Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Eight Celtic Days of Celebration...

The High Days.

Mean Foghmar, The Autumn Equinox. September 21st.

In astronomical terms this represents the date (around the third week of September) when night and day are approximately equal in length. The sun appears to cross the celestial equator and decline or descend toward the south. The term ‘equinox’ is derived from the Latin, with aequus meaning equal, and nox meaning night. The lunar month in the Coligny calendar leading upto the equinox was called Edrinios and meant an ‘arbitration-time.’ In the Irish tradition this feast is called Clabhsur (closure) in West Munster, and represents a coming to terms and an end to the relationship the tribe or community has had with the earth.

So, this festival comes after the harvest, and represents a ‘fallow-time.’ It is a thanksgiving for the benefits of the agricultural season, the warmth and light of summer and marks the end of a period of growth, fertility and expansion. This is a time of reflection, appraisal, assessment and preparation for the coming dark season of winter, the storage of essential foods and provisions that must last until spring. This was also a hunting season, a time in which the basic nutritional provisions could be supplemented with wild game.

On a spiritual, physical and mental level this is a period in which we can evaluate our past months, our successes and achievements, which of our plans and projects have bore fruit, and lay to rest all those efforts and struggles which lie uncompleted. A time to forgive and forget, to settle arguments and close the door with a cheerful wave.

In mythical and poetic terms this is the day of battle between dark and light, perhaps no better visualized in the Celtic tradition than in the Cath Maige Tuireadh, in the combat of the God Lugh against the forces of the Fomoraigh. Unfortunately in this spoke of the year’s wheel it is darkness that triumphs, but also a barreness and a period of mourning, the caoin or lament for the dead and departed which in seasonal terms reaches an apex in the following festival of Samhain.

Samhain October 31- November 1.

The Celtic festivals are all linked to a wheel of life which reflects the stages in the human development, of birth, life, death and then rebirth. Samhain is both the end and the beginning of a new year and thus represents death and ritualistic rebirth. The Celtic year was divided into two aspects: An ghrian mor or ‘the greater sun, and An ghrian beag or ‘the lesser sun.’ A light half of the year which ran from the festival of Beltaine in May to Samhain in November, and the dark half which manifested itself from Samhain to Beltaine.

It was believed that the veil between this world and the otherworld was thinner at this time of year, and allowed for clearer communication with long passed and distant ancestors, for Druids especially it was a time of divination and omen seeking, praising and honoring the ancestors, and traditionally a place would be set at the feast table especially for the kin-spirits who would be expected to return this night.

The Celtic scholar Alexei Kondratiev identifies five key elements in the Samhain ritual; it is a time of renewal, of giving way to the past and contemplating the coming year. Of hospitality, with respect to the tradition of honoring the dead with tributes. The process of dissolution, in which the normal façade of objective reality disappears and allows the paranormal, the extraordinary and the spiritual dimension to enter our lives. A sense of timelessness, involving the practice of divination in non-linear time and space wherein the boundaries between the physical and spiritual are diminished. Sacrifice, tribute and payment were two key issues brought forward at this time as a means of thanks-giving for the harvest and a way of honoring the spirits of the land.

On a personal and practical level Samhain is a time for deep, thoughtful and meditative reflection. A time in which we can escape the mundane and repetitive aspects of our lives and indulge in foolery and trickery, jesting and of course feasting. A time to remember the passing of our loved ones, and reflect on the joyous times we spent with them. A time to share the fruits of our year’s harvest with those around us. A time of past, present and future.

Mean Geimhridh, The Winter Solstice, December 21st

The Winter Solstice is the darkest point in the year, the shortest day when little sunlight makes for a benign introspection. The mind, body and soul yearns for warmth and comfort, a simple sign that can give some element of hope in a period of frost, death and stillness. It is at this auspicious time that the sun, at its lowest point on the southern horizon pierces the dark inner chamber of the Brugh na Boinne at Newgrange in Ireland. Through a small hole above the entrance sunlight enters the palace of both the Daghda, the Good-God, and Aenghus Mac Ogh (his son, the chosen child of youth). This event calls to my mind the Fleadh Aise, ancient feast of the age, a celebration of eternal existence instituted by the old Irish god’s the ‘Tuatha de Danaan.’ The significance of this event is a reminder that from this point onward the sun will grow in strength, eventually reaching full maturity at the Summer Solstice on June 21st.

