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Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review - A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality

 I have to start by saying that I met Lora O'Brien at Pantheacon 2015 and was fortunate enough to be able to take several of her workshops. I found that she and I had a very similar perspective on most things relating to Irish paganism, the Morrigan, and the Fair Folk. I decided to review her book A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality: Sli Aon Dhraoi because I read it when it was first released (long before meeting her) and liked it and wanted to offer a positive book review for the blog today. As always I will approach this book review in an honest manner and please trust that I like her book on it's own merits, however I'm acknowledging a potential bias up-front.

   The book is written in an engaging manner, with the author often writing as if she were speaking directly to the reader. This is a style that I personally enjoy very much and it reminded me strongly of one of my favorite neopagan books, Lilith McLelland's Out of the Shadows *. I tend to read a lot of academic material so it's really refreshing to read something with a friendlier tone that manages to find that balance between being down-to-earth without feeling too simple. The book is also written with a dry humor and hint of sarcasm that personally appeals to me, although I can't say how others might take it.
   The text is broken up, aptly enough, into three sections each with three chapters. The first section is centered around the "World of Earth" and includes chapters on ancestry, ancient places, and sacred cycles. The second section, the "World of Sea" has chapters on the sidhe, gods & goddesses, and otherworld journeys. The final section is the "World of Air" with chapters on magical crafts, literature, and priesthood & community. Each chapter covers the author's thoughts and opinions on that particular topic, in some cases very direct and strong views and in others more reserved and encouraging the reader to decide for themselves. For example the chapter on holidays - "Sacred Cycles" - offers some basic information, some insight into the author's own experiences and practices, and encourages the reader to take a hard look at what they already know and how they personally connect to the cycle of the year. In short, this chapter urges the reader to examine their own sacred cycle and relationship to the pagan holidays, rather than filling them up with rote information and how-to's. In contrast the chapter on the sidhe takes a very no-nonsense approach, including solid traditional material and blunt modern views which seem (and rightly so as far as I'm concerned) meant to get the daft new age idea of twee little fairies out of peoples' heads.
   Each chapter starts with a bit encouraging the reader to stop and write down what they know or think about the topic of that section, and in fact there is a great deal of encouragement throughout the book for the reader to journal their thoughts and experiences. It then goes on to include the author's thoughts, opinions, and research, which is all very well done and referenced although I wish the book included a bibliography. Each chapter also includes a guided meditation suited to the topic. The meditation combined with the urging to journal give the text a feel of a workbook that could be very good for beginners or those looking to re-invigorate their spiritual practice. This book isn't just about learning what Irish paganism is, it's about actually living it.
   Overall I really enjoyed this one. I don't agree with everything the author says, but that usually comes down to differences of opinion on some details of belief. I love the amount of scholarship woven into such a practical hands-on style book, and I like that the author doesn't pull any punches, for example her blunt reproach to people mucking up historical sacred sites with candle wax, fire pits, non-degradable offerings, and general litter. There are very few modern Irish pagan books that fall into the neopagan category that I can or would  unequivocally  recommend and this one falls solidly on that short list.**

*Sadly long out of print although it is now available in ebook only.
** I also really like the author's earlier work Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch which came out in 2005. That one makes it on my short list for books I'm willing to recommend on the subject of modern Irish witchcraft.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Feast of the Morrigan

I’m doing this book review for Christopher Penzcak's Feast of the Morrigan a little bit differently. This is a book that is often brought up and that people really like, and it has its good points for modern practice. The author is very clear that his own approach, and that of the rituals and meditations he provides, is based in Wicca and neopagan witchcraft and for people utilizing that style I’m sure what he offers is quite valid. However there are some important issues with the book, specifically inaccuracies in the mythology, that make it problematic. It also badly needed an editor, preferably one familiar with Irish, but I’ll leave that aside as well, except to say that there are numerous spelling errors throughout. It’s the details from the myths I want to discuss here, with the understanding that the book’s sections on practice and modern experience are not at issue. My approach will be to first offer the passage or comment that is inaccurate and then the correct material with citation.

