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Ireland Pilgrimage, part 3: I have seen the graves of my Gods

Walking the Irish landscape, I was everywhere struck by how much it is a landscape of tombs. Many of the most significant ancient monuments are tombs for the dead, though they may often have served as temples or other kinds of ritual monument at the same time. Even where the landscape-dominating feature is a natural mountain, its presence and power has often been enhanced by the building of cairns and tombs.

But it was not simply the presence of tombs that I found so mesmerizing. It is the mythology that lives embedded within them. For in so many cases, these mounds, graves, and cairns are understood to be not just the resting place of ancient human ancestors, but the tombs of the Gods themselves, and the great heroes too.

Brennos at Medb's stone, Crúachan.

Brennos at Medb’s stone, Crúachan. Photo by Jan Bosman.

I walked a funerary landscape of the Gods. I stood beside the mound of the Morrígan beside Brúg na Bóinne, where the Metrical Dindshenchas speak of her being struck down. I poured honey and water by the portal stones of the grave of Nuada and Macha, killed together as told the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. I gazed on no less than two graves of mighty Medb – the tall cairn where She is said to be buried standing atop Knocknarea, and the Misgaun Meva, the stone said to mark Her grave at Her stronghold of Craúchan. I shared whiskey with Cú Chulainn at the stone where he is said to have died a warrior’s death, standing. I knelt weeping on the crest of the great Iron Age mound at Emain Macha where so many stories of Macha converge, naming it as Her burial mound. And these tales go on. Everywhere there are graves and places where the Gods died. Many of the great rivers of Ireland are given the deaths of Goddesses.

What can this mean? For it is clear to anyone with the slightest of spiritual awareness that these Gods are not dead. They are as present and alive in the Irish landscape as the grass covering the mounds, as alive as you or me. Maybe more so.

At Cú Chulainn's death stone. Photo by Brennos Agrocunos.

At Cú Chulainn’s death stone. Photo by Brennos Agrocunos.

For me, this is a paradox of great beauty and power. I think it might hold the key to something deep in Irish Celtic pagan thought. The Gods live, and die, and live again. They act and move in the world of myth, fighting cosmological battles that hold the dynamic balances between chaos and order, life and death, human and Otherworld, sun and shadow. They love, seek knowledge, pursue desire, they age, they are wounded, they die. Every cycle ends and begins in deaths. But these deaths are not death as we understand it in modern terms. They are not an end to anything. When the Gods die, they are closing the loop in a mythic cycle and entering from the world of myth into the landscape. These tombs, cairns, graves of the Gods are the places where the Gods have entered into the body of the land.

These myths, to me, mark the meeting-places, the thresholds, where we can meet the Gods in the living land. They mark places where mythic time meets human time. All myths are, in a sense, always being played out in the moment, and each tale closes on a gateway in the land where the mythic has been embedded in the physical. That is the grave of a God: their home in the land.

Mag Tuired battlefield area, overlooking Lough Arrow. Photo by Jan Bosman.

Mag Tuired battlefield area, overlooking Lough Arrow. Photo by Jan Bosman.

The Second Battle of Mag Tuired illustrates all of this beautifully. It is the cosmological conflict writ large, full of seasonal and cyclical motifs that tie the great battle between the shining Túatha Dé Danann and the shadowy Fomoirí to the turning of great cosmological cycles. The place name Mag Tuired means “plain of pillars”, which some read as a reference to the many Gods and heroes who are recorded finding their deaths on the Mag Tuired battlefield where the Fomoirí were defeated. Nuada is counted among the dead. Yet in another related story, closely set after Mag Tuired, Nuada is alive again and the Fomoirí are invading again. This is cyclical time, and the deaths are cyclical deaths. They bring us to the place in the landscape where the Gods lie in wait.

Labby Rock, burial place of Nuada and Macha. Photo by Jan Bosman

Labby Rock, burial place of Nuada and Macha. Photo by Jan Bosman

Nestled in a wooded hill overlooking the Mag Tuired battlefield stands the Labby Rock dolmen, the remains of a portal tomb where Nuada and Macha rest. Down below, the battlefield stretches out on the slopes descending to Lough Arrow. Here is the place of battle; the spectral armies are fighting, the weapons gleam and clash, the incitements are cried out, blood is shed. Above, in the quiet woods, mythic time rests. Here, the battle cycle has resolved itself; the cosmological conflict has been played out, the blood has soaked into the soil, the deaths have been recorded, the poems and prophecies have been given, and the Gods have entered into the land. It is a place in mythic time, entered through a physical portal in the landscape.

