[originally published A Sense of Place, 11/21/13]
In Ireland, the chthonic energy of decay is experienced as Crom Dubh, the dark, bent one who takes the grain under the ground. He was a sacrificial god heavily associated with Lughnasadh. In fact, while many Irish people may never have heard of the ‘festival of Lughnasadh’ (apart from the movie), they have certainly heard of Crom Dubh’s Day: Dé Domhnaigh Crum-Dubh. This is a day of pilgrimage to the high places: a custom maintained with the yearly climb of Croagh Patrick. More anciently, Crom was associated with sacrifice: King Tignermas offered human sacrifice, and there is a long history within antiquity of scapegoat sacrifice to underworld powers. In more modern folk practice, Crom was the ‘old bent one’ who lived in the rings and forts, waiting to receive the Lughnasadh offering of the strangled black cock.
To understand the placing of offerings in storage pits, it is perhaps helpful to think of corn storage itself as, in a sense, a ritual or religious act, whereby the grain was given into the safe-keeping of the chthonic or underworld gods. […] The animals [or humans] which rotted in the ground, their blood and vital juices seeping into the earth, nourished the earth-gods in whose territory the pits were dug. – Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Miranda Green.
It’s about exchange, right order, and living in balance, so as not to draw undo attention. The powers were never seen as playthings to be called for fun; rather, great lengths (taboos, social customs, etc) were gone to so the world of human-persons and the world of Other did not meet.
The Power, or force, of decay is also seen in urban environments. When a building, a living structure, is no longer occupied, it is reclaimed by the force of decay. When vines or other plants begin to grow up a structure, the force of decay rides with them. The order we create is in constant peril, under siege from the Powers of decomposition.
Austin experienced severe flooding at Halloween this year. People I know had water seeping into their homes. It was a dire situation, because the Other world was coming into direct contact with the human world. Fast action and decisive measures were taken to remove the water, and prevent the Power of decay from getting a foot-hold: industrial fans were rented, high-powered vacuums used, sheetrock stripped, carpets ripped up.
I spent the past weekend removing, ending the life of, tree-persons who had grown too close to the house. Their bark touching the exterior walls—the Other world touching the human world—opening a portal for the Power of decay. This weekend I will rake and pile fallen leaves, for this same reason. It’s why we paint or protect wood, embalm our dead, or get plastic surgery: we wish to slow the Power of decay.
Yet we must remember the balance. Decay and Death are necessary parts of the whole. We do seek to dance with them, in a fashion. One taking the lead for a song, or two, until it is time for the Other to lead. Sensing this natural order, the rhythm of the dance of life and death, is what a witch does. It is what any spiritually minded person living in a society connected to the natural world does. And when we cease to hear the rhythm, or even remember there is one.….well, that’s when we invent things like cosmetic surgery.
As I pile my leaves this weekend, adding them to the bones of the trees I cut down last week, they will be transformed into a scapegoat offering. In my compost pile, they are offered to the Powers of decay. An act intended to nourish the Powers of decomposition in my soil, and as a religious act of thanksgiving to the Power of Death that brings Life.