Charm for Invisibility

Hacker_-_Hacking_-_Symbol

I go tonight in shape of bird,

In shape of dog, in shape of deer.

I go in shape of wolf and fox

So close all eyes and burst all locks

And make my passage clear.

I go tonight without the light,

In dark and shade I creep.

And if by chance I’m seen or heard,

Let all believe I’m just a bird

And then go back to sleep.

I go today by hidden ways

In justice, unafraid.

Oh gods of justice, hear my spell,

Erase my tracks, disguise me well

And keep me in the shade.

 

 

Image by www.elbpresse.de under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

From Wikimedia Commons

“Oh You Mothers…”

 

 

“Oh You Mothers…”

This is the prayer I use when leaving offerings for my own ancestors.

Oh you mothers, all my mothers

Those who sleep in heavy soil,

Those who went to death so weary

All you thought was no more toil,

Those who danced with joy and laughter,

Those who fought to break the chains

Though you’ll know no more hereafters,

Here a part of you remains.

 

Oh you fathers, all my fathers

Those who dream in wet, black earth,

Those who let their dreams go hungry

So that mine could come to birth,

Those who died in rage and sorrow

Those who laughed and wandered free,

Though you’ll know no more tomorrows

Your tomorrows live in me.

 

All of you who came before me,

Though I know your names or not.

All who added to my story

Giving blood or deed or thought.

Take this food and drink I give you,

Share it with me, take your fill.

Though your verses may have ended

Yet the song continues still.


Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

 

 

Shapeshifters: The Paganism of Identity and the Danger of Fascist Infiltration

 

1- Tha mi ‘nam Geangach

“Their primary focus is to now enter social movements, community spaces, spiritual communities, and the like, and influence them in a certain direction, usually towards the “preservation of the European traditions and people.”

(From A Movement of Long Knives)

The folk-song collector Alan Lomax once described the Gaelic song tradition of the Hebrides as “the flower of Western Europe,” and I for one agree with him. I love Gaelic songs so much I’ve taught myself how to sing several of them – including a few about old pagan heroes like Fraoch and Caoilte. I sing them to my kids as lullabies. I taught myself how to speak Gaelic to a beginner-intermediate level. I even wrote some bad poetry in the language. I worship Gaelic deities such as Brighid and Macha, and I practice a martial art involving a Gaelic weapon (the Highland broadsword).

Still, I never call myself a Gael nor do I consider myself a Gael. I love and appreciate Gaelic culture, but it’s not my identity. I was born and raised in New England, surrounded by English-speakers. My mother’s ancestors were Karelian Finns, my father’s a mix including Scots, Irish, German and even Transylvanian. I once answered the question “what is your ethnic identity” on a Gaelic learner’s survey with the phrase “Tha mi ‘nam Geangach!” (I am a Yankee!)

Few issues are as emotionally important to me as the survival of the Gaelic language and culture, which have been under threat for centuries. So why am I uncomfortable with forms of polytheism based on ethnic identity – even when that identity is described as Gaelic?

2- “What’s broken can always be fixed. What’s fixed will always be broken.”

“Fascism, as a radical current, critiques the current social order for various reasons, often times taking to task the same things that revolutionaries do on the left. Boredom. Environmental destruction. Alienation. Poor living standards. All of these things are presented often times within the fascist program of critique, but it does so with a fundamentally different set of values.”

(From A Movement of Long Knives)

In modern capitalist society, alienation and disenchantment are the normal state of being. People feel cut off from each other, cut off from their own selves, soul-less.

It’s only natural that some people would seek to recover what they feel they have lost, creating or recreating an identity from the broken pieces they’ve been given. That’s how it was for me. When I was a kid, my parents told me that my distant Thompson ancestors had come from Scotland, and for some reason that gave me a sense of who I was and led to my lifelong interest in Scottish history and culture.

That doesn’t make me Scottish, though. I’m still a Geangach. If I was to think of myself as being Scottish, I’d have to disregard and erase not only all my other ancestors, but my actual life experience as a New Englander. I can’t just pick one element of who I am and blow it up into a new identity. Not even if it was a much larger part of my actual background – I don’t think of myself as a Finn either, although my mother’s first language was Finnish.

