This entry into the Hearth of Hellenism expands on an early post, Why Greeks are Leaving Christianity, in this post I want to give my reasoning for leaving Christianity, and how I came to Hellenism.
I, like the majority of Greeks, was baptized into the Orthodox Church as an infant. Though I was born in New York, my parents took me to Greece to baptized. In a Byzantine era church, in a small village in the Peloponnese I was greased up with olive oil and placed into the baptismal vessel. I must have been too oily, since I nearly slipped out of the priest’s hands, as I have been told. I am sure it was not his fault, I must have been trying to escape. It was a certain foreshadowing of my future departure from the religion. My departure would be rooted in dissatisfaction and a craving for something meaningful.
My ambivalence with Orthodoxy was a consistent theme through most of my life. If I had to apply some keywords to associate with the Church experience I’d choose creepy, mysterious, dreadful, and smelly. Creepy because the whole thing was unsettling. I recall being roughly nine or ten years old and a family member asking if I would receive communion at Church on Sunday. I shook my head, I did not want to. They asked me, “You don’t want [spirit of?] Jesus in you?” or something to that effect. What a CREEPY thing to say to a child who has no understanding what that even means. It was mysterious because I did not understand any of the liturgy since it was spoken (chanted) in Koine Greek of the New Testament, I barely mastered modern. Thus, the whole experience meant nothing, since I could not understand any of it. It was dreadful because it did not give me a good feeling, there was something off about it all. It is a somber affair overall that brought discomfort. Smelly because all that damn incense really gets to you after a while. While I did enjoy the iconography, they are the most beautiful aspect of the religion – Byzantine style icons are lovely. However, the eyes, they stare at you and follow you, which returns me to the dreadful feeling and overall uneasiness.
Like the professor of Philosophy, N.N. Trakakis – who posted an opinion piece called Why I Am Not Orthodox, we share similar sentiments. While in Theological school, Trakakis’ professor said to the class “the study of theology will either turn us to God or turn us into atheists” or in my case there was the third option, pagan. Trakakis gives philosophical reasons for questioning Christianity and in the true spirit of Hellenism he demystifies the divinity of Jesus for himself. My own journey to Hellenism from Christianity could only occur when Jesus was demystified, education helped me do this. Studying the history of religion helped me break the chains to Christianity’s exclusiveness as the “one true religion.” All this studying would also eventually pay off when I got my college degree in religion.
So how did I end up in Hellenism? It must have been a natural shift, an easy choice to go from Jesus to the Greek Gods since I am already Greek. Unfortunately, the process took many years, the indoctrination was deep – the monotheistic worldview had me captive. I took the long way around to paganism, since it was still sort of still taboo in my mind. I did not think that a valid path until much later. At first, I played it safe and went the Gnostic route, it was in vogue at the time. “It’s still Christian-y” I thought. Not to the Orthodox, they are heretics, but alas, they believed in Jesus, just differently. I was Gnostic for a bit. Gnosticism represents the esoteric side to the normal exoteric Christianity, it did give me a new way at approaching Christianity. However, I wanted to get to the roots of Gnosticism were based on, Jesus still did not really mean much. I knew there was more to it, something prior to Jesus. In short, I really wasn’t into Jesus.
So, my search began around eighth grade in school, I had a brief stint in Wicca, but it was quick and my focus was more on spellcasting than anything religious. It was at this time I found the tarot and later throughout high school I studied astrology and numerology. I had an obsession with prophecy, especially Nostradamus – I think I did my senior paper on him. In my college years, I ventured into the Western Esoteric Tradition which still remains with me today as a main area of research and learning. Western Esotericism has been very fruitful for me and is from there was able to find paganism and then Hellenism specifically. Getting to Hellenism would be the end result of constant narrowing down, following the bread crumbs in the Western Esoteric Tradition back in time.
I studied Kabbalah, but never felt too comfortable in that camp. It was insightful and what I needed at that time. But slowly that no longer spoke to me, it is essentially a monotheistic version of polytheistic philosophy. I figured well if they are adapting Platonism, I need to go to Plato and company – closer to the wellspring. So, I made my way to Greek philosophy and “general” paganism, exploring the material out there on it. I learned much from philosophy but I felt uncertain with much of the pagan material, it was not speaking to me fully. I think because a lot of it is geared toward the northern European concepts like the Wheel of the Year. These things did not resonate with me as a Greek. Ding, a light went off in my head, I need be exploring Greek religion – Down the rabbit hole I went.
I began to buy statues of the gods, I began to read books on Greek religion and consuming any material I could find. I read what the academics had to say, and tried to figure out how to apply this to modern life. Taking an ancient religion into modern times can be difficult process, one I will talk about in another post. I started to do some rituals at home. Slowly I built up the courage to start calling myself “pagan” openly to others. The things I was learning felt natural and agreed with me as truthful. My mind was always pagan, it just took time to realize it.
What was it about Hellenism that made me want to really pursue it? It is not simply because I am Greek, I could have been a Buddhist, or something else but I ended up with Hellenism. Being Greek does play a role of course, in my mind if I am going to follow any path it is going to be ancestral path it is simply the logical option for me. I have always had a love for the mythology and ancient history in general – I am currently a graduate student in history. I think of the Mediterranean – Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Near East as the “neighborhood” so to speak, I feel at home.
Beyond the familiarity and personal bonds, it is the teachings which speak to me. I could have rejected Hellenism; dumb ideas are dumb ideas after all, even if they are Greek. I could have easily skipped over Hellenism, but I saw that it offered so much, it is the complete package in many ways for me. My various interests are addressed with Hellenism. There is room for my intellectual passions along with my spiritual passions, this is because it is not simply a religion but a whole way of life. The philosophy teaches me how to live, the history gives me a sense of identity, knowing my past and helping to define me moving forward. This is how I came to Hellenism, I came to it looking to find a meaningful experience of the divine and proper understanding of life and how to move about in the world. I wanted to educate myself on history, to learn philosophy and to honor the Gods.
I was talking with a friend the other day (he’s a wizard, mind you), and he told me a story about when he was much younger. One time when he was getting sick with a cold, he did a spell to boost his immune system. The next day, his cold worsened. His symptoms became terrible. He thought the spell had backfired.
My friend wondered what had happened. And then he did some research into the immune system and discovered that the spell had worked exactly as designed.
The problem wasn’t his magic; the man is a fine magician. The problem was that he didn’t have sufficient medical knowledge. Boosting someone’s immune responses won’t make them feel better. It will actually make their cold symptoms worse.
When we recite the old saw “knowledge is power” we sometimes forget the less-well-known-but-equally-important old saw, “Expertise does not cross fields. Experts often do.”
The cure to the problem of expertise isn’t actually being an expert in everything. It’s long, hard, practical experience – the kind of experience that no one gets until they start trying to make things happen.
“Street magic” is practical magic. It’s the kind of magic that allows us to solve everyday problems. From sensing danger before it happens, to finding your missing car keys, to navigating traffic, it’s magic that makes life better. It’s the practical side of being a practitioner.
But street magic isn’t just about the immediate end. If we do it right, every time we use a bit of magic to function in the world, we integrate ourselves – mind, body, and spirit – just a little bit more. Practical experience (both successes and failures) chips away at every assumption we carry with us. In time, a deeper truth is revealed.
In this blog, I’ve talked before about the importance of daily practice but maybe not as much as I should about daily application.
