Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Seasons of Death and Life

As Samhain-tide is here, I have been thinking about the two great festivals of the Celtic year, and how different our modern Neopagan interpretation of them is from their origins. This subject came up for me at Beltaine this year, and has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since.

You see, the modern Neopagan conventions around these two festivals are so: Beltaine is understood as the season of life, expressed and celebrated through sexual and fertility imagery. Samhain is understood as the season of death, expressed through ancestor worship, death imagery and offerings to the dead. This is at least true of nearly all modern witchcraft revival traditions. Would any of my readers be startled to learn that for the ancient Pagan Celts, this scheme is nearly backwards?

As in so many other respects, the tendency of modern revivals of Paganism is to suffer from oversimplification of theology and spiritual philosophy. Samhain and Beltaine are a prime example of this effect.

We call Beltaine the "season of life" because the plants are flowering, fruits are swelling, small animals mating, and the sun is growing stronger. So much is true on the surface of things. For the ancient Celts, however, Beltaine (and summer generally) was a season of great risk, and for this reason, was a season for sacrifices - both animal and human. The primary evidence for human sacrifice (apart from the distorted reports of it recorded by contemporary non-Celtic writers) comes from preserved bog burials such as the Lindow man of Wales, and similar remains found on the Continent and Ireland. Remnants of the last meals of these sacrificed people show that in many cases, they were in fact killed in late Spring. Folk culture in these areas preserves many, many references to death and sacrifice in connection to Beltaine; such as Morris dances, scape-goating, effigy sacrifice, etc.

Why should this be? If the season when the natural world visibly comes into contact with death is the onset of winter, why not make that the time of sacrifices, of propitiating death with offerings? Because the timing is wrong for the magick to work, that's why. For people dependent on natural cycles for their survival, when the threshold of winter arrives at Samhain, the time of greatest risk is already past. Whatever harvest the summer gave you has been gathered in, and you only have to hope for the length of the winter to be merciful. At the onset of summer, on the other hand, everything is at stake. What comes in the months between Beltaine and Samhain can make or break your clan. If there is too much summer rain, and the crops rot in the fields - if there isn't enough, and the grain and calves don't fatten - if any of a thousand things go wrong during the growing season, your people may go hungry when the winter comes. Thus the growing season is the time of greatest risk, and the greatest need for sacrifice to propitiate the Gods. The Celts believed that life had to be fed by the sacrifice of life, and so sacrifices were made. Beltaine is thus the season of life, but also the season of death.

We're told that Samhain is religiously celebrated as the season of death because at this time cattle were slaughtered that were not being kept (and fed) through the winter. And because the vegetative life of the land is visibly dying as winter approaches. All this being quite true, Samhain is naturally a season of death. However, if you look at the mythology and religious practice of the Celts, a more nuanced picture emerges. Samhain is everywhere linked in the lore with sexual matings; and in particular the mating of the human realm and Otherworld through sexual unions. For example, the tryst of the Morrigan and the Dagda on the eve of battle occurs at Samhain; following their mating, She prophesies His victory over the Fomoire, and offers Her aid in the coming battle. Cu Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, makes his tryst with the Faery woman Fand at Samhain; likewise Nera, the warrior of Cruachan, also meets and marries his Faery wife at Samhain. In almost every case, the warrior meets an Otherworldly female on Samhain eve, mates with her sexually, and then is sent into battle on her behalf or under her protection. There are countless examples of these Samhain couplings, often linked to battles: Aine and Ailill Olom; the elopement of Etain and Midir, etc.

