A Return to the Past, A Path to the Future

A landscape photograph. The background is made of a gray sky peaking through the branches of leafless trees which are covered in cascades of blooming wisteria, appearing as a purple haze around the branches. The foreground is vibrant green, mostly wisteria and ivy, a few blooms of wisteria clearly visible. To the right in the foreground is the corner of an abandoned house, paint peeled away and mostly gray, darker than the sky, with remnants of vibrant teal pain along the bottom edges. Photograph by author.

So, I tried a new thing. In Gaelic Polytheism, we don’t usually celebrate what many Pagans call the “Quarter Days,” (Yule, Ostara, Litha, Mabon) usually just celebrating our Fire Festivals that most of the generally Pagan Cross-quarter Days come from (Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasadh). A few years ago, maybe longer, I started celebrating Grianstad an tSamhraidh (Midsummer). We know historically that rent was payed to Manannán Mac Lir for his protection of Ellan Vannin (Isle of Mann) and in southern Ireland Áine was honored at the same time. A year or so after that, I also decided it made sense to celebrate Grianne at the opposite point of the year, Grianstad an Gheimhridh (Midwinter).

But for the last couple years, it’s really struck me how much that doesn’t line up with my seasons Down South. I’d already made mental adjustments, thinkin of the holidays truly as the beginning of seasons rather than just days, but it still wasn’t right. And it makes sense. This far south of Ireland, our climate varies muuuuch more wildly. Our winters are shorter (though can be colder or warmer), come later, leave sooner. We rarely get snow. And our summers come soon are are easily 30°F/21°C hotter. We have much faster and more visible transitions. So, oddly enough, I’ve moved forward while lookin back, so to speak. This year, I decided to use the Spring Equinox (I don’t know the Irish for this or how appropriate it would be) to officially say goodbye to Grianne for the year and welcome Áine. It was nothin major, but it felt nice to do it. I’ve got a pair of candles on either end of my house, one for each that represent winter and summer that I burned from sundown to sundown and gave water to Grianne for her rest while offering flowers to Áine as a welcome and thanks for the warmth to come. The plan, I think, is to do the inverse come Autumn Equinox and incorporate this into my relgious calendar.

An image of Áine’s shrine. A y’all candle in summer shades of yellows, oranges, and a few reds is surrounded by pink and white azalea blooms, a purple iris, unknown small white flowers in clusters on branches, and cascades of wisteria, all on a teal table. There is a window behind that is dark, reflecting the light from inside the house. Photograph by author.

It’s strange because, after years of somewhat retraining my brain to forget the 8 holidays of the wheel, I’m seemingly returning to them, but in a decidedly different way. Just as Grianstad an tSamhraidh and Grianstad an Gheimhridh are relatively minor holidays with simple offerings, so are the Equinoxes. Or so will they be. To me, it makes sense, both as a modern practitioner and one decidedly influenced (as we all are, whether someone wants to admit it or not) by modern Pagan practices and communities. I think I fought this for as long as I did because of clinging to a Recon label, but I find that so constricting now. Is my practice any less informed by history? Not at all. I’m simply makin room for new ideas and evolution. And if I decide I don’t like it or it doesn’t work, I can always drop it again. But for now, it feels right.

Additionally, as I begin to explore ADF, it makes sense to me to find meaning in times like this that I, personally, already find meaningful. And who is to say that this wouldn’t have been a natural evolution anyway? So often anymore, it seems that hardcore Gaelic Recons want to simply act as gatekeepers rather than spiritually sound people or even individuals who can agree that all our practices won’t look the same. Just as Áine was honored locally, not nationally considering that’s a modern construct itself, it only drives home the point of a truly local cultus that can express the needs and desires of practitioners.

Advertisements

Imbolc 2018

Imbolc snuck up on me faster than I could have guessed this year! But I’m so ready for spring, so not gonna complain. I kept it really simple this year. Again. And while part of me likes that, I really, really want to work on liturgy. For Bealtaine, I may look at the ADF liturgy, see what strikes me and use it as a template if nothin else.

