(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.

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

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 – An Chailleach Bhéarra: Art, Music, Filidecht…

The next four questions fit very well together, so I’m tackling them all at once.

20) Art that reminds you of this deity

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An Cailleach Bheara by the Irish Film Board. They take from both Irish and Scottish myths about the Cailleachean, but there’s a lot of ‘my’ Bhéarra in this film. Her associations with the wild, and with wild animals; the story of the bones in the attic (which is Ireland-wide but feels very relevant, especially the way they bring out the theme of the clash of Christian and pre-Christian aspects of Ireland); the renewal of the Cailleach every 100 years… Really, really beautiful.

21) Music that makes you think of this deity

For me, the sadness that this song expresses for the people of a little town comes straight from the heart of their tutelary deity. Poor men from across Ireland went to fight in whatever wars England was engaged in at the time, and had no choice in the matter. Bantry is a little harbour town in Beara – the girls would have stood on the docks and watched their men leaving them. (My great-grandmother taught lace-making in Bantry.) It’s entirely possble that this song comes from a different Bantry, but the song works very well for me as a picture of life in that little town.

22) A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with

If we’re specifically talking about Baoi, rather than other Cailleachean, then my favourite writing about her is the collection of poetry called ‘Cailleach: the Hag of Beara’ by Leanne O’Sullivan. It draws strongly on local myths about Bhéarra, which are quite hard to come by outside of the peninsula. In this collection, Bhéarra is simultaneously a mortal woman and a goddess, as the stories and history of ordinary people from Beara merge with the legends of their Hag. In the poems, her husband, the sea god, is also a fisherman – and they are destined to join and then part, like land and sea.

This is the sea at the end of it;
the sky and the sea’s tangled cries flooding
inwards, then out to the grey reflection of itself.

I am lost in this encircling.

But my favourite poem from the collection is a somewhat indecipherable one. The woman’s fisherman-husband is dead, and she is at the end of her 100-year life, preparing to turn to stone and be reborn:

The Wanderer

Would you walk with me, woman?
The cold is in for the night now,
and the mountains quiet. It’s scarce
the sun rolls around her face
or walks out in the fields. The cold is in.
Would you walk with me, woman?

The night makes a blaze of my grief,
my only soft and finest love.
Her long hair is flung out before me
like moonlight on the sea.
All the memory of her is me.
Would you walk with me, woman?

I have no talk of war or song,
I have no ready ear to the earth
or words in passion for their work.
Sooner comes the dark engrained
on summits, and the ocean louder.
Would you walk with me, woman?

One more road in a whirl of roads
opens before me like a ritual of place.
I remember the foreign lightness of her touch.
I loved her soft and undecipherable notes.
The mountains are dark now. The cold is in.
Would you walk with me, woman?

– Leanne O’Sullivan

23) Your own composition – a piece of writing about or for this deity

I don’t write poetry very often – I have to be really caught by imbas – but here’s one I wrote for her people, a little while ago. I’ve posted it before, so I’ve stuck it behind a tag.

You are forgotten people of forgotten gods. Continue reading

Grey Skies, Galoshes and Greed: the (Druid?) Ethics of Weather Magic

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It seems to me (and this is just my interpretation) that there are two types of modern druid magic. In one, the focus is on the images of ancient druids controlling the forces of nature. In another, there’s a trend of seeking oneness and harmony with the environment, an approach where the magic is more about understanding our place within the land and the delicate balance of its forces, than attempting to impose our will onto it.

I won’t say I’ve never done the former, the kind of magic that imposes my will on the world/the land, rather than seeking union with it. But not when it comes to weather or the ecosystem.

What I do do a lot of, is calling on deities for help with weather. I assume that they, like land spirits, have a much better understanding of my ecosystem and its needs than I ever could. This tends to lead to much hilarity from SJ, who’s always saying “Ask a god to move this storm” (generally when we’re trying to drive through it) and I call on Manannan, who makes the most sense. (Or, when I’m desperate, Bhearra the goddess of the wild land and its wilder weather.) “He’s a rain god!” SJ argues with me. “Find a sun god.” And then I point out that, in the British isles, we were always guaranteed to have more in the way of thunder and storm deities than, say, gods of clear sunny days. From Taranis to Thunor to the many river goddesses, we are surrounded by water, and any gods who embody our land will probably be a bit… drippy. We do have sun deities, but, like Sulis, they also have springs and underworld associations and lots of other watery goodness.

