(Pt 2:) My Polytheism

There’s a beautiful trend happening. People are writing about their polytheisms, people whose polytheistic practices are diverse, varied, multiple, weird, different from what we’re told (recently) that polytheism ‘should’ be. (See Jack’s post here, and Kiya’s post here, and the wonderful My Polytheism blog which is collecting a lot of this writing – and I hear that Jolene Poseidonae wants more people to contribute to it!)

Like a lot of these brilliant writers, I have been really concerned by the gatekeeping and crypto-fascist stuff coming out of those who would paint themselves as ‘leaders’ of polytheism. As though it were a cult and they were the gurus. As though it were a singular religion, with rules that we all share, and which they can write.

For me, part of this mess has been positive. My Lady is pointing me at the roots of modern cultural polytheisms – roots which are mostly nationalistic and fascist, if we are completely honest – and asking me if that’s what I want to be part of, even as it moves beyond that. For that history will always be with it. I’m thinking about that, and it may take some time. These things can be transformed, She says – but is that the Work you want to do?

Because you see, my gods are not particularly bothered how I worship them and what I call myself. And my ancestors definitely aren’t. It’s for you, they whisper, and I, barely hearing them, shake my head like I were brushing off flies, and pour out my offerings on shrines that Irish gods never had, and that they certainly don’t have now. And what paltry offerings they are – whiskey and mead and scraps of food.

And they don’t mind – it’s what I need. And I believe they appreciate those little offerings, paltry as they are. But there’s a sense that, when I’m ready, there are far bigger things waiting for me outside the four walls of the room that houses my shrines to the beings of Light that dwell in the secret places of the land. And far, far bigger things waiting for me beyond the four walls of my current ways of thinking and doing and worshipping.

My gods do not live in any shrine inspired by modern polytheism. No offering of whiskey is enough for them, and no trinkets that remind me of them could ever fill the deep, dark spaces they have made in my heart.

Then what do you want? I ask, perturbed, frustrated.

You, whispers Beara, my dark Lady, whom I had the gall to name myself, whose tales I have twisted as she has led me to, in whom I have found a depth of chaos and justice that no constructs of ‘ancient lore’ can describe. For it can only be found in the places she dwells – in the wind in the trees, at the seashore in a storm, on a wild island, on the mountain. And in the deepest pool of chaos, beneath the Tree.

Anything (and everything) you want, says Dovinia, ancestress-goddess who crosses divides between land and people, and finds me lost, somewhere in the depths between.

The Adventure, winks Manannan mac Lir, who does not care if I put the accents on the right places in his name, for all names and stories could only ever be an echo of the sound of the sea on the rocks in a mighty storm – and a wry, friendly fisherman watching from the shore in a bright yellow hat, so easy to miss in the heavy rain. He offered me a box once and asked if I wanted to open it. I’m not sure I’ve even cracked the lid yet.

They ask me to challenge the deepest parts of myself that do not want to offer hospitality to the stranger (or wants to fetishise them* until my hospitality is far more about me than about them). The parts of me that withdraw into tribal instincts – where what is mine must stay pure and unsullied by others, and what is yours must be mine if I think it is good, and condemned as alien and wrong if I do not. The parts of me that are racist, colonialist, internally and externally disablist, internally and externally homophobic, transphobic, classist, elitist… the list goes on. The parts of me that secretly like that most of my gods are Irish and that I rarely venture out to meet others. That I rarely look beyond my little boxes. That I call myself a thing and ignore how it oppresses others. Because to look at that oppression is difficult, and may involve Work that I’m just too tired to do. (The parts of myself that use ‘I’m too tired’ as an excuse far, far too often.) They call me to challenge all these things in me, for only then can I even begin to challenge them in others.

This is my offering.

They ask me to give all of myself to a cause without end, from the depths of my frustration and pain, in disability campaigning that alienates me from my community – and leaves me deeply hurt, unsure if I should go on with such work that makes people stand against me, vocally, if very boringly. But I will, because order needs chaos, rising up from the dark pool beneath the Tree, or nothing ever changes. And Beara nods, and approves – but only long enough to ask for more.

This is my offering.

And they ask me to do the most simple things, that are the most difficult. Continuing to show up, even in the too-bright, scorching days of a summer ruled by Balor, where my world and my mind feels like it is falling apart. Keeping going, when the doctors are unkind and unhelpful, when the university administration is neglectful to the point of my desperation, when the mountain of work is terrifying to look up at. To keep pulling out that next transcript to analyse, Cuchullain-like (but with no super-strength to help). To accept the many gifts that They give me. To believe my spouse loves me. To keep lighting the candle on the shrine – because that is what I need, and my need is great.

This is my offering.

