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Let's Talk About Rites of Passage, Deity and the Afterlife
By Siusaidh Ceanadach
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Siusaidh Ceanadach
All rights reserved.
Part One Deity and Gods
In the north west of England and up into Scotland there are many people who can trace their genetic roots back to Scandinavia, and these people brought knowledge and worship of the Norse gods to Britain.
The Norse came from Scandinavia, which includes Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. They had two families of gods. One family were sky gods known as the Aesir, who lived in a realm called Asgard. The Aesir were worshiped from 700BCE to 1100CE and, to an extent, they still are today.
The head of this family is Odin, the All Father. He has a consort, a wife, who is called Frigg. She has the title the Queen of Heaven. Have you heard that phrase before?
There is a Germanic version of the name of this goddess, 'Frija'. From her we get the word for a day of the week ... Friday.
Another of the Norse gods who gave his name to a day of the week is Thor, the god of thunder and lightning who wields a huge hammer. From his name came Thor's day, which became the modern Thursday.
This family of gods had rivals, a group of gods called the Vanir, and the two fought a great battle.
Although these two groups were always at odds with each other, their main constant enemies were the frost giants.
A Story: Odin's Vine
Carl lived on the east coast of England, in Sunderland. The village he lived in was called Bishopswearmouth. In days gone by it had been a very small village, but it had become swallowed up by new developments of houses, factories, schools and colleges.
The house he lived in had been in his family for many generations, passed down from father to son. In each generation the oldest man, the grandfather, had taken care of a very old vine. The back garden was south facing and there had always been a glass house built onto the back wall of this large and rambling home. It was one of the roles of the grandfather of the family to tend this vine. It had a name, and it was called Odin's Vine.
It was said that many generations ago a strange man had appeared soon after a storm which produced a most wonderful rainbow. The man had worn a very large brimmed hat and he had a patch over his right eye. The Norse god Odin is described as only having one eye. The stranger also had a raven sitting on his shoulder and another one was flying around near him, just like the Norse god Odin is said to have. The man had asked for a drink and at that time the only safe thing left in the house to drink was a bottle of wine.
So, one of Carl's ancestors had given this strange man the bottle of wine. He produced a hollow horn drinking vessel, poured the wine into this and drank nearly all of it. The strange man apparently emptied a tiny drop onto the ground and said he would call back from time to time for a drink.
From that drop grew a vine which bore grapes. These were tended by the oldest man in the family, the grandfather, and those grapes each year were made into wine. It was called Odin's Wine.
One day Carl went to find his grandfather, to ask him if there was anything he could do to help and whether it was time to harvest the grapes yet. But there was no answer when Carl knocked on his bedroom door, which was very strange because he was normally an early riser. Carl had expected his grandfather to call back 'come in'. After waiting for a while, off Carl went to find his mother who was down in the kitchen.
'Have you seen Grandfather this morning?' Carl asked.
'Come to think about it, no I haven't,' said his mother. 'Perhaps we need to see if he's just sleeping or if there is anything wrong.'
Right away, Carl's mother went up the stairs and along the corridor. She knocked on the door. There was no reply at all so she went in and found Carl's grandfather still in bed, very hot, mumbling words none of them could understand. Even when he opened his eyes he did not seem to recognise them.
'I'll call a doctor. He's clearly picked up some kind of infection which has put his temperature up, and he has a fever,' she said.
And just as she said that they both heard an eerie sound in the distance, was it a dog? What was it making that noise? Carl looked up at his mother and she looked down at him.
'Well if I didn't know better I would say that sounded like a wolf,' she said.
'I didn't think there were any wolves here in Britain,' said Carl.
'No, there are no wolves running wild here in Britain, but I still think that sounded like a wolf,' she said.
They both went quickly downstairs. Carl's mum went to the telephone to ring for a doctor and Carl went out into the garden to listen again, just in case he heard that sound, the howl!
The vine was full of grapes. It had not rained for about a week, so Carl's grandfather had been giving the vine a drink of water each morning and evening. Carl thought he should do this little job for his grandfather and so he went to fetch the watering can and filled it with water from the huge water butt that collected rainwater which ran off the roof. When he got back to the vine there was a huge black bird sitting on the vine. 'Shoo!' said Carl. 'Leave the grapes alone, these are Odin's grapes.' The bird made a strange croaking noise and flew off leaving one feather, which floated to the ground.
Carl finished the watering, put the watering can back in its place and collected the black feather to show his mother.
'This is from some huge black bird that was sitting on the vine,' Carl told his mother. She took the feather and looked at it very carefully.
