Avalon's High Feasts
The Great Pattern of Being
In Avalon, we see existence as infinite variations on one theme. We call this "theme" the Great Pattern of Being. The Great Pattern is like the design of a tapestry; while the intended image may be woven in infinitely different ways, the design remains the same. It is this repeating pattern that we recognize and observe in our rites. The Druids honour it in their closed workings, delving deep within for healing, guidance and understanding; the Tribes honour it in open workings, celebrating and facilitating the flow of the life force through the Mother and all Being.
As members of the Tribes, we follow a rich and fulfilling Cycle. We honor the great transitions in life through Rites of Passage. From childhood to woman and manhood, handfastings, partings, house blessings, parenthood, birthing and naming, elderhood, and rites of crossing, we are the midwives of our communities as they struggle through birth, death, and rebirth. For the studying Druid there are also initiations beyond these; rituals which celebrate being, honour our Gods, and those who bring us together in spiritual community. Most Neopagans know these rites as "the Seasonal Wheel"; but we observe them somewhat differently in Avalon. For us, these are the four Feasts that act as portals in the ever-turning cycle of the Sacred Year.
The Sacred Year
While most Neopagans celebrate Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lammas on the fixed Julian calendar dates of 1st October, February, May and August, Avalon calculates her High Feasts according to the dance between moon and sun within the four "fixed signs" of the zodiac:
The Serpent or Merwoman (Scorpius; Celtic "Eagle")
The Well Maiden (Aquarius; Celtic "Druid or Water Witch")
The White Sacrificial Bull or Cow (Taurus; Celtic "Long-Horned Oxen")
Sovereignty / The White Mare (Leo; Celtic "Otherworld Boar")
At these times we remember the lineages of the Three Royal Houses, the titular deities (or immortal spiritual ancestors) of the Nine Tribes, within the Cycle, and through the lore of the Sovereign Goddess of the Land.
Samhain (Moon-Taurus; Sun-Scorpius)
Traditionally, Samhain-tide belongs to Ceridwen and Celi, Keepers of the Cauldron of Wisdom and the Cauldron of Death and Rebirth. The Gods, the Mighty Dead (heroes of our myth and lore), and Ancestors (both familial and spiritual) are all honoured at this time. Tokens are placed on the ancestor altars we maintain year-round near the hearth-fire (the 'heart' or 'centre' of our homes). Many modern Hallowe'en customs and myths (carving jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, trick-or-treating and masking) and modern legends (such as the lore surrounding the ravens at the Tower of London) derive from the Welsh tales of The Mabinogi which we retell at this time. Samhain-tide marks the beginning of the sacred story Cycle which will be told until the fires of Beltane are lit. When told with understanding, these tales invest even the most commonplace seasonal activities with special meaning. At twilight, we go out to offer songs and prayers to Spirit and to gather around the need-fire (the fire of nine woods) with our fire offerings, small slips of paper bearing the symbols of our "sacrifice": a behaviour or situation that no longer serves our highest good and which we seek to confront and release; and a wish for something to fill its place. We circle around and light the fire. When it is burning strongly, we invite Ceridwen and Celi within and ask them to accept and bless these offerings as we each silently give them into the flames. When all have finished, the eldest person comes forth with the symbols the group has agreed represent their wishes for world peace and healing; these too are given to the fire. The manner of burning is watched carefully for clues as to how these wishes might manifest. When the flames have burnt down, the children are brought house to house masking ("trick-or-treating"). A feast is laid out and a place set aside for the ancestors. Family stories of living, recently passed and long passed relatives are retold with good humour and loving attention to detail. The myth and lore of Avalon's heroes is also shared by the fire, by candlelight or as bed-time stories for the young ones.
