Local Sacred Spaces: Purgatory Creek’s Ancient Oaks

Another thing I wanted to do with this blog is document my search for sacred spaces in my local area. In Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson (an excellent resource!), it talks about how my ancestors viewed sacred spaces. They had man-made sacred spaces, but also recognized the existence of natural sacred spaces that already existed in the landscape. When Iceland was settled, one of the first things the colonists set out to do was find these sacred hills, groves, etc. in their new land.

I had already been noticing sacred spaces around San Marcos ever since I moved here over six years ago (my goodness, has it really been that long?), but reading that book encouraged me to document my finds on this blog. I hope that it might be helpful for other pagans to see how I find these spots, so they might try it out where they live.

The first one I’d like to feature is one near and dear to my heart, because this is where my husband proposed to me. It’s an ancient live oak tree in Purgatory Creek Natural Area. We found it when we were trying out geocaching. We lived in a rented house only a couple of blocks away and visited that park often. Someone had stowed a geocache inside its hollowed-out interior. This park has other old oak trees, but this is the biggest we’ve found.

I already know my ancestors venerated trees. Oaks are sacred to Thor, so it’s probably most appropriate that I post this on a Thursday. My husband estimates this tree to be about 400 years old, give or take a century, based on its girth. It would be impossible to find out for sure, because the way to do that scientifically (and not hurt the tree) would be to take a core and count the rings, and like many very old live oak trees, this one has become hollow inside. In fact, the space inside is big enough for a couple of people to sit in comfortably! Clearly this is a venerable tree, an avatar of Yggdrasil! Sometimes I call it the Engagement Tree, since my husband proposed to me under it, but maybe a better name for him would be Grandfather Oak. Oaks don’t have separate male and female individuals, but oaks are usually considered a masculine tree in European mythology, so Grandfather it is.

The oak seen from the main trail.

The oak seen from the main trail.

Like many large oak trees in open areas, it has acted as a nurse tree to smaller trees that have sprouted under its branches. Birds perch in the branches and drop seeds underneath, which grow sheltered from the hot Texas sun in its shade. This tree mostly has Texas Persimmon under it, a beautiful small native tree with peeling bark, smooth white trunks, and small black persimmons loved by wildlife. It also has an Anacua or two, another native tree with tasty berries eaten by birds.

Curtains of Spanish moss drape gracefully from the branches. Spanish moss isn’t a true moss, but actually and epiphyte related to bromeliads. Its close relative, ball moss, seems to be much more common around here, but it doesn’t form the long curtains. (It does, however, make excellent kindling for campfires!)

Going down the trail to the tree, you pass through curtains of Spanish Moss. The dark leaves are persimmon, while the lighter leaves are the oak's.

Going down the trail to the tree, you pass through curtains of Spanish Moss. The dark leaves are persimmon, while the lighter leaves are the oak’s.

The Spanish moss and smaller understory trees create a kind of wall around the central oak tree. People have worn a path branching off the main trail to the tree, and walking down the path, you have to push aside the Spanish moss like you’re moving through curtains through a portal to another world. And then you come to the open area underneath the canopy, and there is the trunk of the mighty oak, twisted and burled, beckoning you to climb its thick branches or shelter in its hollow trunk.

Oak leaves in the foreground, with the tree's trunk far behind.

Oak leaves in the foreground, with the tree’s trunk far behind.

What things has this tree seen in its long life? A lot has happened in 400 years. Indians probably sat under its shade, then Spaniards, or maybe German settlers. Countless acorns have fed generations of wildlife, and generations of birds and squirrels have built nests in its branches. I wonder if my husband was the first person to propose to his beloved under it, or if the tree has seen that before too. Every time I visit the tree I give it an offering of water from my water bottle.

The hollow trunk of the tree close up.

The hollow trunk of the tree close up.

We also try to remember to bring a trash bag. We’re not the only ones who know about this tree, after all, and some people are less respectful than us. Sometimes we find beer cans, plastic water bottles, cigarette butts, even discarded clothing and condom wrappers. Signs that others are enjoying the tree, yes, but I do wish more people would remember to Leave No Trace. We read the logbook in the geocache, and some of the people writing in there agreed with us about how amazing this tree is, and that those other people should quit leaving their trash around. My husband and I try to remember to bring a trash bag whenever we go hiking, because there’s always stuff to be picked up. I see that as an even more important way to honor the land spirits than to leave any sort of offering. I usually only offer water anyway, something I know will leave no trace, and something that’s actually quite precious in an arid area like this.

Looking up into the branches.

Looking up into the branches.

We got married last year in March, and around the same time bought a house a bit farther away from Purgatory Creek, so we can no longer easily walk to it. Getting married and buying a house at about the same time is not something I would recommend! We were so busy it was several months before we visited Grandfather Oak again. Finally, last fall we thought about how we hadn’t been over there in a long time, and decided to visit again.

As we hiked down the main trail, it didn’t take long for us to notice some work had been done on the park since the last time we were there. A sign stating this was Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat had been put up towards the beginning of the trail. This is an endangered songbird that only nests in Central Texas, specifically only in old-growth Ashe Juniper (a.k.a. “cedar”) forests. A mature juniper tree has this beautiful shredding bark that the warblers use to build their nests. Female junipers also get blue berries on them that are eaten by several species of birds, including Cedar Waxwings, which were named after their favorite food.

This made me happy, but as we hiked, we started seeing the telltale signs that, ironically, someone had brought a Cedar Eater into the park. This is a huge machine that shreds trees, leaving big stumps and chunks of wood the size of my forearm in its wake. Most people around here really hate “cedars” because some people are allergic to their pollen, and they tend to take over pastures that have been overgrazed. (There’s also a myth that junipers are especially thirsty trees that suck up all the water, but I have found scientific studies that say otherwise.) Personally, I think the Ashe juniper is one of the most unfairly maligned native trees around here, hated even more than the mesquite. I think they’re being used as a scapegoat for a larger problem, which is mismanagement of land. If you overgraze your land, eventually nothing but junipers will be left because cattle don’t like the taste of them. If the land never burns, there’s nothing to thin the junipers out. It’s not the junipers’ fault they’re such good survivors under the conditions we’ve given them!

I have no idea why they decided this nature preserve needed cedar-eating. Here the junipers are mixed in with the oaks and persimmons like they’re supposed to be. “Mixed oak-juniper woodland” is the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s habitat, and you can’t have a mixed oak-juniper woodland without junipers!

We hiked down the trail past shredded chunks of juniper trees and shorn-off stumps lining the trail, and past limestone boulders that had been scraped and chipped and smashed by the heavy machinery. Then the trail flattens out and takes you through a more savannah-like area, out of the thicker forest. This is where the really big oaks live.

I gasped when I got to Grandfather Oak. For a few minutes my husband didn’t believe it was the actual tree. All the trees growing around it had been ripped apart. There weren’t even any junipers in that area to begin with. I don’t know why they decided they needed to shred the persimmon trees too. Most of the Spanish moss had been torn down as well, so instead of being hidden, the trunk of the oak tree was now completely exposed and viewable from the main trail.

Upon closer examination, it looks like they brought the Cedar Eater right up to the trunk of the tree and scraped off the bark in several spots, trying to get at the Anacua that was growing up through the oak’s roots. My husband was outraged. He said the tree could get oak wilt from these wounds. He wished he had known about this sooner, so he could have at least brought some pruning spray out here to cover the wounds. But it looked like this had happened a few months previously, because the wounds had already started to heal, and the stumps of the persimmon trees already had new sprouts growing out of them. Too late to do anything about it now.

We haven’t visited the oak tree since. I’m a little afraid to see what else they’ve done to “improve” the park. I don’t know why they decided to clear out all the trees from under the oak. Can they not tell the difference between a persimmon and a juniper? Is shredding trees so fun that they just got carried away? I wonder if they decided to clear under the tree to discourage teenagers from hanging out under there, but that doesn’t seem worth injuring a 400 year old oak tree for.

Well, as long as the oak tree didn’t get oak wilt, it will recover. The persimmons were already starting to sprout back from the stumps. The Spanish moss will probably grow back. That is, if people don’t make cedar-eating a regular thing there. (Don’t get me wrong, I know sometimes some tree-cutting is needed, but there are cleaner and more selective ways of doing it than using a Cedar Eater.)

I didn’t really mean this post to turn into a rant, but I wanted to write about Grandfather Oak, and it seemed misleading to pretend that the oak still looks the way it did when my husband proposed to me under it. It seems desecrated now. I guess that just shows that my husband and I have a very different view of these things than most people do. I think the point of a place like Purgatory Creek Natural Area is to mostly leave nature alone. That tree has survived just fine for hundreds of years without people messing with it. San Marcos has other parks that are more developed, with ADA accessible trails and picnic areas and so on. Purgatory Creek is wilder, with just some hiking trails through it, and that’s it. I think we need both kinds of parks, but the population of San Marcos is growing rapidly, and I’m afraid the parks department might feel the need to “develop” and “improve” the parks even more.

This is why I think it’s important for pagans to find their local sacred spaces, because a lot of them need to be taken care of. We no longer live in a society where groves, springs, hills, and trees are widely recognized as sacred places that need to be respected. We need to get out there and pick up the cans and bottles, and become involved in preserving wild places for future generations.

My husband and I should probably get out and enjoy what wildness is left around here as much as we can, while we still can.

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Prayer Candles

Since Candlemas is coming up, I thought I’d mention an idea for an inexpensive thing to add to an altar for a deity. While I have splurged in the past and bought little statues from Sacred Source for a few of my gods, I also get blank prayer candles from the grocery store and glue my own pictures on them.

I’m not sure how common these things are in areas without a large Hispanic community, but around here these religious candles, or Veladoras, are easily found at local grocery and drug stores. The largest grocery store in my town recently expanded its selection. They are of course completely Christian and not at all pagan or witchy, oh no! We’ve got the Seven African Powers, who were totally best buddies with Jesus, despite being African gods, and Santa Muerte, who is of course a saint and not some sort of death goddess. There are Garlic candles  (Ajo Macho) to keep away evil, and the Hummingbird of Love (Chuparosa) for romance. They also have spell candles to help you get a job, win the lottery, and remove the Evil Eye. They’ve had the Win the Lottery candles for years, but I’m glad they finally added the job candles, because that seems like a much more useful thing to be praying for.

But seriously, I’m glad the Hispanic community has managed to preserve their old traditions. Makes it so much easier for a pagan like me to find magical supplies.

They also expanded their selection of blank colored candles. They used to only have red, white, and blue, but now they’ve added more colors, including green, gold, and hot pink. It would be nice if one day these candles also came with German, Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, and other deities on them, but for now, the blank ones will have to do.

To make a Veladora for one of your own deities, all you have to do is pick out a blank candle of an appropriate color (such as red for Thor), or a white one will work for anybody. (I’m not sure which gods would like hot pink.) Then you have to do some searching online to find a picture of the deity you like, or I suppose you could even draw your own. Download the picture and crop it to the right size (about six inches tall), then print it out. Ordinary glue sticks seem to work just fine to glue it onto the candle.

Candles for Thor, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Freyr, and the Virgin of Guadalupe

Candles for Thor, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Freyr, and the Virgin of Guadalupe

It’s nice when the candle has burned down enough for the light to glow through the picture.

Yes, I do sometimes burn a candle for the Virgin of Guadalupe too, especially on her feast day in December. I see her as a very popular local goddess I should be on nice terms with. And when our cat was sick, my husband got a San Martin de Porres candle for her, and she did get better. I burned a Seven African Powers candle when the Haitian earthquake happened, and I burn a Chuparosa candle on Valentine’s Day.

Cultural appropriation? I don’t know. I mean, they are at the drug store.

Looking into Imbolc

One thing I’d like to do this year is become more consistent with observing each of the holidays of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year, and exploring what each one means for me personally. I realize the Wheel of the Year is a modern invention, and back in pre-Christian times each village celebrated different holidays at different times of year, but modern people aren’t so isolated anymore. I think that the ritual calendar becoming “standardized” like this is fine, a natural consequence of this greater degree of connection. I also just like having eight seasonal holidays spaced evenly over the year. It’s a good way to force myself to pay attention to the cycles of nature.

In Wicca, as I understand it, each holiday is supposed to be equal in importance, but in practice that’s usually not the case. In my practice, based on Germanic culture, I have a hierarchy of holidays, with the solstices, Yule and Midsummer, being the most important, followed by the equinoxes, and then the “cross-quarter days”. Since Beltane and Samhain are the most important holidays to Wiccans and people who follow more of a Celtic tradition, those end up being more important to me than the other two cross-quarters, since most of my friends are of that tradition, so there are lots of things to do around that time of year. That leaves Imbolc and Lammas last, which get somewhat neglected by me most years.

My neglect may be due to the fact that Imbolc is strongly associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid. She seems to be the most popular deity among most of my friends. I even have a friend who’s made pilgrimage to Ireland to visit Kildare. Back when I was a beginner pagan, I participated in Imbolc rituals, making Brigid’s Crosses and putting little corn dollies in little beds and so on. It was fun to participate, but it never resulted in a connection with the goddess like I have with Odin, or any of the other Germanic deities I worship. I do have a Brigid’s Cross on my mantle now, given to me by one of my Brigid-worshipping friends as a housewarming gift, but that’s about it. How does this time of year between Yule and Easter fit into my own personal practice? Can I have Imbolc without Brigid?

I think I should have some sort of observance between Yule and Easter. Here in Central Texas, Yule really is the beginning of winter. Our coldest time of the year comes afterward, in January and early February. By late February things are already starting to feel like spring, and our average last frost date is in early March. By April, if you don’t have your tomatoes planted yet, you’re late, and by May, it’s already starting to get hot.

Therefore, it makes sense to have some sort of seasonal observance when winter is not quite over, but it’s not quite spring yet. How then should I celebrate this time of year? I have a few Asatru 101 type books in my collection that go over the heathen holy days. Let’s see what they have to say on the subject.

In Exploring the Northern Tradition, Galina Krasskova gives eight holidays that correspond to the standard Neopagan Wheel of the Year. She says February corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon month of Solmonath, which she translates to “sun month.” She says it’s the month for “Charming of the Plough”, where “the land was blessed and offerings made (usually bread and pastry) to ready it for planting in the months to come. Ploughs and field implements would also be blessed, a ritual that survived into the Christian era.” She adds that since today most heathens no longer live off the land, this holiday is a time to bless whatever you use in your work, “including laptops, cars, and business ledgers… a time to honor our ability not only to support ourselves by right means, but also the means by which we leave a mark on the world. It’s a time to celebrate the renewal of the creative spark – in the land and in our minds and hearts.”

In A Book of Troth, Edred Thorsson calls the February holiday “The Great Blessing of Disting” and says it’s held around February 14 rather than February 2. However, despite the name he gives the holiday, he only briefly mentions the Dises (female ancestors), and then goes on to say that, “this tide is really most holy to the goddess Freya and the god Vali. Freya is very pronounced in her erotic aspect at this time, and blessings designed to bring out this quality are right to do during this tide. Also, it is the right time to do the Blessing of Vali, the god of vengeance, and thus of rebirth.”

He then gives a liturgy for the Blessing of Vali, with no more mention of the Dises or Freya. Vali is the son of Odin and Rind, who avenged the death of Baldur by killing Hodur. Personally, I think it’s a bit silly for him to have anything to do with Valentine’s Day, based solely on a slight similarity in the name.

If one really wants a pagan alternative to Valentine’s Day, the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, which happens at around the same time, seems a much better candidate. The Roman god Cupid still appears on modern Valentine’s Day cards and decorations (though in a much more cutesy form). Even if that turns out to have no real historical connection, I still see more justification for Neopagans of a Mediterranean tradition to attempt to paganize Valentine’s Day. If heathens do want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, then surely Freya is a better choice of deity to honor than Vali.

While Thorsson and Krasskova both put their own personal spin on the holidays in their books, in Essential Asatru, Diana Paxson goes for completeness, listing every single holiday she can find that’s celebrated by some heathen group or another. For the time between Yule and Easter, she lists Thorrablot (in late January), Charming of the Plow (Feb. 2), Disting (Feb. 2 or 14), and the Feast of Vali (Feb. 14). Thorrablot is a holiday celebrated in Iceland in honor of “Old Man Winter”, but American groups that celebrate it do it in honor of Thor, probably just because of the similarity in the name. For Charming of the Plow she says, “Offerings are made to Mother Earth and the first furrow is cut. Feast of Barri, celebrating the marriage of Freyr and Gerd. Plant seeds indoors for later transplanting.” Disting is a time to honor the female ancestors if they aren’t honored at some other time in the year, and she agrees with me that the Feast of Vali just has to do with a similarity of his name to Valentine.

