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She fights for all women: Macha’s braided mane

In the morning, I went to my shrine space to do my morning devotions. I had a task to make offerings to Macha and the spirits in Her retinue on behalf of a friend of mine who was in need of extra shielding and protection, due to our worsening cultural climate of toxic bigotry that so often targets transwomen. Pouring the offering, speaking the prayers, I then spoke my friend’s name to Macha. “Sovereign Queen, lady of the battlefield, protector of women, send your warrior spirits to shield ___, surround her with strong spirits, lift her up, protect her from hate and harm.”

I think I’ve written in this blog before about Macha as a protector of women and a divinity who takes a particular interest in gender battles. In my devotional relationship with Macha, She has taken a stance of holding me to commitments to fight for and stand with women. This has also brought me more into action in support of trans rights. So many of Macha’s stories relate to gender, power, and transgression: Macha Mongruad, a woman refused the place of queenship due to Her gender, and who must fight to claim it, becoming the only woman listed in the Irish annals of kings. Macha of the nóinden, a woman injured by those in power and who brings justice through the transgressive power of cursing, a power linked to Her gender. Macha has spoken to me at times about the battles transwomen fight just to claim their true gender, to hold the ground of womanhood against those who misgender them (and transmen, too, of course; it’s just that I’ve arrived here by way of devotional mandates in feminism and fighting for women, so my focus has been more centered on women.)

This morning, as I made my offering and asked Her to send protection to my friend, Macha seized my heart and began speaking to me. TAKE THE LOCK OF HORSEHAIR: BRAID IT IN YOUR HAIR. WEAVE THE PRAYER OF PROTECTION INTO THE BRAID. SPEAK HER NAME TO ME, AND THE NAMES OF ALL WHO SEEK MY PROTECTION. I WILL SEND GUARDS TO WALK WITH THEM.

The lock of horsehair had been sitting on the altar at my shrine for weeks; it had come out of the horsetail that hangs on my partner’s fighting helmet, and I’d been meaning to make it into something as an offering to Macha. Now, I found myself binding it into a lock of my hair, braiding prayers into it, seeing myself braiding my own hair into Macha’s red mane as I breathed my friend’s name.

DO THIS EVERY DAY. YOU WILL TELL YOUR FOLK, AND EVERY DAY YOU WILL BRING THEIR NAMES TO ME FOR BLESSING. DO THIS UNTIL THE TIME COMES TO CUT THE LOCK AND OFFER IT TO ME. 

These are the instructions I was given. I struggled a little with making this act of devotion public, because it feels to me a little too much like performative allyship, but Macha made it clear to me that She wanted me to widen this prayer service to others. So. Here I am, and for the time to come (I have not yet divined how long) I will be making these prayers to Macha daily, and weaving protection and support for my trans women kin into the devotional braid. For anyone who wishes to be included by name, you can send me your name and the city where you live, and I will speak your name to Macha and weave you into the prayer for protection and support. When it is finished, I will cut the lock from my hair and it will be made a permanent part of the Macha idol that lives in my home shrine (and which folks can visit at the Coru Cathubodua Temple at PantheaCon also). This is my offering to Her and to you. I’ll be carrying Macha’s presence and these prayers with me in physical actions I join to fight for trans rights and safety, too; like community actions taking place this week to prevent transphobic alt-right Nazi Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking in my area.

To be included in this prayer service, should you wish to, you can send me your name and city/region via email at morpheus@bansheearts.com, or by comment here. Or, you can take up this prayer service and weave it into your own practice to offer protection to folks in your own commuities.

Hail Macha, great sun of womanhood!

Hail Macha, red-maned warrior!

Hail Macha, warhorse of the hero’s chariot!

Hail Macha, red-painted sorceress!

Hail Macha, who gives battle for sovereignty!

Hail, Macha, mighty Queen!

The Storm Is Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not a warrior, you said

Why have you called me, Queen?

I called you to love

I called you to make your love a battle song

I called you because I saw your heart

For I am the Mother of Heroes

And I know the drumbeat of your heart

You do not need to know the weapon-dances

To be the spear in My hands

You do not need to be strong in body

To be the strong body of My sword

You need only to rise to the drum that calls you

Rise to Me and speak

Pledge to your heart its beating

Pledge to your people love

Pledge to fight for each other

And I will know you as My own.

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

Mother of Battles, hear my prayer

In time of violence, hate, and fear

Let the fierce strength of love move me

Let the courage of love uphold me

Let the tenacity of love root me.

Mother of Heroes, receive my heart

Grant me the protection of your presence

Grant me the backing of your host

Grant me the Hero’s Light

And I will hold this ground for kinship.

Mother of Victories, receive my pledge:

To my kindred under attack,

I will raise my voice to silence hate

I will rise to shield you from violence

I will stand with you when you need a hero

I will face the terror with you

I will share rest and care with you

I will hold you and I will fight for you

I will not stand down

Till the storm passes and sovereign justice arises

For I am the body of love

I am a weapon of love

I am love fighting for itself.

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

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

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

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

 

Recent posts about resistance and solidarity networks:

Resistance Matters

Solidarity Networks

 

Crisis support:

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

Trans Lifeline: (877) -565-8860

Trevor Project: (866)-488-7386

 

Helpful organizations:

Resources for Social Change

Organizing for Power

Black Lives Matter

Showing Up For Racial Justice

Campaign Zero against police violence

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

Help immigrants and new Americans

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

ACLU: Working for civil rights and constitutional liberties

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

When I went down on the field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noinden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foundations of the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PantheaCon 2014

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

Blood Drive PantheaCon 2014: Find the Hero In You

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

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

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

 

Temple of the Morrigan & Coru Hospitality Suite

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

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

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

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

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

Sacrifice and Modern Paganism: A Panel Discussion

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

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

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

The Great Queens: An Ancestor Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polytheism: How hard do you like it?

