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Imbolc Blessings

In the Celtic calendar, the first of the four fire festivals of the year is Imbolc. It is celebrated on the second day of February.

The divinity acknowledged in these early Spring rites is the goddess Brigid, the queen of heaven. She is a primary member of the Celtic divinities and is closely associated with the land. She is the protector of the wells and springs. She is the guardian of nature, and therefore agriculture. She is specifically associated with livestock.  Brigid is also the patron of the poets, artists, and others who create.

The symbolism of wells and springs reflects the connection to the waters of life that emerge from unseen sources. In psychological terms, this could signify the wisdom of the unconscious that flows from mysterious origins. The key is developing a practice of receptivity. For example, contemplating our dreams can open us to an awareness greater than our conscious knowing.

Brigid’s protection of agriculture and poetry underscores the need to tend our inner fertility. Tending our forms of creativity is crucial to a fulfilling life.  Her association with fire also pertains to the creative life. Finding passion in our work is of great importance.

The plume of fire radiating from her head connects her to the life of the mind. Learning can be a form of service to the divinities. She is also the protector of travelers. This applies to both those who explore new terrains and those seekers who are on inner journeys.

One traditional practice on her day was to put baked goods out on the doorstep. They were called cakes for the queen of heaven. These offerings were often eaten by hungry travelers in her name. We might honor this custom by giving money to the homeless for something to eat on Imbolc. The idea is to find a way to share the boon. Those who have been blessed in life are called upon to develop some practice of service to others.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Sacred stories continue to touch our souls. We become aware of a dimension of significance in the turning of the seasons that is nothing short of radiant.

So, let us honor the Great Mother, the Queen of Heaven. May we be open to her many gifts of inspiration in this season of renewal.

Blessings of the New Year

Looking back on the past year, Sacred Well has enjoyed much success in its mission of bringing us together as a community in so many ways.

We started at Imbolc, or attempted to do so but the Forces of Nature had other plans. The Imbolc retreat is our time to plan for the coming year, celebrate the Sabbat, and enjoy the fellowship of our extended family. A freak snowstorm dumped nearly 3 feet of snow on our retreat site, and the park rangers did not have the equipment or the personnel to clear the roads for us. It was just as well, as we didn’t want our people to be out in those dangerous driving conditions. We will keep our fingers crossed for this year!

Beltane was a wonderful gathering at the MoonStone Circle Covenstead, where we celebrated with a Maypole, a merry bonfire, and a seasonal feast. Of course with plenty of small ones in attendance there were lots of high spirits and Maypole mayhem, as is befitting the season.

As the Wheel turned to Midsummer, the Covenstead had an impressive pile of brush from the property maintenance which provided more than adequate fuel for a very impressive Summer Solstice bonfire. With the help of all in attendance we were able to make our way through it with not much left over. Pagans are a fire-loving bunch of humans!

While all of this was going on, our Ritual Drama retreat staff was busy behind the scenes, working away on The Mysteries of Orpheus. The magic was strong, and everyone gave of themselves to this project without reservations. The presentation of this immersive ritual drama at the end of September was without a doubt one of the most powerful experiences many of the community have experienced. Our eternal gratitude goes out to everyone who gave so much of themselves to make this happen.

Samhain preparations came close on the heels of the Ritual Drama. We were able to host two celebrations this year, one playful Full Moon for the wee ones, and then on November 2nd we had a Rite of Release for our beloved Dead.

The Covenstead hosted a Winter Solstice gathering which was quite well attended. It included a guided meditation in the classroom downstairs, followed by a wonderful feast. We saw many new faces and were excited to welcome them into our community. We hope that you can join us too!

Stay tuned for our upcoming events in 2020, and thank you for subscribing to The Voice of the Well.

Rev. Kathi Bonnabel

Blessed Samhain Eve

The Ancient Celtic Otherworld

First Appeared in Ripples, The Quarterly Journal of Shining Lakes Grove, Yule, 1995.

