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Month: December 2012

31
Dec - 12

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

 

28
Dec - 12

Helvetios

My friends have asked me to write about my epic moment with Eluveitie, so here we go.

Eluveitie, for those who aren’t familiar, is a Celtic folk metal band out of Switzerland. But here’s the thing about them: they aren’t just a metal band, they are a Celtophilic cultural phenomenon. The music fuses traditional Celtic folk instruments (uillean pipes, fiddles, flutes, hurdy-gurdy, bodhran) with powerful metal grooves. Songs are written in a mix of ancient Gaulish and English – some of them including actual ancient Gaulish magickal, religious, and poetic texts set to their own music.

Naturally, as you can probably guess, I’m a mad fangirl. Epic folk metal music in the ancient Celtic mother tongue? Seriously, it doesn’t get more bad-ass than that.

During their recent North American tour, they ran a contest to give one winner at each city the chance to meet the band and get a music lesson from a bandmember on the instrument of their choice. Amazingly, even though I don’t play an instrument, I was selected for the Oakland show. In my contest entry, I wrote, “Would love to talk to songwriters about the Gaulish poetry used in your songs, as well as the history behind the Helvetios album.”

So on November 30th, I walked backstage before the show with Chrigel Glanzmann, the lead singer and lyric-writer, along with my stepdaughter and Brennos, a fellow Coru priest. Chrigel was courteous and kindly with my million questions about his songwriting, resources for Gaulish language and history, ancient Celtic magickal and religious practice, the Gallic wars, and cultural survival.

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Meeting with Chrigel before the show

We spoke of the destruction of Gaul following Roman subjugation. The massive bloodshed – which I’ve written of here before: the Celtic homeland was depopulated to a third of its original population size by Caesar’s sword. We spoke of the cultural loss that followed. Many of my questions related to ancient Celtic cult practice, the nature of Gaulish religion and magickal practice. He looked at me bemused when I told him I was attempting to revive aspects of Gaulish religious practice. “But it’s not possible… the religion was not documented before it was destroyed,” he said (in paraphrase – the interview was a month ago). “There is very little that we know.” I warranted that I did in fact have little to go on, but was doing my best. I sensed that it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to him to meet with a fan as devoted to Gaulish culture and language as myself. At the end of the interview, he said, “I’m glad people are trying to bring back the language and the culture.”

For Chrigel and the band, this is not just a metal music project, but a celebration of their own ancestral heritage. He and several bandmembers hail from Switzerland, from the Alpine plateau and foothill territory that was once the tribal lands of the Helvetii, a powerful Celtic tribe. He spoke eloquently in his accented English about the Helvetii and other Celtic tribes as the ancestors of the Swiss people, for whom the country in its native tongue is named: Confœderatio Helvetica. That although the Gaulish language died 1500 years ago, he feels a dedication to keeping it alive in music, as a poetic language and a vehicle for the memory of a people. He spoke of cultural survival — that although the Celtic roots of Swiss culture have been obscured by more recent Germanic influences from the early modern period, the Celtic bones remain within the culture.

He cited some fascinating examples of this from Swiss folk culture – much of what was recorded in the medieval and Enlightenment period as local charms and superstitions were in fact the remnant of ancient Celtic religio-magickal practice, translated through the centuries in the underlayers of folk culture beneath Roman and Christian overculture. The most fascinating example he gave was alpsäge, ‘alp-blessing’. This was a practice of the Gaulish tribal religion whereby magickal incantations were sung from high places in the mountainous Alpine landscape, for blessing and protection of cattle and other important tribal resources. The incantations were sung from heights in order to carry across distances and to generate echoes from the mountains, which were understood as the voice of the land spirits responding in support of the incantation. Beautiful, no? This practice has translated into modern times as…. you guessed it, yodeling. Chrigel speculated that before yodeling lost its soul, when it was practiced as a form of magickal incantation, it must have sounded quite different and more melodic.

