This is one of those posts that has several distinct threads to it that I’m going to attempt to weave together into some sort of coherence, but it may end up falling far short of the vision I have for it. There’s a certain shape in my mind that I’m trying to convey, an internal logic and beauty linking all the disparate pieces, but so often it happens that any attempt to draw such a thing out of the realm of the spirit, pin it down with the concrete surety of words and logic, leaves us with nothing more than a handful of dust and stale metaphors. And these matters are so very personal, besides…
Well, all I can do is try. So bear with me–it’s going to be a long journey, traveled mostly in detours and unpaved roads, but it should get us where I’m aiming all the same.
The name of the Realm I’ve slowly come to think of as mine–Elannen–means “The Dreaming Trees” or “The Singing Trees,” depending on dialect and context; its inhabitants, the Llan Faae, are “the People of the Trees.”
The forest where they live is central to so much of their lore, their customs, their way of looking at the world. One lives and dies with the rhythms of the trees–and literally, at that.
In a dream, I found a large Old Norse-English dictionary, complete with translations of common phrases. I thumbed through it, searching for a reference to a particular herb, but instead found page after page of obscure kennings for Odin’s ordeal to gain the runes, including detailed illustrations. One entry in particular caught my eye: one that spoke of Him “hanging on the Faerie Tree.”
It stuck in my mind even after I woke, niggling like the ache of an old wound when a storm blows in. Familiar and strange both, a half-remembered connection to something I’d been chasing for years without knowing it.
One of the easiest ways to annoy the Gentleman (besides offering Him cheap w[h]ine, of course) is to show Him a piece of writing that refers to Him as “the Welsh equivalent of Odin.” The common tease around here for a while, anytime I wanted to see Him do that brow-wrinkly, mutter-imprecations-in-Welsh thing, was to say, in a sweet, dewy-eyed tone, “Are You sure You aren’t Odin?”
Amusing? Undoubtedly. But the lightheartedness was a cover for a deeper uneasiness, embedded in the very question. Are You sure You aren’t Odin? Spoken in a different tone, without the playful veneer, I might have gotten an answer I really didn’t want.
The two of Them are very distinct, energetically speaking; I could no more mistake Odin for Gwydion than I could confuse the Sun and Moon. But there’s a level of commonality in the tales told about Them–more than can be explained by mere chance. I could shrug it off, explain it away as cultural cross-pollination and the evolution of the ancestral Indo-European mythos. I’m good at research, especially when I’m on the trail of one of my pet notions; I could find plenty of information to support this theory, and smugly display it on my blog, all wrapped up with a neat little bow on top. Mission accomplished. Right on. Right?
But things are never that simple when you have a personal relationship with the Gods. At some point, you have to stop chasing down obscure references to Them in musty old books, and pay attention to what They’re actually telling you Themselves.
I’ve made it something of an ongoing project of mine to introduce New Coke to various bits of Earth culture. (Including the origin of his nickname. His reaction was most amusing.) It’s slow going, as Elannen has been more or less isolated from most other Realms for several thousand years, and he isn’t a native speaker of any Earth languages (although I suspect he’s now more competent in English than he lets on). So I have to basically let him tap into my mind as we watch/read/listen to whatever, so he can pick up on all the subconscious associations I have for any words or references that confuse him, and sort of triangulate their meaning from there.
Recently, while watching a documentary called Breaking the Maya Code (which, by the way, is excellent and currently available for streaming on Netflix), he had something of an interesting reaction. It was only a brief reference in the film, a passing mention of the carved figures of the ancestors on Lord Pakal’s sarcophagus being depicted as growing out of trees, but his entire attention fixed on that instantly and totally.
It wasn’t an “I am very interested in this factoid about a past culture of your world and would like to learn more” reaction; it was a “Yes, of course–how else would you portray your ancestors?” reaction, one of utter familiarity where he’d been expecting to find none. And that got me wondering.
My first experience with a certain popular entheogen a couple of years ago was an interesting one. Loki took it as an invitation to initiate a “See How Long We Can Bone” competition, which was quite a ride in and of itself. Afterwards, though, Gwydion took me aside, sat me down under a tree, and said “So, I know you’ve been wondering about Me and Odin…”
Sometimes, there are questions you’re afraid to ask outright. It’s not necessarily that you fear the answers themselves–it’s that, even if that new knowledge turns out to be positive and helpful, you can never again go back to the safety of your prior ignorance. But there’s still something in you that can’t stand not to know. So you end up in a complicated dance, flirting with your uncertainty, never quite speaking aloud the thing you know will shatter your conception of the world, but wanting desperately to embrace it even so…
…Until, finally, Someone has pity on you and shoves you into the deep end.
