Books & Media
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Runes
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Talismans
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Morrigan

Book of Jane Film Premiere

Written and directed by independent filmmaker Antero Alli, “The Book of Jane” is a story of three women bound together by fate to advance the values of an ancient culture but at a deep cost no one expected. In the film, the Morrigan makes appearances as an Otherworldly visitor, and I was filmed in Her role, dancing the dance of Death.

02
Oct - 13

News & Notes from Morpheus & Banshee Arts

It was recently pointed out to me by friends that readers of the Shieldmaiden Blog may not be seeing the rest of the work that I do in addition to writing this blog. I’m an artist, performer and ritualist much more than a writer. So to better share those aspects of my work with you all, I’ll be adding an occasional post with updates and reflections about what I’m doing in my arts work, and news about performances and events. These will be posted under the category “Banshee Arts Blog”, in case anyone prefers to manage them separately in your feed readers.

Today I have several upcoming events to announce, and I’ll share some production photos of the latest design work too.

RAW Artists Showcase – October 23

RAWflyer

I will be a featured performer and artist at this arts showcase. Dozens of fine artists, musicians, aerial trapeze dancers, costume designers, stage performers, photographers, and film creators. Full bar. You, in costume or cocktail attire, maybe with a date. Me, performing my latest ritual dance piece and exhibiting my artwork.

Your ticket purchases DIRECTLY support this artist, but in order to support me, you must purchase your tickets in advance and identify me as the artist you’re supporting. This is the first RAW event I’ve been invited to exhibit at, and a good showing from my supporters will make a big difference for me.  And it’s only $15 for an amazing evening of arts and creativity.

TICKETS: http://www.rawartists.org/morpheusravenna

WHEN: October 23rd, 2013 – 7:00PM to 12:00AM

WHERE: 1015 Folsom St., San Francisco

FB Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1419093631637213/

Coru Cathubodua Priesthood presents

Feast of the Mighty: Waking the Dead – November 2

I’ll be joining my fellow priests in the Coru Cathubodua Morrigan Priesthood to present our annual Samhain Feast.

Celebrate Samhain with a CELEBRATORY WAKE. Let ritual reintroduce you to the POWER OF THE DEAD. Nosh on a CELTIC-STYLE FEAST. Honor your Beloved Dead and SHARE TREASURED FAMILY RECIPES in an ancestral potluck.* Learn to CEILIDH DANCE to a proper Irish fiddle. Dance again with your lost Loved Ones. Remember the THRILL OF BEING ALIVE! Seating is limited and we expect tickets to sell out, so you may want to grab yours soon.

TICKETS: http://wakingthedead.brownpapertickets.com/

WHEN: November 2, 2013 – 6:00 to 11:00 PM (Doors open 6 PM; Doors close 6:45 PM; Ritual start — 7 PM)

WHERE: Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists – 1924 Cedar at Bonita Ave, Berkeley, CA

FB Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/186145894898646/

Book of Jane Film Premiere – November 21

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Written and directed by independent filmmaker Antero Alli, “The Book of Jane” is a story of three women bound together by fate to advance the values of an ancient culture but at a deep cost no one expected. In the film, the Morrigan makes appearances as an Otherworldly visitor, and I was filmed in Her role, dancing the dance of Death.

“Drowned in your waters, swept away by your storms, laid bare on your rocky shores — my corpse ravaged by a murder of crows. I am yours to do with as you will. Phantom Queen, Great Queen…where will you take me today? – JANE

