Monthly Archives: July 2014

Faerie Houses and Hokora

fairyhouse

Faerie House created by MossyBraeFaeries. You can purchase them on Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/shop/MossyBraeFairies

In a recent post, I talked about Japanese hokora miniature shrines and how they look like little “faerie shrines.” Since then, I’ve been doing a little research into what could be the Western world’s nearest equivalent – “faerie houses.”

There’s a bit of an artistic movement of making tiny little houses like the one pictured here, designed to look as if a faerie would live in them, and they do remind me of hokora very much. Like hokora, they are miniaturised, use natural materials, are normally photographed outdoors, and usually take a rather primitive or organic shape (rather than looking like a house that a person would live in – that would just be a doll’s house).

But unlike hokora, for the most part there doesn’t seem to be a particular spiritual significance for the majority of faerie houses. They are made as an artistic expression and while the maker probably has a deep appreciation of faerie legends, they may not necessarily believe in faeries or other nature spirits. For this reason, I have not yet seen a faerie house with offerings places outside it.

However, in some of the cases, the makers do seem to have some sort of belief in faeries and place their faerie house in a particular spot outside where they can “attract” faeries. Whether or not these nature spirits are “venerated” in the same way kami are venerated in the hokora is another matter, but it interesting to see that some crafters of faerie houses do acknowledge that nature spirits could exist.

It’s interesting to see how something quite similar to hokora has cropped up in Western culture, and whether or not pagans might adopt something similar in order to venerate nature spirits (I personally would love to see this happen!)

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Lammas Ritual with Medway Pagans

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The Lammas altar

This month at Medway Pagans, we celebrated Lammas. The ritual began indoors and was very short and sweet – after a few words to remind us about the meaning of Lammas, we shared bread and drank mead from the communal chalice (the mead was actually mind left over from our handfasting!). But after this we took a stalk of corn each and took it outside, where we’ve recently discovered there’s a very large oak tree by the car park of the social club where the moots take place. This seemed like a perfect place to scatter the ears of corn as an offering to nature.

Then, quite spontaneously, one of the members got us all to join our hands in a circle around the oak tree, while two of our members stood with their hands on the tree, feeling its energy. We stood like this quietly for some time, which was really nice as it was a wonderful way to meditate upon the ritual and share our energies together.

lammas20142When we went back inside,  we feasted on the food that we had all brought. As you can see in the photo, there were plenty of contributions! (And there were a lot of us there tonight). In keeping with the theme of Lammas, the “loaf-mass,” most of us brought bread (some brought delicious home-made bread) in addition to crackers, cakes and chopped apple. Gathering around and sharing the food we’d brought was a great way for us to mingle and talk; recently there are so many new members, which is fantastic but it can be hard for us to get to know each other sometimes.

Lammas is a time to be thankful, and there is so much I have to be thankful for at the moment. Not just to Mother Earth and the powers that be for their blessings, but more personally, for our wonderful wedding and handfasting which both went so smoothly, and for the excellent start to our new lives together. Additionally, I feel blessed that our friends and family had been so generous with their gifts for our marriage, and I feel incredibly grateful to have such lovely people in my life. Lammas reminds me of the importance of gratitude to all things and all people in our lives… time to get writing those thank you letters to our wedding guests!!

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Lammas or Lughnasadh?

Lugh

The God Lugh

Tonight I am celebrating a Lammas Moot with Medway Pagans, and it’s got me thinking – is it best to call it Lammas or Lughnasadh?

I’ve been looking this up briefly online, and it doesn’t seem to really matter which one you use. It would appear that Celtic Pagans and Wiccans show a slight preference for Lughnasadh, but not necessarily.

Personally, I prefer Lammas. Lughnasadh originally refers to the Celtic God Lugh, and while I think it is good to remember this deity on this festival, as an Eclectic Pagan, I want to celebrate other aspects as well – the beginning of the Harvest, thankfulness for bread and other produce, and bidding the Summer sun farewell. So terming the festival “Lammas” broadens the focus away from Lugh.

Additionally, the word “Lammas” seems fairly familiar to non-Pagan people in Britain. If I were to say I was celebrating Lughnasadh to non-Pagans, I would probably get some blank stares. But mention Lammas, and this seems to stir some vague recognition in people, even if they’re not sure exactly what Lammas is.

But my number one reason for calling it “Lammas?” It’s just easier to remember the spelling and pronunciation!

