Of Virtues and Semantics

I am only one third of the way through the Virtue essays yet there is already a theme running through them.  Before I continue with these essays I feel it necessary to pause and discuss this theme.

I’m going to start right now by saying that I believe that Ár nDraíocht Féin should stop using the term “Virtue”.  Let me explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two basic definitions for virtue:

1) behaviour showing high moral standards,

2) a good or useful quality of a thing.

Let’s look at these two definitions in a bit more detail.

So to begin, both definitions can be seen as measurements:

diagram of virtue

The first definition applies to one’s actions, and the second definition applies to attributes that one possesses.   Let’s explore some analogies to try to make this clearer.

some virtues provide a moral compass

A virtue according to the first definition, I am going to suggest, should provide individuals with a moral compass.  That is, it should provide a basis for determining whether a particular course of action would be moral or immoral.  The most famous example of this would be the seven heavenly virtues and opposing deadly sins of Aurelius Clemens Prudentius.  If you hold charity as a virtue, for instance, it is relatively easy to gauge whether any particular action would be charitable versus greedy.  By consistently acting in accordance with a particular set of such virtues, one is deemed to be moral or ethical by those who share the same set of virtues.  It is important to note of course that morality is entirely relative; if I believe that greed is a virtue then I will look at your acts of charity as being immoral.

others provide a yardstick of usefulness

The second definition, instead of a moral compass, gives us a usefulness yardstick.  This allows us to judge certain virtues as something that is useful to possess.  Importantly, possessing such virtues does not generally say anything about whether the possessor has high moral standards or not.  Such virtues may gain you respect and loathing at the same time from the same person.  To reuse my previous example, if I believe that greed is a virtue then I may see your acts of charity as being immoral — while at the same time respecting you for having the fortitude to act according to your convictions.

The point of all of this is that I believe that the term “virtue” is too vague to be of much use.  I like precision in words.  Therefore, I am no longer going to discuss virtues.  Instead, I will discuss morals (virtues which provide a moral compass) and character strengths (virtues which are useful to possess).  Both are vitally important. Morals tell you whether an action is right or wrong.  Character strengths are what makes your actions effective.  To have morals without strength of character is to be impotent.   To have strength of character without morals is to be a monster.

Having arrived at this point, it is an interesting exercise to re-frame the ADF’s “9 Virtues” in this light.  Here is my take on it.

Morals

Character Strengths

Piety Wisdom
Hospitality Vision
Courage
Integrity
Perseverance
Moderation
Fertility

 

As you can see, most of the “9 Virtues” are really character strengths, as opposed to morals.

At first glance, I found this uneven weighting towards character strengths over morals somewhat surprising.  After some consideration I do think it is understandable given ADF’s pan-Indo-European focus, since societal mores varied widely from culture to culture.   ADF is clearly more interested in giving its members the tools to act rather than trying to guide those actions.

However, I do think that Our Druidry may be improved by starting to differentiate between morals and character strengths, and encouraging dedicants to research and consider whether or not to adopt some of the morals of their hearth culture.  This will go a long way to providing what I see as much needed balance.

There, now that I have gotten that out of my system I can hopefully continue on with the Virtue essays requirement!

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Book Review: The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis

For my preferred ethnics study book review, I opted again to use a book that was already on my book shelf and thus familiar to me.

But, let’s put this bluntly; to paraphrase Monty Python, Peter Berresford Ellis’ (A brief history of) The Druids is not a book for reading.  It is a book for laying down and avoiding.

To be fair to Ellis, the book does have its moments.  The problem is that between those moments lie eternities of eye watering, somniferous torture.  Having already read through much of it a couple of years ago, I thought that I could finish it in about three weeks.  In fact, it took me almost three months.  There were days when I would pick it up and read a few pages until I suddenly realized that I was not absorbing any of it and would put it down again.  Then, of course, when I finally and reluctantly got back to it I would have to flip back several pages to try to discern what point Ellis was attempting to make before I could proceed.

In his introduction, Ellis tells us that the book could very well be subtitled ‘An introductory argument’, and this is perhaps the root of the problem with this book.  One gets the impression that the author is continually debating some point or another, and the actual information is presented merely as evidence to prove his point, as opposed to being interesting or valuable unto itself.  In some instances this works well, and some of the best sections sees Ellis writing polemically with great, contagious enthusiasm.  In most other instances, however, it just doesn’t work at all.  As an example, the author provides a chapter titled “The Rituals of the Druids”, which should be one of the most interesting for ADF Dedicants.  However, more than half of the 24 pages in the chapter is devoted not to telling us anything about ancient Druidic rituals but rather to trying to refute Caesar’s claim that the Druids practised human sacrifice.

