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A Witch’s Tree Calender

Ngetal, Ruis and the Nameless Day

 

Ngetal:

From Mabon to Samhain, as we have seen, the comings and goings of the dead serve to thin the veil separating Middle Earth from the Underworld. Now at Samhain the Holly King sends the rest of his youth into the final harvest, his spirit descends once more to the gates of the Summerland, and this time he throws them wide for all spirits, human and non-human, to come up the World Pillar for that liminal time between times, the Celtic New Year. The cosmic order is relaxed for a season and Herne the Hunter, the Holly King’s Underworld aspect, bursts forth into the night skies of Middle Earth leading the Wild Hunt. Now all who have died during the year and been unable to reach the Summerland on their own are gathered up and taken there at the end of the Sabbat in that great ghostly cavalcade. At Samhain the greatest of dumb suppers is held, divinations are done for the new year to come, and the ordeals and signposts the dead will encounter while en route to the Summerland are depicted in the various sports and games of the occasion, such as bobbing for apples. This both honors the dead who have come with the hunt, and serves to guide the wandering dead, in case they become separated from the hunt on the way back.
Samhain marks the beginning of winter for the Celts, as Beltane was the beginning of summer, and the Wild Hunt will ride forth again and again throughout the winter months until Imbolc, February 1st. The world persists now for a time, but already the signs and sounds of deep winter are at hand. Now the denizens of Underworld and Middle Earth commingle as our cosmic home prepares for its yearly renewal from chaos.

Always in tune with the yearly cycle, the witch feels at one with the sound which above all sounds meant the approach of winter to the Irish Celts, the turbulence of the sea. Thus, the Song of Amergin tag for the month of Ngetal, the Reed, which began on October 28th and ends on November 24th, declares “I am a threatening noise of the sea.”

So the period from Samhain to Yule is a gradual letting go and dissolution of the local cosmic order on the level of the yearly cycle. The earthly aspect of the Holly King now ages quickly and becomes the hoary Lord of Misrule, who will preside over the Yule festivities beginning early in December. Similarly, the witch who has completed her inner journeys has become like a child again, carefree and playful, careless of techniques and rituals, yet brim full of the power of silence. She does what she is, and her every act is magical. It is no longer a question of journeys down the world river to unite with her root soul, for she is in continual contact with it.

November was the time when reeds were cut and used in the thatch for roofs, repairing them against the coming storms. The reed being hollow served as a conduit for spirits from the Underworld, and symbolized the openness of Middle Earth at this time of year to the world of spirit. The witch hears winter coming in the roaring of the sea, and listens intently to that sound, drawing her seasonal power from it. Greater silence within allows her to catch the sounds of cosmic dissolution, both within and without; for the witch herself is returning to chaos and will be renewed with the newborn Sun at Yule, or shortly thereafter on the Nameless Day.

What does it mean to say that the Sun returns to chaos and is reborn at Yule? In a material sense, of course, the Sun will not lose its current form for many millions of years. The return to chaos is a return of the awareness of the spirit living in the Sun to the surrounding sea of chaos. The Sun undergoes this spiritual death and rebirth every year, and the witch, who has aligned herself with the energies of the Sun and Earth throughout the year, participates in this renewal, along with the Earth itself.

When the ancients talked about creation, they began with chaos, pictured as an immense eternal sea, full of awareness and energy and life, the source and destination of all beings. The Greeks made chaos a Goddess and called her Night, and even Zeus held her in awe. Chaos has no beginning and no end, but periodically a cosmos arises from her, and then we can speak of a beginning. First she gives birth to Gods, who begin creating a world out of what they find around them. They do this by establishing an energy boundary, a sphere that contains energies in a certain range of frequencies, keeping out higher frequency energies that would break up and destroy what the Gods are trying to build. An example of such a boundary is the ozone layer, which filters out ultraviolet rays from the Sun, protecting life on the surface of the Earth. A cosmos, then, is like an island in the sea of chaos, and as energy from the surrounding sea leaches through from time to time, the boundaries of a cosmos must be maintained. As the Gods do not have unlimited energy, their maintenance of a cosmos peaks and then declines, and periodically they must let go of themselves and renew their spirits from chaos itself. Reborn from that sea, they once more have energy in abundance to maintain and grow their world.

Each cosmos exists on many levels, and the different levels let go and are renewed in chaos at different times. Thus, on the level of the Sun, renewal takes place from Samhain to Yule, whereas on the level of the Moon it happens during each lunar dark phase. Only at the end of a world cycle does renewal take place on all levels, and then the cosmos relapses into chaos for an age of quiescence and incubation, preparing for its emergence in the next cycle. The witch attunes herself to the daily, lunar and yearly cycles and undergoes renewal through each of them; for, as the mysteries taught, each of us is a cosmos in miniature. This is the meaning of “as above, so below,” and this is the main business of witchcraft.

 

Ruis and the Nameless Day:

November 24th is the last day of Ngetal, the Reed Month. The 25th November is the first day of Ruis, the Elder month, which can extend through December 23rd but stops short of the Nameless Day, the day after Yule. It is the last lunar month of the year, and includes within it Yule, the Winter Solstice, which usually falls on the 21st of December.

The elder tree grows by rivers and has always been considered the witch’s special tree. The Church, which fears the spiritual unknown and shuns it, taught people not to burn the wood of the elder on the hearth, because that was inviting the Devil inside one’s house; so evidently witches used the elder smoke (which is not pleasant) as a catalyst for this voyage into the unknown. The Rune of Amergin’s tag for Ruis is simply “I am a wave of the sea,” though an alternate reading is “I am a returning wave of the sea.” From facing and uniting with the threat of cosmic dissolution in Ngetal, the witch passes into and becomes that dissolution itself in Ruis.

As renewal takes place at various levels of a cosmos, so the witch needn’t descend the world pillar, or swim down the world river, in order to reach the underlying sea of chaos. What this voyage into the sea of chaos is like is hard to say when we are not in it, but there are moments when everything around us seems strange and unknown. At such times we can even seem unknown to ourselves, parts of the great unknown. We come away from those moments greatly refreshed in spirit and energy, and newly reborn. This is perhaps analogous to the cosmic rebirth from chaos on various levels.

The seven days before and seven days after the winter solstice make up what are known as ‘the halcyon days,’ when the sea is generally as calm as glass, and along the calm surface a coracle comes floating in towards shore. This womb-like boat holds the babe soon to be born at Yule, the radiant new Sun God. On the longest night of the year the coracle comes ashore, and at dawn the reborn Oak King fights the old Holly King and defeats him. This myth, which probably derives from the cult of Dionysus, is an alternate to the one where the Oak King, imprisoned in the sacred oak at Litha, is liberated on Yule eve from the oak log and flies up the chimney on the back of a wood louse, ‘Robin Hood’s steed’.

The day after the winter solstice is the extra day of the year in the expression ‘a year and a day,’ added to the lunar year to make it come even with the solar. It lies outside the tree-months, and is associated with the poisonous mistletoe or all-heal (Ychelwydd), but that is not its name. It has no name because it is a time set apart, and because the newly reborn witch, like the Sun God, has no name as yet. Her name, like that of the newly reborn Oak King, will be assigned on Modranacht, the Night of the Mothers (i.e., the Fates), which the Christians appropriated as Christmas Eve. For one’s name in a pagan sense is the expression or embodiment of one’s destiny, and on Modranacht the destiny of the reborn Oak King is foretold, and the witch scries her own destiny for the waxing year to come through divination.

This Nameless Day after Yule is the most magically potent day in the year for Celtic witches, and if possible, it should be spent quietly in solitary meditation, so the witch can experience in her own person the mystery of rebirth. This is the secret referred to in the Rune of Amergin tag for this day, which runs “Who but I knows the secret of the unhewn dolmen?” For dolmens marked the womb-like graves of heroes, and as yet there is no name carved there.

The day after the Nameless Day is the first day of Beth, the Birch month. The Lady has turned the Wheel once again, and we are back in the waxing year, facing the promise of a new Spring.

Bibliography:

CAMPANELLI, Pauline and Dan, Ancient Ways; Reclaiming Pagan Traditions, St. Paul, MN, Llewellyn Publications, 1992.
ELLIS, Peter Beresford, Celtic Myths and Legends, New York, Carroll and Graf, 1999.
FRAZER, Sir James, The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion, Abridged. Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Reference, 1994.
GRAVES, Robert, The White Goddess; A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 27th printing, 1993.
RYALL, Rhiannon, Celtic Lore and Druidic Ritual, Berkshire, Capall Bann, 1994.