4 Foundations: The Three Realms

I learned of the Three Realms long before I encountered Druidry. As I remember, it was from Michael Harner’s book, Universal Shamanism. I’ve since read about many different traditions that have the same trinitarian division of the world.

Underworld. Mid-world. Upper world.


Mid-world: the spiritual side of the Mundania where we all dodge cars and jiggle the handle on the toilet. I haven’t decided if Mid-world is the most accessible, or the least accessible of the three: the correct answer is probably, “Both.” It’s so similar to Mundania, often covered by it, yet familiar and easily accessible if you make the attempt.

My initiation to the Bardic path took place in the Snowy Range in Wyoming, near where my daughter’s ashes are scattered. We’d driven up to camp early in July, just before the weekend of the Fourth, and many of the campsites were still closed and snowbound. But one of the lower sites was open.

I climbed a steep hill that rose from the parking area, where I encountered a pair of small trees that blocked my way. Two knots in the trunks gazed at me. I watched them turn to look me over. It was bizarre: they were small knots with fresh, stubby new growth, and at first I thought that bugs must have nested in the new sap behind them and caused them to move. I had no idea what bugs might do such a thing, or if it was even possible, but it was the first thought that popped into my mind. I watched them closely, and realized they weren’t really moving: it was an optical illusion caused by sun and breeze and dappled, shifting light. Then I watched them turn again. I tried to fix my eyes on them, to find some reference point that would tell me whether they were really moving, or merely seeming to move.

I failed in that effort: they did not move, but they moved. Searching. Watching. Guarding.

I asked permission to pass, and when I felt no resistance, I proceeded into a deep bowl that contained a lodgepole pine forest. Years of needlefall covered the ground in dark gray and rust. The trees stood tall, tall and thin — a high cathedral filled with muted light that slanted into the grove from the morning sky to the east.

Still. No breath of air moving. Then faintly, the soft sussuration of wind as it passed by, high above. No air stirred below, where I sat.

A sacred cathedral.

We can find these sacred, mystical places everywhere, because Mid-world is all around us. Like a Magic Eye picture, it is a matter of refocusing our eyes and our intuitions, and then it appears suddenly. It has always been there — all that changes is our awareness.

The Underworld is also easily accessible, though entry is usually more formal for me. Harner speaks of entering through holes in the earth beneath trees, or through caves.

The shift of perception is different. I often find it difficult to hold the tree steady in my mind so that I can find my way through the roots, or to imagine the cave clearly. It gets easier after that, however, because the Underworld itself has its own power and life, and builds itself around me as it draws me in.

The Underworld lives deep within our minds, in a place where language is replaced by symbols, and it can be difficult to interpret those symbols. I have encountered things that have puzzled me. Some have frightened me. But we have power there, as well, which may be the deepest danger of the Underworld. It is a place where we can do deep healing or, if we are so inclined, deep harm to ourselves.

In one of my earliest visits, I found myself in a thick forest. I carried a sword, a symbol of power, and wore a heavy ring, a symbol of authority. I heard a sharp scream in the distance, and went to investigate.

I came upon a frightened woman and a hideous beast that threatened and snapped at her. I interposed myself between her and the beast, and it backed off. Then it rushed me.

I struck it hard on the head with the pommel of my sword and danced to the side. It shook its head, then rushed me again, and again I struck it with the pommel.

You might ask why I didn’t just kill it. It is generally inadvisable to kill anything in the Underworld. It is, after all, deep within our own minds, and most things we encounter there are parts of ourselves. Killing any creature in the underworld is a bit like performing surgery on a diseased liver: you should be certain of what you are doing. This was one of my first visits, and I was not inclined to lay about with a scalpel — or a sword.

Even though I was not trying to kill the creature, I could see that I was hurting it, and thereby hurting myself. Then I remembered the ring. A magic ring, a ring of power and authority. This is my own mind, I thought. I am master here. That’s what the ring means.

So I showed the creature the ring, tamed it and bent it to my will. I made it follow me deeper into the forest, until we came to a pool filled with clear water, lit from within by an emerald green light. Green for healing. The beast and I entered the water together, and though the pool was only a few yards across, it was deep and grew broader as we descended. The creature changed. It became a beautiful woman with dark, flowing hair, and she nodded to me with a smile and swam away.

