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The Shieldmaiden Blog

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

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.

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?

09
Mar - 13

Rites of Sovereignty

Yesterday, I awakened quite suddenly with a sovereignty ritual unfolding in my head. It’s been on my mind to write about sovereignty for this blog – prompted in part by the urging of my matron Goddess to teach sovereignty, and also in part by my observation that there are a lot of mixed conceptions out there as to what sovereignty is and what it may mean for us both personally and collectively. So today I write of sovereignty. It is a deep and broad topic, worthy of books in its own right, so I cannot say everything there is to say about it. But I will try to begin.

The most immediate definition of sovereignty, and the one most people are familiar with, is the modern collective notion of sovereignty, which is essentially self-rule of an autonomous people or nation. We see this aspect of sovereignty being discussed with regard to the rights of Native American tribes to treaty rights as sovereign nations, for example.

In the circles I move in (Pagan left-coasters, for the most part) sovereignty is often spoken of in the context of personal empowerment, autonomy, and self-possession. There’s an awareness that as spiritual practitioners and empowered individuals, we should be seeking full ownership of our own lives, to become “the monarch of your own skin,” subject to no one, answerable only to our own inner guidance. As a personal spiritual practice, yes, sovereignty encompasses these things.  I keep feeling something’s missing from this understanding of sovereignty, though. And it was this missing something that woke me up in the late dawn.

Scottish king stone

Let us go back to origins. Sovereignty, in its historical context in Celtic culture, appears centrally and pervasively throughout many of the foundational Irish myths, including the early mythological tales, the heroic cycles, the pseudo-historic annals of kings, and on down. Many of the famous battles around which the mythological tales are spun are presented as battles for sovereignty; and many of the important and storied kings have sovereignty legends told about how they were marked for kingship and vested with the power.** The sovereignty themes are continued in the early medieval Welsh tales and the British Arthurian and Romance Grail mythology. Reflections of these mythic themes are preserved in the rituals and customs of the monarchies as well as folk custom. Sovereignty myths typically include certain classic features: victory in battle under prophecy by, and supernatural aid from, the sovereignty Goddess; the stone that cries out under the foot of the true king; the sword that is pulled from the stone, or given by the hand of the Goddess; the ritual union with the Goddess in the land; the cup from the Otherworldly wellspring that is offered in token of sovereignty given.

These themes are deeply woven throughout all of the Celtic literature, right back to the oldest written texts. They express a fundamental concern of the culture: How shall our land and our people be rightly governed? And, further, how can we know who is fit to lead us? This, then, is the central question of sovereignty: the question of fitness to hold power. It is no different from what troubles us today in our own societies.

The answer of Celtic societies, generally speaking, was this: Let the land choose the sovereign. The sovereignty was understood not primarily as a social contract between subjects and kings, but as a natural force: a numinous power within the land, which was vested in the person of the ruler by the source of the power, in the shape of the Goddess of sovereignty. Thus the symbols and vessels of sovereignty were embodiments of the land, through which the soul of the land was understood to make its will known. The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, was the primary embodiment of sovereignty demonstrating this principle – it was said to cry out under the true king, acting quite literally as the voice of the land. We also see the embodiment of the land coming to life in the form of a Goddess who confers victory in the contest for sovereignty, and who bestows the kingship on the one She has chosen. Her hand rises from the lake, offering the sword; or he meets Her and mates with Her in a flowing river; or he meets Her in a Faery mound, where She offers him a cup to drink. Everywhere She arises with waters, the wellspring of the life within the land. That life force itself is the sovereignty.

This notion that the sovereignty is itself the very life of the land has powerful consequences for the one who is tasked with holding and wielding it. In the tales, every judgement and act of the sovereign are manifest in the life of the land. So long as he makes truthful and fair judgements and acts rightly, there is prosperity in the land; cattle grow, milk is plentiful, grass is lush, trees come in fruit, the rivers run with fish. But when there is an unjust king; if he makes false judgements, if he does not carry that power rightly, the produce withers, the grass will not grow, the cattle will not calve, and even the walls of the royal fortress may shudder and fall.