And why not? Why wouldn’t I, like them, want to revel in the incredible beauty of the surprising, never-static weather of this land? I’m not one of these people who says “Ugh, raining again.” The weather is incredibly fickle here (raining? wait an hour – it probably won’t be). SJ has this strange, optimistic belief that every storm comes with a rainbow (no, they’re not being trite – they really think so and apparently can argue it with bad science) – so our life is full of “Quick, find the rainbow!” moments. There’s the wonderful excitement of suddenly going from a wet day to a sunny one, or of the mists that come down so fast you can wander into the Otherworld in them, and which lift again just as quickly, so that it looks you really did pass into another land. Is there anything more beautiful? Would I really want to impose my socially-constructed, limited idea of ‘a good day’ onto that?

8488755320_da9ed849cc-1The recent storms and months of flooding around here were very scary, specifically because they were different patterns from usual. The weather didn’t change. It just rained, for months. Towns flooded, people lost their homes and died. The rivers Soar and Avon, and my beautiful Trisantona, the Trent, are still trespassing into the fields around their boundaries. While the evidence is still being collected, the Met Office is putting recent weather down to climate change.

And that’s what happens with people mess with the weather. Build more factories and power stations? Be aware that you’re going to pump crap into the sky and the rivers. Drive more cars? Be aware that you’re contributing to the global rise in carbon dioxide that contributes to ‘global warming’. Do weather magic? Be aware that there’s a good chance you’re going to shift patterns that are really important to the local ecosystem. Or worsen patterns that are already screwed-up because of pre-existing environmental damage, like at the moment. If you can deal with that, fine. I don’t think my ethics can extend to that level – not with my very human perspective on the landscape. In tandem with deities who understand weather patterns better than I do, maybe.

But wouldn’t it be even better for me to keep trying to live in harmony with the weird, surprising beauty of the climate of my islands, that have given rise to myth and folklore and the best ghost stories? And am I not more likely to hear the land spirits that way, and be in the right mindset to form alliances with them that transcend the temporary annoyance of a little bit of rain? Yes, sometimes the weather can make me really ill – arthritis doesn’t like the damp, and I do much better in the summer than in the winter. But these are the patterns of life. What else would I miss if I gave them up?

I have a very clear memory of a school assembly – a Christian one – led by my lovely primary school teacher Mrs B (who always seemed, to 6-year-old me, to be aged about 100). She was talking to us about an upcoming school trip. She said that we could pray for good weather, but we had to leave it in the hands of God, and remember that while we’re praying for sun, the farmer down the road might be praying for rain. And that, since we and the farmer couldn’t both get what we wanted, we had to be prepared for bad weather and a cancelled trip. We can’t be greedy for the weather we want, she said. We’re not the only people who want things.

It’s still the best lesson I’ve ever had on the subject. Thanks, Mrs B, for your excellent druid weather magic ethics!

All in the Family (30 Days of Deity Devotion 5, 6 & 7)

To summarise today’s overly-detailed ramblings: Bhéarra is not one of the Tuatha De Danann. She has a sister over the bay in Dingle, called Duibhne/Dovinia, for whom a tribe is named. An eighth-century myth about an ancestor of the Dingle people associates him with Bhéarra and her white cow that turns to stone. I share a bit of my UPG about these two goddesses. Continue reading

30 Days of Deity Devotion, 3 & 4: Symbols and Myths

3) Symbols and icons of this deity

Well, it all depends how many of the stories of the other Irish Cailleachean you integrate into Baoi’s mythology. I put a limit on this, to some extent – but if I’ve read of/heard Beara people talk about it as an aspect of Baoi, I’m more likely to include it.

Based on that, some of her possible symbols are: Continue reading