WHEN: November 21 – 7:30 PM

WHERE:  Berkeley Arts Festival – 2133 University Ave, Berkeley, CA

FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/134599656733880/

Film Info: http://www.verticalpool.com/beyondthegods.html

Artist Updates

Morrigan Great Queen, 2" size - front

Morrigan Great Queen, 2″ size – front

If you follow me on Facebook you may have seen my branching out into metalwork this year. I’ve been busily at work creating a line of etched copper and bronze talismans and medallions with Celtic, totemic, and mythopoetic themes and images. I put a good amount of research time into many of these, basing my designs on artifacts, images and poetic texts from historic sources. They give me pleasure to create, as I love bringing new life and a new eye to artistic motifs from the ancient world. They also give me pleasure to share with people. I believe in authenticity, so I don’t just call them talismans, I make sure that they actually are magically alive before I send them out to people. I pray over them and make offerings, and then give them some time charging on my home altar before I am ready to package them up. Because of my hand-production process and the time I take doing this magical work on them, I can only make these talismans in small batches, but I like it that way – each one gets a personal touch. So far I’ve released two totemic animal designs (Wolf and Boar), a Spear and a Sword, two protective Shield charms, a Wealth and Success bindrune, a Dagda/Cauldron medallion, and two designs for aspects of the Morrigan: Battle Goddess and Sovereignty Goddess.

What am I working on now? Finishing touches on a third Morrigan design, to complete the trinity: Macha, the Horse Queen. This design took some time to create, because there are actually several women in Irish mythology and historical legend who were named Macha, and each of them has a compelling story that could have yielded images for this medallion. I knew that I wanted to give pride of place to the horse as Her icon, so I focused on the Macha of the famous curse of Ulster, who was forced by Her husband to race the king’s horses while pregnant, and who gave birth to Her twins on the finish line, cursing the men of Ulster with Her dying breath to suffer the pangs of childbirth whenever their land was most in need of them. Her story, of course, is much more detailed than this, and scholars see in it reflections of ancient sovereignty rituals involving the land Goddess, the sacred marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, and horse-racing. Since we have no native images of Macha from Iron Age Ireland, I incorporate images of Epona (continental/British Celtic Horse Goddess), horse iconography from Celtic coins, Celtiberian battle standards, and decorative metalwork from Macha’s home fortress of Emain Macha. Her own words will be emblazoned on the medallion.

Iss ed mo ainmse ol si bias arin oenuchsa co bráth.

Telcid tra na neochu frim thoeb!

(“My name will forever cleave to the place of this assembly.

Release the horses beside me!”)

2013-10-02 12.48.44

28
Sep - 13

Into the Tomb

Maybe it’s the season: the light has shifted to that amber that signals Summer dying. It’s the books I’ve been reading, which are Celtic archaeology and largely drawn from funerary remains. And it’s the rites of death and Samhain rituals I’ve been working on.  I’ve been feeling as if Death has crept up behind me and taken me by the shoulder.

A few weeks ago, the Coru priesthood was contacted by a family on the East Coast, the relatives of a young man who was a dedicant of the Morrigan and who was on his deathbed. He had asked for a priest of the Morrigan to give his funeral rites. I agreed to travel out there to serve.

The experience of doing funerary service is, I think, the most consequential and weighty of any priestly work I’ve been called upon to do. It gripped me immediately, from the moment the request came to me.

Death is an intensely personal thing; or can be, anyway. I was struck once again by something that I’ve thought about many times before when I’ve been involved with deaths; the immense beauty and power that accompanies a person taking up the choice of how to face their own death. While still breathing, to sit with his family and make plans for his own wake and funeral rites, as he did. Choosing what to carry with him in his casket into the grave. Choosing his priest, his funeral clothing, the tone and character of his death rituals. Such courage, this. To hold fiercely to life until her wedding anniversary came, as the matriarch of my Craft tradition did, and then to choose the day and hour of her leaving, so she could go to meet the love of her life in the Otherworld. Such power. I hope to die so gracefully and with such courage when my time comes.

It sometimes seems to me that the manner of our dying, and the rituals we create for it, may be the ultimate creative act – the final work of art that places the seal on the great work that our life has been. We cannot, of course, complete the work of art alone, and this is where death moves from the personal to the collective. We rely on all the living to bring that final work of art, the funerary rite, to fruition. It becomes a collaboration between the living and the dead. A continued subtle intimacy across the veil between worlds.

