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I see it crimson, I see it red

The black birds thunder overhead. Below, the combatants gather. They are marked by red. They speak the names of the dead.

It is afternoon and I am sitting quietly in the warm sun. I have taken the afternoon off from working on the book to join a peaceful demonstration against police violence and racism. Around the steps at the front of Oakland City Hall, some hundreds of people have gathered, wearing red clothing and armbands and carrying signs of protest. They have recited softly the names of youths killed recently at the hands of militarized police forces. I am sitting with friends, wearing red, holding up the names of the dead, breathing together in silent prayer.

#NMOS2014 Pic courtesy of Julia Wong ‏(@juliacarriew).

#NMOS2014
Pic courtesy of Julia Wong ‏(@juliacarriew).

 

The demonstration was planned as a “national moment of silence”. Silence doesn’t come, though. Helicopters beat the air overhead. I’m not entirely sure when the official minute of silence begins. I go on praying silently, the peace prayer I use regularly as a meditation: Sid co nem, nem co doman. Peace to the sky, sky to the earth.

Beneath the beating wings, the combatants chant battle songs. They cry outrage, clamoring for justice, restitution. Light breaks over them.

The loud minute of silence has come to an end and people are beginning to rouse and cry out and chant. “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!” I begin to hear the outrage beneath the calm of the demonstration. “Black lives matter!”

Speakers step forward and begin to address the crowd. I’m deep in my prayer cycle. I’m not sure if I missed a speaker before Alan Blueford’s mother steps forward and begins to speak. She speaks with power about her son, another Black youth slaughtered unarmed, going to his death with his hands raised in surrender. She speaks of her community, their exhaustion with unending oppression, racism, violence, tragedy. She speaks of the end of patience and the need for action. “And I am a mother of action!” she cries out.

I AM THE MOTHER OF ACTION.

Another voice thunders it behind hers. It echoes silently over my head, over the thrumming of the helicopters, over the crowds with their red ribbons, over Jeralynn Blueford. The Hero’s Light, or something like it, breaks open over her. Anger and passion ripple through the crowd.

I can see that this demonstration is not one that will become a pitched battle today; but I sense a hunger for confrontation here. None of these people want battle for its own sake, but they are hungry for an opportunity to confront those who wield the powers that hold in place the oppressive situation they are living in. They contain an enraged desire to confront those who have brought about all these deaths, and who still refuse to be accountable.

I am starting to grasp why, apart from my own desire to help somehow, I felt the Morrígan pushing me to come down here today.  I grip the devotional stone in my hand and I return to my prayer cycle. The stone is dry against my palm, so dry. Peace to the sky, sky to the earth.

NO, comes the voice again. THE TIME OF PEACE IS NOT YET. THERE HAS NOT BEEN ENOUGH BLOOD SPILLED.

There is no bloodlust in the voice, though. I pause, sink inward and mull over what that means. I don’t think She’s saying She wants more bloodshed; the message feels impersonal, like the word of an unflinching observer. I think She’s saying that’s what it’s going to take for us to fully confront what we’re doing. I think She’s saying we can’t have peace until we can face this down, complete the confrontation with the specter of our own horrors. I find myself thinking of the seeress Fedelm, giving voice to her vision of the battle that her people have instigated for themselves.

“O Fedelm, how do you see our host?”

“I see it crimson, I see it red.”

They are all wearing red here today. And they are ready for this fight, past ready. Jeralynn Blueford is still speaking. People are echoing and responding to her words in quick, angry outbursts. I change to a new prayer: one for strength and victory. For justice. That is what these people are crying out for passionately. They are wise enough to know that before peace can come, justice has to come. The signs here say as much: “No justice/No peace” and “There can be no justice without struggle”.

I am reflecting on conversations I’ve seen recently, on the subjects of peace and war, violence and nonviolence, racism and justice. Asa West wrote this blog post, “I Have Conversed with the Morrígan about Gaza” in her blog Jewish Witch. It has provoked conversations in some Celtic polytheism forums about the nature of the Morrígan; whether She would ever advocate for a position of nonviolence as suggested in the blog. Whether it is incorrect to associate Her with peace as well as war. People have their various reactions. I think back on what I have learned of Her, and what I’ve experienced. Does She advocate for war, in Her mythology? Yes, no doubt. She is ever working to bring conflicts to a head. Sometimes, the texts say it’s so that She can revel in the carnage. But much of the time, Her motives are cryptic. Often, I think it has as much to do with observing the latent tension between conflicting forces, and bringing that tension to open battle so that it can be resolved.

