Deportment for the soul

Image by ADiamondFellFromTheSky
Image by ADiamondFellFromTheSky

He passed me the disc, about the size of a small dinner plate and quite heavy. My hands were full of things needing to go through to the kitchen. There was only one thing for it, I placed the disc on my head and walked through that way, thinking how the lessons learned when we are younger than we are today still have value and inordinately pleased with myself that I could still do it without effort..

My mother used to tell me about good posture when I was small and it was fun trying to walk around with piles of books balanced on my head. We had to do the same at dance class. We had it in school and in the gym too back then. For my mother, it was about deportment; the way a lady carries the body. For my teachers, the idea was that by developing balance we would be able better able to perform the movements that were required of us with grace and poise. Nowadays, it is simply about good posture and, hunched over a keyboard far too much of the time, I am grateful for those early lessons and still prefer a straight back.

Good posture stays with you. It is not something that you lose like the beauty of dewy skin or the lustre of youthful hair. Something of it remains. Even my great grandmother, her spine bent under the weight of almost ten decades, still held herself well. Those we deem elegant seem to have something in their carriage that stays noticeable for the rest of their lives too, even when the years have erased all outward sign of youth.

When I was fifteen, my grandfather gave me a copy of Dion Fortune’s Moon Magic. There is much to be learned from the psychological journey of the two protagonists and it is still one of my favourite and best-thumbed books. Being young and on the verge of womanhood, however,  one small phrase took my eye that had nothing to do with the story itself. “… the body should swing and balance from the waist and that is worth more in beauty than a slender line.”  I think this is true and it gives an impression of balance and grace.

We learn very early in our lives the mechanics of sitting, standing and walking and, once learned, we seldom give them another thought until we begin to suffer the consequences of what we failed to learn to do well. Then we get back-ache and have to learn anew, starting with the core muscles, as often as not. Yet the body is designed to both respond to and create those minute shifts and adjustments that are required in order to maintain perfect equilibrium. Until it knows a poised centre of balance, it cannot create it.

Our inner balance is very similar… we learn as children our techniques of how to deal with the world and though they may be perfectly serviceable for years to come, evolving as we grow, they may also come back to haunt us as emotional aches and pains. The accumulated effects of the years gradually throw the balance even further out and it may take going back to the beginning to put things right, through therapy or through the self examination we do when we seek to understand why. It is only in doing so that we begin to see the repetitive scenarios and reactions that have been there all along, but which themselves are no more than a symptom of something we learned awry  early in life. Once we find the starting point, we can begin too to straighten things out.

The spiritual life is little different. Spirituality does not necessarily mean religion, although religious faith should mean spirituality. The spiritual life is that very personal relationship we may each seek with whatever greater reality we come to know. We have all met those people who seem to radiate joy, no matter how hard their lives may be, no matter their age… they have a glowing beauty for which there seems no reason and they find a beauty in life that may seem to pass us by.  We may ask ourselves why here too. We absorb what we are taught as children and it serves us as children. As we grow, so do our thoughts and beliefs change and grow with us. There usually comes a point where we may feel spiritually off balance and start to examine those deep-seated beliefs, tracing them to back to their beginnings. We may find that the spiritual ‘muscles’ were never fully flexed, that we simply accepted what we were given because it worked for us then, but now the core needs some work and the source  does not seem to show us the Source we feel may be there.

Where can we look to find the answers to those questions we begin to ask, to find that poise and grace that comes from spiritual equilibrium? We need only look within. The questions we ask are unique to every one of us, the answers we seek are part of us all. It matters little if we give what we find there a Name and a Story… it is the essence of what lies at the heart of us that straightens the spiritual spine and brings back the balance.

Solstice of the Moon: The Field of Prayer

Easter Aquhorthies. Image: Paul Allison CCA2.0

There were many merry meetings in Inverurie, bringing a golden glow to the afternoon that belied the grisaille of rain and wet stone. We were greeted outside our meeting place with fierce hugs from a lady we love dearly and who has been much missed over the past couple of years. Inside, there was the wonderful surprise of finding the Canadian contingent, and we had soon filled a fair proportion of the tea-room with laughter and conversation… there was a lot of catching up to do.