I am grateful for the deep insights into the mythic landscapes and cycles of Mag Tuired from Irish scholars and practitioners. Here are two brilliant individuals whose work gives context and depth to this lore:

Padraig Meehan, whose primary work focuses on the Neolithic cemetery of Carrowmore, and who gave us a breathtakingly expansive lecture on cyclical mythic time from the Neolithic to the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and who also happens to be a truly delightful and wonderful man.

And Isolde Carmody, known to many for her collaboration with Chris Thompson on the Story Archaeology podcast, who completed her masters thesis on the poems of the Mag Tuired story, and has provided new translations of many Irish poems and texts and a wealth of depth and insight into the myths.

Header photo by Jan Bosman.

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Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

Of the places I visited during my sojourn in Ireland, many affected me deeply, but Connacht felt like home. In Connacht, I spent time in Roscommon, Sligo, and Leitrim counties. Here, the hills and mountains were more rugged, the landscape a touch wilder, than the midlands I had traveled through. Connacht feels like untamed country. It feels like the domain of the Morrígan (and it is).

There is a famous anecdote about Oliver Cromwell. During the subjugation of Ireland to English rule under the plantation scheme that granted confiscated Irish lands to English settlers in the mid-17th century, it’s said that he was asked where the displaced native Irish people were supposed to go, and he famously said, “To Hell or to Connacht.” This quote was retold to me more than once during my visits by local folks – it seems reflective of the province’s understanding of itself as rugged, fierce, and positioned outside the borders of the (forcibly) settled territories. And indeed, Connacht was among the last of the kingdoms to fall under Norman conquest after the invasions of the 12th century.

The traditional border marking the entry into Connacht from the east is the Shannon. Watching the landscape through the windows of a bus coming westward from Dublin, I noted the river crossing. But it was the looming of a mountain ridge just beyond the river that brought me to attention. To our left in the south, a long, low mountain dark with conifers rose from the valley, part of a ridge that continued north of the road at a lower elevation. If the river was the territorial boundary, this mountain was its guardian. Not a high mountain by California standards, it still managed to loom, heavy with presence. I could not take my eyes off it and felt, clearly, as we passed between the ridges it that I was entering the Morrígan’s domain.

I later learned the name of this mountain: Slieve Bawn. It overlooks Rathcroghan, the Fort of Crúachan, the ancient royal center of Connacht. It is also an example of how folklore sometimes differs from official record. If you look up Slieve Bawn, most of the official information will tell you that the name comes from the Irish Sliabh Bána, “white mountain”; (although it isn’t white). But our guide at Rathcroghan, the learned and brilliant Lora O’Brien, gave different lore: the name is said to be from Sliabh Badbgna, “Badb’s mountain”.  And it is this name that appears in older literature, too. The Morrígan positions Herself facing toward this mountain to chant spells over an adversary, in the Dindshenchas poem of Odras. My having not known what mountain I was gazing at as I entered the province under its looming profile granted me an opportunity to test my own perceptions against tradition. There is no doubt for me that it is Badb’s mountain (or the Morrígan’s, if you will; local tradition identifies the two as aspects of one Goddess).

I tell this story partly because it amused me, and partly because it illustrates something important about Ireland: The landscape speaks for itself, with a voice easily as commanding as anything in literary tradition. That landscape holds deeply embedded presences, memories, and traditions. They are – at least to my experience – readily available to a visitor with open senses and an attitude of respect. And they are utterly and totally real; not simply a matter of belief in the minds of people. It may be for this reason that I found that nearly everyone I met in Ireland seemed a little bit pagan, or perhaps more accurately animist, in their outlook and relationship to their heritage and landscape. One cannot spend much time at all in the Irish landscape without coming to terms with the reality of presences all around.

