Sharon Folsom, Fort Bragg
The name "Celt" actually comes from the Keltoi tribe of northern Macedonia from around 500 B.C. At the time of the Roman Empire, the British Isles and what is today France, Spain, northern Italy, large sections of Germany and parts of Denmark were Celtic-speaking. Surviving Celtic languages are Brethonic Celtic--including Welsh and Breton, and Gaelic Celtic--Scotish and Irish. Not long ago, the Irish spoke Gaelic or were bilingual since Gaelic was deliberately suppressed. My great-grandparents were Gaelic speakers.
During the ancient period, before the introduction of Christianity, the indigenous religion of the Celts had a priesthood. Who really knows what they called themselves? They were called "druids" by the Romans--a word meaning "people associated with oak trees." The sacred groves were their churches. Julius Caesar, after his conquest of France, wrote a book called The Gallic Wars since that part of Europe was called "Gaul." This book was Caesar's political justification for trying to save the savages from themselves. He talked about horrific things that druids did, but there is not a scrap of evidence to support this. A lot of what we've heard about them is a Victorian invention based on this document by Caesar. For intelligent reading about that priesthood, based on surviving Welsh and Gaelic ritual, read The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
Gaelic people, in and out of monasteries, had a rich intellectual and artistic life. Literacy was commonplace. Their arts and crafts and surviving literature astound us today with their almost magical technical perfection and rich complexity. Women had a very degree of independence and freedom. Today, our most radical feminists talk about the possibility of a system in which women would be compensated for bearing children and performing work in the home. That was institutionalized in Gaelic society, and continued even during the Christian period.
Cerridwen Fallingstar, San Geronimo
Robert Graves talked about the thirteen sacred trees in the tree calendar of the Celts. Each lunar month was named for a particular tree. There is no question that the Neolithic peoples of northern Europe also kept track of astrological events. This is evidenced by Stonehenge and other stone circles and landmarks, which were constructed to reveal different aspects of the lunar and solar cycles. These people's powers of observation were truly amazing.
I met an archaeologist/anthropologist who has been studying an intact stone circle at the Callanish complex in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland for over twenty years. When she first got there, she thought the idea that this configuration could be a lunar calendar seemed absurd. Since it takes nineteen years from any given day for the moon to return to its exact location in the sky, she felt there was no way that primitive people could have tracked this cycle. Yet after observing the site for a number of years, she found that it was a completely accurate indicator of the lunar cycle. Every nineteen years, at the summer solstice, the moon appears to sink between two of the main stones, just as it goes beneath the horizon. As the moon sets, a flash of silver light traverses the circle and flashes down the processional aisle--the pathway leading into the circle created by two rows of facing stones. This moment is traditionally regarded as the return of the shining ones--the shining ones being the fairy people.
The hills in the area around the stone circle look like a pregnant woman lying on her back. At Lughnasad, the harvest celebration, the full moon appears to sink into her pregnant belly. This pregnant goddess will give birth at the appropriate time.
Scotland is named for Cailleach of Scotia, who is a dark goddess, like Kali of India. Scotia is the Cailleach's land. Calendonia, an earlier name for Scotland, is another name for Kali. From this example, we see that deities did not stay in their original homes. There was an enormous amount of contact among different cultures--more than we sometimes imagine. The Aryans from India traveled widely.
The tradition of the Sheila-na-gig was probably a holdover from the nature-centered religion of the Celtic people.
Sheila is an old Gaelic name for the female principle. Sile is the Gaelic spelling, si being pronounced "sh". It survives in Australian slang as a common name for women--sheilas, in Dublin slang as "How's your gee?" and in the term "gi string," which covers the genitalia.
Sheila-na-gigs are medieval stone carvings of women with exposed genitals--found in northern France, Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. Throughout northern Europe and the Mediterranean, images of both male and female genitals were believed to repel evils such as illness, strife, war, and various other harmful influences. In the context of this well-documented ancient folk belief, the theory brought by the Norman clergy that the Sheila-na-gigs were images of the sin of lust-- does not hold up.
Sheilas are often found in churches, where they are primarily used as door wardens. They are not always easily perceptible, and may be concealed in the top of the door lintel, by a window or in funny little places where you have to step over them. They are there to repel evil. I believe their message is that evil cannot stand the sight of the regenerative power of the feminine. They are often found next to wells and other places of healing.
There are many different kinds of Sheilas--all of whom blatantly display their genitals. Those that are obviously young girls I refer to as young "Bridget Sheilas" (bridge-og in Gaelic). Others are obviously aged with pendulous breasts, and others are too young to have breasts. Those that I call "birth-effort Sheilas" have their ribs showing; "bearing-down Sheilas" hold their knees open and seem to be screaming as if giving birth. Occasionally you can see what looks like the head of an infant. Some Sheilas look as if they are masturbating; there are those that hold their genitals apart, and those with fish tails. Some Sheilas are shown in the goddess position, with raised arms. We are actually talking about hundreds of carved stone images. Hundreds more were deliberately destroyed in the nineteenth century.
