commuting to the University of Vienna in the 1980, passing by the Turkish embassy when riding the streetcar was accompanied by some anxiety after Kurdish bomb attacks there. And let us not forget the mayhem the IRA caused in Northern Ireland and England, the kidnappings of industrial magnates by the German RAF or the train station bombings by the Italian Brigate Rosse. So it’s nothing new to me. But again, the complete and utter interconnectedness puts everything front and center right away.

Back then, the consensus was to report on these terrorist activities, but not let any terrorist organization get into our heads, paralyze us with fear. Nowadays, it’s not only them, it’s government officials who strike fear in us with tweets, making us afraid of those very people who try to make us afraid in the first place. Everyone runs around in fear these days. If not fear struck because of the activities of those who made it their life purpose to drown their fellow human beings in terror, we are made afraid by our governments – or those who aspire to govern – that someone could terrorize us. It is a vicious circle.

A cycle I feel the need to escape, et least every now and then!

AS A DRUID, I do have a number mechanisms to do that, and I wanted to pick out one that helps me find solace despite this whirlwind of information and the tsunami of Angst we are exposed to constantly. And no, not as simple as ‘oh, I think a little bit about the Gods and Goddesses and the world is fine.’ It is much deeper than that.

First, I purposefully connect with the Old Gods. Not because the later Gods, the pantheons of Greek, Roman, and particularly (for me) Norse and Celtic provenience aren’t good enough, but because the latter are more humanlike than the Old Ones. There is a very important reason for why the older Gods help me more in these situations. It’s because whatever Gods are for us individually, they reflect us, the human species on a divine level. This allows as to identify and communicate with them, makes as understand them much better on our level. But that’s not what I am after here.

The Old Gods are not that easy to conceptualize. Belenus, (D)Anu, Taranis, Teutates, and Esus/Cernunnuos are not the Sun, Earth, the Sky, and Nature in human form, but they are the very essence of exactly what they are, the Sun, Earth, the Sky, and Nature. They are everything that encompasses these basic elements of our lives, but in a grander scheme. While the Welsh Goddess Rhiannon weds and loves her husband in the Mabinogi in an almost human way, the old Earth Mother Danu loves all creatures in a very equal way. She loves the worm that eventually eats our brain (unless we choose cremation) as much as the mosquito that causes disease for us, and as much as the bear that has enough strength to rip us apart with its bare paws. Taranis conjures the weather as needed and as appropriate, no matter our wishes. And Cernunnos, Nature, nurtures us as much as he can take over whole cities in a few years, levelling to the ground grand structures erected by us humans as if they were sandcastles.

Worshipping an awesome force like the Old Gods thus puts one’s own life into a different perspective. One that sheds all anthropomorphisms like specs of mud from the skin. Praying to them for special treatment, because we are humans, is absolutely futile. There’s barely any identification with these forces possible either; no comparing oneself to Taranis like one could try to compare oneself to Loki, claiming to be just as much a trickster at that Æsir God. We are so much not like them. They have been there since the beginning, and they will be there long after our species has vanished.

Sounds somewhat like a Debbie downer, doesn’t it? We are nothing and they are everything? So why bother?

Well, because Cernunnos, Belenus, Danu, Taranis and Teutates do love us – just not more than anything or anyone else. But also not less. And, more importantly, they are absolutely open to receive our love, our devotion. In fact, despite them being so awesomely powerful, we are still responsible for their well-being. We need to do everything in our power – as little as that might be – to keep them from harm. Not sure how to go about that with Belenus, the Sun, to be honest. But it seems very clear to me what can be done to protect the Earth, the Sea, the Sky, Nature.

A LITTLE BOY once made me realize how deep my own love for our Mother Earth goes. It was during a Samhain ritual with my Druid Grove in Massachusetts, shortly after Fukoshima had happened, that I dedicated some time of the rite for anyone who wanted to say something to Danu, bring some offerings and whatnot. So I crouched down in the center of the circle and patted the ground, saying while choking up, ‘I am so sorry, mom” Then this three or four year old boy comes over to me into the center, also squats down with the ease of a kid of his age, looks me in the eye, and asks, ‘Is that really your mom?’

As cute as that was, it showed me one thing above all. That little dude felt my deep connection to the Earth, maybe even more than I would ever be able to feel myself. There was no doubt in his mind that I meant it. All that was confusing to him was how that would work.

So yes, you can worship, even love these grand Gods of old, find solace in there mere existence and in their love for you, even though you have to share this love with everything else on this Earth, or this Universe. Or, actually, exactly because of that. Considering that vastness, just imagine how big their love really is.

Altaussee

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

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

BuchVorderseite

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Schoolkids Are The New American Revolutionaries

madkinggeorge

I am watching the news coverage of the Marches for Life all over the US today with a proud, yet bleeding heart. Being a Druid, the quintessential Triad (guiding principals expressed in threes) defining my spiritual path comes to mind:

Three tasks of the Druid:
To live fully in the presence;
To honor traditions and the ancestors;
To listen to the whispers of the future

I can’t but live fully in the presence, surrounded by news of violence, watching kids being forced by their circumstances (yes, I am saying that) to give speeches while at the same time re-living the madness of being exposed to bullets buzzing around their heads, brutally tearing the life out of their friends. PTS, Post Traumatic Stress, halts their presentations as they choke down tears and overwhelming emotions. Pray that this PTS will not become a Disorder. But I fear that prayer will not be heard for the most part.

Following the Triad, let me look back into the past, and honor the ancestors of these kids. No, not only MLK, or the suffragettes. Who comes to mind are groups of hard working people in a British Colony, subjugated to laws and processes that kept them from creating their prosperity, who were not allowed to vote, and who were dying left and right because those who assumed the power to rule – a mad king and his government – thought of the status quo as unchangeable, God-given.
These groups, who became known to history as the American Revolutionaries, gathered to listen to speeches about how they had enough of this injustice, how the government’s pigheadedness has become a danger to life and prosperity, and how they need to take matters into their own hands. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Now, when I am taking to heart the third task of the Druid, to listen to the whispers of the future, I foresee that these New American Revolutionaries, speaking and marching and crying for their departed peers, will invite the current establishment to a Tea Party the land hasn’t seen before. Go out and vote in 2018!

This is my prophecy.

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Celebrate the Spring Equinox With a Seasonal Dinner

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Thirteen days from now, the Earth’s path around Belenus, the Shiny One, the Eye in the Skye, will reach a point where the Sun is lined up with the Equator. He will be exactly midway between the Tropical of Cancer and that of Capricorn, the most northern and southern, respectively, reaches of our own star in his trail through the azure dome we call the heavens. While the Tropicals are much different from each other – Cancer is a water sign of summer, whereas Capricorn an earth sign of winter – just as the solstices are, which happen when the Sun reaches either one of these latitudes, the Sun crossing the Equator means the times of the Equinoxes. Times when day and night are of equal length. Anyone noticed the accumulation of the prefix “equ” here, indicating a time of balance?

