The Storm Is Here

For several years now, They have been telling us to get ready: A storm is coming. Gather your people. Make ready. The Morrígan whispered this to me on a windy mountain place in the spring of 2011, and I soon learned that people all over the world were hearing this same message. From Herself and from other Gods too. A storm is coming. Get ready. Gather your tribes.

I feel that storm is here. We have been sensing its stirrings for a few years now, fitful winds that bring a shudder of warning and carry the scent of more to come. We have for some time been operating within the slow-motion decline of an empire; such declines have times of gradual change and times of sudden chaos and crumbling. This is one of those times.

I don’t need to detail for you the reason for this post: You’ll have seen the shock and horror rolling around the world as the most powerful and militarized nation on earth puts itself in the hands of a capricious demagogue without respect for democracy, at the head of a viciously racist, sexist, violent hate mob. You’ll have seen the wave of hate crimes, assaults, beatings, and threats. The most at risk among us – LGBTQ+ folk, People of Color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and women – have the clearest eyes for what is happening.

What do we do? This morning, my purpose here isn’t to give a comprehensive action plan. Other folks are developing those things and I may have more to add later.

What I want to share with you is this: Our strength is each other. You are not alone. And as terrible as this moment is, many of us hold a knowledge in our bones that we were made for times like these. We recognize this moment as the one that we’ve been asked to make ready for, so that just this much fierce love of one another and just this much defiance could rise in us. So that we would know that however terrifying it may be, the Gods knew we had it in us to resist and survive if we come together. The first thing we need to do is commit to each other.

Over and over, from the people in my life who are most at risk from the rising hate, and from people the Coru Priesthood have been counseling and supporting this week, I have been hearing this: “I need to know that you will fight for me. I need to know that I am not facing this alone. I need to know that you will not stand by and let them target me.” I thought about this as we prepared for our autumn public devotional this weekend. Words came down from the Morrígan:

I am not a warrior, you said

Why have you called me, Queen?

I called you to love

I called you to make your love a battle song

I called you because I saw your heart

For I am the Mother of Heroes

And I know the drumbeat of your heart

You do not need to know the weapon-dances

To be the spear in My hands

You do not need to be strong in body

To be the strong body of My sword

You need only to rise to the drum that calls you

Rise to Me and speak

Pledge to your heart its beating

Pledge to your people love

Pledge to fight for each other

And I will know you as My own.

And She gave us a pledge to take, a pledge to fight for one another. On Saturday night, we gathered before an altar enshrined with Her icon and Her presence. We sang Her names and offered our devotions. Then, we stood in a protective ring, encircling and holding those asking for protection, and we pledged to fight for each other, for those most at risk among us. We consecrated safety pins to wear as we carry this commitment forward every day.

Mother of Battles, hear my prayer

In time of violence, hate, and fear

Let the fierce strength of love move me

Let the courage of love uphold me

Let the tenacity of love root me.

Mother of Heroes, receive my heart

Grant me the protection of your presence

Grant me the backing of your host

Grant me the Hero’s Light

And I will hold this ground for kinship.

Mother of Victories, receive my pledge:

To my kindred under attack,

I will raise my voice to silence hate

I will rise to shield you from violence

I will stand with you when you need a hero

I will face the terror with you

I will share rest and care with you

I will hold you and I will fight for you

I will not stand down

Till the storm passes and sovereign justice arises

For I am the body of love

I am a weapon of love

I am love fighting for itself.

I share this with you as I hope it may be of help. Everyone reading this right now, even if you do not fear for yourself, you have people in your life who are at risk, who need your solidarity and your backing. It is going to get harder before it gets easier, and the easiest thing in the world will be to let this moment slide by and become the new normal without resistance. It will cost us to protect each other; it means taking risks to our own safety, our jobs, our social position. But know, and hold on to this knowledge, that the Hero’s Light breaks over those who choose risk in the service of their people over personal safety. Know that the Gods of battle and sovereignty stand with you when you stand and fight for each other. Know that this is what we were made for: to love one another and live.

If this pledge inspires you to make a similar commitment, you are welcome to it. Adapt it as you will: alter the prayer to include your own divinities. Write another one. Say it before your Gods, and someone in your community who can hold you to your commitment.