Dagda and the Woman, by Jim Fitzpatrick

These myths tell something deeper about the Celtic view of Samhain than the simple label, "season of death." They tell that the threshold of winter was also understood as a season of sexuality, both human and divine. That the "veil growing thin" which we Neopagans speak of, does not just permit the dead to speak to us, but opens wide the gates for Otherworldly unions of a sexual nature. That these divine or Otherworldly matings presage and are inextricably linked to battle. As it is among the horned and antlered animals: the stag and the bull, worshiped throughout the Celtic world in the form of Gods such as Cernunnos, mate in the fall, accompanied by ritualized "battles" as the males of the species may lock antlers or horns in displays of strength for mating rights. The sexual attentions of Sovereignty Goddesses such as the Morrigan, if they are linked to a season, nearly always occur at Samhain. For many Celts, sovereignty was conferred through ritual marriage of the human sovereign with Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess of the land. Among the Irish, inaugural rites and other acts related to kingship always took place at the great feasts that were held annually at Samhain at royal centers such as Tara, Cruachain and Emain Macha. Thus the entire concept of the sacred marriage among the Celts is inextricably linked to the Samhain season.

These are just a few examples I highlight here for contrast with the prevailing Neopagan conventions about these holidays. In truth both have very complex histories arising from their changing practice across many different tribes and shifting with the tides of history. I suppose what I want to communicate here is not so much that our modern ways of celebrating these holidays are wrong; but rather that I feel something is lost when we simplify them down to equating Beltaine with sex and Samhain with death. There is a deep wisdom embedded in the ancients' understanding that sexuality, fertility, death, sovereignty, and sacrifice were all inextricably linked. That our human work is to understand these linkages, feed them, and find our places within them. There is a potency in celebrating sex and death together, as alternating currents of a single numinous power, perhaps, rather than as separate seasons.

As we like to sing in the Coru: Balu! Maru! Balu! Maru! (Sex! Death! Sex! Death!)

(Of course, it should go without saying that I don't advocate a return to ancient practice as it was; I think it is entirely right that we abandoned human sacrifice and find other forms of sacrifice by which we can participate in these exchanges of life.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Hollow Place

I've had a post started on the topic of Sovereignty, for the last couple of weeks, intending to return to it and finish it. In the meantime, I went on an epic journey into the Northlands (Pacific Northwestern states and British Columbia), and now find I have something more personal to say about Sovereignty.

Instead of an educational post about the nature of Sovereignty, I'll refer you to an excellent blog post on Sovereignty from a couple of weeks ago, by Druid priest and fellow Morrigan devotee John Beckett. He touches on most of the main points I was going to cover about Sovereignty in my own way.

That shared, I'll take you on a journey with me. In the Coru priesthood, over the past several months we'd been receiving messages from the Morrigan urging us to look to Sovereignty, both personal and collective; and in particular to make the restoration of Sovereignty a major focus of our work. It stands as a core value underlying everything we are doing. At the same time, we had begun receiving invitations to travel to a few places and bring devotional ritual and teachings of the Morrigan to other communities. Planning was underway for the ritual work in these far communities, as well as for Samhain rites in our local community.

I sat in communion with the Morrigan, seeking guidance about what we should be doing in our public ritual work. She said, "Go to the Hollow Place." And She showed me an image of a lake. (Our local Lake Merritt, to be specific). I sat puzzling with this for some time, and then in conversations with my fellow priests and further communions with the Queen, it started to come together. In fact, the other places we had been invited to travel for ritual also happened to be associated with lakes. And it is from a lake or river that the Goddess of Sovereignty, in the form of the Morrigan or other forms, so often emerges. It was from a lake that the Sword, the tool of authority, was given to King Arthur, in that Sovereignty myth; and it was into the lake again that he must return his sword when he could no longer wield it as a true sovereign.

We began thinking about the Morrigan's message to us, that Sovereignty has been eroded in our society; how we each have compromised it. How it has been taken from us. How the restoration of that Sovereignty seems to be our overriding mission. We began to dream of taking it back out of the hands of the corrupt elite who are tending to wrest it from us, into our own hands. Of returning Sovereignty to its rightful and natural source - the land and the people, who are one. Thus, the Sovereignty ritual was born. It is this simple thing: in each community where we bring our devotional and educational work, to charge a sword with the blessings and will of that community, and of the Ancestors and the Gods, for the renewal of Sovereignty. And then to take that sword and cast it back into the waters of the lake, in an act that dedicates it to Sovereignty, and also hearkens back to the forms of water sacrifice practiced across ancient Europe by the Celts and other tribal folk.

