Monday, February 29, 2016

Toothless Lions: A Dangerous View of Gods of War


   This is somewhat of a follow up to both my blog about dangerous gods and about the nature of offerings when a war goddess is concerned.  Something that Morgan Daimler said has stuck with me and inspired a lot of good conversations with other Morrigan devotees.

"You know when my dad came back from Vietnam, when he got off the plane, people in the airport spit on him. This makes me think of that. We are spitting on our war gods because we are mistaking them for the gory collateral damage of war that we abhor. But they are not that. They are the spirit to fight and win and defend the things that matter. They are the spirit of battle that makes anything in life worth fighting for. And I think its dangerous to forget that, and very dangerous to disrespect  them. They protect us, and we need them, just as we need soldiers whether we want to admit it or not.”
 – Morgan Daimler

   When I first started working with the Morrigan she only showed me her harshest aspects. And really I needed them at the time.  It was a long time before I understood that she was more than a goddess of war.  She is a shapeshifter after all, she has many aspects and guises and often takes the exact form needed to achieve her goals or those of the Irish gods.  For a long time her connection with war made many Pagans uneasy about working with her.  Saying that you were a devotee to the Morrigan in a circle was like saying your patron goddess was Voldemort.  Over the last couple of years that has changed.  But what I wonder is whether or not we have gone to the other extreme? Have we forgotten she is a goddess of war?  Have we reshaped our idea of the “war” she rules over to better fit our morals and comfort zones?  Have we declawed our war gods? Not just the Morrigan, but all of them.  Have we made them toothless lions? Connected to the war of bygone days and movies, and not actual war, right here, right now, in modern times?

Honestly I think we have. 

   In my opinion the nature of the gods remains the same despite what we would like them to be, but ignoring a vital part of a deity’s nature is never a good idea.  Realistically most of us will never be a part of actual physical warfare unless you are in the military.  And I am grateful for that, and I am also grateful for all the men and women in uniform who risk their lives to protect myself and everyone in this country.  But I can not forget that in other countries war is very real thing to everyday people.  It still doesn’t make modern warfare extinct simply because I am not a part of it.  And I can not see the Morrigan hanging up her “war goddess hat” and saying “Well it was a good run with the spear and sword, this modern warfare I’ll just leave for someone else to carry on with!”  While they are in the minority I do know, and have come across in my travels, several Morrigan devotees in the military who do pray to her in the context of going to face actual warfare and ask for protection when they go on tour.  

   We don’t really like the idea of violence, and so we try to divorce our gods from any connections to it.  As so called nature worshipers you’d think we would pay a little more attention to how inherently violence nature is.  Volcanos erupting, lions eating zebras.  All of this creates balance, but a lot of it is through fire and blood.

   Part of the issue is that most of us work with the Morrigan in the context of conquering personal battles.  The majority of my own work with her has been just that, and she is quite good at it.  But that does not negate her connection to other types of battles.

  Perhaps we need to look at "war" a little differently.  Really think about why we connect that word to Her.  Because with gods we are talking about vast and powerful beings and it really is hard to describe all that they are, and all that they encompass into tiny mortal words.  In the end I think if we really distill the essence of what the Morrigan rules over (and I cringe to nail her down to just one thing) it is conflict.  She rules over conflict of all kinds.  And I think this makes her fluid nature easier to understand than quibbling over what the term “war goddess” really means.  If we think of her ruling over conflict of all kinds it makes sense that she can both rule over a physical battlefield and internal conflict at the same time.  I don’t think she really cares whether or not the battle is a literal one or one where you face your own demons.  Both have costs and casualties, and real or metaphorical blood will probably be spilt in either case.  And in either case she goads us onward, she reminds us what is worth fighting for, and that peace has a price to it. 

   We need our war gods, whether we like all of the things they represent or not.  I would rather see all of their harsh beauty, in all its cold hard reality, then turning them into something more pleasing to my modern eyes.        

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Nature of Offerings

My own altar, Samhain 2015

   There has been quite a lot of heated debate on the internet concerning the appropriate types of offerings to give the Morrigan.  And whether or not bullets are a legitimate one.  What I think about all those discussions boils down to two main points.  Firstly that offerings in general are a very personal thing.  The context in which an offering is made is important. And the type of offering reflects on the relationship between the devotee and the deity in question.  Secondly it begs the question: What exactly is an offering? And this is what interests me the most.  Because it’s not something often discussed in Paganism, and to be honest I find that not many Pagans necessarily make offerings as a part of their daily or regular spiritual practice.

