Friday, January 28, 2011


Liminality; it is a term which many are unfamiliar with, to the extent that most spell checkers do not recognize it. For others, however, it is a concept which is of central importance. It has been my experience that anyone versed in the study of mythology is familiar, if not well versed, in discussions of liminality. My profession (well potential profession anyway) finds many of our activities occupying a very liminal period of time. From a GRP perspective, liminality is a central component of marking time and periods of significance.

Liminal, literally means threshold, the area between one area and another; the space in-between. A few people may be scratching their heads; a threshold? There is nothing significant about that, what amounts to little more than a few inches of space between where you are and where you are going. I'd argue though, that it is precisely because it is, quite literally "neither here, nor there" that it has occupied the imaginations of the folks who stop to think about just how powerful such a state really is. Borders have always been powerful, and much of how we understand, order and define space is based on the idea of what markers separate "here" from "there". Liminality; however, is not a way to create or define borders, because it is decidedly messier.

The ability to differing between two states can range from the simple to the complex. A dichotomy like inside and outside is far easier to define and understand, than say between life and death. Still, almost every culture has at some point defined what "life" and "death" mean. Since each of these aspects are so central to the human condition, the concept of liminality is of considerable importance when it comes to issues of death and dying. I mentioned earlier that my (eventual) profession is occupied with a liminal period, and that is between death and disposition. There is some sense, even among those who may not be religious, that the time between somatic death and final disposition (be it burial, entombment or cremation) is none the less an almost literal state of transition. I will have a lot more to say on this particular subject at a later date, but as I do not want to go off on a tangent; let me simply say that there is no other period in a  persons life where I believe liminality is so apparent, than around a death.

In the lore, we encounter liminality all the time, for these are often where the important actions or events occur. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the majority of Cúchulain's combats occur at fords, areas of higher elevation creating shallow portions of a river or stream, which allow crossings. As rivers form natural barriers, the ford is a place in-between; a liminal area. The reason for the use of a ford as a battle ground is not simply for practical purposes, but because of the symbolism inherent in it as a liminal place. Similarly, the shore is also imbued with liminality, being the place between land and sea. The sea shore is often the place where the denizens of the otherworld interact with humans. In Immram Brain, we have Bran setting off for the otherworld in a coracle, and returning to this world and meeting folks on the shore. Of course as time flows differently, he appears to the inhabitants to be an otherwordly being himself and has become removed from the natural flow of time. Likewise the area's between land and sky, hilltops or mountains, also display the importance of liminality. While the strategic nature of building structures on higher elevations is quite clear, if one examines the tales, we find yet again the same sorts of symbolism associated. In one version of the arrival of the Tuatha De Danann, they arrive on clouds, causing a solar eclipse (more liminal symbolism) and "land" on a mountain top, before setting out to conquer Ireland.

Folklore too, is replete with activities which attest to the significance of liminal spaces or times. How often are door frames the place where charms are kept and windowsills where offerings are left?

Of all the holidays, Oíche Shamhna is the best example of a day which is in essence, dedicated to liminality. The day covers (or has been argued to be) the time between the new and old year. Further, the "veil" between this world and the otherworld, our realm and that of the gods, is thinnest. This had survived in folk beliefs through the belief that the veil between the living and the dead was also transversed with ease, and so one finds any number of divination customs in the texts. The idea that the ancestral spirits may also come to call, encouraged the setting of an extra place at a table, or leaving out of offerings for those wandering spirits. Conversely, as Lá Bealtaine in our world corresponds with Oíche Shamhna in the otherworld, the same symbolism (though to a lesser extent) is also observable in folks activities around that time as well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Civic Religion"

This is a bit of an odd post, but was the best way I could think of discussing the subject. A bit of background first. Last week Police sergeant Ryan Russell, was struck and killed by a (deranged) man who had stolen a snow plow. The public outpouring of grief from my city; from politician to plebeian, radio host to new anchor, journalist to blogger. There was a two day visitation, during which hundreds of people lined up outside the funeral home to offer their condolences. Today was the funeral, a procession of around 8000 police officers from Toronto, around the GTA and even from the US marched down a major thoroughfare, itself lined with somber faced civilians, to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The funeral service was held in the MTCC, and by the time the service began, some 14 000 people had come out. Many dignitaries associated with the Police, a former Chief turned MP (who had sworn the fallen officer into the service), Current Chief Bill Blair, among them, gave eulogies and sympathies for the family, both personal and professional. The service was long, punctuated with music and speeches, but the solemnity of the day was not lost on anyone. The final farewell for a hero, who had, as his wife so eloquently spoke, “Ryan put others before himself. On Jan. 12, this cost him his life.”

Such an event is very rare, this being the first fatality involving an on duty Police officer in almost a decade. Very public, and generally widely supported. Of course there are a few voices of dissent, that the entire thing was "over the top", or a "PR campaign to boost the image of Metro Cops", who admittedly have been under a good deal of public scrutiny surrounding the events during the G20 conference in June 2010. Despite this sort of cynicism, however, I believe that this is a striking example of what I would call "civic religion".

