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Exploring Myth, Divination and the Western Mysteries.

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Tuesday 24 December 2013

The Omen Days: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Christmas Eve has come and now I can truly rest. Every year we try to have the Twelve Days of Christmas as a complete holiday, though a copy editor came near to spoiling that this afternoon by giving me work ‘to be handed in on 6th January.’ I’m afraid I just turned it round very quickly, completely unwilling to extenuate a piece of rewriting through my precious quiet time. 

As we approach the next few quiet days from work, this is a good time to refresh how we can really prepare for the year ahead of us through the medium of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which in this household are well kept. 

In the medieval liturgical calendar, the festival of Christmas Day stood alone by itself as a supreme holy day, and so the counting of the twelve days began from 26 December which is the 1st day of Christmas until the 6th January which is Twelfth Night, or the 12th day of Christmas.  What has this got to do with anything?

Well, in Brittany and in Wales, the Twelve Days of Christmas, which mark the intercalary days of the year, are called ‘the Omen Days,’ and they have a special purpose. ‘Intercalary days’ are really the days left over from reckoning up the solar year and, in calendars throughout the world and at different times, they are special because they are considered to be ‘the days out of time.’  It is in this interval between the ordinary count of days that gods are born or conceived in many different mythologies, including the Irish one, where Oengus Og, Young Angus, is conceived, grown and born at Brúg na Boinne within this time, all in one day, by the magical workings of the Dagda.

Brúg na Boinne

Within these twelve days lies a wonderful secret that those dismissive of the Christian tradition might well miss, for each of the twelve days is assigned to a month of the coming year, with the first day of Christmas the 26th December as symbolic of January, the second day or 27th December representing February and so on, right through to 6th January which represents the December yet to come.  It was the custom of many to go out on each day of the Christmas festival to observe the signs in nature and divine from them the state of the year to come. The omens experienced on each of the Omen Days indicate the nature of each month in the coming year.

The divining of oracles from nature has a long tradition in Celtic lore.  The Scots Gaelic tradition of the frith or the augury from the signs of nature is well established. The listening to bird’s calling was a critical part of druidic lore, as was the movement and behaviour of other animals.  Some of these auguries have come down to us, like the little white book of meanings in a tarot pack: some people used them, but others did not.  The real skill is to read the signs in accordance with your understanding at the time, and as it relates to the question that provoked the augury in the first place.  I’ve been teaching this skill for over 25 years and not yet found anyone who couldn’t do it, as long as they first asked a well-framed question.

                                        Omen in the Sand, Bay of Scail, Orkney

In this case, you treat each day of Christmas as the opportunity for an augury for the month it represents in coming year.  This might be experienced during a daily walk, or perceived in the nature of the day itself and how it falls out. Personally, I like to make a frame for each Omen Day, by asking to be shown an augury from nature and allowing the next thing I experience, see or hear to be the sign I am expecting.  It helps to find the right place to do this on a walk, to close your eyes, to spin around on the spot and then be attentive.

Many of my students have been doing this for a while and last year I shared it with an online group of Lenormand Card readers, who are now using the Omen Days to divine for the year ahead, choosing one or more cards each day to discover the nature of the months of the year.  There is no right way to do this, only by the unique interaction you have between the world that is seen and the world that is unseen, but just as real.

That the Twelve Days of Christmas have kept their assured place at the heart of Celtic divination is one of those wonderful instances of double-decker belief that are scattered throughout folk tradition worldwide. The Russians have a good word for this kind of thing, naming it dvoverie  or ‘double-belonging,’ a word originally coined to cover those who had an earlier belief running alongside a later one.  Wherever a newer tradition has come into a country, the older one doesn’t just die or go away, but becomes fused with the newer one, so that the traditional continuity can be enjoyed by us all.

Whatever your beliefs, the Omen Days continue to offer the opportunity to understand the year ahead so, forget the ‘year’s round up of news’ and the ‘look-back specials’ on the tv this Christmas and look ahead to a year full of promise!

I wish you and yours joy, health, love and peace! 

