A Druid Trinity – Musings on Theology

For nearly a quarter of a century, I had worshipped Mother Earth and Father Sky as the dual source of all things.

This particular duality appears in belief systems the world over, by some name or another. It is easily visualized. It makes the universe seem nice and predictable and orderly. It is the basis of the AODA’s Spirit-Above/Spirit-Below magical framework. It appears in the GCC communion ceremony. It appears in the ADF ritual framework of the Two Powers. It appears in the Taoist yin-yang symbolism. In pagan traditions of all kinds. In Native American folklore. In the Ancient Greek pairing of Ouranos and Gaia.

But in recent meditations upon theology, I came to realize that this pairing is incomplete.

If Father Sky (or similar) evokes concepts of law and light, inspiration, and the instigating power predictable cycles, and if Mother Earth (or similar) evokes concepts of the power of physical manifestation and tangible, living reality, responsive to those Heavenly powers, then one might easily explain seasons, the typical cycles of life and death, the behaviors of most living things on the planet, striving to thrive. But there is no possible way that those two Powers/Deities, alone, could cause or explain: the sudden appearance, in random locations, of pairs of particle/anti-particle and the energy bursts associated with them; the formation of supercontinent Rodinia in the precise location necessary to create snowball Earth, and cause the mass extinction of earliest life; the meteor strike that caused the mass extinctions which ended the age of dinosaurs; or any of the other sudden, unpredictable, catastrophic Changes – which are not part of any orderly pattern or cycle of change, but a fundamental rewriting of the rules.

Druid philosophy suggests an alternative framework, in the triad of Land/Sea/Sky or Calas/Gwyar/Nwyfre: there must be a third, primal Power of Nature, not the one of Heavenly Spirit of Inspiration, nor the one of Earthly Power of Manifestation, but one of Fundamental Change – change not merely of situations or physical realities, but of entire rule-sets defining the cycles of situations or physical realities.

In ancient Persian mythology, that which predated Zoroastrianism, there is a personification of this force, known as the ancient bird, Simurgh (text borrowed from Wikipedia):

Iranian legends consider the bird so old that it had seen the destruction of the world three times over. The Simurgh learned so much by living so long that it is thought to possess the knowledge of all the ages. In one legend, the Simurgh was said to live 1,700 years before plunging itself into flames (much like the phoenix).

The Simurgh […] represented the union between the Earth and the Sky, serving as mediator and messenger between the two. The Simurgh roosted in Gaokerena, the Hōm (Avestan: Haoma) Tree of Life, which stands in the middle of the world sea (Vourukasha). The plant is potent medicine and is called all-healing, and the seeds of all plants are deposited on it. When the Simurgh took flight, the leaves of the tree of life shook, making all the seeds of every plant fall out. These seeds floated around the world on the winds of Vayu-Vata and the rains of Tishtrya, in cosmology taking root to become every type of plant that ever lived and curing all the illnesses of mankind.

Depending upon the story, Simurgh is sometimes described as having feathers of all birds, or scales of a fish and wings, or the head of a lion and wings.

There are similar bird/dragon/serpentine powerful, magical change-agents occurring in early myths, the world around: Firebird, Phoenix, Chinese Dragon, Thunderbird, Geruda. Interestingly, many of these creatures had early myths treat them as beneficial or at least neutral, divine powers of nature. But later mythological interpretations either recast them as evil, or as omens of disaster, to be conquered by heroes.

But it seemed to me that rather than thinking of conquering or escaping a divine Power of Change, one would do better to learn to understand, and live with that Power.

Having no other name for it, I have adopted the name Simurgh, and it now holds a prominent place in my personal theology, and has inspired a complete rewriting and restructuring of my personal devotions, and ritual framework.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, is an inspiring book of essays exploring various ways of understanding and interacting with the natural world around us. In its pages, I learned an enormous amount about the flora, fauna, microorganisms, and ecology of the the North Eastern/Mid-Atlantic/Great Lake regions of the United States, based purely on the modern, scientific perspective of the field of botany. But Kimmerer also shared some of the myths and traditions of the indigenous peoples of that land, which offer another, and perhaps a wiser, approach to interacting with nature than does the scientific method, alone – an approach grounded in the dual themes of gratitude and reciprocity.

The book begins with the creation myth of the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region of the United States: Skywoman Falling. In that story, Skywoman falls from Skyworld to Earth (a water world), bearing a bundle of seeds from the Tree of Life. The animals already present on Earth risk their lives to save her from drowning, and pile some mud on Turtle’s back, to give her a safe place to rest and recover. In an act of gratitude, and reciprocity for their kindness, Skywoman dances to extend the reach of the new land, and scatters the seeds of all the plants of the world, introducing all the plant teachers, food plants, and medicine plants of the world. And her gifts to the world continue to care for us, even to this day. With this simple tale, Kimmerer launches her argument that nature works as a gift economy, which can only survive so long as all participants harvest wisely, nurture the givers, and reciprocate rather than greedily grabbing for all they can get away with in the present moment.

An interesting point she raises is that this focus on gratitude and reciprocity becomes easier when the language people use to refer to it speaks of the world in terms of living beings, rather than as a conglomeration of soul-less “its” to be used or ignored, as a mere, inanimate resource. This also makes it easier to remember the difference between times when profiting from the fruits of your own labor is appropriate, and times when your receipt of an unbidden blessing or bounty, freely given you by Nature, is meant to be freely shared with your neighbors.

The essays she uses to illustrate and support these thematic points are all so rich in fascinating detail, that the book bears many repeated readings, and each time I pick it up, I learn or relearn something wonderful. My words can not possibly do it justice. I highly recommend that you read this book – or better yet, buy three copies, and give two away. I know I will!