Pilgrimage: The Everflowing Cauldron of Hospitality 

The practice of hospitality is one of the oldest and long-lasting human societal behaviors.  In early tribal cultures, hospitality was a method of ensuring mutual safety in an unsteady world, a code of conduct that guided people to treat strangers with respect and courtesy upon first meeting rather than hostility.  Hospitality is one of the many mechanisms societies use that enable people to live together peacefully.  Sometime a lost art in a world that encourages suspicion and fear of the “other”, hospitality is essential to having a functioning, healthy, and safe community.

One of the defining aspects in my experiences in Ireland was the overwhelming sense of welcome that we received everywhere that we went.  It is clear that hospitality is a cultural reality to the Irish people.  Historically, the Brehon Laws defined strict and clear rules of hospitality for both hosts and guests to follow and these rules were more than just guidelines.  The laws of hospitality were obligations that the rulers were stringently held to.  Failure of hospitality was a grave offense for a king to be accused of, and it could signify the end of their reign.

It would be difficult to find a more fitting symbol of Irish hospitality than the image of a pint of Guinness.  It’s a beer and a brewery that is synonymous with Ireland.  Along with the Irish people,  Guinness has spread around the world and its popularity and reach is a testament to the enduring and endearing quality of Irish hospitality.

So when the rest of the tour arrived in Ireland, one of the first stops that we made was to the Dublin tourist Mecca of the Guinness brewery.  I had expected this to be a simple stop, a trip to the well spring of what I would have to call my favorite beer. What we didn’t expect is a visit from the Dagda during our visit there.

The Dagda is a unique and quintessentially Irish God.  While many of the Irish Gods have continental cognates, Gods that have similar linguistic counterparts in other Celtic cultures, the Dagda stands alone, exclusively Irish, as ancient as the standing stones and passage tombs.

Dagda wall plaque byhttps://tressabelle.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/dagda-and-curnunnos-wall-plaques/

The tales of the Dagda run alongside the major tales of Ireland, influencing the major events but also extending beyond them as well.  The Dagda tracks across Irish history and legend, shaping the land, insuring victory for his tribe, altering time and space, and using law and language to trick others and get his way when he needs to.

Rough, undignified, and often considered vulgar to the sensibilities of the Victorians that were recording the tales of the medieval monks, the Dagda means the “Good God”, not good in the moral sense, but meaning skilled at everything.  As the keeper of the Cauldron of the Dagda, one of the four treasures of the Tuatha from which no company would ever leave from unfulfilled,  He is deeply connected with the concept of hospitality.

As we entered the massive brewery, it was clear that this was somehow the Dagda’s place.  He sidled up to us during the tour with a variety of requests:  “Grab a handful of that barley” “Get a closer look at that harp for me” “That’s a beautiful glass, I would like one”.  He walked with us, beaming with pride at the scope and size of the establishment, a pride that we assumed was just a natural delight in the national beverage of his land.

Guinness Harp photo by Joe Perri

Days later, during our trip to Brú na Bóinne and Newgrange, as we were telling stories of that place and of the Dagda and Boann and Aengus their son, our coach driver and guide, the mighty Druid of the Coach John Byrne (Sean O’Broin) told us a bit of history of the name Guinness.  John told us that the name Guiness is actually an anglicized version of the name Mac Aengus (or Mac Óengus), meaning “Son of Aengus”.
That bit of information hit us all immediately, of course the Dagda was present at the Guinness brewery, it is likely that it is his family’s business.  As we thought about this idea, a number of connections became evident to us.  The giant pint glass shaped structure that the brewery is built around as a reflection of the Cauldron of the Dagda, the symbol of Guinness, the Harp of the Dagda, the role in promoting Irish hospitality that Guinness plays, even the most common way the Dagda trick people and gets his way, through the manipulation of time and legal language evident in the 9000 year lease that Arthur Guinness secured for the location of that compound at St James Gate, Dublin, a lease that is built into the foundation of the brewery itself.

So that first day of the Coru’s tour of Ireland, we stood in the Gravity Bar of the Guinness Brewery looking out over a 360 degree view of that beautiful grey city and we raised a glass to Dublin, to Ireland, and to the Dagda, father of hospitality, master of the harp, and shaper of the land.

