When I first heard the Morrígan’s call, I didn’t know what to do with the thought of working with a battle goddess. The things I liked best about Witchcraft were frolicking through the woods and dressing candles with herbs and singing to the stars. But this? War? Sovereignty? It was heavy. It felt too stern, even patriarchal. I strained against her even as I craved her.
However, in my (admittedly short) time as a Morrígan devotee, I’ve learned a couple of things:
1. A goddess of war can be a goddess of the land, and a devotee of the land can benefit from a serving a goddess of war. As Morpheus Ravenna has written, “the fields that grow the shining grass, the fields where the royal horses run, become the fields of battle too. Because land becomes territory, and territory is tribal politics, and tribal politics is war.” To love and serve the land, both settled and wild, is to understand the bloodshed that comes with it. When nations go to war, they are virtually always fighting over land: who gets to control it, who gets to live on it, who gets to use its resources.
2. The Morrígan implores us not to glorify war or reject all armed conflict on principle, but rather to understand and work through humankind’s propensity towards violence. Angelique Gulermovich Epstein writes in War Goddess that “life, and the land which provides it, are inextricably bound up with the gore and blood required to defend society….divorced from personal involvement in battle, the modern audience expects far too little complexity in a deity who personifies and oversees it.” We Americans approach warfare differently than our ancestors did. Our wars happen over there; our enemies don’t look like us at a glance, and the quickest glance is all we ever have to give them. Civilians never have to see them in person; even most soldiers are plunked in and plucked out of our wars within the span of a few years. People who live in war zones and contested regions and lands that must be defended from invaders have a very different understanding of war, and it is this understanding that the Morrígan tries to instill in us. When we see Hamas shooting rockets or Israelis dropping bombs, the Morrígan pulls us away from simplistic reactions like “they shouldn’t do that,” and instead pushes us towards nuanced questions like “why are they doing that? What’s at stake? What do decision-makers hope to achieve? Who benefits?” What are the root causes of conflict and hatred? How do we understand and–if we are very, very skilled and lucky–occasionally even resolve those root causes?
As I write this, at least 1,800 Palestinians have been killed in the past month, compared with 67 Israelis. If you start to get lost in the propaganda, anchor yourself in the numbers.
* * *
Here’s a history of Israel and Palestine, as brief as I could get it:
2,000 years ago my ancestors were expelled from Eretz Yisrael. We wandered until intolerable violence against us gave rise to the Zionist movement, which was backed by Britain, eager to gain a foothold in the Middle East. The Zionists and the Ottoman Empire expelled the Palestinians from their homes and drove them away. The neighboring countries expelled Arab Jews from their homes and drove them into Israel. My people, traumatized beyond comprehension from pogroms and expulsions and the Holocaust, developed a wild hatred of the Palestinians. The Palestinians–uprooted, scapegoated, and made into refugees–developed a comparable hatred of the Israelis. Both sides have suffered horrific violence. Both sides want the other gone, gone, GONE. But Israel, now backed by the US, has vastly more fire power and capacity for destruction.
Most people talk about Evangelical Christians when they explain why the US is so in love with Israel. But did you know that 75% of the aid we send Israel gets funneled right back into American weapons manufacturers? This isn’t a big secret. AIPAC considers it a selling point. Hamas is very good for the American economy.
Aside from that, though, the situation exposes some very peculiar ideas we have about sovereignty. We think that sovereignty, like resources under Capitalism, is scarce. If one party has it, another cannot. If one party has land, another cannot. If one party is human, the other party cannot possibly be also human.
This idea is so easily blown apart by a few minutes of reflection. But we construct so many myths to preserve it.
* * *
True sovereignty operates on many levels, and each level is crucial. Sovereignty depends on land. To be sovereign, one must have space to live and work. Sovereignty depends on self-determination. If one has access to land but is unable to leave it or partner with it, one is not sovereign. Sovereignty depends on control of one’s own body. Violence against the body is an attack on personal sovereignty. And, finally, sovereignty depends on free will and control of one’s own mind.
