Loop of Brighid: The Mysticism of Devotion, Part 3

Gaulish goddess Matrona with child — perhaps a devotee?

One of the things we have to watch out for in modern paganism is the tendency to project our attitudes into the past and then assume they would have been shared by ancient pagans. Many modern pagans and heathens will tell you they don’t “worship” or “serve” the gods, because they see that as a Christian attitude. Based on names like Giolla Bride and Mog Nuadat, it’s clear that some ancient pagans not only worshiped and served the gods they were devoted to, they were even willing to describe themselves as being the slave or servant of the deity.

When we hear those words, we imagine a degrading relationship in which the worshiper cringes before a tyrannical idol. However, this doesn’t fit the evidence very well. Mog Nuadat was a warlord who took on the legendary Conn of the Hundred Battles in combat. Mug Ruith was a feared and powerful druid. If these men were not ashamed to call themselves the slaves of their gods then there must be something more to this than meets the eye.

Names like this make much more sense if we look at them from the perspective of mysticism. It’s easy to understand why most people would find it degrading to describe yourself as the slave or servant of a spirit, however powerful. However, if we think of the gods as being not simply invisible people or powerful spirits, but the primal forces of the universe itself in personalized form, then it’s a different picture. Service to a god is different not just in quantity but in quality from service to a person. It doesn’t make your spirit smaller and weaker, but larger and more free.

Why? Because the divine is infinitely larger and more free than any limited human ego. When you describe yourself as a servant or a slave of the god, you’re saying that even if you happen to be the warrior king of Munster like Mog Nuadat, you can set aside your own ego and devote your entire being to the divine reality.

With your own narrow ego out of the way, you can become a conduit for the infinitely vast power of the godhood, so that as “Mog Lugos” or the Slave of Lugos you would also be “Lugovalos” or Strong in Lugos. You don’t become spiritually powerless by calling yourself the god’s slave — you become Power itself.

Ancient pagans devoted to warlike deities such as Nuada may have sought primarily to gain access to the power of the god so he could help them crush their enemies. When a modern devotee of Brighid takes on the position of the servant, she is devoting herself to the service of unconditional love, healing and creativity. In other words, intense devotion to Brighid can be thought of as a pagan equivalent of the “imitation of Christ” practiced by devout Christians. By living in the service of Brighid’s endlessly loving and creative power, the devotee can transcend the flaws and limitations of his individual psyche and become like the goddess.

Of course, we don’t really know how people thought about these names in ancient times. Names like these might have been given at birth — in which case the person bearing the name might not have ever given it much thought — or by a druid upon reaching adulthood, or they might have been chosen by the bearer of the name as a statement of personal devotion. We just don’t know, and we don’t really need to, because our spiritual possibilities are not limited to what people happened to do in ancient Gaul or Ireland. We can be inspired by these names to grow spiritually and develop deeper and more rewarding relationships with the divine, regardless of what the names originally signified.

In bhakti practice, there are several different “devotional moods” through which the worshiper may approach the deity. The moods most commonly mentioned are the Servant, Friend, Child, Parent, Spouse, and Lover moods. In the Servant mood, the deity is your master and you are the servant. This mood can be far more emotionally powerful than one would initially assume:

This mysterious task
Must be exactly
What you warned me about,
But it is not what I expected.
And yet I am lying here in Your fire,

With no desire for other options.
I will shapeshift into
Whatever form You want me to
To understand my true nature:
I would be a wolf, a boar, a fish.

My only wish:

Your lovely fingers on my harp-strings;
My every thought Your sweet music.
To be what You are always becoming
Is the sum total of my intention:
To become Your invention.

In the Friend mood, you and the deity are close personal friends. In the Child mood, you are the son or daughter of the deity, completely dependent on your divine mother or father. It is said that you can even make demands on the deity in this mood, just as a young child would make demands of his parents. In the Parent mood, the deity is your infant child who requires constant care and unconditional love. In the Spouse mood, you are married to the deity with an emphasis on sharing your lives completely the way spouses ideally do. In the Lover mood, your relationship to the deity is like being madly in love — although this mood is not considered appropriate for all deities or all devotees.

The Celtic names we’ve been examining, if considered as devotional moods, yield a very similar but not identical list to the moods of bhakti: Child (“Sucellogenos”), Friend (“Diocaros”), Strength (“Lugovalos”), Champion (“Netta Segamonas”), Hound (“Cunobelinus”), and Servant (“Giolla Bride”). We could also add “Spouse,” but not on the basis of naming customs. We’ll talk more about the “Spouse” relationship in Part 4.

