Fire in the Head

I’m really enjoying Sharon Knight’s new album Neofolk Romantique.  It’s a collection of ballads, folk songs, sea songs, and Sharon’s original compositions.  Sharon’s vocals are strong and her and Winter’s instrumentals are simply beautiful – I think I could listen to their guitars and mandolin all day.

My favorite is the first song on the album, “Fire in the Head.”  It’s one of Sharon’s originals and the title comes from the legend of a mountain in Wales.  It’s said anyone who sleeps at its foot will wake either mad, dead, or a poet.  Here’s the chorus of the song:

The screaming hag that rides the wind
Will rip the soul right from your skin
The hollow hills will swallow you
And flay apart your mind
To win the kiss of the gifted ones
We risk our lives on the mountain front
There’s some wake mad, and some wake dead
And some will rise with a fire in their head.


Though I’m loving this album and I encourage you to check it out, this isn’t a music review.  There’s a reason this song has grabbed me.  The beauty of the music can’t hide the terror of the lyrics… and the attraction.

In a Facebook comment on my previous post on free will and fate, Morpheus Ravenna pointed me to her essay on destiny.  In it, she said:

You, reading these words, you have a destiny on you. Simply put, your destiny is that thing you were made for. That thing you are uniquely equipped and gifted to do, that without you will not be complete; and that you will not be complete without doing.

Add that to what I wrote about fate:

Make enough choices … and eventually you find yourself on a path that bears a strong resemblance to fate, even though it is simply the cumulative consequences of your free will.

I can look back on my life – as far back as I can remember – and see destiny unfolding.  I can see the gateways and the defining moments, and I can see the processes that took years and had no dramatic turning points, just a clear change from the beginning to the end.  I couldn’t see that earlier in life.  I was still resisting my destiny, my calling, my true will – I thought I had to be rich and powerful or I would be a failure.

Perhaps the most useful thing I’ve ever done is to accept that while I will continue to work a professional job to support myself, my family and my spiritual work, my true calling is not to be a CEO or a VP of Engineering.  It’s to be a Druid and a priest.  That acceptance led me to CUUPS and to OBOD.  It led me to take the vows of a priest.  It led me to leadership roles in CUUPS and in my UU church.  It led me to start blogging, then here to Patheos.  Today, I’m writing, leading rituals, teaching classes, and advising students.  I’m doing what I’m called to do, I do it well and I like it.

But the journey isn’t done yet.

The fire in the head is the gift and calling of poets.  It’s the gift and calling of shamans.  It’s the gift and calling of mystics across every religious tradition.  It’s both a yearning for the experience of the gods and a message from the gods that has to be passed along, through poetry or art or music or ritual.  Something without is burning to get in and something within is burning to get out.

The screaming hag that rides the wind
Will rip the soul right from your skin
The hollow hills will swallow you
And flay apart your mind.

The terrors are metaphorical, of course.  Sort of.  Kind of.  No, not really.  They’re not literal, but they’re very real.  And the scariest part is knowing that the loosest metaphor of all is the night on the mountain.  We like the idea of initiations, of sudden and dramatic changes.  We’ll gladly pass through the fire knowing it only hurts for a moment and we’ll be stronger on the other side.

Except it’s never over in one night.  Sometimes it comes over weeks or months.  Sometimes it comes over years.  Sometimes it drives you mad, or worse.

Make enough choices … and eventually you find yourself on a path that bears a strong resemblance to fate, even though it’s simply the cumulative consequences of your free will.

I never set out to be here.  I never knew where “here” was.  But here I am, standing at the base of this mountain, the cumulative result of a million decisions, some conscious and some unconscious.

To call the last few months of my life “challenging” would be an understatement.  As recently as a week ago I saw it all as random, a string of bad luck and the realities of life.  Now I understand the flaying has begun.

I really do believe in free will.  I really do believe I can turn around, walk away from this mountain and focus entirely on the “normal” parts of my life.  I can do that and still be a good Nature-loving Pagan.  I can do that and still be an ethical person who contributes to building a better world.  But walking away from the mountain means walking away from my destiny and giving up on who and what I’m called to be.

And who and what I want to be.

And so my commitment to daily spiritual practice is strengthened, because it must.  The complications of the ordinary world are managed, because they must.  The empty distractions that eat up so much of my time are crowded out by the work of the gods, because my time is not unlimited.  My failures – and there will be failures – are noted, examined, and done better the next time, because contrary to the legend, the kiss of the gifted ones does not come to those who are asleep.

There’s some wake mad, and some wake dead
And some will rise with a fire in their head.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

    Powerful words. I’ll never forget the first time I realised that my artistic calling would never lead me to an easy life. And my spiritual path is becoming ever more entwined in this.

  • Tommy Elf

    Not a fan of the music – but I like the sentiment you expressing here. That moment of grasping onto your Awen, much like grasping the tail of the horse and jumping onto its back. Those first terrifying moments when you and the horse fight one another’s motions – and then eventually settle in together to become rider and mount…each with their own distinctive aspects.

    >I really do believe in free will. I really do believe I can turn around, walk away from this mountain and focus entirely on the “normal” parts of my life. I can do that and still be a good Nature-loving Pagan. I can do that and still be an ethical person who contributes to building a better world.<

    Absolutely beautiful!

    –T

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I occasionally come across mystical Pagans who have a bit of “my way is so much more advanced” syndrome. It _is_ more difficult, and for that reason (among others) few are called to it. Those who aren’t are in no way “less Pagan” than those who are. If I walked away from this calling I wouldn’t be walking away from Paganism.

      But I would be walking away from who and what I’m called to be and want to be. And I can’t do that, no matter how difficult this ends up being.

  • Cara Elizabeth Hoglund

    Hi John! I’d just like to share that it was this article, and then meeting Sharon at the All Hollow’s Faire a few weeks ago, that got me to buy this album. Thanks for sharing! It’s a great album, especially for this time of year.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Wonderful!

  • Cara Elizabeth Hoglund

    And I am just now reading this post, or so it feels, though I must have read it when it first came out. But, between now and then, I too have had a “challenging” time, and just as recently as mid-October also came to a major turning point in which I had a similar realization: I can either go forward, as clearly most of me wants to do, and as I have been working at, consciously and un-, for many years now; or I can go back to being mundane, leaving paganism (in my case, Asatru) behind. Even just being part of the general Asatru congregation, rather than doing priestwork, now seems to me like “going back to sleep”.

    Not that it really is a choice for me, now, when it comes down to it–free will or no–because it’s the path I have already made, apparently. The challenge for me now is in letting myself consciously take ownership of these decisions and the resultant responsibilities rather than hiding from them. This change has come about, imho, because I’ve stopped fighting life and started relying on faith, letting my goddess lead me. And thus things happen much easier, more quickly, and with a better outcome than I could have planned myself. I guess free will is involved in that I’ve decided to let go and consciously let my gods lead me.

    But yes–”[T]he kiss of the gifted ones does not come to those who are asleep.” And though extremely challenging and often painful, I think I’d much rather stay awake.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Blessings to you, your work, and your commitment.

      • Cara Elizabeth Hoglund

        Thank you! And you as well. Merry Samhain :)

        • JasonMankey

          John meet Cara, Cara meet John. I’ll introduce you at PantheaCon.

          • Cara Elizabeth Hoglund

            Thanks, Jason ;)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X