Because, you see, the power doesn’t only flow from the land to the sovereign – it flows through him and back to the land. In the act of taking kingship, he has both literally and symbolically merged with the land (thus, the mating with the Goddess of sovereignty). When he takes up the kingship, his life is no longer his own – it becomes one with the life of the land.

So here we have that missing element. Sovereignty is not equivalent to freedom or autonomy. To be a sovereign is to be bound.  He has not simply claimed the sovereignty; he has been claimed by it.

This notion was deeply held, and was understood quite literally in early Celtic society. The rigorous requirement of kingship was complete integrity, in body and soul – to the point that even a physical blemish or injury on a king was considered a threat to the health and integrity of the land. Enter sacrifice: the fate of the sovereign. In some times and places, this may have meant literal sacrifice, as the king who was weak, injured, or no longer serving right judgements might be physically sacrificed to renew the life of the land. In other times and places, this simply meant that an injured or unjust king was required to step down and pass the kingship to another. Instances of this are clearly iterated in the mythological and historical literature. This, too, is sacrifice.

So what does this mean to us now in terms of sovereignty as a personal spiritual practice? There is much to be said about that, but what I want to convey today is that personal sovereignty isn’t a principle that can be boiled down to “I’m in charge of myself and you aren’t the boss of me.” The lore of sovereignty teaches that it is intimately connected with integrity; that sovereignty conveys a model of power where the only true authority arises from integrity. That sovereignty can be claimed by force, and sometimes must be, but can only be held through justice and integrity. And further, that the practice of sovereignty is one of commitment – full and unreserved commitment of one’s very life force – to the honor and benefit of that which we claim as ours. Thus, sovereignty cannot be separated from the fundamental values of service and sacrifice.

And I want to convey that personal sovereignty isn’t about being answerable to no one, just as collective sovereignty does not make a king answerable to no one. Because we are, in both cases, answerable to the very power that we wield.

 

**Note: I write here of kings in the masculine gender, because historically speaking, most of the source material refers to male sovereigns. There were of course many powerful queens in Celtic societies throughout history, but they are notable exceptions, and certainly the mythology and folklore of sovereignty is highly gendered and consistently refers to a male sovereign and female sovereignty Goddess. Of course, when it comes to personal sovereignty as a spiritual practice, we adapt this model to be spiritually suitable for all sexes and genders of people. So when referring to personal sovereignty, I try to avoid gendered language, but I preserve it when speaking of history and lore.

28
Feb - 13

Disambiguating the Queen: #1, Morgan Le Fay

I’m feeling compelled to begin writing about some common misconceptions about the Morrigan that I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency in online and print publications discussing Her. This will likely be the first in a series of posts of this sort.

Today’s subject: The Morrigan as Morgan Le Fay, Lady of the Lake, Lady of Avalon and similar identities. I’ll offer this in the form of a conversation – the conversation I so often find myself having when the subject comes up. Here’s how it usually begins:

“Morgan Le Fay is obviously a guise of the Morrigan, because their names are so similar, so I work with them as the same Goddess.”

Actually, their names only appear similar; they’re actually completely distinct. You see, the Celtic languages branched into two separate families fairly early in their development: the Gallo/Brittonic languages, also known as P-Celtic and including Gaulish, Brittonic and later Welsh, and the Goidelic languages, also known as Q-Celtic, and including Irish and Scots Gaelic (both families also including minor Celtic forms such as Manx, Cornish, Breton, etc.) The name Morrigan comes to us from the Irish Gaelic branch, whereas the name Morgan comes via the Welsh/Brittonic branch. Being manifestations of Celtic language, both branches do retain many related and mutually intelligible word constructions, but Morgan/Morrigan isn’t one of them.

The name ‘Morrigan’ comes to us from the Irish Gaelic branch, and is composed of the terms mor (connoting phantom, terror, or the dead) and rígan (queen). The name is also sometimes given a long accented ó: mór (great). Her name can thus be constructed ‘Phantom Queen’ or ‘Great Queen’.

