Thursday, October 30, 2008

Stories around the fire

A little while ago some of the newspapers ran stories about the kind of questions candidates for Oxford and Cambridge universities are asked at interview. One of the cited questions was, "Why is the sea salty?" It struck me that all the model answers, whilst true, were rather dry and practical. If I was sitting in a don's study in Oxford I think I may have answered like this.

"In the time before written history all the seas were pure and the waters sweet to drink. Men and women left offerings to the Goddesses of the seas and asked permission of the spirits of the sea entertaining them with dance before they set out to fish. When they returned with the sweet fruits of the sea the young women would dance wildly in thanksgiving. Then men began to covet the riches of the sea and called upon the one God of the sky to help them conquer all they beheld. Lords declared that it was wrong to leave offerings and ask permission. They asked the teachers to tell the children that the Goddesses of the sea were mere myth. That all worship and honour was due to the one God and the earthly Lords who worshipped him. And so the offerings and dances ended, the seas were raped of their bounty and the Goddesses of the sea forgotten. But in their homes beneath the sea the Goddesses began to cry for all that had been lost and lament the foolishness of men. They cried and they cried and their tears began to turn the once sweet sea salty so that today no man can drink of the sea's waters."

Would this get me a place at Oxford? I don't know but I do know that it is just as true as the model, dry practical answers given in the papers.

It is almost Samhain and we enter the dark time of the year when we sit by the fire, tell stories, enter our hearts, and touch ancient wisdom. May I wish you every blessing for the season and leave you with my own re-telling of the first part of the old Scottish story of Bride and the Cailleach Bheara. I promise to re-tell the second part of this story come Imbolc.

At the end of October the Cailleach Bheara took captive a beautiful young woman called Bride and locked her in a room in her palace deep below the Cairngorm Mountains. She was jealous of Bride’s beauty which brought warmth and joy to the earth. The Cailleach gave Bride old torn clothing to wear and put her to menial tasks like clearing the ashes from the palace fires. The Cailleach scolded Bride and found constant fault with everything she did. Poor Bride, her life was made wretched. As she wept the trees lost the last of their leaves, flowers died, and the sun lost heart and refused to climb to the heights of the sky.

One day the Cailleach brought a filthy brown fleece to Bride and ordered her to wash it until it was as white as the snow that now covered all the dying land. All day long Bride washed and washed, her hands becoming chapped and sore. But when night fell the Cailleach scolded the girl saying, “You are foolish and incompetent, look the fleece is as dirty and as brown as when I gave it to you. In the morning you will wash it again and you will go on washing it every day until it is white.”

This made Bride even more sorrowful for it seemed as if she would be washing until the Moon no longer had the strength to complete its monthly cycle. As she grew ever more sorrowful all light was ebbing away from the world above.

Then one morning whilst Bride was washing a grey-haired old woman came to her and said, “I am Grandmother Winter, if you give me the fleece I shall wash it whiter than the snow for you.” Bride gave Grandmother Winter the fleece and she shook it to the North, to the East, to the South and to the West calling upon all the ancient grandmothers. When she had finished the fleece was as white as newly fallen snow.

Bride was filled with joy and she gave thanks to Grandmother Winter and all the ancient grandmothers. At that moment Bride’s joy and thanksgiving shook the whole world above and the sun regained heart and began her slow climb back to the heights of the sky.

Grandmother Winter then told Bride that she would return towards the end of January with a special present for Bride. True to her word, several weeks later, she came to Bride whilst she was smooring the ashes and said, “Take what I hold in my hand.” Bride reached out and took a bunch of pure white flowers. Bride’s eyes lit with happiness as she beheld their beauty. Then Grandmother Winter spoke to Bride, “If the Cailleach scolds you show her these flowers.”

Sure enough at the close of that day the Cailleach scolded Bride saying, “Will you never learn how to smoor the ashes you stupid young woman.” Then Bride showed the snow white flowers to the Cailleach. The Cailleach’s face turned grey and in anger and frustration she asked, “Where did you get these flowers?” Bride replied, “The snowdrops are now growing in the woods and the adders are beginning to stir from their long sleep.” “Bad news!” the Cailleach shouted and stormed out of the kitchen. But a new profound joy had entered Bride’s heart.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

If the world could vote

Hat tip to Don't stray from the path for pointing me to this great site that lets the whole world vote in the forthcoming American Presidential Election.

Shame the vote isn't for real as the results so far are an absolute landslide and are a good indicator of what the rest of us think. 

With a US military spy base just down the road from home I guess I am in-line for a missile strike should there be a war. As everything the US government does effects me and most others throughout the world we should all really get to vote. Now that is only fair isn't it? You put a spy base near my home without a by your leave so we get to vote you out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Remembering how to move

Joy, a group of us are spending the whole Samhain weekend exploring sacred dance. For me dance is liberation, it is subversive, it is passion, it is magic.

