My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture, and things in the broader realm of the Gothic and darkly Romantic. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

Goth is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, the expression of that in Goth rock. It looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, et al) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. The Gothic should not be limited by what is already within it; inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Friday, 8 February 2019

Imbolc II: Our Home Altar

Detail of a watercolour painting I did.
Sprouting seed in the nook of a statue.
This painting is next to my altar.
I know Neo-Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft aren't inherently Goth or Gothic topics, and this is a Goth blog, but it's also my personal blog, and these things are a big part of my life. There are also a lot of Goths interested in these topics, and I would say that in terms of percentages, a greater percentage of Goths are interested in these topics than of mainstream people. Witchcraft is also trending in younger Goth circles, and a lot of younger people are thus being introduced to Witchcraft through Goth, so I'm trying to show what this witch actually does, to counter some of the misconceptions and to inform people.

I practice a mixture of 'Celtic' spirituality (from a range of 'Celtic' regions and time-periods, hence the umbrella term), Druidry and Wicca. Wicca was my introduction to Neo-Paganism, and I like the Wiccan formats for a lot of the ceremonial aspects, but I'm not Wiccan. I currently use the term 'Celtic Witch' as it's nebulous and ill-defined enough to cover a lot of what I do and my interests, especially as my attitude to spirituality is organic rather than dogmatic, so those things and the balance of them both shift. I have been a Dedicated (as in went through a rite of Dedication) Pagan for 18 years, and had an interest in such things since I was a child, so this is something that has been an important thing to me for a long time. I've been Pagan longer than I've been Goth!


Imbolc altar, mostly in full. 
In our house, we have a permanent altar - it is on a wooden serving trolley that has wheels and a drawer (presumably for cutlery) under the table top, with a shelf half-way down its legs. It's pretty useful because we can wheel it into the middle of the room for rituals. Around it are various bits of Pagan iconography, and the pentacle shelving unit I ordered from CAS Designs (review of that ::here::). While the altar is permanent, what is on the altar changes with the seasons. This post is about what I put on it for Imbolc, and why.

I will start from the bottom up. I have two altar-cloths layered - partly because I know I will spill at least a little wax, and I'd rather not glue my altar-cloths to the wood, especially as it has old varnish. Beyond the basic practical purpose, they have an aesthetic purpose and a symbolic one. The aesthetic purpose is simple; they look nicer than the scruffy table-top of the trolley. The symbolic purpose is multiple. Partly, the act of placing a cloth on the trolley is marking it as something more than an old bit of wooden furniture I salvaged from the discounted section of a charity shop, it's an act of respect, it helps signify that this is an altar and not a wheeled table. The second part of the symbolic aspect are the colours - the light yellow represents returning light, life, and the future daffodils that will bloom in a few weeks; it is a lively spring-like colour, but not as rich as gold, not quite as vividly solar as amber. The darker green represents the sort of foliage that is emerging - it isn't bright luscious green like the leaves of later spring plants, it is the darker green of snowdrop stems and buds that have yet to open, of pines that have been green all winter but are now starting to put forth some new needles. This altar-cloth was actually spring green and solid black on solid green when I bought it, but the first time I washed it, the green faded dramatically, so I re-dyed it.  I tie-dyed it, with the ties arranged to match the print - I feel the varied colours are a little more organic. 

The third aspect is the knotwork print I selected. As I mentioned above, my practice involves a lot of Celtic deities, spiritual beings (faeries/sidhe/sith) and the like, as well as connections to the land (I am in the Scottish Highlands, land of both the Gaelic folk that came with Dal Riada and the Brythonic Picts) and my ancestors (English and Breton) and my wider family (Welsh and Irish). The design is knotwork, and anthropomorphic, a style that was a fusion between Celtic art and Norse art, common in Ireland and Scotland in the early medieval, and which emerged from the positive interaction between the two cultures - it wasn't all raiding and pillaging by Vikings! The Norse element reflects my partner's heritage and beliefs (although he is not a Heathen).