I suppose it’s time I got around to a proper theology post. I’ve been talking with lots of folks about belief and practice, about polytheist ritual that assumes the Gods are real, and on like that. Polytheism, hard or soft… a subject of much debate in the Pagan world right now. (For anyone reading this who hasn’t yet been introduced to the question: Here’s a book excerpt with an overview of the terms.) And because I insist that to me, the Gods are undeniably real, living beings with personhood and agency, it’s been assumed that I’m making claims about other aspects of Their natures (e.g. that they are local, discrete, individual, anthropomorphic, etc). I’m not sure I’ve ever said, in this blog, where I stand on this theological question.

So. Polytheism: how hard do you take it? Well, it depends on my mood, see.

OK, not quite. But I think there’s something missing from a lot of the dialogue about polytheism, and that thing profoundly influences my perspective on the Gods. That thing is ecology.

A lot of my college study was in ecology and life science. The ecological paradigm informs pretty much all of my thinking about spiritual realities and theology. And coming from that perspective, the whole question of hard versus soft polytheism keeps looking to me like a false dichotomy. Because ecological thinking is all about relationships, and which relationships you see or don’t see depends on what scale you’re looking at. And if the Gods are in any way real, then They are necessarily part of nature (just as we are), and we can use the same lens to look at them.

So the natural world is this matrix of beings and forces interacting at different scales. You can look at one scale and see individual creatures which appear to be separate and discrete, interacting with one another. Look at another scale and you see populations, separable from one another and interacting with other populations. Look at another scale and you see huge, global forces that subsume the individual into great ecologies of energy and life force. Which scale is the correct lens? Which perception is true?

At one scale, we might see a tree. It’s easily identifiable as an individual of its species – we can measure its DBH, canopy, height, age. We can take the same measurements of the tree next to it and get a different set of data. They’re clearly individual beings with separate identities. If we looked at their DNA that would be identifiable too. And no question, it’s a different species from the mushrooms growing over its roots. The soil isn’t even an organism, it’s just a matrix to hold the tree’s roots.

So now we go underground, and it turns out that the forest is made up of all these trees, but their roots form a network that isn’t just intertwined, but in fact the roots merge underground. And it also turns out that the mushrooms don’t just feed the trees by feeding the soil, but in fact make up a mycelial web that is integrated into the soil AND the root network of the trees, and they are all bonded into each other at the cellular level. And suddenly at this scale, what’s real and identifiable as a functioning organism, a being, is the forest. At this scale, the tree is just an organ of the forest. Which scale is correct?

The forest interacts with other ecologies. It creeps forward, shrinking the grassland. Or desert pushes it back. They dance, wrestle, collide. At the continental scale, we just see vast interactions measured in energy, oxygen, carbon, water vapor. The biosphere breathes its oxygen from the great forested lungs. They pour down carbon from the air to the surface. Day heats the oceans and moisture shifts on oceanic currents. The being breathes in, out, in, out. We’ve seen it from space. It’s clearly a distinct, identifiable individual with obvious boundaries, glowing blue and green against the black. Surely this being is the real one. Surely its identity is the clearest we could look for.

At another scale, we can watch the sweep of planets clinging round the gravitational core of a sun, like organelles of a cell membrane-held to its nucleus, swimming in the solar wind that carves their magnetospheres. Is this an organism, an individual? At another scale, we can watch interactions between galaxies, each with their own shape, composition, gravitational force, rotation speed and trajectory. This one has a black hole in its core, that one has a concentration of dark matter. They’re unique, beautiful, evocative, nameable. Is this an individual being? Is this the correct scale?

This is our universe as we are able to know it. Where in these scales do the Gods live and operate? I cannot see why we would assume that They exist at only one of these scales. The universe is full of structures that live, act, and function on every level, from the atomic to the multiversal. Why, my friends, would we think the same is not true of the Gods?

So when someone asks if the Gods are cosmic and universal or if They are local and individual, I want to say YES OF COURSE. Or, “Which ones do you mean?” I want to say, “I don’t know, and you don’t either! Who can have lived long enough to have met Them all?” I think that if we have any awareness of the multi-scaled infinitude of the universe we live in, if nothing else we have to maintain some humility about the scope of what we know, and ever can know. And I think it strongly suggests that the Gods include ALL OF THE ABOVE. Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land. Gods of landscapes: this river, this mountain, this desert. Gods of natural forces and structures. Thunder Gods, snow-and-winter Gods, wildfire Gods, moon Gods. Cultural Gods: the Gods of the Celts, the Saxons, the Nubians, the Saami, the Maya. Gods of cycles and systems: of spring, the tides, the night. Gods of human patterns and motive forces: civilizing Gods, Gods of love and war, of justice and sovereignty and truth. Gods of cosmic forces: decay, death, rebirth, time, eternity, space.  Gods who are mysterious intersections of multiple forms of power. Gods who are simply Themselves and show up in whatever milieux and culture They feel like tomorrow. Gods with no face. Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things.

I ask you, who are we, any of us, to say that we know which of these many kinds of Gods are real and which of them can’t possibly exist?