Some profound healing began within me that day. I could try to tease out the psychoanalytic or spiritual “meaning” of the symbols, but the meaning isn’t that important. What was important was the doing.

The Upper World I do not know very well.

One environ I do know a little about is where I go for musical inspiration. I have occasionally visited this place in my dreams, as I sleep. I suspect that is where I go when I am lost in the process of composing.

In one of my first dreams, I heard an organ symphony. I was somewhere toward the back-center of the orchestra, perhaps in the second fiddles, and a huge pipe organ dominated the front of the room. Because the room was layered in tiers, like a band rehearsal room — though it was more like a performance hall designed so that the audience was the orchestra — I could look down on the entire group. The music was powerful and moving, original and incredibly beautiful. Then, as the organ began an upward-moving arpeggio in thirds toward a climax, I felt myself start to wake. I tried to hang on to the music, but I only succeeded in missing the climax and triggering a repeat of the arpeggio, an octave higher. The instruments blew away like leaves in an autumn wind, the harmonies and structures evaporated like morning fog. As I opened my eyes, all I could hear was that arpeggio in the organ, climbing irrelevantly, repetitively, mechanically into a third octave. I wept — I literally wept — with frustration.

I have heard fragments of a violin concerto, in the style of Prokoffiev. A simple but moving church hymn, sung by Russian basses. Fragments of a (second) piano concerto. A clear, pure soprano solo voice singing an infinitely sad melody in duet with a French horn, above a fabric of gentle strings.

I think, when my compositions are at their very best, they contain an echo of the music that flows so effortlessly in this portion of the Upper World.

3 Foundations: Nature and Earth

Birth. Mirth.
Mother Earth.
Infinite Worth.
Mud pies. Huck Finn.
Dirty face, blissful grin.
Time is up.
Come in, come in.
Soap and water.
Scrub. Scrub hard.
Sunday clean. Sunday best.
New shoes. Day of Rest.
Hopes and dreams.
Look forward. Look up.
Look to Heaven.
Don’t look down.

Earth on your boots.
Earth on your hands.
Earth beneath you. Beneath you.
Feet of clay. A dirty face.
Look to the stars. A rising star.
Adventure! Fame!
NEW worlds! NEW life!
Where no man has gone before.
Where no one has gone before.
No one.
Emptiness. Darkness. Alone.
The stars, like dust.
Like dust.
Like dirt.
Blessed dirt.

Air. Water. Food.
Too hot. Too cold.
Too new. Too old.
Blue-white longing.
Home. Belonging.
Return. Return.

Green-clad mound.
Birdsong. Sound.
Mouse nibbling.
Water. Earth.
Mud-pie. Mirth.
Day of Rest.
Mother’s Breast.

2 Foundations: Cosmology

“In the beginning… In the beginning…”

Old lips smacked aimlessly, as if trying to taste the words that had slipped past them. Rheumy eyes darted back and forth.

“Confound it all! In the beginning…. I don’t remember any more. Don’t they teach you anything these days? What did your fathers and mothers tell you?”

bigbang“The Big Bang!” piped one small voice. “Out of nothing! Ka-BLOOIE! Then a pair o’ me-see-ums grew up into monkeys, and they turned into people.”

creationmedia-proof-of-creation-supernatural-miracles-proved-past-and-present-e9558013“No way!” piped another voice. “God made the world in seven days! An’ he made people out of mud!”

“And what about the rest of you? What did your parents tell you?”

The children shuffled their feet. “Nothing,” one of them said. “They’re too busy.”

bassett2_09fallGrizzled eyebrows rose on the high, age-spotted brow. “Too busy,” he muttered. “Too busy to tell their own children who they are. And I can’t remember….”

He lowered himself carefully to the ground. Ancient joints creaked. He gazed at the anxious, hopeful faces circled around him. His lips worked.

“I don’t remember the beginning any more. It was a long, long time ago. A long time before even my great-great-grandfather was born. But the beginning isn’t important. You can tell any story you like about the beginning. Here’s the only part you really need to know.

Every young eye was on him

“You aren’t alone. You have each other. And you have the world. The world is alive, little ones. The whole universe is alive. As alive as you are. Everything has a soul. And those souls know you, and your souls know them.