But enough moaning (for now); let’s delve into the tome itself.

The first two chapters provide a brief overview of the Iron Age Celts and the Druids themselves.  These feature Ellis at his best, savaging the theories of those writers that came before him as he argues that Druids were a caste within Celtic society, where ever the Celts were found, and providing us with plenty of comparative analysis with other Indo-European cultures along the way.  The next chapter, “Druids Through Foreign Eyes”, keeps the reader’s interest high as it provides detailed descriptions of the main observations made by the Greeks and Romans on the Druids, all the while ripping apart their ‘jaundiced views’.

From here on, however, the book generally falls apart.  Ellis spends 180 pages meandering from topic to topic with little in the way of direction and less in the way of organization.  Following a short section on Druids as founts of wisdom, for example, he segues right into a discussion on comparative Druidic hairstyles. One finds oneself wondering what hairstyles have to do with wisdom before realizing that in fact they don’t; the author has simply switched topics without bothering to tell us.

Ellis also falls victim to the same questionable logic for which he blasts other authors.  In the section on the religion of the Druids, he hypothesizes that there were 33 main Celtic gods.  As evidence he offers up that the Vedas ‘speak of thirty-three gods’, and then goes on to enumerate every instance of the number 33 in Celtic literature, such as the Picts having 33 Pagan kings and 33 Christian kings.  Likewise, in attempting to advance a theory about an ancient ritual hunger strike (a troscad), Ellis discourses extensively on Irish hunger strikes in the twentieth century.

Far more frustrating, however, even than the poor organization and the faulty logic, is the lack of source citing and the nearly non-existent indexing.  The fact is that The Druids is packed with excellent information and citations to source material that are difficult to find elsewhere.  However, without a useful index the book is nearly useless as a reference.  To take one example from the previous paragraph, nowhere in the scant index will you find ‘troscad’ or ‘hunger strike’.  Likewise, without references to source material the many citations are equally useless as reference. While some source citations are made these tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. If one wants to know more about those 33 Pagan Pictish kings, Ellis provides no clue where to look.

In the final chapter titled ‘Reviving the Druids’, Ellis returns to his polemical best, hammering away at the British Revivalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the Neo-Pagan reconstructionists alike, and ending with a lamentation on the fate of the Celtic languages.  Of these he says that if they die out “it will be no natural phenomenon.  It will be as a result of centuries of a careful policy of ethnocide.  Once the languages disappear then Celtic civilization will cease to exist and the cultural continuum of three thousand years will come to an end.”  One cannot help dwelling on the parallel to the subject matter of the book itself, in that the Druids were made extinct by equally careful policies of ethnocide, and much of their wisdom is lost to us forever.

To conclude, I do think this book belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the ancient Druids, but it is not a book for picking up and reading cover to cover.  The first three chapters provide an entertaining and excellent overview of what is known about the Druids and the final chapter provides a useful summary of the British Revival.   The remainder, however, amounts to plenty of tantalizing bits of valuable information hidden within unreadable prose and without a useable index to aid in research.

Pietas

Well, it’s apparently “Pagan values blogging month”,which is a good excuse to get caught up on my virtues essays.  The second virtue that ADF would like me to pontificate on is “piety”.

ADF defines piety as “correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, both personal and societal, that we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty“.  This seems as apt a definition as any; my Kindle definition is rather simpler, defining piety as “the quality of being religious or reverent“.

The ‘DP Through the Wheel of the Year’ suggests thinking about people you would consider ‘pious’.  Interestingly, when I think about piety within the Pagan community I am actually struck by how few people I have met that I would actually say are pious.  There are certainly some, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Of course, in Western culture there is a certain stigma attached to appearing ‘too religious’, and in mixed company politics and religion are considered taboo subjects. Therefore it is very likely that I have met many people who are genuinely pious but who simply keep quiet about it.  However, I still think that these people are in the minority and that the majority of Pagans just aren’t all that pious.  Being quite honest about it, I would put myself in that majority as well, but more on that shortly.

It is not that I think that Pagans are intentionally impious.  Sure, there are lots of people who call themselves Pagan but who are really just interested in magic, or who believe that the gods are just abstract archetypes, or that the divinity is everywhere.  For these kinds of people, piety either isn’t considered a virtue, or is conceived of in a very different manner than the definition used by ADF.

