Books & Media
[av_font_icon icon='z' font='Banshee' style='' caption='' link='product_cat,145' linktarget='' size='150px' position='center' color='#ffffff' custom_class='mega-menu-link-icon'][/av_font_icon]
Runes
[av_font_icon icon='B' font='Banshee2' style='' caption='' link='product_cat,106' linktarget='' size='140px' position='center' color='#ffffff' custom_class='mega-menu-link-icon'][/av_font_icon]
Talismans
[av_font_icon icon='N' font='Banshee' style='' caption='' link='product_cat,104' linktarget='' size='150px' position='center' color='#ffffff' custom_class='mega-menu-link-icon'][/av_font_icon]
T-Shirts
[av_font_icon icon='A' font='Banshee2' style='' caption='' link='product_cat,118' linktarget='' size='150px' position='center' color='#ffffff' custom_class='mega-menu-link-icon'][/av_font_icon]

The Shieldmaiden Blog

05
Sep - 19

The poetics of sorcery

This post contains an excerpt from the chapter on poetic and verbal enchantment in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. The full draft chapter was shared with patrons – I’ll be continuing to post excerpts from the work in progress here. It’s in rough unedited form, so reader beware.


The Irish poetics that is so richly represented in the medieval literature arises from a deep ritual tradition that is threaded throughout the Celtic cultures, as well as the rest of the Indo-European family. These poetics are equally central when it comes to magic and sorcery in the Celtic context. We find a profound relationship between Irish rosc poetry, as well as other metrical forms, and the Celtic curse texts of Gaul and Britain, as expressions of a distinctly Celtic poetic magic.

Those curse texts of Gaul and Britain represent an interesting fusion of Celtic with Mediterranean practices. As a literate form of magic built upon inscribing magical formula on metal tablets, the magical technology was adopted into Celtic cultural practices through contact with Greek and Roman customs. However, in the language of the texts, an indigenous Celtic poetics emerges that is recognizable to us from the study of Irish poetry. In the words of Bernard Mees, “the reason why the Celtic curses which are metrical seem more removed from the [classical Latin curse tradition] is because there was an indigenous Celtic tradition that curses, as spells, were things that were usually sung.”

This relationship between poetry and magic is also encapsulated in the term bricht and its cognates in different Celtic languages. In Irish, the word bricht means “charm, spell”, but also refers to a specific type of poetic meter, or the poem or spoken charm itself. Bernard Mees sees in this double meaning “evidence for a key Celtic relationship between magic and metrical form.” The importance of this dual concept of poetry as spell is also represented in the phrase brichtu ban, “spells of women”, preserved in multiple medieval Irish texts – most famously in the context of the protection charm called the Lorica of St. Patrick, invoking protection against “the spells of women and smiths and druids.” Its importance is also signaled by its preservation across time and distinct cultures, as a precisely cognate phrase bnanom brictom is invoked in a Gaulish magical tablet from the 1st c CE, deposited several hundred years earlier in a tomb in France. This phrase seems to have persisted as a way to describe a class of poetic sorcery especially associated with women.

The poet and seer Fedelm is introduced to us in the Táin Bó Cúailnge; she identifies herself as banfili, “poetess”, and appears in wealthy clothing, armed, and standing in a chariot from which position she chants poetry. She is clearly identified as a person with Otherworldly status or powers, having “three pupils in each of her eyes.” Her name is traces from the proto-Celtic root *uid– “to know”, with a connotation of knowledge gained by visionary sight. Her name is cognate to the Gaulish Uidlua, attested as a title for a female enchanter in a Gaulish curse-text. Fedelm is also identified, by Medb, as a banfaíth, the term for a female practitioner of the art of prophecy, and cognate to the Gaulish vates, diviners and sacrificers. Fedelm seems to represent an Irish reflex of a very ancient role or archetype, the high-status female seer and enchantress whose poetry reveals Otherworldly knowledge and power.


For access to the full draft chapter on poetics in Celtic sorcery (around 3,000 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about spiritwork in sorcery? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

02
Aug - 19

Spirit alliances in Celtic sorcery

This post contains a couple of excerpts from the chapter on working with spirits and spirit alliances in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. I’m sharing an introductory excerpt, and a bit of the section on spirits in weapon sorcery. The full draft chapter was shared with patrons – I’ll be continuing to post excerpts from the work in progress here. It’s in rough unedited form, so reader beware.


Families and retinues of spirits

We often find spirits aligned into groups or families, and these collective relationships help direct how we work with these spirits. Some groupings of spirits are rooted in ordinary human relationships, such as the ancestors of a family line, clan, or tribe. Others may form around relationship to landscape and environment; such as groups of spirits relating to waters and rivers, sky and weather spirits, spirits in plants, stones, and other natural land features, and spirits of place. The tradition also strongly features collectives of Otherworldly spirits; such as fairies, sprites, Otherworldly creatures or monsters, and the “terrors” or battle spirits. Relationships with animal spirits are also prominent in the tradition and may be personal, familial, tribal, or shaped by a person’s role.  

