The Great God Sam Hain

Silliness ahead, Use Only As Directed. No resemblance to most Realities Intended:

I have a yearly visit from the Lord of the Dead, the Great God Sam Hain. His first visitation came one year when I was surfing the web on Samhain with some fellow Pagans. Once again, the twisted tale of the Scary (nonexistent) Celtic God Samhain, Lord of the Dead, was being presented by the equally twisted and fanatical followers of a minor desert deity. All the little kids were being initiated unwittingly into his Evil Cult by participating in the costumery and by trick or treating. Funny how they seize on that. For me, that door to door procession is the heart of the ritual.

The beginning of the dark half of the year *is* a scary time. Peering through the thinning veil is not a task to be undertaken without courage. Many things walk the night then, and this is why the Celts kept to their houses that night. The kids who trick or treat don’t realize that they are unwitting messengers of the Gods. You never know what you might open your door to on Samhain, so be kind.

That year, while we were indulging in our yearly dose of gallows humor, I felt myself filled with a Presence.

The Great God Sam Hain spoke through me, and to me. He Revealed His True Nature. He does indeed wait, up in the sky, snaring unwary Evangelical Christians, Enslaving them to his Wicked Will. He brings them to his throne by a very simple means.

Breakfast sausage.

Yes, you heard me correctly.

After all, what will kill you quicker than a regular diet of greasy, cholesterol laden food? And what meal is the greasiest of all? Those of you who throng to the Bob Evanses of the world, who feast on Farmer John’s bounty of a Sunday morning, you Know Who You Are!

The Sausage Avatars sit at a great poker table in the sky with Sam Hain. They game for souls, using the Sacred Grease-Proof Cards and Sausage Patty Chips. Their names are many:

Bob Evans
Jimmy Dean
Farmer John
John Morrell

Those who follow the Way of Grease, who pack the Denny’s and the Carrows of the world, who serve great and heaping plates of eggs and bacon, who eat sausage gravy at every meal, yea, and Chicken Fried Steak are Pleasing in Lord Sam Hain’s eyes. When they come to him, to become spirits who walk the world when the Veil is thin, then will come their test. Will they continue to see things in limited terms of good and evil, or will they see themselves at last as part of the Dance?

Time will tell, for we all must Dance eventually, from Beggars to Kings.

Five Thousand Years in Fifteen Minutes

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There wasn’t enough time. There was no real choice either. Fifteen minutes with twenty-plus people, or nothing at all. That is the only way you can see Newgrange. It was still amazing. All 5,000 years of history were right on top of me as I stood in that chamber. After it was over, I realized I’d missed the most famous spiral, so quickly had we been herded down the passage. It made me appreciate my experience at Calanais all the more.

I took a cab from Drogheda to Newgrange Lodge, I had just missed the last bus. I got a mercenary of a cab driver, but he was great other than the naked avarice. He was on two different cell phones and two radios the whole ride, and he gave me a business card and told me to call him when I wanted to go. I smiled and said thanks, I would, but had no intention of doing so. I knew there was a perfectly good bus to be had every afternoon.

Newgrange Lodge was beautiful. It was a converted stone house and looked nice enough to be a hotel, which I thought it was. I had booked a camping pitch, but when I found out it was really a hostel I decided to give myself a present. It was threatening rain, and for ten Euros more I could have a bed. I ended up with a private ten bedroom dorm with an en suite bathroom for 18 Euros. No laundry, ehh wi fi, and the equivalent of a polite Basil Fawlty for an innkeeper, but quite nice all the same.

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I went down the road to check out the visitor center at 7 AM, just to find out what to expect. Basil Fawlty was no help, he had never been there, believe it or not. The place was of course locked and silent, but the signboards told me everything I needed to know. A tiny little trail leading off the main path in gave me my first view of the tomb.

