Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Children, Magic and Pagan Practice.

Firstly, apologies for taking a break of several months.  The summer months have been suitably hectic and I have had little time or energy for writing.  Blessings of the Autumn Equinox to everyone!

I have just read a great blog post by
Hannah Warwick-Mahoney on the Pagan Federation blog, asking whether as a community we exclude children from events. My experience is that, to some extent, we do; at least, we lag behind other religions in getting children involved. There is no Pagan equivalent of Sunday school. Many events and rituals are deemed unsuitable for children and there seems to be a general fear of being too pushy, of somehow forcing our religion onto our children.

I remember clearly at the age of 14, writing to a well known Pagan author to ask for advice on where to go next after reading her book and being deeply moved by it. She wrote me a lovely letter in response, urging me to keep reading but basically telling me that until I was 18 no Pagan group would have me. I felt a little bit patronised, as if I was being told 'you are too young to understand these mysteries. Come back when you have grown up'.

No other religion seems to be so ambivalent about involving children. My thoughts are that, certainly in the UK, we have yet to move on fully from the way things used to be a few short decades ago when Pagans felt the need to practice in secret to avoid persecution. We have all heard stories of Social Services becoming involved due to children being exposed to 'witchcraft'. We do live in a very paranoid culture, especially where children are concerned and it is easy to feel that we are constantly under surveillance when it comes to parenting. Some people still feel the need to be discreet in their religious practice due to prejudice and general ignorance; it can be hard to constantly have to explain yourself and answer questions.

We, however, as a family are 'Pagan and Proud'. We feel strongly that we should not have to hide away as if we are doing something wrong. Both my husband and I are priests, in service to our gods and our community and we have a duty to represent our community in a positive way. We do not want our children to think that there is any need for secrecy. Luckily, the UK government agrees with us and fully subscribes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on Religious Intolerance, stating that we should have freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. I genuinely feel that our rights are protected and that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for our children to be considered 'at risk' purely because of our religion.

While we do not teach our religious views as fact, or as the only true way, we do believe that our Druidry gives us a strong sense of our place in the world and a deep knowingness of our connection with the universe.  Why would we not want to share this with our children? I love what Hannah has written about children being inherently Pagan, with a sense of magic and the divine in all things, filled with awe and wonder.  How lovely if, rather than having to rediscover this as adults (as we have had to do), they never lose it in the first place; never succumb to the illusion of life as a place of suffering, never fall asleep and forget that the hustle and bustle of our modern rat race is just a dream in which so many of us get caught.

Not all activities that we get up to are suitable for children to be involved. Sometimes we facilitate rituals for others that are profound, deeply transformative and involve a great deal of concentration; it would be impossible to do this well with small children playing nearby. Sometimes we meditate, journey or perform complex magic that we simply couldn't manage whilst also tending to the needs of small people. When this happens we ensure that little ones are either asleep or being looked after by someone else. Those occasions are quite few and far between, however. Our families live some distance away and are not available at the drop of a a hat to babysit. We have learned
to be creative and that far more can be achieved with the help and involvement of children than we ever imagined.

Public and community rituals tend to be easy. There are always a few children around and they seem to dip in and out, running off to play alongside or joining in as they see fit. Mostly they are well tolerated; children are, after all a part of our community too.

Our little ones join in our 'everyday' prayers, offerings and spells the same way they join in or copy everything else we do. It is a part of our lives, not something separate or secret. We encourage them to make their own offerings, to say 'thank you' to the spirits of place and to the gods but they are not forced to if they do not want to. So far it is a joy to see them making their own relationships with the world around them. They may well decide not to be Pagan when they grow up, but I am determined that if that happens it will be a properly informed choice and not because we were too nervous to teach them.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Spring sunshine and nettle soup.

As I type this sunlight is streaming in through open windows, bringing with it a fresh breeze and the sound of birdsong.  We have crocuses, cowslips and primroses in the garden, catkins and pussy willow in the hedgerows.  Washing is drying on the line outside and all feels right with the world.  Spring is here,  no matter what the calendars say.  We have photographic evidence!

As we notice the days lengthening and the warmth returning, we are naturally wanting to spend more time outside.  We try to get out and about even in the depths of winter but at that time of year it feels natural to spend more time indoors, by a warm fire.  I am already noticing that our mornings are starting earlier with the returning light. I have a tendency to want to hide under my duvet until the day is half gone, but thankfully my children are very much morning people.  I am grateful; without them I would miss out on so many sunrises.  Gethin has developed the habit of getting himself up quietly in the mornings to sit behind the curtains on his window seat and watch the garden as the day begins.

The change of season is reflected indoors, too.

And now, for nettle soup!

One of my favourite things to eat at this time of year, the humble stinging nettle is vastly underrated.  The tender young shoots are absolutely packed with iron, calcium and vitamin c and are honestly delicious.  The whole process of gathering and making is a wonderful bit of garden and kitchen witchery.