Street magic is the field of training. We do magic, see the results, adjust what we’re doing, try it again. We get an intuition and neither believe nor disbelieve, but instead check the data. It’s not enough to believe. We must know. To train ourselves, we must steal a line from Ronald Regan: “Trust, but verify.”
The Pitfalls of Theory
In recent years in magical circles, there’s been a false dichotomy growing up between the theoretical and the practical. The trend has been against magic theory – but most proponents on both sides of the debate don’t actually understand what theory is. Each side sneers at the other, but neither knows that they’ve lost the plot.
Odd as it might sound from the inside, there’s a seed (and sometimes a tree!) of anti-intellectualism to be found in magical circles. This is a reflection of growing sentiment found throughout Western culture.(1)
“Practical” magicians generally absorb the meaning of “practical” from culture – robbing magic from having any deeper meaning or spurring a wider view of the world. When we limit the purpose of magic to getting us what we want, we tie ourselves to a model of the self, and magic, that limits growth and change.
On the other side of this debate is the straw man of the armchair theorist. Oh, armchair magicians exist, but they’re not the real theorists.
I’ll say it again: the “armchair” magician is not a theorist – the armchair magician is a consumer. Talking about theory is what people do at cocktail parties, and is often more about measuring intellectual phalluses (or is it phalli? – let’s measure and find out).
Being a theorist means finding theories, building models, testing them, applying the results, and revising the models against feedback. “Theory” is careful experimentation, “science” in the original sense. Only after all that is done should we have any interest in whipping them out at parties. As long as theory is a measuring of opinions and egos, magical debate is just office politics in a job that pays poorly and doesn’t come with dental.
At the heart of it, the practical magician isn’t against “theory” – just against replacing training with debate. And as it turns out, I’m against that, too. So how do we dig ourselves out of this hole?
Magical Research and “The Freud Mistake”
A lot of the magic theory floating around, from theology to ritual to spellwork, suffers from “The Freud Mistake.” I’m not referring to a preoccupation with sex, cigars, or traumas from childhood. I’m talking about a problem with how we apply the scientific method to “soft” topics.
When we think of Dr. Sigmund Freud at all, we think of maybe a few basic ideas, like the subconscious, the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego, or his stages of development. Further, we realize that mostly people would rather be talking about sex. And when they don’t think they’re talking about sex, they’re still talking about it.
I want to take a deeper dive for a minute, but not on anything that Freud said that was right or wrong. I want to look at a common research flaw that I call “The Freud Mistake.” It isn’t just his – it’s a mistake that we all make in everyday life.
You see, Dr. Freud came up with a long, complex explanation of the nature of the self, and then (based upon that model) a long explanation of why talk therapy works. And then, when talk therapy turned out to work, this became “proof” of the theory underlying it. It wasn’t genius; it was bad science.
Most people already know that when someone’s upset, talking about whatever’s bothering them helps them feel better. Middle-class Victorians forced by society to act terribly reserved felt better when they could express themselves in strict and protected confidence once in a while. Good job, Freud.
Reconciling Freud’s Mistake
The “Freud Mistake” isn’t about making poor connections when we think things through. It’s about making the right connections, but misunderstanding cause and effect.
We all create models that explain our data. Our models are based on what we already know – our assumptions about how everything works. Just because the data is a good fit, that doesn’t mean that our underlying assumptions are correct. It would often be better to refer to our theories as “reconciliations.” That is, our “theories” are simply ways that we reconcile what we think about the world with the evidence out there.
A lot of theories are, in the end, reconciliations between what we think we know and the data out there. This is nowhere more true than in the realm of spiritual exploration. Mostly, our theories of the universe, and of cause and effect, don’t so much explain the data as realign the data with what we think already know.
As far as they go, such practices are useful. Such reconciliation is important. It is a necessary part of study. It is not, however, breaking new ground. Breaking new ground means not just knowing things, but knowing what we know. Further, it means knowing and being able to articulate how we know.
It has long (a century or so) been a tradition in Western Esoteric Traditions that the “goal” of magical training is self-development on a spiritual level. Such practices are a simple growing of the self.
The tendency of these practices toward navel gazing and ways to bolster the ego is clear. But the solution is not to throw out theory.
Practical magic can be about more than just getting what we want. Practical magic as part of a regimen of study is a path to a deeper self.
ProTip: Learning magic isn’t hard, it’s just hard work. There are four components to learning a new magical skill: Research, Study, Training, and Rest. We need to learn how to do something, practice doing it, apply it, and then let it go.
If we’re not applying our magical skills to daily life, then magic will never be anything more than a (probably not-so-cool) hobby. That being said, I always recommend starting small and sussing out the pitfalls when your neck isn’t on the line.
While it may or may not be readily apparent to the practitioner, from a spiritual perspective much of magical training focuses on communicating with, developing control of, and strengthening your own spirit. It is only through this special kind of self-development and self-control that we can rise to become more than people with a few magic tricks, but rather step into a new world. I’ll see you there.
—- (1) While many New Age beliefs are easy targets for such critiques, it’s a problem that’s rampant in large swathes of Western culture. From anti-vaxxers to atheistic (rather than agnostic) scientists, there’s a failure to understand the limits of knowledge. I suppose that’s a blog for another day.
On my first day of graduate school the professor told our class, “New graduate students always think that now they’re going to have access to ‘the good stuff’, that they’re going to learn some sort of secret knowledge that we kept hidden from them when they were undergraduates. What they don’t realize is that it’s the same ‘stuff’, the same knowledge they’ve been studying throughout their first four years of college; there’s just more of it.”
The secreting away of the “good stuff”, of Higher Knowledge, happens across a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious groups and has been a practice since the time before time. Secret societies such as the Freemasons and/or Illuminati, Rosicrucian, and the Knights Templar come to mind, as do the Catholic Masses of the medieval period, conducted in a language (Latin) the general population (peasants) could not possibly understand, behind a rood screen through which they could not clearly see. High Mysteries were in play. Secrets. The Good Stuff.
There are, of course, greater nuances to secret societies and medieval church architecture than are being touched upon here—I’m painting with some pretty broad brush strokes, and by no means am I a scholar on either topic. My own experience with secret societies, of being one of the insiders, is much more based in the socio-economic stratum I was born into. The uneasy awareness I have of the benefits I’ve derived from my privileged status negatively skews my view of almost any group that requires some sort of admission fee, be it financial, mental, emotional, physical or spiritual.
So it should come as no surprise that I’ve never been a member of a coven. I’ve never been through an initiation rite with a group of like-minded folks nor do I particularly care to experience one. The closest I’ve come to anything remotely resembling an initiation rite was being dragged, kicking and screaming, through my debutante year, and that was ten months of a pure and holy hell that ended in ruptured relationships and burned bridges, none of which were ever rebuilt.
And I want to be very clear that I am not positing that any one way of faith expression is better than another, or that one way is truer or more authentic or more noble or more to be desired or more anything than another. In my view, it’s not about “more than” or “less than”. Each stand of woods has within it several paths; or, in terms of the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, it’s all the same elephant. It’s all “the good stuff”.
So, initiation into a group is not for me. I walk a Solitary Path, even though at times it is exhausting. Even though at times I find I have veered far away from my path, which generally has happened when I start second-guessing myself on how I ought to be living my faith practice. (John Beckett’s post on this kind of “self-gaslighting” is well worth a read. He writes, “Your senses may sometimes confuse you, but they will not lie to you”). And I’m self-aware enough to realize that my own bad experience with a secular initiation has little or no relationship to the qualities inherent in a sacred initiation. Initiations into a spiritual group are meaningful—and hopefully meaning-filled—spiritual border stones.
