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Fasting For Justice

He has chosen death: 
Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom, 
An old and foolish custom, that if a man 
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve 
Upon another’s threshold till he die, 
The Common People, for all time to come, 
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold, 
Even though it be the King’s. 

The King’s Threshold, by W.B. Yeats

I’ve been taking a sabbatical from blog writing to focus on other things, but the thing I am writing about today will not let me rest without speaking. Since April 21st, five protesters have been fasting in a hunger strike against police brutality in San Francisco. Fifteen days into that fast, the hunger strikers are rapidly facing the life-threatening stage of their strike. I need you to look at this with me.

Hunger for Justice SF

The hunger strikers are a group of five San Francisco residents of color: Sellassie, Ike Pinkston, Equipto, Edwin Lindo, and Maria Cristina Gutierrez. They are being called the Frisco 5, and you can find info about their strike here, and under the hashtag #hungerforjusticesf. In a city where extrajudicial police killings have become a norm and where brutality and racism characterize the institutional culture of the police, the hunger strikers have vowed they will fast at the doors of the Mission police station until Police Chief Greg Suhr steps down or is removed from office.

In the five years since Greg Suhr has taken control of the SFPD it has become a para military organization that is on the front lines of genocide at the behest of our occupiers. The people of San Francisco can no longer stand by as our citizens are being brutally murdered by those that have taken an oath to protect and serve. – Hunger for Justice SF community statement

On Tuesday the 3rd, now moving in wheelchairs due to fasting weakness, the hunger strikers led a march of 700 people from the Mission police station to City Hall, to command the attention of city government, asking Mayor Ed Lee to meet with them and discuss the issue. Mayor Lee refused to meet, leaving a locked office with a police guard.

Finally, following mounting community pressure, Mayor Lee agreed to speak to the hunger strikers by phone today. You can read the hunger strikers’ report on the conversation here. In brief, the mayor refused their demand and instead stated that he stood by Chief Suhr.

When told by the Frisco5 that they were committed to strike until their demands were met, the mayor’s response was “this is your choice… and whatever you do I hope you take care of yourself”.

I’ll translate that code for you. What Mayor Lee communicated to the hunger strikers was, “You go ahead and starve yourself. I will not take responsibility and I do not care if you die.”

Fasting Against the Powerful

I am sure all my readers know that in their fast, the Frisco 5 are acting in a tradition of political hunger striking with a long history. Hunger strikes were undertaken by Irish rebels throughout the 20th century, most famously by the 10 who died at Long Kesh in 1981, but also many others between 1913-1922. The practice was also used by Mahatma Gandhi and others of his movement. There have, of course, been thousands of hunger strikes undertaken by all kinds of people, and I am not here to present a comprehensive history. I point out these Irish and Indian examples because in both cases, these 20th century protests called upon ancient cultural traditions of fasting for justice.

The custom of “fasting for justice” goes back to at least early medieval times in Ireland, documented by the Brehon Laws. “Under the Brehon laws this form of distress was called Troscud which means ‘fasting’. It had legal support and sought to empower a weaker party in bringing a stronger party to justice.” (From the Brehon Law Academy site.) Troscud allowed a person of lower social status who had been wronged, but who had little wealth or power and thus no other recourse for justice, to bind a powerful person to addressing their claim for justice. It was a means for a powerless person to enforce the moral imperative of justice upon a more powerful person.

The act of troscud was undertaken sitting outside the door of the wrongdoer, fasting from sunrise to sundown, daily until the demand for justice was met. In Ireland, this fast for justice presented an absolute moral and legal imperative binding the accused to address the transgression that caused the fast. For a person to ignore or refuse justice to someone fasting against them, even so much as to eat while the plaintiff was still fasting, was a violation of law and a profound moral violation. It would lead to the doubling of the original claim for restitution. At the extreme, someone resisting the obligation of troscud could be stripped of their honor, their status, and their right to the protection of law. There were spiritual repercussions, too: Irish saints used fasting to call down spiritual retribution from the Otherworld against transgressors.

A similar tradition has existed for centuries in India and Nepal. A form of protest called “sitting dharna, it had a similar moral and legal force as the Irish tradition. Of the Indian practice of dharna, Joseph Lennon wrote: “Their power is derived from the sanctity of their character and their desperate resolution.” This could also be said of the Irish custom – or of hunger striking in general, including contemporary cases.

Brehon and Indian laws are not our laws, you might say, so all of this isn’t relevant. But I would argue that the moral and spiritual force of the practice of hunger striking does not rest on its legal basis. The examples I point to here are useful simply in how clearly those societies chose to articulate the mandate of justice toward the powerless in their legal systems’ treatment of hunger striking.

To me, these traditions illustrate with deadly seriousness the moral and spiritual imperative of the hunger strike. The act of a plaintiff putting their very body and life in the balance to demand redress places a dire and profound moral obligation, a binding operating with the force of life and death upon the transgressor: they must right the wrong. A person who is willing to die at your doorstep for justice cannot be ignored without incurring a terrible moral and spiritual debt.

Moral Debt

Their fast for justice against Chief Suhr having been ignored and then refused, the Frisco 5 have added a demand for Mayor Lee to step down as well. His doubling down on the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of their claim has now placed him under the moral distraint of the hunger strike. It is bitterly, savagely ironic that in response to a hunger strike based on the complaint that the city and police force slaughter people of color with impunity, not caring if their own constituents live or die, the mayor’s reply is essentially, “I don’t care if you live or die.”

What happens when the powerful refuse to acknowledge the moral imperative of the hunger strike? What happens when our political leaders tell us they don’t care if we live or die? I argue that in any valid system of governance, the first responsibility of a leader, governing body, or sovereign is the safeguarding of their people from threat to life and limb. A leader who will not do this, who refuses even to recognize that responsibility, surrenders their mandate and incurs a deep moral and spiritual debt. It falls on the society as a whole to redress the balance – to strip from those people their status and power.

That is you and me, folks. Chief Suhr and Mayor Lee have refused their obligation to their people. That means the moral obligation devolves to us to redress the issue by removing them from power. We should ALL be demanding their removal.

There is a death watch ticking on Valencia Street. It is Day 15 today, the beginning of the third week. At the end of three weeks, the body begins to devour its own tissues. A hydrated, otherwise healthy person might live another 30 or 40 days, but every day presents permanent damage to the body and health. Every day represents a terrible moral violation against the lives of these people. Every day we allow this to continue in silence, we partake in it in some small way. I do not wish to wait until there are deaths on our heads.

Call the mayor’s office: (415) 554-6141. Write his office. Show up in solidarity. March, speak, yell. Tell your friends. Don’t let them die for justice.

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

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

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

Brennos at Medb's stone, Crúachan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header photo by Jan Bosman.

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Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

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

Taking the Book of the Great Queen further

Readers of this blog are likely aware that over the past couple of weeks, all my energy has been going into the Book of the Great Queen fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo, which launched June 10th, met its primary goals in less than 72 hours, and met both its stretch goals within a little over a week. That’s a testament to the power and passion of the community of devotees. I’ve been feeling incredibly proud and honored to be part of this.

Not only did we secure the funding for the completion and publication of the book; not only did we also secure funding to commission beautiful artwork from Valerie Herron for the book… We also get to do something that really is close to my heart – the Poetry & Songs of the Morrigan recording project. This will be a professional studio recording of the poems of the Morrigan, spoken aloud as an enchanting vocal incantation, in both the original Old Irish, as well as the English translations. It will also include a couple of beautiful devotional chants and songs in Irish and Gaulish, which have never been recorded before as they are original to the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. This recording will be shared as a digital download with all of my campaign backers who come in at $20 and above.

I’m already hard at work moving all the pieces into place for this project. I’ve been corresponding with Celtic scholars P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (who’s also going to be consulting with me for the book itself) and Isolde Carmody (of the Story Archaeology Podcast), about guidance for Old Irish language pronunciation, and selecting text and translation versions for the poems. I hope to be able to post a list of the texts we’ll be recording, soon.

And so I’m presently in the unexpected position of having everything I envisioned for the project funded, with three-and-a-half weeks still to go! I really didn’t anticipate passing all my goals so early in the campaign timeline. And yet the contributions are continuing to come in, as people join in to receive the recording, pre-order the book, and for all the other reasons people choose to back the project.

So I’m contemplating other ways to give back to the community out of the funds that are continuing to come in. I would love to hear from you. What else would you like to see as a next stretch project?

Alternately, I may go another route, since the time that I have free to devote to further projects beyond the book and the recording is quite limited now. Instead of setting further stretch projects, I may just donate a portion of the extra funds toward one or more causes. If I go that route, I’m most interested in causes that are especially relevant to the Morrigan’s spheres of interest. Examples that come to mind might be:

  • Support of veterans or others impacted by war
  • Modern sovereignty struggles such as those of Indigenous nations
  • Work to study and preserve Celtic history and cultures
  • Or…?

I’d love to hear from you: what do you think would be the most honorable way to give some of this back? What organizations do you think are doing the best and most needed work that is relevant to the interests of the Great Queen?

Oh, and in case you don’t follow on social media, here’s the latest photo of progress on the illuminated manuscript painting.

illuminated vellum 13 square

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.

Rites of Sovereignty

Yesterday, I awakened quite suddenly with a sovereignty ritual unfolding in my head. It’s been on my mind to write about sovereignty for this blog – prompted in part by the urging of my matron Goddess to teach sovereignty, and also in part by my observation that there are a lot of mixed conceptions out there as to what sovereignty is and what it may mean for us both personally and collectively. So today I write of sovereignty. It is a deep and broad topic, worthy of books in its own right, so I cannot say everything there is to say about it. But I will try to begin.

The most immediate definition of sovereignty, and the one most people are familiar with, is the modern collective notion of sovereignty, which is essentially self-rule of an autonomous people or nation. We see this aspect of sovereignty being discussed with regard to the rights of Native American tribes to treaty rights as sovereign nations, for example.