Here’s the thing – and this is where it comes back home. There is so much we can never know. What we can know is the evidence of our senses. That is all we have, folks. Everything else, and I mean everything, is a story we spin, individually or collectively, to weave together the evidence of our senses into a picture that makes sense to us. That means ALL of our interactions with the Gods are embedded in the context of being human. But it doesn’t mean we should be confused into thinking we’re all there is, or that our perceptions are absolute. Our perceptions are and will always be anthropocentric. Our values, and the stories we weave to interpret those perceptions, shouldn’t be.

I call myself a polytheist Pagan, and not a monist or archetypalist or anything else, not because I am sure that I know the nature of the Gods, and certainly not because I want to get stuck looking at Them at only one scale. I call myself a polytheist because what matters in religious practice is not the ultimate-cosmic-objective-truth which I have no way of ever verifiably knowing. What matters in religious practice is the level on which we as beings inhabiting bodies are able to sense and interact with all the worlds. Thus, while I acknowledge that it is possible that the Gods I know are merely reflections of some great unified cosmic God-force that is beyond identities, it is kind of irrelevant to me. Because when I do my ritual practice, They show up with faces (sometimes) and identities (usually) and They engage with me as persons. Multiple identifiable God-like persons. Thus, poly-theist.

In other words, I speak to Them in the language of human ritual, human hospitality, and I-thou relationship in recognition of Their agency as beings. Whether Their agency is more like the agency of a free-willed thinking human-like entity, the agency of a cat, or the agency of a supermassive black hole (which also, I’m thinking, doesn’t answer to orders very well) ends up being a bit of an angels-on-a-pin question for me. Because the part of Them that I can interact with is the part that translates into human-Other relations, and is therefore detectable and relatable to my senses. In practice, this means for me a religious and ritual practice that is human-shaped and leans toward historical traditions for my particular Gods, and those traditions model ways of relating to Them that are human-shaped. This approach yields fruit for me.

So there you go: I like my polytheist ritual good and hard because it gets me there. But I like my ontology nimble and pliable.

Long Dark Solstice of the Soul

Two years ago on the Winter Solstice, I took a leap of faith that cost me everything. It took me a long time to write about this, because it’s personal and a bit raw and embarrassing, and because it doesn’t make anyone look good.

I was in the dark for a long time, when I look back on it. But you see, and this is why I’m telling this story, you don’t realize it at the time – you’ve been in the dark so long you think you’re just blind, or that’s all the light there is. Dim, dreary, fumbling amongst shadows, knees skinned to bleeding, exhausted but still upright and stumbling along. That was me. I forgot life could be any brighter than that.

I should explain. I’m that girl who thinks she can handle anything. I grew up a tomboy, grew up wilderness camping with my dad and wandering the woods outside our mountain house alone. I learned hammer and nailgun and socket wrench and tire iron. Because I didn’t want to be a helpless female. I admired Disney villainesses and adventurers and heroes and serial killers. Queen Boudicca and Joan of Arc were my heroes. You can’t scare me.

In my late 20’s and my 30’s, I was living the strong-woman life. I was the breadwinner in my marriage. I was involved in leadership in my spiritual community, I had students, I had co-founded a Pagan sanctuary, built a stone henge, hell, built an empire almost. I was a priestess of a war Goddess and talking to the world about autonomy, strength, courage, warriorship, sovereignty. But I was in the dark and running blind.

Art by Aunia Kahn

This is the part where I have to bite the bullet and tell it to you straight out. I was busy showing the whole world how strong, independent and powerful I was, and all the time I was living a lie because I was living with a verbally and emotionally abusive partner, and I was letting myself be bullied, belittled, tormented, controlled and undermined every day. I was eggshell-walking around the rage triggers and justifying it to myself. I was appeasing and apologizing, promising to change myself and become better. I was apologizing just to stop the fighting even when I didn’t think I was being the crazy one, until after a while I was so used to being wrong that I didn’t know what to think, and maybe he was right and I was the crazy one. The confidence I displayed to everyone was a lie. I was deep in the dark. For years.

And I stayed there that long because I was tough, goddamnit. I could handle this. I could not fathom the idea that I could be that pathetic woman who stays with an abuser. That could never happen to me. This was something else. It wasn’t abuse, we just had a really dynamic, fiery partnership. I was a strong, independent woman. And that is why I’m telling this story now. Because strong women have this blind spot and I have now seen it a couple more times in friends of mine. Our self-image as strong women who wouldn’t put up with that leads us straight into the trap.

I was deep in the dark and I stayed there for years, stumbling along. Honestly, I have no idea if I would have saved myself, or how long it would have taken me. What happened is that two years ago, She stepped in.

People who work with the Morrígan have observed that starting in about late 2010 or early 2011, She started to get more active and more insistent with Her priests. That aligns with what happened to me. I had been a dedicated devotee for over a decade at that point, but something big shifted in 2011 and She started wanting more from me. I struggled all that year to understand what She wanted, to step up, to deepen my service, but I felt profoundly confused and in the dark, struggling to translate and visualize what I was supposed to do. My narrowed, starved sense of self no longer had the imaginative capacity or the courage to visualize the horizons She was trying to push me toward. I simply could not imagine being the person who would do the things She was showing me.