My polytheism is social justice. My polytheism is critical theory. My polytheism is Hannah Arendt and bell hooks and Sara Ahmed and Robert McRuer and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson and Sharon Betcher and Nancy Eiesland. My polytheism is stories – sharing the stories of those who are not heard, because my privilege means my voice is louder, and this is what I can do. My polytheism is research into disability and Christianity, that I have never walked away from in six long years, through circumstances having forced me to attend three universities, all of which have made it very hard to work as a disabled student – because I made a commitment, and because the stories of my participants need to be told. My polytheism is hospitality, keeping my vows, showing up, and really trying hard not to raid the cattle of others.My polytheism is the modern stories that inspire me that I am afraid others will laugh at, and so I relegate my feelings about those to other places, and pretend I am not inspired by Buffy and Angel and X-Men and Night Vale and a reimagined Narnia where a queen calls to me. My polytheism is not even sure it’s all that different from monotheism, some days, when the voice of the One whispers through and in the voices of the Many. My polytheism simply is, a belief in many gods, because many gods made themselves known to me. And oh, how they made themselves known!

My polytheism is nothing like yours. And that’s OK. It’s good. It’s beautiful.

Now please – tell me about yours?

(Don’t worry – part 3, on disability, miasma and polytheism, is still on the way… :) )

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Image: ‘Bright Flame’ shrine. Images of Brighid and Our Lady Breaker of Chains, with flowers (from my garden) and candles, plus memorial and inspirational items.

*Currently reading Sara Ahmed on the fetishisation of the stranger. I recommend it.

You know me? You don’t know me

I am not a reconstructionist.

There. I said it. I feel better now, I think.

I was strongly drawn to reconstructionism in the beginning. It seems so academic. (The fact that most academics would find what reconstructionists do rather… inaccurate and confusing, is an entirely different issue.) It seems so clear. Got questions about a deity? The answers are out there, waiting to be uncovered by (usually amateur) archeologists/linguists/folklorists/mythicists.

Except they aren’t. And I feel, increasingly, that this is not a way to do religion or spirituality.

I love looking for clues in the stories of the land. My deities can all be spotted there, or at least, shadows of them – including Baoi (Beara), Dovinia/Duibhne (of the Corca Dhuibhne people), and the Three Sisters (Lasair, Latiaran and Gobnait-who-is-sometimes-Inghean Buidhe-or-sometimes she’s-one-of-the-others-and-sometimes-she’s-Crobh-Derg). But they are, as you can see even when I just try to say their names, not all that easy to pin down. The Three Sisters are deeply rooted in the land around Cork and Kerry, and if you ask the locals about St Latiaran, they will know who you mean, and they will tell you stories about her that you’ve never heard before. But these deities also have precedents across the water and across Ireland. Does that make them any less local? No. It makes them a far bigger mystery than they first seem. The clues are there, but they will slip out of your hands when you try to grasp them. Continue reading

Preparation for Dedication

30. Any suggestions for others just starting to learn about this deity?

The last question on the 30 Days of Deity Devotion is a tricky one. There is so little written about the Cailleach Bhearra of the Beara Peninsula, specifically. She’s there, in myths and folklore, but you have to look hard. She creeps in, shrouded in disguise, passing for an ordinary old woman. She’s the wife of a druid on an island with a cow. She’s a woman with a lobster in a box. She’s a farmer with a harvest to reap, competing with any man who believes he can reap it faster. She’s an Old One turned to stone by a Christian saint, looking out across the sea and waiting for her husband the sea-god. Waiting for the right time for her reemergence from the land, renewed and young again. Continue reading

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Misconceptions and Faith

27) Worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered

I’m always very surprised when ‘hard’ polytheists will talk in one breath about how annoying it is when deities are conflated, and in the next will talk about ‘the Cailleach’ in a very archetypal way. People who see all gods as separate beings will routinely conflate the myths of many different areas of Ireland and Scotland about Cailleachean. Despite her (other) name, Baoi is not the same as them. There’s been cross-pollination of myths, and I don’t know exactly what that means for the deities in question. But they’re not exactly the same, by any means. Continue reading

Slí na Fírinne*: Imbas

*’The Way of Truth’.

“What’s UPG?” asked my friend, after a grove ritual a few weeks ago.

I’d been basking in the midsummer sun, dancing with the fae, honouring Aine of the Summer Sun in all her glory. The imbas was flowing.

“What’s UPG?” My answer was halting and not accurate. All at once I realised: I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. Continue reading

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Pantheons

I’m trying to catch up with all the blog posts I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but haven’t. Continuing my series on Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra, here’s the next in the #30DDD blog series.

16) How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?