Yes, this is the time when we celebrate an equilibrium in Nature, a tipping point when the land finally escapes the claws of winter and awakens to the joys of summer. And all the work associated with that subsequent season, especially for the farmers. Remember them, the folks providing our food?

Many on the path of Druidry, or of other Pagan faiths, feel that attunement with the seasons is an important component of their work. Is it a tradition of old? Or a rather new invention, this Wheel of the Year, the celebration of the stations of the Sun? Being one with the churn of the seasons has definitely been an essential feature since the Neolithic era, when nomadic hunter-gatherers turned into farmers. Maybe the seasons weren’t that much celebrated back then, because they were such an integral part of life anyway. Or maybe less celebrated by the farm folk, but more acknowledged by Druids and other Pagan celebrants. Who knows for sure? Ronald Hutton maybe. He wrote a book about it.

May that be as it is, I find the attunement to the seasons is of utter importance to us today, particularly to those of us who live in ways no longer determined by the seasons. Because if we want strawberries, we just go to the store and buy some. Not too long ago, even when I was a kid, we had to wait until they grow in our land. Now I grab them from a shelf. We are utterly detached from the coming and going of the seasons, often enough flee them when they become too harsh for us, too cold or too hot. And therefore, no matter the age of that tradition, it is a wise idea to celebrate these stations of the Sun. The Vernal Equinox coming up next.

That said, I won’t go into too much depth about the meaning of the Spring Equinox, for that can be read about in countless blog entries and social media posts around this time; also in books, I might add, which may give you a better sense of the truth of the matter.

What I would like to talk about today is food. Which is why this blog entry comes two weeks in advance of the day, to give you ample time to prepare for the menu I am suggesting later on.

But: why food? Well, to be honest, at least in the European culture in which I grew up, everything is about food. Even when sitting at the table ingesting the food in front of us, we talk about food. But not only that. Food played a big role in our (European) ancestor’s lives. There were laws about who is to sit where at the table, gets their food on what kind of dishes, and who gets what cut of the meat. Food found its way not only into law, but also into literature. In the stories of the Welsh Mabinogi, thirteen banquets are mentioned, some described in much detail, and we encounter phrases similar to “going to feast” over sixty times in the text. Here is an example:

And they retired that night, and the next day Arthur prepared to depart. “My lord,” said Owain, “this is not well of thee; for I have been absent from thee these three years, and during all that time, up to this very day, I have been preparing a banquet for thee, knowing that thou wouldst come to seek me. Tarry with me, therefore, until thou and thy attendants have recovered the fatigues of the journey, and have been anointed.” And they all proceeded to the Castle of the Countess of the Fountain, and the banquet which had been three years preparing was consumed in three months. Never had they a more delicious or agreeable banquet.

Talking about celebrating something with a dinner.

So let me suggest a menu for a Spring Equinox banquet, as it would be traditional in the Alps. There are some alternatives to the recipe for folks who don’t have access to some of the ingredients. And, as a heads up: the main course is not vegan/vegetarian.

The menu was chosen to reflect the time of year. Wild garlic is a plant that only grows in early spring. When you forage yourself, however, be careful to not confuse it with Lily of the Valley. If you do, you may die. Seriously. Although it is hard to confuse, wild garlic smells like, well, garlic, and Lily of the Valley doesn’t. But you always want to be certain. So, you might either buy the leaves at the market, or substitute with leek.

Lamb is the meat of the season for a good reason: the ewes gave birth to them six weeks ago, and the farms had an abundance of them in spring. Sacrificing one of them for the Equinox celebration was not something folks of old did light-heartedly. They would choose the one that would most likely not make it, and considering that any animal needs fodder and space to roam, these restrictions were always something farmers had to work with. And, it was a sacrifice after all, a choice that pleased the Gods, hard as it may have been for the people.

Finally, as a desert, we (that would be my late father, who wrote up the recipes, and I) suggest one of m favorites: Kaiserschmarren.

With spring at the doorstep, the supply with eggs is improving again, cows produce more milk, and we need to use up the flour of last year before it goes bad. What better way to use these simple ingredients to transform them into a dish that was a favourite of His Majesty Emperor Franz Joseph I. of Habsburg, last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Legend has it that the Kaiser (German for emperor), who was a passionate hunter, decided to rest at an alpine hut one day. His entourage asked the dairy maid living up there to make some food for the emperor. The poor soul, completely taken by surprise, had no choice other than make this traditional fluffy pancake, ripped apart before serving (i.e. making a mess, a Schmarren, out of it). She sprinkled it with sugar and served it. Franz Josef was quite content and asked the woman to give the recipe to his entourage, so that they can relay it to his court’s pastry chef.

So far the legend.

It is true that his Majesty liked the dessert and often demanded it after his meals. And he may have learned about it during one of his hunting trips. But the sweet dish has been known for centuries before the Emperor’s reign. It was very popular amongst the Kaser, the folks living in Alpine huts over summer, herding cattle and making butter and cheese. The German word for cheese is Käse, or in Alpine dialect, Kas. So it was the messy pancake of the Kaser originally, only later dedicated to Emperor himself.

lambstew

INGREDIENTS

4 Cups Beef broth
2 Hands full wild garlic leaves (or 2 stalks of leek)
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp flour
1 small onion, finely chopped
Salt
White pepper
½ to 1 Cup heavy cream

wildgarlicsoup

WILD GARLIC SOUP

Blanch the wild garlic leaves and set aside. Melt the butter in the soup pot; add the finely chopped onion and sauté over medium heat until glassy. Add the flour and stir continuously to avoid clumps. Keep sautéing until the flour turns ever so slightly yellow. Pour in the soup while still stirring. Let simmer for 10 minutes.

Now add the blanched wild garlic leaves – except for two or three – to the soup, then the heavy cream.

When the soup is done, purée it with a blender (immersion if available).

Cut the remaining whole wild garlic leaves in fine stripes and use them as garnish when serving.

INGREDIENTS

1.5 lb Boneless lamb shoulder
1 Celery root
2 Carrots
1 Parsley root
3 to 4 Shallots
4 Tbsp. olive oil
Flour
2 to 3 thick slices of breakfast bacon
Pepper and salt
Rosemary and thyme
1-3 Garlic toes cut in tiny cubes
Beef or vegetable soup (optional, mixed with white wine)
1 Tbsp. corn starch
1 Tsp. red berries to garnish
200 g Tagliatelle (wide noodle pasta)

LAMB STEW

Peel the shallots and cut into quarters. Chop the root vegetables in slices. Set aside. Cut the lamb shoulder into one inch pieces. In a pot big enough for the meat and the soup, mix the lamb with the spices and briefly sauté in hot olive oil. Dust with flour. Add the bacon and keep frying. When the bacon is crusty, add the chopped root vegetables, the shallots, and the garlic. Sauté until the garlic turns golden, and then pour soup in until the contents of the pot is fully covered. Let the stew simmer for about two hours.

