Pilgrimage: the Cave and the Mound

  
I sometimes awaken at night in the cave.  It has ceased being startling.  I fall asleep in my bed and soon I can hear the slow persistent drip of water in the pool, feel the dampness, and sense that now familiar awareness of being in the home of the Morrigan, a place that holds part of myself now.
The first time this happened was a moment of panic for me, a desperate climb out of the darkness towards a sliver of light.  Now I sit and quietly breathe, centering myself in that holy place, feeling my Queen breathing close to me.  I take time to appreciate the moment of closeness, of intimacy with my Goddess, before I slowly climb to the surface, feeling like I am being born anew each time.

When I reach the surface I sit at the mouth of the cave, resting under the hawthorn tree on a fallen pillar stone.  This is a new part of my dream landscape, this cave.  It has always been there, a whisper, a story, a tale told by people I met in hushed, conspiring tones,  but it was not a place I was able to visit or enter in my dream realm until I did so in the physical world.  Now that I have, the cave has become part of me.  It has taken up residency in my internal and spiritual landscape, a fissure in the familiar ground of my dreams.

After a day in Dublin, we hopped on a bus and headed west into Connacht, to Cruachan, to the mound of Rathcroghan and to Úaimh na gCat, the Cave of Cats.  This part of the trip was essential for us.  We had personal work we needed to do before the rest of the tour arrived.

As we headed west the land changed, got wilder, rockier.  Hedges gave way to rock walls, fields of crops gave way to cattle and sheep.  There is a beautiful ferocity to the west of Ireland, a sense that it is and has always been, untamed and raw.  To me, a longtime resident of rural California and someone who has lived in some of the harshest and wildest places in my country,  Connacht seemed lush and enchanting.  The hills and landscapes reminded me of rural Pennsylvania where I grew up, low rolling ridges and deciduous forests.   But there was something else here,  something ancient and pervasive.  It was a connection that I felt as soon as I stepped foot in this land, a connection and pull that got deeper and more compelling as I headed west.

We got off the bus in a small town in County Roscommon and were met by our host and guide to the cave Lora O’Brien and her family.  We first encountered Lora online, in and around the loose knit circles of Morrigan devotees that inhabit the backwaters of the Internet.  Lora immediately stood out and was recognizable as the real thing, a well grounded Irish witch with a sharp sense of humor and healthy disdain for some of the more frivolous spiritual philosophies,  a sometimes rare thing in the Pagan world.  She is very clearly someone that walks a path of service, a priestess of the Great Queen and the guardian of the Her Cave.  We had the pleasure of meeting her in person at Pantheacon last year and felt an immediate kinship.  We were able to share some of the sacred and beautiful places of our land with her and she graciously offered to host us and be our guide to Rathcroghan during our visit.

We spent our first day in the west exploring and connecting with the land.  Dublin had been all bricks and traffic, with St. Stephen’s Green showing us a richly beautiful but highly manicured taste of the natural landscape.  Out here, we felt the spirit of the land more acutely, more viscerally.  We walked the narrow roads and did some local exploration.  We visited the Famine Museum (I’m going to have to write a separate  post to unpack my feelings about that), got our first taste of Irish woodlands, and visited a graveyard with the ruins of a church in it that was so old that graves were placed within the footprint of the original church structure.

Graveyard at Kiltrustan Church

The next day we headed to Rathcroghan, the royal seat of Connacht.   Rathcroghan is an area of approximately 4 square miles, west of the tiny town of Tulsk where the Rathcroghan Visitors Centre resides.  It is a vast complex, mostly unexcavated but thoroughly mapped, of over 60 mounds and related sites.   It is probably best known as the Royal seat of Connacht and the home of Queen Medb and her consort Ailill.  It was this place where Medb and Ailill had their fated “pillow talk” that instigated the famed Táin Bó Cúailnge, the cattle raid of Cooley.  Here is Crúachain of the old tales but also the burial mound of Rathbeg, Rathnadarve where the two bulls that were once swine herds had their final battle, the Mucklaghs massive earthworks raised when two giant demon pigs came out of the Cave and ravished the land, and the Cave itself, Úaimh na gCat, the Cave of Cats, the home of the Morrigan and the focus of much magical initiation and activity in early legend, referred to in some of the tales as Ireland’s Hellmouth.

Rathcroghan mound

The Cave was the magnet that pulled us west.  It is possibly the force that pulled us to Ireland.   We were called to this particular gateway for reasons still unclear to us but we were haunted by the Cave and its place in our hearts.  But before we could enter the Cave it was made clear to us that we had to engage with Medb and with the mound of Rathcroghan.

This becomes obvious as you enter Connacht.  The Cave might be the home of the Morrigan, but Rathcroghan is the realm of Medb.  She compellingly looms over the land, Queen of the West, Lady of Initiation and Intoxication.  This is her home.  She is the guardian of the land and the chaperone of the Cave.  Her role is that of initiator of warbands, a guide to engagement with the Battle Goddess.  It was in this role that we had to engage with her.

Queen Maev by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

I have had a shaky relationship with Medb mostly stemming from the fact that my former wife went by that name.  During our lives together I did my share of using the name in anger, and it was easy for me to buy into the common portrayal of Medb that paints her as petty, jealous, and vain.  The more I researched the stories and texts and the deeper that I delved into the volumes of modern research on the Táin and Medb’s role in it,  the more I noticed that all too common pattern of trivializing and vilifying powerful women that our culture so quickly and effortlessly does.  In the case of Medb, this pattern becomes entangled with the Norman conquest and subversion of the predominate Gaelic culture.  These ancient stories of a Lady of Sovereignty bestowing the blessing of the Sovereignty of the Land to a ruling King did not mesh with the Christian/Norman idea of a King chosen by God.  Here we once again have the patriarchy attempting to erase any remnants of feminine power in order to solidify their control over the population, and it is here where we see the perception of Medb being changed from a powerful Queen to a petty whore.