Chapter 1, page 17 – The author states that the Morrigan is never explicitly called a Goddess in the mythology.
Reality: The Morrigan is called a Goddess at least twice that I am aware of. In the Metrical Dindshenchas, poem 49 which can be found here:
Which says: “dosrocht ben in Dagda;ba samla día sóach” (Arrived the wife of the Dagda; a phantom is the youthful/shapechanging Goddess)  In the Tochmarch Emire we also have this: "‘H-i Ross Bodbo .i. na Morrighno, ar iss ed a ross-side Crich Roiss& iss i an bodb catha h-i & is fria id-beurur bee Neid .i. bandee incatæ, uair is inann be Neid & dia cathæ’. ("In the Wood of Badb, that is of the Morrigu, therefore her proven-wood the land of Ross, and she is the Battle-Crow and is also called the woman of Neit, that is Goddess of Battle,because Neit is also a God of Battle.")  I have quoted them in the original language to illustrate that the word used in is fact “goddess” (dia/dee), however both are also available in English translations, and one of the sources that Penczak has in his bibliography is a dissertation by Gulermovich-Epstein that I know includes the fact that the Morrigan is referred to as a Goddess in the Irish material.

Chapter 1, page 21 – the author states that Tuatha De Danann literally means “Children of Danu”
Reality – Tuatha De Danann most likely means People of Danann (aka Danu) but may mean People of skill as well. Either way the word Tuatha does not mean children.

Chapter 1, page 22 – the author states that the Morrigan had to be petitioned to gain her advice and aid in the second battle of Moytura
Reality – although a very common belief there is nothing in the actual mythology which states this.

Chapter 1, page 23 – the author says that during the Cath Maige Tuired the Dagda sought out the Morrigan and found her washing her clothes with her red hair in 9 tresses. He connects the clothes washing to washer at the ford type activity. 
Reality – In the story, which can be found in English here  the Dagda and Morrigan have an arraignment to meet on the same day every year - Bai dno bandal forsin Dagdae dia bliadnae imon samain an catha oc Glind Edind. (The Dagda was to meet a woman on a day,yearly, about Samain of the battle at Glen Etin.) So he did not seek her out,rather it was a prearranged meeting. She was not washing her clothes but rather was washing her genitals and her hair color is never mentioned.

Chapter 1, page 23 – further on discussing the same story the author says that the Morrigan promised to take“the heart’s blood and testicles” from a Fomorian king – this is repeated in Chapter 6, page 111
Reality – I suspect this confusion comes from a source used by the author, but since none are cited I can only guess. The passage actually says “crú a cride ocus airned a gailie” she will take the blood of his heart and kidneys of his battle-ardor. The crux of this confusion is the word airned which means kidneys, but is used in an idiom for testicles with toile, which means among other things will power and sexual desire (so airned toile, literally sexual kidneys). However, the passage does not say airned toile, just airned – so kidneys is what it means, not testicles.

Chapter 1, page 23 – continuing with the same story, the author states that the daughter of the Fomorian king is name is Boand.
Reality – the Fomorian king’s daughter is never named in the passage in the Cath Maige Tuired.

Chapter 1, page 24 – the author states that the Tuatha De Danann arrived in Ireland as a flock of blackbirds;this is repeated in Chapter 7 page 125
Reality – this is found in the Cath Maige Tuired Cunga here it was a vision of a Fir Bolg king, not an actual occurrence: “He told his wizard, Cesard, that he had seen, a vision. ‘What was the vision?’ asked Cesard. ‘I saw a great flock of black birds,’ said the king, ‘coming from the depths of the Ocean.” This vision is then interpreted as an omen of invasion.

Chapter 2, page 36 – the author states that Badb spread the news of the Gods’ victory after the battle with the Fomorians in the form of a crow
Reality – again from the Cath MaigeTuired
there is no indication of this. Badb is mentioned in relation to spreading the news after the battle, but there is no mention of her doing so in the form of a crow

Chapter 2, page 36 – the author states that badb is also a term for sacrificial victims
Reality – I have never heard of this before and cannot verify it any Irish or Old Irish dictionary.

Chapter 2, page 38 – the author mentions that the lines towards the end of the Morrigan’s final prophecy seem like a “possible admonition against homosexuality”
Reality – again this is less an issue with the author specifically but rather of the translation being misunderstood. The passage says “Ragaid mac i lligie a athar. Ragaid athair alligi a meic.” (The son will go lay down instead of his father. The father will go lay down instead of his son.) Grey gives this however as “the son will enter into his father’s bed. The father will enter into his son’s bed”. The passage is not condemning homosexuality however, which the Irish did not seem overly concerned with, but rather condemning incest. The next lines are:  Climain cach a brathar. Ní sia nech mnai assatigh. (In-law each to his own kinsman. A person will not seek women out of his house.)