I worship Gaelic deities because I love and honor those deities and Celtic mythology in general. I don’t worship them because they’re “the gods of my ancestors,” even though a few of my ancestors probably did worship them in the distant past.

Some religions are firmly based in a specific ethnic identity, but those ethnic identities are unbroken and continuous. If I had been born in the Hebrides, I might think of my worship of Brighid as being part of my ancestral heritage. Here in Maine, the context for my religion is totally different. Any attempt to base my worship of Gaelic deities in some notion of Gaelic identity would feel like an artificial construct to me.

So, I sometimes describe myself as a Gaelic Polytheist or a Celtic Polytheist because the deities I worship are Gaelic and Celtic and because I pray to them in the Gaelic language. But when I interact with other Gaelic Polytheists, I soon find that many of them mean something very different by the phrase. Many of them refer to the Gaelic gods as being the gods of “our people,” by which they specifically mean people of Gaelic descent. Not people in the Gaelic communities of Ireland or Scotland, but people in the United States and elsewhere with Gaelic ancestors – even if they haven’t spoken any Gaelic in many generations. They’re talking about “Gaelic blood” – and that makes me squirm.

3- “Serpents and sons of blood…”

(H)ierarchy, authority, tradition, and strength over the weak are the values, and the political apparatus that is chosen is just the method…

(From A Movement of Long Knives)

Maybe it’s because I have no more than a drop or two of “Gaelic blood” myself – except that languages don’t have “blood.” A recent DNA study on the MacNeills of Barra concluded that the clan was almost entirely of Scandinavian descent, yet the MacNeills were unquestionably a Gaelic-speaking Highland clan. Any claim of “Gaelic identity” based on genealogy alone is questionable at best, because Gaelic identity is not racial and cannot be reduced to DNA. Donald Trump’s mother was born on Stornoway in the Outher Hebrides, yet Trump shows not the barest hint of a traditional Gaelic worldview or mentality.

Gaelic Polytheists don’t seem to be like this. Every Gaelic Polytheist group I’ve come across seems to be aware in one way or another of traditional Gaelic values, and interested in reviving or renewing them. Yet I’m still uncomfortable.

The strong emphasis on ethnic identity bothers me, as does the strong emphasis on tribalism as the ideal form of social organization. The meticulous Gaelic-ness of a modern polytheist organization, based self-consciously on Iron Age social structures – none of this bears much resemblance to Gaelic culture as it currently exists. If we’re not just reviving the worship of ancient deities but the entire structure of ancient Gaelic society, that can only be because we believe that society to have been a superior way of life for us to emulate. Why exactly should we make that assumption?

Like many other Brigidine devotees, I tend to interpret St. Brigid of Kildare as having a strong connection to the pre-Christian goddess. I can’t prove the connection and you don’t have to agree with me, but Brigid’s comments about the social order of her own era still seem highly relevant to me. According to the Vita Prima or “First Life” of St. Brigid, the saint once said:

“the sons of kings are serpents and sons of blood and sons of death…”

People who admire Iron Age Irish society uncritically won’t be thrilled with this description, but is it not an accurate description of the sons of power and privilege in any era?

Leaving aside the fact that “sons of death” is probably a reference to berserker-like pagan warbands, this is still a striking condemnation of the injustice and inequality St. Brigid saw and fought in her own society.

She was, after all, born a slave in that society.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to admire about ancient pagan Ireland – personally I admire many things about ancient Ireland. However, I do think we should be cautious about taking it as a model. We should be cautious about taking any form of past society as a model, not because the past was worse than our own time but because we need to think carefully about what kind of society we want to replace capitalism with.

If we approach this project with sloppy thinking, we leave ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by the most cowardly and intellectually dishonest people in the pagan community.

I’m talking about fascists.

4- Fith-Fath Fascism

The reality is that the obvious images of traditional war fascism are so repugnant to everyone in modern society that people who share those ideas are never going to cloak themselves in them if they want any chance of success…

(From A Movement of Long Knives)

I don’t believe in progress. I don’t believe societies move from a “tribal” model to some more “progressive” model in any linear way. I don’t believe in regress either, so I don’t think of tribal society as some lost golden age we have to fight to recover.