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I never did find out if the stage management at that place is deliberate, but I have to say I was impressed. Both Navan Fort and Newgrange have planted a little forest of birch, alder, holly and hazel around their visitor centers and run paths through them. It’s very beautiful and very effective. Ogham trees all, though that probably has little or nothing to do with it. At Newgrange the effect is, if you miss the tiny little trail and the outlook at the end, there’s no way to see the tomb from the visitor center. Unless you go see the 7 minute movie, that is. It explains the whole Solstice alignment and goes into a lot of frankly fabricated ideas of how Neolithic peoples thought that if they didn’t see the shortest day of the year they thought the cold and dark would go on forever. They marked it, surely. But what they thought about it we will never know. After the movie, you exit through a pretty nicely done mockup of the central passage that goes uphill to a viewing platform at the top of the visitor center. That is the only place you can see the tomb from. The effect is, when you do see the tomb it is like the entrance of the diva. It’s really effective and I can’t believe it wasn’t planned.

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It was raining when we got to Knowth. I was very glad once again of my tincloth. The guide did the whole tour from inside a small chamber built next to one side of the passage inside the mound. Knowth is even more interesting than Newgrange. I heartily regret not buying the book on it. Knowth was built last and is more sophisticated, but it is also more heavily damaged and you can’t go inside. The mound was converted to a ringfort after Christianity arrived and was ditched and had souterrains (passages for storing food and hiding in) built in it during that period, as well as houses built on top of it. We wandered around a little bit after the tour, but it was raining pretty hard.

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Newgrange was just as wet, but I was in the first group to get inside as I’d arrived so early.

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The tourguides are really good, they know their material very well. Correctly, once again, like at Calanais, they told us that the people who built the tombs were not Celts or Druids, they were Neolithic peoples. They didn’t tell us why these people built the place, just that they had. It is a mystery for now, and by acknowledging that, we leave room for the answer to come someday. All I know, or need to, is that the span of time is great indeed. We have as humans lived long enough to have forgotten some things totally. And those peoples were wise indeed. 5,000 years and a drystone corbeled roof is still in place and *doesn’t leak!* I can’t keep a twenty year old deck from leaking without constant maintenance! My roof is good for thirty years. These people built a passage that is still sound, covered over with tons of earth and is still stable and focusing a narrow beam of sunlight once a year after five millennia. There are no words.

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The rain stopped just before we left the tomb.

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Crows and ravens were everywhere. They were magnificent, but just birds again. I think Scathach was messing with my mind, seeing what shadows she could cast.

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The afternoon bus didn’t show up. I had to call Paddy, the Mercenary Cabbie. I was in Dublin by early evening.

More photos at my website

Stones In The Mist

ImageIt was raining when the ferry reached Stornoway. It’s Scotland, I didn’t expect any different. Grace was swathed in tincloth, I was likewise. I didn’t have a hostel reservation, because I’d planned on going straight to the stones, and then to Tarbert to catch the morning ferry to Uig.

I expected the hostel in Tarbert to be a bit of an adventure. It was also a fairly important link in the trip. There are two ferries per day to Uig. One at 7 AM, the other in the late afternoon. The problem is, getting hold of the proprietors of the place is a real challenge. Every email address I was able to locate bounced, and the review I found online had a very entertaining story, the upshot of which was, call them a day or two in advance and if all else fails, knock on the door. You may or may not get in. I’d gotten hold of the owners the night before in Inverness and they’d informed me that the place was closed.

When the ferry docked, I headed straight to the Heb Hostel, the only one listed for Stornoway. It was full, but the person who answered the door was friendly and told me that there was another hostel in town, as well as the location of the tourist information center. I couldn’t find the hostel from the directions, so that was the next stop.

Every tourist information center I visited in Scotland was beyond helpful.They knew where almost everything was, and what they didn’t know they were pretty efficient at locating. They sold great maps, along with souvenirs ranging from truly tacky to downright beautiful. The woman behind the counter was helping another traveler in the same predicament I was in, and by the time she was done I’d seen everything in the shop several times over. Good service takes a bit of time and I was on vacation after all. I was soon on my way with a map marked with the spot. The hostel was not marked, the door was locked and the phone number on the door wasn’t being answered, but eventually one of us got in, and the few of us with patience followed. The proprietress had had no cell service in the Tesco’s.

