Macha: She would not stand down

The other night, I was listening again to one of the excellent Story Archaeology podcasts – the episode on Macha. And by the way, I highly recommend the entire Story Archaeology podcast series. I don’t always agree 100% with their intepretive angles, but the podcast and associated blog provides a wealth of wonderful detail and depth on Irish mythology, including original translations of some key early Irish poems.

Anyway: Macha. In the discussion, the podcasters cover Her deep associations with the land as living pasture, wealth and fertility, horses as embodiment and vessel of wealth, status, sovereignty, as well as connections to fire and the sun. They then wonder, if these qualities of brightness, life, land, and wealth are who and what She is, why is She also spoken of in connection with battle, slaughter, and carnage? Their conclusion on this question then seems to be that Macha’s bloody epithets don’t fit with the rest of Her identity, and are therefore incorrect.

You can probably guess I’m going to disagree. But I also think that the entire question is worthy of a long look. Because like the best questions, it is a fertile one: it spawns a whole new generation of questions after it. About theology, about scholarship, about how we source our understandings of the Gods.

Can Macha be both life and land, as well as battle and blood? Must the Gods necessarily be rational and consistent in Their qualities and spheres of action? If They’re not, how do we identify Them? How do we filter and interpret the information we receive from history?

For myself, I have no trouble embracing the idea that Macha would be called the Sun of Womanhood, and embody the bright, fertile field, the wealth and power of the royal horses it nourishes, and the ordering and civilizing function of sovereignty, AND that She would be one who revels in the slaughter and harvests the bloody heads of the slain like acorns. I actually have to work to see where there is a conflict here. Because the fields that grow the shining grass, the fields where the royal horses run, become the fields of battle too. Because land becomesMacha territory, and territory is tribal politics, and tribal politics is war. Because in ancient Celtic society, kingship is in large part warlordship, and the horse is ever the symbol of this: the ubiquitous title attached to many of the ancient kings in the mythological cycle, Eochaid, means ‘horse-lord’ . Because the sacredness of horses in Celtic society cannot be decoupled from elite/royal status and from their function as animals of warfare. We have etymological and mythological evidence suggesting this as a historical transformation of early Celtic Goddesses such as Macha from primarily land-Goddesses to territorial, protective, and warlike Goddesses. Eventually we also see the semi-historical heroine Macha Mongruad carrying the name, and a story that is all about territory, sovereignty, and battle, in which the horse has disappeared. Somewhere Macha becomes one of the Morrígna – sometimes given as a sister of the Morrígan, sometimes as another name of the Morrígan Herself.

I think Macha’s mythology can serve to remind us that all mythologies are collected images and stories, from traditions that necessarily contain huge amounts of variation, diversity, and that evolved over time. This is especially true of tribal-oriented societies like the ancient Celts, for whom national identity as ‘Irish’ or even ‘Celtic’ was probably far secondary to tribal identity, and we have to imagine that the attributes and stories of the Gods varied from tuath to tuath. We should never expect to be able to fit tribal Gods into consistent pantheons, with rational and consistent attributes, without overlap and blurring of functions and domains, or without theological paradox.

Her story also forces us to contemplate the sources of our theological lore, and to explore all those questions about how we evaluate those sources:

If we have lore purporting to describe mid-Iron age heroic sagas, written down by 8th-10th century Christians, how do we measure that against apparently conflicting lore about early Iron Age mythological literature, written down by 12th-13th century Christians? Against data from folk-stories about the history of the land? From early medieval annals of kings?

If a piece of information appears in a text we consider a primary source because of its age, is it automatically correct? Is it possible for data we receive from our source texts to be wrong? Misunderstood or misinterpreted by the chronicler? How would we know?

If all of our text sources were written down by Christians recording the parts of older Pagan Celtic mythology that they had already abandoned theologically but still thought worth recording, can we actually say that we have any primary source texts at all?

If all of our Irish mythological literature comes through the voice of Christian scholarship, what is actually the difference between a primary text source and a secondary source or an interpretive literature? Is archaeology our only primary source material? Wait, doesn’t that rely on the interpretation of the archaeologist?

If we have no sources for information that are direct and primary, how do we make sense of apparent conflicts in the lore? Whose voice is authoritative?

I think the intelligent position to take when reading the complex lore of a figure like Macha, is not to say “this piece of lore must be wrong because it doesn’t seem to fit my image of Her.” At the same time, I also think we have to be more sophisticated in our understanding of the sources than to treat them all as some kind of unquestionable gospel. What we must do is read them as what they are: the voices of medieval people who were themselves musing, contemplating, and exploring the traditions of their ancestors. We must try to see them as a collection of different voices, telling these stories from a range of human perspectives. To remember that each of these voices is filtering a collection of human experiences and traditions – the way this or that tuath related to Macha, in this or that time period, as remembered by this or that storyteller. This voice here tells of a love of peace, order, sovereignty, the fertile body of the land, the sleek shining horses. This voice here tells of the bloody carnage wrought by petty medieval kings in their lifetime, and how they still felt Her presence in those fields, red instead of golden. This voice here hints of the rituals their ancestors once practiced – the ceremonial horse races, the kingship rites, the sacrifices, the women’s birthing rites. This voice here tells of a people clinging to the folk memory of a bright battle leader and proud Queen.

Finally, it comes down to your own voice, doesn’t it? We don’t get to passively receive this lore. We have to engage it, find our own way into it, make sense of it in a conscious act of interpretation. We have to walk into the stories and meet Macha in Her own realm, search out what Her face looks like to each of us, how She lives and speaks to us now. Macha who gave birth to the twins also brings us face to face with contradiction and paradox. She challenges us. She will not let us stand down.

Long Dark Solstice of the Soul

Two years ago on the Winter Solstice, I took a leap of faith that cost me everything. It took me a long time to write about this, because it’s personal and a bit raw and embarrassing, and because it doesn’t make anyone look good.

I was in the dark for a long time, when I look back on it. But you see, and this is why I’m telling this story, you don’t realize it at the time – you’ve been in the dark so long you think you’re just blind, or that’s all the light there is. Dim, dreary, fumbling amongst shadows, knees skinned to bleeding, exhausted but still upright and stumbling along. That was me. I forgot life could be any brighter than that.

I should explain. I’m that girl who thinks she can handle anything. I grew up a tomboy, grew up wilderness camping with my dad and wandering the woods outside our mountain house alone. I learned hammer and nailgun and socket wrench and tire iron. Because I didn’t want to be a helpless female. I admired Disney villainesses and adventurers and heroes and serial killers. Queen Boudicca and Joan of Arc were my heroes. You can’t scare me.

In my late 20’s and my 30’s, I was living the strong-woman life. I was the breadwinner in my marriage. I was involved in leadership in my spiritual community, I had students, I had co-founded a Pagan sanctuary, built a stone henge, hell, built an empire almost. I was a priestess of a war Goddess and talking to the world about autonomy, strength, courage, warriorship, sovereignty. But I was in the dark and running blind.

Art by Aunia Kahn

This is the part where I have to bite the bullet and tell it to you straight out. I was busy showing the whole world how strong, independent and powerful I was, and all the time I was living a lie because I was living with a verbally and emotionally abusive partner, and I was letting myself be bullied, belittled, tormented, controlled and undermined every day. I was eggshell-walking around the rage triggers and justifying it to myself. I was appeasing and apologizing, promising to change myself and become better. I was apologizing just to stop the fighting even when I didn’t think I was being the crazy one, until after a while I was so used to being wrong that I didn’t know what to think, and maybe he was right and I was the crazy one. The confidence I displayed to everyone was a lie. I was deep in the dark. For years.

And I stayed there that long because I was tough, goddamnit. I could handle this. I could not fathom the idea that I could be that pathetic woman who stays with an abuser. That could never happen to me. This was something else. It wasn’t abuse, we just had a really dynamic, fiery partnership. I was a strong, independent woman. And that is why I’m telling this story now. Because strong women have this blind spot and I have now seen it a couple more times in friends of mine. Our self-image as strong women who wouldn’t put up with that leads us straight into the trap.

I was deep in the dark and I stayed there for years, stumbling along. Honestly, I have no idea if I would have saved myself, or how long it would have taken me. What happened is that two years ago, She stepped in.