When the lamb meat is turning soft towards the end of the two hours, mix the corn starch with cold water and add to the boiling stew. The liquid should become viscid like chowder.

Cook the pasta according to the specifications from the producer. From Italians I have heard the recommendation that the process of cooking noodles should be as follows: Fill a large pot with water – a large quantity of water ensures that the starch in the pasta dissolves and doesn’t act like glue – and bring the water to a boil. Only then add salt, and then the noodles. Reduce to medium heat and stir so that the noodles don’t stick together. Check the consistency of the noodles frequently to catch them right at the point where they are al dente. Drain the water in a strainer, but don’t rinse. Melt butter or heat olive oil in the pot the noodles were cooked in and return the strained pasta there.

INGREDIENTS

6 Egg whites
6 Egg yolks
2 Tbsp sour cream
5 Tbsp Sugar
1 Tsp Vanilla extract
200 g Flour
1 Cup milk
1 Large apple
Walnuts
Salt
8 Tbsp Butter

kaiserschmarren

KAISERSCHMARREN

Mix the milk with the egg yolk, the vanilla extract, sour cream and the flour to a smooth batter. Beat the egg white and the sugar to a stiff peak. Carefully fold the beaten egg whites in the batter.

Heat a tsp of butter in a large, flat pan (clad iron is best), reduce the heat to low and pour the batter in. Bake until golden on the bottom and bubbles appear on the surface. Flip the pancake over and continue to bake.

When the other side is golden brown as well, rip the pancake into pieces (don’t cut). That makes it into a Schmarren, a mess. Sprinkle sugar over it and brown slightly in the oven, preheated to 400 F (200 C).

While the Kaiserschmarren is baking, chop the apple into small pieces. In small pan, melt sugar and butter and add the apple and the walnuts and caramelize. Take the Kaiserschmarren out of the oven, mix in the apples and walnuts, and serve garnished with powder sugar.

When it needs to go faster: Mix milk, flour, salt and the whole eggs together and bake on both sides in the pan. Process apples, walnuts as described above, and mix under the torn apart pancake pieces. This version doesn’t make the Kaiserschmarren as fluffy though.

Drinks:   For the lamb stew we recommend a light red wine and for the Kaiserschmarren a sweet white wine (Muskat) or a strong Chardonnay.

This recipe and seven others, for all eight stations on the Wheel of the Year, can be found in the book “Steinkreis, Stosuppn’n und Grüner Veltliner – Österreichische Küche im Keltischen Jahreskreis”. Currently only available in German, but it’s being translated into English currently.
Get the German version at amazon.de

kochbuchdeutsch

For other musings over the ancient Celts, 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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The Raetho-Roman Song of Sontga Magriata

How Alpine Goddess Worship Survived Centuries in a Simple Farmer’s Song

“There are three tasks of the Druid:
To live fully in the presence, to honour tradition and the ancestors, and to hear the voice of tomorrow.”

This well-known triad tells us much of the expectations we should have of a Druid, no matter the degree. It is not always easy to fulfil either of these objectives individually, and it can become really difficult to combine all three of them at the same time. In the following article I’d like to contemplate an old song rooted in ancient Celtic lands, singing of the fears of its makers, ancestors to some of us, during times of change and turmoil. What we consider history, our past, was their presence. This little gem thus connects us directly to our pre-Christian forebears and with that, as we will explore, deeply with the land. It does so even though the song was not created in ancient, but in mediaeval times, for it is a lament about what was back then “the Old Ways” already; it is evoking a time when it was the Goddess who made the land fertile through pagan ritual and who gifted her people with magic. When we discover the song’s linguistic and geographic origin we will learn of its Celtic roots, and by digging further we’ll find a truly magical core of the story. We will also lift the veil that disguised the main character far enough so women working on the fields in the high mountains of the Alps could sing it without fear of being persecuted by the Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. While all this took place in the heart of Europe centuries ago, we’ll also see that the story compares to our own present days. And as we listen to the voice of the future, we may just realize that little has changed since our ancestors’ traditions were jeopardized by religious righteousness. But maybe, if we worked a little magic described in the song, we still could make our present and our future a better place.

Social Studies – Who Sang the Song and Where?

The song is called La Canzun de Sontga Margriata, which means “The Song of St. Margaret”, and is composed in Raetho-Roman, a language still spoken in some very remote areas of Switzerland. Raetho-Roman, also sometimes referred to as Romansh, belongs to the Roman languages, and replaced a hybrid tongue comprised of Roman Latin, Celtic, and some very old forms of High German. Raetho-Roman is termed after the Celtic province of Raetia, itself named after the Celtic tribe of the Raetii. As shown in the map …, the province covered a section of the Alps where we find the Austrian provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, South Tyrol (now a part of Italy), the Italian province Trentino and the western part of the Veneto region, and finally the Unter-Engadin, the lower (i.e. unter) section of the Swiss part of the Inn valley today. In the latter area, Raetho-Roman is still spoken. Even the valley’s name hints at this old language, for En, the first syllable of the Engadin, is actually Raetho-Roman for the River Inn. To the North, Raetia stretched all the way to Lake Constance and the Danube. The Helvetii, the Proto-Swiss so to say, lived to the West of the Raetii, and in the east we find the Kingdom of Noricum, with

Raetia

Figure 1: The province of Raetia, from a historical map. Droysens Historischer Handatlas, 1886 (Public Domain)

Hallstatt right in the centre of it. Although the earliest culture we identify as Celtic is named after this quaint little village, Hallstatt was not the main dwelling of the realm. The capital of the Noricum is believed to have been the city of Noreia, mentioned in lore, but – officially – not yet found. There is, however, promising evidence that the city has been discovered very recently, as erosion has freed vast amounts of remains such as pottery and weaponry in an area of Austria where the capital of the Kingdom of Noricum has been believed to be for a long time. Not only was the author of this Article born and raised in this area, horse enthusiasts may also know of the breed “Noriker”, also known as the “Noric Pinzgauer”, which is termed after the kingdom. This breed’s current name, once known only as the Pinzgauer, is a 19th century invention, driven by the Celtic revival. Still, the breed itself does in fact origin from the area where the kingdom of Noricum once was.

The Raetii themselves were a conglomerate of a number of Celtic tribes and of non-Celtic folk, most prominently the Ladin people with their mythological forbears, the Fanes (Wolff, 1913). They are believed to have been a matriarch society (Göttner-Abendroth, 2005) who inhabited the fertile valley of the river Po in northern Italy originally. Their national epos sings of their attempts to hold the Celts at bay, who entered the Po-valley when venturing south from their place of origin, the Danube valley. This epos is full of magic and well worth the while reading, even though the Fanes vanished, i.e. assimilated with the Celts eventually.