(Although “Lughnasadh” does sound rather pretty. The way I’ve head it pronounced is something like “Lunar-sar,” which is quite evocative of the moon!)

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Hokora – Japan’s “Faerie Shrines?”

800px-Hokora_in_Yokohama

More than any other, the type of shine that fascinates and enchants me most in Japan is the hokora, or miniature shrine. You can find these practically anywhere in Japan – on the grounds of larger jinja shrines, on country roadsides, on city street corners, or out in the middle of nature. Unlike jinja, these shrines are not necessarily under the control of any Shinto institution, and therefore represent a very pure form of folk Shinto.

Hokora can take many forms – just perform a Google image search to see. Some can be fairly large (the size of a cupboard or there abouts) and have many of the features of a formal jinja – of box for offering money, a bell to ring to summon the kami, shutters and so on. Others resemble kamidana in that they are miniaturisations of a full-size jinja, complete with tiny torii and suitably sized offering vessels (like the  hokora pictured above). The main difference between hokora and kamidana seems to be that kamidana are purely for inside worship, and also seem to have more rules about their layout and position than hokora.

800px-Mount_Iimori(Misaki,_Osaka)_hokora

From Wiki Commons

Others, like the one pictured left, are incredibly simple – just a tiny stone “house” with a few sacred items inside. Most rural hokora make use of the natural beauty around them and are made from natural materials such as stone or wood. Although varied, the defining characteristic of a hokora seems to be some sort of house-shaped enclosure, as if providing a home for the kami.

Typically, hokora enshrine minor kami of protection, although more major deities may be venerated in hokora too. The fox statues surrounding the hokora pictured on the top of the page indicate a connection with Inari Okamisama, while the hokora above (and many of the hokora I have personally seen in Japan) enshrine Jizo Bosatsu. Jizo is a very interesting deity, as he is originally a Buddhist Bodhisattva, who has come to be venerated as a protector of children and travellers as Japan. Often depicted as small and rather endearing, Jizo is a popular deity among the Japanese, and he is often worshipped in a similar manner to the Shinto kami. This is another example of the syncretic nature of Japanese religions, where at the folk level, Shinto, Buddhism and other folk beliefs merge so much that trying to separate them becomes very difficult and, arguably, meaningless.

This deceptively casual and humble nature of hokora is one of the things that I find so appealing about them. Unlike jinja, they do not represent any kind of mass institution with deep social and political links – instead, they are an individualistic expression of the spirituality of the common people.

I also find small size of hokora, particularly those with scaled-down versions of shrine features such as torii, of great interest. When I see these tiny houses out in nature, I am reminded of the numerous legends of faeries, pixies and “wee folk” that have existed throughout the British Isles. I cannot help but think that the kami venerated in these small hokora are somehow linked to the “week folk” – perhaps it would even be fitting to translate kami in this context as “faerie.”

Hokora remind me of something else quite familiar in Britain: Garden gnomes, and other such garden statues. But while hokora are sincerely revered as sacred spaces for kami (and the proliferation of offerings at hokora is proof of this), garden gnomes and their ilk are simply seen as whimsical, even tacky, decorative ornaments, and nothing more. Yet I cannot help that somehow, people place gnomes in the garden out of a deeply-seated, subconscious feeling that there are mysterious and benevolent forces of nature at work, and a desire to somehow reach out and revere this force. Gnomes, after all, were once respected as elemental spirits of the earth.

I do wish that something akin to hokora existed in British forests, fields and roadsides, even as just a reminder to respect our natural world (my own goal at the moment is to transform my rather drab Inari altar into something more like a hokora). I have a feeling that if we did try to make little Western Pagan-style hokora venerating the fae or other nature spirits, they would end up being vandalised. But if it did become a tradition here to set up small places for offerings to nature spirits, I think we would perhaps learn to value our diminishing places of natural beauty. And moreover, it would make us feel more spiritually fulfilled too.

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Can Pagans wear crosses?

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Pewter Celtic Triquetra Cross, a pendant harmoniously combining Pagan and Christian symbolism (you can buy this at my Dad’s shop, http://www.spiral.org.uk)

I own quite a lot of cross pendants. It’s linked with my love of Gothic fashion more than anything else, as crosses and other Christian symbols are quite common due to the Christian overtones in many Gothic novels, as well as the link with Gothic architecture. I also do like visiting old churches and looking at Christian iconography, all of which I find beautiful and inspiring to my Gothic imagination.