People who work with the Morrígan have observed that starting in about late 2010 or early 2011, She started to get more active and more insistent with Her priests. That aligns with what happened to me. I had been a dedicated devotee for over a decade at that point, but something big shifted in 2011 and She started wanting more from me. I struggled all that year to understand what She wanted, to step up, to deepen my service, but I felt profoundly confused and in the dark, struggling to translate and visualize what I was supposed to do. My narrowed, starved sense of self no longer had the imaginative capacity or the courage to visualize the horizons She was trying to push me toward. I simply could not imagine being the person who would do the things She was showing me.

Late in 2011, I think She must have got impatient with me, because the visionary possessions and intense dreams kicked in, She sent a long-estranged old flame who was also Her priest to remind me what human interaction should look like, and when I still wasn’t listening, She turned to fits of simply screaming inside my skull. And, you know, I’m not actually stupid, and I finally did get the message. The message landed in mid-December, after a particularly brutal episode of traumatic verbal rage from my partner, which broke through my protective prison of denial with the realization that I’m NOT the crazy one. THIS is crazy. And the next time I was at my devotions, She was there, and huge, a presence as still as the pillars of the earth and as undeniable, and She said, CHOOSE. You cannot be My vessel and do My work while you are selling out your sovereignty. I require a vessel with structural integrity. You need to choose: stay broken, or be whole and do My work.

The long darkness finally broke and the light came streaming in. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, I made a commitment to Her and to myself. I committed to honoring Her in my own sovereignty, and to reclaiming my integrity. I made a pact that starting on the Solstice, I would give myself three months until the Equinox to renegotiate my life in alignment with my sovereignty and my needs, but if it could not be so realigned, I would get out. By Equinox, I would be my own being again and free to do Her work, whatever that cost me.

I am here to tell you that it cost me everything, and it was the best bargain I ever made. Over the next year, I turned my entire life inside out. I used to joke to friends that the Morrígan ate my life… but I wasn’t really joking. I dissolved my marriage, moved from remote wild mountain to city, lost my job, started an entire new career, started a business, and founded a priesthood of the Morrígan. Most of 2012 is a kind of hurricane in my memory. And I would do it all again if I had the same choice given to me. I have never been happier, healthier, freer, or felt more solidly in line with my life’s purpose.

Why did I tell this very personal story on my very public blog? Well, because it’s the Solstice and it’s on my mind. But also, because like I said earlier, I think that the trap I fell into can happen to a lot of us, and not just women, either. And the more we don’t talk about it because it is embarrassing to us, or because we don’t want to make our partner/abuser look bad, the more there is a culture of silence about it, the more that blind spot can operate to hide the trap. One of the reasons I did wait this long to talk about it is because I still share a lot of friends with my former partner, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about making him look bad or poisoning those friendships for him. But you know, this happened to me. To us. It was real, and I doubt he is any more glad of it than I am. And I don’t think people like him who find themselves becoming abusers are helped by the culture of shame and silence either. He is not a monster, he is an evolving human being like the rest of us, and he got lost in the dark too.

And the other thing I want to share from this is about courage and destiny. Meeting your destiny may cost you everything else. And my friends, if my case is illustrative at all, it is WORTH EVERY PENNY. Not every risk that comes your way is destiny calling you. But if you find yourself huddled up inside, in the dark; if you find yourself wondering how you ended up here because it doesn’t feel like your story; if you find yourself turning from opportunity because I can’t, I could never do that, not me… then start looking for a risk. Start looking for something that terrifies the fuck out of you, because that terror is your calling, it’s the light breaking in. And above all, if your Gods offer you a hand, take it. Take the risk, do not look back, do not worry about the cost or what you might lose because there is nothing, nothing, nothing worth letting your soul die in the dark for. And because stepping on the path of your destiny is a life-affirming act, and the Gods love a courageous heart, and the life force will answer and rise in you, and something new will rise and take the place of whatever you have to let go of when you take that leap.

Blessed Solstice to you, and may the light of courage always return for you.

Warriorship: the Gift of Peace

In early October, I came to my first “fighter birthday” – the date I started armored fighting one year ago. Here are a few observations from my first year as a fighter.

Are you threatening me?

When I talk about warriorship, people often ask me, “Why would you want to be a warrior? Aren’t you worried that it’ll make you combative?” There’s a suspicion of warriorship in the Pagan subculture. A perception that to a warrior, every problem will come to look like one to be solved by conflict. That the combative paradigm will seep into your personality and turn all your interactions into battles.

My experience so far is actually the opposite. I’m less combative personally than I was before I became a fighter. Because you see, I’m not afraid any more. I am less easily threatened, and less reactive, to most things: from personal criticism to intellectual challenge to physical danger. I’m stronger. I’m clearer about my capacities and my limits, and I no longer think of myself as fragile, physically or psychologically. I’m less defensive than I ever realized I had been. I don’t need to fight everything, because I’m not afraid any more.

What has come instead is a heightened awareness of social conflict framing. That is to say, I’m noticing the extent to which other people often perceive situations in terms of conflict because they feel psychologically or intellectually threatened. This happens when I’m not registering it as a threat situation for myself at all, and therefore not looking at it combatively. To put this another way, I have a heightened awareness of what an opponent is, and I’m much clearer now as to when I’m not facing one.

I think maybe there are two different modes of combative response. One is defensive, arising from fear. It’s the “Are you threatening me?!” stance. Practicing warriorship has shifted me out of that mode and into one where combat arises from either joy (e.g. martial practice) or necessity (response to real danger). And because practicing combat for joy has made me stronger, I have a clearer sense of what real danger is and is not, and I don’t readily go defensive. I don’t escalate non-conflict situations into conflict as often; I think it’s because I know what conflict is for now. There’s a conservation of energy that becomes instinctive to a fighter. An awareness of what it costs to fight, and a strong instinct to reserve it for when it matters and is useful.

This is a profound shift, and its effects are subtle and pervasive. It’s why I recommend at least some martial arts practice to any woman as an antidote to the internalized effects of living in rape culture. I think many of us don’t realize how deeply and quietly defensive our orientation to the world is. We don’t necessarily know that we are living and responding from fear. I had no idea just how much I was on the defensive until I wasn’t any more. I can’t tell you how liberating this is, and how beneficial it has been for me on every level – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. And this just year one.

The joy will come.

Something seems to happen at the one-year point; at least, it did for me. I underwent a shift and I’m not really sure what triggered it. Suddenly I’m lighter in the fight. It seemed as though I broke through the prison of my own mind and instead of thinking about the fight I’m in, worrying about it, I’m just fighting. This felt huge because the mind is never quick enough to figure out what move to make by thinking. Action has to come from the body. When it does, it feels like joy. Like the clouds break above you and the battle-light shines on you and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s glorious. The battle ecstasy. I knew it was there, but it took me a whole year of fighting before I got to experience it.

Fighting is an art, of course. You have to become conversant in the language before you can channel poetry in it.

So my observation for people at the beginning of fighting practice is patience and good humor. The first months of fighting can just suck. You might feel like an idiot a lot of the time (I did). I’m here to tell you, it gets better. Any learned physical skill is largely about continually showing up. Combat sports involve a lot of retraining of instinctual reactions. For example, it takes longer than you might think to get over the flinch reaction. I’ve been fighting for a year, and I still sometimes catch myself closing my eyes when someone is coming at my face. That irritates me to no end when it happens, because I’m not actually mentally scared of getting hit. But I’m an animal and there is no quick fix. Retraining biological patterns is hard. So keep showing up, and forgive yourself for being an animal and requiring time and practice.

Stop fighting yourself.

You can’t really start fighting for real until you stop fighting yourself. Partly, this is physical: the first several months is a constant struggle with adjusting, trading out, refitting the armor. Being comfortable in your armor is more important than you might think. It isn’t just the distraction of things biting or chafing – it’s a matter of fundamentally being able to trust your armor, and therefore able to be fully present in the fight.

And this is a mental martial art, too – and this is where I think this point applies to any martial art, or to life in general. In a fight, you have only so many points of attention available to you – and they need to all be on fighting. If you have to spend attention on internal battles, on self-doubt, fear, concern for how others are perceiving you, worrying about winning, or anything else, you have less to give to the fight. This also tracks back to my earlier observation about wasting energy fighting things that aren’t actually opponents.

The victory condition.