Late in 2011, I think She must have got impatient with me, because the visionary possessions and intense dreams kicked in, She sent a long-estranged old flame who was also Her priest to remind me what human interaction should look like, and when I still wasn’t listening, She turned to fits of simply screaming inside my skull. And, you know, I’m not actually stupid, and I finally did get the message. The message landed in mid-December, after a particularly brutal episode of traumatic verbal rage from my partner, which broke through my protective prison of denial with the realization that I’m NOT the crazy one. THIS is crazy. And the next time I was at my devotions, She was there, and huge, a presence as still as the pillars of the earth and as undeniable, and She said, CHOOSE. You cannot be My vessel and do My work while you are selling out your sovereignty. I require a vessel with structural integrity. You need to choose: stay broken, or be whole and do My work.

The long darkness finally broke and the light came streaming in. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, I made a commitment to Her and to myself. I committed to honoring Her in my own sovereignty, and to reclaiming my integrity. I made a pact that starting on the Solstice, I would give myself three months until the Equinox to renegotiate my life in alignment with my sovereignty and my needs, but if it could not be so realigned, I would get out. By Equinox, I would be my own being again and free to do Her work, whatever that cost me.

I am here to tell you that it cost me everything, and it was the best bargain I ever made. Over the next year, I turned my entire life inside out. I used to joke to friends that the Morrígan ate my life… but I wasn’t really joking. I dissolved my marriage, moved from remote wild mountain to city, lost my job, started an entire new career, started a business, and founded a priesthood of the Morrígan. Most of 2012 is a kind of hurricane in my memory. And I would do it all again if I had the same choice given to me. I have never been happier, healthier, freer, or felt more solidly in line with my life’s purpose.

Why did I tell this very personal story on my very public blog? Well, because it’s the Solstice and it’s on my mind. But also, because like I said earlier, I think that the trap I fell into can happen to a lot of us, and not just women, either. And the more we don’t talk about it because it is embarrassing to us, or because we don’t want to make our partner/abuser look bad, the more there is a culture of silence about it, the more that blind spot can operate to hide the trap. One of the reasons I did wait this long to talk about it is because I still share a lot of friends with my former partner, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about making him look bad or poisoning those friendships for him. But you know, this happened to me. To us. It was real, and I doubt he is any more glad of it than I am. And I don’t think people like him who find themselves becoming abusers are helped by the culture of shame and silence either. He is not a monster, he is an evolving human being like the rest of us, and he got lost in the dark too.

And the other thing I want to share from this is about courage and destiny. Meeting your destiny may cost you everything else. And my friends, if my case is illustrative at all, it is WORTH EVERY PENNY. Not every risk that comes your way is destiny calling you. But if you find yourself huddled up inside, in the dark; if you find yourself wondering how you ended up here because it doesn’t feel like your story; if you find yourself turning from opportunity because I can’t, I could never do that, not me… then start looking for a risk. Start looking for something that terrifies the fuck out of you, because that terror is your calling, it’s the light breaking in. And above all, if your Gods offer you a hand, take it. Take the risk, do not look back, do not worry about the cost or what you might lose because there is nothing, nothing, nothing worth letting your soul die in the dark for. And because stepping on the path of your destiny is a life-affirming act, and the Gods love a courageous heart, and the life force will answer and rise in you, and something new will rise and take the place of whatever you have to let go of when you take that leap.

Blessed Solstice to you, and may the light of courage always return for you.

Gods with Agency: Ritual theory for polytheists

Here and there I’ve been part of an ongoing conversation about ritual theory for Pagans. It’s got me thinking about some patterns I observe in many Pagan rituals, and I ended up coming back around to another conversation thread, the one about polytheism and humanism and whether or not we think the Gods are objectively real, or archetypal constructs, or whatever.

Here’s the question that keeps coming up in my mind when I’m following these discussions:

How would you do ritual if the Gods were real to you?

Because I am a polytheist, and the Gods are quite real to me. And as a result it becomes jarring to me when I’m seeing a ritual that is obviously built around the people in the room rather than the Gods that were named, and where things were clearly proceeding without reference to whether or not the Gods actually showed up. Some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself in my learning process.

So here are my thoughts and observations about this.

Deity flavor-of-the-month.

OK, you’ve decided to have a ritual in which you’re going to call upon a particular God or Goddess, because Their sphere of influence makes sense for your ritual purpose, and you want Their help, or you just figure invoking a God is part of your ritual structure so you’re supposed to pick one. So you dig up some ideas about what They like, and you call Them on in. Assuming that because this is Their sphere of influence, They’re going to help you, even if you’ve never contacted Them before. Assuming that because you’ve brought an offering that the books say They like, that They’re going to accept your offering and work for you. I know, this is 101 stuff, but it still goes on and I’ve seen it recently enough to still feel annoyed by it. It would be analogous to deciding that you want to publish a novel, and it would be really cool if Neil Gaiman would help you accomplish that, because hey, that’s what he does, so you call him up on the phone and invite him over to your house and expect him to not only show up, but knuckle right down to help you with your novel. And then saying, “And we’re serving your favorite kind of pie!” as if that seals the deal. Never mind that he’s never heard of you, and you might need to do a little more preparatory work to, you know, establish a rapport with him, maybe have coffee together or something before you expect him to be showing up at your house to hang out with you and fix your problems.

Friends, this is what devotional work is for. Do that first. Privately. When the deity is showing up for you regularly and engaging with you, that’s when it might be appropriate to invoke them in a public ritual.

Invocations.

