Imbolc is a time of new beginnings. For us Celts the new year begins at Samhain … and at Imbolc. Both. And/and not either/or. It rather like Schrödinger’s Cat, being alive and dead at the same time, or like light being both waves and particles.
The Celtic tradition can seem as confusing as the sound of one hand clapping … and for the same reasons. We work very happily in duality, as and/and.
The story-lore, the grammarye, tells us that at Samhain the crone, Ceridwen, opens her eyes and takes hold of her transmuting power. She becomes the guardian of the well of kenning, of nouse, and holds the cup for us to drink from over the season of Midwinter.
Then comes the snowdrops, the flowers of the spring, pushing their heads up through the frozen soil, holding the White Cup of Fostering upside-down so that all its goodness pours down onto, into, the soil, making it rich for the coming spring.
This is the way of it in the northlands, where the snowdrop flourishes along with the flourishing snow. This story is of the northlands. In the south, the Lady of Spring shows us things differently but always she comes forth with the life-energy of fostering at this time.
Imbolc fostering comes through the sheep’s’ milk for us here in the north. As the new lambs birth so the white milk comes, the new goodness.
Rowan is the tree of quickening and of divination.
Rowan is a small deciduous tree, found high up in the mountains, sometimes called “The Lady of the Mountain”. The Rowan tree, also known as “quicken” and Mountain Ash in the Welsh Marches where I live, is a well-known magical tree. Quickbeam is the its name in the countryside, it’s called the Quicken Tree, the Quickbeam (meaning ‘living wood’) the Witch Tree. Remember Quickbeam, the Ent, in LOTR ?
A member of the Rose family, Rowan is related to Rose, Apple, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Cherry, and grows no higher than 30-40 feet. It can live up to two hundred years. The leaves grow in pairs and are long and slender. In May, Rowan blossoms into clusters of little creamy white flowers. The tree berries in autumn with a bright red fruit beloved by birds.
The Rowan berry is bitter, but when mixed with sugar or other sweet fruits, is excellent in pies, jelly or jam. Rowan berries are also made into juice and wine. The berries provide vitamins A and C, carotene, pectin and essential oil, and stimulate the immune system. Medicinally, Rowan berries are a laxative, and can also be used for sore throats, inflamed tonsils, hoarseness, even diarrhoea. A decoction from the bark is used as an astringent.
The berries were commonly used to flavour ale in an old Welsh recipe and were used as a coffee substitute. This fruit can also be fed to wild birds, to flavour liqueurs and cordials and can be made into jam.
It’s possible the word “Rowan” comes from the Norse word rune, meaning charm or secret. The Sanskrit word runa means magician, but it may also be from the Gaelic rudha-an, meaning “the red one”. Rune staves were often cut from the rowan tree which gives a leaning towards the Norse … but most likely all three explanations are valid. Its Celtic name is “Luis”, (pronounced ‘loosh’).
Rowan is a gateway tree.
The Celtic shaman’s Silver Branch, calling Spirit, opening the gates between worlds to enable divination, is often made from rowan.
It is burnt for to invoke spirits for divination, bringing inspiration. Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the Beltane fire as it is the tree of dragons, guarded by dragons. Walking sticks made of rowan will guide you through the Wild Wood and the Enchanted Forest.
Rowan is one of the trees associated with the goddess Brighid, Smith/Healer/Poet. She is also the spinner and weaver of the Threads, the Wyrd of the World. Spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of Rowan. It’s also called the Wicken Tree and used for divining – one of Brighid’s skills through her Thread-weaving and kenning of the Wyrd.
In Scotland, Rowan trees were sometimes planted near stone circles and said to be especially powerful. The Faer hold their celebrations in stone circles guarded by Rowan trees. Rowan twigs placed above doorways and barns protect against bad luck and the tree is used for protection.
Rowan is a part of the fuel for burning the dead, symbolising death and rebirth. In Celtic lands red food is food of the dead. As a quickening tree rowan works in both directions, opens the gateway between Thisworld and Otherworld for both death and birth … death to Thisworld is birth into Otherworld and vice versa. It also opens the gateway for the shaman to journey between the worlds to bring back the kenning that their folk need.