There is this: Every time I’ve tried to ask Her about the merit of a particular war my country has engaged in, She has refused to answer. No, She tells me. Your wars are yours to own. Your sovereignty is your own and you must bear the weight of how you wield it. I will be there where the consequences unfold. For me at least, She never seems willing to advocate for or against. In the mythology, She gives poetic prophecies of both war and peace. But where the vision of peace comes, it is delivered together with a vision of conflict and suffering. Always presenting us with the choice, never allowing us to stand down from the consequences of choice.

There is also this I have learned: Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is more rightly to be understood as the condition of being free to live well. Freedom from violence is only one of its elements. That is to say, a situation where there is no active violence happening can still be very far from the peace we would hope for. Injustice may be enforced in the name of preserving “the peace”; but what is being served there is order, not actually peace. Where order comes at the expense of human life and dignity, and relies on coercion and threat, there is already no peace, even if there is no violence yet.  That is a condition that is neither war nor peace – and it is in that charged in-between space where we most hear Her voice inciting toward the conflict.

In Ferguson, Missouri, I’m told there were no homicides this year until the day that Michael Brown was shot dead by police this week. Someone might have said that the town was at peace. No blood had been shed. But look what latent violence was held there: That the white police force could be so tightly coiled in militarized terror and racialized contempt of its own population that the single trigger event could unleash all this violence against the people. That the Black community had been coexisting with a police force that hostile to them has to have meant coping with a constant threat to their ability to simply live daily life. This was not peace. It was simply a latent battle waiting to be unleashed. As are so many of our cities. Ferguson is no different than many places in America. On the same day I went out to the demonstration, I had to engage online with Celtic Pagans muttering veiled criticism against the idea that a Jewish woman like Asa West has a right to worship the Morrígan at all. Racism is in our culture. We cannot call this situation peace. We cannot hide in it from the conflict we have created for ourselves.

“I see it crimson, I see it red.”

I am not saying that I foresee bloodbaths needing to occur. I think we have opportunities every day to choose better ways, to choose for justice, to be more human to each other. I am hoping that the example of Ferguson may teach us something about the costs of choosing order instead of peace. I think part of its lesson, and the message I take today from the Battle Goddess, is that when the existing order has been enforced with injustice, that injustice demands to be confronted before peace can be found. That injustice represents a state of latent violence that must like a spring be uncoiled before the system can come to rest. That conflict and violence are not always antithetical to peace: peace and conflict do not exist in metaphysical opposition, but as coupled aspects of one dynamic.

And this: We have to fight for justice before the time will come when we can pray for peace.

Warriorship: the Gift of Peace

In early October, I came to my first “fighter birthday” – the date I started armored fighting one year ago. Here are a few observations from my first year as a fighter.

Are you threatening me?

When I talk about warriorship, people often ask me, “Why would you want to be a warrior? Aren’t you worried that it’ll make you combative?” There’s a suspicion of warriorship in the Pagan subculture. A perception that to a warrior, every problem will come to look like one to be solved by conflict. That the combative paradigm will seep into your personality and turn all your interactions into battles.

My experience so far is actually the opposite. I’m less combative personally than I was before I became a fighter. Because you see, I’m not afraid any more. I am less easily threatened, and less reactive, to most things: from personal criticism to intellectual challenge to physical danger. I’m stronger. I’m clearer about my capacities and my limits, and I no longer think of myself as fragile, physically or psychologically. I’m less defensive than I ever realized I had been. I don’t need to fight everything, because I’m not afraid any more.

What has come instead is a heightened awareness of social conflict framing. That is to say, I’m noticing the extent to which other people often perceive situations in terms of conflict because they feel psychologically or intellectually threatened. This happens when I’m not registering it as a threat situation for myself at all, and therefore not looking at it combatively. To put this another way, I have a heightened awareness of what an opponent is, and I’m much clearer now as to when I’m not facing one.

I think maybe there are two different modes of combative response. One is defensive, arising from fear. It’s the “Are you threatening me?!” stance. Practicing warriorship has shifted me out of that mode and into one where combat arises from either joy (e.g. martial practice) or necessity (response to real danger). And because practicing combat for joy has made me stronger, I have a clearer sense of what real danger is and is not, and I don’t readily go defensive. I don’t escalate non-conflict situations into conflict as often; I think it’s because I know what conflict is for now. There’s a conservation of energy that becomes instinctive to a fighter. An awareness of what it costs to fight, and a strong instinct to reserve it for when it matters and is useful.

This is a profound shift, and its effects are subtle and pervasive. It’s why I recommend at least some martial arts practice to any woman as an antidote to the internalized effects of living in rape culture. I think many of us don’t realize how deeply and quietly defensive our orientation to the world is. We don’t necessarily know that we are living and responding from fear. I had no idea just how much I was on the defensive until I wasn’t any more. I can’t tell you how liberating this is, and how beneficial it has been for me on every level – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. And this just year one.

The joy will come.

Something seems to happen at the one-year point; at least, it did for me. I underwent a shift and I’m not really sure what triggered it. Suddenly I’m lighter in the fight. It seemed as though I broke through the prison of my own mind and instead of thinking about the fight I’m in, worrying about it, I’m just fighting. This felt huge because the mind is never quick enough to figure out what move to make by thinking. Action has to come from the body. When it does, it feels like joy. Like the clouds break above you and the battle-light shines on you and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s glorious. The battle ecstasy. I knew it was there, but it took me a whole year of fighting before I got to experience it.

Fighting is an art, of course. You have to become conversant in the language before you can channel poetry in it.

So my observation for people at the beginning of fighting practice is patience and good humor. The first months of fighting can just suck. You might feel like an idiot a lot of the time (I did). I’m here to tell you, it gets better. Any learned physical skill is largely about continually showing up. Combat sports involve a lot of retraining of instinctual reactions. For example, it takes longer than you might think to get over the flinch reaction. I’ve been fighting for a year, and I still sometimes catch myself closing my eyes when someone is coming at my face. That irritates me to no end when it happens, because I’m not actually mentally scared of getting hit. But I’m an animal and there is no quick fix. Retraining biological patterns is hard. So keep showing up, and forgive yourself for being an animal and requiring time and practice.

Stop fighting yourself.

You can’t really start fighting for real until you stop fighting yourself. Partly, this is physical: the first several months is a constant struggle with adjusting, trading out, refitting the armor. Being comfortable in your armor is more important than you might think. It isn’t just the distraction of things biting or chafing – it’s a matter of fundamentally being able to trust your armor, and therefore able to be fully present in the fight.

And this is a mental martial art, too – and this is where I think this point applies to any martial art, or to life in general. In a fight, you have only so many points of attention available to you – and they need to all be on fighting. If you have to spend attention on internal battles, on self-doubt, fear, concern for how others are perceiving you, worrying about winning, or anything else, you have less to give to the fight. This also tracks back to my earlier observation about wasting energy fighting things that aren’t actually opponents.

The victory condition.

The nature of being a beginner fighter is that you are going to lose a lot of fights, for a long, long time. You can not attach your ego, identity, or self-image to winning, or you will burn out and get discouraged. One of the best training concepts I’ve heard is the personal victory condition. You set your own victory condition: Today, my victory condition is to successfully employ that one shot I’ve been practicing. Or: Today, my victory condition is to not get killed because of that one particular mistake I keep making. Or: Today, my victory condition is to do my footwork correctly. Because as a beginner, success doesn’t mean being able to beat everyone you fight; as a beginner, success is moving forward in your training. I cannot convey how helpful this concept has been for me.

You’re not as fragile as you might think.

Women get taught to think of ourselves as delicate (or at least that we’re supposed to be). The female skeleton, on average, is a bit physically lighter. But we aren’t more fragile. Our systems are just as resilient, our bodies just as adaptable. If our nutrition is good, our bones are just as strong. Before I started fighting, I was one of those people who bruised at the slightest nudge – I’d always be finding little bruises that I couldn’t even remember getting from accidental bumps. I thought that once I started fighting I’d be black and blue all over, constantly. But something else happened – my body has hardened itself from the inside. Now I’m often surprised when I take my armor off how few bruises I have. So I have this beautiful new trust in my body. You might not be strong when you begin, but fighting will make you strong.

When I started getting my armor together, the men around me told me I needed to put metal all over my body. They looked at my slender arms and light body frame and told me that I would literally get broken if I didn’t heavily armor every place I could. Again, we were so sure I was fragile and needed protecting. So I have all this metal in my kit, and it becomes hard to move like I should. Because when a 125-pound woman puts on 60 pounds of armor, she’s adding nearly half her body weight. When a 200-pound man puts on the same armor, he’s adding less than a third to his body weight. The proportional difference in what you are carrying matters.

So this is another philosophical point, too. Protection costs freedom of movement; be aware of the balance you’re striking. Again, defensiveness is costly. It wasn’t until I got accustomed to fighting that I learned where and to what extend I actually need to protect myself. Fear will cause us to spend way more energy than we need to fighting shadows and building armor around ourselves.

Lessons from the battlefield.

Extracting the spiritual learning from these experiences, this is the core of what I’ve learned:

Warriorship is the way of strength which brings liberation from the way of fear. Paradoxically, its gift is peace.

The Voice of the Sacrificed

This week brought my 37th birthday, and with it the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

Yes, it was my good fortune ten years ago, to watch as my country preemptively invaded another and lit its skies on fire with “shock and awe”, on my birthday. I remember it vividly.  Though I knew the war wasn’t launched on my birthday for any reasons to do with me, somehow that coinciding still did make it more personal and even more unsettling to me than it already was. My oldest friend had recently joined the army and I knew she would soon be deployed there; I’d been worrying about that all winter as the war loomed inevitably closer. And then it launched on my birthday.

That war felt terribly intimate, as though it had attached itself to me; as though by inaugurating on my name-day it had taken my name and was ruthlessly marching its destructive way in my name. Well, it was. Not just me, of course. It was destruction in all our names, all American citizens.

And I suppose it also felt intimate because I was eyeballs deep in a personal moral struggle over my devotion to a war Goddess. As the country stomped its bombastic way toward war, I had been engaging in a series of deep meditations communicating with the Morrígan. I was confused, scared, disturbed. I had always felt some unease about my devotional relationship with a war Goddess – had wondered if on some level I was condoning the brutality of war by worshiping Her. Now those questions haunted me irrepressibly as the war began. I went to my altar and prayed, chanted, begged for answers. She spoke.

I recorded my memories of those conversations in my journal (to the extent that direct nonverbal communications with a divinity can be translated into words). Here are a few fragments:

Why have I been chosen to have this connection with you? You know I am ill at ease with your warlike aspect.

It is in your blood. You are descended from invaders, violent warring Celts. Warfare and violence are part of who you are. You cannot run from this. You must understand it, and it is through me that you can understand this part of your being.

I am troubled about this war, about the justice of it. How can we tell a just war from an unjust war?

There are no just wars. For each individual who experiences it, war is an injustice. It is an injustice to those who suffer and die when they should have lived; it is an injustice to those who find themselves doing violence to their human kin in the service of war. War is always an injustice. The Gods cannot tell you whether your war is right or wrong by the standards of your justice; you must count the cost and choose, though you are blind. And sometimes it will come on you without your choosing, and that too is an injustice. Your task, when you do choose to make war, is to pursue it swiftly and strike with certainty. You must recognize that every life destroyed is in your hands and it is up to you to make that sacrifice worth something.

The reason your ancestors revered their enemies so much is this: when you slay your opponent in battle, the spilling of their blood is a sacrifice to your sword. It is required that you honor their sacrifice by dedicating it to a worthy purpose.

The law of human life is that you are only capable of solving your problems within the set of ways your culture contains. I arose in the form you know me among the old Celts. Their culture was shaped and defined by tribal warfare. You, and your culture, are the inheritors of this in many ways. When you alter your culture to contain a different set of possible actions, then you may be able to solve your problems without bloodshed. Until then, I will always be present. My role in war is to make it swift and terrible, and effective; to carry for you the knowledge that you could learn from your actions if you choose to listen; and to mourn the cost.

Well, ten years. Have we learned the lessons of war? Have we made good on the blood we spilled, the lives we sacrificed? The war Goddess teaches that life is both precious and expendable – that blood is a mighty currency. Several thousand young American lives have been sacrificed, and countless Iraqi lives. Did we spend them well? Did we make heroes, or just corpses? What have we bought with that terrible flood of bright, bloody coin?

Is the world more free from brutal dictators with cruel habits and rumored nuclear ambitions?

Are the streets of Baghdad, of the towns and cities of Iraq safer for unarmed people to live civilian lives?

Is the Middle East a more stable and democratic place?

Are the Iraqi people enjoying the liberty we insisted on buying them with their own blood?

If all these things were true, would the price still seem too high?

I will not even try to answer these questions myself. We have been fed volumes in answer by the war-leaders in government, by the military-industrial elites and their pocket-congressmen, by the corporate media, by everyone with an opinion.Perhaps we should instead try listening, for once, to the voices of the sacrificed.

Dying Iraq veteran Tomas Young wrote these words in an open letter to the architects of the Iraq war:

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I urge you to read the whole letter, and the accompanying article about his life. These are words of power, coming from one who is facing his own death and who knows full well that he has been sacrificed, that his life has been spilled on an altar.

What are we feeding with these sacrifices? Tomas Young believes he has been sacrificed to greed. Who among us is willing to dismiss his authority to speak about the meaning of his own death? I think we are compelled to listen. I have written here before on my feelings about the Gods our war machine is feeding. Tomas Young offered himself in sacrifice to protect his country, and instead his blood was spilled on a different altar. That, my friends, is a grave dishonor.

I read Young’s letter on my birthday, the tenth anniversary, and again the war feels personal. Because we are all part of this sacrifice – we are all implicated, no matter how vigorously we may have protested, no matter who we voted for, no matter whether we support the troops by hoo-rahing the war or by demanding that they be brought home. We are all implicated. We all have Tomas Young’s blood on our hands. His dishonor is our own.

We cannot undo the waste of blood that has occurred. But let us at least commit ourselves to never dishonoring a sacrifice again. Can we do that, at least?

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.

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

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?