©2022 Michael Raven
As mentioned yesterday, I’m prone to thinking hard about my beliefs. For some 35 years now, I’ve been trying to wrap my arms around just what elements of various systems of belief “work” for me, and those that don’t. There is a lot of Eastern thinking that has an outsized role in how I think, from Tao/Dao to Chan to Zen. I hold some of that thinking in the realm of the philosophical branch of my belief systems and they act as a compass for my beliefs, which are separate and apart from my philosophical values. And those philosophical values are just mostly informed by the Eastern thought (I’m going to reduce it to “Tao” or “Zen” moving forward, and interchangeably so; we can argue about my reasons sometime at a later time, if it really bugs you), as I have been known to find value in some Western thinking as well (existentialism has a role, as far as I am concerned, as does absurdism, amongst others). And, while I think I have a decent grasp on those philosophies as they pertain to me, I’ve never seriously sat down and codified my actual belief system.
Over intermittent posts moving forward, I think I might try to rationalize my beliefs “in the open” to see if I can make something cohesive about it. Or, perhaps, it will always be a chaotic mess that only I can grasp.
One of my fears with public codification is the tendency to draw out the people who are self-proclaimed experts (or come off as one) that want to debate the finer details — not for the purposes of understanding or trying to find consensus — but because there is a tendency in this area of discussion to draw a line between “correct” and “incorrect” and those persons tend to think they are correct instead of trying to have an honest discussion about the matter. It quite often devolves into “I’m right, you’re wrong — and an idiot to boot!”
Well, to start, this is personalized gnosis (ecstatic knowledge) that others might find some affinity or resonance with, but it is first and foremost a personal understanding. I’m not trying to convince anyone else to glom onto my beliefs, I’m trying to compartmentalize the vast underground lakes of information and experiences I’ve consumed over the years to see if there is anything cohesive in all of it for me. If someone else benefits, great. If they borrow and expand, great. But I do this for me and what seems “right” for me may very well be a flawed understanding or wrong-minded to anyone who is not me. And I’m okay with that.
Wow, the preface to what I had intended to write about has already gotten lengthier than I had intended. So, let’s get the show going, eh?
TLDR; What’s right for me may not be right for you and that’s just ducky. Nothing to fight about, ‘kay?
One of the things that I’ve been inclined to doing over the past few months is to bring some codification back into my beliefs. I went for a long time there tossing everything into the rubbish heap in the backyard of my brain. And, now that it resembles less of a hoarder’s paradise, I’m trying to be selective about what I bring back into the space between those two ears of mine.
I’ll save my thinking for another post, but one of those things that got tossed out with the baby and the bathwater was the idea of “ritual”. The short version is that rituals, regardless of tradition, show a distinct lack of creativity and tend to be very formulaic across all systems. Interestingly enough, they are a mirror image of the traditions that were rejected. That’s not a bad thing, as people find comfort in the familiar, but it is a limitation that I don’t find helpful for me. [Lots of emphasis will abound as I try to make it clear that just because something doesn’t work for me, it is somehow wrong, which is contrary to the point I’ve tried to make thus far].
So, I’ve been looking at ways to bring ritual back into my personal practice that doesn’t emulate the recipe already out there. This might be reflective of my time with a theatrical coven back in the late 80s, one that (attempted) to eschew the commonplace practices of the wiccan community of the time, even if they still retained many of the elements of those rituals. I could list the common elements in a bullet list, but that might be interpreted as a “this is the wrong way“, and I want to avoid that, so let’s leave it that there are certain common elements, even 35 years later of evolution by others, that don’t work for my practice.
And yet… there are elements that seem like they are important enough to bring back.