None of these books have much historical background information. That’s not their purpose. These are books about how heathen groups celebrate holidays today. However, in my book collection, I do have a copy of The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. I got Stations of the Sun because I wanted some solid historical background on the Wheel of the Year. I’m not a strict Reconstructionist by any means, but I am curious to know where people come up with some of this stuff.

In the chapter titled “Speeding the Plow”, Hutton says the plowing season started right after the Christmas season and lasted into March. The first Monday after Twelfth Night became known as “Plough Monday” to mark the beginning of the plow season. Churches would light “plough lights”, and plows would be brought to church to bless them. This was accompanied by partying, feasting, mischief, even a trick-or-treat type custom where Plough Boys would beg for money and threaten to plow up your yard if you refuse to give it to them! There would be plays and dramas, fancy costumes, and in general something that sounds like a fun time! In typical Hutton fashion, he reminds readers that there is no evidence that plow blessings are a pre-Christian custom.

The next chapter, “Brigid’s Night”, goes into detail about Imbolc and veneration of St. Brigid. Hutton is fairly certain that this holiday is indeed pre-Christian, and St. Brigid really is based on a pagan goddess. However, he also states that celebration of Imbolc has always been an Irish thing, found only in Ireland and places with lots of Irish immigrants, and not even found among other Celtic-speaking peoples. Instead, on February 2 everyone else celebrated Candlemas, The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is the subject of the next chapter. This was a time when candles were brought to churches to be blessed and purified, until Protestants decided the custom was too magical.

Again, he says evidence is thin that this is a pre-Christian holiday. He says that Bede claimed February was called Sol-monath by the Anglo-Saxons, which he translates as “cake month” (not “Sun Month” like Galina Krasskova) and they offered cakes to their deities. He also mentions that the pagan Romans considered February a month of purification in preparation for the New Year.

Finally, in his chapter on Valentine’s Day, Hutton says that Chaucer wrote that birds choose their mates on the feast of St. Valentine. Hutton says this make seasonal sense in Britain, where Valentine’s Day falls around the time when birds are starting to build their nests and sing. He then goes on to describe a lot of other interesting customs associated with Valentine’s Day, again with no real pagan connection, but the thing about the birds stood out to me.

This reminds me of one more early February custom that none of my books have mentioned, but it’s the one I grew up with. What about Groundhog Day? I did some internet searching and found out that Groundhog Day comes from an old Pennsylvania Dutch custom, which means it’s likely to be a survival of an older German custom. Observing wild animals, whether it’s birds starting to make their nests, or hibernating mammals emerging from their burrows, makes sense if you’re looking for signs of spring. This sounds like a custom that has a lot of promise for adapting to a modern pagan’s own climate. I just wish I had more information on it, but Hutton concentrates on Britain only, and most Asatru groups concentrate on Iceland or on the Anglo-Saxons, not Continental Germans.

 

So what can I put together from all this? It looks like I have several elements for a good holiday celebration.

Blessing the Plow and Getting Back to Work:
A strict Reconstructionist, after reading Hutton, would probably decide that a plow blessing is an “inauthentic” practice for pagans and heathens today, but I’m not so strict. I don’t think we should be so quick to rule out a custom just because it might not be pre-Christian. I’m more interested in whether it’s in a “pagan spirit”. What does blessing a plow specifically have to do with Jesus? Not anything I can tell. It’s a holiday all about the natural cycles of the land. January and February was time to start plowing the fields in England, so the churches, in their roles as community centers, would hold plow blessings. That makes sense no matter what deity you’re worshipping.

Therefore something related to the garden needs to be incorporated. I don’t have a plow, but I do have a garden and garden tools. Where I live, in Central Texas, one can actually have something growing in their vegetable garden all year long (except for possibly in August!), so the idea of breaking ground when the soil has finally thawed doesn’t quite resonate as well here. However, February is still a transition period, but it’s a transition from growing things like kale and lettuce to planting tomatoes and squash. It still might be a good time to bless the garden tools (and maybe give them a good cleaning and sharpening while I’m at it), blessing the garden, and doing some sort of ritual for a bountiful spring/summer growing season, making offerings of cakes to the deities and land spirits.

Krasskova mentioned that since most Heathens don’t live off the land anymore, it’s a time to bless the tools of your work. Personally, I think it’s a darn shame that heathens, pagans, and just people in general are so removed from the cycles of the land. I think that everyone, even if you don’t have a farm or garden, should make some acknowledgement of the agricultural cycles. After all, that’s still where you get all your food, whether you appreciate it or not.

However, it also might be a good time to bless the tools of your work, whatever it might be, even if you are doing a computer blessing. Most people have the Christmas season off, so now it’s time to get back to work. Since I’m a professor, I have a long winter break, and the spring semester is just starting. This would be a good time to ask for blessings for the coming semester.

Candles and Light:
Like most Neopagans, I use a lot of candles. In fact, I’m low on candles right now and need to order some more. I prefer to use beeswax candles, rather than ones made from petroleum products, even though they’re more expensive. According to Hutton, candles figured prominently in both Plough Monday celebrations and Candlemas. I don’t think most modern people realize how important candles were to people who lived in the days before electric lights. Candles used to be very expensive, made of either tallow or beeswax. Tallow was saved from the drippings from cooking meat, so made a cheaper but nasty candle that smelled like burning meat. Beeswax candles burn cleanly and sweetly, but were so expensive that usually only the church could afford them. But it was either that, or sit around in the dark, so candles were a big deal. It makes a lot of sense to have a holiday that’s all about them. A good modern Candlemas ritual might incorporate something like turning off all your electronics and using only candles to light your house for one evening. That would be a good reminder of how privileged we are having easily accessible light.