Rather, I think societies develop based on specific and localized circumstances. People always have problems to solve, and societies develop in different directions to address the specific problems they face. Some of those solutions are ad hoc and some are well thought-out. Some are optimal and some are very much less than optimal. Some are cynical maneuvers to benefit a few.

When I question the concept of tribalism in pagan religion or leftist politics, I’m not criticizing tribal societies. I’m not even dismissing the possibility that our religion and our politics could give birth to healthy, happy and flourishing neopagan tribes. These things could happen, and I have friends and family who describe themselves as tribalists. Some of them are also influential and very knowledgeable Gaelic Polytheists, and some are committed anti-racists.

Still, in the big picture of history, tribal forms of organization are neither better nor worse than other forms of organization. They just are what they are.

However, they do offer one thing that a lot of us crave, and that’s a strong sense of connection and identity. This is exactly what many of us are looking for, and this where our vulnerability to fascist infiltration creeps in.

When Gaelic warriors would raid into enemy territory, they would sometimes use a magic spell called a fith-fath to ensure that anyone who spotted them would mistake them for deer or other animals. Like shapeshifting infiltrators from an enemy tribe, fascists and white supremacists cloak themselves in whichever shape will best disguise them, always hoping not to be noticed so they can introduce their toxic ideas.

We would all reject someone talking openly about totalitarian rule and white supremacy, but when those same values are cloaked in words like “European heritage,” “tribal identity” and “warrior values” we may not see them for what they really are.

People who have been fooled so completely will sometimes go to absurd lengths to argue that they have not actually been hoodwinked – as in the recent controversy about Stephen McNallen, head of the Asatru Folk Assembly. McNallen called for the revival of the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi vigilante militia, to “protect” white Europeans from Muslim refugees. Yet he continues to claim he isn’t a white supremacist, and some people in the heathen community seem to want to believe him. Why would anyone accept such a ridiculous claim? This is the nature of shapeshifting, the nature of glamour. Until we are willing to see the truth and say the truth, the spell keeps working.

5- “Weak toward the feeble, strong toward the powerful”

At their core is a disbelief in the capability of all people to rule, the inequality and stratification amongst people, the essential nature of value in biology, and the need to lead through violence, heroism, and strength…

(From A Movement of Long Knives)

Some people in the Gaelic Polytheist community seem to have a serious misconception about the role of strength – one that doesn’t align with traditional Gaelic values, but does align with fascist values.

“Our ancestors valued strength above all else.”

“Considering that strength was so important to our warrior ancestors…”

“Our ancestors venerated strength…”

And, sadly:

“How do I deal with negative feelings, when I know that our Celtic ancestors valued strength and despised weakness?”

These are paraphrases of comments I’ve seen in the community. Let’s compare them to some actual quotes from Gaelic wisdom-literature, which is generally presented as being spoken by kings or warrior heroes:

Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness. (Maxims of the Fianna)

I was weak toward the feeble, I was strong toward the powerful. (Cormac MacArt)

Do not deride the aged when you have youth.
Do not deride the poor when you have wealth.
Do not deride the lame when you are swift.
Do not deride the blind though you have sight.
Do not deride the ill when you have strength.
Do not deride the dull when you are clever.
Do not deride the foolish though you are with wisdom. (Cormac MacArt)

These are brief quotes without full context, but as you can see they do not glorify strength for its own sake and they specifically forbid the warrior from despising weakness. The ideal presented in these texts is to be strong when strength is appropriate and gentle when gentleness is appropriate. It’s an ethic of balance, not of domineering aggression.

So where are Gaelic Polytheists getting the idea that “our ancestors” valued strength above all else? How could this misconception have crept into the community, among people who have read a lot of old Gaelic lore and should know better than to fall for it?

I would suggest that this is no accident, and that the presence of this idea in the community indicates that fascist values are creeping in without being recognized. That doesn’t mean the people repeating the idea are fascists- only that they’ve been fooled by the fascists.

Remember, modern fascists are cowards and liars, and most of them will never admit to being what they really are. They will always pretend to be something else, cloaking the same old ideas in new rhetoric and new symbols. Tribalism is sometimes used as one of those symbols, but that’s only fitting – considering that the whole concept was invented by colonialist anthropologists in the 19th century.