We stood on the mound of Rathcroghan, the place flashing between the royal center of Connacht and a mound in a verdant field surrounded by sheep.  We got glimpses of the Crúachain of old, pieced together with legends, archaeological data, and our view of the mound on that day.  We walked in that place of the dead, the bones of ancestors interred beneath of feet.  We see from the archaeological research that it is highly likely that the mound is a passage tomb, another example of the Irish building sites of ritual and political importance directly on top of the bones of their honored dead.  This is one of the most iconic and beautiful practices in ancient Irish history, this method of connecting the ancestors to royal power.  It not only created a claim of legitimacy to whatever dynasty was ruling at the time, but it created a ritual space that was directly connected to the graves of the mighty and beloved dead, and also set their ritual and ceremonial center directly on a gateway to the Otherworld.

So that windy afternoon we sat on the mound and spoke to and left offerings for the dead of that place, to the beings of the Otherworld that we live alongside,  and I apologized to Medb for misunderstanding who she is.  We sat and listened and felt that gateway shift and open, a deep chthonic passage to other realms, until we received the conformation of acceptance that we were looking for.  Once we heard it, we headed to the Cave.

IMG_2936

Louis le Brocquy’s Illustration from the Táin

The Cave is not only the home of the Morrigan but has a number of tales connected to it about strange and horrible things emerging from it and laying waste to the land.

“…pigs of magic came out of the Cave of Crúachain, and that is Ireland’s gate of Hell.  From out of it issued the monstrous triple headed Ellen that wasted Erin till Amairgene, the father of Conall the Victorious, killed it in single combat before all the men of Ulster.  Out of it, also, came Red birds that withered up everything in Erin that their breaths would touch, till the Ulstermen slew them with their slings.”

We weren’t there to slay demon birds or magical swine.  Nor were we there to fight otherworldly cats or werewolves.  We went to the Cave for a moment of communion with the Goddess that we were dedicated to, a quiet space of contemplation and connection.  We sat at the entrance, said our words, made our offerings, and followed Lora into the Cave.

I won’t speak of the details of my experience in the Cave here.  People’s experiences with it are personal and unique.  There is nothing that I can say about it that will do it justice in any way.  Like any ordeal or spiritual journey, these types of experiences belong to the one having them and significance and meaning tend to hold importance to them.  But that day we entered the Cave, had our moment, and learned the lessons that we needed to learn.  One week later, we stood at the entrance to the Cave again in the pouring rain, this time with 17 members of our tour.  This time, 17 people in the process of bonding during a 9 day pilgrimage crawled into that sacred muddy hole in the ground, blind, wet, and completely trusting in each other, and had their own experiences in the Cave.  This is part of the magic of that place, it is a spot that enables a moment of personal connection to the Otherworld.  These moments, profound and life changing as they are, are for the one experiencing them alone, with significance and meanings connecting the circuits that they need to for each person individually.  The power of that moment in a muddy cow field in the rain was twofold, the trust and bravery of 17 near strangers taking a leap of faith together and helping each other descend into a pitch black hole in the earth, and the myriad of personal experiences and the lessons learned by each individual that day, each one different and each one intensely personal.

Holding the sacrificial sword after crawling out of the Cave.


Morpheus has an account of the trip west here

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Pilgrimage : Two Tickets to Dublin

Anna Liffey by the sculptor Éamonn O’Doherty

I bought my first ticket to Dublin almost 23 years ago.  I had made the decision to go to Ireland during a time in my life when I had been living out of a backpack and wandering around the continent.  I had been traveling for about 5 years at that point, navigating the streams and currents of modern nomadic cultures.  I sought out and fought the fights that I, as an angry young man, needed to, and I explored and met the places and the people who I, as a restless young man, needed to.  I was ready to study and to learn, to connect with my ancestors in a more profound and visceral way.  I was ready to take my trip to Ireland.  So I headed  back towards  the home of my childhood and bought an airline ticket to Dublin.

During my journey home I was met by a moment of choice and convergence of fates.  A message found its way to me through unlikely sources, accompanied by auspicious and fateful signs.  It was a message from a woman who I had a brief but passionate relationship with while living in a red desert cathedral.  The message was that she was pregnant and that I was the father.

She wasn’t telling me to pressure me, she wasn’t asking for anything that I didn’t want to freely give.  But she was going to have a child and I was the father of that child and she knew that I would want to know.  And I sat and faced that choice that is not a choice the only way I could and still be able to live with myself. I became a father, and Ireland became a distant island once more.

These moments where your life path shifts direction, these moments of decision, moments of trust in your fate, or your Wyrd, or the Gods, are the challenges and feats that define who we are and our place in the world.  The part of myself that made my shift from the identity of seeker to the identity of father so inevitable is the part of me that stands firmly on the path of honor.  There was no choice for me, and yet it was the best choice I’ve ever made.

So my life changed, and I went west and raised two brilliant and determined daughters, and I studied archaeology in California.  My love and connection in Ireland never changed.  As my studies went deeper my spirituality became more complex and tied to that place.  I learned its history, music, and culture and filled myself with the lore and literature of this land that dominated my inner landscape.

Death of Cu Chulainn statue by Oliver Sheppard in the General Post Office, Dublin

My life continued to change and evolve.  My marriage ended, my kids grew up, my relationship with The Morrigan grew and deepened, and 23 years after I had bought my first ticket to Dublin, I found myself standing in the Dublin Airport alongside a woman who was as brilliant, beautiful, and bold as a queen in the tales from this land.

Now I wasn’t just going to Ireland  for personal growth and exploration, we were there as the vanguard of a Celtic polytheist priesthood, called by and dedicated to the Morrigan.  We were there to pay respects to the sacred sites, lead a group of 17 people on a tour of sacred sites connected to our Queen, and to ground our tradition in the stones and turf of this holy land.