I am a terrible gardener, at least by any 'normal' standards.  Our garden is large and very, very wild. If stinging nettles were worth money then we would be very rich indeed.   And yet, I feel blessed by the sheer abundance of wild herbs and flowers that grow with little or no interference from us.  We are visited by badgers, hares, sparrowhawks, ravens and tawny owls.  Frogs and newts breed in the pond and swallows nest in the barn.  I prefer our little corner of wilderness to a cultivated garden any day.

Children love to help gather food from the garden.  Stinging nettles can possibly be a bit daunting but then...I've never seen anyone die from a nettle sting.   In fact, nettles are a great teacher; to gather with care and thought rather than grabbing and then when the inevitable sting does happen, what to do about it.  Every child learns their first bit of herblore because of stinging nettles, luckily dock seems to grow wherever stinging nettles do! Rather than complaining about a sting, a child who knows about the magic of dock leaves can go ahead and treat it.

Another good lesson is to say 'thank you' for what we gather.  Gethin is starting to understand that everything is alive, whether or not it has a mouth to speak with and that good manners cost nothing.

I don't follow an exact recipe, but here's a general idea of what we do:

Gather about half a carrier bag/a saucepan full of nettle shoots or the very tops of the plant (the first 4 or 6 leaves).  I find the easiest way is to snip them with a pair of scissors.  Chickweed and fat hen are also good to eat if you have any.  Wash carefully.

Use an onion and whatever other veg you have lying around; we used a leek, a large carrot, a potato and a handful of spinach.  Chop and fry the onion gently to soften, chop and add the rest of the vegetables, add about 1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock, salt and pepper if wanted.  Bring to the boil and simmer until the carrot and potato are cooked.  Add the nettle towards the end of cooking as it only needs 5 minutes or so to cook.

Use a hand blender to puree, you may like to add some cream or creme fraiche if you like creamy soup.
Eat.  Lots of it.  Apparently this soup freezes well, but I've never had the opportunity to test this as we never have leftovers; even kids who don't eat green vegetables seem to like this.  I think it's the very real magic of gathering a plant that stings and turning it into something not only edible, but delicious that does it.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Sometimes, plastic tat rules.

I made a confession yesterday; I like things that are kitsch and silly and just a bit tacky.  Not all the time, we like lovely wooden toys and handmade things, chickens and bees and wholesome country living and all that kind of thing.  Sometimes though, I see something so delightfully, whimsically... shit that I just have to have it.

Take these guys, for example.  Some serious spellcasting going on here:

And my favourite recent find; because every child should have plastic action figures depicting their gods, check out the pure awesomeness that is Gwyn Ap Nudd, the Schleich version:
Well OK, apparently it's the elven lord something or other according to Schleich, but what do they know?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The History of the Heart part two: Being the Bards.

So, I wrote quite passionately a couple of weeks ago about why sharing the mythology of our land and our people is so important.  This time, I'm going to attempt be a bit more practical and share how we go about bringing the stories alive; starting with the birth of Taliesin.  To me, this is an obvious starting point as it is by far the most exciting and dynamic story from a three year old point of view.  Others are going to present more of a challenge, but should be lots of fun to find creative ways of interpreting them!

Usually a book is a good starting point.  So far, we have not found a good children's version of the tale aimed at younger/preschool children.  I actually think this has turned out to be a blessing; remember that these tales were originally part of an oral tradition and as such should be committed to memory rather than just being read from a page.  We have always told the tale from memory and embellished it as we see fit at the time, in true bardic style.

I have been busy recently putting together a story sack:
The print is by the wonderful Wendy Andrews.  We have a larger version that we've been using until now as a visual prompt when we tell the story.  The laminated photo is of Gethin at Llyn Tegid.  The idea is to make it all fun by giving him a way of playing with and re-enacting it; we all know it's much easier to remember things that are fun! There are so many ways to adapt this idea, someone crafty could make fabric finger puppets depicting the transformations or carve them out of lovely tactile wood.  I've tried to do it on a bit of a budget using second hand toys and ebay bargains and I actually like the fact that it's a bit tacky; Gwion Bach as depicted by Playmobil, how fabulous is that!

Some of the other ways we have explored the story so far are:

Visiting Llyn Tegid; an absolutely amazing place and so lovely to be able to say 'this is where it all happened!'.  Obviously not everyone can manage that, but visiting a nearby lake or even looking at pictures of the lake would be good.  While we were there recently we burned some incense as an offering and said thank you to Cerridwen and Taliesin for their inspiration (anything involving burning stuff is a hit with our 3 year old..).  We also talked about the Awen, sang some Awens and made pretty pictures with our shadows:
Obviously we did lots of other very fun stuff like skimming stones, paddling and 'fishing', too!