6- What Comes After

Fascism promises to restore the true order, the heroic history that never was. Fascism outlines a mythology about a particular grouping by suggesting that in the past it was racially homogenous, filled with heroes, perfectly run, and where by people are spiritually fulfilled.

(From A Movement of Long Knives)

The whole notion of pagan tribalism (and anarcho-tribalism, for that matter) depends on the concept of “tribe.” Yet the validity of this concept is far from established, and the word is now rejected by many anthropologists.

According to the Encylopedia Brittanica:

Tribe, in anthropology, a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups (known as bands), having temporary or permanent political integration, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology… The term originated in ancient Rome, where the word tribus denoted a division within the state. It later came into use as a way to describe the cultures encountered through European exploration. By the mid-19th century, many anthropologists and other scholars were using the term, as well as band, chiefdom, and state, to denote particular stages in unilineal cultural evolution. Although unilineal cultural evolution is no longer a credible theory, these terms continue to be used as a sort of technical shorthand in college courses, documentaries, and popular reference works.

Actual “tribes” are highly diverse in terms of social and political organization. Some are hereditary monarchies, some have ruling councils, some use a feudal structure, some are almost totally decentralized. So there isn’t really any clear definition of the word “tribe,” except that it refers to a stage in a completely fictional model of social evolution designed to justify imperialism. One aspect of “tribe” in the anthropological sense is homogeneity of ancestry, language, culture and ideology – so if we describe ourselves as neo-tribalists, we’re implying that we want a similar homogeneity.

After capitalism destroys itself, it is certainly possible that people will form new “tribal” societies in order to survive. If we think carefully about what we want to do ahead of time, we may choose to do something completely different – like the Kurds of Syria. After the central government withdrew from their area, they chose not to base their new society on Kurdish ethnic identity even though they could easily have done so. Instead they set out to create a radically egalitarian, multi-ethnic society.

As capitalism continues its forced march toward self-destruction, one of the most useful things we can do is to think about how we would make use of the precious opportunity a similar power vacuum would give us. The fascists are doing exactly that, and we know very well what their world would look like. For those of us who embrace pagan tribalism or anarcho-tribalism, the challenge is to enact whatever we value in the concept of “tribe” without being infiltrated and corrupted by fascist values.

That isn’t our only option, though. Instead of trying to form pagan tribes, we can take our pagan values and make them part of a truly free, truly equal new form of social order. The Kurds of Rojava were up to the challenge. Are we?


 

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

His poem, “Mysterium Tremendum,” is featured in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are.

 

Millennium

612px-Lützelburger_Hohlbein_Kämpfende_Bauern

 

Black birds come screeching through the skies

On winds of war, as waters rise.

And prophet’s eyes begin to gleam

Beneath their floating hair. This dream

Of smoke and fire shall end at last!

A whisper rises from the past –

Millennium – as pillars shake

Millennium – as gods awake

Millennium – as flowers bloom

In mouths of corpses, and the tomb

Springs open to reveal the Host

Arranged for battle, ghost by ghost,

With banners flapping, black and red.

Women's_March_on_Versailles01

Millennium – “We are the dead

Who rose with Spartacus and fell,

Who sang John Ball Has Rung Your Bell,

Who marched with pitchforks on Versailles,

And those who answered Boukman’s cry,

Who rode with Makhno in Ukraine,

And those who died defending Spain.

We are the dead of all the earth

Who died to bring this day to birth.

The dead who dreamed another world

Have come to you with flags unfurled.

The burning wheels and turning gears

Have come around. The end is near.

Our work remains undone. But you

(Millennium!) shall see it through.

So take your mental spear, and go!

Cast down all thrones. Let forests grow

Where burning mills once filled the sky

With smoke and flame. Let empires die,

Till none is slave and none is king.

Then heal. Then build. Then sing.”

 

– Christopher Scott Thompson

The first image shows peasant rebels marching into battle in 16th-century Germany. The second image shows the march on Versailles in 1789. Both are public domain.

 

 

 

On a Business Trip with the Desert Spirits

800px-Jerusalem_Plate_100

“I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.” – William Blake

Reason is a tool. There are things you can do with it and things you can’t. You can’t hammer a nail in with a drawknife or saw a board with a screwdriver, and you can’t experience magic and mysticism while maintaining the reasonable, distanced coolness of a skeptical observer. When I’m trying to evaluate a logical argument, I use my reason. When I’m trying to communicate with spirits and gods I need other tools.