“Whatever stories you tell, don’t ever forget that the world is alive. Because if you do forget, and start to tell yourselves stories of a dead world without a soul, your souls will die, too. And then you will surely try to kill the world and everything in it.”

Ancient joints creaked again as he laboriously struggled to his feet.

“You are not alone, little ones. You are not alone. Because the universe is alive.”

1 Why Druidry?

On Saturday evening our Druidic Circle did our usual Dragonfest roundtable discussion on Druidry. One of the questions that came up was, “Why druidry?” Why not one of the other Pagan paths, like Asatru, or Wicca, or Universal Shamanism?

It’s a personal question, of course, and we went around the circle and gave our various answers. Mine is simple: Druidry — modern Druidry in the OBOD tradition — requires no vows.

I don’t do vows.

If I had to summarize the traumas of my life in a succinct phrase, it would be that my life has been a workshop in the destructive potential of vows. I’ve broken every vow I’ve ever made, for the good of everyone involved. That’s why I no longer make them.

What is a vow, really?

I’ve never heard anyone vow to take their next breath. It makes no sense to vow to die someday. No one vows to do something that they are inevitably going to do anyway. Vows are always about things you might not do, given the choice.

Nor is a vow merely a psychological affirmation to get you over a rough patch, though many people think of them that way. I once did. I thought of a marriage vow as a “promise that stays the slaying hand.” When you get furious with your wife over something stupid and want to say, “I hate you, and I want a divorce,” the promise makes you zip your lip and sleep on it. But that’s merely prudence, not a vow. A vow is something entirely different.

A vow is when you commit to serving something other than yourself even when it is not in your best interests. In fact, if you are called upon to fulfill your vow, it will NOT be in your best interests. That is precisely why you take a vow.

Consider the soldier who takes an oath (a vow) to serve country and to obey the orders of his commanding officer(s). It’s unlikely that it will serve his own best interests when he is called upon to fulfill this vow.

A marriage vow sets the marriage above the good of the individuals involved. It says that even when the marriage causes both parties to suffer, they will continue to support the marriage.

A religious vow sets the needs and strictures of the religion, and the gods it serves, above the needs of the individuals who take the vows.

All of this sounds noble and pious. But it is easy for a vow to get twisted.

A soldier’s oaths are some of the clearest, but it is easy to see where they can go horribly wrong. Consider standing behind a line of Jews who kneel before the open trench you forced them to dig at gunpoint, as your commanding officer says, “Pull the trigger. After the first few, it gets easier.”

For a more contemporary example, consider a prison full of Iraqi shopkeepers, as your commanding officer orders you to “soften them up” for questioning. It does get easier after the first few, as the photographs from Abu Ghraib so eloquently testify.

Given the nature of my life, I’m thankful that I’ve never served in the military. My karma would undoubtedly have placed me in exactly such a predicament. I’d have disobeyed orders and faced prison time and a dishonorable discharge. At least I’d like to believe I’d have had that much courage. I’m not sure I would.

Marriage vows are no different. I can see where they might have made some sense for royalty in an age of royals, since dissolving a royal marriage would likely dissolve treaties and alliances and lead to war. A king would remain wed to his queen, no matter what poison lay between them personally.

Even here, however, it can get twisted. Some royal marriages, through misjudgment or change in circumstances, cause war and civil unrest. King Edward’s marriage to the twice-divorced Mrs. Wallis Simpson on the eve of Britain’s entry into World War II nearly destroyed the government. The first, infamous divorce of King Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon revolved around her inability to bear him sons, which he believed (rightly or wrongly) necessary to secure the kingdom. Should a marriage vow really be placed above what we would now call national security?

Most of us experience marriage vows as between equals in an age of equals, not as the consummation of international treaties. I remember the words of my vow — “I do plight thee my troth.” Ancient words that once applied to dynastic nobility in a long-gone age. But I have no lands to deed to sons, nor tenant farmers who depend upon my armies for protection, nor monetary wealth to hoard and maintain, nor even an ancestral heritage — my surname is a common pejorative for “German” in my grandparents’ native tongue, and I have no information whatsoever about my father’s grandparents. The only thing bigger than myself in marriage is the abstraction called the “nuclear family,” that last stronghold of stability in the lives of children already stripped of the village and the tribe and even the extended family in our “upwardly mobile” consumer society. Nuclear stability is valuable for the children, but I can personally testify that it isn’t always served by honoring marriage vows, as can many others. And what does the vow serve once the children are grown and gone?