Magical folk and religious practices are associated with these carvings. In Canturk, County Cork, Ireland, there is a Sheila-na-gig near a holy well, to one side of the door as you enter. You mark her with a chalk, or touch her in specific ways, and then bless yourself. Then you can take water from the well to heal yourself or another person.
Many of the Sheilas are associated with fertility, and are visited by women and men who are having fertility problems. By walking through the door she is under, taking water or earth from the area around her or interacting with her in some way, people are blessed. The many folk practices associated with her suggest that she is divine.
Astrological observation and cycles of natural events were the basis of calendars all over the world. The Egyptians based theirs on various events from the flood time of the Nile to the appearance of certain stars. However, the Roman calendar, upon which ours is loosely based, was not highly accurate. When July eventually shifted to wintertime, a new calendar had to be adopted in Europe. We now know that the ancients observed and worked with astrological events very carefully--planning crop rotations, sacred times, social festivals, etc. Calendars developed independently in all cultures. The ancient Indo-European calendar of northern India was very accurate. The Chinese developed a very sophisticated calendar from the earliest mythical times, as did the Meso-Americans and Polynesians. The Celts and the northern Europeans built standing stone structures related to astrologically events at Stonehenge and the Avebury Circle.
These early people's seasons of celebration and work were based on nature and the movements of the moon, sun and certain stars. Many people still observe what are called the Great Days. The pivotal turning points of the year in Ireland are Beltane (May 1) and Samhain (October 31). These were the two main days that separated the year into its warm and cold halves.
Samhain was the new year, the time of the ancestors, the day of the dead. At that time, all the cattle were brought down from the pastures before the heavy frost and snow. They were brought to "ballies"--the home farms of individual clan groups. "Bally" (Gaelic: bhallie) means "winter home." The Celts were cattle people, like the West Africans. If you've seen pictures of the Masai with their roundhouses and cattle, in many ways that is a good picture of the Gaelic people for thousands of years.
The Celts believed in a spiral of life--not linear time. At Samhain, everything goes back to the point of origination; everything disintegrates and is reordered from that beginning point. In the ancient ritual, the fires were all darkened and then relit again. Even today, this is the time that to remember the dead. In the dark house, the ancestors were fed. This is why little children come to receive food--candies, sweetness--at Halloween. The people believed that the ancestors returned as the children--who as gifts from the realm of the ancestors, could benefit the living.
In the movie "Amistad," one of the blacks who is fighting for his freedom gives a speech about his ancestors. He states that his ancestors will hear him because he is their living representative--their reason for having existed. His attitude toward them speaks for all indigenous people. So, at Samhain, you go back to the beginning, back to the ancestors; you invite them home, you feed them as they have benefited, nourished and fed you in the past. They bless you and then they return to their place. The circle of love does not break. The next day is the beginning of the winter half of the year. The Christians made this time the Feast of All Saints and all souls.
At Beltane, in May, there was a ceremony in which a great bon-fire was built. Anything that people needed to get rid of, symbolically or in reality, was put into that fire and purged. Then they would part the fire and drive the cattle through it. The people would then leap through the fire. The children and elders were carried, if necessary, so everybody was included. Passing through the fire symbolized rebirth. After Beltane, the cattle went back up to the high ground, to the "boolie" areas--the summer pastures. No permanent homes were built there. People made tents and booths out of foliage. Young people would take care of the cattle all summer, and hang out together; then they would come back at Samhain.
These two great days divided the year in half; those that divided it into quarters were midsummer's day and midwinter's day. Four other days completed the division of the year into its mid-quarters. Eight was the number of perfection. These eight days made up the wheel of the year on the spiral path of natural time, and reflected the constant change and flow of seasonal rhythms.
Ann Card, Kelseyville
Our first meeting was attended by thirty people. At our fifth, a Beltane, May Day celebration, we had fifty. I could easily have invited many more people, but I feel that small gatherings in various locations around the county are most beneficial. With too many people, the energy might scatter.
One thing that has struck me about this time as compared with even five years ago is that women are much freer. Many women work all day, and when they want some time off, they take it. The objective is to empower women, not to overpower anyone but to bring balance. I believe this also helps men in a very positive way.
The Maypole and the fire cleansing are recommended for Beltane, the May Day. When we arrived each woman made a flower garland for her head. In our ceremony, we honored the four directions, participated in a guided meditation, hung tokens on a special tree to honor the god/goddess, jumped over a small fire and did a Maypole dance. The pole represents the male principle that integrates with the female ribbons that wind around the pole--the yin/yang.