Zooming out a bit, away from the specific details of scheduled ritual and/or celebration, one of the things that does seem important to my practice is the concept of high holidays. The absolute basic ones common to a number of practicing groups are those associated with the position of the Sun relative to the Earth, e.g., the seasonal observations. At the most basic level, those are the two equinoxes and two solstices. Four days which are common (although not universally) amongst most cultures as significant observational days. For those unfamiliar with the days, they are (all dates are approximate, as they vary slightly year-to-year, due to an imperfect day-to-year relationship on the Earth and an imperfect calendar)
- Autumnal equinox (around Sept 21-24)
- Winter solstice (around Dec 21)
- Spring equinox (around Mar 21-23)
- Summer solstice (around June 21)
Seeing as this relationship appears to have had some importance to most cultures since before written history, and especially with the cultural traditions that call to me most often of the Northern European tribes, I’ve decided these should come back into my empty space in my noggin and play a role in my practice.
Hey! It just so happens that one of them is coming up on this Thursday! Interesting coincidence! (Please note the sarcasm; the autumnal equinox has actually been on my mind for quite a few months as I’ve been increasingly wrangling over what can come back into the “house”).
As I was looking at a webpage last week that seemed promising, I noticed something strange upon deeper reflection. The equinoxes had no role for this group. Nothing even close. And yet, they listed other festivals… It seemed a strange omission, so I’ve been hyper-fixated on these holidays since noticing that oddity (and for other reasons as well, not just seasonal observations, but because of other relationships that I’ll get into at another time). The group never explains their reasoning online, so I have to assume they either accidentally omitted these two standard notable days, or they have their very good reasons for doing so.
If you note, these observational days have no direct relationship to agricultural practices (unlike the “lesser” holidays, which I don’t have the time to cover here). They are purely astronomical phenomena: longest day, longest night, and balanced day/night (x2). As such, they would likely be as equally of interest to Neolithic nomadic hunter/gatherers as they would be to the people who eventually developed agriculture and animal husbandry. We know both groups marked the days to some degree, although we may never know exactly why, seeing as there are no written records of just why they marked these particular astrologic phenomena.
One of the things we like to do when we develop personal practices is to assign values to such things as reasons to observe a given day over any other day. Which, in spite of the lengthy lead-in to this moment, is my primary reason for this post!
Yes, I’m using exclamation points more often in this post, as it seems like something one does when you write about pagan traditions. And, yes, that is a pet peeve of mine. Unless it is in dialog, I can almost never justify the use of an exclamation point in a sentence. Sadly, it seems like even relative scholars let slip the unjustified exclamation point in books of about this subject matter!
Honestly, this is where I intended to land. But then explanations got in the way.
The point of my post today I want to try and solidify by core beliefs around a rational system instead of the cosmic goo I just emptied from my brain cavity. Specifically, I wanted to tie the autumnal equinox to something to give it more heft in my noodle-armed brain.
Even as I write this (possibly because I have started writing it down instead of just contemplating it), I’ve started to have some change of heart about what makes the most sense in my head. As I started this, thinking and rethinking about how I view my own cosmology, I had in mind that autumn was represented somehow by Scáthach (or Sgàthach), the shadowy warrior woman from the island of Skye that taught the hero Cú Chulainn from the Ulster mythologic cycle his skills. Her relationship with shadows was my main justification earlier today (autumn equinox is moving from light to shadow). Then, as I wrote this post, it became clear to me that the role of patron(ess) of autumn equinox was probably not the best relationship for Scáthach, even as much as I admire what she represents.
First off, the observational day is probably too significant to assign to what appears to be a minor character of the Red Branch/Ulster Cycle of heroic mythology. Second of all, the mythologic time period she represents is well past when my own patron, The Morrigan, was already well into her position.
At risk of coming off as a reconstructionist (which I am not, honest), the more appropriate role for autumn equinox is The Dagda. He is aligned with the same time period as the first stories of The Morrigan, plus he has a number of other things going for him that make him a stronger candidate to represent the equinox. I might choose someone from a more Norse tradition. And I may add that personage later, but I want to keep it simplified and within the framework of British Isles thinking, which I am ready to admit, is my first home (although I’ve been fostered elsewhere over the years).
This seems like a good spot to rest and ponder.
I’ll dig deeper into my choice of The Dagda in the next part of this post, unless I manage to convince myself a different candidate is better between now and then — which is actually doubtful, the more I consider the implications and give ol’ Dagda a hand-delivered invite into the mostly-empty living room behind my eyes…