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The Shieldmaiden Blog

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!

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

24
Aug - 15

Trans women and sovereignty: I stand with you

Today’s post is a brief, but passionate one. I have some other topics that I’ve felt compelled to write on for this blog, but with ritual and logistical preparation for the Coru Priesthood pilgrimage to Ireland in full sway, I’ve had little time for writing.

A few days ago I came across this essay, shared by a friend on social media: Someone Tell Me That I’ll Live: On Murder, Media, and Being a Trans Woman in 2015

I read it in the solitude of my studio, while taking a break between drawing sessions. When I got to the end of it, I cried openly. This is not common for me.

It isn’t that I hadn’t thought about what trans people face. I was aware of the outrageous and increasing rate of murders of trans people, especially trans women of color. The visceral knowledge of that life expectancy number hit me hard, though. If you haven’t actually read the essay, I’m asking you to take a moment right now, and go read it:

“When I was 19, I read an article in Guernica magazine stating that the average life span of a transgender person is 23 years old. The article confirmed what I had already known for about a decade: I was doomed to a nasty, short, and miserable life. I was going to be poor, maybe homeless, definitely unemployable. I was going to be subjected to emotional and sexual violence (and in fact, I already had been), and then I was going to die, probably brutally murdered. They would print the wrong name on my grave.”

Let that find its way into your heart.

There’s more than horror in that essay. There’s also this:

“I want — we need — more: More than liberal righteous anger, we need concrete funding for trans shelters, scholarships, program grants. More than nihilistic leftist rhetoric, we need creativity and transformation. We need people to stop talking about how trans women get killed all the time. We need people to start telling us that they won’t let us die.”

And that is where this lands deepest for me. The Gods I serve have made the demand of me that I practice warriorship and seek to be of service to the world in that capacity. I pursue that practice in a handful of different ways: in combat arts, in street activism, and in fighting for the sovereignty of women. When I read this trans woman’s words, I wanted to reach out to every one of the trans women I know and tell them: I won’t let you die. I will stand with you and I will fight for you. I felt the presence of Macha, who breathes down my neck every time I encounter a situation where women’s sovereignty is being challenged, and whose voice I hear in the back of my skull saying “Do not walk away. Do not stand down. This is your battle.”

So I am saying to my trans friends, to all of you: I won’t let you die. I will fight with you. I’m still learning how to do that; where in fact I can be useful in that fight. And I welcome guidance and correction on that point. But this is my statement of commitment. I am with you. I will not stand down. I will not let you die.

And I am also saying this: To everyone, but especially to those who practice warriorship of any kind, and to those who profess to care about the sovereignty of women. Who are you willing to fight for? Women’s sovereignty means trans women too. The brutality of our culture toward women lands on no one as hard as it does trans women. Can you commit to our trans kindred too?

 

 

21
Jul - 15

For the long night approaches

I’ve been thinking about death.

A couple of weeks ago, a beloved relative of mine found his death. And you know, I’m sad and I’ve had tears. But also, there is something of the beautiful death about his story and I want to talk about that.

Rhett Ashley and a fishing pole. Photo courtesy of my father, Jerry Brown.

Rhett and a fishing pole. Photo courtesy of my father, Jerry Brown.

Rhett Ashley was my uncle on my mother’s side, from North Carolina Appalachian mountain folk. He was creative, philosophical, devilish, and surprising. He had a wicked streak and used to entertain me with crazy yarns and stories about his youth and the mountain culture he came from. You knew a certain cheerful, slightly evil grin he would get on him and it would slowly dawn on you that the tale he had been spinning out for the last 20 minutes was a complete fabrication, while he chuckled gleefuly at your outrage. There was a lot of art in his world: he painted, carved wood and stone, and last I heard, had been working on a novel. About freaky Pagans, as it turns out. I’m hoping I might still get to see that book some day.

One of the things Rhett loved best was fishing in rivers. I’m told he had fished in over a hundred American rivers. In his eulogy, my father wrote of many long summer evenings the two of them spent in the river together: “During the season we were out in the river at least a couple of times a week during those years, sometimes late afternoons, but most often in the evenings when we would fish until dark. The McKenzie mostly runs due West, so in many places the sun sets right down the river, turning the water and riffles to molten bronze.”

I’m spinning this out partly to memorialize him, but also because it sets the stage for his beautiful death. One evening in early July, Rhett came back in from the river and, in the words of my aunt, “sat down in the grass by the prettiest river there is, on the most beautiful summer day you could ask for, and died.” They found him in the morning looking just like he had fallen asleep there. Like that, peaceful, graceful, by his beloved river. I like to imagine him coming out of the river that evening and sitting himself on the bank there. Perhaps the river was turning to molten gold again and he didn’t want to miss it. I can’t help picturing his spirit slipping out into the radiant stream pouring down westward toward the setting sun. It is hard to imagine a death-moment more perfect for who Rhett was. That is what makes his death beautiful: not just that it was gentle, but that it was so perfectly his own.