Poems for the Dagda
by Scott Rowe, Coru Priest

Good God of the mighty appetites

Your skill and prowess bring us awe

Dagda, play a lay upon your harp

So that the seasons go on for us all

photo by Joe Perri

Your life-giving club

Bringing ecstasy, full of joy

Leave your mark upon the Land

That Her cries of ecstasy bring victory

photo by Joe Perri

Victory without conquest

Conquest overturned

A tune of liberation

Libations poured out

Bellies very full

Cups full of drink

Drinks with comrades

The gifts of the Dagda

photo by Joe Perri

Hard work, labor’s end

Joy in the doing

A sheen of sweat upon his brow

Buttered porridge and beer awaiting

Cock and belly, club and cauldron

None leave them unsatisfied

Inspiration of the harp

Righteous battle is coming

Previous : The Cave and the Mound

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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

Previous Chapter : Two Tickets to Dublin

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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.

Unpacking Our Monotheistic Baggage

God-by-Monty-Python

The intolerance of narrow monotheism is written in letters of blood across the history of man from the time when first the tribes of Israel burst into the land of Canaan. The worshipers of the one jealous God are egged on to aggressive wars against people of alien cults. They invoke divine sanction for the cruelties inflicted on the conquered. The spirit of old Israel is inherited by Christianity and Islam, and it might not be unreasonable to suggest that it would have been better for Western civilization if Greece had molded it on this question rather than Palestine.    – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

We are a new movement.  Despite claims of ancient lineages and unbroken traditions, the Pagan movement is in its infancy.   Most of us that fall under the problematic umbrella of Pagan are first generation pagans, coming to this collection of paths from a variety of faiths and beliefs, mostly monotheistic.  Yes, we are starting to see the first group of second generation pagans take their place in leadership roles within their various traditions, and there are a few third generation pagans running around under our feet, but the majority of us have had to come into this carrying the baggage of monotheism on our backs.  This burden of monotheistic thought is so ingrained in our psyche that we are often unaware of the effects that it has on our thought processes.

There are a number of ways that monotheistic thought and polytheistic thought clash.  At the heart of this clash is  monotheism’s basic and often unexamined assertion that monotheism is the more “advanced” philosophy of the two.  This little holdout of colonialism has, over the centuries, created a mindset that encourages people who are infected by monotheistic thought to dismiss any polytheist individual or culture as ‘backwards” or “primitive”.   This dismissal and disregard of the basic intelligence and perceptions of polytheist culture has had horrifying and lasting effects on those cultures.  Monotheistic thinking, no matter what form it takes, can be seen as less pluralistic and therefore less tolerant of others beliefs.  The monotheist’s belief in a single path to God lends itself to the arrogant cultural attitude that the monotheist practices the “correct” religion and therefore everyone else is practicing the “wrong” religion.  Whereas the polytheist worldview, by its very nature, accepts that everyone’s relationship with the unseen is different, accepts that there are many paths to many gods, and encourages and celebrates diversity.  By its very nature, polytheism is inclusive, whereas  monotheism is divisive.  This is where the danger of unexamined monotheistic thought becomes a detriment to cultural diversity.  If we look at our global history, it is soaked in the blood of monotheistic thinking.

So how do we recognize the monotheistic baggage that we are toting around with us and how do we look past our indoctrination with it?  The same way that strive to face and overcome white privilege in our modern culture, by learning to spot it in our own thinking and recognizing how it affects our relationships within our communities.  For there are similarities in the way that monotheistic privilege and white privilege saturate our collective consciousness and both come from a place of arrogance and a false sense of superiority.  Because the future of our species is in diversity not uniformity, and monotheistic thinking encourages division and hierarchical social structures.  Breaking the dominance of monotheistic thought is one of the first steps we must take in order to create a diverse and just society and we have to start with ourselves.  So here are a number of ways that we are saddled with this theological holdout.