We had come 4 days earlier than the rest of the tour.  We needed to spend some time with the land, to make our own introductions and connections, to adjust to the change of place and change of time before we were responsible for other people’s experiences here.

We were giddy and bleary eyed as we approached the customs officer in the airport.

“What is the purpose of your visit?”

“We are taking a tour of sacred sites here”  we say, groggily, stumbling to get our brains working after 21 hours of cramped travel.

He looks at us and with a practiced air of indifference asks “What’s the name of this tour?”

Once again we stumble a bit with our answer, not expecting to need further details.  “It’s called the Coru: Body of the Morrigan Tour”

He stared at us and questioned “The Morrigan?”

We were a little confused, we helpfully added “The Irish Goddess of prophecy, sovereignty, and battle”

He stared a little longer making us wonder if we had somehow made a mistake, said the wrong thing to him, given him an answer that made him suspicious of us.

“Never heard of Her” he wryly declared as he stamped our passports.  “Have a good journey”

It was very clear to us that the first act that we need to do to make offerings to that land that we were finally standing on, so we quickly started looking for something that would make a suitable one.  We settled on a cup of cream from the cafe in the airport, went outside to find a piece of ground that wasn’t covered by pavement, and there, with the sound of jets, coaches and cabs surrounding us, we thanked Eriú and the land, and the spirits of that place for welcoming us and we thanked the guardians that protected us on our journey for helping us arrive safely and we poured the offering out on the earth.

detail of the The O’Connell Monument John Henry Foley (1818-74) Notice the bullet hole in her breast, a relic of the Easter Rising

Dublin is a city that has had a place in my internal landscape since I was a child.  As I grew I learned of the Rising, I studied the histories, I struggled through Joyce.  The music and poetry, the antiquities and the ancient art, the beauty and the seediness, all took their places in my imagination.

The city was exactly what I hoped for.  Grey and chilly, dark water and warm pubs, busy narrow streets and friendly faces.  We got off the bus and awkwardly dragged our bags across cobblestone streets, through streams of cars and coaches, toward our hotel in the heart of the city.  We could have stayed at a hotel near the airport but that seemed like a waste to me.  I wanted to immediately immerse myself in sights and sounds of the city.

As we crossed a bridge over the Liffey, we stopped to greet the river.  Like a sluggish, sleepy beast, She slipped under us, mutely dominating the city.  We poured offerings, we thanked her, we made formal introductions, and we listened, as we stood between a the flow of water and streams of traffic. She accepted our offerings and answered us.

on Stephan’s Green

The loudest voices in Dublin are the voices of the dead, and the revolutionary dead dominate them.  We had time to kill, hours to force ourselves to remain awake in order to start shifting our bodies to a new time zone, so after we dropped off our bags, and struggled to eat a meal, we wandered through the city alongside the ghosts.  We wandered  through grey streets, past cathedrals and castles, through legendary universities and places from the books of my youth.  We slipped in and out of welcoming and warm pubs and bookstores.  We played the tourist, wide-eyed and excited as children, grabbing each other as each new sight or recognized place revealed itself.  All the time we were being led to the place where the dead spoke the loudest, St Stephan’s Green.

As we entered the park the revolutionary dead crowded around us, curious and quiet.  We stood with them and spoke of their struggles, we thanked them and we poured whiskey offerings to them, we listened and drank with them.

One of the lessons that I learned that day way that when giving offering to the dead in this land,  they always want you to drink with them, to share a sip or raise a glass, speak their names fondly and tell tales of their deeds.  And so we did.

Joyce bust on Stephan’s Green

Dublin

Grey brick upon brick,

Declamatory bronze

On sombre pedestals –

O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –

And the brewery tugs and the swans

On the balustraded stream

And the bare bones of a fanlight

Over a hungry door

And the air soft on the cheek

And porter running from the taps

With a head of yellow cream

And Nelson on his pillar

Watching his world collapse.

This never was my town,

I was not born or bred

Nor schooled here and she will not

Have me alive or dead

But yet she holds my mind

With her seedy elegance,

With her gentle veils of rain

And all her ghosts that walk

And all that hide behind

Her Georgian facades –

The catcalls and the pain,

The glamour of her squalor,

The bravado of her talk.

The lights jig in the river

With a concertina movement

And the sun comes up in the morning

Like barley-sugar on the water

And the mist on the Wicklow hills

Is close, as close

As the peasantry were to the landlord,

As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,

As the killer is close one moment

To the man he kills,

Or as the moment itself

Is close to the next moment.

She is not an Irish town

And she is not English,

Historic with guns and vermin

And the cold renown

Of a fragment of Church latin,

Of an oratorical phrase.

But oh the days are soft,

Soft enough to forget

The lesson better learnt,

The bullet on the wet

Streets, the crooked deal,

The steel behind the laugh,

The Four Courts burnt.

Fort of the Dane,

Garrison of the Saxon,

Augustan capital

Of a Gaelic nation,

Appropriating all

The alien brought,

You give me time for thought

And by a juggler’s trick

You poise the toppling hour –

O greyness run to flower,

Grey stone, grey water,

And brick upon grey brick.

— Louis MacNeice

Cozy Pubs!

Pilgrimage :  Introductions and a Tale

Detail from Desmond Kinney’s 1974 mosaic mural of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in Dublin

It’s taken me days to make the transition from being in Ireland to being in California.  Jet lag was a factor, but it is much more than jet lag that has thrown my system into disarray.  What has shifted in me is deeper than a physiological response to travel, or the simple shock of moving between contrasting cultures.  In a very profound way, my spiritual landscape has been altered, reworked, grounded in place in a way that I was unaware that it was even lacking, but now can’t imagine being without.

