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A Wildness Comes on the Heart of the Deer

From Christopher Scott Thompson

 

A Fianna warrior running. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

It is the month of May is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.

 Summer is lessening the rivers, the swift horses are looking for the pool; the heath spreads out its long hair, the weak white bog-down grows. A wildness comes on the heart of the deer… (Poem attributed to Finn)

The thing that I love most in the world, other than people of course, is poetry. And thus, by extension, religion and philosophy. Which causes me to love justice and seek truth. Which forces me to admit that the world is currently ruled by injustice and lies. Which drives me to anarchism and revolution.

Poetry is at the heart of my reality; it is how I feel anything at all. It is how I understand what I feel. It is how I express it. When poetry is used in the service of horror and ugliness, I call that an obscenity. I call on my gods for the strength to defeat it.

Men Who Are Not Wolves

A torch blazes in the center of a table scattered with ritual implements. A man dressed in a black leather jacket leans forward slightly as if receiving a benediction from the shirtless man whose hand rests paternally on his back. A man kneels, holding a spear, nearby. Another kneels with an animal skull. Their faces are marked with runes and thick white face-paint. The scene might look like a black metal album cover, but to the men participating it is clearly solemn, mysterious, a spiritual experience. This is a ritual of the Wolves of Vinland, a white supremacist heathen sect that refers to itself as a “tribe” and has chapters in Virginia, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

The power of the mythic is one thing fascists understand. Appeals to reason will never reach them, because their belief system doesn’t have anything to do with reason. Liberals may not want to admit it, but no belief system is truly based on reason. Reason is a powerful tool for defending or questioning a belief if you choose to do so, but the real foundation of any belief is the primal emotions and core values of the person holding it. The deepest and most personal parts of the self are beyond the reach of argument. The language of the deep places is the language of myth.

We must not surrender the mythic to the fascist enemy. If we want to drive fascism back into the abyss and create a world of justice and equality, we must make the mythic a contested ground.

Tribal Fantasies

The fantasy tribalism of the Wolves of Vinland is empty at the core, based on an imaginary conception of what a tribe is by people who were not born into anything of the sort. The “tribalism” peddled by writers like Jack Donovan (a member of the Wolves of Vinland) is more similar to a Conan comic than any actual tribe, ancient or modern.

That doesn’t change how appealing it is to the men who fall for it, and the many others who feel the same deep sense of need. People want to have a tribe because they want to be part of something meaningful, something with mythic power, something they can give themselves to and be ennobled by.

The left used to understand something about how to create that kind of myth. Millions of people devoted their lives to communism, for better or worse. The lived for it, fought for it and died for it. They didn’t do that because they rationally agreed with a certain economic theory. They did it because the dream of creating a classless society was something big enough to give your life to. Millions of people fought for anarchism for the same reason – they wanted to be part of a heroic struggle to make a better world for human beings to live in, a world without hierarchy or fixed authority.

The dream of the fascists is not about creating a better world, but transforming the world into something even crueler than it already is. A world in which violence is fetishized and exalted while any form of perceived weakness is degraded and despised. A world in which the only thing that matters is whether you are an insider, because all outsiders are slaves or prey.

It may seem strange and horrifying that this appeals to anyone, but the truth is that it has proven to be as powerful an idea as anything the left has ever offered. It cannot be defeated by rational argument alone, and still less by smugness and sarcasm. Defeating this idea requires courage. It requires sacrifice. It requires heroism.

We need to meet esoteric fascism on the same ground it is attempting to claim, armed with a better and nobler myth, and defeat it there.

If pagan fascists have a warrior magic, we need a better one.

Warband Culture

Among the ancient Celtic cultures, most warriors fought on behalf of a particular tribe, or a clan faction within a particular tribe. As in several other Indo-European cultures, there were also warriors outside of any tribe or clan, warriors who lived in the deep forests and survived by hunting, raiding and banditry. These warriors were organized into small warbands, united by loyalties that were personal rather than tribal. If the Irish lore is an accurate guide, the warbands were often in conflict with the tribal kings.

