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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.

Warriorship: the Gift of Peace

In early October, I came to my first “fighter birthday” – the date I started armored fighting one year ago. Here are a few observations from my first year as a fighter.

Are you threatening me?

When I talk about warriorship, people often ask me, “Why would you want to be a warrior? Aren’t you worried that it’ll make you combative?” There’s a suspicion of warriorship in the Pagan subculture. A perception that to a warrior, every problem will come to look like one to be solved by conflict. That the combative paradigm will seep into your personality and turn all your interactions into battles.

My experience so far is actually the opposite. I’m less combative personally than I was before I became a fighter. Because you see, I’m not afraid any more. I am less easily threatened, and less reactive, to most things: from personal criticism to intellectual challenge to physical danger. I’m stronger. I’m clearer about my capacities and my limits, and I no longer think of myself as fragile, physically or psychologically. I’m less defensive than I ever realized I had been. I don’t need to fight everything, because I’m not afraid any more.

What has come instead is a heightened awareness of social conflict framing. That is to say, I’m noticing the extent to which other people often perceive situations in terms of conflict because they feel psychologically or intellectually threatened. This happens when I’m not registering it as a threat situation for myself at all, and therefore not looking at it combatively. To put this another way, I have a heightened awareness of what an opponent is, and I’m much clearer now as to when I’m not facing one.

I think maybe there are two different modes of combative response. One is defensive, arising from fear. It’s the “Are you threatening me?!” stance. Practicing warriorship has shifted me out of that mode and into one where combat arises from either joy (e.g. martial practice) or necessity (response to real danger). And because practicing combat for joy has made me stronger, I have a clearer sense of what real danger is and is not, and I don’t readily go defensive. I don’t escalate non-conflict situations into conflict as often; I think it’s because I know what conflict is for now. There’s a conservation of energy that becomes instinctive to a fighter. An awareness of what it costs to fight, and a strong instinct to reserve it for when it matters and is useful.

This is a profound shift, and its effects are subtle and pervasive. It’s why I recommend at least some martial arts practice to any woman as an antidote to the internalized effects of living in rape culture. I think many of us don’t realize how deeply and quietly defensive our orientation to the world is. We don’t necessarily know that we are living and responding from fear. I had no idea just how much I was on the defensive until I wasn’t any more. I can’t tell you how liberating this is, and how beneficial it has been for me on every level – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. And this just year one.

The joy will come.

Something seems to happen at the one-year point; at least, it did for me. I underwent a shift and I’m not really sure what triggered it. Suddenly I’m lighter in the fight. It seemed as though I broke through the prison of my own mind and instead of thinking about the fight I’m in, worrying about it, I’m just fighting. This felt huge because the mind is never quick enough to figure out what move to make by thinking. Action has to come from the body. When it does, it feels like joy. Like the clouds break above you and the battle-light shines on you and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s glorious. The battle ecstasy. I knew it was there, but it took me a whole year of fighting before I got to experience it.

Fighting is an art, of course. You have to become conversant in the language before you can channel poetry in it.

So my observation for people at the beginning of fighting practice is patience and good humor. The first months of fighting can just suck. You might feel like an idiot a lot of the time (I did). I’m here to tell you, it gets better. Any learned physical skill is largely about continually showing up. Combat sports involve a lot of retraining of instinctual reactions. For example, it takes longer than you might think to get over the flinch reaction. I’ve been fighting for a year, and I still sometimes catch myself closing my eyes when someone is coming at my face. That irritates me to no end when it happens, because I’m not actually mentally scared of getting hit. But I’m an animal and there is no quick fix. Retraining biological patterns is hard. So keep showing up, and forgive yourself for being an animal and requiring time and practice.

Stop fighting yourself.

You can’t really start fighting for real until you stop fighting yourself. Partly, this is physical: the first several months is a constant struggle with adjusting, trading out, refitting the armor. Being comfortable in your armor is more important than you might think. It isn’t just the distraction of things biting or chafing – it’s a matter of fundamentally being able to trust your armor, and therefore able to be fully present in the fight.