I wasn’t sure that I should even attempt to write about my experiences on this journey.  Some of them seem too involved and detailed, with tangents twisting off of tangents.  Too much backstory would needed to relate the significance of some of these events to readers, and the format of a blog is ill suited for this type of storytelling, usually requiring strong drink and smokey firelight, quite possibly the smell of wet wool.  Many of the stories are painfully personal and would force me to tell my own histories and stories, an art that I am not skilled at nor comfortable doing in most cases.  But my habits of seclusion and remaining guarded have been put on the chopping block by the Queen that I serve, and stories have a habit of wanting to be told.  So here we are.

Instead of trying to relate the journey to you all at once, or simply relating a chronological telling of the tale,  I’ve decided that I will be publishing my account in a series of stories.   Some will be about certain portions of the trip and some will be explorations of themes and concepts that came up during the experience.  The time we were there was so densely packed with places, spirits, experiences, and revelations that I’m not exactly sure how these stories will form and want to be told.  This process I am going through is more for me than anyone else.  It is not unlike the process of unpacking your bags after a long trip.  You slowly take each item that you have acquired during your expedition out of your bag and hold it in your hands, remembering where you found it, its significance to you, how it fits into the life that you have returned to.

So I welcome you to join me while I unpack my experiences and tell some tales of my odyssey if that type of thing will be of interest to you.  I humbly hope that my words can do justice to the wealth and richness of the land we walked in and brilliance and kindness of the people that we encountered, but stories must start somewhere and in the case of this account, it should probably start with a tale.

Boyhood Deeds

The boy had his first training among the women of his mother’s clan, and this is fitting for it’s a pups mother that trains it to fight, for women know that fighting is more than glory and tales, but often a matter of survival.

He lived in a village in the shadow of a great city with his Grandmother, Corcairghorm and her sisters, powerful Druidess’ of a fierce clan, who knew the arts of healing, craft, and persuasion.  The boy lived a happy but lonely life with his mothers people, and it was likely that the women loved him greatly, for there were few children in the clan, and the boy was kind, and good natured, and tried to be helpful even when his size and skills made him very unhelpful in some tasks.

The boy, then called Tómas, spent the dark half of his year with the clan of his mother in boyish pursuits, exploring deep forests, pushing the boundaries of his existence, and asking too many questions, and he spent the light half of the year with his fathers people, a wild and untamed clan that lived deep in the mountains. From his fathers people he learned the art of the hunt, and how to move like a staking beast through the forest. He learned to plow rocky fields and when the right time to cut hay for the animals.

There was another thing about the boy that set him apart from his people, a fact that he kept to himself as much as he was able to, but something that made him feel alone and distant from the other people in his life, the boy was often approached by and spoken to by spirits of the dead and creatures of the Otherworld. At first there seemed nothing out of the ordinary to have exchange with these spirits, but Tómas quickly realized that he was the only one that saw them, and that by talking about the beings that he encountered with the other members of his clan, made the people that loved him look at him out of the sides of their eyes suspiciously, and regard him with fear and concern when they thought he wasn’t looking.

Once, the boy awoke in the middle of the night, eyes open but unable to move his body. It was then that he saw the woman, tall and beautiful, who had the bearing of a mighty queen from the stories that his grandmother told him. He feared and loved this stormy, stately Queen and struggled to make his mouth and throat make sounds to speak to Her but could only make a strangled moan that broke the spell that held his body still, when the spell was broken the Queen was gone, all that remained was the sound of calling crows and the image of a fair green land.

Years later the boy awoke during a violent storm. Storms didn’t frighten him at this point, the terrors and fears of the night had become his friends and companions. He had learned to run through the forests at night alongside wolves and to sit silently in the trees as an owl mapping the sounds and movements of the creatures of the wood. He spoke with his ancestors and with spirits and shades of the dead and they became his confidants and protectors. He did not fear storms but ran into them at night, reveling in the power and beauty of the whipping rain and bright flashes of lightening, and ground shaking thunder, but this storm was different. It was not a storm to challenge. As the boy sat quietly in the dark listening to the raindrops crash against his window, he saw the face of a crone peering in at him. Once again the boy felt that combination of fear and attraction that he felt with the Might Queen that visited him years before and he knew that although Her appearance was different, this was the same Queen. He rapidly sat up in bed and the crone was now in the corner of his room, peering out of one eye with a piercing stare, cloak and feather wrapped, growing and filling the space, and with a voice that sounded equal parts music and screams, the crone who was a Queen who was a black bird, called him a name that he had never heard before and yet knew it was his and said to him
“You Child, are one of my creatures, and I will have need of you in the future, and as I have visited you in your home, someday you will come and visit me in mine”
And with those words She was gone and he was left with dreams of a green and magical island that he knew was his home as well as that Queen’s”

  

Next:  Two Tickets to Dublin

Pagan, Polytheist, or Both? Why Labels are Sometimes Important.

Russia, Saint Petersburg, 2012 From the series "White Nights". Ivan Kupala, pagan rite which has its origins in the cult of Kupala, god of love and fertility.

Russia, Saint Petersburg, 2012
From the series “White Nights”.
Ivan Kupala, pagan rite which has its origins in the cult of Kupala, god of love and fertility.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Many Gods West, a conference on Polytheism that took place in Olympia Washington.  It was a small, intimate event. An event that not only featured an astounding variety of speakers and presentations, but also powerful work with the Gods and land spirits, along with days and nights of deep conversations with brilliant people.

I have been to a number of Pagan gatherings, from the lighthearted and celebratory, to the deep and scholarly.  Being at a conference that was specifically Polytheist in scope was a meaningful and important experience, and different from any one that I have had before.

Why is a gathering of people who define themselves specifically as Polytheists important?  Why are these distinctions important to us, and why would the idea of having space for Polytheists to talk about Polytheist practice and theology cause problems among people who aren’t Polytheists?