Warbands of this type could also be hired as mercenaries. In Celtic Gaul they were known as Gaesatae, in Celtic Ireland as Fianna. Members of a Fianna warband were specifically not considered members of any clan or tribe, and were absolved from the ties and obligations of kinship while in the warband:

And there was no man taken into the Fianna until his tribe and his kindred would give securities for him, that even if they themselves were all killed he would not look for satisfaction for their death. But if he himself would harm others, that harm was not to be avenged on his people. (From the Finn Cycle)

Although there is an entire cycle of Irish legend based around the Fianna chief named Finn MacCumhail, there are also references to Fianna warbands in the older Ulster Cycle.

Fianna bands were among the last groups in Ireland to resist the conversion to Christianity, and the early Irish law codes associate them with the final remnants of the druids. In at least one case, a Fianna band is described as being led by a druid.

A small but tightly-knit band living outside the tribe and outside the law, close to nature and uncontrollable by any power structure. This sounds like the perfect model for a pagan anarchist affinity group…

The Fianna Ethos

The Fianna were defined by small autonomous bands. The standard size of a Fianna warband was 27 fighters, as seen in this passage from the Finn cycle:

AND the number of the Fianna of Ireland at that time was seven score and ten chief men, every one of them having three times nine fighting men under him.

The Fianna band of Cathbad the druid had 27 warriors, as did the band of Nessa the woman-warrior:

Conchobar was called from the name of his mother, mac Nessa. But her name in the beginning had been Assa, “docile “or” gentle,” and it was on this manner that it was changed to Niassa, “ungentle.” She was daughter of Eochaid Yellow-heel, king of Ulster, and by his desire she had been trained up by twelve tutors, to whom she was ever docile and full of teachableness. But in one night the entire number of her tutors fell by the hand of Cathbad the druid, who from the southern part of Ulster went on a raid through Thin with three times nine men. He was a man of knowledge and of druidical skill; moreover, he was endowed with great bodily strength. Now the girl had no knowledge who they were who bad slain her guardians, but from that moment she turned woman­warrior, and with her company set out to seek the author of the deed. In every district of Erin she destroyed and plundered, so that her name was changed to Niassa (Nessa) after that, because of the greatness of her prowess and of her valor. (From the Ulster Cycle)

The Fianna of legend were required to display personal integrity, generosity, and immovable courage:

And every man of them was bound to three things, to take no cattle by oppression, not to refuse any man, as to cattle or riches; no one of them to fall back before nine fighting men. (From the Finn Cycle)

Given that Fianna warbands lived by raiding and banditry as well as hunting, what does it mean to say “take no cattle by oppression”? In my opinion it can only mean that the raids of the Fianna should target those with cattle to spare, not those who are barely surviving. In other words, expropriation.

“Not to refuse any man, as to cattle or riches” refers to the extravagant generosity expected by the Celtic society of which the Fianna were a part. These outlaw warriors were oathbound to refuse nothing to anyone:

Finn never refused any man; he never put away any one that came to his house. If the brown leaves falling in the woods were gold, if the white waves were silver, Finn would have given away the whole of it.

There is no conception of “private property” here, no concept of wealth for its own sake. No honor is gained by keeping anything; honor can only be gained by giving everything away. The warband takes from those who have more than they need, and gives all of it away without a thought for the morning. Sounds sort of… communist, doesn’t it?

“No one of them to fall back before nine fighting men” may sound like a tall order, but I’ve seen it done. I’ve been in situations where a small group stood outnumbered and exposed, faced with a much larger opposing force… and held its ground. There is much to be said for the hit and run mentality, the mindset of living to fight another day, but there is also much to be said for standing firm and immovable in the right circumstances. Based on raiding as it was, the Fianna’s mode of warfare is most similar to that of the modern guerrilla, so my assumption is that this rule applied only in a situation where the Fianna had determined to stand their ground.

