Inclusivity in Brythonic Polytheism

An excellent post by Lorna Smithers writing for Dun Brython on inclusivity in Brythonic polytheism. Paganism is as open to xenophobic and bigoted interpretation as any other religion, and it is our responsibility to stand up for honour and inspiration in the face of violence and intolerance.

Dun Brython

We live in frightening times. On June 12th, 49 people were shot dead in a gay club in Orlando. On June 16th, Labour politician Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a man influenced by the far-right. Since Brexit a multitude of hate-crimes have been committed against immigrants in Britain by nationalists who ‘want their country back.’

I witnessed racist bullying when I was at school but during my adult life have only been aware of rare instances locally and nationally. Up until the last month I was convinced we were moving forward into an increasingly tolerant society. Now I’m not so sure.

Encouragingly the pagan community have stepped up to address discrimination. The Pagan Federation London have written an open letter on bigotry which states:

‘I want to say right here and right now that everyone is welcome in PF-London. It doesn’t matter where you are from…

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love and death

Last night I found myself revisiting the old tale of The Ugly Wife – Emma Restall Orr’s retelling, from which her book Kissing The Hag takes its title. “It’s a story that can be found in very many forms, in old myth and legend, in folklore and music…”

The form it brought to mind was a retelling of another old tale by another wise woman, Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Skeleton Woman. I had never connected the two tales before – the first so rooted in the British Arthurian tradition, the second from the faraway Arctic of the Inuit – yet they speak to the same fears, and the same needs. Put bluntly, they speak of love and death, attraction and revulsion, trust and fear. All are intertwined.

All love must one day meet death. Nothing lasts for ever. The promises I am preparing to make last for a lifetime, and cannot be made in good faith without appreciating just what that means. One of us may well end up burying the other – or, if not, both of us will have to let our life together come to an end, in order to begin anew, alone again. And along the way there are a hundred little deaths: the deaths of illusions, old habits, fleeting physicality (already, the first white hairs, the suggestion of crows’ feet at the eyes, the settling of weight in unfamiliar places). Love itself is constantly dying and can be constantly reborn, if we trust each other and ourselves enough to let it happen.

Between my overblown romantic tendencies (“when love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep”) and studying and celebrating the mysteries of our cycles of death and regeneration, I feel ready to meet this challenge with a steady gaze. Timor mortis (non) conturbat me.

But lurking underneath this tale of renewal are other questions, and my gaze is much less steady when I meet them.

Who is the hag? Who am I? Who are you?

Can you love me like this? Can I love you while I am like this?

Can I be the soft-skinned maiden, feeling myself to be the hag underneath? Can I be the warm-blooded lover as well as the sea-ravaged skeleton? Is one more real than the other? Do they co-exist?

And what if I am the soft-skinned maiden, not the hag, but need your kindness to break me free? What if you, the fisherman, don’t feel that compassion, don’t shed that tear – am I stuck forever as a skeleton beneath the waves?

If I can change, what’s to stop me changing back? What’s to stop me wanting to change back?
Could you weather all these changes?

For some reason I find these questions more difficult to face than the idea of death. They all ask the same thing: am I loveable? Could you love me, really, as I am? Everything I am? Are you worthy? Am I?

And the most difficult thing about these questions is that I have to face them for myself. Each question needs an answer from myself, first, before I pose it to my partner (though in reality he’s several steps ahead of me on these, just as I know I can happily answer all of his questions when he feels ready to ask them).

Fear, it seems, is the one thing I am not ready to let die for the sake of love. It’s such a cliché that it took an unexpected telling of an old, familiar tale to jolt me into recognition of its truth. So I am preparing to sit with my fear for a while, to understand it and to learn from it, until I feel ready to let it die, ready to promise a lifetime of love with my partner, in good faith.

Manawydan, Midsummer

Hail, son of sea,
At summer’s height I honour you
In this place which is not fully land nor water.

I meet you at the edge

Where the salt veins of your stories run through the red rock bones
Where your daughters swim in channels deep beneath the earth
To ring us home.

I honour you
With sunshine and with song
In the presence of your sacred flower,
Hail.

yellow flag iris

walking with power

She came to me as I was walking home this evening. It was twilight, and I could feel something stirring in the air. It felt like Her.

I spoke Her name, softly, inwardly, with all the focus of my soul. And suddenly there She was, walking alongside me, the white horse, in all Her strength and grace, with all her Knowing. Shoulder to shoulder, we walked together down the road, the air around her buoying up my listless body.

At the corner of my street I felt Her hesitate. She looked back, and I looked with Her. The horizon behind us was spread with a low, glowing sunset. Beautiful. She tossed Her tail; I could feel Her desire to be on that horizon, walking Westwards with the light.

I bade Her farewell and turned towards home – but as I walked away, a blast of that buoyant air buffeted me from behind, enough to make me laugh out loud. And when it had subsided, something of it stayed with me; in the place where blankness and despair had been gnawing a hole these past weeks, I felt power, my power, as raw and rich and real as the springtime earth. I don’t know why or how it happens, but when I lose myself, She calls me back.

horse

Druid Animal Oracle – the horse

 

inspiration (II)

22. A quote, poem or piece of writing that reminds you of this deity

I heard this poem recited on the radio a few days ago. It made me reflect on some of my recent official and unofficial forays into churchgoing, as a pagan druid (about which, more later, in another post)…

Water

If I were called in
to construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Could congregate endlessly.

[From Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings, Faber & Faber Ltd, 1964].

Larkin writes from within a cultural traditional of Anglicanism, and modern British agnosticism. I feel comfortable reading ‘going to church’ as any act of worship, including pagan ritual. What matters in this poem is the impulse to experience and connect with a sense of what is sacred, however we define it. And, in this poem, his evocation of the wonder of water and light is what makes me think of Manawydan.

inspiration (I)

20. Art that reminds you of this deity

My favourite representation of Manawydan (in the guise of Manannán) was created by the ever-inspirational Thalia Took as part of her God Art project. I have shared it on this blog before, but it’s worth sharing again:

manannan

John Sutton’s Limavady sculpture of Manannán Mac Lír is worth a mention here, too. It really captured the spirit of the god who sang out to Bran mac Febal that, to him, the sea is a flowery plain that he traverses in his wave-sweeping chariot. It was vandalised early in 2015, the figure of Manannán  replaced with a crude wooden cross. I can’t wait to see it restored:

Limavady

Closer to home, Amanda Oliphant, a Wirral-based artist, paints ‘reflective landscapes’ of the places I haunt on my walks. These, too, capture something of the wonder that forms part of my relationship with my deity:

estuary island

Estuary Island

relating

  1.  How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?

I have touched on his links across the Irish Sea, with Manannan; I have also touched on his family: his parentage, of deep ocean and bright light, and his lack of obvious corvid connections, in contrast with his brother and sister. In my very personal experience, he is associated with the cormorant (morfran, lit. ‘sea crow’ – and here is something more to ponder, because Morfran Afagddu is the name of Ceridwen’s son). All three siblings seem to have some connection with kingship, or sovereignty: Bendigeidfran is high king of Britain; Branwen marries the high king of Ireland and becomes the pretext for war between the nations; Manawydan is the ‘humble chieftain’ with no lands of his own, but marries Rhiannon, who is sovereignty personified.

But the sea gods of other pantheons seem quite different, at least to my understanding. I spent some time this autumn in the realm of Poseidon, on an island which owed its wealth to his realm and expressed a deep sense of devotion to the sea in its ancient frescoes and mosaics – but it felt like a very different sea, and a very different deity. And, in pondering this difference, it struck me that, for all the songs I sing to the sea, and all the time I spend listening to the music of Bjork, I never use her sea-inspired songs as offerings for Manawydan; they are so clearly referencing another sea, with a powerful deity of its own.

So why, I wonder, do I perceive so much continuity between Manawydan and his Manx/Gaelic counterpart, Manannan, and yet so much difference from his counterparts in other seas? They are all part of the same great body of water, the same great cycles of ebb and flow, evaporation and precipitation.

The answer, for me, lies in the shorelines: Manawydan is not just a deity of sea, but specifically of the place where sea and land meet and merge. When I seek him, I find him on the northern shores of continental Europe, and all around the islands which have once, in one way or another, been associated with the name of Britain – but further afield, in the warm salt of the Mediterranean or the icy arctic depths, the relationship between land and sea changes, and the local deities express this change.

  1. How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality?

Historically (or at least literarily), heterosexual cis-gendered male; but in practice, I would suggest, amorphous. It is certainly not a defining feature.

  1. What qualities of this deity do you find the most admirable, and the most troubling?

The answer to the first question is best summarised with an episode from the Third Branch:

…said Manawydan ‘we can’t go on like this. Let us make for England where we can find a trade and make a living.’

They made for England, until they came to Henford; and took up saddle-making. Manawydan began to fashion pommels, and they were coloured in the way he had seen Llassar Llaes Gyfnewid do with blue azure; and they[even]made their own blue azure, just as the other man had done. And for that reason, it is still called “calch llasar”, after Llassar Llaes Gyfnewit.

And as a result of that work, not a saddle nor a pommel could be sold by a saddler anywhere in Henford, as long as it could be got from Manawydan – until each of the saddlers realised they were losing profit, and nothing was being bought from them, unless it could not be got from Manawydan.

Thereupon, they banded together and agreed to kill him and his companion. Thereupon [the four] got a warning, and they took counsel about leaving the township.

‘Between myself and God,’ said Pryderi ‘I will not counsel leaving the township, rather than killing those peasants.

‘No,’ said Manawydan ‘if we fight with them, we will get a bad name, and be thrown in prison. It is better for us,’ he continued ‘to make for another township and earn a living there.’

And [so] the four went to another city.

‘What craft shall we take up?’ asked Pryderi.

‘We will make shields,’ said Manawydan.

‘Do we know anything about that?’ asked Pryderi.

‘We will try it,’ he replied.

In a word: adaptable, with a certain kind of wise, peaceful resilience. This is the patience of water, which can wear down rock and find any number of ways around an obstacle. It is the constancy of the tide, ceaseless in its rhythms, not resisting the conditions which dictate its flow, but, slowly and surely, using that flow to shape those conditions.

As for troubling qualities, have I ever mentioned my healthy respect (read: fear) of tidal currents? I am a sea-worshipper who fears immersion in the sea.