One of the things that I noticed about Many Gods West is that even though the group gathered at the event was diverse and varied with attendees coming from a broad spectrum of religious practices,  there was a noticeable air of respect and courtesy towards each other and each other’s practices.  As a matter of fact, the only real display of discourtesy that I witnessed came from someone who seemed to be struggling with the feeling that they had of not being included in the Polytheist “group”.  I find this very interesting.  What I witnessed at this event and what I generally see among the Polytheist community is radical inclusiveness to anyone that shows that they have respect for other people’s beliefs and practices.  But the important factor in that is the respect for others.  When that respect is absent, or compromised by ego or judgements, Polytheists understandably distance themselves from that.

We are a minority within a minority, we have the right to have our own discussions about our practices, theology, and future without being interrupted by people hostile to those rights.  The importance of events like Many Gods West is to provide those spaces for people to have conversations and make connections, unmolested and uninterrupted by people who have deferring practices and theological structures.

This is one of the most important reasons for having events that are specifically for Polytheists to discuss Polytheism, to have a space free of hostile judgements and free of having to have theology 101 discussions with people who have differing views than Polytheists do.  We deal with hostility online daily, from arrogant atheists, atheo-pagans, and general assholes that feel that its their place to belittle what they don’t understand or believe.  We have spaces when we mingle with Wiccans, archtlpalists, and  monist / dualists, they are called “Every other Pagan  event”.  We have plenty of Monotheists telling us that  we are crazy or going to hell every single day.  Creating space for us to have the discussions that we need to have without them being hijacked by other people’s agendas is crucial for our future and its crucial to allow people to practice their religion safely and unmolested.

This is one of the main reasons that allowing these spaces is important for the rest of Paganism.  As a set of practices and beliefs that has a long history of being persecuted, it is of crucial importance that we don’t become the type of intolerant douchebags that attack and belittle religious beliefs that we don’t understand or agree with.

Paganism is not a cohesive set of beliefs and practices.  We are a collection of diverse and varied people and in that is our strength.  Our power resides in that diversity and more importantly our willingness to accept and celebrate that diversity.

But why separate ourselves from the larger “pagan umbrella” ?  Why are these labels important?   Because these labels are there in order to help us define our beliefs, and the act of defining our beliefs helps us to clarify them and allows us to have clear conversations about specific aspects of our beliefs and experiences.

I choose to define myself as both a Pagan and a Polytheist.  I see value in the broader term of Pagan.  I feel that there is strength in numbers in a world where the dominant religions are actively hostile to anything that is not their particular brand of monotheism.  I feel that having an open umbrella for anyone who feels marginalized in their religious practices is incredibly valuable.  We should all have a place to feel safe and sheltered while the monotheisms of the world tear each other apart  and attack us.  The large tent of Paganism provides that space for people.  A place for people to be their authentic selves without condemnation.

I identify as a Polytheist because I believe that not only are the Gods real and individual entities with agency and their own destinies,  but everything has its own agency and agenda.  To me, the Gods are not reflections of our psyche, or collective human creations, but beings that have lived alongside us  since the beginning of time, beings that I choose to honor and respect because I feel that they deserve honor and respect the way that all beings that we share this world with deserve honor and respect.

For me, these terms Pagan and Polytheist are not incompatible, for others they are.  Both views are correct.  The terms are there to help us define our beliefs and encourage deep thought about our theological views and systems.  This type of discernment and philosophical thought is important.

What I see in the Polytheist community that is sometimes absent in the larger Pagan community are these types of philosophical discussions that are so important to a religious community.  I sometime see Pagans defining their theology by what they don’t believe, not what they believe, the “I’m a Pagan because I don’t believe in Christianity” view.  When these people are asked what they do believe the answers get pretty nebulous.  Discernment and depth of thought should be valued in our community.  Discussions on morality and the nature of the Gods is important to deepen ones religious practice.

I believe Paganism and Polytheism hold deep value in the world that we live in.  That in a culture of materialism and injustice, Paganism and Polytheism are paths to a more authentic and healthy relationship  with the world and with the communities that we interact with.  But in order for us to provide those paths, to provide a valid alternative to narrow monotheisms, we must go deeper.  We must explore and discuss our differences and similarities, we must celebrate our diversity and allow it to flourish.   We must be more than people playing with wands in our backyards.  We must be the best witches/priests/druids/pagans/polytheists that we can be.  We must go deep and be articulate in our practices.  Most importantly, we must be accepting of other people’s beliefs and practices and we must give them the space to develop their own theologies.

An Open Letter to the Rainbow Family

I write this letter out of love and respect and not to scold and reprimand you.  I have watched with horror the development of the debate about having the national gathering in South Dakota and I feel that, although it seems at this point that most people will not be attending a gathering on that sacred land, some of the ugliness still needs to be addressed.  To be a force for peace in the world, we must first learn to see past our own desires, wants, and privilege.  Peace is not the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.  Because peace without justice is oppression.

I understand your culture and how it works, the pros and cons of your system.  I have attended a number of national gatherings and dozens of regionals. I have been part of scouting groups, seed camps, and many clean up crews.  I have sat through seemingly endless councils struggling to find consensus.   Rainbow was once an important part of my life and it is because of that that I choose to speak now.

I also understand that these words are unnecessary for most of you.  Most of the people that I know that are involved with Rainbow would never want to disrespect the tribes that have had stewardship of this land since mankind stepped foot on this continent.  The ideals of peace and harmony stand in harsh opposition to the type of cultural privilege that I have seen stated in Facebook feeds by people proclaiming themselves as Rainbow.  True peace and harmony is rooted in respect and integrity and healing the wounds of colonialism involves self examination and honesty.