This might be the big one. I have been to so many rituals in which the invocation is given, and then the ritual just proceeds immediately forward as though nothing had happened (or as though something is assumed to have happened). Someone speaks some poetic words, but always of a comfortable length so that nobody starts to get fidgety. Or maybe a chant is used, and a few rounds are sung, enough to get everybody comfortable with the words and singing, and then the chant is brought to an end safely before anybody might start to get bored, and the ritual moves on to its next planned action. As though it can just be assumed that once we’ve given the invocation, the Gods are there and on board. I can’t help thinking people who conduct ritual this way aren’t really looking for an Other presence to enter the room – what they are really looking to do is to conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants. And I think what that means is the Gods aren’t real to them.

What would we do in our invocations if the Gods were real to us? We wouldn’t just be performing the invocation, we would be at the same time actively feeling, sensing, and listening for the Gods to arrive. We would keep singing, keep speaking, keep calling to Them for as long as it took to bring Them in. We would build our ritual skills toward facilitating passion in participants for this kind of calling, rather than letting the energy die down after one peak when it naturally wants to, and letting that be our cue to end the invocation. We would train our senses to be able to recognize when They have in fact arrived, and that would be our cue to move to the next stage of the rite, inviting Them along with us. We would be orienting our action in ritual at least as much toward communication with the Presences we’re trying to conjure and work with, as toward the human participants. As a community, we would study focus and patience, would be willing to keep the magic rolling instead of getting bored if it doesn’t progress on the same time scale as the plot of a 40-minute TV show. Have you had a look at some indigenous devotional ritual? A lot of those people are willing to sing and dance all night long if they have to. In my experience, if you’re good at your job (and if you did your devotional prep work; see above), it’s not usually going to take all night. But it might take longer than half a dozen rounds of your chant, and if you think the Gods are real you shouldn’t hang up the phone until they answer.

Hospitality

When we call a God into our rite, are we treating Them like a living being we’ve just invited into our house? Offering them hospitality, comfort, respect? I have seen so many rituals where the next step after the invocation is immediately to direct the attention of the deity and the participants to the working of the rite. To me this is the equivalent of inviting someone over, and as soon as they walk in the door, saying, “Great, you’re here. Now get to work.”

What do we do when we have a respected guest in our house? We talk to them. We take their coat, offer them a space to become comfortable. We say “It’s great to see you. Can I get you anything? What’s happening in your world?” before pushing ahead to the business at hand. We should be making the religious equivalent of this a standard part of our rituals. In terms of ritual theory, this means a few things. It means giving offerings when They arrive, as an act of hospitality, not one of propitiation or request. It means making space in your ritual for Them to communicate with you, not just for you to communicate with Them. And making space for that communication to be what They want it to be, not one that you have scripted.

If you’re invoking the God or Goddess into a priest, for all that is holy, don’t give them a script to recite. Let. Them. Speak. Yes, this means needing to be able to rely on the skill of that priest at being able to carry the God and channel Their voice. (Don’t call the Gods into priests who haven’t been taught to do this, and practiced it.) Yes, this means the unexpected may happen. The Gods might decide to take your ritual on a detour to unplanned places. You might have to roll with it, do some priesting-on-the-fly, carefully weaving whatever the Gods brought you back into the ritual. You might have to think on your feet, responding to and engaging with the God that is present with you, instead of the static one in your ritual script. If that idea is terrifying to you, if you are unwilling to allow for the possibility of your ritual changing in the hands of the Gods, then what you’re doing isn’t religion and isn’t magic, but is in fact just theater.

A lot of practitioners don’t do invocation into human vessels. Some for exactly those reasons – fear of the unexpected. Some don’t do it because they don’t have access to appropriately trained priests who can handle doing that. Some don’t do it out of concern that it is dangerous to the priest acting as vessel (it is). Or because they believe that invocation into a human vessel inherently diminishes, filters and humanizes the presence and consciousness of the Gods (it does). These are valid reasons. Polytheist ritual can work just as well without giving the Gods a human voice to speak through. But you still need to let Them speak. You still need to write space into your ritual for the Presences you’ve called in to communicate with you and with your participants, and you need to actively facilitate that communication. You still need to treat Them like an honored guest, tend to Their needs and interests, and make Them at home before you ask Them to work for you.

Reciprocity

I’ve touched on this already, but I think it bears expanding on. Reciprocity is fundamental to all functional relationships, devotional ones included. I think that this idea is fairly common knowledge. But I often see it misunderstood.

A common mistake is to treat devotional offerings as transactional. I offer this God wine and flowers, and in return I get to ask for favors. I’m not saying this doesn’t work at all – it does, to a limited extent. If you don’t mind hanging out in the shallow end of the pool magically and devotionally, you can get by just fine with that. But consider that framing  your offerings in a transactional way tends to commodify devotion. Would that feel good to you? How deeply would you hold your connection with someone who only did something for you if they had a favor to ask? How meaningful would a gift from this person ever be to you? How hard would you run to have their back if they were in trouble?

Try this. Decouple your offerings from work you want to do with the Gods’ help. Make offerings as a regular devotional practice, apart from major rituals. Do some rituals that are solely devotional in nature – just for purposes of communion and worship. Let these practices deepen your relationship with the Gods. Then see what unfolds when the time comes that you do have a need to ask for help with something. Be that friend who was always there, always giving, whose commitment and care is clear and rock-solid, and for whom you would do anything. Be that kind of friend to your Gods. Find deep reciprocity, instead of transactional reciprocity.