Few areas of Celtic lore are more confused by the ravages of time and cultural intrusion than the phenomena of death and the afterlife. The coming of the new Christian faith to Northern Europe signaled a radical change in our traditional understanding of death and rebirth as new characters and biblical theology were superimposed on aboriginal mythology. This hybridization of belief systems created a uniquely Celtic Christianity that, while greatly enhanced by popular folk belief, was in many ways very different from our pre-Christian understanding of the world.

Much of the thinking that resulted from this course of events has been passed down through the centuries to us in folk tales and continues to distort our views of ancient cosmology today. Many of these ideas even continue to be upheld and promoted by modern Neopagan lore as tales are retold and studied for use in revivalist movements. To gain a clearer understanding of our cosmological heritage we must attempt to identify and remove these external influences of late history to reveal a functional and internally consistent world view. While we can not hold out much hope for a truly precise picture of our ancestors’ beliefs, these efforts will carry us much closer to that goal.

The Myth of the Sidhe Gods

The Gods and Goddesses of our ancestors were seen as very powerful. They existed in this world and could move freely between the realms. They were intimately tied to the activities of the world and had an active role in daily events. Many were involved directly in the very cycles upon which life depended.

When Christianity came to the fore people slowly adapted their understanding of these older deities to the new faith. A theology developed to explain the deities’ loss of power to the Christians God which described them as being defeated and relegated to the margins of the world. This belief was a continuation of our traditional view of supernatural relegation. The Celtic Deities were forced to live underground in the same way that they had once forced older pre-Celtic Gods to move out into the Sea.

Today the myths that have been passed through time to us contain stories of how the Gods were forced to live beneath the ground in caves and burial mounds. They began to be referred to as the Sidhe from the Gaelic term for under the hill . Stories abound of fantastic underworld palaces where the former Gods, in diminished form, host marvelous banquets for the dead and heroes of old. These themes are repeated in other tales which picture these palaces as hostels or bruidhen. These accounts have contributed much confusion to a clear understanding of ancient cosmology as they unjustly cast most of the major Irish deities in the role of the Celtic Otherworld God.

As the Christian view of the sinister nature of death and the Otherworld took hold, attitudes toward the old Gods became rooted in suspicion and fear. In late times our view of the Gods became so diminished that they began to be thought of as fairies, sprites, elves, dwarves, etc. These characters maintained their sinister and dangerous nature until recent times when the New Age movement and modern Disney stories turned them into cute but inconsequential playthings.

The Schizophrenic Horned Man

A very popular figure in modern day Neopaganism is the horned man, often given the name Cernunnos taken from a single inscription in Gaul. This modern horned man is a strange mixture of a number of ancient deities from Pan through the Green Man through Hermes through Arawn to Gwyn ap Nudd created through the syncretic power of Wiccan theology. He is seen as a representation of the wild and lusty force of nature while at the same time embodying a sinister otherworldly soul hunter character.

I believe that some of the content of this deity is the result of the collision of the ancient Welsh Otherworld God Arawn with the Christian Devil which occurred as Annwn slowly became synonymous with the Christian Hell. Other portions come from Gwyn ap Nudd, who was once a Welsh hunter God but later became the leader of the wild hunt where the forces of chaos and evil roamed the countryside seeking lone travelers for the opportunity to snatch their souls.

As the aboriginal view of death as a natural passage in the never-ending cycle of life was overtaken by Christian concepts, the previously benevolent Otherworld God took on the sinister and fearful characteristics of a demon. The festival of Samhain slowly turned from a respectful honoring of those who had passed beyond into a time to hide in our homes for fear of having our souls snatched away. Tales that once told us how to welcome the honored dead into our homes were reversed to teach us how to protect ourselves from them and bar them from our doors.

The horned man is indeed one of oldest known deities of Western Europe. But far from being a soul snatching Death God he was the protector of animals and the forest creatures. He was intimately connected with the deeply spiritual, but hardly sinister, activity of hunting and was honored widely as vital to the delicate dance of life. In this original form he is a very appropriate deity for our modern movement at a time when environmentalism is practically a spiritual imperative.