We can do this, friends. The life that is in us, the courage, the heart, the soul, the will of us is enough. If we love one another and let that love be what matters most.

Solidarity networks to provide mutual aid and support are being woven as we speak. If you need support, reach out. As my honored friend Elena Rose says, “Find a hand and hold on.”

 

Recent posts about resistance and solidarity networks:

Resistance Matters

Solidarity Networks

 

Crisis support:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: (877) -565-8860

Trevor Project: (866)-488-7386

 

Helpful organizations:

Resources for Social Change

Organizing for Power

Black Lives Matter

Showing Up For Racial Justice

Campaign Zero against police violence

Support Muslim people in your community with Council on American-Islamic Relations

Help immigrants and new Americans

RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network aiding victims of sexual violence

ACLU: Working for civil rights and constitutional liberties

Theurgic binding: or, “S#!t just got real”

EDITED TO ADD: The post below has generated quite a bit of discussion and several responses on other blogs: John Beckett, Dver, Rhyd Wildermuth, Ember, and Asa West. In response to the latter post, I just wanted to add a couple thoughts.

Dear readers, I do not think you are easily frightened children, nor is this post an effort to scare anyone. The point of this post is to share real and useful guidance on how to do this work rightly and well, rather than rashly and poorly – but the point of this post is not to tell you that you can’t. You can, and I hope I make that clear.

I also think most of the people reading my blog are thinking adults who can handle theological and magical discourse that goes beyond a comforting pat on the head and empty assurances that you can’t make mistakes, and that there are no risks or consequences in magic and religion. I write from the understanding that magic and religion are operating in the realm of reality, and I seek to arm people with real and useful knowledge for that. I think you, readers, can handle that.

I also believe that if there were no risks in this work, we wouldn’t be bothering with it, because it would be without impact or consequence. I am GLAD to be living in a world in which the Gods and holy powers are animated by more than just the power we might imbue them with. I am GLAD to be living in a world in which magic entails risk, opportunity and consequence. That world is far more interesting to me – and far less lonely – than one in which all of this is dismissed as harmless storytelling or archetype.


 

I’ve been asked a few times recently about what it means to dedicate oneself to a God, and in particular to the Morrígan, the Goddess I’m dedicated to. I get questions like these:

“Is there a difference between a devotional and a dedicated relationship?”
“At what stage in a relationship with Deity (the Morrígan specifically) can I consider dedication through ritual?”
“Everybody keeps telling me: don’t rush into it and be 100% sure. As things are right now, I really, really WANT to. So then… Why wait?”

In lieu of trying to explain this on a theoretical level, I’m going to get personal.

When the most recent question came in I was in the doctor’s waiting room, to review an MRI scan of my damaged ankle. You see, three months ago while fighting in armor, I got knocked down by a pile of big shieldmen and sprained my left ankle ligaments severely. I was given crutches and told to stay off it for a month while the sprain healed. My friends, knowing I’ve been under orders from the Morrígan to write about Her, started joking with me: “Somebody really wants you to sit down and write that book!”

I laughed. She didn’t have to break my ankle to get me to write the book – I had already committed to it. I committed to it last March when She laid the nóinden on me to finish it by the end of the year, and I committed to it again when I signed a publishing contract that says I’ll deliver my manuscript by December 31st.

When I went down on the field

That recovery month stretched into two, while I spent most of my days sitting at home, foot elevated, writing. My doctor sent me to a specialist. “Ligament injuries take time.” September, I was supposed to be able to start walking in a protective boot, but I couldn’t. “Well, let’s get you an MRI. Better stay off it until we see what’s going on in there.” Another month on crutches. Around the first of October I passed 60,000 words on the manuscript. Today, I saw the specialist who looked at my MRI. I think what they said is “localized osteochodral damage to the talus”. Which translates to: “When you sprained your ankle, your leg bone also took a chunk out of the cartilage on top of your ankle bone and that’s why you still can’t walk. Oh, and you’ll need surgery.”

So it’s another month to wait for my surgery in late October, and then eight more weeks recovery after, until I will be able to walk. And would you look at that? That brings us to the end of December. So what appeared to be a minor combat injury that should have had me on my feet in four to six weeks has now extended to keep me immobilized in my house until the time my book is due to Herself as well as to my publisher. Neat and tidy.

