Rick de Yampert
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* A Pagan Path
* Yeats Cavorted With the Fairy Folk
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         A Pagan Path

I've been a Pagan for about 25 years now. Basically, Paganism is an umbrella term for earth-based spiritualities, of which Wicca (or Witchcraft) is one. We Pagans see evidence of divinity, Spirit, God-Goddess or whatever you want to call it in the movement and forces of nature, the cycle of the seasons, and the birth-death-rebirth cycles that seem to be a part of the natural order of every being and inanimate object in the universe. Many Pagans personify this Nature, some more literally than others, as Gaia.

A Christian friend once responded to that with: “That’s like worshipping the painting instead of the painter.”

I said, “Right!"

While some of my fellow Pagans and Wiccans believe in the literal existence of the Gods and Goddesses -- whether the classic Celtic, Greek, Norse or Egyptian deities -- I’m an agnostic on that matter. I don’t believe we can know the painter of this thing called life and the universe and nature. It’s just that in nature I see and sense some essence/mystery that is greater than me, and my spiritual path is about exploring that mystery . . . And it’s not, I must add, about securing a ticket to an afterlife. I’m an agnostic on that matter, too. I believe no one really knows what happens after, as the Dalai Lama says, “our bodies cease to become a vehicle for consciousness.”

We Pagans tend to recognize that the duality of nature and the natural order, that yin-yang thing -- night and day, male and female, birth-death, yes-no, proton-electron, etc. -- is a significant part of that Giant Mystery of the Cosmos, a significant part of that thing that just might be defined by our finite human brains and souls as God-Goddess. Instead of "duality," some Pagans prefer the term "polarity" -- which does indeed emphasize the oneness that ultimately unites all these dualities . . .the idea that there is no shadow without light, no night without day, etc. That is, any entity, thing or concept can only be understood by balancing it against something that it is NOT.

We Pagans look at life and nature and this just seems self-evident to us.

Consequently, we recognize and honor a feminine essence/power/spirit/divinity, unlike many other religions. Again, we Pagans look at life and nature and the presence of a feminine spirit/essence/divinity just seems self-evident.

Anytime the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door, I invite them in -- with the unspoken promise to myself that I will talk as much as they do. (We Pagans are not a proselytizing religion, but if someone seeks to know us, I and many others will gladly engage them.) When I tell them I’m Pagan-Wiccan-Existentialist-Taoist-Agnostic (yep, that’s really how I describe my spiritual path), I show them my little container garden with its little plants and say, “This is representative of my spiritual path.”

Earth, water, Sun, seed, sex, new life, breath, growth, fruit-flower, death, rebirth -- the Giant Cosmic Mystery is all there in that little plant.

I’ve come to believe there are as many religions on this planet as there are people. Survey 300 Christians in a Baptist church some Sunday and, if they are honest and revelatory, I believe you’ll find they all will have differences about what exactly a Christian believes, how one should worship, which commandments are the serious ones and which are really part of the 10 Suggestions, etc. Same with Buddhism, Paganism, Wicca, etc., and we won’t even get into the mind-blowing cosmic umbrella that is the Hindu faith.

BTW, I don’t call my Pagan-Wiccan-Existentialist-Taoist-Agnostic path a “faith” -- I have absolutely no belief in a literal God or Goddess or a Big Dude on a Throne. I don't recognize the primacy of any sort of sacred text or "revealed" wisdom, which Paganism and Wicca don’t have anyway (we are not a religion of the book). However, I do embrace the wisdom and beauty found in many sacred texts, as well as the insightful and poetic works of many writers on Pagan, Wiccan, occult and metaphysical matters.
 
I’m agnostic on things I haven’t experienced or witnessed, and I know enough about neuroscience, psychology and quantum physics to realize that even human perceptions can fail or “trick” ourselves. Just because someone seemingly experiences an extraordinary event -- say, a burning bush with a booming voice -- doesn't mean we can we trust our senses that that experience is “real.”

I merely sense and see evidence of this Great Mystery called Life and the Cosmos and Nature, and for some inexplicable reason I feel an urge to explore, to connect with this mystery.

At the same time, I do believe that dreams, visions (of Gods, Goddesses or whatever), myth, altered states of consciousness and encounters with non-ordinary realities (whether accidental or induced) can be gateways to connection with the Great Mystery.