The first of these rituals took place at Lake Okanagan, up in British Columbia, where we traveled for the Western Gate Samhain Festival. The festival itself, and the journey there, was a whole beautiful adventure that I haven't the space to describe here. (Sarah Lawless, another of the fine presenters, spins a lovely tale in her blog.)

Meeting Lake Okanagan (photo by Brendan Myers)
What I want to talk about is the lake. Oh, the lake. Being newcomers to the land and wishing to introduce ourselves, we walked down to visit the lake ahead of the rituals. We cast our spirits down, greeting the lake, feeling its contours and its being. I felt vast depths, primordial and ancient. I felt at its bottomless depths a kind of doorway or crack that seemed to open into vast Otherworlds: the Hollow Place. One of our priestesses dropped the first offering into the waters, and a wave of power rippled through the lake. Later that night, we returned to make preparatory offerings before the next day's rituals. To our chanting and shrieking, the lake returned a deep, booming call, and drank in our offerings to the Queen of Sovereignty. Over the course of the weekend, I returned to the Okanagan's shores again and again, drawn to its depth and power. The lake became a teacher for me. How vast that numinous power is that upwells within the land. How vast and bottomless the well of Sovereignty.

There was a sword, donated by a member of the local community. We charged it, all the folk gathered for the ritual, with the Morrigan and all the heroic Ancestors we all carry in our lineages. I have only vague and dreamy memories of that ritual as I was under possession, but I'm told it was potent. I remember looking up at it in the hands of the priest, and I remember seeing the throng of Ancestral spirits pouring through the hearts of the living people present in the circle. I remember the sword growing warm in our hands. The shining of the eyes all around.

Later that evening, as I stood in the final circle of the night, my own Ancestors whispered to me about the work I'd been brought there to do. One of my family lines (Corey) derives its name from a kind of glacial tarn formed in the mountains of Scotland, and called a coire, which means cauldron or hollow. I carry the Hollow Place too. I too am a vessel for Sovereignty. So are we all.

In the morning, we walked out again to the lake, and our first sword was cast for Sovereignty (by Sarah Lawless, as it seemed most appropriate to have someone born into that land cast the sword). Into the Hollow Place, the deep well from which the power in the land flows; into the threshold of the Otherworld and the hands of the Goddess to whom it belongs. There was a feeling of exultation, victory as we walked back. Joyous power. Is that what Sovereignty feels like?

So that is the story so far. It seems it's the beginning of an arc, and we'll be doing this work elsewhere too. The next Sovereignty rite is planned here in Oakland, at Lake Merritt, following our Samhain Feast. After that? I do not know which Hollow Place may come next, but we do have New Orleans and Lake Ponchartrain on our horizons for next Samhain...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Way of the Spear

I'm freshly returned from my first armored combat event and thinking about the nature of being a Spear.

Some months ago when I undertook a new phase of dedication to the Morrigan, She said this to me: "You are my Spear." This touched off a lot of thinking on my part as to what it means to be a Spear in Her hands. As is my habit with messages from my Gods, I turned to history and source text to try to understand.

The Spear appears earliest in Irish mythology in the hands of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, as written in the Lebor Gabála Eirénn:

From Failias was brought the Lia Fail which is in Temair, and which used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland. From Goirias was brought the spear which Lug had : battle would never go against him who had it in hand. From Findias was brought the sword of Nuadu : no man would escape from it ; when it was drawn from its battle-scabbard, there was no resisting it. From Muirias was brought the cauldron of The Dagda ; no company would go from it unsatisfied. 
These, Stone, Spear, Sword, and Cauldron, are known as the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the old Gods of Ireland. I began to read everything I could find about them. What does it mean to be a Spear? That must tell me something of the work She wants of me. And  if I am a Spear, surely there are other Spear-folk too. And Sword-folk, Cauldron-folk, Stone-folk.