The Green & Burning Tree from 
Celtic Book of the Dead by Caitlín Matthews, 
art by Danuta Meyer

Caitlín will be teaching Celtic methods of divination from nature on 15-16 February 2014 Celtic Visions: Seership, Omens and Divination from Nature  This non-residential course explores the realm of Celtic divination and vision that was once the preserve of the druidic seers of the Celtic world who used subtle perception to reveal nature's truth and the soul’s knowledge.  Caitlín has made a special study of the oracular and sacred traditions, finding simple, practical ways by which these methods can illuminate the present moment. Participants will learn how to read the omens of the natural world, using traditional seership methods, including 'the Three Illuminations' - ancient Irish modes of oracular divination by incantation, resonance and shamanic incubation - and 'the Augury of Brighid' which was employed by the ancestral freers of Gaelic Scotland.  There will be opportunities to give and receive oracles and auguries, by means of the dha shealladh or 'the two seeings' and by other traditional methods.
Participants need to bring a wooden staff or wand, OR a small smooth stone, a covering for their eyes, and a small personal object which should be one whose history is known to them and that they don't mind other people handling – it will return home with them. NOTE: we will be spending short periods outside regardless of weather.
Fee: £175, send £75 deposit payable to the Clophill Centre, or directly into the account of Richard Diss, sort code 09.01.28 a/c 40762541 Enquiries to Clophill Centre, Shefford Road, Clophill, Beds. MK45 4BT. richarddiss1950@tiscali.co.uk or 01525 862278

If you can’t come, then this course generated a book on Celtic seership called, Celtic Visions: Omens, Dreams and Spirits of the Otherworld is available from her at www.hallowquest.org.uk or from all the usual sources.

Sunday 10 November 2013


This year John and I celebrate our 28th annual December gathering at Hawkwood College, which has become our midwinter mystery school, open to anyone who wishes to deepen their experience.  Hawkwood College is a gracious Cotswold house in the limestone hills above Stroud in Gloucestershire. It has been an adult college since 1948.  With its own grounds, mature trees, and a spring, it has a wonderful atmosphere, with comfortable rooms and nourishing food. It is our second home and the place of gathering for many of our friends and students because it has been the venue for an eclectic mystery school over many years.

Hawkwood College 
Every midwinter here we present a different topic on a never to be repeated weekend, so it becomes a unique experience for everyone.  We do this every year, honouring a trust that passed to us in 1985 by Gareth Knight. 

Gareth Knight

From the late 1970s onwards, the writer and ceremonial magician, Gareth Knight, held open magical weekends at Hawkwood College for anyone to attend. Looking at these events from the perspective of 2013, it may not seem like a big deal, but back in the 1970s, any rituals were generally performed in private and only among the initiated.  Ritual work creates a container where the spirit of these mysteries is focused and then mediated out:  normally performed by people who have trained in the mysteries, rituals that were open to all attenders at these early courses offered everyone a chance to encounter the spiritual heart of the Western mysteries. Gareth Knight explored many aspects of the mysteries, including the work of Dion Fortune and Charles Williams,  Atlantis, Alchemy and the Rosicrucian mysteries. Just as the Rosicrucian Manifesto specified that members meet together once a year, rather like the knights at Camelot, so too it has been the tradition for those who are on the path of the Western Mysteries gather here.  So it was that Hawkwood College became a beacon that, like the hermit’s lantern, shines so that others can follow their spiritual path.

                                                R.J.Stewart & John Matthews c.1980

These early weekends were a proving ground for many notable magical teachers,  including R.J.Stewart whom Gareth invited to share his foundational work for the first time in public.  No-one who was present at R.J.’s Underworld Initiation would ever forget the sound of his unique 80 string psaltery.  Friendships that we made at Hawkwood continue to this day, making us colleagues in the Great Work with many wonderful teachers, singers and artists.  In 1985, Gareth handed over his December weekend over to us to continue the work, which we have striven to do: keeping an open mystery school for anyone to attend, as well as working at a deeper level with the myths and mysteries of the land.   We have explored both the hermetic and earth traditions, opening doors and exploring pathways that lead to the threshold of the mysteries and beyond. 

