Imbas Offerings

While I’ve worked with the seeking of and cultivating of imbas for many years, I had never done the traditional imbas forosnai ritual, as I could not do a go-around of the traditional offering as recorded in Cormac’s Glossary, the most important academic study of it being Nora Chadwick’s 1935 article of the same name in Scottish Gaelic Studies (Vol. IV Part II). The rite begins with the chewing of either raw dog, cat or pig meat, as an offering to the “idol gods”. Cat or dog, ethically is out of question (and of course illegal too) and no matter how my mind tried to trip around it the very considerable health risks of raw pork is insurmountable. Nor could I get behind the concept of doing an offering simply in thought; I find doing things physically has much greater impact. Another alternative is chewing sacred fungus or plants (Erynn Laurie sees descriptions as coded of such, probably Amanita muscaria).


So I was very intrigued to read the alternative offering that Christopher Scott Thompson came up with based on an old tale called “Does Greth Eat Curds?” This is all in Thompson’s book A God Who Makes Fire: The Bardic Mysticism of Amergin, which I highly recommend for anyone interested at all in filidecht. So what are the ingredients of the alternative concoction? Well some of the ingredients are difficult to get. They are curds, leeks, garlic, onion, blackberries, sour (crab)apples, and sloe (blackthorn) berries. I found it impossible to procure sloe berries, even dried locally, and ended up getting them from Poland via Ebay. Crabapples proved impossible: I looked in my local Russian markets where I have seen them but they are not in season at this time so I ended up substituting a bit of a regular apple. Curds include farmers cheese and quark (a traditional German staple) and cottage cheese could work as well, as a choice that could be found anywhere in the US.


Since it took a lot of effort to gather up the ingredients this all contributed to the ritual in my estimate. And then I chose to go to a remote wilderness location, feeling intuitively guided to do the rite in a place with very obvious chthonic connections, specifically within a volcanic geography, and near the shore of a caldera lake on the Medicine Lake shield volcano. The ritual site was surrounded by lodgepole pines, the high altitude Pinus contorta. While I hadn’t planned on it I ended up meditating in an ‘ice cave’ earlier in the day, a lava cave whose deeper portal was partially ice-veiled and from which the melting ice very audibly dripped into a pool of water.


It was fun preparing this chthonic food, and I consider this the first part of the ritual. It certainly is an odd recipe, but it isn’t intended for the human; the food is chewed upon and then spit into the offering bowl. (The offering I made was for Brigid the Poet.) Thompson says not to swallow but honestly I found that impossible. But it helped me to enter a very different mindset. There is also a drink offering to Brigid, I chose a simple honeyed organic milk (I used half and half to give a richer and more traditional heavy bodied milk). One could use mead or some other libation instead.



Thompson has an interesting discussion of a chthonic Brig, Great Bríd of the Horses, who fits well with my some of my experiences (and explained a few things) of Brigid the Poetess and whom I invoked in my rite. He associates her in Indo-European terminology with the mare goddess. In a late Scottish folktale she appears with a red-eared mare in a tale about Sénchan Torpeist.


Offerings made and induction chants chanted, then I retreated into my tent for an incubation. The imbas came, it came fast, challenging and vivid, and as always with such experiences I will be continuing to process and digest it for a long while, I suspect.



Here are a few things I want to share.

I recently got C. Lee Vermeers book Teagasca: The Instructions of Cormac Mac Airt (Faoladh Books). It’s a new translation of Kuno Meyer’s 1909 translation of Tecosca Cormaic with lots of insightful annotations. I haven’t finished it yet, but see this provides a contemporary understanding of these wisdom instructions that I find an improvement upon the translation published by Thomas Cleary (The Counsels of Cormac, 2004). Vermeers writes that there are at least seven of these “mirrors for princes” in Irish tradition, including The Testament of Morann and the Precept Teachings of Cú Chulainn, all of which he plans on doing. This is an excellent start.


And the second (corrected) edition of By Blood, Bone, and Blade: A Tribute to the Morrigan, published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina (they have a line of good books for polytheists), is out now. It’s a devotional anthology, and as once can expect there’s a wide range in terms of quality and insight, but the following essays alone make it a worthwhile buy: P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ “The Morrigan and Cú Chulainn: A More Nuanced View of Their Relationship” and eir “The Morrigan, Alecto, and Lamia: Irish Deities and Interpretatio Hibernica of Classical Myth”; and “Musings on the Irish War Goddesses” by Saigh Kym Lambert, which among many important elucidations of the matter of An Morrigan and related deities, also provides a corrective to much of the nonsense about Cú Chulainn and the Great Queen (usually along the lines of she wanted to punish him for not having sex with her).

And this came out back at summer solstice: Interview with Rebecca Buchanan at Eternal Haunted Summer about (mostly) From The Prow of Myth.