The etymology of ‘Morgan Le Fay’, on the other hand, comes from the Welsh/Brittonic branch, and it has nothing to do with queenship. It derives from môr (sea) and gen, from genos, a common Gallo-Brittonic name-suffix meaning ‘born of’ or ‘child of’. Thus Morgan is ‘Sea-Born’, and refers to a spiritual being or Goddess connected with the sea. We see this surviving in folklore about the Morgens or Mari-Morgens, a class of Otherworldly sea-beings from Breton folklore.

“But doesn’t Morrigan also translate as ‘Sea Queen’?”

No, I’m afraid it doesn’t. The name Morrigan doesn’t appear in Welsh, it appears in Irish. And neither mor nor mór means ‘sea’ in Irish. The word for sea is muir, but there is no evidence at all identifying this as the etymological root of Her name. Nor is the Morrigan anywhere directly linked to the sea in any of the source texts in which Her name appears. Unfortunately, this false etymology has been published in a number of places, and people often assume if it’s in print it must be correct.

What about Avalon? Isn’t Avalon the Celtic Otherworld, and so wouldn’t the Morrigan be linked to it?

There have been many names for the Celtic Otherworld (or it might be more accurate to say Otherworlds; a topic for another time). Avalon derives from a much later stratum of mythology than the Iron Age period referenced in the Irish mythological literature that describes the Morrigan. Avalon is a British Arthurian literary concept that does not appear until late medieval Grail romances, a fusion of medieval British and French mythologies containing traces of earlier Celtic concepts fully intermixed at that stage with Christian mysticism. Earlier and more Celtic-influenced literature refers to Ynys Afallon, or ‘Isle of Apples’; this may in fact be loosely linked to the Irish Emain Ablach; an island associated with Manannan, a God of the sea and of magic and illusion, among other things.

So yes, there are concepts of a Celtic Otherworld appearing in Welsh and Irish lore and linked to the sea (or lakes) and to apples. But nowhere is the Morrigan directly associated with this Isle of Apples concept. And the image of Avalon, as a mysterious lake-bound isle of magic associated with priestesses veiled in blue, pseudo-Druidic symbolism, and a mythical Celtic Goddess-cult… IS NOT FOUND in the late Iron Age Celtic tradition that describes the Morrigan. That Avalon, while beautiful and inspiring, is a fiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley creatively imagined it based on late medieval Grail romance, mixed with some additional Celtic mythology, and liberal amounts of modern Wiccan-style theology and symbolism. I don’t mean to insult anyone – it’s really a lovely archetype and inspires much beautiful and effective spiritual practice today. But it’s not historic and it’s got no real connection to the Morrigan.

“Well, the Morrigan is clearly connected to sorcery, and so is Morgan Le Fay.”

Yes, the Morrigan is one of the primary Druidesses of the Tuatha De Danann, so of course She performs magic. The Tuatha, you see, are ‘the people of Art’. It’s right there in the first episode where they are introduced in the source texts: we are told that the Tuatha came to Ireland from islands over the sea, where they had learned wisdom and magic and sorcery, and they brought these arts to Ireland. As the Morrigan is one of their Druidesses, She performs all the classic Druidic functions: poetic recitation and incitement; prophecy and seership; recording of deeds and epics; and of course, battle sorcery. But show me a Celtic Goddess who doesn’t use sorcery or magic. That doesn’t make them all Morgan Le Fay.

“But the Morrigan is referred to as a ‘Faery’, and that sounds like Morgan Le Fay.”

The Morrigan being referred to as a ‘faery’ just means She is an Otherworldly being. This status applies to all of the Tuatha, the tribe of Gods to which She belongs. In their representations in the mythological literature, they are variously described as Gods, as faeries, or as heroes, depending I suppose on which Christian was writing down the lore and how they chose to interpret what they were receiving from the Pagan oral tradition. But regardless, being a faery isn’t a special quality of the Morrigan apart from all the other Tuatha. The lore is full of faery women, many of whom engage in actions reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay, such as healing, hexing, illusions, and transporting people between the earthly realm and the Otherworld. Again, this doesn’t make every faery woman in Celtic mythology an appearance of Morgan Le Fay (or the Morrigan). It means the world of the Celts was peopled with Otherworldly beings of all kinds!

