The House of the Old Man

Many years ago I read about an ancient shrine to the goddess hidden away in a remote highland glen. It was written about in Twilight of the Celtic Gods [1]:

“This rocky shrine is in all probability connected with the pagan Celtic cult of the Mother Goddess. It may be the only surviving example of its kind in the whole of the British Isles. But this is no lifeless pile of stones, for the shrine is part of a living Celtic tradition which has been continued into recent years by a guardian – a lone shepherd – who has performed a vital ritual at the little shrine, as his father and grandfather had done before him. At the door of the little stone house, from May to October, sit three strange stones, keeping watch over the glen. The tallest, 46 centimetres (18 inches) in height, is known as the Cailleach, Old Woman or Hag. Her partner is the Bodach or Old Man, and there is a third, the smaller Nighean, or daughter.”

The shine is known as Tigh na Cailliche, ‘The Hag’s House’ or the house of the goddess, or alternatively – on the map – as Tigh nam Bodach, the old man’s house. Earlier this year a friend and I were inspired by a post from William A. Young’s blog Feral Words to make a pilgrimage to the house, and this is the story of that visit.

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Tigh nam Bodach with the strange stones sitting outside

William had visited the shrine during the winter, when snow was on the ground. He and his companion took a challenging route up to the glen from Bridge of Orchy, camping out overnight. When he arrived he found that the stones representing the old woman and her family were snugly tucked away inside the little house, for that is the ritual of the place: every year at Samhain the family of stones is moved inside the house for the winter months, and then at Beltane they are taken out again, to sit in front of the little stone house.

I’m not too good at long walks, so I looked for an easier path to the shrine, and found one mentioned here, accessible by car and then by foot along the shore of Loch Lyon. I was also hoping that going in mid-summer would make things easier. It did, but the journey still took me near to the limits of my strength!

Meeting ‘the Old Man’

On this kind of magical trip, signs and omens become important. Everything seen and done becomes part of an unspoken dialogue with the shining ones. The afternoon before our walk we stayed near Loch Tay, and went for a stroll in the warm summer sunshine, looking for some cup-marked rocks that were shown on the map. As we wandered around a field, an white-bearded sheep farmer came by on a quad bike, his collie sitting on the back. I asked him about the cup-marked rocks, but he wasn’t sure where they might be. We talked more. He spoke quietly and thought a long time about each thing he said. I felt myself slow down. It was like he was full of the countryside and the light. “I was born in the Western Isles,” he said, “but my wife is from here.” Somehow this encounter stayed with me, and cheered me on our walk. I felt I had been checked out by ‘the old man’.

Thunder and Lightning

During the night the fine weather broke and we were woken by thunder and lightning. In the morning it was still raining, but we had waterproofs and after some hesitation we decided it was now or never. Driving over the mountain pass from Loch Tay into Glen Lyon, we were surrounded by mist and low clouds as the rain fell, with lightning flickering above us. After splashing twenty miles along single-track roads, we finally arrived at the start of our walk by the hydroelectric dam at the east end of Loch Lyon.

As we began to walk the weather relented, and although the clouds continued to lour over the hills, the weather remained dry as we walked by the dam and followed the track alongside Loch Lyon.

 

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Track alongside Loch Lyon

The River Ford

During the walk we were reminded that nothing worthwhile is achieved without difficulty. In so many stories the heroes and heroines must perform tasks and overcome obstacles in order to reach their goal. It felt like the morning’s rain had been an obstacle like this, and we encountered others. For example, the map optimistically described the crossing of Allt Meurain as a ‘ford’, but it turned out to be quite deep. We ended up wading knee-deep through rapidly flowing water. The pain of walking barefoot on the sometimes sharp stones in the rocky riverbed had to be endured, for the body’s natural reaction of aversion risked falling headlong into the icy water.

Luckily we did not see the Washer at the Ford, which I took as a good sign!

In Glen Cailliche

After the ‘ford’ we began walking up Glen Cailliche, the valley of the Cailleach, and just when I was beginning to despair of finding it, we came in sight of the Tigh nam Bodach, down below the track on the northern side of the river. There were more than just three stones sitting outside – all with the same characteristic rounded river-worn shape. As you can see in the picture below there was one big one with a clearly defined head. Behind it was a dumpy, almost acorn-shaped stone. To the left were two smaller stones with defined heads, lying on their sides. To the front there were three other quite small stones which seemed part of the pattern. In Twilight of the Celtic Gods [1] it says that there is a local legend that every hundred years or so, the Cailleach gives birth to another stone, and “though the baby of the family is still very small, people swear it is growing and will one day be just as big as the others”.