That brings me to something else about Connacht: its Otherworldliness. The vocality of the Irish landscape and its ready communication with the Otherworld was never more palpable to me than in Connacht. And this seems to be reflected in Irish traditions of place, too. There is a sense in many of the Ulster stories that Connacht, as well as being a rival kingdom, also held a place as the gateway to the Otherworld – it’s there that heroes get sent for ordeal and testing by formidable Otherworldly beings; it’s there that conflicts with chthonic monsters from the Otherworld are played out; and of course, it’s from there that the Morrígan emerges to direct events in the human sphere. I’m sure Oliver Cromwell didn’t mean that sort of underworld when he said “to Hell or to Connacht” – but others have when they’ve called the Cave of Crúachan “Ireland’s Hellmouth”. A Christian’s commentary on the Morrígan’s home, to be sure, but it speaks to the pervasive sense of Connacht, and its center of Crúachan, as a place of access and communication with the Otherworld below.

Myself being someone who likes that sort of thing, it was that Hellmouth, more properly called Úaimh na gCat (anglicized as Oweynagat), Cave of Cats, that was the central focus of my pilgrimage.

I entered the Cave twice during my pilgrimage. I’m not going to describe either experience in detail, because a place like that is a mystery that needs to be experienced to be understood. And because every person’s experiences are their own, and yours may be very different from mine. I will just say that the Morrígan is indeed intensely present there, and there is no doubt in my mind that She has been venerated there for a very long time, and that, as scholars have proposed, it has been a place where warriors came for testing and initiation. It may be a Hellmouth, but it felt like home to me.

I’ll leave my story there for now. As I plan to highlight the voices and knowledge of Irish people I encountered in my travels, let me here point you once again to Lora O’Brien, who guided our group at Rathcroghan. She is a published author on Irish spirituality, a dedicated priestess of the Morrigan, and the most knowledgeable person you could hope to meet on the traditions and landscape of Rathcroghan as well as Ireland as a whole. You can find her blog here, and her published works here.

Previous: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

Next: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 3: I have seen the graves of my Gods

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

I have just returned from a three-week pilgrimage in Ireland and Britain. Since landing at SFO on Monday and making my way home, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in contemplation before being able to write about my experience. It is hard to know where to begin.

The two weeks in Ireland was initiatory. I have come home altered. Part of me is still there, held in the landscapes and holy places where the traditions of my Gods were born. Ireland is like that: the landscape itself is so potent, so alive, an insistent presence that seizes you and does not let go.

This pilgrimage to the source landscape of my Gods has profoundly shifted and deepened my understanding of Them, and of the traditions I practice. I found a new understanding of why place is so important in the Irish stories – because the island itself, and its landscapes and structures, really are that powerful. I came to realize that for American Celtic polytheists such as myself, having lived on this other continent, there is something theoretical in our understanding of Irish tradition until we engage it in its own place. Yes, we may be familiar with the litanies of place-names, the folklore attached to them, the poems and stories of place. It is something else to stand in these landscapes and listen to the voice of the land itself singing its tale. We might know the literature that tells of the hundreds of ancestors buried inside the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, or the tale of the Morrígan’s grave mound beside Newgrange. It is something else to stand at these mounds vibrating, breathless with the overwhelming presence and numinous might of the beings who still occupy them.

There is also the people of Ireland, who represent a living body of tradition themselves. In the course of my brief travels, I met people everywhere I went who were carriers of vibrant, detailed, and often novel knowledge about Irish pagan history and spiritual tradition. Many of these people, as far as I could tell, did not identify as “Pagan”, but clearly were continuing to engage with their heritage as living tradition, and displayed a sense of pride in sharing it with us as such. I heard at least three new-to-me variants of familiar and beloved Irish tales. I heard new perspectives and paradigms on the relationships between stories, texts, and landscapes.

The realization struck me that a fair amount of what these local people were sharing with us might likely be dismissed by members of the American Celtic polytheist community, particularly the more scholarly-oriented, simply because it represents lore that is not matched in the body of medieval texts. I might once have been so inclined, myself. That realization became a caution to me, for which I am grateful.