Skeptical materialists aren’t willing to do that, because they’ve talked themselves into thinking that only one kind of tool is valid. They’ll never be able to experience the magic that way, so naturally they deny that it exists in the first place. That makes sense to a degree – I’d never ask anyone to believe anything based on faith alone – but it’s inherently limited. It only allows you to see in one way, so you only see certain things.

In the Scottish Highlands, the ability to see visions and spirits was known as an da shealladh. This is often translated as “the second sight,” but it literally means “the two sights.” If you can see the world in two different ways at the same time, with the eyes of reason and the eyes of magic, would it not be accurate to say that you have two sights at once?

Several years ago I had to fly out to Oklahoma and go on a business trip with my employer at the time. He needed my help selling CDs of Celtic music at the Highland Games in California and Colorado. To get from Oklahoma to California to Colorado and back requires a lot of driving, much of it through the deserts of the American Southwest. As I said, a business trip – except that it was also something more than that. A few weeks before my boss called me I had a dream, in which I was told by spirits that I would soon be asked to go on a quest.

To the devotees of reason alone, I had a dream and then went on a business trip. It isn’t reasonable to take dreams seriously or to think of business trips as quests. If we want to see the world “the way it really is,” we always have to be strictly reasonable.

Well, I refuse. I refuse to live in a world where I’m obliged to be strictly reasonable. I secede from that world. The inhabitants of the reasonable world have been busy sucking the spirit out of everything for centuries, and in doing so they have managed to bring the whole planet to the brink of ecological catastrophe. By constantly telling us that things are simply things and not infused with spirit, they have made it easy to use and dispose of those things – to cut down and burn and blow up and cover everything in asphalt.

If this planet becomes unlivable for human beings, it will be largely because we stopped listening to what the spirits told us. But I’m no enemy of reason, any more than I’m an enemy of screwdrivers just because I also use hammers. I went on the business trip and played the role I was asked to play in exchange for my paycheck. I helped my boss load and unload, I watched the table and took people’s cash in exchange for CDs of beautiful Gaelic music, I helped change a tire when we got a flat. You could say that driving for thousands of miles to sell CDs is not exactly ecological – but isn’t that the problem with capitalism right there? If we want to survive, we’re pushed into compromise from every direction. I think that’s why so many of us are eager to embrace the rational at the expense of the mystical. It would all be easier to take if the world was actually as dead as we tell ourselves it is.

As my boss drove in silence through those vast deserts, I was sometimes awake and sometimes asleep. Lulled by the truck motor, I kept drifting off, and every time my eyes closed for a moment I was in the other world. Eyes open, on a business trip. Eyes closed, on a quest. Sometimes both at once, the other world bleeding over into this one in fragments of voices and strange sights, like the boulder that suddenly changed into a rock woman as we drove by.

I’m pretty sure that at no point in our long drive did my boss suspect I was on a quest, or hear what the spirits were telling me, or see what I saw out the window. He had one sight. I have two.

If magic itself is the revolution, then this is how we become revolutionaries. We refuse to be bound by reason alone, to see the world in just one way. We stop falling back on the cheap comfort of skepticism, which allows us to ignore what the spirits are telling us by constantly doubting our own experiences. We refuse to kill the world by imagining it as dead.

When I returned home from those weeks on the road, I sat down and wrote a poem called “The Desert Spirits,” by stringing together all the things I had seen and heard with a few connecting lines. Is this the account of some dream fragments on a long drive through the desert, or is it the record of a quest?

That depends on which tool you use – and how many sights you have.

The Desert Spirits

Storm banks in the distance on the Texas panhandle

Like diagonal mushroom clouds

Whose silent lightning carves fresh slices

Out of a flat, gray future.

Across the border, and we’re inside them.

The raindrops snap at us

Like falling monsters,

Biting at the windshield

In a suicidal dive.

And the wind whistles like a machine run amok,

And the clock stops,

And we are lost to time.

Pain can always be endured

If there is a voice to give protest.

Out here there are two voices:

And a void on either side.

She pouts, and cocks her head at him,

And says-

Why, perhaps next summer,

When my dear gollem-mad father

Turns the Earth into a prison for the goblins.”