   So what exactly is an offering? Why do we do it? Are we bribing the gods? Putting a quarter in the celestial vending machine, hoping to get the prize we want?

   Questioning whether or not an offering is appropriate to a deity requires us to consider why we are leaving that offering in the first place.  For myself it boils down to reciprocity.  I offer the gods something out of respect, love and devotion, and they offer at times something in return.  What is a small thing to a god can be something that makes a big impact in my life.  Leaving offerings helps build a connection to deity, it is something that is a regular part of my devotion to the gods I work with. 

   The spirit in which you offer something is immensely important. We are not bribing or bartering with the gods, and sadly I think this is the approach a lot of people take.  If I offer the right stone or herbs then I have essentially “bought” or bribed the gods into giving me the thing I asked for.  If a person approaches making offerings in this manner, then I’m really not surprised when the gods don’t fulfill their request.  No matter what I am offering I approach the process with love and gratitude in my heart.  Even if I have nothing more than a cup of water to offer the gods, it is the spirit in which I offer it, the devotion I imbue it with that matters the most.

   I also spend a lot of time thinking about what to offer to deity. Things that are a part of a deity’s myths, or have been historically offered to them are always good places to start.  Also if a god finds something repugnant in their myths then maybe that’s not the best thing to offer them.  For example there are specific things that certain Orisha, either via myth or tradition, should never be offered.   And lastly the offering has to have some kind of meaning to the person giving it.  On occasions I offer herbs or incense, but it worries me that these have become the fall back offerings to many people simply because they see someone else using them, and because they really aren’t thinking about why they are choosing to offer that particular item in the first place.  At a festival a few years ago I attended a ritual where those present were asked to throw an offering into a fire for the gods.  The ritual revolved around cleansing and bringing change.  A friend who was there had asked the gods to help her with something that was very important in her life.  We had known about the ritual in advance and she had brought something very special to her, and item her deceased father had given her, to offer to the fire.  The offering fit with the thing she was asking the gods for, and all was well until she noticed the items other people were throwing into the fire.  She whispered to me that she felt silly offering something so grand and so very different that those tossing handfuls of herbs and sticks of incense into the fire.  She actually felt embarrassed to offer what I felt was a beautiful gift to the gods.  A true sacrifice. Something that could not be replaced.  Eventually she did go up to the fire and make her offering.  And the gods answered her plea not long after.

   My point is that there should be some thought that goes into offerings, and that by their very nature offerings will differ from devotee to devotee.  What has value to each person and what the gods want from each of us will be different.  And it should be.  The Morrigan has many devotees. One may be a single mother, another a police officer, a soldier, a teacher, a Wiccan, a Reconstructionist, a Druid, a conservative, or a radical, the list goes on.  All of these people may have a dedication to the Morrigan but each will more than likely offer her different things.  And guess what.  That’s how it should be.  There are some things that people offer the Queen that I never would, and it really doesn’t offend or hurt me that they do so.  If it works for their practice and reflects their connection with Her, awesome.  I’ll honor Her in my way, and others in their own way.  All that really matters to me is that they are honoring Her. That they are approaching Her with devotion.  The problem with people getting riled up over someone offering something they personally wouldn’t give to a deity or personally find repugnant, comes down to confusing taste for morality.  Just because I don’t like something, or something doesn’t work well for me, doesn’t negate the fact that it could hold an entirely different meaning for someone else.

   So that brings me to what do I personally offer the Morrigan. Me personally. Not what you should offer.  What works for me.  Well surprisingly 98% of the time I offer Her whiskey or an act of bravery.  Offerings don’t have to be physical things.  One of my first teachers told me “Do something today, that you were afraid of doing yesterday. ”   Given the Morrigan’s connection to strife, battle and sovereignty, I find this to be a worthy offering.  Facing my fears, having the bravery to stand up for another person, these are all things I think She values more than any physical item I can offer to Her.  For the rest of the time I do find that the Queen likes her whiskey.  I’m that crazy Pagan who wanders a liquor store waiting to feel a nudge that says a deity wants a certain libation. 