American Celtic polytheism sometimes has an orphaned quality to it because of the separation from source landscape and embedded tradition. The result is that we often tend to be highly textually focused, because (leaving aside the insights of private personal gnosis) the early Irish texts are our primary contact with the source of our traditions. The textual sources we cling to and study endlessly pale in the presences of these places that gave rise to them. That is to say, the texts are not less important to my understanding of Irish tradition, but I have come to see their place in tradition differently. They are like recordings or photographs of a person who still lives and breathes somewhere. They are secondary and derivative to the reality of the thing. We in the diaspora of devotion have been especially at risk of confusing the artifact for the source.

For all these reasons, and many more, I cannot emphasize too strongly how important it is for practitioners of Celtic polytheist traditions to make such a pilgrimage at least once, if you at all can do so. I feel as though a machine I have been attempting to work with most of my life has just finally been plugged into a source of current. To ground our personal practices and local cults in the source tradition in its living landscape feels irreplaceable to me. I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of having been able to begin to do so.

While in ritual at Tara, we had an encounter with the Sovereignty Goddess there. Her message to me and to the group traveling with me was, “What will you give to Ireland who has welcomed you?” That message stayed with me. I am still contemplating what it is that I can give back to Ireland, as a land and a people, in gratitude for what I draw from it to nourish my practice. But I know that where it begins, for me, is in respecting the Irish people themselves, and their lived knowledge and experience of their own land, language, and traditions.

I plan to continue writing about my pilgrimage experiences in a few more posts focusing on some specific places and experiences, and the brilliant local people who shared them with us.

[Cover photo courtesy of Joe Perri]

Next: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

Macha: She would not stand down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disambiguating the Queen, #2: Dark Goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rites of Sovereignty

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

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

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

Scottish king stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Disambiguating the Queen: #1, Morgan Le Fay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seasons of Death and Life

As Samhain-tide is here, I have been thinking about the two great festivals of the Celtic year, and how different our modern Neopagan interpretation of them is from their origins. This subject came up for me at Beltaine this year, and has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since.

You see, the modern Neopagan conventions around these two festivals are so: Beltaine is understood as the season of life, expressed and celebrated through sexual and fertility imagery. Samhain is understood as the season of death, expressed through ancestor worship, death imagery and offerings to the dead. This is at least true of nearly all modern witchcraft revival traditions. Would any of my readers be startled to learn that for the ancient Pagan Celts, this scheme is nearly backwards?

As in so many other respects, the tendency of modern revivals of Paganism is to suffer from oversimplification of theology and spiritual philosophy. Samhain and Beltaine are a prime example of this effect.

We call Beltaine the “season of life” because the plants are flowering, fruits are swelling, small animals mating, and the sun is growing stronger. So much is true on the surface of things. For the ancient Celts, however, Beltaine (and summer generally) was a season of great risk, and for this reason, was a season for sacrifices – both animal and human. The primary evidence for human sacrifice (apart from the distorted reports of it recorded by contemporary non-Celtic writers) comes from preserved bog burials such as the Lindow man of Wales, and similar remains found on the Continent and Ireland. Remnants of the last meals of these sacrificed people show that in many cases, they were in fact killed in late Spring. Folk culture in these areas preserves many, many references to death and sacrifice in connection to Beltaine; such as Morris dances, scape-goating, effigy sacrifice, etc.

Why should this be? If the season when the natural world visibly comes into contact with death is the onset of winter, why not make that the time of sacrifices, of propitiating death with offerings? Because the timing is wrong for the magick to work, that’s why. For people dependent on natural cycles for their survival, when the threshold of winter arrives at Samhain, the time of greatest risk is already past. Whatever harvest the summer gave you has been gathered in, and you only have to hope for the length of the winter to be merciful. At the onset of summer, on the other hand, everything is at stake. What comes in the months between Beltaine and Samhain can make or break your clan. If there is too much summer rain, and the crops rot in the fields – if there isn’t enough, and the grain and calves don’t fatten – if any of a thousand things go wrong during the growing season, your people may go hungry when the winter comes. Thus the growing season is the time of greatest risk, and the greatest need for sacrifice to propitiate the Gods. The Celts believed that life had to be fed by the sacrifice of life, and so sacrifices were made. Beltaine is thus the season of life, but also the season of death.