As a liturgist, I understand the value of ritual and of its psycho/social components, and I understand how initiation serves to further strengthen the connective tissues of a body of believers. The experience is meant to be—and often is—profoundly moving, even life-altering, the same sort of experience I try to provide when I write liturgy for the Earth-centered spirituality group I co-lead.
And while I can sometimes access the High Mysteries during the rituals I lead, it’s far more often the case that I am so focused on what comes next that the ineffable slides right past me. I’ve made my peace with that—sometimes I think of it as the cost of leadership—but it does mean that I must be intentional about seeking out and experiencing “the good stuff” on my own, as a Solitary. It means (to paraphrase e.e. cummings) that I must keep the “ears of my ears awake” and the “eyes of my eyes” open, for one never knows when the wildness of magic is afoot.
The Opening Ritual at Chicago Pagan Pride a few years ago offered one such moment—a startling surprise to me as usually my moments of deep connection occur when I am wandering about in the woods and far away from people. In a loosely organized line, over one hundred attendees, hand-in-hand as they were able, streamed through a gateway of two lit torches and formed an ever-moving spiral of concentric circles until all had passed through the symbolic entrance.
Instead of throwing up my mental/emotional blocks as I usually do when in a crowd of strangers, I opened myself to the barely-controlled chaos of bodies of every sort and condition all walking or rolling or tripping or skipping or limping or dancing, each in their own rhythms, as the spirals grew deeper and wider and more compact. It was noisy and colorful, mismatched and pulsingly alive, with way too many people standing way too close to me . . . and it was delightfully, unutterably magical.
What meaning have I made from this experience and others like it? It’s that interpersonal relationships can offer me a peak experience that I had once thought I could only access when alone in nature. It means not getting sidetracked by semantics, and resisting the rush to judgment. It means I’m on a shared journey, whether I practice as a Solitary or in a coven. It’s all “the good stuff”, and there’s always more of it, if I remember to loosen my control and soften my borders.
Magic really is everywhere—even in places or situations that make me uncomfortable—if I only open myself to it.
With the rise of Christianity, Historiography went under some radical changes. Previous approaches and perspectives of the Greeks and Romans were either rejected or revised. To create a Christian historiography, pagan history was reworked in a Christian worldview, which dismantled traditional pagan identities in the process. Christians formulated new interpretations of history, one in which God guides human affairs, instead of fate, chance, emperors, and or capricious gods of the Roman world. Christians also changed how time operated.
Crafting Christian history required a reconciliation between paganism and Christianity. Reconciliation was a twofold process, one centered on the problem of interpretation and the second, the problem of chronology. Accommodating allegorical interpretation remedied the first problem, allegory allowed Christians to claim pagan experiences as prefiguring of Jesus Christ. To rectify the second problem Christians would need to synchronize the geologies of the Old Testament and classical time periods.
Pagan concepts of history vary and differ between classical Greece, the Hellenistic era, and Roman. In the process of creating a universal history, the Greeks fell short, Rome excelled, and Christian’s would adapt to craft their sense of history. Greek history can be characterized in two ways, the first is discontinuous history, that of the Epics of Homer. The second is continuous history, that of writers like Herodotus or Thucydides. The Discontinuous history of Homer’s epics connects the audience to a time long ago which the dating of events is irrelevant. It was the time of the Trojan war, of heroes like Achilles and Odysseus who interacted with the gods of Olympus. The history of the poet was of great deeds, of extraordinary men designed to entertain and inspire the audience in cultivating virtue. Aristotle considered epic to be an art and thus the imitation of important and serious matters. The epic is “absolute past”, it is a-temporal, enclosed in itself. The deeds of heroes occurs in epic time, their “proper time” (kairos) cannot be controlled, thus the heroes are not under the influence providence.
Within continuous history, which is centered on the polis, links present man to the timeless past. The gods are seen as intervening forces that can help the course of events, but they are not inherently seen as guiding all of human history. Herodotus believes that the gods pay attention to human affairs, they also punish mortals who are impious. Poseidon the “savior” is credited for destroying a Persian naval fleet at Artemision, by causing a four-day storm. The operation of time for Herodotus is non-linear running, if not cyclical, then at least it is repetitive.
The difference in the operation one of the clear distinctions between pagan and Christian history. In pagan history, there is no providential end only a pragmatic end of history. In such, the Greeks could not have created a universal history, for there was no inevitable end of history which time progressed towards. Christianity emphasized linear based time which was guided by the sovereignty of God. Time had a beginning which started at Creation and would have an end at the Last Judgement. The deeds of Christ signify the guidepost for all the is behind and all this is ahead. Time and history are now understood as the process of redemption.
Originally, Christians showed little concern over history, the chiliasts and millenarians were waiting for the second coming of Christ would hardly produce a historiography. The future was expected to be short, Jesus return would usher in the end of history – reconciliation the past and present were irrelevant. When Christians did eventually create a historiography, coming to terms with the real possibility that the second coming may not be imminent, pagan along with Jewish history was integrated into a Christian historiography. Christians such as Irenaeus saw history as the recapitulation of previous events. The Old Testament was examined with a Christian lens, Adam was understood as a “foreshadowing” of Christ.
Greek philosophy also had to be reexamined to fit into the Christian historiographical narrative. Christians would view Greek education and philosophy as a stage in growth where God’s revelation was unfolding partially. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were reinterpreted as proto-monotheists, who were preparing the Greeks for the gospel. Justin Martyr would declare that Jesus was known partially by Socrates. Homer would lose his authority to Moses, who Christians claimed to have greater antiquity. Pagan identity would lose itself through Christian historiographical rewriting where Judaism’s scripture is elevated over Greek teachings, and promoted as the real source of wisdom.
The Roman Empire itself would be understood as an instrument of God, for the Pax Romana occurred because of Christ’s birth. The Pax Romana was conducive for the gospel to spread, the Empire was effectively connected and travel was safe. It would be Roman Emperors, Constantine and Theodosius that would allow Christianity to first gain imperial favor and later becoming the official religion of the Empire. The Roman Empire was an important vehicle for Christianity’s growth.
In conclusion, the creation of Christian historiography had two profound changes from that of their pagan counterparts. Christians emphasized linear time and redemptive history guided by providence. They established a definitive beginning and end, time now progressed in a forward motion, with all of pagan and Jewish history prefiguring Christ’s incarnation and preparing humanity for the gospel. In doing so, a universal history was created at the expense of pagan cultural identity.
1. Donald R Kelley, Versions of History from Antiquity to the Enlightenment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 117-118.
2. ibid, 118
3. Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 5-7.
4. Dmitri Nikulin, The Concept of History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 48.
5. Ibid, 49
6. Herodotus, Histories 7.192
7. Mélina Tamiolaki and Antonis Tsakmakis, Thucydides between History and Literature (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 14.
8. Dmitri Nikulin, The Concept of History, 24
9. Ernst Breisach, Historiography, 78.
10. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History. Translated from the German by Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 53-54.
11. ibid, 79
12. ibid, 80
Well, here we are moving forward into a new secular year. I’m excited as always to see how long it’s going to take me to remember to write 2018 instead of 2017. I’m also looking forward to going back to Ireland this year, as well as a trip next fall to Iceland. But before I start looking ahead too much I wanted to remember some of the good things about 2017.