In traditional Celtic divination ritual its round wattles, spread with bull’s hides, were used to call difficult spirits to answer, hence the Irish saying to “go on the wattles of knowledge” meaning to do your utmost to find the answer, get information. Thickets of rowan are often found in places used for oracular work, e.g. the Baltic Amber Isles.
Working with Rowan
Divination is a charismatic word, full of glamour, seductive … how many of us can truthfully put our hands up and say we’ve never been for a reading? Mostly we want difficult questions answered. Such answers mean we can shift responsibility for the outcomes from ourselves by saying we were following the reading … “only following orders” – now where have I heard that before?
Divination is often associated with clairvoyance. The word comes from the French, meaning clear vision. Many ancient Celtic wells and springs offered clearing the sight, while this can well mean clearing cataracts it likely refers to seeing across worlds, to divination, to clairvoyance. Water was fundamental to the Celtic tradition, the lifeblood of the Mother, the silver threads of life-energy that run throughout the body of the Earth carrying the knowing, kenning, of Life as well as the stuff without which we cannot live.
Rowan will help you.
In order to be clairvoyant, to divine, one must know oneself, be true and honest to and about oneself, this is not easy! Rowan can hold the gateway for you to see yourself as others see you and to know yourself as you truly are. Often these are not the same, nor should they be. All of us wear another skin – as in the bull-dreaming divination – but it is vital for each of us to know when we are wearing the bull’s skin and when our own. It is this confusion combined with the wish to look good in the eyes of others that disables clear-seeing, clairvoyance. While we are inveigled by our needs to look good nothing will appear as it truly is.
Spend time sitting with these words …
Clear Distinct Sharp
Vision Idea Revelation Concept Foresight Prediction Sight Ability to see
Divine Discover Guess Presume Discern Perceive
Thread Fibre Gist Storyline Theme Plot Idea
You’ll find working with these words, ideas, will draw out your own concepts, take your ideas out of the box. Coming out of the box is going through a gate, crossing, walking between worlds … this is the beginning of seeing clearly.
Be assured that this journey will be difficult. We are all accustomed to the sway things are and wish to assume that they will be this way always … of course, they won’t. but take rowan, and take courage, walk into the darkness to find the light.
One of the big things in the western world at this season of Sun-Return is Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus which is derived from St Nicholas.
An advertising campaign by the Coca Cola Company in the 1930s made our current image of Father Christmas almost universal although it was fairly ubiquitous by the late 19th Century. With an expansion of global exploration in Victorian times, travellers returned home from visiting the Sami of Lapland with the story of flying reindeer, spread the tale all over central Europe. We had long forgotten our own British traditions and no longer did reindeer roam the land as they had. They are back again though now.
As is the wont of Christianity, our pagan customs have pragmatically been adapted and integrated into their Christmas traditions and so hidden from their true origins and meanings.
The Pagan Shaman
Father Christmas is an ancient pagan figure, coming from the shaman who is also the gift-bringer for the season of Sun-Return … the time of the solstice when the sun appears to stand still for 3 days and then move on again. What happens is that the sun, for the three days, appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th of December and then, on the 25th, appears to move on to the next place on the horizon. Our ancestors, all over the world, observed this, along with the fact that from the solstice on the days again begin to get lighter heralding the spring. They rightly celebrated this season, as we still do. It’s good to know the origins of the celebration which are as old as humankind, perhaps some 600,000 years.
Father Christmas is special to many folk, especially children. The traditions which he is about come largely from the European shamans and wise-folk. For instance …
In the Nordic tradition, the red-and-white dressed Father Christmas is a knowing-one shaman-figure carrying Wotan’s energy. The word shaman – from the Turkic word šamán, also used in the wider Turko-Mongol and Tungusic cultures in ancient Siberia – mean “one who knows”. I use it because it’s currently reasonably well understood all around the world. One of the words for it in my own Celtic tradition is Awenydd, but that is very unknown to most so I tend to stick with shaman.