One may observe "civic religion" in many of the events which seem to permeate a give community, though more often than not, it is at its finest when giving reverence for the dead. There is a sacredness associated with those who have died in the service of community, of province and of country. In the case of the war dead, it has been formalized for almost a century. Even now, a significant portion of the main artery of southern Ontario, the 401, has been dedicated as the "highway of heroes" and all of the men and women who have been killed in Afghanistan, have made their way down this stretch of highway. People still line up on over-passes waving flags or saluting, motorists will pull over to the side of the road to allow the motorcades transporting the fallen, to pass.

The word "hero" is almost always used by those who wish to honour the life and sacrifice of those who are willing to, and have, given their lives in service to others. Yet this cynicism remains, "the only reason he's a 'hero' is because he was killed" or similar sentiments may accompany discussion, some times in hushed tones, sometimes in screaming derision. The very word "hero", itself derived from the Greek hērōs, itself (likely) derived from the Proto-Indo-European *ser (to  watch over, protect) entails those who are charged, by community and state with protecting those who can not. In the tales, we see this time and time again, the function of a hero above all else, is the defense of his kith and kin. I think the people who see things so cynically, have a very deep misunderstanding of what "heroic" means, of the value of a life in general, and more so for the life of a person who was willing to live in service to others. It is because of the way they lived their lives, and not simply the manner of their death, that makes someone a hero, and thus worthy of respect, if not reverence.

My heart goes out to the family of Sgt. Russell, and may he be warmly welcomed in the halls of his ancestors.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Appeasing hostility

This pertains to one of the stronger instances of UPG I have had, which involves a very negative experience. This happened a few years ago, and was the singular instance where I have experienced a distinct urge to run and not look back. A bit of background info then. I have always been fairly comfortable around the dead, be it at a funeral or in a cemetery; one of the reasons I have chosen the career I am in us because of my level of comfort. I rather enjoy cemeteries actually, and there are quite a few nice ones scattered around the city I live in. Often times my fiance and I will drive to one and walk around, especially the ones who have older monuments. The long and short of it is that I have never been uncomfortable in a cemetery; never found it weird or creepy.

Now, a few years back I was visiting a mausoleum with my fiance, her uncle had a vault in it, and I was doing perfectly well before we entered. Upon entering the structure however, I became increasingly apprehensive. We climbed the stairs to get to the second floor and I became very uncomfortable. The longer I remained in the building, the more I felt unwelcome, as if some oppressive force was really annoyed with my presence and wanted me to get out. At this point, my fiance had noticed my colour was a little drained and inquired what was wrong. "I need to leave, right now" I replied . "Why?" she asked, "You've never had a problem before". "Something really, really doesn't want me here." I responded, and the feeling was only getting worse. It was at this point that I remembered an article I had read, which was written by a couple of Celtic Recons, appropriately titled: "KILLYOUANDEATYOU: or a well intentioned Celt's guide to non-Celtic bio-regions". At this point, it certainly felt like something wanted to do just that, and I walked as calmly as I could out of the building, and did not stop until he feeling had subsided. Fortunately it did so almost as soon as I was past the threshold. I have not been back to that building since. It was a markedly odd event, but one which makes no sense to me except through the lens of UPG.

And now, my dilemma. This particular mausoleum is fairly new and frequented by an almost exclusively Catholic clientele.  The funeral home I will be working for, is fairly close to it, and is also almost exclusively Catholic's who often favour entombment. Therefore it is exceedingly likely that in the near future I will have to go back to this mausoleum. I am then in need of some method of appeasing or reaching some sort of understanding with the spirit(s) of place, and I am at a loss as to how to go about doing this. It is publicly accessible, so I could fairly easily get in and try to leave an offering, though I am then at a loss with regards to what I should leave. It would be rather helpful if anyone had some suggestions or sources they could direct me to. I've gone through the article I mentioned above, but unfortunately I am (likely) not going to be in a position where leaving "well enough alone" is a possibility open to me.


PS: I wonder if perhaps posting this on the GN mailing list may also elicit some suggestions from those who do not read my blog?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Etiquette in another's house of worship

This is an issue I often have some difficulty with, because what my own gods expect from me is quite different than what other people's deities expect from them; though my understanding is that most of the cultural polytheistic world views are similar to my own. So the appropriate response for me when interacting with folks who are doing a ritual with deities I do not worship (a dirty word for some, but I take the word at face value) is often to simply not participate in those rituals; and generally no one bats an eye.

There is, however, a bit of a dilemma when I am expected to perform specific actions in the context of my (current/future) profession, especially in a Christian, and specifically Catholic context. There is a remarkably high likelihood that I will very soon be working for a funeral home which caters to an overwhelmingly Catholic clientele. As far as I know, the fact that I am not a Catholic is perfectly fine, this may change, I will know more at a later date, but I do not expect it to. No my issue is with a specific action pertaining to my duties as an FDA/FD, and that involves the practice of genuflection. My experience working Catholic funerals has involved some sort of genuflection, unless specified by the funeral home to not do so, in all cases.

I fear I may simply be over thinking the entire thing, after all a genuflection is not a sign of obeisance so much as it is one of respect. Given that I am in the house of worship of another deity, I suppose a little respect is not a lot to ask for, even if I do not particularly care for said deity. I suppose so long as I am able to separate the notion of genuflecting from prostrating, I haven't really anything to worry about. Plus, I suppose it would be the hospitable thing to do as well, showing respect to the "master of a house" is proper etiquette after all, and I would most certainly be a guest in said "house".

I would love to have some feedback on this one.