Similar to other Celtic provinces right along the northern border of the early Roman Empire (before the Romans waged their wars beyond the Italian peninsula), the Raetii were exposed to this culture early on, and subsequently adopted much if it. So when we talk about “Raetho-Roman” today we need to consider that this constant movement of people in this region created a language with heavy Roman influence, yet still with Celtic elements.

Dialect – a Window into the Past

From the original version of the ballad, as it is penned down in the book Mythos und Kult in the Alpen (3rd ed., 2002) (“Myth and Cult in the Alps”) by anthropologist Prof. Dr. Hans Haid, you can easily see how close Raetho-Roman is to Italian. My English version is based on a translation from Raetho-Roman into German by the 19th century Catholic priest P. Maurus Carnot. As this translation is rather mechanical, I would like to propose a contest for all those interested in the bardic arts or on the bardic path reading this article. Shortly we will see that this song is a piece of evidence of pagan culture in the Alps, based on at least partly Celtic origins. It would be a great feat, if this were available for generations to come in a form that not only informs, but speaks to us poetically as well.

But before we go into the bits and pieces of information inherent in La Canzun, let’s explore how much of a mix and match the Raetho-Roman language really is. This will allow us to span an arch from a German dialect as it is spoken in the 21st century to this old tongue of some of our Celtic ancestors. Words like allura and ella clearly show the influence of Italian, and with that of Latin. However, there are also words in there that are difficult to trace back to one or another language, amongst which was also an early form of German. There is one expression in particular that I find of great interest, linguistically, the word “pietigott.” It appears in several verses of the song, e.g. in the following one:

Allura va Sontga Magriata dabot
E da tut ella prien pietigott:
Pietigott, ti miu bien signun!
E pietigott, ti mia buna caldera!”

This translates into: Then, St. Margaret leaves/And says farewell all around./“Farewell, my good herder!/And farewell, my good cauldron!

In the Eastern Alps, folks speak High German (the southern version of the German language), particularly Austro-Bavarian, as opposed to the Low German spoken in Northern Germany. There are actual linguistic variations between these two types of German, such as different words for the same object, and intonation of vowels and consonants, not unlike between British and American English. These differences are a result of the second Germanic consonant shift in which the northern Germans did not participate. The Angles and Saxons did neither, which is why English and Northern German are very close. The English word “ship” for example would be Schipp in northern Low German, but Schiff in southern High German. To make things even more complicated, there are a number of dialects spoken in both of these German language regions. In the dialects spoken in the Eastern Alps – you guessed it, folks in the Western Alps speak yet a different kind of German, Alemannic – it is still custom to say Pfiat-di-gott or more casually Pfiat-di as good-by. Just like St. Margaret says pietigott to all that she leaves behind on the Alp when she takes off.

This shows beautifully that even though society “moves on” by pressing these many variations of Europe’s most spoken language into one format, so-called Standard German, the Very Old is not forgotten at all in the common tongues spoken by the locals.

Who is Sontga Magriata anyway?

We need to consider another important clue to the deeper meaning of the song before actually delving into what the lyrics tell us. Who the main character is must be seen as of utmost interest for us. It is St. Margaret – and not any other Christian saint – and this is not arbitrary at all. When we visit remote village churches in the lands where the ancient Celts dwelled, particularly in the area of the Raetii, we often find church paintings depicting three saints. They are St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and St. Barbara. There is even an old adage telling us about the three:

Marg’ret mit dem Wurm
Barbara mit dem Turm
Katharina mit dem Radl
Des sind uns’re drei heiligen Madl.

While this rhymes perfectly in German dialect (Madl is Austro-Bavarian dialect for Mädchen, meaning “girl”, and Radl stands for Rad, meaning “wheel”) the English translation would go like this: “Margaret with the worm/Barbara with the tower/Catherine with the wheel/These are our three holy girls”. The significance lies in the fact that the three saints are usually depicted with these three attributes, a “worm” (an old word for snake), a tower, and a wheel, in these old church paintings. And the three women are typically dressed in white, red, and black dresses, respectively (Kutter, 2003). The colors are not chosen randomly, but are based on the colors associated with the ancient Goddess trinity; white for the maiden, red for the mother, and black for the crone. The author Ernie Kutter also draws a link to an old, matriarch version of time keeping that connects the phases of the Moon with those of the menstrual cycle. In my book “Mountain Magic” I describe this idea as follows:

“The cycle of the year was originally not based on the number four – as in the four stations of the Sun determining the seasons – but on the enchanted number three. Three as a magical number was already part of the Neolithic consciousness. The first section of the Moon’s cycle is the white one, where the uterus builds up the white mucous membrane, which corresponds to the waxing Moon. This is followed by the red phase in the centre of which we experience the Full Moon, as well as the high point of fertility, ovulation. After this follows the dark or black episode, finding its end with the New Moon. White, red, black – the same three colours associated with the Goddess Trinity, with Wilbet, Ambet, and Borbet.” (Brunner 2015)

The wheel held by Catherine (dressed in white) has eight spokes and resembles the sun-wheel and the wheel of the year. The tower held by Barbara (dressed in black) is a symbol of the castle-keep, the place of protection and the warm hearth.

The worm or snake associated with the central Goddess needs specific consideration here, not only because it is Margaret’s attribute, but also for what it stands. Worm is actually an old German word for snake, which, more importantly, was also connected to the dragon (a rather huge snake). In the times of the ancient Celts, the dragons were more snake-like creatures, which got their legs and wings only later. In fact, the main sight-seeing attraction of Klagenfurt, capital of Austria’s province of Carinthia, is a statue of a dragon (with legs and wings), and it is called Lindwurm. We not only have the old word for dragon in its name, but also the ancient Celtic term for lake, LIND. Thus, the creature cast in bronze in this regional capital is a lake-snake, or water dragon, really (Inge Resch-Rauter, 1992).

DreiMadln

Figure 2: Carved figurines of Saints Barbara, Catharine, and Margaret in the parish church Klein Sankt Paul, district Saint Veit, Carinthia, Austria. (Public domain)

When we look at these church paintings mentioned above, we almost always see a snake winding around St. Margaret’s feet, symbolizing a dragon, one of the most powerful creatures of old myths (see Merlin, for example). At statues of Mary (mother of Jesus) we also sometimes see the same snake under her feet, or winding around the earth-ball upon which she stands. So, the “worm” in the old adage above is in reality a snake, with all its pre-Christian symbolism, and with the powers and status of the dragon.