  • An over reliance on the written word or liturgy.  This is the theory that the lore and mythological traditions of a particular religion is the “word of god or the gods”  In Christianity, this concept shows up most clearly as the belief that the bible is to be taken literally, that is the direct revelation of “God”.  In the Pagan world, this shows up most often in the reconstructionist  debate on the Lore vs. UPG (unverified personal gnosis… basically encounters with the unseen).  There has been much written on the subject recently and instead of rehashing all of their points, let me just point you in the direction of their work so you can read it for yourselves.  There’s John F. Beckett’s piece “The Lore vs. UPG – A False Dichotomy” ,  Rev. Tamara L. Siuda’s piece “Reconstruction, Revival, and the Styrofoam Cake Syndrome”, and Morpheus Ravenna’s “The Morrigan Built My Hot Rod: On Scholarship and Devotion”.  All of which are insightful viewpoints on learning to incorporate lore and practice together in a cohesive and functional religious practice.  What it comes down to is that lore, no matter what religion it’s from, was written by human hands, with human concerns, human agendas, and human fallibility.  So to rely on the lore, without taking into account the culture, time period, and political viewpoints of the author, is not only foolish, but it’s an attitude that has been used throughout history to justify a laundry list of atrocities.  The Christian belief in the bible being the literal truth of God is one of the most damaging weapons used by fundamentalists against people that they disagree with.  Because the bible was written and rewritten by humans, not the divine, there is an extraordinary amount of conflicting and contradictory bullshit scattered throughout it.  The bible can be used to justify almost any action and can also be used to oppose that same action if one digs deep enough.  When I have a Heathen waving the Havamal in my face telling me that the words in it trump experience and practice, or a Celtic Reconstructionist makes a claim that they know the “truth” about any subject because “It says it in the lore,  I see the monotheistic baggage heaped on their shoulders that they seem to be unaware of.   Lore and liturgy is a part of the puzzle that we are piecing together to create a living religious practice.  Putting it in the right context is essential to avoiding the philosophical pitfalls of the dominant monotheistic culture we live in.
  • The idea that mediation between humanity and the divine is necessary .  This is the theory that in order to experience the divine, we need a priest to provide that mediation for us.  This is wrong for a number of reasons.  At its core, this attitude creates a hierarchical social structure that places priests and clergy at the top and everyone else relegated to a lower social class, reliant on the priestly class for the most important aspects of their existence.  This attitude was emphasized  most heavily during the middle ages in order to give the Church political power over kings and is one of the main reason that modern thought is struggling with the concept of separating the Church and the State.  In 1906, in an encyclical written to the government of France after France passed a revolutionary law defining the separation of Church and State, Pope Pius X lays out a view of what the Churches idea of a just society would look like. The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors  and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. … the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”  This puts into words what many have been pointing out all along, that one of the primary functions of monotheistic religions are to accustom people to unquestioningly follow an autocratic elite.  Individuality and free thought is discouraged and conformity is valued and stressed.  In polytheism, not only is diversity and individuality encouraged, the role of priest is not one of a mediator between oneself and the gods, but one who helps to facilitate one’s own relationship between the unseen world and this one.
  •   Proselytizing.    Proselytizing is the act of trying to convert another from their religion or beliefs to the proselytizer’s religion or belief,  and it is arrogant, self-righteous and extremely annoying.  I’ve written on this subject before in my post  “Not That Kind of Priest: or Why I Don’t Proselytize for the Morrigan”,  so I have a definite bias about proselytizing and consider it an act of ego and arrogance.  This practice is becoming more and more common within the Pagan community, and can been seen most commonly coming from individuals that rarely recognize it for what it is.
    These individuals think that they are the smartest kids in the class and have the correct way at looking at religious thought, whether they  be monists, dualists, or atheists, they are “right” and everyone else is “doing it wrong” or lack their exalted “intelligence”.  We are tired of this elitist and unexamined bullshit and look forward to a time when these individuals step down from their soap boxes and actually join the community as equals, rather than perpetually attempting to undermine and discount other people’s intelligence and experiences.  This attitude alienates the community that they desperately want to have relevance in and is a direct by-product of monotheistic thinking.  As a community, we don’t want or need missionaries.
  • The “One True” Religion Concept.  This is the most obvious and the most prevalent bit of monotheistic nonsense that we carry along with us from our upbringings and it is one of the most historically damaging attitudes that a religion can have.  The attitude of “one true” faith or “one true” god (or lack of gods), unavoidably leads one to the correlation of that,  which is that other religions or faiths are “wrong”, that the practitioner of the monotheistic religion or belief system holds the “Truth”.   This is a very unhealthy attitude in a diverse and pluralistic community such as the pagan community.  It’s a colonial and imperialistic holdout, a worldview that places monotheism and monotheistic thought as more culturally and philosophically “advanced” than all other philosophies.  This attitude is the beating heart of colonialism, a justification to treat others poorly because of their “ignorance” and lack of “virtue”.  This attitude spawned inquisitions, slavery, manifest destiny, and massacres.  It seeks to put man above nature, and white, christian men above all.  If we are to advance as a functional community, as a viable alternative to the monotheistic paradigm, we need to face this reality, address it, and work on overcoming it, and like facing our own white privilege, it will require hard work, self-reflection, and honesty.

