Disambiguating the Queen, #2: Dark Goddess

Apologies to my readers for the longer than usual interval between posts. My work life has accelerated, and I’m also working on a writing project for publication, so time for the blog has been harder to come by.

So… This week I thought I’d take on another of the common conceptions about the Morrígan: that She is a ‘Dark Goddess’.

You’ll see this label applied to the Great Queen in much of the popular literature and internet material about Her. There’s too much of this material to quote any one source directly – but go to almost any of the popular social network groups or websites devoted to Her and you’ll see something like this:

The Morrigan is the Celtic form of the Dark Goddess. She is the Black Raven of Death and Rebirth. She is the Crone, the Great Queen, the Supreme War Goddess. She is Fate and Death, the Warrior, Protector, and Wise Woman. She represents Old Age, Winter, the Waning Moon, and Destruction. She is the Grandmother aspect of the Triple Goddess.

Setting aside for the moment the many inaccuracies in descriptions such as this… first things first. Is the Morrigan a ‘Dark Goddess’? What do we even mean when we describe a Goddess as ‘dark’? The term ‘dark’ can mean two different things – objective or natural darkness, as in the absence of physical light; or moral darkness. Which, if either, applies to the Morrígan?

If we assume She’s being labeled a ‘Dark Goddess’ because of an association with natural or objective darkness, e.g., the absence of physical light, we might expect to see a special association in Her lore with night-time (when the world is dark), the night sky itself, winter (when daylight is least and nights are longest), and/or chthonic or lightless underworld realms.

Goddess of Night? Well… No, not really. In the Irish source texts (the only primary narrative sources for Her mythology) we don’t find a particular association with night. She does attack the hosts of enemies of Her chosen people during night-time (for example, during the First and Second Battles of Mag Tuiredh). But She also attacks them in the daylight, and makes other daylight appearances. One might possibly make an association with the notion of obscurity – as She is linked to the use of stormclouds, mist and obscuring fogs in battle magic. However, so are many of the Tuatha Dé Danann, not to mention other races in the myths. In the early literature, clouds and mist are properties of Druidic magic, of which She is a specialist. That doesn’t make Her a Goddess of darkness, however.

How about winter? The Morrígan does have a clear association in the lore with Samhain, but Samhain is not winter. In fact, the name derives from the Gaulish term Samonios, which is generally translated as ‘end of summer’ (Samon=summer). In the Celtic paradigm, Samhain is the hinge point, the gateway between summer and winter. That’s why it is in fact such a crucial, sacred, and powerful time – because it is a liminal time between seasons, when the Otherworld was understood to be more accessible. Thus Her association with Samhain does not equate to an association with darkness, but rather with Otherworldly power. Further, a great many of the Morrígan’s appearances in the source lore also occur around Beltain – the other hinge point in the Celtic year, in the spring. For example, the great battles of the Invasion cycles in which She takes part are understood to have occurred at Beltain. Clearly, She can’t be labeled a Dark Goddess based on season. The nearest we can come is the Cailleach, a mythological hag or ancestress figure associated with winter in Irish and Scottish folklore. However, there is no direct evidence for equating the Cailleach with the Morrígan; and while there are some interesting folkloric links, the Cailleach can be related just as well with Brigid as with the Morrígan.

Goddess of the Underworld? Yes, but… it’s more complex than that, and the short answer is no, it doesn’t shake out to an association with darkness. The Morrígan does have a strong association with the síd or Faery mounds – underhill places which are understood in folklore to this day as the entrances to the Otherworld and dwelling places of the Gods and spirits. However, this has to be understood in context. For one thing, all the Tuatha are pretty much equally connected to the síd. Lugh himself, whom no one would ever think of calling a ‘Dark God’ makes appearances from and within the mound (for example, in the Baile in Scáil sovereignty myth). We have to remember that in the Celtic mythological paradigm, while the Otherworld may be accessed through the mound and understood to exist underground (or undersea), this does not mean it is a realm of darkness. It is not the cold, lightless Underworld of, for example, the Hellenic realm of Hades. It is a rich and varied landscape with all the lights and shadows of our own world. Again, Her connection with the mounds simply points to Her nature as an Otherworldly being of power, not a Goddess of darkness.

But crows and ravens are black! Okay, yes, the Morrígan’s primary animal forms are corvid, and yes, they are black. Well, mostly: in many of the places in the lore where a species of crow is named, it is the hooded or scald crow, which is not all black. But sure, the iconic corvid is black, and there is no question that She appears in the form of a raven or black crow in many places in the lore. Though, to be truthful, She also appears as a gray wolf, an eel (we aren’t told of its coloring), and a white heifer with red ears. And when She appears in human-like form, Her coloring is most often described as fair-skinned and red-haired (when young); or blue-skinned and red-mouthed (when demonic or hag-like). I find it unconvincing to hang the idea of the Morrígan as dark Goddess merely on Her link with crows and ravens alone in the face of all these other non-black associations. (Besides, many deities we don’t label dark are linked with dark birds; Lugh has an ancient association with ravens, for example.)

So much for the natural darkness arguments. That leaves us at the idea of moral darkness. The Morrígan as dark Goddess based on Her association with forces we consider morally ‘dark’; violence, warfare, death.

Now we’re getting to it. Actually, if you look deeply at the idea of ‘dark Gods’ in general, they are inherently a product of our dualistic culture, heavily influenced by Abrahamic moral paradigm which equates darkness with negative or harmful forces. In fact, when people talk of the ‘Dark Goddess’, they virtually always mean moral darkness rather than natural darkness, if you examine their language and theology. For evidence of this, I invite you to imagine any deity associated with the darkness of night or the night sky whom you care to think of. Nyx, Nuit, Astarte, Ishtar, Arianrhod of the silver wheel; all the ‘Queens of Heaven’. Not a one of them is usually labeled ‘Dark Goddess’. Hekate is arguably an exception, but I think the point still stands. When we say ‘Dark Goddess’, what we really mean is scary Goddess; or perhaps more specifically, morally ambiguous Goddess.

As I understand it, the notion of the Dark Goddess as such is an outgrowth of modern Wiccan and feminist thealogies. The idea seems to have been that in the early stages of Goddess spirituality and the women’s movement, there was some sanitizing of the images of the Goddess, and people felt that in order to fully reclaim and resacralize the Divine Feminine, the ‘darker’ aspects of the Goddess needed to be recognized and given place – that is to say, the aspects that frighten us, that represent forces denied and demonized by Western dualism. Death, destruction, bloodshed, violence, illness, decay, old age, and the like. All parts of life and all as natural as sunshine and flowers, but associated with negativity in the dualist paradigm.

So what’s wrong with this? Isn’t it fair to say the Morrígan is a dark Goddess based on this approach? Well, for one thing, I don’t find it terribly useful to maintain the dualistic language; it only serves to perpetuate dualistic moral values, which I don’t think apply to a polytheist, Pagan Celtic Goddess. The ‘Dark Goddess’ label  emphasizes and reinforces a shallow and ugly cultural paradigm about age and sex: the correspondence of the crone/old age/death/darkness as opposed to youth/beauty/sexuality/life/light. In fact the Morrígan inhabits ALL of these. She is as often a young as an old woman, and She freely interweaves sex with death, fecundity with old age, youth and beauty with violence.

The fact is, the entire idea of classifying the Gods as ‘dark’ or ‘bright’ based on moral valuation of their functions is anathema to the polytheistic and animistic tribal paradigm from which the Morrígan springs. But it’s a self-reinforcing paradigm. Using this dualistic terminology for the Morrígan emphasizes Her functions that fit the idea of moral darkness – Her roles in death, warfare, and violence – at the expense of Her other equally important functions. What about Her role as tutelary Goddess to heroes? What about honor, sovereignty, wealth, queenship, sexuality? Incitement to greatness? What about seership and poetry and Druidic craft? We brush all that aside in favor of Her bloody image when we label her as a Dark Goddess. And most importantly, we lose the understanding of how all these aspects are connected. How the heroic ethos carries honor and glory, but at the cost of blood. How queenship and wealth are linked to protection and sacrifice. How the aspect of death is connected to the ancestral current and the life of the land. Where madness, ecstasy, sexuality, and battle frenzy connect. How all things open to the mystery of the Otherworld.