My friends are still teasing me: “Boy, She’s not kidding about getting you to finish that book on time!” I still laugh, but I will admit to you that my laughter has a little touch of grim today. I will admit to feeling a little exposed. The realization that the Goddess you’ve dedicated yourself to has chosen to break your body to ensure the results She wants… is a weighty one. This is not a surprise to me. I knew what I was doing when I dedicated myself to Her fully and gave her guardianship of my destiny and my death. I just didn’t know specifically when or how She might collect on that commitment, and it’s a pretty profound thing to be experiencing. I don’t in the least bit regret it. I’m just telling you this story because it’s a good example of shit just got real around here.

So when people are asking me why they shouldn’t dedicate themselves to Her early in a devotional relationship, this is what I want to say.

Magic is deadly real. And, um, theurgic binding magic? With a war Goddess? Really-deadly-not-fucking-around-seriously real.

I feel like I should maybe say that again. The Gods are not fucking around. When you hand yourself over to Them, They can break your bones, end your life or alter it completely, send you down pathways that foreclose other avenues of choice and ability, and perhaps what should be most sobering of all, transform and sculpt you from the person you were into the person They feel would be most useful to Them. In particular, speaking of the Morrígan, She’s apt to size you up for what sort of weapon you’ll make, and start turning you into that. And, well, here’s the thing: weapons face damage. It’s what they’re made for.

Do you have sovereignty and agency in all of this? Can you control how much of your destiny and being you give Them? Yes, you absolutely can, AND YOU SHOULD. Could you dedicate yourself to Her, but with different terms than I did? Yes. Can there be different degrees and kinds of dedication with different levels of safety and risk? Yes!

BUT: You have to be equipped to enter that negotiation effectively, remaining in full possession of your awareness and discernment of what you are giving, under what terms you are committing to Them, what They want your dedication for (and what, therefore, you may be transformed into in service of that), what you are receiving from Them, what manner of binding you are undertaking in that relationship, and for how long that binding will be in effect. I say “equipped” because this isn’t just about how you feel about that divinity – this is about having the spiritual and magical training to be able to discern, understand and negotiate these things. And perhaps most importantly, it is completely dependent on the clarity, depth, and skill with which you are able to communicate with that divinity, so you can even figure out what They are asking you to undertake and what risks you are accepting.

And that is why I suggest that people give a devotional relationship a LOT of time to develop before considering undertaking dedication to that divinity. That gives you the time to get all those magical, divinatory, theurgic, and psychic skills under your belt. And it gives you the time to get to know that divinity. See what They are up to, what Their agendas are, what sort of service They like to put people to. Maybe hang out with a few other of their devotees for a few years and see what impacts other people experience when they undertake different kinds of initiations,  dedications and devotional contracts.

I also encourage people considering this to ask yourself “Why?” Why do you feel pulled to undertake ritual dedication to this God? Can you articulate clearly why it is necessary for you, who you think will benefit and how? If the answer is something like “I just feel strongly called to”, then you probably haven’t examined it closely enough. If the answer to “Why?” is about your feelings, you may be doing this for the wrong reasons. Devotional dedication isn’t like having sex. We don’t decide to do it because “it feels good” and “I really really want to” and “this person/God enthralls me”. It is a binding magical contract. It’s a lot more like marriage than sex, and maybe more like indentured servitude than marriage (depending on the terms). Dedicating yourself to a divinity before you have both studied and deeply experiential knowledge of Them as well as the skills to actually communicate and negotiate a magical contract with a powerful discarnate being, is something like a person who can’t read signing their name in blood on a document because the person who handed it to them smelled good. Maybe something bad… maybe something good! Maybe it’s a one-month lease for use of premises. Maybe it’s a lifelong marriage contract with a clause excluding divorce. Maybe you just gave them a claim on everyone in your bloodline for nine generations, plus what happens to you in your next nine incarnations. We don’t know, it just felt right!

All right – I’ll simmer down. I don’t mean to mock anyone. I’m just sitting here facing down another three months of disability and I’m trying to convey how real and consequential these choices are. Each of us, when we come to a decision like this, has to make an assessment of where we stand with regard to skill, knowledge, and readiness.  If you’ve thought this through, you know what you’re getting into, and you know it’s worth it to you, then go forward without regrets. I’ll be sending you moral support from where I sit with my smashed ankle elevated, writing this book.