And this is a mental martial art, too – and this is where I think this point applies to any martial art, or to life in general. In a fight, you have only so many points of attention available to you – and they need to all be on fighting. If you have to spend attention on internal battles, on self-doubt, fear, concern for how others are perceiving you, worrying about winning, or anything else, you have less to give to the fight. This also tracks back to my earlier observation about wasting energy fighting things that aren’t actually opponents.

The victory condition.

The nature of being a beginner fighter is that you are going to lose a lot of fights, for a long, long time. You can not attach your ego, identity, or self-image to winning, or you will burn out and get discouraged. One of the best training concepts I’ve heard is the personal victory condition. You set your own victory condition: Today, my victory condition is to successfully employ that one shot I’ve been practicing. Or: Today, my victory condition is to not get killed because of that one particular mistake I keep making. Or: Today, my victory condition is to do my footwork correctly. Because as a beginner, success doesn’t mean being able to beat everyone you fight; as a beginner, success is moving forward in your training. I cannot convey how helpful this concept has been for me.

You’re not as fragile as you might think.

Women get taught to think of ourselves as delicate (or at least that we’re supposed to be). The female skeleton, on average, is a bit physically lighter. But we aren’t more fragile. Our systems are just as resilient, our bodies just as adaptable. If our nutrition is good, our bones are just as strong. Before I started fighting, I was one of those people who bruised at the slightest nudge – I’d always be finding little bruises that I couldn’t even remember getting from accidental bumps. I thought that once I started fighting I’d be black and blue all over, constantly. But something else happened – my body has hardened itself from the inside. Now I’m often surprised when I take my armor off how few bruises I have. So I have this beautiful new trust in my body. You might not be strong when you begin, but fighting will make you strong.

When I started getting my armor together, the men around me told me I needed to put metal all over my body. They looked at my slender arms and light body frame and told me that I would literally get broken if I didn’t heavily armor every place I could. Again, we were so sure I was fragile and needed protecting. So I have all this metal in my kit, and it becomes hard to move like I should. Because when a 125-pound woman puts on 60 pounds of armor, she’s adding nearly half her body weight. When a 200-pound man puts on the same armor, he’s adding less than a third to his body weight. The proportional difference in what you are carrying matters.

So this is another philosophical point, too. Protection costs freedom of movement; be aware of the balance you’re striking. Again, defensiveness is costly. It wasn’t until I got accustomed to fighting that I learned where and to what extend I actually need to protect myself. Fear will cause us to spend way more energy than we need to fighting shadows and building armor around ourselves.

Lessons from the battlefield.

Extracting the spiritual learning from these experiences, this is the core of what I’ve learned:

Warriorship is the way of strength which brings liberation from the way of fear. Paradoxically, its gift is peace.

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?

Success Is Being a Beginner

I’ve just returned from a fighter training event, called Sport of Kings. It draws a couple hundred fighters from all over the Western states as a place to receive focused training from some of the most experienced and legendary knights in the armored combat world. Just about anyone who is there is there either because they’re dedicated to honing their combat skills, or because they’re already a bad-ass and they’ve been asked to come and teach. About 95% of them are men, most with several years of fighting experience, many of them knights already. And then there’s me. A beginner, and one of just a handful of women fighters who showed up.

During the day, we attended outdoor classes on all aspects of fighting practice. In the afternoons, fighters put on armor and gathered at practice fields for bear-pit fighting, round-robins and tournaments, critiquing each other on their fighting skills. On the last night a big formal tournament was held, with all several hundred people at the event gathered to watch.

This event could have been pretty intimidating. A relative newbie and a female, surrounded by bad-asses showing their best at a very testosterone-heavy combat sport. I’m used to this social dynamic, but this event took it a notch higher just because it was entirely and intensively focused on competitive fighting skill. Had I brought with me a need to prove myself, I’d have been crushed.