Gods with Agency

If I had to boil it down to a core concept, it would be this: if your Gods are real to you, treat Them like beings with agency. Agency: the capacity of an entity to act. In magical terms, agency is something like will.

If our Gods are real, They have agency. We don’t get to order Them around. We don’t command Them; instead we invite. We don’t dismiss Them when we’re ready to move on; instead we say thank you and goodbye.

If our Gods are real, They don’t disappear outside of ritual space. Relationship with the Gods doesn’t begin with casting a circle (or laying a medicine wheel, or marking the Hammer Rite, or whatever you use to define ritual space). If our Gods are real, and They have agency, They are making a choice whether or not to respond to our calls. They are making a choice whether or not to engage, to help us, to be present. We can’t be treating them like a tool you put back on a shelf when you don’t need it, and then expecting Them to come and wield Their agency for our benefit!

What would you do if the Gods were real to you?

Day One

The breaths come longer and longer as my heartbeat gradually calms down from the spear workout. I try to still myself, open my ribs, lengthen my spine, focus on the breath. Rising and falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. I notice my posture and lift my spine a little more. In and out, rising and falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. I feel the tightness in my biceps and shoulders from the spear work. I hear crows jabbering outside the open window, the neighbor’s dog squeaking. In and out, sid co nem, nem co doman. My housemate clinks her tea mug downstairs, the kettle hisses. In and out, sid co nem, nem co doman. I realize my attention has been everywhere but within. I return with the breath. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Stillness begins to settle around me. Somewhere inside the back of my brain, I feel Her presence awaken. I remember what I love about devotional mediation. And now I’m off again, thinking about meditation instead of meditating. Back to the breath, the sensation of the body, sitting, breathing, my spine a long spear, my belly a sweet cauldron, the breath rising, the breath falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Sid co nem, nem co doman.

Today I re-started my daily practice. I have to do this all the time, because I’m actually terrible at it. I love ritual, and I do it often, but I’m terrible at keeping to a daily, disciplined practice routine. Readers who don’t know me well might imagine that as a fighter, a spiritual teacher and a dedicated priestess of the Morrígan, I must have a thorough and disciplined daily practice that I never miss. Yes, I do have a daily practice, but I have to work as hard as anybody at actually doing it every day. I think this is true for a lot of people: daily practice is kind of like balancing on a rope. You’re almost never standing in perfect grace; instead, you’re constantly correcting back toward center from the myriad of forces that constantly push and sway you off balance. Maybe sometimes you fall off the rope altogether and have to take a break. If you do it for long enough, the corrections you have to make come smaller and easier, and maybe you aren’t falling off any more.

I’m inspired to write about this today in part because I happen to be climbing back on my rope today. And also there have been a couple of good posts elsewhere about the benefits of discipline, and about how sometimes it’s a battle just to sit still.

I’m climbing back on my rope again. I do it all the time. Around Lughnassadh, I made a devotional commitment to physical, spiritual and creative practice. I promised to complete a century drill (weapons practice of 100 blows a day, for 100 days, and if a day is missed, you begin again at one); to do daily offerings each day of the century drill; and to dedicate a day a week to writing my book. I swore an oath to the Morrígan and Lugh that I’d complete this. And if I was perfect in my practice, I would be at day 52 today. Instead, I am at day one. A couple weeks ago I was called off on short notice to fly across the country and priestess a funeral, and in the whirlwind of the trip I dropped routine, and have only been intermittent with my practice since I returned.

Am I disappointed? Am I kicking myself? No. Frustration with yourself is just another indulgence – just another distraction from the practice. Just as in meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, you simply let it go and return to the breath. My oath was to return to practice if I let it drop, and to keep returning. So that is what I’m doing. Back to the rhythm. Back to the breath. Hello, century drill. Hello, day one. Here is an opportunity to reorient myself to my practice, and to reorient my practice to my life. To renew my practice.

So I’m looking at all the pieces, putting the elements of daily practice together in a different pattern. Here are the elements of my daily practice. One example of what a Morrígan dedicant’s daily practice could look like.

Devotions. My core devotions usually consist of lighting a candle and pouring out a liquid offering. I dedicate the offerings to the Morrígan, to the Ancestors, and to my spirit allies. Sometimes I include other deities. On days when I’m at home working on art, I will usually do an offering to Brigid also. If I’ve had the time to think ahead, I may offer something like whiskey and cream, or Irish Cream, or beer. Sometimes I’m just offering whatever I have, even if it’s water, or part of my meal. Sometimes there are more intensive offerings.

On days when I have more time or a specific need, I’ll follow the offerings with prayers or liturgies. The liturgy I use most commonly is the Morrígan’s Prophecy, also known as the Benediction, which I intone aloud in the Old Irish. Other days, I simply speak Her name. On days when I’m doing full ritual, core devotions will just be the start of a longer working.

Meditation. I have a set of prayer beads that I made for meditation centered around my devotion to the Morrígan, so they are set up in counts of three, nine to the string, which gives me 27. If I go through them three times, I’ve done 9×9 rounds of whatever meditation I’m doing. I like the prayer bead method because it stops me wondering how long I’ve been meditating – the beads will tell me. It also gives my body one little thing to do, that tiny regular motion of advancing the beads through my fingers.

The meditation I most often use is a prayer meditation using lines in Old Irish from the Morrígan’s Prophecy: Sid co nem, nem co doman. (Translation: “Peace to the sky, sky down to earth.” It is pronounced something like ‘sheeth co nev, nev co dovan’.) For me, having something to chant internally occupies my Talking Self, which helps me to become distracted less often. I usually chant the prayer internally, with the breath in a slow rhythm: inhaling sid co nem, exhaling nem co doman. This is one count of my prayer beads.