The hostel still has no name, at least not one I know, but it was almost the best place I stayed on the entire trip. It was brand new, and run by a couple. I only saw him for a minute or two, but she was the spirit of hospitality. She started by giving us all free run of the kitchen. There was a fridge stocked with food, proper pots and pans, and best of all, tea and sugar. The wi fi only worked in the kitchen as it turned out, but the kitchen was the heart of the hostel. Later in the evening, I came back to find her in her PJs doing the family dishes. It was their main kitchen as well. She found out I hadn’t eaten yet in the course of our conversation, by then we’d both come out of the broom closet, so to speak and she offered to cook me dinner, which I would not allow. She was on her way to bed, the kitchen was full of food, and I was feeling better cared for than I had since Anderida camp. If I ever go back to Stornoway, that place will be my first stop if it still exists. Stornoway, by the way, is a really nice town, big enough to be interesting, small enough to be friendly.

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But you were expecting to hear about Calanais, right? You’re about to, but you can’t separate the place from the people and the people of Lewis were wondrous indeed. I’d missed the last bus to the stones finding a place to sleep, so I got on the first bus in the morning with a fellow traveler from the hostel. The ride was misty and wonderful. The visitor center was still closed so we went straight to the stones. The mist got thicker the longer we stayed, and quite soon I had the place to myself in a light rain that only made the weight of ages close in further.

The quiet was immense. It was more than just the usual quiet misty rain brings. The gray of the sky set off the gray of the stones, and the green of the grass, just as it does in my home on the shores of the Western Sea. It was so similar, yet so different. There were no trees, but the green of the moss and of the grass more than made up for it.

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I could see the shape of the land to where it disappeared into mist, and the bare bones of the rocks where they broke through on the hilltops. The rain ran off my duster and my sou’wester, its soft dripping the only sound there was, or could be.  

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I walked slowly around the perimeter of the stones, and set my back against the farthest one, where I was sheltered from the wind and could look up the long avenue of irregular rocks. No, the stones didn’t speak to me, not as such, but the quiet slowly seeped into me and I came to know that we humans didn’t know any more what these stones had meant to the people who raised them, and we didn’t need to. The keys to this place have been lost, at least for now. It really doesn’t matter because it served its purpose for the people who built it, and it is impressive enough to us to make us act to preserve it. Like any great work of art, its existence is enough.

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Eventually I walked up the avenue and into the stones. I felt as if I had all the time in the world, and for that moment, I did. I sang the song I had brought to the stones. Giant, by Stan Rogers. I did it without the drum, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell it would have been playable in that weather. It didn’t matter, all that was necessary was that I did it.

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By then, the rain had stopped and people were beginning to filter back up to the stones. When a large tour group showed up, I went down to the visitor center and learned enough to make me very curious about what was going on in Britain and Ireland 5,000 years ago. These people were not Celts, though their blood of course runs in our veins still. They seem to have done things in a much more egalitarian way, as perhaps the people of Stonehenge did too, in the same period. There’s a very interesting Nova episode that can be watched online about the alignment of Stonehenge with the solstices, and another nearby site called Durrington Walls. Calanais may have had a lunar alignment.

This strand properly should lead through Newgrange as well, the same immensity of time draws those places together for me, but I will give that tale its own space.

 

The Shadow of Dun Scaith

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The closer I got to Skye, the more I realized how much I was dreading this part of the trip. Sure, it was a long walk to what would probably turn out to be nothing, but surely a pile of rocks and a rainstorm weren’t that scary.

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I saw my first hooded crow as I got off the ferry in Stornoway. I didn’t know what the creature was. It hopped like a crow, it was shaped like one,  but a gray-bodied crow? Crows and ravens had been scaring the pants off my partner and I since before I left for the trip, and sure enough, once again there were three hooded crows, not two, or five. We found out a day or so before I left that both of us had been keeping our mouths shut about this fact, so as not to scare the other. Once again, I told the Morrigan that if she wanted me, she would have me, but I hoped to make it home.

Two mornings after I was walking around Portree on Skye at a ridiculous hour of the morning. I had tea at the only place open, where the people who actually made the town run got theirs, and pulled Grace around town checking out what would be open when and when the buses ran. When the tourist center opened I went in and asked about Dun Scaith. The woman behind the desk didn’t have a clue about where I was talking about, but she knew the island and was more than willing to look things up. Every tourist info center in Scotland was like this, by the way. I am turning over a new leaf and hope to be as helpful when I get back to work in San Francisco. The upshot was, she thought I was a little nuts, but hid it well and wished me luck. She told me to tell the bus driver to let me off at the road to Ord, and the walk would be a little shorter. Drivers on the islands will let you off and pick you up almost anywhere they pass by, which was a blessing indeed.

