A Mislabeled and Malicious Torrent, and What Happened After

The time has come to speak on a subject that I have been necessarily silent about for the past six months, though much of the Pagan community has been made aware of it through reporting in prominent Pagan journals and the gossip engendered by social media. I speak of course of the legal turmoil in which I have been embroiled for the last half-year, and from which I am only now beginning slowly to emerge. To give a proper accounting of things, however, so that people may understand how things fell out, we must begin even earlier, during Independence Day Weekend, 2016.

That weekend my wife Amber and I had a longtime friend, Eric, down from Baltimore, my home city, to visit and celebrate the holiday and the long weekend. As we were cooking dinner late that night of July 3, we started talking about finding a movie to watch, and eventually settled some time around midnight of July 4 on a lighthearted Western comedy—the Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson vehicle Shanghai Noon, to be precise. Now, finances had for the past couple years been quite tight, and so our access to streaming and rental services was extremely limited. So we took the route that many poor folks do in our local community (including many Pagans, who I would like to take the opportunity to strongly warn against the practice)—we looked the movie up on BitLord, a torrent client program.

The first file I tried to download, at the top of the queue, was tagged as being the movie we were looking for, though the actual file name was some unmemorable string of letters and numbers. When I opened the partially downloaded folder to check on its progress, I saw that what was inside it was not the sought-after video file, but a collection of images. I opened one to see what it was, and discovered immediately that it was very much not what I’d been trying to download. I was horrified. My wife describes the transformation my face underwent as “a wave of disbelief washing over it, basically a combination of shock, horror, and what-the-f*ck-am-I-looking-at?” Eric asked what on earth I was looking at. I told him he didn’t want to know. He pressed, and I revealed to both him and Amber what had happened. They were of course equally horrified. However, we deleted the file and the torrent immediately, and went about the rest of our evening, the mishap fading quickly into unpleasant but blessedly distant and quiet memory. We thought no more about it. (It bears pointing out that Eric had been texting his mother throughout that evening, and still retains the text messages, photos, Facebook statuses, and receipts corroborating the details of everything we did that entire weekend and that night in particular.)

Fast forward three months. Tuesday morning, October 18, Amber and I were awoken in the early morning hours by the sound of loud knocking on our door. I stumbled downstairs that morning and opened the door, still half-asleep, to the sight of two city police officers and an FBI agent. As I awoke to the situation it gradually it became clear that they were there with a warrant, on the basis that a city taskforce assigned to the protection of women and children in conjunction with a nationwide FBI sting had detected a commonly shared malicious file being uploaded from our IP address, and according to the warrant it had occurred in the small hours of July 4. As it was explained to me, first by the police and afterwards by my lawyer, there are a number of such files that cycle regularly through torrent sites and clients, which have flags attached to them that send out alerts to the police whenever they are downloaded—accidentally or not. In my case, since the torrent client I was using was automatically configured to ‘seed’ or upload anything that was being downloaded, it was intercepted by the investigating detective, who now stood outside my apartment. He proceeded to interrogate me as to my internet viewing habits, interests, community involvement, and all manner of things. Meanwhile, the other officers were going through every room in our apartment, taking pictures, while my wife sat terrified and bewildered at the bottom of the stairs. They asked her questions about our altars and religious views, about the plants she was growing outside, and how we knew the people in pictures on our walls (as Amber’s mother works in the city police department and they therefore recognized her). Finally, when the detective was finished questioning me, they left, taking with them my laptop, and told me they’d be in touch. The detective called me later that day, and thanked me for being so cooperative, and (he felt) honest. He asked me for the access passwords to my computer so they could more easily open it up and copy its hard drive to run forensics on it, and I willingly supplied them.

It took fully two weeks for those forensics to be complete, and on November 1 the detective called me again. He told me once again that he appreciated how honest and cooperative I had been with him, how uncomfortable this all had been, and that he personally believed I had just “made a mistake and got caught up in a bunch of bullsh*t,” and was “not any kind of a menace to society.” (He repeated this later to my wife and mother-in-law.) However, he had in fact found the history of the file he’d intercepted on my computer—as it turns out, even if you delete a file from a computer, it’s not really gone, and remains retrievable by those with the tech and know-how—and on that basis he was legally obligated to charge me with something. He told me that because he believed in the innocence of my intent and basic decency he was charging me as low as he feasibly could—with Dissemination of Obscenity, a rarely used and vaguely worded crime that has an extremely broad range of application (e.g. in North Carolina it extends so far that one could be charged with it for uploading a video to an adult website, or the spreading of offensive literature or symbols—most bathroom graffiti falls squarely in its category). In my case, it applies to the fact that the offending images—despite them being accidentally accessed—were then seeded/disseminated and intercepted by the police. He emphasized, however, that what I was being charged with was not a sex crime and did not entail registration as sex offender, or even jail time.

He asked me to come in to the Sheriff’s Department the following morning to meet him and speak with the magistrate. So there I arrived the morning of November 2, and spoke very briefly with the detective, who told me that he’d already spoken with the magistrate and explained my situation as we’d discussed the previous day, and that all I needed to do was simply to go up to the counter and tell them my name, charge, and that I was there to turn myself in and speak with the magistrate. Before I knew it, and much to my surprise (since no mention at all had been made that this would be part of the process), I was being led through the full booking process, stripped of my possessions, and prevented from calling anybody except a bondsman. The latter required a minimum $3000 deposit in order to post my bail, and because I had nothing like that amount, or any kind of equity, I was left with resorting to telling him that my mother-in-law—my only local family—worked for the City Police Department and asking if he might be able to contact her. He said he’d try, and that was the last thing I knew before spending the rest of the day behind bars, unable to contact my place of work (which, as I’d been scheduled to work later that day, ultimately cost me my job), terrified and unable to know when or if I would be getting out, and worst, unable to contact Amber and tell her what had happened. (She found out by way of a friend messaging her in alarm after the local newspaper, the Gaston Gazette, wrote the piece that soon found its way across the entire Pagan internet and published it on its Facebook.) Late that night, my bond was posted after a collection was taken up among friends, and Amber and her mother met me outside the station. When I arrived home, I discovered that same article—essentially a distorted and sensationalized rendering of the police blotter—had been sent straight to the ADF Mother Grove and was being actively discussed on email lists and social media. My own Facebook wall was being peppered with insulting comments, and people who I’d thought were friends were dropping in droves from my contacts list. I soon found that everything from my place of work to anyone the Druid group I’d been leading had been in contact with, and most of the groups and organizations with which I had any involvement, had been broadcast across the internet in a way that made my family and I feel distinctly unsafe, not to mention prematurely condemned.

My reaction to all this consisted primarily of a) minimizing my online presence for more than the next two months, as I tried my best to find solid footing again, and b) voluntarily stepping down from my positions as North Carolina Deputy Regional Druid of ADF and Grove Organizer of Raven’s Hollow Protogrove, as well as Local Coordinator for Piedmont Pagan Pride, in order to spare ADF and the Pagan Pride Project the difficult situation that had been laid at their feet. Because the title of Grove Organizer cannot be transferred to another Protogrove member, this decision cost Raven’s Hollow its charter as an entity affiliated with ADF. Nonetheless, and despite full knowledge of all that had gone on, my fellow Raven’s Hollow Druids collectively insisted on carrying on holding regular ritual and fellowship with me, and continuing the project we’d begun a year earlier.