Let’s for a moment revisit this symbolism of the snake. It can be best described as a physical manifestation of the magical power of the woman. When we imagine a snake of dragon-like proportion, we can get a feeling for its immense strength. When we consider how people and snakes have this kind of offish relationship, we get a hunch about how difficult it is to describe this power. Yet it is really ancient, pre-historic almost, reaching back into the realm of the dinosaurs. Which explains this fear some people have of this relentless, hard to grip (because it grips you as soon as you touch it), female power that stares you down with non-blinking eyes, hissing at you when you challenge it. It is a strength that is not to be ruled over, especially not by men. And thus it is vilified by them.

Figure 2 shows a later baroque altar piece with painted and gilded wood carvings of the Three Ladies. Borbet’s tower is at her feet here, Wilbet’s wheel is broken (which could be interpreted as a Christian pun for having broken Pagan faith), and Ambet’s worm is an actual dragon over which she now has control, symbolized by the chain. The garments of each of the figures show already all three colors of the Goddess, with the black having somewhat turned into a dark green.

A Pagan Goddess Survives in a Christian Song

This is the Margret we encounter in the song, and by now we have to ask ourselves, “Is this woman, who is associated with the dragon or snake; who wears the red dress in sacral paintings; who’s companions are attributed with the sun-wheel and the castle-keep and who wear dresses dyed with the other two colors usually associated with the ancient Goddess trinity, really just a saint?”

We can even delve deeper into the symbolism of these three figures, by considering that in the oldest of these paintings, the names of the three women are not Catherine, Margaret, and Barbara, but they are Wilbet (remember, she carries a wheel, and there is in fact a linguistic connection there), Ambet, and Borbet, respectively.

The syllable BET all three of them share means something like “eternal” and words like bed in English (because people lied directly on Her when sleeping, or harvested crops from Her) or the German beten, “praying”, are associated with it. Since all three figures have that syllable in their names we can conclude that all three were “eternal ones”. Wilbet represented the eternal cycle (wheel) of the seasons, and Borbet the eternal warmth and safety of the castle keep.

Ambet is, in a sense, even more eternal. The AM in her name comes from the ancient term ANA, here in the meaning of (eternal) mother. The Celtic Goddess names Anu, Dana, or Danu are derived from this ancient word, as is Danube, i.e. the Mother River, along which the epicentre of the Celts is believed to have been. The Irish People of the Dana, the Túatha Dé Danann, are named after her and the Roman Goddess Diana is as well, Diana meaning Dea Ana or Goddess Mother. In German, the word for ancestors, Ahnen, and for midwife, Amme, also root in the ancient words ANA and AM.

A number of towns and river names in the wider Alpine region bear witness to her name, too – with and without the syllable BET. There is the Austrian town Amstetten, the Italian ski resort Cortina D’Ampezzo, the Hungarian city Syombathely (say “Shambetey”) or Austrian rivers like Ammer, Amper, and Amperbettenbach. When we put together the two syllables AM (mother) and BET (eternal), we get the true meaning of her name, “Eternal Mother”. In some versions of Ambet’s name, e.g., Anabet or Einbet (both meaning “One-Bet”), another aspect of her shines through, which is the central position she not only holds in many of the paintings, but also in the trinity of the “Three Holy Girls” (Inge Resch-Rauter, 1992).

So, although St. Margaret seems to be the one the song is about, her direct link to the ancient Goddess is already apparent in her name. And even more so in what the lyrics tell us:

1. Sontga Margriata ei stada siat stads ad alp,
Mai quendisch dis meins
In di eis ella idadal stavel giu,
Dada giu sin ina nauscha plata,
Ch’igl ei scurclau siu bi sein alv.
Paster petschen ha quei ad aguri catau.
“Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina ventireivla puschalla nus havein.”
1. St. Margaret stayed on the mountain
For seven summers, less fifteen days.
Once she went down the meadow,
And slipped on a steep plate so that her naked buttocks were seen.
And the herder’s boy noticed that.
“The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
2. “E sche tiu signun sto quei bucc saver,
sch’ta ti vi jeu dar treis biallas camischas,
Che pli to scarvunas e pli alvas, ch’ellas vegnen.“
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
2. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you three beautiful shirts,
Which will become whiter
The more often you wash them.”
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
3. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti treis bialas nuorsas,
Che ti sas tunder treis gadas igl onn
E mintgaga ventgaquater crenas launa.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
3. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you three beautiful sheep,
Which you can shear three times a year,
And each shearing yields 24 clews of wool.”
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
4. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti treis bialas vaccas,
Che ti sas mulscher treis gadas il di,
Mintgaga siu bi curtè latg.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
4. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you three beautiful brown cows,
Which you can milk three times a day,
And a full bucket of milk each time.”
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
5. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti in bi curtgin,
Che ti sas segar treis gadas igl onn,
E mintgaga siu bi ladretsch fein.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
“And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you a beautiful pasture,
Which you can mow three times a year,
And a huge haystack each time.
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
6. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti in bi mulin,
Che mola il di segal e la notg salin,
Senza mai metter si buc in.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
6. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you a beautiful mill,
That grinds rye during the day and wheat at night,
Without you having to fill it.
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
“E sche tiu signun sto quei saver,
Sche ti sas fundar entochen culiez.”
“O, buna Sontga Margriata,
Lai po vegnir viado,
quei sto nies signun buc ir a saver.”
Cu la sontga Margriata ha gidau ô il paster petschen,
Ha quel puspei entschiet a dir:
“Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
“And if the herder needs to know,
Then sink into the ground to your neck!” “Oh good St. Margaret,
Oh help me out of here,
This the herder doesn’t need to know.”
St. Margaret helped the herder boy out,
But the boy decided to say,
“The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
8. “Sche ti vul quei dir ora,
Sche dueis ti fundar treis tschuncheismas ault.”
Allura va sontga Margriata dabot,
E da tut ella pren pietigot!
“Pietigot, ti miu bien signun,
E pietigot, ti mia buna caldera,
Pietigot mia buna panaglia,
E pietigot ti mia buna fueinetta,
Che jeu durmevel adina cun tei.
Pertgei fas quei miu bien paster?
Pietigot mias bunas vachettas,
Vus vegnis a schigiar dil latg.
Ah, pietigot entuorn, entuorn,
Sappi Dieus cur jeu cheu tuorn!”
8. “And if the herder needs to know,
Then sink into the ground three yards!”
Then, the holy maiden leaves
And says farewell all around.
“Farewell, my good herder,
Farewell, my good cauldron
Farewell my butter keg,
Farewell my little hearth,
Where I had my sleeping quarters.
Why did you do that, good herder?
Farewell my good cows,
Your milk will dry up.
Oh, farewell, farewell everything around!
God knows when I will return again!”
9. Epi mav’ella sul Cunclas ô.
La caldera e las vaccas mavan suenter,
Aschi lunsch sco ellas han viu,
Han ellas buca calau de bargir.
Epi eis ella ida sper ina fontauna ô, a cantond:
“O ti, o ti fontaunetta,
Sche jeu mond ir naven
Sche vegnas lu schigiar si!”
E la fontauna ei schigiada si.
Epi eis ella ida sper ina plaunca ô, a cantond:
“O ti, o ti plaunchetta,
Sche jeu mond ir naven,
Sche vegnas ti guess a seccar!”
E la plaunca ei seccada.
“Ah, mia buna jarva,
Sche jeu mond ir naven,
Ti vegnas lu seccar e mai verdegar.”
E la jarva ei seccada e mai verdegada,
E cur ch’ell’ei ida sut il zenn da sogn Gieri e sogn Gagl,
Tuccavan ei d’ensemen, ch’ei dev’ô il battagl.
9. Then she left the valley.
And the milk bucket with her,
And as long as they could see the leaving maiden,
The cows couldn’t stop crying.
Then she passed by a well and sang,
“Oh well, oh little well, when I leave,
You will surely dry out!”
And the well dried out.
Then she left the pasture behind and sang,
Oh pasture, oh pasture so close to my heart,
When I leave, you will surely wither.”
And wither did the pasture.
“Oh you good herbs, when I leave,
You will wither and never green again.”
And wither did the herbs, and they never greened again.
The maiden passed the bells of the churches of St. Jörgs and St. Galls,
And the bells rang so loud,
That the clapper fell out.