No, my dear,” he says. She hasn’t understood.

Pain can always be endured

If there is a voice to give protest,

But what I saw there in front of me

Had no mouth, just smooth skin.

The desert mountains are like great bodies

Pockmarked by scrubs,

Pale and obese in their roadside resting places,

As if we were passing

Through a plague pit

Choked with giants.

There’s a void on either side of me,

And an unexpected ache.

I am attached to my head like a balloon on a string.

Hours pass in a ghost phase,

Between sleep and waking.

My eyes squint at the mountains

And they become glass

In atomic heat.

Would you know how to find me here?

Would you trade my hope for new memories?

Because the Mojave is mighty

And I don’t want to come home.

Great rocks in the distance like the gods of Stonehenge,

Standing in a circle with an untold secret,

Weaving out our past years

Among scrub brush and sand.

Canyon Diablo is skull dry,

And I hear things I can’t remember.

The spirits of the desert

Will trade bone marrow for wisdom:

Parasites of the empty places,

Sleep and learn, sleep and learn.

I found these voices in the wasteland,

Inside a fluttering darkness,

In all the endless, bright ages

Since I last saw your face.

If I could I would call to you,

I would cut your name through this emptiness,

But I’m trading blood for new memories

And I must meet them alone.

Out here the nighthunters

Have long faces and teeth like canines.

The windmills on the hilltops

Look like arrows in a dragon’s spine.

If you would throw dice

With the desert spirits

You must have skin

That drinks everything,

Ready to cough up a basilisk

Close your eyes,

Cut your mouth,

And sing.

Would you know how to find me here?

Would you trade your bones for new memories?

Because there is nothing around me now

But this bright, empty

Faith:

Stretching out, filling everything

Burning atoms

To angel’s wings

Killing hearts

Till they break

And sing

And I don’t want to come home.

Review: “Nature’s God” by Matthew Stewart

Stewart

I picked up “Nature’s God” by Matthew Stuart on a recent visit to the Dartmouth Bookstore, right next to the campus of Dartmouth college. For those of you who have never been to this part of New Hampshire, imagine being completely surrounded by the beauty of the mountains while also breathing in the heady intellectual air of an old Ivy League college, right after taking a free ride on the region’s socialized bus service.

And then seeing a huge banner over the street announcing a lecture series on “The Future of American Power” by some strategic think-tank.

And then over-hearing someone very affluent-looking in a cafe, saying “I’m always happy, but I just can’t figure out why I’m so happy lately!”

(I couldn’t shake the imaginary specter of a homeless person dying under the table during this conversation.)

Dartmouth and the surrounding area are a testament to the strange contradictions of American liberalism, and so is this interesting book about the intersections between religious heresy and political radicalism during the American Revolution. As a book about philosophy and its impact on history, Nature’s God is well-written, engaging and accessible. If you like reading about that sort of thing, I definitely recommend it. However, I am not buying what the author is selling.

The author aims to untangle the many influences on the Oracles of Reason, a 500-page rant on religion and politics by Vermont’s founding revolutionary Ethan Allen. Most scholars have assumed Allen couldn’t possibly have written the book himself, as he was really known more for acts of bluster and bombast than for reading all the books he would have to have read to have produced his unreadable masterpiece – known locally as “Ethan Allen’s Bible.”

Statue_of_Ethan_Allen_by_Larkin_Goldsmith_Mead

Ethan Allen blustering and bombasting in statue form. Statue by Larkin Goldsmith Mead.

Stewart makes a convincing case that Allen actually did write the book, and a much less convincing case that the ideas contained in the book represent a liberal revolutionary heritage that justifies American exceptionalism and provides a model for future policy.

He shows – somewhat exhaustively – that radical political ideas were closely tied to heretical religious ideas in the years leading up to 1776. He manages to prove that the deism of several of the “founding fathers” was much more varied and complex than the “watchmaker God” theology we were told about in school.

In fact, it seems to have incorporated a wide range of ideas ranging from pantheism to – believe it or not – a form of polytheism. Benjamin Franklin himself is quoted as stating his belief in “many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to man,” each with command of its own solar system filled with intelligent life. So much for the “Christian nation” argument!