 

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The Legend

Anne Ross, in her Folklore of the Scottish Highlands [2], retells fragments of the cult legend surrounding the house which have survived orally:

“Many years ago, in a fierce snowstorm, an unnaturally large man and woman were seen coming down the mountain-side of the upper glen. They asked the people who were still settled there, for hospitality and shelter. These were willingly given to them. This pleased the supernatural pair well and they took up residence in the glen when the inhabitants had built a thatched house large enough to accommodate them. The woman was pregnant and in due course gave birth to a daughter. The weather was always favourable when they dwelt there. The stock flourished and the crops were always of the best.

Then one day the time came when they decided they must go. Before doing so, they promised that as long as they were remembered and their house kept in order, and everything done as they themselves had done it, they would bring it about that winters would be mild, the summers warm, and peace and prosperity would always be with the people who had been so generous to them.  In memory of this event of long ago a small shrine in the form of the house was constructed and every May Day the three stones representing three deities would be taken out of the house and placed facing down the glen, there they remained until the house was re-thatched and made warm and comfortable for the winter and they were returned to the miniature house on the eve of 1 November, Hallowe’en. When the upper glen was flooded and the people moved away, it became the shepherd’s duty to continue this ritual and this was faithfully carried out.”

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Looking over the shrine up Glen Cailliche

Conclusion

The feeling of the shrine seemed to me very pleasant and warm. I had half expected a rather more fierce encounter with the Cailleach, but if I had to put my feelings into words, I would say that I found her a mother, one who can comfort and provide strength in need. I suspect though that she needs to be approached properly. After a while resting at the shrine, the mist began to descend down the Glen and we began our walk back to the dam.

 

 

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May she be with you in your hour of need

Notes:

[1] Twilight of the Celtic Gods: An exploration of Britain’s Hidden Pagan Traditions, David Clarke with Andy Roberts, Blandford 1996, pp. 66-67

[2] Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, Anne Ross, The History Press; 2nd edition (1 Nov. 2000)

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The Hosting of the Sidhe

I’ve enjoyed W B Yeats’ poems since I was a teenager, and recently I’ve been reading more about his magical life and his ambitions to found a mystical order based on the sacred places and spirits of Ireland.  So I decided to try and write something about one of his poems, and in the process find out a little bit about how Yeats saw things. The poem is called The Hosting of the Sidhe, and before we go any further, we need to know that ‘Sidhe’, which is an Irish word for faeries or otherworld spirits, is pronounced ‘Shee’. Yeats writes about the Sidhe in his notes on the poem:

“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe, from Aes Sidhe, or Sluagh Sidhe, the people of the Faery Hills, as these words are usually explained, still ride the country as of old. Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the Sidhe have much to do with the wind. […] When the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by.” [4]

The Celtic Mystical Order

William Butler Yeats was deeply involved in esoteric work for most of his life. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, joining it around 1887 when it was first formed, and staying with it and its daughter organisation Stella Matutina for over 35 years. Ritual and inner work was a central part of his life and poetry, and one of his aims was to found an Celtic Mystical Order, involving the old gods of Ireland.

In his autobiography, Yeats talks about his plan to form a mystical Order at the Castle of the Rock in Lough Key:

“I planned a mystical Order which should buy or hire the castle, and keep it as a place where its members could retire for a while for contemplation, and where we might establish mysteries like those of Eleusis and Samothrace; and for ten years to come my most impassioned thought was a vain attempt to find philosophy and to create ritual for that Order.” Yeats thought that this philosophy would “turn our places of beauty or legendary association into holy symbols. I did not think this philosophy would be altogether pagan, for it was plain that its symbols must be selected from all those things that had moved men most during many, mainly Christian, centuries.” [1]

His rituals were to be made “by that method Mathers [of the Golden Dawn] had explained to me, and with this hope I plunged without a clue into a labyrinth of images, …”

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Castle Rock in Lough Key

 

Image by Apiechorowska [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Yeats worked on this project with his uncle George Pollexfen, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn, and Yeats also brought together a group who used astral travelling to help him get a better idea of the functions of the old Irish gods.  This group included Golden Dawn members Dorothea Butler and her husband Edmund, uncle George Pollexfen, the Mathers and Annie Horniman; as well as some acquaintances of Yeats’ who were not in the Golden Dawn. [2]