I ended up standing on the road to Ord at about 10:30, thinking that this was another fine mess I’d gotten myself into. I went through my pack for some trail mix and came across a camping meal I’d been given back at Anderida camp. Beanies and weenies. I ate it all, even though I didn’t particularly want it, knowing I needed the fuel and blessing the wondrous soul who’d given it to me. I repacked Grace and pulled out my little flashing light to attach to the trailer. The mist was closing in and the road to Ord was one lane wide. I kept my ears open and was ready to leap to the side at any minute. I remember telling Scathach I was coming to see her, knowing that was a little nuts, but also knowing on some level that it was only manners. I also gave myself permission to take a ride if it was offered. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was willing…

The first car that passed me stopped, backed up, and offered me a ride. They were holidaymakers, just like me, and I climbed in back with their baby girl, who got over her fear of the stranger in about two seconds. We proceeded to have a lovely drive up the road to Ord. They drove me literally to Dun Scaith. They didn’t know where it was, and didn’t mean to do so, but on one of our numerous stops to see the gorgeous scenery there it was. They didn’t want to come across the field of sheep with me, which was probably wise, and a blessing on them and their house for being my magic bus.

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I manhandled Grace across the sheep field. There were a couple of signs pointing the way to “the castle,” but they were just signs the landowner had put up. When I couldn’t drag her any farther I left Grace beside the path, her rain cover firmly in place. Good thing. The mist got heavier and heavier. I got to the castle, and even took a few pics before the rain started, and with it the wind. OK, I thought, the rain has been off and on since I got here and it has always cleared in about twenty minutes. The bridge had been the first thing I investigated, and, how appropriate, the bottom had fallen out of it. A salmon leap was needed. I tucked myself into a corner of the bridge, out of the rain and almost dry, and waited. And waited.

After a bit, I put myself in a meditative state. Seemed the thing to do. After a bit, I started to hear music, tunes I had never heard before. I admit that for a moment I was crazy with the knowledge that it was too wet to pull out my iPad and try to sing them into the device, but I got over it and just listened. Maybe I was nuts, maybe I wasn’t, but Scathach asked me my business, and asked me for the songs I’d written that would go next to hers. I gave her a song, then another. She invited me in. I tried, but I couldn’t find a way up the hillside that would’t result in a broken leg or worse in that storm, and I had miles to walk to get to Armadale. She kept inviting me in, and wouldn’t take any excuses. She asked me of the tales I knew of her. To my great embarrassment, I couldn’t tell her. I knew they involved Cuchullain, and she only figured in them in relation to him, but I started to tell her–and couldn’t finish. I’d read the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi repeatedly, but hadn’t even thought to reread how Scathach trained Cuchullain.

She laughed at me. She did a lot of that and who could blame her? I was sent back to bardic preschool. Learn the tales known of her, and make her a song based on them. Come back, sing it, and come inside, and then we’ll see about other stories.

In the end I had to leave. I needed to get to Armadale while I could, and the rain wasn’t letting up, nor the wind. The waterproofing on my boots failed on the way back through the field. I was sloshing by the time I got to the road, but the rest of me was fairly dry and I was warm from the walking and confident I would remain so. Sleat was beautiful, almost Otherworldly. Birches, hazels and rowans lined the side of the one lane road, the beach and the wild ocean on the other. I stopped often to take pictures, and as the road wound up and down the hills I clipped the flashing light to the back of my sou’wester and pushed the earflaps off my ears. If there was a car coming I wanted to know it!