The Sea God King of the Otherworld

The ancient Celtic Otherworld had little to do with the underground. In fact, it is more readily identified on the horizontal plane as outward from the center rather than downward. It was associated strongly with the sea, and for this reason occupies a place as a realm in the triad of land, sea and sky. The dead are envisioned as living on beautiful islands or in magical lands under the surface of the waves.

The Otherworld is a happy place of peace and harmony, an idealized mirror image of this world. There is no pain, sickness or aging as the dead enjoy beautiful music and endless banquets of delight. The heroes of the ages entertain themselves with all sort of sports and good-natured athletic competitions as all await their time of return to this world.

The king and host of this wondrous realm is a Sea God. For Shining Lakes Grove he has been identified as Manannan mac Lir. His functional equivalent in the Welsh pantheon is the God Arawn. Both of them are far from demonic characters. Manannan is a wise and gracious host who has many wondrous abilities and possessions such as magical horses who can stride on the surface of the ocean, a cloak of invisibility and magical pigs.

Other Otherworldly Characters and Concepts

The Irish Celts have a tale of the first mortal ever to die. Just prior to their landfall upon Ireland, the sons of Mil are stricken by a mishap. One of their number, a fellow named Donn is drowned by the Goddess Eriu after he insults her. From this point on he appears in the tales as the keeper of the first guidepost on the journey to the Otherworld. The dead were believed to have briefly visited or passed by his house just after the moment of death. This house is located on an island off the coast of Ireland called TechnDuinn or House of Donn. This tale is undoubtedly of ancient origin as it is present in other forms in the larger body of Indo-European lore such as the Vedic Yama.

The battle hags of Celtic lore are closely associated with death. They are often seen transformed into ravens who hang around battlefields to feast on the gory remains. They are closely associated with the destiny of warriors and are usually triple Goddesses. Examples are Badbh, Nemhain, Macha and the Morrigan. They do not, however, seem to have anything to do with the realm of the dead itself and rather are mostly concerned with the moment of loss of life and possibly transportation of the soul to that realm.

There are also female characters who can be more readily seen as Goddesses of the Otherworld. They are generally very beautiful women who have great regenerative and healing powers. They are strongly associated with swans or songbirds with beautiful plumage and magical voices. The Goddesses often have the ability to transform themselves into the form of these birds. Examples of these Goddesses are Fand, Be Lind, Fi Band, Naiv, Rhiannon and probably Epona. In later tales they were seen as enchantresses who lured heroes into Otherworld adventures.

Living mortals also occasionally entered the Otherworld. A large number of the tales that have been passed down to us concern mortal adventures into the Otherworld and encounters with its inhabitants. Bold heroes such as Pwyll, Cu Chulainn, Bran, Finn and Conaire all found or fell upon a way to transgress the boundary between the worlds. These tales provide a wealth of knowledge about the nature of the Otherworld while pointing the way for modern practitioners to access and explore this realm. This is particularly true of those tales surrounding the God Manannan mac Lir.

A final character that should be mentioned is the Otherworldly dog or hound. As with many of the Indo-European people, the Celts also had such beasts in their mythology. Kings of the Otherworld such as Manannan and Arawn had special dogs which were red and white or speckled in appearance. They served their masters as hunting dogs or guard gods. When they were viewed by mortals they were seen as omens of impending death.

Conclusions for Neopagan Theology

Through the careful study and adoption of the principals outlined above we will be able to cultivate an understanding of death and the Otherworld that is much closer to that of our ancestors. The concept of the Otherworld as a peaceful and benevolent respite has important implications to our funerary and worship practices while permitting us to evolve a much more balanced and less-fearful approach to the journey beyond the veil.

The understanding of the genealogy of the Sidhe God tales is particularly important to our revival of faith in the old Gods. The fact that these Gods have been freed from their underground prisons to rule the world again has great power to bring them into our lives and show us their relevance to the interworkings of life. As we have begun to learn in Shining Lakes Grove this belief that the Gods can be once again seen and felt in nature around us has great power to intimately connect our acts of love and worship to the ever changing force of life around us.