Sligo Workings

As a child, Yeats spent many summers in Sligo on the West Coast of Ireland, where his mother’s family lived. When Yeats began working on the Celtic Order, he spent a lot of time there with his Uncle George Pollexfen. In his autobiography, Yeats talks about a period where the two of them and Pollexfen’s second-sighted servant, Mary Battle, shared a kind of joint ‘dreaming’. Yeats would use symbols or images ‘learned from Mathers’ to start reveries and they would share visions:

“We never began our work until George’s old servant was in her bed; and yet, when we went upstairs to our beds, we constantly heard her crying out with nightmare, and in the morning we would find that her dream echoed our vision. One night, started by what symbol I forget, we had seen an allegorical marriage of Heaven and Earth. When Mary Battle brought in the breakfast next morning, I said, ‘Well, Mary, did you dream anything last night?’ and she replied (I am quoting from an old notebook) ‘indeed she had’, and that it was ‘a dream she would not have liked to have had twice in one night’. She had dreamed that her bishop, the Catholic bishop of Sligo, had gone away ‘without telling anybody’, and had married ‘a very high-up lady, and she not too young, either’. She had thought in her dream ‘Now all the clergy will get married, and it will be no use going to confession’. There were ‘layers upon layers of flowers, many roses. all around the church’.” [3]

Places in the Poem: Knocknarea

In the poem, the Sidhe are riding from Knocknarea (Cnoc na Riabh), which is a thousand foot mountain located about 4 miles west of Sligo Town. At the summit is a large mound (or cairn) of loose stones called Meascan Meadhbha – Meave’s Cairn. It is the largest unopened cairn in Ireland and is thought to conceal a neolithic passage tomb dating back to 3,000 BC. Yeats says of it: “The country people say that Maeve, still a great queen of the western Sidhe, is buried in the cairn of stones.”

From Knocknarea can be seen other sites such as Croaghaun Mountain, Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery, and Cairns Hill. Carrowmore passage tomb cemetery is located at the eastern foot of Knocknarea. There’s more information and pictures of the Knocknarea on the SligoTown website, and of course Wikipedia.

 

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Knocknarea Mountain, by Willie Duffin
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Maeve’s Grave by Bob Embleton
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Places in the Poem: The Grave of Clooth-na-Bare

The other place mentioned in the poem is the grave of Clooth-na-Bare. Yeats writes:

“I have written of Clooth-na-Bare in The Celtic Twilight. She “went all over the world, seeking a lake deep enough to drown her faery life, of which she had grown weary, leaping from hill to hill, and setting up a cairn of stones wherever her feet lighted, until, at last, she found the deepest water in the world in little Lough Ia, on the top of the bird mountain, in Sligo.” I forget, now, where I heard this story, but it may have been from a priest at Collooney. Clooth-na-Bare would mean the old woman of Bare, but is evidently a corruption of Cailleac Bare, the old woman of Bare, who, under the names Bare, and Berah, and Beri, and Verah, and Dera, and Dhira, appears in the legends of many places.” [4]

An Cailleach Bhéara – the old woman of Beare – is an important figure in Irish and Scottish folklore, often linked to mountainous places and winter. There is a good description of the Cailleach on a webpage about the Loughcrew Passage Tomb Complex in County Meath. It begins:

“This hoary figure may have had her origins in the Celtic goddess Buí, the Old Irish word for cow, and perhaps the origin of the other Irish sovereignty goddess, the River Boyne. The most striking feature of An Cailleach Bhéara was her unfathomably long life span. It was said of her “she passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband used to pass to death from her, of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races.”

Here’s a 2007 short film animation about An Cailleach Bhéara – definitely worth a watch!

 

An article by Pádraig Meehan identifies the locations mentioned in Yeats’ notes. The lake on bird mountain is Lough Dha Ghe, the lake of two geese, beside Sliabh Deane (Sliabh dha Éan, the mountain of two birds). These places are in the Ballygawley mountains, a few miles south of Sligo Town. Meehan finds that when viewed from Carrowmore, the Ballygawley Mountains “assume a profile reminiscent of a pregnant recumbent female; the Cailleach Bhérra of local folklore”.

The Sligo Walks website describes a walk from Ballygawley village to Slieve Daeane, and mentions that “Legend has it that the passage tomb located on the hills of Slieve Dargan above the Sligo Way is the final resting place of the Hag of Beara, who lost her magical powers after she drowned in the ‘bottomless’ Lough Dagae.” Presumably this is the tomb.