But it was pretty relaxed. It got up to about 65ºF on Thursday, which was so perfect for Imbolc in the South. I was afraid it was gonna rain, but it didn’t. I’d set up the framework for the fire in the old chimney out back a while ago, so I just took some of the junk mail, dryer lint, and and paper bags out to use for fodder. Practical, environmental, and symbolic. I’d also saved the cardboard containers that mushrooms come in, which are perfect for non-liquid offerings cause you can just toss the whole thing in the fire, makin cleanup even easier. I offered butter and cream per tradition, as well as some limes because I love them and for the way they remind me of spring. They were a little older, but still good, which seemed like a good balance, too. I also burned my wreath from the winter, which hung on the front door from just after Samhain until Thursday. It was made from some kind of sweet-smelling evergreen and good lord did it burn! I need to clear out the smaller tress that have grown up around that chimney cause the flames had to blaze up to 8 ft high and I was afraid it was gonna catch the little trees on fire. But it also makes sense as to how Christmas tree fires get outta hand so fast; I’ve never seen anything burn like that. But everything was fine, lesson learned, and I love the idea of burning away the old and a symbol of winter. I wore it on my head for a few minutes, which reminded me that I’ve had some kind of seasonally floral crown the last 2 major fire holidays and I think I wanna keep up that tradition. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on about it is that the green helps with my seasonal depression initially, but at some point transitions to bein a reminder that it’s still winter. Burning it was therapeutic and I think that’s as important as anything.

IMG_1197.JPG

My winter wreath

But I didn’t have anything prepared for the liturgy. Instead, I used an Imbolc playlist from YouTube, which turned out to be really good, and sang to Brighid and Na Dé. I was out there for a couple hours, singing, contemplating, and just being. That part was nice and I like the idea of including that, but feel the need (and have for years) to have ritual language to use during the processional and for a formalized offering. I usually speak through what I”m offering and why, but that still doesn’t feel adequate. But I’m just gonna have to actually do somethin about it rather than just continuously complain abut it.

But it was a good day overall. I took Moonie on a walk and saw the daffodils gettin ready to bloom. The Southern snowdrop, if you will. It’s always nice to see them pop up. And I noticed that the Chinese Magnolias are juuussssst startin to bud, so they’ll be flowerin soon, too, which is usually when spring is here to stay.

IMG_1198.JPG

The daffodils almost in bloom

Until then, I’ll keep forgin this new extension of my Southern Gaelic path and see what happens. Despite my longings for finer details, I’m truly happy with where I am and where I’m headed.

Featured image from Margherita Pesando 

Southern Folk Magic

I recently got an ask on tumblr about Southern Folk Magic. I haven’t been able to post here lately cause of the move and starting grad school, so I thought I’d share it here.

erynn-lafae asked:

Can you talk a bit about Southern folk magic? What’s that like? How’d you learn it? What makes it distinctly Southern?

So, I’ll start with a little background on the term “Southern Folk Magic.” Obviously, hopefully anyway, the term is to denote regional variations of folk magic practiced in the US South. That said, I use it as an umbrella term for the practices that happen Down South because there are TONS. We tend to talk about the South as a whole, but what many folks from outside the region don’t seem to realize is just how much diversity there is down here. Like I mentioned here, there are tons of subregions in the South and just as our food, accents, and dialects are different, so can our magical practices be. My personal experiences have been in Memphis/Mississippi Delta/North Mississippi and Knoxville/East Tennessee/Southern Appalachia. I’ll be addin Atlanta and hopefully North Georgia to that list soon, but not quite yet. 

For those not from the Delta region, Memphis is often jokingly referred to as “the capitol of Mississippi.” This is largely cultural and demographic and I’ve long said “Memphis will always be more Mississippi than it’s ever been Tennessee.” And the older I get, the more true that seems to be. According to the 2010 census, Mississippi has a 37% Black population. It has also seen the largest increase in people reporting to be of “mixed race.” Memphis has a 61% Black population, with many of these folks bein the direct descendants of freed slaves who moved out of the rural South and into a city. And in West Tennessee, which runs from the Western border of the state to the western bifurcation of the Tennessee river and represented by the far left star on our state flag, even small towns often have 30%+ Black populations whereas Knoxville, the largest city in East Tennessee, only has a 13% Black population. So the folk magic I grew up around in Memphis is largely influenced by Black folks whereas East Tennessee Appalachian folk magic is much more influenced by Cherokee and Scots-Irish practices. 