However, Stewart seems to think he has more insight into the real opinions of other people than they do themselves. According to Stewart, the self-described pantheists and deists of the eighteenth century were “really” atheists, no matter what they had to say on the topic. Plenty of people at the time did accuse deists of being closet atheists, but that doesn’t prove the accusation.

That isn’t my main quarrel with the book, though. My main quarrel with the book is in its uncritical admiration for the philosophy of liberalism, and its assertion that liberalism is “radical philosophy.” What does “radical” mean? In most cases, etymology is a poor guide to the “real” meaning of a word, but in the case of this particular word the etymology is instructive. To be “radical” originally meant to go to the root of a problem, to try to diagnose and cure the disease itself rather than merely treating the symptoms.

Classical liberalism was a philosophy based on personal liberty, and a philosophy of liberty can be considered “radical” compared to absolute monarchy or feudalism. However, the “liberty” of classical liberalism was based on property rights, and classical liberals were proponents of the free market and capitalism. The world of corporate domination we now live in was created by liberals at least as much as by conservatives.

Liberalism assumes the validity of the capitalist system and seeks to make it less destructive through carefully targeted and limited reforms. It assumes the superiority of progress and therefore justifies the conquest of other nations and people in order to reform and “civilize” them – bringing them into the capitalist world as new workers and consumers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberals were openly and unabashedly imperialist.

That includes the liberal philosophers Stewart idealizes and takes as his models. He’s particularly fond of John Locke. Locke is generally seen as the grandfather of liberalism because he defines the “right” of private property and the other rights that are seen to flow from that right. Yet Locke argued that the American Indians had no legitimate right to their own lands in North America because they had failed to make those lands “productive.” Locke grounds his theory of private property in the capitalist logic of “productivity” and then uses that argument to justify colonialism and conquest.

This doesn’t seem to bother Stewart at all. On page 402, he quotes the “freethinking” philosopher John Toland as saying that a deist and liberal England would become “the most happy, flourishing and potent Empire of the whole world, especially by the destruction of superstition and vice.” In other words, the “White Man’s Burden.”

Modern liberals in the United States refer to themselves as “progressives,” and their philosophy is based on reform and progress. They still believe in capitalism, but they want to reform its excesses through gradual, incremental change.

The thing that always strikes me as being so strange about this is that it seems to lack any sense of urgency, any awareness of the great peril facing human life on Earth. Capitalist enterprises are systematically plundering and poisoning the entire planet and subverting what little democracy we have in order to place themselves beyond accountability. A criminal organization with a more diverse workforce remains a criminal organization.

If we’re looking to cure the disease rather than merely treating the symptoms, we can start right here. Yes, there were some interesting ideas floating around during the American Revolution. Some of those ideas could be considered genuinely radical. I was particularly pleased to find a quote by revolutionary agitator Thomas Young (one of the Sons of Liberty) who said that he was fighting for “sedition, agrarian law, leveling scheme, anarchy, democratical power”. Quite right, Mr. Young!

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Unfortunately, the revolutionaries of this era failed to be consistently and thoroughly radical. They had enough insight to question the power others had over them, but not enough to question the power they had over others. Instead, they used those ideas to rationalize and justify their crimes against others. I don’t say this to demonize them – the future will judge us just as we judge the past, and will almost certainly find flaws we can’t see in ourselves.

However, the consequences of their cognitive dissonance are all around us today, and if we want to do anything about those consequences we have to face up to their contradictions. Stewart seems to want to treat them as role models instead, and that’s where we part company.

Review: “Book of the Great Queen” by Morpheus Ravenna

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My religious name is Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” and so I am. However, I also engage in devotion to Macha, one of the three Morrigna. I first came across Morpheus Ravenna’s Shieldmaiden blog while looking for other devotees of Macha online a few years ago, and I’ve been following it ever since.

In a conversation with a very intellectual Catholic friend, I once argued that all religions have some distinct insight to contribute- not different routes to the same truth but different truths. Knowing me to be a pagan, he asked me what truth my religion had to contribute. I talked about Sovereignty and the goddess of “Sovereignty in action” – the Morrigan. All of my arguments drew on the Shieldmaiden blog.