Last year had its challenges, but instead of dwelling on those as we move forward I thought I’d rather look back at some of the books I read that I enjoyed, which I think some of you might also like. In fairness I have to say up front that these aren’t books that were published in 2017, but books that I read last year, so some of these may be out of print now and harder to find, but I’d still say they were worth getting. That said, here are my top ten books from 2017, in no particular order:
Let’s start with some non-fiction that I thought was really good. These will be books that focus on Irish mythology or fairylore, something that I was reading about, researching, and writing about a lot last year.
Ireland’s Immortals by Mark Williams – a thorough look at the Gods of Ireland from the oldest sources to modern material. I don’t agree with all the author’s conclusions, but overall it was a very interesting work and thought provoking. I liked that he included a lot of the older stories, at least in excerpts and good discussions about the cultural contexts of the stories.
Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination by Jan Beveridge – an interesting look at a variety of themes found in fairytales, roughly tracing the history of mythology shifting into fairytale. Particularly interesting to me as it looked at the crossover between the pagan period and later Christian era, although I did feel that it only dipped into each subject rather than really digging into it. I did like the way the book was set up though, with each chapter focusing on a single main topic.
A TROJAN FEAST: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch by Joshua Cutchin – this one was recommended by a friend and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. for those who aren’t aware there’s an interesting combination of crossover and rivalry between the community of people who believe in fairies and UFO enthusiasts so I wasn’t sure how exactly this book was going to approach the subject; personally I tend to keep an open mind but generally fall into the ‘its all fairies’ view. The book is interesting and includes a lot of anecdotal material about human encounters with non-human beings.
Scottish Fairy Belief: A History by Henderson and Cowan – really great indepth look at both fairy beliefs and related practices in Scotland during the early modern period. Of particular interest to me because of its inclusion of ballad material that can be hard to find, like older version of Thomas of Ercledoune, and also because of its look at the Scottish witchcraft trials.
The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland by Emma Wilby- I’m a fan of Wilby’s writing and this book is no exception. Wilby is always thorough and covers a variety of theories and viewpoints, which I appreciate. Isobel Gowdie was one of the most important of the Scottish witches who were caught up during the persecutions and this book, I think, is vital for anyone wanting to really understand who Isobel was as a person and to get a better idea of what actually happened – or most likely happened – during her trial.
Folklore in the English & Scottish ballads by Lowry Charles Wimberly – recommended by a friend who knew I was getting very interested in the old ballads, this book is really fascinating. I especially enjoyed its discussion of fairies in the ballads which I think is important because its looking at all of the ballads rather than just a few.
I don’t have as much time to read fiction as I’d like but I did manage to get in a few good books last year that are worth mentioning here. I will add that I generally read urban fantasy (or fantasy) by choice, so that will be the genre we’re looking at.
Bad-Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail – confession, I have a weakness for this series of anthologies. Its urban fantasy and it highly entertaining, although like all anthologies it can be uneven in what it offers.
The Secret of the Kelpie (Picture Kelpies: Traditional Scottish Tales) by Lari Don – its an illustrated children’s book, but I still really enjoyed it. It tells the tale of a group of children who meet up with a kelpie and how one clever girl manages to save them all from a watery fate. Why am I reading children’s books? Well, I do have three children, so its inevitable.
The Knowing: A Fantasy by Kevan Manwaring – probably the best piece of urban fantasy I’ve read in a long time I did a complete book review for it on my personal blog here.
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar – another great example of what urban fantasy can be, the story of some Scottish fairies who find themselves unintentionally in New York and the way their lives become entangled with those of several humans. Some serious themes throughout but mostly just good fun.
That sums up my top ten favorite reads from 2017. I’d recommend any of these books to people who find these subjects interesting, and particularly The Secret of the Kelpie for children. That one is part of a series of children’s books by Floris Books on Scottish folklore which I thought was good overall, although I admit I liked the Selkie Girl, which stays truer to the folklore, much better than The Tale of Tam Lin which doesn’t.
Last year I also wrote several books which I’m excited to see coming out in 2018, and these include Pagan Portals Odin (March 2018), Traveling the Fairy Path (September 2018), and Pagan Portals the Dagda (October 2018). I’m also finishing up the 7th novel in my Between the Worlds series which should be out sometime early 2018.
The winter solstice holiday is upon us, with its focus on the return of the sun’s light, lengthening days, hope for warmth (eventually), and for some pagans the birth/rebirth of a deity. In my family we have our own celebrations and traditions, which include offering to our house spirits and ritually acknowledging the winter sun as Grian. But we also acknowledge Santa; not the historic one but the modern pop-culture version with his Coca-Cola inspired red suit, jolly demeanor, and Rubenesque figure. For my children I think Santa is the centerpiece of the holiday, outweighing even the fun of the Yule log or baking a cake for the spirits and Grian.
Despite the importance my own family places on Santa I’m always surprised every year as we approach the holidays and I start to see a flurry of anti-Santa sentiment from other pagans. It’s not that everyone is anti-Santa but there’s certainly a contingent that advocates ditching Santa as too rooted in Christianity, or conversely ditching Santa in favor of pagan Gods who may represent older versions of the modern holiday spirit (Odin I’m looking at you). I can understand that I suppose since for many people Santa is inextricable tangled up in a wider culture that is predominantly Christian and he is, ultimately, tied to a Christian holiday today. However for me Santa as he is today has become something more than whatever he began as.
I may have a different view on this because my own childhood wasn’t a religious one. I think I was in 9 or 10 before I figured out that Christmas was supposed to be celebrating the birthday of Jesus, and I’m not sure at that point I understood who – or what – Jesus was. Growing up, Christmas was the day when Santa came and brought gifts, and the holiday centered on leaving out cookies and milk for him and carrots for his reindeer. My family did have traditions including watching certain movies like A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and A White Christmas and eating very specific meals. But there was no religious message or service to attend.
For me the ritual of the holiday was entirely based on leaving out offerings to Santa and hoping to pass that supernatural measure of goodness that would assure presents under the tree. Later on I came to see that ‘goodness’ more as an embodied spirit that I myself could have, to help others and be kind at a time of year when people may need it more than usual, and the rewards became less tangible, less about physical gifts and more about spreading that good feeling, that light and cheer of the season.
Raising my children pagan I’ve tried to give them holidays that are both fun for them and also meaningful, and in most ways I haven’t worried about whether they stayed connected to the mainstream view of the closest secular holiday or not. In some cases we compromise, like celebrating both Halloween and Samhain together. But when it comes to the winter solstice, the twelve days of Yule, Santa was incorporated right in along with Grian and Frau Holle. We’ve never worried about making Santa pagan though, rather we’ve focused on the modern iteration of Santa, the secular one. The one born from Clement Clark Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas‘.
Our Santa is the one who has been shaped by modern belief and popculture and who exists across chasms of belief as a shared icon of American culture. In short, our Santa is the egregore that has been built over the last hundred years and is fed today by everyone who still believes in him – by all the kids who watch NORAD to see the Santa tracker, everyone who writes a list to Santa hoping they will get even one thing they are asking for, and everyone who searches the sky looking for a flying reindeer pulled sleigh.