Liber Pater, the Roman god who presided over human seed, (as related by Augustine) was often seen as being Dionysos, as he was by Ovid that poet of becoming, for whom he was a patron god. After his banishment by Augustus to the what is now Romanian coast, a very remote place from a Roman perspective, Ovid wrote the Tristia, his Book of Sorrows. In Book 5, Ovid laments his inability to attend the convocation of poets on the Liberalia*, March 17th. The poets met to celebrate Liber/Bacchus. Ovid beseeches the god to bring him back through his own powers so he can join his retinue.


It didn’t literally work out, but in the form of his book it did. A key image and episode in the Dionysian mythos is Dionysos’ leap from his chariot to console Ariadne, bereft and disconsolate by her abandonment by Theseus on Naxos (who wouldn’t be?). Ovid writes of this in his Ars Amatoria and in the Fasti as well. Professor Ned Lubacher, in Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence, describes this vital scene as the god’s leap into presence and becoming as his heart stirs for Ariadne. Ovid says he leaps to her (and out of his chariot) so as to not let the tigers who draw his chariot frighten her. We see the god’s tenderness, this god who dies, and knows loss, as he approaches the Cretan princess.



This leap will capture the imagination of Renaissance painters as well, as in Titian’s painting of this scene from 1533, Bacchus and Ariadne. According to Lubacher, Titian was well acquainted with the Metamorphoses and “…understood that something essential about the relationship of Bacchus and Ariadne could be depicted only through the figure of the god leaping in midair to save the human from despair, from losing herself in the infinite distance which seems to stretch out from beyond Theseus’ ship…The leap and gaze pull her back from an imminent nothingness and into the cymbal-filled din of the bacchanal. In the sky above them the ring of stars appears enigmatically to suggest that all of this is about something esoteric: the ring of recurrence and the eternal cycles of becoming” (49). The ancient theology of eternal recurrence is embodied in these images.


Dionysos/Bacchus’ restoration of Ariadne is a central image of sarcophagi for the Roman imperial period. As historians including Bruhl, Turcan, and Metz have shown, this story became a common, if somewhat esoteric one in that period for understanding death and the afterlife, and while for some it was simply decorative, these were expensive funeral works that were expensive to commission and for many of the families these must have provided a meaningful allegory (Lukacher 43). But love is the tone of these common images, renewal of life, specifically in the becoming of the senses, in the wine party with musicians about, and readiness to dance. Is the god’s leap the first step in his dance with Ariadne? In Titian’s imagination the retinue are dancing. As Ariadne is turning toward the god with a sense of significant movement, a very youthful Dionysos is the very picture of motion and vigor, his cape flows behind him in the great rush of becoming. Behind him are the famous Dionysian retinue: satyrs, erotes, maenads, and others.


The leap into the flux and flows of life…


Historians Robert Turcan and Friedrich Metz have shown how key the episode of Dionysos rescuing Ariadne was to the understanding of death and life after death in the early centuries CE. In contrast to the promise of Jesus Christ to bring the faithful resurrection in a type of eternal stasis, Bacchus is pictured in these artworks as resurrecting the soul within the world of endless becoming, in the realm of the senses.

Roman sarcophagi with Dionysian motifs, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.

Roman sarcophagi with Dionysian motifs, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.


That great Dionysian, Friedrich Nietzsche who had probably viewed Titian’s painting, had planned to make his own contribution to the understanding of these mysteries in dramatic form. In his notebooks, he wrote a draft of a satyr play (which never was completed) and penned an evocative line from Ariadne’s perspective: “abandoned by the hero, I dream of the superhero” (KSA 10:433, quoted in Lubacher 47). Some years later still writing notes for the play, the philosopher writes from the point of view of Dionysos: “Oh, Ariadne,” says the god, “you yourself are the Labyrinth: one never gets out of you” (KSA12:510, Lubacher). Ariadne, the endless cycling dance of death and life twining through unimaginable gulfs of time in the cycles of becoming, always joined by the ecstatic lord; Ariadne whose brother is a monster; Ariadne, whose mother gave in to an unthinkable lust; Ariadne rent by an abyss of abandonment; Ariadne with Dionysus, who has died, suffered and is ever-reborn, leaping toward her!