But since I have decided practising Paganism, I have started feeling a little more reluctant about wearing crosses or other overtly Christian symbols. This has nothing to do with my views of Christianity, which have not changed at all since becoming a Pagan, but more to do with how other people might think of me as a result.

I realise this is really quite shallow and I shouldn’t care about what other people think, but the fact is I can’t help but worry. I don’t think I would ever wear a cross to a moot – not because I am afraid of causing offence (very unlikely since my moot, Medway Pagans, is a very open-minded and have an “anything goes” attitude), but because I feel that it might cause confusion. Items of jewellery worn to a moot tend to have more significance than they would when worn casually, so if I were to wear a Christian symbol to a moot, people might think that I practise a combination of Christianity and Paganism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I definitely think it is possible to practise both together and I’m sure that back in the day many people did follow both religions to some extent – but that doesn’t accurately reflect my own path. Which, although eclectic, doesn’t really include Christianity, so I’d rather people know about the elements I do follow (Hellenism, Shinto etc). I suppose I might make an exception for the more “universal” cross symbols, such as the “Greek” or “Grail Cross” (a cross where all spokes are of equal length), or a Celtic cross like the one pictured, a design that many Pagans and Christians alike seem to appreciate. After all, the cross symbol is one that pre-dates Christianity.

Outside the environment of a moot, I am not so sure. Again, I feel that if I wore a cross, people who knew that I was Pagan might make comments of confusion as to why I am wearing a Christian symbol. Sadly, so many people seem to think that Paganism is somehow antithetical to Christianity, which I suppose is understandable seeing as how so many non-Christians were persecuted under Christian authorities in the past, and how the media seems to so readily equate Paganism with Satanic practises. I believe that certainly the two religions have their differences, but have plenty of similarities too (just read The Golden Bough to get an idea). But if I were to wear a cross, I might get comments of, “You shouldn’t wear a cross if you’re a Pagan, should you?” I suppose that, really, this shouldn’t bother me – after all, it could lead to an interesting discussion about Paganism and Christianity!

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Paganism – Religion or Lifestyle?

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Small pewter pentagram pendant, which you can buy from my Dad’s shop! http://www.spiral.org.uk

I recently saw an interesting discussion on the Pagan Federation Facebook page, which was – is Paganism a religion or lifestyle?

Some people seem to feel that Paganism is somehow more of a lifestyle than a religion, due to the nature of its deities (somewhat less well defined than in the more “major” religions), the ambiguity of its core tenants and beliefs, and the way in which it is practised (eclectic and very much embedded in daily life). So is Paganism a religion? [Read more…]

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Perceiving Inari

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Inari depicted as both a male and female deity (and in both cases with foxes)

When I offer prayers to Inari Okamisama, I try to visualise the deity in my mind’s eye. And this is not always easy, for a number of reasons.

One reason is that actual depictions of Inari are somewhat uncommon, compared with the icons and statues that exist for deities in other beliefs such as the Classical gods and goddesses, the Egyptian pantheon, the Christian saints and holy figures, and even the various Buddhist deities that one may see alongside Shinto shrines in Japan. It’s therefore hard to get a fixed image of Inari in one’s mind, and what’s more, the legends surrounding Inari depict the deity as appearing in so many different forms – an old man, a young woman similar to the Buddhist deity Dakiniten (indeed they are often conflated), a dragon, a snake, or simply a flaming jewel. In fact, the most popular image identified with Inari is the fox statue that you see in great numbers around Inari shrines in Japan.

But despite this, perceiving Inari as a fox is problematic. Shinto and Buddhist priests discourage the belief that Inari is a fox, even though so many people perceive him/her as so (and with the profusion of fox imagery surrounding Inari it’s hard not to). Perhaps this is because the fox has a somewhat shady reputation in Japan – in Japanese myths, the fox is a trickster, shape-shifter and seducer.

Another “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) is that Inari is so perfectly androgynous. No-one really debates whether Inari is male or female – he/she is simultaneously accepted as both and neither. I think this is in part thanks to the Japanese language, where it is perfectly possible to talk about someone (particularly someone you respect) without using gender-specific pronouns. It’s also a rather progressive view of the deity I think – being a powerful being, Inari transcends gender. And while I do like Inari’s androgyny, my own human failings mean that I cannot help but perceive Inari as a male or female presence sometimes.