The Spirit of Santa
Santa is a spirit with many guises and many names. Some of those guises and names are definitely rooted in pagan spirits and Gods, but some are modern beings created by mass belief. This modern Santa is just as real, and for many children just as important. Even as an adult I still find power in Santa’s message. People who are stingy, mean, and cold-hearted are punished in some way, while the generous, kind, and good hearted are rewarded. Santa is treated like other spirits: usually offerings are made, either to Santa directly or of food to his reindeer. In return Santa brings gifts and spreads holiday spirit, a feeling of generosity and joy that can live in all our hearts.
Santa is the spirit of the season: he is the joy of the lights and the decorated tree, the warm feeling of giving and receiving, the magic of believing in the goodness of people. As long as any of us believe in Santa he will exist. As long as we believe that it is possible for people to give without looking for reward he will exist. As long as there is some part of us that still feels joy at seeing lights dancing in the darkness, and the hope that is promised by a new year, he will exist. I cannot imagine a world without Santa, and I believe our world would be a poorer place without his yearly visit.
We do acknowledge the pagan roots of Santa, and also the Christian influence on his mythology. But for my family Santa is more than just the sum of his mythology, he is a modern spirit that has been woven together from diverse beliefs and exists now as an individual being. He is as real and alive in this current incarnation as any other spirit and is both a uniquely American spirit as well as a global one. And so this year, like every previous one, we will leave out his offerings – and offerings for his reindeer – and we will listen for the cheerful sound of bells in the night air. We’ll go to sleep hoping that the Spirit of the Season will visit us, not with physical gifts but with good cheer and hope. And with both of those things we’ll move forward into a new secular year.
Author’s note: The following was prompted by the Patheos article, The Toxic Narrative of “Being Chosen” by Gods and Bad Boys. I thought it might be helpful to explore this idea a bit further and look at what some of us mean by this idea of being “chosen” by a deity, and perhaps present an alternative viewpoint to this phenomenon.
There are many examples from literature of the type of being “chosen” as interpreted in the article linked above, especially if we look to stories from the Judaeo-Christian scriptures (3 days and nights in the belly of a fish, I mean, how manipulative is that?) and so I agree that casting the act of being chosen by some deity as something to which we have no say in the matter is toxic, and those who think this fate has befallen them probably need to examine why they feel their lives suck so bad that they require to be the hapless victims of some bully gods in the first place. Then again it could also be a way to validate certain beliefs that may not have a firm foundation in reality – we have been chosen by this god, this god must therefore really exist.
While I do agree with the sentiments expressed in the article as far as it goes, the argument here can also sometimes be broken down to a question of semantics. Things are rarely so simplistic as depicted in either/or scenarios; not often is life so clearly black and white. This is one reason I don’t think we can dismiss out of hand the entire concept of being divinely chosen as if it were altogether a bad thing. I understand that there are those who might be fulfilling a psychological need by feeling they have been forcefully compelled into the service of some god. If that is not the case however, perhaps a healthier way to express this would simply be to say we have been “called” rather than using a loaded term like “chosen”. Being called implies we have not relinquished free will but retain the choice whether to answer the call or ignore it, and also implies that we might have something to gain personally from the relationship rather than it being just unidirectional or parasitic.
The feeling that our god has chosen us might well be a valid one, but it is also true that in any relationship it is always our own choice whether to accept being chosen or not. I chose my husband, but he also chose me; it was a choice made by mutual consent based on mutual love and respect. I choose to do the work given to me by my employers, and I reap the benefits of getting paid for it. My employers on the other hand have chosen me to do the jobs they want done based on my abilities and past experience. There are types of being chosen (to represent one’s country in the Olympics, say, based on performance skills) that have nothing to do with those in the toxic category.
For instance consider the relationships we have with our spiritual totems. It is often said that we do not choose our totems but that our totems (be they animal, vegetable, or mineral) choose us, and this has been my unvarying experience with totems as well. It is not the same as being “chosen” by a bad boy (or girl) god/dess to do their unquestioned bidding, gods forbid (remember that dreadful Abraham and Isaac story). On the other hand totemic relationships are always potentially beneficial, and other than our lifetime totems, these relationships can come and go as the need arises for a particular totem’s particular message to be applied in our lives. Sometimes these are warnings or portents, sometimes a message to us that adopting the aspects of a certain totem will be helpful in dealing with whatever life happens to be throwing at us at the moment. That is, if we are wise enough to hear the message.
My personal thinking is that ultimately these things originate in our psyches, but I’ve always stood by the axiom that a difference that makes no difference is no difference, so what the hell. I won’t argue here about whether or not gods or totems are really “real” because if we heed what they are telling us the outcome of their appearance is the same no matter what we believe to be their origins (hedgewitching 101 – the late author Terry Pratchett called it “headology”). I think the point is that we not forget that in any relationship the choice to be there always lies with us. Being chosen is ultimately our own choice, every blessed one of “God’s Chosen People” out there notwithstanding.
I’d like to note that Persephone, one of the goddesses I most admire, was “chosen” by the god Hades in just such a manner as presented in the above linked article. Another term widely used for this particular instance is “rape”. I have felt a personal desire to explore the Mysteries of Persephone, and I consider this a great honour. Persephone, working within the culture from which she emerged, turned her abduction into a personal victory and became not only the Goddess of Spring, but also the Goddess and Queen of all the Underworld. Unlike Persephone however, I have never felt any overpowering compulsion to venerate or follow this god, or else (She of all people wouldn’t do this anyway). If I open my mind to Her aspects and meditate on Her stories, then I understand it is to my benefit to experience the wonders and insights that such attention offers me. If I choose not to do so, the only punishment that follows is that I miss out on gaining what might prove to be life-affirming enlightenment. At no time have I felt that becoming fish food was a prerequisite to this enlightenment however.
If we suddenly feel an affinity towards a god that we’ve never given much previous thought to, then by all means we may heed that call if we deem this to be beneficial to us. If not, then that god or that guy or that job can buzz right off and go choose someone else. Either way, the choice is ever and always ours and ours alone. I believe it is good for us to question our gods; any god worthy of respect would never make us into his or her slave. A wise man, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “God could not be unkind to me if he should try.” In other words, a god deserving of our honour will honour us and our autonomy in return; any other response would be impossible for such a god.
This time of year, as we move from Samhain to the Winter Solstice, tends to be a time when people are more aware of spirits and ghosts. Our minds seem to naturally be more open to the idea of the dead lingering around us when the external world is in a stage of rest, death, and resetting. It’s always interested me though that whenever there’s an uptick in paranormal activity, be it this time of year or any other, people seem to default to assuming its human ghosts doing the haunting when in reality the world includes a wide range of possibilities.
Hauntings aren’t always ghosts and I’ve seen a lot of people aggravate a situation by assuming they are, when what’s actually going on is fairies. What works for a ghost, both in contacting one and in dealing with one that’s being problematic, not only doesn’t work if what you are dealing with is a fairy but can actually make the situation much worse. I’ve also been really entertained watching some of those ghost hunting tv shows and seeing what seems to me to clearly be fairy activity labeled and treated as either ghosts or demons.
There are, of course, no limit to the places you may have a fairy encounters, and it could be argued that many people will be more likely to have these experiences, and be more open to them, in wild or natural settings. I wouldn’t encourage people to try to take on or drive out fairies on the fairies’ own turf (no pun intended) so in situations where you are running across fairies in the outside world and you can simply leave the area, that’s what I suggest doing. What I want to talk about here are other times you might encounter them, where walking away may not be an easy option or where they are meeting us on neutral ground or even in human places. So let’s take a quick look at some signs of fairy presence, common places we can run across fairies being mistaken for ghosts, and then we’ll discuss what not do, and what to do.