It also struck me how very permeable that veil is. As in all Pagan ritual, we understand offerings to convey a flow of power, life force, or energy between the physical world and the Otherworld; this was no different. In the funeral, we create a ritual container and we fill it with emotion: love, grief, joy, remembrance, honor. We raise it up to the dead loved one and to their Gods, and we pour it out. Our offering. I was acutely aware of this in the funeral – as I sensed the presence of the Otherworld so near, his spirit receiving, deeply glad and deeply fed and eased by the offering.

Since coming back I’ve found myself thinking daily about funerary customs. I’ve had dreams of  burial processions, voices chanting songs of honor. Ritual preparations and invocations. Cairns raised in the deep woods. I dreamed of a great passage-tomb in the Irish Neolithic style, watching as if from above as it is built: the stones of the passage set up, the passage laid out long and cruciform, the basins and carved stones placed. The great mound raised over the passage, its carpet of green creeping over it. The bones and ashes of the dead carried in, gifts to the earth. Generation upon generation, till the floors of the tomb itself are composed of unknown layers of ash and bone, sinking slowly down into the land. I dreamed of walking into this tomb again, and the strange lights that shone deep within at the end of the dark.

I hardly have words for how important this feels to me. About the beauty of these rites and ways, and about how absolutely crucial a religious freedom it is to have the funeral that one requires. I’ve known a few who have died who were able to be given the funeral customs that were right for them. But I’ve known many more whose families had to make painful compromises, because the funeral customs that were true to their being and needful in their traditions are not allowed. This is a tragedy to me. It’s one that affects me personally – the funeral rite that I would choose for myself (excarnation or sky-burial) isn’t legal anywhere in the Western world. It is entirely too visceral for our culture, too unpackaged, too intimate with the reality of death.  Natural burial without embalming is barely tolerated as it is, let alone anything as raw as excarnation. What shall we do?

We must not fear intimacy with death. It is the way for us to honor our dead, to love them still, and to give them their due. And yes, this intimacy will remind us of our own mortality. We will see the image of our own deaths that await us, reflected in the deaths of our kin. We will have to embrace this overwhelming truth, that is both the finality and imprisonment of life, and its liberation. We must know as we anoint and honor our dead that we are preparing the way also for ourselves to join them one day. In my dreams this season, I walk down corridors of stone to meet the dead. I see them surrounded with lights and fires, bathed in the warmth of the devotion of the living. I hear their voices, whispering, speaking, wailing, singing. I see them lifted on a great wind, carried on the beating of mighty wings, the breath of a thousand spirits. I see them elevated from departed to the status of Ancestors, dwelling in that Otherworld place that is beyond time but always as near as our heartbeat.

I will not fear that place. I am alive now, and I will live. I will live without fear, giving myself fully to life and to love of living. I will pour out my love as an offering to all those whose being forms the very earth from which I live. I will live. And when the living is done, I will be dead, I will let go of my body and go into death. I will receive the offerings of the living. I will be an Ancestor and love will still move through me.

“To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,lone_druid
O Druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.
To you alone it is given to know the gods
and spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.
You dwell in the distant, dark, and hidden groves.
You say that shades of the dead do not seek
the silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,
but that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.
Death, if what you say is true, is but a mid point of a long life.”

Lucan [39-65 A.D.], Pharsalia

19
Sep - 13

Day One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your practice?

12
Aug - 13

The Morrígan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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?

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!

26
Jan - 13

What Use Violent Gods?

In the comments to my last post, on the historical basis for the Morrigan’s cult, I was asked this question by a reader:

Given all this history, I have to ask — why is this deity willing to cooperate with you on nonviolent goals?

It’s a good question, and one which I often hear in one form or another, so I feel the subject really deserves its own post. Do war Gods, and does the Morrigan, relish slaughter? And, the part of the question that usually goes unspoken: If we worship war Gods like the Morrigan, won’t this engender more violence rather than assisting us to solve our problems more peacefully?