We’re told that Samhain is religiously celebrated as the season of death because at this time cattle were slaughtered that were not being kept (and fed) through the winter. And because the vegetative life of the land is visibly dying as winter approaches. All this being quite true, Samhain is naturally a season of death. However, if you look at the mythology and religious practice of the Celts, a more nuanced picture emerges. Samhain is everywhere linked in the lore with sexual matings; and in particular the mating of the human realm and Otherworld through sexual unions. For example, the tryst of the Morrigan and the Dagda on the eve of battle occurs at Samhain; following their mating, She prophesies His victory over the Fomoire, and offers Her aid in the coming battle. Cu Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, makes his tryst with the Faery woman Fand at Samhain; likewise Nera, the warrior of Cruachan, also meets and marries his Faery wife at Samhain. In almost every case, the warrior meets an Otherworldly female on Samhain eve, mates with her sexually, and then is sent into battle on her behalf or under her protection. There are countless examples of these Samhain couplings, often linked to battles: Aine and Ailill Olom; the elopement of Etain and Midir, etc.

Dagda and the Woman, by Jim Fitzpatrick

These myths tell something deeper about the Celtic view of Samhain than the simple label, “season of death.” They tell that the threshold of winter was also understood as a season of sexuality, both human and divine. That the “veil growing thin” which we Neopagans speak of, does not just permit the dead to speak to us, but opens wide the gates for Otherworldly unions of a sexual nature. That these divine or Otherworldly matings presage and are inextricably linked to battle. As it is among the horned and antlered animals: the stag and the bull, worshiped throughout the Celtic world in the form of Gods such as Cernunnos, mate in the fall, accompanied by ritualized “battles” as the males of the species may lock antlers or horns in displays of strength for mating rights. The sexual attentions of Sovereignty Goddesses such as the Morrigan, if they are linked to a season, nearly always occur at Samhain. For many Celts, sovereignty was conferred through ritual marriage of the human sovereign with Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess of the land. Among the Irish, inaugural rites and other acts related to kingship always took place at the great feasts that were held annually at Samhain at royal centers such as Tara, Cruachain and Emain Macha. Thus the entire concept of the sacred marriage among the Celts is inextricably linked to the Samhain season.

These are just a few examples I highlight here for contrast with the prevailing Neopagan conventions about these holidays. In truth both have very complex histories arising from their changing practice across many different tribes and shifting with the tides of history. I suppose what I want to communicate here is not so much that our modern ways of celebrating these holidays are wrong; but rather that I feel something is lost when we simplify them down to equating Beltaine with sex and Samhain with death. There is a deep wisdom embedded in the ancients’ understanding that sexuality, fertility, death, sovereignty, and sacrifice were all inextricably linked. That our human work is to understand these linkages, feed them, and find our places within them. There is a potency in celebrating sex and death together, as alternating currents of a single numinous power, perhaps, rather than as separate seasons.

As we like to sing in the Coru: Balu! Maru! Balu! Maru! (Sex! Death! Sex! Death!)

(Of course, it should go without saying that I don’t advocate a return to ancient practice as it was; I think it is entirely right that we abandoned human sacrifice and find other forms of sacrifice by which we can participate in these exchanges of life.)

The Cattle Raid

Yesterday, I marched on Market Street in San Francisco. Today, I worked on the Morrigan statue, and thought about wealth.

The protests, which are beginning to take on the character of an uprising, are about wealth, and the distribution of wealth; they are about the apotheosis of wealth, and its demonization. They are about something much bigger and more subtle than wealth. They are about the way in which wealth has become a vehicle for the undoing of a civilization and the debasement of a people.

I think of wealth, and the symbolism of wealth. From the earliest times, since before domestication, cattle have meant wealth – cattle in fact were wealth before they were a symbol of wealth. They arise again and again in iconography. Wild cattle painted on cave walls. The Golden Calf. The cattle of Catal Huyuk. The Fehu rune. The Irish Cattle Raid. The bull of Wall Street.

It is the last two that catch my attention today. Working on the statue, contemplating the controlled rage against Wall Street that I had observed, I found myself thinking about the Táin Bó Cúalnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of the central texts of the Irish heroic cycle.