When all members of the party were assembled or accounted for, we set off for the short drive to our first destination. The circle sits on a hillside above the town with a small parking area a few minutes’ walk from the stones. By the time we arrived the steady rain had turned into a lashing downpour. I stowed my camera in an allegedly waterproof pocket for safety, where it promptly and irrevocably drowned. But that circle alone was worth it…and the weekend was only just beginning.

Easter Aquhorthies is one of the rare ‘recumbent circles’ found only in this small area of Scotland, and in the far south-west of Ireland. ‘Aquhorthies’ comes from the Gaelic; it may come from ‘auch’ or ‘achd’ meaning ‘field’, and ‘ortha’ meaning ‘prayer’ giving ‘field of prayer’, or be derived from ‘achadh choirthe’, ‘field of pillar stone’. If the sanctity of the site is preserved in its name, which is of a much later date than the circle’s creation, it would suggest that a recognition of its importance as a sacred centre long survived its builders. So too would its state of preservation…as if all later peoples understood or perhaps feared the magic of the place.

Image: Stu Smith, Flickr CCL

And it is magical. That first sight drew gasps from many of us. It is a truly beautiful site, even in the rain and even at first glance, appeared to be remarkably complete. Running Elk ushered us into the circle with instructions to find ‘our’ place within it. A place where we felt comfortable…or uncomfortable… and to consider why that might be. Two stones had stood out for me, even on the approach. I wandered around to the almost polished back of the huge recumbent and by the time I had finished exploring it, everyone seemed to have found their places. I stood by one of the flanking stones, hopeful that, even in the rain, I would be able to hear what Running Elk might tell us. I need not have worried on that score… not in this circle.

This circle is one of around ninety recumbents in this area and one of only a few to have retained all of its stones.  There are nine single standing stones in the circle and the recumbent stone itself, flanked by a pair of uprights. The recumbent appears to be chocked with further perpendicular stones, but closer inspection shows that they were not, in fact, designed as supports. Perhaps they have more to do with the acoustics of the circle… from where he was seated between the perpendicular stones, everyone in the circle could hear Running Elk perfectly. Yet, when he stood, his voice was lost in the rain. Later, we would discover that the voice could not carry outside the circle… one step beyond, and it disappeared into the breeze.

Image: Otter CCA3.0

Somebody knew what they were doing with these stones. Yet Easter Aquhorthies has been dated to the Neolithic period, around six thousand years ago. Within its central space a child was carefully buried in a cyst. We have seen this before. Running Elk suggested that the burial may have predated the circle, hallowing the space. We wondered why it always seems to be a boy-child and Stuart signalled that special bond between mother and son. With our daughters, we share our skills and experience of life; sons we raise to manhood and watch them leave our world for their own. And this circle was a place of priestesses.

The circle is slightly flattened in shape and has a diameter of around sixty feet. It sits within a banked ditch that may have been added at a later date, perhaps when the overgrown circle was cleaned and restored in the early nineteenth century. The stones vary in size. The tallest are the two flanking stones in the SSW quarter are over seven feet tall, and the rest of the stones descend in height to the stone opposite the recumbent in the NNE which is five and a half feet tall. The recumbent itself is some twelve and a half feet long and weighs around nine tons.

The stones themselves are unusual, being of different colours and composition. The recumbent is red granite, through which are scattered crystals and lines of quartz. It was probably brought from  Bennachie, a nearby hill with a history all of its own. Its most visible height,  Mither Tap, was a ghost against the horizon through the rain. ‘Beinn na Ciche’  means ‘hill of the breast’.  White quartz seems to have played an important role at these circles and seems associated with the ‘male’ stones. It may also have been important in reflecting or capturing the moonlight. Some things we may never know, but what is obvious with this circle and its surroundings is the role of the divine feminine… and the need for balance, rather than supremacy, between male and female, both symbolic and physical.