Signs of Fairies
Believe it or not it’s not uncommon for me to have people contact me asking for help deciding whether the activity they have is ghostly, demonic, or Otherworldly. I’ll be clear here that ‘demonic’ is not my forte and any activity that seems to fall into that range I suggest people find a specialist. I will say that most of what I have seen on tv shows and the like that the hosts label demonic I would say is fairy activity, keeping in mind that I use the term fairies as a generic which encompasses an array of kinds of beings. Obviously I can’t diagnose what exactly is going on without being there myself but based on how people describe a situation I can usually get an idea and suggest the likelihood of what’s going on*.
Basically ghostly activity tends to include things like temperature drops, moved items, electronics being messed with – i.e. turned on or off, batteries drained, distortion, signal loss – shadow figures or partial apparitions, or sometimes audible communication. Fairies, when they are around, can physically take objects (removing the item entirely from the place), may appear as movement in the peripheral, can cause odd dreams, create fairy rings, or tangle people’s hair while they sleep. Both types of beings can throw things, break things, may appear with distinctive smells, and can cause different emotions including happiness or fear, and may physically touch people. In my experience in these contexts when ghosts are interacting with us they are trying to get our attention; when fairies are interacting with us they are either being mischievous or malicious.
When people start telling me about experiences that involve items being stolen, individual humans in a group being singled out for abuse, inexplicable bruising, inexplicable tangles in hair, or food being ruined I tend to lean towards thinking it may be fairy activity. Obviously we’re focusing here on the more negative end of things, in this context, and I don’t mean to imply there aren’t positive signs as well but if the Good Neighbours around you are happy with you then you don’t really need to worry about it. If on the other hand they are causing issues, then you need to be aware of the specific indicators that separate them from ghosts.
If I had to guess I’d say the most common place that people today run across fairies who they mistake for human ghosts would probably be abandoned or unoccupied buildings. These can be either public buildings or homes, as long as they’ve been empty (in my experience) for at least 6 months. We find this in folklore where the ruins of buildings gained a reputation for becoming the abode of Otherworldly beings but this isn’t exclusive to places that are hundreds of years old and long abandoned. Where I live there’s an old, abandoned section of an amusement park for example that now has a reputation for being a malevolent location belonging to the fairies. It’s always best to be cautious when entering or going near abandoned buildings particularly those that have truly started to be reclaimed by nature. I have found that when a house has lost its roof but the walls are still standing there will often be some very intense energy around, particularly if the hearth and chimney are still standing.
It’s less common in my experience for a person living in a house to suddenly have an issue with paranormal phenomena that is actually the Other Crowd but it does sometimes happen. What I have seen more often is someone moving into a new house or one that’s been empty on the market for a while and then finding the house already has occupants. Once a building has been open and empty for at least half a year then Other beings can and sometimes will move in. When humans then move in as well it can cause problems. There are also some circumstances where you may live in a place without issue until something changes that either aggravates the existing fey in that location or upsets the status quo. Once that equilibrium is lost they can start to express their unhappiness in ways that will be clear to the human inhabitants.
Some public spaces are just pass throughs, as much for the spirits as for humans, but others aren’t. Where this matters for our current discussion is for people who might encounter fairies either at workplaces, hotels/motels, or possibly public transportation. Generally speaking I might surmise that it’s less likely for a person to notice if they do have such an encounter because they simply won’t be paying attention. However it is entirely possible to run across fairies while you are outside your home and in an otherwise human-inhabited area. I’d point to gremlins as one, less than positive, example of a type of fairy that may be encountered both in the workplace or on public transport. I’ve also had several experiences with fey who attach themselves to or live in hotels and larger public spaces along those lines. These fairies tend to consider these places or items in these places as their own, and this can be a source of conflict with humans.
Do’s and Don’ts
Or, more accurately ‘don’ts and do’s’. Unlike the way many people approach hauntings you need to treat fairies differently. what follows is a general guideline, and it should be understood that there are exceptions to these rules, especially for people with more experience, but these are good guidelines to follow based on my experience. I would also strongly suggest if you do think you have an unhappy fairy situation going on that you try to find someone with experience to help you. So, if you think you are dealing with fairies:
– don’t yell at them or insult them. While this can be helpful with ghosts it’s a really bad idea to do this with the Fey. If it is fairies you will almost certainly aggravate the situation
– don’t challenge them. I’ve seen several situations get nasty when people tried to establish dominance over the spirits they thought were there by challenging them directly. This will not end well if you are dealing with fairies.
– don’t expect sage, palo santo, or other popular cleansing methods to do anything. In my experience the Fair Folk are not bothered by or effected by fumigating with these types of plants. It won’t anger them but it won’t make them leave either, so please don’t count on that to help you.
– don’t wave around a holy book or call on generic Gods. This is a bit of a grey area as in some circumstances they will respond to the invocation of specific Gods, however I emphasize specific. Calling on Gods may also temporarily calm the situation only to have it get worse again later.
– do consider leaving them alone. In many cases what is causing the conflict and the activity may be rooted in human activity that is upsetting the local spirits including the Fey folk. Often times the best and easiest way to solve this is to simply leave them alone and stop doing whatever is annoying them.
– do bribe them. Bribery in my experience doesn’t work with ghosts but it should be your first go to with fairies. I recommend milk or cream to start, although butter also works.
– do talk to them in a polite and civil manner. I touched on this above by saying don’t yell at or insult them, but it goes beyond that, because i’s important to try hard to be polite as well. With fairies you get respect by showing respect, and sometimes simply asking them to stop will do the trick.
– do go all out if banishing is needed. Here’s the thing about fairies, if it comes to forcing them out you have to go full on with it. There’s no making a threat you won’t follow through on and trust me they’ll know how serious you are. You can bluff a ghost, you can’t bluff a fairy.
– do ward with iron, salt, and rowan if you need to. There’s no one size fits all to drive out fairies or keep them out, so when in doubt I recommend a combination of iron, salt, and rowan. Burning mugwort is also a method found in folklore.
It can be difficult even with experience to differentiate between ghosts and fairies when you have supernatural phenomena going on, but it is important to know what you are dealing before you decide how to handle it. If you treat a fairy like you would a ghost the odds are you will make the situation worse instead of better. And with the Other Crowd ‘worse’ is not a matter of degrees but of exponentials. By going in with an open mind and considering the possibility that it may be ghosts or it may be something Else, I believe you have a better chance of a good outcome.
*obviously the first step is to eliminate all the other possibilities, including animals, humans, and technology. Only once you’ve ruled out any earthly explanation do you want to look at supernatural possibilities.
The Holidays are the most stressful time of year for many. Shopping, food, social and family obligations swell to the bursting point this time of year. Western Culture, already obsessed with “Busy-ness”, demands we do more, be more and buy more than ever. Social and Family gatherings can be a trying time for many of us. While the reasons may vary, it all boils down to the same thing: stress and more stress.
How this Spell came about
I was recently asked to demonstrate sympathetic magic techniques. I wanted to provide a sound technique that would allow even a novice to practice concentration, visualization, grounding, energy work and spell casting.
Spellcasting is a practical technique that allows us to focus our will and intent towards a certain desired outcome. Spell components are selective for vibrational compatibility in order to “strengthen” the spell.
The following spell popped into my head this morning. It can be used as a learning tool, but it is also a method of coping with stress.