Standing with the other fighters between rounds in the tournament, I could not help reflecting on how important being a beginner is. Near me in the lines was another of the handful of women – a young girl who could not have been past her teens, and who was clearly feeling terribly discouraged because she hadn’t won any of her fights in the tournament yet. She looked shaken and downcast, and the men around her in the line were trying to cheer her up. “You can still win the next one! Don’t think like that, every fight is a new fight!”

I hadn’t won any of my fights in the tournament either. But I was smiling, because I flung my ego to the wind when I put on armor that day. I had a moment of overwhelmed nerves thinking about all the bad-ass knights I’d be facing that day, how foolish I might look next to them on the field, how they would write me off as a girl out of her league.

You can paralyze yourself thinking like that. It struck me then that the entire psychology of nervousness and fear of failure was a choice. I didn’t have to prove myself. I didn’t have to worry about succeeding in the tournament or making a showing that would compare to those knights. That would be an insane measure of success at my stage, and to do that to myself would be toxic. All I had to do is to succeed at being what I am: A beginner fighter whose job is to learn. All I had to do was get out there, be present in my fight, and learn something to take into the next one. To do that is to succeed at beginning.

So my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought. And my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought again. My heart was light, I reveled in the adrenaline, I watched my mistakes, I went down laughing. I replayed the fights in my mind while I waited my turns, observing my patterns and errors, ways to respond better. The men I fought remarked on my joyful attitude, how great it was to fight someone who is laughing for love of the fight.

How often do we disarm and undermine ourselves by letting the fear of failure paralyze us in any aspect of life? If you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain with its shadow looming over you, of course the top of it looks too far to reach. Because it is. Your job from there isn’t to reach the top of the mountain. Your job is to put your foot forward on the path that is right in front of you.

So you aren’t the king of the mountain yet. So I’m not a bad-ass knight yet. So what? Get good at being a beginner. Get good at showing up. Get in there and fight, learn something, take the next step on the path.

I found it incredibly liberating to quit worrying about proving myself to others – and this applies to all areas of life. The thing is, it never works anyway to focus on what kind of showing you are making in the eyes of others. That’s a profound distraction from the work in front of you. The thing is to focus on the practice – whatever it is – and to trust yourself to it. Trust the path to take you up the mountain. Make your practice authentic, dedicate yourself to it, and in time that authenticity will speak for itself.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

― Maya Angelou

Why We Fight, Redux

I made a decision recently to write more often about my combat fighting practice. I’ve tended to make this blog more a space for academic and spiritual writing, and less a personal journal. I figured, who cares about the fumblings of a beginner SCA fighter?

Women do, as it turns out. In my first six months as a heavy armored combat fighter, I’ve had several experiences of women coming forward to tell me that they find something to inspire in my fighting path. This surprised me. For the most part, SCA culture is very supportive of women fighters, and while women remain very underrepresented in heavy combat (I’d estimate about 5-10%; less in the ranks of knights), we don’t lack for strong, kickass female fighters, at least on the West coast. Why would these women be particularly interested in my beginner experiences?

These are the kind of comments that I’ve been hearing from women:

“I just wanted to tell you I admire your bravery for jumping in to this tournament. I’ve done some fighting on the war field, but I’ve been too intimidated to enter into a tournament and face off against all those men who are bigger, stronger, and more experienced. I know you’re a new fighter, and I know you’re taking a lot of hits because you fight without a shield, and I’m sure it must be scary, but you’re just going forward anyway and I find it really inspiring.”

“I am so proud to come here tonight and see that there’s at least one woman fighting in this tournament. I haven’t been to an event in years, but you make me want to come back and get in armor.”

I think what I’m figuring out is that women are finding inspiration in this because I’m a beginner. Perhaps they find it easier to see themselves in my boots because I’m not an accomplished fighter, because I’m new and awkward and I lose most of my fights. Because I’m smaller, lighter, and far less skilled than almost everyone I go up against. Because I take beating after beating but I just keep at it, knowing that is how I’ll learn and become strong. Perhaps in some way this makes fighting seem more possible for them too. I hope so. I long to see more women in armor, more women shining on the field.

