Category Archives: Musings

Musings from the Hag in the Woods

by Rev. Deborah K. Hudson

Ah, musings… We are all allowed to muse – some profound, some silly, some insightful, some boring. I used to muse as the Mother Superior, but those days are long gone. Let me introduce myself. My name is Deborah Hudson. I am a Wiccan priestess, retired and withdrawn. I am an Elder and verily a hag (a good word for a lady of a certain age), I live surrounded by trees. Big trees. I was\ the High Priestess of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church for years before I assumed the position of Archpriestess which I held for more years.

I have MS. Multiple Sclerosis. Most of my symptoms are invisible. You would notice that I am wobbly, but probably put it down to age, not MS. My biggest issues are with my eyes and my facial nerves. MS can affect any nerve in the brain or central nervous system and everyone differently. We are all different. Anyway, my issues eventually caused me to back away from my duties, but after three surgeries, constant monitoring by multiple medical personnel, I feel ready to muse, so muse I will.

I used to muse about the Wheel of the year, but I want to muse about Wicca. I have been asked many times about both the definition of and the nature of Wicca. It seems people define it according to their own needs. TV and media producers see it as a woo woo, mysterious pseudo-religion, wait! Not a religion, a practice because it’s all abut the spells, the spooky Book of Shadows, the power. Unfortunately, this definition has found a real set of followers who have significantly eroded the spirit and soul of true Wicca.

Others define Wicca by a set of very precise rules. This is not a bad thing in terms of the spirituality for it acknowledges that Wicca is a Spirituality with a strong relationship between Gods and humans. it only becomes a negative when it focuses on the we/them thing and crosses the bounds into fundamentalism. Now, how do I define it? As a nature spirituality based on the pre-christian beliefs and culture of Europe. It recognizes a Goddess and God, the creative duality of nature and the world. It has a suggested set of ritual forms, guidelines, and practices. The most important of which are The Wiccan Rede and The Threefold Law (more later), it combines worship and spellwork.

Wicca has no pope, no board of elders or bishops, no other ruling body. It is very much an open way of worship. People can create what they want and call it Wicca.This, of course, is both good and bad. I am an old style Wiccan and have some strongly held opinions, but I also recognize that things change and must change.

She changes everything She touched, And everything She touches changes.

But within change the Rede and the Threefold Law remain. The Wiccan Rede (short version) status An it harm none, do what you will. Oh, a hard one! Think of “An” as “As long as”, so as long as it harms none, do what you will. No harming another person, living or not living thing, the earth, yourself. Think about it. An amazingly powerful dictum for ethical behavior. And the Law? Ok, who wants to throw power – any kind of power, thoughts, words, actions out there that is negative and will come back to bite you three times its power? Keeps you trying to be responsible, AND reinforces the Wiccan strong belief in one being responsible for on’s actions.

That being said, with the emergence of the strong LBGTQ+ community, Wicca has an opportunity to grow to truly serve this community. Wicca has always provided a safe place for people who for one reason or another do not find traditional religions fulfilling or accepting. The Wiccan belief in a Mother Goddess who accepts all without question, is very appealing. Accepting without question does not mean one forgoes the taking responsibility for one’s own actions which is a fundamental Wiccan precept. The rites and rituals of Wicca can be adjusted to allow for more diversity. I see this as a wonderfully creative opportunity for people. Perhaps a Wiccan Tradition (Wiccan Traditions are like sects of Wicca. The basics are the same [right! Define the basics!], but the rituals or other things may be different) can be built around a community that is more gender fluid. Frankly, I get excited just thinking of the possibilities.

Wicca can change and grow in other ways, too. While I think there should be a balance between spellwork and worship, perhaps there is room for creativity here as well. I do NOT think that focusing only on woo woo is Wicca. Wicca is a spirituality and that means a relationship with Spirit. And it is wise to be respectful of other religions/spiritualities. Norse deities are generally worshiped in Asatru, the Indian pantheon in Hindu , the Christian assembly in Christianity. I am not saying don’t do it, or it is wrong, I am saying be respectful, both of the pantheon and of the religions associated with them. Vodou has had a very powerful and respectful relationship with Christian saints for a very long time.

I am not sure where Wicca is headed and I recognize that the Wicca I have known and loved may be disappearing, but the beauty of this Spirituality that I have loved and lived has been and is a glory to me. it fills me with grace and my deepest joy is sharing that grace with you.

Imbolc and Candlemas: A Personal Journey

The famous quote by Thomas Wolfe “You can never go home again” can be interpreted in many ways. Nostalgia casts a warm glow on the past, and perhaps the old wounds can be forgotten. Things will not be the same. But if you go back knowing that you are different, and choosing to bring new meaning to things that were cast aside or left behind, it isn’t going home. It is creating a new home. 

Our Lady of Light

On Candlemas I chose to attend a Catholic mass for the first time in several decades. In my youth, I had a complicated relationship with the Church. I left and came back several times, trying to reconcile it with my changing views as I gained my independence. Things just didn’t work out. And when I fully embraced the Goddess, I realized that Mary had been that Divine Mother for me all along. 

Presenting the Divine Child

Jesus was just all right with me. I had J.C. Superstar and Godspell to inform my relationship with that Divine Son. Like, I said, it was the ‘70’s … he seemed like a pretty cool dude. But the Almighty Father was a lot like the other father figures in my life at that time. Distant. Never there when you wanted him to be. He would call once in great while, but there was never any real connection. 

St. Michael Church

So why did I decide to go to Mass on Candlemas night? My journey of Spirit has become richer and more complex over the years. In January of 2020 I became part of a spiritual family with roots in New Orleans, Sosyete Racine Dahomey. Our practice is Haitian Vodou. African Diaspora religions in the Caribbean, North and South America have close ties with Catholicism. Part of our practice includes working with the Ancestors, the majority of whom were Catholic in my case. The Saints are part of our practice as well. 

Ancestor’s Candle lit from the Candlemas flame

This local church was not a grand cathedral. It was a Wednesday night so I figured that Mass would be lightly attended. I had been to a midnight Mass there once a very long time ago so it wasn’t completely new to me. Remembering that the Mass was in Spanish that night, I hoped that tonight might be the same. The parking lot was surprisingly full when I arrived, and I got a little nervous, but got up my nerve and went in.  

As it turned out, it was a candlelight Mass … of course it was! Not only that, Mass was celebrated in English, Spanish, AND Latin. We all lit our candles and processed into the sanctuary. Hearing Agnus Dei sung in Latin was magical. Candlemas is 40 days after Christmas, when the Divine Child and Mother went to the temple to be purified. The Child is also then recognized as The Light of the World. In context for me, the universal meanings of this idea reach far beyond the Church. 

My statue of Mary & my Grandmother’s rosary

I celebrated the Child of Light and the Divine Mother. I honored the Ancestors, St. Brigid, and Mama Brigitte. I celebrated the uniting of my past and my future. I felt like I found a home within myself. A new home connected with an old one. The circle is complete and unbroken, and the Wheel turns again.

Bright Candlemas and Imbolc blessings abound!

Rev. Katherine 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.