This is the day the dead wake in Elannen.
Each clan there is under the protection of a particular tree–a sacred, lifelong connection, going back to the first days this Land was settled. To survive in such a strange and inhospitable place, the people made a pact with the indwelling spirits of the forest, mingling their lives, their blood, their fate with the trees, becoming the children of the woods–at first by adoption, but later in truth.
Every clan’s particular initiations are zealously guarded secrets, although speculation and running jokes abound (protip: “Tea and biscuits” is funny to everyone except a Yew); the only way you’re ever going to find out what they are is if you’re actually experiencing them yourself. And if you’re only a casual visitor with no plans to tie yourself to the Realm? Yeah, you’re really better off not asking.
Funerary rites, however, are a matter of cultural identity for all Llan Faae, and something of a point of pride; no one cares how much outlanders know about it, because this is what makes them a distinct people.
At the death of one’s physical body, one’s soul and vital energy are transferred, with great ceremony, into a tree. The tree in question is nearly always of the species sacred to one’s clan, although there are occasional exceptions due to various factors. It’s never a simple case of “One Tree, One Fae,” though. Other souls have been placed in these trees in the past, and they haven’t gone anywhere. Then, too, there is the spirit of the tree itself.
And so all of these souls–the spirits of the deceased Fae and that of the tree–mingle together, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts: a being both Fae and tree, composed of many individuals and yet transcending all to become something entirely new.
For the light half of the year, they slumber inside their physical homes within the trees, dreaming, yet still able to be communicated with at need. When autumn comes, however, they awaken and separate from their roots and limbs, manifesting a body to walk among their living kinsfolk once more. This reunion is a time of great celebration in the Realm; there are even tales of the Fae-trees choosing partners to sire or bear their children during these times, to strengthen the ties between Land and People.
Some of the oldest of these trees contain hundreds of souls; and indeed, barring any unfortunate accident, any tree containing the spirit of even one Llan Faae is sure to live far past its normal span of years. But eventually, by internal agreement between its members, the mingled souls of tree and Fae split apart again, ready to be reborn as individuals.
They still remain mingled, however. Reincarnation in Elannen is no linear matter; often, when someone speaks of a lover or close friend–someone they feel a deep and somehow fated connection to–they will say that the two of them are “of the same Tree.” Once, in another life, the phrase implies, we were one, and more than one. Now we are separate again, and yet still our souls are connected. Deepest knowledge of the one I love. The same Tree, forever.
We were the same God once, Gwydion told me that night. Long ago, before… well, before many things. And Our Companion, Our bright Love, was always with Us.
Something happened, though. Something monumental, even for a God. We split apart, shattered, came back together–different, and yet the same. And mingled with Us were the pieces of Our Beloved, Who had done likewise. From the Two, the Four: forever entwined, forever separate.
Visions, a picture felt more than seen. Two Lovers beneath the spreading boughs of the Great Tree: before names, but not before passion, not before need, breath’s mingling, the wondering touch of skin on heated skin.
Do You want…?
Even if it means…?
Lovemaking so sacred, so powerful, that it shook the Worlds to their core.
Confusion, after. Reaching out for parts no longer there. More of Them now than when They first began.
And maybe that’s how it started. Odin is to Loki as Gwydion is to Lleu as Odin is to Gwydion as Loki is to Lleu as…
Odin, showing me the aftermath of His sacrifice on Yggdrasil, wore a face I normally associate exclusively with Gwydion. Later, we flew as eagles, but was not the eagle also Lleu? Spears and sacrifice and a gift of weapons. Oak and mistletoe. Born of Trees. Strange enchantments carrying the eternal whisper of women’s magic. Shapeshifting, childbearing, coupling with animals. And through it all, no matter the story: the Two of Them, the Four of Them. Love and hate and an everlasting bond. An endless circle, a Serpent eternally eating its tail–and always, the Tree is at its center.
…Or maybe it’s just another story, told to me by the world’s greatest Storyteller, Who always has a thousand reasons for everything He does. It’s not outside the realm of possibility. But knowing what I know now, I have to wonder:
The World Tree, the Faerie Tree. The same Tree, forever…?