Chapter 2, page 43 – the author expounds on Macha’s acorn crop and its possible connection to druids, oaks, and ritual sacrifice.
Reality – Possibly a quibble on my part. Again this is a language issue. There are several words for acorn in Old Irish -  daurgne, dercu, and mesóc,however the phrase the author is discussing – mesrad Machae – is talking about mesrad which is a word that means any nut or tree-produce – although it can and does apply to acorns it is not exclusive to that type of nut and the phrase,which is found in the Sanas Cormac is using mesrad as part of analogy “mesrad Machæ .i. cendæ doine iarna n-airlech” (Macha’s crop, that is men’s heads after the slaughter). It is usually given in English as “mast” but I have seen it translated as acorn, however that is like taking the word nut and saying it means acorn, if you follow what I’m saying.

Chapter 3, page 53 – The author states that the names Morrigan and Morgan sound similar, which supports a connection between the Irish Morrigan and Welsh Morgana le Fey
Reality – the modern Anglecized version of these names do sound somewhat alike. However the names in the original languages do not. I recommend this article for clarification“Concerning the Names
Morgan, Morgana, Morgaine,Muirghein, Morrigan, and the Like” by Heather Rose Jones
The short version would be that in the original languages Morgan was pronounced mor-GANT while Morrigan was pronounced MORE-ih-guhn

Chapter 3, page 57 – the author states that the Tuatha De Danann retreated beneath the land rather than risk it’s destruction in a battle with the Milesians
Reality – when the Milesians arrived they fought an epic battle against the Gods before winning the right to live in Ireland. This story can be found in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, volume 5 which can be read online here

Chapter 4, page 66 – the author states that the flag of Connacht has a griffon on it
Reality – the flag of Connacht has an eagle on it

Chapter 4, page 69 – the author states that the “goddess of the land” meets and marries the invading Gaels
Reality – Again from the Lebor Gabala Erenn, volume 5 which can be read online here
 when the Milesians first arrive they do encounter each of the three sovereignty goddesses in turn and make agreements with them – but there is no marriage involved.

Chapter 4, page 75 – the author states that Connacht has no physical locations associated with the Morrigan
Reality – Uaimh na gCat is located in Connacht and is one of the most well-known sites associated with the Morrigan.

Chapter 5, page 86 – the author states that our knowledge of the animals associated with the Morrigan comes mostly from the Morrigan’s stories and says that justifies looking to other cultures to understand these animals
Reality – we have a fairly rich amount of animal lore from and Irish and Celtic perspective surrounding crows,ravens, wolves, cows, horses, and somewhat less about eels. These animals appear in many myths and stories separate from the Morrigan. Glynn Anderson has a book on Irish birds in myth and folklore and Miranda Green wrote book about animals in Celtic myth, for two examples.

Chapter 6, page 89 – the author states that the Morrigan appears to Cu Chulain as a three teated cow that he drinks from
Reality – in the Tain Bo Cuiligne the Morrigan appears as an old woman with such a cow, but she is not the cow herself.

Chapter 6, page 114 – the author states that in an interaction between the Morrigan and Cu Chulain where she appears with a cow, he challenges her and she disappears but leaves behind a crow
Reality – in that story, the Tain Bo Regamna, the Morrigan transforms into the crow and continues trading insults and incitements with Cu Chulain.  The story an be read here

Chapter 6, page 114 – the author states that the Morrigan attacks Cu Chulain as a wolf who causes a stampede of cows to attack him.
Reality – this occurs in the Tain Bo Cuiligne, but conflates two different events. The Morrigan attacks Cu Chulainin the form of a wolf and injures his arm, and then returns in the form of a cow and causes a stampede. there is a version of the Tain by Dunn which does mention cows stampeding when she attacks him as a wolf, but nonetheless it is the wolf biting him that is the actual attack even in that version, not the wolf driving the cows against him. In the majority of versions I have read the wolf comes against him alone and the cows are a separate event entirely. 

Chapter 7, page 122 – the author states that he cannot find anything in Irish myth about the Morrigan having a son with three hearts filled with serpents that must be killed
Reality – this story appears in the Rennes Dindshenchas under entry 13 Berbas which can be found here

Chapter 7, page 122 – the author states that Badb and Nemain have no children
Reality – Badb has at least two children according to the Lebor Gabala Erenn: Ferr Doman and Fiamain

Chapter 7, page 130 – author states that Bres ruled for 7 years until Nuada’s arm was replaced with one of silver
Reality – although somewhat ambiguous in the Cath Maige Tuired it seems that Nuada’s arm was replaced with a silver arm early. He resumed kingship after the silver arm was replaced with the original, healed, arm.

Chapter 7, page 130 – the author states that the Dagda is not a king
Reality – the Dagda was one of the kings of the Tuatha De Danann and is listed as such in the Lebor Gabala Erenn: "Now Eochaid Ollathair, the great Dagda, son of Elada, was eighty years in the kingship of Ireland."

