Votum Solvit

Lately I’ve been hearing statements like this one: You don’t make a deal with the Morrigan. Or, similarly: Bargaining is for demons, not Gods.

There seems to be a belief out there that because the Gods are mighty and powerful, we can’t or shouldn’t attempt to negotiate with them. That when we have something to ask of them we are supplicants, and must accept whatever unknown thing may be asked of us later in the relationship. This view has been articulated a couple of times recently by one of the bloggers I read, Druid John Beckett. But I’m not picking on John; I’ve seen this expressed elsewhere and frequently, which is why I’m addressing it today. In particular with regard to the Morrigan, the perception seems to be that She’s a scary, powerful, terrible Goddess and so it is unwise to negotiate: the advice is to ask, and ask nicely, and hope She doesn’t demand anything too painful in return.

I respect John, but I’m here to offer another view. I am here to tell you that you can, and you should, negotiate with the Morrigan. It’s absolutely because She’s as powerful and as demanding as She is, that you should be 100% on your toes about cutting a deal with Her. Yes, She must be approached with respect. Yes, if She wants something from you, She’ll have it one way or another. That’s exactly why you MUST negotiate for terms that are safe for you and support your needs.

It is true that the Gods have powers we do not; the relationship is inherently one of unequal power. We do often relate to them as devoted servants. But this is a crucial point: We are not slaves without agency or will of our own in the relationship. When we enter into a devotional relationship with a God, it is an act of choice on our part: we are entering service as an act of devoted will. Your devotion is coin – it is empowered surrender, of the same kind that we offer a lover when we surrender to their embrace. Any relationship has terms that are negotiated, however subtly. When that relationship is with a being of greater power and insight than you, all the more necessary to be utterly articulate about what is being offered and what is expected.

Let us remember that the Morrigan is, above and primal to everything else that She is, a Goddess of Sovereignty. To accept an unnamed and unspecified obligation is to cede a bit of our sovereignty. Would the Lady of Sovereignty wish for you to give yours away without setting a price on it? Would She respect you if you did, even to Her?

Friends, the moment when She asks you to surrender to Her is the moment when She is testing your sovereignty. Your willingness to treasure it, defend it, obligate it only in exchange for what is truly worthy of it. Yes, you bloody well do make a deal with the Morrigan. Please tell me you will, if you deal with Her at all.

Those who know me might say of me that I’m hardly one to talk on setting a price for surrender to the Goddess. I’ve formally and by oath dedicated my life and being to the Morrigan; She holds my life and my death. It’s true: When I took that oath, I didn’t hold anything back. But did I negotiate my terms ahead of that oath? Hell yes I did. I made my needs very clear to Her, and they were not trivial things. I didn’t kneel and ask. I stood and set terms. She blessed my terms, held me to Her and told me I and my kin would be under Her protection. Then I knelt and gave Her my gift of loyalty and surrender. She is a Queen, after all. The dignity of fealty is something She understands.

The practice of making deals with the Gods goes right back to ancient times. Ever heard of a votive candle? The term ‘votive’ means pertaining to a vow or dedication (votum). Ancient Pagans throughout the Mediterranean and Celtic worlds were in the habit of making little deals with their Gods all the time. Help me with this thing I need, and I will offer you some extra act of devotion. Help me win this battle, carry this child to birth safely, survive this illness, succeed in this business venture. I will donate this money to your temple, light this candle for you, offer you this period of service, build this shrine for you. We know this because it was common practice to commemorate these vows in physical dedications and inscriptions, and innumerable votive artifacts remain. One of the most common forms of devotional offering in thanks for help expected or received was the votive offering, or ex-voto. A special plaque, altar, vase, jewel, or other devotional object would be purchased or commissioned, and given to a temple or shrine, with a dedication inscribed, such as: “Ex voto suscepto …”, “From the vow made by [the dedicator]“. We can assume that there would have been many forms of votive dedication which did not leave physical evidence, such as acts of service and devotion undertaken in payment of a vow where a commemorative inscription was never used.

Here is a beautiful thing: A record of the devotion of a Gaulish woman, from the era of Roman Gaul, after the conquest.

Votive altar dedicated to Cathubodua

The inscription on the altar reads, “Cathuboduae Aug Servilia Terentia V S L M“. Cathubodua is a Gaulish deity name which translates ‘Battle Raven’ (or Crow). ‘Aug‘ is a shorthand of ‘augustae‘, an honorific. The formula ‘V S L M’ represents a votive convention for the fulfillment of a vow, “votum solvit libens merito“. Translated, the inscription reads, “To the August Cathubodua, Servilia Terentia paid her vow, willingly and deservedly.”

Votum solvit libens merito. A story unfolds. This was a woman, Servilia Terentia, who lived, who spoke to the Gods. Who made a vow to Cathubodua, and in fulfillment of her vow, she had this stone altar commissioned, inscribed, and dedicated. She was a Roman citizen with a dual Latin name who had enough means to pay for an altar to be built, but who worshiped a Celtic Goddess. Servilia Terentia made a deal with the Battle Raven. Why? We don’t know, but she fulfilled her vow. Willingly and deservedly, the inscription tells us. Servilia Terentia felt her devotion was merited and repaid.