Purification and Milk:
The theme of purification is also found in Candlemas and Imbolc. Hutton says that the Old Irish words for milk and milking were related to an Into-European root for “purification”, and the word for the holiday of Imbolc also has something to do with milk. I think that milk, in addition to cakes, would make a good offering in the ritual, and some sort of purification ritual should be done as well.

Observation of Wild Animals:
Groundhog Day is based on customs where hibernating animals were observed waking up, which signaled that it’s almost spring. This looks like a great opportunity to adapt this holiday to one’s local climate. What signs do the wild animals where you live give you that spring is on the way? Most people pay absolutely no attention to wild animals. They probably can’t even name five birds that live in their area or recognize them or their songs. This should change, especially for people who follow a nature-based religion.
We don’t have a lot of hibernating animals here in Texas, at least not ones that are very noticeable. Some Texas towns have tried to replace Punxsutawney Phil with a native animal, like a prairie dog or an armadillo. The problem is that neither of those animals hibernates, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to celebrate them coming out of their burrows in spring.

My solution is to look to the birds, and celebrate Mockingbird Day. While our state bird lives here year-round and does a little bit of singing year-round, in early February they really get serious about it. When I was in graduate school I remember walking across campus on a warm day, hearing bird after bird singing his heart out, interrupted by occasional dive-bombs after passing students or other birds who got too close to their new nests. Another option would be to incorporate some sort of native plant that blooms around that time of year. I’ve chosen Texas Mountain Laurel, a small native tree which blooms in early spring with great big clusters of sweet-smelling purple flowers.

I hope this idea encourages pagans in other ecosystems to pay more attention to their local wildlife and plant life. Maybe where you live there’s some animal emerging from hibernation, or a bird migrating back from their winter homes, or some plant leafing out or blooming, that you can use as your cue that spring is on the way.

 

I think these themes can be incorporated into a good holiday. While Yule is a liminal time between the old year and the new, Imbolc is firmly in the New Year, when winter is starting to release its hold and spring is coming. This leads nicely into Easter, where spring is bursting out in full bloom. Certainly seems like a good time to celebrate!

SDF Solitary Yule

I’ve always liked the ADF. I’ve wanted to join for a while but still haven’t gotten up the guts to do it. For one thing, though they are technically pan-Indo-European, they mainly focus on the Celtic culture (after all, they do call themsevles “Druids”), and I’ve always felt most at home in Germanic culture. The closest Grove to where I live seems to do all Celtic rituals, at least as far as I know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are Celts! And the Celts and Germans are extremely similar. Still, I’m just not that familiar with Celtic mythology or gods.

On the other hand, I really like how much emphasis ADF places on Mother Earth and Nature-worship. I know that more conservative Asatruar wince at the idea of being labeled as following an Earth-based religion, but the ADF embraces it, and so do I. Although I have a close relationship with certain Germanic gods, I think Nature and the Earth are much more important in the grand scheme of things. Praising the Earth Mother is a major part of every ADF style ritual. She comes before any other gods are invoked, and I really like that.

One of the blogs I try to read regularly is Bishop in the Grove. Recently its author, Teo Bishop, a member of ADF, put together something he’s calling the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I decided this would be a good way to try out ADF style ritual without formally joining ADF or getting in contact with my local ADF Grove. You know, a way to dip my toe in a bit.

Besides, I wanted to do some sort of formal ritual for Yule, which is the most important holiday in Heathenry. I’ve always been a huge fan of Yule, even back when I was celebrating secular Christmas with my non-religious family. I’ve never been the sort of person to complain about Christmas music blaring at every store, and as far as household light displays go, I say the brighter and more extravagant the better! For me, coming to paganism just added an additional spiritual dimension to an already beloved holiday, but I’ve had trouble getting around to doing anything spiritual during Yule these last few years. There are parties, feasting, and gift-giving, which is all great and important, but I still feel the need to do some kind of formal ritual to mark the occasion, and I often miss the chance to do that.

I went ahead and requested the SDF Yule liturgy as soon as it was posted. I printed out the pdf, and then it sat on my nightstand. I follow the tradition of Yule lasting from the Winter Solstice to New Year’s Day, which helps me cram in all the stuff that’s going on. I usually have a party with my friends at my house on the solstice or the weekend closest to it. This year I had a wedding to attend on Friday, the actual day of the solstice this year, so I had my party on Saturday, which lasted late into the night. Sunday I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with the family we had visiting for Christmas. Monday I got last-minute gifts made and wrapped, and Tuesday was Christmas with my husband’s family. Wednesday our elderly cat needed to be taken to the vet (she’s fine now), so by Thursday I was exhausted. I actually ended up missing a couple of things I had planned to go to (like the Christmas Eve service at the UU Church and a Boxing Day party at a friend’s house). I’m an introvert and get tired out by a lot of socializing, so by Thursday I needed to recharge my batteries.

I realized that Friday, December 28 would be my last day alone to do any kind of ritual. Since I’m an educator, I’m off for Winter Break, but my husband was at work. Over the weekend was another Yule gathering with my pagan friends, and then it would be New Year’s, and Yule 2012 would be over and it would be 2013. I was glad I hadn’t yet given up on the SDF Liturgy and thrown it away or something, though by the 28th the discussion on the SDF website had closed, so I’ll just have to tell you about it here.