A Candle Spell for Grounding
Here is the step by step explanation of the spell:
Gather the following supplies:
The candle can be of any type you prefer, a pillar candle, a votive, a tea light, etc. A larger candle can be burned over days for ongoing work while a smaller one can be used when a quick spell is necessary. Choose a color you associate with Earth and trees for this spell. I used dark green. A brown candle would also work. Place it in an appropriate holder. The candle represents a visual focal point in which to concentrate the energy of the spell.
The reason why candle color is mentioned is that spell construction involves gathering components that align with the vibrational intention of your spell. Along with the energy put into the spell, the matching components aid in the overall success of the working. Individual colors on the spectrum possess vibrations. Tables of Correspondences generally list components such as color and their magical (vibrational) properties. I chose a green candle for this spell because it has grounding, earthy vibrations.
The candle will need to be anointed with an oil of some sort. As a Priestess of The Morrigan I chose to work with one of Her aspects, Anu, whom I associate with the Earth and thus grounding. I formulated an oil to use with Anu in mind using nine drops of apple, three drops of cinnamon and six drops of earth oil in a grapeseed oil base. You can chose an oil that suits your own needs. Pre-made spell oils can be purchased or plain olive oil can be used.
The method I used to select the essential oils involved listening to my own instincts, being familiar with my Deity, and years of practical experience. Again, a table of correspondences can be consulted to select essential oils to match your intention.
Anoint the candle with the oil. I generally follow the premise of anointing in a certain direction according to my intent. For example, I anoint from the base to the wick of the candle while focusing what I want to dispel or I anoint from the wick to the base while focusing on what I want to attract. The method is not as important as the intent. While anointing the candle, focus on the spell work, visualize the desired result. Concentrate on your need to feel calmer and grounded for this spell, visualize the candle as a tree.
Stones or crystals appropriate for grounding should be chosen for this spell. I have obsidian arrowheads I work with. Hematite, Jet or jasper could be used as well. Pick what you feel works best for you. I generally work with what I have on hand. In a pinch, pick up some rocks off the ground.
The number of stones is a personal choice. I use six stone arrowheads because six is a number I associate with magic. Choose a number that holds significance for you.
An offering of your choice. I recommend environmentally friendly offerings. I use herbs, food, liquids and even bird seed as offerings. Small crystals are a good choice as well. The point is to show appreciation to the deity or spirit you are calling upon in the spell. My offering consisted of dried apples.
Casting the Spell
Now that you have gathered the supplies go to your altar or another place you will not be disturbed for a few minutes. Casting a circle is optional. Work according to your own tradition, needs and the time you have.
Anoint the candle and place the stones around its base, set one stone aside to hold in your hand. Light the candle and hold the stone. This is a good time to ask for aid from a deity or spirit if you choose to. Visualize the candle as a tree. Take three deep slow breaths, relax and focus. Visualize any negative energy that may have accumulated around or inside you flowing into the stone in your hand. Once you have the negative energy concentrated into the stone in your hand visualize it flowing into the stones surrounding the candle. ‘See” the energy moving from the stone in your hand into the stones around the candle.
Next visualize the energy being absorbed into the tree (candle), its roots are sunk deep in the ground. All the negative energy you released is flowing back into the Earth. Energy never ceases to exist. It only transforms.
Take a brief moment to sense the change in yourself. You should feel more relaxed and clear headed after this spell.
Your offering should be given at this point in the working.
Allow the candle to burn down completely in a safe place or it can be snuffed and relit for the same purpose at another time. If you cast a circle, take the circle down.
This spell can be practiced every day. It can also be adapted to suit other needs you may have. Additional components can be added such as incense. The possibilities are limited only by your own creativity.
Blessings to You and Yours during this Holiday Season!
There’s a lot of people who have questions about the Morrigan and I sometimes have people on social media either private message me or ask me on my Facebook page. I thought it might be helpful to do a blog post where I publicly answer popular questions about the Morrigan, so here you go. For even more answers see my book The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens, part of the Pagan Portals series.
Robert asks is there any truth to the idea that Danu is the Morrigan?
My answer – that idea is from a single reference in the Lebor Gabala Erenn (LGE). However it’s contradicted in multiple other places in the same text where it’s said that the Morrigan’s name is Anand (not Danand) -note that Anu and Danu would be the nominative forms of those names – and it’s also worth noting that we see the Morrigan and Danand together physically in one place in both the Cét-Cath Maige Tuired and Banshenchas. There’s a whole separate issue about who Danand actually is, but that’s tangential here. Personally I favor the idea that the reference to the Morrigan as Danand in the LGE is a scribal error and its should have read Anand, which is supported elsewhere in the LGE.
While it’s not definitively agreed on among scholars, there’s a pretty solid argument in my opinion that Anand and Danand are entirely separate beings. There names have different meanings, for one thing, and what little mythology we do have for each is mostly different.
Marie asks – How has the Morrigan transformed over time? Related to that Caoimhin asks what activity we see related to her in post Iron-age Ireland?
My answer – in the oldest sources, written in the 9th century based on earlier material, the Morrigan is clearly a goddess and is referred to as a goddess in several places including the Metrical Dindshenchas. As we move deeper into the Christianized period we find her increasingly seen as a nighttime terror, a supernatural female who terrorizes. Whereas Brighid as a goddess became muddled with saint Brigid the Morrigan was too dangerous to be domesticated and was relegated instead to the wild ranks of Fairy and for the more cynical was viewed as a demon.
Kami asks – What names are conflated with the Morrigan?
My answer – The Morrigan’s true name, if she has one, is possibly Anand (Anu) although I will be clear that this is contested and our only source for it is references from the Lebor Gabala Erenn. Cormac’s Glossary tells us that the three Morrigans are Badb, the Morrigan, and Macha and indeed these three daughters of Ernmas appear acting together in mythology in several places. Badb and Macha are also called ‘Morrigan’ in some sources. These three are the main deities who can with certainty be said to be ‘the Morrigans’.
Much later authors in the 19th century also conflated several other goddess with the Morrigan, often based on those goddesses own connections to war and battle and sometimes through their appearing and acting with either Badb or the Morrigan in myths. These include Nemain and Fea in particular. Lady Gregory also suggested that there was local folklore in Ireland connecting Áine to the Morrigan although she is the only source for this idea. And of course there is the possible link between the Morrigan and Danand (Danu) based on the single reference in the Lebor Gabala Erenn.
Also Kami – Is the Morrigan a horse goddess or a cow goddess?
My answer – The Morrigan is associated with cows in several different stories, particularly with cows through the concept of cattle raids which was the main form of warfare in iron age Ireland. She takes the form of a hornless heifer in the Tain Bo Cuialigne, appears in the Tain Bo Regamna with a cow she’s stolen from the Sid of Cruachan and taken to be bred in Ulster, and in the story of Odras she steals a herd of cattle from the eponymous Odras. Cows were highly significant animals who represented wealth and social status.
The Morrigan is not associated with horses, however Macha is through her possession of the Liath Macha, a horse that would later pull Cu Chulainn’s chariot, and through her racing the king of Ulster’s horses.
Gwen asks – What underlies the idea of the Morrigan as a sex or fertility goddess?
My answer – That’s a complicated one. There’s no direct evidence of the Morrigan having either of these roles in the mythology. She has sex once in one story with a deity who is referred to as her husband so that hardly fits any definition of a goddess of sex. She has no connections to pregnancy or childbirth or agriculturally to crops or the reproduction of herds (except through stealing cows). However many modern devotees suggest that she does fit these roles as an empowered female force who is in total control of her sexuality and as a goddess of death who would therefore also control the other end of the spectrum and influence rebirth and birth.
