Last night I dreamt that winter was the chaos beyond the boundaries of our tribe, that the onslaught of the cold whiteness was imminent like the attack of a foreign war-lord. Our clan resided in a wooded valley in the shadows of grassy hills, and our homes could travel on wheels; but there comes a time when all people grow comfortable and complacent in their worlds, and although I am still full of the exuberance and wanderlust of youth, many of the others were prepared to use every resource at their disposal to weather the storm.
The division between Chaos and Cosmos, and how ritual is intended to balance the two, is one of the first lessons we learn in Ár nDraíocht Féin, as articulated by Archdruid Kirk Thomas:
To the ancient Proto-Indo-Europeans, the only part of their world that they could reasonably control was their own encampment, and perhaps the fields immediately around it where they kept their cattle. But out beyond those fields were unknown steppes or forested lands populated by wild animals, ghosts and hostile tribes. This outer, terrifying land they called chaos. Cosmos, on the other hand, means order, and the cosmos of these early tribes consisted of those things they could rely on–such as their encampments, their warriors’ prowess, their cattle, the seasons and the great, annual dance of the stars across the sky as they circle the Pole Star.
And chaos is not all negative, for from outside the boundaries of Order came resources, and mysteries, and some of the inspiration and wisdom of the Gods.
In looking at the world around them, the ancients saw the tension between chaos and cosmos, and the opportunities and risks it offered. They created ritual to manage the relationship between the tribe and the “Other” (those things outside the tribe), between the village and the wildwood, and between chaos and cosmos.
Those who intended to stay behind included two with whom the King of Swords and I stayed in their trailer on the Louisiana bayou; they calmly instructed myself and the Paloma, a young friend of mine from Cascadia, in the materials needed to weather the storm, its own rite in helping the Earth creak and turn and return to spring vibrancy, in managing chaos and cosmos, territory and otherworld. One rubenesque maenad lost her mind and fled to the golden glow of sunlight beyond the hills, abandoning her young son among the shedding pines of our valley; I could hear Dionysus’ chuckle ripple through the pattern of my dream. We were not called to such ecstatic mysteries, and stayed to collect the redwood bark and soft, vibrant young spring pine needles that were needed. (I would awaken to an Anthesteria dawn and a Pithoigia given entirely to lust; there was no need to run wild to the hills to honor the god.)
The King of Swords and I made the journey from the Pacific Northwest to the Louisiana bayou to avoid the bitter cold and survive the winter with our sanity; but we nonetheless still had to fall to be reborn, as we do every year as Brighid’s torches kindle the dawn of spring and the Cailleach crawls back down to the underworld. It seems that we still suffered a great winter, and have now finally built our fortifications against it, though the sense of place that we had built in one another was very nearly decimated by the sheer force of winter’s chill winds.
After our wildcrafting, when the Paloma and I had our skirts filled with plants like the Hag filled hers with the stones that spilled to create many of the crags and mountains of the Gaelic world, we entered one of the many homes-on-wheels that formed the ragged line of our clan estates in the cold, shaded valley. Larger on the inside, the structure was used as an educational theatre; at that moment it was filled with the majority of the older children and young people from our tribe and some of the surrounding ones, their attentions all absorbed by the black-and-white film on the screen. We took a seat with the other twenty-somethings from our clan–they were all quiet curiosity, their expressions betraying little but their genuine interest in the world; the Paloma and I were the same as we became engaged in the film. This was perhaps an odd lack of reaction to what was being viewed, and from my seat at the edge of the aisle, I glanced over to a group of older children and young teens from a neighboring tribe. Some of them–those who weren’t looking with utter mortification and revulsion at the images on the screen–had begun to whisper and give us strange looks, and when I inadvertently made eye contact with a 12-year-old boy from their gaggle, he leaned over and stage-whispered towards us, “Don’t you have any reaction to this at all? Aren’t you disgusted by this amount of suffering?”
The film on the screen that was being absorbed by dozens of eyes was of the lengths one tribe had gone to endure winter, measures which the boy’s tribe would likely punish by death. We were viewing footage of young children being placed in cages intended for trapped animals and steeped in foodstuffs and flavorings to apparently make them more edible. Some of the images were absurd even in their awfulness–toddlers sandwiched between two giant slabs of bread, or sitting dumbly with a raw steak atop their little round heads–and the reactions in the room varied too even while everyone looked on with a basic feeling of disgust and pity.
The issue of cannibalism had never emerged in our tribe in our lifetimes, and while the elders might have remembered having to make an ethical decision on human sacrifice, they had never spoken of it. Nonetheless, we suffered no taboo on human sacrifice, and it was unspoken knowledge among us that a time might come when we would engage or decide whether to participate in it as a tribe as well, for reasons that would remain thereafter between us and the gods and spirits. This other tribe seemed less open and trapped by their own fundamentalism, though they viewed us with suspicion for being more reserved with our emotional response to the silent documentary.
“We suffer silently, thank you.” My voice snapped enough at the boy to end his commentary on our tribe, and the Paloma turned to me just as the boy looked away. She seemed surprised by both my statement and her sudden realization of how much truth there was in this statement, that we were a group that believed in a deep emotional, spiritual, and intellectual connection with all experiences but with the understanding that this connection was intended to be made deep within, and, for the more spiritually inclined among us, myself included, in communion with our truest, purest selves and the gods and spirits.
Because winter is at its end, and the Cailleach is sending her last chill surges into the world as she shakes the splinters loose from the skirts she wore to collect wood to keep her hearth warm through the remainder of the winter on Brighid’s Day, and it is time for us to glow with the fire of our truest selves, to cleanse ourselves of that which hinders our process and our truest paths. It is time to lament what was lost this winter while acknowledging that it was shed for a purpose. The spring sun (or maybe Dionysus, death, and the enchanted chocolate-coated psilocybin and ayahuasca ambrosia we ate on Saint Valentine’s) illuminates the dark recesses of ourselves and calls into question all that with which we have become complacent; life isn’t intended to be passively experienced or “tolerated.” We vomit up the evil within our darkness like some perverted offering to the outdwellers; their return offering is their absence. There is absurdity in awfulness–find it.