The red-white-black costume of Father Christmas goes way back in the Celtic tradition to the triplicity represented by the 3 Cups …
The Red cup of Lordship
The White cup of Fostering
The Black cup of Self-Forgetfulness (i.e. ego-restraint)
It also relates to the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. This is “fairy mushroom” we all know from many beautiful drawings and paintings, the characteristic red mushroom with its white dots. It is a vision and dream-making mushroom but needs to be eaten very carefully and the best way to take it is one which probably turns the stomachs of many modern folk. You watch the reindeer eat the mushroom and then collect their pee … then you drink reindeer pee! The reindeer changes the constitution of the mushroom so that it is no longer so poisonous but still retains it’s magical, journeying qualities.
Siberian Reindeer have a particuar prediliction for the fungi in question and can behave very odl under their influence. The Sami actually feed the reindeer the mushrooms, then collect the Reindeer’s urine as this not only contains the full hallucinogenic strength of the Fly Agaric but much of the mushroom’s toxicity is removed by the Reindeer’s digestive processes.
So there is one connection between Father Christmas and the reindeer … and flying.
Most shamans of the Northern Hemisphere ate it ritually. Its shamanic use can be traced to the Lapps, the Siberian nomadic peoples (Samojeden, Ostjaken, Tungusen, and Jakuten), and the North American Indians. In many mythologies, storm and thunderstorm gods are associated with the fly agaric mushroom. The thunder and lightning can be how it appears as you begin a fly agaric journey through the spirit worlds.
The Germanic thunder and fertility god, Donar or Thor, drives his goat cart through the air, bringing thunder and lightning as he throws his hammer in the clouds. Thunderstones (meteorites) fall to earth where they inseminate the ground and make mushrooms grow, especially fly agarics.
The fly agaric journey is one ecstasy, knowing and knowledge. The Nordic tradition says the fly agaric mushroom grows where Wotan rides on his horse through the clouds with other members of the wild hunt, at the time of the winter solstice. Wherever the froth of Wotan’s horse fell to the ground, the ground would become “pregnant” and nine months later would sprout fly agaric mushrooms, at the time of the autumn equinox. The story sometimes says that the fly agaric mushrooms grow from a mixture of the blood (red) and froth (white) of Wotan’s white horse. The wild hunt is drawn to the mushroom, calmed and put in a good mood with incense. Wherever it finds nourishment, the wild hunt becomes guardian of house and farm. For us in the Celtic tradition this is Gwyn ap Nudd and his white fairy hounds with their red eyes and ears. He rides at solstice, through to 12th Night – The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is wonderful story that tells of this ride and what it’s about.
Reindeer, Sleighs, and Shamans
The idea of a great variety of reindeer sleighs flying through the air at Christmastime is common, carrying a laughing, red-and-white Father Christmas in the sleigh with his sack, his rod, and the presents. Every year this ancient shaman comes to Earth in his reindeer sleigh and lands on numerous roofs to descend down chimneys. Where does this come from?
Father Christmas is a pagan shaman from the distant European past – and the current pagan present. British. Gaelic, European and Siberian mythology all have a “heavenly wild hunt”. The Siberian ones are the most quoted now because we seem to have forgotten or mislaid our own ancient shamanic traditions. The Siberian shamans ride on reindeer sleighs through the air, up to the clouds. The world tree is their goal; this is where the magic reindeer are. The Siberian Tschutschuken say that the moon is a man on a sleigh that is pulled by two reindeer to Earth and can fly back up to the Upperworld like the modern Father Christmas figure. The Celtic tradition also revolves around the world tree, the source of wisdom.
The association of reindeer and shamanism is seen in the caves of the Ardèche, where wall paintings of reindeer, some thirty thousand years old, show our connection. As early as the Old Stone Age, reindeer were sunk in moors as sacrificial offerings – for example, in the Hamburg steppe of Meiendorf and Stellmoor and in Magdalénien (Pohlhausen 1953). This is the ritual context of cultic poles or stakes crowned with anthropomorphic mushrooms with dwarf caps. Sometimes, even reindeer skulls were placed on top of such sacrificial stakes. These often-neglected details show our association of reindeer with the mushrooms.
Yurt burried in snow
Down the Chimney …
Many shamanic peoples are nomads and live in portable homes such as yurts supported by a large beam of wood which stretches up to the smoke hole. At the Midwinter Festival, the Shaman wanting to enter a yurt buried in the snow would find the smoke-hole the only way in!
