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For the long night approaches

I’ve been thinking about death.

A couple of weeks ago, a beloved relative of mine found his death. And you know, I’m sad and I’ve had tears. But also, there is something of the beautiful death about his story and I want to talk about that.

Rhett Ashley and a fishing pole. Photo courtesy of my father, Jerry Brown.

Rhett and a fishing pole. Photo courtesy of my father, Jerry Brown.

Rhett Ashley was my uncle on my mother’s side, from North Carolina Appalachian mountain folk. He was creative, philosophical, devilish, and surprising. He had a wicked streak and used to entertain me with crazy yarns and stories about his youth and the mountain culture he came from. You knew a certain cheerful, slightly evil grin he would get on him and it would slowly dawn on you that the tale he had been spinning out for the last 20 minutes was a complete fabrication, while he chuckled gleefuly at your outrage. There was a lot of art in his world: he painted, carved wood and stone, and last I heard, had been working on a novel. About freaky Pagans, as it turns out. I’m hoping I might still get to see that book some day.

One of the things Rhett loved best was fishing in rivers. I’m told he had fished in over a hundred American rivers. In his eulogy, my father wrote of many long summer evenings the two of them spent in the river together: “During the season we were out in the river at least a couple of times a week during those years, sometimes late afternoons, but most often in the evenings when we would fish until dark. The McKenzie mostly runs due West, so in many places the sun sets right down the river, turning the water and riffles to molten bronze.”

I’m spinning this out partly to memorialize him, but also because it sets the stage for his beautiful death. One evening in early July, Rhett came back in from the river and, in the words of my aunt, “sat down in the grass by the prettiest river there is, on the most beautiful summer day you could ask for, and died.” They found him in the morning looking just like he had fallen asleep there. Like that, peaceful, graceful, by his beloved river. I like to imagine him coming out of the river that evening and sitting himself on the bank there. Perhaps the river was turning to molten gold again and he didn’t want to miss it. I can’t help picturing his spirit slipping out into the radiant stream pouring down westward toward the setting sun. It is hard to imagine a death-moment more perfect for who Rhett was. That is what makes his death beautiful: not just that it was gentle, but that it was so perfectly his own.

The dignity of a beautiful death. A kindness we do not all get. The following week, my thoughts were also full of Sandra Bland, a young Black activist who died under horrific and suspicious circumstances in police custody, after being brutalized by police during an arbitrary arrest. I can’t help thinking that Sandra’s beautiful death was taken away from her. Had she not been killed in this way, what might her beautiful death have been, when it came in its own time?

Sandra Bland. Images courtesy of Shaun King.

I have long felt death as a kind of distant spirit that waits for me – something like a long-lost friend with whom an inevitable reunion is coming. Its features, its shape, reflective of our lives and contexts, but rarely visible to us in advance. The beautiful death is the right one, the one that is perfectly our own. It need not be gentle to be a beautiful death: members of warrior societies, driven by the logic of the heroic ethos, have often cherished the ideal of dying violently in honorable combat, beloved and bloodied weapon in hand.

We recognize a sense that there is a death which rightfully belongs to us, but which can be taken away from us, in the concept of “wrongful death”. I wonder, who can restore to Sandra Bland what was torn from her in her wrongful death? What does it do to the fabric of the world when someone’s beautiful death is taken and made a horror? Is there any prayer, any spiritual fulfillment, any restoration possible for this?

Beautiful or terrible, violent or gentle, death is ordained. This is something that we all know, but often prefer not to contemplate. I find that thinking of my death as a companion helps me to keep it in mind. I want to remember that my death is coming. I think that making friends with death helps us to live more fully.

A few weeks ago while we were at a Coru warband encampment, my friend Rynn Fox quipped, “Death is coming. Kick ass. Be free.” It was said in a moment of fun, but struck my truth nerve, and has stayed with me as something approaching my own philosophy about what makes a good life. A short while before his death, I’m told Rhett had been exhorting my father to get out into the rivers again and fish more. He said, perhaps prophetically, “Fish, fish! For the long night approaches.” His way of saying a similar thing.