The Fianna warrior also lived by a martial creed, expressed in the triad “Truth in our hearts, strength in our arms, and fulfillment in our tongues.”

“Truth in our hearts” means exactly what it sounds like: integrity and honesty. “Strength in our arms” refers to physical strength, but also to skill with weapons. “Fulfillment in our tongues” means that a person’s actions should match their stated principles. So, this triad calls for the Fianna warrior to cultivate personal integrity, martial ability and accountability.

Mystery of the Deer

The Wolves of Vinland use initiation rituals to build a sense of spirituality, group identity and esprit de corps. Their mysteries are based on a mythos of elite yet predatory outsiders living outside of a corrupt society – a band of wolves.

The Fianna loved to fight and could even be bloodthirsty. As the lore says of Finn’s son Osgar:

A desire of the desires of Osgar was to listen to the striking of shields; to be hacking at bones in a battle, it is what he had a mind for always…

As warriors, the Fianna were expected to be ferocious:

If you were to search the world you would not find a harder man, best of blood, best in battle; no one got the upper hand of him.

However, the mysteries of the Fianna did not identify them with a wolf pack, but with a herd of deer – the same animals they hunted and ate. Finn and several other figures associated with the Fianna are named after the deer they hunted. Finn’s boyhood name of “Deimne” means “a young male deer.” His wife Sadhbh often changed into a doe. His son Oisin’s name means “fawn.”

This may very well have some connection to the Cernunnos panel on the Gundestrup cauldron, where the stag-headed god is surrounded by wild animals of various kinds. In any case, the mentality of the hunter identifying with the target of the hunt, rather than with a predatory animal, is strikingly different from a warband referring to its members as “wolves” or other predatory animals. (Some warbands in ancient Ireland did refer to themselves as “werewolves.” These may have been the diberg, an explicitly antisocial version of the Fianna. In other Indo-European societies warbands are often identified with wolves, and there is nothing inherently fascist about this symbolism.)

The initiation mysteries of the ancient Fianna also emphasized poetry and druidism. Finn, the greatest of the Fianna, sought wisdom from the sage Finneces at the Boyne river, the mystical source of poetic inspiration or Imbas. Identification with the hunted animal, love of poetry and mysticism, and fighting for the sheer joy of fighting. The Fianna were not predators but warrior-poets.

The initiation tests of the Fianna were severe indeed, beginning with the requirement to have a deep understanding of poetry and followed by an intense test of martial skills:

And there was no man taken into the Fianna till he knew the twelve books of poetry. And before any man was taken, he would be put into a deep hole in the ground up to his middle, and he having his shield and a hazel rod in his hand. And nine men would go the length of ten furrows from him and would cast their spears at him at the one time. And if he got a wound from one of them, he was not thought fit to join with the Fianna. And after that again, his hair would be fastened up, and he put to run through the woods of Ireland, and the Fianna following after him to try could they wound him, and only the length of a branch between themselves and himself when they started. And if they came up with him and wounded him, he was not let join them; or if his spears had trembled in his hand, or if a branch of a tree had undone the plaiting of his hair, or if he had cracked a dry stick under his foot, and he running. And they would not take him among them till he had made a leap over a stick the height of himself, and till he had stooped under one the height of his knee, and till he had taken a thorn out from his foot with his nail, and he running his fastest. But if he had done all these things, he was of Finn’s people.

Note how the martial skills being tested here emphasize defense – the warrior has to be impossible to hit, rather than adept at destroying others – and the ability to run and jump in near silence through the forests while being chased. This test puts the would-be Fianna in the role of a hunted deer, not a pursuing wolf. The paradox is that the initiated warrior then joins the hunters. The Fianna initiation ritual dramatizes a transformation, from the one who is chased to the one who chases, while retaining the ability to identify with the hunted.