The dignity of a beautiful death. A kindness we do not all get. The following week, my thoughts were also full of Sandra Bland, a young Black activist who died under horrific and suspicious circumstances in police custody, after being brutalized by police during an arbitrary arrest. I can’t help thinking that Sandra’s beautiful death was taken away from her. Had she not been killed in this way, what might her beautiful death have been, when it came in its own time?

Sandra Bland. Images courtesy of Shaun King.

I have long felt death as a kind of distant spirit that waits for me – something like a long-lost friend with whom an inevitable reunion is coming. Its features, its shape, reflective of our lives and contexts, but rarely visible to us in advance. The beautiful death is the right one, the one that is perfectly our own. It need not be gentle to be a beautiful death: members of warrior societies, driven by the logic of the heroic ethos, have often cherished the ideal of dying violently in honorable combat, beloved and bloodied weapon in hand.

We recognize a sense that there is a death which rightfully belongs to us, but which can be taken away from us, in the concept of “wrongful death”. I wonder, who can restore to Sandra Bland what was torn from her in her wrongful death? What does it do to the fabric of the world when someone’s beautiful death is taken and made a horror? Is there any prayer, any spiritual fulfillment, any restoration possible for this?

Beautiful or terrible, violent or gentle, death is ordained. This is something that we all know, but often prefer not to contemplate. I find that thinking of my death as a companion helps me to keep it in mind. I want to remember that my death is coming. I think that making friends with death helps us to live more fully.

A few weeks ago while we were at a Coru warband encampment, my friend Rynn Fox quipped, “Death is coming. Kick ass. Be free.” It was said in a moment of fun, but struck my truth nerve, and has stayed with me as something approaching my own philosophy about what makes a good life. A short while before his death, I’m told Rhett had been exhorting my father to get out into the rivers again and fish more. He said, perhaps prophetically, “Fish, fish! For the long night approaches.” His way of saying a similar thing.

These messages ring in my heart. Death is coming. Do what you love. Fight for what matters. Be free. Make your life count. For the long night approaches. For me, these are not messages of fear. They are a reminder of the heroic ethos. For me, the presence of death makes me want to love this world fiercely and live to the fullest. For me, death brings a message of courage and beauty.

At war camp with my mate. Photo by Joe Perri.

08
Jul - 15

Gods with Agency, continued: The “fad” question

I am overdue to return to a regular writing schedule here, now that my book is out. I have a file of topics to write about, but today a half dozen different people asked if I have anything to say about whether or not the Morrígan is a fad. So it seems I need to write about that today.

I was tempted to ignore this entirely – honestly, it’s rude and dismissive toward Herself, but She’s a big girl formidable numinous personified force, and perfectly able to defend Herself if She felt it was needed. The truth is, I’m writing because this question keeps coming up. Jason Mankey isn’t the first one to coyly wonder aloud whether the upsurge in people feeling called by the Morrígan is just because She’s trendy. So let’s talk about it.

First, I realize that Jason (and the others who have said similar things) mean no disrespect. However, disrespect it is. A quick inquiry provides a few definitions for “fad”:

“an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze” (that’s Google definitions); “followed for a time with exaggerated zeal” (that’s Merriam-Webster); originating in the term faddle, to “busy oneself with trifles” as in the phrase “fiddle-faddle” (that’s Reference.com).

So yeah. Disrespect and dismissal. Which, of course, you don’t have to busy yourself with dictionaries to recognize. Jason knows it’s offensive: “Put down the tar and feathers, it’s nothing personal against The Morrígan.” I point this out not out of a desire to tar and feather Jason; he seems like a nice guy, and as I said, She doesn’t need little me to protect Her. And he’s not the only one using this language. I am pointing out the dismissal inherent in the language because it signals something else worth looking at. Why do people keep asking if the Morrígan is a fad when they know this question as such offers disrespect? Because they recognize that something is going on, but they lack any better language for articulating what it is than the language of trivial social trends.

You see, the problem isn’t that it’s rude to the Morrígan. It’s simply the wrong question. It’s the wrong question because it’s a shallow question. It is looking at a numinous devotional and religious phenomenon using a purely social lens which only recognizes the action of deities in terms of human behaviors, and only those human behaviors driven by the most shallow of motivations, social popularity. It utterly erases the agency of the Morrígan Herself, and Her engagement with culture, time, and history.

I am sure we can go deeper than this.

Could it possibly be that at least some of the people participating in this “fad” have actually experienced a call or a demand from a Goddess? Could it be that the Morrígan Herself is an agent in Her own story? That something is happening in our time to which She as a Goddess active in war and sovereignty is especially drawn or which calls Her to action in human affairs? Perhaps the global crises we face, the conflicts over resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, freedom, the rights of women?

I don’t claim to have all these answers. But I think the kinds of questions we ask about what is going on with the Morrígan say as much about the person asking the question as they do about Her, or those devoted to Her. I want to know what She sees in these many, many people that She is calling to action – what She is building toward. I want to know what it is that so many, many people see in Her, what need or resonance they feel that is answered by such a being. I want to understand how Her powers and Her work and Her agenda and Her communities of devotion fit into the moment in history in which we are living. I want to know how all this relates to other Gods who are coming into greater prominence right now too. Like, what exactly are She and Odin getting up to behind the scenes? I think there are one thousand questions more interesting and more useful than “is this just a trend driven by social approval.”