First, the “saint” has stayed on the alp already for a long time, a magically long time: seven summers. But what she does fifteen days before the end of the summer is somewhat surprising and rather unbecoming for a “saint”. She slides down a rock, and a young boy sees her naked buttocks when she does that (there was no underwear back then). Although it may appear like this was an accident, it really refers to something else, something truly pagan. Sliding stones can be found in the Alps frequently. They are slanted rocks, often with a groove or two next to each other, and they are very smooth. Some have engravings on, or cups carved into them, often a set of three times three. The cups are believed to be made to hold gifts, maybe milk and honey, and the boulders themselves are designed for women to slide down. Pagans of old did that as part of fertility rites, may that be to induce fertility in a young woman generally, or if she had problems becoming pregnant; or as a part of a coming of age ceremony for young women. And it would seem logical that the women did that naked, or at least lifted their skirts to be in direct contact with Mother Earth.

For today’s Ovates, as healers and helpers, we can extract some ideas from this very first verse of the song, and its deeper meaning, if we were called to service by someone who needs help with fertility. Safe of sliding down a rock, the mere contact of the woman’s body, particularly of her buttocks – naked skin to ancient stone – could become part of a ritual designed to increase or induce fertility. Obviously, such ancient sliding stones with their own ritualistic history, as they exist in the Alps, cannot be found everywhere. But it should not be a problem to locate a bolder in anyone’s area, where the woman in question could at least sit in direct contact with Mother Earth, as part of such a ritual. Offerings typical for Celtic worship and for the spirit of the land can be given to the Goddess by leaving them in natural dents or crevices of the bolder.

SlidingStone

Figure 3: Sliding rock. (Photo by author)

Druid-Celebrants, involved in coming-of-age-rites for young women, could also incorporate something in the rite where the girl would sit on a boulder. Utmost consideration must be given to the girl’s particular feelings at that stage of her life, obviously. A dress or skirt would do the trick.

Figure 3 shows a small version of a sliding rock near the town of St. Wolfgang in the Austrian Salzkammergut area. The stone is about a 30 minute walk from a major Celtic cult place, the Falkenstein, and was certainly used for fertility rites. The Catholic Church altered the history of the rock, though, and tells the legend of 10th century Saint Wolfgang of Regensburg, who sat on the stone to contemplate where to build a new church. Because of his holiness, the stone became soft and adopted the form of the saint’s buttocks. The wayside shrine reminds of this tale. The photo also shows the author’s daughter sliding down the stone to explain to her the old ways. Utmost care was taken, however, not to invoke any fertility magic in this teaching moment.

Gifts of Magic

St. Margaret did not slip and fall by accident. She held a fertility ritual. And the little herder boy saw her doing that, saw the “saint” doing something he knew would not be condoned by his master, the herder. That’s why the boy says that the herder needs to know. But why is he so obsessed with having a beautiful lady up there in the remoteness of the high pastures (Figure 4 for an example) in the first place?

Because it was a taboo for unmarried women to work there in mediaeval times, and it was still punishable by law to do so in Tyrol in the 1960s (Haid, 2002)! Herding sheep was a male domain, and women up there, together with a lonely man, and so far from the orderly village life where people pried into each other’s affairs left and right, could only mean one thing: sinful, lusty behaviour. When the little herder boy saw a woman in this male realm, practicing old, pagan ways of worship, which made him see her naked buttocks – that could only upset him. And so he cries out that he has to tell on her.

But the Goddess sees an opportunity, a glimmer of hope that the child may come back to her and the Old Ways. For he is a little boy and possibly gullible. So she promises him a gift. And when he shows no interest, but insists on telling the herder, she offers him another gift, and another one. Five in total. But the boy is relentless in his wish to tell the herder, and the gifts are all meaningless to him.

If we look at the gifts more closely, that is surprising, actually. A shirt that gets whiter the more often it is washed? Sheep that can be sheared three times a year? And cows that can be milked three times a day? That is impossible! Why, it is impossible, unless you know magic.

Consider the folk ballad “Scarborough Fair” for a moment. Throughout the song, a person – either a man alone or a man first and a woman later – ask the listener to tell a person they love to perform some magical crafts, like sewing a shirt without seams and needlework, to wash it in a dry well, to buy an acre of land between the water and the beach, to plough it with a ram’s horn and so on and so forth. At one of the Eisteddfods during the 2016 East Coast Gathering of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, David Smith, the Order’s Pendragon and also known as Damh the Bard, explained one possible meaning of this ballad. It may be about a man of the Fae people, the original faeries, who dwells at the Scarborough Fairground, and who loves a human lady. But he can only be with her if she proves that she knows magic. She has to verify her skills by fulfilling these impossible tasks, which she could only do with magic.

We have a similar concept here. The magic is “agricultural” and “pastoral”, in the sense that the gifts offered by the Goddess are quite impossible in the apparent world, but would be very beneficial and profitable to have. If the herder-boy stayed with the Goddess, she lets him know, he would not have to worry about anything ever again. He would be well dressed and rich.

But, obviously, the boy is not interested. Even after the Goddess buries him neck-deep in the ground, and after a brief moment in which he gives in to her wish not to tell his master, he turns against her as soon as he is freed. That’s when the Goddess sees no other way than burying him for good.

Why, you would ask, why is the little boy so persistent in his urge to tell on her, to tell his master of the broken taboo, of the forbidden worshipping in the old style, and of the naked buttocks? Why does he not take any gifts, and why does he not come to the Goddess’s side even after a threat to his life?