Well, to start with, talking about a ‘pantheon’ in relation to Cailleach Bhearra doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I would argue that our insistence on making a pantheon out of the Irish gods doesn’t work too well when you’re looking at local cults and traditions. Tribes and localities had different gods, and not all of those gods will have been represented in the ‘official’ medieval myths. (Especially not when you’re looking at a very marginalized area like West Cork.) Baoi and Duibhne/Dovinia are cases in point. While there is a Bui/Bua in some medieval texts, it’s very hard to say if she’s Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra. Likewise, the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is a fascinating piece that doesn’t fit particularly well with local folklore. It’s even harder with Duibhne/Dovinia, whose name is all over the Dingle peninsula on ogham stones, but who isn’t represented in myths at all, and about whom contradictory stories are told. (Some dictionaries of mythology even tell you Duibhne is a male ancestor of the tribe – while others call her the Hag/Witch of Dingle, sister to Cailleach Bhearra. So to some extent, my entire relationship with Duibhne is UPG/personal experience. Which is a bit frustrating, sometimes, when you’re talking about one of your patrons.*)

But Baoi does represent some values that are relevant to the old gods of Ireland. She’s a sovereignty figure – and sovereignty goddesses seem to have been incredibly important to the Gaelic tribes, with different queens of the land in each area. She may also be a fertility and prosperity deity, as many of the sovereignty queens seem to have been. Baoi is much more wild than some of them (based on my reading of other myths), though. She gives life and takes it away again. She’s chaos and creation. She’s a Cow Goddess with Mare Goddess attributes. She’s impressive but deeply chaotic. She’s not a tame lion, to quote a certain writer of fantasy.

17) How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?

There’s evidence that she might have Norse origins. Dursey Island, which is her place, has a Nordic-influenced name as well as the Gaelic one (which could in fact be a later name). If I were more familiar with Norse mythology, I might say that she feels a bit Jotun-like. But I’m not so I won’t. ;)

18) How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG)

Well, it seems likely that she had a role to do with prosperity and fertility. I tend to focus on the prosperity and fertility of the land, in this context, since I’m not planning to produce any babies anytime soon. But I don’t have any personal experince of her pushing the ‘polarity’ stuff on me. In some local traditions she’s married to Manannan mac Lir, but he’s not her consort – they are ever separated by the sea, and she is left looking out over the cliffs, waiting for him.

My personal impression is that she likes creativity, including sexual expression, whether opposite-sex or same-sex.

19) What quality or qualities of this god do you most admire? What quality or qualities of them do you find the most troubling?

The qualities I admire in her are also the qualities that terrify me. She has wild, unpredictable whims – like a storm. My experience is that Bhearra is not like us. She’s very unlike us. Sometimes I feel that, while I can have a vaguely rational conversation with Duibhne, talking to Bhearra is like trying to talk to the mountains. She has such an entirely different perspective on creation, destruction, life and death that she can’t relate to some of my passing concerns. The ageless Mountain sees us as ants who live and die in a moment… Which doesn’t mean I experience her as callous, exactly – though it can sometimes feel that way. On the positive side, though, she takes the long view – and this little ant often needs that.

A Story

A child of the Mountain lived in a little hut beneath that mountain, at the very edge of the seashore.

At night, when the sea came close to the edge of the shore, it brought the winds with it. They rocked and shook the hut, the spray of the sea battering against the windows, the cold wind whistling through the cracks in the walls. She feared for her safety.

So the child climbed the Mountain.

“Help me, Lady Mountain,” she said, when she got to the top. “Your winds are battering my little hut, and I’m afraid that it won’t stay standing for much longer.”

“What do you want with a hut?” said the Mountain. “One day all things will be washed away, and all that will remain is the sea and the mountain, and then even I will be gone, and there will be nothing but land, sea and sky. You have no need of shelter. If you want to serve me, embrace the chaos. It’s all there is.”

Well, thought the child of the Mountain, while this was probably good advice, it wasn’t quite what she needed.

So off she went across the bay to talk to the Mother of the Tribe.

She found Her sitting serenly on the cliffs, watching the tide go in and out.

“Help me, Mother of the Tribe,” she said. “Across the bay, my little hut is battered by raging winds and rising tides. The Lady of the Mountain will not calm the winds. Can you?”

Duibhne laughed. “You serve the Forces of the wild, and you thought that you could escape them? You built a hut on the edge of the sea beneath the mountain, and you think you can find shelter from Her chaos.”

She went on, “If you want peace and quiet, you can leave the mountain and come and live here with me. Life with my people is quiet and safe. I tend the land where the people live, not the empty wilderness where only the wild animals can survive. Come and farm sheep here, among the people of the Tribe. Or, if you’d rather, go back to the Mountain and live in the wild with her. Your choice.”

So she built a sturdy cottage, set back from the seashore, surrounded by farmland, and lived among the people of the Tribe.

And she lay awake at night, wishing she could hear the spray of the sea that used to sing against the windows of her hut, wishing she could feel the cool winds whistling in through the cracks in the walls. She missed the thrill of the hurricanes that used to rage around her, missed the wonder of the mighty sea in its eternal dance with the land. Here the sea was silent and the winds were mild and warm. This was not her home.

So it was with a mixture of fear and excitement that she returned, one day, to the Mountain. She found her hut in pieces. She sat in the foothills and waited for the storm to roll out over the sea.

“Embrace the chaos,” said the Mountain, approvingly.

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References

J. MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
All the other books I’ve cited on the topic of Cailleach Bhearra in this blog post series
And a story out of my own head.

*For want of a better word. I do not have one.