If She’s anywhere to be found on the spectrum of light and dark, She’d surely be more of a twilight Goddess than a dark one. That is the nature of the Tuatha, no?

The Voice of the Sacrificed

This week brought my 37th birthday, and with it the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

Yes, it was my good fortune ten years ago, to watch as my country preemptively invaded another and lit its skies on fire with “shock and awe”, on my birthday. I remember it vividly.  Though I knew the war wasn’t launched on my birthday for any reasons to do with me, somehow that coinciding still did make it more personal and even more unsettling to me than it already was. My oldest friend had recently joined the army and I knew she would soon be deployed there; I’d been worrying about that all winter as the war loomed inevitably closer. And then it launched on my birthday.

That war felt terribly intimate, as though it had attached itself to me; as though by inaugurating on my name-day it had taken my name and was ruthlessly marching its destructive way in my name. Well, it was. Not just me, of course. It was destruction in all our names, all American citizens.

And I suppose it also felt intimate because I was eyeballs deep in a personal moral struggle over my devotion to a war Goddess. As the country stomped its bombastic way toward war, I had been engaging in a series of deep meditations communicating with the Morrígan. I was confused, scared, disturbed. I had always felt some unease about my devotional relationship with a war Goddess – had wondered if on some level I was condoning the brutality of war by worshiping Her. Now those questions haunted me irrepressibly as the war began. I went to my altar and prayed, chanted, begged for answers. She spoke.

I recorded my memories of those conversations in my journal (to the extent that direct nonverbal communications with a divinity can be translated into words). Here are a few fragments:

Why have I been chosen to have this connection with you? You know I am ill at ease with your warlike aspect.

It is in your blood. You are descended from invaders, violent warring Celts. Warfare and violence are part of who you are. You cannot run from this. You must understand it, and it is through me that you can understand this part of your being.

I am troubled about this war, about the justice of it. How can we tell a just war from an unjust war?

There are no just wars. For each individual who experiences it, war is an injustice. It is an injustice to those who suffer and die when they should have lived; it is an injustice to those who find themselves doing violence to their human kin in the service of war. War is always an injustice. The Gods cannot tell you whether your war is right or wrong by the standards of your justice; you must count the cost and choose, though you are blind. And sometimes it will come on you without your choosing, and that too is an injustice. Your task, when you do choose to make war, is to pursue it swiftly and strike with certainty. You must recognize that every life destroyed is in your hands and it is up to you to make that sacrifice worth something.

The reason your ancestors revered their enemies so much is this: when you slay your opponent in battle, the spilling of their blood is a sacrifice to your sword. It is required that you honor their sacrifice by dedicating it to a worthy purpose.

The law of human life is that you are only capable of solving your problems within the set of ways your culture contains. I arose in the form you know me among the old Celts. Their culture was shaped and defined by tribal warfare. You, and your culture, are the inheritors of this in many ways. When you alter your culture to contain a different set of possible actions, then you may be able to solve your problems without bloodshed. Until then, I will always be present. My role in war is to make it swift and terrible, and effective; to carry for you the knowledge that you could learn from your actions if you choose to listen; and to mourn the cost.

Well, ten years. Have we learned the lessons of war? Have we made good on the blood we spilled, the lives we sacrificed? The war Goddess teaches that life is both precious and expendable – that blood is a mighty currency. Several thousand young American lives have been sacrificed, and countless Iraqi lives. Did we spend them well? Did we make heroes, or just corpses? What have we bought with that terrible flood of bright, bloody coin?

Is the world more free from brutal dictators with cruel habits and rumored nuclear ambitions?

Are the streets of Baghdad, of the towns and cities of Iraq safer for unarmed people to live civilian lives?

Is the Middle East a more stable and democratic place?

Are the Iraqi people enjoying the liberty we insisted on buying them with their own blood?

If all these things were true, would the price still seem too high?

I will not even try to answer these questions myself. We have been fed volumes in answer by the war-leaders in government, by the military-industrial elites and their pocket-congressmen, by the corporate media, by everyone with an opinion.Perhaps we should instead try listening, for once, to the voices of the sacrificed.

Dying Iraq veteran Tomas Young wrote these words in an open letter to the architects of the Iraq war:

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I urge you to read the whole letter, and the accompanying article about his life. These are words of power, coming from one who is facing his own death and who knows full well that he has been sacrificed, that his life has been spilled on an altar.

What are we feeding with these sacrifices? Tomas Young believes he has been sacrificed to greed. Who among us is willing to dismiss his authority to speak about the meaning of his own death? I think we are compelled to listen. I have written here before on my feelings about the Gods our war machine is feeding. Tomas Young offered himself in sacrifice to protect his country, and instead his blood was spilled on a different altar. That, my friends, is a grave dishonor.

I read Young’s letter on my birthday, the tenth anniversary, and again the war feels personal. Because we are all part of this sacrifice – we are all implicated, no matter how vigorously we may have protested, no matter who we voted for, no matter whether we support the troops by hoo-rahing the war or by demanding that they be brought home. We are all implicated. We all have Tomas Young’s blood on our hands. His dishonor is our own.

We cannot undo the waste of blood that has occurred. But let us at least commit ourselves to never dishonoring a sacrifice again. Can we do that, at least?

Rites of Sovereignty

Yesterday, I awakened quite suddenly with a sovereignty ritual unfolding in my head. It’s been on my mind to write about sovereignty for this blog – prompted in part by the urging of my matron Goddess to teach sovereignty, and also in part by my observation that there are a lot of mixed conceptions out there as to what sovereignty is and what it may mean for us both personally and collectively. So today I write of sovereignty. It is a deep and broad topic, worthy of books in its own right, so I cannot say everything there is to say about it. But I will try to begin.

The most immediate definition of sovereignty, and the one most people are familiar with, is the modern collective notion of sovereignty, which is essentially self-rule of an autonomous people or nation. We see this aspect of sovereignty being discussed with regard to the rights of Native American tribes to treaty rights as sovereign nations, for example.

In the circles I move in (Pagan left-coasters, for the most part) sovereignty is often spoken of in the context of personal empowerment, autonomy, and self-possession. There’s an awareness that as spiritual practitioners and empowered individuals, we should be seeking full ownership of our own lives, to become “the monarch of your own skin,” subject to no one, answerable only to our own inner guidance. As a personal spiritual practice, yes, sovereignty encompasses these things.  I keep feeling something’s missing from this understanding of sovereignty, though. And it was this missing something that woke me up in the late dawn.

Scottish king stone

Let us go back to origins. Sovereignty, in its historical context in Celtic culture, appears centrally and pervasively throughout many of the foundational Irish myths, including the early mythological tales, the heroic cycles, the pseudo-historic annals of kings, and on down. Many of the famous battles around which the mythological tales are spun are presented as battles for sovereignty; and many of the important and storied kings have sovereignty legends told about how they were marked for kingship and vested with the power.** The sovereignty themes are continued in the early medieval Welsh tales and the British Arthurian and Romance Grail mythology. Reflections of these mythic themes are preserved in the rituals and customs of the monarchies as well as folk custom. Sovereignty myths typically include certain classic features: victory in battle under prophecy by, and supernatural aid from, the sovereignty Goddess; the stone that cries out under the foot of the true king; the sword that is pulled from the stone, or given by the hand of the Goddess; the ritual union with the Goddess in the land; the cup from the Otherworldly wellspring that is offered in token of sovereignty given.

These themes are deeply woven throughout all of the Celtic literature, right back to the oldest written texts. They express a fundamental concern of the culture: How shall our land and our people be rightly governed? And, further, how can we know who is fit to lead us? This, then, is the central question of sovereignty: the question of fitness to hold power. It is no different from what troubles us today in our own societies.

The answer of Celtic societies, generally speaking, was this: Let the land choose the sovereign. The sovereignty was understood not primarily as a social contract between subjects and kings, but as a natural force: a numinous power within the land, which was vested in the person of the ruler by the source of the power, in the shape of the Goddess of sovereignty. Thus the symbols and vessels of sovereignty were embodiments of the land, through which the soul of the land was understood to make its will known. The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, was the primary embodiment of sovereignty demonstrating this principle – it was said to cry out under the true king, acting quite literally as the voice of the land. We also see the embodiment of the land coming to life in the form of a Goddess who confers victory in the contest for sovereignty, and who bestows the kingship on the one She has chosen. Her hand rises from the lake, offering the sword; or he meets Her and mates with Her in a flowing river; or he meets Her in a Faery mound, where She offers him a cup to drink. Everywhere She arises with waters, the wellspring of the life within the land. That life force itself is the sovereignty.