Within the realm of spirits, the gods are also an organizing force. As with many polytheistic and animistic traditions, when we look at how spirits appear in the myths and folklore we find that Celtic deities tend to be associated with groups of assorted spirits who in some way share aspects of that deity’s nature and powers, or may represent a minor aspect of their presence or identity. There is indication that the human dead, in some circumstances, may become part of a deity’s retinue in the afterlife. In contemporary polytheist communities, these collectives of spirits are often referred to as the “retinue” of a deity – those spirits who are connected or aligned with them, tend to appear alongside them, and may help accomplish the work of that deity. When we enter into relationship with gods, these retinues of spirits often become available for us to work with as well. The Celtic spiritual traditions provide several fascinating and well-described examples of deities with retinues that we can study for knowledge of working with spirit collectives.

Animism and reciprocity

Spirit practices in the Celtic traditions arise out of an animistic worldview within which spirits are understood and recognized as living, sovereign beings. The model of spirit work here is distinct from the Western ceremonial tradition of conjuration, commanding, and binding spirits to do the magician’s bidding. Rather than dominating spirits, most examples of working with spirits we find in the Celtic cultures and literatures are built upon entering into reciprocal relationships. These relationships proceed from a relatively equal footing, and often arise out of long term bonds between practitioners and spirits. Offerings and sacrifices are a recurring theme whereby reciprocity is enacted, sometimes framed as payment or tribute that is owed to spirits. In other instances, we see dedicated service given to spirits, their associated deities, or the places they call home, providing the basis for relationship and the ability to call on those spirits. Relationships with spirits are not only reciprocal, but in many cases are contractual in nature, and these contracts with Otherworld powers form the backbone of many myths, folktales, and folk practices.


Weapon sorcery and enspirited objects

It should not surprise us to find within these animist cultures a strong interest in enspirited objects. The Irish literature has a great fondness in particular for warrior gear enspirited by spells or inhabited by “demons”. Even where weapons are not explicitly described as enspirited, they are often named, which is an indicator of being seen to contain a being with personhood. We also find some material evidence that aligns with the practices described in the literature.

Many passages in the literature describe spirits or demons residing in weapons and armor, such as this, from the Táin (First Recension): “Such was the closeness of their encounter that sprites and goblins and spirits of the glen and demons of the air screamed from the rims of their shields and from the hilts of their swords and from the butt-ends of their spears.” The beings seem to be not just present around the warriors in the story, but specifically inhabiting the weapons and armor. This reflects a belief that weapons, armor, and other gear could be inhabited by spirits and that those spirits involved themselves in the work of the weapon or the events taking place around those who carried them. In the above example, the particular type of spirits that are inhabiting these arms are spirits of the battlefield, showing a functional relationship guiding the type or family of spirits understood to belong to such armaments, or chosen to inhabit them.

Artifacts from across the Celtic cultures, particularly the exquisite metalwork for which the Celtic peoples are so famous, show that it was common to adorn valuable items with figures. Items of armor from early Celtic cultures, such as helmets and shields, are often found with animal forms sculpted on them – ravens, eagles, boars, etc. The great carnyces (war horns) were often fashioned with the heads of boars, serpents or wolves. And of course, the anthropomorphic sword is so common from the Iron Age that it is considered an archaeological type – swords whose hilts were sculpted to look like little persons, more or less stylized to show simple arms and legs and often also a face with human features. Other valuable items not specifically related to violence were also often adorned with animal or anthropomorphic features, such as faces on the handles and grips of cauldrons and drinking vessels.  Many archaeologists have interpreted these to indicate such an animistic belief in spirits inhabiting objects.

The Irish literature makes it clear that this is not a fanciful interpretation on the part of modern archaology, because the belief in spirits inhabiting objects is made explicit there. It also makes clear that this is not simply the base animism of believing that everything is alive – we are talking about a set of ritual practices by which objects were intentionally enspirited. Fragments of this ritual culture of object sorcery are preserved in various manuscripts and tales, and when we piece them together, a fairly clear picture of a system of spirit work emerges.


For access to the full draft chapter on spirits in Celtic sorcery (around 5,900 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about spiritwork in sorcery? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

30
Jun - 19

Poetic Armor

This is a snippet from the chapter on apotropaic (protective) magic in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. The full draft chapter was shared with patrons in May – I’ll be continuing to post excerpts from the work in progress here. It’s in rough unedited form, so reader beware.


Loricas & poetic shields

It should not surprise us to find verbal protection charms occupying a prominent place in Celtic magics, given what we know about the importance of poetry across all aspects of the tradition. In this section, we’ll look at lorica prayers and other forms of poetic spiritual armors.

Loricas are part of a class of protection prayers that invoke “armor” to shield the person; the word lorica is from Latin, often translated as “breastplate”, and more generally referring to armors of various kinds worn by Roman soldiers. Lorica prayers, and similar poetic armors, typically use verbal incantation to invoke divine protection, drawing these protections specifically to each of the parts of the body to build spiritual “armor”of protection over the person.  

From the Lorica of St. Fursa:

“The arms of God be around my shoulders
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
The conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s church in my hands,
The service of God and the neighbour in my feet,
A home for God in my heart,
And to God, the Father of all, my entire being.”

