Ogham: G Gort – Ivy

  • Time: 30 Sep – 27 Oct
  • Ivy is the tree of resurrection.
  • It’s god is Bran, in another of his aspects.

Ivy is evergreen. It grows spirally, as the spiral of life grows, and represents the ever-flowing life-force that courses through the Earth. It is often the tree of chthonic (underworld) gods like Dionysios. For the Celts this is Bran.

Bran is one of the father-figure gods and a giant. It is told that when he lay down over a river, an army could march across him. He is also king of the underworld, and watches over the treasures of Don. These treasures are the animals, plants, insects, birds and the fabric of life itself of the Earth, for Don is one of the names of The Mother. So Bran is a king in the Celtic sense in that he was guardian to and of the goddess. He is also the God of Bards.

One of his names is Bron or Brons, the Fisher King of the Parsifal story. Arthurian scholar, Loomis, says …

“It can hardly be accidental that so many significant features of bron should lead us back to Welsh tradition. If we accept the hypothesis of an exclusively Christian origin for this character, we must also be prepared to admit that he is irrelevant and unnecessary. As Nitze has observed, Joseph and Petrus would have sufficed for the purposes of the story. If on the other hand Bron = Bran, then the inconsistencies in the stories can be explained as purely Christian developments.”

It seems that again Christianity homogenized one of the Celtic gods. Most conquering peoples do this to some extent, some are reasonably gentle about it as the Romans were in integrating their gods with ours. Others are brutal as were the Christians.

Bran is associated with the Apple Isle, Avalon, and one of the places his head is said to be buried is there. There are many candidates for Avalon in the real world and, as I’ve said before, chasing down which is the “right” one is a fool’s game. I have personal reasons for favouring the island of Lundy off the North Devon coast as it’s where I was born and grew up. It is said there are towers, usually invisible, on the island and that in one of these Bran’s head his buried. The towers are also associated with Arianrhod, and with Elen of the Ways, my personal patron.

The old name for Lundy was ‘Ynys Wair’ – Gwair’s Island. Gwair is a Celtic – Sun God. The 19th century Celtic scholar, Professor Rhys, was among the first to connect the imprisonment of Gwair on Lundy, with the Greek myth of the binding of Chronus on a western isle. What is this myth of the god imprisoned on a western isle?

In the Book of Taliesin the poem the Prieddeu AnnwynThe Spoils of Annwn –  contains the outline of the now lost legendary tale. The poet tells of Arthur and his men sailing to the Fairy Fortress ,Caer Sidi, aboard Arthur‘s ship Prydwen to free the captive Gwair. It is accepted by leading scholars in the field that the Fairy Fortress, Caer Sidi, refers to the island of Lundy.

So … the sun is captured and imprisoned in the west, the place of sunset. The Celts had less fear of the dark than of the sun who was said to burn the land and called the “son of Scorch”. Pwyll fights him for Arawn as part of their agreement.

The taking and keeping of the sun is part of Bran’s ritual each midwinter. He is the Ivy god who fights with the Holly god – as sung in the Christmas carols – and who is overcome. It is an alchemical battle between death and resurrection.

The battle is also told of in the tales and songs of the Robin and the Wren. Tradition was that the wren is killed on the 26th December – the first day after Sun-Return, the day the sun begins moving again after the midwinter solstice or standstill, when there begins to be more light than dark each day for the next six months up until midsummer. In ancient times Sun-Return was a very special feast, not because our ancestors were stupid and thought the sun would never come back but because they were wise and knew to work with and celebrate the goddess in the seasons.

Amanita muscaria

Graves likens this time to the autumn feast of Dionysios, called the mysterion. As well as wine the celebrants would have taken the faery toadstool, amanita muscaria, the red toadstool with the white spots in all the faery paintings. It’s quite possible this was done in Celtic lands too. The journey given by the toadstool is deep, passionate and violent, it strips to the core, tearing us apart. And note we call it a “toad stool”, place of the toad, the alchemical creature whose poison can be made into a medicine, rather than a mushroom. The feast is called the mysterion … feast of the mysteries, the lore, the grammarye, the reality of Life.