'That's not from just any old black bird, it's far too long, I think it's from a raven,' she said.
Soon after that the doctor arrived and went upstairs to visit grandfather. Carl went back outside, just to see if there was anything else he could do to help the vine. It was a bit worrying that the doctor had to be called. Normally his grandfather was a very healthy man. The doctor prescribed some tablets for grandfather and said he needed plenty of bed rest.
The time passed quickly after the doctor left, with mother going up and down the stairs to nurse his grandfather and Carl doing little odd jobs in the garden that he felt would help. Then in the early evening his father came home and was told the whole story about the strange howling, the huge black bird that had been sitting on the vine in the garden and, naturally, all about his grandfather having a fever.
By the time they had finished telling father all about the day's happenings, it had started to rain. Then, all of a sudden, there was a crash of thunder.
'Well, that's Thor banging his hammer again,' said Carl's father in a very matter-of-fact manner, as if it was a normal day-to-day thing.
It rained for about an hour, which did mean Carl could leave the watering the garden that evening as nature had taken care of that job. Then, just as soon as the rain had started, it stopped and the sun came out again. Carl and his father went outside to see a most beautiful rainbow.
'Remind me again of the things you heard and saw today,' said Carl's father.
So Carl went over the basic facts – grandfather being unwell, a strange howl, and then a huge black bird sitting on the vine and now a rainstorm and the rainbow.
'I think I know what to do,' said Carl's father and he went off down into the cellar calling over his shoulder something about a bottle.
Grandfather was still tossing and turning in his bed, his temperature was still high, but because he hadn't really woken up properly he'd not been given any of the tablets the doctor had left. Apart from washing his face with a damp cloth and trying to give him little sips of water, grandfather was still not on the road to recovery and that worried Carl. It worried his parents as well. And if Carl's grandmother had not died several years ago, she too would have been very worried.
It was starting to get dark by the time everything was ready for what Carl's father has called 'a libation'. There was a bottle of wine made from grapes produced by the old vine several years ago, a horn drinking vessel and a corkscrew.
The little family gathered in the garden in front of the old vine and Carl's father opened the bottle with the corkscrew, next he poured the wine into the drinking horn and lifted it up towards the sky.
'Odin, All Father, I have a bottle of the best wine for you, come and take a drink,' he said. Then he turned the drinking vessel upside down and started to pour the wine onto the earth.
There was a strange croaking as two ravens flew into the garden and that made them jump and stop pouring the wine onto the ground. Then, as if from nowhere, a tall man appeared wearing a long coat that went right down to the ground and a very wide brimmed hat. When he lifted his bearded face up they all realised he was wearing a black patch over his right eye.
'I'll take that!' said the stranger. He grasped the drinking vessel, lifted it to his lips and drank everything left in the vessel!
'Good wine, keep making it and I'll be back from time to time for another drink,' said the man; and he was gone, just as quick as he had arrived.
The two black ravens flew with him and as he disappeared down the garden they all heard a wolf howl.
Grandfather, on the other hand, had missed all of this. He woke up to hear the call of the ravens and the howl of a distant wolf. He was hungry and thirsty and it wasn't long before he was on the road to recovery and back at his old job of looking after Odin's Vine.
Ancient Greek speaking peoples who came to settle in Britain also brought their gods. Of these, the sky father is Zeus. He was the head of a large family of lesser deities who were all ruled by him. Zeus had a partner, a consort whose name is Hera. She is another Queen of Heaven. This family of deities were said to be universal in Greek mythology and all mortal sovereignty was said to come through Zeus.
The Ancient Greeks felt that the winds brought the change in the seasons. Boreas was the north wind and brought in the cold wind of winter. To the Ancient Greeks, those who lived in Britain were referred to as 'Hyperborean'. This meant people who lived behind the north wind.
Eurus was the east wind, and was the only one not associated with a season.
Notus, the south wind was the bringer of storms of late summer and autumn.
Zephurs came from the west and brought the light spring breezes and early summer.
Ancient Greek people would talk to the winds and they would make offerings to the spirits of the winds to ask for fair weather.
A Story: Miles in Athens
Ever since Miles' family had arrived for their holiday in Athens, the sky was overcast. It was warm, very warm and there had been very little rain for weeks, their host said, yet the sun did not shine.
Miles had been looking forward to this holiday for months. He had been looking into Ancient Greek gods for a project at school. They had chosen to come to Athens because his family had agreed that Athens was a lovely centre for making trips out to the islands and travelling around the nearby area. Athens is a very busy city, normally very hot, and the traffic is terrible with lots of traffic jams and a shortage of parking spaces – a situation only made worse by the heat.