Poetry of the Fianna

The poetry of the Fianna displays a deep love of and familiarity with the forests in which these warbands roamed. In later legends, Finn’s son Oisin, the “fawn,” made a voyage to Tir n an-Og, and returned several hundred years later to meet St. Patrick. This provided the storytellers with an opportunity to contrast the pagan lifestyle of the Fianna with the Christian ethos. In theory, all this material was written by Christians and for Christians, yet paganism is given a remarkably sympathetic treatment. The pagan love of nature and delight in physicality is contrasted with the Christian tendency toward self-hatred and disdain for the flesh, and it is often the pagan ethos that comes off better in these poems.

It is what Finn had a mind for, to be listening to the sound of Druim Dearg; to sleep at the stream of Ess Ruadh, to be hunting the deer of Gallimh of the bays…

 The call of Osgar going to the hunt; the voice of the hounds on the road of the Fianna, to be listening to them and to the poets, that was always his desire.

 The music that put Finn to his sleep was the cackling of the ducks from the lake of the Three Narrows; the scolding talk of the blackbird of Doire an Cairn, the bellowing of the ox from the Valley of the Berries.

 The whistle of the eagle from the Valley of Victories, or from the rough branches of the ridge by the stream; the grouse of the heather of Cruachan; the call of the otter of Druim-re-Coir.

 The song of the blackbird of Doire an Cairn indeed I never heard sweeter music, if I could be under its nest.

 My grief that I ever took baptism; it is little credit I got by it, being without food, without drink, doing fasting and praying.

“Sometimes Antisocial, Always Antifascist”

Imagine the lifestyle. Living in the forest with other fighters, hunting and listening to poetry and fighting fascism and capitalism, giving away anything that comes into your hands so that no one ever goes without. Uncontrollable by anyone, but bound by oath to resist oppression. If you can honestly tell me that doesn’t appeal to you, I can honestly tell you I will never understand you.

You may not be in a position to live that way. Obviously, most people won’t be. However, here are a few ideas for those who may be inspired to take this path.

A radical Fianna band could base its training activities broadly on the mythical description of the Fianna initiation test, including:

  • Games of defense in which one person has to fend off the attacks of several using a shield and stick.
  • Chasing games, in which one person has to escape several while running through the forest.
  • Obstacle courses involving jumping and crawling at speed.

In physical conflicts, martial skill is not always as important a factor as an immovable spirit. On the other hand, martial training tends to produce and encourage that spirit. So never neglect your training!

But don’t forget the poetry either. I would suggest that a day of hard training should always be followed by a night spent sharing poetry, stories and songs around the campfire, and that these stories and songs should exemplify the ethos of the Fianna:

Take nothing by oppression, refuse nothing to anyone in need, and hold your ground.

Show personal integrity, build martial ability and let your actions match your words.


Christopher Scott Thompson

CSTshortbeardBW

Christopher Scott Thompson is an anarcho-communist, martial arts instructor, devotee of Brighid and Macha, and a wandering exile roaming the earth. Photo by Tam Zech.


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4 Comments »

  1. Beautiful stuff–and the Fianna, iirc, spent the time between Beltane and Samhain in the forest, and the dark half of the year living among the people. So this mythos would indeed be for everyone as the whole community would be connected in this way, supporting the young warriors who protected them. In time, those young Fianna would be the ones who welcomed their successors in winter and shared poetry and companionship.

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  2. Christopher, Great article. I will try to keep my comments from too much blind acceptance but in general my own exploration has led me to similar points of view. I am a practicing martial artist and teacher and have been much of my life. As I share my explorations and path with my students and many training partners, I seek to inject this exact spirit into our training. I am curious as to your experience with the cross training required to live in alignment with the profound expectations of a group like the Fianna. I express this curiosity because it seems like a genuine culture shift in a group would be required to walk this path authentically and I have no interest in making mistakes others have already made for me! I can make plenty on my own dammit! Thanks for writing this even if we never get a chance to connect further. Good to know the path is being explored.

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