   As to the drama on the internet, yes I have a few bullets on my altar. Two of them are from WWII and have been carried through real combat.  Near them , against the wall, is a bayonet that my grandfather brought back from WWII.  Having two great uncles and a grandfather who survived D-Day these all have meaning to me.  There is a modern bullet there too, alongside the WWII relics, sitting beside candles, offering bowls for whiskey, swords, spears, a drum painted with a raven, and multiple statues.  Bullets are not what I offer on a daily basis, but it’s something I have felt called by Her to leave on Her altar.  Because my altar to Her is a reflection of all Her aspects, not just the ones I like the best.   And because she is still a goddess of war.  Not iron age war, or just war that involves swords.  She reminds us what is worth fighting for.  What do we love enough to lay down our lives for?  When humanity stops asking ourselves those questions, maybe she will cease being a war goddess.  But I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, or ever really.

 Another picture of my personal altar
   For myself personally a bullet doesn’t represent violence.  If they do to you, then I suggest you find other things that have meaning to you to offer Her.  For myself bullets and guns are just tools, just as swords are simply tools.  The violence we connect with them originates in the person holding the tool, not the tool itself.  The swords that we romanticize has no other purpose than to kill, specifically to kill other humans.  At very least the argument can be made that spears and guns have been used for hunting. But not the sword. So the next time you pick up your ritual sword, reminded that while other weapons have replaced it over the years, it is still a weapon meant for killing.  A weapon the Celts ritually broke and offered to the gods.  That LOTR replica sword (not knocking anyone here I have a few!) may be beautiful to look at, but it doesn’t change what it is.  So in that fashion having bullets on Her altar does not bother me.  Like a sword, a gun can be used in self defense, and for myself it represents the idea that I have the right to defend myself.  I have two friends who owe their lives to having concealed carry permits.  One prevented a car jacking.  In the other case it saved a friend from being raped. We both went to college together and she had one of those so called “gun nut” fathers.  We joked with her about how he insisted she get a concealed carry permit and bought her a small gun to have with her when she walked to her car late at night from her bartending job.  And one night a man tried to assault her and force her into his car.  Luckily she was able to scare him off long enough to call the cops.  If she hadn’t had a gun at very least she would have been raped, and more than likely she would have ended up losing her life.  Similarly I know one military devotee who leaves bullets on his altar before deployment, asking for protection and that he may do his job without having to take a life. 

   Oddly enough, perhaps because I’m a vegetarian, offering meat is one of the few offerings I at first had some difficultly with.  But on occasion, usually for a very special purpose, I will offer a small portion of raw beef (the best cut of course).  I may not have had to slaughter that cow myself as our ancestors would have, but the fact that I am offering flesh remains forefront in my mind.  To offer that bit of beef something living had to give up its life, and the gravity of that goes into the energy and emotion behind my offering.  And as I said before I truly think the gods care more about the manner in which we give an offering than what the physical item is.

   This is not the first time devotees of the Morrigan have gotten heated over what other people choose to offer to the Queen.  What troubles me is that we have trouble respecting that what one person does in their practice can be different than our own.  What is repugnant to you may hold a different meaning to me.  Let the gods decide what is to their liking and what is not.  Offer what you are personally called to offer, and respect what others give in their devotion.

   Lastly what concerns me is this idea that the Morrigan’s connection to war does not apply to modern times, but instead to only the romanticized war of the past.  The Morrigan has many guises, she is far from just a goddess of war.  But war remains a part of her nature. She is not a tame lion.  She did not retire from the war goddess business once swords stopped being the high tech weapon of the day.   In some ways I see a shift in her approach.  As I said, she reminds us what is worth fighting  for.  That can apply to a personal battle or a literal battle.  And today I find she is very concerned with claiming personal sovereignty and goading us into facing our personal demons.  But that makes her no less a goddess of war. To pretend she is otherwise, simply because we find modern warfare distasteful, is to deny a vital part of Her being. Morgan Daimler puts it quite succinctly:
"You know when my dad came back from Vietnam, when he got off the plane, people in the airport spit on him. This makes me think of that. We are spitting on our war gods because we are mistaking them for the gory collateral damage of war that we abhor. But they are not that. They are the spirit to fight and win and defend the things that matter. They are the spirit of battle that makes anything in life worth fighting for. And I think its dangerous to forget that, and very dangerous to disrespect  them. They protect us, and we need them, just as we need soldiers whether we want to admit it or not."
   When someone offers something to a deity, respect that it’s a personal choice.  It is part of their devotion to deity, not yours.  And may we remember to respect that gods may represent things we are uncomfortable with, and that to turn a blind eye to part of their nature is dangerous.  When you make offerings to the gods think about why you are offering a particular item.  What meaning does it hold for you? What connection does it have to the god you are giving it to?  Find what works for you, not just what works for other people.  Because you are the one making the offering, not anyone else.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dangerous Gods


   I’m home from PantheaCon and finally catching up on sleep!  I had a great time connecting with old friends, plotting shenanigans, and talking and connecting with some great people.  After the workshop I taught about Badb and omens someone asked a question I get quite a lot in regards to the Morrigan, and was later asked the same question by another person later at the Con.  “Do you think the gods are dangerous?”  On one level I’m glad the conversation has moved past ‘Is the Morrigan dangerous?’ to us thinking about the nature of the gods in general.  But it is something that comes up a lot when we are talking about dark deities or ones we perceive to be.