As part of this ritual ivy-ale, a highly intoxicating drink, would be drunk. It was still brewed at Trinity College, Oxford, up to the 1960s and maybe still is. The ivy bush was an old sign of a wine, as opposed to beer, tavern in England. There are still many pubs called “The Ivy Bush”.

In British folklore, Ivy is a bringer of good fortune, particularly to women. Allowing it to creep up the walls of your home protects all who live there from baneful magic and curses. It also appears in love-divination, it was said that a girl carrying Ivy in her pockets would soon see the young man who was meant to be her husband. Medicinally, an Ivy tonic can be brewed to keep away diseases such as whooping cough and respiratory ailments — it was even believed to keep away the plague.

The Fisher King

Bran, like Dionysios, is a chthonic god, a lord of the underworld, the place of shadows, dreams and a light that does not burn or scorch. And Bran is associated with Ivy as well as with the Alder which are the branches he carries in his crown to the Battle of the Trees. Where then we had Bran as the god-essence behind the alder tree no we have Bran as the essence of the Fisher King, the wounded king of the Wasteland,

This, from Wiki, gives a good idea of it all …

Ivy, like a woman clinging in ecstasy to the tree trunk

The Fisher King appears first in Chrétien de TroyesPerceval, but the character’s roots lie in Celtic mythology in the figure of Bran the Blessed in the Mabinogion.  Bran had a cauldron that could resurrect the dead that he gave to the king of Ireland as a wedding gift when the king married Bran’s sister, Branwen. Later, when Branwen is insulted, Bran wages war on the Irish and is wounded in the foot or leg, the cauldron is destroyed. He asks his followers to sever his head and take it back to Britain, and his head continues talking and keeps them company on their trip. This story has analogues in two other important Welsh texts: the Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, in which King Arthur‘s men must travel to Ireland to retrieve a magical cauldron, and the obscure poem The Spoils of Annwn, which speaks of a similar mystical cauldron sought by Arthur in the otherworldly land of Annwn.

The purpose of the fishing has got very lost over the hundreds of years. Going back into the Celtic original we can link it to the Salmon of Wisdom. To catch this Elder Beast and ask it for advice was a known way to help with ill-fortune and the Fisher King would do this. Indeed, it would be one of kingly duties both to ensure the nine hazel trees surrounding the Well of Segais flourish and so provide nuts to feed the Salmon. Also to go to the Well and call the Salmon, ask it to come and answer questions. In Celtic terms the gaining of wisdom is often about “eating”. To digest and absorb, right into ones bones so to speak, is considered good learning. Just to process it through the head, the brain, was and is still considered worthless and ineffectual. So the Fisher King would catch and cook and eat the Salmon. And, every time, the Salmon would renew itself, come again into form so that it can provide the wisdom-food for the next supplicant.

As you work with ivy don’t go eating it, it’s very poisonous! But do sit with it, try to absorb its wisdom within you. Don’t try to make sense of it just flow, with it, allow it to wrap around you, embrace you, as ivy does the tree. And don’t be afraid, although ivy is a parasitic plant it never kills its host – that would be stupid and wasteful as it would lose its means of support. Ivy gives as well as receives and will teach you how to do this too.

As a resurrection plant, ivy will take you through each little death that happens in your life and help you enable yourself to rise again. You will be a larger and more inclusive being for the experience.

 

writer artist gardener shaman
Wye’s Woman Rainbow Warrior
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier Morning

Poetic Justice

In children’s fiction, and fairy tales, poetic justice is a frequent feature. It restores the balance and avenges wrong without the good guys having to actually take revenge. So the good people are never morally compromised by killing the villain, but the wrongdoer gets their ’comuppance’ as we called it when I was small. This has some interesting implications, both from a druid and a writing perspective.

