Tag Archives: religion

Lughnasadh: Harvest of Life

The Irish Celtic Festival of Lughnasadh is traditionally celebrated on August 1st but extends throughout much of the month. It is the first genuine harvest festival of the year and it coincides directly with the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Lammas.



The holiday is named for Lugh, the Irish hero of light. His name derives from the word for lightning and illumination. Amongst Germanic peoples, this day was sacred to the god Thor: the god of thunder, storms and agriculture. Thunder and lightning are obvious signs of rain and storm which are naturally an important ecological phenomenon for agricultural societies.

Lugh is of course more than a simple agricultural deity. As a patron of light, Lugh is the embodiment of all things light represents: intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment. Science and artistry are also considered to have been invented by Lugh. Considering his close association with the Roman god Mars, Lugh is a patron of martial prowess, which is perhaps best exemplified through his son Cuchulain. All of these attributes, whether agricultural or innovative attest to Lugh as a god of wealth, the guardian and benefactor of the tribe’s prosperity.  It is probably more than mere coincidence that this time of year in Anglos-Saxon tradition, bondsmen would pay their rent.

This holiday, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Samhain represent the four main festivals of the medieval Irish calendar.  As the first true harvest festival in the seasonal cycle, Lughnasadh has certain associations with death.  In fact, the name itself translates roughly as “the wake of Lugh.”  Whereas holidays in the earlier seasons coincide with increasing life, harvest festivals are the first signs of the summer’s demise.  With the summer day’s becoming noticeably shorter at this time, it becomes quite obvious that winter’s grip is only a short way off.  Although the theme of a wake is a significant part of the festival, the overall atmosphere is generally one of joy and revelry.



The legends tell us that Lugh established the harvest fair of Lugnasadh in honor of his foster-mother Tailtiu at the Town of Teltown in County Meath.  Tailtu’s death was a necessary component in establishing the growing of the crops and the abundant harvest that follows.  These celebrations quite often resembled today’s Scottish Highland Games. Lugnasadh often involved horse races, and martial arts displays or competitions.  Competitive games such as chess were also a part of the festivities, representing Lugh’s victory over the Fomorian King Bres who previously controlled the powers of the Harvest, establishing the Irish agricultural tradition.

Lugh is the hero of Light. For this reason he is often compared with the Sun, since the Sun is the greatest source of light with which humans and earthly crops interact. As a hero of Light, Lugh is also called Samh-ildánach, “the many gifted one,” because of his multiple skills in all the arts and trades.  Just as darkness represents ignorance, Light represents knowledge, and in this case knowledge of many, if not all things. In the old legends we find that Lugh (representing the Sun) conquers the Fomorians (representing darkness, ignorance and oppression). When this is done, Lugh wrestles from the King of primitive darkness the knowledge of cultivation and the harvest.

This is a celebration of the Harvest.  On this day families gather together to give thanks for the bounty of the Harvest and to reenact the mythological event that brought the Ancestors from a life of oppression and into a life of abundance with the knowledge of agriculture. It must be remembered that it is only with this knowledge that humankind has managed to not only survive, but to thrive in even inhospitable environments. It is agriculture that has allowed human beings to settle lands, build defensive structures and over all make life safer for acquiring food. This has allowed civilization to flourish and become specialized, developing art, literature, economics, and other remarkable aspects of material culture.



The Medicine Wheel

A prayer from the Oglala Holy Man Black Elk;
“Hear me four quarters of the world, I am a relative.
Give me the power to walk the soft Earth, a relative to all that is.
Give me eyes to see and the strength to understand that I may be like You.
With your power only can I face the winds.”

The Medicine Wheel symbol is a central spiritual and philosophical device used by many Native American communities.  It consists of an equal-armed cross placed inside a circle.  This is also a universal symbol that can be found throughout the nations of the world from the ancient days to today.  It has been called by many names; the medicine wheel, sacred hoop, solar disk and sun circle, just to name a few.  This symbol is central to Muskogee philosophy and is the basis for the layout of traditional ceremonial dance grounds.

As a symbol, the Medicine Wheel is made up of two symbols; the circle and the compass cross.

The Circle

The circle is the most basic symbol for life and divinity.  It is also the most perfect metaphor for God in geometry.  The circle, like the Creator has no beginning and no end and therefore it represents eternity.  Geometrically it is the essential symbol of balance and equality.  And as the perfect symbol of the Creator, you could expect it to be apparent in creation.