In the circles I move in (Pagan left-coasters, for the most part) sovereignty is often spoken of in the context of personal empowerment, autonomy, and self-possession. There’s an awareness that as spiritual practitioners and empowered individuals, we should be seeking full ownership of our own lives, to become “the monarch of your own skin,” subject to no one, answerable only to our own inner guidance. As a personal spiritual practice, yes, sovereignty encompasses these things.  I keep feeling something’s missing from this understanding of sovereignty, though. And it was this missing something that woke me up in the late dawn.

Scottish king stone

Let us go back to origins. Sovereignty, in its historical context in Celtic culture, appears centrally and pervasively throughout many of the foundational Irish myths, including the early mythological tales, the heroic cycles, the pseudo-historic annals of kings, and on down. Many of the famous battles around which the mythological tales are spun are presented as battles for sovereignty; and many of the important and storied kings have sovereignty legends told about how they were marked for kingship and vested with the power.** The sovereignty themes are continued in the early medieval Welsh tales and the British Arthurian and Romance Grail mythology. Reflections of these mythic themes are preserved in the rituals and customs of the monarchies as well as folk custom. Sovereignty myths typically include certain classic features: victory in battle under prophecy by, and supernatural aid from, the sovereignty Goddess; the stone that cries out under the foot of the true king; the sword that is pulled from the stone, or given by the hand of the Goddess; the ritual union with the Goddess in the land; the cup from the Otherworldly wellspring that is offered in token of sovereignty given.

These themes are deeply woven throughout all of the Celtic literature, right back to the oldest written texts. They express a fundamental concern of the culture: How shall our land and our people be rightly governed? And, further, how can we know who is fit to lead us? This, then, is the central question of sovereignty: the question of fitness to hold power. It is no different from what troubles us today in our own societies.

The answer of Celtic societies, generally speaking, was this: Let the land choose the sovereign. The sovereignty was understood not primarily as a social contract between subjects and kings, but as a natural force: a numinous power within the land, which was vested in the person of the ruler by the source of the power, in the shape of the Goddess of sovereignty. Thus the symbols and vessels of sovereignty were embodiments of the land, through which the soul of the land was understood to make its will known. The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, was the primary embodiment of sovereignty demonstrating this principle – it was said to cry out under the true king, acting quite literally as the voice of the land. We also see the embodiment of the land coming to life in the form of a Goddess who confers victory in the contest for sovereignty, and who bestows the kingship on the one She has chosen. Her hand rises from the lake, offering the sword; or he meets Her and mates with Her in a flowing river; or he meets Her in a Faery mound, where She offers him a cup to drink. Everywhere She arises with waters, the wellspring of the life within the land. That life force itself is the sovereignty.

This notion that the sovereignty is itself the very life of the land has powerful consequences for the one who is tasked with holding and wielding it. In the tales, every judgement and act of the sovereign are manifest in the life of the land. So long as he makes truthful and fair judgements and acts rightly, there is prosperity in the land; cattle grow, milk is plentiful, grass is lush, trees come in fruit, the rivers run with fish. But when there is an unjust king; if he makes false judgements, if he does not carry that power rightly, the produce withers, the grass will not grow, the cattle will not calve, and even the walls of the royal fortress may shudder and fall.

Because, you see, the power doesn’t only flow from the land to the sovereign – it flows through him and back to the land. In the act of taking kingship, he has both literally and symbolically merged with the land (thus, the mating with the Goddess of sovereignty). When he takes up the kingship, his life is no longer his own – it becomes one with the life of the land.

So here we have that missing element. Sovereignty is not equivalent to freedom or autonomy. To be a sovereign is to be bound.  He has not simply claimed the sovereignty; he has been claimed by it.

This notion was deeply held, and was understood quite literally in early Celtic society. The rigorous requirement of kingship was complete integrity, in body and soul – to the point that even a physical blemish or injury on a king was considered a threat to the health and integrity of the land. Enter sacrifice: the fate of the sovereign. In some times and places, this may have meant literal sacrifice, as the king who was weak, injured, or no longer serving right judgements might be physically sacrificed to renew the life of the land. In other times and places, this simply meant that an injured or unjust king was required to step down and pass the kingship to another. Instances of this are clearly iterated in the mythological and historical literature. This, too, is sacrifice.

So what does this mean to us now in terms of sovereignty as a personal spiritual practice? There is much to be said about that, but what I want to convey today is that personal sovereignty isn’t a principle that can be boiled down to “I’m in charge of myself and you aren’t the boss of me.” The lore of sovereignty teaches that it is intimately connected with integrity; that sovereignty conveys a model of power where the only true authority arises from integrity. That sovereignty can be claimed by force, and sometimes must be, but can only be held through justice and integrity. And further, that the practice of sovereignty is one of commitment – full and unreserved commitment of one’s very life force – to the honor and benefit of that which we claim as ours. Thus, sovereignty cannot be separated from the fundamental values of service and sacrifice.

