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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

Gods with Agency, continued: The “fad” question

I am overdue to return to a regular writing schedule here, now that my book is out. I have a file of topics to write about, but today a half dozen different people asked if I have anything to say about whether or not the Morrígan is a fad. So it seems I need to write about that today.

I was tempted to ignore this entirely – honestly, it’s rude and dismissive toward Herself, but She’s a big girl formidable numinous personified force, and perfectly able to defend Herself if She felt it was needed. The truth is, I’m writing because this question keeps coming up. Jason Mankey isn’t the first one to coyly wonder aloud whether the upsurge in people feeling called by the Morrígan is just because She’s trendy. So let’s talk about it.

First, I realize that Jason (and the others who have said similar things) mean no disrespect. However, disrespect it is. A quick inquiry provides a few definitions for “fad”:

“an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze” (that’s Google definitions); “followed for a time with exaggerated zeal” (that’s Merriam-Webster); originating in the term faddle, to “busy oneself with trifles” as in the phrase “fiddle-faddle” (that’s Reference.com).

So yeah. Disrespect and dismissal. Which, of course, you don’t have to busy yourself with dictionaries to recognize. Jason knows it’s offensive: “Put down the tar and feathers, it’s nothing personal against The Morrígan.” I point this out not out of a desire to tar and feather Jason; he seems like a nice guy, and as I said, She doesn’t need little me to protect Her. And he’s not the only one using this language. I am pointing out the dismissal inherent in the language because it signals something else worth looking at. Why do people keep asking if the Morrígan is a fad when they know this question as such offers disrespect? Because they recognize that something is going on, but they lack any better language for articulating what it is than the language of trivial social trends.

You see, the problem isn’t that it’s rude to the Morrígan. It’s simply the wrong question. It’s the wrong question because it’s a shallow question. It is looking at a numinous devotional and religious phenomenon using a purely social lens which only recognizes the action of deities in terms of human behaviors, and only those human behaviors driven by the most shallow of motivations, social popularity. It utterly erases the agency of the Morrígan Herself, and Her engagement with culture, time, and history.

I am sure we can go deeper than this.

Could it possibly be that at least some of the people participating in this “fad” have actually experienced a call or a demand from a Goddess? Could it be that the Morrígan Herself is an agent in Her own story? That something is happening in our time to which She as a Goddess active in war and sovereignty is especially drawn or which calls Her to action in human affairs? Perhaps the global crises we face, the conflicts over resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, freedom, the rights of women?

I don’t claim to have all these answers. But I think the kinds of questions we ask about what is going on with the Morrígan say as much about the person asking the question as they do about Her, or those devoted to Her. I want to know what She sees in these many, many people that She is calling to action – what She is building toward. I want to know what it is that so many, many people see in Her, what need or resonance they feel that is answered by such a being. I want to understand how Her powers and Her work and Her agenda and Her communities of devotion fit into the moment in history in which we are living. I want to know how all this relates to other Gods who are coming into greater prominence right now too. Like, what exactly are She and Odin getting up to behind the scenes? I think there are one thousand questions more interesting and more useful than “is this just a trend driven by social approval.”

I think maybe I understand why this fad language keeps coming up, though. I think the idea that  something numinous, historic and meaningful might actually be going on – and that it involves the resurgence of ancient Gods (and maybe some new ones too) might just be a little bit scary. Especially for folks who may be seeing this from a perspective that could leave them feeling like they are on the outside of that big numinous historic thing. It might, on some level, feel safer to reduce that thing in your mind to something pedestrian, mundane, and safely dismissed as trivial: a fad.

I think that would be a mistake. And not, as I’ve said, because it insults the Morrígan. It’s a mistake because in dismissing this phenomenon you risk diminishing yourself. Instead of reacting to that sense of awe by attempting to diminish the thing that is happening around you, to bring it down to your size, what if you could rise to meet it? What if you seized the moment to ask yourself what is this moment in history demanding of me? If you haven’t been called by the Morrígan or drawn toward seeking Her service, then what is calling you? What do your Gods want from you, and for you, at this moment in history? What is the most meaningful thing you can commit yourself to?

Adventures to come: PantheaCon and beyond

This blog has been quiet as I focused on completing the manuscript for the Book of the Great Queen. I hope to be back to regular blog writing soon as work on the book winds down. For now, I’m just sharing some updates about what’s coming up next for me.

Book Publication

I completed the manuscript for the Book of the Great Queen on December 31st, in alignment with my devotional commitment to the Morrígan and my publishing contract. Folks who have been following the story of this book may be amused to hear that the  day I handed over the manuscript to my editors and peer reviewers for critiques, was the very same day that my physical therapist gave me clearance to begin walking on the injured ankle using only one crutch. As a good friend said that day, “Good to know none of this magic stuff is for real, eh?”