I was a couple of miles down the road when I came across the road crew. I was wet and swearing by now. The rain and the walk I could deal with cheerfully, but the wind was too much. I could stay warm, but my skirt was soaked to the thighs and my boots were wet inside as well because the duster only snapped to the knees. Walking in the wind of course made it ride up considerably. I couldn’t see the mirror of the first truck, and so I knew he couldn’t see me. He was cleaning out the turnouts with a streetcleaning brush off the side of the truck. I maneuvered myself to where he could see me and waved my arms till he stopped and let me by, quite sweetly, actually. I asked him how far it was to Armadale and his jaw dropped. The second truck drove up to me. I’ll bet there was a radio involved. A beefy black-haired guy cranked down the window, smiled at me and asked me if I had a screw loose. I gave him a big smile back and said yes, I did! And how far was it to Armadale?

He told me to go up to the bend in the road, he’d turn around and give me a ride! It was a *lot* farther to Armadale than I thought. Along the way I learned a lot about the bus system, which only runs as far as it does during the season. It’s there for visitors, not locals. I also learned about the road work on the island, and a thumbnail view of the daily life of the area, things I never would have learned anything about otherwise. Not once was the word “tourist” used, and all of his information was just that, his point of view, delivered with wit and a complete lack of malice. I wanted to buy him the regulation pint, I would have loved to have sat in a pub and continued the conversation, but his crew was shorthanded and it was the middle of the afternoon. He had apologized for the state of te lorry–it wasn’t his and he’d had a time getting the side of it down when he’d picked me up. We shared a smile as he reached over the side and pulled out the same rock he’d persuaded the latch with back on the road.

I know I smelled of sheep shit on the ferry, and people looked at me as if I were from Mars, but I didn’t care. Yes, I failed to make the salmon leap, but I felt as if I hadn’t come off half bad. I’d had quite an adventure, and Scathach had invited me back, after all.

Crows and ravens went back to being their old selves from then on. I don’t know why, neither do I need to.

The Strands of the Tale

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A life, or an experience such as the trip I’ve just taken, is woven of many strands. You can’t take a bunch of those strands, spin them all together, and tell all the stories at once, though I feel that that’s pretty much what’s happened to me. No, if you want to be intelligible a little sorting is needed. I’ll start at the beginning–and the ending, because one strand flows through the two camps that began and ended my trip.

I flew against the sun to a place I had never been before, places my people had come from so long ago that I don’t know exactly where or when it happened. Those strands are broken, and I was not able to pick them up and spin them back into my life. But the land had plans for me, and new threads to be taken up.

I spent my first night in Sussex, sleeping with the solid earth beneath me, and hazels and hawthorns sheltering me from the rain that had kissed this land with green. So green. California is hot and dry in September, the hills shining gold and beautiful, and needing only one spark to erupt in flames. When I come down from the hills at home, I smell of Lugh, dry grass and sunlight and essence of summer. In Sussex we burned logs so large some had to be carried to the fire by two people. The sparks climbed to the sky and fell on the damp grass and no one thought anything of it. I was enchanted–I do love fire. We sang and danced and drummed around that fire for hours. I shared some of my songs, and heard some of theirs, and while I arrived a stranger, when I left Anderida I was a part of what we had shared. The same constellations wheeled above Sussex as they do in California, and now they have additional names: Corona Borealis is Caer Aranrhod (The Fort of Aranrhod), Lyra is Telyn Arthur (Arthur’s Harp). The Milky Way is Caer Gwydion (The Fort of Gwydion), and Cassiopeia is Llys Don (The Court of Don). So I began the trip by putting my feet solidly on the land and looking up at the sky.

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was go to a Druid camp. Anderida Gorsedd just happened to be held the weekend I arrived. It turned out to be all that I’d hoped for and more. The story we worked, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, was one I thought I knew. I’d read it multiple times, in multiple translations, had taken a Celtic Literature course from a wonderful and inspired teacher that worked with it–but I only knew the sequence of events! I was shown so much in such a short time, and I will never look at the Mabinogi the same way again. It took its place beside the Tain and the other Irish tales as part of my heritage, and it shaped and changed the trip, setting the stage for all the experiences to come.