This notion that the sovereignty is itself the very life of the land has powerful consequences for the one who is tasked with holding and wielding it. In the tales, every judgement and act of the sovereign are manifest in the life of the land. So long as he makes truthful and fair judgements and acts rightly, there is prosperity in the land; cattle grow, milk is plentiful, grass is lush, trees come in fruit, the rivers run with fish. But when there is an unjust king; if he makes false judgements, if he does not carry that power rightly, the produce withers, the grass will not grow, the cattle will not calve, and even the walls of the royal fortress may shudder and fall.

Because, you see, the power doesn’t only flow from the land to the sovereign – it flows through him and back to the land. In the act of taking kingship, he has both literally and symbolically merged with the land (thus, the mating with the Goddess of sovereignty). When he takes up the kingship, his life is no longer his own – it becomes one with the life of the land.

So here we have that missing element. Sovereignty is not equivalent to freedom or autonomy. To be a sovereign is to be bound.  He has not simply claimed the sovereignty; he has been claimed by it.

This notion was deeply held, and was understood quite literally in early Celtic society. The rigorous requirement of kingship was complete integrity, in body and soul – to the point that even a physical blemish or injury on a king was considered a threat to the health and integrity of the land. Enter sacrifice: the fate of the sovereign. In some times and places, this may have meant literal sacrifice, as the king who was weak, injured, or no longer serving right judgements might be physically sacrificed to renew the life of the land. In other times and places, this simply meant that an injured or unjust king was required to step down and pass the kingship to another. Instances of this are clearly iterated in the mythological and historical literature. This, too, is sacrifice.

So what does this mean to us now in terms of sovereignty as a personal spiritual practice? There is much to be said about that, but what I want to convey today is that personal sovereignty isn’t a principle that can be boiled down to “I’m in charge of myself and you aren’t the boss of me.” The lore of sovereignty teaches that it is intimately connected with integrity; that sovereignty conveys a model of power where the only true authority arises from integrity. That sovereignty can be claimed by force, and sometimes must be, but can only be held through justice and integrity. And further, that the practice of sovereignty is one of commitment – full and unreserved commitment of one’s very life force – to the honor and benefit of that which we claim as ours. Thus, sovereignty cannot be separated from the fundamental values of service and sacrifice.

And I want to convey that personal sovereignty isn’t about being answerable to no one, just as collective sovereignty does not make a king answerable to no one. Because we are, in both cases, answerable to the very power that we wield.

 

**Note: I write here of kings in the masculine gender, because historically speaking, most of the source material refers to male sovereigns. There were of course many powerful queens in Celtic societies throughout history, but they are notable exceptions, and certainly the mythology and folklore of sovereignty is highly gendered and consistently refers to a male sovereign and female sovereignty Goddess. Of course, when it comes to personal sovereignty as a spiritual practice, we adapt this model to be spiritually suitable for all sexes and genders of people. So when referring to personal sovereignty, I try to avoid gendered language, but I preserve it when speaking of history and lore.

Disambiguating the Queen: #1, Morgan Le Fay

I’m feeling compelled to begin writing about some common misconceptions about the Morrigan that I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency in online and print publications discussing Her. This will likely be the first in a series of posts of this sort.

Today’s subject: The Morrigan as Morgan Le Fay, Lady of the Lake, Lady of Avalon and similar identities. I’ll offer this in the form of a conversation – the conversation I so often find myself having when the subject comes up. Here’s how it usually begins:

“Morgan Le Fay is obviously a guise of the Morrigan, because their names are so similar, so I work with them as the same Goddess.”

Actually, their names only appear similar; they’re actually completely distinct. You see, the Celtic languages branched into two separate families fairly early in their development: the Gallo/Brittonic languages, also known as P-Celtic and including Gaulish, Brittonic and later Welsh, and the Goidelic languages, also known as Q-Celtic, and including Irish and Scots Gaelic (both families also including minor Celtic forms such as Manx, Cornish, Breton, etc.) The name Morrigan comes to us from the Irish Gaelic branch, whereas the name Morgan comes via the Welsh/Brittonic branch. Being manifestations of Celtic language, both branches do retain many related and mutually intelligible word constructions, but Morgan/Morrigan isn’t one of them.

The name ‘Morrigan’ comes to us from the Irish Gaelic branch, and is composed of the terms mor (connoting phantom, terror, or the dead) and rígan (queen). The name is also sometimes given a long accented ó: mór (great). Her name can thus be constructed ‘Phantom Queen’ or ‘Great Queen’.

The etymology of ‘Morgan Le Fay’, on the other hand, comes from the Welsh/Brittonic branch, and it has nothing to do with queenship. It derives from môr (sea) and gen, from genos, a common Gallo-Brittonic name-suffix meaning ‘born of’ or ‘child of’. Thus Morgan is ‘Sea-Born’, and refers to a spiritual being or Goddess connected with the sea. We see this surviving in folklore about the Morgens or Mari-Morgens, a class of Otherworldly sea-beings from Breton folklore.

“But doesn’t Morrigan also translate as ‘Sea Queen’?”

No, I’m afraid it doesn’t. The name Morrigan doesn’t appear in Welsh, it appears in Irish. And neither mor nor mór means ‘sea’ in Irish. The word for sea is muir, but there is no evidence at all identifying this as the etymological root of Her name. Nor is the Morrigan anywhere directly linked to the sea in any of the source texts in which Her name appears. Unfortunately, this false etymology has been published in a number of places, and people often assume if it’s in print it must be correct.

What about Avalon? Isn’t Avalon the Celtic Otherworld, and so wouldn’t the Morrigan be linked to it?

There have been many names for the Celtic Otherworld (or it might be more accurate to say Otherworlds; a topic for another time). Avalon derives from a much later stratum of mythology than the Iron Age period referenced in the Irish mythological literature that describes the Morrigan. Avalon is a British Arthurian literary concept that does not appear until late medieval Grail romances, a fusion of medieval British and French mythologies containing traces of earlier Celtic concepts fully intermixed at that stage with Christian mysticism. Earlier and more Celtic-influenced literature refers to Ynys Afallon, or ‘Isle of Apples’; this may in fact be loosely linked to the Irish Emain Ablach; an island associated with Manannan, a God of the sea and of magic and illusion, among other things.

So yes, there are concepts of a Celtic Otherworld appearing in Welsh and Irish lore and linked to the sea (or lakes) and to apples. But nowhere is the Morrigan directly associated with this Isle of Apples concept. And the image of Avalon, as a mysterious lake-bound isle of magic associated with priestesses veiled in blue, pseudo-Druidic symbolism, and a mythical Celtic Goddess-cult… IS NOT FOUND in the late Iron Age Celtic tradition that describes the Morrigan. That Avalon, while beautiful and inspiring, is a fiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley creatively imagined it based on late medieval Grail romance, mixed with some additional Celtic mythology, and liberal amounts of modern Wiccan-style theology and symbolism. I don’t mean to insult anyone – it’s really a lovely archetype and inspires much beautiful and effective spiritual practice today. But it’s not historic and it’s got no real connection to the Morrigan.

“Well, the Morrigan is clearly connected to sorcery, and so is Morgan Le Fay.”

Yes, the Morrigan is one of the primary Druidesses of the Tuatha De Danann, so of course She performs magic. The Tuatha, you see, are ‘the people of Art’. It’s right there in the first episode where they are introduced in the source texts: we are told that the Tuatha came to Ireland from islands over the sea, where they had learned wisdom and magic and sorcery, and they brought these arts to Ireland. As the Morrigan is one of their Druidesses, She performs all the classic Druidic functions: poetic recitation and incitement; prophecy and seership; recording of deeds and epics; and of course, battle sorcery. But show me a Celtic Goddess who doesn’t use sorcery or magic. That doesn’t make them all Morgan Le Fay.