As this example shows, most extant examples of lorica prayers are generally Christian in framing and in the type of divine protection being invoked. It is not known if lorica prayers of this sort were known in a pre-Christian context. Some scholars posit lorica prayers as a hybridization of Celtic and Christian cultural elements, and that their use originated in Roman Britain, possibly as protection against pagan sorceries.  It has been observed that the overall structure of lorica prayers follows a similar pattern to that of the typical Celtic and Mediterranean curse tablet texts: invocation of divine aid, followed by the detailing of the body parts to be affected, and ending with a closure that may take the form of a pact with the divine entity invoked for aid. In view of these patterns, scholars have suggested that the lorica prayer developed as a Christianized protection magic, following a familiar and culturally ingrained magical formula while weaving in the religious iconography of the new faith.

Another way in which lorica prayers appear to inherit aspects of pre-Christian cosmologies lies in the iteration of the parts of the body. Many Celtic cosmological myths, as part of their inheritance in the Indo-European culture family, contain similar litanies of body parts in the context of the creation of the physical world from the body of a primordial sacrificed being. These litanies convey a cosmological construct in which the world itself is life created from life, matter from matter, following the sacrifice of a first divine being. They often follow a pattern of sympathetic linking of similar things: earth made from the being’s flesh, mountains from its bones, plants from its hair, and the like. In a similar vein, lorica prayers often sympathetically link divine qualities to the parts of the body being protected. In a sense, this type of prayer invokes a microcosmic mirroring of the divine act of cosmological creation into the building of spiritual armor.  

Other types of poetic shields exist which invoke more general spiritual shielding and protection, rather than focusing on building armor to a litany of specific body parts. A famous example of this type of protection prayer is the Spell of Long Life, also called the Deer’s Cry:

May Fer-Fio’s cry protect me upon the road, as I make my circuit of the Plain of Life.
I call on the seven daughters of the sea,
who shape the threads of long-lived children.
Three deaths be taken from me,
three ages be given to me,
seven waves [of plenty] poured for me.
May I not be molested on my journey
in my radiant breastplate / Breastplate of Lasrén without stain.
May my name not be pledged in vain;
May I have long life;
may death not come to me until I am old.
I call on my Silver Champion,
who has not died and will not die;
may time be granted to me
of the quality of bronze.
May my double be slain
may my law be ennobled,
may my strength be increased,
may my tomb not be readied,
may I not die on my journey,
may my return be ensured to me.
May the two-headed serpent not attack me,
nor the hard pale worm,
nor the senseless beetle.
May no thief attack me,
nor a company of women,
nor a company of warriors.
May I have increase of time
from the king of all.
I call on Senach of the seven ages,
whom fairy women reared
on the breasts of good fortune.
May my seven candles not be quenched.
I am an invincible fortress,
I am an immovable rock,
I am a precious stone,
I am the symbol of seven treasures.
May I be [the man of] hundreds [of possessions],
hundreds of years,  
each hundred in its [proper] time.
I summon my good fortune to me;  
may the grace of the Holy Spirit be on me.
Salvation is of the Lord
Salvation is of Christ
Your Blessings, Lord, upon your people.

Here this prayer shifts the formula to include an invocation of divine protection, and an enumeration of the forms of protection being called for, including a lorica (breastplate) of protection, but outside of the typical litany of body parts we see in most lorica prayers. It closes with a recitation of faith and invocation of divine blessing.  

Another form of shield prayer is the caim, known primarily from the Scottish Gaelic tradition. It is also called a “circle prayer”, as it invokes a spiritual shield encircling the body. Caim can mean a “loop” or “circle”, and is also sometimes translated “sanctuary” or “encompassing” (in the sense of “encirclement”). Caim prayers invoke a ring of protection which centers on the body and moves with the person as they go about. Folkloric collections such as the Carmina Gadelica indicate that the incantation was performed along with a physical ritual. The verbal incantation invokes holy powers to enchant an encircling shield of divine protection, while the invoker “stretches out the right hand with the forefinger extended, and turns round sunwise as if on a pivot, describing a circle with the tip of the forefinger while invoking the desired protection.” This ritual of encirclement certainly suggests a pre-Christian origin to the practice – the turning in a sunwise direction to invoke blessing is a practice found across many Celtic cultural sources, including the earliest Irish mythological texts.

Several examples of the incantation are preserved, including this one from the Carmina Gadelica:

The compassing of God and His right hand
Be upon my form and upon my frame ;
The compassing of the High King and the grace of the Trinity
Be upon me abiding ever eternally,
Be upon me abiding ever eternally.
May the compassing of the Three shield me in my means,
The compassing of the Three shield me this day,
The compassing of the Three shield me this night
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.  

Again, these incantations as we have them exist in a highly Christianized form. Given how much pre-Christian cosmology is contained in many of these prayers, it is blessedly easy to “back-engineer” them for use in a pagan context. This can be as simple as replace the names of Christian powers with other deities and adjusting a few images, or simply write new ones on a similar structural formula.


For access to the full draft chapter on apotropaic magic (around 5,000 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about poetic armor magic? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

04
Apr - 19

Sigils: An animist approach

This is a snippet from the chapter on sigil magic in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. The full draft chapter was shared with patrons last month – I’ll be continuing to post excerpts from the work in progress here. It’s in rough unedited form, so reader beware.