Beyond these people, however, I believe that there is a large population of Pagans who just simply don’t know how to be pious.  They know themselves to be Pagans; they sense the workings of the Old Gods around them, they feel the calling of the Old Ways, but they just do not know how to properly honour the Gods and Spirits. They might set up a small altar in their homes, pour the occasional libation, perhaps go to Pagan festivals or Pride Days, and probably do at least something to mark the High Days.  Other than that, they simply don’t know how to go about being more pious.

So the point is that I can’t point to very many role models of piety whom I personally know.  However, I can reflect on some of our ancestors who were considered pious by their contemporaries.   By this, I am not referring to those Christian kings for whom the moniker “The Pious” generally meant that they were inept rulers.  Rather, I am thinking in particular of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, who was generally held up an example of piety by the Romans.  Plutarch tells us that Numa devoted himself “not to amusement or lucre, but to the worship of the immortal gods, and the rational contemplation of their divine power and nature.”   It is said that Numa spent much of his reign instituting various religious reforms, including opening new temples,  establishing the office of the Pontifus Maximus, and creating the order of the Vestal virgins.    Plutarch further tell us that Numa decreed that “his citizens should neither see nor hear any religious service in a perfunctory and inattentive manner, but, laying aside all other occupations, should apply their minds to religion as to a most serious business.”

Based on the lessons of Numa Pompilius, I do think that I can suggest some behaviours that I think are indicative of piety.  These include actively honouring the Gods, Spirits, and Ancestors on a regular basis and in an appropriate manner, devoting oneself wholly to acts of worship and not simply performing them by rote, and always acting in a manner consistent with our understanding of what is required by the Gods and the Goddesses.

It is a virtue that I strive for, but have only really begun to work on.

Wellspring as a Solitary

Did I mention that Wellspring was muddy?

Normally nothing could drag me to a Pagan festival on my own.  I’ve been to enough of them to know how clique-y they can be, and I’m too introverted to wedge my way into a group of strangers.  However, I really wanted to attend Wellspring nonetheless.  Primarily, I wanted to attend an official ADF ritual to see how they are done, but also to take some measure of the organization and meet some of the other members.

Rev. Michael Dangler at the Wellspring Festival

Michael Dangler

I had no idea what to expect when I got there.  Fortunately the first few people that I met, Skip Ellison, Steph Gooch, and Michael Dangler, were all very friendly and helpful.   As a solitary, the place to find is Three Cranes Grove,  who welcomes all such strays to camp with them.

Soon I was pitching my tent amongst a small cadre of other Canadians, most of whom were from the Dancing Lights Grove but who were also camping amongst the Cranes.   I finished setting up just in time to go watch the poetry phase of the Bardic competition.  The other Canadians then took me around and introduced me to a number of the other groves, after which it was time to get ready for the Norse rite.

Rev. Skip Ellison at Wellspring Festival

Skip Ellison

This was my first “real” (i.e. not one that I wrote myself) ADF ritual so I was really looking forward to it.   It turned out for the most part to be pretty much exactly what I expected, which I think is a testament to the Core Order of Ritual performing its function.   The liturgy was excellent, apparently a cooperative exercise amongst the Norse kin which worked great.   The omen-taking was very nicely dramatic, although I wish that some further explanation of the blessings  was given.

The one thing about the ritual which did surprise me was that most of the attendees (as opposed to those with designated parts) sat down to watch, and even those of  us who opted to stand were kind of off to the sidelines.  I’m used to neo-Pagan rituals where the attendees stand in a circle surrounding the presiding priests/priestesses and play a role that at least feels more participatory; holding hands, chanting, and often dancing (or at least circling).   In contrast, for this ritual I had the distinct feeling that I was in church.  At best I felt like I was more of a spectator than an participant.  I’m not sure if this is normal for ADF or if it was a result of the location, as it took place in one of the halls.  If someone with more experience with ADF ceremonies could let me know I’d appreciate it.

A.J. Gooch at Wellspring Festival

A.J. Gooch

Saturday morning was rather quiet for me as most of the activities centered around kin and guild meetings.   If I can give one piece of advice to other solitaries who are thinking of attending Wellspring or other ADF festival, it would be this: join one of the more popular kins and/or guilds.  That way you can count on some social activity.  The Hellenic and Norse kins seemed very active, as did the Bardic and Warrior guilds.  I myself am a member of the Welsh kin, of which there was only two other members in attendance, which didn’t provide all that much fraternity.