“Polytheist religion is a type of religion, first and foremost. While that does not mean that all Polytheists do the same thing or feel the same way on all of the same issues — quite the contrary, ‘many gods, many people, many paths’ is sort of a thing! — and so it stands to reason that its leaders, visionaries, writers, moderate thinkers and radical advocates would be attentive to examining RELIGION in the pursuit of, developments in, and protections for their religious identities, freedoms, and expressions. This is not an act of “devolution”, but an act of radically progressed differentiation and lawfully protected identification.” – Anomolous Thracian “The Polytheist Movement is a Human Rights Movement

The Benefits of Regular Beatings: Combative Arts and Devotional Practice

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When I was a child, I was quiet and shy.  I was one of those kids that didn’t like getting into fights and could have done without getting dirty.  Don’t get me wrong, I would roughhouse and play outside, but real aggression and real anger was something that I tried to avoid.  There were a combination of reasons for this, I was raised by kind and loving women, I was lanky and a bit of a geek and my body was growing so rapidly that I was awkward, always trying to adjust to my new height or length of my arms.  When I finished elementary school and went to junior high, I got in a couple of fights and was punished for them by being sent to an all boys boarding school for kids from broken homes.  My new school was one that had an long established tradition of hazing younger students.  I found myself in a world where I was fighting and taking beatings regularly and these beatings were completely ignored by the administration and teachers of the school.  So I learned to fight, poorly at first, but I soon got a little more comfortable with the pain and adrenaline that accompanies it.  I started playing hockey at that point in my life and soon the hazing and beatings tapered off.  Not only was I getting older and no longer one of the young students, but it seems that people are less likely to pick a fight with you after you have hit them with a hockey stick.

I first heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism during a period of my life when I was hitchhiking around the country and volunteering and doing direct actions with a variety of environmental organizations.  At that point in my life my relationship with fighting had completely shifted.  I was seeking out conflict, putting myself at risk for causes that I believed in. When I heard of the SCA it was described as “there are these people who get together and camp, put on armor and beat the shit out of each other with sticks and then all hang out and drink homebrew”.    I was immediately interested although it took another 4 years to be in a place in my life where I was settled and could be a part of it, but I did find a local Barony and started gathering armor and learning to fight.  That was about twenty years ago.

Over the last twenty years my relationship with the Morrigan has gone from knowing generally who She is, to formally dedicating myself to Her, to being Her priest, a very public role that I am still a little uncomfortable with.  The closer that I grew to Her the more, my fighting practice, something that I did out of joy initially, became part of my devotional relationship with Her.  I have found that for a goddess that is associated with battle, armored combat becomes more than a hobby or sport, but becomes a meditation and space of communion, and the benefits of martial practice are vast.

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For Your Health-  The most obvious benefit of having a combative martial practice is for your health.  Fighting encourages good health better than many forms of exercise for a variety of reasons.  In my case of armored combat, the act of spending a day physically exerting yourself with 60 to 80 pounds of metal and leather strapped to you not only builds strength and endurance, it also teaches you the art of energy conservation.  You simply cannot fully exert yourself for long periods of time in those conditions so you quickly learn to conserve energy when you can so that you have it when you need it.  It is an ongoing lesson on conservation of effort, teaching you to make your moves effective and not wasteful.  Fighting also changes your relationship with pain.  This relationship with pain is one of the reasons that I feel that for a martial art to be effective you need to be in a martial art that has regular sparring are part of the practice.  The human body thrives in an environment of conflict and struggle.  Pushing our bodies past our limits is how we improve ourselves and enduring pain and hardship is how we grow stronger physically and mentally.  Most of us spend our lives avoiding pain and therefore fearing it,  but fear of pain will act as an inhibitor on our actions.  One’s first year learning in a combative art is usually spent learning to fight the fear of being hurt more than learning to fight well.  I call it the flinch reflex, that reflex to close your eyes and flinch when a blow is being thrown at you.  The flinch reflex is only cured by being hit, often.  When you get hit often enough, when you go through the cycle of pain and adrenaline enough times, your body changes and instead of acting out of panic and reflex, you start to be able to THINK during times of physical stress.  This ability to be able to remain calm and think when you are in danger can save you and your loved ones lives some day and it starts as a physical change.  It starts with becoming comfortable with the adrenaline and endorphin cycles in our bodies.