As I drank my coffee in the morning I looked over the printed out liturgy. I wanted to only use things I already had in the house, so I wouldn’t have to go to the store for anything. I’m impressed at how well ADF’s ritual structure fits into Germanic cosmology. Are all Indo-European cultures really this similar? Obviously the Sacred Well is the Well of Wyrd and the Sacred Tree is Yggdrasil. The Sacred Fire is less obvious. In the ritual it’s used as a gateway to the Gods, so it must be Bifrost. Bifrost is a rainbow, but I guess rainbows and fires are related. A rainbow is the light of the burning sun hitting water in the Earth’s atmosphere. They’re both shiny, I guess.

I needed a representation for the Well, the Tree, and the Fire. I have three places I can hold a ritual at home. There’s my personal altar set up in the bedroom. There I could put a vessel of water of some sort, and use a candle for the fire, but what about the tree? I also have a sacred grove set up in the backyard, where I could use a real tree, but it was very windy outside, which would blow out a candle. I think we’re on an outdoor burn ban anyway, which would make a larger fire dangerous. The last option was the hearth. My husband and I just moved into this house in February, and it’s the first time I’ve had a fireplace since I lived with my parents. We already burned the Yule log in it during my party on Saturday, and I give offerings to the House Spirit there. That would be a perfect place for a really good Sacred Fire.

I considered using our actual Yule Tree, complete with tinsel, electric lights, and ornaments for the Sacred Tree. It was my first real Yule/Christmas tree, a six foot Douglas Fir. I already think of Yule trees being a representation of Yggdrasil. However, when I realized I would need to give an offering to the tree, how would I do that? I decided to use the potted Norfolk Island Pine on the other side of the fireplace opposite the Yule Tree instead. It used to be one of those living Christmas trees they sell at grocery stores. My husband got it at a garage sale many years ago, before we met. My parents-in-law had kept it alive in their greenhouse until I got over 15 feet tall and they couldn’t fit it in the greenhouse anymore, so they gave it back to my husband now that we have our own house. He had to cut the top off to get it in our house, but it can’t survive a freeze, so it was either that or let it die. It’s in a pot, so I could pour my offering to the Sacred Tree in the pot. I admit I didn’t really like this tree before. It felt kind of ridiculous going to so much trouble for one of these darn Norfolk Island Pines that don’t even belong in this ecosystem, but I must say it made a fine Yggdrasil stand-in.

Then I needed a Sacred Well. I thought about the sort of vessel I’d like. Something deep and dark, so when you gazed into it, you couldn’t see the bottom, like you’re gazing into the bottomless Well of Wyrd. I know a lot of ADF people use those little cauldrons you can get at witchy stores, but I don’t have one. I looked around the house at all the various things my pack-rat of a husband has collected over the years, and found his ceramic bean pot! Or at least we think it’s a bean pot. I took it down from the shelf and looked inside at its shiny, dark brown, glazed interior. Perfect!

For the deities of occasion I selected Odin and his wife, Frigga. They’re associated with Yule already anyway, and if I’m going to make this a regular thing, I wanted to start with Odin, who is my “patron deity” I guess you could say. That was an easy choice, but one area that made me a little nervous was the Gatekeeper, another important element of ADF style ritual. I have no idea who this would be in a Celtic or Greek culture (Hermes, maybe?), but if you want a Germanic version of Ganesha or Papa Legba, which the ADF seems to be doing here, then the obvious choice would be Heimdall.

The problem is I’ve never really had any contact with Heimdall. I don’t know if he even likes me or wants anything to do with me, so it seemed weird to have him play a big part in one of my rituals. The people in the first Asatru online community I used to participate in, back when I was a newbie heathen, seemed to look down upon people who call upon lots of different deities, considering it “fluffy”, even if they were all from the Germanic pantheon (though “eclectisism” was of course much more “fluffy”). You were supposed to stick with your “fulltrui”, rather than bothering gods you don’t even have a relationship with.

I’m not sure how common that view is, but I did consider calling upon Thor to be the Gatekeeper instead, who is a deity I have already formed a relationship with, just in case invoking Heimdall would break some sort of rule of worship etiquette. But after thinking about it for a while, I thought I’ll go ahead and give Heimdall a try. As Diana Paxson says in Essential Asatru, “Of all the gods, Heimdall is the one who is the most consistently benevolent to humankind.” Well, ok then, if he’s such a nice guy, maybe he won’t mind.

I have a candle made for Odin and Frigga, but no Heimdall candle. I again searched my husband’s collection. Heimdall’s sacred animals are the ram and the seal, but we don’t have any ram or seal figures. Then I saw the ammonite there in my husband’s fossil collection. Ammonites are named after the Egyptian god Ammon, because they look like ram’s horns, and Ammon’s sacred animal is also a ram. They’re also fossil sea creatures, for Heimdall’s link to the sea. That should work!

Next I needed offerings for everybody. For the fire, I wanted something I could throw in that would burn nicely. I got a handful of frankincense resin. For the tree I wanted to pour something into the pot, but it needed to be something the tree would actually like. I decided to use some rainwater out of my rain barrel, and to make it special (since this is a special occasion and rain barrel water is what I always water that tree with) I added some liquid fish emulsion fertilizer. It smells like rotten fish, but to a tree, it’s delicious, so in it went. For the well, I needed some kind of beverage. Ideally I would use something very German for my German ancestors, like a nice German beer, but all I had was wine, hard cider, and a variety of hard liquors like vodka, rum, and brandy. I decided to go with the cider.

Then I needed offerings for the gods. Phew! This was already getting complicated! Ideally, I’d have a separate offering for each god, but I decided to use the Ravens Wood wine I had Bough a while back. It’s a wine with a very Odinic label that I had grabbed when it was on sale to offer to the Old Man some time, so now seemed like a good time. I hoped that Odin’s wife and son wouldn’t mind sharing the same wine with him.