Religious vows abound, in overt and hidden forms. We vow submission, obedience, loyalty, renunciation of this and worship of that. In mystery religions, we vow secrecy. Franciscan monks vow poverty and chastity. We pledge our immortal souls to our gods, whether we call our gods Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or Isis and Osiris. In traditional Wicca, I would be measured with a red cord, and the cord would be kept by the high priestess of the coven as a binding and a surety of my oaths. In Christianity, the fires of Hell await the apostate.

Religious vows, like other vows, do not serve my best interests. They serve the interests of the religious community, the priesthood, and the gods, specifically when their best interests come into conflict with my best interests. When there is conflict, I am expected to put my interests aside, on pain of severe and eternal consequence.

In a different time, a different place, this might make sense. For me to secretly practice the rites of Isis with others in Inquisition Spain (far worse, to pray to Mecca or light Shabbat candles), it would make sense to vow secrecy, even on pain of death — to protect my brothers and sisters in the faith. It was no different as a secret worshipper of the new god, Iasus, in Diocletian’s Rome.

But here and now? In a nation bound by its constitution to have no national religion, where freedom of religious practice is guaranteed by law and long custom? Where mind-control cults and looney fringe faiths crop up by the thousands, fleece people of money and property, and vanish into the night, leaving them to wander for a bit and then pledge themselves to someone or something else.

I think not.

The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids offers a more gentle practice. Let me quote from the first lesson in the Bardic course, from the initiation rite itself:

Just as in freedom you chose to enter the fellowship of the Bards, so must you know that our fellowship is one of freedom. Here there are no bindings, and as in freedom you joined this fellowship, so in freedom may you leave, should ever you, your guides or stars ordain so.

This spoke to me the first time I read it, and speaks to me still.

The Challenge

Fascinating. Over on Alison Leigh Lilly’s page is a writing challenge, 30 Days of Druidry, and without knowing about it, I found myself writing on the subject of “Why Druidry?” today — item #1 on the list.

Mathematician argues with artist.

The mathematician says that today is the 8th of August, so I should skip the first eight items and move forward from number nine, starting tomorrow. The artist tells me to start with number 1, then do odd-numbered subjects every day (skipping 13 just because), then sweep back on the even-numbered ones in reverse order.

Pagan wins over both: I’ll do neither. Today is the first day I’ve seen this, so today shall be One. Maybe I’ll write two in one day and start to catch up. Maybe I’ll take a day off and fall behind. Maybe I’ll skip topics I don’t like.

30 Days of Druidry

  1. Why Druidry?
  2. Foundations: Cosmology
  3. Foundations: Nature and Earth
  4. Foundations: The Three Realms
  5. Foundations: The Elements
  6. Foundations: Altar, Grove and Nemeton
  7. Foundations: Day-to-Day Practice
  8. Relationships: Gods/Deities and Spirit
  9. Relationships: The Ancestors
  10. Relationships: Spirits of the Land
  11. Relationships: Ritual and Worship
  12. Relationships: The Fire Festivals
  13. Relationships: The Solar Festivals
  14. Relationships: Rites of Passage
  15. Inspirations: Awen and Creativity
  16. Inspirations: Prayer and Meditation
  17. Inspirations: Storytelling and Myth
  18. Inspirations: Music, Poetry and Aesthetics
  19. Inspirations: Ethics, Virtues and Values
  20. Inspirations: Divination and Magic
  21. Inspirations: Mysticism and Philosophy
  22. Everyday Life: Druidry and Family Life
  23. Everyday Life: Druidry and Romance
  24. Everyday Life: Druidry and Work/Career
  25. Everyday Life: Conservation and Environmentalism
  26. Everyday Life: Druidry and Community
  27. Everyday Life: Peace and Social Justice
  28. Everyday Life: A Life in the Day of a Druid
  29. The Future of Druidry
  30. Advice to the Seeker