It is true, the Morrigan is classically known as a war Goddess; if only one descriptor of Her nature and function is given, it’s usually that one. Reading the medieval Irish source literature, one finds ample material to draw an image of Her as bloodthirsty and violent, reveling in slaughter. On the other hand, if you read shallow Llewellyn-style books about ‘Celtic Magick’ and the like, you may find Her being re-interpreted as a misunderstood form of earth/fertility Goddess, or equated with Morgan le Fay, her violent aspects smoothed away in favor of some polished archetype of ‘women’s empowerment’. The truth, of course, is more complex than either image.

Does the Morrigan relish slaughter? According to the Irish literature – the only substantial literature we have on Her – yes, she does. There is no point denying or whitewashing it. We read things such as this:

Here and there around us are many bloody spoils; horrible are the huge entrails the Morrigan washes. She has come to us, and evil visitor; it is she who incites us. Many are the spoils she washes, horrible the hateful laugh she laughs. She has tossed her mane over her back; a good, just heart hates her. (Reicne Fothaid Canainne, 9th century poem)

Here we have everything She’s so often accused of: inciting war, reveling in the bloodshed and carnage. But of course, within the same body of lore, we also find Her described as a poet and satirist, a high and strong queen, an alluring woman holding wealth in cattle, a shape-shifting druidess, and many other things besides. As I wrote in reply on the previous post,

Yes, She does have an epiphany that revels in the slaughter, and because it’s one of the ones documented in literature, it gets a lot of attention… I think in part because the Irish heroic literature was written down by Christian monks, we get a clear picture only of those aspects of the Celtic heroic ethos that were comprehensible to them. There are a lot of places where the Morrigan, or one of her cognates, is glossed as a demoness, or a fury; images that were familiar to the people of the time from the Greco-Roman literature, but which turn out to be a great oversimplification of our Queen. Because they are purely wrathful entities with a fairly limited function, whereas She is a multifaceted tribal Goddess who possesses wrathful qualities and forms.

I think, however, that it’s important not to write off the Morrigan’s violent aspects entirely to Christian slander. That would be an injustice to Her and to the historical context within which She arises. Battle was a way of life to the Iron Age Celts, and this reality is reflected in everything that was written about them, just as it is reflected in the nature of their divinities and their religious practice.

So, again, if we aren’t personally interested in creating bloodshed, why would we want to invite this deity into our practice? Because the battle aspect arises from something deeper than bloodlust, something that we need to survive. I’ve said before that warriorship, the willingness to fight, is love in action. And just so, the Morrigan is sovereignty in action.

Brigantia

Sovereignty in action. This is the essence of why the Morrigan is a helpful divinity even for those who wish never to participate in violence of any kind. This statement isn’t a new-age revisionist view of Her; it is borne out by scholarly study of Her history. The earliest manifestations of deity that can be traced to Her were in the form primarily of tribal/territorial Goddesses – that is to say, the Goddess of our land and our people. When the historical context of these tribes led to the sovereignty of their land and people being under threat, these tribal/territorial Goddesses begin to take on martial, protective aspects, eventually emerging as full-blown war Goddesses, of which the Irish literature presents the most detailed image in the form of the Morrigan.

In the exhaustive study, Goddesses in Celtic Religion, Noemie Beck writes,

As will be seen, various goddesses, such as the Irish Mórrígain and the British Brigantia, possess the double aspect of land and protection in their character. They were originally goddesses embodying the landscape and were later attributed significant war-like attributes and pictured protecting their people and territory… As representatives of the tribe, they preside and rule over the territory and people; a sovereign role which leads to a significant function of protection and defence of the land. The Irish mythological legends indeed evoke the pronounced war-like character of the territorial/tribal-goddesses… The land-goddess was thus turned into a war-goddess when protection was needed in time of conflict.

Okay, but does She have to enjoy it so much? It might be pointed out that, at least in the Irish literature, we have descriptions of the Morrigan and Her related manifestations (Badb, Nemain, Fea, Macha, etc.) not only protecting the tribe in time of war, but appearing to actively incite war. She is said to lust for battle and to revel in the bloody slaughter, dancing over the spear-points of the battle.