 

Personages in the Poem

Two members of the Sidhe host are mentioned in the poem by name:

Caoilte (pronounced “Keel-cha”) was a nephew of Fionn mac Cumhail and a member of the fianna in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He could run at remarkable speed and communicate with animals, and was a great storyteller.

Niamh (pronounced “Neev”) is the daughter of the god of the sea, Manannán mac Lir and one of the queens of Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth. She was the lover of the poet-hero Oisín.


 

The Hosting Of The Sidhe

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

W.B. Yeats (1865–1939).  The Wind Among the Reeds.  1899.


 

riders_of_the_sidheRiders of the Sidhe, 1911 By John Duncan (MerlinPrints.com)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 


Notes:

[1] Autobiographies, W B Yeats, Macmillan Press, 1980, p. 254

[2] George Pollexfen in the Golden Dawn: http://www.wrightanddavis.co.uk/GD/POLLEXFEN.htm

[3] Autobiographies, p. 260

[4] Yeats’ Notes on The Hosting of the Sidhe http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/lpy/lpy167.htm

 

 

 

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Bride’s Well in Glastonbury

The Victorian revival of Glastonbury as Avalon began here. A generation before Dion Fortune, a group of seekers played out a magical working in the landscape of Glastonbury, concealing and discovering a Holy Grail in the waters of an elusive well associated in legend with the goddess and saint Bride.  The story is told in The Avalonians by Patrick Benham.

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Marker stone for Bride’s Well (moved from its original location). The legend below the celtic knot cross design says: “This stone marks the traditional spot of the Saint Bride’s Well”

The tale begins in 1885 in a small town on the Ligurian coast of Italy. Dr John Goodchild, a medical doctor from London, was spending the winter there when he came across an ancient glass bowl or cup which he believed might be the Holy Grail of Legend. Psychic experiences told him to take the cup to the area known as Bride’s Hill in Glastonbury, where, he was told, it would eventually end up in the care of women, “as women were not bound to keep its secrets in the way that men were.” [1]

Bride’s Hill in the West of Glastonbury is a mound located between Wearyall Hill and the River Brue. It was the site of a chapel about 1000 years ago, built by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. In the wintertime, when the land near the river flooded, the hill would become an island, a much smaller version of the Tor.

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The view east from Bride’s Hill towards Glastonbury Tor

The mound is currently in the care of Somerset County Council who have installed some signs explaining the site:  “Local tales talk of the chapel being founded after a visit by the Irish saint, Bridget, in 488 AD. We are unsure if this visit took place because the story wasn’t written down until 1135. William of Malmesbury, a monk and historian, recorded that Bridget left a bag, necklace, small bell and weaving tools at Beckery. He said that these objects were displayed at the chapel.”

Of course, Dr Goodchild was well aware that Saint Bridget was an heir to older traditions of Bride. For example, in a book that he published around the time of his visit to Glastonbury, he quotes a tale by the Scottish writer Fiona Macleod which describes Bride as the foster-mother of Christ, in an allegory of Pagan traditions feeding into the new Christian religion.

Goodchild brought the Cup to Glastonbury and with the help of an old map he located Bride’s Hill, but his psychic experience hadn’t told him what he was to do with the Cup. He waited, and then, “early in the morning of the first Monday in September, he was awoken from his sleep by the sound of a voice urging him to get up and take the Cup with him. Before long he was making his way across the fields to the west of the railway station, the voice still offering its calm, firm directions. He arrived at the well, knowing with certainty that he had to conceal the Cup within its murky waters. He achieved this by lodging it in a hollow beneath a stone. The deed done he returned to the town. The destiny of the object was out of his hands.” [2]

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Each year, Goodchild returned to the well, hoping for a sign that the Cup had been found by its rightful keeper. For seven years he found nothing, but then he found that a token (presumably a note of some kind) had been left. The Cup had been discovered by a group who had been led to the well by visions. The group was formed of three ladies, Christine and Janet Allen, Katherine Tudor-Pole, and her brother Wellesley. The discoverers had replaced the cup in the well, but left the token which Goodchild found. He promptly established contact with the discoverers and told them the history of the Cup. Katherine then collected the Cup from the well:

“Bride’s Well itself was more like a rather muddy pond, into which the water from nearby fields used to drain through a sluice. However, it was certainly an ancient spot. An old thorn tree grew next to it on which generations of Glastonbury folk used to hang ribbons and other offerings to St. Bride for the help of the sick and barren. By the time she reached it, Katherine was already wet enough not to be too bothered about having to wade into the mire at the well, picking around with her hands and feet until she found the bowl-shaped object.”[3]

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Thorn tree at the entrance to Bride’s mound hung with ribbons.