“But the Morrigan is referred to as a ‘Faery’, and that sounds like Morgan Le Fay.”

The Morrigan being referred to as a ‘faery’ just means She is an Otherworldly being. This status applies to all of the Tuatha, the tribe of Gods to which She belongs. In their representations in the mythological literature, they are variously described as Gods, as faeries, or as heroes, depending I suppose on which Christian was writing down the lore and how they chose to interpret what they were receiving from the Pagan oral tradition. But regardless, being a faery isn’t a special quality of the Morrigan apart from all the other Tuatha. The lore is full of faery women, many of whom engage in actions reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay, such as healing, hexing, illusions, and transporting people between the earthly realm and the Otherworld. Again, this doesn’t make every faery woman in Celtic mythology an appearance of Morgan Le Fay (or the Morrigan). It means the world of the Celts was peopled with Otherworldly beings of all kinds!

“But the Morrigan is associated with streams and rivers, so She’s a water Goddess, like the Lady of the Lake.”

To begin with, the Morrigan has no particular association in the Iron Age lore with lakes or sea. We do see a very strong association with streams and rivers, but this doesn’t equate to making Her a water Goddess generally, nor to linking Her to lakes and seas. One of the reasons She frequently appears at rivers is that the rivers are boundaries between different provinces, and when She makes these appearances, it is most often connected to a battle occurring at these boundaries between factions or tribes. For the same reason, most of Cu Chulainn’s important combats take place at fords of rivers; but we wouldn’t on that basis conclude that he is a water God!

In the Celtic imaginal landscape, bodies of water generally are liminal places – boundaries of sovereignty, as well as gateways to the Otherworld. Thus, a great many significant events in the mythological literature take place at river fords, lakes and the shores of the sea. This reflects into the stories of nearly all the Irish Gods. In addition, these bodies of water also carry life-giving qualities of watering the land and providing fertility, fish, and other aquatic produce. Rivers in particular are strongly connected with female power in much of the lore. Thus, throughout all the Celtic lands, we consistently find rivers named for Goddesses, and some lakes, too. Given the predominance of rivers and lakes named for Celtic Goddesses, there are actually remarkably few carrying any name connected to the Morrigan. Because, while water bodies are everywhere associated with female power and the Otherworld generally, they are not directly linked to Her particular functions.

“But isn’t the Lady of the Lake a sovereignty figure, like the Morrigan? What about the sword?”

Yes, clearly the myth of the Lady of the Lake offering the sword to King Arthur is a form of sovereignty myth. But you see, that’s not enough to equate her with the Morrigan. Sovereignty attributes can be traced within many Celtic Goddesses, and obviously no one would claim they all are the Morrigan. The sovereignty figure is a fundamental form of the Celtic conception of female divine power. It tells us that the Celts understood sovereignty as a power arising from the land, conferred through the action of a female divinity. That doesn’t mean all female characters who carry the power of sovereignty are the same Goddess. It means that relation to sovereignty is a crucial element of female divine power, and is therefore carried by many of the Celtic Goddesses, taking a distinct shape with each based on Her particular sphere of concern and mode of action. The Morrigan’s form of sovereignty is the form it takes when it is called upon to defend itself, when it becomes martial, protective, and warlike. She is female divinity and sovereignty in the shape of battle. But we cannot conclude from Her sovereignty connection that any female figure offering sovereignty in folklore is the Morrigan.

“But I work with Morgan Le Fay as an aspect of the Morrigan, and She’s real to me. Are you telling me my practice is invalid?”

No, I would never presume to judge what another’s personal spiritual practice should be for them, unless I’ve been asked my opinion. I see nothing wrong with Pagan folk venerating both the Morrigan and Morgan Le Fay, or any other combination of deities, within their personal practice if that works for them. I am saying that there is not significant historical or literary evidence to support interpreting Morgan Le Fay as an appearance or ‘guise’ of the Morrigan. I am saying that there is not evidence for the Morrigan having any direct or significant historical link to the medieval folklore of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake.

I’m not here to tell anyone that their personal experiences are false if they’re experiencing these two as one deity. But I would like to suggest that if your personal experience is substantially at odds with the body of available evidence about the origins and nature of a deity, it might be wise to look more carefully at how you are interpreting your experiences. And I definitely think anyone teaching or publishing about these deities needs to take into account the whole body of evidence.

Courage in Kinship

I’m settling back in following my adventures at PantheaCon and reflecting on my experiences there. It was the first Con we in the Coru attended as a priesthood, so we were kept very busy with lots of introductions and questions about who we are and what we do. We also had given ourselves a packed schedule of workshops, rituals, and other activities that didn’t leave much room to breathe. (If anyone in my readership felt you were getting the brush-off from me at any point, please accept my apologies. I really did want to talk to you, I just was overscheduled and couldn’t stop to talk.)

One of the big themes for me this Con was kinship. Naturally, since this was a central focus both of our Morrigan devotional ritual and of the blood drive. But it was also borne out in more personal ways. We shared our suite with some allies of the priesthood, new friends from up north whom we met during our trip to the Western Gate festival last October. We began the Con as new friends and allies, but after spending days eating, laughing, working, and doing deep ritual together they all felt like deep kin. There it is – kinship through shared devotion. What so many people have been saying they felt after the Heart is Our Nation ritual.

The heart is the only nation, we sang. Our voices lifted upward to the Morrígan, and we made an affirmation of our sovereignty. (Teo Bishop)

We called upon kinship and sovereignty, and over the last few days I find myself feeling and becoming more aware of the threads that tie us all together. (Stephanie Woodfield)

I heard stories starting the next day of people who, inspired by the depth of kinship that they felt, took courage to begin conversations with others who they hadn’t spoken with in years. I hear stories of people moved by the strength of kinship to take on greater challenges, take a stand, fight for something. Acts of courage.

This is what kinship means.

Because these acts of courage aren’t only supported by the strength that we feel when we know we are not alone. I can do this, because I’m not alone here. What I also see is that acts of courage are driven, are made necessary by the reality of kinship. I must do this, because I’m not alone here. Kinship brings the recognition that whatever we face, we are in it together; we, this species somewhere between ape and angel, hearts pumping blood, souls always seeking a place; we, born from stars and mud and hunger, the inheritors of the whole human legacy of beauty, wonder, and violence, and the endless longing for liberty. We have Gods to inspire us, spirits to aid us, but who will save us but ourselves? All our human kin need us each to find the courage that is in us, stand forth and give our best. That courage is kinship.

As we readied ourselves for the ritual, we painted each other’s limbs and faces with blue paint.

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Spirals, meanders, stripes, claw marks. The idea had come to me a few weeks earlier to paint ourselves for the ritual, as some of the old Celtic and Pictish tribes were said to have done. To evoke a sense of kinship with tribal marks, though I meant something different by it than my ancestors did, surely. A dream came back to me, forgotten for some time. Last summer, the night before we planned this ritual, I’d had a dream.

The Coru were performing an invocation in tribute for an old man of our community who had died as a result of mistreatment by an abusive police or security authority. We were chanting to the Morrigan at his memorial. Then one of the other priestesses turned to me and gave me a message from Her. “The Queen says it is time to resist.” And she handed me a pot of woad paint. I saw the people gathered, the community coming together, speaking words of courage to act in defense of the human rights of the community. We painted our feet blue with the woad and they called us the Blue Heels. The blue-painted feet were meant to show our fighting spirit, and our motto was “We stand fast,” as was said by the Morrigan in the Second Battle of Maige Tuiredh.

I’d forgotten this dream once we got into the planning of the ritual, but remembering it while we painted each other, something came to me: this truth that kinship itself is resistance. In a civilization that strives to divide us, to alienate us from each other and even from ourselves; in times of drone warfare, economic feudalism, class warfare, and the national security state, any act of courage and kinship is a form of resistance. Kinship does not just give us the strength we need to resist these forces. It is in fact the key to our survival and overcoming. In such a world, kinship itself is heroic.

I must do this, because I’m not alone here. For the kinship that I bear you, I will do this thing. I will act like I care. I will stand for something. I will give of myself. I will take a risk. These are the words of heroes. Heroism is love in action.

Do you stand in kinship? What will you stand for?