My message is to all of those people that are still planning on gathering in the Black Hills, who feel that it is their “right” to gather wherever they please, who don’t feel that the Lakota have the right to tell you not to gather on their land.  This message is important for everyone though, because it is up to those of us that know that gathering on Native American land against the wishes of the tribe is wrong and by doing it you are furthering the spread of a colonial mindset that is the most detrimental mindset on the planet, an attitude that is responsible for innumerable atrocities throughout history.  Because it is important for those of us that stand with the Native tribes to speak out now.  To speak out because sometimes people in white culture will only listen to those that share the same culture as them, and to speak out so that the Lakota people and all other Native tribes know that they are not alone in their struggle, that we are their allies and will stand with them in defending their land and their sovereignty against the dominant culture, whether they come in suits, hardhats, or with dreadlocks and beads.

This is an important moment for the Rainbow Family, a moment where there is a choice between talking about your ideals and actually living them.  It’s a moment to choose sides in the centuries old war between Native Tribal Cultures and the White capitalist forces that seek domination over nature.  It’s a moment to choose to heal some of the damage that the United States has done to the Native Tribes by making the choice to honor their sovereignty and human rights, rather than siding with the US Government and Forest Service, which are not your allies and would like nothing more than to see both the Rainbow Family and the Lakota buried and gone, or siding with the federal government imposed and supported Tribal Government that does not speak with the voice of the people but works for the interests of the rich.  With all the myriad of new age spiritual philosophies, this is where the rubber meets the road.  Peace and love in action looks like justice and respect.

We are not the saviors of the Indian people, nor are we their reincarnated warriors.  Native peoples have their own destinies, their own ancestors and their own warriors.  What we can be for them is their allies.  We can stand with them against western colonialism and speak out in defense of their rights.  This is where our voices matter.  Being an ally to someone is not to tell them how you are going to help them, its asking THEM how you can help and then doing what they ask, even if that request is to leave them alone.  Right now the Lakota do not want to “learn our ways” nor do they want to “share their ways” with us.  Great damage between the Lakota Nation and the Rainbow Family has already occurred.  What the Lakota want from the Rainbow Family is for the Rainbow Family to leave Lakota land and leave them alone so that they can focus their efforts on the other battles that they are involved in, against the U.S. government, against the Keystone pipeline, against the racist system that keeps them in poverty.

So please, listen to the spiritual stewards of the Black Hills and Do Not Go to South Dakota for the Gathering, Do not even go there to see if it might happen.  Go to Michigan or wherever else alternatives to the South Dakota gathering pop up.  Be a voice of reason in these debates and speak out against disrespecting Native communities and voices.  Show the world that the voices that strive for peace and harmony outweigh the voices mired in privilege and entitlement within the Rainbow Family.

In Love and Service,

Brennos Agrocunos

Coru Cathubodua

http://www.corupriesthood.com

Restoring Sovereignty and the Path Forward

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Lia Fail – Hill of Tara photo by Ken Williams http://www.shadowandstone.com

The world we have inherited is one where the Sovereignty of the Land has been broken.  It’s not a single person’s fault.  It’s not a specific generation’s fault.  Throughout history, humanity has made a series of choices that have separated us from the spirit of the land, from the Otherworld, from nature itself.  Our broken Sovereignty reveals itself in our poisoned rivers and oceans that are becoming barren, in the extinction of species and our dwindling biodiversity, in our melting icecaps and rising seas.  Our unhealthy relationship to the Sovereignty of the Land is perpetuated when we vilify the poor instead of aiding them,  when we  foolishly act as if we have dominion over the Earth rather than acting as stewards of it,  and when we turn our backs on justice in this land and do not stand in opposition to these false judgements of old men.  As we withdraw ourselves from and choose to ignore the power of the land and the gifts of the Otherworld, the land sickens around us, our place on our planet becomes tenuous, and our societal priorities become selfish and obscene.  As a species, we stand today at a crossroads, at a place in our collective Wyrd where the threads of our fates diverge, some leading to our continued survival, and some cut prematurely leading to our extinction among the multitudes of other species extinctions.  Our path forward will not be an easy one no matter what choices we make, but there is a path ahead for us that will allow us a future, a path on which we encourage the return of the Sovereignty of the Land.

Before we can discuss restoring Sovereignty to the Land, we better take some time to define what I mean by the term.  I will be referring to the primary three types of sovereignty that are used in most discussions on the topic and attempt to define them and untangle their meanings. The types of sovereignty that I’ll be referencing I’ll refer to as either political sovereignty, or the authority of a state to govern themselves or others, personal sovereignty also known as personal autonomy, and Sovereignty of the Land, the numinous power of the Otherworld channeled through the Sovereignty Goddess to the ruler of the land.  These concepts are related, and each one has some influence with the others, but at their heart they all have different and nuanced meanings.

In a modern context, when the term sovereignty is used it is usually referring to political sovereignty,    This is often the type of sovereignty that causes much of the confusion.  It’s easy for us to look at the concept of Sovereignty of the Land in regards to Celtic lore and history and superimpose our modern concepts of political sovereignty over it.  This can muddy the meaning of both types of sovereignty.  The concept of political sovereignty, while crucially important to people’s lives, has become a corrupted by those with power.  A militarily or economically powerful nation’s sovereignty is determined by their ability through war or trade to prevent others from imposing their will on them.  In most cases, this type of political power is held through violence or the threat of violence.  A good case study of how this dynamic works is the state of Native or First Nations Peoples on this continent.  Technically, Native Peoples have been granted “sovereignty” for their tribal governments to rule themselves.  Although they had no real right to do so, the US and Canadian governments granted Native Tribes limited rights to self-rule and government.  In reality, they took this step not out of the goodness of their hearts or some sort of concern for the dignity of the people, but to appease the Tribes after destroying their livelihood, culture, and lives.  This continent was founded by people who, through murder, rape, disease, lies, and genocide, systematically wiped out vast populations of people.  The European people who colonized this continent have absolutely no legitimate claim to it.  They arrived and through a fluke of technological achievement, specific biological resilience, and an arrogant spiritual philosophy of dominion over all of creation, they took it.  Their claim of sovereign rights to the land they occupy rests on the childish and dangerous tenant of “I took it so it’s mine”.  With this in mind, the idea of these illegitimate foreign governments bestowing the right of political sovereignty to the peoples that had been living here for thousands of years is tragic and delusional and we must always look at this connection to violence when we consider political sovereignty.