Katherine took the bowl back to her home in Bristol, and the three ladies and Wellesley set up an oratory in an upper room. They placed the Cup on an altar, and began to conduct services, based on church practices, but emphasising the feminine mode represented by the cup.

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Nowadays the location of the well is unknown and the marker stone has been moved next to the River Brue. When I first visited about ten years ago, it was in the middle of a rainstorm and there was plenty of water around the base of Bride’s Hill so that it was relatively easy to find a likely spot for the well. On a more recent visit, it was difficult to see any fresh water springing up.

Of course, Bride’s Well is just a part of the Glastonbury sacred landscape: on the other side, by the Tor, there are two very well-known springs. One is the red spring, now housed within the Chalice Well Trust (which was founded by Wellesley Tudor-Pole, one the discoverers of the Cup). The other, the white spring, is now a candle-lit sanctuary, privately owned, but made public through The White Spring.

The two springs face each other on either side of Well House Lane, the road up to the Tor.

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There are many ways of interpreting the wells and springs of Glastonbury, but one way I like is to think of the red and white springs as a contrasting pair – perhaps male and female, side by side under the Tor.  Then, on the other side of Glastonbury, with the dragon’s back of Wearyall Hill between them, lies the mysterious and elusive Bride’s Well, making the hidden third. Perhaps revealed only to the sincere seeker!

Acknowledgements:

The Friends of Bride’s Mound has been set up to protect and preserve the land around Bride’s Hill. They organise an Imbolc walk and gathering at the mound each year, and they are hoping to get permission for an archaeological study of the mound to try and locate the original position of Bride’s Well.

Most of the material in this article (including most of the quotes) are from a wonderful book called The Avalonians by Patrick Benham, published by Gothic Image Publications in 2006. The book covers this episode in great detail, and goes on to talk about later generations of Avalonians, such as Frederick Bligh Bond and Dion fortune.

Notes:

[1] The Avalonians,  p. 19

[2] The Avalonians, p. 22.

[3] The Avalonians, p. 50.

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The Music of What Happens

In the Tales of the Boyhood of Fionn¹, there is an interesting debate among Fionn and his friends as to what was the finest music in the world:

“Tell us that,” said Fionn turning to Oisi’n [pronounced Usheen]

“The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,” cried his merry son.

“A good sound,” said Fionn. “And you, Oscar,” he asked, “what is to your mind the finest of music?”

“The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,” cried the stout lad.

“It is a good sound,” said Fionn. And the other champions told their delight; the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laugh of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

“They are good sounds all,” said Fionn.

“Tell us, chief,” one ventured, “what you think?”

“The music of what happens,” said great Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”

To me this seems to be talking about living in the moment – the ability to really experience what is happening around us and within us at any moment. In my tradition that is the first step on the path: try to observe what is happening. In other words, listen to the finest music.

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Sgwd yr Eira waterfall in the Brecon Beacons

There’s an interesting article on this in A Vital Recognition, which first drew my attention to Fionn’s words.

Notes:

¹ The story comes from the second part of James Stephens’ book Irish Fairy Tales. I’ve not been able to find any earlier references to this, so I’m not sure if it comes from an older tradition.

 

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Cosmic Egg

It’s the season of eggs (chocolate and otherwise), and I woke up the other morning thinking about geometric shapes. It turns out that if you pack a bunch of spheres together, they fall into a pattern where each sphere is surrounded by twelve others, which conceal the central one. This is the image that was in my head, twelve spheres making the eggshell and the yolk hidden away in the middle. I don’t think you can get a proper feel for a shape until you can hold it in your hand, so I got out the table tennis balls and blu-tack. Here’s the result:

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The shape is called a cuboctahedron or dymaxion. You can make one for yourself easily enough. Take thirteen table tennis balls, and a little bit of something sticky to join them. Make three layers as shown – the top and the bottom layers made of three spheres, and the middle is our old friend the dancing floor.

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Then you just put them on top of each other. The resulting shape has the twelve outer spheres arranged in both squares and triangles (just like astrology). It has four dancing floors, one in each world, each made from triple spirals. And hidden away in the centre is the still point.

There’s a nice animation of the formation of the dymaxion on the Sareoso website here.

But really, if you’re interested – make one you can hold in your hand!