That brings us very nearly to the present; since mid-November my wife and I have been living in my mother-in-law’s house, having been evicted from our apartment on the basis of a no-police-presence clause in the lease and that Gazette article publishing our address. After my case having been delayed a number of times for reasons to do with the schedules of my lawyer and the District Attorney, the final hearing occurred this past Tuesday, April 4. Very fortunately as a general rule, but unfortunately in my particular case, the D.A. in question is exceptionally harsh in these sorts of situations, despite the fact that there were two witnesses to the events, and so the ultimatum I was presented with was to plead no contest to my charge, to dissemination of obscenity—which it must be remembered is not a sex crime—or to take my case to trial, which was far outside the reach of what I could afford. As it was, I was forced by my own severely limited resources to depend on the generosity of friends and family to afford the services my lawyer had thus far provided, and no one I knew had access to anything like the $10,000 his office told us would be the minimum cost to try my case before a jury. Furthermore, my lawyer advised me that because I have made no secret of my religious affiliation in an area where conservatism and Southern Christianity dominate (to the extent that our Pagan Pride events get whole Christian counter-festivals set up down the street to protest us), it was extremely unlikely that I would receive fair treatment from an unbiased jury. For those reasons, I was left with little option other than to plead No Contest, and bear the penalty for a charge that resulted primarily from a low income and perhaps questionable taste in slapstick comedy films. My lawyer made it very clear to me, however, that if the arresting officer and the D.A. had not believed the witnesses and myself, I would not have received such a low charge to begin with. This gives me some small solace, though getting to this point has been incredibly painful, and I fully expect the road forward to be just as difficult.

From here, my wife and I will be going through the long, difficult process of rebuilding our lives and trying to reestablish some semblance of the standing we once had in the Pagan community. I understand very well that a lot of trust has been shaken, and it will take a lot of work to rebuild. At the same time, I have throughout this week been in communication with the Wild Hunt to share my story, as have the other witnesses to the events (who are also sharing their testimonies on social media), and many people have come forward to express their understanding and support. For these, and especially for those who have been there throughout this ordeal, I have nothing but the deepest gratitude.

UPDATE — 8 May, 2017

Because it has come to my attention that certain parties have purchased the copyrighted court transcript—which is not publicly available, but is protected behind a substantial pricewall—and have seen fit to share this document as broadly as they have been able, it is natural that further questions have arisen based on the nature of what the prosecuting attorney said as part of her closing statement, which are only fitting that I address.

I was as surprised as anyone when the assistant district attorney—who in the Gaston County court system serve as prosecuting attorneys, and are not bound by oath, as defendants are—made the allegation that I had confessed to the investigating officers in October that I had deliberately downloaded and made use of the files under investigation. Unfortunately, because my plea had already been set forth, my right and ability to appeal or even to contradict her was taken away, and all I was able to do was to silently shake my head in flat denial of her allegations. At a certain point, the judge gave me an opportunity to “add anything”; however, I was still reeling in shock at the allegation, and to my mind saying anything to contest what the D.A. said would, well, violate the terms of “no contest” and that—since she’d just demonstrated that she was perfectly willing to try to make things worse for me, that’s exactly what would happen.

As above, when the police came to our door last October, they questioned me in front of my wife about all aspects of my life, including my internet and pornography viewing habits. At no point whatsoever did I tell them that I deliberately downloaded or made use of underage images, and I expressed extreme disgust and revulsion at the very idea. The police confiscated my computer to perform forensics on it, and the investigating detective thanked me for my cooperation. Two weeks later, he told me that he had been able to recover the history of the accidentally downloaded torrent file I have talked about, and that therefore he would have to charge me with something. However, because he did not find any other evidence, and because he felt that I had been honest with him, he charged me as low as he possibly could, with the lowest class felony that exists which could possibly be associated with this sort of offense. It is very important to bear in mind that if I had told him that I had been intentionally downloading and using those images, I would have been arrested on the spot, not two weeks later, and charged with second degree sexual exploitation of a minor (i.e. possession of underage pornography). The detective had no indication that I was guilty of such an offense, or he would not have hesitated to charge me anything like so low as he did.

I do not know what changed in the six months between that exchange and the assistant DA’s words in court (which were delivered as a closing remark, not as prosecuting evidence, and so could not be objected to by my lawyer). I can say that my lawyer informed me beforehand that while this prosecutor was generally fair, in cases that related to underage sexuality, no matter the context, she could be especially vicious—and again, she was by no means bound to tell the truth, and may have wanted simply to drill the point home just how seriously she takes cases like this, which she would ordinarily prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, provided she had evidence (e.g. a confession) to do so. I was not prepared, however, for any statements to be made like the ones she did. I had already signed my plea of no contest, which had on it only my charge listed—not any record of admission of guilt, wherein lies the chief difference between a no contest and a guilty plea—if I’d already confessed to police, what would be the point of refusing to admit guilt in court, if the punishment would be the same in either case? A number of local pagans were in court with me that day, friends, community leaders, and members of groups I belong to, and all of them saw how shocked I was. I have related the events in court to numerous people in the local and broader pagan community through personal communication, so this is not exactly the breaking news people seemed to think it was Friday. I am complying with the terms of probation that the state has deemed appropriate (which are the standard conditions applicable to all NC probationers), and even my probation officer has told me that in her twenty years of doing her job, she has become a pretty good judge of character, and she doesn’t believe me to be guilty either (which of course doesn’t slacken the terms of probation). It may also be important to reiterate that the treatment program I have been assigned to complete is distinct from the Sex Offender Control Program—a point my probation officer has made very clear—the latter requiring registration and strict conditions and restrictions about where one can be and when. The treatment program is more of a general sexual harassment reeducation and group therapy, which I am told is not at all uncommon for non-sex offenders to be assigned to, depending on their charge.

I hope that this helps to answer some people’s questions. I do not hope to persuade people that have already made up their minds on the matter, especially those that do not know me or have a basis of trust established, but persuasion isn’t my intent. My intent is to relate the truth as it happened, and to, if I can, prevent anyone else from falling into the same difficulties as I have.

Embarking on the Dedicant’s Path Through the Wheel of the Year

I have been engaged in the ADF Dedicants Path for the last seven months, since Samhain. In that time, I have made a bit of progress, but not nearly so much as I should have liked. Life, as it does, has gotten in the way, sometimes in more demonstrable ways than others (as I was telling a friend yesterday, my bouncing around from house to house and from employed to un- over the past year has put something of a damper on some aspects of my spiritual development—though others this past year has fanned into a flame I’m both pleased and surprised to now notice). For that reason, as well as as a result of the past several omens my Grove has received at our High Rites, I have decided to start up a DP study group, working through Rev. Michael Dangler’s excellent curriculum The ADF Dedicant’s Path Through the Wheel of the Year, which serves as an unofficial (though highly recommended) guide to working through the DP in an orderly way. Throughout the coming year (or however long it takes) I will be posting a series of more informal entries asjournal entries to work through some of the homework he assigns. These entries will be collected and linked to in sequence on the Dedicants Journal page.

Week One’s homework gives a series of introductory questions to meditate on.

Why have you chosen to take the first steps on the Dedicant Path?

I initially began working on the Dedicant Path because my own level of responsibility with the Pagan community was growing; I had identified as a Druid for seven years, about half of which I’d been a member of ADF, and had just founded a Protogrove. As a fledgling leader-of-sorts, I figured I’d better have done the work to be able to better perform the duties of a Grove Organizer and to be able to better communicate to anyone who was interested in the Grove what Our Own Druidry actually was. At the time I was also one of the very, very few ADF Druids in the area, and figured that if at any time in the future, Raven’s Hollow was going to grow to become a Fully Chartered Grove, it was going to need not only people committed enough to ADF to have completed its initial training course, it was going to need at least one clergy member, and I had (and have) a hard time picturing anyone else I know in my community insane enough to envision at some point tackling the CTP.

Is this a step on your path, or will this become the Path itself?