Chapter 7, page 133 – the author states, and repeats, that Lugh’s mother is the Fomorian goddess Tailtiu
Reality – Lugh’s mother is the Fomorian goddess Ethniu. Tailtiu, who is listed among the Fir Bolg, was Lugh’s foster-mother.This information is found in the Lebor Gabala Erenn. From the source: "Taillte daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg... and Cian son of Dian Cecht, otherwise called Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, Lug to wit. Eithne daughter of Balar was his mother."

Glossary, page 183 – Banba is said to be a goddess who is one of the Morrigan or called Morrigan
Reality – Banba is part of a triplicity of sovereignty goddesses with her sisters Eriu and Fotla. She is a sister to the Morrigan but is never, herself, called Morrigan.

So it should be clear from this that there are many issues with the mythology as presented in this book. There were also some other small points which I did not get into as they may be more issues of interpretation, however I think the ones that are discussed here seriously compromise the value of the book. Sadly I am all too aware that many people will never read the original myths and stories and instead rely on secondary sources such as this book, and I believe it is very important because of that for books like this to strive to be accurate in what they present. These are not, for the most part, issues in how one looks at the stories or what one takes away from them but are problems with the myths and other information being wrong. Inarguably, factually, wrong. We can do better than this, moving forward as Irish pagans. The rituals and modern practical material may very well be fine and speak to many people, but it is vital that we get the mythology and facts correct to go along with them.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Several Short Book Reviews

First a couple for the kids or parents with kids:

The Ancient Celtic Festivals: and How We Celebrate Them Today
by Clare Walker Leslie
Overall this is an excellent book to introduce children - and adults - to the basic concepts surrounding the Celtic, specifically Irish, culture and holy days. Some of the information is a bit dated now or controversial - the entry on Beltane is particularly problematic - but in general the content is comprehensive and well researched. I especially liked the amount and quality of illustrations and the inclusion of peripheral cultural information about the Celts that I know my children will enjoy.
I would recommend this book be read to a child by an adult who can explain or clarify the problematic points, and that adults reading for themselves supplement this book with something more in depth such as Kondratiev's the Apple Branch

A Child's Eye View of Irish Paganism
by Blackbird O'Connell
This really is the perfect book to introduce your child or children to Irish Paganism. The author touches on all the basics and important concepts but doesn't overwhelm the reader with too much information. Everything is covered in an age appropriate way and in enough depth to satisfy a child or encourage deeper research. As an adult I liked the book, but what's more important my 10 year old daughter loves it. She enjoyed reading it and has repeatedly asked to do the different activities in the book. I don't think any children's book can get higher praise than that.

Then some more adult books:

Teagasca: The Instructions of Cormac Mac Airt
by C. Lee Vermeers
This is my new favorite version of this classic text. Not only has the author improved the readability of the older translations but he has in many places clarified the meaning. I also really appreciate the extensive footnotes which offer insight into both the author's choices for certain translations and also clarify certain key points of Irish culture. This allows the reader in many cases to gain an alternate view of ways that that line can be understood as well as a deeper insight into the older culture from which the text originated. The book itself is trade paperback sized and so can easily be carried in a purse or bag, and the quality of teh printing is good. More than worth the money and highly recommended.

The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex
by Brian Walsh
I highly recommend this book to anyone studying fairylore or interested in honoring the daoine sidhe. The author does a wonderful job of taking apart Rev. Kirk's Secret Commonwealth and analyzing every aspect of the material. His inclusion of Robert Kirk's personal history helps put the text in context. He also nicely summarizes the major themes and outlines the basic beliefs of the fairy belief complex in a way that is both straight forward and in depth.

Stalking the Goddess

by Mark Carter
This book is an absolutely fascinating dissection of Robert Graves' book the White Goddess, without the usual romanticism or blind-eye to history that many use to view that book. Rather the author uses a variety of tools to take apart the major themes of the White Goddess and explain their sources and ultimate motivations in ways that provide a deeper understanding of the text itself. Stalking the Goddess relies on a wide array of historic Irish and Welsh material as well as authors contemporary to Graves and Graves own words from other works to provide this in depth understanding of the White Goddess, a book that has become the cornerstone - realized or not - of many modern pagan religions. This book has great value, I think, both to modern neopagans who need to understand the roots of the things Graves has made popular but also to those interested in Irish and Welsh material who might enjoy the author's discussion of topics like the Ogham. Definitely an enjoyable and educational read.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Friday, March 20, 2015