The Stone is the first mentioned, in almost every case where the Treasures are written about. It is the foundation of Sovereignty. Then, we come to the weapons; perhaps arising from the necessity of defending Sovereignty. First the Spear, then the Sword. And after, to feed the hungry company of the warriors, to restore them at the end of the day, comes the Cauldron.

In a battle line (at least, from my beginner's understanding of archaic Celtic weapon use), spears are first out to stop as many adversaries as possible before they come within sword-range. Light spears or javelins are cast through the air (as are arrows; small mechanically assisted spears). Long spears or pikes are thrust before the shield-lines to hold them at bay or impale them as they come. And the warrior's first weapon in the fray might often have been the fighting spear. Thrust and cut with your long weapon first, until it sticks in someone's ribs or too many enemies come in close range; then let go of it and draw your sword.

In ancient times, the common fighter who was not an elite hero and did not possess the wealth of the aristocratic warrior class, might not carry a sword at all. Swords require far greater mastery of metalsmithing to manufacture, and far more expensive high-quality metal, than do spearheads; how many men could be armed with spears from the same metal that would go into the making of a single hero's sword? For this reason, armies were once counted as the number of spears a leader commanded. A man might not be a trained warrior, but hand him a long spear and you can make a soldier of him; he will figure out how to thrust. It is a weapon of instinct. It won't protect him much in a melee, but it weaponizes him. Spears are the expendable resource of an army.

From these readings, and from noting the patterns common to myself and to other Spear folk I've connected with, I make an observation about Spears: Commitment. A spear once cast cannot be called back. Thus, to be a Spear is to be cast toward one's destiny. Fully given and committed, risking all with fierce abandon. Or, as some of my friends have said of me recently; a zealot. I take that criticism as worthy. Caution seems not to be the way of the spear. We are beings of instinct tending to sense the moment and thrust ourselves forward, past the safety of shields, crying victory. We throw ourselves into the destiny we sense before us, in ways that sometimes seem reckless or mad to our friends. Perhaps we are. It is a way of risk.

This all came back to me as I was riding home from the war event yesterday. I'm new to armored combat and had only just finished my armor the day I arrived at the war. Thus, I'd had no chance to practice my fighting skills with my teachers while in full armor before going in to the full fray. Little opportunity to even test my armor under another fighter's blows before facing an army of them. I was, truthfully, not ready for war combat - and the marshal who authorized me knew it, and nearly didn't. But I passed, and in spite of significant nerves about not knowing what to do out there, and being smashed to a pulp by hundreds of men three times my body weight, I threw myself into the combat. Trusting, I suppose, that the urging of my Goddess and the sense of destiny that drew me into the fighting arts were not leading me astray. And they didn't: it was one of the most epic experiences of my life.

Showing off my bloody fighting tunic.
I was crushed in shield-walls and knocked to the ground. Hammered by swords, pike thrusts. Took a hard thrust to the faceplate of my helmet that split my chin so I bled all over my armor; paused to get it bandaged, then threw myself right back in. I was fighting with a glaive, a type of long-bladed fighting spear wielded with two hands, which meant I had no shield to protect me, and with my lack of experience, I'm not the best at blocking with the glaive, so I took a lot of hits. I've been told by many fighters I should be starting with sword and shield to save myself bruises... but you see, I'm a Spear, and it's the spear that feels natural in my hands, it's the spear I'm called to fight with. It's the reason I'm there at all. So in I went without a shield, madly, gleefully, fiercely, not minding the pounding and the bruises and the blood. Reveling, glorying in them. Why? Because they were initiatory, overwhelming, ecstatic. Because I am a Spear, and I must immerse myself. Because I am a Spear, and I need the risk and immensity of being thrust wholly, body and soul, into my calling, holding nothing back, pouring myself out on the battlefield.

I am a Spear that cries out for blood
I am the Spear-point that gives battle