Both? I’m never easily restrained into doing Just One Thing; I’ve usually got all four burners going on various different endeavors. Even in my work in ADF, I prefer to shake it up a bit—for one, I tend to shy away from the ADF identification as Neopaganism, and tend to call myself a devotional polytheist Druid; I don’t balk from incorporating either Revivalist or even Christian practices or teachings into my work wherever it’s appropriate (usually either when practicing with a non-ADF affiliated group, as I do on a monthly basis at least, or when practicing hoodoo, in which Christianity tends to bleed into my Own Druidry pretty damn freely). But I certainly consider Ár nDraíocht Féin to be my religious core and spiritual home, and it is certainly at the center of my practice. I find myself a bit too creatively-minded and freewheeling to consider Just The Things That Happen To Be Listed On The Dedicant Path to be my Path itself, as that’s far too limiting, so in the most literal interpretation of the question, it’s obviously just a step. But trees have a habit of branching out from the trunk, or even of having their trunks split into unsightly twos or threes, so I guess you (or I) might consider the Dedicants Path a sapling, or even maybe an acorn, that has the all-but guaranteed certainty of branching off into unexplored territory: the Ingwaz rune, that has the potential to open up into Jera.

What do you expect to learn?

Well, I suppose I could reasonably expect to have a more advanced understanding of virtue ethics, particularly the nine ADF chooses to focus on (which, as a side note, together give an interesting perspective on the particular personality of the organization itself, as compared to, say, Asatru, which also focuses on a similar-but-markedly-different set of nine virtues). I anticipate learning more about the history of modern Paganism and the scholarship that informed ADF’s decision to focus on Indo-European culture. As I’ve been in ADF and have been leading rituals for a while now, I don’t expect to learn a whole lot of the ins, outs, and how-tos concerning that, per se, but my expectations there tie into my desires below.

What would you like to get out of this journey?

More than anything I would like to develop my own regularity of practice and piety, as well as deepening my abilities to meditate well—as well as regular, consistent journaling. Those are three areas that I have always struggled with, and as they are pretty well woven into the core of the Dedicant Path work, at its end I will consider that a mountain well climbed. I also hope to meet completely unexpected challenges and knowledge, so that I can grow new ways—but as those items are by their nature unanticipated, I’m afraid I don’t think I can be much more specific than that.

Do you know where this path will take you?

Ohferheavenssake. There is no such thing as an honest ‘yes’ answer to this question. Obviously I don’t know. But, as I mentioned above, the DP is the prerequisite for every other ADF training course, and it’s just on the horizon of possibility that at some future date I might walk through the hallowed doors of the Clergy Training Program and brazenly shout, “All right, what have y’all got to offer?” In the most humble way possible, of course. My gods have precisely that sense of humor: The other week I was perusing the results of the ADF elections, and mentioned to my wife that I could not imagine running for any sort of office in ADF that did not directly and entirely involve my Grove, because enough responsibility already. The very next day, I got an email from the South Eastern Regional Druid asking if I would be interested in being the Deputy Regional Druid for North Carolina (and ooooh, how my wife laughed at me). So I can well imagine the DP leading to the CTP at some point.

If you have just joined ADF, why have you chosen to work on this immediately? /
If you have been in ADF for a long time, why are you starting only now?

A good question, lacking in an easy answer. My journey through Druidry over the past eight years has been one of very gradual focusing. It was immediately preceded by several years of traumatic spiritual experience that both tore me away from the religious teachings of my youth and precipitated a divorce that wreaked absolute mayhem on an emotional level. My initial introduction to Paganism, which happened parallel to my introduction to Druidry, was to say the least unorthodox; to say a bit more it was not filtered through the most rational of lenses and so prompted about a year and a half of nonstop spiritual chaos and apocalyptic thinking. Alongside this ran my initial forays into Druidry, principally in OBOD; I found my experiences there extremely healing and therapeutic, as well as transformative, but I lacked (and somewhat still lack) the discipline to engage with any consistency with the correspondence course style teaching method, as a direct result of the precipitating and still-ongoing years of chaos just mentioned. I also lacked any way to regularly meet with people that would me accountable to press on slogging through. In 2012 I discovered Cedarlight Grove, which apart from having met a few representatives of ADF in years past was my first real introduction to the organization, and after a few months of more or less regular attendance I decided to join. At that point I was still attending school and work full time, and the Dedicants Path was the farthest thing from my mind; I was instead learning the ins and outs of ADF through direct hands-on experience with a large collection of friendly and dedicated fellow Grove members, and I simply didn’t see a need to write down the things I was doing for somebody else to check over. In Cedarlight, I became more diligent, more educated, and developed—to put it bluntly—a firmer grasp on reality than the past several years of shapeshifting spirituality had afforded me. However, of course, things changed, as they always do; after three wonderful years of deep and meaningful engagement with a vibrant religious community of Druids, I found myself newly married and moving to the American Deep South, to an area where the word ‘Druid’ often seems to raise eyebrows, even in the Pagan community. I was, however, aware of a great need for the presence of Druidry practiced with a ‘Why not excellence?’ ethic in the area, both because I suspected there were people who would appreciate what ADF had to offer, and to improve the reputation Druidry had seemed to gather in my region (as well as to foster for myself a group with which to regularly meet and practice), and so, following some very strong promptings (urgings, really) by the Morrígan, I decided to start a Protogrove. For the reasons discussed towards the beginning of this entry, I knew that undertaking the Dedicants Path would have to be my next step; I did not believe that our Grove would be a lasting success if I could not at the least be sufficiently committed to it to achieve that. However, I have to admit once again to the disorganized quality my life has had for the last couple years and my lack of diligence in keeping up with the workload. The past two omens received by Raven’s Hollow, for Ostara and Beltaine, pointed first to engaging with mysteries and spiritual teaching as necessary for survival, and second to the importance of maintaining sharp wit and personal and group piety to avoid destruction. After the second repetition of what was essentially the same message (with exclamation points added!), the point sank home, and the Grove embarked on an effort to work through weekly DP classes using this curriculum to keep ourselves in line.

Does it look easy or hard?

Most everything of the required activities and documentation, aside from the journaling and meditation bits, is pretty routine stuff, and the essays are not difficult (I believe I’ve already exceeded the maximum length of the longest essay in this journal entry alone). However, as I’ve mentioned, I do find regular journaling and meditation quite difficult, and the diligence to keep up with the assignments is something I struggle with. One thing I’m considering incorporating into the meditation bits is picking up a copy of John Michael Greer’s Learning Ritual Magic and working through an ADF-adapted version of his instructions for learning how to meditate, since from what I’ve found ADF doesn’t (hell, most places don’t) have very well developed instructions for learning what’s really a pretty necessary skill, which is why I think a lot of people struggle in that area.

Which requirements appear to be difficult to you now, and which appear to be easy?

I believe I’ve just answered that in full.

Do you have doubts, questions, or concerns that you need to ask about?

I’m more than quite sure that I will. The main thing I doubt is whether I’ll have the wherewithal to complete what I’ve started. But for the time being I think I’ve bulwarked against that as much as possible, and don’t really have any other questions or concerns that come to mind—as they occur I’ll be sure to ask them, or at the very least write them down.


Meditation: Two weeks ago at Beltane Brouhaha I commissioned a ritual sickle from Jason at Wolf’s Moon Forge. Today I picked up the completed and altogether gorgeous product and took it home to bless and consecrate it.

IMG_0284
Trégjafir at the shrine of the Morrígan

I passed it through incense, and made offerings and prayers to the Morrígan to sanctify it as a ritual blade, and received very positive impressions. However, when I laid it on the shrine of Herself, I was immediately uncomfortable and filled with doubt. I asked if it had to do with the blade being of iron; and divination confirmed that yes, that was indeed the case. Damn! I had been worried about that, and was concerned that, as the lore pretty consistently indicates that the Aos Sidhe are by no means fond of iron, the new sickle would be pretty much useless to me if I couldn’t use it to harvest plants or even have it near my gods without offending them. What followed was a fascinating yes/no conversation via pendulum in which I inquired about the iron cauldron that was also on Her shrine, about which no doubts had ever been expressed. What I received was that iron was one thing, iron blades were quite another. There would be no problem the sickle for pretty much anything I had intended: however, I ought not to put it on the shrine or altar of any Celtic god or not-god. I threw the runes to try to get an impression of why Celtic gods particularly find iron off-putting: What turned up was Laguz, Isa (in very close proximity to) Dagaz, Gebo, and Nauðiz. I meditated for a while on each of these in sequence, and was rewarded with a story told in images. With Laguz I was sent underwater, peering upwards towards the blue-white dappled sun. Isa froze the surface of the water, blotting out the sun and darkening and making still and stiff the day. I then saw that sequence of images explained as a metaphor for the gifts (Gebo) of the gods and not-gods being impoverished (Nauðiz) as a result of contact with iron blades. I also got strong impressions that the Celtic spirits were very closely associated with brightness (one notes there are a multitude of solar gods, and no obvious lunar or even nocturnal gods to be found), and that iron blades somehow dim them, also that this has something to do with strong cultural memories of invading neighbors who wielded iron blades (perhaps Romans? the sons of Mil?). Obviously this is UPG of the most quintessential sort, but I did find it very interesting, and it reminded me very strongly of Damh the Bard’s song ‘Iron From Stone’:

I also cast runes to see if there were any that ought to be particularly associated with it: Gebo and Eihwaz came out together, Gift and the World Yew Ash Tree. Together, they provided a name for my new tool: Trégjafir, the Gifts of the Tree.

Divination and Reflection: 2015

At the beginning of 2015, I performed divination by way of my caribou antler Elder Fuþark and  The Hidden Path oracle my wife’s teacher was using for the same purpose. As this tumultuous year draws to a close, I reflect on the past twelvemonth and see how my divination relates to the year as I experienced and remember it.

January

The Hidden Path: Beltane (Fertility, Union, Bonding)
Rune: Ehwaz (couples, confirmation)

This marked the start to the first year I’ve spent married to my wife Hazel, and we started it off with what I recall as a highly enjoyable date night, during which I acquired a new Crane bag, and we went to see the Rob Marshall-helmed Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods. In that way, both card and rune seem very straightforward, as they relate to coupling and union. However, this month was also one that dealt with the dissolution of relationships: That same night early in the month, a series of events began rapidly unspooling that involved the betrayal by and ending of a friendship with someone who had for a long while been a close friend and a spiritual sister, and as a separate but related catastrophe, the beginning of the disintegration of my brother’s marriage. These were both events that hurt myself and Hazel deeply, and have echoed throughout the remainder of the year.

February

The Hidden Path: Holly King (Decline, Loss, Dissipation)
Rune: Isa (slowing down, stillness)

At the end of the previous year we had already decided that we would be moving back to the Carolinas from Baltimore, MD, but as I had been out of work since the previous September, we weren’t sure how that was to be accomplished. We also were growing increasingly frustrated as to the scarcity of affordable housing in the area we wanted to be close to. Additionally, towards the end of this month I became aware that another friend, Cat, with whom I’d been estranged for some five years or so, but with whom I’d once been very close, who had in fact introduced me to Paganism almost a decade ago and helped me to recover from the termination of my previous marriage, was now dying of cancer with a prognosis of only a couple months.

March

The Hidden Path: The Great Rite (Perfect Union, Soul Mates, Divine Match)
Rune: Hagalaz (sudden change)

During a trip to North Carolina to celebrate the Vernal Equinox with the Misfit Sanctuary, we found our new house, which came very much as an answer to prayer to a panoply of Gods and saints, and was perfect in very nearly every way: a huge expanse of land on which to plant our new Protogrove, three spacious bedrooms, and excellent neighbors. (The one downside being its distance from very literally everything.) This also accelerated our plans for the upcoming move, which we looked on with hope to bring some peace to our rather troublous year.

April

The Hidden Path: Sacred Grotto (Gateway, Inner Direction, Mystical Vision)
Rune: Thurisaz (defense, warning, danger)

The betrayal that I spoke of in January (which was a contributing factor in our decision to Move), reached its culmination in my last direct interaction with that person (although some ramifications are still in the process of unfolding). We reached out to Druidic clergy to gain counsel on how best to deal with it; and also what steps to take to plant the new Protogrove. Meanwhile, I watched as my brother completed a year-long journey back to a revitalized Christianity, after spending half his life as an atheist or agnostic.

May

The Hidden Path: Oak King (Gain, Growth, Increase)
Rune: Ansuz (wisdom, words)

2nd May I invoked Gwydion fab Dôn in my last ritual as a member of CedarLight Grove, ADF. The next day we packed the moving truck, and the day after that we arrived at our new home and unpacked and after a nap and a meal, attended the Misfit full moon ritual. (That day also saw some damage to the undercarriage of my car, Prydwen, as she came off the dolly—the first of numerous injuries that became more apparently relevant later in the year.) The next week I submitted my Grove Survey for Raven’s Hollow Protogrove to ADF’s Grove Coordinating  Committee.

 June

The Hidden Path: Tree in Winter (Endurance, Preservation, Stability)
Rune: Tiwaz (victory, justice, sacrifice)

In June we began to become established in our new home, and sort out life in Lancaster, South Carolina. Though we both quite liked the house and the land, we both and Hazel especially found the distance extremely tedious and burdensome, and it led to more than one heated argument, with a sense of dissatisfaction with where we’d ended up but a reluctance to shun our blessings or to pick up and move again so soon (particularly with no resources to draw on or affordable prospective homes that met our needs closer to where we wanted to be), and we both strove to maintain patience and understanding. On the last day of the month, I received notice that the unemployment benefits on which we had thitherto been scraping by had been exhausted.

July

The Hidden Path: Yule/Winter Solstice (Rebirth, Renewal, Restoration)
Rune: Berkano (new growth, luck)

The Longest Night imposed on us by the previous month’s final sentence was broken by the rising sun of hope brought to us by friends and family, who showered help upon us, and inspired the founding of Cait Sidhe Designs. This turn of luck in our darkest hour so far foreshadowed the particularly applicable divination for the following month. . . .

August

The Hidden Path: Mabon (Harvest, Completion, Fulfillment)
Rune: Laguz (water, balance, hidden treasure, overwhelmedness)

Early in the month I received a message from a member of our local religious community I’d never particularly talked much to, and didn’t know very well. She asked if I was still looking for a job, and said that her company was hiring. I sent her manager my CV, which sparked a series of interviews—really my first serious bite since we’d been down south. Later in the month we attended Cat’s funeral—I’d visited her as she faded through March and April, and she passed in the middle of May, but her funeral was postponed till late August, and carried with it very much a fulfilling sense of the closing of a chapter.

September

The Hidden Path: Perfect Love & Perfect Trust (Trust, Loyalty, Fidelity)
Rune: Sowilo (light, guidance)

After a rigorous series of interviews and follow-up interviews, I started my new job after a full year of unemployment—only to have my car die on me after the first week. This latter would seem to be in direct contrast to both the former and the theme of this month’s reading, but the $3,500 price tag for a new engine was fronted by an unprecedented outpouring of generosity from our friends—who are in truth more like family. Around the same time I spoke on an Interfaith Panel and gave a workshop on ADF ritual at our local chapter of the Pagan Pride Project.

October

The Hidden Path: Tree in Fall (Decline, Shedding, Release)
Rune: Gebo (gift)

The gift spoken of here, I have no doubt, refers to the dedication of Raven’s Hollow Protogrove to the Morrígan at our inaugural Samhain ritual. As for the waning Tree—I have a feeling that may be to do both with the strained finances of that month, with the resources we poured into preparing for that rite, and with perpetuated Car Trouble: the heat shield on the catalytic converter cracked, causing an ungodly racket while driving, and a number of unusual things began happening while I was on the road, seemingly to drive me off it.

November

The Hidden Path: Oath (Truth, Trust, Integrity)
Rune: Fehu (wealth)

During November, we prepared for two things: our first Thanksgiving as a married couple and the first one Hazel had personally prepared, to celebrate what bounty we had been given (we also received notice from my previous job during this month that my retirement plan through that job was due to be paid out, though we’re still sorting the paperwork on that). The second thing was our upcoming Yule ritual, which was focused on sacrificial oaths to bind chaos.

December

The Hidden Path: Lughnasadh (Anticipation, Receptivity, Outcome)
Rune: Jera (year, harvest)

December was chaos. From dubious goings-on in my Carolinian and Maryland religious communities, to ongoing money shortages, to the increasing political hostilities in the nation and the world, our Yule ritual was deeply needed—though only partially successful. Shortly afterward, I was involved in two accidents in three days, which demolished my car, leaving me to anxiously wait on other people’s insurance to pay out before I can rectify my situation. After this latest in an eight-month period of continuous car problems, I was led to perform further divination, which revealed that I had been hexed by the same person who had been stirring up trouble towards the start of the year, and continued to do so for other people back home. That truly did set the tone for this whole year—one of loss, change, anxiety, and chaos, and leaves the world looming as over a cliff over 2016. I hope for better things in the coming year though, and am deeply eager to see what the next months will bring.

Where Fire Meets Water: The Three Worlds of Druidic Spirituality

This is the transcript of the workshop I gave at this year’s Piedmont Pagan Pride Day, in Belmont, NC. I am deeply grateful to Ian Corrigan for his writings on ‘The Cauldron of Poesy’ and his Two Powers meditation, both of which I adapted for this workshop, as well as to numerous other contributors of content to the ADF website, many of which were very helpful in this composition. This is my first entry to touch on a religious tradition I actually practice, and in it I talk about how our rituals function, and why.

The ADF Sigil of the Cosmos, designed by Rev. Ian Corrigan.

Hello everybody, thanks for coming. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Cú Meala mac Morrígna, and I have been a practicing Druid for the past eight years. I am a member of a religious organization called Ár nDraíocht Féin in Irish Gaelic, more commonly known as ADF and which translates to Our Own Druidry. I am the Grove Organizer for Raven’s Hollow Protogrove, based in Lancaster, SC. What I’m going to be talking about for about the next forty minutes or so is how in Our Druidry we conceive of the worlds we inhabit and commune with while in ritual, and the Beings with whom we foster relationship. It is worth noting that I am speaking only as a representative of that one form of Druidry, as there are numerous orders and groups, all of which do things a bit differently, and that within ADF, I am speaking not so much about ‘beliefs that are shared equally by all members’, but rather the way the cosmos is understood to operate in the context of ritual—assumptions that are undertaken in order to make ritual function, regardless of an individual’s belief or interpretation.

Most Neopagans are familiar with a form of ritual in which a circle is cut or cast, and some variety of directional guardian is called in to protect the celebrants and to keep any unfriendly spirits away—whether those take the form of the Strega Grigori or Watchers, the Wiccan Watchtowers, or simply the Classical four physical elements. In ritual that cuts a space out of the mundane world in order to isolate it, sanctify it, and make a space where the energy of a rite can build in order to be translated to some culminating magical act—as is the primary focus of most such rites—definite borders are drawn between sacred space and mundane space, between the sanctified world in which the ritual is taking place, and the physical, mundane world. The elemental guardians that are called to the four quarters might even be understood to be spiritual envoys from the physical world to the sanctified ritual space, giving it structure and shielding it from hostile outside forces in the same way four walls do a house. This is of course a time-tested and perfectly valid way of performing ritual, and I’m not here to criticize it in the slightest, or really to talk much about it. I point it out, however, in order to provide a frame of reference with which to contrast how Druids in ADF operate in ritual, which is, as you might expect, rather different. Our purpose in ritual is the sharing of hospitality, the reciprocal relationship between a guest and a host, which we endeavor to extend to all friendly spirits: with our ancestors, with the spirits of the land, of living creatures and natural forces, and with the Gods, all of whom we understand and treat in ritual to be distinct, independent intelligences, each with Their own will, personality, and agenda. As such, it does us no good to cut ourselves out a piece of the world or to erect walls: our goal is not to keep anything out while building up power within, rather like a pressure-cooker; instead, our goal is more comparable to an open bonfire, around which we invite the Powers to come celebrate with us, to share in the light, warmth, and good cheer, to accept our gifts in the form of sacrifice, and to offer us their gifts in return as blessings, for that is the essence of hospitality—a gift for a gift.

Of course, we recognize that not every spirit in the world is friendly to our aims. Just like not every human person one encounters will be helpful or amenable to your goals, and some of them may very well want to disrupt your life out sheer malice, the same is true of the spirit world. If we understand spirits to be actual, real persons with their own agency, it is only reasonable to assume that some of them would be more helpful than others, and some might be less than amicable towards human activity. We see this dynamic played out within the myths of many Indo-European cultures again and again: in which there exists a primordial and chaotic order of unfriendly divinities, who are supplanted by Gods whose provinces include civilization, commerce, agriculture, the arts, and the rule of law. We see it in Ireland with the Fomoire, who are defeated by the Tuatha De Danann, in Hellenic culture, where the Gods of Olympus overcome the Titans, and in Norse culture, in which the Æsir drive out the Jötnar or Giants. In all of these cases the Gods who are the allies of mankind are successful in overcoming the Outsider spirits and the forces of chaos; however, there is an understanding that in none of these stories is the victory complete: the Outsiders always linger about to some extent; these myths reenact themselves in the world cyclically, and chaos can never permanently be set in order. So what we do as Druids is to acknowledge that forces and spirits who may seek to disrupt our rites do exist, and we acknowledge them directly, by setting aside an offering away from our ritual space, and asking them graciously to leave us in peace. Most of us know what can happen when Eris doesn’t receive an invitation to the party.

After the Outsider spirits (which may include distracting thoughts or internal conflicts as well as external numinous forces) have been placated and our space made safe and ready for working, we open up ritual space by recreating the cosmos. Now, clearly that is a pretty big statement—if the universe already exists, how can we claim to be recreating it? Well, what we’re doing is temporarily making our ritual space the center of the universe—instead of carving ourselves out a chunk of the universe, we rearrange our conception of it in order to make the space of our ritual the center of all worlds—and we do this by way of three Hallows. You can probably guess one of them—what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the things Druids are always associated with? If you said a tree, you’re spot on—our reputation as tree-huggers is come by honestly, and I’d like to think we deserve it for the most part. Can anyone tell me the function that a tree serves in ritual?

Let me back up a bit and explain some of ADF’s rationale in being what it is. I said earlier that Ár nDráiocht Féin means ‘Our Own Druidry’. That means what we practice is very much a modern, Neopagan practice—we make no claims of ancientry, of being able to trace our lineage back to the protozoic—ADF dates from the venerable age of 1983. That being said, our methodology is to study, draw inspiration from, and to reproduce as closely as possible (while adapting to contemporaneous relevance) the religious systems and techniques of ancient Indo-European cultures. We call ourselves Druids, who were the intellectual class of the Iron Age Celts, but in fact our religion is a liberal reconstruction of common elements we see arising out of the shared mytho-linguistic body of ancient Indo-European cultures.