Reconstructionism - What It Is, What It Isn't, and Why I Love It

   I've said it before but it bears repeating: Reconstructionism is a very misunderstood thing. There are many reasons for why that is and why some of those misunderstandings keep being perpetuated, but mostly it comes down to assumptions and stereotypes. So today let's take a look at what reconstruction is and what it isn't. 
   Disclaimer (because I don't enjoy the sensation of being flayed): This article is meant as a general commentary on the methodology of reconstruction when applied to polytheist religion. As with anything there will be exceptions to any statement or cases where specific styles of Recon differ. I am writing it from the base of my own experience, which is primarily in Celtic Reconstructionism* and Heathenry, however I wouldn't presume to speak for all recons everywhere.
 ~ What is Reconstructionism?
     This seems like a good place to start. Reconstruction is a methodology that uses a variety of sources including archaeology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, and historical texts to reconstruct what an ancient belief or practice most likely would have been. Using this reconstruction of the old the belief or practice can then be adapted for modern practice. Or, as I like to say, reconstruction is understanding the old pagan religion so that we can envision what it would have been like if it had never been interrupted and still existed today. 
   Reconstructionism is most often applied to spirituality but it can be used for a variety of related practices including traditional non-religious witchcraft. It can also be for mystic practices used in conjunction with spiritual practices, such as the reconstruction of seership methods within Celtic Reconstruction, or of seidhr within Heathenry. 
    Reconstruction is a method that is applied to a wide array of different ancient pagan faiths including Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Minoan, Egyptian, Irish, Gaulish, and Indo-European** to name just a few. It is a method which is both sound and flexible, but which also requires personal engagement and imagination. Because of this the end result of different people's reconstruction of the same culture's religion will not be identical, although it should be similar. 
   ~ What is Reconstructionism *NOT*
   1) Recons are not mean. Well, they aren't any meaner, generally speaking, than any other community can seem to outsiders. I see this one all the time, and it is usually rooted in two things: a difference in communication style and a difference in paradigm. People within reconstructionist communities tend to have a communication style - in my experience - that is rather blunt and straightforward. In contrast people within non-Recon communities tend, again in my experience, to have communication styles that favor friendly language and more passive aggressive approaches. Recons tend to operate from a paradigm of earned respect, skepticism, and where any statement requires hard evidence to support it, while non-recons have a paradigm of immediate intimacy, trust, and acceptance of people's assertions on face value. Neither of these is inherently better or worse than the other, but they create very different cultures and expectations of behavior for the people within them. It should be obvious that these communication styles and paradigms are in many ways antithetical and it is almost inevitable that people interacting between the two groups will have issues with each other. 
   2) Recons are not re-enactors. This is another very common one, usually expressed through the criticism that Reconstructionism is flawed because "there are things that should be left in the past". Well, yes, clearly. No one is advocating the return of human sacrifice or slavery - although we are honest about the fact that these were historic practices and that understanding them is important to understanding the culture. Reconstruction is not about recreating ancient religion exactly as it was and practicing it that way, but about understanding how it was in order to make it viable today.
   I for one love indoor plumbing and refrigeration, and I'm not about to give up all modern amenities to build a roundhouse and pretend I'm living in the Iron Age. I might not mind a round house with wifi and solar panels though. Obviously just like the rest of the population there are some recons who do favor sustainable living, off the grid living, and even a rejection of many aspects of modern technology but that isn't an aspect of reconstruction itself, anymore than belonging to the SCA or going to Renn Faires is. 
   3) Recons are not books only. There is a bit of a hesitance in reconstructionist groups - or at least the ones I have experience with - to discuss actual practice and experience. I think there are several reasons for this, including that we tend to get very tangential about minutia in discussions and we get sidetracked when someone else starts disagreeing and saying their research supports a different approach. However just because we don't talk all the time about what we actually do in our daily lives doesn't mean we aren't doing anything. Just like just because a non-recon talks a lot about what they do and not much about what they read doesn't mean that they don't read anything (I like to assume anyway). Recons do like their source material, but the entire point of the source material is using it to create a viable practice. 
  4)  Recons don't hate "upg"***. This one is also often expressed as "Recons are obsessed with lore" or "Recons are pagan fundamentalists". However you say it it simply isn't true. And that's just not my opinion, I'll quote the CR FAQs here, under What Is Celtic Reconstruction (CR): " By studying the old manuscript sources and the regional folklore, combining this information with mystical and ecstatic practice, and working together to weed out the non-Celtic elements that can arise, we are nurturing what still lives and helping the polytheistic Celtic traditions grow strong and whole again." (emphasis mine). Incorporating personal experience and mystical practice is part of reconstruction, so recons obviously do not hate personal gnosis. However we do apply the same critical thinking and discernment to mystical experiences as we do to any source of information and I suspect this is where the problem comes in. Recons question everything to ascertain its veracity including spiritual experiences and that is often unpopular especially in communities that do not share the same approach. 
   But seriously people recons don't hate mystical experiences, nor do we reject anything that isn't straight out of a book. We just place a lot of value on the vast amount of combined experience and belief that is the culture we are reconstructing and we use that as a measure for the credibility of new information. 
 ~ So why do I love it? Well, honestly Reconstruction is a part of who I am. It fits my nature, my personality, and so it is something I apply to everything: my religion, my witchcraft, my fairy faith. I was always that kid who asked why and who dreamed about what something could have been. I love studying the evidence we have and asking myself what if? What if it had never stopped? What if the Old gods, the old ways, had been continuously worshiped, continuously kept? What would that look like today? I find it a fascinating puzzle and one that I am compelled to sort out. 