And then something else happened. A few days ago, I learned that a dear friend of mine was sexually assaulted recently. As she shared her story with me, my first thoughts were about making sure she had care, was supported, protected, the perpetrator prevented from doing further harm. My own emotions didn’t surface until I left her company.

Then I felt something closing in on me. I thought, That’s one more woman on the list of women I know who have been sexually assaulted. And then I found myself thinking, Wait, how many women do I know now who haven’t been raped, molested or sexually assaulted? And the rage started to crash over me in waves.

I don’t want to count my friends by how many unraped women I know.

I don’t want to watch that countdown diminishing. I don’t want to watch that countdown close in on my sister, my daughter, the rest of the women I love. I’ve been lucky so far; how long have I got? This is not the world I want to leave to our sons and daughters.

None of this is new to me, but for whatever reason, it hit a threshold for me. Maybe because I’m a fighter now. Maybe it was that realization that I was counting down to a terribly small number. Whatever the reason, it triggered a rise in me in a new way.

What do we do? There are many ways, I suppose, to work against rape culture. There has been an upswing in dialogue lately about rape culture, and that is good. Messages about men taking responsibility for changing rape culture, for choosing not to rape, for recognizing the bodily sovereignty of women – these messages are starting to be heard, and that is good. I support all of that.

For my part, I feel it is my work to encourage women to 598869_4702114103272_1985475771_nfight. I want to see more women carrying themselves with the strength of warriors on our streets. I want to know that those women on my diminishing list of unraped friends and family, have learned how to use their weight to break out of a choke hold. Or turn a gun to disarm an armed attacker. Or use a lightweight broom as a knockout weapon. I want to do anything I can to inspire even a few more women to make themselves formidable. To become a force of strength that can intimidate if need be, instead of walking the world in fear of being alone with a male.  I want to see more warrior women walking our streets, embodying with their very presence the overwhelming truth that our bodies are not the sexual birthright of any male, but are our own sovereign territory which we can and will protect.

What does SCA combat have to do with any of that? It is just one fighting form among many. I chose it because I like the community and because getting in armor and beating the hell out of your friends is addictively fun. But I don’t care what you choose – Krav Maga, or Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido, or HEMA, or kickboxing, or Irish stickfighting, or whatever. It matters less what specific techniques you study – it’s the practice of integrating a fighting skill into your being that matters. They all teach us some moves we can use if we ever need to defend ourselves. And more importantly, they all change how we carry ourselves and how we move in the world. They all change our ability to think and respond without panic under pressure. They all make us warrior women. That’s what the world needs.

Please don’t be the next woman on my list. I love you. Let us fight and grow strong. I am doing this, and you can too.

Way of the Spear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing off my bloody fighting tunic.

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

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

Why We Fight

In response to my last couple of blog posts, I had a lot of questions/comments along these lines:
“Why do you talk so much about battle and fighting?”
“Your blog seems obsessive/one-sided/scary to me.”
“We don’t need to fight, we need love.”

So I thought I would expand a bit on this. Why do I talk about fighting all the time?

The simple answer, or the beginning of the answer, is that this blog is primarily about my devotional relationship with the Morrigan, and is a venue for me to share my thoughts and experiences arising from that relationship. Do I think the Morrigan represents only battle? Of course not. I know Her in many forms: as a shadowy phantom, as a Gateway, as a storm, as druidess, poet and prophetess, as a raven, a flight of ravens, as a Queen, a temptress, a teacher, a hag, as blood in the water, as the tomb itself, as the land and its sovereignty, as a tribal mother, an ancestress, and many other forms besides. But I write as the inspiration comes, and in recent times Her presence and Her messages to me have carried a strong feeling of battle-readiness.