Notes and Quotes

Due to a preoccupation with preparations for PantheaCon 2013, I’ve not had much time for writing in the last couple of weeks. I’ll return to more in-depth content here next week. For today, I have a few intriguing tidbits and links for you:

1. Kings Arise to Battle

Isolde Carmody at the Story Archaeology Podcast has published a translation of the Morrigan’s “Kings Arise to Battle” poem, from the Second Battle of Maige Tuiredh. Previously, I’d never found a translation of the full poem; most translations of the story give only the first line of the poem, followed by ellipses (…). It is incredibly exciting to me to have access to this full poem, and it’s a powerful one. Here’s an excerpt:

[A hundred] cuts blossom
Screams are heard
Battallions are broken
Hosts give battle
Ships are steered
Weapons protect

Every bit the fierce incitement to heroic ardor promised in the first line. I encourage you to go and read the full poem.

2. Rebuilding Her (Their) Cult(s)

Saigh at Flying with the Hooded Crow has posted a thoughtful response to my recent blog post on the historical cult of the Morrigan. She gives some fascinating descriptions of what a modern reconstructed cult of Gaelic warrior Goddesses might look like, following the model of the Gaelic warrior bands in a modern context:

So for me rebuilding Her/Their Cult/s is about the devotional practices, often very embodied ones. And in a modern context. These things would vary by whether one is a professional soldier or a, well, amateur walking the warrior path, of course, as well as on ability and talents. But it would involved fitness, practical martial arts training (which may not always be traditionally Gaelic and could include firearms training), culturally traditional Gaelic martial arts training (which may not always be practical), ecstatic shape-shifting, Seership, poetry and other arts.

The post is a good read and provides some enticing leads into what modern followers of the Morrigan might do as we gather into stronger communities. I am looking forward to continuing the conversation after I get back from travels.

3. Morrigan Devotional Ritual

John Beckett, Druid and Patheos blogger, writes an account of a recent devotional ritual to the Morrigan that he and his cohorts undertook.

She asked us to make our oaths on a spear, and warned us not to promise what we would not do…
One thing She said I clearly remember: “this is only the beginning.” This matches what I’ve heard from others who are working with and for Morrigan: a storm is coming. Gather your tribe. Reclaim your sovereignty. There is much work to do.

It always gives me a smile to see the ways in which She speaks similar messages to Her many devotees. I think it’s valuable for those of us working with Her to share experiences like this one.

4. Coru Priesthood Website

The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood, the Morrigan dedicant group I work with, has its own website now! You can find us at www.corupriesthood.com. The website is just going live today, so you may still see the occasional error if you’re following the link soon after I post this. We will be continuing to add more content as time goes on, including more prayers, invocations, spiritual exercises and rituals, devotional artwork, and essays. You can also check out our Events page, which includes initial details for our events coming up this spring, including monthly devotionals and workshops, as well as our June weekend intensive, Kindling the Hero’s Light, with special guest teacher Brendan Myers, Ph.D.

5. PantheaCon 2013

Finally, a last reminder – for those of you coming to PantheaCon this weekend in San Jose, here’s the schedule of my doings with Coru folk and others. Don’t forget to sign up to donate blood if you can at our Blood Heroes blood drive! Details on this and all our happenings here:

The Four Treasures in Myth and Practice
A workshop with Morpheus Ravenna and Ankhira SwordPlow
Friday 3:30 pm – Coru Hospitality Room 261

Meeting the Morrigan
A workshop with Morpheus Ravenna, Amelia Hogan & Brennos
Saturday 10 am – Coru Hospitality Room 261

The Heart is our Nation: A Morrigan Devotional
Coru Cathubodua Priesthood with T. Thorn Coyle & Sharon Knight
Saturday 7 pm – Cedar/Pine rooms

Battle Maiden: Morrigan Devotional Dance
Performance by Morpheus Ravenna as part of the “Many Faces of the Goddess” dance presentation led by Didi Gordon and Sarah Astarte
Saturday 11 pm – San Martin/ San Simeon rooms

Mimosa Mixer/Coru Meet & Greet
Coru Cathubodua Priesthood
Sunday 10 am – 12 noon – Coru Hospitality Room 261

Warriorship Traditions: A Moderated Panel Discussion
with Brennos, Robert Russell, Peter Dybing, Stefanie Clark, and Scott Rowe
Sunday 3:30 pm – Coru Hospitality Room 261

Brigid’s Forge: A Healing Ritual
with Rynn Fox
Monday 11:00 am – Cedar room

That’s all for now – I’m off to finish packing for my journey through the Pagan looking-glass!

What Use Violent Gods?

In the comments to my last post, on the historical basis for the Morrigan’s cult, I was asked this question by a reader:

Given all this history, I have to ask — why is this deity willing to cooperate with you on nonviolent goals?

It’s a good question, and one which I often hear in one form or another, so I feel the subject really deserves its own post. Do war Gods, and does the Morrigan, relish slaughter? And, the part of the question that usually goes unspoken: If we worship war Gods like the Morrigan, won’t this engender more violence rather than assisting us to solve our problems more peacefully?

It is true, the Morrigan is classically known as a war Goddess; if only one descriptor of Her nature and function is given, it’s usually that one. Reading the medieval Irish source literature, one finds ample material to draw an image of Her as bloodthirsty and violent, reveling in slaughter. On the other hand, if you read shallow Llewellyn-style books about ‘Celtic Magick’ and the like, you may find Her being re-interpreted as a misunderstood form of earth/fertility Goddess, or equated with Morgan le Fay, her violent aspects smoothed away in favor of some polished archetype of ‘women’s empowerment’. The truth, of course, is more complex than either image.

Does the Morrigan relish slaughter? According to the Irish literature – the only substantial literature we have on Her – yes, she does. There is no point denying or whitewashing it. We read things such as this:

Here and there around us are many bloody spoils; horrible are the huge entrails the Morrigan washes. She has come to us, and evil visitor; it is she who incites us. Many are the spoils she washes, horrible the hateful laugh she laughs. She has tossed her mane over her back; a good, just heart hates her. (Reicne Fothaid Canainne, 9th century poem)

Here we have everything She’s so often accused of: inciting war, reveling in the bloodshed and carnage. But of course, within the same body of lore, we also find Her described as a poet and satirist, a high and strong queen, an alluring woman holding wealth in cattle, a shape-shifting druidess, and many other things besides. As I wrote in reply on the previous post,

Yes, She does have an epiphany that revels in the slaughter, and because it’s one of the ones documented in literature, it gets a lot of attention… I think in part because the Irish heroic literature was written down by Christian monks, we get a clear picture only of those aspects of the Celtic heroic ethos that were comprehensible to them. There are a lot of places where the Morrigan, or one of her cognates, is glossed as a demoness, or a fury; images that were familiar to the people of the time from the Greco-Roman literature, but which turn out to be a great oversimplification of our Queen. Because they are purely wrathful entities with a fairly limited function, whereas She is a multifaceted tribal Goddess who possesses wrathful qualities and forms.

I think, however, that it’s important not to write off the Morrigan’s violent aspects entirely to Christian slander. That would be an injustice to Her and to the historical context within which She arises. Battle was a way of life to the Iron Age Celts, and this reality is reflected in everything that was written about them, just as it is reflected in the nature of their divinities and their religious practice.

So, again, if we aren’t personally interested in creating bloodshed, why would we want to invite this deity into our practice? Because the battle aspect arises from something deeper than bloodlust, something that we need to survive. I’ve said before that warriorship, the willingness to fight, is love in action. And just so, the Morrigan is sovereignty in action.

Brigantia

Sovereignty in action. This is the essence of why the Morrigan is a helpful divinity even for those who wish never to participate in violence of any kind. This statement isn’t a new-age revisionist view of Her; it is borne out by scholarly study of Her history. The earliest manifestations of deity that can be traced to Her were in the form primarily of tribal/territorial Goddesses – that is to say, the Goddess of our land and our people. When the historical context of these tribes led to the sovereignty of their land and people being under threat, these tribal/territorial Goddesses begin to take on martial, protective aspects, eventually emerging as full-blown war Goddesses, of which the Irish literature presents the most detailed image in the form of the Morrigan.

