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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

What Use Violent Gods?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brigantia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washer at the Ford, Alan Lathwell

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

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

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

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

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.