I had also wanted to be in the biome the ogham was created in. There was enough woodland at Anderida to give me a taste, and to begin my education. September really was the best month to come. All the trees were in fruit, and I was able to see them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in spring. The good people at camp were patient with my constant questions– “what is this tree? What does a blackthorn look like? Can you eat sloes, hawthorn berries?” By the end of the weekend the trees were beginning to emerge as distinct entities, and I had most of the ogham woods I needed to complete my set of feda. My baggage was full of sticks and berries, my heart was full of new names and faces. My kettle, bought so I could have hot drinks, was unused. There was always a kettle on, and these people know the meaning of hospitality. My first morning I was made a perfect cup of tea with milk and sugar. My first night the sweetness of the mead poured into my cup mirrored that of the people I shared it with. I also had a ride to the train station, and went off to London to spend the night before catching a train to Scotland.

I met Kristoffer Hughes at Anderida. He brought the Fourth Branch to life for me. I have only scratched the surface, but what wealth there is there! There is nothing–nothing–like learning from a native speaker and a scholar, who has read these tales in the oldest shapes we have, who understands inspiration and mystery and is in love with the beauty of these tales. He told me about another camp in Wales, conveniently on the last weekend I would be in the UK. It would involve going to Wales, however, something I hadn’t planned on. I hadn’t planned anything after Dublin, actually, and now I knew why.  

Before I had a chance to assimilate the lessons and the tasks I had gotten at Anderida, I was off to Scotland, and Ireland, but that is another set of strands. My last weekend I got on a train to Shrewsbury, and was picked up at the station and taken to Wales before I even had a chance to go and look at the Severn (can’t do everything!). It was like going back to Anderida, back into the fold of magical folk. Their house was full of delicious books, of which I only had time to take down a few titles, and warm companionship. We piled into their huge van and rocketed down the narrow hawthorn-lined roads of Wales. The folded land was green and beautiful and I felt as if I’d stumbled into Faerie. One minute the hawthorns would hem us in and all I could see was sharp leaves and red berries, and then the road would fall away and I’d be looking into a valley so green and inviting I just wanted to stop right there and explore. I know why dogs hang their heads out the windows of cars now…

On the ride, the penny was dropped. Bala Lake is Llyn Tegid, the place where the myth we would be working–the story of how Cerridwen brewed the Awen and Gwion Bach became Taliesin–had happened. I had been so caught up in making  travel arrangements, getting into the camp, and traveling that this had escaped me. And Bala Lake was a name that meant nothing to me. A pretty place, an experiential camp and more inspired education courtesy of Kris Hughes–sign me up! I felt as if I’d been presented with the treasures of the Otherworld, and something more. A shiver went up my spine. This was the very same story we’d worked at the only Witch Camp I’d ever been to. I knew I was in the lap of the gods. I’d been brought here, and had taken on a lot more than I expected.

There were friends from Anderida here. It was easier walking in to some faces I knew, and everyone was just as welcoming. We came in at the tail end of the witches’ tea party, which was a great way to meet people. Real china and Welsh cakes. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even need a kettle at Llyn Tegid. These folk actually did Anderida one better. In the marquee was a large gas fired kettle of hot water, teabags, and milk and sugar. All the little milk and sugar packs I had assembled in various hostels and takeaway places went unused. I finally had to jettison them when I was getting my gear down to baggage allowance weight.  

Llyn Tegid is Otherworldly. The lake is prone to flooding and the roots of the trees are exposed, twisted into weird shapes and disappearing into a soft gray shore of rounded stones and dusty soil. It looks as if the trees walk around at night when no one’s looking, and perhaps they do. It is as strangely beautiful as Mt. Tamalpais back at home, another sacred spot that looks as if it is half in another reality. The trees of the ogham are of course everywhere. I went looking for another spot like the one I had at Anderida, and found it. I slept tucked under two hawthorns and a hazel, the shingle was so soft it conformed to my body. It was a lot more comfortable than most of the hostel beds with my thermarest pad. It was warm enough at night to sleep with the top of the bivy sack open, looking up at the stars filtering through the leaves, listening to the lake lapping against the shore.

All too quickly the weekend was over. I have a yearlong relationship with the cauldron to develop, and songs to write, and songs to perfect. And this was only one strand of the tale!

If you are curious about the ritual work, or about the tales associated with it, the information can be found in Kristoffer Hughes’s book From the Cauldron Born. I’m devouring it even as we speak. It deserves a prominent place on any Pagan or Celtic Studies bookshelf. It will give an acquaintance with the relevant source materials to the one, and the flavor of experiential practice to the other.