In the exhaustive study, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, Noemie Beck writes,

As will be seen, various goddesses, such as the Irish Mórrígain and the British Brigantia, possess the double aspect of land and protection in their character. They were originally goddesses embodying the landscape and were later attributed significant war-like attributes and pictured protecting their people and territory… As representatives of the tribe, they preside and rule over the territory and people; a sovereign role which leads to a significant function of protection and defence of the land. The Irish mythological legends indeed evoke the pronounced war-like character of the territorial/tribal-goddesses… The land-goddess was thus turned into a war-goddess when protection was needed in time of conflict.

Okay, but does She have to enjoy it so much? It might be pointed out that, at least in the Irish literature, we have descriptions of the Morrigan and Her related manifestations (Badb, Nemain, Fea, Macha, etc.) not only protecting the tribe in time of war, but appearing to actively incite war. She is said to lust for battle and to revel in the bloody slaughter, dancing over the spear-points of the battle.

Yes, in brief; She does have to enjoy it. Warriors do not prevail in the arena of war by maintaining a distaste for bloodshed nor an ambivalence about violence. A warrior may love peace, but when a moment of conflict does arise, the necessity is to throw your whole being into the act, leaving no room for hesitation or ambivalence. The warrior in that moment must love battle ardently, must desire nothing but the mad glory of the fight, the perfection of violence as martial art, the destruction of all who threaten her/him. This is what will give her or him the greatness of heart, the madness required to charge forward into the waiting blades of an adversary against all the natural instincts of self-preservation. And this is what the Morrigan incites, when She is inciting warriors to battle. She is drawing them into their battle ardor, pushing them to a state of enhanced fury and power that will allow them to survive, to achieve greatness and heroic glory. It is a service She is giving them.

And it goes deeper, too.  She has to enjoy it because it is Her job to devour the slain. It is part of Her eco-spiritual function as a scavenger bird deity, and a Goddess of death. She, like the Valkyrie, enables the transition of the souls of fallen between this world and the Otherworld. She Herself is the gateway through which the dead pass as She literally devours their bodies, drinks in the release of life force, and receives their souls. Should we tell the mountain lion she ought not to revel in the death of the deer? Tell the carrion crow to close her eyes and think of England when she wets her bill with the blood of the dead? The Morrigan lusts for blood because it is Her role in the shape of things. All beings hunger for that which they must eat.

Yet She is more complex than this, still. She doesn’t only enjoy the slaughter, She also weeps for it. The very specter in which She is often most gruesome, the Washer at the Ford, seen on the eve of battles washing the horrible and bloody spoils of the dead – is the same epiphany in which She displays the full pathos of Her role. Weeping and moaning, warning of the doom awaiting, sometimes even begging the warrior not to go to the fight. It is as though the gruesomeness of Her aspect, the reveling in carnage and bloody horror, is there in part to remind us of the terrible cost of war.

After one of my communions with the Morrigan some years ago, in which I asked similar questions of Her, I wrote in my journal of what I had seen in Her eyes:

Washer at the Ford, Alan Lathwell

It is not only we humans who pay the cost of our people’s choices; the Gods bleed too. The Morrigan isn’t only the sword that slays in battle; She is also the blood that spills, the ground that swallows the blood and receives the dead, and the phantoms that remain, echoing the horror. She is the frenzy of the slayer, the terror of the slain, and the grief of the bereft. A human being only pays the cost of war for the duration of a human life; She has been paying it again and again for millenia… Seeing war through the eyes of the Morrigan, the whole long, aching view of history littered with mountains of corpses offered up to futile wars to achieve something that no one now remembers, the rivers of blood and tears that have flowed through Her, the countless efforts to communicate this sorrow to people who don’t want to listen; I could no longer imagine that Her rage was born only from delight in the carnage.

Ultimately, my contact with the Morrigan has shown me that warfare and violence are our own responsibility, our own failure to fully evolve. It has taught me that we are the product of our heritage, just as She is of Hers: inheritors of the whole bloody river of history and all its ingrained cultural habits. That we are what we eat, and should we ever reach a stage of evolution where we no longer feed Her through war, She will go on receiving the souls of the dead in perhaps a less violent form.

I sometimes think that the problem with our culture isn’t that violent Gods move us toward violent goals. I sometimes think the problem with our culture is that we have given up our war Gods, or at least pretend we have. That we might be infinitely better off if our relationship to warfare and violence was framed by worship of entities such as the Morrigan, who at least will insistently remind us to count the cost of war, and will remind us of our honor and what’s worth fighting for. Instead we seem to have some faceless death-machine for a war God – the great military-industrial destroyer, its totemic winged drone-birds hovering around it, as we relentlessly feed our youth, our wealth, our humanity, our liberty into its grinding maw while carefully looking away.

I’ll entrust what I love to the Battle Raven over that God any day.

Not Rebuilding Her Cult

Talk has been going round the Pagan world about rebuilding the cults of the old Gods. My friend Sam Webster has been calling publicly for this as well as in private conversation, a call echoed by Druid writer John Beckett. (It was Sam, by the way, who sat me down two years ago and gave me encouragement to take up the Morrigan’s mandate and begin drawing Her priesthood together, when I was still hesitating. I need to thank him again for that.) P. Sufenas Virius Lupus spoke of bringing back the Gods of the ancients as well.

So rebuilding the cults of the Gods; that seems to be what I and fellow priests are engaged in. Rebuilding, restoring, bringing back. This language  presupposes continuity with our Gods’ ancient cults – an assumption that we need to be very circumspect about, particularly in the case of Celtic deities, such as the Morrigan, whose cult was never documented by its adherents.

Thus I thought it was time for a post examining this question. The historical cultus of the Morrigan: What do we know?

It has been said that there is no evidence for Her actual worship – and in the strictest sense this is true. Direct evidence of cult practice specifically linked to the Morrigan, by name, within the lands relevant to the early medieval Irish texts in which She appears, is virtually absent. However, we have a very interesting body of indirect evidence that suggests the outlines of Her cult, and it is from this that we can build a modern cult practice. Notice I say here that we can build, not rebuild. In my work to establish a priesthood and practice of worship, I make no claim to historical reconstruction. I trust if you have the patience for this long post, you will see why.

So. What do we know? People have written dissertations on the topic, so I will only attempt to highlight a few core concepts.

1.Where She was worshiped. The name Morrigan arises from Irish sources beginning in the early medieval period and referencing Iron Age culture. While this is sometimes taken to mean that the Morrigan is strictly an Irish deity, there is a substantial body of indirect evidence pointing toward a pan-Celtic presence of a Goddess at least closely resembling Her. In almost every Irish source text speaking of the Morrigan, She is given multiple names and forms; and if we look at these names and forms, we can easily recognize them beyond Ireland. For example, the Morrigan is frequently also referred to as the Badb, or Badb Catha, an epithet which means ‘battle crow’. In the continental territories of Gaul, we have sources which refer to Cathubodua, a Gaulish name which is exactly cognate to Badb Catha. In addition, if we look at the meaning of the name Morrigan, translated as ‘Great Queen’, we also find references throughout the Celtic world to Goddesses of this title, occurring in virtually every Celtic language branch. While ‘Great Queen’ may have been a title applied to multiple different Goddesses (such as may be the case with the Welsh Rhiannon), in many cases it appears in context with attributes that do indicate a battle Goddess and/or one taking the form of a scavenger bird. Since there is compelling evidence for continuity of other deities between Irish, Brythonic, and Gallic lands (for example, Lugh/Lleu/Lugus), I think it’s safe to conclude that we have a pan-Celtic Goddess in the Morrigan, though naturally the forms of worship must have varied geographically and over time.

2. Seasonal worship. We know that there was a broadly pan-Celtic bi-seasonal calendar in effect which, at the very least, recognized major transition times at dates corresponding roughly to Samhain and Beltaine. Within the Irish context, we have a substantial literature documenting the importance of Samhain itself as a feast time associated with kingship and the sovereignty of the land, as well as battle, Otherworldly encounters, sexual rites, and epiphanies of the Morrigan Herself. Many of Her appearances in literature occur at Samhain; but also, folklore still exists throughout both Ireland and Britain of the Morrigan or Her cognate figures emerging from the land at Samhain. As we know that great tribal gatherings did take place at Samhain in many Celtic civilizations, it is not too far a stretch to suggest that seasonal devotions may have taken place at these times, and in particular to the Morrigan since She is closely linked to the season in lore.