No one knew for sure why the sky was so grey. Some said it was because of a volcano that had erupted and sent ash high into the sky and this had been blown around and seemed to have settled there. And there were some, especially some of the very elderly residents, who said it was because an ancient altar on the hills above Athens had been vandalised.
Several things were planned by Miles' family; a trip to the islands on a boat and a trip up into the hills above the city. The trip into the hills was to be led by a local scout leader called Pelos who was used to taking groups of people climbing and hiking.
It was another very grey day when the family was due to take the walk up into the hills and Miles was the only one who wanted to go. So Pelos led Miles on a long walk up into the hills above the city and they started to climb. They stopped at lunch time at a café which had tables out of doors and served cold drinks and ice cream. After a rest for refreshments, they started walking again, aiming to reach the summit.
They had been walking for about half an hour when they came to what Pelos said was a sacred altar to the old gods. All Miles could see was a broken flat stone, two smaller stones and an area of the hill that had been flattened a little.
'This is terrible, look at the damage,' said Pelos.
Miles did look, but he really couldn't see what the problem was. 'I don't see a problem unless you mean this broken flat stone,' said Miles.
'It is meant to be a single stone and this is where people leave their offerings for the old ones, the ancient gods. This one is to Hera, the wife of Zeus,' said Pelos.
'Why don't we look around for a new flat stone and put the whole thing back together?' asked Miles. Pelos gave him a very strange look, but agreed that would be the best idea, if it were possible.
So the two of them looked around and after a while found a flat stone to use for the altar, then they took the two uprights and bedded them into the soil to get them to sit firmly. Then they lifted the new stone into place and stood back to admire their work.
There was a sharp crack, the sound of someone stepping on a twig and they both looked round to find a woman with long fair hair, wearing some kind of kaftan tied in the middle with a fancy belt. The woman was leaning on a tall stick and she looked very hot, weary and dishevelled.
'Pardon, I did not intend to make you jump,' said the woman in perfect English.
'Can you spare me a drink of water and perhaps an apple?' she asked.
This was all very odd Miles and Pelos both thought, but they replied politely.
'We would be happy to help, but please can you just wait a few moments while we dedicate this new altar to Hera, the wife of Zeus?' said Pelos.
The woman smiled and nodded her head and waited, leaning on her tall wooden stick and Miles began ...
'I dedicate this new altar in the honour of Hera the wife of Zeus, the Sky Father,' said Miles and sprinkled a little bit of water from his drinking bottle over the stone.
'Wonderful!' said the woman, and she cracked her stick onto the ground.
There was a rumble and a flash, then the grey clouds rolled away and the sun came out in all its glory. A fresh breeze picked up and the plants on the hill started to move in the gentle breeze.
As you can imagine Pelos and Miles jumped at the sudden noise and felt the electric atmosphere.
'Now may I have a drink of water and an apple?' asked the woman.
'Yes, have mine,' said Miles as he looked in astonishment at the strange woman.
She seemed to have changed. Over the last few moments her hair had got smoother, as if someone had been up to comb it into place and she looked much smarter, in the kind of white long coat that the priests wore in the summer.
'Who are you?' asked Miles.
'My name, dear boy, is Hera! I have been unable to do very much at all until someone with a pure heart dedicated a new altar to my name,' she said.
'I'm glad you like it and we can write your name on it if you wish,' said Miles.
The woman smiled and looked down at the grey flat stone and on it was suddenly carved the words 'Hera and Zeus'.
'How did you do that?' said Miles.
'These things are all in the mind,' Hera said. 'It's just a matter of intent, of thinking very hard that this is what you wish and it can be done.'
'I must be off. Thank you for the new stone,' she said, and with that she was gone, just as quickly as she had arrived. Miles and Pelos both turned round to look at the new altar and there, still cut into the stone, were the names 'Hera and Zeus'.
Pelos rummaged in his backpack and pulled out another apple and went and put it carefully on the stone. 'Here you are my lady,' said Pelos and through the wind a voice was heard to say, 'Thank you Pelos! We will remember your kindness.'
Because of the fresh breeze that had helped blow the grey clouds away and the clear blue sky and the sunshine, the trip down the hill was much nicer. The two stopped on the way down to have a snack and a drink at the café on the hill and were greeted by many people telling them stories of how there had been a sudden cracking sound, a flash and then the grey clouds had rolled away and now there was beautiful weather.
Excerpted from Let's Talk About Rites of Passage, Deity and the Afterlife by Siusaidh Ceanadach. Copyright © 2012 by Siusaidh Ceanadach. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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