At the back is a large-ish pentagram candle-holder. It holds two sets of 5 candles - at the points are soy-wax votives in purple (top; Spirit/Energy), yellow (middle right; Air/Gas), red (bottom right; Fire/Plasma), green (bottom left; Earth/Solid) and blue (middle left, Water/Liquid). I've listed both the four elements as commonly conceived in Neo-Pagan cosmology, but also five states of matter and energy, as a way of linking that to something more tangible than the usual correspondence tables. There's something a bit more literal and concrete about four states of matter and energy - those things are all observable, solidity is am observable quality whereas the idea of something being 'earthy' is often more reliant on association and metaphor. I have both because I like both the mindset of recognising things as they are, and of being poetic about them, and I feel that these two things - the scientific and rational, and the poetic and spiritual - are best in balance with each other. So far, I'm the only Pagan that I know that has this dual approach to the 'five elements' idea.


Lantern with my Sacred Flame.. and a lot of waxy bits.

The lantern is my 'sacred flame' of Brigid - the same candle as I had up on the brae by the cairn at Dunain, but unfortunately not the same flame. For safety reasons I had to put it out when boarding the bus. Maybe next time, I will not venture quite so far. The glass is not crackle glass, it's just covered in little waxy flakes because as I carried the lantern down off the hill, it was a rough walk over uneven ground, with my slipping on the ice a couple of times, and the molten beeswax in the tealight splashed and splattered onto the inside of the glass. I have no idea how I'm going to clean it because it's a top loading lantern, and there's only a narrow tea-light diameter opening at the top. Maybe I will soak it in hot water and try and melt the wax out, but I imagine that will still leave a residual film! I use that lantern a lot - I took it with me on several Pagan gatherings in the last couple of years!

The association of flames with Brigid starts with a more concrete attribution to St. Brigid of Kildare, who started a sacred fire or flame (not sure if a candle or hearth fire) at the convent she founded in Kildare, where the Brigidene Sisters maintained the fire for years after Brigid herself. St. Brigid was Christian convert, and she was likely named after the pre-existing Goddess of the same name, and in the way Christianity often ended up syncretic with local traditions, it seems that there was some conflation between the saint and her pre-Christian namesake. Sacred flames have existed long before Christianity reached Ireland - and chaste nuns tending a sacred flame has definite echoes of the Vestal Virgins in Rome. Whether it was a similar idea that just happened twice, or whether somehow the concept got transmitted from Rome to Ireland - either from tales of ancient Rome brought by those who came from the Roman church, or through some earlier syncretism (Romano-British paganism often mixed the local gods of the 'Celtic' tribes with similar Roman deities, and it is possible that this approach crossed the sea to Ireland with some notion of a Vesta-hybrid goddess), I do not know. My knowledge of the history of this is muddier than I would like. It's one of those things that a lot of non-scholarly Neo-Pagan books mention, but not something I've yet read more scholarly material looking into - neither the history of St. Brigid (or St. Bridget as she is sometimes Anglicised) or the goddess. 

Spell candle, cauldron and oil burner.

At the very front of the altar is a little yellow beeswax roll candle. I burnt the candle all the way down as part of a spell for renewal and recovery with some mental health issues I have been experiencing recently. Many practicing witches will probably recognise the type as the sort commonly made for spell-candles. All the candles I use for my ritual practice are from natural materials as I think it goes against the spirit of a nature-orientated path to use candles made from paraffin wax when paraffin is a petroleum derivative; i.e a non-renewable fossil fuel. I currently prefer beeswax to soy, as there are issues with over-cultivation of soy, but also a problem of a lack of bees - and more demand for bee-keeping means more bees, even if they aren't wild bees, but a lot of bee-keepers let their bees buzz where they want, or have them at farms to help pollinate specific crops. A lot of the beeswax candles I buy are from small businesses, and there's some you can get in Wales where the supply chain is very local; the beeswax comes from small-scale apiary/hives just outside the village where I buy the candles. The candle is in what is actually an incense burner in the shape of a five-point star, but the recess for an incense cone was just the right diameter and depth for the stubby little candle.

Behind the spell candle is my cauldron. Cauldrons are associated with the Welsh witch/goddess Ceridwen, who in the Mabinogion made the potion of poetry and wisdom in her cauldron. The Irish goddess Brigid is also connected with poetry, and in modern Neo-Pagan art at least, there's some syncretism between the two; Brigid is often depicted much like Ceridwen, with a cauldron. My cauldron of hammered copper and iron is fitting to Brigid's association with smithing. The cauldron as a symbol of the pregnant belly, or the swollen seed, is very in line with the celebration of Imbolc as the time when the dormancy of winter gives way to germination - and for Imbolc my cauldron is not a cooking pot but a flower-pot, with snowdrops bought that afternoon at the farmer's market. 

Snowdrops with the tealights of the pentagram behind.

The oil burner I chose (I have a few that I have collected over the years) was also selected because the shape made me think of that pregnant-belly cauldron shape, and it is also a warm-hued stone that has a cheery sort of glow when lit. The pentagram motif is pretty obvious in its selection.

My altar is approximately laid out in the traditional Wiccan way (particularly influence from the set up in Janet & Stewart Farrar's ::'A Witch's Bible'::), with Earth and Water attributes put on the left side, and Air and Fire attributes put on the right side. Traditionally, this is seen as a feminine/Goddess side on the left, and a masculine/God side on the right, but personally I feel that this doesn't align with the nature of the Celtic deities, plus I think some of the attribution of  'feminine' and 'masculine' to objects and attributes reinforces gendered stereotypes (women are nurturing and emotional, men are active and intellectual). I'm not designating a sword (or athame) as masculine when the Goddess I have the greatest connection to is the Morrigan, who herself very much carries a sword, especial in her aspect of Nemain the battle-fury, but also as Macha the sovereign queen. This is where I diverge from Wicca, as in Wicca the athame and chalice become part of the symbolic Great Rite, where the athame represents a phallus, and the chalice a vagina. I don't see sexual union (symbolic or otherwise) as the core of the generative, creative universe - especially when the universe is much more than the animals that reproduce by mating in that manner. It can be a useful metaphor, but there's something of the parthenogenic Earth Mother, too. I do also have an appreciation for the metaphorical union of the Earth and the Sun, too, but it's not something I'm going to work into the basic structure of all my workings - just those where I feel that exploring that concept is relevant (eg. Beltane). I don't think a cauldron is inherently feminine either, but I feel it is useful to use it that way for Imbolc - it can be associated to masculine things, too, as it was the boy Gwion Bach that ended up as the bard Taliesin through the process of transformation that started with three drops of cauldron potion, even if it was Ceridwen who prepared the ingredients, Gwion was the one attending to it (and got splashed by it).  

As mentioned above, I do still use the left and right arrangement for Earth/Water and Fire/Air, but just not as specifically gendered. The chalice is an elemental tool for me (attribution being water), but it is not inherently feminine. In this case I'm using a green one - that same deep green as the altar-cloth - and rather than wine, it had elderflower fizz, because I can't drink alcohol. I used it to drink a toast to the coming spring. On the left side are both mine and Raven's wands. I used mine for casting circle for my Imbolc ritual.

I haven't detailed my ritual here; that is personal. Some of what I did is hinted at here, and in my account of my trip to Dunain and the cairn that is in my earlier post ::here::. There are plenty of ritual scripts available in many of the better Neo-Pagan books, but I like to craft my own personal ones, and I write a new one for each celebration, each year (although there are certain poems and elements that I re-use). I think writing your own ritual makes it more personal and connected. Neo-Paganism is for the most part non-dogmatic, with no orthodoxy; some traditions have a set way of doing things, but many don't, and many Neo-Pagans walk their own idiosyncratic path because a strong element of Neo-Paganism is that it is an experiential religion, based on your own spiritual practice. In that manner, what I have on my altar is just the way I personally set things up, this particular time - there is no singular way of doing things, just a lot of things we do in common, or similar-but-different. There's no heresy in Neo-Paganism, well maybe except if someone twists it into something with an ulterior and evil agenda (eg. running a sex-cult, or using it for racist propaganda). 

4 comments:

  1. Very well written Carolin, lots of history and mythology references. I enjoyed this post very much. Your pal, Lynie.

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    1. Thankyou :) As you know, history and mythology are definitely interests me.

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  2. Your perspective is amazing, and I like the way in which you regard the elements with something more tangible. Otherwise, I bet that your house is a sight to behold. I'm a bit surprised that you ever want to leave it.

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    1. Most of the time I don't want to leave :P My house is my sanctuary. Raven and I have spent so much time and effort decorating it to our tastes (his a bit more modern than mine, lol) and we're out of the way enough for it to be relatively peaceful. However a) there's plenty of stuff I have to do outside the house (like uni!) and b) castles and ruins and snowy mountains exist and I just can't leave them alone.

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