The Celtic tradition at this time echoes the Christian, the child of light is born or becomes manifest within a dark world, a child of hope for the future. Differing Celtic traditions give this child varying names, be it Aenghus Mac Ogh, or Mabon ap Madron (Great-Son of the Great-Mother). Another key character I associate with the Winter Solstice is Lugh, the heavenly warrior returning with a glittering sword, a light of illumination, a spirit which emboldens and inspires.

One of the most curious rituals at this point in the Gaelic wheel of the year is ‘Wren Day’ on the 26th of December. More formally called St. Stephens Day, originally is was a ritual in which a Wren was caught and sacrificially killed. To the Druids the wren symbolized the power of prophesy, a king of birds with the power to cross the barriers of this world and the heavens. It has been suggested that the wren is the embodiment of the God Lugh, whose blood is spilled on the earth and therefore ensures a prosperous and fertile season to come. The poor little corpse of the wren is then taken around the various habitations of the community with requests for money to bury it. An elaborate and beautiful coffin was constructed and the wren buried with significant and tender care.

All the evergreens are used to decorate the home at this time; holly, ivy, pine, and juniper remind us of the eternal nature of the spirit in connection with the soul of nature. Mistletoe as an emblem of fertility is coupled with the oak, the king of tree’s, bringing him his crown of glory.

This is a time of innocent pleasure, of sharing the twinkling and bright objects around us to illuminate our sadness. Of sharing hearts and comforts. At this time I make a bowl of spiced cider to share with friends and also a wee sip of golden mead, and celebrate the never-ending path and the eternal light that shows the way.

Oimelc January 31st to February 1st.

A seasonal rite with pastoral and agricultural associations. The term Oimelc or Imbolc is thought to be derived from a root word translated as milk and meaning (in this context) the time of lactation, since this was the first period if the year when the ewes gave birth and suckled their young. In this sense, Oimelc was considered the first day of spring, connected to the fertility of the earth, the feast of flowing and first ploughing. This day is also celebrated as La Fheile Bride or Brighid’s Feast. Brighid is one of the most fascinating and complex of individuals in Celtic tradition. The Irish chronicler in Cormac's Glossary describes Brighid as a poetess, a female sage, a woman of wisdom, or the goddess whom poets venerated because she was renowned for her protecting care. So, originally a much honored Goddess of fertility, inspiration of craft, and healing, her mantle was assumed by the famous saint in Ireland and carried forward within the precincts of the holy church of Kildare (church of the oak).

It was at Oimelc that the spirit of Brighid would be beckoned within the home for a blessing, either as a young girl impersonating the Goddess, or as an effigy called a brideoga, a small, carefully constructed straw doll. Another tradition involved the making of a special cross of Brighid, called a crosoga, and a belt or girdle called a crios. All of these in combination are seen as an effort to bring light and illumination (bri) into the home, life and the hearth or heart of the tribe. Another key element at Oimelc is the appearance of the Rioghan or the Queen Serpent, the magical oracular snake which had spent the past half of the dark year hibernating, and emerges to pronounce its opinion on the favorability of the weather. In Ireland this custom involved the grainneog or hedgehog (a small mammal like a porcupine), and indeed this tradition is continued today in the USA as ‘Groundhog Day.’

This is a time for gentle re-nourishing of the spirit and soul, of new beginnings, of personal invitations, of contemplating and preparing a fresh voyage of adventure, and of being certain that the warm breath of the sun, though distant is coming to inspire and kindle the hearth of our being.

Mean Earraigh, The Spring Equinox, March 21st.

There is no confirmative evidence that the ancient Celts celebrated more than the already documented four agricultural festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasad, and Samhain. Mean Earraigh is, like the other solar festivals an anomaly within traditional Gaelic tradition. An Irish-Gaelic verse (based on the information provided by Cormac Úa Cuilennáin in his 10th century Glossary) by an unknown author confirms this:

Rathaí firinneacha na bliana: "The true seasons of the year:

Rath ó Lá 'le Bríde go Bealtaine, The season from St. Bridget's Day to May Day,

Rath ó Bhealtaine go Lúnasa, The season from May Day to Lúnasa,

Rath ó Lúnasa go Samhain, The season from Lúnasa to Samhain,

Rath ó Shamhain go Lá 'le Bríde. The season from Samhain to St. Bridget's Day."

J. A. MacCulloch in his Religion of the Ancient Celts indicates that the so-called solar festivals, the solstices and equinoxes are derivations from other cultures, possibly Roman, Christian or Pre-Celtic societies. The celebration of the Midsummer is pan-pagan, that is, it was celebrated by a variety of cultures throughout Western Europe. The Irish Gaelic terms Geimredh, Earrach, Samradh,and Foghamhar, are all terms which describe seasons of the year ie; autumn, spring, summer and winter but which reflect a desire to present a further division of the year and successfully combine a solar and lunar calendar.