A sigil is a sign or symbol considered to have magical power. Typically, in contemporary traditions they are used in conjunction with ritual to invoke or evoke a spirit, power, or effect. The name is from Latin sigillum, “seal”, and comes into English language usage by way of Western ceremonialist occultism, rooted in medieval grimoire traditions which made heavy use of Latin texts. However, sigils in the sense of magic signs used in magical operations, have appeared in many cultures and for thousands of years.

Most contemporary occultist and even pagan approaches to the construction and use of sigils are heavily influenced by ceremonialist methods, reflecting the same medieval grimoire roots just mentioned. A method with wide currency in contemporary occultist and pagan circles is to write a name or magical phrase, reduce it by the elimination of duplicate letters and/or the use of numerology, and then combine the reduced group of letters into a sigil so that they are no longer readable as distinct letters. Many practitioners using this method might not know to credit Austin Osman Spare, the early 20th Century British occultist; but this method of reducing a name or incantation to “occult” it was devised by him. This approach to the making of sigils is based in a very modernist, psychological understanding of magic as driven by will and intention; the “occultation” or disguising of the inscription is understood to shift awareness of the intention from the conscious mind to the subconscious, where it more directly and primally engages the magician’s will.

As an animist, I understand sigils not just as symbols, but as condensed magical engines animated with a spirit of their own. Like any organism, they are comprised of interconnected parts working as one whole being. Also like an organism, they live and act on different scales or levels, from their interwoven internal components to the whole.

There are three (or at least three!) levels of action in sigils, each of which may represent a distinct spirit or set of spirits we are working with. Here I describe them in sequence from the micro or component level to the macro or the level of the sigil as a whole.

At the root level, there are the powers or presences of the individual component parts – the letters or signs we bring together to construct the sigil. It is not the habit of most Westerners to see distinct powers within the individual letters of the Roman alphabet, for example. However, in a great many other cultural contexts, the individual letters or signs in the alphabet or lexicon often do represent distinct spirits or powers in their own right. This is certainly the case for the Germanic/Norse runes, for the Irish ogham, and many others. Whether or not they were seen to have these powers in their original historical context, they certainly do now after generations of modern practitioners working with them in a spiritual capacity. When we come to constructing a sigil, we are weaving each of these component powers into the whole – like parts in an engine or organs in a body, their individual powers are focused into the working of the whole.

At the next level, a sigil may take its power from the word, name or phrase it is built to convey. This may not be the case for all sigils, of course. Some may be built by selecting individual letters or runes and weaving them directly into a shape without consideration for what they spell together. The conventional Western occultist mode of sigil creation begins at this level with the written intention. For a devotional sigil, it might be the name of the being it is meant to invoke. For an operational magic sigil, it might be a word of power or a magical phrase or incantation. 

The third level is the shape given to the sigil as a whole – the pattern into which its component parts are bound together. In my approach to sigil creation, this level is crucial. It’s here that the dynamics that power the sigil are generated based on the shape and form it is given. That is to say, it’s not just about sticking the component parts together any kind of way. To act as a symbol, it needs to have both visual and emotional impact on the person using it and any others who see it, and its visible shape needs to conjure its intended meaning and impact. To act as a magical engine, it needs to have its parts bound together into a structure that allows it to move and shape spiritual forces in a given way. What do we want it to be able to do, and what structure will help it do that? The way in which it is built and the shape that it takes will determine how it in turn shapes and moves spiritual forces.


For access to the full draft chapter on Sigils (around 3,475 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about sigil magic? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

27
Feb - 19

Milk and healing

This is a snippet from the chapter on spiritual hygiene and purification in my work in progress, the Celtic Sorcery book. This was originally posted for patrons a month ago ahead of Imbolc so it seemed seasonally appropriate. It’s in rough unedited form, so you get what you get!


Milk and the products of milk as agents of healing and purification are a pervasive theme in the Irish literature and Celtic traditions in general. In part, this appears to stem from the fundamental connection between nourishment and healing. This larger theme is emphasized by, for example, the names of the healing deities Dían Cécht, Airmid, and Míach, each of which has a meaning related to agriculture and food. The insight seems to be that what nourishes the body heals the body. Additionally, milk in particular and its products are associated with the ability to soothe, to neutralize poison or contagion, and to make whole and purify. Milk appears in many places in Celtic traditions as a condensed representation of the fertility of the land – nourishing, edible, gentle enough to soothe, rich with life from the land. Where “the fertility of the land” occurs as a plot point in myth, it is usually represented by the phrase, “grain and milk”, or “corn, milk, and fruit”. Similarly, the phrase “cows without milk” is symbolic of total loss of fertility from the land.

The symbolism and spiritual qualities of milk connect them with similar beliefs about water, particularly flowing sacred waters, such as springs and rivers. This is in part reflected in the associations that tie both milk and flowing water to the beneficent powers of life and renewal, and we also see it in the deities that share associations with both. For example, the river goddess Bóann, namesake of the Boyne river, is also associated with a holy well and its inspiration, as well as with cattle and the milk of cows, and their associated fertility. The earliest reference to the Boyne river gives the name as Buvinda, from archaic Irish , cow + vinda, a term that can mean white, bright or having wisdom (and sharing its root with that of the poet-warrior Fionn). Her name and symbolism parallel several Continental and British goddesses associated with cattle and healing wells. In the myths and symbolism that attaches to Bóann and similar goddesses, we find the images of a well of wisdom whose waters pour forth with wisdom, nourishment and healing, like streams of milk pouring from the body of a cow, and which become the river that carries her name. 