A Historical Perspective

Let’s take a break here for a moment from analysing the song, and ask ourselves what could be the meaning behind this story generally. Let’s explore the history of the ballad for a few moments, which will help us better understand the boy’s motives and next section of the ballad.

Based on the lyrics and the melody, the song was probably composed sometime between 650 and 750 CE (Christianus Caminada, 1961). Unlike so many songs and stories from that era, this ballad is not an ancient, pre-Christian one, just penned on parchment by some mediaeval monk to eternalize it. It was a new song back then, and the main character was just disguised as a saint. That was the proper way to make sure an old song can be sung, and survive, despite Catholic Church dogma. This and the mention of churches and bells in the end – which most probably was a later addition – made the song less dangerous to sing (Haid, 2002).When we look at the first part of the ballad, it clearly speaks of the Goddess and her magic. But we hear already that this magic is not appreciated any more by the common folk, represented by the master herder and the boy. That is the first indicator that the song was composed at a time when the old faith was replaced by the new one. The second part, where we learn what happens when the old faith is lost, can only be interpreted as lament for the old faith vanishing. This can only mean that the ballad came into being during this time of change, or a short time after; but definitely not before. However, while it is therefore not ancient and hence not of Celtic origin, it tells us much about what the people creating this song thought, and how they were still immersed in these old, pagan traditions.

Alm

Figure 4: Alm, high mountain pasture (Photo by author)

Even though we can establish that the ballad comes from a time when Christianity has already spread throughout the land, we must not think that this new faith was fully implemented everywhere. Much rather, this was still a time when Christianity had to fight hard to get accepted, or even to survive. Like in any society still to this day, there must have been gullible people back then, and early adopters, who embraced the new religion right away. Then there must have been some of the intellectual establishment who were probably intrigued by the early onset of science, who then were also able to convince at least some nobility to convert to the new faith. That was not a fast process, though, but took centuries! Let’s just think of the fact that the Church felt the need for such a radical scheme like the Inquisition to fortify their footholds some 500 years after the ballad was penned down.

And there must have been, back then as much as today, those who were wary of anything new, who held on to the older traditions and saw these teachings from the Near East via Rome as a threat to their lives. It is easy to imagine that we would have encountered these folk predominantly in the rural areas, especially in the remote valleys in the Alps. Not only because of the geographic distance to the urban centres, but also because it is the farmers who we are talking about. Ever since Neolithic times, when farming replaced hunting and gathering, certain ways of worship, especially of the Earth Mother, guaranteed a good harvest and with that survival during the harsh winter months. We are actually talking about a process over tens of thousands of years, where Pagan ritual has been developed to help people endure, year after year. If a cobbler, a merchant, or a member of nobility in the city converted to the new faith and it turned out that this was a bad choice, offended “the land”, their actions wouldn’t have affected their own livelihood or that of the people in that city that much. But here we are considering the providers of crops, of food. What if following the liturgy of the new faith didn’t yield the same amounts of corn, vegetables, fruit, and meat? Or none at all? If your job were to supply your community with basic food resources, would you easily be willing to risk giving up what has worked for generations before you, and try something completely new, without evidence that it will yield any success?

When looking at this time of change in the dark ages, and at people on that personal level, it is not surprising that we still find the earlier mentioned sacral paintings in remote Alpine churches, with the three “saints” bearing all their pagan symbols, sometimes even their original names. It shouldn’t strike us odd, either, that the bishop of Brixen in Tyrol had to escort the feared mediaeval inquisitor, Heinrich Institoris, out of the area when he visited the diocese, a centre of the Goddess cult at that time, and wanted to start the first witch court there in 1485. The bishop seemed to have been very aware of how his flock would feel about some outsider mingling with their traditions, and was rightfully afraid that the angry mob would lynch the inquisitor right then and there (Kutter, 2003).

When Goddesses Leave

When we now continue to the next segment of the song of Sontga Margriata, we can easily see that the person who composed it must have been of the group of the traditionalists; what their fears were; and how they eternalized the message of doom when neglecting the old faith. All that in an innocent ballad sung during work in the fields.

Recapping what has happened so far, we learned that there was a woman on the Alm, the high Alpine pasture, although that was a taboo. What’s more, that woman, who is really the Goddess, engaged in a pagan ritual, which a young herder boy observed by chance. Indoctrinated by the new faith, the naïve boy insists on telling on her, despite being offered magical gifts. He refuses even when she threatens to kill him.

We actually do not learn why the maiden feels the need to leave, for the herder boy is dead, and it is never said that his master actually learned of her presence or her pagan activities. We can only conclude from her reaction that she must have felt that if neither gifts nor threat to life and limbs can bring the people back to her, all she can do is to concede to the new faith and leave the field to its followers.

And leaving is what she does. However, she knows that her absence will cause the land to become barren, for she is the land. Thus, the cows’ milk dries out, and so does the well. And the pasture and the herbs on it wither as she foresees.

Clearly, these are the fears of those of the rural population, who see the changing over to the new faith as a risk not worth taking. Not only will the abundance – the magical gifts – given to them by the land be a thing of the past, they are even predicting that the land will waste away. They go so far as to warn the villagers of the effects of her leaving that even thick iron parts, wrought and welded together in the heat of the smith’s fire, fall apart when she passes by in agony.

There Is Always Hope

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Goddess does not leave without sparking a glimmer of hope in her beloved children. Although she concedes to the Christian god insofar as she claims that only he will know when, she does not rule out returning entirely.

This old song from the ancient Celtic lands has made us understand that more than 1,200 years ago people were already concerned that breaking with tradition could mean doom and decay. Today, as Druids we have the utmost delicate challenge, expressed in the triad at the beginning, to uphold these traditions while, at the same time, listen to the voice of tomorrow. It is our duty to progress as much as it is our duty to conserve, and we can only do so by searching for this fine boundary no thicker than a hair, and, once found, walk along it. However, us becoming Druids, learning these rather peripheral pieces of tradition, equips us with the necessary wisdom and tools to tread this thin path.

References:

Brunner, C. (2015). Mountain Magic: Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps. Raleigh: LuLu

Caminada, C. (1961). Die verzauberten Täler : Die urgeschichtlichen Kulte und Bräuche im alten Rätien. Verlag Olten. Freiburg i. Br.

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

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

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

Resch-Rauter, I. (1992). Unser Keltisches Erbe: Flurnamen, Sagen, Märchen und Brauchtum als Brücken in die Vergangenheit. Eigenverlag. Wien.

Wolff, K.-F. (1913). Dolomitensagen. Sagen und Überlieferungen, Märchen und Erzählungen der ladinischen und deutschen Dolomitenbewohner. Mit zwei Exkursen Berner Klause und Gardasee. Verlagsanstalt Athesia. Bozen.