The Morrigan, you see, is a shape-shifter. This is so in the literal sense – throughout the Irish texts in which She is described, She is often shifting forms within the course of a single story. Heifer, wolf, eel. Maiden, hag, crow, demoness.  But I also mean in the larger sense: She takes the form that the times call for. I have long sensed that Her epiphanies must shift in response to the changing millenia and evolutions in the cultural forms and worship given to Her. And it is reflected in the scholarship about Her history. Noemie Beck writes that the Morrigan, like so many Celtic deities, was at Her earliest roots a tribal Goddess – a matron and embodiment of the land and its people, and of the identification and unity between the two – that is to say, sovereignty. When the safety and autonomy of the land and its people is threatened, the Sovereignty Goddess takes a martial and protective form, and we know Her as a Battle Goddess.

This is the form in which She has been most strongly speaking to me. Because, I must infer, sovereignty needs defending. I think this is both a personal and a transpersonal message.

So to the question, “Why all this talk of fighting?” the first answer is the personal one. Because I trust my Queen, when She told me I needed to, at the beginning of this year, I started fighter training. I study SCA armored combat, primarily with glaive (a type of long fighting spear), and for a while I was also studying Krav Maga. I soon learned why She required me to fight. Since I began fighter training, profound shifts have been occurring in my internal landscape, in parallel with the shifts in my body’s abilities. I lost my fear of conflict, and along with it my willingness to compromise my own integrity in order to buy peace. I had been for years engaging in all those terrible little betrayals of the self: lying to myself or others, internalizing and accepting blame and guilt that I didn’t earn; trading pieces of my soul for the cessation of conflict in my relationships. Selling my sovereignty, in other words, simply out of fear of the discomfort of conflict. Learning to fight shifted this irrevocably. I no longer crumble and weep when my autonomy is threatened. I simply do what it takes to hold my ground. Fight, when I need to, or not. I take it as it comes, and I hold my sovereignty.

Is there a transpersonal message too? Of course. Is there any one of us who does not know at the roots of our being that in the American nation, the sovereignty of the people is under attack? When the process by which we delegate our rulership mandate to our chosen leaders is utterly and profoundly corrupted, so that non-voting corporate ‘persons’ purchase so much political influence that the voter’s mandate is nearly meaningless. When many people are directly disenfranchised from voting altogether. When the fundamental personal sovereignty of the female sex to own her  body and choose her sexual life is being denied. When the document that protects personal liberty and human rights, our Constitution, is wilfully disregarded by our rulers – when there is neither sovereignty nor justice, can anyone still wonder why the Battle Goddess would be rising now?

Of course She urges us to fight for our sovereignty. It is Her very being and nature. But this is not a call to armed insurrection. It is infinitely more subtle than that. Because, as I said in another post recently, we cannot overcome the forces of empire that are eroding our sovereignty by taking them on physically in literal combat. That is their territory, the domain of the military-industrial monster. What I mean instead is that we become sovereignty itself, reclaim it into our being. We must become inviolable.

This is why we fight. Because, as all practitioners of the martial and meditative disciplines know, what you practice in the body, you cultivate in the mind. When you practice yoga, the mind becomes supple, centered, energized. When you practice meditation, the mind becomes clear, calm, attuned. When you practice the fighting arts, the mind becomes resilient, resolute, indefatigable, alive with survival instinct. We need all these things.

I fight because I want to be someone who can think instead of react, who can keep clarity of mind while threats are flying at me. Fighting teaches this. Because it is the fear of pain, discomfort, conflict that holds us paralyzed while our sovereignty is taken from us. I fight because it trains my mind to fear pain and conflict less than I love autonomy and the joyous freedom of motion of the body at its height of power. I fight because to revel in the practice of fighting liberates me from fear and apathy, and coupled with my commitment to sovereignty, that makes me a greater force to be reckoned with. Because she who would uphold sovereignty must become sovereignty, and Sovereignty is a Goddess who stands Her ground.

And here is my take-home message, friends. In answer to the questions about why I urge us to fight, and whether I am devaluing love by focusing on battle readiness, here is my answer. What I am encouraging – strength in kinship, survival skill, and ability to defend what we love – these things are of benefit whether we ever meet trouble or not. My answer is that to fight for love is love in action.

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