To be fair, the Welsh kin leader, Steph, did try to organize a kin group meeting for Sunday morning.  However, I was pretty grumpy that morning from only getting two hours of decent sleep so I packed up and was gone by 8am.   Of course I understand and accept that Pagan festivals are for many people an excuse for binge drinking and staying up all night.   It’s not something that I can do myself any longer but I expect it and generally can sleep through it.  In fact Saturday night seemed to end on a nice quiet note — I joined the drumming around the fire until about 12:30 when it started to rain and it looked like things were going to settle down so I ambled off to bed and sleep.

ADF Wellspring Festival

Craig Wilcox, formerly known as the guy whose name I don't remember.

However, at 3am I was awoken to the earsplitting sound of some sort of brass wind instrument accompanied by some of the loudest drumming I’ve heard.  At that moment I could  have sworn that someone had surrounded my tent with Marshall amps as some kind of horrible joke.  After that I found it impossible to get back to sleep, finally getting up at 6am in a rather foul mood.   So my second piece of advice is that unless you are one of the people who are out making a racket until dawn, bring earplugs and pitch your tent somewhere that does not have a clear line of sight to the roundhouse!

So overall it was a bit of a mixed bag.  I’m glad that I went, but I’m not sure that I’ll be in a hurry to return next year… maybe if the weather promises to be better!

Mental Discipline Journal Month 1 – May 2011

Here are my notes related to building mental discipline, starting at the beginning of May 2011.  I’ll start with my meditation journal and then talk about mental discipline overall.

As noted in my preamble post  I’m not new to meditation, but the DP work has encouraged me to try some new things.  To begin with, as you know I’ve been working on trying to do a daily morning devotional which has included a short grounding and centering as well as a short meditation on the blessings of Cerridwen.  This has been challenging since my mornings are typically rushed and my brain is trying to focus on just getting me out the door on time without forgetting my lunch, keys, work pass, or pants.  I’ve been successful in doing the devotional probably 3 or 4 days a week on average, and am getting a bit better each time at the meditation portion.  I find that it really helps me set a good mindset for the day which is always appreciated.

With the weather turning nice, I have also started trying to get out to a nearby park at lunch to sit under a tree and do the Two Powers meditation.  This, too, has proven challenging as it is a typically busy downtown park, filled with people and surrounded by roads.  More often than not, park staff are also out with their internal combustion engine-driven tools; pruning, mowing, cutting, chipping, or blowing.  So.. challenging yes, but challenging is good.

And speaking of the Two Powers, I had possibly my best experience with it so far doing a solitary blessing ritual outdoors  in mid-May.  At the initiation of the ritual I lit the fire and then circled it three times while doing some drumming, and then stopped and went into the meditation.  It had been cloudy all day, but then the sun came out and while in the meditation I became acutely aware of the wind around me, then sun shining down on me, and the sound of birds all around me.  At that moment, I had just a glimmer of what it might be like to be a tree; feeling the wind through one’s branches, the sun on one’s leaves, and year after year the cycle of birds nesting in one’s arms.  It was really quite moving and it took me a long time to leave that place and return to the work at hand.

On the topic of mental discipline as a whole I’ll just talk about one particular event.  I applied for a new job a couple of months ago and had pretty much given up on it when I suddenly got a call in early May asking me to come in for an interview later that day.  Having so little time to mentally prepare for it made me quite nervous and I don’t think I exactly aced the interview.  I just wasn’t as sharp as I wished I had been.  In an interview the trick is to ascertain as quickly as possible what traits and skills they are looking for, and to shape your answers to every question to frame yourself as an expert in those skills.  However, I flubbed that, not picking up on what he was looking for early enough.  So, one of the things that I am aiming for as part of my mental discipline training is grace under pressure.  I’ll let you know how that works out for me.

On Wisdom

I love my Kindle.

I was going through the section on the Wisdom essay in DP Through the Wheel of the Year on it the other day and read the part where Rev. Dangler says that ADF encourages Dedicants to read a dictionary definition of the virtue.  So, I just clicked on the word Wisdom and my Kindle cheerfully popped up the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition!  Such fun!

So let’s get on with it then….Wisdom.

Now, I’m going to come right out and say that I do not believe that wisdom is a virtue.   There, I said it.  But I’ll get back to that later.  First, let’s define what we mean by ‘wisdom’.