One of those elements we find that commonly rises to prominence amongst Indo-European cultures is the splitting of the cosmos into different realms along an axis, most frequently into three: An Above-world in the heavens, an Under-world beneath the earth, and halfway between the two, the Middle-earth that we inhabit. That’s right, Tolkien didn’t ‘invent’ Middle-earth out of whole cloth, and it isn’t any sort of imaginary fantasy-land: it’s simply what our world used to be called throughout much of Europe. A couple of examples: the Mediterranean Sea is so called because it was conceived of as the body of water that bordered, in Latin, media terra, Middle-earth. To the Norse, the world of humans was called Miðgarðr, which came into Old English as Middengeard, and as the language developed gradually became myddelerde, Middle-earth, until our culture eventually became disenchanted with the idea of our world being situated along an axis between other worlds and dropped out the Middle- altogether. Now, Middle-earth—Miðgarðr in the Norse conception— is as I have said situated midway along an axis. It so happens that this axis has a name: Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The World Tree is the axis mundi, the vertical axis that reaches with its roots down into the Underworld, and stretches with its branches up into the heavens. In Welsh mythology, there exists a God named Beli Mawr, who is conceived of as both the sun and as the ancestor of all humans and many of the Gods. Beli, and to greater or lesser extents his Irish and Gaulish cognates Bilé and Belanus, are also understood to be divine embodiments of the World Tree, a lynchpin around which the rest of the world turns.

The Tree is the form this axis takes in many, many cultures throughout the Indo-European family, although occasionally it does take another form, such as a holy mountain. As such, the tree forms one of the three Hallows I mentioned earlier, and is one of the three centers of ADF ritual. There are of course two others, and as the Tree corresponds to this Middle-earth, as it grows in the very soil on which we walk, so too do the other two correspond to the above and below worlds. As we conceive of the world existing in three parts, so too does the center of the world exist in three parts, for the Tree alone cannot carry our voices to the places we must reach to commune with all beings. What it does instead is to provide an anchor, and a way to draw from the other two Hallows—which, as we will see, are also Gates into those other worlds—those spirits who dwell in their respective realms.

As we reach down along the roots of the great tree, we tap into the cool, dark waters that flow beneath the earth. These waters are the wellspring of all life, they spring up out of the ground to form the rivers that flow to the oceans, or we may dig a well in order to reach them, and it is indeed the Well which is the second Hallow, the second center of the cosmos, the Deep Gate to the Underworld. The Well carries our voices down to the heart of the earth, and allows access to hidden pools of ancient and forgotten knowledge. The stones that line the walls of the Well are the bones of our ancestors at their rest under the earth, stretching down into deep time. These are our roots and our foundation, signifying our intimate connection to the womb of the Earth Mother, and to all who have come before us.

We see the Well appear in myth as ubiquitously as the Tree. In Ireland, St. Brigid’s Well in Kildare is among the most well-known, but really the sacred wells associated with numerous beings are too many to list. In the lore, wells are consistently portrayed as liminal places that are prone to encounters by mortals with denizens of the Otherworld. Of the several wells that appear in Norse cosmology, the most important is the Well of Urð at the base of the World Tree, where the three Nornir weave pattern out of chaos, presiding over the flow of time, fate, and the laws that shape our world and our place and actions in it.

We have established our axis and rooted it in the earth—one more Hallow remains in establishing our sacred center. So if the deep Well of Water is the Gate to the below-world, the bottom of our ritual’s axis mundi, what is its top? What is at the crown of the World Tree? Well, some extremely basic botany provides an answer. A tree needs two main things in order to sustain its life: water in its roots, and light in its leaves. Now, all or most of us here are good Neopagans, we know our classical elements; what should go on the opposite end of the axis? Where does light come from? What is the opposite of water? Fire, right? And moreover, the Fire of the Heavens, the Great Lights above our heads. It doesn’t matter if we can’t see the Sun, or the Moon, or even the stars; we know they’re there, shining down, providing light, life, and warmth to our world. Fire completes the triad of the center of our ritual, and it is in fact the most important of the three Hallows. Fire is what we use to make sacrifice to the Gods. With it we can invite Them to share in our circle, to be warmed beside us. Its flames devour our offerings, and its smoke lifts our prayers to the Heavens. It is the Bright Gate to the Above-world, descending to us either from the celestial bodies or from lightning, and reaching back ever upward to the highest heights, and I say that it is the most important, because beyond all other things it allows us to pray and to share in communion with the Powers. There is a proverb and a blessing in Druidry: “May you pray with a good fire,” and in fact we pray to the spirit of the flame itself whenever we light one. Druidry is very much a Fire Religion; indeed Fire is at the very root of our experience both religiously and as humans, which I would argue is very much the same thing. Deep in our ancient past, Fire was very literally the turning point in our evolution: our proto-human ancestors began using it to cook their food, softening the tough vegetation to which they were accustomed, and which in turn removed the need for the massive jaw muscles we still see in our fellow great ape cousins. This allowed space for our brains to expand, and for our intelligence and grasp of the universe to increase exponentially. Fire, which was still something difficult to create anew but was instead a rare gift from the Heavens bestowed by lightning-struck brushfires and the like, was seen as a holy gift, the stuff of the Gods, and revered, cautiously tended, and not permitted to extinguish. For the whole of human history there have existed cults focused exclusively on the tending of the sacred Fire, for it is the sacred center around which we huddle together for warmth, which cooks our food, through which we had our initial experience of the Divine, and by which we were created as an intrinsically religious and myth-making species.

LEM1006coverphotoRH270
The union of All Worlds

And so we have established the sacred center of our ritual; we have recreated the cosmos. When we hallow the Well, the Fire, and the Tree—usually by placing silver in the Well, oil on the Fire, and sprinkling water and wafting smoke onto the Tree—we make our ritual the center of the universe, as we sanctify our axis of mundane Hallows as the Well, the Tree, the Fire. This creates, as I’ve said, a vertical axis in the ritual space through which we access the above, middle, and below worlds, and around which rotates the horizontal axis, intimately associated in the Celtic imagination with the realms of Land, Sea, and Sky.

A word of caution: I know I’ve been talking a lot about the three Hallows in the sense of a vertical axis; this does not entail that we literally dig a pit in between the tree roots or light the tops of our trees on fire! I think we can all agree that would be inimical to our purposes. These are the sorts of things that quickly lead to dead trees, and as Druids we tend to greatly prefer live ones. Sometimes, though—often, in fact, in our world—it can be pretty difficult to find a space where you can celebrate with a hundred foot ash or oak, a stone well or body of water, and a roaring bonfire. It’s a little hard to do regular ritual like that if you live, for instance, in the inner city—or even most places people in our culture live these days. Many ADF Groves and solitary Druids make do with substitutes: a standing pole or bilé to represent the Tree, a vessel of water for the Well, and a candle for the Fire. It is, however, possible to connect to the Two Powers of deep water and heavenly fire without any props apart from your own body serving as the Sacred Tree, and in many Druid rituals we do just that in order to attune ourselves to the primal forces and eddies of chaotic potential. In a few moments, I will be leading us through a meditation designed to attune our bodies to those two powers. However, before we do that, it is first necessary to learn about one more triad: the Three Cauldrons of Poetry.

This is an exercise and a concept that has a great deal in common with the Eastern notion of Chakras and turning energy centers in the body, and it isn’t going too far to say that it takes most of its inspiration from exactly that, as well as the Tree meditation first published by Starhawk in Spiral Dance.

Despite those Eastern and modern influences, there is fact a trace in Irish lore of the notion of a set of energy centers in the body, which is where the imagery we work with comes from. In a medieval poem called, appropriately enough, ‘The Cauldron of Poesy’, there can be found a suggestion of three cauldrons within the human self which determine the level of poetic inspiration, understanding, and wisdom—as well as physical strength and vitality—in the human person. The first of these cauldrons is located in the belly, and is called the Cauldron of Warming, or Incubation. The second is in the heart, the Cauldron of Vocation, or of Movement. The third, of course, is the skull itself, the cauldron in the head, the Cauldron of Wisdom, or Inspiration.