The circle is also the perfect metaphor for Nature, which is the manifestation of the Creator.  We find the circle everywhere in nature.  Natural things tend to be round or function cyclically.  The most obvious examples are the sun, the moon and the earth, all which are round.  The earth and other planets revolve around the sun in a circular motion.  On the earth, the circle can be seen like the signature of the Creator in the rings of a tree or the fruit growing upon it.  The seasons of the year follow a cyclical pattern with winter turning into spring, summer, autumn and then returning to winter.  The Oglala holy man Black Elk explained the meaning of the circle in this manner;

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.  In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished.  The flowering tree was the living center of our hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it.  The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance.  This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are the stars.  The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.  The moon does the same, and both are round.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.  Our tepees were always round like nests of birds, and those were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.[1]

The Pawnee Indians regarded the circle with much the same philosophy.  According to one Pawnee priest;

The circle represents a nest, and it is drawn by the toe because the eagle builds its nest with its claws.  Although we are imitating the bird making its nest, there is another meaning to the action; we are thinking of Tirawa making the world for the people to live in.  If you go on a high hill and look around, you will see the sky touching the earth on every side, and within this circular enclosure the people live.  So the circles we have made are not only nests, but they also represent the circle Tirawa-atius has made for the dwelling place of all the people.  The circles also stand for the kinship group, the clan, and the tribe.[2]

The sun which we depend on so directly in our lives has served as another great metaphor for the Creator throughout history.  It is round and therefore the Medicine Wheel is also symbolic of this solar enlightenment.  For this reason the medicine wheel symbol is often displayed within a solar motif with the rays of the sun extending outward in eight directions.  With the sun circle and compass cross both being direct metaphors of the divine nature of the earth and the celestial respectively, the Medicine Wheel as a spiritual and philosophical tool is therefore an unparalleled tool for use in coming to knowledge of Nature and of Nature’s God.

The Cross

The cross is a four cornered compass.  Each one of the four arms of the cross is attributed to a particular compass point, which is in turn associated to a particular philosophical or spiritual principle.

In contemporary society the four directions tend to be taken for granted and with little regard.  But to the elder ancestors they represented the very survival of the people.  Our ancestors did not have the crutch of a GPS on which to rely.  Instead they watched the sky, the path of the sun, moon, stars and even the shadows in order to keep track of the directions to avoid becoming lost or disoriented in the forest or on the prairie, something that could quickly result in death.  In fact the very meaning of the word ‘disoriented’ is to be incapable of locating the east.

Living in tune with the directions, the seasons and nature in general kept the elder ancestors alive, so naturally a system of philosophy developed about life and the hereafter as demonstrated through that symbolism.  Each direction is thought of as a separate land, world or dimension, symbolically if not literally.  Therefore each direction has its own natures, associations and inhabitants.  In some ways each direction is thought of individually as separate Heavens and their inhabitants are spiritual beings like angels, ancestors and medicine powers.

While the specific associations of each direction can vary greatly from people to people and from age to age, the following cardinal directions and their associations are based heavily off those that are most commonly encountered in native circles, with special emphasis placed on associations identifiable within Muscogee, Yuchi and Cherokee traditions.

East — place of the sun

The east is associated with light and knowledge, because the sun comes up from the east and travels across the sky.  The sun is the source of life on earth and its light removes the cover of darkness, revealing what was previously hidden from view, therefore the east is associated with revelation, illumination and enlightenment.

In Muskogee lore it is the Hawk which flies highest of all creatures.  He is the messenger of the Creator, like an angel delivering prayers to Him and knowledge and revelation from Him.  It is traditional in Muscogee as well as many other traditions to face east when praying.

North—place of wind

The north is the land of wisdom, the breath of life and inspiration.  This is a land of elders, the source of ancestral wisdom and so the north is sometimes referred to as the “place of the white hairs.”  It is associated with the buffalo and the deer who live closely to nature and know her ways intimately.  The bald eagle is said to be stationed here, guarding the health and cleansing wind.

In the Creek Migration Legend, the people took the red and yellow fire from the north and mixed it with fire from the sacred mountain and this is said to be the fire that Creeks use to this day, which sometimes sings.

West—place of earth

West is the place of darkness and introspection.  The sun sets in the west and therefore this direction is associated with sleep and the subconscious.  The spirits of departed are said to travel to the western world and so it is associated with death and the afterlife.  The nature of the west’s earth association also connects it to the underworld caverns from whence tradition tells us the Muskogee people emerged.  This is the womb of creation as well, and therefore represents life at its most primal state and incubation.