The nature of being a beginner fighter is that you are going to lose a lot of fights, for a long, long time. You can not attach your ego, identity, or self-image to winning, or you will burn out and get discouraged. One of the best training concepts I’ve heard is the personal victory condition. You set your own victory condition: Today, my victory condition is to successfully employ that one shot I’ve been practicing. Or: Today, my victory condition is to not get killed because of that one particular mistake I keep making. Or: Today, my victory condition is to do my footwork correctly. Because as a beginner, success doesn’t mean being able to beat everyone you fight; as a beginner, success is moving forward in your training. I cannot convey how helpful this concept has been for me.

You’re not as fragile as you might think.

Women get taught to think of ourselves as delicate (or at least that we’re supposed to be). The female skeleton, on average, is a bit physically lighter. But we aren’t more fragile. Our systems are just as resilient, our bodies just as adaptable. If our nutrition is good, our bones are just as strong. Before I started fighting, I was one of those people who bruised at the slightest nudge – I’d always be finding little bruises that I couldn’t even remember getting from accidental bumps. I thought that once I started fighting I’d be black and blue all over, constantly. But something else happened – my body has hardened itself from the inside. Now I’m often surprised when I take my armor off how few bruises I have. So I have this beautiful new trust in my body. You might not be strong when you begin, but fighting will make you strong.

When I started getting my armor together, the men around me told me I needed to put metal all over my body. They looked at my slender arms and light body frame and told me that I would literally get broken if I didn’t heavily armor every place I could. Again, we were so sure I was fragile and needed protecting. So I have all this metal in my kit, and it becomes hard to move like I should. Because when a 125-pound woman puts on 60 pounds of armor, she’s adding nearly half her body weight. When a 200-pound man puts on the same armor, he’s adding less than a third to his body weight. The proportional difference in what you are carrying matters.

So this is another philosophical point, too. Protection costs freedom of movement; be aware of the balance you’re striking. Again, defensiveness is costly. It wasn’t until I got accustomed to fighting that I learned where and to what extend I actually need to protect myself. Fear will cause us to spend way more energy than we need to fighting shadows and building armor around ourselves.

Lessons from the battlefield.

Extracting the spiritual learning from these experiences, this is the core of what I’ve learned:

Warriorship is the way of strength which brings liberation from the way of fear. Paradoxically, its gift is peace.

Into the Tomb

Maybe it’s the season: the light has shifted to that amber that signals Summer dying. It’s the books I’ve been reading, which are Celtic archaeology and largely drawn from funerary remains. And it’s the rites of death and Samhain rituals I’ve been working on.  I’ve been feeling as if Death has crept up behind me and taken me by the shoulder.

A few weeks ago, the Coru priesthood was contacted by a family on the East Coast, the relatives of a young man who was a dedicant of the Morrigan and who was on his deathbed. He had asked for a priest of the Morrigan to give his funeral rites. I agreed to travel out there to serve.

The experience of doing funerary service is, I think, the most consequential and weighty of any priestly work I’ve been called upon to do. It gripped me immediately, from the moment the request came to me.

Death is an intensely personal thing; or can be, anyway. I was struck once again by something that I’ve thought about many times before when I’ve been involved with deaths; the immense beauty and power that accompanies a person taking up the choice of how to face their own death. While still breathing, to sit with his family and make plans for his own wake and funeral rites, as he did. Choosing what to carry with him in his casket into the grave. Choosing his priest, his funeral clothing, the tone and character of his death rituals. Such courage, this. To hold fiercely to life until her wedding anniversary came, as the matriarch of my Craft tradition did, and then to choose the day and hour of her leaving, so she could go to meet the love of her life in the Otherworld. Such power. I hope to die so gracefully and with such courage when my time comes.

It sometimes seems to me that the manner of our dying, and the rituals we create for it, may be the ultimate creative act – the final work of art that places the seal on the great work that our life has been. We cannot, of course, complete the work of art alone, and this is where death moves from the personal to the collective. We rely on all the living to bring that final work of art, the funerary rite, to fruition. It becomes a collaboration between the living and the dead. A continued subtle intimacy across the veil between worlds.

It also struck me how very permeable that veil is. As in all Pagan ritual, we understand offerings to convey a flow of power, life force, or energy between the physical world and the Otherworld; this was no different. In the funeral, we create a ritual container and we fill it with emotion: love, grief, joy, remembrance, honor. We raise it up to the dead loved one and to their Gods, and we pour it out. Our offering. I was acutely aware of this in the funeral – as I sensed the presence of the Otherworld so near, his spirit receiving, deeply glad and deeply fed and eased by the offering.

Since coming back I’ve found myself thinking daily about funerary customs. I’ve had dreams of  burial processions, voices chanting songs of honor. Ritual preparations and invocations. Cairns raised in the deep woods. I dreamed of a great passage-tomb in the Irish Neolithic style, watching as if from above as it is built: the stones of the passage set up, the passage laid out long and cruciform, the basins and carved stones placed. The great mound raised over the passage, its carpet of green creeping over it. The bones and ashes of the dead carried in, gifts to the earth. Generation upon generation, till the floors of the tomb itself are composed of unknown layers of ash and bone, sinking slowly down into the land. I dreamed of walking into this tomb again, and the strange lights that shone deep within at the end of the dark.

I hardly have words for how important this feels to me. About the beauty of these rites and ways, and about how absolutely crucial a religious freedom it is to have the funeral that one requires. I’ve known a few who have died who were able to be given the funeral customs that were right for them. But I’ve known many more whose families had to make painful compromises, because the funeral customs that were true to their being and needful in their traditions are not allowed. This is a tragedy to me. It’s one that affects me personally – the funeral rite that I would choose for myself (excarnation or sky-burial) isn’t legal anywhere in the Western world. It is entirely too visceral for our culture, too unpackaged, too intimate with the reality of death.  Natural burial without embalming is barely tolerated as it is, let alone anything as raw as excarnation. What shall we do?

We must not fear intimacy with death. It is the way for us to honor our dead, to love them still, and to give them their due. And yes, this intimacy will remind us of our own mortality. We will see the image of our own deaths that await us, reflected in the deaths of our kin. We will have to embrace this overwhelming truth, that is both the finality and imprisonment of life, and its liberation. We must know as we anoint and honor our dead that we are preparing the way also for ourselves to join them one day. In my dreams this season, I walk down corridors of stone to meet the dead. I see them surrounded with lights and fires, bathed in the warmth of the devotion of the living. I hear their voices, whispering, speaking, wailing, singing. I see them lifted on a great wind, carried on the beating of mighty wings, the breath of a thousand spirits. I see them elevated from departed to the status of Ancestors, dwelling in that Otherworld place that is beyond time but always as near as our heartbeat.

I will not fear that place. I am alive now, and I will live. I will live without fear, giving myself fully to life and to love of living. I will pour out my love as an offering to all those whose being forms the very earth from which I live. I will live. And when the living is done, I will be dead, I will let go of my body and go into death. I will receive the offerings of the living. I will be an Ancestor and love will still move through me.

“To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,lone_druid
O Druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.
To you alone it is given to know the gods
and spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.
You dwell in the distant, dark, and hidden groves.
You say that shades of the dead do not seek
the silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,
but that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.
Death, if what you say is true, is but a mid point of a long life.”

Lucan [39-65 A.D.], Pharsalia

Day One

The breaths come longer and longer as my heartbeat gradually calms down from the spear workout. I try to still myself, open my ribs, lengthen my spine, focus on the breath. Rising and falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. I notice my posture and lift my spine a little more. In and out, rising and falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. I feel the tightness in my biceps and shoulders from the spear work. I hear crows jabbering outside the open window, the neighbor’s dog squeaking. In and out, sid co nem, nem co doman. My housemate clinks her tea mug downstairs, the kettle hisses. In and out, sid co nem, nem co doman. I realize my attention has been everywhere but within. I return with the breath. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Stillness begins to settle around me. Somewhere inside the back of my brain, I feel Her presence awaken. I remember what I love about devotional mediation. And now I’m off again, thinking about meditation instead of meditating. Back to the breath, the sensation of the body, sitting, breathing, my spine a long spear, my belly a sweet cauldron, the breath rising, the breath falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Sid co nem, nem co doman.