Similarly, Brigid, a goddess deeply associated with waters and springs, healing and purification, combines many of these same symbols and modes of action. She is also a poet and the streams of water arising from the holy wells associated with her are imbued with inspiration, as well as healing, purifying, and renewing powers. At the same time she is profoundly connected to cattle, held as their protector, invoked in dairy rituals, and attached to blessings and nourishment provided by milk and dairy products. 


For access to the full draft chapter on Spiritual Hygiene (around 4300 words), you can join as a supporter on Patreon.

What do you think about milk and healing? Leave a comment or join the conversation in our Discord community.

01
Feb - 19

Writing again: Celtic Sorcery project

After a nice long hiatus, I’m getting back into a writing practice again. This blog has been dormant, in part because I just needed a break after finishing my book a few years ago, and in part because my available time and resources were focused more on visual art than writing.

I’m into a new writing project now, and as I’ll be posting some material from it here on this blog, I thought I’d update readers on what I’m up to.

These days, outside my tattoo practice which continues to be the cornerstone of my work, I’m focusing my work through Patreon. Over on Patreon, I have a couple different patron-funded projects, with the primary one being the writing of a book on Celtic Sorcery.

This book is based on material I’ve developed for teaching classes on magic and sorcery, spirit-work and polytheism, rooted in Celtic spiritual traditions and scholarship. I’ve been teaching this material as workshops for a few years now arising out of my own practice that blends elements from different Celtic cultural sources. I noticed that every time I teach one of the classes in the series, people always ask, “Okay, is there a book I can buy with this material in it?” So yes, there’s going to be a book.

Here’s a summary of my focus for this work: The Celtic cultures of Ireland, Britain, and Gaul provide us with rich and ancient wells of magical lore – blessing and purification rites; protective charms and spells; fate-binding and foredestination; curses and battle sorceries, Gods and spirits who are connected to these practices, and a whole lot more. I draw on folk tradition, archaeological study, early literature, and my own extensive personal experience, to explore these traditions of magic and sorcery in depth, while seeking insight through them into Celtic worldviews and cosmologies.

Because I’m a hungry self-employed artist, I need to do this as a patron-funded project. So as the book is in development, the draft chapters are being published as patron-only content over on Patreon. I also get into researching ways to extract ritual & magic from old traditions, experimenting with novel divination tools and spirit-work methods, and other explorations, and patrons will be able to participate along with me in those projects too.

Where this blog comes in is that as draft chapters are posted for patrons, I’ll share shorter excerpts here and hope to open conversations about this rich area of study and begin building a community of practitioners. Toward that end, I’ve also created a Discord community space where folks who are interested in this topic can join us for discussion: https://discord.gg/UC3wYqm.

Look for Celtic Sorcery writings to begin showing up here later this month. And a blessed Imbolc/Brigid’s Day to you all!

28
Jan - 17

She fights for all women: Macha’s braided mane

In the morning, I went to my shrine space to do my morning devotions. I had a task to make offerings to Macha and the spirits in Her retinue on behalf of a friend of mine who was in need of extra shielding and protection, due to our worsening cultural climate of toxic bigotry that so often targets transwomen. Pouring the offering, speaking the prayers, I then spoke my friend’s name to Macha. “Sovereign Queen, lady of the battlefield, protector of women, send your warrior spirits to shield ___, surround her with strong spirits, lift her up, protect her from hate and harm.”

I think I’ve written in this blog before about Macha as a protector of women and a divinity who takes a particular interest in gender battles. In my devotional relationship with Macha, She has taken a stance of holding me to commitments to fight for and stand with women. This has also brought me more into action in support of trans rights. So many of Macha’s stories relate to gender, power, and transgression: Macha Mongruad, a woman refused the place of queenship due to Her gender, and who must fight to claim it, becoming the only woman listed in the Irish annals of kings. Macha of the nóinden, a woman injured by those in power and who brings justice through the transgressive power of cursing, a power linked to Her gender. Macha has spoken to me at times about the battles transwomen fight just to claim their true gender, to hold the ground of womanhood against those who misgender them (and transmen, too, of course; it’s just that I’ve arrived here by way of devotional mandates in feminism and fighting for women, so my focus has been more centered on women.)

This morning, as I made my offering and asked Her to send protection to my friend, Macha seized my heart and began speaking to me. TAKE THE LOCK OF HORSEHAIR: BRAID IT IN YOUR HAIR. WEAVE THE PRAYER OF PROTECTION INTO THE BRAID. SPEAK HER NAME TO ME, AND THE NAMES OF ALL WHO SEEK MY PROTECTION. I WILL SEND GUARDS TO WALK WITH THEM.

The lock of horsehair had been sitting on the altar at my shrine for weeks; it had come out of the horsetail that hangs on my partner’s fighting helmet, and I’d been meaning to make it into something as an offering to Macha. Now, I found myself binding it into a lock of my hair, braiding prayers into it, seeing myself braiding my own hair into Macha’s red mane as I breathed my friend’s name.