FOLSOM, a self-defined Pagan and Mother Earth worshipper for thirty-five
years, is a charter member of the Covenant of the Goddess (COG), which
gives clerical rites to Pagans and Pagan groups--to perform marriages,
comfort the dying, bury their dead, enter prisons, etc. This worldwide
religious organization is part of the World council of Churches. Also a
harpist, she founded the Gaelic historical music group, Sheila-na-gig--created
with a grant from the DeYoung Museum Association when the Irish Art Treasures
were brought to the United States. She co-authored a book by R.A. Macavoy,
called The Book of Kells, published by Bantam Books, and has been
investigating the feminine shamanic traditions within Tibetan Buddhism
known as the Mother Tantras. Sharon works as a nurse in Fort Bragg.
My approach to magic and ritual is Celtic/European in its base, but I am very much an eclectic "whatever works" kind of person. As one of my friends once said, "I practice magic exactly the way my ancestors did 60,000 years ago; I make it up." In that way, I'm very traditional. Magic is about learning to let go and move with the energy of the moment.
The word "Wicca" comes from the same root word as "wicker"--from willow--which is about moving and bending with the wind. It's about fluidity. Beginners tend to be nervous and want to do everything exactly right. I've also noticed that when people are into so-called "high magic", where everything has to be just so, nothing happens. There's no energy; it's all form, and no essence. Some people who have practiced Paganism for a very longtime still operate out of their egos and their heads. When a practice is done in a rigid way, it loses its power.
I live in America, a country that has brought people from all races and geographies together. Why practice strict Celtic religion here? That's not what the ancestors in America were doing. Where I live, the native ancestors were the Miwok. What were they doing? We don't know much about them, since their tradition was thoroughly wiped out by smallpox when the Spanish came. It's natural to integrate different traditions when you live in an area that is a racial, genetic and cultural hodge-podge. It also makes sense to adapt your practices as consciousness changes.
Barbara Willens, Willits
are very important for bringing the sacred back into our lives. If we let
a significant event pass by without some form of recognition, then life
becomes a meaningless succession of days. But if we stop and take time
to honor the important events in our lives--birthdays, moving into a new
home, starting a new job, children moving out of the home, a young girl's
first menstruation, or the ending of menses--then our lives become more
enriched and we appreciate our life cycles as sacred and holy. Ritual acts
as a bridge linking the spiritual with the physical world.
Barbara offers classes on creating sacred ceremonies and celebrating
the eight holy days of the year--the solstices, equinoxes and the mid-points.
As a ceremonialist she helps facilitate rites of passage in Mendocino and
Sonoma counties, and continues to participate in full and new moon groups.
Our Willits women's group used to meet monthly on the full moon. For the past year, we have been focusing more on our inner selves and our dreams, so we get together during the new moon--indoors at someone's house or outside if weather permits. Our circle is not closed. Anyone can invite a friend, and we welcome women who would like to share with us. Generally one person organizes the upcoming get-together. We have a specific focus with several parts to the meeting, and women take spontaneous turns in participating in what they enjoy leading or sharing--a guided visualization, singing, chanting, or a bit of knowledge. We often do some type of divination, giving each participant an opportunity to draw a card or stone depending on the divination tool, and then talk about it. We have used such tools as Medicine cards, Amulets of the Goddess, Mah Jong tiles (at Chinese New Year) and Nordic runes. When focusing on runes, we brought information about them, and then each person made her own set and fired them.
Ever since I was young, I have drawn pictures of women. In college I did a lot of drawing in the Art Nouveau style--beautiful women with long, flowing hair. Many were Greek images. Now that I look back, I see that they were goddesses. I have found that the Native American, Celtic, Norse, Asian and other cultures shared the same universal archetypes of the feminine. For example Artemis (Greece) and Diana (Rome) are similar; Kali (India) and Hecate (Greece) are also very similar in what they represent.
I enjoy researching goddesses for the plaques I make. For example, Athena, the goddess of the air is also the goddess of wisdom. She is associated with communication, intuition, and the direction, east. As I get to know each goddess, I ask certain questions. Is she a maiden, mother or crone aspect? Which direction and element is she associated with? What animals are her totems? What does she inspire? I inscribe this information on the plaques I make, hoping to inspire women to remember their own goddess-self as they look at them.
I have been making goddess plaques for about five years and am focusing on outdoor pieces now --incorporating both goddess and Celtic designs in plaques, stepping stones and outdoor fountains using serene forms to create beauty, suggest relaxation, and help one attune with the elements.
This is a shared process. I research and make the original design in clay, a process that takes several weeks; my husband makes the molds and casts the pieces in a concrete material called hydrostone; then I add finishing touches with paint to bring out the details. Some people feel our stepping stones are too pretty to walk on, but they actually look better when soil gets into the indentations and inscriptions.
Around the rim of the stepping stone/plaques I inscribe sayings about love, joy, abundance, and friendship. The Sun plaque inscription is, "Friends are like sunshine in the garden of life." The full moon stepping stone says, "May the moon shine upon you, may love surround you and pure light be within you."
As friends visit the homes and gardens where the plaques and stepping stones have been placed, and read these messages, the good feelings and positive energy we put into them spirals out.