Physical. My minimum physical practice is the century drill: 100 blows of spear and/or sword practice. If I’m at home, I’ll do them full strength against my pell (practice dummy). If I’m somewhere else, I may do them slow, just practicing for form. Weekly, I also go to fighter practice and fight in full armor. Biweekly, I try to make it to a yoga class.

When I have days at home with time for extra physical practice, I will add practices: spear movement exercises, yoga, sit-ups and push-ups, or dance practice.

You might be thinking, how the hell do you have time for all of this? Most of the time, I don’t. I have a minimum daily practice for the days when I’m working 8-10 hours in the tattoo shop and barely have a moment to myself. On the days when I’m working from home and have more flexibility, I aim for a more expanded practice.

So getting back on my rope today, putting the elements back together, here is what I’m doing now. Minimum daily practice, for workdays: Morning, century drill (about 10 minutes), followed by brief meditation (one round of prayer beads, about 5-10 minutes). If I miss my morning practice, the drill happens first thing when I get home. Evening offerings before bed.

Expanded daily practice, for home days: Morning, yoga/movement practice, century drill, devotions, full meditation (at least 3 rounds of prayer beads). Evening, offerings and prayers; on some nights, yoga class, fighter practice or full ritual as needed.

Hello, day one. It’s good to begin again.

What’s your practice?

The Morrígan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost stories of Gaul

Tonight I’ve been poring through archaeological notes on the nature of ancient Celtic religion for another writing project. Sometimes research is tedious work, but tonight from the dry fragments of archaeological data, with the full moon peering in my window, a ghost rose up and took hold of me, and I want to share its tale. Tonight under this full moon, let me tell you a story.

We are in the soft green landscape of northern Gaul, its wooded hills and valleys crossed by many streams. We are in the territory of the Bellovaci, a strong Belgic tribe. Caesar’s legions have not yet come to conquer this land – it is a tribal dominion still. That moon pours light over the landscape, a wide stream that courses by the walls of the dunum, the fortified city standing on the slope overlooking the valley. Inside the walls, buildings cluster, thatched roofs over timber-framed and wattle walls. Just inside the entrance gate of the dunum, there is a space set apart from all the rest.

A tall wooden palisade guards the boundary of this space, enclosing it seven feet high with pole stakes but for an entrance gate facing us at the east. At intervals along these walls stand tall posts, towering over the palisade, and on each is hung a set of battered arms: sword, spear, and the man-sized oval shields of Gaulish tribes, painted with now-faded tribal devices, cut and spattered with the traces of battle. Here and there, a Roman helm and shield hang, or perhaps a Greek set. The captured trophies of rival tribes and nations. And over the eastern entrance in the palisade, a great wooden portal looms high above us. Its double gates are hung on thick timber uprights which support two ranks of heavy lintel beams, as thick as a man’s waist. We can see the ornate carvings on the beams and gate glinting in the shifting light. We recognize these carvings: sinuous and twisting, coursing spirals and geometries, the artful madness of La Tène Celtic design, brought to life by its colorful paint and the flickering torches to either side of the gate. In the shadowed spaces between the ranked beams of the portal over the gates, we can see rows of skulls: dead warriors set to watching the gateway between the outer world and the sanctuary within. The gates swing outward.

We cross a threshold between the uprights of the portal and step onto a narrow wooden footbridge which spans the eight feet of deep boundary ditch inside the palisade. To either side of the footbridge, in the ditch and up against the palisade wall, the skulls of horned cattle are stacked into mounds, all facing us as we move through the crossing. Apotropaic guardians like the dead warriors on the outer walls, their eye hollows watch us. Beyond the stacked cattle heads, we can see the ditch running along the circumference of the enclosure, and in it the layered remains of many offerings: countless animal bones; cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, layered in with thousands of rusted, broken swords, splintered shields, old spearheads, decaying leather scabbards and the detritus of endless bits of old weaponry. For hundreds of years these offerings have been laid down here, one atop another as the older sacrifices sink into the earth at the bottom of the boundary ditch. When the arms displayed on the walls rust and their leather strappings crumble enough to fall, they will be laid into the boundary ditch with the bones of the most recent sacrificial animals, and another set will take their place.

In the precise geometric center of the rectangular enclosure, a roofed structure stands, its four ornately carved and decorated corner posts carefully aligned to the cardinal directions. A temple. Within its shelter, the hollow altars are delved into the earth: nine circular pits cut deep into the soil in an open circle facing us as we approach from the east; and in the center of the circle, a tenth, larger oval pit. A heavy-hewn table stands before the structure, blood-stained, and nearby also are cooking-pits. Here the sacrifices are made to the poetic invocations of the Vates, the Druidic priests who are entrusted with sacrifices, divinations, and the rites of religious observance. We can almost hear their intonations, the words uplifted, the sonorous chantings in the ancient Gaulish tongue. Here the offerings are dedicated – the many bright treasures, the fine weapons, the poured libations. The animals are brought, their blood spilled; parts of their bodies are given to the Gods and offered in the pits of the hollow altars, entrances into the Otherworld. The rest of the meat, sanctified by the touch of the Gods, is brought out and cooked in the cooking-fires, and shared with the gathered people of the tribe. The hollow altars will be covered between ceremonies, and the portions of the animals given to the Gods within them will be left there until the bones are free of flesh, and then the bones will be brought out and placed in the boundary ditch, as the ritual cycle continues.

Outside the temple, another, smaller building is enclosed with walls, and within are heaped treasures upon treasures. Golden torcs, arm-bands, necklaces, anklets, belts. Cups and cauldrons in gold and some silver; hand-mirrors, chains, enameled, jeweled, twisting with ornate La Tène ornament. Wooden chests overflow with objects captured, created, offered. Treasures up on treasures, and more weapons – fine, heirloom weapons. Baskets of coin gleam on the floor, some so old that the basket-weavings are disintegrating and the treasures spill onto the earthen floor, where they are slowly sinking in to the soil under the weight of layers up on layers of offerings. Humbler offerings litter the floor, too: ceramic and earthenware cups, fragmented crockery, bronze and iron tools, objects too old to be recognizable. How deep have the layered offerings sunk into the earth inside this treasure-house? It is never guarded except by the spirits. No one would ever think of stealing gifts already belonging to the Otherworld.

And here is another, smaller structure in the corner of the enclosure, glinting white by the moon’s light. Nearing, we discern that it takes its whiteness from the bones of which it is built, and the gleaming weapons hung upon it. A little square shrine built all of bones it is. Carefully stacked for stability, human long-bones criss-crossed make up its lower tiers; here and there intermixed with the leg-bones of horses. On its outer faces are hung more shields and weapons, and its upper surfaces are protected by a layer of shoulder-blade bones. An opening faces us, again toward the east, and within we can discern a floor carefully tiled with iliac bones, surrounding a round posthole in which stands a wooden icon with unfathomable staring eyes, its base set into deep, soft layers of human ash within the posthole. It is not simply a shrine for the ancestors of the tribe – it is a shrine built of ancestors, the bones of the honored dead raised up into a structure for their reverence. How many ancestors stand here? How many generations?

One artist's interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

One artist’s interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

In the remaining corner of the sanctuary enclosure, behind the sacrificial temple, there stands a copse of trees. A little piece of the forest that was cleared to build the dunum whose walls surround this sanctuary, this grove of trees was left untouched and simply enclosed by the boundary ditch and palisade. It is a home for the Gods within the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.

This is a Gaulish Celtic sanctuary as it might have looked while still in use, before the destruction of public Gaulish religion. I’ve combined elements of a few different sanctuaries for the sake of illustrating the different kinds of shrines that were in use, but almost everything I’ve described here is based on archaeological records, with just a few bits filled in from contemporary texts. These sanctuaries were in continuous use and development from about the 4th-5th centuries BCE until the eve of the Gallic wars. Why do we have such detail about the structure and arrangement of these sanctuaries? Because the Gauls of these tribes committed a kind of religious suicide before Caesar’s onslaught came.

During Caesar’s period in the middle of the first century BCE, these sanctuaries were abruptly closed. The hollow altars were filled in and covered over. The temples were dismantled – their walls collapsed inward to cover their contents. The ossuary shrine made of ancestral bones was carefully knocked outward from the inside, so gently that many of the bones remained locked together in their stacked patterns, and none were broken. Everything was leveled, including the palisade walls; the banks were knocked over to fill in the boundary ditches. And then the entire enclosure was covered over with a low mound of soil. This was not the destruction of war – the sanctuaries were intentionally and carefully dismantled, and all around the same time, mid-century. As the Druidic priesthood of Gaul saw what faced them in Caesar’s conquest, they chose to bury half a millennium of religious tradition literally into the grave rather than see it desecrated by the Roman legions.

I try to imagine what that must have been like. Some handful of individual Gaulish people did the physical labor of knocking down the ossuary temple built of twenty-five generations of their own ancestors’ bones, obliterating five hundred years of memory and tradition and worship, knocking them into the dirt as gently as possible and covering it over, never to be retrieved. And then what… walked away? Went for a beer? Joined Vercingetorix’s army? Drowned themselves in the river? That’s about the point where I give up trying to imagine what it must have been like to have to do that.

When Caesar came, he never saw the temples, because they were gone before he arrived. He wrote about Gaulish religion, of temples with sacrificial deposits in them, but scholars recognize his texts as copied from the earlier writer Poseidonius. What he saw he described as “constructed mounds” which he understood were made up of sacrificial deposits. The grave mounds of Gaulish religion.

It is from this period that the springs, caves, lakes, and other natural sites began to dominate as centers of cult activity in continental Celtic religion. It is from this period that we see a dramatic increase in votive icons and offerings, magical tablets, and other religious items appearing as the evidence of folk religion. Because after the destruction of the temples and the criminalization of Druidic religion and its public rites, private worship in the hidden places of nature was what the Gauls had left to them.

The Gauls did not forget, though. After the Roman conquest, even following the official prohibition on Druidic religious activity, the sanctuaries continued to be kept as sacred ground. While the dunums were built up into Roman oppida all around, the grounds on which the sanctuaries stood were kept empty. No longer visible as mounds, with no surviving structures traceable on the ground surface, the people somehow passed down a hidden tradition about the sacredness of these sites for four hundred years after the conquest, protecting the boundaries of the sanctuaries from the encroaching city. It was not until the fourth century CE that a new temple, now in the Romanized style, was built – and when it was, its corner posts were laid precisely onto the invisible footprint of the old Gaulish temple.

That is the story that the ghosts of Gaul asked me to tell you tonight.

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