“It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living god.”
— Hebrews 10:3
Recently, Pan-devotee Jason Mankey stirred some pots by asking whether the current interest of many Pagans in the Morrigan is “just a fad.” Jason, who is himself a polytheist, was not suggesting that the Morrigan is not real. After all, he admits, his own patron deity, Pan, was once a “fad” circa 1800-1920. But, nevertheless, the word “fad” is a provocative term. Morpheus Ravenna, herself a devotee of the Morrigan, responded that the use of the word “fad” in this context is dismissive and direspectful. More importantly, she says, it’s shallow:
“… it’s a shallow question. It is looking at a numinous devotional and religious phenomenon using a purely social lens which only recognizes the action of deities in terms of human behaviors, and only those human behaviors driven by the most shallow of motivations, social popularity. It utterly erases the agency of the Morrígan Herself, and Her engagement with culture, time, and history. …
“I am sure we can go deeper than this.
“Could it possibly be that at least some of the people participating in this “fad” have actually experienced a call or a demand from a Goddess? Could it be that the Morrígan Herself is an agent in Her own story? That something is happening in our time to which She as a Goddess active in war and sovereignty is especially drawn or which calls Her to action in human affairs? Perhaps the global crises we face, the conflicts over resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, freedom, the rights of women?”
To be fair, Jason himself acknowledged just this possibility in his own essay:
“Maybe there’s something else at play here too, perhaps divine beings re-engage or re-awake when they are needed? Pan returned at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution for example, right when many folks needed a link to the natural world. We are destroying large swaths of the Earth and the creatures who call it home, perhaps Cernunnos is returning to defend his own? The Morrígan is traditionally a battle deity, and I see plenty of battles ahead …”
Let me begin by saying that my respect for both Jason and Morpheus is boundless. I respect their beliefs, even when I do not share them. But more often than not, I find myself agreeing with both of them. That’s true on this issue too, but there is a nuance I would like to tease out.
Jason is probably right that a certain amount of Pagan interest in the Morrigan is faddish, though. In any religious movement, there will be a spectrum of depth, and certain practitioners will always have a shallow approach to the religion. Paganism is no exception. We can disagree on what percentage of Paganism is shallow, but this probably says more about us than Paganism generally. Jason is a polytheists whose patron deity saw his heyday before Jason was born; Morpheus worships a goddess whose popularity is on the rise. And so it is not surprising that they to have different opinions about the degree to which the interest in the Morrigan is a shallow or deep. But I suspect that even Morpheus would admit that some of the interest in her goddess is a Pagan fashion.
In any case, Morpheus is right that the more interesting phenomena is not happening at the shallow end of the pool, but at the deep end, where “something numinous, historic and meaningful might actually be going on”. Where Morpheus and I differ, though, is that I don’t assume this is an unmitigated good. Jason writes, “The Morrígan is traditionally a battle deity, and I see plenty of battles ahead (hopefully most of them will play out in elections and boardrooms instead of fields, but I’m not confident they will).” (emphasis added) And that is my point. The Morrigan is a battle deity. And whether you call her a “god” or a “formidable numinous personified force” (Morpheus’ words), I think her presence is not necessarily a good thing.
Morpheus associates the Morrigan with the fight for “resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, freedom, [and] the rights of women”, but might she not have also been behind our national craze for retribution which followed 9/11? Those who worship the Morrigan consciously may be fighting for causes that I think most of us would champion. And they should be admired for that. But what about those who worship her unconsciously? Were not the terrible wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also justified in terms of “resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, [and] freedom”? (Hell, part of the reason I initially supported the invasion of Iraq was because Saddam’s use of rape as a political and military weapon.) Morpheus admits elsewhere that the Morrigan incites war, relishes slaughter, and revels in the bloodshed and carnage. Is it not possible that our recent unjustified wars were inspired by the same goddess who Morpheus invokes to defend the rights of women?
This would not have been the first time that most a nation was possessed by a violent god of war. In his “Essay on Wotan”, Carl Jung explains the events in Germany from 1914-1936, including the rise of National Socialism, not in political or economic terms, but in spiritual terms — as the “possession” (egreiffenheit) of the German peoples by the storm god Wotan.