Noinden

You may notice me posting in this blog a little less frequently now-a-days. And if you follow my art and metalwork, I am producing new work a bit more slowly than usual. Here is what’s going on.

I have been for some time slowly gathering material for a book. The book that I have long wished someone would write: an in-depth, well-researched, comprehensive book on the Morrígan: Her history, lore, and cult of worship; incorporating contributions from historic, folkloric, archaeological, and modern sources, and guidance for devotional practice with Her in a Pagan/polytheist framework. The book that would bridge the gaping chasm that currently exists between the quality of information available about Her from academia on the one hand, and popular Pagan literature on the other. The book I constantly wish I could refer people to when they ask me what they should read to learn about the Morrígan.

This project has been slow-cooking on my hearth for about a year, but since I am kept busy working for a living at my art business, tattoo apprenticeship, and a third part-time job to make ends meet, I have not been able to prioritize it. Yet.

That’s where things are changing. Two days after I got home from PantheaCon, I got marching orders. In my daily devotional meditations, the Great Queen laid a binding on me that morning: a nóinden (ninefold counting of time). A nóinden is usually read as a period of nine days or nights; in this case, nine months. Nine months to get the draft written. This is what I’ve been given to do. It is a priority now.

I sat down with my calendar at that point and made a writing schedule: blocked out research and writing time for the rest of the year. So, okay; looking at the typical words-composed-per-hour rate of writers, and the time I have, I can do it. I think. I started in on that writing schedule right away.

And here’s the rub: I’m producing less art now, and less metalwork. For people interested in my medallions and talismans, it may mean that these are going to be a little more limited. When I sell out of a design, it’s now likely to be a few months instead of a few weeks before I can squeeze in the time for another batch of my rather labor-intensive creations. That means less income for me. That is a little scary, because I live fairly close to the margin, but this book feels important and necessary, and I’m trusting that I’ll figure out a way, with the help of the Gods and my allies.

Art is my primary work in this life, and I’m not keen on letting it be marginalized. If I had the option, I’d let go of my third job instead and give that time to writing. Presently, I can’t afford to do that. But something has to give. Tricky.

Several friends have suggested an IndieGoGo/Kickstarter type campaign to raise money to get this book done. I’m willing to consider something like that if there’s support for it. I’m interested in readers’ feedback about that.

In the meantime, while I puzzle these things out, writing is underway. I’m loving the research, delighting in each new jewel of lore I find in my diggings into ancient writings. And I will meet my appointment with the Queen, and have a draft to offer Her in nine months, whatever I have to do to make that possible.

The Foundations of the Temple

In the soft glow of the lights framing the four Gates, the Gods breathe gently. Wave upon slow rolling wave of presence drips from the icons, the altars, overflows the offering bowls. We sit drinking presence. Time happens elsewhere in the rush and jostle of the event. Here there is only glow, presence, stillness, power, communion, memory. The prayer beads turn in my fingers. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Sid co nem, nem co doman.

A worshiper comes in, genuflects, turns to the largest shrine, catches her breath, reaches her knees. Her friend stops and stands, hand pulled to his heart. I sit in stillness, eyes half-lidded, one heartbeat here in this Temple, one heartbeat in its counterpart in the Otherworld, watching in both. Visitors come and go. A woman whispers urgently on her knees before the Great Queen. Another worshiper stands with the gaze of rapture, smiles, pours out whiskey. Another weeps achingly. I begin to sing.

This was the Coru Temple at PantheaCon last weekend. On Friday afternoon, we began building the Temple as soon as we arrived at the convention, first purifications in a nearly-empty room before building the altars. All afternoon and into the evening the priests gathered, swirling about the space, raising the shrines, laying out the regalia, preparing the offerings. That night with a room full of worshipers, we consecrated the Temple of the Morrígan and the Tuatha. We invoked the Gods, heroes, ancestors. Opened the Gates to the cities of the Otherworld. Poured out offerings, chanted, prayed.

I thought that night that the Temple felt full of holy and Otherworld power. I thought that night that the Gods were present, vibrant, alive, speaking.

But that was only the first night. As the hours and days slipped on, and further waves of machaworshipers came through the temple in singles, handfuls, groups; as offering after offering were poured out, the bowls filled to overflowing, emptied at the feet of the birch trees outside, and filled again; as prayers filled every shrine… The presences only grew stronger, brighter, more resonant. By afternoon of the second day, the Gods were so numinous I could feel the wave of responding presence wash over me as if the air itself moved whenever a fresh offering was poured. By the third day, They stood like pillars, outreaching the Temple itself, as tall as the whole building, it seemed.

Sleeping in there was an adventure, let me tell you. We drifted in and out of Otherworld shadows, Gods looming over us, listening to the muttered talk of heroes and ghosts. Yes, ghosts. It turns out that if you build a spiritual refuge in a busy crossroads place, wandering spirits will find it and take solace there. They too were greeted, tended, given hospitality, and sent on their way.

I like to imagine a time when being at a Pagan convention doesn’t just mean big rituals and big parties. I like to imagine a PantheaCon where there are Temples and shrines for all our various pantheons. I like to imagine a whole floor of suites where instead of just hospitality rooms and parties, there are Temples in every suite. I like to imagine visiting my cohorts in other devotional traditions, paying my respects in their Temples, priests introducing me to their Gods in a more intimate and personal way than a big group ritual allows for. How beautiful would that be?

One word to the wise, though. If this idea inspires you and you’re contemplating establishing a Temple like this next year – it may be a bit of a Devil’s bargain. Once your Gods have had a Temple of Their own and the opportunity to be bathed in offerings and worship in this way, They may not settle for anything less afterward. The joy and the burden of service.

The statues, icons and regalia have been carried back to the different homes of the Coru priests. My tiny bedroom is full of huge Gods now, every available surface converted into a temporary shrine until I find places to honor Them all properly. The vessel of earth that contains the foundations of the Temple is heavy, heavy, heavy. I carried it with awe as I unpacked it, acutely aware of what I held in my hands. The joy and the burden of service.

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.

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?

The Morrígan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion

Some conversations about the balancing of “Lore vs. UPG” have been circulating around the web. I’m supposed to be editing the Book of the Great Queen, but I’m sick and feverish and footnoting is making my eyeballs cross. So instead I’m coming here to chat with you about lore, UPG, and lived devotion, because this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about here for some time.

For some background, here’s a recent post by my friend John Beckett on balancing scholarship with UPG (unique or unverified personal gnosis): The Lore vs. UPG – A False Dichotomy. Here’s an earlier article from a Celtic Reconstructionist site that looks at this balance in a tripartite fashion – scholarship, mystical experience, and conversation/debate: Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh: A Modern CR Triad.

These are good, helpful articles and I’m not posting to disagree with them. What I want to do is contribute some additional levels of nuance; maybe share some tools for more articulately working with these aspects of spirituality and religion.

I think that the continual framing of this as a question of “balancing” between scholarship and lore study on the one hand, and personal gnosis and mystical experience on the other, presumes that these approaches occupy ends of a spectrum. Even if that spectrum is not linear but tripod-like, with three “zones” of scholarship, mysticism and social testing (as in the CR model I linked), we are still framing this as a matter of balancing between competing modes of engagement. Which rather presupposes that as you lean toward one side of the spectrum, or lean toward one leg of the tripod, you’re leaning away from the others.  Even while stating that all three modes contribute, it still sets up a subtle oppositional dynamic. You get Team Lore (“Stop trying to make the Gods into your personal fantasies! They have histories that matter!”, Team Visionary (“Stop trying to tell me my experiences are wrong! We are not a religion of the book!”) and Team Peacemaker (“Well, as long as we’re nice to each other. I don’t want to offend my recon friends or my mystical friends.”)

This is all good and reasonable, but I think we can go deeper and get beyond this idea of balancing between competing methods. I find it helps to think about these parts of our practice in functional terms: what they are for, how we use them, and how they interlock with one another. What are the flows of experience, knowledge, and opportunity between them.

Religion is relationship. That is what it means: to connect. So I’m interested in how these practices help us to connect with the Gods and with each other in spiritual community. Thinking about practice in terms of relationship clears a lot of things up for me.

Let’s try a parable. Maybe I met a mesmerizing person while walking along a road. She is all dressed in red with a long cloak, red hair and has things painted on her skin. She’s fascinating. I want to get to know her. She says something. Maybe that’s her name? Or maybe that was a greeting. Maybe it was a warning? I don’t speak her language, so all I can take away is a feeling, a memory. I might feel like we connected, but what did we share? I can go back to that road and hope we meet again, but then what? We still can’t talk to each other. I don’t even know what her gestures signify to her.

Now suppose I have a friend who has met her on that same road, and that person happens to know something more. I find out that she’s Irish, so I go and start learning Irish. Now I can talk to her. You seem really interesting, do you want to meet again? Can I buy you a drink? What’s your favorite place around here? Maybe she decides she likes me well enough to talk to me. I can suddenly learn so much more. How she came to be on this road and where she’s going. Where she was born. Why she likes wearing red, what she loves and hates and desires and remembers. What the symbols painted on her skin are for. How she spends her time. What she dreams of. We are now in relationship: I can begin to know her life story, share my own. We can become part of each other’s stories and memories. Without a common language, all I had was a vague feeling of fascination. Now, we’re falling in love with each other.

In a relationship with any being, you can only go as deep as your shared language allows. No shared language means no real ability to connect past basic first impressions, which involve a lot of cultural assumptions. Scholarship of source culture is how we learn the language of our Gods; mysticism is where that language comes into use in communication with them. It’s not that we need to balance between these two tools, it’s that we need to sort out how they assemble and use them together. I can have a meaningful and ever-deepening relationship with the Morrígan by studying Her language (the symbolic and mythic lexicon of the ancient Irish culture) and I use that language to communicate and understand Her. The repository of that symbolic and mythic lexicon is what we call in shorthand “the lore”, and it is the record of the language of Her people. Can I learn something about Her by studying the lore, e.g. learning Her language? Yes. Will studying Irish bring me into intimacy with Her if I never go back out to that road and actually talk to Her? No.

Couldn’t She learn my language if She wants to talk to me? We live in this world now, not ancient Ireland, right? Well, yes. She could. But is that any way to court someone?

So it’s not a matter of a balancing act between prioritizing my learning Irish versus talking to the woman on the road (except to the extent that I have 24 hours in a day and have to decide how to spend them). It’s a matter of HOW I bring the two together in a meaningful way. How fluent I bother to become, and how gracefully I employ Her language to converse with Her. How consistent I am in showing up for our dates and making the effort of being worthy company.

To employ another metaphor, scholarship can show me how to put together the pieces of an engine and hang it in the chassis of a car – or how to assemble a chariot, if you will. I don’t actually have to engineer that shit myself starting with inventing the wheel and the concept of a threaded bolt. Numinous experience, communion with the Gods or what we sometimes call UPG, is the high-octane fuel I am going to pour in that engine and set on fire – or the fine spirited world-walking horse I am going to harness to that chariot. It’s not so much about balancing between engineering and fuel as if I should be worried about prioritizing one or the other too much. I am getting nowhere without the both of them. What matters is that I figure out how to put them together in a way that works: get the horse into the harness, get the fuel in the tank, find the ignition switch.

Because the point of the whole thing, where the rubber meets the road, is what I do next: I am going to take my hot rod on the road and see if that amazing woman wants to go for a ride with me.

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.

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.

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.

Way of the Spear

I’m freshly returned from my first armored combat event and thinking about the nature of being a Spear.

Some months ago when I undertook a new phase of dedication to the Morrigan, She said this to me: “You are my Spear.” This touched off a lot of thinking on my part as to what it means to be a Spear in Her hands. As is my habit with messages from my Gods, I turned to history and source text to try to understand.

The Spear appears earliest in Irish mythology in the hands of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, as written in the Lebor Gabála Eirénn:

From Failias was brought the Lia Fail which is in Temair, and which used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland. From Goirias was brought the spear which Lug had : battle would never go against him who had it in hand. From Findias was brought the sword of Nuadu : no man would escape from it ; when it was drawn from its battle-scabbard, there was no resisting it. From Muirias was brought the cauldron of The Dagda ; no company would go from it unsatisfied. 