Imbolc: (Moon-Leo; Sun-Aquarius)
The Feast of Imbolc marks the moment of transition between Samhain and Beltane-tides. It is the time when winter's heaviest energies are about to be released on the rush of spring. We are in the cauldron's depths now, and consider the Shadow through the continuing Cycle of sacred stories. We honour the Midwife, Briga (Brigantia), who attends the rebirth heralded by the coming spring. The customs of the time are familiar to most. The women and young girls prepare a Bride's Bed (the cradle for the newborn 'son'/sun), weave triskeles, Bride's crosses and corn dollies out of reeds or dried corn husks. Cloaks and mantles are set out in the full moon's light to be blessed with power for healing. The men and boys prepare for the mask processional of the Mari Gris (the grey mare, representing the Crone who challenges the Maiden). Their procession moves from house to house demanding entry and engaging householders in a call-and-response song, whose riddles test each participant's knowledge of the lore associated with the Feast. It ends with the company entering and gifts being exchanged. In some areas, a "waking of the earth" ceremony is also observed; a wild, raucous romp through the countryside intended to wake the sleeping Maiden, that spring might come the sooner! When the processional has returned to its starting point and the land has been sufficiently 'waked', the Feast is laid out and enjoyed by all, with the choicest morsels being offered to the Ancestors and Spirits of Place. At twilight, a candle is lit from a taper that has been blessed by the Lady, and Briga is evoked for the blessing of all in the house. It will burn until twilight the next day and was the focus of vigil amongst the ancients. Today it burns through the night unless children or pets make this impractical. The following night at twilight, a prayer of thanks is said to Briga and the candle is pinched or snuffed out. At the end of its seven year life, this candle will be used to light its successor, in token that Briga's Fires are perpetually lit. Triskeles and crosses are set in the windows for protection and the candle is put away for the next year. The Bride's Bed and dolly, however, must be buried outdoors by the man of the house, whose prayers beg the Death Crone to pass the household by for another year. The Feast officially ends when the burial is completed. As members of the Tribes, it is during this time that we re-emerge from the conflicts of summer with a clearer understanding of our own roles in group events and begin to set in motion our plans for avoiding such conflicts in future. Not surprisingly, then, it is customary to spend the rest of the day out of doors visiting gardens or parks in contemplation, asking for and receiving guidance for midwifing our own spiritual journeys.
Beltane: (Moon-Scorpius; Sun-Taurus)
From the time of Imbolc forward as Tribes members we are again facing the time of trials, when group dynamics will test our resolve to change old patterns in our relationships with others. As our Druids re-emerge from personal confrontation into the rising light of spring, so the ancestors worked together in the fields. For them (as for us), the sprouts in the fields, the courting birds and the Gods represent and reflect the health of our bond with the Sovereign Goddess of the Land. The Tide belongs to Dôn (or Dôna) and Beli and its rites are perhaps the best remembered in pagandom. The new Son (sun) has been presented and has grown faster than his days to meet and woo the Flower Bride under the white boughs of the hawthorn. The act of sympathetic magic called the Great Rite, anciently performed in ritual and still observed by couples on greening hillsides out of the light of the Beltane fires and perhaps the best known of all pagan rituals, symbolizes the Sacred Marriage or union of polarities in the One that is All. From hill to hill the fires are lit, songs sung and dances danced, in prelude to the later and more private rites, the climax of whose energies will be directed into the Earth herself, for her renewal and revitalization. As the season of sacred story-telling draws to a close, the tales governing the summer-tide are enacted in homes and around the fire at Tribal gatherings. We all participate in this, whatever our level of skill or talent; it is part of bringing the lore into breath, blood, and bone. This can be intimidating at first, but we all know that a story may be told anywhere and in many fashions and the same is true here. It can be sung, danced, recited, performed as a puppet-show, said at bed-time, or read aloud - whatever appeals so long as the teller adheres to the story's essential truth. In other words, we can change a story's dress but not the flesh and bones beneath it. The tellers enact the tale and invest it with as much interest as they can, and it is the task of the hearers to enter into the telling and let the story move them to remember... Whatever 'dress' it wears, the point is that it must ultimately, in some form or other, be told! There are three primary elements to the observation of Beltane by the Tribes: the season of sacred stories has come to a close; we and our beasts have been purified by passing through the portal between two fires; and our sacred bond with the Land has been mindfully reaffirmed and consummated. Oh, aye -- hard is our burden here in Avalon, and most of us labor throughout the night in assuring ourselves that it is well carried! Despite any reawakened tensions, it is a season of great hope and joy, a time of sewing the seeds to achieve our potential and to meet our destinies.