For Your Mind- The art of Warriorship is partially the discipline of reconditioning our fight or flight reflex to favor the fight over flight.  Warriorship is an obligation to face danger on behalf of ones community and when that is your role, the flight reflex doesn’t serve you very well.  There are a variety of ways that warrior societies have encouraged this culturally, but just the act of engaging in regular combat is a very effective method of making that shift in yourself.  The only way to train yourself to be calm in the face of danger is to spend time facing danger.  This is the other side of training your body to be comfortable during the adrenaline and endorphin cycles. Just like your body learns to deal with the chemicals and stress, your mind does as well.  Panic and fear get replaced with calm and focus.  Your consciousness becomes a bright flame in the dark and the world of chaos around you seems to move more slowly.  This is the moment of clarity that people who engage in these activities are seeking.  This is the mental space that you start to shift to whenever you are in danger, focused, clear, and present.  This state is an aspect of the Hero’s Light or Bird of Valor, a moment when you step beyond your abilities and become more that your physical limitations and skills.  For me, this is a moment of communion with my goddess.

As Devotion-   This has become the most rewarding aspect of my martial practice.  As a priest dedicated to a goddess that is strongly associated with battle and valor, its only natural that my martial practice would be an important aspect of my devotional commitment to the Morrigan.  This works in a few different ways for me.  The initial aspect of this takes the form of formally devoting my war fighting, tourney fights, practice and training to my goddess.  Before any of these acts, I take a moment to quietly speak to and dedicate my actions to Her.  This act is not only a devotional moment, but it allows me to shift my mind into the predatory and focused state that it needs to be in when entering into a combative space.  As the fighting starts and energy and intensity rises.  I am able to slip into that space between worlds, that place of movement and action, where your thinking rational mind is working faster than your body’s activity.   In this place your mind is able to think a number of actions ahead of yourself, similar to a chess player thinking many moves ahead of his present move.  Here, your training and practice creates a situation where your body doesn’t have to think about the basics, such as blocking and moving, it does these things instinctively, allowing your mind the space to step back from that moment of violence and see the steps to your victory.  It is in these spaces that I feel closest to my goddess. Here is where I feel Her wings around me and here is where I hear Her call, a terrifying scream of glory and joy.  These moments are sustaining and empowering for me, moments of communion with the divine, moments of intimacy with my Queen.   This is one of the cores of my spirituality.

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Offerings: A helpful guide for getting that special spirit in your life the perfect gift

photo by Viktor Dracheu

photo by Viktor Dracheu

Anyone that works with gods or spirits knows that making offerings ends up becoming a large part of regular practice.  Offerings are one of the main methods for the living to make contact with and maintain relationship to the inhabitants of the otherworld.  Making regular offerings creates a bond of reciprocity between you and the spirits you work with or the gods you are devoted to.  Because these connections that we make with the unseen are relationships, ongoing two-way connections that are not unlike friendships, they must be maintained and nourished for them to be lasting and effective.  Giving offerings to your otherworld allies is one of the primary methods that you, as a spirit worker, can directly interact with them   Offerings are a very basic form of hospitality.  Sometimes they are a simple courtesy to a guest in your home, sometimes a gift given for a gift received.   They can be used to entice a spirit to give you aid or appease an entity that you might have offended.  Offerings can sometimes be seen as the currency in the economy of otherworld relationship.

So what makes a proper and effective offering, and how can you be sure that the offering that you are giving will be appreciated and accepted by the entities that you have made the offering to?  I think that the answer to these questions are determined by a variety of factors such as who you are making an offering to and for what reason is it made.  In my practice I approach this question on an individual basis, each offering thought out and chosen for each specific instance.  For me, this is never an easy “one size fits all” type of endeavor.  You can find if you seek them out, a variety of books that will tell you the types of items best used for making offerings to a variety of gods and spirits.  While these books can be helpful as general guidelines, they lack the most vital ingredient in this practice, your personal relationships with the various beings.  What I’d like to offer you here is a different way of looking at the question of what offerings are proper to make in your own practice, a guide to evaluate and choose appropriate gifts for the non corporeal beings in your life.