Mysteries of Orpheus Retreat FAQ

Do you have questions about the Mysteries of Orpheus retreat?  Here is what people are asking:

Are electrical outlets available for my CPAP? – Yes, there is at least one outlet in every cabin.  We recommend bringing an extension cord with you, and maybe a splitter in case there are multiple CPAP users in the cabin.

I have food allergies/sensitivities/dietary restrictions.  How will I know what I can eat? – The menu for the weekend and the ingredient list will be posted on the Sacred Well Ministries website page titled “The Mysteries of Orpheus:  Love, Death, Gods, and Mortals”  They will also be listed in your program, and posted in the dining hall.  There is a place on the registration questionnaire to note your issues, which will be passed onto the kitchen team.

I have restricted mobility and will need lower bunk/ADA accessibility. Is that possible? – Yes, the site has more than adequate lower bunk spaces for the modest size of our group.  We don’t assign beds to each person but have not had problems finding sleeping arrangement that fit everyone’s needs.  The two larger cabins have restroom facilities in the cabin itself.  The smaller cabins have two steps up to the door, and restrooms/showers are separate buildings nearby.  Just let a staff member know if you need help with anything.

Is there some privacy in the restroom/shower facilities? – Yes, there are doors on the restroom stalls, and curtains on all the shower stalls.

What about the cabins? – The cabins have bunkbeds, and if additional privacy is desired bring extra sheets or fabric to make a curtain or room divider.

I am LGBTQ/nonbinary/genderfluid.  Is this a safe space for me? – Absolutely.  Many of our community members are also.  We are committed to respect for all expressions of gender and orientation, as well as body autonomy, personal boundaries and consent culture.  People may ask for your pronouns.  Don’t hesitate to let people know what yours are if they don’t.

I would rather bring a tent instead of bunking in the cabins.  Is that allowed? – Yes, there are multiple tent sites around the retreat center.  The event is in late September so be aware of weather conditions.

I want to get a registration for a friend.  Why does the ticketing site only allow me to sign up for one registration?  –  You can register as many people as you would like, but each needs to be a separate transaction.  The Brown Paper Tickets platform generates and attendee list for us, and we need the information on the questionnaire for each person.

What kind of connectivity is available at the retreat center? – Not much.  Most cell phones don’t get very much reception, if any.  The recreation hall has WiFi available, though it is a bit unpredictable.

I have heard about a certain shrine at this event.  What is it? – There is one cabin near the recreation hall dedicated to Pan and Aex.  As the Charge of the Goddess says. “All Acts of Love and Pleasure are my rituals”.  And as stated before, consent culture is the standard here.

This is my first time coming to this event.  Is there anything I should do to prepare for it? –  Yes, check out the sacredwellministries.org website.  There is a page with information about the mythology of the Orphic Mysteries which introduces you to the mythos and philosophy of the Orphics.  There is also a page with practical info such as packing list suggestions, menus, event schedules, and other useful tips.

Will there be vendors at this event? – Yes!  For the first time this year we will have a vendor of magical goods at Orpheus.  Several of our musicians will also have CDs for sale. 

Should I bring a drum or other musical instrument? – Yes, we encourage folks to make music! Keep in mind that quiet time starts at 10 PM, and there are houses nearby.  The sound carries quite well across the bay, as we have discovered.

I can only come for part of the retreat.  Is that allowed? – It isn’t going to give you the optimal experience, but if you can attend Saturday you will get most of the ritual event.  Be sure to arrive early (by 9 AM at the latest) for orientation and purification to enter sacred space.  We cannot offer a price reduction on registration for partial attendance.

Mysteries of Orpheus in progress!

We are beginning the process of bringing The Mysteries of Orpheus to you, and we are so very excited to be working with this amazing new group of talented folks who will bring the Gods to us in new and surprising ways!  Be prepared to have your spirit expanded, your intellect and your emotions engaged, and much more.

We hope that you will be able to join us.  Registration is open, and there are still 60 spots available.  For more information visit the event page here on our website.

Rev. Kathi B.