So, when I moved to Knoxville for college, it was absolute culture shock. I wasn’t actively or knowingly practicing magic at that point, but the foundations had been laid. I got a blue doormat for the front door because that’s what you do. Now I realize this comes from a West African idea that harmful spirits can’t cross water and the blue doormat (or painting the underside of your porch roof) will hopefully confuse em. I’ve since learned this is common in Carolina Lowcountry from the Gullah-Geechee people, so I’m not sure the exact lineage of me learnin it, but it’s somethin I still do. Little things like this abound and I honestly only think about it when I find myself doin one of em.

Another tradition I grew up around is water-witchin water dowsing. The first time I heard the term as a kid, I was confused, but both of my grandparents on my daddy’s side could do it and it basically involves balancin a forked stick and when it drops, that’s where you dig your well. Other people use 2 sticks or metal rods and wait for em to cross. Either way, it seems to work.

I also wear a dime on a red string on my right ankle for good luck and to avert “the evil eye.” This is somethin a childhood friend’s grandmother made for me the first time sayin, “honey, you just need it.” And I think she was right. This is a practice that, from what I’ve read, also comes from African tradition, but specifically what or where has been all over West Africa. But the red string also carries over into Irish lore on good luck and as a Gaelic Polytheist, it makes a perfect blend of practices for me.

There’s also what I feel like is a broder American tradition that comes to us likely from the Irish of hangin a horseshoe above the door. Modern folklore says to hang it points up so that the “luck doesn’t run out,” but it also seems to do have to do with the idea that horseshoes are traditionally iron and the fae don’t like iron.

In East Tennessee, it’s not unheard of to see a tree with ribbons or scraps tied to it. The type of tree varies, but the idea is similar to Buddhist prayer flags (for a more recognized practice) and seems to come from the Gaels that settled in the area. But over heard people say it has Indigenous ties, too. How much of that is true and how much is “Cherokee Princess Syndrome” as I like to call it, I just don’t know. That’s one thing about bein down here; we’ve created a string cultural identity that, regardless of how it happened, mashed cultural practices together that there’s just no tellin where some of em exactly come from. And that’s honestly part of what makes it “Southern.” Our culture is an amalgamation of various African cultures, Irish and German immigrants, Acadians, French and Spanish historical colonization and influence, and countless indigenous cultures. If the stories of how that happened weren’t so absolutely mortifying, it could be beautiful, but we’ll always carry the wounds and scars of the past, imo.

As for how I learned, it’s been a wild ride. A lot of things I just learned culturally growin up. When you’re “born in the South, given to a town raised on hand to mouth,” a lot of things I’d now qualify as folk Magic are just a part of life. But as I’ve grown and begun intentionally practicing, I’ve read everything I can. Lots of times, this means pickin through charlatans and pseudo-intellectual horseshit. It means often bein VERY wary of other white folks claimin to know anything about anything. I’ve talked to older folks who practice and try to learn what they’re willin to teach. But it’s been a tough road. And that, along with other historical factors, are why I don’t use terms like hoodoo for my practice. I think hoodoo is a form of Southern Folk Magic, but it also has its own specific history and practices ties to the Christianization and slavery of African peoples. I’ve found a lot of similarities in my practices and Hoodoo™, but I also have a much more heavy and specific Irish influence because of bein a Gaelic Polytheist than a lot of other folks.

So, as with most topics, it’s incredibly nuanced and I’m sure I’ve left somethin out or even said somethin that wasn’t super clear, so if there are any questions, shoot! And if there are any other folks that practice Southern Folk Magic or Southern-influenced Magic, hit me up! I’d love to hear from y’all cause lord does it feel lonely sometimes. We can pm here, send me asks, hit me up on twitter, or shoot me an email at TheModernSouthernPolytheist@gmail.com.  