These, Stone, Spear, Sword, and Cauldron, are known as the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the old Gods of Ireland. I began to read everything I could find about them. What does it mean to be a Spear? That must tell me something of the work She wants of me. And  if I am a Spear, surely there are other Spear-folk too. And Sword-folk, Cauldron-folk, Stone-folk.

The Stone is the first mentioned, in almost every case where the Treasures are written about. It is the foundation of Sovereignty. Then, we come to the weapons; perhaps arising from the necessity of defending Sovereignty. First the Spear, then the Sword. And after, to feed the hungry company of the warriors, to restore them at the end of the day, comes the Cauldron.

In a battle line (at least, from my beginner’s understanding of archaic Celtic weapon use), spears are first out to stop as many adversaries as possible before they come within sword-range. Light spears or javelins are cast through the air (as are arrows; small mechanically assisted spears). Long spears or pikes are thrust before the shield-lines to hold them at bay or impale them as they come. And the warrior’s first weapon in the fray might often have been the fighting spear. Thrust and cut with your long weapon first, until it sticks in someone’s ribs or too many enemies come in close range; then let go of it and draw your sword.

In ancient times, the common fighter who was not an elite hero and did not possess the wealth of the aristocratic warrior class, might not carry a sword at all. Swords require far greater mastery of metalsmithing to manufacture, and far more expensive high-quality metal, than do spearheads; how many men could be armed with spears from the same metal that would go into the making of a single hero’s sword? For this reason, armies were once counted as the number of spears a leader commanded. A man might not be a trained warrior, but hand him a long spear and you can make a soldier of him; he will figure out how to thrust. It is a weapon of instinct. It won’t protect him much in a melee, but it weaponizes him. Spears are the expendable resource of an army.

From these readings, and from noting the patterns common to myself and to other Spear folk I’ve connected with, I make an observation about Spears: Commitment. A spear once cast cannot be called back. Thus, to be a Spear is to be cast toward one’s destiny. Fully given and committed, risking all with fierce abandon. Or, as some of my friends have said of me recently; a zealot. I take that criticism as worthy. Caution seems not to be the way of the spear. We are beings of instinct tending to sense the moment and thrust ourselves forward, past the safety of shields, crying victory. We throw ourselves into the destiny we sense before us, in ways that sometimes seem reckless or mad to our friends. Perhaps we are. It is a way of risk.

This all came back to me as I was riding home from the war event yesterday. I’m new to armored combat and had only just finished my armor the day I arrived at the war. Thus, I’d had no chance to practice my fighting skills with my teachers while in full armor before going in to the full fray. Little opportunity to even test my armor under another fighter’s blows before facing an army of them. I was, truthfully, not ready for war combat – and the marshal who authorized me knew it, and nearly didn’t. But I passed, and in spite of significant nerves about not knowing what to do out there, and being smashed to a pulp by hundreds of men three times my body weight, I threw myself into the combat. Trusting, I suppose, that the urging of my Goddess and the sense of destiny that drew me into the fighting arts were not leading me astray. And they didn’t: it was one of the most epic experiences of my life.

Showing off my bloody fighting tunic.

I was crushed in shield-walls and knocked to the ground. Hammered by swords, pike thrusts. Took a hard thrust to the faceplate of my helmet that split my chin so I bled all over my armor; paused to get it bandaged, then threw myself right back in. I was fighting with a glaive, a type of long-bladed fighting spear wielded with two hands, which meant I had no shield to protect me, and with my lack of experience, I’m not the best at blocking with the glaive, so I took a lot of hits. I’ve been told by many fighters I should be starting with sword and shield to save myself bruises… but you see, I’m a Spear, and it’s the spear that feels natural in my hands, it’s the spear I’m called to fight with. It’s the reason I’m there at all. So in I went without a shield, madly, gleefully, fiercely, not minding the pounding and the bruises and the blood. Reveling, glorying in them. Why? Because they were initiatory, overwhelming, ecstatic. Because I am a Spear, and I must immerse myself. Because I am a Spear, and I need the risk and immensity of being thrust wholly, body and soul, into my calling, holding nothing back, pouring myself out on the battlefield.

I am a Spear that cries out for blood
I am the Spear-point that gives battle