And I want to convey that personal sovereignty isn’t about being answerable to no one, just as collective sovereignty does not make a king answerable to no one. Because we are, in both cases, answerable to the very power that we wield.

 

**Note: I write here of kings in the masculine gender, because historically speaking, most of the source material refers to male sovereigns. There were of course many powerful queens in Celtic societies throughout history, but they are notable exceptions, and certainly the mythology and folklore of sovereignty is highly gendered and consistently refers to a male sovereign and female sovereignty Goddess. Of course, when it comes to personal sovereignty as a spiritual practice, we adapt this model to be spiritually suitable for all sexes and genders of people. So when referring to personal sovereignty, I try to avoid gendered language, but I preserve it when speaking of history and lore.

What Use Violent Gods?

In the comments to my last post, on the historical basis for the Morrigan’s cult, I was asked this question by a reader:

Given all this history, I have to ask — why is this deity willing to cooperate with you on nonviolent goals?

It’s a good question, and one which I often hear in one form or another, so I feel the subject really deserves its own post. Do war Gods, and does the Morrigan, relish slaughter? And, the part of the question that usually goes unspoken: If we worship war Gods like the Morrigan, won’t this engender more violence rather than assisting us to solve our problems more peacefully?

It is true, the Morrigan is classically known as a war Goddess; if only one descriptor of Her nature and function is given, it’s usually that one. Reading the medieval Irish source literature, one finds ample material to draw an image of Her as bloodthirsty and violent, reveling in slaughter. On the other hand, if you read shallow Llewellyn-style books about ‘Celtic Magick’ and the like, you may find Her being re-interpreted as a misunderstood form of earth/fertility Goddess, or equated with Morgan le Fay, her violent aspects smoothed away in favor of some polished archetype of ‘women’s empowerment’. The truth, of course, is more complex than either image.

Does the Morrigan relish slaughter? According to the Irish literature – the only substantial literature we have on Her – yes, she does. There is no point denying or whitewashing it. We read things such as this:

Here and there around us are many bloody spoils; horrible are the huge entrails the Morrigan washes. She has come to us, and evil visitor; it is she who incites us. Many are the spoils she washes, horrible the hateful laugh she laughs. She has tossed her mane over her back; a good, just heart hates her. (Reicne Fothaid Canainne, 9th century poem)

Here we have everything She’s so often accused of: inciting war, reveling in the bloodshed and carnage. But of course, within the same body of lore, we also find Her described as a poet and satirist, a high and strong queen, an alluring woman holding wealth in cattle, a shape-shifting druidess, and many other things besides. As I wrote in reply on the previous post,

Yes, She does have an epiphany that revels in the slaughter, and because it’s one of the ones documented in literature, it gets a lot of attention… I think in part because the Irish heroic literature was written down by Christian monks, we get a clear picture only of those aspects of the Celtic heroic ethos that were comprehensible to them. There are a lot of places where the Morrigan, or one of her cognates, is glossed as a demoness, or a fury; images that were familiar to the people of the time from the Greco-Roman literature, but which turn out to be a great oversimplification of our Queen. Because they are purely wrathful entities with a fairly limited function, whereas She is a multifaceted tribal Goddess who possesses wrathful qualities and forms.

I think, however, that it’s important not to write off the Morrigan’s violent aspects entirely to Christian slander. That would be an injustice to Her and to the historical context within which She arises. Battle was a way of life to the Iron Age Celts, and this reality is reflected in everything that was written about them, just as it is reflected in the nature of their divinities and their religious practice.

So, again, if we aren’t personally interested in creating bloodshed, why would we want to invite this deity into our practice? Because the battle aspect arises from something deeper than bloodlust, something that we need to survive. I’ve said before that warriorship, the willingness to fight, is love in action. And just so, the Morrigan is sovereignty in action.

Brigantia

Sovereignty in action. This is the essence of why the Morrigan is a helpful divinity even for those who wish never to participate in violence of any kind. This statement isn’t a new-age revisionist view of Her; it is borne out by scholarly study of Her history. The earliest manifestations of deity that can be traced to Her were in the form primarily of tribal/territorial Goddesses – that is to say, the Goddess of our land and our people. When the historical context of these tribes led to the sovereignty of their land and people being under threat, these tribal/territorial Goddesses begin to take on martial, protective aspects, eventually emerging as full-blown war Goddesses, of which the Irish literature presents the most detailed image in the form of the Morrigan.

In the exhaustive study, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, Noemie Beck writes,

As will be seen, various goddesses, such as the Irish Mórrígain and the British Brigantia, possess the double aspect of land and protection in their character. They were originally goddesses embodying the landscape and were later attributed significant war-like attributes and pictured protecting their people and territory… As representatives of the tribe, they preside and rule over the territory and people; a sovereign role which leads to a significant function of protection and defence of the land. The Irish mythological legends indeed evoke the pronounced war-like character of the territorial/tribal-goddesses… The land-goddess was thus turned into a war-goddess when protection was needed in time of conflict.

Okay, but does She have to enjoy it so much? It might be pointed out that, at least in the Irish literature, we have descriptions of the Morrigan and Her related manifestations (Badb, Nemain, Fea, Macha, etc.) not only protecting the tribe in time of war, but appearing to actively incite war. She is said to lust for battle and to revel in the bloody slaughter, dancing over the spear-points of the battle.

Yes, in brief; She does have to enjoy it. Warriors do not prevail in the arena of war by maintaining a distaste for bloodshed nor an ambivalence about violence. A warrior may love peace, but when a moment of conflict does arise, the necessity is to throw your whole being into the act, leaving no room for hesitation or ambivalence. The warrior in that moment must love battle ardently, must desire nothing but the mad glory of the fight, the perfection of violence as martial art, the destruction of all who threaten her/him. This is what will give her or him the greatness of heart, the madness required to charge forward into the waiting blades of an adversary against all the natural instincts of self-preservation. And this is what the Morrigan incites, when She is inciting warriors to battle. She is drawing them into their battle ardor, pushing them to a state of enhanced fury and power that will allow them to survive, to achieve greatness and heroic glory. It is a service She is giving them.

And it goes deeper, too.  She has to enjoy it because it is Her job to devour the slain. It is part of Her eco-spiritual function as a scavenger bird deity, and a Goddess of death. She, like the Valkyrie, enables the transition of the souls of fallen between this world and the Otherworld. She Herself is the gateway through which the dead pass as She literally devours their bodies, drinks in the release of life force, and receives their souls. Should we tell the mountain lion she ought not to revel in the death of the deer? Tell the carrion crow to close her eyes and think of England when she wets her bill with the blood of the dead? The Morrigan lusts for blood because it is Her role in the shape of things. All beings hunger for that which they must eat.

Yet She is more complex than this, still. She doesn’t only enjoy the slaughter, She also weeps for it. The very specter in which She is often most gruesome, the Washer at the Ford, seen on the eve of battles washing the horrible and bloody spoils of the dead – is the same epiphany in which She displays the full pathos of Her role. Weeping and moaning, warning of the doom awaiting, sometimes even begging the warrior not to go to the fight. It is as though the gruesomeness of Her aspect, the reveling in carnage and bloody horror, is there in part to remind us of the terrible cost of war.

After one of my communions with the Morrigan some years ago, in which I asked similar questions of Her, I wrote in my journal of what I had seen in Her eyes:

Washer at the Ford, Alan Lathwell

It is not only we humans who pay the cost of our people’s choices; the Gods bleed too. The Morrigan isn’t only the sword that slays in battle; She is also the blood that spills, the ground that swallows the blood and receives the dead, and the phantoms that remain, echoing the horror. She is the frenzy of the slayer, the terror of the slain, and the grief of the bereft. A human being only pays the cost of war for the duration of a human life; She has been paying it again and again for millenia… Seeing war through the eyes of the Morrigan, the whole long, aching view of history littered with mountains of corpses offered up to futile wars to achieve something that no one now remembers, the rivers of blood and tears that have flowed through Her, the countless efforts to communicate this sorrow to people who don’t want to listen; I could no longer imagine that Her rage was born only from delight in the carnage.

Ultimately, my contact with the Morrigan has shown me that warfare and violence are our own responsibility, our own failure to fully evolve. It has taught me that we are the product of our heritage, just as She is of Hers: inheritors of the whole bloody river of history and all its ingrained cultural habits. That we are what we eat, and should we ever reach a stage of evolution where we no longer feed Her through war, She will go on receiving the souls of the dead in perhaps a less violent form.

I sometimes think that the problem with our culture isn’t that violent Gods move us toward violent goals. I sometimes think the problem with our culture is that we have given up our war Gods, or at least pretend we have. That we might be infinitely better off if our relationship to warfare and violence was framed by worship of entities such as the Morrigan, who at least will insistently remind us to count the cost of war, and will remind us of our honor and what’s worth fighting for. Instead we seem to have some faceless death-machine for a war God – the great military-industrial destroyer, its totemic winged drone-birds hovering around it, as we relentlessly feed our youth, our wealth, our humanity, our liberty into its grinding maw while carefully looking away.

I’ll entrust what I love to the Battle Raven over that God any day.

Truth, Strength, Fulfillment

Since it’s New Year’s Eve today, the subject of New Year’s resolutions is on my mind.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Partly, this is because the beginning of the Gregorian calendar just doesn’t mean all that much to me – I’m more tuned to earthly/astronomical events like Samhain and the Winter Solstice. Still, this is the calendar our society uses, and its end and beginning have meaning. The real reason I don’t make New Year’s resolutions is that I don’t believe in betting against myself.

You see, there’s something about New Year’s resolutions that seems to set them apart culturally from other kinds of commitments. I’m not clear why, but I’ve consistently observed that when people make New Year’s resolutions, they almost never carry them through. It seems common that people feel they’re doing well if they last till March or April before abandoning their resolutions for the year. After decades of watching friends and family lose steam on their resolutions and shrug them off by mid-year, I’ve come to perceive them as a form of self-cursing. It seems to me that folks I know are usually more effective at following through on any other commitment than a New Year’s resolution. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this, and I’ve observed some, but this still has been apparent to me as a pattern. We expect to break New Year’s resolutions.

That’s why I don’t like them. A commitment we expect to break is a form of self-cursing. When we back off from fully committing to a resolution, (“I’m resolving to do X this year, and this time I’m definitely sticking to it. For at least half the year!”) we are betting against ourselves, which means we lose the wager no matter what. Every time we do this, it weakens the will. It reinforces a view of ourselves that we aren’t up to completing a commitment, while telling ourselves it’s OK, it’s just a New Year’s resolution, everybody breaks them.

This is the way to eviscerate the will. What strengthens the will, and the whole force of honor in the being, is to never commit to something you can’t follow through on, and to always follow through on your commitments. Half-commitments, “I’ll do X this year, or at least as long as I can,” transmit the message to your soul, your Gods and anyone who saw you make the pledge, that you don’t have the will to stand for your commitments.

I am reminded of this, from the dialogue of St. Patrick with Caeilte, on the values that made the Fianna warriors strong.

“Who or what was it that maintained you so in your life?”
“Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.”

–from Acallam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancients), trans. O’Grady

Fulfillment in our tongues. That is, fulfillment of one’s word. This is what makes us strong. Every time we fulfill a commitment, we become stronger. Every time we fail one, we weaken ourselves.

Along similar lines, the Irish notion of commitment is reflected in the geis. The word geis is usually translated as ‘taboo’, but it is more than that; the concept incorporates taboo, commitment or oath, and blessing and cursing. We typically see geasa applied to heroic figures such as warriors, queens or kings – they are a reflection of heroic power, part of what makes the hero strong, but also containing their weakness. In an earlier post, I wrote this about the geis:

A geis is an obligation which is laid on a person, to which they must adhere. The heroic stories teach us that the keeping of a geis grants power; that its protection may be so great as to make the hero undefeatable. To break a geis engenders loss of power and protection, weakness, downfall. The deaths of the great heroes are brought about through clever means of forcing them to break a geis and thus render them merely human, vulnerable to wounding and defeat. The hidden truth here is that, conversely, a geis intact renders one more than human, for it is a magickal bond with the Otherworld, and while it is kept, it wraps one in a mantle of Otherworldly power.

In a way, any commitment or resolution we make is a form of geis. Whether we intend it as a magickal act or not, the act of committing oneself to a resolution of action places a bond on one’s honor.

Thus, the heroic tales teach us that coming under a geis or bond that we can’t fulfill is a recipe for weakness and downfall. Making resolutions we know ourselves unlikely to fulfill is self-cursing. On the other hand, if you can follow through on it, you have the strength of the Gods.

So what is the lesson for us regarding New Year’s resolutions? If you’re going to make one, treat it as a geis you’re laying on yourself, and make sure it’s achievable for you. Better yet, make your resolutions to someone else. Give your word to a friend, a kin-member, or one of your Gods. They will keep you honest in a way that is much harder to demand of yourself.

Or, do as I do: set an intention for the year on New Year’s eve, but set it as a commitment to a practice or priority, in a way that allows you flexibility to fulfill it. Last year, I set an intention for 2012 to devote myself to fighting practice and developing martial skills. I didn’t say, “I resolve to do spear practice every day,” because I’d have failed myself – life got in the way sometimes. I said, “I dedicate this year to developing martial skills.” And I did: I spent a few months studying Krav Maga, then shifted my focus to spear training and armored combat. I took breaks here and there, but when my focus lagged for a few weeks, I just had to remind myself of the priorities I had set for myself, and then I would return to my practice. By the fall, I had learned a great deal and had succeeded getting authorized for heavy combat in the SCA. The key for me was that my commitment wasn’t to specific actions – I made a commitment to prioritizing a practice.

Here are a couple more examples of good ways to set intentions for the new year, instead of making half-assed New Year’s resolutions:

 

And here is my blessing for you: May you be sustained this year through the truth in your heart, the strength of your body, and the fulfillment of your word!

 

Martial artist Kim Falconer

 

Seasons of Death and Life

As Samhain-tide is here, I have been thinking about the two great festivals of the Celtic year, and how different our modern Neopagan interpretation of them is from their origins. This subject came up for me at Beltaine this year, and has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since.

You see, the modern Neopagan conventions around these two festivals are so: Beltaine is understood as the season of life, expressed and celebrated through sexual and fertility imagery. Samhain is understood as the season of death, expressed through ancestor worship, death imagery and offerings to the dead. This is at least true of nearly all modern witchcraft revival traditions. Would any of my readers be startled to learn that for the ancient Pagan Celts, this scheme is nearly backwards?

As in so many other respects, the tendency of modern revivals of Paganism is to suffer from oversimplification of theology and spiritual philosophy. Samhain and Beltaine are a prime example of this effect.

We call Beltaine the “season of life” because the plants are flowering, fruits are swelling, small animals mating, and the sun is growing stronger. So much is true on the surface of things. For the ancient Celts, however, Beltaine (and summer generally) was a season of great risk, and for this reason, was a season for sacrifices – both animal and human. The primary evidence for human sacrifice (apart from the distorted reports of it recorded by contemporary non-Celtic writers) comes from preserved bog burials such as the Lindow man of Wales, and similar remains found on the Continent and Ireland. Remnants of the last meals of these sacrificed people show that in many cases, they were in fact killed in late Spring. Folk culture in these areas preserves many, many references to death and sacrifice in connection to Beltaine; such as Morris dances, scape-goating, effigy sacrifice, etc.

Why should this be? If the season when the natural world visibly comes into contact with death is the onset of winter, why not make that the time of sacrifices, of propitiating death with offerings? Because the timing is wrong for the magick to work, that’s why. For people dependent on natural cycles for their survival, when the threshold of winter arrives at Samhain, the time of greatest risk is already past. Whatever harvest the summer gave you has been gathered in, and you only have to hope for the length of the winter to be merciful. At the onset of summer, on the other hand, everything is at stake. What comes in the months between Beltaine and Samhain can make or break your clan. If there is too much summer rain, and the crops rot in the fields – if there isn’t enough, and the grain and calves don’t fatten – if any of a thousand things go wrong during the growing season, your people may go hungry when the winter comes. Thus the growing season is the time of greatest risk, and the greatest need for sacrifice to propitiate the Gods. The Celts believed that life had to be fed by the sacrifice of life, and so sacrifices were made. Beltaine is thus the season of life, but also the season of death.

We’re told that Samhain is religiously celebrated as the season of death because at this time cattle were slaughtered that were not being kept (and fed) through the winter. And because the vegetative life of the land is visibly dying as winter approaches. All this being quite true, Samhain is naturally a season of death. However, if you look at the mythology and religious practice of the Celts, a more nuanced picture emerges. Samhain is everywhere linked in the lore with sexual matings; and in particular the mating of the human realm and Otherworld through sexual unions. For example, the tryst of the Morrigan and the Dagda on the eve of battle occurs at Samhain; following their mating, She prophesies His victory over the Fomoire, and offers Her aid in the coming battle. Cu Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, makes his tryst with the Faery woman Fand at Samhain; likewise Nera, the warrior of Cruachan, also meets and marries his Faery wife at Samhain. In almost every case, the warrior meets an Otherworldly female on Samhain eve, mates with her sexually, and then is sent into battle on her behalf or under her protection. There are countless examples of these Samhain couplings, often linked to battles: Aine and Ailill Olom; the elopement of Etain and Midir, etc.

Dagda and the Woman, by Jim Fitzpatrick

These myths tell something deeper about the Celtic view of Samhain than the simple label, “season of death.” They tell that the threshold of winter was also understood as a season of sexuality, both human and divine. That the “veil growing thin” which we Neopagans speak of, does not just permit the dead to speak to us, but opens wide the gates for Otherworldly unions of a sexual nature. That these divine or Otherworldly matings presage and are inextricably linked to battle. As it is among the horned and antlered animals: the stag and the bull, worshiped throughout the Celtic world in the form of Gods such as Cernunnos, mate in the fall, accompanied by ritualized “battles” as the males of the species may lock antlers or horns in displays of strength for mating rights. The sexual attentions of Sovereignty Goddesses such as the Morrigan, if they are linked to a season, nearly always occur at Samhain. For many Celts, sovereignty was conferred through ritual marriage of the human sovereign with Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess of the land. Among the Irish, inaugural rites and other acts related to kingship always took place at the great feasts that were held annually at Samhain at royal centers such as Tara, Cruachain and Emain Macha. Thus the entire concept of the sacred marriage among the Celts is inextricably linked to the Samhain season.

These are just a few examples I highlight here for contrast with the prevailing Neopagan conventions about these holidays. In truth both have very complex histories arising from their changing practice across many different tribes and shifting with the tides of history. I suppose what I want to communicate here is not so much that our modern ways of celebrating these holidays are wrong; but rather that I feel something is lost when we simplify them down to equating Beltaine with sex and Samhain with death. There is a deep wisdom embedded in the ancients’ understanding that sexuality, fertility, death, sovereignty, and sacrifice were all inextricably linked. That our human work is to understand these linkages, feed them, and find our places within them. There is a potency in celebrating sex and death together, as alternating currents of a single numinous power, perhaps, rather than as separate seasons.

As we like to sing in the Coru: Balu! Maru! Balu! Maru! (Sex! Death! Sex! Death!)

(Of course, it should go without saying that I don’t advocate a return to ancient practice as it was; I think it is entirely right that we abandoned human sacrifice and find other forms of sacrifice by which we can participate in these exchanges of life.)

Way of the Spear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing off my bloody fighting tunic.

