Saturday, May 5, 2007

Beltane 2007

I delivered the following reflection at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, where I am a member. We had the service outside, and followed with an arts and crafts fair--the first of what we hope may become an annual event.

The Song of Amergin

I am a stag: of seven tines,

I am a flood: across a plain,

I am a wind: on a deep lake,

I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,

I am a hawk: above the cliff,

I am a thorn: beneath the nail,

I am a wonder: among flowers,

I am a wizard: who but I

Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

I am a spear: that roars for blood,

I am a salmon: in a pool,

I am a lure: from paradise,

I am a hill: where poets walk,

I am a boar: ruthless and red,

I am a breaker: threatening doom,

I am a tide: that drags to death,

I am an infant: who but I

Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch?

I am the womb: of every holt,

I am the blaze: on every hill,

I am the queen: of every hive,

I am the shield: for every head,

I am the tomb: of every hope.

Song of Amergin translated by Robert Graves, from The White Goddess, Faber and Faber Limited, 24 Russell Square London WC1. It appears here under the principle of Fair Use.

These words are considered to be the oldest recorded poem in Irish and from Ireland. They are said to be the words, the incantation, the wisdom spoken forth by the Druid, Amergin of the Milesians as he and his people landed on Ireland and prepared to drive the Tuatha de Danaan (The Fairy People who were considered gods or spirits) from the land. These words, the story goes, broke the power of the spirits over the land, and allowed the Milesians to take up residence in Ireland. This occurred some time about 1500 years before the Common Era, and so, more than 3500 years ago from our time, at this time of the year, the beginning of Beltane, the Irish marking of the beginning of summer, the beginning of the flowering of the earth.

So, are these magick words that have a power of their own? If I want to take my neighor’s car, should I walk over and proclaim these words over his car at night and watch it magically appear in my drive way? Likely not. Or should I stand in my neighbor’s driveway shouting: I am a stag; I am a flood; I am a wind; I am a tear; I am a thorn; I am a wonder; I am a wizard . . . likely my neighbor will simply think me a fool, or someone who has lost his mind, and call for someone to take me away.

There is, in fact, some real magick going on in these words, and I’d like to take just a minute to observe the line of magick that runs through them. And then, I’d like to stop talking about the magick and invite you to practice a little of the magick with me, because it’s actually real, practical magick.

Notice the venue of these “I am” statements. Amergin claims that he is a stag (an animal who lives out its life in the woods, under the trees, on the earth. Amergin claims that he is a flood (a phenomenon that requires a great deal of water, as he says here, washing over the earth). He claims that he is a wind (a vast amount of air moving and gusting, and he notes that it moves across the water). Before I go any further, do you see what he is weaving? He is identifying himself with what will become the three most basic building blocks of the ancient Irish world view: the earth, the sea (water), and the sky (air), and he demonstrates them working in and over and under each other, separate but joined, touching, weaving, inter-working, inter-being. In every other Druidic and ancient Irish piece of wisdom that we have left in writing (most of it was NOT written down) these elements of earth, sky and sea are the building blocks, the starting places, and the sources where people find energy to work with. And why not? They are all around, abundant, and at this time of year, bursting forth with life.

Amergin goes on: he is a tear that falls from the sun (water from the sky). He is a hawk soaring above the cliff (air over the earth). He is a thorn under the nail (earth under the earth). He is a wonder among flowers (imagine the gasp of human breath “ahhhhh” as it catches sight of a field of flowers—air over earth). And now the claim to transformation: not only is he earth and sky and water and all three working in and over and among each other, but he is wizard! He is the weaver of magick, working with these energies who can bring a fire and smoke out of a cool head (which, by the way, in many ancient literatures, is always an auspicious sign, and usually the sign identifying a wise person or a leader).

In each stanza of this poem, Amergin continues to weave the three elements of Earth and Air and Water together with symbols of the very land that is before him, and in each stanza he comes to a moment of transformation. In the second stanza, for instance, it is not a wizard that he is weaving all of this mighty stuff together. No, after claiming that he is a spear, a salmon, a lure, a hill, a boar, a breaker, and a tide, he then becomes the transformer—an infant. Who else can look from inside of the earth and peer out on all of these things—who else can look from the inside of the womb out and see that vision?

And so, of course, in the last stanza, Amergin makes the journey, and the claim to work with these mighty energies is complete. He is the womb of every creature giving birth. He is the blaze on every hill that lights the dark nights of celebration and of protection. He is the queen of every hive, directing the life of the community of bees, and producing sweet honey. He is a shield for every head. Earth and sky and air. And finally, he knows, he is the tomb which holds every hope.

What is this wisdom that leaves his hopes in the tomb? What is this wisdom that has a man claiming to be a womb, a queen bee, a stag, a flood, the wind, a wizard, an infant? It is the wisdom of knowing oneself in the-right-now-ness of things, in this world, the world composed of earth and sky and sea, which allows the energy of Summer time to burst forth inside of him. It is the wisdom that recognizes that I am not separate from you; that we are not separate from that sky above us; from this earth we sit and stand on; from the water that falls from the sky (hopefully not until our May Day Fair is finished today). We are that. That is who we are. I am that. That is who I am. And I am birth. I am able to open myself to earth and sky and air and become a wizard working with those energies for transformation. I am the infant who once looked out from inside a womb, and I can still be that, if I allow it. And I am death. I am letting go, dying, and laying down hopes. I lay down hopes in exchange for what is right now. And I realize that I am both birth and death in the same life, in the taking in of a breath and the letting go of a breath. In every moment I am both birth and death. On this day of Beltane, I can claim that; I can celebrate that; I can work and weave with that. It is no accident that on this celebration of the beginning of Beltane that we have moved our worship out of doors to be in direct contact with these elements. And it is no mistake that we have filled our usual place of worship with the creative arts of many, many artisans. Those arts and crafts are the produce of the hands of men and women who have found the words of Amergin for themselves: I am the sky, I am the earth, I am the sea. And as wizards, they have crafted air and earth and water together into beauty. As we look around this place, we are witness to the produce of men and women, some of whom sit right here with us today, some of whom are no longer among us—who heard the call of this land, these trees, this sky, and made a place here called UUCG, who as late as yesterday were out on this land, pulling weeds and encouraging flowers and pruning trees and picking up debris, and tending the land. They, like the infant, really can look from inside the earth out and see the vast beauty that is here. They can sing the song of Amergin.

And, so, we can stop talking about Amergin and his song and his magick as a thing of the past, about what he might have experienced, and invite us to weave a little of this magick for ourselves.

Let’s take a moment as we sit here under the sky and the trees, with the wind blowing around us. I am going to be quiet. Let’s look around. Really see what is above and below and around you. Identify with something that you see. And claim to be it, to be one with it, and name it out loud. Yes, I am going to ask us to see the things around us, and claim them, claim to be them, and so, claim the energy that they hold as something that we want to celebrate and enjoy today on this day of Beltane.

Here’s an example: I look down right now, and I see an insect crawling through the grass. So, out of the silence I say: I am a bug crawling on the grass!

See how easy that was? So, I am going to be quiet now, and you are the end of this reflection. As you feel so moved, claim I am ___________, and we will do this until we fall silent again, and the choir will lead us in The Chant for the Seasons.