“But the Morrigan is associated with streams and rivers, so She’s a water Goddess, like the Lady of the Lake.”

To begin with, the Morrigan has no particular association in the Iron Age lore with lakes or sea. We do see a very strong association with streams and rivers, but this doesn’t equate to making Her a water Goddess generally, nor to linking Her to lakes and seas. One of the reasons She frequently appears at rivers is that the rivers are boundaries between different provinces, and when She makes these appearances, it is most often connected to a battle occurring at these boundaries between factions or tribes. For the same reason, most of Cu Chulainn’s important combats take place at fords of rivers; but we wouldn’t on that basis conclude that he is a water God!

In the Celtic imaginal landscape, bodies of water generally are liminal places – boundaries of sovereignty, as well as gateways to the Otherworld. Thus, a great many significant events in the mythological literature take place at river fords, lakes and the shores of the sea. This reflects into the stories of nearly all the Irish Gods. In addition, these bodies of water also carry life-giving qualities of watering the land and providing fertility, fish, and other aquatic produce. Rivers in particular are strongly connected with female power in much of the lore. Thus, throughout all the Celtic lands, we consistently find rivers named for Goddesses, and some lakes, too. Given the predominance of rivers and lakes named for Celtic Goddesses, there are actually remarkably few carrying any name connected to the Morrigan. Because, while water bodies are everywhere associated with female power and the Otherworld generally, they are not directly linked to Her particular functions.

“But isn’t the Lady of the Lake a sovereignty figure, like the Morrigan? What about the sword?”

Yes, clearly the myth of the Lady of the Lake offering the sword to King Arthur is a form of sovereignty myth. But you see, that’s not enough to equate her with the Morrigan. Sovereignty attributes can be traced within many Celtic Goddesses, and obviously no one would claim they all are the Morrigan. The sovereignty figure is a fundamental form of the Celtic conception of female divine power. It tells us that the Celts understood sovereignty as a power arising from the land, conferred through the action of a female divinity. That doesn’t mean all female characters who carry the power of sovereignty are the same Goddess. It means that relation to sovereignty is a crucial element of female divine power, and is therefore carried by many of the Celtic Goddesses, taking a distinct shape with each based on Her particular sphere of concern and mode of action. The Morrigan’s form of sovereignty is the form it takes when it is called upon to defend itself, when it becomes martial, protective, and warlike. She is female divinity and sovereignty in the shape of battle. But we cannot conclude from Her sovereignty connection that any female figure offering sovereignty in folklore is the Morrigan.

“But I work with Morgan Le Fay as an aspect of the Morrigan, and She’s real to me. Are you telling me my practice is invalid?”

No, I would never presume to judge what another’s personal spiritual practice should be for them, unless I’ve been asked my opinion. I see nothing wrong with Pagan folk venerating both the Morrigan and Morgan Le Fay, or any other combination of deities, within their personal practice if that works for them. I am saying that there is not significant historical or literary evidence to support interpreting Morgan Le Fay as an appearance or ‘guise’ of the Morrigan. I am saying that there is not evidence for the Morrigan having any direct or significant historical link to the medieval folklore of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake.

I’m not here to tell anyone that their personal experiences are false if they’re experiencing these two as one deity. But I would like to suggest that if your personal experience is substantially at odds with the body of available evidence about the origins and nature of a deity, it might be wise to look more carefully at how you are interpreting your experiences. And I definitely think anyone teaching or publishing about these deities needs to take into account the whole body of evidence.

21
Feb - 13

Courage in Kinship

I’m settling back in following my adventures at PantheaCon and reflecting on my experiences there. It was the first Con we in the Coru attended as a priesthood, so we were kept very busy with lots of introductions and questions about who we are and what we do. We also had given ourselves a packed schedule of workshops, rituals, and other activities that didn’t leave much room to breathe. (If anyone in my readership felt you were getting the brush-off from me at any point, please accept my apologies. I really did want to talk to you, I just was overscheduled and couldn’t stop to talk.)