Presently, I’m receiving the last of the critiques from my peer reviewers and will be completing edits to the manuscript throughout the rest of this month. I’ve been seeing early sketches and drawings for the cover design and illustrations from Valerie Herron, and I’m virtually frothing with anticipation, because they are gorgeous. Publication is on schedule for early May.

Poetry Project

cover imageAs part of the crowdfunding for the book, we raised extra funds for a special project to create audio recordings of the Morrígan’s poems, in Old Irish and English translations. The Poems of the Morrígan project completed recording and mastering in January, and have been released privately to campaign backers. I’ll be making them available to the general public later this month, starting with a public listening session at PantheaCon, in the Coru Priesthood’s Temple space and then opening them for download online.

What I’m particularly thrilled about is the inclusion of the Poem to Cú Chulainn, from the text Táin Bó Regamna. This poem has not been previously published in English translation to my knowledge. It will therefore be new to most students of the Morrígan’s lore, and I feel incredibly honored to be bringing this poem to the community, with special thanks to Isolde Carmody of the Story Archaeology Podcast for translation help. I am also grateful to P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, the folks at EMB Studios, and all the fine people who contributed their voices and talents to the recording.

And speaking of PantheaCon

PantheaCon Happenings

So much is happening at PantheaCon! I have too much on my PCon schedule to delve into detail in this post, so I’ll just list them and link to event pages and other sites for details:

Blood Drive PantheaCon 2015: Find the Hero In You | Fri 2/13 – Sun 2/15

Details hereFacebook event page here – Organized by the Coru Priesthood and Solar Cross Temple. Volunteers and Blood Donors are needed!

Coru Priesthood Temple of the Morrígan | Fri 2/13 – Sun 2/15

Details hereFacebook event page here – Temple Consecration rites take place Friday evening at 7 pm, and are open to the public (though space is very limited). Open worship hours are listed in the event page.

Roving Hero/ine Cultus Ritual with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus | Fri 2/13 – about 11 pm

Details here – We host a portion of this ritual dedicated to Cú Chulainn, the Morrígan, and in honor of veterans.

The Morrígan Speaks: Arise to the Battle | Sat 2/14 – 7 pm

Details hereFacebook event page here – A ritual inspired by the powerful words of Her ancient prophetic poems and Her call to battle, facilitated by the Coru Priesthood.

Poetess and Prophetess: The Morrígan and Poetry | Sun 2/15 – 11 am

Details hereFacebook event page here – A workshop with myself and Rynn Fox of the Coru Priesthood.

Coru Meet & Greet + POEMS OF THE MORRÍGAN Premiere | Sun 2/15 – 7 pm

Details hereFacebook event page here – A social gathering, and first public audio screening of the Poems of the Morrígan recordings.

Whew, that’s a lot!

More Adventures To Come…

Also launching at PCon is Sharon Knight’s PORTALS project, which looks very exciting. If enough people buy in to pre-order the album, and stretch goals are reached, I’ll be on board to do some artwork for this project. So go check it out.

I’ve updated my Events Calendar for some of the adventures coming up later this year, including book tour visits to Seattle and Vancouver, Many Gods West polytheist conference, and the Coru Priesthood’s Body of the Morrigan pilgrimage to Ireland. More details and book tour stops will be added soon!

Stay in touch, and I look forward to seeing some of you along my travels this year.

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.

It’s a damn fine time…

Today I’m emerging briefly from book cave to spread the word about the shiny new Polytheist.com site!

Polytheist.com is the brainchild of my dear friend and co-conspirator Theanos Thrax, known to many in our communities as the Anomalous Thracian. He’s bringing together a gorgeously diverse array of writers (with more to come) representing a range of polytheistic traditions and streams of practice, to create a curated, intellectually and spiritually rich set of columns on Polytheist theology, practice and experience.

I am in full support of this project. I was honored with an invitation to write for Polytheist.com myself, and in the not-too-distant future, I will be doing so. The reason you aren’t yet seeing anything from me there is, of course, the demands of my book-writing schedule (and accompanying obligations to my book backers) – which I have come to affectionately refer to as being in “Book Jail”. In the meantime, however, Polytheist.com has hit the ground running with a fine array of columns and articles from a stellar batch of authors.

Here’s the thing: Polytheism needs this space because – whether or not any given Polytheist does or does not also identify as Pagan – the experience of a devotional Polytheist is unique to itself and thus to have a space dedicated to exploring, teaching, learning, and supporting those experiences is a huge service to us. To encounter the Gods as real beings with agency and consequence impacts our being and our lives in particular and profound ways that are often quite distinct from experiences of other Pagans oriented toward archetypes as prisms of the soul, or toward non-personal universal forces, etc. Polytheist.com exists to provide a dedicated space for community and exchange around those distinct needs and experiences.