In his poem “Ariadne’s Lament”, Nietzsche wrote:

A lightening bolt. Dionysus becomes visible in emerald beauty.
Be clever, Ariadne!…
You have little ears; you have my ears:
Put a clever word in them! —
Must one not first hate oneself, in order to love oneself?…
I am your labyrinth…


Now the god has become the labyrinth, which brings us back to the dancing ground. Carl Kerenyi saw Aridane as the Minoan Mistress of the Labyrinth, the Knossos Labyrinth being a sacred dance design. In what Kerenyi thought was an older story, Dionysos first took her as wife in the Labyrinth, about which Himerios (5th century CE) drawing on an earlier unnamed writer, says “In Cretan caves Dionysos took Ariadne to wife” (110). Ariadne is the labyrinth, where Dionysos continuously leaps into zoe too! As Kerenyi says, zoe, indestructible life, the endlessly becoming, “suffers no interruption and permeates all things” (95).


Another view of the sarcophagi.

Another view of the sarcophagi.


In the Tristia written in the exile on the (now) Romanian coast, that alienation that Augustus had put upon him, Ovid calls to Liber, “come and lighten my misfortunes, fairest of gods, remembering I am one of thine own” (38). Ovid was the poet of becoming and its endless metamorphoses, the ever-shifting cycle of the great (cosmic) year; it should come as not surprise that he should write so beautifully of the leap of the ecstatic god to Ariadne. While Augustus never relented, at least within the power of his poem Ovid was able to rejoin the retinue of the God.



*Scholars have various theories about the older Republican-era meaning of the Liberalia, and the centrality or not of Liber Pater in it, but among other things it marked the taking of the toga virilis by citizen boys (of 14) passing into manhood, which Ovid interpreted as a sign of liberty.


Ned Lubacher. Time Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence. Duke University Press, 1998.

Carl Kerenyi. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Princeton University Press, 1976.


Often it’s something subtle, a glow of light through leaves, a deeper shade, a resonance of bark, and the sense of something much greater and older imbues consciousness. And someone appears. Maybe a banana slug. A surprising creature moving ever so slowly, gliding in slow motion over the moss on a dead tree trunk in moist ferny forest. There are species that when they appear seem like a spirit of the forest. I should rephrase that, this humble creature surely is a spirit of the forest. Scientifically it is Ariolimax, an air breathing gastropod mollusk that lives in the moist cool redwood zone of coastal northern California and in the wet coastal forests all the way up to southeast Alaska (with a few limited relict populations further south and to the east in the Sierra Nevada). But through the lens of the animist it is something more, my experience of it is more than rationalist knowledge can contain. I’m not putting down that kind of knowledge (I find people always jump to such conclusions when any limitations to our dominant mode of rationality are stated) as it obviously informs my understanding of this creature that is the mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Note that the slug is reading Plato!

Note that the slug is reading Plato!



But there is something improbable about the banana slugs and their appearances; at least for me. I feel a kind of surprise; I who usually find garden slugs disgusting, yet these primal creatures of the forest elicit something like what the Japanese call yugen, reflecting something deep and hinting of unnoticed things. The Japanese poet Kamo no Chōmei (13th century) offers the following as a characterization of yūgen: “It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.” Or Nancy Hume writing in Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader writes, “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly” (Hume, 253–54). The Beat poet Hettie Jones (and first wife of Amiri Baraka) had a literary magazine in the ‘50s called Yugen, with the emphasize on surprise, paradox, like the classic yugen image of a tree growing out of rock, the unexpected, the richness of emotional perception, awe.



I would say chains of relationships, of time, of the exceptions, braidings and weavings of life are evoked. The ecologist Aldo Leopold, who was an advisor on conservation to the United Nations and died in 1948 in a grass fire, used the term noumenon, an imponderable essence of material things. He writes of how in the north woods autumn landscape consists of “the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead. An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost (A Sand County Almanac, 137). He goes on to mention various birds who are the noumenon of different landscapes like the Thick-billed Parrot of the Sierra Madre. I’d say the Stellar’s jay is one in the redwood forest, but so is the banana slug, that humble invertebrate, flashing yellow in the dim woods, gliding slowly, but determinedly down through the ages.


Volume 1, Issue 2 of Air n-Aithesc (Our Message) is now available both in print and digital editions!

You can purchase it here: ciannai2.wix.com/air-n-aithesc



I’m saddened to hear that Margot Adler has passed. Drawing Down The Moon was such a groundbreaking book. I read it in ’86. There was nothing like it at the time.

At the last PantheaCon, I sat next to her in the Wiccanate Privilege discussion; she was obviously a good listener, as well as a warm individual.

Besides her important work in the Pagan Revival, she was an NPR correspondent and earlier of WBAI, NY’s Pacifica affiliate (Free Speech Radio). Important work all! Interestingly enough, she was also the granddaughter of Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud’s colleague.

In remembrance of a life well-lived!



drawing down moon


Holy Tree

I love it when by happenstance I come upon a natural shrine or altar somewhere in nature that other people have been drawn to. Here is a redwood tree from a beautiful grove in the Berkeley/Oakland hills that has attracted devotion.

My partner and I added our contribution and prayers.






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