3. Incidental/temporal worship. Beyond seasonal rites, there are suggestions that devotional practice may have taken place on an incidental basis – that is, in connection with particular historical events. We know for example, that in Gaul, temporary war shrines were set up in connection with battles taking place in historical moments. Remnants of these temporary war shrines have been found, showing the placement of enclosures, the contents of offerings that were made, and corresponding to a discrete time horizon that bears the hallmarks of warfare – mass graves and other evidence of slaughter, captured arms and materials, etc. – and then deliberately closed down soon after. None of these shrines carry the name ‘Morrigan’ on them; however, pictorial evidence has been found that links funerary sites of this kind with carrion-birds. And we also know that at least one of the specific deities linked to warfare and warriors, and taking the form of the carrion crow, was Cathubodua, our Badb Catha, or Morrigan.

Many other kinds of incidental devotional practice probably existed. We know of Celtic leaders and Druid priests in the ancient world making sacrifices and taking omens on many kinds of occasions – at moments of tribal importance such as kingmakings and royal weddings; before important battles (such as the omen-taking of Queen Boudicca before her final battle with the Romans); and many other kinds of occasions. We can presume that if the Morrigan did have a historical cult of worship, She probably would have received devotions on occasions such as these – and in particular those related to sovereignty, battle, and funeral occasions.

4. Forms of devotion. Direct evidence of devotional offerings to the Morrigan in particular are scarce. We have an altar dedication to Cathubodua from Gaul, following the ancient pattern of votive offering in fulfillment of a vow. Other votive inscriptions to related names also exist (Rigantona/Rigani, Bodua, Cassibodua, etc.)

If we look at forms of devotion known to be practiced by the Celts in general, however, we can fill out the picture a little more. We know that throughout many of the Celtic lands, devotional sites often included a hollow altar – essentially, a sacrificial pit into which offerings were deposited, and then eventually the site covered over and a new pit established. Contents of hollow altars vary depending on the site, cultural context, and time, but common to most sites are the bones of animals cooked or burnt, and offered to the Gods. Many sites also included valuables such as armor, weapons, jewelry, tools, and the like. At war sanctuaries such as the ones described above, as well as permanent sites such as Roquepertuse and Gournay-sur-Aronde, we also find evidence of offerings specific to war deities, and including war spoils, captured arms, heads, skulls and bodies of captured foes, as well as horses and other more common offerings. A common feature of these sanctuaries is a highlighted, massive portal in stone (or wood in the case of temporary battle shrines), typically with carved skulls and/or niches for the display of heads and other offerings. At Roquepertuse, the portal is presided over by a large raptor or carrion bird. Other such war sanctuaries have been shown to be associated with funerary practice specific to slain warriors, who appear to have been excarnated (given to carrion birds) as a form of both offering to the war deity in bird form, and of funeral ritual for the dead. This practice was also documented by contemporary Roman and Greek historians, who were appalled at the Celtic practice of excarnation, not understanding that to give the bodies of fallen warriors to the Battle Raven to devour was to sanctify them far above burial or cremation. The practice of human sacrifice to Celtic deities in general is also well documented both by contemporary authors, as well as archaeological remains, throughout Ireland, Britain and the Gaulish continent. Irish cromlechs and stone altars exist, in some of which have been found traces of blood, likely from such offerings.

Portal of Roquepertuse Sanctuary

Thus, while we have no documentation of such an altar or sanctuary clearly dedicated by name to the Morrigan, we have a fairly clear picture of cult practice for war deities such as would have been appropriate to Her: shrines to war deities in carrion bird form, in which funerary rites were conducted; stone or hollow altars, at which blood, the bodies of the dead, animal sacrifices, and spoils of war were dedicated as offerings; and these offerings were both elevated for display on the portals and palisades, as well as being deposited in hollow altars.

There is naturally much more to the picture. For instance, while cult practices related to Her martial aspects are easier traced than, say, Her role as prophetess and poetess, clues exist which we could examine.  And there is the question of Her sovereignty aspect, and whether it can be linked to the Celtic devotional practice of water deposits. But for a blog post, this is about as far as we can go.

All of this of course begs the question: Assuming a historical cult of the Battle Raven existed as described, why would we want to rebuild it? Blood-drenched altars, human sacrifice, mass excarnation, spoils of war? How does any of this fit into modern Pagan practice?

Answer, of course: It doesn’t. Nobody I know is seriously interested in offering severed human heads to the Morrigan, and if I met someone who did, I wouldn’t invite them to my rituals. We aren’t attempting to rebuild the ancient cult of the Morrigan. We are rather working to bring a new tradition to life which honors Her in a way She hopefully recognizes, but which dignifies our present human values.

Truth, Strength, Fulfillment

Since it’s New Year’s Eve today, the subject of New Year’s resolutions is on my mind.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Partly, this is because the beginning of the Gregorian calendar just doesn’t mean all that much to me – I’m more tuned to earthly/astronomical events like Samhain and the Winter Solstice. Still, this is the calendar our society uses, and its end and beginning have meaning. The real reason I don’t make New Year’s resolutions is that I don’t believe in betting against myself.

You see, there’s something about New Year’s resolutions that seems to set them apart culturally from other kinds of commitments. I’m not clear why, but I’ve consistently observed that when people make New Year’s resolutions, they almost never carry them through. It seems common that people feel they’re doing well if they last till March or April before abandoning their resolutions for the year. After decades of watching friends and family lose steam on their resolutions and shrug them off by mid-year, I’ve come to perceive them as a form of self-cursing. It seems to me that folks I know are usually more effective at following through on any other commitment than a New Year’s resolution. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this, and I’ve observed some, but this still has been apparent to me as a pattern. We expect to break New Year’s resolutions.

That’s why I don’t like them. A commitment we expect to break is a form of self-cursing. When we back off from fully committing to a resolution, (“I’m resolving to do X this year, and this time I’m definitely sticking to it. For at least half the year!”) we are betting against ourselves, which means we lose the wager no matter what. Every time we do this, it weakens the will. It reinforces a view of ourselves that we aren’t up to completing a commitment, while telling ourselves it’s OK, it’s just a New Year’s resolution, everybody breaks them.

This is the way to eviscerate the will. What strengthens the will, and the whole force of honor in the being, is to never commit to something you can’t follow through on, and to always follow through on your commitments. Half-commitments, “I’ll do X this year, or at least as long as I can,” transmit the message to your soul, your Gods and anyone who saw you make the pledge, that you don’t have the will to stand for your commitments.

I am reminded of this, from the dialogue of St. Patrick with Caeilte, on the values that made the Fianna warriors strong.

“Who or what was it that maintained you so in your life?”
“Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.”

–from Acallam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients), trans. O’Grady

Fulfillment in our tongues. That is, fulfillment of one’s word. This is what makes us strong. Every time we fulfill a commitment, we become stronger. Every time we fail one, we weaken ourselves.

Along similar lines, the Irish notion of commitment is reflected in the geis. The word geis is usually translated as ‘taboo’, but it is more than that; the concept incorporates taboo, commitment or oath, and blessing and cursing. We typically see geasa applied to heroic figures such as warriors, queens or kings – they are a reflection of heroic power, part of what makes the hero strong, but also containing their weakness. In an earlier post, I wrote this about the geis:

A geis is an obligation which is laid on a person, to which they must adhere. The heroic stories teach us that the keeping of a geis grants power; that its protection may be so great as to make the hero undefeatable. To break a geis engenders loss of power and protection, weakness, downfall. The deaths of the great heroes are brought about through clever means of forcing them to break a geis and thus render them merely human, vulnerable to wounding and defeat. The hidden truth here is that, conversely, a geis intact renders one more than human, for it is a magickal bond with the Otherworld, and while it is kept, it wraps one in a mantle of Otherworldly power.

In a way, any commitment or resolution we make is a form of geis. Whether we intend it as a magickal act or not, the act of committing oneself to a resolution of action places a bond on one’s honor.

Thus, the heroic tales teach us that coming under a geis or bond that we can’t fulfill is a recipe for weakness and downfall. Making resolutions we know ourselves unlikely to fulfill is self-cursing. On the other hand, if you can follow through on it, you have the strength of the Gods.