The poem indicates that that these cauldrons may be either inverted (that is, upside down, so that they can hold no substance), half upright (so they can hold some substance), or fully upright (so that they can be filled). And the lore says that in all of us, the Cauldron of Warming, the cauldron of the belly, is born upright. The Cauldron of Warming, if you will, is the biggest of the three. The Cauldron of Warming is the furnace of the body’s self-content. It provides our physical life, and supplies us with the instinctive wisdom and capacity for learning we all have in childhood. It strengthens our body and gives us vigor. And everyone is born with that cauldron fully upright and able to be fully filled.

The Cauldron of Vocation is born in some people half-upright and in some people inverted. But everyone, as they gain a little wisdom in life, that cauldron becomes at least half upright if you don’t grow up to be a fool. And it is by the experiences of the joys and sorrows of life that the cauldrons are turned. The Cauldron of Vocation governs the ability to perceive beauty and sorrow—what you might call human cognition above an animal subsistence.

The Cauldron of Inspiration is born inverted in us all. Only the great events of life can turn it. The joy and sorrow that arise from Love, the joy and sorrow that arise from Religious Experience, the joy and sorrow that arise from Battle—are listed among the things that can turn the Cauldron of Inspiration to be able to receive the Waters of Life, the Imbas or ‘ecstasy of poetic inspiration’ which you might conceive of as a sort of misty mead that results from the meeting and mixing of fire and water.

So what we’re going to be doing is focusing on those three centers in the self, and working on filling them by accessing the Powers of fire and water, reaching out to the below and above worlds. The goal here is to create within ourselves that Imbas, the oracular, magical brew of unlimited creative potential.

Take a moment and make your body comfortable. Stretch if you need to. If you can comfortably do so, straighten your back so it rises straight from the ground, either with your feet planted flat or your legs crossed.

Now I do want to say that we need to go into somewhere between a light and medium trance for this work. We’ll be doing a lot of breath-work throughout, so you’ll need to maintain an awareness of your breath as it moves through your body. You can continue to work eyes-open or eyes-closed at any time. For those of you who are less practiced in meditation or visualization, eyes-closed will probably make it easier for you to reach out with your inner self and to imagine the places you’ll need to go.

But for now let’s all let our eyes just close for a moment and take a few deep breaths…breathe from your belly…breathe in deeply…expanding your belly and filling the top of your lungs…breathe out…sigh that first breath out a little…so that your shoulders drop and your legs relax…let yourself settle firmly into your feet…let the ground support you…. Your arms can relax where they are, your hands in place, settling at ease as you breathe deeply…. If you have a rhythm of breath that you’re used to using, pick it up…and just for a moment let sound, and the brush of air, and your thoughts pass over you like clouds….

It is said by the wise that the waters under the earth carry in them the memory of every power…that all that has been has dissolved in that water and all that will be will rise from it…. Breathe deep…and just let your mind envision—not very far beneath our feet—the seeping flow…of the earth’s dark, green, cool energy, that courses, and is pressed…and seeps…and finds its way in every crack…that flows in deep rivers, and stands in dark pools… and often enough… that rises to the surface of the world… through cracks and shafts…to reach the mortal places…. Imagine now…envision for yourself…roots reaching down…down from your feet, or from the base of your spine, down into that well shaft…that seeping spring…that broad flow connecting you to the waters beneath…spreading down from your base…from your feet…from your spine… into the earth… into the energy of the land….

And it is by our breath that we move and draw that water, so breathe deep…and with your outward breath, feel the energy of the earth rise toward your feet, into your legs…. Breathe deep…and imagine the cauldron in your belly filling with the waters of the earth… As that cauldron fills…be aware of your flesh…your body’s strength…the warmth of blood…the hardness of bone…energized and strengthened by the flow of the earth’s power in the Cauldron of Warming… Breathe deep and relax your body…let go of the tensions that you’ve made by the drawing….

And breathe again….

And draw the water upward by that pressure—by that drawing—and see the cauldron in your heart filling with the power of the earth…the cool, magnetic, blue, shining waters of the earth fill the Cauldron of Movement… and as they fill that cauldron, you become aware of your mind and your life…of all that connects you with the great web of human living…that gives you your work and worth…breathe deep and relax your body…. Let your legs and knees relax…. Your arms relax….

And breathe again….

And draw the power of the earth up into the cauldron behind your eyes…. See the energy of the earth rise and fill that cauldron…filling the Cauldron of Wisdom with the power of the Earth… and as that cauldron fills…what thoughts might find you? What energies fill you? What inspiration is yours?

It is never enough to keep these powers for ourselves…. Breathe deep and let them flow and overflow those cauldrons…flowing throughout the body, filling you entirely…flowing out through you and into the earth again to make that circuit…rising through you and flowing from you into the whole world….

The power of the heavens is a quicker thing than the power of the earth…. See above you where you sit…high above you…past this grey air and mist…above blue air…high in the sky above you…past radiant moon and flaming sun, a single star at the center of the sky, shining directly over your head as your own pole-star…the hearth of your soul’s fire…. See it distant…draw a little nearer—so that you see its flaming power…the fire of the heavens…and by your breath, open yourself to its light….

See a burning ray of light shine down through the grey air and mist…to strike the cauldron in your head…to light the waters of the earth…with the golden, electric, shining power of the sky… to illumine your illumination…and shine down through your body…to fill the cauldron of your heart…to illumine the corners of your understanding of your life and work…to shine further down into your lower body…to fill the cauldron of your belly with the warmth of heavens’ fire…and feel that energy rise in your flesh…even as it rises in your mind and heart….

Breathe deep…and let the water and the light…mingle in you…flowing through you entirely….

Turn your palms up…. Keep your arms relaxed…. Breathe deep…and let the light and the water flow down your arms… Let the waters fountain over your fingers…to reconnect with earth below…. See a dancing flame of the sky’s power…kindle in the center of that water…and dance upon the center of your hand…. Breathe deep…and let your hands flow and shine…with the power of earth and sky…. It is by the power of the hand…that magic is worked…and of the eye…and of the mouth.

Let yourself see…with your inner eye…that water and that fire in your hand…. You may feel a tingling in your palms…a warming…. Bring your hands together and cup them…. Fill that cup…with the fire and water…and let the flame rise high from it…by your breath and will…so that we have…the raw material of the world…and the fire of shaping…in our hand…. As every smith knows, it is a hot fire that makes the work…. Breathe deep…and bring in the light…. Let your hands…become brighter…and warmer with the flame…and the water flows with it…but now that water meets that flame…and turns to mist…spread your hands a little…and envision a sphere of the fire’s light and the water’s mist surrounding your hands right where they are…. Breathe deep…and let the fire be hot…and the waters strong… bring your hands to your heart…. Breathe deep…and let that fire and mist surround your body in a perfect sphere…as spherical as a light shining from the center…carrying with it the waters of the earth…to create a sphere of mist and fire that surrounds you…and in the center of which, you are centered between earth and sky…with the powers manifested and ready to work.

This vision may be called the Caher Draoi—the Druids’ Fortress…because from this place, you can relax the hand and hold the vision for as long as you like…because from this place, all sorts of magic can be worked….

For now, breathe deep…and remember your connection with the earth and with the sky… Allow the flame…to recede…to cool…to settle into balance…in the Cauldron of Inspiration…the Cauldron of Movement…and the Cauldron of Warming…the flame dancing happily… above the waters in your flesh… Freely release…any energy you do not need…. It flows naturally back to its source… Press your hands together gently to close the circuit…. And as you balance in yourself…hold fast to that basic vision…and we’ll let it recede from us…as slowly…we return to the outer world…and open our eyes….