Yes, in brief; She does have to enjoy it. Warriors do not prevail in the arena of war by maintaining a distaste for bloodshed nor an ambivalence about violence. A warrior may love peace, but when a moment of conflict does arise, the necessity is to throw your whole being into the act, leaving no room for hesitation or ambivalence. The warrior in that moment must love battle ardently, must desire nothing but the mad glory of the fight, the perfection of violence as martial art, the destruction of all who threaten her/him. This is what will give her or him the greatness of heart, the madness required to charge forward into the waiting blades of an adversary against all the natural instincts of self-preservation. And this is what the Morrigan incites, when She is inciting warriors to battle. She is drawing them into their battle ardor, pushing them to a state of enhanced fury and power that will allow them to survive, to achieve greatness and heroic glory. It is a service She is giving them.

And it goes deeper, too.  She has to enjoy it because it is Her job to devour the slain. It is part of Her eco-spiritual function as a scavenger bird deity, and a Goddess of death. She, like the Valkyrie, enables the transition of the souls of fallen between this world and the Otherworld. She Herself is the gateway through which the dead pass as She literally devours their bodies, drinks in the release of life force, and receives their souls. Should we tell the mountain lion she ought not to revel in the death of the deer? Tell the carrion crow to close her eyes and think of England when she wets her bill with the blood of the dead? The Morrigan lusts for blood because it is Her role in the shape of things. All beings hunger for that which they must eat.

Yet She is more complex than this, still. She doesn’t only enjoy the slaughter, She also weeps for it. The very specter in which She is often most gruesome, the Washer at the Ford, seen on the eve of battles washing the horrible and bloody spoils of the dead – is the same epiphany in which She displays the full pathos of Her role. Weeping and moaning, warning of the doom awaiting, sometimes even begging the warrior not to go to the fight. It is as though the gruesomeness of Her aspect, the reveling in carnage and bloody horror, is there in part to remind us of the terrible cost of war.

After one of my communions with the Morrigan some years ago, in which I asked similar questions of Her, I wrote in my journal of what I had seen in Her eyes:

Washer at the Ford, Alan Lathwell

It is not only we humans who pay the cost of our people’s choices; the Gods bleed too. The Morrigan isn’t only the sword that slays in battle; She is also the blood that spills, the ground that swallows the blood and receives the dead, and the phantoms that remain, echoing the horror. She is the frenzy of the slayer, the terror of the slain, and the grief of the bereft. A human being only pays the cost of war for the duration of a human life; She has been paying it again and again for millenia… Seeing war through the eyes of the Morrigan, the whole long, aching view of history littered with mountains of corpses offered up to futile wars to achieve something that no one now remembers, the rivers of blood and tears that have flowed through Her, the countless efforts to communicate this sorrow to people who don’t want to listen; I could no longer imagine that Her rage was born only from delight in the carnage.

Ultimately, my contact with the Morrigan has shown me that warfare and violence are our own responsibility, our own failure to fully evolve. It has taught me that we are the product of our heritage, just as She is of Hers: inheritors of the whole bloody river of history and all its ingrained cultural habits. That we are what we eat, and should we ever reach a stage of evolution where we no longer feed Her through war, She will go on receiving the souls of the dead in perhaps a less violent form.

I sometimes think that the problem with our culture isn’t that violent Gods move us toward violent goals. I sometimes think the problem with our culture is that we have given up our war Gods, or at least pretend we have. That we might be infinitely better off if our relationship to warfare and violence was framed by worship of entities such as the Morrigan, who at least will insistently remind us to count the cost of war, and will remind us of our honor and what’s worth fighting for. Instead we seem to have some faceless death-machine for a war God – the great military-industrial destroyer, its totemic winged drone-birds hovering around it, as we relentlessly feed our youth, our wealth, our humanity, our liberty into its grinding maw while carefully looking away.

I’ll entrust what I love to the Battle Raven over that God any day.

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