Here’s a quote from the site about its purpose:

In a “manifold” universe populated by myriad entities, autonomies, consciousnesses and willed layers-upon-layers of complex relations, animist sensibilities, and at times adamantly ancestral engagements, it is important to not only acknowledge the many gods and goddesses and Their sacred agency, but also the agency of the many cultic communities, devotional disciplines and worshipful fellowships, war-bands, sects and circles. We are not all of us called by the same gods or to the same task, but for those who place central life importance in answering, navigating, and honoring the very state of being called by Them in the first place, this place is for you. Safe. Protected. Dedicated.

– “About” Polytheist.com

There’s also a fine piece in the Wild Hunt this morning with more perspective from the Thracian and from Hunt writer Terence P. Ward on the site launch.

As my friend the Thracian iconically says, “It’s a damn fine time to be a polytheist!”

Now, back into the book-writing cave with me!

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.

Macha: She would not stand down

The other night, I was listening again to one of the excellent Story Archaeology podcasts – the episode on Macha. And by the way, I highly recommend the entire Story Archaeology podcast series. I don’t always agree 100% with their intepretive angles, but the podcast and associated blog provides a wealth of wonderful detail and depth on Irish mythology, including original translations of some key early Irish poems.

Anyway: Macha. In the discussion, the podcasters cover Her deep associations with the land as living pasture, wealth and fertility, horses as embodiment and vessel of wealth, status, sovereignty, as well as connections to fire and the sun. They then wonder, if these qualities of brightness, life, land, and wealth are who and what She is, why is She also spoken of in connection with battle, slaughter, and carnage? Their conclusion on this question then seems to be that Macha’s bloody epithets don’t fit with the rest of Her identity, and are therefore incorrect.

You can probably guess I’m going to disagree. But I also think that the entire question is worthy of a long look. Because like the best questions, it is a fertile one: it spawns a whole new generation of questions after it. About theology, about scholarship, about how we source our understandings of the Gods.

Can Macha be both life and land, as well as battle and blood? Must the Gods necessarily be rational and consistent in Their qualities and spheres of action? If They’re not, how do we identify Them? How do we filter and interpret the information we receive from history?

For myself, I have no trouble embracing the idea that Macha would be called the Sun of Womanhood, and embody the bright, fertile field, the wealth and power of the royal horses it nourishes, and the ordering and civilizing function of sovereignty, AND that She would be one who revels in the slaughter and harvests the bloody heads of the slain like acorns. I actually have to work to see where there is a conflict here. Because the fields that grow the shining grass, the fields where the royal horses run, become the fields of battle too. Because land becomesMacha territory, and territory is tribal politics, and tribal politics is war. Because in ancient Celtic society, kingship is in large part warlordship, and the horse is ever the symbol of this: the ubiquitous title attached to many of the ancient kings in the mythological cycle, Eochaid, means ‘horse-lord’ . Because the sacredness of horses in Celtic society cannot be decoupled from elite/royal status and from their function as animals of warfare. We have etymological and mythological evidence suggesting this as a historical transformation of early Celtic Goddesses such as Macha from primarily land-Goddesses to territorial, protective, and warlike Goddesses. Eventually we also see the semi-historical heroine Macha Mongruad carrying the name, and a story that is all about territory, sovereignty, and battle, in which the horse has disappeared. Somewhere Macha becomes one of the Morrígna – sometimes given as a sister of the Morrígan, sometimes as another name of the Morrígan Herself.

I think Macha’s mythology can serve to remind us that all mythologies are collected images and stories, from traditions that necessarily contain huge amounts of variation, diversity, and that evolved over time. This is especially true of tribal-oriented societies like the ancient Celts, for whom national identity as ‘Irish’ or even ‘Celtic’ was probably far secondary to tribal identity, and we have to imagine that the attributes and stories of the Gods varied from tuath to tuath. We should never expect to be able to fit tribal Gods into consistent pantheons, with rational and consistent attributes, without overlap and blurring of functions and domains, or without theological paradox.

Her story also forces us to contemplate the sources of our theological lore, and to explore all those questions about how we evaluate those sources:

If we have lore purporting to describe mid-Iron age heroic sagas, written down by 8th-10th century Christians, how do we measure that against apparently conflicting lore about early Iron Age mythological literature, written down by 12th-13th century Christians? Against data from folk-stories about the history of the land? From early medieval annals of kings?

If a piece of information appears in a text we consider a primary source because of its age, is it automatically correct? Is it possible for data we receive from our source texts to be wrong? Misunderstood or misinterpreted by the chronicler? How would we know?