These messages ring in my heart. Death is coming. Do what you love. Fight for what matters. Be free. Make your life count. For the long night approaches. For me, these are not messages of fear. They are a reminder of the heroic ethos. For me, the presence of death makes me want to love this world fiercely and live to the fullest. For me, death brings a message of courage and beauty.

At war camp with my mate. Photo by Joe Perri.

PantheaCon 2014

Here are my details on happenings at the upcoming PantheaCon Pagan Convention in which I and some of my fellow Coru priests will be participating. I’m especially excited about the blood drive, a devotional project that is close to my heart, as well as our Temple space for the Morrígan and the family of Celtic deities. The Coru hospitality and Temple suite will be the best place to find me at the Con. I look forward to meeting some of you for the first time, and reconnecting with old friends too.

Blood Drive PantheaCon 2014: Find the Hero In You

Following the success of last year’s blood drive, this year we’ve added a second bloodmobile and expanded the drive to Friday! Bloodmobiles will be on site Friday 2/14 through Saturday 2/16 to receive blood donations. Please sign up in advance for a blood donation appointment – this helps the Blood Center allocate enough staff and equipment to meet the need. We also need volunteers to help staff the blood drive signup table.

Details on how to donate or volunteer to support the blood drive can be found here: http://bansheearts.com/bloodheroes/

Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/571373586290525/

 

Temple of the Morrigan & Coru Hospitality Suite

Please visit us in the Coru hospitality suite & Temple: Rooms 269 & 271. Come and honor the Great Queen, and get to know us better!

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Hospitality Room: Want to know more about the Coru priesthood? Looking to meet and talk with others who are drawn to the Morrígan? Interested in Celtic heroic spirituality? Join us in our hospitality room for conversation and fellowship with our community.

Temple Room: A dedicated sanctum for reverence of the Morrígan and the family of Celtic Gods and heroes. Join us for collective worship at the scheduled times below. Or, visit our Temple during open hours for solitary worship.

  • Friday 9-11 pm: Temple dedication rites, followed by social time in the Hospitality Room.
  • Saturday 10 am – 7 pm: Temple and Hospitality Rooms open
    • 10 am: Temple opening prayers; 6:30 pm: Temple closing prayers
  • Sunday 10 am – 7 pm: Temple and Hospitality Rooms open (except during Coru Great Queens ritual, 3:30-5:00)
    • 10 am: Temple opening prayers; 6:30 pm: Temple closing prayers

Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/620252948054695

Sacrifice and Modern Paganism: A Panel Discussion

With Coru Cathubodua Priesthood | Saturday 11:00 AM – Oak room30949057_1219274447_Gundestrup_Cauldron_detail

From offering the best wine and grain to the finest animal or tribal member to the Gods, sacrifice was a central part of many ancient cultures. But as modern Pagans we must ask ourselves: what is the role of sacrifice today? How is sacrifice relevant to our experience, and should we invest the time and energy to restore ancient sacrificial rites to their place within Pagandom? Or should we invent modern sacrificial rites, and if so, what would they entail? Explore these questions and others as we discuss the place of sacrifice within ancient and modern traditions.

Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/697226960296466

The Great Queens: An Ancestor Ritual

With Coru Cathubodua Priesthood  | Sunday 3:30PM – Cedar room

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They fought, they stood strong, they overcame, and they were victorious. The past is radiant with great Queens. Yet much of history remembers only the stories of Kings. Thus we are all impoverished, men and women, losing the wisdom of half our human lineage. In this ritual we reclaim the ancestral power of the great Queens with Macha, ancient Lady of Queenship, as our guide. Join us as we invoke the ancestral Queens of all tribes and nations as we seek the strength they drew upon to do their great deeds; that we too may walk tall as sovereigns.

Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1411025139139646

Runes of the Ancestors: A Journey to the Roots of Runic Power

With Hannah Lipsky & Grant Guindon | Sunday 9:00 pm – San Jose/ Santa Clara rooms

viking stone743In this ecstatic ceremony, we evoke the primal power of the runes through ancient guardian animals. Algiz and Dire Elk ward; Eagle and Ansuz open the way. With Gebo and Dire Boar we make offerings to Odin; the untamed power of Aurochs and Uruz lend us strength. Raidho and Wild Horse draw us along our path; Cave Bear and Perthro open the deep mysteries. The bright torch of Kenaz brings Sabertooth cunning; Othala and the clan call of Dire Wolf carry us home. Come explore these runes with us and leave with their magic in your head, heart and hands.

Into the Tomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose Ancestors?

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

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

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

Here follows the original post, unedited:

——————————————————————————————————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ancestors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Hollow Place

I’ve had a post started on the topic of Sovereignty, for the last couple of weeks, intending to return to it and finish it. In the meantime, I went on an epic journey into the Northlands (Pacific Northwestern states and British Columbia), and now find I have something more personal to say about Sovereignty.

Instead of an educational post about the nature of Sovereignty, I’ll refer you to an excellent blog post on Sovereignty from a couple of weeks ago, by Druid priest and fellow Morrigan devotee John Beckett. He touches on most of the main points I was going to cover about Sovereignty in my own way.

That shared, I’ll take you on a journey with me. In the Coru priesthood, over the past several months we’d been receiving messages from the Morrigan urging us to look to Sovereignty, both personal and collective; and in particular to make the restoration of Sovereignty a major focus of our work. It stands as a core value underlying everything we are doing. At the same time, we had begun receiving invitations to travel to a few places and bring devotional ritual and teachings of the Morrigan to other communities. Planning was underway for the ritual work in these far communities, as well as for Samhain rites in our local community.

I sat in communion with the Morrigan, seeking guidance about what we should be doing in our public ritual work. She said, “Go to the Hollow Place.” And She showed me an image of a lake. (Our local Lake Merritt, to be specific). I sat puzzling with this for some time, and then in conversations with my fellow priests and further communions with the Queen, it started to come together. In fact, the other places we had been invited to travel for ritual also happened to be associated with lakes. And it is from a lake or river that the Goddess of Sovereignty, in the form of the Morrigan or other forms, so often emerges. It was from a lake that the Sword, the tool of authority, was given to King Arthur, in that Sovereignty myth; and it was into the lake again that he must return his sword when he could no longer wield it as a true sovereign.

We began thinking about the Morrigan’s message to us, that Sovereignty has been eroded in our society; how we each have compromised it. How it has been taken from us. How the restoration of that Sovereignty seems to be our overriding mission. We began to dream of taking it back out of the hands of the corrupt elite who are tending to wrest it from us, into our own hands. Of returning Sovereignty to its rightful and natural source – the land and the people, who are one. Thus, the Sovereignty ritual was born. It is this simple thing: in each community where we bring our devotional and educational work, to charge a sword with the blessings and will of that community, and of the Ancestors and the Gods, for the renewal of Sovereignty. And then to take that sword and cast it back into the waters of the lake, in an act that dedicates it to Sovereignty, and also hearkens back to the forms of water sacrifice practiced across ancient Europe by the Celts and other tribal folk.

The first of these rituals took place at Lake Okanagan, up in British Columbia, where we traveled for the Western Gate Samhain Festival. The festival itself, and the journey there, was a whole beautiful adventure that I haven’t the space to describe here. (Sarah Lawless, another of the fine presenters, spins a lovely tale in her blog.)

Meeting Lake Okanagan (photo by Brendan Myers)

What I want to talk about is the lake. Oh, the lake. Being newcomers to the land and wishing to introduce ourselves, we walked down to visit the lake ahead of the rituals. We cast our spirits down, greeting the lake, feeling its contours and its being. I felt vast depths, primordial and ancient. I felt at its bottomless depths a kind of doorway or crack that seemed to open into vast Otherworlds: the Hollow Place. One of our priestesses dropped the first offering into the waters, and a wave of power rippled through the lake. Later that night, we returned to make preparatory offerings before the next day’s rituals. To our chanting and shrieking, the lake returned a deep, booming call, and drank in our offerings to the Queen of Sovereignty. Over the course of the weekend, I returned to the Okanagan’s shores again and again, drawn to its depth and power. The lake became a teacher for me. How vast that numinous power is that upwells within the land. How vast and bottomless the well of Sovereignty.