OK, I had a well, a fire, and a tree. I had something to represent Heimdall, Odin, and Frigga, and offerings for all of them. Next I needed something to represent the Earth Mother. In the liturgy, it says you’re supposed to kneel and touch the ground, which would be nice if I was outside, but it felt weird to kneel and touch my tile floor in the living room. I got one of the cool rocks my husband has collected, a big hunk of limestone full of fossils, and put that on the floor in front of the hearth.

Finally, I got bottle of Blessing Oil from Natural Magick and a sage smudge stick to purify myself and the space with, and my bag of runes for the Omen. I don’t have an offering bowl, so I got two of my Christmas-themed holly glasses, one for the gods and one for me. Now I had everything I needed for the ritual, but wait! Look at this mess! The house was still pretty messy since I’d been too busy lately to do much cleaning. I did a thorough cleaning before the solstice, but now things were messy again. If I was going to invite Mother Frigga into my house, it had better be presentable!

I had planned to do some housecleaning that day anyway, even before I decided to do the ritual, so I thought I’d better get to work. First I realized I still needed to eat breakfast, so I made some steel cut oats, with an extra portion for my housewight, which I put by the fireplace. After breakfast, I tackled the dishes, swept the floors, vacuumed the carpets, threw in a load of laundry, and even scrubbed the bathtub. I’ve always preferred to do rituals in a clean space anyway. Even back when I was just starting out as a Wiccan I’d vacuum before I did any ritual. What’s the point of doing ritual cleansings when your space is physically dirty?

By the time I was done it was about 2 pm. I felt that my blood sugar was low again and fixed myself a sandwich to make sure I was in tip-top mental condition for the ritual. Then I cleaned that up, brushed my teeth, washed my face, put on some nice clean clothes, and brushed my hair. I decided against actually taking a shower because I was already starting to run out of energy, and the bathtub was soaking in vinegar anyway, to get the soap scum off. I put on my bear pendant, which I’ve decided I’ll wear for any serious ritual, to represent my fetch. Now I was finally ready!

Everything ready to go. Just need to light the fire.

Everything ready to go. Just need to light the fire.

I went outside and got some ash wood from our woodpile, which we got from a branch that fell on our cars during a winter storm last year. I put it in the fireplace, and as I lit it, I chanted part of a neat old English poem about firewood I found a while ago. “Ash that’s new and ash that’s old; fit for a queen with a crown of gold. Ash that’s green and ash that’s brown; fit for a queen with a golden crown.”

As the fire started to flare up, I initiated the rite with the words given in the liturgy. Because it felt right, I grabbed my bear pendant as I said the words. Next I anointed myself with oil on my Third Eye and then over my heart, lit the sage in the fire, and smudged myself and the general area for purification. I knelt down and put my hand on the rock to honor the Earth Mother, and this is where I really started to feel something! I had opened the window in the living room (it was 65 degrees outside on this Texas winter’s day) and could hear the wind blowing outside through the trees. I held my hand on the rock for a while, a rock that’s over 65 million years old, from the Cretaceous period, with fossilized sea shells within, from the shallow sea that used to cover this land. I pondered the ancientness of Mother Earth.

Next was the statement of purpose. When I mentioned I would be honoring Odin and Frigga, I lit their candles. When I mentioned Heimdall as the Gatekeeper, I placed my hand on the ammonite. Next came the Grounding and Centering, which was a variation of the tree visualization that I like to ground myself with already. Roots growing out of my feet into the Earth, branches growing up to the Sky.

I was a little confused about parts VI, VII, and VIII, since all three parts deal with the Fire, Well, and Tree. It’s a good thing I read the liturgy over before performing it so I could figure out what the repetition meant. I decided for part VI, “Recreating the Cosmos”, I would trace a rune in the air for each: Pertho for the Well, Kenaz for the Fire, and Eihwaz for the Tree. When I called Heimdall as the Gatekeeper in the “Opening the Gates” part, I poured him some of the wine, then waved my hand over the Fire, dipped my fingers in the waters of the Well, and grasped the trunk of the Tree as I asked him to make each one sacred.

Then it was finally time for offerings, and this is where it got fun. I took the handful of frankincense and threw it over the Fire. It hissed and crackled in a most satisfying way, releasing a lovely fragrance. That was the offering for the Gods in general. Next was the offering to the Well and the Ancestors. I gazed into the dark water and started to pour the cider in. I didn’t plan to at first, but ended up pouring in the whole bottle. It fizzed and released its sweet smell. My heart started pounding and I gazed into the Well for a long time. I haven’t really been doing a good job of honoring my ancestors. I come from a dysfunctional family, and though I’ve been advised to look even further back to more distant ancestors, I still haven’t really done much of that. But here I was staring into the Well, and the Well staring back to me, and I knew Ancestor Worship isn’t optional in heathenism, and I’m going to have to come to terms with this somehow. Then I poured the fertilizer-laced water into the pot of the Tree, which caused a much less pleasant odor than the first two, snapping me out of my trance a bit, but that’s what trees like.

To invoke Odin and Frigga, I used poetry from Essential Asatru, but I would say this was the least satisfying part of the ritual. I was so preoccupied with figuring out the ADF-specific stuff that I neglected the part where I honor the deities, especially since there was only a brief note of it in the printed liturgy, because this is a part I should have more flexibility with. The invocations in the book I used were meant for a group blot, so I accidentally forgot to change some of the “we’s” and “ours” and said “feast” instead of “rite”. Next time I need to put a lot more effort into it. I’ll probably have to write my own invocations, or at least find some more appropriate ones. At least I remembered to give them offerings of wine.