Left: Brian & Wendy Froud, who joined us for Within the Hollow Hills in 2004.

Below: Caitlín & John Matthews with Rev. Mark Townsend at the well after the gnostic ritual that concluded Jesus and Myth, 2011.

We have been very fortunate in our special guests who have helped us, including Brian and Wendy Froud,  Professors Ari Berk & Ronald Hutton, Philip Carr-Gomm, Marian Green, Mark Townsend, and this year, actor and tarot-creator, Mark Ryan, who will bring his own woodland skills with bow and tarot to Hawkwood. 
Mark Ryan

This December we will be exploring the different traditions of tarot – how it is read, what wisdom it has to reveal to us, how we carry the flame of its mysteries onward -  from the perspectives of the court, the temple and the wildwood, with lots of opportunities to play with your tarot cards.  Tarot has survived in all these ways and places as gaming cards, oracle and window for meditation.  It is an evolving living tradition that many practice. The images below are from the Wildwood Tarot by Mark Ryan, John Matthews & art by Will Worthington, but we will be working through the medium of whatever tarot you bring along.

The Hooded Man 

                        The Wanderer 
The Seer

The underlying purpose of our Tarot Landscapes weekend is to acknowledge that everyone who uses tarot keeps alight the lamp of the Hermit, pursuing as seeker the path of the Fool in order to arrive at the unlocking of wisdom that the High Priestess offers. Each of the 22 figures of the tarot is a living archetype who invites us to look through the window to otherworlds. Whichever tarot you use, you will find their wisdom.

What happens at our Hawkwood weekends?  After dinner on arrival, there is an opening ceremony and introduction, where we set the scene and get to know each other. Then on Saturday, we  teach the chosen topic, with lots of interaction and dialogue, practical implement of our divination skills, as well as touching base with the underlying principles of tarot.  Saturday is the day where we assemble what needs to be mediated on Sunday, but before that, on Saturday night, we have a ceilidh where everyone who wishes to takes a turn to sing, read, recite or perform around the fire, while refreshments are served. On Sunday, we conclude our work by a group ritual in which everyone takes part: it is especially written for the course and never repeated. This year we are walking the Paths of the Wildwood where the cards will give their own oracles and where everyone will have a chance to mediate what they have gained in the ritual to both the seen and unseen world.
Card from Christmas Stories Storyworld
You are very welcome to join myself, John and Mark for this special midwinter gathering for an unforgettable weekend.  No special skills are needed: it is open to all people who enjoy the tarot.The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and celebratory, since it is so near midwinter, where many people come to reconnect with their spiritual family, the Company of Hawkwood.  Please bring at least one tarot pack, an optional robe/garment for the ritual, and some nibbles & drinks to share at the ceilidh. 

Tarot Landscapes: Court, Temple and Wildwood,  runs from  6.30pm on Friday 13 December - 1pm on 15  December.

BOOKING: Please send your non-returnable deposit of £90 payable to Hawkwood College, Painswick Old Rd., Stroud, Glos GL6 7QW (01453 759034)  or info@hawkwoodcollege.co.uk  quoting course  491. http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses/tarot-landscapes-december

SHARED £270, SINGLE £300, NON-RES £225. Fees include fees, handouts, ritual and full accommodation. Note that single rooms are limited and that most rooms accommodate 2 people sharing.  Please send your non-returnable deposit of £90 payable to Hawkwood College, Painswick Old Rd., Stroud, Glos GL6 7QW (01453 759034) quoting course Tarot Landscapes. Enclose an SAE for map & confirmation.  Stroud is on a mainline train station, and the college only 5 mins drive from the station.

Thursday 31 October 2013

Of Night and Day: Samhain Eve

Grandmother Wisdom, open the door,
Grandfather Counsel, come you in.
Let there be welcome to the ancient lore,
Let there be welcome to the Winter of the Year.
In cold and darkness you are travelling,
Under crystal skies you will arrive.
May the blessed time of Samhain
Clarify the soul of all beings,
Bringing joy and wisdom to revelation.
From the depths to the heights,
From the heights to the depths,
In the cave of every soul.
- Threshold Invocation for the Festival of Samhain
(to be said at the front door of the house on the eve of Samhain, 
 in the evening) from Celtic Devotional by CM.