Today I re-started my daily practice. I have to do this all the time, because I’m actually terrible at it. I love ritual, and I do it often, but I’m terrible at keeping to a daily, disciplined practice routine. Readers who don’t know me well might imagine that as a fighter, a spiritual teacher and a dedicated priestess of the Morrígan, I must have a thorough and disciplined daily practice that I never miss. Yes, I do have a daily practice, but I have to work as hard as anybody at actually doing it every day. I think this is true for a lot of people: daily practice is kind of like balancing on a rope. You’re almost never standing in perfect grace; instead, you’re constantly correcting back toward center from the myriad of forces that constantly push and sway you off balance. Maybe sometimes you fall off the rope altogether and have to take a break. If you do it for long enough, the corrections you have to make come smaller and easier, and maybe you aren’t falling off any more.

I’m inspired to write about this today in part because I happen to be climbing back on my rope today. And also there have been a couple of good posts elsewhere about the benefits of discipline, and about how sometimes it’s a battle just to sit still.

I’m climbing back on my rope again. I do it all the time. Around Lughnassadh, I made a devotional commitment to physical, spiritual and creative practice. I promised to complete a century drill (weapons practice of 100 blows a day, for 100 days, and if a day is missed, you begin again at one); to do daily offerings each day of the century drill; and to dedicate a day a week to writing my book. I swore an oath to the Morrígan and Lugh that I’d complete this. And if I was perfect in my practice, I would be at day 52 today. Instead, I am at day one. A couple weeks ago I was called off on short notice to fly across the country and priestess a funeral, and in the whirlwind of the trip I dropped routine, and have only been intermittent with my practice since I returned.

Am I disappointed? Am I kicking myself? No. Frustration with yourself is just another indulgence – just another distraction from the practice. Just as in meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, you simply let it go and return to the breath. My oath was to return to practice if I let it drop, and to keep returning. So that is what I’m doing. Back to the rhythm. Back to the breath. Hello, century drill. Hello, day one. Here is an opportunity to reorient myself to my practice, and to reorient my practice to my life. To renew my practice.

So I’m looking at all the pieces, putting the elements of daily practice together in a different pattern. Here are the elements of my daily practice. One example of what a Morrígan dedicant’s daily practice could look like.

Devotions. My core devotions usually consist of lighting a candle and pouring out a liquid offering. I dedicate the offerings to the Morrígan, to the Ancestors, and to my spirit allies. Sometimes I include other deities. On days when I’m at home working on art, I will usually do an offering to Brigid also. If I’ve had the time to think ahead, I may offer something like whiskey and cream, or Irish Cream, or beer. Sometimes I’m just offering whatever I have, even if it’s water, or part of my meal. Sometimes there are more intensive offerings.

On days when I have more time or a specific need, I’ll follow the offerings with prayers or liturgies. The liturgy I use most commonly is the Morrígan’s Prophecy, also known as the Benediction, which I intone aloud in the Old Irish. Other days, I simply speak Her name. On days when I’m doing full ritual, core devotions will just be the start of a longer working.

Meditation. I have a set of prayer beads that I made for meditation centered around my devotion to the Morrígan, so they are set up in counts of three, nine to the string, which gives me 27. If I go through them three times, I’ve done 9×9 rounds of whatever meditation I’m doing. I like the prayer bead method because it stops me wondering how long I’ve been meditating – the beads will tell me. It also gives my body one little thing to do, that tiny regular motion of advancing the beads through my fingers.

The meditation I most often use is a prayer meditation using lines in Old Irish from the Morrígan’s Prophecy: Sid co nem, nem co doman. (Translation: “Peace to the sky, sky down to earth.” It is pronounced something like ‘sheeth co nev, nev co dovan’.) For me, having something to chant internally occupies my Talking Self, which helps me to become distracted less often. I usually chant the prayer internally, with the breath in a slow rhythm: inhaling sid co nem, exhaling nem co doman. This is one count of my prayer beads.

Physical. My minimum physical practice is the century drill: 100 blows of spear and/or sword practice. If I’m at home, I’ll do them full strength against my pell (practice dummy). If I’m somewhere else, I may do them slow, just practicing for form. Weekly, I also go to fighter practice and fight in full armor. Biweekly, I try to make it to a yoga class.

When I have days at home with time for extra physical practice, I will add practices: spear movement exercises, yoga, sit-ups and push-ups, or dance practice.

You might be thinking, how the hell do you have time for all of this? Most of the time, I don’t. I have a minimum daily practice for the days when I’m working 8-10 hours in the tattoo shop and barely have a moment to myself. On the days when I’m working from home and have more flexibility, I aim for a more expanded practice.

So getting back on my rope today, putting the elements back together, here is what I’m doing now. Minimum daily practice, for workdays: Morning, century drill (about 10 minutes), followed by brief meditation (one round of prayer beads, about 5-10 minutes). If I miss my morning practice, the drill happens first thing when I get home. Evening offerings before bed.

Expanded daily practice, for home days: Morning, yoga/movement practice, century drill, devotions, full meditation (at least 3 rounds of prayer beads). Evening, offerings and prayers; on some nights, yoga class, fighter practice or full ritual as needed.

Hello, day one. It’s good to begin again.

What’s your practice?

Follow-up: “Whose Ancestors?”

EDIT: 9/11/2013 5:00 pm – As of now, just a few hours after posting this, I’ve been kicked off the PaganSquare site and my blog deleted.

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This is a follow up to my last post, “Whose Ancestors?“, published on 8/29/2013. The post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization. The following is my response to that censorship, and I’ve also posted it on the PaganSquare site. Since it too is likely to be deleted, I am publishing it here as well. I wanted to let readers know what happened with that post, and what you can expect in the future.

The post in question, “Whose Ancestors?”, was one in which I challenged the doctrine of racial separatism in religion espoused by some European polytheist traditions, primarily Heathens of the ‘folkish’ variety. In it, I called the AFA an unashamedly racist organization. I firmly believe this to be true, and when Anne Newkirk Niven, the editor of this site, asked me to remove the language in which I called the AFA racist, I refused to do so. Instead, I provided her with evidence as to the facts showing that the AFA is a racist organization. Since I would not edit the post to remove that language, Anne has deleted my post in order to censor it.

You can read the original post here, where it is still hosted on my own blog site.

Here is the evidence I presented to Anne, which I believe amply demonstrates that the racism critique of the AFA is factual:

The AFA is a racist organization. Perhaps you’d like to review the UN’s definition: the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Thus, since the AFA discriminates based on race as to who can and should claim religious affiliation, they are by definition a racist organization. They also promote, clearly and in public on their website, racial separatism in religion, which is a form of segregationism. See their declaration of purpose, their article on “folkish” ideology, and this charming piece of racist screed from their website.
I invite you to have a look around on the web – you will find that there are many, many sites which discuss the AFA’s racist ideologies and links to white supremacist groups. Such as here, and here. And here from the Southern Poverty Law Center. And here, from fellow Heathens who recognize the AFA as racist.
It does not matter that they SAY they are not racist. News flash: racists generally don’t go around calling themselves racists.

 

I have to expect that this present post will be deleted and censored on PaganSquare as well, since I am continuing to maintain that the AFA is a racist organization. If that does happen, I will very likely be discontinuing my publishing on PaganSquare, since I will not stand for editorial censorship defending racists and racist ideologies. If you’re interested in continuing to read my work, I invite you to follow my blog direct here on my website.

You may also be interested in this insightful post on the issue by Sam Webster, also hosted on PaganSquare, at least for the time being. Should the editor end up censoring this post also, here is Sam’s post on his own website as well.

I continue to hold the firm position that we must not condone, cover up for, or otherwise tolerate racism within Pagan and polytheist traditions. Those who do so are standing on the wrong side of history, and will inevitably be seen for who they are, in the same way we now recognize as racist those who once defended segregation in our society. I challenge all of you to join me in standing against racism in our communities.

Whose Ancestors?

EDITED, 9/11/2013: In the days since I originally published the post below on 8/29/2013, there have been a couple of developments I wish to acknowledge.

–This post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization.

–In discussions in the comments both here and at the PaganSquare site (before it was removed), several people have pointed out that I went too far in over-interpreting the implications of the DNA research referenced in the original post. They’re correct, and I appreciate the feedback. I think that the research still supports the overall point of my post, which is that at a surprisingly recent point in the past, all of us are related, and that there is no biological or anthropological basis for racial separatism in religion.

Here follows the original post, unedited:

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Issues of race and Eurocentrism in religion have been increasingly on my mind recently, and the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech seems a good day to write about them.