  Reconstruction is not a methodology for everyone, just like any other path it is simply one option among many. It appeals to certain people for a variety of reasons, and leaves other people uninterested, and that's okay. Many people who don't practice Reconstruction, and even some who do, misunderstand what it is and sometimes perpetuate stereotypes about it, and I hope this blog helped at least a little bit to shed some light on a few of them. Recons aren't out to make people cry, aren't trying to recreate the Iron Age, aren't only about reading books, and aren't against personal ecstatic experiences or gnosis. What we are about is using solid academic evidence and personal inspiration to envision what that polytheism would have looked like today if it had existed without interruption. We are about honoring our ancestors, spirits of diverse types, and Gods. We are about respecting and helping to preserve the living culture today. 
   Reconstruction isn't about living looking backwards. Its about walking forward with the past a firm path beneath our feet, guiding our steps. 

 Further reading:

*I identify publicly as a practitioner of Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheism, however I am specifically endeavoring to reconstruct Irish polytheism. 
** Ceisiwr Serith has an interesting book called 'Back to the Beginnings: Re-inventing Wicca' which is, to all intents and purposes, an attempt to reconstruct Indo-European religious witchcraft.
***upg - unverified personal gnosis, or as Lora O'Brien puts it (and I like better) unique personal gnosis. I've also been known to refer to this as personal numinous experience, but PNE isn't as catchy of an acronym.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Spiritual Masochism or Why I Translate Ancient Texts Into Modern English

  Some of my regular readers have undoubtedly noticed that in the last several months I've begun posting more blog entries featuring translations of pieces of the old mythic texts. Some of you may be wondering why - or I may just be boring you to tears. A friend suggested this morning that I may want to explain why I've been doing the translations and how they relate to my spirituality and I thought it was a smashing idea so hear you go. It's a convoluted story, but maybe you'll understand a bit better how my head works and why I feel its so important to share this particular hobby.

   About a year ago while re-reading the Tain Bo Cuiligne I ran across a particular line that really stuck out to me, where Fergus swears on the point of his sword and calls it a "halidom of Macha". As I contemplated that line I found myself wondering if he had really said that in the Irish or if the translator had shifted the meaning in some way and on a whim I found a copy of the Tain as Gaeilge (in Irish) and checked. Indeed the phrase in question - "Mache mind" does mean halidom of Macha, but mind also has some fascinating layers of meaning including blade and oath. It was an intriguing thing to contemplate. 
  More time went by and I found myself, rather unexpectedly, writing a book on the Morrigan. As I worked with the quotes and translations of the source material for that I found myself once again wondering how well the translation reflected the original. Some people may not realize that the vast majority of translations we have access to for the Irish myths were done a hundred years or more ago, and during a time period when certain subjects where not always handled well and others were, shall we say, treated poetically? An example of this can be seen in Hennessey's approach to the line from Cath Magh Rath about the Morrigan where he translates "Caillech lom, luath ag leimnig" as a lean hag, swiftly leaping - but lom doesn't mean lean it means bare or naked. So properly this line says "a naked hag, swiftly leaping" and there is a significant difference, I think, in the imagery created between these two translations. And to me this matters a great deal. It also means that all the translations we have come to us through a specific filter which does, for good or ill, affect the meaning of what we are reading and change our understanding of it.
   So we've established that I am a stickler for semantics and that I am rather obsessed about what the original language actually said, as opposed to what the popular translations say. In Irish - modern Irish that is - there is a saying, tír gan teanga, tír gan anam, a nation without a language, a nation without a soul. I think this reflects a core truth, that our language is not only a basic means of communication but an expression of how we relate to and perceive reality. In psychology we call this linguistic relativity*, the idea that language effects how we think about the world. What this means in practical terms is that to truly understand a culture you must understand the language of that culture. 
   More time went by and the subject of the Morrigan as a battle goddess came up, and specifically of her inciting battle. The section in the Cath Maige Tuired (CMT) where the Morrigan incites Lugh to rise up and overthrow Bres was mentioned and I realized that although a small initial portion was translated the majority was not. In fact significant portions of the Cath Maige Tuired have not been translated due to the difficulty of the text and possibly the subject matter in those sections**. I decided to try translating the passage myself and found that what it said was profoundly meaningful to my understanding of the Morrigan as a goddess and as a deity of war. Over time I started taking on the project of translating more sections of the CMT, because I believe that it is important to read the sections previously untranslated and think about what they say. I made the decision to share these attempts here, even though I am at best a base amateur, because I wanted to offer other people who have no Irish or Old Irish at all a chance to see alternatives to the common translations and possible versions of the untranslated sections. I truly believe these portions of text are worth the effort to understand, and I also realize not everyone can read them. 
   As an Irish polytheist there is much insight and truth to be gained from reading the old myths, but there is a catch, because the translations that are available are written through a very specific lens. That lens distorts and changes what it reflects in ways that we are often not aware of. Reading the original language gives us a more direct understanding of the story as it would have been understood originally, but then presents a new challenge of taking that and putting it into a new language without losing too much of the meaning. There is a certain masochism, spiritually driven, that drives me to do this, to keep seeking to understand the old stories and to translate them. And I want to share whatever I can of it, with anyone who may be interested.