Samhain (Gaelic for Summer's End and pronounced SOW'hen) begins at fall of dark on 31st October, tonight. Why the eve? Because a period of 24 hours began for the Celtic peoples at dusk, not dawn. This is confirmed by Julius Caesar in his The Gallic Wars (Caesar, DBG 6.18): 'All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.'
          This manner of seeing night as the first half, and day as the following half of a 24 hour period was retained within the Catholic Church wherein the eve of a feast day is still celebrated at fall of dark.  We see similar celebration of the Jewish Sabbath, which has many laws to help one determine when the Sabbath actually begins, so that the devout do not violate the commandment to rest and not work. All Celtic festivals have the same occurrence: they initiate only at fall of dark, not at dawn.
          But who was Dis Pater? His name literally means 'Rich Father.’ He was an independent Roman god of the underworld who later was taken under the general umbrella of Hades or Pluto. Due to interpretatio romana, by which the Romans associated any other people's god with one of their own, we can only know that this Gaulish divinity was ‘like Pluto,’ but we don’t have a Gaul name, only this Roman title because Caesar made an association between the divinity he knew and a Gaulish one.
          Why would a god of the underworld be ‘a rich father?’ The ground beneath our feet is full of ores, minerals, gems and so, by association, any underworldly divinity, the Romans understood, would be bounteously wealthy. We might make our own native association between Dis Pater and the being in the Grail legends known as the Rich Fisherman, or the Grail King, who presides over an otherworldly feast at which the sacred objects or Hallows are processed.  Taking the theme of the perpetual ancestral feast further back, we arrive at Bran the Blessed, the titanic hero of the second branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen ferch Llyr, who oversees a feast that goes on for many years.  His wounding in the thigh leads to him becoming a deeper divinity who moves into the underworld, keeping the Entertainment of the Noble Head.  This same back projection happens to Arthur, who also removes to the otherworld in a condition of woundedness but not death. In many senses, he takes over from Bran as the one who is host at the ancestral feast.
          Several Celtic scholars have attempted to identify Dis Pater within Celtic pantheons: the Irish god of the dead, Donn mac Miled whose residence Tech Donn (House of Donn) is at the extreme westerly end of the Beare peninsula in South West Ireland where the dead live with him.  Caesar himself associated Cernunnos with Dis Pater: he certainly appears to preside over the dead upon the Gundestrup cauldron, itself an emblem of extravagant feasting, where the perpetual feast of the dead is upkept.
          How do we maintain honour and respect for this feast? A clue is given to us by Tertullian in his De Anima, from the writings of Nicander of Colophon of the 2nd century BCE. He tells us that, ‘it is often alleged because of night-time dreams that the dead truly appear, for the Nasamones receive special oracles by staying the tombs of their parents… The Celts also for the same reason spend the night near the tombs of their famous men.’  This communion with the ancestors is a real vigil whereby we sit overnight at the tombs in order to frame questions for divination or else to commune with the spirits of our forebears.           Going first to the sources of strength and honour is what gives us strength. In all spiritual work, it is the very first thing we do: to fill up our own cracks with the loving power of those who have not only survived as names and presences of honour, but who have undergone the sufferings of life and transmuted them into wisdom.
          So I wonder, this year, is it possible for us to celebrate the living ancestors and not to have a gore-fest over dead remains of ancestors? The horror genre does not belong to this festival and only arose due to the Reformation when we stopped praying for the dead in Europe.  Ancestors are like us. They loved, hoped, sat round the hearth, mourned their dear ones. Excluded ancestors can be scary because their pain overlaps our own lives: however, when we invite them to our hearth shrine, we begin to feel less abandoned ourselves.  
            It is the unmoving, lingering pain of ancestors who are stuck out of time that causes the horror and so why not do something about it? In his book, Images of the Soul, Dutch shaman, Daan van Kampenhout suggests this prayer whenever we encounter the pain of forebears: ‘Your pain is from the past. All that caused it has stopped now. Behind these tears is the pure strength of your soul. The soul is healthy and free, the suffering was only there when you lived, and now you live in spirit, so the pain has ended.’ Unless we actually address the excluded ancestors, then dawn will never arrive for them or for us.
          Let's try a different way and see what changes this Hallowe'en so that we can say this prayer with heartfelt joy:

           I am the hallow-tide of all souls passing,
              I am the bright releaser of all pain,
           I am the quickener of the fallen seed-case,
          I am the glance of snow, the strike of rain.
             I am the hollow of the winter twilight,
           I am the hearth-fire and the welcome bread,
            I am the curtained awning of the pillow,
              I am unending wisdom's golden thread.

                             - Song of Samhain from Celtic Devotional by CM.

Saturday 12 January 2013


I am aware that these two words in one sentence may create disquiet, but I regard prayer as something pertaining to all people everywhere and not just the province of one kind of person or belief. Since my engagement with tarot has always been a relationship with the wisdom of the oracle, I do not see any dichotomy in it for myself. During the last few weeks I’ve been very tired and scattered due to the circumstances around me.

Both within my own family and among those near to me there’s been a lot of upset, fear and disturbance. My response to this is always to spend more time in prayer, by which I mean centre deeply in the bedrock of the earth and engage with the powers of the universe. I bring to mind the person or situation and make witness to those powers that they may uphold, strengthen or help as best they may, without my interference on my part. This kind of prayer means not dictating a solution to difficulty as part of the prayer but just a general ‘help them at this time according to their needs,’ which, of course, I cannot fully know or understand.

This Midwinter I was given the ultimate set of Rachel Pollack’s wonderful Shining Tribe Tarot, reproduced in a large, limited edition. I’ve been going through each card every night. Last week, I decided to pray with them. This way of prayer is a dialogue between our question about the mystery and the answer that each card can reveal. From each card, a new question is suggested from some image or juxtaposition on the card, and another card is drawn to answer it. Sometimes there is a practical action from the card, sometimes it is just a statement of what is. It is not for us to alter or fix things, but to support and witness. If you would like to try this, then take your time, give it space and quiet, don’t try to lead the prayer but rather follow where it leads you.

My elderly father over the course of these last weeks has sunk to a state of semi-consciousness in hospital and it’s hard to know what is best for him. Holding the cards loosely in my hands, sideways as if about to open the pages of a book, I asked the first question, ‘What is medicinal for him?’ I allowed one card to show itself. It was XIII Death, the ultimate medicine for life’s ills.

Shining Woman’s Death is a red being behind whom is a box which opens and from which ribbons stream out. I sat with this for a while until I noticed the two little roses making a barrier between the viewer and Death itself, so I asked, ‘Whom does he meet at the threshold? I drew one of the 5 extra cards of this limited edition deck, entitled the Sphinx in Eden, which is related to the suit of Rivers or Cups. (This is not in the published editions.) It shows a very restful sphinx seated beside the Tree of Life, while a shining spirit appears above it. This figure reminded me of my mother who died a few years ago. Those who met the Sphinx usually had to ask a question, so I asked, ‘How does my father answer?’ In answer, I drew 8 Trees (Wands), which shows a woman leaping clear of a burning house with poise and grace. This is the card which often comes up when someone realizes that they need to leave a situation that’s become untenable or dangerous. It’s a card of freedom and survival for those who are enduring the unendurable.