“what is more than curious … is that an ancient god of storm and frenzy, the long quiescent Wotan, should awake, like an extinct volcano, to new activity, in a civilized country that had long been supposed to have outgrown the Middle Ages. We have seen him come to life in the German Youth Movement, and right at the beginning the blood of several sheep was shed in honour of his resurrection. Armed with rucksack and lute, blond youths, and sometimes girls as well, were to be seen as restless wanderers on every road from the North Cape to Sicily, faithful votaries of the roving god. Later, towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the wandering role was taken over by thousands of unemployed, who were to be met with everywhere on their aimless journeys. By 1933 they wandered no longer, but marched in their hundreds of thousands.”
Now, lest Morpheus or any other polytheist think I am reducing their god to a “mere” archetype, you need to remember that whether Jung called them “gods” or “archetypes”, he understood them as agencies which were at least partially independent of us. And so when he says that the Germans were “possessed” (Ergriffenheit), he emphasizes that this implies not only the existence of “an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but, also, an Ergreifer (one who seizes).” He resists the temptation to “psychologize” Wotan by reducing him to a conscious invention or an internal emotional state. To do so would be to loose sight of what Morpheus calls the “agency” of the god, and what Jung calls the “autonomous” nature of the god. “For Wotan has a peculiar biology of his own, quite apart from the nature of man,” writes Jung. So there was no contradiction in Jung’s calling Wotan both an “archetype” and “a living and unfathomable tribal god”.
And if Wotan could awake after being “invisible for more than a thousand years, working anonymously and indirectly”, then we must wonder what “other veiled gods may be sleeping elsewhere”? Perhaps the Morrigan is another. And it is not only battle gods like Morrigan and Wotan who are morally ambiguous. Jason’s god, Pan, is not only the Arcadian god of the wild, but also a serial rapist (of nymphs as well as goats). Aphrodite, perhaps one of the most trivialized pagan goddesses in mainstream culture, was responsible for instigating the Trojan War. (And it’s not for nothing that we call sexually transmitted diseases “venereal”, i.e., of Venus.) And while some Pagan interest in the Morrigan may be faddish and superficial, perhaps there is still a dangerous deity at work there too — maybe Hermes, the god of commerce (and consumerism?)
What are we to do then? It is a mistake to think that we have a choice in the matter. If the Morrigan has awakened, and if she has the power to possess whole nations, then what should be our response? We cannot turn our back on her, or rather, we can — but while she may disappear from our view, she will not disappear from existence. Instead she will continue to operate outside our field of vision. Better to face her directly. Better to worship her consciously as Morpheus does, rather than unconsciously as our nation did after 9/11. As Morpheus writes in an earlier essay, “What Use Violent Gods?”,
“I sometimes think that the problem with our culture isn’t that violent Gods move us toward violent goals. I sometimes think the problem with our culture is that we have given up our war Gods, or at least pretend we have. That we might be infinitely better off if our relationship to warfare and violence was framed by worship of entities such as the Morrigan, who at least will insistently remind us to count the cost of war, and will remind us of our honor and what’s worth fighting for. Instead we seem to have some faceless death-machine for a war God – the great military-industrial destroyer, its totemic winged drone-birds hovering around it, as we relentlessly feed our youth, our wealth, our humanity, our liberty into its grinding maw while carefully looking away.
“I’ll entrust what I love to the Battle Raven over that God any day.”
I agree with Morpheus that the gods are more dangerous when we are not aware of them, when they are “faceless”. But I don’t think Morpheus has considered is the possibility that the Morrigan and the “military-industrial destroyer” may be one and the same sometimes. Her own description of the latter implies as much. The only difference is that Morpheus worships her Battle Raven consciously, while those who fly the “winged drone-birds” worship their god unconsciously. Jung would say that we don’t choose our gods; they choose us. I know many polytheists would agree. But this is true of anyone, not just polytheists. The gods choose us, and we can only choose to be more or less conscious of them. And that is where I think we Pagans have a head start. Sure, we can be just as unaware of the gods which are driving us as non-Pagans. But at least we know what to call them when we see them.