DO THIS EVERY DAY. YOU WILL TELL YOUR FOLK, AND EVERY DAY YOU WILL BRING THEIR NAMES TO ME FOR BLESSING. DO THIS UNTIL THE TIME COMES TO CUT THE LOCK AND OFFER IT TO ME. 

These are the instructions I was given. I struggled a little with making this act of devotion public, because it feels to me a little too much like performative allyship, but Macha made it clear to me that She wanted me to widen this prayer service to others. So. Here I am, and for the time to come (I have not yet divined how long) I will be making these prayers to Macha daily, and weaving protection and support for my trans women kin into the devotional braid. For anyone who wishes to be included by name, you can send me your name and the city where you live, and I will speak your name to Macha and weave you into the prayer for protection and support. When it is finished, I will cut the lock from my hair and it will be made a permanent part of the Macha idol that lives in my home shrine (and which folks can visit at the Coru Cathubodua Temple at PantheaCon also). This is my offering to Her and to you. I’ll be carrying Macha’s presence and these prayers with me in physical actions I join to fight for trans rights and safety, too; like community actions taking place this week to prevent transphobic alt-right Nazi Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking in my area.

To be included in this prayer service, should you wish to, you can send me your name and city/region via email at morpheus@bansheearts.com, or by comment here. Or, you can take up this prayer service and weave it into your own practice to offer protection to folks in your own commuities.

Hail Macha, great sun of womanhood!

Hail Macha, red-maned warrior!

Hail Macha, warhorse of the hero’s chariot!

Hail Macha, red-painted sorceress!

Hail Macha, who gives battle for sovereignty!

Hail, Macha, mighty Queen!

14
Nov - 16

The Storm Is Here

For several years now, They have been telling us to get ready: A storm is coming. Gather your people. Make ready. The Morrígan whispered this to me on a windy mountain place in the spring of 2011, and I soon learned that people all over the world were hearing this same message. From Herself and from other Gods too. A storm is coming. Get ready. Gather your tribes.

I feel that storm is here. We have been sensing its stirrings for a few years now, fitful winds that bring a shudder of warning and carry the scent of more to come. We have for some time been operating within the slow-motion decline of an empire; such declines have times of gradual change and times of sudden chaos and crumbling. This is one of those times.

I don’t need to detail for you the reason for this post: You’ll have seen the shock and horror rolling around the world as the most powerful and militarized nation on earth puts itself in the hands of a capricious demagogue without respect for democracy, at the head of a viciously racist, sexist, violent hate mob. You’ll have seen the wave of hate crimes, assaults, beatings, and threats. The most at risk among us – LGBTQ+ folk, People of Color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and women – have the clearest eyes for what is happening.

What do we do? This morning, my purpose here isn’t to give a comprehensive action plan. Other folks are developing those things and I may have more to add later.

What I want to share with you is this: Our strength is each other. You are not alone. And as terrible as this moment is, many of us hold a knowledge in our bones that we were made for times like these. We recognize this moment as the one that we’ve been asked to make ready for, so that just this much fierce love of one another and just this much defiance could rise in us. So that we would know that however terrifying it may be, the Gods knew we had it in us to resist and survive if we come together. The first thing we need to do is commit to each other.

Over and over, from the people in my life who are most at risk from the rising hate, and from people the Coru Priesthood have been counseling and supporting this week, I have been hearing this: “I need to know that you will fight for me. I need to know that I am not facing this alone. I need to know that you will not stand by and let them target me.” I thought about this as we prepared for our autumn public devotional this weekend. Words came down from the Morrígan:

I am not a warrior, you said

Why have you called me, Queen?

I called you to love

I called you to make your love a battle song

I called you because I saw your heart

For I am the Mother of Heroes

And I know the drumbeat of your heart

You do not need to know the weapon-dances

To be the spear in My hands

You do not need to be strong in body

To be the strong body of My sword

You need only to rise to the drum that calls you

Rise to Me and speak

Pledge to your heart its beating

Pledge to your people love

Pledge to fight for each other

And I will know you as My own.

And She gave us a pledge to take, a pledge to fight for one another. On Saturday night, we gathered before an altar enshrined with Her icon and Her presence. We sang Her names and offered our devotions. Then, we stood in a protective ring, encircling and holding those asking for protection, and we pledged to fight for each other, for those most at risk among us. We consecrated safety pins to wear as we carry this commitment forward every day.

Mother of Battles, hear my prayer

In time of violence, hate, and fear

Let the fierce strength of love move me

Let the courage of love uphold me

Let the tenacity of love root me.

Mother of Heroes, receive my heart

Grant me the protection of your presence

Grant me the backing of your host

Grant me the Hero’s Light

And I will hold this ground for kinship.

Mother of Victories, receive my pledge:

To my kindred under attack,

I will raise my voice to silence hate

I will rise to shield you from violence

I will stand with you when you need a hero

I will face the terror with you

I will share rest and care with you

I will hold you and I will fight for you

I will not stand down

Till the storm passes and sovereign justice arises

For I am the body of love

I am a weapon of love

I am love fighting for itself.

I share this with you as I hope it may be of help. Everyone reading this right now, even if you do not fear for yourself, you have people in your life who are at risk, who need your solidarity and your backing. It is going to get harder before it gets easier, and the easiest thing in the world will be to let this moment slide by and become the new normal without resistance. It will cost us to protect each other; it means taking risks to our own safety, our jobs, our social position. But know, and hold on to this knowledge, that the Hero’s Light breaks over those who choose risk in the service of their people over personal safety. Know that the Gods of battle and sovereignty stand with you when you stand and fight for each other. Know that this is what we were made for: to love one another and live.

If this pledge inspires you to make a similar commitment, you are welcome to it. Adapt it as you will: alter the prayer to include your own divinities. Write another one. Say it before your Gods, and someone in your community who can hold you to your commitment.

We can do this, friends. The life that is in us, the courage, the heart, the soul, the will of us is enough. If we love one another and let that love be what matters most.

Solidarity networks to provide mutual aid and support are being woven as we speak. If you need support, reach out. As my honored friend Elena Rose says, “Find a hand and hold on.”

 

Recent posts about resistance and solidarity networks:

Resistance Matters

Solidarity Networks

 

Crisis support:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: (877) -565-8860

Trevor Project: (866)-488-7386

 

Helpful organizations:

Resources for Social Change

Organizing for Power

Black Lives Matter

Showing Up For Racial Justice

Campaign Zero against police violence

Support Muslim people in your community with Council on American-Islamic Relations

Help immigrants and new Americans

RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network aiding victims of sexual violence

ACLU: Working for civil rights and constitutional liberties

06
May - 16

Fasting For Justice

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

The King’s Threshold, by W.B. Yeats

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

Hunger for Justice SF

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fasting Against the Powerful

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral Debt

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

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

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

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

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

19
Oct - 15

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

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

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

Brennos at Medb's stone, Crúachan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header photo by Jan Bosman.

Previous:

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

28
Sep - 15

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

Of the places I visited during my sojourn in Ireland, many affected me deeply, but Connacht felt like home. In Connacht, I spent time in Roscommon, Sligo, and Leitrim counties. Here, the hills and mountains were more rugged, the landscape a touch wilder, than the midlands I had traveled through. Connacht feels like untamed country. It feels like the domain of the Morrígan (and it is).

There is a famous anecdote about Oliver Cromwell. During the subjugation of Ireland to English rule under the plantation scheme that granted confiscated Irish lands to English settlers in the mid-17th century, it’s said that he was asked where the displaced native Irish people were supposed to go, and he famously said, “To Hell or to Connacht.” This quote was retold to me more than once during my visits by local folks – it seems reflective of the province’s understanding of itself as rugged, fierce, and positioned outside the borders of the (forcibly) settled territories. And indeed, Connacht was among the last of the kingdoms to fall under Norman conquest after the invasions of the 12th century.

The traditional border marking the entry into Connacht from the east is the Shannon. Watching the landscape through the windows of a bus coming westward from Dublin, I noted the river crossing. But it was the looming of a mountain ridge just beyond the river that brought me to attention. To our left in the south, a long, low mountain dark with conifers rose from the valley, part of a ridge that continued north of the road at a lower elevation. If the river was the territorial boundary, this mountain was its guardian. Not a high mountain by California standards, it still managed to loom, heavy with presence. I could not take my eyes off it and felt, clearly, as we passed between the ridges it that I was entering the Morrígan’s domain.

I later learned the name of this mountain: Slieve Bawn. It overlooks Rathcroghan, the Fort of Crúachan, the ancient royal center of Connacht. It is also an example of how folklore sometimes differs from official record. If you look up Slieve Bawn, most of the official information will tell you that the name comes from the Irish Sliabh Bána, “white mountain”; (although it isn’t white). But our guide at Rathcroghan, the learned and brilliant Lora O’Brien, gave different lore: the name is said to be from Sliabh Badbgna, “Badb’s mountain”.  And it is this name that appears in older literature, too. The Morrígan positions Herself facing toward this mountain to chant spells over an adversary, in the Dindshenchas poem of Odras. My having not known what mountain I was gazing at as I entered the province under its looming profile granted me an opportunity to test my own perceptions against tradition. There is no doubt for me that it is Badb’s mountain (or the Morrígan’s, if you will; local tradition identifies the two as aspects of one Goddess).

I tell this story partly because it amused me, and partly because it illustrates something important about Ireland: The landscape speaks for itself, with a voice easily as commanding as anything in literary tradition. That landscape holds deeply embedded presences, memories, and traditions. They are – at least to my experience – readily available to a visitor with open senses and an attitude of respect. And they are utterly and totally real; not simply a matter of belief in the minds of people. It may be for this reason that I found that nearly everyone I met in Ireland seemed a little bit pagan, or perhaps more accurately animist, in their outlook and relationship to their heritage and landscape. One cannot spend much time at all in the Irish landscape without coming to terms with the reality of presences all around.

That brings me to something else about Connacht: its Otherworldliness. The vocality of the Irish landscape and its ready communication with the Otherworld was never more palpable to me than in Connacht. And this seems to be reflected in Irish traditions of place, too. There is a sense in many of the Ulster stories that Connacht, as well as being a rival kingdom, also held a place as the gateway to the Otherworld – it’s there that heroes get sent for ordeal and testing by formidable Otherworldly beings; it’s there that conflicts with chthonic monsters from the Otherworld are played out; and of course, it’s from there that the Morrígan emerges to direct events in the human sphere. I’m sure Oliver Cromwell didn’t mean that sort of underworld when he said “to Hell or to Connacht” – but others have when they’ve called the Cave of Crúachan “Ireland’s Hellmouth”. A Christian’s commentary on the Morrígan’s home, to be sure, but it speaks to the pervasive sense of Connacht, and its center of Crúachan, as a place of access and communication with the Otherworld below.