Brôn Trogain: (known to Neopagans as "Lammas" or "Lughnasadh": Moon-Aquarius; Sun-Leo)
Of the four High Feasts, modern people seem to have the most difficulty observing Brôn Trogain (or "Lammas") in its fullness. The customs surrounding the Avalonian "Lammas" are unfamiliar to modern Neopagans accustomed to celebrating the war games of the Irish god Lugh at Lughnassadh. Those of us living in "industrialized countries" are no longer tied to the rhythms of the land and nature, but are bound instead to the sleepless drone of modern corporations. However, if we sharpen our eyes to see them, we shall find in the pattern of our lives both parallels and divergences from those of our ancestors. For example, whereas the ancients suffered the wild isolation of winter with kin around a shared hearthfire, we spend the dark months hemmed into crowded cities with perpetual strangers. As summer was their time to break free of winter's "cabin fever" and claim more solitary time, for us it is a time for getting away from it all and reclaiming space apart from others. Both echo the need for personal time and space; the key difference is that whereas the ancestors were claiming space from kin, we are claiming space from strangers. Finding these parallels and divergences is the first step to understanding the environment and circumstances that will likely make our experiences like, or unlike, those of the ancestors. Within this general picture are more specific details to be addressed, chief amongst which must be that most of Neopagandom follows the same eightfold year in essentially the same ways. The diversity of ancestral observances has been lost in the interest of preserving a common perception (and experience) of Nature. But Nature does not manifest everywhere the same and there are infinite ways to honour even what is Universal in human experience. How then are we to celebrate this time in a way which honours the memory of Avalon's far ancestors? Surely people whose presence predates the arrival of the Celts would have their own ways of honouring the Feasts. Even if the Celts absorbed some of the beliefs and practices of their predecessors (as their own literature attests), we should expect to find some differences. What makes our observation of this Feast uniquely "Avalonian"? Our quest will lead us to examine our question from several different angles and perspectives. The original meaning of Lammas (or "loaf mass") has become associated with the Christian sacrament; but folklore preserves many Tribal customs from the time when the far ancestors gathered to trade goods and make alliances after the separation and stillness imposed by winter. The locations of these gatherings were often power sites, the "beacons" shining from the heart of the land. The masses of celebrants provided ample labour for the needs of the megalith builders, though the lore tells us that they used subtler and more powerful methods than brute strength to raise the stones. For the ancestors it was not a one day Feast; they lingered at least a fortnight over their trade, negotiations, and spiritual observances. For the later farming cultures, these gatherings became the "market faires" of the Celtic and Medieval periods, whose focus was sharing the of goods before the coming winter. At harvest's end, the men made of the last sheaf cut a dolly, dressed as a hag and "planted" it in the reaper's far field. The dolly was considered ill luck, and the family who held it acted as "Watchers" for the entire community until the next season's harvest should relieve them of the burden -- all of which, while completely valid for our Tradition, does little to shed light on the Feast's true origins. For "Lammas" overshadows a far older Feast, a Feast which also predates Lughnassadh: the Feast of Brôn Trogain.
The name "Brôn Trogain" is given as meaning both "the sorrowing of the earth" and "the wild rage of Brôn". Both meanings directly pertain to early Avalonian lore. "Brôn" is a common alternate spelling of Bran, whom we know from the Second Branch of The Mabinogi. Thus, Brôn Trogain is a Feast of Sovereignty whose story cycle recalls the theme of how Sovereignty may be won and lost. From it, we know that there is only one time when Brân is enraged and Brânwen sorrows, and that is after Bran's mustering of a war-band to avenge the wrong to his sister. It is then that Brânwen 's son Gwern ("alder") is lost or sacrificed in the fire, and then that her Guardian Brân receives his fatal wounding. It is the time foreshadowing the Tribes Re-emergence from, and the Druid Descent to, the Otherworld; the only place where the wound to Sovereignty can be healed and the spirit and vitality be renewed. Thus Brôn Trogain is a Funeral Feast; but it is the feast of the Children of Llŷr , and of all their company lost with the loss of Sovereignty. A close consideration of their story suggests not a focus on "war games", but on what is often called the Matter of Britain: the winning and subsequent loss of Sovereignty that heralds the onset of the Wasteland.