So what is the lesson for us regarding New Year’s resolutions? If you’re going to make one, treat it as a geis you’re laying on yourself, and make sure it’s achievable for you. Better yet, make your resolutions to someone else. Give your word to a friend, a kin-member, or one of your Gods. They will keep you honest in a way that is much harder to demand of yourself.

Or, do as I do: set an intention for the year on New Year’s eve, but set it as a commitment to a practice or priority, in a way that allows you flexibility to fulfill it. Last year, I set an intention for 2012 to devote myself to fighting practice and developing martial skills. I didn’t say, “I resolve to do spear practice every day,” because I’d have failed myself – life got in the way sometimes. I said, “I dedicate this year to developing martial skills.” And I did: I spent a few months studying Krav Maga, then shifted my focus to spear training and armored combat. I took breaks here and there, but when my focus lagged for a few weeks, I just had to remind myself of the priorities I had set for myself, and then I would return to my practice. By the fall, I had learned a great deal and had succeeded getting authorized for heavy combat in the SCA. The key for me was that my commitment wasn’t to specific actions – I made a commitment to prioritizing a practice.

Here are a couple more examples of good ways to set intentions for the new year, instead of making half-assed New Year’s resolutions:

 

And here is my blessing for you: May you be sustained this year through the truth in your heart, the strength of your body, and the fulfillment of your word!

 

Martial artist Kim Falconer

 

Helvetios

My friends have asked me to write about my epic moment with Eluveitie, so here we go.

Eluveitie, for those who aren’t familiar, is a Celtic folk metal band out of Switzerland. But here’s the thing about them: they aren’t just a metal band, they are a Celtophilic cultural phenomenon. The music fuses traditional Celtic folk instruments (uillean pipes, fiddles, flutes, hurdy-gurdy, bodhran) with powerful metal grooves. Songs are written in a mix of ancient Gaulish and English – some of them including actual ancient Gaulish magickal, religious, and poetic texts set to their own music.

Naturally, as you can probably guess, I’m a mad fangirl. Epic folk metal music in the ancient Celtic mother tongue? Seriously, it doesn’t get more bad-ass than that.

During their recent North American tour, they ran a contest to give one winner at each city the chance to meet the band and get a music lesson from a bandmember on the instrument of their choice. Amazingly, even though I don’t play an instrument, I was selected for the Oakland show. In my contest entry, I wrote, “Would love to talk to songwriters about the Gaulish poetry used in your songs, as well as the history behind the Helvetios album.”

So on November 30th, I walked backstage before the show with Chrigel Glanzmann, the lead singer and lyric-writer, along with my stepdaughter and Brennos, a fellow Coru priest. Chrigel was courteous and kindly with my million questions about his songwriting, resources for Gaulish language and history, ancient Celtic magickal and religious practice, the Gallic wars, and cultural survival.

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Meeting with Chrigel before the show

We spoke of the destruction of Gaul following Roman subjugation. The massive bloodshed – which I’ve written of here before: the Celtic homeland was depopulated to a third of its original population size by Caesar’s sword. We spoke of the cultural loss that followed. Many of my questions related to ancient Celtic cult practice, the nature of Gaulish religion and magickal practice. He looked at me bemused when I told him I was attempting to revive aspects of Gaulish religious practice. “But it’s not possible… the religion was not documented before it was destroyed,” he said (in paraphrase – the interview was a month ago). “There is very little that we know.” I warranted that I did in fact have little to go on, but was doing my best. I sensed that it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to him to meet with a fan as devoted to Gaulish culture and language as myself. At the end of the interview, he said, “I’m glad people are trying to bring back the language and the culture.”

For Chrigel and the band, this is not just a metal music project, but a celebration of their own ancestral heritage. He and several bandmembers hail from Switzerland, from the Alpine plateau and foothill territory that was once the tribal lands of the Helvetii, a powerful Celtic tribe. He spoke eloquently in his accented English about the Helvetii and other Celtic tribes as the ancestors of the Swiss people, for whom the country in its native tongue is named: Confœderatio Helvetica. That although the Gaulish language died 1500 years ago, he feels a dedication to keeping it alive in music, as a poetic language and a vehicle for the memory of a people. He spoke of cultural survival — that although the Celtic roots of Swiss culture have been obscured by more recent Germanic influences from the early modern period, the Celtic bones remain within the culture.

He cited some fascinating examples of this from Swiss folk culture – much of what was recorded in the medieval and Enlightenment period as local charms and superstitions were in fact the remnant of ancient Celtic religio-magickal practice, translated through the centuries in the underlayers of folk culture beneath Roman and Christian overculture. The most fascinating example he gave was alpsäge, ‘alp-blessing’. This was a practice of the Gaulish tribal religion whereby magickal incantations were sung from high places in the mountainous Alpine landscape, for blessing and protection of cattle and other important tribal resources. The incantations were sung from heights in order to carry across distances and to generate echoes from the mountains, which were understood as the voice of the land spirits responding in support of the incantation. Beautiful, no? This practice has translated into modern times as…. you guessed it, yodeling. Chrigel speculated that before yodeling lost its soul, when it was practiced as a form of magickal incantation, it must have sounded quite different and more melodic.

After the interview, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. The conversation reminded me of how much was lost following the ethnocide in Gaul. How little remains to us of the mother culture and mother tongue of the Celtic peoples. And yet…

Come the night, when the crowd roared and Eluveitie took the stage. When the mad, fierce, raging joy poured out of the musicians and swept through the crowd, churning the sea of people into a frenzy of violent celebration in the mosh pit. When the impassioned, screaming songs were sung out in the ancient language. Songs full of raw, deep emotion, telling the story of the Gallic wars and the nation that was, with joy, with pride, with rage, with anguish, with heart, the sounds of Celtic instruments swelling on a thunderous tide of metal. Songs of all that was lost, yet I could not help feeling how alive we were, how full of pride, how the flame of the Celtic spirit blazed in us in answer to the power in that music. Come the night, I felt the lost nation of Gaul singing through her descendants on the stage, echoing back from the ecstatic crowd. Everything lost is found again.

I don’t have video from our show, but here’s Eluveitie playing “Helvetios” and “Luxtos” live in Switzerland, March 2012.

Faith in the Incandescent Sun

Inspired by conversations with friends about the Winter Solstice, and the old notion that we Pagans keep vigil fires lit on the Solstice in the belief that the Sun would not rise again unless we did: I post this poem for you. I wrote it for the Winter Solstice a few years ago.

Solstice Night

I have heard it said the sun will not rise again
if we sleep, if we
do not keep the vigil fire lit.
I wonder at this certainty:
Where the sun journeys in the long dark,
on what road traveling down the hidden ways,
can my signal fire reach him?
And whose voice is it echoing
in the black well of time
that turns the burning face of the sun
toward this earth again?

Long moments wane in the still night.
I am certain of few things:
Winter’s hand chills the door of my house.
It would be a mean season
but for these resolute, ardent
fires in our hearts and hearths.
I cannot tell if this fire warms the blind reaches
of winter’s deep cloak where the sun sleeps.
But I know the longing for heat and joy brings
us here to wake through the watches of the night,
not alone, but kindling together
our faith in the incandescent sun.

I am certain of the nameless age this earth
has turned always, ripe to cold to ripe again;
through which age if the sun had not
risen faithfully, aeon without number,
with yet no human tribe to call him home,
I would not now sit here burning the bones
of trees nursed from nut to leaf to arch by
this sun through long seasons, never failing
to rise when the earth called for day.

No, I think it is not we who will rekindle the hidden sun.
We keep the vigil fire in the hearth to
keep vigilant the flame that illuminates the heart.
It is we who have departed through long
toil and forgetting,
we who need calling back from shadow to rejoice with new eyes,
naked from gazing on the darkness,
now seeing as if new the sun’s radiant daily birth.

It is not the people calling who compel
the sun to wing back toward the spring,
however sweet may be our longing or how
bright may be our song;
this my heartbeat tells me.

For I know what impels the sun to bloom again each year:
It is the force that drives the rushing tide, that splits
the nut, that lifts both sap and blood;
it is the thunder of life surging through us all,
the urgent, wild, unyielding hunger to rise,
to rise again.

(c) 2008 Morpheus Ravenna

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.