Posts

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

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

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

Brennos at Medb's stone, Crúachan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header photo by Jan Bosman.

Previous:

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

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

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cover photo courtesy of Joe Perri]

Next: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht