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The Shieldmaiden Blog

19
Sep - 13

Day One

The breaths come longer and longer as my heartbeat gradually calms down from the spear workout. I try to still myself, open my ribs, lengthen my spine, focus on the breath. Rising and falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. I notice my posture and lift my spine a little more. In and out, rising and falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. I feel the tightness in my biceps and shoulders from the spear work. I hear crows jabbering outside the open window, the neighbor’s dog squeaking. In and out, sid co nem, nem co doman. My housemate clinks her tea mug downstairs, the kettle hisses. In and out, sid co nem, nem co doman. I realize my attention has been everywhere but within. I return with the breath. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Stillness begins to settle around me. Somewhere inside the back of my brain, I feel Her presence awaken. I remember what I love about devotional mediation. And now I’m off again, thinking about meditation instead of meditating. Back to the breath, the sensation of the body, sitting, breathing, my spine a long spear, my belly a sweet cauldron, the breath rising, the breath falling. Sid co nem, nem co doman. Sid co nem, nem co doman.

Today I re-started my daily practice. I have to do this all the time, because I’m actually terrible at it. I love ritual, and I do it often, but I’m terrible at keeping to a daily, disciplined practice routine. Readers who don’t know me well might imagine that as a fighter, a spiritual teacher and a dedicated priestess of the Morrígan, I must have a thorough and disciplined daily practice that I never miss. Yes, I do have a daily practice, but I have to work as hard as anybody at actually doing it every day. I think this is true for a lot of people: daily practice is kind of like balancing on a rope. You’re almost never standing in perfect grace; instead, you’re constantly correcting back toward center from the myriad of forces that constantly push and sway you off balance. Maybe sometimes you fall off the rope altogether and have to take a break. If you do it for long enough, the corrections you have to make come smaller and easier, and maybe you aren’t falling off any more.

I’m inspired to write about this today in part because I happen to be climbing back on my rope today. And also there have been a couple of good posts elsewhere about the benefits of discipline, and about how sometimes it’s a battle just to sit still.

I’m climbing back on my rope again. I do it all the time. Around Lughnassadh, I made a devotional commitment to physical, spiritual and creative practice. I promised to complete a century drill (weapons practice of 100 blows a day, for 100 days, and if a day is missed, you begin again at one); to do daily offerings each day of the century drill; and to dedicate a day a week to writing my book. I swore an oath to the Morrígan and Lugh that I’d complete this. And if I was perfect in my practice, I would be at day 52 today. Instead, I am at day one. A couple weeks ago I was called off on short notice to fly across the country and priestess a funeral, and in the whirlwind of the trip I dropped routine, and have only been intermittent with my practice since I returned.

Am I disappointed? Am I kicking myself? No. Frustration with yourself is just another indulgence – just another distraction from the practice. Just as in meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, you simply let it go and return to the breath. My oath was to return to practice if I let it drop, and to keep returning. So that is what I’m doing. Back to the rhythm. Back to the breath. Hello, century drill. Hello, day one. Here is an opportunity to reorient myself to my practice, and to reorient my practice to my life. To renew my practice.

So I’m looking at all the pieces, putting the elements of daily practice together in a different pattern. Here are the elements of my daily practice. One example of what a Morrígan dedicant’s daily practice could look like.

Devotions. My core devotions usually consist of lighting a candle and pouring out a liquid offering. I dedicate the offerings to the Morrígan, to the Ancestors, and to my spirit allies. Sometimes I include other deities. On days when I’m at home working on art, I will usually do an offering to Brigid also. If I’ve had the time to think ahead, I may offer something like whiskey and cream, or Irish Cream, or beer. Sometimes I’m just offering whatever I have, even if it’s water, or part of my meal. Sometimes there are more intensive offerings.

On days when I have more time or a specific need, I’ll follow the offerings with prayers or liturgies. The liturgy I use most commonly is the Morrígan’s Prophecy, also known as the Benediction, which I intone aloud in the Old Irish. Other days, I simply speak Her name. On days when I’m doing full ritual, core devotions will just be the start of a longer working.

Meditation. I have a set of prayer beads that I made for meditation centered around my devotion to the Morrígan, so they are set up in counts of three, nine to the string, which gives me 27. If I go through them three times, I’ve done 9×9 rounds of whatever meditation I’m doing. I like the prayer bead method because it stops me wondering how long I’ve been meditating – the beads will tell me. It also gives my body one little thing to do, that tiny regular motion of advancing the beads through my fingers.

The meditation I most often use is a prayer meditation using lines in Old Irish from the Morrígan’s Prophecy: Sid co nem, nem co doman. (Translation: “Peace to the sky, sky down to earth.” It is pronounced something like ‘sheeth co nev, nev co dovan’.) For me, having something to chant internally occupies my Talking Self, which helps me to become distracted less often. I usually chant the prayer internally, with the breath in a slow rhythm: inhaling sid co nem, exhaling nem co doman. This is one count of my prayer beads.

Physical. My minimum physical practice is the century drill: 100 blows of spear and/or sword practice. If I’m at home, I’ll do them full strength against my pell (practice dummy). If I’m somewhere else, I may do them slow, just practicing for form. Weekly, I also go to fighter practice and fight in full armor. Biweekly, I try to make it to a yoga class.

When I have days at home with time for extra physical practice, I will add practices: spear movement exercises, yoga, sit-ups and push-ups, or dance practice.

You might be thinking, how the hell do you have time for all of this? Most of the time, I don’t. I have a minimum daily practice for the days when I’m working 8-10 hours in the tattoo shop and barely have a moment to myself. On the days when I’m working from home and have more flexibility, I aim for a more expanded practice.

So getting back on my rope today, putting the elements back together, here is what I’m doing now. Minimum daily practice, for workdays: Morning, century drill (about 10 minutes), followed by brief meditation (one round of prayer beads, about 5-10 minutes). If I miss my morning practice, the drill happens first thing when I get home. Evening offerings before bed.

Expanded daily practice, for home days: Morning, yoga/movement practice, century drill, devotions, full meditation (at least 3 rounds of prayer beads). Evening, offerings and prayers; on some nights, yoga class, fighter practice or full ritual as needed.

Hello, day one. It’s good to begin again.

What’s your practice?

11
Sep - 13

Follow-up: “Whose Ancestors?”

EDIT: 9/11/2013 5:00 pm – As of now, just a few hours after posting this, I’ve been kicked off the PaganSquare site and my blog deleted.

——————————————————————————————————————————————–

This is a follow up to my last post, “Whose Ancestors?“, published on 8/29/2013. The post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization. The following is my response to that censorship, and I’ve also posted it on the PaganSquare site. Since it too is likely to be deleted, I am publishing it here as well. I wanted to let readers know what happened with that post, and what you can expect in the future.

The post in question, “Whose Ancestors?”, was one in which I challenged the doctrine of racial separatism in religion espoused by some European polytheist traditions, primarily Heathens of the ‘folkish’ variety. In it, I called the AFA an unashamedly racist organization. I firmly believe this to be true, and when Anne Newkirk Niven, the editor of this site, asked me to remove the language in which I called the AFA racist, I refused to do so. Instead, I provided her with evidence as to the facts showing that the AFA is a racist organization. Since I would not edit the post to remove that language, Anne has deleted my post in order to censor it.

You can read the original post here, where it is still hosted on my own blog site.

Here is the evidence I presented to Anne, which I believe amply demonstrates that the racism critique of the AFA is factual:

The AFA is a racist organization. Perhaps you’d like to review the UN’s definition: the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Thus, since the AFA discriminates based on race as to who can and should claim religious affiliation, they are by definition a racist organization. They also promote, clearly and in public on their website, racial separatism in religion, which is a form of segregationism. See their declaration of purpose, their article on “folkish” ideology, and this charming piece of racist screed from their website.
I invite you to have a look around on the web – you will find that there are many, many sites which discuss the AFA’s racist ideologies and links to white supremacist groups. Such as here, and here. And here from the Southern Poverty Law Center. And here, from fellow Heathens who recognize the AFA as racist.
It does not matter that they SAY they are not racist. News flash: racists generally don’t go around calling themselves racists.

 

I have to expect that this present post will be deleted and censored on PaganSquare as well, since I am continuing to maintain that the AFA is a racist organization. If that does happen, I will very likely be discontinuing my publishing on PaganSquare, since I will not stand for editorial censorship defending racists and racist ideologies. If you’re interested in continuing to read my work, I invite you to follow my blog direct here on my website.

You may also be interested in this insightful post on the issue by Sam Webster, also hosted on PaganSquare, at least for the time being. Should the editor end up censoring this post also, here is Sam’s post on his own website as well.

I continue to hold the firm position that we must not condone, cover up for, or otherwise tolerate racism within Pagan and polytheist traditions. Those who do so are standing on the wrong side of history, and will inevitably be seen for who they are, in the same way we now recognize as racist those who once defended segregation in our society. I challenge all of you to join me in standing against racism in our communities.

29
Aug - 13

Whose Ancestors?

EDITED, 9/11/2013: In the days since I originally published the post below on 8/29/2013, there have been a couple of developments I wish to acknowledge.

–This post was also published at my PaganSquare blog, The Spear That Cries Out, hosted by Witches & Pagans online. It was subsequently deleted by the site’s editor, Anne Newkirk Niven, specifically in order to censor its content, because she objected to my calling the AFA a racist organization.

–In discussions in the comments both here and at the PaganSquare site (before it was removed), several people have pointed out that I went too far in over-interpreting the implications of the DNA research referenced in the original post. They’re correct, and I appreciate the feedback. I think that the research still supports the overall point of my post, which is that at a surprisingly recent point in the past, all of us are related, and that there is no biological or anthropological basis for racial separatism in religion.

Here follows the original post, unedited:

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Issues of race and Eurocentrism in religion have been increasingly on my mind recently, and the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech seems a good day to write about them.

This came up for me when I found out that a favorite Nordic folk band, Wardruna, would be performing in the US for the first time this fall. I got all excited about this until friends pointed out that the event at which they will be performing, Stella Natura, is sponsored by the unabashedly racist Heathen organization AFA, and is also featuring several performers with strong links to white-supremacist, racist ideologies.

So I ditched my plans of attending. And I feel like talking about this publicly because I think part of the reason racism continues to haunt European polytheism is because we let it. Too many of us take a policy of uneasily gritting our teeth and putting up with our intellectual proximity to racists. It’d have been more convenient and more fun for me to buy the ticket, go to the event and try to ignore the racism so that I could get the chance to enjoy one of my favorite bands. But I’d be supporting the inclusion of these racist elements within the fold of European polytheism, and I can’t stomach it. Instead, I’m refusing to participate. Wardruna, we love you, but if you want me to buy a ticket to your show, don’t sign on with racists as your event sponsors.

It comes to me that practitioners of European polytheist traditions have a duty on us to take a clear stance against racism in our religious communities. Not to do so, I think, inevitably leads us into tacitly condoning racism, because of its ubiquity in the overculture and its history as an undercurrent within European polytheism.

So here’s my stance: Though the form of religious practice I choose to espouse is largely based on Celtic traditions, I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

Now, here are some facts you can arm yourself with to help put down racist logic when it is presented to you.

Racism in European polytheism is often veiled under language that claims to celebrate cultural and religious diversity. You will need to be aware of this and learn to recognize it for what it is. The argument goes something like this: a) Cultural and religious diversity is good; b) religious traditions arise from and are dependent on the unique ethnic identity of a people; c) therefore to fully realize our spiritual potential we should practice the religious traditions of our ethnic ancestry; d) because of the link between culture and ethnicity, to preserve cultural and religious traditions we also need to preserve the distinct identities of peoples. If you read between the lines (e.g. read “people” as “race”) you can see that by this train of logic, the conclusion arrived at is that races should not intermingle because that will dilute the purity of the European race and its native religious traditions.

This is nothing more than the Separate-But-Equal doctrine of racial politics. “We aren’t denigrating other races and their associated religions, we just don’t want them getting mixed up with ours.” In the name of celebrating cultural diversity, of course. If you think this claim isn’t being made, go look at the AFA website – it’s right there in their statement of purpose:

All native religions spring from the unique collective soul of a particular people. Religions are not arbitrary or accidental; body, mind and spirit are all shaped by the evolutionary history of the group and are thus interrelated. Asatru is not just what we believe, it is what we are. Therefore, the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.

The belief that spirituality and ancestral heritage are related has nothing to do with notions of superiority. Asatru is not an excuse to look down on, much less to hate, members of any other race. On the contrary, we recognize the uniqueness and the value of all the different pieces that make up the human mosaic.

Just so long as you keep your non-European uniqueness over there and don’t get any on us.

This isn’t just nasty racial politics, it’s also utter bullshit. Here’s why.

This entire argument is predicated on the idea that race and religion are tied, that traditions are native to and transmitted by ancestral links. The traditions of our ancestors and all that. OK, but whose ancestors?

Guess what: Your ancestors are everyone’s ancestors. We are all related. No really, that’s not a kumbaya hippie truism, it’s a documented mathematical and biological reality.

“The fact that everyone has two parents means that the number of ancestors for each individual doubles every generation… By using basic mathematics, we can calculate that ten generations ago each individual had a thousand ancestors, and 20 generations ago they had a million and so on.”

By the time you count back to 40 generations, the number of ancestors each person has far outstrips the number of people alive at that time. That means between 30 and 40 generations back, all human beings share ancestry. That’s somewhere shy of 800 years ago. This mathematical modeling has now been confirmed by DNA evidence. Here’s a handy graphic that’s been making its way around the web illustrating this new research:

ancestors

I haven’t verified the specific dates and figures in the graphic, but the principle is clear as an illustration of the research.

Think about what this means: The historical time frame within which the Nordic and Germanic cultural lore on which Asatru is built includes, roughly speaking, the Iron Age up through the Viking era – that is, a few centuries BCE up through about 800-1200 CE. A similar time frame is the basis for much of what now constitutes Celtic polytheism.

In other words, when the Hávamál was created, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. When the legends of Cú Chulainn and the heroes of the Red Branch were being developed, every single person alive at that time is an ancestor of yours. So was everyone alive in the ancient Somali states. The Etruscans, the Mycenaeans, the Thracians, the Kushites. The people of Catal Huyuk, the ancient steppe tribes of Eurasia, the forefathers and foremothers of the Khans, the people who settled the Polynesian islands, the tribes who crossed the land bridge to the New World. They are all of them, all of them, your personal blood ancestors.

So cultural traditions can’t be inherently dependent on race or ancestry, because race and the purity of ancestral lineage are fictions. You personally are the blood lineage inheritor of every human cultural tradition on the planet.

The truth is, cultural purity also a fiction. People have been traveling all over the globe trading with each other since time began. The ancients were in contact with each other across enormous distances via trade routes and migrations. The skull of a Moroccan Barbary ape was found in an Iron Age royal site at Navan Fort, Ireland. The famous Viking swords were made from steel sourced from Afghanistan. Iron age mummies with red hair and Hallstatt material culture have been found in the deserts of China. I could go on all day with examples like this. And in every case where there is evidence of contact between peoples, there was cultural exchange. Culture is a social disease – it is transmitted on contact. There has always been sharing, borrowing, and synergizing between cultures.

This is an important point, because it proves that distinct cultural traditions do not require racial or cultural separation to preserve them. If the mingling of peoples led to dissolution of all cultural boundaries, we’d long ago have been one big mishmash of culture. Because the mingling has been happening for millenia, as demonstrated above. What the racists claim to be protecting against would have happened long ago if racial purity had anything at all to do with the integrity of cultural traditions. Cultures arise from shared language and shared experience – DNA doesn’t come into it. The varieties of human experience will always tend toward a diversity of cultures regardless of ancestry or cross-cultural contact. Any argument for separatism in the name of cultural diversity is just a cover for racism.

So by all means, celebrate the ancestral traditions that move you and touch your soul. That is what I do. Let us just remember whose ancestors they are: the ancestors of humanity.

22
Aug - 13

Success Is Being a Beginner

I’ve just returned from a fighter training event, called Sport of Kings. It draws a couple hundred fighters from all over the Western states as a place to receive focused training from some of the most experienced and legendary knights in the armored combat world. Just about anyone who is there is there either because they’re dedicated to honing their combat skills, or because they’re already a bad-ass and they’ve been asked to come and teach. About 95% of them are men, most with several years of fighting experience, many of them knights already. And then there’s me. A beginner, and one of just a handful of women fighters who showed up.

During the day, we attended outdoor classes on all aspects of fighting practice. In the afternoons, fighters put on armor and gathered at practice fields for bear-pit fighting, round-robins and tournaments, critiquing each other on their fighting skills. On the last night a big formal tournament was held, with all several hundred people at the event gathered to watch.

This event could have been pretty intimidating. A relative newbie and a female, surrounded by bad-asses showing their best at a very testosterone-heavy combat sport. I’m used to this social dynamic, but this event took it a notch higher just because it was entirely and intensively focused on competitive fighting skill. Had I brought with me a need to prove myself, I’d have been crushed.

Standing with the other fighters between rounds in the tournament, I could not help reflecting on how important being a beginner is. Near me in the lines was another of the handful of women – a young girl who could not have been past her teens, and who was clearly feeling terribly discouraged because she hadn’t won any of her fights in the tournament yet. She looked shaken and downcast, and the men around her in the line were trying to cheer her up. “You can still win the next one! Don’t think like that, every fight is a new fight!”

I hadn’t won any of my fights in the tournament either. But I was smiling, because I flung my ego to the wind when I put on armor that day. I had a moment of overwhelmed nerves thinking about all the bad-ass knights I’d be facing that day, how foolish I might look next to them on the field, how they would write me off as a girl out of her league.

You can paralyze yourself thinking like that. It struck me then that the entire psychology of nervousness and fear of failure was a choice. I didn’t have to prove myself. I didn’t have to worry about succeeding in the tournament or making a showing that would compare to those knights. That would be an insane measure of success at my stage, and to do that to myself would be toxic. All I had to do is to succeed at being what I am: A beginner fighter whose job is to learn. All I had to do was get out there, be present in my fight, and learn something to take into the next one. To do that is to succeed at beginning.

So my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought. And my turn came, and I stepped out, and I fought again. My heart was light, I reveled in the adrenaline, I watched my mistakes, I went down laughing. I replayed the fights in my mind while I waited my turns, observing my patterns and errors, ways to respond better. The men I fought remarked on my joyful attitude, how great it was to fight someone who is laughing for love of the fight.

How often do we disarm and undermine ourselves by letting the fear of failure paralyze us in any aspect of life? If you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain with its shadow looming over you, of course the top of it looks too far to reach. Because it is. Your job from there isn’t to reach the top of the mountain. Your job is to put your foot forward on the path that is right in front of you.

So you aren’t the king of the mountain yet. So I’m not a bad-ass knight yet. So what? Get good at being a beginner. Get good at showing up. Get in there and fight, learn something, take the next step on the path.

I found it incredibly liberating to quit worrying about proving myself to others – and this applies to all areas of life. The thing is, it never works anyway to focus on what kind of showing you are making in the eyes of others. That’s a profound distraction from the work in front of you. The thing is to focus on the practice – whatever it is – and to trust yourself to it. Trust the path to take you up the mountain. Make your practice authentic, dedicate yourself to it, and in time that authenticity will speak for itself.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

― Maya Angelou

12
Aug - 13

The Morrígan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion

Some conversations about the balancing of “Lore vs. UPG” have been circulating around the web. I’m supposed to be editing the Book of the Great Queen, but I’m sick and feverish and footnoting is making my eyeballs cross. So instead I’m coming here to chat with you about lore, UPG, and lived devotion, because this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about here for some time.

For some background, here’s a recent post by my friend John Beckett on balancing scholarship with UPG (unique or unverified personal gnosis): The Lore vs. UPG – A False Dichotomy. Here’s an earlier article from a Celtic Reconstructionist site that looks at this balance in a tripartite fashion – scholarship, mystical experience, and conversation/debate: Aisling, Ársaíocht, agus Agallamh: A Modern CR Triad.

These are good, helpful articles and I’m not posting to disagree with them. What I want to do is contribute some additional levels of nuance; maybe share some tools for more articulately working with these aspects of spirituality and religion.

I think that the continual framing of this as a question of “balancing” between scholarship and lore study on the one hand, and personal gnosis and mystical experience on the other, presumes that these approaches occupy ends of a spectrum. Even if that spectrum is not linear but tripod-like, with three “zones” of scholarship, mysticism and social testing (as in the CR model I linked), we are still framing this as a matter of balancing between competing modes of engagement. Which rather presupposes that as you lean toward one side of the spectrum, or lean toward one leg of the tripod, you’re leaning away from the others.  Even while stating that all three modes contribute, it still sets up a subtle oppositional dynamic. You get Team Lore (“Stop trying to make the Gods into your personal fantasies! They have histories that matter!”, Team Visionary (“Stop trying to tell me my experiences are wrong! We are not a religion of the book!”) and Team Peacemaker (“Well, as long as we’re nice to each other. I don’t want to offend my recon friends or my mystical friends.”)

This is all good and reasonable, but I think we can go deeper and get beyond this idea of balancing between competing methods. I find it helps to think about these parts of our practice in functional terms: what they are for, how we use them, and how they interlock with one another. What are the flows of experience, knowledge, and opportunity between them.

Religion is relationship. That is what it means: to connect. So I’m interested in how these practices help us to connect with the Gods and with each other in spiritual community. Thinking about practice in terms of relationship clears a lot of things up for me.

Let’s try a parable. Maybe I met a mesmerizing person while walking along a road. She is all dressed in red with a long cloak, red hair and has things painted on her skin. She’s fascinating. I want to get to know her. She says something. Maybe that’s her name? Or maybe that was a greeting. Maybe it was a warning? I don’t speak her language, so all I can take away is a feeling, a memory. I might feel like we connected, but what did we share? I can go back to that road and hope we meet again, but then what? We still can’t talk to each other. I don’t even know what her gestures signify to her.

Now suppose I have a friend who has met her on that same road, and that person happens to know something more. I find out that she’s Irish, so I go and start learning Irish. Now I can talk to her. You seem really interesting, do you want to meet again? Can I buy you a drink? What’s your favorite place around here? Maybe she decides she likes me well enough to talk to me. I can suddenly learn so much more. How she came to be on this road and where she’s going. Where she was born. Why she likes wearing red, what she loves and hates and desires and remembers. What the symbols painted on her skin are for. How she spends her time. What she dreams of. We are now in relationship: I can begin to know her life story, share my own. We can become part of each other’s stories and memories. Without a common language, all I had was a vague feeling of fascination. Now, we’re falling in love with each other.

In a relationship with any being, you can only go as deep as your shared language allows. No shared language means no real ability to connect past basic first impressions, which involve a lot of cultural assumptions. Scholarship of source culture is how we learn the language of our Gods; mysticism is where that language comes into use in communication with them. It’s not that we need to balance between these two tools, it’s that we need to sort out how they assemble and use them together. I can have a meaningful and ever-deepening relationship with the Morrígan by studying Her language (the symbolic and mythic lexicon of the ancient Irish culture) and I use that language to communicate and understand Her. The repository of that symbolic and mythic lexicon is what we call in shorthand “the lore”, and it is the record of the language of Her people. Can I learn something about Her by studying the lore, e.g. learning Her language? Yes. Will studying Irish bring me into intimacy with Her if I never go back out to that road and actually talk to Her? No.

Couldn’t She learn my language if She wants to talk to me? We live in this world now, not ancient Ireland, right? Well, yes. She could. But is that any way to court someone?

So it’s not a matter of a balancing act between prioritizing my learning Irish versus talking to the woman on the road (except to the extent that I have 24 hours in a day and have to decide how to spend them). It’s a matter of HOW I bring the two together in a meaningful way. How fluent I bother to become, and how gracefully I employ Her language to converse with Her. How consistent I am in showing up for our dates and making the effort of being worthy company.

To employ another metaphor, scholarship can show me how to put together the pieces of an engine and hang it in the chassis of a car – or how to assemble a chariot, if you will. I don’t actually have to engineer that shit myself starting with inventing the wheel and the concept of a threaded bolt. Numinous experience, communion with the Gods or what we sometimes call UPG, is the high-octane fuel I am going to pour in that engine and set on fire – or the fine spirited world-walking horse I am going to harness to that chariot. It’s not so much about balancing between engineering and fuel as if I should be worried about prioritizing one or the other too much. I am getting nowhere without the both of them. What matters is that I figure out how to put them together in a way that works: get the horse into the harness, get the fuel in the tank, find the ignition switch.

Because the point of the whole thing, where the rubber meets the road, is what I do next: I am going to take my hot rod on the road and see if that amazing woman wants to go for a ride with me.

08
Aug - 13

Don’t Let Go: A personal reflection about art, destiny, and sovereignty

Yesterday, I spent all day at work making art. Then I came home and went straight to my desk, on fire to make more art. When I looked up, it was nearly midnight. I still wasn’t tired.

I always knew that art is what I was meant for. I was avidly drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. It was a defining characteristic of my childhood. Long before I had any other ideas about identity – before it had even remotely occurred to me that I was a Witch and a Pagan – I knew what I was. I was an artist.

But here’s the thing. It took me until my late thirties to find the guts and the strength to make this my vocation. In my teen years, art was pretty much all I did. And then I reached that age where people start asking you what your plan is in life, and no one wanted to hear me say “artist”. I was told (by the person closest to me) you can’t succeed; no one makes a living just doing art; you’ll be broke and miserable. Art is a hobby. It’s frivolous. It’s a luxury. You can’t expect to just do that. You need to choose something more adult, and just do art in your spare time for fun.

So I did. I let myself be persuaded to set aside what I had always known I was meant for, and pick another career. I changed my major in college, and I did another six years of schooling and got my degree. Went to work in a government office. I continued to think of myself as an artist, but art was squeezed in as a hobby, in my side moments between working full-time, commuting, and everything else. Art became the periphery of my life, and the office was its center.

I did that for ten more years. Until I didn’t.

The job evaporated and I was at a crossroads. I let it all go and ran full tilt toward what should have been my center of gravity all along: Art. Was it scary at first? Hell yes. But pretty soon I started to realize that there are all sorts of ways that art careers can be made, besides selling paintings in the fine-art world. Animators, art teachers, designers, illustrators, tattoo artists, CGI artists, concept artists, comic book artists… I started to realize that I’d been sold on a narrowing of imagination. I had allowed myself to be diminished, not just by giving up a part of myself, but by internalizing a shrunken image of the whole world I live in.

Why did I do that? How did I let that happen to me for so long?

Many reasons. I was young and naive. I had poor emotional boundaries. I was easily influenced by people close to me. I was in a relationship with an imbalanced power dynamic. I let myself be told, instead of listening and then weighing the decision for myself. A host of reasons that really boil down to one thing: I was too young to know what sovereignty was, or to notice that I’d given mine away. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I began to understand what had happened to me as an issue of sovereignty.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it. It now seems to me that personal sovereignty is what our lives are made of. That it’s really all we have. Fate, or chance, or whatever you like to call it, will cast us into all kinds of circumstances over which we have no control at all. What is ours is that right to exert agency for ourselves, to choose our way forward through whatever faces us, to choose for ourselves how to respond. To live by our own lights. Ancient cultures often framed this in terms of a heroic ethos, in which it was understood that even if fate took all other options from you, you could always exercise the choice to die well, and that to do so was to exercise the ultimate sovereignty. People in circumstances like mine are privileged to not have to frame this in life-and-death terms, but I think the ethos of free will and sovereignty still has merit and applies.

I’m now speaking from a place in which I’m doing the work I have always known I was born to do. I am building a career in art, through a combination of tattooing, fine art and crafts. I am thriving in a way I never have before. The way has opened to me. I think it was always open. I just didn’t dare take it before.

What’s my point? How is this relevant to you? Are you wondering if this is leading into vapid inspirational platitudes like “If you can dream it, you can do it”? No, it’s not. I can’t say that all paths are open to you to succeed at whatever you want. I’m not telling you that you can make your dreams come true no matter what they are.

photo courtesy of Patrick Mackie, via Wikimedia Commons

What I am telling you is: Don’t let go of your soul because someone told you that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be that. Don’t let go without at least trying for yourself, without getting your feet dusty attempting to climb the path. Don’t give your sovereignty away. Don’t let go of your soul.

Don’t let go of who you are. I’ve said before, everyone has a destiny, and your truest sovereignty is to hold to that, to fight for it.

I’m speaking this urging with compassion; I don’t sit in judgement of anyone. Any one of us can wake up realizing we’ve given away our sovereignty in little profound ways. Any one of us can wake up realizing we’ve let other people choose our destiny for us without a fight. I let that happen to me for a decade and a half. If this is you, don’t judge yourself, either. Just start now. Reclaim yourself. It is never too late. It is never too late.

Because this isn’t just about doing what feeds you personally. The world we live in desperately needs people to fight injustice and oppression, to fight destruction and degradation, to speak the truth, to stand up for what’s right. Where does that start?

Who will fight for you if you can’t fight for yourself? Who will you fight for, if not yourself? Who will right the world if the world is filled with people who have given all their power away, who are trudging exhausted down a path that isn’t their own? How will you be of service to the world if you’re drained from doing the wrong work?

This is how you can be of service: Find out who you are and what your destiny is, and then give it all your heart.

 

23
Jul - 13

Ghost stories of Gaul

Tonight I’ve been poring through archaeological notes on the nature of ancient Celtic religion for another writing project. Sometimes research is tedious work, but tonight from the dry fragments of archaeological data, with the full moon peering in my window, a ghost rose up and took hold of me, and I want to share its tale. Tonight under this full moon, let me tell you a story.

We are in the soft green landscape of northern Gaul, its wooded hills and valleys crossed by many streams. We are in the territory of the Bellovaci, a strong Belgic tribe. Caesar’s legions have not yet come to conquer this land – it is a tribal dominion still. That moon pours light over the landscape, a wide stream that courses by the walls of the dunum, the fortified city standing on the slope overlooking the valley. Inside the walls, buildings cluster, thatched roofs over timber-framed and wattle walls. Just inside the entrance gate of the dunum, there is a space set apart from all the rest.

A tall wooden palisade guards the boundary of this space, enclosing it seven feet high with pole stakes but for an entrance gate facing us at the east. At intervals along these walls stand tall posts, towering over the palisade, and on each is hung a set of battered arms: sword, spear, and the man-sized oval shields of Gaulish tribes, painted with now-faded tribal devices, cut and spattered with the traces of battle. Here and there, a Roman helm and shield hang, or perhaps a Greek set. The captured trophies of rival tribes and nations. And over the eastern entrance in the palisade, a great wooden portal looms high above us. Its double gates are hung on thick timber uprights which support two ranks of heavy lintel beams, as thick as a man’s waist. We can see the ornate carvings on the beams and gate glinting in the shifting light. We recognize these carvings: sinuous and twisting, coursing spirals and geometries, the artful madness of La Tène Celtic design, brought to life by its colorful paint and the flickering torches to either side of the gate. In the shadowed spaces between the ranked beams of the portal over the gates, we can see rows of skulls: dead warriors set to watching the gateway between the outer world and the sanctuary within. The gates swing outward.

We cross a threshold between the uprights of the portal and step onto a narrow wooden footbridge which spans the eight feet of deep boundary ditch inside the palisade. To either side of the footbridge, in the ditch and up against the palisade wall, the skulls of horned cattle are stacked into mounds, all facing us as we move through the crossing. Apotropaic guardians like the dead warriors on the outer walls, their eye hollows watch us. Beyond the stacked cattle heads, we can see the ditch running along the circumference of the enclosure, and in it the layered remains of many offerings: countless animal bones; cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, layered in with thousands of rusted, broken swords, splintered shields, old spearheads, decaying leather scabbards and the detritus of endless bits of old weaponry. For hundreds of years these offerings have been laid down here, one atop another as the older sacrifices sink into the earth at the bottom of the boundary ditch. When the arms displayed on the walls rust and their leather strappings crumble enough to fall, they will be laid into the boundary ditch with the bones of the most recent sacrificial animals, and another set will take their place.

In the precise geometric center of the rectangular enclosure, a roofed structure stands, its four ornately carved and decorated corner posts carefully aligned to the cardinal directions. A temple. Within its shelter, the hollow altars are delved into the earth: nine circular pits cut deep into the soil in an open circle facing us as we approach from the east; and in the center of the circle, a tenth, larger oval pit. A heavy-hewn table stands before the structure, blood-stained, and nearby also are cooking-pits. Here the sacrifices are made to the poetic invocations of the Vates, the Druidic priests who are entrusted with sacrifices, divinations, and the rites of religious observance. We can almost hear their intonations, the words uplifted, the sonorous chantings in the ancient Gaulish tongue. Here the offerings are dedicated – the many bright treasures, the fine weapons, the poured libations. The animals are brought, their blood spilled; parts of their bodies are given to the Gods and offered in the pits of the hollow altars, entrances into the Otherworld. The rest of the meat, sanctified by the touch of the Gods, is brought out and cooked in the cooking-fires, and shared with the gathered people of the tribe. The hollow altars will be covered between ceremonies, and the portions of the animals given to the Gods within them will be left there until the bones are free of flesh, and then the bones will be brought out and placed in the boundary ditch, as the ritual cycle continues.

Outside the temple, another, smaller building is enclosed with walls, and within are heaped treasures upon treasures. Golden torcs, arm-bands, necklaces, anklets, belts. Cups and cauldrons in gold and some silver; hand-mirrors, chains, enameled, jeweled, twisting with ornate La Tène ornament. Wooden chests overflow with objects captured, created, offered. Treasures up on treasures, and more weapons – fine, heirloom weapons. Baskets of coin gleam on the floor, some so old that the basket-weavings are disintegrating and the treasures spill onto the earthen floor, where they are slowly sinking in to the soil under the weight of layers up on layers of offerings. Humbler offerings litter the floor, too: ceramic and earthenware cups, fragmented crockery, bronze and iron tools, objects too old to be recognizable. How deep have the layered offerings sunk into the earth inside this treasure-house? It is never guarded except by the spirits. No one would ever think of stealing gifts already belonging to the Otherworld.

And here is another, smaller structure in the corner of the enclosure, glinting white by the moon’s light. Nearing, we discern that it takes its whiteness from the bones of which it is built, and the gleaming weapons hung upon it. A little square shrine built all of bones it is. Carefully stacked for stability, human long-bones criss-crossed make up its lower tiers; here and there intermixed with the leg-bones of horses. On its outer faces are hung more shields and weapons, and its upper surfaces are protected by a layer of shoulder-blade bones. An opening faces us, again toward the east, and within we can discern a floor carefully tiled with iliac bones, surrounding a round posthole in which stands a wooden icon with unfathomable staring eyes, its base set into deep, soft layers of human ash within the posthole. It is not simply a shrine for the ancestors of the tribe – it is a shrine built of ancestors, the bones of the honored dead raised up into a structure for their reverence. How many ancestors stand here? How many generations?

One artist's interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

One artist’s interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

In the remaining corner of the sanctuary enclosure, behind the sacrificial temple, there stands a copse of trees. A little piece of the forest that was cleared to build the dunum whose walls surround this sanctuary, this grove of trees was left untouched and simply enclosed by the boundary ditch and palisade. It is a home for the Gods within the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.

This is a Gaulish Celtic sanctuary as it might have looked while still in use, before the destruction of public Gaulish religion. I’ve combined elements of a few different sanctuaries for the sake of illustrating the different kinds of shrines that were in use, but almost everything I’ve described here is based on archaeological records, with just a few bits filled in from contemporary texts. These sanctuaries were in continuous use and development from about the 4th-5th centuries BCE until the eve of the Gallic wars. Why do we have such detail about the structure and arrangement of these sanctuaries? Because the Gauls of these tribes committed a kind of religious suicide before Caesar’s onslaught came.

During Caesar’s period in the middle of the first century BCE, these sanctuaries were abruptly closed. The hollow altars were filled in and covered over. The temples were dismantled – their walls collapsed inward to cover their contents. The ossuary shrine made of ancestral bones was carefully knocked outward from the inside, so gently that many of the bones remained locked together in their stacked patterns, and none were broken. Everything was leveled, including the palisade walls; the banks were knocked over to fill in the boundary ditches. And then the entire enclosure was covered over with a low mound of soil. This was not the destruction of war – the sanctuaries were intentionally and carefully dismantled, and all around the same time, mid-century. As the Druidic priesthood of Gaul saw what faced them in Caesar’s conquest, they chose to bury half a millennium of religious tradition literally into the grave rather than see it desecrated by the Roman legions.

I try to imagine what that must have been like. Some handful of individual Gaulish people did the physical labor of knocking down the ossuary temple built of twenty-five generations of their own ancestors’ bones, obliterating five hundred years of memory and tradition and worship, knocking them into the dirt as gently as possible and covering it over, never to be retrieved. And then what… walked away? Went for a beer? Joined Vercingetorix’s army? Drowned themselves in the river? That’s about the point where I give up trying to imagine what it must have been like to have to do that.

When Caesar came, he never saw the temples, because they were gone before he arrived. He wrote about Gaulish religion, of temples with sacrificial deposits in them, but scholars recognize his texts as copied from the earlier writer Poseidonius. What he saw he described as “constructed mounds” which he understood were made up of sacrificial deposits. The grave mounds of Gaulish religion.

It is from this period that the springs, caves, lakes, and other natural sites began to dominate as centers of cult activity in continental Celtic religion. It is from this period that we see a dramatic increase in votive icons and offerings, magical tablets, and other religious items appearing as the evidence of folk religion. Because after the destruction of the temples and the criminalization of Druidic religion and its public rites, private worship in the hidden places of nature was what the Gauls had left to them.

The Gauls did not forget, though. After the Roman conquest, even following the official prohibition on Druidic religious activity, the sanctuaries continued to be kept as sacred ground. While the dunums were built up into Roman oppida all around, the grounds on which the sanctuaries stood were kept empty. No longer visible as mounds, with no surviving structures traceable on the ground surface, the people somehow passed down a hidden tradition about the sacredness of these sites for four hundred years after the conquest, protecting the boundaries of the sanctuaries from the encroaching city. It was not until the fourth century CE that a new temple, now in the Romanized style, was built – and when it was, its corner posts were laid precisely onto the invisible footprint of the old Gaulish temple.

That is the story that the ghosts of Gaul asked me to tell you tonight.

12
Jul - 13

Of blood and battlefields: Sacrifice in Pagan practice

So today I’m thinking about sacrifice again. It’s a subject that’s been showing up recently. Not long ago, my friend Sam wrote an excellent blog post on the subject of sacrifice; and the comment discussion on the post is very revealing of the fearful attitudes many people still hold toward the notion of sacrifice. You’ll find a commenter in that conversation blithely stating that he eats meat, but virulently objects to animal sacrifice as wanton murder, and seeing no contradiction in these two positions.

Not long after that, I traveled to a Pagan gathering in British Columbia, where as part of a series of intensive rituals working closely with Macha, an epiphany of the Morrígan in horse form, several of we Coru priests and our allies held a ritual feast of horse meat and other ancestral foods, cooked over a sacred fire and eaten within ritual. We experienced very mixed responses to this ritual. Some of those present were moved and honored to participate; others who heard about it after the fact reacted with horror to the idea that we would ritually consume horse meat.

The common theme expressed by those who object to blood sacrifice seems to be the idea that it demeans or insults the being that is sacrificed. That to spill blood for a religious offering is to waste life, when something else could be offered. I think this is arising from a misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice; and I encourage readers to go and read the entirety of Sam’s article on the subject. We should know, of course, that the term sacrifice means ‘to make sacred’; and that sacrifice is, historically speaking, a core practice of Pagan religions in the ancient world. I’ve written on this subject before, as have many others.

This week, I’ve just returned from a weekend of  armored combat and ritual offerings to my Gods. As part of our martial and devotional practice, when I and the other Coru priests and warriors attend large war events, we lead battlefield devotionals to bless the fighters and the field, and to dedicate the combat to our battle Goddess, the Morrígan. As this practice has developed, it became clear to us that blood offerings were needed. In the past, every time we performed the battlefield dedication without offering blood, at some point in the fighting day one of us who had been involved in the dedication would take an injury, and blood would flow.

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Coru priests and allies performing Gaulish battlefield dedication

This tells me something important about how this devotional process operates with the Morrígan. How many times have people told me that libations, food, flowers, whatever, are sacrifice enough for the Gods? How many times have I heard that offering your time, dedicating acts of service to the Gods, time spent in devotional prayer is just as good a sacrifice? Well, we did all that, and She asked for more. Rather, She took more. We offered beer, whiskey, cream, woad, etc.; we brought Her many fighters to raise their voices with us and dedicate their fighting in Her name; we gave Her the battlefield, and we threw our bodies into the fray; we offered Her our many bruises and every ounce of fight we had in us. She took all that, and then She took blood, too.

Until this time. We got wise and added a sacrifice ceremony the night before the fighting, in which we made blood offerings which were placed into the cup with the offerings that would be dedicated and poured out on the field the next morning. Several Coru priests, as well as some of the other warriors gathered, chose to offer their blood. And this time, none of us took a bleeding injury during the fighting. I can only conclude from this that She requires blood sacrifice in the context of a battle dedication.

This should not surprise us, really. We know that it was a common practice among the warrior traditions of the Gaulish Celts to offer dedications to their war Gods prior to a battle, and we know that human and animal sacrifices were among those offerings. It stands to reason, and I think has been shown, that these Gods (or at the very least our Goddess) still expect some kind of blood sacrifice. Modern Pagans love to talk about how the Gods evolve with us, and how forms of offerings can be different in modern times. I agree – but I think the important thing that has shifted isn’t whether or not living sacrifice is needed or useful. What has shifted is the importance of the individual soul and the idea of consent, the willing sacrifice. Everyone whose blood went into that cup offered it of their own volition. Similarly, when we organized the blood donation drive at PantheaCon last year, that was a form of sacrifice which was purely volitional. That focus on volition with regard to human offerings is reflective of how sacrifice can evolve in a modern context – a religious practice now shaped by modern values on individual liberty, but still preserving the core function of the act, which is the offering of vital life.

That core function is also present in animal sacrifice and is the reason why the practice is still relevant today. Obviously, consent cannot work the same way with animal offerings as it can with human blood offerings. But it seems to me that we don’t expect to receive consent from the domestic animals who are raised and slaughtered for our food, so it is an unreasonable standard to apply to religious sacrifice. To my mind, if we’re willing to kill to eat (and I think all beings have a moral right to kill when needed for sustenance or self-defense), there is no reason to be squeamish about dedicating the life force that’s being spilled in a religious fashion. From a Pagan perspective, an animal that’s being killed humanely and with attentive care in a ritual context is being honored far better than one that’s being killed as part of a routine assembly line, packaged for food without attention to its soul process and the spiritual quality of its death. Thus, unless it comes from a person who eats no meat nor otherwise supports animal processing industries, I can’t give much credence to categorical objections to animal sacrifice.

There’s another argument about consuming animals based on totemic links, and this was part of the objection to the horse meat that we heard. Reflections of this exist in history and mythology of Pagan cultures – as one well-known example, the Irish hero Cú Chulainn had a geis which prohibited him from eating dog meat, and this is usually interpreted as resulting from his totemic connection to dogs. This is a valid spiritual argument, but it still only holds for those individuals who have a specific relationship with the animal that would confer such a prohibition. Others’ relationship with horses doesn’t preclude me from participating in ritual horse meat consumption, any more than Cú Chulainn’s geis means no one in the world should ever eat dog.

There’s much more to be said about this subject. We’re hopeful of organizing a discussion on the subject of sacrifice at PantheaCon next year (spearheaded by my sister Coru priestess Rynn Fox). I hope the conversation on sacrifice continues, because I think it’s a very important one in the evolution of Pagan thought.

21
Jun - 13

Polytheism: The Light in the Window

First, I wish all a blessed Solstice, and may your fires burn brightly and true.

Over the last few weeks, several friends have nudged me to comment on the recent shitstorm debate in the Pagan blogosphere regarding polytheism, archetypalism and humanism in Pagan theology. Up to now, I have not. Not because I don’t have strong opinions, but because frankly I am too busy doing the work of Pagan polytheist priesthood to have time to argue with people about it on the internet – an activity that should always come second in priority to actual religious practice, in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t have enough time to read even a fraction of the heated volumes that have been written about it in just the last month. But I’ll try to add something of value to the conversation.

To start with, I feel there’s a distinction that needs to be made: polytheism is a religious framework, whereas Paganism (as the term is used in modernity to refer to the Pagan movement) is better understood as an ethos or worldview. One of the best definitions of Paganism I’ve heard comes from my friend Jonathan Korman, who wrote in his blog:

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred. The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.

Thus, one can be Pagan and polytheist; Pagan and humanist; or even Pagan and atheist. Because Paganism is not a theism – it is not a statement of religious doctrine on the existence of Gods per se. It is a broadly spiritual worldview in which the cosmos is alive with powers with which we can interact. Theisms involve the recognition of those forces specifically in the form of Gods. Incidentally, operating from this understanding of Paganism, I tend to see reconstructionists and polytheists of most sorts as inherently Pagan, even if they prefer to distance themselves from the Pagan movement for social reasons.

So that being said, here is my statement of position: I am a Pagan polytheist Witch, a dedicant and priestess of the Morrígan, and a worshipper of other Gods as well. Priesthood is, above all other things, service to the Gods, and you cannot serve something which is an abstract idea or archetype, because abstracts do not have needs. Thus, priesthood inherently contains a recognition of the reality of the Gods as living beings. This is true for me: in my experience, the Gods are real, living beings, every bit as real as I am, though primarily discarnate in their form of existence (which, incidentally, makes them more powerful, not less so).

And I’ll ask you to notice what I’m not saying here – I’m not saying “I believe in the Gods.” For me, it is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of lived experience. I did not treat the Gods as real until I had experienced them. Nor do I expect anyone else to treat them as real, if they have not had experience of them. I recognize that to know the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in modernity find very challenging to do. I suspect this is a big factor in the recent shift toward treating the Gods as useful figments of the collective unconscious. We have a culture that teaches us to mistrust the evidence of our own senses unless it is corroborated overwhelmingly by the observations of other people or of instruments. We also have a culture filled with media images in which the presence of the Gods, or the action of magic, are announced by spectacular displays of supernatural phenomena, which have trained our perception toward the coarse and obvious, and to miss the subtle.  The most powerful and helpful aspect of my training in Witchcraft may be this – it helped me to unlearn this cultural programming, to deeply observe and honor the evidence of all my senses.

This training also taught me that all people can only act from the experiences that they have. We polytheists cannot expect anyone who has not experienced the reality of the Gods to act from true knowledge of their presence. We can, of course, expect our practices and our theology to be treated with respect.

There’s something more I want to say about the Gods, and about polytheism. That is, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference. This is a matter of fine discernment: the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because they are inherently greater than our capacity to experience them. Thus, the Gods as we know them are in fact processes of encounter, more than fixed shapes. To quote my friend Jonathan again, “The gods are what happen when the forces of the cosmos interact with human consciousness.” That is to say, what we experience is always a mask or form of the God shaped in such a way as to translate into our consciousness and frame of reference.

This is, I think, where the confusion sometimes arises between Gods as living beings and Gods as examples of archetypes. Those masks or forms can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the collective consciousness of our species. The difference between the archetypalist perspective and the polytheist one, is that that from a polytheist perspective, those forces taking form as Gods are real, exist independently of us, and can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that they are real. We don’t, and can’t, create them. In conversation about this recently, I used the metaphor of a stained glass church window, containing an image which is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through it from outside. The image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, but not in itself alive or exerting force in the world. The Gods are the sun. The church is the human mind. Thus, the experience we have as a consciousness trapped inside the walls of the body is that of an image which comes to life within our experience. It takes the form and shape given it by this inert picture in glass made by the human hand, but its life is real and comes from beyond us; we can feel its warmth on our skin if we stand in the beam. That sun was not made by our hands or minds, nor is its existence dependent on our awareness of it. But without leaving the church (or at least opening a window), what we can know from this about the true nature of the sun is limited.

That last point is important. And it is not the same as skepticism. It is not necessary to question the reality of our sense experiences – we feel what we feel, we see what we see, and those experiences have primacy. But it’s important to practice discernment about how we shape those experiences into a story about the nature of the Gods. It is important to remember that what we have is always and only the nature of our own encounter, filtered through the membrane that separates the full reality of these powers from our embodied experience. It is in this way that we can be both rational and authentic in our relationship with the Gods.

I would like to see the polytheist camp practice this kind of discernment more fully, and I think it would help us in being better understood by the more rationalist/archetypalist folk in the community. Why do I care? Because infighting between Pagans is not only an embarrassing waste of our time, it’s also self-destructive to all of us. While the polytheists and archetypalists are each accusing the other camp of dominionist thinking, there are real Dominionists out there actively working to delegitimize and limit our freedom of religion, and they do not care which camp you’re in. So yes, let us have this conversation about the differences in our theology, and let us bring both our passion and discernment to the table, but let us keep our kinship in mind.

05
Jun - 13

Why We Fight, Redux

I made a decision recently to write more often about my combat fighting practice. I’ve tended to make this blog more a space for academic and spiritual writing, and less a personal journal. I figured, who cares about the fumblings of a beginner SCA fighter?

Women do, as it turns out. In my first six months as a heavy armored combat fighter, I’ve had several experiences of women coming forward to tell me that they find something to inspire in my fighting path. This surprised me. For the most part, SCA culture is very supportive of women fighters, and while women remain very underrepresented in heavy combat (I’d estimate about 5-10%; less in the ranks of knights), we don’t lack for strong, kickass female fighters, at least on the West coast. Why would these women be particularly interested in my beginner experiences?

These are the kind of comments that I’ve been hearing from women:

“I just wanted to tell you I admire your bravery for jumping in to this tournament. I’ve done some fighting on the war field, but I’ve been too intimidated to enter into a tournament and face off against all those men who are bigger, stronger, and more experienced. I know you’re a new fighter, and I know you’re taking a lot of hits because you fight without a shield, and I’m sure it must be scary, but you’re just going forward anyway and I find it really inspiring.”

“I am so proud to come here tonight and see that there’s at least one woman fighting in this tournament. I haven’t been to an event in years, but you make me want to come back and get in armor.”

I think what I’m figuring out is that women are finding inspiration in this because I’m a beginner. Perhaps they find it easier to see themselves in my boots because I’m not an accomplished fighter, because I’m new and awkward and I lose most of my fights. Because I’m smaller, lighter, and far less skilled than almost everyone I go up against. Because I take beating after beating but I just keep at it, knowing that is how I’ll learn and become strong. Perhaps in some way this makes fighting seem more possible for them too. I hope so. I long to see more women in armor, more women shining on the field.

And then something else happened. A few days ago, I learned that a dear friend of mine was sexually assaulted recently. As she shared her story with me, my first thoughts were about making sure she had care, was supported, protected, the perpetrator prevented from doing further harm. My own emotions didn’t surface until I left her company.

Then I felt something closing in on me. I thought, That’s one more woman on the list of women I know who have been sexually assaulted. And then I found myself thinking, Wait, how many women do I know now who haven’t been raped, molested or sexually assaulted? And the rage started to crash over me in waves.

I don’t want to count my friends by how many unraped women I know.

I don’t want to watch that countdown diminishing. I don’t want to watch that countdown close in on my sister, my daughter, the rest of the women I love. I’ve been lucky so far; how long have I got? This is not the world I want to leave to our sons and daughters.

None of this is new to me, but for whatever reason, it hit a threshold for me. Maybe because I’m a fighter now. Maybe it was that realization that I was counting down to a terribly small number. Whatever the reason, it triggered a rise in me in a new way.

What do we do? There are many ways, I suppose, to work against rape culture. There has been an upswing in dialogue lately about rape culture, and that is good. Messages about men taking responsibility for changing rape culture, for choosing not to rape, for recognizing the bodily sovereignty of women – these messages are starting to be heard, and that is good. I support all of that.

For my part, I feel it is my work to encourage women to 598869_4702114103272_1985475771_nfight. I want to see more women carrying themselves with the strength of warriors on our streets. I want to know that those women on my diminishing list of unraped friends and family, have learned how to use their weight to break out of a choke hold. Or turn a gun to disarm an armed attacker. Or use a lightweight broom as a knockout weapon. I want to do anything I can to inspire even a few more women to make themselves formidable. To become a force of strength that can intimidate if need be, instead of walking the world in fear of being alone with a male.  I want to see more warrior women walking our streets, embodying with their very presence the overwhelming truth that our bodies are not the sexual birthright of any male, but are our own sovereign territory which we can and will protect.

What does SCA combat have to do with any of that? It is just one fighting form among many. I chose it because I like the community and because getting in armor and beating the hell out of your friends is addictively fun. But I don’t care what you choose – Krav Maga, or Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido, or HEMA, or kickboxing, or Irish stickfighting, or whatever. It matters less what specific techniques you study – it’s the practice of integrating a fighting skill into your being that matters. They all teach us some moves we can use if we ever need to defend ourselves. And more importantly, they all change how we carry ourselves and how we move in the world. They all change our ability to think and respond without panic under pressure. They all make us warrior women. That’s what the world needs.

Please don’t be the next woman on my list. I love you. Let us fight and grow strong. I am doing this, and you can too.

17
Apr - 13

Disambiguating the Queen, #2: Dark Goddess

Apologies to my readers for the longer than usual interval between posts. My work life has accelerated, and I’m also working on a writing project for publication, so time for the blog has been harder to come by.

So… This week I thought I’d take on another of the common conceptions about the Morrígan: that She is a ‘Dark Goddess’.

You’ll see this label applied to the Great Queen in much of the popular literature and internet material about Her. There’s too much of this material to quote any one source directly – but go to almost any of the popular social network groups or websites devoted to Her and you’ll see something like this:

The Morrigan is the Celtic form of the Dark Goddess. She is the Black Raven of Death and Rebirth. She is the Crone, the Great Queen, the Supreme War Goddess. She is Fate and Death, the Warrior, Protector, and Wise Woman. She represents Old Age, Winter, the Waning Moon, and Destruction. She is the Grandmother aspect of the Triple Goddess.