After the interview, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. The conversation reminded me of how much was lost following the ethnocide in Gaul. How little remains to us of the mother culture and mother tongue of the Celtic peoples. And yet…

Come the night, when the crowd roared and Eluveitie took the stage. When the mad, fierce, raging joy poured out of the musicians and swept through the crowd, churning the sea of people into a frenzy of violent celebration in the mosh pit. When the impassioned, screaming songs were sung out in the ancient language. Songs full of raw, deep emotion, telling the story of the Gallic wars and the nation that was, with joy, with pride, with rage, with anguish, with heart, the sounds of Celtic instruments swelling on a thunderous tide of metal. Songs of all that was lost, yet I could not help feeling how alive we were, how full of pride, how the flame of the Celtic spirit blazed in us in answer to the power in that music. Come the night, I felt the lost nation of Gaul singing through her descendants on the stage, echoing back from the ecstatic crowd. Everything lost is found again.

I don’t have video from our show, but here’s Eluveitie playing “Helvetios” and “Luxtos” live in Switzerland, March 2012.

22
Dec - 12

Faith in the Incandescent Sun

Inspired by conversations with friends about the Winter Solstice, and the old notion that we Pagans keep vigil fires lit on the Solstice in the belief that the Sun would not rise again unless we did: I post this poem for you. I wrote it for the Winter Solstice a few years ago.

Solstice Night

I have heard it said the sun will not rise again
if we sleep, if we
do not keep the vigil fire lit.
I wonder at this certainty:
Where the sun journeys in the long dark,
on what road traveling down the hidden ways,
can my signal fire reach him?
And whose voice is it echoing
in the black well of time
that turns the burning face of the sun
toward this earth again?

Long moments wane in the still night.
I am certain of few things:
Winter’s hand chills the door of my house.
It would be a mean season
but for these resolute, ardent
fires in our hearts and hearths.
I cannot tell if this fire warms the blind reaches
of winter’s deep cloak where the sun sleeps.
But I know the longing for heat and joy brings
us here to wake through the watches of the night,
not alone, but kindling together
our faith in the incandescent sun.

I am certain of the nameless age this earth
has turned always, ripe to cold to ripe again;
through which age if the sun had not
risen faithfully, aeon without number,
with yet no human tribe to call him home,
I would not now sit here burning the bones
of trees nursed from nut to leaf to arch by
this sun through long seasons, never failing
to rise when the earth called for day.

No, I think it is not we who will rekindle the hidden sun.
We keep the vigil fire in the hearth to
keep vigilant the flame that illuminates the heart.
It is we who have departed through long
toil and forgetting,
we who need calling back from shadow to rejoice with new eyes,
naked from gazing on the darkness,
now seeing as if new the sun’s radiant daily birth.

It is not the people calling who compel
the sun to wing back toward the spring,
however sweet may be our longing or how
bright may be our song;
this my heartbeat tells me.

For I know what impels the sun to bloom again each year:
It is the force that drives the rushing tide, that splits
the nut, that lifts both sap and blood;
it is the thunder of life surging through us all,
the urgent, wild, unyielding hunger to rise,
to rise again.

(c) 2008 Morpheus Ravenna

18
Dec - 12

Votum Solvit

Lately I’ve been hearing statements like this one: You don’t make a deal with the Morrigan. Or, similarly: Bargaining is for demons, not Gods.

There seems to be a belief out there that because the Gods are mighty and powerful, we can’t or shouldn’t attempt to negotiate with them. That when we have something to ask of them we are supplicants, and must accept whatever unknown thing may be asked of us later in the relationship. This view has been articulated a couple of times recently by one of the bloggers I read, Druid John Beckett. But I’m not picking on John; I’ve seen this expressed elsewhere and frequently, which is why I’m addressing it today. In particular with regard to the Morrigan, the perception seems to be that She’s a scary, powerful, terrible Goddess and so it is unwise to negotiate: the advice is to ask, and ask nicely, and hope She doesn’t demand anything too painful in return.

I respect John, but I’m here to offer another view. I am here to tell you that you can, and you should, negotiate with the Morrigan. It’s absolutely because She’s as powerful and as demanding as She is, that you should be 100% on your toes about cutting a deal with Her. Yes, She must be approached with respect. Yes, if She wants something from you, She’ll have it one way or another. That’s exactly why you MUST negotiate for terms that are safe for you and support your needs.

It is true that the Gods have powers we do not; the relationship is inherently one of unequal power. We do often relate to them as devoted servants. But this is a crucial point: We are not slaves without agency or will of our own in the relationship. When we enter into a devotional relationship with a God, it is an act of choice on our part: we are entering service as an act of devoted will. Your devotion is coin – it is empowered surrender, of the same kind that we offer a lover when we surrender to their embrace. Any relationship has terms that are negotiated, however subtly. When that relationship is with a being of greater power and insight than you, all the more necessary to be utterly articulate about what is being offered and what is expected.

Let us remember that the Morrigan is, above and primal to everything else that She is, a Goddess of Sovereignty. To accept an unnamed and unspecified obligation is to cede a bit of our sovereignty. Would the Lady of Sovereignty wish for you to give yours away without setting a price on it? Would She respect you if you did, even to Her?

Friends, the moment when She asks you to surrender to Her is the moment when She is testing your sovereignty. Your willingness to treasure it, defend it, obligate it only in exchange for what is truly worthy of it. Yes, you bloody well do make a deal with the Morrigan. Please tell me you will, if you deal with Her at all.

Those who know me might say of me that I’m hardly one to talk on setting a price for surrender to the Goddess. I’ve formally and by oath dedicated my life and being to the Morrigan; She holds my life and my death. It’s true: When I took that oath, I didn’t hold anything back. But did I negotiate my terms ahead of that oath? Hell yes I did. I made my needs very clear to Her, and they were not trivial things. I didn’t kneel and ask. I stood and set terms. She blessed my terms, held me to Her and told me I and my kin would be under Her protection. Then I knelt and gave Her my gift of loyalty and surrender. She is a Queen, after all. The dignity of fealty is something She understands.

The practice of making deals with the Gods goes right back to ancient times. Ever heard of a votive candle? The term ‘votive’ means pertaining to a vow or dedication (votum). Ancient Pagans throughout the Mediterranean and Celtic worlds were in the habit of making little deals with their Gods all the time. Help me with this thing I need, and I will offer you some extra act of devotion. Help me win this battle, carry this child to birth safely, survive this illness, succeed in this business venture. I will donate this money to your temple, light this candle for you, offer you this period of service, build this shrine for you. We know this because it was common practice to commemorate these vows in physical dedications and inscriptions, and innumerable votive artifacts remain. One of the most common forms of devotional offering in thanks for help expected or received was the votive offering, or ex-voto. A special plaque, altar, vase, jewel, or other devotional object would be purchased or commissioned, and given to a temple or shrine, with a dedication inscribed, such as: “Ex voto suscepto …”, “From the vow made by [the dedicator]”. We can assume that there would have been many forms of votive dedication which did not leave physical evidence, such as acts of service and devotion undertaken in payment of a vow where a commemorative inscription was never used.

Here is a beautiful thing: A record of the devotion of a Gaulish woman, from the era of Roman Gaul, after the conquest.

Votive altar dedicated to Cathubodua

The inscription on the altar reads, “Cathuboduae Aug Servilia Terentia V S L M“. Cathubodua is a Gaulish deity name which translates ‘Battle Raven’ (or Crow). ‘Aug‘ is a shorthand of ‘augustae‘, an honorific. The formula ‘V S L M’ represents a votive convention for the fulfillment of a vow, “votum solvit libens merito“. Translated, the inscription reads, “To the August Cathubodua, Servilia Terentia paid her vow, willingly and deservedly.”

Votum solvit libens merito. A story unfolds. This was a woman, Servilia Terentia, who lived, who spoke to the Gods. Who made a vow to Cathubodua, and in fulfillment of her vow, she had this stone altar commissioned, inscribed, and dedicated. She was a Roman citizen with a dual Latin name who had enough means to pay for an altar to be built, but who worshiped a Celtic Goddess. Servilia Terentia made a deal with the Battle Raven. Why? We don’t know, but she fulfilled her vow. Willingly and deservedly, the inscription tells us. Servilia Terentia felt her devotion was merited and repaid.

Votum solvit libens merito. This is devotion. This is what devotion means, quite literally: The word derives from ‘votum‘, a vow. Devotion, both as term and as concept, traces its origin to this ancient understanding of reciprocity, the exchange of offerings, acts of kinship that established the bonds of loyalty and mutual support between humans and Gods. We have always made deals with the Gods. Do not be afraid to state your terms.

08
Dec - 12

Blood Sacrifice

Yes, the topic I’m writing about today is blood sacrifice. Do I have your attention?

First, I have this to share with you. The Coru Cathubodua (the Morrigan priesthood I serve with) has joined forces with Solar Cross Temple to organize a blood donation effort for the upcoming PantheaCon 2013 Pagan convention, in connection with our Morrigan devotional ritual also planned there. We are encouraging convention participants who are able, to donate blood in the Morrigan’s name as an offering to Her and an act of kinship with our fellow humans who need blood donations. (Or, if you happen not to want to give in Her name, feel free to give in the name of your own deities, or just give.) Blood donors at the convention will receive special badge ribbons so you can proudly display your heroic gift and encourage others to do likewise, such as: “I GAVE HERO’S BLOOD” and “I GAVE BLOOD FOR THE MORRIGAN”.

We are working with Blood Centers of the Pacific as our blood collection agency. For Saturday and Sunday of the convention, a bloodmobile will be on site receiving blood donations raised by this effort. In order to ensure that the Blood Center can allocate enough staff to serve the need, it’s best if donors can sign up in advance for their blood donation appointment. You can sign up online, even with a guess as to what time you want to donate – it’s easy to reschedule your appointment online if you should need to do so when the PantheaCon schedule is announced.

The website is bloodheroes.com. To sign up for a donation appointment for the PantheaCon drive, go to the website and register yourself as a donor. Then go to the ‘Donate Blood’ page, and enter our sponsor code ‘PCon’. You can then select your preferred appointment time for Saturday or Sunday during the Con.

The earlier folks sign up to donate, the more staff capacity the Blood Center will be able to allocate, so please sign up early, even if you expect to have to change your appointment.

Why do this? The simple answer is that blood donation is a medical necessity, and countless lives are saved by donated blood every single day. You may not have money to donate to causes, but you can help your human kin immensely by donating blood.

To delve a little more into the subject of this post, there is a spiritual basis for the act as well. Our initial inspiration for this blood drive came during a creative meeting when the group of us (the Coru Priesthood and Thorn of Solar Cross) were meditating on our theme for the Morrigan devotional ritual at the con. In meditation, the images that kept coming up for me and others were blood and kinship. The Morrigan wants blood, I thought to myself. Surprise, surprise.

Blood and kinship. In some contexts, the two are synonymous. We say that we share blood with someone if we are familially related to them, if we are ‘blood kin’. Sharing blood is also understood as a way to establish kinship where it does not exist from birth: the old blood brotherhood or sisterhood. Why does this work (or to look at it another way), why is it believed to work? Because our blood is the essence of our life – it is the vehicle and condensed liquid form of life force. To share that is to be kin.

In ancient times, blood was also understood by many peoples as the ultimate gift to the Gods. Because, again, blood is life force, and many ancient peoples believed that the Gods needed to be fed life force in order to maintain the kinship bond between human and divine. Thus we see substantial evidence that the Pagan Celts practiced blood sacrifice through the sacralized killing of human and animal victims and offering their life force to the Gods. We moderns like to avert our gaze from this, and often prefer to skim over that aspect of Celtic culture, but it is there. Bodies preserved in peat bogs showing every sign of ritual killing. Altars with traces of blood remaining embedded in the stone. Contemporary accounts by observers pervasively describing the sacrifices.

I feel it’s important to tease out the threads here. I think it is right and good that we have abandoned human sacrifice, but I also think that these ancient religious practices still show us something important about how to feed our kinship with the Gods. Undoubtedly, there are many ways to feed that kinship without spilling blood: libations, prayer and praise, food offerings, acts of dedication, effort in Their names; and endlessly more. And yet, undoubtedly the most intimate of offerings must be the life force of the body. That is the powerful truth I’d like to bring forward from the ancient practice.

We can offer life force to the Gods directly and intimately, without ending the life that gives it, and while upholding our modern ethic that says only the owner of that blood has the right to shed it. And here is one way. Offering your own blood in Her name (or in the name of your own Gods) while giving it to sustain the life of the people. To sacrifice means, literally, ‘to make sacred’. And it also makes kinship.

Note: There are eligibility restrictions on who can give blood. Here is a link to find out if you are eligible. As you may note, there is a very severe restriction listed prohibiting any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood. As I understand it, that rule has been applied to anyone who has had sex with such a man as well. Many people feel this is a homophobic and excessive restriction, and a petition will be on site at the donor information table, along with information about how you can help in the effort to change this ruling.

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