Some Wiccans practice what is called spell work, which I personally find very close to Christian prayer. I'm not against either, but spell work is not a part of my spiritual path (which, along with my lack of adherence to Gardnerian-style ceremony, is why I identify myself as more Pagan than Wiccan). Spells, as I define them, are often about changing the universe that surrounds one. Ritual and magick, on the other hand, which I do practice, are about changing the universe inside your mind and soul -- they are about altering your consciousness and waking up and jolting yourself out of mundane auto-pilot existence so that you can possibly connect with that Great Mystery that lies somewhere out there in the Cosmos, the Great Mystery that is so often veiled from our eyes every day.

The elements of Pagan rituals and magical practices, which are like those of other cultures -- drumming, chant, dance, intense engagement with nature, breath work, music, poetic invocations, placing oneself in a new environment, meditation, focusing will and attention-intention, shamanic journeying, etc. -- are very good ways to shock one’s self out of our daily robotic mindsets. This is where making music enters my spiritual path. Indeed, from my recent readings on Hinduism and their concept of the Nada Brahma -- "Sound is God" -- it seems people of the Hindu path recognize this power of music also.

Maybe spells and prayer work sometimes. I’m an agnostic about that. I don’t believe we have any way of knowing the truth there. But ritual and magick, if sincerely and intensely practiced, almost always alter one’s consciousness. And when that happens, the veil of everyday life is parted and some of the Great Mystery is revealed, even if we forget it when we return to mundane reality.

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     Yeats cavorted with the fairy folk

 

Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote in his autobiography that he “was convinced that all lonely and lovely places were crowded with invisible beings and that it would be possible to communicate with them.”

In a letter Yeats wrote in the 1890s, he told a friend of going to “a great fairy locality” in Sligo County. There Yeats “made a magical circle and invoked the fairies” and “held a long conversation” with “the queen of the troop.” 

The encounter ended when the queen “wrote in the sand ‘be careful and do not seek to know too much about us.’ ” 

Perhaps that is why Yeats invoked those invisible beings and lovely places less frequently in his later verse. But the young Yeats infused his early poems with Irish myths, mystical sites and magical beings such as the sidhe (the Irish language term for the “people of the fairy hills,” pronounced “shee,” as in “banshee”).

Sligo Town and Sligo County in Northwest Ireland, where the poet spent much of his youth, are now known as “Yeats Country.” I encountered no invisible beings during my last visit there, but I did discover the spirit of the poet, and Irish myth and folklore, at such mystical sites in Yeats Country as Glencar Waterfall, Slish Wood and Innisfree with its lake isle. But two Yeatsian locales stood above the rest, figuratively and literally: the mountains Ben Bulben (in background in photo) and Knocknarea. 

Yeats wrote his epitaph in his 1938 poem “Under Ben Bulben,” in which he literally instructed that he be buried near the mesa-like mountain north of Sligo Town. The mountain is also famous in Irish legend as a “love bed” of the young lovers Dairmuid and Grainne, who were fleeing the old king Finn. And it was there Dairmuid lost his life by killing a boar, thus breaking a geis (taboo) placed on him by the god Aengus. 

Yeats rests there despite writing in “New Chapters of the Celtic Twilight,” his collection of folk tales, that “I know of an old man, on the slopes of Ben Bulben, who found the devil ringing a bell under his bed, and he went off and stole the chapel bell and rang him out. It may be that this, like the others, was not the devil at all, but some poor wood spirit whose cloven feet had got him into trouble.” 

Irish myths say Maeve (also spelled Medb), an ancient Irish warrior queen and voracious seducer of men, is buried under the cairn (stone mound) atop Knocknarea, another mesa-like mountain to the west of Sligo Town. Typical of the Irish, they don’t seem to be in any hurry to excavate the mound to see whether she lies underneath. 

Folklore says Knocknarea is a fairy haunt. The mountain and its inhabitants feature in the Yeats poems “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” “Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland” and “The Valley of the Black Pig.” 

Knocknarea is a bracing but not difficult climb. And though the mountain seems unimposing, its summit provides a mesmerizing view of the Sligo countryside. 

Local lore says to tote a stone up the mountain and place it upon the three-story-high cairn to gain the favor of Maeve (who, legend says, often took the favor of 30 men a day). 

 

Yeats writes of the time he and a friend watched at night from seven miles away as a small light ascended Knocknarea: “I, who had often climbed the mountain, knew that no human footstep was so speedy.”

 

 



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