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The Shield-Wall

For months now, I’ve been focusing obsessively on the history of the Celts in Gaul and Britain: their ancient dominion, conflict, conquest and eventual subjugation by the Roman Empire. In part, it’s a personal quest to understand a period, culture and language that fascinates me. I’m seeking detail for a sensed personal history there; past life, perhaps, or ancestral memory. The sound and rhythm of the Gaulish language, the look of dress and weapons, place names, votive inscriptions – they stir something in me. I follow the stirring.

This obsession of mine is also a contemplation of disaster. I’m drawn over and over again to the accounts of battles lost, uprisings crushed, tribes decimated and destroyed by the inexorable tread of imperial conquest. Why this restless recycling of dead stories, dead languages, dead histories? Why this focus on the past, I’ve been asked by friends. Instinct, I answer. Something haunts me. I sense a crucial lesson buried in these histories; something that matters very much for our time, something we need to learn from the destruction of Gaul.

What are the lessons of Gaul? I’m still piecing it together, but I can’t escape certain glaring parallels with the struggles of our time. It has seemed to me that we are seeing a conflict within our civilization where the survival, integrity, and sovereignty of the common people are under attack by a ruling elite. This ruling elite – a class of wealthy plutocrats who control the machines of war, the halls of governance, and the mechanisms of finance and industry – maintains its position through subjugating, pacifying, and exploiting populations across ethnic and national boundaries, while extracting their wealth and concentrating it in trans-national centers of hegemony. Does this not sound familiar? It’s no secret that the ruling elites look to Rome as their model for a powerful and successful civilization. Why? Because the Romans won. The great Celtic homeland of Gaul with its fierce, indomitable tribes was brought to its knees. At the end of the Gallic Wars, it is estimated that the population of Gaul was reduced to one-third of what it had been. Whole tribes of thousands of human beings were destroyed, slaughtered or sold into slavery in other parts of the empire, while the legendary gold and agrarian wealth of Gaul flowed into Rome. Those who remained were quickly Romanized, their tribal systems dissolved and re-organized into the Roman system of social order. The Gaulish language and its neighboring Celtic tongues died out within a few centuries.

I am no scholar of history, nor a military tactician. But here is what I see, so far. The story of Gaul is in part a story about tribal sovereignty versus the hegemony of empire. This, I sense, hinges on identity. Our Celtic ancestors held tribal identity above nationhood – the unit of kinship and ethnic identity was the tribe, not the Celtic nation. Thus we see tribes fighting each other at times when standing together might have allowed them to better resist the crush of empire. We see tribes refusing opportunities to collectivize and protect another tribe’s lands, because the locus of sovereignty was the tribal lands of one’s own kin. We see tribes forming temporary alliances with the forces of empire, maneuvering for advantage against other Celtic peoples as they had done for centuries; while from our hindsight perspective we can see how these alliances invited the march of empire into their lands.

These apparently self-defeating moves were driven, I think, by the fundamentally tribal nature of Celtic identity. They did not seem to conceive of the notion of a national identity, at least not in the way that the Romans legions did, where personal ties, kinship, and tribe were all dissolved into an allegiance and identity within the state. This difference of identity seems to pervade every aspect of the conflict between Gaul and Rome. I think it was our undoing. They say that the advantage of the Romans, which allowed them to prevail in battle after battle, was their uniformity in action on the battlefield. Celts were known for their passion, their bravery, their ferocity; they could strike terror into an enemy from their fierce, mad, seemingly fearless rush into battle. Their approach to warfare was characterized by individual honor and bravado, by contests of champions, by a fearless personal devotion to winning honor or a glorious death. Romans were known for their uniformity in training, their consistency, their ability to operate under strict discipline. They were known for the effectiveness of their shield-walls, the strength of which depends on every man holding the line, every man holding together as one creature. The technology of warfare.

So I’ve been contemplating the shield-wall, as a symbol of empire, and perhaps a key to the lessons of the period. It seems to encapsulate the characteristics of hegemonic empire that were our downfall. I note that in the earlier period of Celtic expansion and dominion in Europe, there were conflicts with Rome – and in most of these, the Celts dominated. In fact, they overran and looted Rome, and this early sacking of their city engendered the grudge that lent fuel and vitriol to the Roman drive to conquer the Gaulish tribes. What was different in the early period, and why did the Celts prevail then as they could not in later years? I don’t know, but I suspect the answer is tied up with the evolution of Rome from tribal city-state to Republic to empire. In those later years they had perfected warfare as an institutionalized function of a hegemonic state, and the individualized, honor-driven tribal warriorship of the Gauls could not stand against the shield-wall.

We face something like this in the present time, don’t we? People who wish to stand up for individual rights, for civil liberties, for freedom and justice, for the sacredness of personal sovereignty – we face the shield-wall. The forces of empire have increasing control of the guns, armies, tanks, police forces, communications systems, financial systems, surveillance systems. These mechanisms of control are held tightly together against protest and counter-action, like the shields locked into the shield-wall. How to break through or escape? How to face this overwhelming force?

I don’t have this answer yet either, but the question has been haunting me more and more. Two nights ago, the Morrigan spoke to me again in a dream, and She said, “It is time to resist.” How? I ask, again and again. How?

The only clue She gave me was an image. A tribal group, feet painted blue with woad, like the Picts are said to have done.

The Picts, and the other tribes of northern Britain, were among the few Celtic groups who were never conqured, never subjugated by the Roman empire. Again, I don’t claim to be a historian, but it’s my impression that the Pictish and Caledonian tribes didn’t survive by prevailing against the shield-wall. Open-field conflicts between massed armies were relatively few in the northern British campaigns. The northern tribes survived by fighting guerilla-style; by taking advantage of their treacherous, mountainous terrain; by picking off targets of opportunity, by making it impossible for the Romans to ever decisively destroy them. At the end of decades of tribal guerilla warfare, the Romans finally decided the cost to subjugate these savage folk was too great, and they built a wall to protect the territory they had taken, and backed off behind it.