Another Ancestor Born

I prayed to Jesus for the first time in 16 years this week and it left quite the impression…

White text:

As an ex-Christian, as many of us are, I’ve worked hard to move past and let go of the anger and sheer hatred toward Christianity, Christians, and organized religion that I developed over the years of mistreatment I faced in a Christian church. But those emotions still surface from time to time. This time, however, felt different. 

As I watched my grandfather lay in a hospital bed of the burn unit, I prayed to Brighid for healing. I prayed to Airmid to guide the nurses and let the medicines do their best. I prayed to Miach to restore his body. And I prayed to Jesus, the god of my grandfather, to see his child and heal him. This wasn’t somethin I did lightly or without a great deal of thought, both previously in the abstract and in the moment of need. But then Pap-ah died. 

I knew it was comin. He’d gone from sittin up, talkin, and jokin to gaspin for breath even with an oxygen mask on his face. He was no longer able to understand why he had been restrained. And finally he had to be re-intubated, only to progress to multi-organ failure. I knew. I’ve worked in emergency veterinary medicine too long to not see the parallels. And then we made the decision that we never should’ve had to make to just keep him comfortable until the inevitable happened. Unlike my world, we couldn’t stop the suffering for him, but I’m also not sure I could’ve made it. 

And then I was angry again. Angry st Pah-pa for bein his normal stubborn self and not listenin to anyone when he was told to just let the branches dry out some more before he burned em. Mad that he didn’t have the water hose out there like he normally does. Irritated that people kept blamin his strokes for the behavior and not realizing that he’s always been that way. Angry at myself for not takin it as seriously as I should’ve when we first got the call. And finally, furious that Jesus had failed to do what he should’ve done and saved Pap-ah. But then I had to stop. My gods hadn’t saved him either. 

Havin now been a Polytheist of some sort for 13+ years, I know that my gods don’t intervene every time I ask. I know that this doesn’t mean they don’t care or arent listenin, but when it came to Jesus, that evangelical Protestant upbringin came rushin back. And I’d gone so far as to pray to a god that I still have some issues with! And for someone he supposedly loves. But just as quickly, I began to reconcile that how I viewed Jesus doesn’t line up with how I view any other gods and that I’d just never taken the time to purge that old thought process. 

I don’t for a second buy the line that “it was his time” and frankly find that to be bullshit. No one survives scarlet fever, the Great Depression, more injuries and surgeries than can be recounted, and 4 strokes only to die from secondary complications from a burn. I’ll never believe that. This was all the result of a careless decision and denying that doesn’t make it any less painful or true. 

But none of this changes the outcome. It’s vertically challenged my beliefs and worldview, but ultimately strengthened them as best I can tell. It’s revealed my views on gods in general, already there but non-verbalized. My worldview remains the same, but more concrete in its execution. Though I have no doubts that Pap-ah would’ve disapproved of my beliefs about most everything in life, I truly hope he’s now at peace and able to see me for who I truly am and how I navigate the world. I pray that he’s at peace and will forever keep a protective and loving eye out for me. 

Saturday, we lay my last father-figure to rest. At 31, I’m now the oldest living male in my immediate family line and the seriousness and mortality of that is heavy. In just 4 years, I’ll be as old as my father was when he joined the ancestors; I’d be lyin if I didn’t admit that terrifies me. But I can’t do anything but keep movin forward. All any of us can do is keep movin forward and pray that when we join the ancestors ourselves, we’re ready. 

White dogwood flowers on a blown out green grassy background

The flower of his home state and the name of his eternal resting place…

Restin’ Them Bones

Go and get my bones,
Bring ’em to the Deep South,
Somewhere they can thaw out,
Here in the the Deep South…

A black and white photo of the grave of an unknown soldier in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, MS, restin place of both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh. The grave marker itself stands upright, has a very slightly elevated point in the middle, and appears to have been white or light colored originally, but is now covered in a layer of grime. An equal-armed cross adorns the top and the word "unknown" is written in large block letter along a curved line in the middle of the marker. A large, gnarled tree root buts up against and then grows up the bottom right corner of the stone. Other grave markers can be seen, blurred in the background.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, MS, restin place of both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been a stranger to death. Or rather, Death™ has never been a stranger to me. My father passed away when I was 6 months old, his father following 6 months later. After that, it was a seemingly endless parade of funerals and funeral processions through the country roads of the North Mississippi and broader Mid-South until I tuned 19. At that point, I was seemingly granted a reprieve until 23 when my first close high school classmate left us unexpectedly. At this point, I feel like my dealings with Death and death have been at fairly ordinary intervals, but when you stare her in the face more often than not as a child, it leaves an irrevocable mark. This mark has led to my relationships with ancestor veneration, methods of divination, certain deities, and my practice in general.