This came up for me when I found out that a favorite Nordic folk band, Wardruna, would be performing in the US for the first time this fall. I got all excited about this until friends pointed out that the event at which they will be performing, Stella Natura, is sponsored by the unabashedly racist Heathen organization AFA, and is also featuring several performers with strong links to white-supremacist, racist ideologies.

So I ditched my plans of attending. And I feel like talking about this publicly because I think part of the reason racism continues to haunt European polytheism is because we let it. Too many of us take a policy of uneasily gritting our teeth and putting up with our intellectual proximity to racists. It’d have been more convenient and more fun for me to buy the ticket, go to the event and try to ignore the racism so that I could get the chance to enjoy one of my favorite bands. But I’d be supporting the inclusion of these racist elements within the fold of European polytheism, and I can’t stomach it. Instead, I’m refusing to participate. Wardruna, we love you, but if you want me to buy a ticket to your show, don’t sign on with racists as your event sponsors.

It comes to me that practitioners of European polytheist traditions have a duty on us to take a clear stance against racism in our religious communities. Not to do so, I think, inevitably leads us into tacitly condoning racism, because of its ubiquity in the overculture and its history as an undercurrent within European polytheism.

So here’s my stance: Though the form of religious practice I choose to espouse is largely based on Celtic traditions, I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

Now, here are some facts you can arm yourself with to help put down racist logic when it is presented to you.

Racism in European polytheism is often veiled under language that claims to celebrate cultural and religious diversity. You will need to be aware of this and learn to recognize it for what it is. The argument goes something like this: a) Cultural and religious diversity is good; b) religious traditions arise from and are dependent on the unique ethnic identity of a people; c) therefore to fully realize our spiritual potential we should practice the religious traditions of our ethnic ancestry; d) because of the link between culture and ethnicity, to preserve cultural and religious traditions we also need to preserve the distinct identities of peoples. If you read between the lines (e.g. read “people” as “race”) you can see that by this train of logic, the conclusion arrived at is that races should not intermingle because that will dilute the purity of the European race and its native religious traditions.

This is nothing more than the Separate-But-Equal doctrine of racial politics. “We aren’t denigrating other races and their associated religions, we just don’t want them getting mixed up with ours.” In the name of celebrating cultural diversity, of course. If you think this claim isn’t being made, go look at the AFA website – it’s right there in their statement of purpose:

All native religions spring from the unique collective soul of a particular people. Religions are not arbitrary or accidental; body, mind and spirit are all shaped by the evolutionary history of the group and are thus interrelated. Asatru is not just what we believe, it is what we are. Therefore, the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.

The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic.

Just so long as you keep your non-European uniqueness over there and don’t get any on us.

This isn’t just nasty racial politics, it’s also utter bullshit. Here’s why.

This entire argument is predicated on the idea that race and religion are tied, that traditions are native to and transmitted by ancestral links. The traditions of our ancestors and all that. OK, but whose ancestors?

Guess what: Your ancestors are everyone’s ancestors. We are all related. No really, that’s not a kumbaya hippie truism, it’s a documented mathematical and biological reality.

“The fact that everyone has two parents means that the number of ancestors for each individual doubles every generation… By using basic mathematics, we can calculate that ten generations ago each individual had a thousand ancestors, and 20 generations ago they had a million and so on.”

By the time you count back to 40 generations, the number of ancestors each person has far outstrips the number of people alive at that time. That means between 30 and 40 generations back, all human beings share ancestry. That’s somewhere shy of 800 years ago. This mathematical modeling has now been confirmed by DNA evidence. Here’s a handy graphic that’s been making its way around the web illustrating this new research:

ancestors

I haven’t verified the specific dates and figures in the graphic, but the principle is clear as an illustration of the research.

Think about what this means: The historical time frame within which the Nordic and Germanic cultural lore on which Asatru is built includes, roughly speaking, the Iron Age up through the Viking era – that is, a few centuries BCE up through about 800-1200 CE. A similar time frame is the basis for much of what now constitutes Celtic polytheism.

In other words, when the Hávamál was created, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. When the legends of Cú Chulainn and the heroes of the Red Branch were being developed, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. So was everyone alive in the ancient Somali states. The Etruscans, the Mycenaeans, the Thracians, the Kushites. The people of Catal Huyuk, the ancient steppe tribes of Eurasia, the forefathers and foremothers of the Khans, the people who settled the Polynesian islands, the tribes who crossed the land bridge to the New World. They are all of them, all of them, your personal blood ancestors.

So cultural traditions can’t be inherently dependent on race or ancestry, because race and the purity of ancestral lineage are fictions. You personally are the blood lineage inheritor of every human cultural tradition on the planet.

The truth is, cultural purity also a fiction. People have been traveling all over the globe trading with each other since time began. The ancients were in contact with each other across enormous distances via trade routes and migrations. The skull of a Moroccan Barbary ape was found in an Iron Age royal site at Navan Fort, Ireland. The famous Viking swords were made from steel sourced from Afghanistan. Iron age mummies with red hair and Hallstatt material culture have been found in the deserts of China. I could go on all day with examples like this. And in every case where there is evidence of contact between peoples, there was cultural exchange. Culture is a social disease – it is transmitted on contact. There has always been sharing, borrowing, and synergizing between cultures.

This is an important point, because it proves that distinct cultural traditions do not require racial or cultural separation to preserve them. If the mingling of peoples led to dissolution of all cultural boundaries, we’d long ago have been one big mishmash of culture. Because the mingling has been happening for millenia, as demonstrated above. What the racists claim to be protecting against would have happened long ago if racial purity had anything at all to do with the integrity of cultural traditions. Cultures arise from shared language and shared experience – DNA doesn’t come into it. The varieties of human experience will always tend toward a diversity of cultures regardless of ancestry or cross-cultural contact. Any argument for separatism in the name of cultural diversity is just a cover for racism.

So by all means, celebrate the ancestral traditions that move you and touch your soul. That is what I do. Let us just remember whose ancestors they are: the ancestors of humanity.

Success Is Being a Beginner

I’ve just returned from a fighter training event, called Sport of Kings. It draws a couple hundred fighters from all over the Western states as a place to receive focused training from some of the most experienced and legendary knights in the armored combat world. Just about anyone who is there is there either because they’re dedicated to honing their combat skills, or because they’re already a bad-ass and they’ve been asked to come and teach. About 95% of them are men, most with several years of fighting experience, many of them knights already. And then there’s me. A beginner, and one of just a handful of women fighters who showed up.

During the day, we attended outdoor classes on all aspects of fighting practice. In the afternoons, fighters put on armor and gathered at practice fields for bear-pit fighting, round-robins and tournaments, critiquing each other on their fighting skills. On the last night a big formal tournament was held, with all several hundred people at the event gathered to watch.

This event could have been pretty intimidating. A relative newbie and a female, surrounded by bad-asses showing their best at a very testosterone-heavy combat sport. I’m used to this social dynamic, but this event took it a notch higher just because it was entirely and intensively focused on competitive fighting skill. Had I brought with me a need to prove myself, I’d have been crushed.

Standing with the other fighters between rounds in the tournament, I could not help reflecting on how important being a beginner is. Near me in the lines was another of the handful of women – a young girl who could not have been past her teens, and who was clearly feeling terribly discouraged because she hadn’t won any of her fights in the tournament yet. She looked shaken and downcast, and the men around her in the line were trying to cheer her up. “You can still win the next one! Don’t think like that, every fight is a new fight!”

I hadn’t won any of my fights in the tournament either. But I was smiling, because I flung my ego to the wind when I put on armor that day. I had a moment of overwhelmed nerves thinking about all the bad-ass knights I’d be facing that day, how foolish I might look next to them on the field, how they would write me off as a girl out of her league.

You can paralyze yourself thinking like that. It struck me then that the entire psychology of nervousness and fear of failure was a choice. I didn’t have to prove myself. I didn’t have to worry about succeeding in the tournament or making a showing that would compare to those knights. That would be an insane measure of success at my stage, and to do that to myself would be toxic. All I had to do is to succeed at being what I am: A beginner fighter whose job is to learn. All I had to do was get out there, be present in my fight, and learn something to take into the next one. To do that is to succeed at beginning.