The other Royal Houses each have their own version of this story: "Lughnassadh" is the variation played out in the story cycles of the House of Dôn and Beli, but while Neopagandom is remembering Lugh and Tailtu, in Avalon the summer-tide belongs to the House of Penarddun and Llŷr; and so it is upon the Children of Llŷr that we set our focus. Within the sacred year, Brôn Trogain (the Tribes Station of group confrontation) stands at the height of the summer-tide opposite Imbolc -- the Druid station of inner confrontation. As our life in the Tribes expresses our outward natures, so outward conflict is the focus of Brôn Trogain; for it is here that group Shadow most often finds expression. Now we reap the seeds sown in the silence of winter. Whatever grudges might have been nursed in darkness come now to light. The pattern holds true even today, and a thoughtful observer will notice rising hostilities in many areas of life in this season. We have observed its influence within our own membership, amongst those who are new and unaware of the Cycle or who have fallen out of the habit of observing it. Amongst the Braithion, the Dreamers Councils often heard grievances at this time (as did the later Celtic Druids in their open-air "hearings"). Very interesting, you might say, but can this be verified in other sources? Yes, it can. The Feast name and its meaning, though obscure, are known and recorded in various Celtic literary sources. We know from the Celts and Romans that for the later peoples the warm, summer months brought conflict and war and this pattern held true for the earlier nomadic tribes, though it manifest as contests, rather than as battles... However, as people became more aggressive these combats become more acrimonious, as the Battle of the Trees attests. Here, the Celtic Bard Aneirin records the moment when the cultural and religious shifts of Middle Earth manifest in the Otherworld, revealing the extent to which the realms are interwoven. Because Gwydion recognises Brân (who can only be defeated by the one who recognizes him), the House of Dôna and Beleu defeats the House of Penarddun and Llŷr. In consequence, the Feast of Brân is supplanted by the war games of Lleu -- coincidentally, the one native deity that can be made to resemble the sacrificed god of the new religion. The importance of this event can be guessed from the fact that the rankings of the Ogham alphabet are actually reworked to reflect the outcome of this battle ... Normally a shift in our observation of the Sacred Year arises not out of armed conflict but out of what best serves the needs of the Tides as they are actually unfolding, Tradition, and the times. There is no one 'right telling' or story cycle; each holds our focus in its turn. What makes the Welsh lore so important is that here the record attests that changes were being imposed by force, rather than by consensus of the Tribal Council. That the change was intended to be permanent is clear from the closing lines of the Mab, where Lleu's challenger is "never seen again" and the sun god Lleu reigns "forever". This statement marks the defining moment when the Old Ways give way to the New, when the linear patriarchy finally overthrows the spiral of the Mothers, plunging the world into two thousand years of darkness. With this step, humanity enters into the Wasteland. By restoring Brôn Trogain to the Lammas-Tide Station of our Cycle we perform an act of magic, effectively restoring the Cycle itself, an act intended to restore the balance that has been lost and set in motion the events through which the Wasteland may be healed. It would be easy at this point to succumb to a sense of helplessness with respect to the nature of this Feast. After all, it is a funeral feast for an event that Cycle and our own lore both attest recurs, with terrible consequences, throughout human history. In fact, the main theme of this Feast is hope... Hope arising from the fact that each time we're crossed the Wasteland, we have survived and the planet and humanity have been cleansed and renewed... each time the ancestors left us clues for identifying the onset of the Wasteland, and for restoring the land to health, and with these clues the potential for change that can break the repeating pattern of Shadow. We are reminded that, as at Imbolc, even in the darkest hour -- though we cannot yet see it -- the light is already poised to dawn. It is this hope, arising from our trust in (and knowledge of) ancestral wisdoms and Cycle, that drives us onwards through times of pain and despair that might otherwise defeat us. Even as we contemplate the descent into the Wasteland, our focus must remain fixed on the coming dawn and the re-emergence into the light.
The Cycle of sacred stories provides us with a pattern through which we may foresee the kinds of challenges and energies we will likely confront and the kinds of obstacles we are likely to put in our own ways. The last tale of the sacred story Cycle, told before the Beltane fires were lit, was the story of Penarddun and Llŷr and the fates of their children -- the very children whose story is remembered in the Second Branch of The Mabinogi and who are the focus of this Feast. From them we learn to restore the harmony and balance whose loss has led to the Wasteland, and to heal ancestral wounds through Shadow work as observed through the Sacred Story Cycle. As more members come into knowing (and following) our ways, each summer becomes less a time of strife than an opportunity to remember our lore and enjoy the fairest of seasons, when food is abundant and travel easiest; a time of abundance, reunion, and thanks-giving for the fruits of the Mother's labours. In Avalon, Lammas Tide is the seed-time (when seeds are collected for replanting the following year). The type of seeds gathered will depend upon what one is seeking to sow. It will be somewhat different in each region and season. The point is to observe what is happening where you live this year, in this moment, and move with that flow and rhythm. This is why we say that there are no fixed dates marking the Tides. They come and go with marked contempt for calendars, and it is for us to learn how to feel them and know them by their signs and in our own bones.