Making 'potions': this has been one of Gethin's favourite things to do for a while.  If you don't have a spare cauldron lying around then even a bucket and a wooden spoon will do just fine with a bit of imagination.  This game can be adapted to suit the current need, Gethin will happily potter around by himself while I'm busy nearby but it's more fun if we do it together.  Also fantastic for teaching the names of different plants, we like to do a treasure hunt where I challenge him to find different ingredients.  Kids from many Pagan families will already be playing this as they love to copy what they see mum and dad doing.

Actually physically acting out the story: well yes, anything involving chasing each other around being different animals and trying to eat each other is probably going to be a hit with most young children!

Our next challenge is going to be the first branch of the Mabinogi.  So far so good, it involves a monster getting its hand chopped off so has instant appeal to most small boys...

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Blessings of Imbolc/Gwyl Ffraid

Just a quick one today to share a few photos, very tired and very full of cold but we had a lovely day.  We went on an expedition to find lambs and snowdrops with Gethin's friends H and E.   We should definitely have more winter picnics! We kept it simple, lit a few candles and said a few words but mostly had fun and looked for signs of the changing season. It was a long walk for little legs, but eventually we discovered lambs and enjoyed a few flakes of snow.

Our gradually evolving seasonal altar:

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The History of the Heart, part one.

First of all, I’d just like to make something clear; it may appear from reading this blog that we’re somehow ‘hot housing’ our children or forcing them to learn solely about our own religion and culture.  This is far from being the case; obviously I only write about the things we do that are relevant to readers.  Gethin is a devotee of the Gruffalo and an initiate into the mysteries of Peppa Pig as much as any other 3 year old.  We read very widely and encourage him to learn anything that interests him.  Most of all, we play.

Having said that, you must forgive me for putting much more effort and love into teaching some stories than others.  This is no accident.  The stories of the great children’s bard of our time, Julia Donaldson need no embellishment to appeal to a young child;  the same, sadly cannot be said of the mythology of our people. The stories of Cerridwen and Taliesin, Pwyll and Pryderi, Branwen daughter of Llyr, Gwydion and Lleu, King Arthur and his journey into the Underworld.  Even Sioned Davies and Marged Haycock (may they be praised) can only do so much to enliven words that were written down in the 14th century by a dusty scribe who probably understood very little of the true meaning of the words he preserved in ink and vellum.   These stories are part of an oral tradition; they were never meant to be frozen in time.  We should learn them by a fireside, from the lips of a travelling bard accompanied by the music of a harp; allowed to stay up past our bedtime, at our father’s knee we should be awestruck at the beauty and wonder and magic of these tales.   We should drink them in with our mother’s milk, act them out in play, and sing songs about them.  That this doesn’t happen is a great tragedy.

Why tragedy? Because mythology is the history of the heart.  Is it any wonder that the British people feel the need to seek answers in the mythologies of any number of cultures around the world? We have lost the heart of our own people, the stories of our land and our ancestors.  They have been suppressed, rendered dry and dull when they should be anything but.  As a child I read voraciously and was especially interested in mythology; I was well versed in the stories of the Norse, Greek and Roman gods (there are even children’s’ books about them!) and of course the Judeo-Christian myths were taught at school and in church.  Why, then, was I in my twenties and searching…and searching…for meaning before I finally learned the stories of my own people? I have Philip Carr Gomm and OBOD to thank in part, and also the delectable Kris Hughes for taking dry, dusty words and teaching me to unlock the magic that lies therein.

All of this is a very long winded way of saying; we need to be the bards for our children.  Let’s reclaim our heritage and give them the gift of their own, very rich mythology.   It is part of their birthright. 

And as I've waffled on so much, there will be a part two; how we go about being the bards for our children :-)

Monday, 30 January 2012

Seasonal Altar

Gethin at 3 1/2 has only just started showing much interest in this idea.  Obviously some children will want to get involved sooner, some later.  Like most Pagans we have altars in our home which change from time to time to reflect what we are currently focussing on.  I also love the Steiner inspired idea of Seasonal tables; basically a nature table displayed attractively to reflect the changing seasons, to encourage children to notice the changes going on in the world around them.  The idea is that they are for the children to get hands on, collect items for, touch and play with as well as for looking at.  The obvious step for us to take was to combine the two ideas, so we created a family seasonal alter.  It doesn't differ much from anyone else's altar, the only difference being it's on a shelf at small person height.
This was our altar just before Yule.  It's gradually evolving and will have an overhaul for Imbolc later this week.  As you can see, we are brave and have some breakable statues; Gethin is allowed to touch gently, but not pick them up and so far he has respected this.  He's allowed to touch and play with anything else on there and enjoys adding ingredients to the cauldron. We may have to temporarily move it all to a higher spot or replace the statues with something less fragile when Gwydion becomes mobile though... 
And just because I love it so much, here's a photo of my little wild thing from the weekend. x