Miranda Green considers only the four agricultural festivals as authentic, and that the addition of the solar festivals borrows from another parallel pagan movement known as Wicca (headed by Gerald Gardner), in which these are called the ‘Sabbats.’ John Michael Greer, Archdruid of the AODA is quoted as saying that the solar festivals are purely inventory within the Druidic and Celtic system of belief, an aspect of the romantic Druid renaissance headed by Dr. William Stukely in the 1700’s;

“The solstices and equinoxes were the festivals of the Druid Revival, and that was specifically because of Stonehenge – its orientation to midsummer sunrise is hard to miss. Much of the early Revival lore was inspired directly by the old megalithic ruins. (The cross quarter days didn't get added to the Druid calendar until the early 1950s, when Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner invented the "ancient" eightfold year-wheel over a couple of pints of beer in a London pub.)”

However, with this in mind is it possible to celebrate a festival of the wheel of the year in an authentic context? In validating this festival I drew viable details from several Celtic differing sources. St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th of March is perhaps close enough to the equinox to have been a pre-Christian rite of spring. Perhaps the most celebrated symbol of this particular day is the shamrock, a natural symbol of Druidic trinitarianism. The so-called God of the shamrock is a divine figure mentioned in ‘The Settling of The Manor of Tara’ by the name of Trefuilngid Treeochair (Triple Bearer of The Triple Key), the one who causes the sun to rise and set and who stands at this point midway. A glorious God of Spring not unlike the figure of Dionysis, who brings as yet unripe fruits of green, and aids in the divisions and organization of the land.
So, at Mean Earraigh we stand on the thresh-hold of balance between night and day. It is a time for order and the definition of boundaries, of drawing plans and honoring the elemental forces in the Earth. This is the ideal time to ‘spring-clean’ the home, to locate and institute newly discovered dynamics in our personal and professional lives.

Beltaine, April 30th – May 1st.

This festival echoes with the same liminal mystery of Samhain, and ending the An ghrian beag or dark-half of the year. Beltaine is principally a fertility festival.

In the widest possible sense fertility includes the growth and activity of mind, body and spirit, the creation of art and crafts, poetry, foods, and nurturing intellect and inspiration. Also training the senses to appreciate the world around us, our community and life. Within the context of a Celtic fertility festival Beltaine is a reminder of our role and participation in a greater symbiotic cycle; that of the earth and nature. In this particular ritual the key role of fertility is given special status in an agricultural sense, traditionally a time when the shoots of the first planting would be coming forth from the soil, and the ‘light-half’ of the year is increasing in its strength.

Another interesting fertility figure in Gaelic tradition is the ‘Sheela na Gig.’ The Sheela is a carved stone female figurine with open legs, exposed and showing her clutching her vulva with both hands. Most scholars associate her with the ‘cailleach’ or Old-Hag, she may also be a representation of the Goddess Brighid, and many examples are found inserted into the masonry of churches, cathedrals or monasteries. One community in Ireland has been reported as using the figurine as a power object for woman during the process of childbirth and to ensure an easy delivery. Kathryn Price NicDhana sees the figure as one primal aspect of the changing year of traditional Celtic seasons:

“In much of the Scottish lore the year is ruled alternately by the Hag of Winter and the Maiden Queen of Summer. Yet I see Síla as another, lesser known, third face of this well-known duality: the manifestation of the usually-hidden doorway that emerges when these forces are balanced or in flux. She holds the doorway which opens in the liminal-times: the days of Bealtaine and Samhain, the twilight of sunrise or sunset, and when the mists arise where the land and the sky meet the waters. She is both and neither, an Otherworldly force that refuses to fit into either/or categories”

At Beltaine all fires would be extinguished, and the hearth fire relit from the embers of a central bonfire. Cattle and sheep would be driven between two fires in the community as a sacred rite of purification and sanctification for the coming year of light. Communal celebrations included dancing, singing, and general earth centered activities that incorporated the marriage between the people and the feminine protector or land-Goddess, the flower maiden.

In a modern context we can celebrate Beltaine as our own fertility rite by pursuing creative and rewarding activities, stimulating the mind, body and soul with nourishing tasks: learning and knowledge, exercise and fresh nutritional foods, and the cultivation of a sacred and spiritual path to culture our soul. A deeper involvement with nature and the environment can be rewarding, also building and maintaining meaningful relationships can drive away the deserts of depression and loneliness. Whilst Beltaine is mainly associated with the key concept of rebirth and reproduction, it also has the capacity to bring us to a greater understanding of creativity, inspiration and endurance.