One of the big themes for me this Con was kinship. Naturally, since this was a central focus both of our Morrigan devotional ritual and of the blood drive. But it was also borne out in more personal ways. We shared our suite with some allies of the priesthood, new friends from up north whom we met during our trip to the Western Gate festival last October. We began the Con as new friends and allies, but after spending days eating, laughing, working, and doing deep ritual together they all felt like deep kin. There it is – kinship through shared devotion. What so many people have been saying they felt after the Heart is Our Nation ritual.

The heart is the only nation, we sang. Our voices lifted upward to the Morrígan, and we made an affirmation of our sovereignty. (Teo Bishop)

We called upon kinship and sovereignty, and over the last few days I find myself feeling and becoming more aware of the threads that tie us all together. (Stephanie Woodfield)

I heard stories starting the next day of people who, inspired by the depth of kinship that they felt, took courage to begin conversations with others who they hadn’t spoken with in years. I hear stories of people moved by the strength of kinship to take on greater challenges, take a stand, fight for something. Acts of courage.

This is what kinship means.

Because these acts of courage aren’t only supported by the strength that we feel when we know we are not alone. I can do this, because I’m not alone here. What I also see is that acts of courage are driven, are made necessary by the reality of kinship. I must do this, because I’m not alone here. Kinship brings the recognition that whatever we face, we are in it together; we, this species somewhere between ape and angel, hearts pumping blood, souls always seeking a place; we, born from stars and mud and hunger, the inheritors of the whole human legacy of beauty, wonder, and violence, and the endless longing for liberty. We have Gods to inspire us, spirits to aid us, but who will save us but ourselves? All our human kin need us each to find the courage that is in us, stand forth and give our best. That courage is kinship.

As we readied ourselves for the ritual, we painted each other’s limbs and faces with blue paint.

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Blue painted Coru priests after the kinship ritual

Spirals, meanders, stripes, claw marks. The idea had come to me a few weeks earlier to paint ourselves for the ritual, as some of the old Celtic and Pictish tribes were said to have done. To evoke a sense of kinship with tribal marks, though I meant something different by it than my ancestors did, surely. A dream came back to me, forgotten for some time. Last summer, the night before we planned this ritual, I’d had a dream.

The Coru were performing an invocation in tribute for an old man of our community who had died as a result of mistreatment by an abusive police or security authority. We were chanting to the Morrigan at his memorial. Then one of the other priestesses turned to me and gave me a message from Her. “The Queen says it is time to resist.” And she handed me a pot of woad paint. I saw the people gathered, the community coming together, speaking words of courage to act in defense of the human rights of the community. We painted our feet blue with the woad and they called us the Blue Heels. The blue-painted feet were meant to show our fighting spirit, and our motto was “We stand fast,” as was said by the Morrigan in the Second Battle of Maige Tuiredh.

I’d forgotten this dream once we got into the planning of the ritual, but remembering it while we painted each other, something came to me: this truth that kinship itself is resistance. In a civilization that strives to divide us, to alienate us from each other and even from ourselves; in times of drone warfare, economic feudalism, class warfare, and the national security state, any act of courage and kinship is a form of resistance. Kinship does not just give us the strength we need to resist these forces. It is in fact the key to our survival and overcoming. In such a world, kinship itself is heroic.

I must do this, because I’m not alone here. For the kinship that I bear you, I will do this thing. I will act like I care. I will stand for something. I will give of myself. I will take a risk. These are the words of heroes. Heroism is love in action.

Do you stand in kinship? What will you stand for?

14
Feb - 13

Notes and Quotes

Due to a preoccupation with preparations for PantheaCon 2013, I’ve not had much time for writing in the last couple of weeks. I’ll return to more in-depth content here next week. For today, I have a few intriguing tidbits and links for you:

1. Kings Arise to Battle

Isolde Carmody at the Story Archaeology Podcast has published a translation of the Morrigan’s “Kings Arise to Battle” poem, from the Second Battle of Maige Tuiredh. Previously, I’d never found a translation of the full poem; most translations of the story give only the first line of the poem, followed by ellipses (…). It is incredibly exciting to me to have access to this full poem, and it’s a powerful one. Here’s an excerpt:

[A hundred] cuts blossom
Screams are heard
Battallions are broken
Hosts give battle
Ships are steered
Weapons protect

Every bit the fierce incitement to heroic ardor promised in the first line. I encourage you to go and read the full poem.