So how do I visualise Inari? Sometimes, I see Inari as clearly a male or female force, and that image is accompanied with a particular personality. I see the male Inari as somewhat stern and proud, but with a mischievous streak, and I associate him with thunderstorms, alcohol, protection and money. As a female (which these days is my more common image of Inari), I see her as kindly, gentle, joyous and free, and I associate her with the life-giving powers of rain and crops, as well as healing and love. Somewhat amusingly, I actually see these two personalities in the two fox statues on my shrine – by coincidence, one statue seems to have a rather stern expression, while the other looks more gentle.

But I have to admit, more often than not, I do perceive Inari in my mind’s eye to be a fox (usually a white fox, which is Inari’s usual association). I realise that this isn’t “correct” in the eyes of Shinto purists, but I feel that the fox symbolises the nature of Inari so well – a complex, mysterious, and wise deity, embodying the untamed forces of Nature.  

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“Goth Zodiac” Art Series: Leo

zodiac-leo

The fifth in my “Goth Zodiac” series – Leo. Leo is associated with the Sun, which is rather antithetical to Goth really, so I tried to go for a baroque, regal look that turned out resembling Visual Kei (Japanese rock fashion).

You can view the whole series and my other art here.

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Ocean Day (Umi no Hi) 2014

ryuujin

Ryuujin, the Japanese Dragon God of the Sea

Today was the Japanese public holiday called Umi no Hi, or “Ocean Day” in English. It’s not a religious holiday at all, but one of several Japanese public holidays designated by the government, and is supposed to be a time to be grateful for the ocean’s bounty.

One of the perks of working where I do (a Japanese governmental organisation) is that I get some of the Japanese public holidays off as well as the English ones, and fortunately my husband is also off work for the school holidays, so we decided to go out on a day-trip to somewhere very appropriate to the day: Brighton.

Even more appropriately, we decided to spend part of our day there at the Sea Life Centre, and had a lovely time watching rays, sharks, turtles, jellyfish and lots of other sea life (we can’t wait to take our nephew here as he’s really into sea animals at the moment thanks to The Octonauts!). We followed this by walking on Brighton Pier as the sun began to set, and enjoyed watching the waves and enjoying the sea air.

It was a good opportunity to do what Ocean Day is meant to inspire – reflect upon the life-giving power of the sea, the beauty of the creatures within, and the need to respect and protect the ocean.

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Using ritual items post-wedding

cordsIt actually feels a little sad when your wedding is all over and there’s no more of that nervous excitement that you’ve been feeling for so many months running up to the big day (although ultimately I feel so happy to be married!). But one good thing is that we have lots of mementos left, which bring back all the lovely memories.

One of the most important mementos for us is our collection of seven ribbons we used for our handfasting, each one blessed by a member of our family invoking a particular deity and wound around our hands to bind us. I was thinking about how I could display these key parts from our wedding, and in the end I decided to entwine them on the pentagram I use in rituals, which is made from woven twigs. They hang down at the bottom of the pentagram like a tail, which makes it look like a shooting star – appropriate considering how close our wedding was to Tanabata!

By the way, the item hanging next to the pentagram in the photo is a lovespoon. This is a traditional item given in Wales to someone you love (usually, but not necessarily, romantic love). Being half-Welsh myself, it’s perhaps not surprising that I now own three lovespoons – one from my Welsh grandparents from my Christening, one from my parents to celebrate when my husband and I first moved in together, and finally another from my grandmother to both my husband and I to celebrate our wedding. The one in the picture is the one from my parents (it would probably be more appropriate to hang the wedding one here next to our handfasting cords, but its in a really nice presentation box and I don’t want to open it…)

weddingflowersAdditionally, we also took home the incredible flowers that our florist put together for the wedding (I really recommend her – her name is Marina, she’s really nice and amazingly talented, and you can find our more about her services here). Her most impressive work was probably the two enormous stone vases in Dode church, which she filled with some beautiful hedgerow flowers as well as flowers with particular significance to my husband and I – Baccara roses, ferns, yew (from my parents’ own yew tree) and ivy. They were so stunning that we decided to take the flowers home afterwards, and I’m so glad we did – we put them outside our house either side of the front door, and they looked amazing; a wonderful reminder of our incredible day.

Now, a week later, most of the flowers were looking rather tired, so it was with a heavy heart that I decided to throw most of them away. However, some of them, such as the ivy and the yew, were still pretty green, so instead I decided to offer them on my shrine to Inari Okamisama. Below is the result. It’s really quite a lot of greenery for a Shinto shrine, but for a Western pagan this emphasis on greenery, especially that with such a special meaning to us, seems an appropriate offering to a deity.

altar-green

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