Loop of Brighid is published on alternate Thursdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

About Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is the president of the Cateran Society, and the author of several books on the historical Gaelic martial arts. Under the name C.S. Thompson, he is the author of the Noctiviganti dark fantasy novels. Under the religious name of Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” he has been active in the pagan community for a number of years, serving as the vice president (and briefly the president) of Imbas, a board member of the Fellowship for Celtic Tradition, a flamekeeper of Ord Brighideach and now the Cauldron Cill, and a member of the Kin of the Old Gods temple. He is a member of Clann Bhride, an organization of Brigidine devotees. He lives somewhere between this world and the Sidhe in the company of his wife Cicely and daughters Leila and Rowan.

  • Shine

    Just for interest, the ancient Egyptians had similar names. “BaketBast”, for example, means “Servant of Bast” and we do have some idea of what that name meant for the person who wore it. There are a few other names, but I can’t remember them off the top of my head.

    The terms “servant” and “slave” have a ton of negative connotations for most modern people. Once upon a time, these terms weren’t always negative. Sometimes it was a privilege to at least be a servant (to be a slave was different). Not only that, but it’s scary to let your relationships with the gods expand that far out. 
    Two years in with Bast and I’m still terrified about some things. There’s that animal part of us that doesn’t like the feeling of being bound to someone or something, no matter how wonderful.For each and every thing you gain, there’s something you lose. Maybe it’s good to lose those things, but that doesn’t make it any less unnerving. You change so much. Most of us are a bit leery of change, so to just. . . let go of ourselves like that is enough to have some people breathing into a paper bag. (*raises hand awkwardly*)

    I’d like to point out that some people have the perspective that to declare oneself a servant or slave of a deity is equivalent to hubris. This is only true if the servant/slave in question uses that title to get what s/he wants out of others. Unfortunately, there are those who use their titles as carte blanche to be jerks.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Yeah… it does get a little scary sometimes. And I think autonomy and self-assertion are so important to people in our culture that it can seem very alien to speak in terms of surrendering some of your autonomy or your right to assert yourself. They talk about selflessness and surrender all the time in bhakti, but to a modern Westerner that sounds weird if not creepy. And then when you have a spiritual experience where a deity gives you a direct order, the question naturally arises- do I resist this? Do I embrace it? And what are the consequences of either choice?
    My natural tendency is to over-assert, so I will have to work on surrender for years before I could seriously threaten my own sense of ego. But someone else with a more fragile sense of self might feel that this type of practice would be profoundly self-destructive to them.

    • Shine

      Autonomy’s next to godliness in modern western culture. ;) 

      When we talk about surrender, we aren’t talking about complete, I-am-now-your-zombie surrender. You do have the right to say no. (You also have the right to deal with the consequences of saying it. And with what I’m dealing with now, I wonder if the consequences of saying no are sometimes worse than just doing it.) When we’re talking about bhakti, it’s about surrendering ego, and the illusion that there’s any real difference between the stuff that makes up Deity and the stuff that makes up Us. Going beyond bhakti–which most of us will–the idea of surrender can be a little more troubling.

      Like you, I still struggle with surrender. I’m less worried about ego and more worried about mental sockpuppets. I’m worried about being fake. There are already people who come to me for information about Bast and I wonder, “am I talking through my rectal orifice?” Am I giving true information about m’lady–well, as true as a mortal can be about divine matters?

      People with a fragile sense of self could find the practice strengthening, depending on the reasons for the fragility. (If it’s mental illness instead of conditioning by outside sources, then it’ll probably be destructive.) When you have to figure out what’s you and what’s deity, you get a stronger idea of who and what you are by necessity. After all, you do have to be able to tell the difference! You can’t lay everything upon the shoulders of deity. I seriously doubt that Brighid, Bast, or any other deity would expect either of us to give up personal responsibility. 

      • Christopher Scott Thompson

         All excellent points. When I do something I regret doing, I usually end up realizing it’s because I was acting from my ego self instead of from the perspective of deity. In other words, I behaved irresponsibly because I was refusing to surrender my own will in the matter. It’s usually not that hard to figure out which action would be more pleasing to Brighid- if I stop to think about it.

  • Kenneth

    I try not to presume how the ancients related to the gods and so I don’t try to copy it nor reject it instinctively. I am not them and now is not then. I try to let my relationship evolve organically, and to discern what I am called to do at any given time. I also don’t presume that I am doing it “right” or “wrong” in some global sense. How I am called to relate to the gods might well be different than how you are called, based on where you’re at, the god’s own reasons etc. 

    • Christopher Scott Thompson

       I would say it almost certainly would be different. The “moods” or relationships with the deity are descriptive, not prescriptive. They can also suggest a new angle from which to approach the deity.

  • Jerry McBride

    I’ve been looking for just a nugget more than just “McBride means son of the servant of St Brigid.” Thank you! I am also relieved to find out that it is most likely pre-Christian, as well. :)