Next was the Omen. My runes are ones I made myself from slices of a Live Oak branch, in a drawstring bag I knitted out of cotton yarn. “How were my offerings received?” I drew Ehwaz, the Horse. Ok, that seems good. That’s a rune of cooperation and partnership. “How shall the Kindred respond?” I drew Thurisaz, the Thorn. Hmm, not exactly the best rune, but I remembered that Teo had drawn some sort of thorny Ogham for this part of the general SDF Omen too. I’m not familiar with Ogham, but maybe Thurisaz is the corresponding rune. Then for “What more would you have me learn?” I got Tiwaz. Now that’s interesting. I hardly ever get Tiwaz in readings, and Tyr is another god, like Heimdall, that I admire but don’t have much to do with. What immediately comes to mind is Self-Discipline, which is definitely something I need more of in my life.

Then it was my turn to drink, and receive the blessings of the kindred. I had originally planned to use the rest of the cider for this part, but since it was all in the Well now, I poured myself some more wine and “drank deep” as the liturgy instructed. I immediately felt the alcohol rush through my system and was reminded of how alcohol is the main mind-altering substance used by Heathens, since moderate amounts are used to loosen your tongue in rituals. It certainly worked for me! I skipped the Working part, since working magic didn’t seem appropriate at this time (I don’t usually do magic during celebratory rituals), and said the final affirmation with added wine-inspired enthusiasm. I thanked the beings, closed the gates, and the rite was ended. I blew out the candles, put everything away, and now here I was with a nice, clean house too!

Overall, I think that went well. I like how complete the ADF liturgy is. It has everything that’s important in the Cosmology: the World Tree, the Well, the Fire, the Ancestors, the Land Spirits, and the Gods. It’s flexible enough to add in or take out some parts. Now that I’ve done one of these rituals, I’m sure the next one will go much more smoothly. I’m looking forward to it. Perhaps I’ll be able to do it outside. The next holiday is Imbolc/Charming of the Plow/Candlemas on February 2. I’ve already decided the deities of the occasion will be Freyr and Gerda, and hopefully the weather will be right to do it outside this time.

The First Post

After hesitating for many months (perhaps more like a couple of years), I finally went ahead and started this blog where I plan to write about topics related to pagan spirituality. I’m doing this because I keep thinking of things to write, and feel that I have nowhere to write them.

One reason for my hesitation is that being an “out” pagan would complicate my life and the life of my loved ones in ways I would rather not have to deal with. I finally decided that blogging might be safe, as long as I stayed a bit anonymous. Hopefully some of my friends who do actually know me “in real life” will read this blog, and if that is the case, I ask that you respect my privacy and not reveal any important identifying information either.

The next hesitation was figuring out what to name the blog. I went with Heathen Naturalist because of a Facebook birthday message I got from a friend that said, “Happy birthday to my favorite Viking naturalist!” I like that, though I’m not really a Viking. However, I could be called a naturalist. I have a Master of Science in Biology, and the main reason I got that degree is because of my love for Nature. Love is perhaps not a strong enough word either. Serving Mother Earth feels more like my calling, my duty in life, something I was passionate about even as a small child, though I’m still figuring out exactly what is the best way for me to fulfill that purpose. That is also why I am a pagan, because “sacred” is a word I feel best expresses the way I view Nature.

I am also a Germanic Neopagan, meaning that the particular flavor of paganism I practice is based upon the culture of pre-Christian Germanic people. However, “Germanic Neopagan” is such a mouthful, that I prefer the term “heathen”, which is the Germanic equivalent of the Latin “pagan”. Both are pretty general terms, but they still mean something, as a label for people who follow a pre-Christian religion.

Finally, I know there are many pagan blogs already out there, and that was another reason for putting this off for so long. Does the world really need one more? Probably not, but like I said, I’m going to go with it because I keep thinking of things to write, and I suppose it’s better than cluttering up other people’s blogs with too many long-winded comments. This is my space where I can be as long-winded as I want!

One thing I think I could actually contribute to the “Pagan Blogosphere” is integrating the “heathen” part of my spirituality with the “naturalist” part. I’m using the word “naturalist” here as “a person who studies nature”, which I am. I’ve been studying the natural world around me, both formally and informally, for most of my life. I think it’s very important for anybody, no matter what your religion, to have knowledge about the Land. What kind of plants and animals are common in your area? Where does you water come from? What kind of soil do you have? What kind of environmental issues affect your local community? Things like that.

On the other hand, I’m also following a religion with its roots in pre-Christian Northern Europe, which is a very different ecosystem from here. I’m in the Heathen Diaspora, following the religion of my blood ancestors, rather than the religion of the land I live on. I’m still figuring out how to make that work out, because both my ancestry and my land are important. As a kid I had a great admiration for Native Americans, even though as far as I know I don’t have any Native blood. It was a great relief to find out that my own “native” religion had many of the same elements of Native American spirituality I admired, and this way I wouldn’t have to “steal” someone else’s religion. But it’s still not quite the same thing because unlike the Native Americans, I’m on a completely different continent from where my culture evolved, and not even a part of this continent that’s similar in climate to my “native” continent, like New England or Canada. While European mythology is full of snow and ice, bears and wolves, yews and firs, here I am in the land of blazing heat and droughts, coyotes and raccoons, cacti and mesquite.

One of the first things I’d like to do with this blog is to look at each of the Runes and see how they manifest themselves here in Texas. I’ve been inspired by others’ efforts to adapt the Celtic Ogham to their local ecosystems (I’ve already seen a Pacific Northwest Ogham and a Texas Ogham), so why not try that with Runes? I’ve already got some ideas for some (Fehu and Thurisaz are going to be easy), but others will be tricky (like Isa). That will be my first “project” with this blog. I’m sure I’ll think of more later.