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

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

Meeting the Queen

Recently I’ve been seeing more emails from folks who have begun feeling the Morrigan’s call for the first time, asking me for guidance on how to integrate Her into their lives and spiritual practice. So I felt it was time for a few posts about that.

This is what I frequently hear: “I’m being haunted, and I find it both terrifying and compelling. What do I do?”

The Morrigan chooses people. When this happens to us, the experience is like being haunted by something. People often speak of Her coming to them in nightmares, or at least disturbing dreams. Her presence might be felt in waking life as a shadowy, spectral presence that seems to loom over us, and to follow our steps. She is, after all, the Phantom Queen. Her presence can also be channeled into our lives in unsettlingly personal ways: relationship dynamics may take on a charged quality; we may suddenly find ourselves fiercely intolerant of limitations we once accepted; we may find ourselves driven to take a stand on something. Her presence is characterized by compelling attention to certain things: the dead, and death itself; warfare and violence; heroism and honor, kinship and loyalty; and viscerally ecstatic experiences – blood, rage, sex, grief.

So the question that I get from people is, “What do I do?” The answer depends on what you want, and what you dare. Being Hers means a lifetime of being haunted, to at least some degree. It means those close to you being haunted to some degree as well. Those She claims may find their lives being reshaped, sometimes painfully, to make space for Her demands. It means you yourself will be reshaped, and this can also be quite terrifying. But here is what She offers in return: She makes a weapon of you. She delves into your soul and finds the strength, the fierce unconquerable will, the heroic heart you didn’t know you had. She offers you greatness. And She protects Her own, so Her claim also confers protection on both you and your kin. I could really go on for pages; perhaps that’s a post of its own some day.

People sometimes ask, “Why me?” I can’t presume to speak for Her reasons. But from my own observations, I can tell you this. If you think you aren’t cut out for Her service because you’re not tough or bad-ass enough, because you’re wounded, because you’re emotionally vulnerable, that may be precisely why She chose you. Experience has shown me that more often than not, it is those with raw hearts and poet’s souls that She chooses, rather than the stoic and macho among us. I think perhaps She finds a deep well of emotion provides a lot of raw material for shaping into Her creation, and a passionate heart is more readily sharpened to the fierce joy She cultivates in us. But there are many reasons. Some are chosen because of ancestry and blood. Some for reasons known only to Her and themselves. Some choose themselves and come to Her of their own volition.

You might have the option to decline the relationship if it does not feel right for you. If this is your choice, my very earnest advice is to be exceedingly respectful in your way of declining Her claim on you. The story of the great hero Cu Chulainn is a cautionary tale about what can happen: he not only refuses Her protection and guidance, he insults Her; and She brings about his downfall, giving him a hero’s death. So if you must refuse Her, do so with reverence and with gratitude for what’s been offered to you. And if you’ve ever asked Her for anything, if you’ve called Her name with feeling, I don’t recommend attempting to refuse Her claim on you. In Her world, you’ve already offered yourself to Her.

For those who choose to accept the claim and move into the relationship, a few thoughts on that question, “What do I do?”

The nightmares and the haunting are often Her way of gaining your attention. While being in Her service does mean always being a little haunted, the frightful quality that often comes with the initial contact will usually transform into a more intimate experience once you establish devotional practice. That devotional practice is a whole topic unto itself, so I will delve into that in a future post. For now I just want to close with a bit of advice for those experiencing the initial disturbances.

Your situation will be unique and personal, of course. Generally speaking, the first act you need to do to ease the disturbances and enter the relationship, is to acknowledge Her claim on you, and communicate your willingness to engage. Second, establish a regular devotional practice, with offerings and time in meditation listening to Her. This gives Her opportunities to communicate Her message to you, and begins to create intimacy. Over time this will tend to refocus Her presence into your devotional practice, thereby easing the nightmares and other uncontrolled manifestations. Third, it helps enormously to have a physical space or vessel for Her presence: a shrine, altar, or other space that you intentionally dedicate and invite Her to occupy. This helps to externalize Her presence so that She does not have to constantly occupy your dreams and waking mind in order to have a foothold in your life. It allows you some measure of control over when you engage with Her and when you choose to focus on other things.

Finally, a few resources, since people also ask me what they should read to acquaint themselves with Her. Here are my recommendations:

Source texts: The main source material for Her lore is a handful of Irish texts, most of which were written down in the medieval period by monks, recording a much older stream of oral literature. The texts in which She appears most significantly are the Lebor Gabala Eirenn, or Book of Invasions of Ireland; the First and Second Battles of Mag Tuiredh; and several texts of the Ulster cycle, most especially the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley. She also makes appearances in many other texts throughout the Irish literature.

Analytical/folkloric studies: The most comprehensive work on the Morrigan is War Goddess by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, a folklore dissertation that surveys all Her appearances in medieval source texts, and uses them to analyze Her lore and role in the Irish mythological and cosmological system. Second, I recommend this 19th century essay The Ancient Irish Goddess of War by W. M. Hennessy.

Next time I’ll post some more detailed thoughts about devotional practice.