So my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought. And my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought again. My heart was light, I reveled in the adrenaline, I watched my mistakes, I went down laughing. I replayed the fights in my mind while I waited my turns, observing my patterns and errors, ways to respond better. The men I fought remarked on my joyful attitude, how great it was to fight someone who is laughing for love of the fight.

How often do we disarm and undermine ourselves by letting the fear of failure paralyze us in any aspect of life? If you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain with its shadow looming over you, of course the top of it looks too far to reach. Because it is. Your job from there isn’t to reach the top of the mountain. Your job is to put your foot forward on the path that is right in front of you.

So you aren’t the king of the mountain yet. So I’m not a bad-ass knight yet. So what? Get good at being a beginner. Get good at showing up. Get in there and fight, learn something, take the next step on the path.

I found it incredibly liberating to quit worrying about proving myself to others – and this applies to all areas of life. The thing is, it never works anyway to focus on what kind of showing you are making in the eyes of others. That’s a profound distraction from the work in front of you. The thing is to focus on the practice – whatever it is – and to trust yourself to it. Trust the path to take you up the mountain. Make your practice authentic, dedicate yourself to it, and in time that authenticity will speak for itself.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

― Maya Angelou

Don’t Let Go: A personal reflection about art, destiny, and sovereignty

Yesterday, I spent all day at work making art. Then I came home and went straight to my desk, on fire to make more art. When I looked up, it was nearly midnight. I still wasn’t tired.

I always knew that art is what I was meant for. I was avidly drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. It was a defining characteristic of my childhood. Long before I had any other ideas about identity – before it had even remotely occurred to me that I was a Witch and a Pagan – I knew what I was. I was an artist.

But here’s the thing. It took me until my late thirties to find the guts and the strength to make this my vocation. In my teen years, art was pretty much all I did. And then I reached that age where people start asking you what your plan is in life, and no one wanted to hear me say “artist”. I was told (by the person closest to me) you can’t succeed; no one makes a living just doing art; you’ll be broke and miserable. Art is a hobby. It’s frivolous. It’s a luxury. You can’t expect to just do that. You need to choose something more adult, and just do art in your spare time for fun.

So I did. I let myself be persuaded to set aside what I had always known I was meant for, and pick another career. I changed my major in college, and I did another six years of schooling and got my degree. Went to work in a government office. I continued to think of myself as an artist, but art was squeezed in as a hobby, in my side moments between working full-time, commuting, and everything else. Art became the periphery of my life, and the office was its center.

I did that for ten more years. Until I didn’t.

The job evaporated and I was at a crossroads. I let it all go and ran full tilt toward what should have been my center of gravity all along: Art. Was it scary at first? Hell yes. But pretty soon I started to realize that there are all sorts of ways that art careers can be made, besides selling paintings in the fine-art world. Animators, art teachers, designers, illustrators, tattoo artists, CGI artists, concept artists, comic book artists… I started to realize that I’d been sold on a narrowing of imagination. I had allowed myself to be diminished, not just by giving up a part of myself, but by internalizing a shrunken image of the whole world I live in.

Why did I do that? How did I let that happen to me for so long?

Many reasons. I was young and naive. I had poor emotional boundaries. I was easily influenced by people close to me. I was in a relationship with an imbalanced power dynamic. I let myself be told, instead of listening and then weighing the decision for myself. A host of reasons that really boil down to one thing: I was too young to know what sovereignty was, or to notice that I’d given mine away. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I began to understand what had happened to me as an issue of sovereignty.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it. It now seems to me that personal sovereignty is what our lives are made of. That it’s really all we have. Fate, or chance, or whatever you like to call it, will cast us into all kinds of circumstances over which we have no control at all. What is ours is that right to exert agency for ourselves, to choose our way forward through whatever faces us, to choose for ourselves how to respond. To live by our own lights. Ancient cultures often framed this in terms of a heroic ethos, in which it was understood that even if fate took all other options from you, you could always exercise the choice to die well, and that to do so was to exercise the ultimate sovereignty. People in circumstances like mine are privileged to not have to frame this in life-and-death terms, but I think the ethos of free will and sovereignty still has merit and applies.

I’m now speaking from a place in which I’m doing the work I have always known I was born to do. I am building a career in art, through a combination of tattooing, fine art and crafts. I am thriving in a way I never have before. The way has opened to me. I think it was always open. I just didn’t dare take it before.

What’s my point? How is this relevant to you? Are you wondering if this is leading into vapid inspirational platitudes like “If you can dream it, you can do it”? No, it’s not. I can’t say that all paths are open to you to succeed at whatever you want. I’m not telling you that you can make your dreams come true no matter what they are.

photo courtesy of Patrick Mackie, via Wikimedia Commons

What I am telling you is: Don’t let go of your soul because someone told you that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be that. Don’t let go without at least trying for yourself, without getting your feet dusty attempting to climb the path. Don’t give your sovereignty away. Don’t let go of your soul.

Don’t let go of who you are. I’ve said before, everyone has a destiny, and your truest sovereignty is to hold to that, to fight for it.

I’m speaking this urging with compassion; I don’t sit in judgement of anyone. Any one of us can wake up realizing we’ve given away our sovereignty in little profound ways. Any one of us can wake up realizing we’ve let other people choose our destiny for us without a fight. I let that happen to me for a decade and a half. If this is you, don’t judge yourself, either. Just start now. Reclaim yourself. It is never too late. It is never too late.

Because this isn’t just about doing what feeds you personally. The world we live in desperately needs people to fight injustice and oppression, to fight destruction and degradation, to speak the truth, to stand up for what’s right. Where does that start?

Who will fight for you if you can’t fight for yourself? Who will you fight for, if not yourself? Who will right the world if the world is filled with people who have given all their power away, who are trudging exhausted down a path that isn’t their own? How will you be of service to the world if you’re drained from doing the wrong work?

This is how you can be of service: Find out who you are and what your destiny is, and then give it all your heart.

 

Ghost stories of Gaul

Tonight I’ve been poring through archaeological notes on the nature of ancient Celtic religion for another writing project. Sometimes research is tedious work, but tonight from the dry fragments of archaeological data, with the full moon peering in my window, a ghost rose up and took hold of me, and I want to share its tale. Tonight under this full moon, let me tell you a story.

We are in the soft green landscape of northern Gaul, its wooded hills and valleys crossed by many streams. We are in the territory of the Bellovaci, a strong Belgic tribe. Caesar’s legions have not yet come to conquer this land – it is a tribal dominion still. That moon pours light over the landscape, a wide stream that courses by the walls of the dunum, the fortified city standing on the slope overlooking the valley. Inside the walls, buildings cluster, thatched roofs over timber-framed and wattle walls. Just inside the entrance gate of the dunum, there is a space set apart from all the rest.

A tall wooden palisade guards the boundary of this space, enclosing it seven feet high with pole stakes but for an entrance gate facing us at the east. At intervals along these walls stand tall posts, towering over the palisade, and on each is hung a set of battered arms: sword, spear, and the man-sized oval shields of Gaulish tribes, painted with now-faded tribal devices, cut and spattered with the traces of battle. Here and there, a Roman helm and shield hang, or perhaps a Greek set. The captured trophies of rival tribes and nations. And over the eastern entrance in the palisade, a great wooden portal looms high above us. Its double gates are hung on thick timber uprights which support two ranks of heavy lintel beams, as thick as a man’s waist. We can see the ornate carvings on the beams and gate glinting in the shifting light. We recognize these carvings: sinuous and twisting, coursing spirals and geometries, the artful madness of La Tène Celtic design, brought to life by its colorful paint and the flickering torches to either side of the gate. In the shadowed spaces between the ranked beams of the portal over the gates, we can see rows of skulls: dead warriors set to watching the gateway between the outer world and the sanctuary within. The gates swing outward.

We cross a threshold between the uprights of the portal and step onto a narrow wooden footbridge which spans the eight feet of deep boundary ditch inside the palisade. To either side of the footbridge, in the ditch and up against the palisade wall, the skulls of horned cattle are stacked into mounds, all facing us as we move through the crossing. Apotropaic guardians like the dead warriors on the outer walls, their eye hollows watch us. Beyond the stacked cattle heads, we can see the ditch running along the circumference of the enclosure, and in it the layered remains of many offerings: countless animal bones; cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, layered in with thousands of rusted, broken swords, splintered shields, old spearheads, decaying leather scabbards and the detritus of endless bits of old weaponry. For hundreds of years these offerings have been laid down here, one atop another as the older sacrifices sink into the earth at the bottom of the boundary ditch. When the arms displayed on the walls rust and their leather strappings crumble enough to fall, they will be laid into the boundary ditch with the bones of the most recent sacrificial animals, and another set will take their place.