* commonly known, somewhat inaccurately, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
** what this means for us as Irish pagans is profound, as the CMT is a very important mythic text and we are in effect relying on translations that are at best piecemeal.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Obligatory Pantheacon Post

 I attended my first Pantheacon this year, so here is the obligatory re-cap of my experience:
Day one - travel. Who'd have thought I actually enjoy airplanes? Airports however are a form of elaborate torture. I arrived in California and was hit with immediate culture shock - you can get alcohol everywhere and it feels like early summer, and this is so not Connecticut. It was great to travel with a good friend and reconnect with other friends I had made at the Morrigan Retreat last June. I also had fun setting up a communal altar in the hotel room I was sharing with these three friends.
    Horse omens started immediately. No really, in the airport and then everywhere afterwards, horses, horses, horses. I have witnesses! Also crows everywhere. I really should have understood where this would be going but I can be slow on the uptake.
  It was a great experience setting up the traveling altars in the hotel room with my roommates. Although I am very open minded about sharing space with people of other religious persuasions and approaches I must admit staying with other polytheists was nice because there was never any need to explain anything. We all understood that altars were needed, that offerings were required, and we all had the same basic respect for those spaces and things. The communal Morrigan altar was especially powerful as all four of us are devoted to her in different ways, and since there was another Odin's woman there as well he got his space and offerings without any issue as well. There were space for other Gods being honored as well, and several jokes about the number of altars and the amount of alcohol around the room but the overall feeling was friendly and pleasant. I also set up a small space for the land spirits and Fay, as it was important to me to try to connect to the local wights.
  Later on Thursday we went to the Doubletree, the hotel where the con actually takes place, and poked around a bit, met some people including a friend from an online group that I really enjoyed spending the weekend hanging out with (we dubbed her the unofficial mayor of P-con). And then jet-lag of doom set in. Later in the evening I met the Coru Cathobouda crew at their meet and greet event which I attended with the rest of the Tuatha De Morrigan contingent (my roommates at the hotel).
Day two - registered for the con. And so it begins. Today's theme was horse skulls. Everywhere.    
    I taught a Morrigan workshop in the ADF suite and it went so well I was asked to go back Sunday and do another. Met Lora O'Brien who is really wonderful and reconnected with some of my favorite ADF people. I can safely say the ADF hospitality suite is entirely full of awesome.
 I also was able to meet several other people I had previously only known on facebook which was great. I love putting a FB name to an actual face. I must admit even though I had been warned about the size of Pantheacon I wasn't prepared for the sheer scale of it. It was larger than anything I had ever been to by orders of magnitude and because of that I didn't end up seeing or doing nearly as much as I wold have liked to, although what I did see and do was amazing.
   I attended a class by Orion Foxwood where he talked a little bit about his Faery Seership approach and also his theory of the four types of witchcraft. He is a very engaging speaker and puts on an entertaining workshop. 
Day three - the horse skulls continue. Those of you who know my old LJ/yahoo group name will get the entertainment value of my being stalked by the Lair Bhan (although it was being called the Mari Lwyd here). I'll probably do a future blog post just on that topic, but suffice to say it became something of a running joke with the group I was with.
  Very early in the morning I went to a smashing class on the Irish sidhe by Lora O'Brien - if any of you ever have a chance to go to any of her classes, DO IT!
   Later that day we wandered in to relax a bit in the Sisters of Avalon suite, admire their artwork and connect with some great people who are helping with the Morrigan sacred sites pilgrimage I'm involved in next year*. Later we hung out with some Faery Seers and learned a bit about their approach - not my cuppa but always good to learn other ways. The hospitality suites were an interesting experience in themselves, and I have to admit I thought it was really fascinating to look at the approach each one took.