Time and time again authorities of one kind or another have tried to regulate or even ban dance. They have claimed it is immoral, that it is wrong for women and men to move together. They have shunned the body and denied its beauty and grace. They have feared the renewal and change that dance brings. They have recoiled from the idea that creation is danced into being and have tried to convince us to accept the unchanging word incised in stone instead.

If dance was denied me I would do everything I could to subvert that law. I would sway with the trees, move with the leaves, dance with my eyes as I watch the butterfly. I would dance with my very breath. In utter stillness I would be one with the dance of the genes within me.

The mistrust of dance in the major religions of the world is a symptom of the fact that they have, by and large, forgotten how to move. If you dance you move, adjust, change, discover new ways of being, new patterns in the world. Inerrant scripture and fixed law deny the truth that we live in an ever changing universe where all life is constantly adapting, changing, evolving. Our genes are not fixed. If they were we would stagnate and die. Thankfully they have not forgotten that they were danced into being by the Goddesses and Gods and they will continue to dance until the end of time.

And here is the heresy major religions fear. As we dance and move and change with the Goddesses and Gods our imaginations expand and we touch the mystery of being, of divinity of sex and creation. In so doing we become free to re-invent the Goddesses and Gods as they link hands and bodies with us in the dance of life, wonder, magic and renewal. Dance opens us wide to new possibility.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Terrorists of disarming charm

Anyone who has been bullied at school or at work will know that bullies generally have not learnt how to love themselves or accept their failings. Picking on someone weaker than themselves is one of the few ways available to them to help them cope. They have low self-esteem so they try and reduce the self-esteem of those they attack.

It is interesting how often governments follow the bullies example. Things are going badly, self-esteem is low so lets launch a gunboat, wave the flag and bully a scapegoat. Just as you can never trust a bully with power so you can never trust a government with power. You can guarantee that power will always be abused. 

In September prime minister Gordon Brown and the UK government's self-esteem must have been at an all time low as their popularity plummeted. Following the lead of bullies everywhere they looked for a victim.

You really couldn't make this up if you tried. On the 8th October the UK government misused their draconian Anti-terrorism Act against the interests of another state, freezing all the financial assets of that state in the UK. 

Which state did the UK government choose, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Zimbabwe perhaps? No these states are already on the government's list. So which state joined this list of shame. Would you believe Iceland? Unbelievable - but in the daft world of government true.

This, of course, is the Iceland famed for its friendly, happy people. The country that consistently comes in the top three best places to live in the world. A country with excellent social services and equitable distribution of wealth. A country - by the way - that has no armed forces and spends a record breaking 0% of its gross national product on weapons. A country indeed that puts the UK to shame. 

According to Vision of Humanity's Global Peace Index Iceland is the most peaceful nation on earth - ranking 1st of the 140 nations listed. The United Kingdom comes a disgraceful 49th and the USA a jaw-dropping 97th. Icelander's trust each other, have very low levels of crime and a very high respect for human rights.

Two weeks later something happened which shows just how wonderful people can be. Icelanders are not terrorists appeared on the Internet asking people to sign a petition to help stop the abuse of the UK Anti-terrorism Act. In a few days nearly 51,000 people from Iceland and the UK have signed and the numbers are rising all the time.

With the kind of disarming charm that only a "terrorist nation" like Iceland can muster Icelanders are not terrorists is full of the most amazing postcards that wonderful people have sent to Gordon Brown. Go and have a look at them now and sign the petition whilst you are there!

Update 30/10/2008 
The number of people who have signed is about to top 70,000. And I have just noticed this quote in the Independent: 
"The Labour MP Austin Mitchell, who chairs the all-party British-Icelandic parliamentary group, urged David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, to resolve the impasse. "Our government has been heavy-handed and abrupt in dealing with the Icelandic problem," he said. "We should have helped but we bullied and made the problem worse." The Icelandic government said that Britain had "set a tone that is difficult to get away from".
The emphasis is mine and maybe, just maybe,  there really is one honest politician left in the UK.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Six random things

I've been tagged by Mary (hi Mary good to know you follow this blog) and Brian to write six random things about myself.

1. Link to the person who tagged you.

2. Post the rules on your blog.

3. Write six random things about yourself. (See below)

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. (See further below...)

5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Well now 1. and 2. are done and I have been pointed to Mary's great blog - thank you!

So here are my six random things

1. I'm quite a mongrel having Belgian, English, Gypsy and border Scotch ancestors.

2. I am totally non-competitive and not even vaguely interested in sport.

3. I love bookshops and libraries, the feel of paper and the look of typography.

4. I love dancing barefoot on the earth.

5. Freshly baked bread and Wensleydale cheese is my idea of heaven.

6. I have been utterly, madly in love with one extraordinary wonderful woman for 36 years.

Now I have just checked and all those who I would have tagged have been tagged already. That will teach me to be too busy to blog for three weeks. I will have to think about this one but in the meantime I will let Mary and Brian know that my response is posted.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Has Sarah Palin heard about St. Kilda?