Personally I don’t see her as a sex goddess myself, as to me a sex goddess would be a goddess who has sex, sexual pleasure, or procreation as her main purviews; or at the very least is known to have a lot of sexual interactions in her mythology. I just don’t see that with the Morrigan. If I were going to nominate any Irish deity as ‘sex deity’ it would be the Dagda who does have a stronger mythic connection to sexual relations and procreation.
Several people – Is the Morrigan a triple goddess?
My answer – In the modern neo-pagan sense of a maiden-mother-crone goddess no. In the older sense of a deity who appeared with two other deities then yes as we often see the Morrigan acting with two others, usually her two sisters Badb and Macha. When we see triple deities in Irish myth they are usually age equals and often siblings who either share a main purview or act together to accomplish a goal, so by that measure the Morrigan, Badb, and Macha would qualify.
Morrigan asks – Is the Morrigan associated with the Underworld?
My answer – This is a tricky one. The Irish don’t have a concept of an Underworld in quite the same way that we might picture it, so on the surface no she isn’t a goddess of the resting place of the dead. However like all the Tuatha De Danann she does reside in the Otherworld and does have a fairy mound, a sidhe, that she claims. She is associated with Uaimh na gCat, the cave of cats, which is sometimes called ‘Ireland’s Hellmouth’ and she certainly does have cthonic associations in the most literal sense because of this.
Chelly asks – Why do some people fear the Morrigan so much?
My answer – The Morrigan’s main purviews are war, battle, and death. She was also subject, as was previously mentioned, to a literary shift that took her from a goddess to a spectral figure that was in some cases outright called demonic. I suspect that it is for these reason that modern pagans for a long time tended to fear and actively avoid the Morrigan. This has eased a bit in recent years and there is a more balanced view of her in some places now, although we do need to be careful not to go too far in the other direction by trying to see her as entirely safe or overemphasize her associations with things outside battle for our own comfort. She is a complex deity and should be appreciated as such.
Sarah asks – Why do we focus on the Morrigan as a war goddess and not on her other aspects?
My answer -Well, her mythology does tend to emphasize her roles in battle and in inciting battles. Some people tend to see only this when they look at her, or this and the related connections to death and success in war. These are certainly not her only purviews and we know she was also a goddess of prophecy, for example, and who had connections to sovereignty and magic. Like all deities she really can’t be narrowly defined as a Goddess of (whatever) but it’s better to say that there are some things she’s more well known for being associated with and other things she’s not particularly associated with. Since war is one of her main associations that gets a lot of attention.
Also Sarah – What is the Morrigan’s genealogy?
My answer – According to mythology the Morrigan is the daughter of Ernmas and Delbeath; she has at least five sisters, Eriu, Fotla, Banba, Badb, and Macha. She may also have another sister in Anand (if that isn’t the Morrigan’s actual name) because some versions of the Lebor Gabala Erenn instead of saying ‘the Morrigan, that is Anand’ say ‘the Morrigan and Anand’. The reason for this confusion has to do with the shorthand scribes used in the texts where the symbol for ‘that is’ was i and the symbol for ‘and’ was 7 and the two when written could look similiar.
Her husband is the Dagda. She has a daughter Adair and one son Meiche that we know of and possible three other sons Glon, Gaim, and Coscar (if it’s true that her name is actually Anand). Her two nieces are Fea and Nemain.
Contrary to what floats around online sometimes, the Morrigan is one the Tuatha De Danann, she is counted among their number in the sources and acts on their behalf consistently.
Still Sarah – Why do people visualize her as young and sexy?
My answer – she’s a shapeshifter and appears in mythology as both a young maiden [ingen and ben óg] and a very old woman [cailleach and senntaine]. Her most consistent description is simply as a woman [ben] with no age specified and no detailed description. As to why modern people choose to view her as young, winsome, sexy and all that I honestly don’t know. I might theorize that it’s because that view fits into wider societal norms of beauty, or perhaps that it makes a fearsome goddess of battle and prophecy seem safer and more approachable, but I’d only be guessing. It’s not an aesthetic I vibe with myself as I have always visualized her as strong and powerful and I find most modern depictions of her just don’t say that to me.
Edmund asks – What are the biggest misunderstandings about the Morrigan?
My answer – It would be hard to judge what qualify as the biggest. I’d say the most common ones I see that haven’t already been discussed here would include her relationship to the Dagda and her feelings about Cu Chulainn. I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting that she isn’t married or that her meeting with the Dagda at Samhain in the Cath Maige Tuired is by chance, and the source material is actually pretty clear that they were a married couple and that the meeting was pre-arranged and a regular thing. I also see a lot of people saying she was in love with Cu Chulainn and then tried to punish him for rejecting her, but again we just don’t see that in the mythology.
There’s one vignette in the Tain Bo Cuialigne where the Morrigan appears to Cu Chulainn in disguise as a king’s daughter and tries to seduce him, but there’s no evidence that her intentions were genuine; in fact there’s good indications I think that she was either testing him or trying to deceive him into leaving his post at the river ford. Her proclamation of love in this incident is not any more genuine than her telling him she is ‘King Buan’s daughter’, and her promising him that she will attack him is a result of their conversation rather than his specific refusal of her love.
Brendan asks – What do you think is the best way to respond to people who say they follow the Morrigan but their actions show that their ‘following’ amounts to a glorification of violence, firearms possession, and war fighting?
My answer – Different people will have their own views on this. My response to people who seem to be following the Morrigan as an excuse to glorify war and violence is the same as my response to people who try to argue that she is actually a peaceful earth goddess co-opted by the patriarchy: I gently disagree with the viewpoint, try to discuss the known mythology, and ultimately feel that it is between them and Herself to sort out.
Etain asks – Are there any similarities between the Morrigan and the Cailleach?
My answer – Perhaps in the broad strokes, but for the most part they are very different deities with different mythology and different roots. The Morrigan is one the Tuatha De Danann; the Cailleach is not as far as we know for certain. The Morrigan’s physical locations and stories tend to be located in central and northwestern Ireland; the Cailleach’s are in the southwest, for the most part (Sliabh na Caillí being one exception). Similarities, well, both can appear as young or old, both are associated with cattle, and both are fearsome goddesses.
Several people wanted to know about the Morrigan’s preferences relating to offerings, colors, actions by devotees. We don’t have anything in mythology or folklore about those things so any answers here would be either speculation or my own personal gnosis. I’d probably say her favorite color is red, and for offerings I always recommend whiskey, milk, blood, or bread, but with her the real point is the effort that goes into it. She also seems to appreciate intangible offerings done in her name if they include actions that fall in line with her purviews – or poetry seems to go over well.
Several people asked about ways to connect to the Morrigan and that’s really too long to get into in this post but I’ve written about it before here
Several people asked about resources and original texts that the Morrigan appears in. I’ve written about online resources previously here. Original texts can be found at Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective and would include: Lebor Gabala Erenn, Cét-Cath Maige Tuired, Cath Maige Tuired, Banshenchas, Dindshenchas, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Noínden Ulad, The Boyhood Deeds of Cu Chulainn, The Wooing of Emer, Tain Bo Regamna, Tain Bo Cuiligne, Bricriu’s Feast, Wooing of Ferb, the Death of Cu Chulainn, and the Cath Maig Roth.