Recently, my uncle passed away. It was somewhat unexpected and definitely hit me hard. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt cause it had been a while since I’d seen him. Then I realized that my younger cousin has never really faced the death of a close loved one, let alone a parent. Her older brother was ~12 when our grandmother passed away, but she was only 5. I know she’s been to other funerals, but that’s not the same. They’ve been amazingly strong, but I know hoe deep-seated that pain can be and how quickly it can come rushing to the surface with the force a tsunami without a moment’s notice.

This funeral was different for me in many ways, too. This is one of, though not THE first time I’ve attended a family funeral as my adult self. For my very rural family, sometimes this presents the issue of “explaining” me to their friends and neighbors as I walk in with blue hair, stretched ears, and a face full of metal. Now Daddy’s side could care less what anyone else thinks for the most part, but Momma’s is the opposite. Thankfully, as weird and wrong as that sounds, this was Daddy’s side, but it doesn’t change the way death always seems to mark me as an outsider since I’ve become an adult. Of course a funeral that isn’t mine isn’t about me, so it just leads to long-term suppression of those emotions that tend to erupt down the road in unpredictable ways.

The drive to rural North Mississippi alone gave me a lot of time to reflect on my own thoughts about death and afterlife. This was compounded by the times I had to zone out because the message that may or may not have been comforting to every other person in the room was doin nothin but grating my nerves. I found myself pondering the Greco-Roman nature of the rural funeral parlor, the motifs a mix of Christian and pagan elements, wondering if I was the only one to notice. It certainly allowed a much needed escape while pinned between in-law-esque family members that would likely string me up were they to ever learn of my religious practice or beliefs. I guess it’s worth noting here that I’m not actually related to these particular folks, but I know em well enough to know their thoughts on the matter. But these Greco-Roman pediments led down an ADHD trail of my own musings about what comes next. In that same vein, I always worry what family who pass will think of me as they view me from their Otherworld, but I swear if I didn’t feel a bit of comfort from my uncle, a Southern Baptist preacher, as if I felt him laid a hand on my shoulder and tell me he understands when envisioning adding him to my ancestor shrine space.

I firmly believe in an afterlife, but what that looks like, I frankly have no idea. For me, it feels natural at this point to think that I’ll spend some time with Donn after passin on before movin on to Tír na nÓg (or some other realm of existence) at some point. But do I think that same reality applies to everyone? I don’t know. Comin from an evangelical Christian background, a background that told me that everyone goes one of 2 places despite whatever religious convictions they held in life, I find it ridiculous to reassert that same belief system that forces everyone in to a cookie-cutter conception of an afterlife. So where does that leave me? Honestly, at an impassible juncture as of now. Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters; what happens after death is what happens, regardless of what I might like it to be. Maybe we each go where we believed we’d go in life. Maybe we can visit other peoples’ afterlives. Maybe we all go to the same place. Maybe there’s not anything after this. At some point, it becomes counterproductive for me to continue to dwell on the future in that capacity when there’s so much to be done in the here and now. And that’s where it’s left me.

But drivin those small town roads, a caravan of vehicles farther in each direction than the eye could see as we crested those Mississippi Pine Country hills, made me realize how much “home” is here for me. The casseroles, the funeral chicken, the good memories, all call to me in a time of death and remind me that Death will always be a constant companion, even if we lose touch for a little while. Despite what anyone else has to say about it, my home is here in the rituals, the landscapes, and the people of the South. Regardless of where I draw my breath, it always will be. I’d be just fine with an afterlife on the old family property, watchin the next generations learn and grow, protectin them, guidin them, and remindin them of those feelins of home. This is where I want to be, where I belong, and where I’ll hopefully one day rest my bones. Anything else is just gravy.