Siberian yurts have a roof supported by a birch pole with a smoke hole at the top. At the midwinter festivals of annual renewal, the shaman gathers the fly agaric from under sacred trees. Whilst harvesting the toadstools, she or he wears a costume of red and white fur-trimmed coat with long black boots – so carrying the colours of all three cups. This costume is very like the modern day Santa Claus. She or he then enters the yurt through the smoke hole, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric, and descends the birch pole to the floor. Once inside, the shaman performs ceremonies and shares out the toadstool’s gifts with those gathered inside. After the ceremony is over the shaman leaves up the pole and back through the smoke hole.
Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived during the 4th Century and known as the patron saint of children. He is said to brings presents on the eve of his feast day, 6th December – somewhat earlier than the solstice!
Most religious historians now agree that St Nicholas never actually existed, but was instead a Christianized amalgam of the historical bishops, Nicholas of Myra (4th Century) and Nicholas of Sion (d. 564) together with a number of pagan gods including the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar. Legend tells that Hold Nickar galloped through the sky during the winter solstice, granting favours to his worshippers below.
St Nicholas is associated with a number of miracles and stories to do with giving presents which integrate him into the legend of Santa Claus:
Green Man – Lord of the Forest
Bringing the forest into the home – like many of Christmas traditions – has its roots in the days when we all were pagans. At the solstice it’s traditional to bring armfuls of greenery into the home; put fir trees in a bucket and decorate them with baubles; hang holly and ivy over mantelpieces and picture frames, and mistletoe over doorways.
Note again that triplicity of colours – red holly berries, black ivy berries and white mistletoe, carrying the energy of the 3 Cups in a different way but always reminding us of our tradition, symbols of eternal life and renewal.
Dr Brian Bates, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the shaman research programme at Sussex University (author of the Way of Wyrd), said: “In the early tribal cultures of Europe there were huge midwinter parties, involving an entire tribal group, with a shaman taking centre stage wearing a crown of holly and ivy, representing the eternal life of ‘evergreen’ nature.” The Druids gathered mistletoe and hung it in their homes because of its miraculous powers. Even carol singing had its precursors in shamanic festivals. If you listen to the words and stories of the old carols you see the old myths carried forward in them. A myth is not a made up story, by the way, but a word for “belief system”. En-chanting, singing up the gods and goddess, is as hold as human voices. Older perhaps, I’m thinking of wolves howling here but some of you may find that too much to handle.
However, you celebrate the solstice do think of the ancient ways of humanity, where we have all come from. The old ways that celebrate the realities of the turning Earth, the patterns and rhythms of the Sun which enables Life, the seasons that give us food, beauty, challenge and delight. Whatever modern religion you currently profess, spend a moment with the Old Ones, who are the ancestors of us all. That way, we really do bring love and peace and understanding across the whole world.
Iolo is one of the five vowels of the ogham tree alphabet, representing our letter I.
Yew is the longest lived of all British trees, holds great knowing and wisdom. It’s beenthe coffin-maker’s tree for ages. It was also the tree of weddings, the bright red yew-berries were thrown as good-luck charms over newlyweds, offering their sweetness.
Normally I would talk about this tree at Samhain but I saved it for winter solstice this year. Here in Britain this year we have snow, lots of it, an unusual occurrence for us for the past 20+ years. Now global warming is really cranking up the winters are changing and becoming more severe. No-one knows yet how the new patterns the Mother is making in the weather will pan out, we may get a set of hard winters and then a set of wet, soft ones … we must wait on her and see what she gives.
In case you didn’t know, Solstice is 21st December. Astronomically this may be slightly different each year but for purposes of celebration many folk stay with the 21st. this year we had the added blessing of a blood-moon this morning. The energies were amazing where I lived but I couldn’t physically see much because there was a high mist covering the whole sky. I could sense the covering of the moon, the eclipse, but not see it with my physical eyes.
The 21st is the beginning of the solstice period, the period of three days when the sun appears to rise at the same point on the horizon. This is very well marked at Stonehenge, and at other less well known stone circles. Our ancestors knew …
The three day period of apparent standstill ends with the sun appearing to move forward, rise in a slightly different place on the horizon on the 25th December. In our tradition it’s called Sun-Return and signifies the birth of the King. In early mediaeval myth here in Britain this became the birth of Arthur but before that it was the birth of the Mabon, the eternal child who brings us the journey of the soul. It’s not surprising that the Christians took it up and used it for the birth of their winter king who – like all puer eternis – shows us the soul journey.