The black bear is associated with this direction as is the panther.  The bear’s penchant for residing in caves and sleeping through large portions of the winter make him a skilled adept of navigating the womb of creation and the world of dreams.  Black Elk taught that the west is the home of the Thunderbird, which in Muscogee tradition is the Thunder being who brings the rains and lightning.

South—place of water

The south is associated with warm purifying waters and virtue.  These waters are specifically the deep bodies of water aside from the storm and rains.  For the most obvious reasons water is the element of cleansing.  Not only is it essential in daily hygiene but it is also vital in the human body’s natural process of purification and detoxification.  Water also represents change over time by the process of erosion which reshapes old landscapes and renews the earth.

Water is also intricately connected with the underworld.  Muskogee tradition tells us that the Great Snake guards the southern waters.

Together, the sacred circle and the compass cross portray the divine in both the ethereal and the physical sense.  It is important to understand that these are considered to be integrated and whole, not separate perceptions.  Each person must come to fully understand and integrate the teachings of each direction, one by one until they have traversed the entire compass in order to attain a life of wisdom and fulfillment.  All together it teaches us balance and provides us with the tools to build a healthy spiritual life.

The integration of these attributes and principles into a person’s spirit is achieved by diligent efforts in meditation, contemplation and daily application of these principles.  When we consider our relationship on the medicine wheel, we truly consider our circumstances; literally where we stand inside the circle.  These efforts can be heightened by living close to the earth and taking part in our native traditions.  This Medicine Wheel philosophy is a root philosophy which has influenced the lives of native people for centuries.  It is practical, logical and metaphorical.  It connects us to our time and place, instills our perception of the world with wonder and provides us with a basis by which we can contemplate our own nature and that of all creation.

[1] Neihardt, John J., Black Elk Speaks, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1932-1961 Pg 195-6

[2]Alice C. Fletcher, The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony (22nd Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, part 2; Washington, 1904), pp. 243-244. Cited by Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces

Finnegan’s Wake, a Glance at Irish Mysticism through Lyrical Satire

 

Finnegan’s Wake is amongst my favorite traditional Irish songs and it has been a staple of the Irish balladeer’s repertoire since the middle of the 19th century. Over the past several decades it has been covered by great and legendary Irish bands like The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, the Pogues, and most recently the Massachusetts-based Dropkick Murphys.  However, like much of Irish lyrical tradition stretching back to the ancient bards “Finnegan’s Wake” is in reality a work of deep esoteric value cleverly disguised as a silly drinking song that only the initiated were likely to fully comprehend.

At Face Value

The story tells of Tim Finnegan, a poor construction worker with a love for the liquor who drank a bit too much before work one morning, fell from a ladder, broke his skull and died. Upon the eve of his wake his friends and relatives arrive at his home to mourn him.  Biddy O’Brien begins crying loudly and is essentially told to shut up by one Paddy McGee.

Once Maggie O’Connor gets involved in the exchange telling Biddy she’s wrong, Biddy punches her in the mouth, leaving her ‘sprawling on the floor.”  Then all Hell breaks loose as the entire house becomes engaged in a brawl “woman to woman and man to man,” brandishing their shillelaghs, the classical Irish club.

A bottle of whiskey is thrown across the room, just barely missing Mickey Maloney, and instead landing on Tim Finnegan’s bed with the whiskey scattering all over his body. At that point Tim revives and “rises from the bed,” and delivers the punch line of the ballad; “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, Thanum an Dhul![1] Do you think I’m dead?”

 

The Mystery Unveiled

While this ballad is typically considered a comical drinking song, it actually gives us a glimpse into an old Irish and western mystical tradition.

Tim Finnegan is a construction-worker. Although this was a common vocation amongst Irishmen throughout the 19th century, there is much more being said here than meets the eye, or ear.  As the lyrics clearly tell us “to rise in the world he carried a hod.” A hod is a tool used for carrying bricks and mortar, telling us that Mr. Finnegan was, in fact a mason. Since no later than 1717 AD the repository for esoteric wisdom in Western countries has been the order of Free and Accepted Masons who trace their historic origins to the medieval stone masons guilds, and from there symbolically to the ancient builders of Greek, Egyptian and Israelite temples.

Let us also take note that Tim Finnegan carries his hod “to rise in the world.” In Freemasonry, it is said that a candidate is “raised” to the degree of a Master Mason. Freemasonry also makes use of the symbolism of death and resurrection through the allegory of the architect Hiram Abiff.