In the precise geometric center of the rectangular enclosure, a roofed structure stands, its four ornately carved and decorated corner posts carefully aligned to the cardinal directions. A temple. Within its shelter, the hollow altars are delved into the earth: nine circular pits cut deep into the soil in an open circle facing us as we approach from the east; and in the center of the circle, a tenth, larger oval pit. A heavy-hewn table stands before the structure, blood-stained, and nearby also are cooking-pits. Here the sacrifices are made to the poetic invocations of the Vates, the Druidic priests who are entrusted with sacrifices, divinations, and the rites of religious observance. We can almost hear their intonations, the words uplifted, the sonorous chantings in the ancient Gaulish tongue. Here the offerings are dedicated – the many bright treasures, the fine weapons, the poured libations. The animals are brought, their blood spilled; parts of their bodies are given to the Gods and offered in the pits of the hollow altars, entrances into the Otherworld. The rest of the meat, sanctified by the touch of the Gods, is brought out and cooked in the cooking-fires, and shared with the gathered people of the tribe. The hollow altars will be covered between ceremonies, and the portions of the animals given to the Gods within them will be left there until the bones are free of flesh, and then the bones will be brought out and placed in the boundary ditch, as the ritual cycle continues.

Outside the temple, another, smaller building is enclosed with walls, and within are heaped treasures upon treasures. Golden torcs, arm-bands, necklaces, anklets, belts. Cups and cauldrons in gold and some silver; hand-mirrors, chains, enameled, jeweled, twisting with ornate La Tène ornament. Wooden chests overflow with objects captured, created, offered. Treasures up on treasures, and more weapons – fine, heirloom weapons. Baskets of coin gleam on the floor, some so old that the basket-weavings are disintegrating and the treasures spill onto the earthen floor, where they are slowly sinking in to the soil under the weight of layers up on layers of offerings. Humbler offerings litter the floor, too: ceramic and earthenware cups, fragmented crockery, bronze and iron tools, objects too old to be recognizable. How deep have the layered offerings sunk into the earth inside this treasure-house? It is never guarded except by the spirits. No one would ever think of stealing gifts already belonging to the Otherworld.

And here is another, smaller structure in the corner of the enclosure, glinting white by the moon’s light. Nearing, we discern that it takes its whiteness from the bones of which it is built, and the gleaming weapons hung upon it. A little square shrine built all of bones it is. Carefully stacked for stability, human long-bones criss-crossed make up its lower tiers; here and there intermixed with the leg-bones of horses. On its outer faces are hung more shields and weapons, and its upper surfaces are protected by a layer of shoulder-blade bones. An opening faces us, again toward the east, and within we can discern a floor carefully tiled with iliac bones, surrounding a round posthole in which stands a wooden icon with unfathomable staring eyes, its base set into deep, soft layers of human ash within the posthole. It is not simply a shrine for the ancestors of the tribe – it is a shrine built of ancestors, the bones of the honored dead raised up into a structure for their reverence. How many ancestors stand here? How many generations?

One artist's interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

One artist’s interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

In the remaining corner of the sanctuary enclosure, behind the sacrificial temple, there stands a copse of trees. A little piece of the forest that was cleared to build the dunum whose walls surround this sanctuary, this grove of trees was left untouched and simply enclosed by the boundary ditch and palisade. It is a home for the Gods within the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.

This is a Gaulish Celtic sanctuary as it might have looked while still in use, before the destruction of public Gaulish religion. I’ve combined elements of a few different sanctuaries for the sake of illustrating the different kinds of shrines that were in use, but almost everything I’ve described here is based on archaeological records, with just a few bits filled in from contemporary texts. These sanctuaries were in continuous use and development from about the 4th-5th centuries BCE until the eve of the Gallic wars. Why do we have such detail about the structure and arrangement of these sanctuaries? Because the Gauls of these tribes committed a kind of religious suicide before Caesar’s onslaught came.

During Caesar’s period in the middle of the first century BCE, these sanctuaries were abruptly closed. The hollow altars were filled in and covered over. The temples were dismantled – their walls collapsed inward to cover their contents. The ossuary shrine made of ancestral bones was carefully knocked outward from the inside, so gently that many of the bones remained locked together in their stacked patterns, and none were broken. Everything was leveled, including the palisade walls; the banks were knocked over to fill in the boundary ditches. And then the entire enclosure was covered over with a low mound of soil. This was not the destruction of war – the sanctuaries were intentionally and carefully dismantled, and all around the same time, mid-century. As the Druidic priesthood of Gaul saw what faced them in Caesar’s conquest, they chose to bury half a millennium of religious tradition literally into the grave rather than see it desecrated by the Roman legions.

I try to imagine what that must have been like. Some handful of individual Gaulish people did the physical labor of knocking down the ossuary temple built of twenty-five generations of their own ancestors’ bones, obliterating five hundred years of memory and tradition and worship, knocking them into the dirt as gently as possible and covering it over, never to be retrieved. And then what… walked away? Went for a beer? Joined Vercingetorix’s army? Drowned themselves in the river? That’s about the point where I give up trying to imagine what it must have been like to have to do that.

When Caesar came, he never saw the temples, because they were gone before he arrived. He wrote about Gaulish religion, of temples with sacrificial deposits in them, but scholars recognize his texts as copied from the earlier writer Poseidonius. What he saw he described as “constructed mounds” which he understood were made up of sacrificial deposits. The grave mounds of Gaulish religion.

It is from this period that the springs, caves, lakes, and other natural sites began to dominate as centers of cult activity in continental Celtic religion. It is from this period that we see a dramatic increase in votive icons and offerings, magical tablets, and other religious items appearing as the evidence of folk religion. Because after the destruction of the temples and the criminalization of Druidic religion and its public rites, private worship in the hidden places of nature was what the Gauls had left to them.

The Gauls did not forget, though. After the Roman conquest, even following the official prohibition on Druidic religious activity, the sanctuaries continued to be kept as sacred ground. While the dunums were built up into Roman oppida all around, the grounds on which the sanctuaries stood were kept empty. No longer visible as mounds, with no surviving structures traceable on the ground surface, the people somehow passed down a hidden tradition about the sacredness of these sites for four hundred years after the conquest, protecting the boundaries of the sanctuaries from the encroaching city. It was not until the fourth century CE that a new temple, now in the Romanized style, was built – and when it was, its corner posts were laid precisely onto the invisible footprint of the old Gaulish temple.

That is the story that the ghosts of Gaul asked me to tell you tonight.

Of blood and battlefields: Sacrifice in Pagan practice

So today I’m thinking about sacrifice again. It’s a subject that’s been showing up recently. Not long ago, my friend Sam wrote an excellent blog post on the subject of sacrifice; and the comment discussion on the post is very revealing of the fearful attitudes many people still hold toward the notion of sacrifice. You’ll find a commenter in that conversation blithely stating that he eats meat, but virulently objects to animal sacrifice as wanton murder, and seeing no contradiction in these two positions.

Not long after that, I traveled to a Pagan gathering in British Columbia, where as part of a series of intensive rituals working closely with Macha, an epiphany of the Morrígan in horse form, several of we Coru priests and our allies held a ritual feast of horse meat and other ancestral foods, cooked over a sacred fire and eaten within ritual. We experienced very mixed responses to this ritual. Some of those present were moved and honored to participate; others who heard about it after the fact reacted with horror to the idea that we would ritually consume horse meat.

The common theme expressed by those who object to blood sacrifice seems to be the idea that it demeans or insults the being that is sacrificed. That to spill blood for a religious offering is to waste life, when something else could be offered. I think this is arising from a misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice; and I encourage readers to go and read the entirety of Sam’s article on the subject. We should know, of course, that the term sacrifice means ‘to make sacred’; and that sacrifice is, historically speaking, a core practice of Pagan religions in the ancient world. I’ve written on this subject before, as have many others.