Mean Samraidh, The Summer Solstice, June 21st.

The height of summer, when the sun reaches it’s highest point in the sky and the day of greatest length. Mean Samraidh means ‘middle of summer, and from this auspicious day the sun will grow increasingly weaker until the Winter-Solstice.

Although there is no definitive historical Celtic connection many British Druids celebrate the dawn of the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, when the sun casts a shadow as rises at the central stone onto the earth, perhaps signifying a symbolic fertilization of the ‘mother-earth.’ In Gaulish belief the sun was associated with a deity called Grannos, a god of healing and solar worship, also connected with healing wells. Grannos was usually paired with a goddess called Sirona or Star. Grannos appears to be cognate with the Old-Irish Grian, also meaning sun. The Irish Celts were renowned astrologers and it is difficult not to believe that the event of the Summer Solstice had no meaning for them. We find that in Old-Irish the term reithes grian was used to describe the ‘zodiac’ and its literal meaning was ‘wheel of the sun.’ A later Middle-Irish term is concurrent with this, Crois Grian or Girdle of the Sun. One other term in Irish-Gaelic is used to describe midday, which is lo-chrann. This term is still used in a modern context to describe an illuminating, guiding and brilliant light. So, perhaps within a traditional belief the Solstice may have been perceived as the ‘midday’ of the year, a time for healing, guidance, and empowerment within the ever-circling wheel of life.

A herb traditionally associated with the Summer Solstice is St. John’s Wort, which is encapsulated as a chant within the Carmina Gadelica:

“Saint Johnswort, Saint Johnswort, I deem lucky the one who will have you; I harvest you with my right hand, I store you away with my left hand; whoever finds you in the fold of the young animals will never want for anything.”

St. John’s Wort was seen as a bloom inspired by the solstice, and thus taking on its power and depth for healing. In modern healing it is principally used against depression and some have used it (despite its reputation for photosensitivity) as a sun-burn protection.

Other identifiable customs associated with the concept of the ‘solar-wheel’ are the traditions in which hoops of oak are constructed, set afire and then rolled down steep hillsides, with a mass chase after it. Within a modern context the Solstice is a time for reveling in the healing power of light, the interconnection of our bright spirits in communal sharing, being guided by astronomical and astrological events, and the solemn anticipation of the emerging dark side of the year.

Lughnasadh, August 1st.

Lughnasadh was a festival originated by the God Lugh in honor of his foster-mother Taillte, both in her memory and as an elegy to her death. Cormac in his glossary defines the suffix nasadh as cluiche no aonach meaning ‘game or assembly.’ So, this was a time in which numerous tribes would come together for sportive and competitive games, to exchange news and information and form fresh allegiances.

The Holy Mountain in County Mayo Ireland, formerly known in pagan Celtic times as Croachan Aigh (Mount of the Eagle) and now called Cruach Phadraig (The Mountain of St. Patrick) is the scene of a ritual which predates the Christian era. Druids and their acolytes would walk to the top of the 2510ft high mountain on the last Sunday of July as part of the Lughnasadh festival, make invocations to the gods and goddesses and leave offerings of harvested wild fruits as a sort of thanksgiving. Archeologists reckon that such rituals date back to 3000 BC. The current festival, known as 'Garland Sunday' is in celebration of the 40 day fast by St. Patrick in 441 AD. So-called because pilgrims leave garlands at the top of the mount.

During Lughnasadh many people would pick wild berries from the hilltops, called fraughans, herts, bilberries or blueberries, and make them into festive desserts, puddings or jelly (jam in Europe). Such a delicacy is the Fraughan-Fool with cookies, and incredibly simple to make:

Ingredients: Blueberries, Granulated sugar, Whipped Cream.

Method: 1. Crush the berries with a potato masher and sweeten to taste with the sugar. 2. Fold in the whipped cream (equal to about 1/2 the volume of berries). 3. Chill and serve with your cookies.

For the cookies: Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups of flour, 1 stick of butter, 1/4 cup of granulated sugar

Method: 1. Rub the butter into the flour, then add the sugar. Form into a dough and knead lightly. 2. Roll out to 1/4 inch thickness, cut into rounds with a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter. 3. Place on a buttered baking tray or on parchment, and put into a preheated oven at 350 F until pale brown (about 15 mins), take out on cool on a wire rack.

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