There was a sword, donated by a member of the local community. We charged it, all the folk gathered for the ritual, with the Morrigan and all the heroic Ancestors we all carry in our lineages. I have only vague and dreamy memories of that ritual as I was under possession, but I’m told it was potent. I remember looking up at it in the hands of the priest, and I remember seeing the throng of Ancestral spirits pouring through the hearts of the living people present in the circle. I remember the sword growing warm in our hands. The shining of the eyes all around.

Later that evening, as I stood in the final circle of the night, my own Ancestors whispered to me about the work I’d been brought there to do. One of my family lines (Corey) derives its name from a kind of glacial tarn formed in the mountains of Scotland, and called a coire, which means cauldron or hollow. I carry the Hollow Place too. I too am a vessel for Sovereignty. So are we all.

In the morning, we walked out again to the lake, and our first sword was cast for Sovereignty (by Sarah Lawless, as it seemed most appropriate to have someone born into that land cast the sword). Into the Hollow Place, the deep well from which the power in the land flows; into the threshold of the Otherworld and the hands of the Goddess to whom it belongs. There was a feeling of exultation, victory as we walked back. Joyous power. Is that what Sovereignty feels like?

So that is the story so far. It seems it’s the beginning of an arc, and we’ll be doing this work elsewhere too. The next Sovereignty rite is planned here in Oakland, at Lake Merritt, following our Samhain Feast. After that? I do not know which Hollow Place may come next, but we do have New Orleans and Lake Ponchartrain on our horizons for next Samhain…

In Honor of Ancestors

It’s the season of the Dead, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Ancestors. This is partly inspired by the preparations we’ve been making for the Ancestor Shrine at Stone City, which we have been hoping to build at this year’s Samhain gathering.

It’s also inspired by conversations I’ve been having with my partner about the notion of Ancestor cults. Most of our historic Pagan cultures on which Neopaganism is based practiced some form of Ancestor worship, many of them quite prominently. Yet for most modern traditions (with some exceptions, of course), there is no such practice, or only a vestigial one. It feels like a piece of the reconstruction or revival of Pagan traditions that is not yet complete. Many of us commonly invoke the Gods, work with land spirits, and the like, but many traditions lack a coherent pattern of practice for connecting with our own Ancestors. Here I mean Ancestors in our own family bloodlines – not just spiritual Ancestors such as the Mighty Dead of the Craft, or long-distant generic Ancestors such as “the Celts”. And I think perhaps that distinction is part of the reason this practice has not yet been more fully developed: The vast majority of modern Pagans are first-generation. In other words, most were not raised Pagan, and therefore I suspect that for many, their recent family Ancestors may not seem like meaningful spiritual contacts. Why would I want to invoke the presence and guidance of my great-great-great-grandfather, who was a Protestant? Well, here’s why: he has a direct, vested interest in seeing his bloodline succeed. And who should we expect to take a greater interest in our personal problems and successes: the Gods, or our own Ancestors? Our Ancestors may have more limited powers and spheres of influence than the Gods, but their wisdom is of a kind that is more directly linked to our human needs and conditions, than the (relatively) vast and timeless powers of the Gods.

So I’ve been asking myself this question: What would a modern Ancestor cult look like? I began my practice by adding people from my direct family line to my Ancestor altar, and speaking to them when I make my offerings. Perhaps we can devise practices in which we make honoring our own Ancestors a more regular part of our workings: since most Pagans open ritual space with an invocation or invitation to helping spirits of some kind (Guardians, elementals, etc.), perhaps we ought to invite our own Ancestors at the same time, rather than just honoring them at Samhain. Perhaps we ought to revive folk practices like Decoration Day, or adopt elements from Latin Dia de los Muertes celebrations: visiting cemeteries, caring for and beautifying the graves of our Ancestors, bringing them gifts.

Lately I am also thinking about Ancestral legacies, and in this I’m also inspired by two other things: the movement toward re-learning and restoring old-fashioned skills and crafts, and the current democratic uprisings taking place all over the world. These movements are both responses to the instability of people’s lives in present times, and the degradation of basic security and standard of living of the common people in much of the Western world as the plutocratic elite class strips the wealth of our nations. These movements both strike me as very powerful, perhaps the most powerful, ways of honoring our direct Ancestors. It is all well and good to offer libations and prayers, but I suspect that my great-great-great-grandfather, whose family were farmers and who fought in the Revolutionary War, would be more glad to know that the skills he learned and passed down through generations, and the Constitutional Republic he risked death to establish, were being restored and not dissipated.