   So are the gods dangerous?  Well the short answer is, yes.  And well when you get down to it, isn’t living dangerous too? Taking the subway or getting in your car can be dangerous too. But it’s a kind of a risk or danger that you accept.  Working with dark and dangerous gods is kind of like that.  Life is not without risks, anymore than magick or working with the gods.  I’ll get to my own definition of “dangerous” in a moment, but first let’s look one or two rungs down the spiritual hierarchical chain of beings.   Consider what any good teacher will tell you about Faeries.  Or angels for that matter.  Caution is required.  The Sidhe can be beneficial or try to eat you.  No one has any qualms over calling the Sidhe dangerous, because well they can be at times.  But it also doesn’t negate that having a connection to them and working with them can be rewarding.  The danger is understood.   We understand that although many of the Sidhe have human like appearances they are inherently not human.  They are something other, and we can’t expect them to play by human rules of have human moralities.  Likewise with angels there is an understanding that they are not human.  And if you have read the traditional descriptions of angels (they resemble fat little winged babies about as much as the Sidhe resemble Tinkerbelle) you’ll find they can be quite scary, and they rain down the wrath of god quiet often.  But again we have an easier time accepting the danger, and the understanding that some are beneficial and others we may have to be warry about or take certain precautions.

   To some extent the logic we apply to these beings we also must apply to the gods.  No matter how human they appear or what form they take, the gods are powers so vast and unknowable that our little human minds can’t really completely comprehend them.  They created stars and planets, created us and all the beings be share this planet with.  I do think the gods care about us and aspects of our lives, but at the same time I think they also have their own agendas and have a must vaster picture in mind.  We can’t apply human expectations on them, or moralities.  We want them to be human, but they are not.  That is not to say they are not a part of us, and I feel we are a part of them.  There is a connection, and interaction between us, but that is not the same thing.  Just as the Sidhe and angels may appear human-like in appearance, yet by definition are something completely “other”.      

  So where does the danger apply?  Well we can’t see the gods as spiritual parents who never get mad at us.  Trust me, gods can and do get mad at people.  And usually you get the point pretty quick when it happens.  Not showing respect to the gods, treating them like spiritual vending machines when we want something, can have consequences.  Particularly depending on the god in question.  Asking them for help and not really wanting to do the work can be dangerous too. You can’t expect the gods to wave a wand and make everything better, you have to earn it.  They will help you, but you have to be willing to bleed a little sometimes.  For example when some people have described their work with the Morrigan they will often describe a whole lot of upheaval and crap happening when they asked Her to help them bring some kind of change into their lives.  The Morrigan will goad you, throw you off the deep end so to speak.  She will place things in your path until you have truly dealt with your demons.  It’s not to say She won’t help you, she will, but it isn’t in her nature to give you the easy way out.  Similarly a friend who works with Odin has said to me in the past that “If you give him an inch, he will take a mile”.  Knowing the gods you are working with, things they might find distasteful, knowing their personalities can all help when working with them.

  The next logical question is of course “Are they too dangerous to work with?” My answer to that is No.  But like working with the fay or other beings we must approach the work with some understand that there is a certain element of risk.  The gods will challenge you, make you stronger than you have ever been, but at the same time can completely rearrange your life, and sometime it can be exactly what we need.  But when we ask them for things we must realize risk is involved, we may have to let go of other things to achieve the things we want, to become the kind of person we wish to be. My relationship with and devotion to the Great Queen is deep, there is great love there, on both ends I think.  It’s a relationship that has built and grown over many years.   But I can’t see her as a spiritual mother who will wipe my ass either.  We have to let go of that image of the gods.  That image of God the Father way up in the clouds looking down benevolently on his children, doesn’t apply to my gods. And really doesn’t describe the old testament Yahweh either.    

  So yes gods can be dangerous, working with them has consequences and rewards.  The oaths we speak to them have consequences.  We must remember that these are vast and powerful beings, they are not human, not truly, no matter how close to humanity they are they are still something “other”.