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World in a Snowflake

Hail is the whitest of grain;
it is whirled from the vault of heaven
and is tossed about by gusts of wind
and then it melts into water.   [1]

snowflake
Photograph: Alexey Kljatov

A sense of a delicate and fragile creation,
with a structure which can melt into flowing waters.
A metaphor of our world perhaps, familiar from eastern philosophies.
Things are not always as they seem…

…or perhaps a dance,
creating a world between the depths of the earth and the stars in space.
Perhaps a spiral dance like the one at the centre of The Dancing Floor Film.

spiral4

Here the dance follows the patterns of the triple spiral and
the way they can link together to form the dancing floor.

aberlemno4

Here is a way of contemplating the process by which this can happen,
from the book of Jubilee: The Formation of the Constructors.

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axes1

In the Kabbalistic Book of Formation, the creation of the world was considered in terms of letters and numbers, abstract processes combining from the simple to the complex. In the first stage three mother letters are formed, and then seven double letters:

Seven double letters B, G, D, K, P, R, T, the height and the depth, east and west, north and south, and the Holy Temple stands firmly in the middle, and it carries them all.

From an unpublished translation of the
Sepher Yetzirah by W G Davies and G Zur.

oct2

The octahedral shape seems to have been of significance to our ancestors. Hundreds of stone balls have been found in Northern Scotland, carved in the Neolithic period – roughly 3200-2500 BCE. Of these, a recent study has shown that over half contain six knobs with the placement of knobs roughly on the front, back, left, right, top, and bottom of the ball.

Prehistoric stone balls

All this in a snowflake…

[1] The verse for ‘hail’ in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem. The rune meaning ‘hail’, the letter H, called Haglaz is sometimes drawn as a snowflake shape.

 

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The Sleeping Giant of Cribarth

This summer I went to visit some sites in the upper Tawe Valley in South Wales. I was interested in following up some hints left by a druid about the Valley of the Ancients – “the most holy pagan site in Wales” [1].

The valley entrance is guarded by the rather amazing sleeping giant of Cribarth, pictured below (from the middle of the A4067).

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If you can’t immediately see the figure, he is lying on his back along the hill top, his head (darkened by cloud) to the left and body sloping down to the right. I could have passed it a hundred times without seeing it, but now I can never miss it. The power of the landscape!

According to local folklore, the giant will awaken from his slumber and come to the aid of his people in their time of greatest need. [2]

The druid who wrote about it says that the giant is called Yscydion, and he lies sleeping waiting for the call of King Arthur’s return. But there also seems to be a competing claim, that the giant was called Cribwr.

Both giants are mentioned in the 17th Century book by  Sion Dafydd Rhys, The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings [3]. The story of Yscydion is short, and seems to indicate that he was located in North Wales near Dolgellau:

“…in the same parish (Dolgelly) is a mountain called Moel Yscydion. And in this mountain was the abode of a great giant called Yscydion Gawr and from his name that hill was called Moel Yscydion.”

The tale of Cribwr is more interesting:

“In the country of Morgannwg was Cribwr Grawr in Castell Cefn Cribwr by Llan Gewydd. Arthur killed three sisters of Cribwr by treachery. Because Arthur nicknamed him(self) Hot Pottage to the first sister, and Warm Porridge to the second sister (so the tale runs), and a Morsel of Bread to the third, and when the first sister called for help against Hot Pottage Cribwr answered: Wench, let him cool; and in the same manner he answered the second sister, when she sought assistance against Warm Porridge. And the third sister called out that the Morsel of Bread was choking her; and to this he answered, Wench, take a smaller piece. And when Cribwr reproached Arthur for killing his sisters Arthur replied by an englyn milwr in this manner;

Cribwr take thy combs
And cease with currish anger
If I get a real chance—surely
What they have had, thou shalt have too.

No one could kill the three sisters together, so great was their strength, but singly by stealth Arthur killed them.

And the place is still called after his name Cribarth, namely, Garth Cribwr Gawr.”

It seems that Cribwr is located in the right part of the country, although “Castell Cefn Cribwr by Llan Gewydd” looks to be someway south of Cribarth, in Bridgend.

Whichever giant it is, the place is worth a visit, as is the valley of the ancients.

References:

[1] http://dragonsbreathblessings.webs.com/apps/photos/album?albumid=4324051

[2] http://www.ukattraction.com/south-wales/the-sleeping-giant.htm

[3] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/giants_wales.html

Posted in Magical Life, Welsh sources | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments