Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Rabbit's Prayer (or the art of Elegy)

"My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today" - Richard Adams
Simple yet profound, and probably my favourite "prayer" from any work of fiction; I also don't seem to be alone, a quick Google returns around 173 million hits. For those unfamiliar with the novel the quote comes from, Watership Down, which contains some marvelous mythology and folklore, some explanation may be required. I believe the prayer is straightforward, with the exception of "the thousand". The progenitor of all rabbits, according to their own folklore, is named El-ahrairah, whose name translates to "Prince with a thousand enemies". He garnered this name by ignoring his god's (Frith) warning that his children were multiplying too fast, devastating the land and the other creatures. El-ahrirah ignored Frith, and so as punishment, Frith endowed the other creatures with a ravenous hunger for the children of El-ahrirah. "The thousand" then, refers to all of the creatures in the world who seek to do harm to the rabbits. In the context of the prayer, then, the rabbits essentially "die" a little bit at the loss of their friend; the rabbits are heart broken. The simple eloquence of equating death with the image of a still lying rabbit (the antithesis of what a rabbit ought to do, according to their own folklore), is very powerful, even profound. The very palpable loss is expressed in terms even a child could understand, but is in no way talking down to the reader, or diminishing the grief felt by the characters.

El-hrairah, Prince of the Rabbits
Structurally, the prayer is very personal, "My Heart... My Friend", yet can be spoken by a larger group; again, as rabbits are by their nature, social animals. The established folklore surrounding "the thousand" is understood, but there is no mention of any sort of "persistence of personality" found within the prayer. What remains is a strong sense of loss, very appropriate for a lamentation or elegy. Perhaps it is this, that the sense of loss is so central to the prayer that it does remind me of many examples of "Celtic" elegiac poetry, and "Celtic" death narratives (or generally oitte). These texts are, again generally, not happy affairs (very much at odds with the frivolity associated with the tradition of wakes). There is no joy or happiness in them, jut the ever present companionship of grief. Consider the following poem "The Unquiet Grave":
"I am stretched on your grave, and you'll find me there always; if I had the bounty of your arms I should never leave you. Little apple, my beloved, it is time for me to lie with you; there is the cold smell of the clay on me, the tan of the sun and the wind.
 There's a lock on my heart, which is filled with love for you, and melancholy beneath it as black as the sloes. If anything happens to me, and death overthrows me, I shall become a fairy wind-gust down on the meadows before you
When my family thinks I am in my bed, it is on your grave I am stretched from night till morning, telling my distress and lamenting bitterly for my quiet lovely girl who was betrothed to me as a child.
Do you remember the night when you and I were under the blackthorn tree, and the night freezing? A hundred praises to Jesus hat we did nothing harmful, and that your crown of maidenhood is a tree of light before you!
The priests and the monks every day are angry with me for being in love with you, young girl, when you are dead. I would be a shelter from the wind for you and protection from the rain for you; and oh, keen sorrow to my heart that you are under the earth!" - Traditional Irish folk-song. 260-1
This is downright depressing; the grief and despair leaps off the page. There are countless examples, but some from the myths. Brigid, upon learning that her son Rudhan had been killed, screams. A primal, visceral reaction to her loss (especially that of her child), the consequence of which was the establishment of the caoineadh or keening, as a practice which would be continued in Ireland until the early 20th century*. Personal experience, leads me to believe that while not keening per se, that screaming (especially from females) is still rather common when confronted with the loss of a loved one, across a considerably diverse swath of cultures. There is a very moving text in which Emer laments for Cúchulain upon learning of his death:
"... Then Cenn Berraide arose and brought the head to Dún Delgan, and gave into Eimher's hand; and she had it washed and put on its own body, and Eimher took it to her, and she clutched it to her breast and her bosom after that, and began to bewail and lament over him, and began to kiss his lips and drink his blood, and she put a silken shroud about him.
Cú Chulainn.'
And she took his hand in her hand, and began to tell forth his fame and renown, and she said: 'Sad is this,' said Eimher, 'many of the kings and princes and champions of the world were sent to death and dreadful doom by the swift blows of this hand, and many of the birds and witless creatures of the earth fell by you, and much of the riches and wealth of the earth was scattered and given away by this hand to the poets and sages of the world.'...
Again we read of the grief at loss and the retelling of what was great and good about the deceased, which unfortunately makes the gravity of the loss all the heavier to bare. There is another text, which also recounts Emer's reaction to learn of Cú's death. Essentially, once Lugaid returns with the recently liberated head of Cúchulain, to be reunited with his body, Emer dies of a broken heart on the spot. It is both a tragic, but terribly romantic sentiment, and something I have always loved about Gaelic literature. People are sometime so overcome with emotion, so overwhelmed with their grief, that their hearts literally break. There is just something I find so genuine and touching in this sentiment; however impractical or romantic. This idea relates to an earlier post I wrote: Men can cry too..., albeit in a slightly different light.

Even in cases where the loss is not one of love (or is perhaps agape as opposed to eros), but of ones friends or comrades, the loss is no less severe. Cáilte mac Rónáin, in the narrative of Acallam na Senórach, spends just as much time retelling of the deeds and adventures of Fionn and the Fianna, as he does quietly weeping. This ties back to something I mentioned above, that the weight of the death is often equated with the worth of the individual. In Cáilte's case, he laments for his friends and family, to be sure, but he also laments that such a generation will never again be seen on this side of the veil. This motif is something which echoes across the centuries, and can be found in what is my favourite of all of the works of W.B. Yates, "The Municipal Gallery Revisited", a poem about Yates solemnly touring the aforementioned gallery, and recounting the luminaries he had the honour of calling comrades, I think the spirit is best summed up in the closing stanza.
Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.
Grief, at least in the Gaelic tradition, is personal, but also has a very social or communal element to it. This best expressed in the tradition of "Waking the dead", which I could go on about for quite a while (but that is another matter). Suffice to say that the juxtaposition found in Elagic literature and poetry is also found in the wake. The blending of the joy at a life well lived and the significance of the loss, the frantic frivolity of the guests and the manic wailing of the bereaved combine to provide a catharsis of sorts. The notion that one would be hard pressed to find a more ripping party than an Irish funeral, is of course a bit hyperbolic. While we have innumerable examples of wake games, dancing, drinking and some even less savory activities (and they say folklorists never get to have any fun), it should be noted that the immediate family would seldom participate in the merriment, if at all. In fact, there is a telling line in a traditional song from Newfoundland entitled, "The Night that Paddy Murphy Died", which states this rather emphatically; "As Mrs. Murphy sat in the corner, pouring out her grief...". The song is, itself, considerably ribald, but maintains that the guests in all their raucousness are honouring the deceased in the appropriate way.

It was expected that family members would be despondent, but the wake provided a way to release not only their own grief, but the communities as a whole, and what better way than surrounded by friends and family. The frivolity was understood to be, in no way, an act to diminish the family (or the guests) own grief, but that letting it go was easier during the frenzy of a party. Here again, I suspect the centrality of liminal states comes back. The period between a death and burial, the point between the grief of loss, and the joy of a well lived life, and the very mixed emotions which can build to an explosive, unexpected result. Some have commented on the fact that a lot of Gaelic literature can be terribly depressing, but so to is it equally compelling and joyful. Perhaps that is the point (or a point, at least), that grief and joy are both our constant companions and seldom far apart from one another.

Loss and separation are sad events, and it is perfectly natural, not to mention reasonable, to be saddened by a death. What is important though, is that we recognize the loss and acknowledge it; be it the complex process of a wake, or a simple rabbits prayer.

* A relatively recent, albeit fictionalized, example of a keening can be seen early on during the appropriately depressing film, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

War on Halloween 2011 edition: News from the Underground

Another innocent victim of the War on Halloween
"Halloween: Everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask"

Local daily. Check.
Cringe inducing title. Check.
Proximity to Halloween: Close enough. (you'll get the joke later)
Outdated encyclopedic references. Check.
Samhain, Lord of the Dead. Check.
Token Pagan spokespeople. Actually, the author appears to have actually done some research on this one.
Hyperbolic Christian explaining the "real" origins. Double check, and in fine form.

Yes, its Halloween origin article season, and this particular article comes courtesy of the Cleveland Daily Banner. Now I found this article, because I got a hit for "Celtic Reconstructionist" in my Google news search, so right away it scored some points for even mentioning CR. That, unfortunately, is about the only positive thing about this article.

For starters, the article is written by William Wright, author of "The Little White Book Of Light", which according to its Amazon plug: "This is at last an inspiring piece of work with solid Scriptural and practical advice from some of the greatest minds of the past." Red Flag. Upon perusing more of his columns on the Daily's site, we get reassuring titles like: "That Old Black magic", "What is Heaven Like?", and "Planet of the Apes". Alarm bells, at this point, started going off. But he actually quoted Druid authors, I say to myself, maybe I'm jumping the gun?

The article starts off in a typical fashion, some people are interviewed and they mention how fun Halloween is, and how much their grandchildren enjoy dressing up. Seems like harmless fun, right? Nope, the very next paragraph we are told how macabre and eerie Halloween is. Insert just quoted grandparent providing typical, "we know there was some evil in there, but we just want our grand kids to have fun". Yup, next comes the many people are very concerned with the true origins of Halloween bit, and this outdated encyclopedic entry from the 1970's will surely not fail to provide.
The Encyclopedia Americana says, “Elements of the customs connected with Halloween can be traced to a Druid ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods — a sun god (called Lug) and a god of the dead, called Samhain, whose festival was held on Nov. 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.”
An artists depiction of Samhain, Celtic Spirit of Death
Alright, so he uncritically accepts an outdated encyclopedia article, but then he quotes some books by real life Druids, so it can't be all bad, right? Wright quotes from Carr-Gomm's, "Elements of the Druids in England":
“Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men ... children would knock on neighbors’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween.”

He added, “With the coming of Christianity, this festival turned into Halloween, Oct. 31, All Hallows (All Saints Day), Nov. 1 and All Souls Day, Nov. 2. Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on pagan foundations it found rooted in these (British) isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.”
 And from Issac Bonewit's, "Bonewit’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca", (Alright so he quotes a Druid from a book said Druid wrote about Neowicca, so yes I should edit my list and throw in the Wiccan reference too).
Bonewits said, “Halloween is a time to lift the veil between many material and spiritual worlds in divination, so as to gain spiritual insight about our past and futures ... to deepen our connection to the gods and goddesses we worship.”
Such fine examples of backhanded references are rare, but to elaborate just a tad: The uneasiness which permeates the article, and the implied horror that one ought to be feeling are well served from these quotes. The funny thing is, the quotes do imply an actual aspect of the significance of Halloween (or Samhain), that it is a marked period of liminality. Unfortunately, Wright then spins this concept to come across as weird, even sinister. For starters he was sure to mention the aspect of cross dressing, guaranteed to cause a twist in the britches of his readership. The other aspect is the assertion of survival of those scary pagan elements into the modern day activities associated with Halloween. Yup, the Iron age Celts would celebrate their dark lord of the dead by going door to door and tick or treating, nothing modern at all to see here, move along.
Here we see the "trick" of arson being played when the inhabitants failed to provide an appropriate treat
Wright then goes into serious investigative journalist mode by quoting a book by Colonel J. Garnier, "The Worship of the Dead", or (and Wright fails to mention the alternative title) "The Origin And Nature Of Pagan Idolatry And Its Bearing Upon The Early History Of Egypt And Babylonia". In it, you wil learn all about the fact that ancient celebrations of the dead can all be traced back to after the Biblical deluge, and this is shown by the proximity for these festivals to happen around the same time.
This festival, moreover, held by all on or about the very day on which, according to the Mosaic account, the deluge took place, the seventeenth day of the second month — the month nearly corresponding with our November.
Clearly "nearly corresponding" is close enough that a bafflingly stupid argument designed to try and make actual history fit in with the mythic narrative offered by Genesis, has convinced some that this actually makes sense, because apparently this is the reason many people feel uncomfortable with celebrating Halloween. Wrights penultimate paragraph provides some very confused conclusions to boot.
Whether it is viewed as harmless fun, a longstanding tradition, sacred rites or something to avoid, Halloween no longer has any skeletons in its closet. Even unmasked, it is as scary as ever
That's right, longstanding traditions and sacred rites are really, really scary. The fact that some people are not Christian, and may even worship other deities is truly horrifying. If you're interested in either a good laugh/ repeatedly smashing your head against your desk, I would also recommend Wright's "Roots of Halloween", which expands Garnier's ridiculous thesis, posits the universality of global flood myths, the ever popular Nephilim = ancient gods, and that the reason that folks celebrate the lives and memory of their ancestors is because they were all killed, at once; no mention is made of how the tradition survived this global purge. Still, my favourite bit of "look at the incontrovertible evidence, duh" moment is when he says, "But don’t forget the fact that all of this water on planet earth came from somewhere. It wasn’t always here."

I never thought I would find an article that would top Kimberly Daniels "The Dangers of Celebrating Halloween", but her article is so over the top that it almost borders on parody. Wright's article(s) try in a very backhanded way to appear educational and objective, all the while denouncing the perceived evils of Halloween. This to me makes his articles all the more problematic, because your average reader (and mind I've no idea of the demographic who reads his articles, let alone the Cleveland Daily) would glance at this, find its arguments reasonable, and accept it as fact With this in mind, Wright's article is the new gold standard by which all other "War on Halloween" articles will be judged. Not only does it denounce Halloween, it goes the extra mile of revealing the horrors of other religions.