      There were some spiritual shenanigans on Saturday including making offerings on a rock in a small island of trees in the parking lot. Part of my personal experience as a polytheist and Reconstructionist is that you end up making a lot of offerings, and I was lucky enough to be bunking with other people who felt similarly although the actual lead up to making the offerings should probably be categorized as a misadventure.
Day four - very early Sunday morning I went to a class on working with skull spirits because at that point it felt like I needed to figure out what was going on with all the skulls I kept seeing. It was very interesting stuff (and the Mari Lwyd was discussed of course because at that point I was still being stalked by horse skulls). Went to a class about the Morrigan, Poetry, and Prophecy - interesting info on Irish poetics but there can't ever be enough rosc catha discussion for me.   smile emoticGot to have a good chat with Morpheus and Brennos Agrocunos over lunch with the Coru and Tuatha De Morrigan folks, sort of an east coast/west coast gnoshy thing.Went to Lora's Morrigan class which was amazing, even if there were a mad amount of people crammed into a little room for it (seriously should have been in a bigger room). 
  Lora O'Brien did a workshop on the Morrigan which was intriguing and had some great food for thought in it. Hearing her talk about her firsthand experiences with the Morrigan's sacred sites, especially Oweynagat, makes me even more eager to go visit them myself. She also had a guided meditation at the end of her workshop which I found very profound. 
 Later that day I taught my second workshop, "Morrigan 2.0" in the ADF suite - anyone else noticed a theme at P-con this year?  - and had a blast doing it. ADF Druids rock! The class went well and we ended up talking about a variety of things relating to Irish Gods and mythology with a bit of Boudicca thrown in. Afterwards I was as asked to invoke Macha at the ADF unity ritual Monday morning, as if I'd say no to that! 
 That night I was dragged up to a meet and greet in the Llewellyn suite. It was an interesting experience but by far the loudest hospitality suite which made conversation a bit difficult. I enjoyed meeting Jason and Ari Mankey though and seeing the new Llewellyn releases displayed around the room.
Day five - Up very early Monday morning for the ADF unity ritual, which went really well, even if my brain ceased functioning at this point. I think I was suffering from convention burn out. And as I was standing there getting ready to thank Macha at the end of the ritual I had a strong feeling that Herself wanted the thank you in Irish. I have no idea where I pulled the words from if not Her, because by that point my mind was pretty mushy, but the words came.
    Afterwards down in the lobby I had an awesome chat over coffee with Vyviane Armstrong, Lora O'Brien, and Stephanie Woodfield about the sacred sites tour that's being planned for next year which may be one of my favorite parts of the whole con, although its hard to pick any one favorite thing.
And then - the vendor room. Wow. Please take my money awesome pagan vendors. (And I got to meet Jen Delyth and talk about, what else?, the Mari Lwyd).

The less fun part was the Epic Quest Homeward which involved two airplanes, an overnight layover in Salt Lake City airport, and New England welcoming us back to her frigid arms with a snow storm.
That's the highlights anyway, I'm sure I'm leaving half of everything out. In short, met a ton of awesome people, the craic was mighty, and I had my priestess hat on, quite unexpectedly, the whole time. Because the Work never ends.

Since people seemed to really like it, here's the Macha invocation from the ADF ritual:
"Macha Mong-ruadh
Macha of the Red Hair
Great Queen, Mighty Lady,
Uniter of opposing forces
Who was queen by her own hand
and chose the king from the most deserving
You who brought unity
Where there had been opposition and strife
Be with us now."
The "thank you" (and anyone who can correct my Irish feel free to jump in, it was a spontaneous thing) was:
"Macha Mong-ruadh
Mór Ríoghain, Bean uasal,
go raibh maith agat as do bheannachtaí
imeann i síocháin
gach croí, do bhaile"
(Macha of the Red hair
Great Queen, noble woman,
Thank you for your blessings
Go in peace
Every heart, your home)

Copyright Morgan Daimler