This week, I’ve just returned from a weekend of  armored combat and ritual offerings to my Gods. As part of our martial and devotional practice, when I and the other Coru priests and warriors attend large war events, we lead battlefield devotionals to bless the fighters and the field, and to dedicate the combat to our battle Goddess, the Morrígan. As this practice has developed, it became clear to us that blood offerings were needed. In the past, every time we performed the battlefield dedication without offering blood, at some point in the fighting day one of us who had been involved in the dedication would take an injury, and blood would flow.

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Coru priests and allies performing Gaulish battlefield dedication

This tells me something important about how this devotional process operates with the Morrígan. How many times have people told me that libations, food, flowers, whatever, are sacrifice enough for the Gods? How many times have I heard that offering your time, dedicating acts of service to the Gods, time spent in devotional prayer is just as good a sacrifice? Well, we did all that, and She asked for more. Rather, She took more. We offered beer, whiskey, cream, woad, etc.; we brought Her many fighters to raise their voices with us and dedicate their fighting in Her name; we gave Her the battlefield, and we threw our bodies into the fray; we offered Her our many bruises and every ounce of fight we had in us. She took all that, and then She took blood, too.

Until this time. We got wise and added a sacrifice ceremony the night before the fighting, in which we made blood offerings which were placed into the cup with the offerings that would be dedicated and poured out on the field the next morning. Several Coru priests, as well as some of the other warriors gathered, chose to offer their blood. And this time, none of us took a bleeding injury during the fighting. I can only conclude from this that She requires blood sacrifice in the context of a battle dedication.

This should not surprise us, really. We know that it was a common practice among the warrior traditions of the Gaulish Celts to offer dedications to their war Gods prior to a battle, and we know that human and animal sacrifices were among those offerings. It stands to reason, and I think has been shown, that these Gods (or at the very least our Goddess) still expect some kind of blood sacrifice. Modern Pagans love to talk about how the Gods evolve with us, and how forms of offerings can be different in modern times. I agree – but I think the important thing that has shifted isn’t whether or not living sacrifice is needed or useful. What has shifted is the importance of the individual soul and the idea of consent, the willing sacrifice. Everyone whose blood went into that cup offered it of their own volition. Similarly, when we organized the blood donation drive at PantheaCon last year, that was a form of sacrifice which was purely volitional. That focus on volition with regard to human offerings is reflective of how sacrifice can evolve in a modern context – a religious practice now shaped by modern values on individual liberty, but still preserving the core function of the act, which is the offering of vital life.

That core function is also present in animal sacrifice and is the reason why the practice is still relevant today. Obviously, consent cannot work the same way with animal offerings as it can with human blood offerings. But it seems to me that we don’t expect to receive consent from the domestic animals who are raised and slaughtered for our food, so it is an unreasonable standard to apply to religious sacrifice. To my mind, if we’re willing to kill to eat (and I think all beings have a moral right to kill when needed for sustenance or self-defense), there is no reason to be squeamish about dedicating the life force that’s being spilled in a religious fashion. From a Pagan perspective, an animal that’s being killed humanely and with attentive care in a ritual context is being honored far better than one that’s being killed as part of a routine assembly line, packaged for food without attention to its soul process and the spiritual quality of its death. Thus, unless it comes from a person who eats no meat nor otherwise supports animal processing industries, I can’t give much credence to categorical objections to animal sacrifice.

There’s another argument about consuming animals based on totemic links, and this was part of the objection to the horse meat that we heard. Reflections of this exist in history and mythology of Pagan cultures – as one well-known example, the Irish hero Cú Chulainn had a geis which prohibited him from eating dog meat, and this is usually interpreted as resulting from his totemic connection to dogs. This is a valid spiritual argument, but it still only holds for those individuals who have a specific relationship with the animal that would confer such a prohibition. Others’ relationship with horses doesn’t preclude me from participating in ritual horse meat consumption, any more than Cú Chulainn’s geis means no one in the world should ever eat dog.

There’s much more to be said about this subject. We’re hopeful of organizing a discussion on the subject of sacrifice at PantheaCon next year (spearheaded by my sister Coru priestess Rynn Fox). I hope the conversation on sacrifice continues, because I think it’s a very important one in the evolution of Pagan thought.

Why We Fight, Redux

I made a decision recently to write more often about my combat fighting practice. I’ve tended to make this blog more a space for academic and spiritual writing, and less a personal journal. I figured, who cares about the fumblings of a beginner SCA fighter?

Women do, as it turns out. In my first six months as a heavy armored combat fighter, I’ve had several experiences of women coming forward to tell me that they find something to inspire in my fighting path. This surprised me. For the most part, SCA culture is very supportive of women fighters, and while women remain very underrepresented in heavy combat (I’d estimate about 5-10%; less in the ranks of knights), we don’t lack for strong, kickass female fighters, at least on the West coast. Why would these women be particularly interested in my beginner experiences?

These are the kind of comments that I’ve been hearing from women:

“I just wanted to tell you I admire your bravery for jumping in to this tournament. I’ve done some fighting on the war field, but I’ve been too intimidated to enter into a tournament and face off against all those men who are bigger, stronger, and more experienced. I know you’re a new fighter, and I know you’re taking a lot of hits because you fight without a shield, and I’m sure it must be scary, but you’re just going forward anyway and I find it really inspiring.”

“I am so proud to come here tonight and see that there’s at least one woman fighting in this tournament. I haven’t been to an event in years, but you make me want to come back and get in armor.”

I think what I’m figuring out is that women are finding inspiration in this because I’m a beginner. Perhaps they find it easier to see themselves in my boots because I’m not an accomplished fighter, because I’m new and awkward and I lose most of my fights. Because I’m smaller, lighter, and far less skilled than almost everyone I go up against. Because I take beating after beating but I just keep at it, knowing that is how I’ll learn and become strong. Perhaps in some way this makes fighting seem more possible for them too. I hope so. I long to see more women in armor, more women shining on the field.

And then something else happened. A few days ago, I learned that a dear friend of mine was sexually assaulted recently. As she shared her story with me, my first thoughts were about making sure she had care, was supported, protected, the perpetrator prevented from doing further harm. My own emotions didn’t surface until I left her company.

Then I felt something closing in on me. I thought, That’s one more woman on the list of women I know who have been sexually assaulted. And then I found myself thinking, Wait, how many women do I know now who haven’t been raped, molested or sexually assaulted? And the rage started to crash over me in waves.

I don’t want to count my friends by how many unraped women I know.

I don’t want to watch that countdown diminishing. I don’t want to watch that countdown close in on my sister, my daughter, the rest of the women I love. I’ve been lucky so far; how long have I got? This is not the world I want to leave to our sons and daughters.

None of this is new to me, but for whatever reason, it hit a threshold for me. Maybe because I’m a fighter now. Maybe it was that realization that I was counting down to a terribly small number. Whatever the reason, it triggered a rise in me in a new way.

What do we do? There are many ways, I suppose, to work against rape culture. There has been an upswing in dialogue lately about rape culture, and that is good. Messages about men taking responsibility for changing rape culture, for choosing not to rape, for recognizing the bodily sovereignty of women – these messages are starting to be heard, and that is good. I support all of that.

For my part, I feel it is my work to encourage women to 598869_4702114103272_1985475771_nfight. I want to see more women carrying themselves with the strength of warriors on our streets. I want to know that those women on my diminishing list of unraped friends and family, have learned how to use their weight to break out of a choke hold. Or turn a gun to disarm an armed attacker. Or use a lightweight broom as a knockout weapon. I want to do anything I can to inspire even a few more women to make themselves formidable. To become a force of strength that can intimidate if need be, instead of walking the world in fear of being alone with a male.  I want to see more warrior women walking our streets, embodying with their very presence the overwhelming truth that our bodies are not the sexual birthright of any male, but are our own sovereign territory which we can and will protect.

What does SCA combat have to do with any of that? It is just one fighting form among many. I chose it because I like the community and because getting in armor and beating the hell out of your friends is addictively fun. But I don’t care what you choose – Krav Maga, or Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido, or HEMA, or kickboxing, or Irish stickfighting, or whatever. It matters less what specific techniques you study – it’s the practice of integrating a fighting skill into your being that matters. They all teach us some moves we can use if we ever need to defend ourselves. And more importantly, they all change how we carry ourselves and how we move in the world. They all change our ability to think and respond without panic under pressure. They all make us warrior women. That’s what the world needs.

Please don’t be the next woman on my list. I love you. Let us fight and grow strong. I am doing this, and you can too.