It is worth remembering that ‘male’ and ‘female’ do not necessarily refer just to gender. They can also be symbolic of more abstract concepts, like the positive and negative poles of a battery, dynamic or receptive force…or the sun and moon. While the sun is usually considered a dynamic force and the moon receptive, it is interesting that in many ancient cultures, there was, in addition to the obvious solar and lunar deities, a sun goddess and a moon god.

Image; Stu Smith, Flickr CCL

The rest of the stones are of pink porphyry. One stone, however, is completely different… a great point of rich, red jasper, polished on one side by the touch of those seeking its blessing over thousands of years. With the red stones and grey, in view of what we were to learn of the purpose of the circle, I have to wonder at the significance of the colour choices in solar and lunar terms, for it seems that here, few details were left to chance.

‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’ was the subtitle of the weekend. The Maiden Stone in a circle, Running Elk told us, is always triangular. The Mother Stone is always red. The Crone always the most gnarled. The symbolism of those attributes is evident in terms of female development. In this circle, one stone was Maiden, Mother and Crone all in one… the point of red jasper.  Symbol of a triune deity, perhaps… or the seasons of birth, growth and harvest?… or something we had yet to learn?

It might be thought that all this is too complex for the mind of Stone Age Man… yet the precision with which these recumbent circles are constructed proves that is not so. This circle was built with a clear knowledge of the movement of the heavenly bodies and their relationship with the Earth.  There are many astronomical alignments within the circle and the recumbent and the flanking stone against which I stood mark the major lunar standstill, which takes place every 18.6 years.

There was so much to learn that we could never have covered it in one visit…especially in the rain. Thankfully, we would be returning to the circle…and in better weather too, we hoped. For now, we were all soaked through, so it was back to the hotel to change for dinner… at least into dry clothes. Oddly though, no-one seemed to be in a hurry to leave…

Image: Gordon Robertson, flickr. CCL

Solstice of the Moon – Maiden, Mother, Crone by Helen Jones

shares the first part of her experience at the Silent Eye’s Solstice of the Moon weekend:

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’

I should have expected it, really. It was, after all, a Silent Eye weekend, and I knew from the previous one I’d attended that the themes and ideas would reveal themselves gradually, and in different ways. Last time, for me at least, it was all about emotion – Joy, Sorrow, Awakening. This time, on a weekend entitled Maiden, Mother, Crone, I thought that the energy I’d feel would be feminine. But it was interesting how this seemed to spill beyond the stones to everyday life, to a larger question that is becoming more relevant in our current society – the role of women.

I am a feminist. Of course I am. To me, feminism is about equality. About women having equal access to the liberties and choices afforded to men. Equal pay, equal rights, access to education, to birth control, to travel, to liberty. To a balance in society where each gender is given the chance to reach their full potential, whatever it may be. For so very long now, women have been relegated. To wife of, daughter of, sister of, mother of, as though our worth were somehow intrinsically bound to the men in our lives. Women go to the same universities, take the same degrees, chase the same qualifications, work at the same companies as men. Yet, somehow, we are lesser. We are expected (regardless of whether we want to or are able to) at some point to give it all up to have children, to ‘just get pregnant and leave’ as though recovery from the rigours of pregnancy and childbirth while caring for a tiny helpless child is some sort of lifestyle choice, the ultimate expression of our womanhood and all we are destined for.

I realise, too, that I speak from a place of privilege. That I do have choice in most things. However, there are many others who do not and so, while such imbalance exists, it is up to us to speak out. Our voices are louder now than they have been for thousands of years and with that, perhaps, comes hope. Hope for change, and for balance, another theme revealed on the weekend which, even though I’d only been in Scotland a few hours, had already begun to work its magic.

Continue reading Helen’s account at Journey to Ambeth