2. Rebuilding Her (Their) Cult(s)

Saigh at Flying with the Hooded Crow has posted a thoughtful response to my recent blog post on the historical cult of the Morrigan. She gives some fascinating descriptions of what a modern reconstructed cult of Gaelic warrior Goddesses might look like, following the model of the Gaelic warrior bands in a modern context:

So for me rebuilding Her/Their Cult/s is about the devotional practices, often very embodied ones. And in a modern context. These things would vary by whether one is a professional soldier or a, well, amateur walking the warrior path, of course, as well as on ability and talents. But it would involved fitness, practical martial arts training (which may not always be traditionally Gaelic and could include firearms training), culturally traditional Gaelic martial arts training (which may not always be practical), ecstatic shape-shifting, Seership, poetry and other arts.

The post is a good read and provides some enticing leads into what modern followers of the Morrigan might do as we gather into stronger communities. I am looking forward to continuing the conversation after I get back from travels.

3. Morrigan Devotional Ritual

John Beckett, Druid and Patheos blogger, writes an account of a recent devotional ritual to the Morrigan that he and his cohorts undertook.

She asked us to make our oaths on a spear, and warned us not to promise what we would not do…
One thing She said I clearly remember: “this is only the beginning.” This matches what I’ve heard from others who are working with and for Morrigan: a storm is coming. Gather your tribe. Reclaim your sovereignty. There is much work to do.

It always gives me a smile to see the ways in which She speaks similar messages to Her many devotees. I think it’s valuable for those of us working with Her to share experiences like this one.

4. Coru Priesthood Website

The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood, the Morrigan dedicant group I work with, has its own website now! You can find us at www.corupriesthood.com. The website is just going live today, so you may still see the occasional error if you’re following the link soon after I post this. We will be continuing to add more content as time goes on, including more prayers, invocations, spiritual exercises and rituals, devotional artwork, and essays. You can also check out our Events page, which includes initial details for our events coming up this spring, including monthly devotionals and workshops, as well as our June weekend intensive, Kindling the Hero’s Light, with special guest teacher Brendan Myers, Ph.D.

5. PantheaCon 2013

Finally, a last reminder – for those of you coming to PantheaCon this weekend in San Jose, here’s the schedule of my doings with Coru folk and others. Don’t forget to sign up to donate blood if you can at our Blood Heroes blood drive! Details on this and all our happenings here:

The Four Treasures in Myth and Practice
A workshop with Morpheus Ravenna and Ankhira SwordPlow
Friday 3:30 pm – Coru Hospitality Room 261

Meeting the Morrigan
A workshop with Morpheus Ravenna, Amelia Hogan & Brennos
Saturday 10 am – Coru Hospitality Room 261

The Heart is our Nation: A Morrigan Devotional
Coru Cathubodua Priesthood with T. Thorn Coyle & Sharon Knight
Saturday 7 pm – Cedar/Pine rooms

Battle Maiden: Morrigan Devotional Dance
Performance by Morpheus Ravenna as part of the “Many Faces of the Goddess” dance presentation led by Didi Gordon and Sarah Astarte
Saturday 11 pm – San Martin/ San Simeon rooms

Mimosa Mixer/Coru Meet & Greet
Coru Cathubodua Priesthood
Sunday 10 am – 12 noon – Coru Hospitality Room 261

Warriorship Traditions: A Moderated Panel Discussion
with Brennos, Robert Russell, Peter Dybing, Stefanie Clark, and Scott Rowe
Sunday 3:30 pm – Coru Hospitality Room 261

Brigid’s Forge: A Healing Ritual
with Rynn Fox
Monday 11:00 am – Cedar room

That’s all for now – I’m off to finish packing for my journey through the Pagan looking-glass!

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