This led me ask ‘Into what freedom does he leap?’ I drew Place of Rivers (Page of Cups) Marvellously, this depicts the same woman seated contemplatively at a pool situated at the confluence of two streams, while on the hillside above is a dolmen tomb or monument. The peacefulness of this place was refreshing, I could feel. It was a place in which my father could release the last doubts and just be himself. I finally asked, ‘What is the blessing he finds there?’ My next card in response was 4 Trees (4 Wands) which shows a house guarded by four trees. Two grow to the eaves of the house itself while the other two lead the way, arching over. A grain of wheat stands between. The blessing he finds is the way home, where the simple gifts of being wholly himself are welcomed. Last night I prayed again, since my father is having problems making the last step. I asked ‘What does my father need now?’ I drew V Tradition (Hierophant). It shows five red presences meditating around a central flower. My eye fell on the little fish looking out of the water. I realized that my father needs to know that there’s a way over and that there is someone to receive him. He doesn’t have any formulated belief system, having come from a family that has no church-going habit or curiosity about other states of being, so this is a hard step for him.

So I asked, ‘How do I help him know that?’ I drew 3 Rivers (Cups) This shows three streams of blood flowing from one bowl. By remembering the ancestors who have gone before him, my father can be emboldened to step into the mystery of death. I will speak about ancestors tomorrow when I visit him again. With his sister, he is the last of the older generation still alive. ‘How will the ancestors assist him?’ I drew 2 Rivers (Cups) where two fish make a circle and where one fish leaves and two come into the ocean. I liked the way in which same mountains, sea and fish reappeared here from V Tradition, and also the fish from the Death card of the prayer above. It seemed to me that the ancestors offer a unique space for him in their deep mountains.
I then asked, ‘What does he need to complete his journey? And drew VI Lovers, two beings conjoin over the mountains. It reminds me that my parents hardly ever spent a night apart the whole of their lives. This is a reunion that is much longed for, but it requires vulnerability and acceptance to enter the embrace of death itself. ‘What frees him to make his way?’ Speaker of Birds (King of Swords) is an African figure with a bird upon its brow. The quiet but insistent pecking of the bird has begun to remind of his heritage and give him authority to inhabit the space of the living waters that the fish in 2 Rivers invite him to enter. It is a passage that is utterly out of my hands. A PRAYER FOR MY FRIEND I have a friend who is very lost at present. This richly gifted man has been sunk in depression and has been causing great anxiety to those who know him. He has almost closed off from seeing people. While our practical assistance stands ready, none of us can help if it can’t be accepted. Prayer is the only way of witnessing this friend.

Holding the cards loosely and allowing each card to reveal itself as a result of my questions, I first asked ‘What will help my friend?’ 5 Birds was drawn: it shows a person with five circling vultures overhead. The stark answer was ‘acknowledging and confronting the situation.’ So I asked, ’What power arises from this acknowledgement?’ and drew Speaker of Rivers (King Cups). It shows a shoal of fish following a greater fish on which is written the words of a line from the storytelling Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ‘And on the way I told a tale of such power…’ the continuation of which is ‘that all who heard it had thoughts of repentence.’ It shows the power of the storytelling imagination, and has the confident power of creation flowing through it, which is how we all used to see my friend. I asked from this, ‘What story will he tell?’ and drew VIII Strength. The Lion stands upon a mound, fierce in defence. His story will be about the struggle that many artists and creators go through in order to defend their sacred craft: this is what is at the heart of his present depression, that there is no acceptance of his deepest gift.

I asked, ‘What will the story bring?’ 9 Stones shows someone independent and at ease with their craft, hawk on wrist. To train up a hawk is no easy matter. You must wake and watch with your bird and not sleep or do other things until it is ready. It is a demanding thing to follow any craft, but ultimately satisfying for the one who gives themselves in this way, so I asked ‘How will he be satisfied?’ XIX The Sun was the answer. The ultimate return of joy is through the means above. When everything flows as it should, there is the happiness of satisfaction. This prayer was offered sincerely for my friend. It enabled me see him in a way that is helpful rather than as a helpless or depressed person. His creative mainspring, this prayer reminds me, is not gone from him but is still struggling to be the thing that heals him. As long as we witness to his craft, his struggle and remember him as the man he is, rather than identifying him with his condition, he will be supported better by us all.

Anyone who is interested in purchasing a copy of this limited edition of this powerful deck from Rachel, please visit http://www.rachelpollack.com/index2.html. The standard edition of the Shining Tribe Tarot is still available from Llewellyn Books at the time of writing in 2013.