Setting aside for the moment the many inaccuracies in descriptions such as this… first things first. Is the Morrigan a ‘Dark Goddess’? What do we even mean when we describe a Goddess as ‘dark’? The term ‘dark’ can mean two different things – objective or natural darkness, as in the absence of physical light; or moral darkness. Which, if either, applies to the Morrígan?

If we assume She’s being labeled a ‘Dark Goddess’ because of an association with natural or objective darkness, e.g., the absence of physical light, we might expect to see a special association in Her lore with night-time (when the world is dark), the night sky itself, winter (when daylight is least and nights are longest), and/or chthonic or lightless underworld realms.

Goddess of Night? Well… No, not really. In the Irish source texts (the only primary narrative sources for Her mythology) we don’t find a particular association with night. She does attack the hosts of enemies of Her chosen people during night-time (for example, during the First and Second Battles of Mag Tuiredh). But She also attacks them in the daylight, and makes other daylight appearances. One might possibly make an association with the notion of obscurity – as She is linked to the use of stormclouds, mist and obscuring fogs in battle magic. However, so are many of the Tuatha Dé Danann, not to mention other races in the myths. In the early literature, clouds and mist are properties of Druidic magic, of which She is a specialist. That doesn’t make Her a Goddess of darkness, however.

How about winter? The Morrígan does have a clear association in the lore with Samhain, but Samhain is not winter. In fact, the name derives from the Gaulish term Samonios, which is generally translated as ‘end of summer’ (Samon=summer). In the Celtic paradigm, Samhain is the hinge point, the gateway between summer and winter. That’s why it is in fact such a crucial, sacred, and powerful time – because it is a liminal time between seasons, when the Otherworld was understood to be more accessible. Thus Her association with Samhain does not equate to an association with darkness, but rather with Otherworldly power. Further, a great many of the Morrígan’s appearances in the source lore also occur around Beltain – the other hinge point in the Celtic year, in the spring. For example, the great battles of the Invasion cycles in which She takes part are understood to have occurred at Beltain. Clearly, She can’t be labeled a Dark Goddess based on season. The nearest we can come is the Cailleach, a mythological hag or ancestress figure associated with winter in Irish and Scottish folklore. However, there is no direct evidence for equating the Cailleach with the Morrígan; and while there are some interesting folkloric links, the Cailleach can be related just as well with Brigid as with the Morrígan.

Goddess of the Underworld? Yes, but… it’s more complex than that, and the short answer is no, it doesn’t shake out to an association with darkness. The Morrígan does have a strong association with the síd or Faery mounds – underhill places which are understood in folklore to this day as the entrances to the Otherworld and dwelling places of the Gods and spirits. However, this has to be understood in context. For one thing, all the Tuatha are pretty much equally connected to the síd. Lugh himself, whom no one would ever think of calling a ‘Dark God’ makes appearances from and within the mound (for example, in the Baile in Scáil sovereignty myth). We have to remember that in the Celtic mythological paradigm, while the Otherworld may be accessed through the mound and understood to exist underground (or undersea), this does not mean it is a realm of darkness. It is not the cold, lightless Underworld of, for example, the Hellenic realm of Hades. It is a rich and varied landscape with all the lights and shadows of our own world. Again, Her connection with the mounds simply points to Her nature as an Otherworldly being of power, not a Goddess of darkness.

But crows and ravens are black! Okay, yes, the Morrígan’s primary animal forms are corvid, and yes, they are black. Well, mostly: in many of the places in the lore where a species of crow is named, it is the hooded or scald crow, which is not all black. But sure, the iconic corvid is black, and there is no question that She appears in the form of a raven or black crow in many places in the lore. Though, to be truthful, She also appears as a gray wolf, an eel (we aren’t told of its coloring), and a white heifer with red ears. And when She appears in human-like form, Her coloring is most often described as fair-skinned and red-haired (when young); or blue-skinned and red-mouthed (when demonic or hag-like). I find it unconvincing to hang the idea of the Morrígan as dark Goddess merely on Her link with crows and ravens alone in the face of all these other non-black associations. (Besides, many deities we don’t label dark are linked with dark birds; Lugh has an ancient association with ravens, for example.)

So much for the natural darkness arguments. That leaves us at the idea of moral darkness. The Morrígan as dark Goddess based on Her association with forces we consider morally ‘dark’; violence, warfare, death.

Now we’re getting to it. Actually, if you look deeply at the idea of ‘dark Gods’ in general, they are inherently a product of our dualistic culture, heavily influenced by Abrahamic moral paradigm which equates darkness with negative or harmful forces. In fact, when people talk of the ‘Dark Goddess’, they virtually always mean moral darkness rather than natural darkness, if you examine their language and theology. For evidence of this, I invite you to imagine any deity associated with the darkness of night or the night sky whom you care to think of. Nyx, Nuit, Astarte, Ishtar, Arianrhod of the silver wheel; all the ‘Queens of Heaven’. Not a one of them is usually labeled ‘Dark Goddess’. Hekate is arguably an exception, but I think the point still stands. When we say ‘Dark Goddess’, what we really mean is scary Goddess; or perhaps more specifically, morally ambiguous Goddess.

As I understand it, the notion of the Dark Goddess as such is an outgrowth of modern Wiccan and feminist thealogies. The idea seems to have been that in the early stages of Goddess spirituality and the women’s movement, there was some sanitizing of the images of the Goddess, and people felt that in order to fully reclaim and resacralize the Divine Feminine, the ‘darker’ aspects of the Goddess needed to be recognized and given place – that is to say, the aspects that frighten us, that represent forces denied and demonized by Western dualism. Death, destruction, bloodshed, violence, illness, decay, old age, and the like. All parts of life and all as natural as sunshine and flowers, but associated with negativity in the dualist paradigm.

So what’s wrong with this? Isn’t it fair to say the Morrígan is a dark Goddess based on this approach? Well, for one thing, I don’t find it terribly useful to maintain the dualistic language; it only serves to perpetuate dualistic moral values, which I don’t think apply to a polytheist, Pagan Celtic Goddess. The ‘Dark Goddess’ label  emphasizes and reinforces a shallow and ugly cultural paradigm about age and sex: the correspondence of the crone/old age/death/darkness as opposed to youth/beauty/sexuality/life/light. In fact the Morrígan inhabits ALL of these. She is as often a young as an old woman, and She freely interweaves sex with death, fecundity with old age, youth and beauty with violence.

The fact is, the entire idea of classifying the Gods as ‘dark’ or ‘bright’ based on moral valuation of their functions is anathema to the polytheistic and animistic tribal paradigm from which the Morrígan springs. But it’s a self-reinforcing paradigm. Using this dualistic terminology for the Morrígan emphasizes Her functions that fit the idea of moral darkness – Her roles in death, warfare, and violence – at the expense of Her other equally important functions. What about Her role as tutelary Goddess to heroes? What about honor, sovereignty, wealth, queenship, sexuality? Incitement to greatness? What about seership and poetry and Druidic craft? We brush all that aside in favor of Her bloody image when we label her as a Dark Goddess. And most importantly, we lose the understanding of how all these aspects are connected. How the heroic ethos carries honor and glory, but at the cost of blood. How queenship and wealth are linked to protection and sacrifice. How the aspect of death is connected to the ancestral current and the life of the land. Where madness, ecstasy, sexuality, and battle frenzy connect. How all things open to the mystery of the Otherworld.

If She’s anywhere to be found on the spectrum of light and dark, She’d surely be more of a twilight Goddess than a dark one. That is the nature of the Tuatha, no?

22
Mar - 13

The Voice of the Sacrificed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Middle East a more stable and democratic place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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