Personal sovereignty on the other hand is rooted in the cultural values of personal autonomy and self determination.  It is based on the concept of a fundamental human right to self-determination.  Retaining our personal sovereignty has been one of the great struggles of our time and this struggle takes countless forms today.  The right for women to make decisions about their own bodies, right to express your free will, and our freedom of speech, all fall under the category of personal sovereignty.  Personal sovereignty does not come without responsibility and cost though.  To be able to have the type of autonomy and freedom that we desire and still live in a world populated with other sovereign individuals, we must be operating from a place of high moral accountability.  Accessing your personal sovereignty is reliant on an understanding and acknowledgment of other people’s sovereignty and rights.  We must understand and accept that we are part of a greater whole, that our actions affect others and affect the heath of the planet around them.  Our own honor, integrity, and sense of justice must guide our decisions, coupled by connections to our community and understanding of the ecological world around us.  In this way, personal sovereignty is much more closely tied to the Sovereignty of the Land.

When we speak of the Sovereignty of the Land, we are speaking of a concept that has been obscured by the mists of time.  We see this classical and historical concept of sovereignty throughout the lore of ancient peoples.  At the heart of this type of sovereignty is a contract and partnership with the Otherworld, the unseen spiritual world.  In the traditional sovereignty tale, a King is granted his right to rule though the Otherworld.  This power flows from the land through the form of the Sovereignty Goddess.  This power is usually transferred in the form of a mead cup or the act of sexual union with the Goddess.  The Sovereignty granted to the King is not unlimited power over his subjects, but a fluid force, the magical power of the land itself.  A power that must used for the benefit of both the land and the people lest it be withdrawn.  The Sovereignty of the Land flows from the Otherworld, is mediated by the King and from him flows back to the people to sustain them.  This contract, like most agreements with the Otherworld, is conditional and strictly regulated through a combination of ritualized behaviors (Geasa) and mutual obligations between the ruler and his people.  The failure of a King to meet their obligations either by breaking their agreements with the Otherworld or their people, resulted in withdrawal of Sovereignty which had disastrous effects such as crop failures and famine, the death of livestock, disease and hardship.  In a situation like this, the failed King would step down, die in battle, or be sacrificed to allow a more suitable King to take their place.

Sovereignty of the Land was never truly about power over the tribe or the land.  It was responsibility to both.  A good King was not selfish but selfless, willing to cede power and sometimes his life for the benefit of his people.  The health of the people and land reflected directly on the ruler.  A single person starving from lack of food was abhorrent to Celtic society and to have someone starve on your doorstep brought great dishonor to you.  In this system of Sovereignty, there was a strict social contract between the leader and the people.  Bound in layers of obligation, hospitality, and geasa, the King had a sacred responsibility to care for and provide for his people.  Our ancestors knew that community is essential to our survival, and also knew that connection and relationship with the Otherworld was necessary for our continued survival.  Those in positions of power in our world today have forgotten both of these things.  Our culture has cut all relevant ties to the Otherworld, and we have fetishized selfishness and self interest.  We stumble forward, stepping on the backs of others with little care for their well being as we strive for personal gain.  We are not appalled by our hungry neighbors, and we chose to create a land that is as dead as we perceive it to be.  The Sovereignty of the Land has withdrawn from us and we have been left with a poisoned land and a broken society.  Our leaders have failed us and we all suffer from their failings.  We no longer live in culture where the leaders work for the benefit of the people and the land.  Our leaders will not step down when they fail us and regrettably we can’t sacrifice them.  We no longer have Kings ruling us and that is a good thing, because we live in an age where we can be more and more responsible for ourselves.  Sovereignty has never left the land, we, as a society have chosen to ignore it and not to access it.   In an age defined by self determination, it is up to us to restore the Sovereignty of the Land, to maintain relations and contracts with the Otherworld, to establish a mode of existing with the world and with each other that is sustainable and life affirming.

But how do we return Sovereignty to the land and how will that change our course?  How will our connection with the Otherworld help create a better world for everyone?  How will this provide for us a viable path ahead?

At the heart of this type of Sovereignty of the Land is interconnectedness.  It is the acknowledgement that as a society our future survival is dependent on working with each other, not fighting against each other.  It is understanding that on a greater level, our society’s survival and our ecosystem’s survival are intertwined.  When the health of our planet fails, our health fails with it.  When we cut ourselves off from our environment, from our communities, and from the Otherworld, we wither like a plant cut from its roots.  And we are withering.  Our bellies are full and we are starving to death.

We can take these basic steps and reestablish the flow of Sovereignty in our lives and in our land.

– Establish and maintain relationships with the Otherworld.  Honor your Gods, honor the spirits of the land, honor your ancestors and make your choices for those that will come after us, not for ourselves.

– Establish and maintain relationships with your communities.  Get to know your community and take part in it, both locally and globally.  Don’t ask what you are getting from your community, ask how you are helping it.

– Give more than you take, in all things.  Wealth and power are a flow, not something to hoard and hold onto.

– Stand for Sovereignty.  Speak out where you see sovereignty being compromised.  Defend others’ rights and their sovereignty, not just your own.