Votum solvit libens merito. This is devotion. This is what devotion means, quite literally: The word derives from ‘votum‘, a vow. Devotion, both as term and as concept, traces its origin to this ancient understanding of reciprocity, the exchange of offerings, acts of kinship that established the bonds of loyalty and mutual support between humans and Gods. We have always made deals with the Gods. Do not be afraid to state your terms.

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13 Responses to “Votum Solvit”

  1. Caitlin Matthews August 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Servilia Terentia was saying thank you, having asked for divine help. Her gratitude for services that Cathobodua had rendered is an inspiration. The same VSLM inscription was the standard polite form – you see it inscribed upon ex-votos, or the offerings of body-parts that are deposited from the Roman occupation of Gaul at healing sanctuaries. The making of vows needs to be well thought through, however: I would not see this as bargaining but as dedication.

  2. Sarah December 20, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    Thank you for this. In some of my circles, the power found in standing up to gods seems easier to understand than the power found in surrendering to them, even in a long-standing relationship and with specific terms in place, and I appreciate your articulateness on how that can work.

  3. John Beckett December 19, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    Morpheus, I hear you, and I have great respect for your relationship with and service to Morrigan. I take your critique seriously.

    I simply say that from my reading of the Celtic literature (I am not a reconstructionist, but I do place significant value on the stories we have) and in my own experience, bargaining with the gods is a matter of honor and trust. You ask for what you need or want, and in doing so you create an obligation to reciprocate. You are honor-bound to deliver what is required from you, but you trust the deity in question will also behave honorably and will not ask for something you cannot or should not give.

    I have been asked to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing, things I might not have agreed to in a straightforward bargain (unless I was desperate, and when you’re desperate it’s not really a fair bargain). I’ve never been asked to do something that turned out to be harmful, in any sense of the term. When I have honored my debts, things have worked out well.

    On a few occasions I have set terms with gods (though not with Morrigan), set lines I would not cross. Usually the terms were accepted, but on one occasion the deity in question simply walked away from me. There was no bargaining to be done.

    However, the historical example you cite is correct, and I absolutely agree the old gods do not want sheep for followers.

    I’ll give this some more thought and meditation.

    • Morpheus December 20, 2012 at 5:10 am #

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, John. It strikes me that what you’re saying regarding honor and trust, and the creation of relationships of reciprocity, is not in any way incompatible with the negotiation that I’m recommending. In other words, I don’t think that negotiating with our Gods, and setting terms with them, implies a lack of honor or trust.

      Trust is a subtle thing. I trust the Morrigan, completely. But trust Her to what? Never destroy anything I care about? No, actually. It isn’t Her nature. I trust Her to be Who and what She is. That is, not human, not inherently conscious of human needs and limitations, not necessarily concerned with all the same priorities that I am. So I set terms and I recommend others do likewise. My terms are fairly open in terms of myself and what I’ll give, because I trust Her to care for Her own, and to keep Her weapons in good condition. But I’ve learned by experience there are certain things She’s just not sensitive to, because She isn’t human, and if I don’t set terms around those things, I can’t expect Her to take care of them; nor would it be a failure of honor or trust if She did not.

      • John Beckett December 21, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

        Thanks for the response, Morpheus. I think you’re right – your thoughts and mine aren’t incompatible at all… as is evidenced by the fact that I’ve engaged in the very kind of negotiation you’re recommending. And your priesthood is a living example of the kind of honor and trust I was discussing.

        I also think your post was addressed to people who are more spiritually mature. If you have to google “how to make a deal with Morrigan” you probably have a lot of foundational work you should do first. Still, my posts implied that bargaining is never a good thing, and that’s not the case. I’ll address this in a future post.

        Pagan bloggers disagreeing respectfully and learning from each other – amazing!

        On another topic, your name and your work came up at Between the Worlds last weekend in a conversation with Sam Webster. I learned a lot from his presentation on Theurgic Sacrifice. We’re working on a Morrigan devotional ritual to do in Denton in February and I think some of Sam’s ideas will make our ritual more effective.

        • Morpheus December 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

          Wait, were we supposed to have a flame war or something? I didn’t get the memo. :)

          I think boundary-setting might be just as important for beginners as for more spiritually experienced practitioners. It might be harder for beginners, but no less important.

          Yes, Sam! He’s a dear friend and has been very supportive of our work in the priesthood. He is indeed a fount of magickal knowledge; I always learn a lot from our conversations. I’ve heard great things about the Between the Worlds conference from various folks out here who have gone as participants or presenters in past years. Best wishes for your devotional – wish I could join you! I love that Her work is expanding all over the world.

  4. Idalia December 18, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Thank you Morpheus, I have always appreciated your insight. Especially when you (intentionally or not) deal with the holdovers from monotheism that occasionally infect paganism. Both for your articulation and from my own experiences, I am behind you completely on this point.

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