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Book of the Great Queen ever since I knew it existed, but I wasn’t expecting much new information in the factual sense. As with any other Celtic deity, there is only so much available evidence. Some of the reader reviews I’ve seen were complaining that there was nothing new in the book, nothing you couldn’t find in one of the several other books about the Morrigan out there. Knowing how good the Shieldmaiden blog is, I assumed the reviewer had simply missed the depth of insight Morpheus brings to the available facts. In reality, the statement is just completely untrue. There is a huge amount of new material in this book.

First, Morpheus gives us the complete Old Irish text of every rosc or prophetic poem spoken by the Morrigan, with English translation and commentary. This information is simply not available in one place in any other book I know of.

Second, she gives us rituals and magic workings with text in Old Irish, drawn directly from these same poems. I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with worshiping the Morrigan or any other Celtic deity in whatever language you happen to speak, but there’s something special about finally being able to do so in Old Irish.

Third, she references a few texts I didn’t even know existed, adding to the available evidence from the lore. Some of these texts are particularly instructive, because they tell us which classical Roman or Greek deities the medieval Irish saw as being similar to the Morrigan. It’s like an Interpretatio Romana from the other direction.

Fourth, she provides dates for all the known texts. It makes a big difference to know that a particular text was written down in the 16th century while another was written down in the 12th. Obviously the later text should be read more cautiously when looking for evidence about pre-Christian belief.

This is a substantial amount of new material, making this the most comprehensive work on the Morrigan to date. It’s hard to see how another work could be more complete unless new evidence comes to light. There are other good books about the Morrigan out there, but if you only plan to read one of them it should definitely be this one.

In addition, the theological commentary is everything I expected it to be. I’ve written a fair bit elsewhere about several points in the Cuchulain story that I found confusing if not upsetting. Morpheus tackles many of the same questions from a different angle, coming to conclusions I would never have come to and answering questions I couldn’t find satisfactory answers to. In ancient times, debate and discussion about myths and sacred texts was a major part of religious practice, and this is a significant contribution to the revival of such a tradition.

The Book of the Great Queen” is definitely about religion rather than politics, but Morpheus makes compelling arguments for a connection between devotion to the Morrigan and political activism in the modern world. Morpheus never argues that devotees of the Morrigan have to be politically radical, but she does show how radical politics and devotion to the Morrigan make sense together. Agree with the politics or disagree, the connection is clearly argued and internally consistent.

To sum up – this book has a lot of material not available elsewhere, makes many insightful points and is essential reading for anyone who worships the Morrigan or any other Celtic deities. I recommend it without reservations.

Animist Prayer

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), The Household Gods, 1880

The Household Gods by John William Waterhouse

Toward the re-enchantment of the world:

To the blue open heavens I pray,

And the fire at their heart I adore.

The moon, with its reflected light

Receives my love as wave-crests white

Come crashing in to shore.

To the lash of the lightning I pray,

And the gleam of the sun’s bright rays.

To all the rushing rivers wide

That roar down from the mountainside,

I offer thanks and praise.

I pray to all of the distant stars

And the planets that silently roam.

I praise the earth beneath my feat

I praise the worms who will come to eat

When I at last go home.

The Pact

Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), The Death of King Warwulf ~ Originally published in Once a Week, 1862

A dying king. Picture by Frederick Sandys.

The pact between human beings and the spirits of the otherworld was one of the core ideas in Celtic religion. In ancient times, the king of the tribe was responsible for maintaining this pact and for suffering the consequences if he failed to do so. The violation of the terms of this pact leads to the loss of Sovereignty, and draws the wrath of the spirit world down on the offending ruler. I believe that our rulers have already lost the Sovereignty, and that the consequences of that loss are becoming more obvious every day. This poem is intended to be suitable for use as an offering prayer, asking the spirits to make a new pact with the people as a whole rather than with a particular ruler.

Mountains, fountains, hills and rivers,

Fields of flowers, humming insects,

Crack of branch in shadowed forest,

Rushing, bursting, jumping waters.

Powers, taste this food we bring you.

Spirits, hear these songs we sing you.

Smell the scent of incense burning.

Something’s turning, something’s changing,

Rearranging what’s inside us,

Waking seeds to bloom as flowers.

Powers of the mountains, fountains,

Fields and forests, hills and rivers,

Let us make a pact between us.

Let’s renew the pact between us!