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Courage in Kinship

I’m settling back in following my adventures at PantheaCon and reflecting on my experiences there. It was the first Con we in the Coru attended as a priesthood, so we were kept very busy with lots of introductions and questions about who we are and what we do. We also had given ourselves a packed schedule of workshops, rituals, and other activities that didn’t leave much room to breathe. (If anyone in my readership felt you were getting the brush-off from me at any point, please accept my apologies. I really did want to talk to you, I just was overscheduled and couldn’t stop to talk.)

One of the big themes for me this Con was kinship. Naturally, since this was a central focus both of our Morrigan devotional ritual and of the blood drive. But it was also borne out in more personal ways. We shared our suite with some allies of the priesthood, new friends from up north whom we met during our trip to the Western Gate festival last October. We began the Con as new friends and allies, but after spending days eating, laughing, working, and doing deep ritual together they all felt like deep kin. There it is – kinship through shared devotion. What so many people have been saying they felt after the Heart is Our Nation ritual.

The heart is the only nation, we sang. Our voices lifted upward to the Morrígan, and we made an affirmation of our sovereignty. (Teo Bishop)

We called upon kinship and sovereignty, and over the last few days I find myself feeling and becoming more aware of the threads that tie us all together. (Stephanie Woodfield)

I heard stories starting the next day of people who, inspired by the depth of kinship that they felt, took courage to begin conversations with others who they hadn’t spoken with in years. I hear stories of people moved by the strength of kinship to take on greater challenges, take a stand, fight for something. Acts of courage.

This is what kinship means.

Because these acts of courage aren’t only supported by the strength that we feel when we know we are not alone. I can do this, because I’m not alone here. What I also see is that acts of courage are driven, are made necessary by the reality of kinship. I must do this, because I’m not alone here. Kinship brings the recognition that whatever we face, we are in it together; we, this species somewhere between ape and angel, hearts pumping blood, souls always seeking a place; we, born from stars and mud and hunger, the inheritors of the whole human legacy of beauty, wonder, and violence, and the endless longing for liberty. We have Gods to inspire us, spirits to aid us, but who will save us but ourselves? All our human kin need us each to find the courage that is in us, stand forth and give our best. That courage is kinship.

As we readied ourselves for the ritual, we painted each other’s limbs and faces with blue paint.

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Spirals, meanders, stripes, claw marks. The idea had come to me a few weeks earlier to paint ourselves for the ritual, as some of the old Celtic and Pictish tribes were said to have done. To evoke a sense of kinship with tribal marks, though I meant something different by it than my ancestors did, surely. A dream came back to me, forgotten for some time. Last summer, the night before we planned this ritual, I’d had a dream.

The Coru were performing an invocation in tribute for an old man of our community who had died as a result of mistreatment by an abusive police or security authority. We were chanting to the Morrigan at his memorial. Then one of the other priestesses turned to me and gave me a message from Her. “The Queen says it is time to resist.” And she handed me a pot of woad paint. I saw the people gathered, the community coming together, speaking words of courage to act in defense of the human rights of the community. We painted our feet blue with the woad and they called us the Blue Heels. The blue-painted feet were meant to show our fighting spirit, and our motto was “We stand fast,” as was said by the Morrigan in the Second Battle of Maige Tuiredh.

I’d forgotten this dream once we got into the planning of the ritual, but remembering it while we painted each other, something came to me: this truth that kinship itself is resistance. In a civilization that strives to divide us, to alienate us from each other and even from ourselves; in times of drone warfare, economic feudalism, class warfare, and the national security state, any act of courage and kinship is a form of resistance. Kinship does not just give us the strength we need to resist these forces. It is in fact the key to our survival and overcoming. In such a world, kinship itself is heroic.

I must do this, because I’m not alone here. For the kinship that I bear you, I will do this thing. I will act like I care. I will stand for something. I will give of myself. I will take a risk. These are the words of heroes. Heroism is love in action.

Do you stand in kinship? What will you stand for?

Endgame

Last night, I went with a dear friend for a night hike to enjoy the nearly-full moon and do some work with the Great Queen. On the way, we found ourselves talking about the feeling we’ve both had that She is on the move somehow, on the rise. That She’s preparing, and preparing us, for something. This observation is one that I have consistently heard from people all over who have made contact with me about working with the Morrigan. It seems She’s telling many of us very similar things. So I’m musing yet again on this question. What is She up to?

The overarching messages I’ve received, and the ones that are consistent with the greatest number of others I’ve heard from, are essentially these:
A storm is coming
Gather your kin
Get ready to fight and to survive

There have been many more messages, of course, and much more nuance, but these are the ones that come up consistently from many different people contacting me, and often in nearly the exact words.

I have tended to think about this as a message of warning for something that is to come; about the many signals of our decaying empire and the possibility of some form of societal collapse. I have tended to think about this as something we were meant to gather in preparation for, almost in waiting.

Today in my morning communion with Her I found my mind wandering, and asking a new question. What if the storm isn’t coming. What if it is here, now?

We are in the midst of a failing empire. I know so many people who cannot find regular employment, who find themselves slipping down the economic ladder. Most people I know cannot see a doctor for their health care. All around us the social fabric is unraveling, while the elites who rule can seem to concern themselves with nothing  but political advantage and wars of conquest. It has begun to seem to me that collapse is here – it’s just a slow decaying collapse rather than the kind of cinematic catastrophe that the entertainment industry has taught us to look for.

And then I wonder, if the storm is here – if what we are feeling now are already its first lashings – how to make sense of these messages about preparation for something?

A couple of months ago, I was at a spiritual retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. I found myself sitting up late in the hot tub with a fellow priest of the Morrigan, staring up at the stars between the towering redwoods and talking speculatively about our Queen’s urgings and what they might  mean. Asking each other that same question: What is She up to? What is the big picture? My friend asked me, “What do you think Her endgame is?”

I started talking without really listening to myself. Rambling speculatively. Then thought that what I was saying was starting to sound grandiose and mad, and I said, “But really, I sometimes think She’s more concerned with specific issues, like restoring proper respect for the war dead. I don’t know if She’s really out to fix what’s wrong with our civilization as a whole.” I didn’t finish the sentence though. In the midst of it, I found myself speaking into a sudden and overwhelming silence as the entire forest went dead silent on an instant: the million frogs and soft crickets and little night noises that had been all around us, all dead instantly. My friend and I stared at each other, and stared around, unnerved. Then, into that silence and stillness a vast wind came marching, sweeping down between the towering trees, as though the majesty of the sky itself was marching toward us. It approached down the contour of the land and swept over us and I felt Her presence overwhelmingly, the tall, haunting might of Her, vast and mighty as the sky itself, bearing down on us as that wind stalked through.

After it passed, the crickets and frogs found their voices before we did. Finally I turned to my friend and said, “I stand corrected. I’m pretty sure we just got told, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ME.”

Today I’m wondering if perhaps, what She’s stirring us to prepare for isn’t the storm itself, isn’t collapse, but a new society She’s seeking to build within the decaying shell of the old one. That perhaps the urgings toward kinship and tribalism, toward self-sufficiency and autonomy, toward fighting ability and survival, are all directed toward making of us the kind of people who can form the kinship units at the core of a more tribal and localized civilization. The one that we all know must come after us. The one in which we hold our sovereignty in our own hands again and live within the capacity of the land to sustain us.

My friend who I hiked with last night said at one point that the Morrigan seems like a patron deity of our times, and maybe this is so. The great challenges we face are those of sovereignty and survival, of facing down a massive, corrupt, and war-hungry empire in order to restore the sovereignty of the people and of the land. Who better to arm us for this struggle?

What messages has She given you? What do you think Her endgame is?

The Shield-Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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