Before I even read what the good old folks at Oxford had to say on the subject, I knew that something serious was missing from the DP version.  Here is how the DP defines wisdom:

Good judgment, the ability to perceive people and situations correctly, deliberate about and decide on the correct response.

Oxford told me immediately what was missing with their definition:

The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement.

After all, doesn’t the saying go “With age comes wisdom”?

So, I have to agree more with Oxford than with the DP.  Wisdom, to me, is both the quality of having personal experience coupled with the ability to employ the knowledge gained through that experience in practice to arrive at good judgements.

Note well what this does not mean.  By my definition, which of course may vary from yours, one cannot become wise by studying or reading books.    Only through the act of personally experiencing something does one internalize the learnings which form the basis of the types of knowledge from which wisdom arises.

Of course, wisdom is not gained just by growing old, either.  One needs the ability to apply the knowledge gained through experience in practical ways.  This is to some degree mere conditioning; simply knowing that when certain conditions experienced in the past are met means that a particular outcome is likely.  However to really be considered wise one needs to be able to apply knowledge learned through past experience to entirely new situations.  This requires perceptiveness and an open mind.

So.. .it all sounds great, right?  So why isn’t a virtue?

Well, the answer to that question depends on your definition of ‘virtue’, so let us go back to definitions.  Interestingly, the DP does not define virtue, but our friends at Oxford do.  In fact they give two definitions, and I believe that we can extrapolate from the context in which the word is used within the DP to assume which of these definitions ADF relies upon.  The definitions are:

1) behaviour showing high moral standards,

2) a good or useful quality of a thing.

I would argue that what I define as wisdom is a virtue if we use that second definition of virtue (it is useful), but I believe that when ADF uses the word they mean the first definition, as they seem to equate virtue with ethics.  That being the case, I do not believe that wisdom in and of itself is a virtue.  So does that mean that a person may be wise but not virtuous or good or ethical?   The answer, of course, is yes and no.  That is, I would argue that it is possible for a person who is otherwise devoid of ‘high moral standards’ to be wise according to my definition of wisdom, but that others may not call that person wise owing to the fact that their advice, when solicited, may run contrary to commonly held moral standards.  Hence, one is generally only considered by others to be wise when one has both wisdom and shares the moral standards of those others.

The DP Through the Wheel of Year suggests that if a dedicant disagrees that a particular quality is not a virtue that we should recommend a replacement  In this case, I am going to decline to do so because I would argue that even if wisdom in itself does not ipso facto make one virtuous, it remains an exceptionally useful quality.  When one has both wisdom and virtue one becomes capable of being a leader within one’s community, looked to for advice and guidance that is both practically and ethical sound.

And, after all, isn’t that exactly the role of a Druid?

Ostara Re-cap

I opted not to do a full ritual for Ostara, mostly because I was far too busy leading up to it but also because we were going to have company over the weekend and I didn’t think it would go over well.

However, despite the lack of formal ritual I do feel that I celebrated Ostara appropriately.

Making maple syrup over an open fireTo begin with, I spent the Saturday boiling approximately 80 litres of sap into maple syrup.  This transformation of the blood of trees from water into syrup is a sacred ceremony unto itself for me.   As it also requires that a great deal of time be spent outside, it always gives me that wonderful opportunity to sit by the fire and experience the wonders of early spring; the Robins hunting for worms, the Swans honking overhead…  a truly transformative experience in more ways than one.

On Sunday – Ostara proper – I worked mindfully with everything I did reflecting on the high day.  It started with a blessing to the Earth Mother and a sacrifice to her of some of that fresh maple syrup, followed by a hearty breakfast of pineapple upside-down french toast drenched in .. well, you can guess.  There is nothing quite like the taste of maple syrup infused with the smoke of an open pine wood fire!  You just don’t get that same taste from commercial maple syrup made in modern evaporators.

After breakfast I engaged in a wonderful planting ceremony.  First, I dealt with the oak acorns that I had asked Boyne and Brigid to bless at Imbolc.  I was very pleased to see that most of them had sprouted from the stratification, and I planted a full thirty of them into potting soil in cups, asking the Earth Mother to bless them again at this time.  I greatly look forward to seeing them emerge from the soil!

After the oaks, I planted a number of other seeds that need an indoor early start prior to transplanting at Beltane.  Broccoli, brussel sprouts, and lettuce, mostly, but also flowers to adorn Demeter’s garden; enchinacea, sun flowers, and zinnia.

All in all it was a truly blessed Ostara.