Poetic justice, by its very nature is appropriate, and is usually something the villain brings upon themselves – they are eaten by the very monster they created, they fall into their own evil machine, are blown up by their own bomb, foiled by the going wrong of their own evil plan. Aside from keeping the main character safe without requiring them to become violent, this method of resolution feels wholly deserved. It’s very satisfying.

Justice is an issue of great interest to Druids. One of our prayers asks for ‘the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of justice, the love of it.’ Druids of old were involved with law and justice too. Modern Druids talk of the importance of restorative justice, of returning balance and offsetting harm done.

When thinking about poetic justice from a Druid perspective, it raises a few interesting issues. Firstly, it’s random and just happens or is brought about by the wrongdoer, so you can’t actively seek it (although you can of course pray for it). It doesn’t require any action on the part of the victim. Sometimes this is, or can seem, a good thing. However, justice that requires the victim to face their oppressor, or just be brave enough to make a cry for help, has very different effects. When the victim seeks redress or participates actively in the process of justice, they own what happens. Although it may be hard and painful, actively seeking justice, gives something back to the victim. No matter what the offence, to be the victim of something is to lose a part of yourself – rights, freedom, self determination, property, soul… a survivor able to actively participate in justice may do better in the long run than one who benefits from a quirk of fate.

Where the victim has died, of course they can’t seek for justice, but their families can. Vengeance can be a ghastly, destructive thing, so poetic justice may spare them from that. There can be no righting of the wrong, no restoring of the balance when someone has died. Finding justice in such circumstances is difficult to say the least. 

From a writing perspective, poetic justice gives you an easy, tidy solution to the narrative. In kids fiction and fairy tales this fits the form and is satisfying. It can seem too tidy in more adult fiction, and doesn’t give the other characters chance to work through their own solutions. It can feel a bit ‘rabbit out of hat’ and too convenient to be plausible.

But even so, there are times when we all wish for it, and times when poetic justice comes, magically, to redress a balance we cannot hope to fix for ourselves. There have been a few such moments in my life. I would have no objections to encountering a few more.

Making the Preparations

Paul (hubby) in our horn pit

Let me reiterate straight away that you don’t need to make any of the preps yourself unless you want to. You can buy them already to stir or put into your heap from your local/national biodynamic association – see References at the bottom of the front page of this column.

However, you may decide you want to make the preps for yourself, or at least some of them. It’s good fun, especially if there’s a group of you, like the garden club, and gives an enormous feeling of satisfaction when you use your very own preparations on your land.

The two horn preps – 500, horn manure, and 501, horn silica – are possible for anyone so inclined, even in a small town garden.

I think it’s important that people can know, if they want to, how all the preps are made. It’s not “black magic” even if the methods are unusual. I don’t propose to attempt much on why you do it this way, or why it works. It’s as difficult to explain as why (not how) electricity works but we know that it does, we see it every day. Similarly, I see biodynamics working every day without needing to know why. There are many things we do without knowing all the whys and wherefores. We know they work, that they do what we want, and biodynamics is (at the moment) like that, although I suspect there will come a time when we are able to explain some of the whys. Evolution works like that, often from the experiential to the theoretical … not the other way about!

Cruelty …

And let me also say that no animals are ever slaughtered just to make the preparations. All the animal components come from animals that are being slaughtered for food in any case. In biodynamics we try to use as much as possible of every beast killed – waste is inimical to BD and is considered cruel as well.

Making the Spray Preps

If you live in a town and have gardening neighbours, or are a member of a garden club or allotment group, why not get together a group of interested people and make the spray preparations as a group? It’s like doing neighbourhood composting or sharing gardens – things lots of people are going for now. And working in a group is good fun as well as sharing the work.

You’ll need 1-2 horns per person and just the one pit between you all. The picture is of my husband, Paul, in our horn pit, getting it ready for the 500 horns to go in. We have quite a bit pit and do a lot of horns as we give some into the “pool” for others to use who can’t make the preps themselves. You don’t necessarily need to have such a large pit, it depends how many of you there are, how much land and so how many horns. Our pit can take 40+ horns, far more than most people want but would be very useful for a garden or allotment club.