If all of our text sources were written down by Christians recording the parts of older Pagan Celtic mythology that they had already abandoned theologically but still thought worth recording, can we actually say that we have any primary source texts at all?

If all of our Irish mythological literature comes through the voice of Christian scholarship, what is actually the difference between a primary text source and a secondary source or an interpretive literature? Is archaeology our only primary source material? Wait, doesn’t that rely on the interpretation of the archaeologist?

If we have no sources for information that are direct and primary, how do we make sense of apparent conflicts in the lore? Whose voice is authoritative?

I think the intelligent position to take when reading the complex lore of a figure like Macha, is not to say “this piece of lore must be wrong because it doesn’t seem to fit my image of Her.” At the same time, I also think we have to be more sophisticated in our understanding of the sources than to treat them all as some kind of unquestionable gospel. What we must do is read them as what they are: the voices of medieval people who were themselves musing, contemplating, and exploring the traditions of their ancestors. We must try to see them as a collection of different voices, telling these stories from a range of human perspectives. To remember that each of these voices is filtering a collection of human experiences and traditions – the way this or that tuath related to Macha, in this or that time period, as remembered by this or that storyteller. This voice here tells of a love of peace, order, sovereignty, the fertile body of the land, the sleek shining horses. This voice here tells of the bloody carnage wrought by petty medieval kings in their lifetime, and how they still felt Her presence in those fields, red instead of golden. This voice here hints of the rituals their ancestors once practiced – the ceremonial horse races, the kingship rites, the sacrifices, the women’s birthing rites. This voice here tells of a people clinging to the folk memory of a bright battle leader and proud Queen.

Finally, it comes down to your own voice, doesn’t it? We don’t get to passively receive this lore. We have to engage it, find our own way into it, make sense of it in a conscious act of interpretation. We have to walk into the stories and meet Macha in Her own realm, search out what Her face looks like to each of us, how She lives and speaks to us now. Macha who gave birth to the twins also brings us face to face with contradiction and paradox. She challenges us. She will not let us stand down.

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.

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?

Follow-up: “Whose Ancestors?”

EDIT: 9/11/2013 5:00 pm – As of now, just a few hours after posting this, I’ve been kicked off the PaganSquare site and my blog deleted.

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This is a follow up to my last post, “Whose Ancestors?“, published on 8/29/2013. The post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization. The following is my response to that censorship, and I’ve also posted it on the PaganSquare site. Since it too is likely to be deleted, I am publishing it here as well. I wanted to let readers know what happened with that post, and what you can expect in the future.

The post in question, “Whose Ancestors?”, was one in which I challenged the doctrine of racial separatism in religion espoused by some European polytheist traditions, primarily Heathens of the ‘folkish’ variety. In it, I called the AFA an unashamedly racist organization. I firmly believe this to be true, and when Anne Newkirk Niven, the editor of this site, asked me to remove the language in which I called the AFA racist, I refused to do so. Instead, I provided her with evidence as to the facts showing that the AFA is a racist organization. Since I would not edit the post to remove that language, Anne has deleted my post in order to censor it.

You can read the original post here, where it is still hosted on my own blog site.

Here is the evidence I presented to Anne, which I believe amply demonstrates that the racism critique of the AFA is factual:

The AFA is a racist organization. Perhaps you’d like to review the UN’s definition: the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Thus, since the AFA discriminates based on race as to who can and should claim religious affiliation, they are by definition a racist organization. They also promote, clearly and in public on their website, racial separatism in religion, which is a form of segregationism. See their declaration of purpose, their article on “folkish” ideology, and this charming piece of racist screed from their website.
I invite you to have a look around on the web – you will find that there are many, many sites which discuss the AFA’s racist ideologies and links to white supremacist groups. Such as here, and here. And here from the Southern Poverty Law Center. And here, from fellow Heathens who recognize the AFA as racist.
It does not matter that they SAY they are not racist. News flash: racists generally don’t go around calling themselves racists.

 

I have to expect that this present post will be deleted and censored on PaganSquare as well, since I am continuing to maintain that the AFA is a racist organization. If that does happen, I will very likely be discontinuing my publishing on PaganSquare, since I will not stand for editorial censorship defending racists and racist ideologies. If you’re interested in continuing to read my work, I invite you to follow my blog direct here on my website.

You may also be interested in this insightful post on the issue by Sam Webster, also hosted on PaganSquare, at least for the time being. Should the editor end up censoring this post also, here is Sam’s post on his own website as well.

I continue to hold the firm position that we must not condone, cover up for, or otherwise tolerate racism within Pagan and polytheist traditions. Those who do so are standing on the wrong side of history, and will inevitably be seen for who they are, in the same way we now recognize as racist those who once defended segregation in our society. I challenge all of you to join me in standing against racism in our communities.

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.

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