Architecture, construction work and craftsmanship have been metaphors for mystical knowledge going back thousands of years. In ancient Irish mythology the three brothers Luchta, Goibniu, and Credne are known as the Trí Dée Dána (the three gods of art).  Each represented the respective trades of carpentry, blacksmithing, and silver-smithing, and they crafted the weapons which the Tuatha Dé Danann (Irish ancestor gods) used to conquer the Fomorians (Irish beings of chaos and darkness).

In ancient Egypt, the god Ptah was the patron of craftsmen and architects, and he was closely associated as an aspect of the dying and resurrecting god Osiris.  Both of these deities were incorporated by the Greeks into the god Dionysus, well known as a patron of wine and spirits.  It is more than coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most well-known dying and resurrecting god is often cited as having been a carpenter before he began his spiritual mission and he, much like his forebears also had an affinity toward life-giving and preserving drink.

A further look at the lyrics of this ballad reveals that at the wake of Finnegan they placed a gallon of whiskey at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head. This sentiment is echoed in the Irish ballad “Jug of Punch” in which the balladeer requests upon his death “just lay me down in my native peat with a jug of punch at my head and feet.”  This is a particularly Irish rendition of the tradition found amongst the world’s cultures of making sacramental offerings to the dead.  The making and pouring of libations is well documented in European traditions.

As mentioned previously, Jesus, Osiris and Dionysus are not only associated with death and resurrection, they are all three also closely associated with drinking rituals. Amongst other things, Dionysus is a god of wine. Osiris is said to have taught the world the art of brewing.  Jesus turned water into wine. Similarly, the Irish craftsman-god Goibniu also brewed the beer of immortality.

The English word whiskey is derived from the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha which translates as “the waters of life.” So when the whiskey scatters across the corpse of Tim Finnegan, it literally, magically and sacramentally imbues him with life; a spiritual conception which stretches back through centuries of esoteric tradition.

Conclusion

The dying and resurrecting god is not just a rhetorical device for dramatic affect. To ancient civilizations death and rebirth are symbolic of the annual cycle, the dying and rebirth of the summertime, the growing season and of the sun, so often symbolic of divinity. This symbolism has been revised, reincorporated and redistributed as a multitude of myths, legends and doctrines throughout the world in order to teach each civilization or cult’s particular perspective on the meaning of creation.

A creator god’s primary attribute is creativity, and this trait has been imitated through the creative works of humans whom are believed to be made in the divine image. Art, music, agriculture and most especially architecture has long been associated metaphorically if not literally with godliness, and enlightenment.
Finnegan’s Wake is far more than just another drinking song. It is a humorous retelling of an ancient initiation myth.  Tim Finnegan is not just a drunk construction worker who died and came back to life.  He is the personification of the mystery of the dying and resurrecting god represented in the form of Irish lyrical satire.

[1]d’anam ‘on Diabhal. a common curse: your soul to the Devil, from the Irish D’anam don Diabhal

The Movie “Silence” was Painfully Boring

Silence theatrical release poster

I went with a friend to see the movie Silence.  It looked good and seemed interesting in the previews, and has good reviews online, but to me , it was really slow and boring.



The plot revolves around two Catholic Priests from Portugal in the early half of the 17th century who embark on a trek to Japan to find their missing comrade, and to further missionize the island during a time a great suppression of the religion by the Tokugawa shogunate.

With such subject matter you might think this would be an epic masterpiece of, but instead it was just undynamic and uninspired.  The characters seemed flat and undeveloped, and there was virtually no action at all.  Good movies tend to have peaks and valleys. This was all valleys. The subject matter was pretty heavy, with the persecution of Christians in Japan during the early half of the 17th century, but I didn’t sense any real depth to the story or characters and comic relief was almost non-existent. That’s just the production side.

I also felt like it portrayed Buddhism as a sinister, despondent cult with no redeemable doctrine. While it emphasized the atrocities committed by the Japanese government against the Christians, portraying Christianity as if it would deliver the people from such abuse, it ignored that at the exact same time in Europe the witch-burnings and torture and killings of heretics was at its height. So, not only did I find the movie boring, I felt like it insulted my intelligence.



If you’re interested in watching Silence because you hope to see representations of feudal Japanese society and samurai customs you’ll be disappointed as there is virtually no culture portrayed in this film.

While watching it I felt like director Martin Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks were more interested in creating sympathy and a sense of righteousness for the Jesuit priests than they were in telling a good story.  I can understand why practicing Catholics and other Christians may find the film as providing some form of credibility for their faith, but  I just was not satisfied.

I really found the movie to be uninspired, uninteresting, and unenjoyable. It was painfully boring.



The Wise Words of Tecumseh

Tecumseh02“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

~ Chief Tecumseh