Because a lot of people already do this it’s possible for us all to buy the preps rather than having to make them. Folk like us make some extra and the biodynamic association sells it on for cost only – no profit involved here, just goodwill and sharing.

  • You can buy horns – again costs only, no profit – from your local biodynamic association:  see References.

I’ll be writing about how to make Prep 500, horn manure, in the next post.

writer artist gardener shaman
Wye’s Woman Rainbow Warrior
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier No-Knead Bread

No Curses

Lots of people associate paganism, especially witchcraft, with curses. One of the most commonly asked questions I get from non-pagans is ‘do you do curses?’ (It comes along with queries about dancing naked and sacrificing virgins.) Traditionally, curses have been a part of paganism – cunning folk did it and so did our ancient ancestors. However, in today’s ethical climate, it’s not a comfortable issue.

Wishing ill on people, no matter what they’ve done to you, is unethical. It’s not something I have ever done, nor would I consider doing it. There’s a secondary issue that it’s not good to be filled up with hatred and a hunger for revenge. Thirdly, many pagan folk believe in ideas like karma, and the wiccan notion of threefold return- what we do comes back to us. So in thought as well as deed, it’s not ok to send malevolence to another.

So what do you do, when conventional justice does not seem available? I think we all have moments when someone drives us to despair or rage, and we have no viable scope for responding. What do you wish for, or pray for? So below, partly for my own amusement, partly for yours, are some entirely ethical, but not remotely nice responses for when you don’t have any other options.

Wish them self knowledge and the chance to fully understand who they are and how others perceive them.

Wish them learning opportunities, and the chance to understand the impact of their actions.

Wish them the opportunity to share in what they have given you.

Wish them a conscience.

If you can’t tackle a person directly about wrongs committed, sometimes it helps to imagine them in front of you (when no one else is around to think you are crazy) and say aloud all the things you wish them to hear and understand. It’s a good way of venting and getting it out of your head and heart.

Above all else, wish for poetic justice, and imagine what form that would take. I’m going to come back on the poetic justice issue because it’s such an interesting one, both from a writing and a druidic perspective.

Druid Charity Status

The Druid Network has charity status – not registered yet, but rubber stamped as fulfilling the requirements for registration, so pretty much there. This is very big news. It makes tdn the first recognised Druid charity in the UK and the first pagan group to be registered under the 2006 Act. It’s taken years and a lot of very wonderful people have fought very hard to make this possible – dealing with a system that had been set up to handle religions shaped more like Christianity than not.

The Druid Network having achieved charitable status will bring all kinds of benefits to the organisation, enhancing credibility and creating opportunities to promote and support Druidry. This is all good. It also means that any other pagan charity is going to have a much better chance of getting charitable status. No other Druid group is going to have to prove that Druidry is a valid religion. Other pagan groups will be able to use the tdn case to help express their own. The process that has got tdn charitable status has helped create understanding of nature based religion, modern polytheism, and things that are not remotely like Christianity. As this is a legal definition of tdn as a religious charity, it will have all kinds of wider legal implications too.

It’s an awe inspiring thing to have seen happen. I’ve been in a position to watch from the sidelines through the later part of the process. The work that has gone into making this happen, has been colossal. It’s wonderful to see paganism being taken seriously, and I think this bodes well for our future. 

I know there are a significant number of pagans who are wary about contact with officialdom. For some, part of the attraction of paganism is precisely that we aren’t tied up in state structures and officialdom. However, for pagans to have the same rights as other folks and the freedom to live and worship on our own terms, we have to engage with the system. It’s vitally important that we do that without compromising the individual choice and responsibility inherent in paganism. To define ourselves without becoming dogmatic, and engage with authority without becoming authoritarian or hierarchical is going to be a challenge. The systems we deal with are based on assumptions that are totally unlike paganism.

One of the things that charitable status for the Druid Network shows is that we can engage and be heard, without having to become something other than we are. That gives me hope.