It begins when the royalty of the province of Connacht, Medb and Ailill, send messengers to Ulster to ask for the loan of their great Brown Bull, Donn Cúailnge, the most excellent and most valuable breeding bull in the provinces of Ireland. Medb and Ailill had a petty argument, you see, over which of them controlled the greatest wealth. Medb was losing the contest, so to prove herself the wealthiest, she had to gain control of the Brown Bull. So: nine messengers are sent to Ulster, and they courteously arrange with the Ulstermen to borrow the bull, and to compensate Ulster with a fair fee of fifty heifers, lands and a fine chariot for the year’s use of their bull. This being arranged, the messengers that evening are feasted by their hosts. During this feast, as the tongues of the guests are loosened by drink and enjoyment, they begin to boast that it was inevitable that the great bull should go to Connacht, “for if the bull were not given willingly, he would be given perforce,” by way of a threat. This arrogance of course outrages the Ulstermen, whose chieftain proclaims, “I swear by the gods whom I worship unless they take him thus by force, they shall not take him by fair means.” Thus the bargain was broken between the provinces, and the hosts began massing for war.

Is there a message in this story that is relevant to our times? It struck me so. Not for nothing is the very icon of Wall Street finance a great, brown bull.

Most people I know do not resent the rich for being rich. Most people I know don’t truly envy the rich – we just want enough wealth to live well. We want a social contract within which there is a reciprocity between labor and capital, between workers and employers, between the financial class and the producing class. A fair deal is what we want, and when we feel we have this, we are able to sit down at table together. It is not the wealth of the wealthy that enrages people – it is not class envy or a rejection of their own part in the bargain. It is the arrogance of their position that enrages us.

If the bull is the wealth of our land and the productive capacity of our people, it was willingly that we would have lent it to them, in exchange for a fair and reciprocal sharing of the benefits it would generate. In an honest agreement we would not have begrudged them the use of the bull, because the sharing of it would enrich everyone. But when they show us that they are willing with a careless disregard to take our wealth and give nothing back – to nationalize losses while privatizing profits – when they laugh at us in our own feasting hall, while dining richly on the best of our land, demonstrating that there was never any intention to negotiate honestly – this is where the bargain breaks.

And so we march.

I think that there is a colossal arrogance which has been at play in the halls of finance and government (which are nearly indistinguishable at this point). The actions of these people in disregarding their place in the social contract display an assumption that there is no limit to what they can take from civilization, and no consequence.

I think they are wrong. We have the position of strength, because there are vastly more of us than there are of them, and what they have forgotten in their arrogance is their dependency on us, our productivity, our courtesy as hosts, and our willingness to allow the taking.

They are a few, and we are a legion. They are in our house. This is a cattle raid: they have come for our nation’s wealth, and have defied us to stop them taking it.

I think they will be surprised.

On November 5, a coordinated day of action is planned, where people everywhere will pull their money out of the big Wall Street banks and move it to local banks or credit unions. What better way to show that we will not let our wealth be arrogantly taken from us while they laugh at us in our own hall? This is not a protest action. It is your right of self-defense. In the meantime, the occupations and marches continue everywhere. I encourage everyone to engage.

The Cry of Destiny

Today I have some thoughts to share about destiny. This post has actually been brewing for some weeks before I found the time to write it down; if you’ve read my postings before, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a writer only after my other vocations, and sometimes the blog goes by the wayside while I’m busy chasing my destiny. So then, on the subject of destiny.

From Failias was brought the Lia Fail, which is at Tara, and which used to cry out under each king who assumed the sovereignty of Ireland.
The Four Jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Yellow Book of Lecan

We might tend to think of destiny as something rare that belongs to special people, those who are ‘chosen’ for some greatness that is beyond the reach of most of us. Destiny might feel like a concept for heroes of myth that seems out of place in our ordinary lives. But this is not so. Everyone has a destiny on them. You, reading these words, you have a destiny on you. Simply put, your destiny is that thing you were made for. That thing you are uniquely equipped and gifted to do, that without you will not be complete; and that you
will not be complete without doing. I really want to emphasize this, so I’ll say it again: There is something unique and meaningful that only you and no other being can give to this world. I don’t care who you are or how empty you may think you are of gifts; this is still true of you. Whatever that thing is, that is your destiny. It may be subtle; it may not be the kind of thing that is recorded in history books, but it is a destiny, and it is meaningful and it is yours.

Do you know what it is?

If you don’t, isn’t it perhaps time you should find out?