Is this perhaps the lesson of Gaul? Don’t meet the shield-wall. Resist fluidly, subtly, invisibly, so you can never be decisively beaten. Disappear and reappear, take them unaware, erode their will to subjugate you. By contrast, I think of Alesia, and the final decisive battles in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Vercingetorix had managed finally to gather almost all of the tribes of Gaul into a mighty army of the Celtic nation – perhaps the only time in history this was ever done. And he met Caesar on the battlefield, on Roman terms – army to army, shield-walls and siege machines, at the walled city of Alesia. The Romans employed their technological advantages to perfection and utterly destroyed the Celtic national army that vastly outnumbered them.

I can’t help wondering if the lesson here isn’t that we cannot win by adopting the form, tactics, and identity of our adversary. That our very strength is that tribalism, that unshakeable personal sovereignty and kinship identity. That we should never have tried to become a great national force like that of empire, because in attempting to remold ourselves into what we are not, we give away our power, and our sovereignty, the very thing we seek to protect. We cannot resist empire by becoming it.

Still contemplating this, I turn to you, readers. “It is time to resist,”said the Queen. How?

The Cattle Raid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we march.

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

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

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

I think they will be surprised.

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

In Honor of Ancestors

It’s the season of the Dead, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Ancestors. This is partly inspired by the preparations we’ve been making for the Ancestor Shrine at Stone City, which we have been hoping to build at this year’s Samhain gathering.

It’s also inspired by conversations I’ve been having with my partner about the notion of Ancestor cults. Most of our historic Pagan cultures on which Neopaganism is based practiced some form of Ancestor worship, many of them quite prominently. Yet for most modern traditions (with some exceptions, of course), there is no such practice, or only a vestigial one. It feels like a piece of the reconstruction or revival of Pagan traditions that is not yet complete. Many of us commonly invoke the Gods, work with land spirits, and the like, but many traditions lack a coherent pattern of practice for connecting with our own Ancestors. Here I mean Ancestors in our own family bloodlines – not just spiritual Ancestors such as the Mighty Dead of the Craft, or long-distant generic Ancestors such as “the Celts”. And I think perhaps that distinction is part of the reason this practice has not yet been more fully developed: The vast majority of modern Pagans are first-generation. In other words, most were not raised Pagan, and therefore I suspect that for many, their recent family Ancestors may not seem like meaningful spiritual contacts. Why would I want to invoke the presence and guidance of my great-great-great-grandfather, who was a Protestant? Well, here’s why: he has a direct, vested interest in seeing his bloodline succeed. And who should we expect to take a greater interest in our personal problems and successes: the Gods, or our own Ancestors? Our Ancestors may have more limited powers and spheres of influence than the Gods, but their wisdom is of a kind that is more directly linked to our human needs and conditions, than the (relatively) vast and timeless powers of the Gods.

So I’ve been asking myself this question: What would a modern Ancestor cult look like? I began my practice by adding people from my direct family line to my Ancestor altar, and speaking to them when I make my offerings. Perhaps we can devise practices in which we make honoring our own Ancestors a more regular part of our workings: since most Pagans open ritual space with an invocation or invitation to helping spirits of some kind (Guardians, elementals, etc.), perhaps we ought to invite our own Ancestors at the same time, rather than just honoring them at Samhain. Perhaps we ought to revive folk practices like Decoration Day, or adopt elements from Latin Dia de los Muertes celebrations: visiting cemeteries, caring for and beautifying the graves of our Ancestors, bringing them gifts.

Lately I am also thinking about Ancestral legacies, and in this I’m also inspired by two other things: the movement toward re-learning and restoring old-fashioned skills and crafts, and the current democratic uprisings taking place all over the world. These movements are both responses to the instability of people’s lives in present times, and the degradation of basic security and standard of living of the common people in much of the Western world as the plutocratic elite class strips the wealth of our nations. These movements both strike me as very powerful, perhaps the most powerful, ways of honoring our direct Ancestors. It is all well and good to offer libations and prayers, but I suspect that my great-great-great-grandfather, whose family were farmers and who fought in the Revolutionary War, would be more glad to know that the skills he learned and passed down through generations, and the Constitutional Republic he risked death to establish, were being restored and not dissipated.

No matter where your bloodlines come from, some of your Ancestors likely fought for something equally historic and equally meaningful. How might you honor them and what they worked to establish and to pass on?

October is the season of the Dead. This year, it is also the month that marks ten years of American wars, starting with the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. Here in the US and most of the Western world, we are coming to grips with the fact that we have been sorely betrayed by our democratic leaders, and that our self-governing process has been fundamentally corrupted by greed and wealth. This month is being observed by worldwide occupation movements in protest of the degradation of democracy and human life. This month, I am honoring my Ancestors with prayers, and with actions. I will be joining the Occupy San Francisco rally on October 15, in honor of my Ancestors who contributed to the first American Revolution and so that their legacy might be preserved. And in honor of the life-preserving skills of my Ancestors, I’ll also be bringing eggs and produce that we grew here, to help feed the occupiers.

And maybe, if we remember them and if we honor them in ways that matter, our Ancestors can help. Perhaps we should invoke their spirits to march with us. Perhaps they might bless and help this movement toward re-invigorating the tree of liberty, hopefully without blood this time.

You can find related October 15 events here. For other info on Occupation movements in your area, here.