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Walking Very Old Paths

In a recent post in a Facebook Druidry group, a person talked about her love of maps and the almost spiritual connection she feels towards these two-dimensional renderings of our land and its topography. Her post reminded me that I have wanted to share an experience I had a few years ago near the Austrian town in which I was born. How this experience connects with maps might not be clear right away, but I promise, it will eventually in this article.

reichsapfel

The “Reichsapfel” Inn, a must when visiting Baden near Vienna, Austria

One lovely summer evening, neither too hot to be outside nor too chilly to sit, at length, in the front yard of one of my favorite inns, I had some beers with siblings and childhood friends, including the innkeep herself. Later that evening, her brother in law stopped by for a drink. At some point in the ensuing conservation, Rudolf, as it is his name, who was at that time curator of the local museum of town history, dropped that he just had been examining a few copper disks that were found in the valley west of the town, within the confines of an ancient rampart.

copperbars

Copper bars found at the “Burgstall” rampart site

Of course, my curiosity was kindled immediately. It was too early for him to give out specifics in regards to the find, but it was already clear that these particular artefacts were from the Pre or at least Proto Celtic area. Some other clay parts found there showed patterns associated with the later Hallstatt Culture. What was even more important for me to learn was where exactly the rampart was to be found.

alpenkeltenkartedetail

Green area: “Regnum Noricum”, settled by the Gallia Transalpina tribe “Norii”. In it, Juvavum (Salzburg), and the dot is where you find Hallstatt. In the sand-coloured section: My birth town Baden (Aquae); Vindobona (Vienna) and the Roman Garrison town Carnuntum, all in the tribal land of the Boii. The northern border of the map is the Danube river, and in the bottom left corner you see the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea.

No, this is not about maps, yet, even though I am showing one here to better describe the geography, and although my brother and I used one to get to the site. But if you were to look it up on a modern map, the site in question, called “Burgstall”, is in the Helenental, a valley that stretches westward from my of Baden near Vienna, Austria.
Baden, in may ways conceptionally similar to the town of Bath in England – e.g. in that the name indicates hot springs that have been used since ancient times – was known to the Romans as “Aquae”. These southern invaders were drawn to the hot, sulfur enriched water, because that combination proved to be a perfect remedy against rheumatism, a disease they, used to the dry heat of Italy, were prone to in the cold, damp northeastern outpost of their empire. Particularly the officers, the Centurios of the Carnuntum garrison are believed to have frequented the hot springs. The Romans also left a gift for us behind: wine. Ever since that occupation (there were several thereafter), my hometown has been surrounded by vineyards.

But even before the Romans, Celts, amongst them the Boii, and earlier cultures dwelled in that area, certainly enjoying the soothing warmth of the water. Maybe less the smell of it, though. We know that the odor has been an issue early on, because the river now called Schwechat flowing through town of my birth was named after its stench. It’s derived from an old German word, swechan, meaning to smell, to stink. The bad smell or bad hearing, who knows, drove at least one cartographer to etch the word Schwöfat (“sulfuric”) along the blue band indicating the river on his rendering of the area. And the river does play a specific role when we are going to talk more about location and sacred maps.

sanfterwall

First impression when arriving at the rampart wall. Rather mellow (left is where the dwelling was, to the right the landscape falls down to the valley “Helenental” with the “Schwechat” river}. Only the straightness for about 100 meters indicates that it’s not a natural structure.

But let’s first turn to the rampart itself. When my brother and I arrived at the area described by Rudolf the museum director, we needed to leave the hiking path and shoulder through dense undergrowth. Eventually we reached a short incline, and then a drop into the valley below. At first, it didn’t feel like anything particular, did not give us the impression of a man-made structure. Until we turned 90 degrees and looked at it alongside. Then we realized that we had approached the rampart perpendicularly. But when following the soft and subtle mound lengthwise, it’s unnatural straightness and geometric roundness became very apparent. At this point we realized that we were standing on a structure built by our forebears between three and two thousand years ago. Once upon a time, warriors patrolled along the

wall

A section where the fortification structure is much more prominent

rampart, their shields slung over their shoulders, boasting to each other about their successes in battle and in bed; others stood sentry on corners of the embankment, leaning on their spears and watching the valley below; children played at the foot of the wall, daring each other to do the forbidden, to run up to the top and be like warriors for a moment; lovers may have kissed in the dark shadows of the rampart in moonless nights. And my brother and I just stood there, taking in ancient history through the soles of our feet.

ausblick

A corner point of the rampart, where guards might have stood sentry. I would imagine that the area below would have been cleared. Then, one would see every movement down in the river valley.

We decided to not walk back straight to the hiking path, but follow the fortification parallel to the trail. We didn’t know exactly where we would end up, but the area is small enough that one can’t get lost. What we didn’t expect was that the rampart would, after veering left, actually cross the hiking trail! The hiking path simply cut through the embankment, which raised up on either side of the trail we had taken originally. It just never crossed our mind that this would be the structure we were out to find. And we looked at each other and wondered, how many thousands of hikers passed through here, utterly ignorant that they just walked through an opening of an ancient fortification that kept our ancestors safe and secure.

Although, I do suspect there was some knowledge of the fortification at an earlier point. The name of that particular piece of land, “Burgstall” is one that describes the location of a castle (Burg). While there are no ruins or tales of something we associate with a castle, the term does indicate some defense structure there. Have folks of old, from mediaeval times and even earlier, still known of the rampart, and thus named the area after it?

burgstall_amap

The location of the “Burgstall” site (yellow area). The outskirts of the town of Baden can be seen in the bottom right corner of the map.

There was another element of the structure that contributed to the safety of these folks of old: the location itself. And you guessed right: this is where the sacred maps come into play. You see, I read this book not too long ago, written by British bicyclist, Graham Robb, who mapped out ancient routes and the math behind certain settlements in Gaulle, now France. I have written a blog entry about that book in an earlier post. One of the discoveries he made was that the Gauls seemed to be particularly fond of places where a river loops around a rock formation high and large and flat enough to build a settlement on top.

uxellodunum

Location of the Chateau of Thuriès near Pampelonne, France, known as Uxellodunum (uxellos: high and dunum: hill fort) to the Gaules. The site is where the remainder of Vercingetorix’s forces fought their last stand against Caesar after the debacle of Alesia.

The river would not only function as a natural mote on three sides of the hamlet, but the elevated location would allow for good observation of the surrounding area. And yes, the rampart we were standing on was located on exactly this type of geographical setting.

Now, for me that is perfect contemplation material. Is the concept behind the Gauls’ choices of locations for their settlements a much older model? If Robb was right in his book “The Ancient Paths”, that the Druids applied some fancy math when choosing sites for towns and roads between them, did they rely on the knowledge from earlier folk, for example such as those who dwelled within the rampart near the town I was born? We will never know for sure, but sometimes it is just entertaining to muse about such things.

For other musings over the ancient Celts, 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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