Let me put that question another way. What have you got to do that is more urgent or more important than discovering your life’s purpose? If you can answer that, you may already know your destiny.

If not, here are some things to contemplate. The Lia Fail, the Stone of Fal which was also called the Stone of Destiny, would cry out under the true king, who held the sovereignty of the land. Sovereignty is the holding of power by virtue of right relationship to its source; in the case of an Irish king, the land itself. So ask yourself: In what place does the rightness and truth of your action cause such power to flow through you that your soul cries out? Have you felt that? That was the cry of destiny. If you have never felt that, if till now you have only heard the silence of the stone, it may be time to seek new experiences, try out new ways of serving the world until the cry comes. Drew Jacob, in his Rogue Priest blog (which I highly recommend), talks of the heroic path, and his first piece of advice for those who have not discovered their heroic purpose is to travel. If travel seems out of reach because of cost, and it may indeed be for many of us, there is still nothing stopping you from going out of your established routines and experiencing something new. I would add that service is more likely to open us to destiny than pleasure. We find our purpose, paradoxically, by going outside of ourselves.

The next thing I want to make clear is that destiny is not fate. It isn’t predetermined. It’s what you’re meant for, but you can fail to fulfill it, or you can choose to ignore it and do something else with your time and life energy. We are all endowed with will, and if we’re diligent at liberating ourselves from social and media manipulation, we can even aspire to possess free will (or even better, be possessed by it). I do not believe in fate, at least not in the fixed sense.

So – your destiny is not predetermined: It is yours, but it will not just happen to you. That is one way that we differ from the people in story. We must court destiny like a lover, or a muse; chase it like a quarry; most of all, serve it. This is work. Nothing is born without labor, and this thing you have within you may take a life’s labor to bring forth. This may be why so many of us prefer the aimless comfort of the consumer life to the purposeful striving of the destined life. It is hard, and it’s scary, too. Dedicating yourself to fulfilling your destiny means sacrificing some things you might otherwise put more of your life energy into, things that are easier and more comfortable. Things that are more predictable. Most frightening of all, there is no guarantee of success. You might spend years serving this destiny, only to see it partially born; it may not come to fruition or be recognized for its value until after your death. It is up to you, and the allies and resources you can muster, to fulfill your purpose and give to the world what you have to give. And to do so we have to struggle against not only our own fears of failure (or fears of success), but against very great and subtle forces in our civilization that derive enormous profit from an aimless population accustomed to thinking themselves small, and content to fill their longing for meaning with stuff. For all these reasons, it may be easier not to know your purpose. And as I said, you do have that option. You can turn your face away from destiny. But I will venture to say that it will haunt you until you step into it.

Why do I care so much and why am I lecturing you about pursuing your destiny? Well, because I myself have been haunted by a growing sense that difficult times are coming. That is to say, difficult times are here already – most of us know at least a few people who are out of work; costs of living are rising faster than incomes; the unsustainable economic and political structures of much of the Western world are beginning to crack; and in the US at least, we are seeing clearer and clearer the emergence of the national security
police state. I have a persistent sense that these are signs of harder times to come soon, that our lives will get tougher for a while before they get better. And my Gods, most especially the Morrigan whom I serve most closely, have been haunting me too, with a message that I need to be doing anything I can to help prepare our people for difficult and transformative times. That we, the spiritual-minded and magickal folk, have something needful to offer the world in these crises, but that we are not ready, and that unless we can get prepared to ride the tides of change, we can’t hope to help the rest of the world through it.

To explain what this has to do with destiny, I will quote Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. Informed by his experiences observing what inner powers helped people to not only survive in the hells of the concentration camps, but even find the strength to help others, he wrote:

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946.

And elsewhere in the same book:

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

In other words, the human being who knows her purpose, who knows she has a destiny to fulfill, carries that meaning within her like a talisman, and through that can find the strength to survive anything. She can bear almost any conditions. She has heard the cry of the Stone of Destiny, and so the strength of the stone is hers, the grounding force of sovereignty. My friends, this is how heroes are made. How kings and queens are made. This simple thing: the knowledge of one’s destiny, and a commitment to it. That is all it takes.

Don’t worry if you aren’t ready. No one ever is. The cry of the stone will carry you, and you’ll find a way.