That meditation only increases in power as it is practiced regularly, and your inner cauldrons turn to accept more of the Imbas. As I mentioned earlier, we use that meditation at the beginning of ritual in order to center ourselves in sacred space, to attune with the Powers which we will soon be hallowing and working with, and also to join with each other in a group mind and a joint purpose—as we each become in ourselves embodiments of the World Tree, our roots and branches can twine with each other’s and we can begin to share in each other’s wyrd, or group-fate. That mixture of fire and water—that Imbas—that poured through you during the meditation also has greater significance during and at the end of ritual. When we hallow the portals, the Fire is drawn down along the World Tree and ignites upon the silvered waters of the Well. Throughout ritual, we make offerings to the Kindred of Earth—the Gods, the Ancestors, and the Nature Spirits—and at the end of ritual, they offer back to us their blessings in the form of the Waters of Life. In practice the receiving of the Waters of Life is very similar to the receiving of cakes and ale at the conclusion of a Wiccan ritual, but its purpose is a bit different. This mead of inspiration is the sanctified product of the Sacred Fire mingling with the Sacred Waters, and it carries in it the returned hospitality of the Gods, the reciprocity of honored guests to hosts that have treated Them well. That is the ultimate purpose of Druid ritual: to welcome the Gods as beloved and revered guests into our homes, and to foster with them lasting relationship in which love and honor flow up to Them from us, and blessing and guidance flow down from Them to us, very much like the Water and the Fire course up and down the Sacred Tree. For where water meets fire, new worlds are born, and all manner of magic becomes possible.

An Immodest Rebuttal

I recently composed the following in response to a family member who wrote an “Open Letter to Christian Girls“, in which he exhorts them to refrain from wearing any manner of provocative clothing for the sake of his and other Christian men’s purity and moral integrity. I did not plan to address the issue of misogyny, modesty, or Christianity in my introductory post on this blog—I am not myself a Christian, and this blog exists primarily to facilitate participation in the oftentimes vigourous discussions that transpire in my own religious community. However, a secondary function of this blog is to provide a forum on which to share my thoughts on larger social matters, and this is an issue that I believe men of all religions could benefit from learning more about—moreover, men need to hear it more often from other men, as the problem is in fact a lack of respect (and consequent deafness) towards women. This entry serves as a means to share these ideas in a more accessible and stable way than as a comment that, as of the time of this writing, is still ‘awaiting moderation.’

To my Pagan audience: Please indulge the overtly Christian language of this initial post. I believe communication is best facilitated when there is shared understanding, and offending one’s interlocutor by approaching the subject from outside their worldview is the fastest way to shut down a discussion.

To my Christian audience: Please accept this in the spirit of hospitality with which it was written. Although we do not worship the same Gods, I retain a great deal of respect for the Christian tradition, its virtues, ideas, and mythological structure. I wrote the following to be constructive, not pejorative, and I do so from my best understanding of our shared values and beliefs about how others ought to be treated—with love and respect, as fellow children of God.

Modesty, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Modesty, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

In no sense is it the responsibility of women to alter their behaviour in order to somehow shield men from their own temptations. That is a cowardly and inherently unvirtuous line of reasoning, to simply yield to the assumption that temptation will automatically be too much for you to handle and to so shift the blame for your ‘inevitable’ sin to the woman who tempted you. You claim that (what you view as) immodest dress makes it impossible for you to respect a woman: I tell you that if you cannot respect a woman—or anyone, for that matter—irrespective of their state of dress, then you cannot respect them at all. If you require a woman to dress according to your specific standards in order to avoid being overcome by lust simply by looking at her, that is being disrespectful. It is saying: You are nothing more than your appearance. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks respectfully to women of all social statures and walks of life, including prostitutes that I guarantee were not dressed according to the Galilean standards of ‘modest dress’—and he never provides an excuse for behaving otherwise. What is more, in this moral evasion in shifting the responsibility for male lust onto women, one simultaneously gives oneself an excuse to disrespect without restraint any woman who fails to meet your modesty standards (and by the direction of this post, that includes all non-Christian women), and deprives oneself of any opportunity to actually practice virtue: you are meant to flee from sin, not demand that others change their behaviour so that you needn’t exercise a modicum of restraint. What reward is there in that?

Has it not occurred to you that most women do not dress, most of the time, for Male Benefit? They dress, as do most people, in accordance with what makes them feel both comfortable and attractive—not to men, but to themselves. There is also frequent social signalling to other women going on, of which men remain for the most part ignorant. You are correct when you point out that men are responsible for constructing the deplorably hypersexualised social nets in which we are all caught—but that remains our responsibility. It is the responsibility of men as a whole to resist viewing our world’s sisters, daughters, mothers, and wives as mere sexual objects. If you struggle with that, it is wholly your own failing, not that of the pleasantly-shaped girl who caught your eye and aroused your fancy. You accuse women of ‘killing your desire for purity’ while at the same time demanding they ‘give up those clothes and trust that God would be enough’? Well, why can’t God be enough for you? Why is it necessary to project your own moral shortcomings onto others, instead of trusting that God will help you overcome your personal trials? Depending on other people to remove the stumbling blocks from your path will only ensure that you stumble. It is up to you, and your individual relationship with God—no one else’s!—to see that you view women as complete people, not shadowy, seductive projections of raw sexuality. Great damage has been done to women in blaming them for the failings of men that cannot be repaired by male interference, or by saying, Okay, NOW we don’t want you to dress that way! We have through centuries of misogynistic inculcation forced women to value only certain physical attributes about themselves, and that they are only of any worth if those attributes meet certain expectations and are emphasized. It is not our place to correct that by demanding different standards in exactly the same way, and cover our tracks by calling our desires ‘respect’. It is our responsibility to retrain ourselves in how we approach, view, and treat women, as our partners and equals; it is their right to relearn how to experience worthiness, love, and anything apart from ingrained contempt for themselves and their own bodies—and it is also their right to choose the manner in which to do that, including dressing in clothes that make them feel beautiful or comfortable.

You claim to be offering women respect (if only they will cover up). Is it so much to ask to give enough respect to both them—and yourself—that you acknowledge their own agency, freedom, and worthiness, as well as your own sole culpability in every single one of your choices?

Adam sinned twice in the Garden. The first, of course, was to eat of the forbidden tree. The second (I’m sure you can guess where I’m headed) was to try to shift the blame onto his wife:

And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. (Gen. 3:12)

Now, sure enough, Eve sinned of her own accord, and so bears that responsibility, but that has nothing to do with Adam’s sin, despite the Church having reviled her for very nearly the full length of its existence, accusing her of being the reason sin entered into the world. Scripture, as it happens, does not accord with that doctrine, though:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Rom. 5:12)

Paul, at least, pins it on Adam, indirectly calling him on his evasiveness, and he’s not exactly renowned for his charitable views towards women. So if Adam is wrong to shift blame onto someone else for his own transgression, and is in fact the first Scriptural example of someone doing exactly that, it is reasonable to extrapolate that it is an error to act thusly evasive of one’s own faults at all. As in the above example, if a woman somehow sins in how she dresses, that is between her and God. But she cannot cause you to sin with your eyes—that is on you. And it is not your place to reprimand or try to control her in order to make things easier on yourself.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me conclude with this: You are a pig only if you allow yourself to be—do not simply condemn yourself with false humility to the moral path of least resistance. Elevate and strengthen your own virtue by facing and defeating temptation. In the end, it is possible to lust after someone regardless of what they happen to be wearing—so remove the beam from your own eye, and let your sisters worry about whatever specks may or may not be in theirs.