I think maybe I understand why this fad language keeps coming up, though. I think the idea that  something numinous, historic and meaningful might actually be going on – and that it involves the resurgence of ancient Gods (and maybe some new ones too) might just be a little bit scary. Especially for folks who may be seeing this from a perspective that could leave them feeling like they are on the outside of that big numinous historic thing. It might, on some level, feel safer to reduce that thing in your mind to something pedestrian, mundane, and safely dismissed as trivial: a fad.

I think that would be a mistake. And not, as I’ve said, because it insults the Morrígan. It’s a mistake because in dismissing this phenomenon you risk diminishing yourself. Instead of reacting to that sense of awe by attempting to diminish the thing that is happening around you, to bring it down to your size, what if you could rise to meet it? What if you seized the moment to ask yourself what is this moment in history demanding of me? If you haven’t been called by the Morrígan or drawn toward seeking Her service, then what is calling you? What do your Gods want from you, and for you, at this moment in history? What is the most meaningful thing you can commit yourself to?

25
Nov - 14

The Violence from Below

Last night, I left work and headed home on the train just as the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement was wrapping up. My loved ones were already in downtown Oakland joining the mass protests. I sat on the train staring at the live reports and feeds, full of horror, fury, shame, and sickness at the predictable refusal of justice. Being on crutches still, I had let my loved ones persuade me that I couldn’t safely or effectively join the protests, but as the horror surged through me it was hard to keep myself from going there. Going home as if it were just another evening felt terribly wrong.

The night was full of outrage. As it must be when violent injustice by the state is being perpetuated. And some of that outrage expressed itself violently. Yes: along with the peaceful protests, there was some looting, property destruction, burning of cars and buildings. That happened.

So let’s talk about looting. I want, particularly, to talk to my white friends who think of themselves as allies and supporters of people of color, or even as activists, who want to support the “protesters” but who wish to distance themselves from the “looters”; who passionately cheer for “protests” but write disparaging tweets against those protests being allowed to turn into “riots”.

Here’s the thing. Communities of color are living under violent oppression every day. Sorry; let me correct that: People of color are DYING under violent oppression every day. This is not a metaphor. This is a people being gunned down in the street by their own state, while also being constantly demonized, marginalized, disenfranchised, silenced, and incarcerated. The Ferguson case is just ONE microcosm manifestation of the police violence that visits communities of color every single day.

And you say, of course you don’t agree with that violence. Of course you want that to change. But you want it to change peacefully. You want to see inspiring peaceful protests that overcome injustice through the power and beauty of love and commitment to peaceful action.  You know, like in the movies about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

In short, you expect the oppressed, struggling, grieving, violated people to behave like saints and martyrs while fighting to survive. Resistance against violent oppression is grand and inspiring – so long as it’s genteel.

But it doesn’t work that way. Ferguson has been in the streets every single day since Mike Brown was slaughtered, protesting peacefully with virtually zero violence. Did they get justice? You say, burning cop cars and looting convenience stores isn’t justice. No, of course it isn’t, and the people who are doing it know that it isn’t. It is resistance against the continuing pressure of injustice – and it’s resistance that, while escalated relative to a peaceful march, is still not escalated to anything approaching the lethal violence being visited against these communities.

“So long as violence from below is condemned while violence from above is ignored, you can bet that the former will continue.”

–Tim Wise

This is the violence from above: The state kills unarmed Black kids every single day. More Black kids have been killed by police within the Ferguson area just in the 109 days since Mike Brown’s death. A Black person is shot to death by police every 28 hours.

That these violated communities still limit themselves to occasional property destruction in attempting to finally, finally have their outrage heard in fact speaks to an incredible degree of patience. That’s not enough for you? You need to see a perfectly measured, contained, and absolutely damage-free resistance to state-sponsored killings of people of color or you’ll withdraw your support? Is that what it means to be an ally?

We also need to talk about property. The value of property vis-a-vis the value of human life. The thing is, property is what this society values above all else. Thus, it’s destruction of property that gets heard. This is why looting happens. It is not just opportunistic greed. It is pushback against the violence from above. It is a specific and targeted form of resistance against the regime of property, which has been used by this society to justify the enslavement and lethal oppression of Black people since day one. The specific history of race in America is the story of property being privileged above humanity, to the extent that human beings were made into property, and though that practice was legally abolished, the cultural mores underpinning it remain rampant now. If this was not still our reality, we would not see people who said nothing about the killing of Black youth getting outraged about destruction of property.

So I want to ask you. Go think about what you’ve said regarding Ferguson and race relations lately. Go look at your tweets and posts. Go look back at your friends’ posts. If the first time you bothered to speak out about Ferguson was to cast judgement on looters, then you have some unexamined racism you need to work on. If your friends have responded in this way, then you have some unexamined racism in your social environment you need to work on. If you want to be an ally, go work on that.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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