As an American and a Jew, I am required, by those in power, to love Israel. Not just like it. Not have mixed feelings about it. Not like some things about it and not others. I am required to love it.If one level of sovereignty breaks down, the others quickly follow. A couple of weeks ago I heard an NPR story in which the brother of a dead IDF soldier–not even an Israeli citizen, but an American Jew who’d enlisted–justified his brother’s death. “If it was worth it for him,” he said, “then it’s worth it for us.”
* * *
I once had a student in one of my writing classes, a young Iraq vet with PTSD. In class he was an absolute horror. He constantly interrupted me, and rolled his eyes and made loud noises of disgust when I said something he disagreed with. He said ghastly things about the poor. In his essays he wrote about diving behind bushes at the sounds of car engines starting. In his writing he revealed a simmering, angry misery.
The Jewish people has a case of cultural PTSD. When my people look at a 4-year-old Gazan covered in blood, we see a burly Nazi holding a machine gun. I’m speaking metaphorically, but I’m not hyperbolizing.
Seek to understand war. The Morrígan screams this in my ear.
* * *
Would you take me seriously if I suggested that the Morrígan advocates nonviolence?
I’m going out on a limb here, but:
It’s well-known that one of the Morrígan’s tactics is to raise a terrifying din before a battle, either the night before or just before the fighting starts. Sometimes this din frightens the enemy to death, and sometimes it serves to weaken them in battle, either by sowing panic or by keeping them from sleeping. However, there’s an interesting detail from Roman accounts of Celtic warfare. Apparently Roman troops “were known to run away simply in terror” from the battle cry of the Celts (War Goddess, page 14).
Our understanding of war today–especially war against “the terrorists”–is that you’re supposed to eliminate every single person on the other side, as if they were a nest of termites. Then, the logic goes, there will be no more of them and you will win. But if that’s how war is supposed to work, why would the Celts–and thus, we may assume, the Morrígan–encourage enemy soldiers to run away? You know the saying: they’ll live to fight another day! Why not obliterate the threat and be done with it?
Because the absolute dehumanization of the enemy is not an integral aspect of conflict. You can believe that the other side is human enough that they will choose not to fight you if circumstances change. You can be far-sighted enough to know that violence doesn’t destroy your enemies; it only ever creates more of them.
So, if doggedly trying to kill every single last Hamas operative isn’t going to work (and let’s be honest for two seconds–if it was going to work, it would have worked decades ago), then what can we do to help end the carnage?
Here’s an easy first step. Speak out. Use social media. Challenge the propaganda machine that casts Palestinians as a faceless, malevolent horde. Seek out Palestinians’ stories and share them widely. Social media is having a noticeable effect on young Americans’ empathy for Palestinians, so use it.
Educate yourself about the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. You don’t have to become a part of it–you don’t even have to agree with it–but learn to distinguish between what the official campaign advocates and the strawmen its critics set up to demonize it.
Don’t let your criticism bleed into antisemitism (“Israel is controlling the US,” “Israel is the biggest threat to world peace,” “Jews have no reason to want their own country,” etc.). Aside from being wrong, it can and will backfire by destroying your credibility. Keep your focus on Palestine.
But above all, speak. Silence equals consent. Do you consent to this violence? Paid for, if you’re American, with your tax dollars? Committed, if you’re Jewish, in your name?
* * *
I have conversed with the Morrígan about Gaza. Do you know what she told me?
Choose to be your most courageous self. Speak. Speak. Speak.
Note: I will not respond to commenters seeking to rehash the usual talking points about Israel and Palestine. Not because I don’t have more to say, but because I don’t engage with people who are arguing in bad faith. I encourage other commenters to refrain from responding, as well.
Racist, antisemitic, and otherwise offensive comments will be flagged for removal.