Taking steps to restore Sovereignty will not save us, but it’s the start of the mindset that we need to thrive again.  Like a spring that has been buried, the flow of Sovereignty awaits us.  As we dig into the soil with our bare hands we can restart the flow again: many trickles make a stream, many streams a river and many rivers fill an ocean.  We no longer need Kings to mediate the Otherworld for us, we can take our fate into our own hands and restore Sovereignty to our Land.

Our Lady of Perpetual Agitation vs. Social Media

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA

Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA     Some think it looks like a Maytag washing machine

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of the Catholic church, but if I am going to be fair I am forced to admit that the Catholic church usually makes a moderate to good effort in giving aid to the houseless.  In most cities, Catholic social services are some of the most accessible to marginalized populations with in a community.  Sometimes this aid is given asking nothing in return and sometimes it requires sitting through a church service or sermon, but most of the time at least some sort of aid can be had if the proper hoops are jumped through.  That’s one of the reasons that I was so surprised to see a headline reading “SF cathedral dousing homeless with water to keep them from sleeping in doorways” on Patheos this morning.

To summarize, for the past two years the Cathedral has been using a system of hoses from the roof of the building to spray water on members of the houseless community in order to deter them from seeking shelter in the doorways of the Cathedral.  The hoses were timed to go off every 30 to 60 minutes for about 75 seconds, from sunset to sunrise, effectively soaking whoever had made the mistake of trying to sleep there and all of their belongings.  The Archdiocese’s reasoning for this is that they wanted to prevent people from urinating and defecating in the doorways, and keep the area clean and safe for everyone, and I completely understand the need for that.  I also am aware that the Archdiocese of San Francisco does make an effort to aid people in distress, and that the houseless problem is extreme in San Francisco for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the houseless themselves.  What I find interesting about this case is both the strange and misguided choices that a Christian institution has taken to arrive at a solution as inhumane and cruel as this one, and how quickly the media, aided by social media, forced the Archdiocese to make amends for this and change their policy.

I first read about this story on Facebook this morning.  I immediately reposted it and started researching the history behind it.  After learning a little about it and the history of the Archdiocese and the Archbishop’s shaky relationship with the people of San Francisco, it quickly became clear that I was not dealing with a particularly progressive branch of Peter’s church.  Ten days ago, hundreds of people stood outside the cathedral protesting a morality clause in their teacher’s contract.  The clause, pushed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone,  includes language against homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.  On top of this, Archbishop Cordileone recently helped push the drive for the canonization of Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary that founded the first mission in California, helped establish the mission system, tortured and murdered the native population, and helped create the conditions that decimated the native population in California.

So after reading all of that,  I decided that I was going to head down there today and try to talk to someone about their choice to drive the houseless away from their cathedral with hoses.  I grabbed my things, hopped on the train, and headed to San Francisco with another Coru priest.  As we hiked up the hill to the cathedral, I thought about what I wanted to say to a representative of the church.  I was hoping to get a chance to talk to the Archbishop, but as a pagan priest I realized that it was unlikely to be an option, but I wanted to express to them the danger in and cruelty of soaking peoples belongings and clothes in an environment like San Francisco, where it is almost always cold and damp.  I wanted to ask them find another way to prevent people from sleeping in these alcoves that doesn’t put them at risk of pneumonia or destroys what little bit of property that they own.  To point out to them that as religious leaders in this community, people look to them for moral guidance and by taking an action as callous and heartless as this one, they are being a bad examples for others.  By the time we got to the cathedral, there were already 3 news vans there and reporters.  Because of the pressure that was put on them by the media and social media, the Archdiocese was forced to face this and take action.  When we arrived, the church had issued a statement apologizing for the action and were already removing the hoses.

Now I could easily go through their statement and point out some pretty messed up aspects of the whole incident, like the fact that the Archdiocese made the decision to do this system “was installed approximately two years ago, after learning from city resources that this kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District” meaning that the Catholic church was getting advice on how to deal with the homeless and poor by looking to the Financial District, or that they had violated permitting requirements to install this, or that California is in the middle of a serious drought and this is a huge waste of water.  But I will also give them credit for helping the homeless in many other ways and for taking actions to address this issue as soon as they were confronted with it.

What I really want to point out here is that there is an immense power in social media and social media activism.  Because regardless of  complaints about hashtag activism and the criticisms of the “cause du jour” phenomena, social media is one of the most powerful tools that activists have to make change.  In this case, within 6 hours after hitting the internet,  this deplorable practice that has been going on for two years was ended.  Since the mainstream media does such a poor job of giving us an unbiased version of the news, it’s up to us to learn to filter the lies from the facts and that’s not always an easy job.  The benefit of having sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a seemingly infinite number of independent news sources, is that the amount of unfiltered, but completely biased information we receive is much greater than ever before in history.  With a little work, one can get enough perspectives of an event to have a better idea of what actually happened, and with critical thinking, and taking into account one’s own biases, we are able to understand events better and make better decisions for our lives and the world around us.  Social media also allows us to bring an issue to the public eye almost instantly, bringing public scrutiny to misdeeds and misconduct and forcing rapid change when needed.  Without social media, this issue would have taken months to resolve, with social media, 6 hours.

So don’t criticize activist’s use of social media to bring awareness to issues, and stop complaining about the “cause du jour”.  Social media is proving itself to be one of our most effective tools and one person’s “cause du jour” is another person’s lifetime struggle.  Instead of turning away from an issue because it’s too “popular”,  “trendy”,  or you don’t want to “jump on a bandwagon”, take the time to use the tools that we have in social media and the internet and learn what the issues are.  Learn the facts and listen to other people’s opinions about it, especially people’s opinions that have been involved with, or are directly affected by the issue.  Take the time to share information with people who you know and help educate them about the issues.  Take the time, educate yourself, and then make an informed decision about what you want to do about something, if anything at all.  Become involved, and either help or get out-of-the-way of the people who are helping.  Because changes are possible if we try,  and fixing some problems just require people to know what is happening for the problems to improve.