No matter where your bloodlines come from, some of your Ancestors likely fought for something equally historic and equally meaningful. How might you honor them and what they worked to establish and to pass on?

October is the season of the Dead. This year, it is also the month that marks ten years of American wars, starting with the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. Here in the US and most of the Western world, we are coming to grips with the fact that we have been sorely betrayed by our democratic leaders, and that our self-governing process has been fundamentally corrupted by greed and wealth. This month is being observed by worldwide occupation movements in protest of the degradation of democracy and human life. This month, I am honoring my Ancestors with prayers, and with actions. I will be joining the Occupy San Francisco rally on October 15, in honor of my Ancestors who contributed to the first American Revolution and so that their legacy might be preserved. And in honor of the life-preserving skills of my Ancestors, I’ll also be bringing eggs and produce that we grew here, to help feed the occupiers.

And maybe, if we remember them and if we honor them in ways that matter, our Ancestors can help. Perhaps we should invoke their spirits to march with us. Perhaps they might bless and help this movement toward re-invigorating the tree of liberty, hopefully without blood this time.

You can find related October 15 events here. For other info on Occupation movements in your area, here.

Morrigan, armed and disarmed

After the deep journey of the Samhain gathering, I went out to work on the Morrigan statue today. She was with us in the ritual and through the haunted night, and still very present while I worked, layering resin onto the torso to strengthen it. I listened to the cool November wind in the pines and the calling of ravens, the ting-ting-ting of the hammer on the anvil and thought about ancestors.
All the things our ancestors made, things we either cherish or forget. Old tools handed down or lost in a junk store somewhere. That tired quilt your mother kept. Old books, houses, handkerchiefs, weapons. Your very bones. The work of our ancestors’ hands. You and I, each of us came from a line of ancestors. What did their hands, their minds make? Even if these things were not handed down to you, they are somewhere, whispering a story of the lives that shaped them. That story, and those works, are your inheritance.
I thought about the work of my hands, this big work of devotional art that I am driven to create. I thought about the work of my husband’s hands as he hammered down in the smithy. I thought, I am an ancestor. You, each of us is an ancestor. Even if you never have children yourself, you are part of a generation, and to those who come after, you will be an ancestor. What are the works of our hands? What are we building? Would your ancestors take pride in the works you are creating? Will your descendants?
In a little while, Shannon came up from the forge with a spear for the Morrigan, iron hafted on a long copper shaft. I fitted it on to the statue; She was armed.
Then while I bent down to clean my brushes before laying on the next layer of resin, the wind came up and knocked the statue over. She fell backwards against a pile of bricks. The right shoulder cracked open just before the join, and the left shoulder was crushed in where it impacted. I sat down, frustrated. I suppose the statue is getting a bit top-heavy and poorly balanced because of the arms and now an iron spearhead poised out in front; the little base the mannequin came with is no longer adequate to hold it up. I considered stopping work for the day. Eventually I  took a long metal stake and pounded it in to the ground in my yard, and slid the hollow leg of the statue down over it. Now She was pretty firmly in place and I could keep working.
Start again, just like on day one, reinforcing the shoulder joins. They were the weakest part of the statue to begin with, and I don’t know if I can make them strong enough to hold the weight they need to when I start adding the framework for the cloak. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it anyway. You build, working toward something; sometimes it falls down, or you fall down. You breathe, get up, you keep on working. Our ancestors worked their way through glaciations, famines, wars, emigrations, always moving forward. If anyone in your ancestral line gave up on their journey, that line might not have been carried forward to your hands. We are the inheritors of a heroic legacy. No matter who you are, there are heroes in your line. Human beings who worked, suffered, sacrificed, quietly building your inheritance. Now it’s your turn.
Statue as of November 1. Spear crafted for me by my awesome husband Shannon.

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