Sun-Return is the day the sun begins to move again after the 3-day standstill of the Winter Solstice; i.e. 25th December, and is a symbol of birth out of death. Archaeologists still seem to like to say our ancestors would have been afraid the sun was never going to come back but this is a highly denigrating view. You only have to watch the sun return one year to see it will. If you’re particularly fearful then maybe it takes two or three years … so you’re probably aged five or so when you’ve got the hang of it, especially if your parents take you to rituals and give you the stories.
Besides, people who could build such accurate time-pieces as Stonehenge and the other circles would hardly be so dumb as to not know about the seasons, that would make no sense at all. Sometimes we appear to have gone backwards in our common sense and be trying to pull our ancestors back into the childish habits of thought many people live in now.
Yew’s watch-words are “I am the tomb to every hope”.
What does this mean? What is a tomb? The thesaurus offers the following …
Ossuary Grave Sepulchre Mausoleum Burial place Charnel house Necropolis,
A place where things/people are buried after they have died. In the case of ossuary it is a place of bones, a charnel house where the relics – the bones which take perhaps millions of years to decompose – are stored. The word necropolis refers to a city of the dead, a physical vision of the place where the ancestors live. It makes some sense of the habit the Christians picked up of “relics of saints”, the bones. They again use the idea from the far more ancient pagan tradition of keeping a small part of the body an ancestor had once worn as a link back to the ancestors. Unfortunately they mostly don’t know about this tradition and meaning, however the innate human knowing does usually get some sort of a handle on it.
But why the tomb of hope? This can sound frightening to many. Hope … what is this? The thesaurus offers lots of possibilities for this word …
Desire Aspiration Dream Plan Wish Goal Yearn Long Look forward to
Hmm … what do you make of all that?
And then there is the Greek story of Pandora’s Box. The story goes that
Pandora, whose name means “giver of all” or “all-endowed”, was the first woman on Earth. Zeus command Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create her, which he did using water and earth. The other gods granted her many gifts – beauty from Aphrodite, persuasiveness from Hermes, and music from Apollo.
After Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus, Zeus sought reprisal by handing Pandora to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Pandora was given a jar that she was ordered not to open under any circumstances. Despite this warning, overcome by curiosity, Pandora opened the jar and all the evils contained within escaped into the world. Scared, Pandora immediately closed the jar, only to trap Hope inside.
This story is very like the creation of Blodeuwedd by Gwydion and with perhaps som of the same purposes. Hope is a funny, tricky thing. W often say things like, “my hopes were dashed”, “there’s no hope”. Hope can turn very sour and evil when we have pinned all our faith on it and it doesn’t come to pass as we expected … as we’d hoped!
This takes me to a gift I was given many years ago. One of my teachers told me he went into every situation “full of expectancy but without any expectations”. Do you get that?
He is open to anything that may come but without pinning his own ideas, wants, needs, expectations on it. He leaves room for the universe to be, he walks the universe’s path rather than trying to constrict the universe into walking the path of his own small desires.
So the watchwords of the Yew make some sense now?
If we bury our little personality hopes, desires, wants, then we make room for the big gifts the universe wants to offer us. The yew takes in these petty personal desires and composts them for us, buries them, allows them to decompose and go back into their constituent atoms so they can be remade anew into the good things that Life, the Universe and Everything really needs.
It also makes sure we don’t try to make everything live by our own scripts. We put space and boundaries around ourselves and allow others to be different. We can still grumble about the difference – inside out own space! – as long as we leave space for others.
So we put our hopes into the tomb the yew provides for us and go out to find the new path.
This is the death and rebirth thing of this time of year, of the going down of the sun and his/her return after the three days, to begin a new cycle, to begin the stirrings of springtime, of the herbaceous plants who demonstrate this so beautifully for us by dying down into the ground over the winter and then springing back up out of the soil as the seasons change.
Ponder on all this for the season of Sun-Return. I’ll talk more about the planet Saturn and the metal Lead later on today.