Following a wonderful reply to a tag from Anne Johnson, Aquila ka Hecate has tagged everyone on her sidebar to give their opinions on "The hilarious" McCain-Palin ticket for the US presidency. 

I gather that Sarah Palin is Governor of Alaska and Commander-in-chief of the state’s military forces. I have never been to Alaska but have always regarded it as one of those special liminal places that exist at the edge of the world. I, therefore, offer Sarah the story of another liminal place at the very edge of Europe.

The BBC has a little known TV channel called BBC Alba which broadcasts programmes in the Gaelic language of the West of Scotland. Earlier this week BBC Alba televised a programme dedicated to the history of St. Kilda.

I guess that Sarah has never heard of St. Kilda so I will tell her that St. Kilda is not a Christian Saint but the most remote place in the British Isles. A group of tiny islands and stacks forty miles to the west of the Outer Hebrides. St. Kilda literally lies at the very edge of the ancient world. Despite being lashed by winds and rain and an average July temperature of just 12 degrees Celsius St. Kilda was inhabited for more than two millennia until it was abandoned in 1930. The Norse settled there and then the Gael.

The BBC Alba programme was narrated by a wonderful man whose ancestors had lived on St. Kilda. His beautiful Gaelic words cut straight to the heart. He spoke eloquently of the Gael of St. Kilda and how they had lived a hard subsistence life surviving on the countless seabirds that nested on the cliffs. They knew little of the outside world. Held almost everything in common and gave everyone an equal say in the running of day to day affairs.

As the narrator knelt lovingly by Tobar nam buadh (the Spring of virtues) he spoke of the offerings that were once left to the spirits and fairies of the hills and the springs. How life was guided by the sun and the moon. How all work was done sunwise. How there were special festivities at midwinter and midsummer. How the people loved song and dance and story and games.

The Gael of St. Kilda had no arms or money yet had to pay rent to the Clann Mhic Leòid who owned lands on Harris and Skye. They paid this rent in gannet feathers which were subsequently sold to the British army to make pillows for soldiers. Thus these peaceful people were taxed to further colonial battles.

The narrator then went on to tell of the decline of the St. Kilda community. In 1822 the Church of Scotland sent a minister to bring religion to a people “who knew nothing of religion”. At first this mission brought benefits. New agricultural methods were introduced, better houses were built and a Gaelic Language school was set up for the children. Then the Free Church of Scotland sent their own minister, a religious zealot who began the downward spiral that would lead to the destruction of life on St. Kilda.

This religious man introduced compulsory three hour Sabbath Day services. All offerings to the spirits of the land were stopped. Song, dance and games were banned and the only stories told were from the Bible. In 1875 a visitor to St. Kilda described the Sabbath as, "A day of incredible gloom when all the Islanders hurry to church their eyes fixed to the grounds as it was regarded as a sin to look to left or right." Those who made any noise in the chapel were lectured at length and warned that they risked spending eternity in hell. Children were forbidden from playing any games and had to carry a bible with them wherever they went.

Religious duties began to take over valuable time that was needed for subsistence. A famine ensued and when a boat arrived with food on a Saturday it was not allowed to unload until the following Monday so as not to interfere with the Sabbath.

The new capitalism of the Victorian age brought tourist cruise ships to St. Kilda full of people who knew nothing of the Gaelic language or way of life. The islanders were viewed as curiosities and began to loose self-respect. Visitors brought influenza and infantile tetanus.

During the Great War of 1914 to 1918 the Royal Navy decided St. Kilda was of strategic importance as an ideal place to watch for ships in the North Atlantic. The Navy brought their own rules and the gradual introduction of money which made the islanders less self-reliant. In 1930 the Gael of St. Kilda asked to be re-patriated to Morvern on the Scottish Mainland.

Sarah is noted for her ‘Pro-Life’ views. I have never understood how someone who says they are pro-life can approve of hunting for sport, belong to the military and have little or no regard for the environment. But then Pro-Life and pro-life are in reality very different.

Anyway St. Kilda is a warning to us all. It reminds us how easily a people can be exploited by the rich and powerful. How easily a way of life totally in harmony with the natural environment can be destroyed. How dangerous are the men who are so sure they hold absolute truth that they deny a people access to their own traditions and all joy and pleasure on pain of eternal punishment.

But St. Kilda is not alone. History is full of stories of peoples whose joy, happiness and way of life have been severely limited by the power struggles of the religious, the military and the profit seekers. Politicians are not noted for their ability to learn from history and the experience of those on the edge of their world. Maybe the only question we ever need to ask anyone running for political office is, “How would you treat those whose language and culture you do not understand, those who live on the margins of your world?”

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