In order to choose a fitting offering for a deity, your first step is to spend some time getting to know them.  Each one has a distinct and unique personality and most have varying degrees of lore connected with them.  If you are taking the steps to foster a relationship with a deity, the first thing you must do is get to know that deity.  Dig into the stories and learn about the cultures that are associated  with them.  Try not to over romanticize the mythologies and societies that are attached to the deity.  What you are searching for are the more mundane details in what we have learned about ancient cultures.  What people ate and drank.  What the aesthetic of their artistic style looked and felt like.  The society’s values and ethical code and how that relates to their religious practice.  As you delve into this cultural tapestry, you will start to get a better understanding of the nature of the deity, what they like and what they don’t like, their associations and taboos, their fundamental essence.  As you are learning about this deity, start spending some time in daily meditation with them.  Introduce yourself, be respectful, and state your intentions.  One of the best ways to learn what a god or goddess would like as an offering is to ask them.  Don’t expect an answer your first time and learn to deeply listen for their voice.  Daily meditative practice is a cornerstone of any type of relationship with the divine,

Food and drink are always a good place to start for offerings.  Find gifts for your spiritual allies that are familiar to them or that resonate with their being.  For example they are associated with northern Europe, oat and oat cakes, dark beer or ale, cream, butter, whiskey or mead are often good choices.  If they are associated with Mediterranean regions wine is almost always a staple.  When you are working with ancestor spirits you must once again think about what might be familiar and liked by them.  If the ancestor spirit is someone who you were close to or knew personally, the choices become easier.  As an example, one of the main ancestor spirits that I work with is my grandmother.  She was the person who raised me and I have always had a strong connection with her.  If I am leaving offerings for her I just have to look to what II know about her likes and dislikes.  My grandmother had a glass of scotch every night, so scotch is a perfect offering to leave for her.  It is something that was enjoyed by her in life and appreciated by her now.  If I am making a recipe that I learned from her I will always take a small plate and leave it on my ancestors altar for her.  Favorite foods, drinks and other pleasures such as tobacco or desserts are perfect for providing hospitality to our beloved dead.

An alternate idea for choosing an offering is to make active offerings, offerings that require an action or effort.  As a priest of the Morrigan I have a martial practice that I have been doing for twenty years.  For years, my fighting practice has been given as an offering to her.  The way this manifests itself for me is that before every fight in a tourney or every battle during a war, I take a moment to speak to her, to thank her and to offer my efforts to her.  I have found that she strongly responds to this type of offering .  My connection to the Morrigan has shown me that one of the things that honors her and gets her attention is to push yourself past your limits, to strive for valor.  As an active offering to a god or goddess that is associated with hospitality, one thing you can do is to feed or aid someone in need.  I was recently asked by a friend visiting Dublin, what a good offering would be for the Dagda.  After some thought I told them that they should go buy a homeless man a meal and a drink.  Let their “knife be greased and their breath smell of ale”.  The Dagda responds to his children being shown proper hospitality and kindness.  For a god of poetry write a poem, for a god of the wild spend an afternoon cleaning up a wild area,  for a goddess associated with horses volunteer at a horse rescue organization, for a god or goddess of justice, take a stand for equality and social justice in the world around you.  Be creative and take an action that is a suitable offering to the gods or spirits that you are working with.  These types of active offering are also suitable as offerings to ancestors and descendants.   We do our ancestors honor by doing great deeds with the lives that they worked to give us, and there is nothing more suitable as an offering for those that come after us as making an effort to make the world that we leave them a better place.

Make a variety of offerings to the non corporal beings in your lives.  Sing to the land spirits, offer the dead food and drink at your table, make your life be an offering to the gods.  Take time to recognize and acknowledge our unseen allies and show them the same respect that we show to the lives and the natural world around us.  Share a drink with your grandfather, tell a story to a crow, give a homeless person a blanket.  Let your offerings honor and reflect those that you are making the offerings to.  Let your practice be sincere and thoughtful, an act of true hospitality.

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