Myself being someone who likes that sort of thing, it was that Hellmouth, more properly called Úaimh na gCat (anglicized as Oweynagat), Cave of Cats, that was the central focus of my pilgrimage.

I entered the Cave twice during my pilgrimage. I’m not going to describe either experience in detail, because a place like that is a mystery that needs to be experienced to be understood. And because every person’s experiences are their own, and yours may be very different from mine. I will just say that the Morrígan is indeed intensely present there, and there is no doubt in my mind that She has been venerated there for a very long time, and that, as scholars have proposed, it has been a place where warriors came for testing and initiation. It may be a Hellmouth, but it felt like home to me.

I’ll leave my story there for now. As I plan to highlight the voices and knowledge of Irish people I encountered in my travels, let me here point you once again to Lora O’Brien, who guided our group at Rathcroghan. She is a published author on Irish spirituality, a dedicated priestess of the Morrigan, and the most knowledgeable person you could hope to meet on the traditions and landscape of Rathcroghan as well as Ireland as a whole. You can find her blog here, and her published works here.

Previous: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

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

24
Sep - 15

Ireland Pilgrimage, part 1: the Living Land

I have just returned from a three-week pilgrimage in Ireland and Britain. Since landing at SFO on Monday and making my way home, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in contemplation before being able to write about my experience. It is hard to know where to begin.

The two weeks in Ireland was initiatory. I have come home altered. Part of me is still there, held in the landscapes and holy places where the traditions of my Gods were born. Ireland is like that: the landscape itself is so potent, so alive, an insistent presence that seizes you and does not let go.

This pilgrimage to the source landscape of my Gods has profoundly shifted and deepened my understanding of Them, and of the traditions I practice. I found a new understanding of why place is so important in the Irish stories – because the island itself, and its landscapes and structures, really are that powerful. I came to realize that for American Celtic polytheists such as myself, having lived on this other continent, there is something theoretical in our understanding of Irish tradition until we engage it in its own place. Yes, we may be familiar with the litanies of place-names, the folklore attached to them, the poems and stories of place. It is something else to stand in these landscapes and listen to the voice of the land itself singing its tale. We might know the literature that tells of the hundreds of ancestors buried inside the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, or the tale of the Morrígan’s grave mound beside Newgrange. It is something else to stand at these mounds vibrating, breathless with the overwhelming presence and numinous might of the beings who still occupy them.

There is also the people of Ireland, who represent a living body of tradition themselves. In the course of my brief travels, I met people everywhere I went who were carriers of vibrant, detailed, and often novel knowledge about Irish pagan history and spiritual tradition. Many of these people, as far as I could tell, did not identify as “Pagan”, but clearly were continuing to engage with their heritage as living tradition, and displayed a sense of pride in sharing it with us as such. I heard at least three new-to-me variants of familiar and beloved Irish tales. I heard new perspectives and paradigms on the relationships between stories, texts, and landscapes.

The realization struck me that a fair amount of what these local people were sharing with us might likely be dismissed by members of the American Celtic polytheist community, particularly the more scholarly-oriented, simply because it represents lore that is not matched in the body of medieval texts. I might once have been so inclined, myself. That realization became a caution to me, for which I am grateful.

American Celtic polytheism sometimes has an orphaned quality to it because of the separation from source landscape and embedded tradition. The result is that we often tend to be highly textually focused, because (leaving aside the insights of private personal gnosis) the early Irish texts are our primary contact with the source of our traditions. The textual sources we cling to and study endlessly pale in the presences of these places that gave rise to them. That is to say, the texts are not less important to my understanding of Irish tradition, but I have come to see their place in tradition differently. They are like recordings or photographs of a person who still lives and breathes somewhere. They are secondary and derivative to the reality of the thing. We in the diaspora of devotion have been especially at risk of confusing the artifact for the source.

For all these reasons, and many more, I cannot emphasize too strongly how important it is for practitioners of Celtic polytheist traditions to make such a pilgrimage at least once, if you at all can do so. I feel as though a machine I have been attempting to work with most of my life has just finally been plugged into a source of current. To ground our personal practices and local cults in the source tradition in its living landscape feels irreplaceable to me. I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of having been able to begin to do so.

While in ritual at Tara, we had an encounter with the Sovereignty Goddess there. Her message to me and to the group traveling with me was, “What will you give to Ireland who has welcomed you?” That message stayed with me. I am still contemplating what it is that I can give back to Ireland, as a land and a people, in gratitude for what I draw from it to nourish my practice. But I know that where it begins, for me, is in respecting the Irish people themselves, and their lived knowledge and experience of their own land, language, and traditions.

I plan to continue writing about my pilgrimage experiences in a few more posts focusing on some specific places and experiences, and the brilliant local people who shared them with us.

[Cover photo courtesy of Joe Perri]

Next: Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht

Scroll to top