In the northeastern US (Avallenia), whose climate is most like to that of the Isles: - Chicks have flown the nest - Rooks are gathering in rookeries - The light of the fireflies is dying away - Mice, rats, rabbits, and deer gorge in the fields - Hawks have easy pickings - Streams have slowed, pond and lake levels have lowered - Deer are re-growing their horns and sparring - Young predators are starting to hunt on their own - Spiders are nesting in people's homes - Flowers have gone and the first fruits are showing - Creatures are fattening themselves for winter, hibernation, and migration - The first seeds still cling to their stems
What sorts of patterns do these signs make? What kinds of spiritual observations do they imply? Growing up (becoming self-sustaining and self-sufficient); preparing hearth and home for the months to come; laying in stores; gathering resources to sustain us in the barren time; laying to rest old issues; restoring peace and harmony; and celebrating the end of labour with respect for the fruit it yields. All of these, then, make a focus for this Feast and tide and, as we might expect, the customs surrounding their study and observance are many.
Reclaiming our Freedom: The Challenge for this Tide
We live in a society that encourages us to remain children dependent on others for our survival -- much as might be said of Brânwen and Gwern, whose fates appear to be in the hands of others. To whatever extent we remain dependent, so to that extent we are not free and cannot act independently, as adults... Ours is a self-empowering spiritual tradition. So long as we are dependent, we are not free to act on our own behalf. The "unfree" are bound by their dependence and cannot come fully into Oneness, the deep communion with All Being. Thus as we give thanks for the fruits of the Earth's labours, we consider how we remain dependent, how we have sacrificed our own well-being, and the ways in which we might regain our freedom and reclaim our self-empowerment. This is the method of it: Each year we seek to acquire and practice one skill that will make us free of one kind of dependence. This can be simple and fun! For instance, groceries and medicines are terribly expensive because no matter what they cost we all have to have them, and most of us rely on someone else to provide them. But those who study herbcraft learn how to find and grow edible plants, make medicines, and the basics behind making remedies and canning foods for winter - skills necessary to providing for our own sustenance. Fishing, hunting, and trapping, dressing out the catch, and the uses of hides, bone, and antler, teach similar skills. Spinning, weaving, making natural dyes, sewing, setting and smooring a cook fire, keeping a garden, making tools, learning self-defense -- all of these seem ridiculously stereotypical, but even the briefest reflection will reveal that here is where "equality" and "power" lie. Each year... one step at a time... we take up one task - and each year we build on the wisdom gained in the last! While this is a personal project, it can be done alone or with others as best pleases you. It is important that you enjoy this exploration. This is not about "performance." The point is not to be perfect or to be better than someone else, but to become better within ourselves; to know from experience that we can each survive on our own at need. Exploring your own freedom can be a fun way of meeting others like ourselves, building self-confidence and pride in our accomplishments. If we take up this challenge and follow it through, we have succeeded.
Owning Our Place in the Tribes
Now that we have explored the individual, what about the Tribes? Most here will be crushed to learn that Brôn Trogain tribal customs mostly involve singing, dancing, bartering or trading, feasting and story-lore... We're terribly sorry about this, but our customs are very strict in this regard so there's simply no way out of it. Of some comfort is that you will now possess a wealth of your own stories to add to the lore of past Heroes: of challenges overcome and amazing experiences along the way - not only those of this year, but those you continue to build on from years past! With time, your adventures will become family and Tribes lore to be handed down through your children, cousins, nieces and nephews. The ancients had a saying: "We are all immortal for as long as anyone tells our stories, as long as we are remembered." This is truth. These challenges we meet, the spiritual path we walk... in times such as ours these are deeds as worthy of the telling and re-telling as those of Avalon herself: for as we bring ourselves through the Mists, so too comes Avalon.
Reclaiming the Ways: Preparing and Keeping Personal and Ancestor Altars
We have spoken of the use of a home ancestor altar for Samhain-Tide observations, but ours is an ancestor-venerating faith. We do not remember our ancestors on one day only; they are an active part of our consciousness and lives during all the days of the year. The ancestor altar provides a simple focus, a place for remembrance of loved ones and communing with our more distant forebears. An ancestor altar can be many things, but at its heart it is nondenominational. We love our family and forebears regardless of faith. An altar is a place for remembering the sacred and what could be more sacred than the bonds of blood? The mother who bore us or the father who sired us, or the foster parents who loved and nurtured us? What is important about an ancestor altar is that is be, first and foremost, a place which reminds us of the living presence of our ancestors and their place in our lives. There is no place they do not touch. Not only family traits and resemblances but their memories themselves are imprinted in our mitochondrial DNA. They speak and move through us every day of our lives. Thus when we honour the ancestors, we honour our lineage, the story of our becoming who and what we are in this moment, today -- and we remember that those who come after us all keep us alive for our descendants in the same way...