Creepy Occult Time

Writing about the occult is one of those issues that brings my writer self and my Druid self into conflict. From a Druid perspective, I don’t believe that there is anything outside of nature, although my notion of ‘nature’ includes the scope for much that could be deemed ‘supernatural’. (Ghosts, spirits etc). As a Druid, I don’t find any of these things inherently creepy or disturbing. As with all aspects of life, some bits are better than others. I’ve been creeped out by things I couldn’t explain, but I’ve also been happily surprised and inspired.

From a writing perspective, stories about happy benevolent contact with things magical get dull really fast. The best occult tales are horror and spine chillers. Think Phil Rickman, the hugely popular Dennis Wheatley (who I haven’t read) Clive Barker and no doubt many more. The occult is inherently uncanny, beyond our knowledge and control, dangerous and hard to tackle. As a plot device it drives stories wonderfully well.

The pagan in me wants to write a positive, magical realism, with a pagan take on the world in which magic is not evil. The writer in me… won this time round.

Dead Sexy’ is dark, and the occult, where it manifests, is not friendly at all, or safe, or benevolent. It’s a story I’d been working up to for a while. There was a jewellery box, with the name ‘Octavia’ on it. She was part of my family, and went mad. That’s all I know about her. The first time I heard about her, it stuck in my head, and I’ve made up stories before, trying to imagine what might have happened to her. All speculation. The Octavia in this story is someone I created, borrowing the name and drawing on the inspiration. Otherwise, this is complete fabrication.

It’s not the first time I’ve written scary evil occult stuff, either. The writer in me apologises to the druid in me on a regular basis. At some point, there will be reconciliation and I’ll write a creepy occult story with a druid hero or heroine, and that will balance out entirely.

Druids and the Church

Druidry and Christianity have a very interesting sort of relationship. There are folks who do both, and most of the folks who only do one find this a bit perplexing. And no, I have no idea really how it works, but so long as it does work for people, then fair enough.

Churches have a very strong physical presence in a lot of communities. They are a hub point for activity, as well as the focal point of worship and religion. Contemporary druids do not, usually, have anything comparable. There aren’t enough of us, we don’t have the financial backing, and there is the whole issue of liking to do it in the trees. Groves are good for rituals, but less good for playgroups, jumble sales, coffee mornings and all the other social glue that holds church communities together.

I’ll freely admit that every now and then I get an attack of building-envy. Churches tend to have very good acoustics too, they are fabulous places to sing. Often they have interesting windows and art work to explore. In rural places, churches are often where the local history, archaeology and myth wind up. If you want to find out about a place, poking around in the church will give you a good place to start. Then there’s the graveyard – frequently a wildlife haven and full of ancestors – ancestors of place, if not bone or tradition.

If you’re getting the idea that I love churches, you’d be right. But the trouble is Christianity doesn’t speak to me and never did. I am very fond of many lovely Christian people, and I have a lot of respect for what they do, but I’m never going to be going that way.

The trouble is, being a Druid, by definition involves having a community to be a Druid for. Which is fine and dandy if there are plenty of pagans about. But what do you do if you are the only pagan in the village, or your part of town? The private, solitary aspects of Druidry you can do anywhere, but the community aspect means people.

When I was in Redditch, I had a good relationship both with the nearest vicar, and my son’s school (which was a faith school). We were entirely open about the paganism. I’ve sung in the church (because I love mediaeval music) and supported church events. It depends a lot on the nature of your vicar, but many have an attitude that the church exists for the community, first and foremost. Being openly pagan, non-confrontational and interested in giving service, I found it easy enough to find a place.

My new home, unshockingly, turns out to have a church in viable walking distance (this being the UK, I’d be hard pushed to live somewhere this wasn’t true of). It’s a significant hub of local life. I love the graveyard, and have snuck into the building when no one else is about. Empty churches can be very lovely places to meditate on a rainy day. In time, I’ll start offering all the things I’ve given in other places – music, harvest loaf making, help with practical things. All the community and craft aspects. If the community I’m in turns out to be light on pagans, and more Christians, then to serve, as a Druid, I need to find ways to serve within a Christian-defined context. It can be done.