The Multitude and the Myriad

 

emerald-tablet

The sun is not the brightest star, but it is the closest, the loudest.

The sun is so close that it blinds from our eyes all those others who, by mere virtue of distance, must wait for the darkest of hours to remind us of their light. Without that garish ferocity, we cannot live, but it is at the cost of the myriad that this one Truth shines upon us.

If these words were in German, her warmth could bronze and perhaps sear your skin with rays of feminine brilliance. Were you reading this in French, his beckoning light might bring you instead to think on his mannish illumination gently coaxing out the life of plant from soil. The sun is feminine in many Germanic languages, while masculine in many Latin-derived tongues, and the moon is likewise gendered. It is female in French and male in German.

Is the sun male or female, though? It certainly cannot be said to have identifiable genitalia, so we are unable to resort to a particularly base methodology to discover our answer. One might even suggest that it has no gender at all, in accordance to our manner of ordering nouns in English. If this is the case, though, we must immediately judge all speakers of languages, which gender the sun, to be fools or, charitably, inheritors of a hopelessly primitive linguistic system.

Another interesting possibility exists. Perhaps the sun is both female and male, according to how and where one views it. We know, certainly, that the sun can both give life and take life away. It can both warm and burn; it might illuminate or blind depending upon where you happen to be standing or looking. That is, the sun is many things simultaneously; many things to many people. In the far northern hemisphere, I experience it in subtle degrees as the year grows cold. My friends in that other hemisphere now feel its coming strength as their winter thaws and spring flowers bloom. Those betwixt our homes at this moment shield their eyes from it, sweating fiercely under its burdensome weight.

The sun is both warm and cold, distant and close, searing and life-giving. Within Her and His and Its intensity is all the contradictions and opposites which compose a wholeness, a unity only understood in its fragmented difference.

One, Two, None, All

For more than a millennium there was one God. Before, there were many, but then there was but one, and he was male – a fierce, strong, creator-lord full of justice and power, might and judgment, as well as love, mercy, and some degree of kindness to those deserving of his favors or loyal to his causes.

We need not be so simple about it, though. There were certainly others gods; otherwise our Paganism is mere aesthetic, and vast civilizations utterly misguided, as the fundamentalist believers in Progress would have us think. The “progression” of religion from Animistic Shamanism to Polytheism, then to Henotheism, then to Monotheism and finally, at the top of glorious and final present, Atheism relies upon the hope that our present existence is somehow “better” than yesteryear, and that we should consider the succession of this forced march closely.

It proposes first a “simplistic” relationality between nature and humanity, followed by an unfortunate anthropomorphization of natural forces into human-gods. Then the desert cults, laboring under the searing, garish and very-loud sun, chose just one of the many and, when a prophet is hanged upon wood, they decide their one is an only.  Nearly two millennia later, some French and English writers decide there’s no god at all, and we are finally now enlightened–from all, to many, to one, to none – and too bad the billions in Africa and Asia just can’t catch up.

Beyond the extreme arrogance of asserting that a mere 2% of the world has accurately answered the question of the existence of gods, we should specifically complicate the “evolutionary” narrative of progressive ascension. Since so many ancient and indigenous cultures think in circles and wheels rather than vertical lines, it’s surprising that such a theory of religious succession could still maintain a grip upon Pagan thought – a theory which can be seen particularly in an unfortunate misstep of Wicca regarding the gender of the gods.

adam-and-eve-in-the-garden-of-eden-1530.jpgBlogA popular reading of the re-introduction of “The Goddess” into modern religious thought (not just Pagan, but also some strands of Christian ‘Theology’) is that it’s a necessary correction of two millennia of male-centered, Monotheistic thought. This is a fair reading, and one can certainly point to all sorts of social and religious tendencies which, through a belief in an a male-gendered Only-god, contributed to the systematic degradation of a full half of humanity. That there was only one god, and that this only-god was male, is certainly peculiar and suspicious, particularly considering the patriarchal succession of priesthoods of this only-(male)-god.

As a political act, the insistence on an equally-important Goddess was quite radical, but also incredibly problematic. Besides the failed attempts of some writers to re-narrate a matriarchal past into pre-Monotheistic Europe (and history is only narration, so we should applaud their attempts as much as we cringe at their failure), the question of the only-(male)-god is hardly answered by giving him a mate, as if the Hebrew god’s act in Eden were a model to emulate.

Worse, this Goddess is a no-one; just as the monotheistic God was also a no-one.

They are not just no-ones, but also All-Ones, or Half-Ones. The Pagan (particularly Wiccan) Goddess is a conglomerate principle, a pastiche, a compound being encompassing half of a split divinity gendered female, or a corporate entity sometimes named the Divine Feminine. What then is left which is not of the one-Half-(female)-Goddess is then re-pasted upon a feral-yet-civil hunter dressed up in sacred loin-cloth and antlers. And, we are thus supposed to sigh, relieved that the One-God’s rib forms his eternal companion.

I do not say here that there is no Goddess, rather that there are many of them, a multitude, a myriad.  Nor would it do much good for us to debate precisely the theological import of such statements like, “I acknowledge the Goddess in all Her forms” (a sort of universalist-monism) or “I worship the Goddess by her many names” (a less corporatist approach). Rather, we should ask precisely why, as inheritors and escapees of monotheistic power, we’d settle for two gods as a solution to the tyranny of the (male) one.

Being a believer in the existence of gods (by which I also mean goddessess–let none say English does not possess gender!) requires me to be a bit extra polite when another Pagan, in ritual or in conversation, speaks of Pagans collectively worshiping “The Goddess.” I must do a bit of translation of their statement in order to not be offended. It’s an allowance for their shorthand, regardless of how much I really wish to ask, “wait–which goddess? I’ve met five of them, and have heard of another eighty, at least.”

To say they are all-one, that all the goddesses enfold into one great Goddess is a bit colonialist. It’s also understandable, since we do the same thing with gender.  We speak of “female” and “male” as if all humanity is easily divided into two sorts of people, each composing a half of a corporate whole called “humanity.”

It’s a short-hand, a quick-sorting category, which is certainly useful in some circumstances, but it is also only that. And, like all categories and labels, often times they don’t fit, no matter how hard we try to peg certain beings into the spaces we’ve created for them.

Which Man? Which Woman?

Like race, we often approach the idea of gender as if it is a naturally-derived or divinely-revealed thing, though we forget we must actually be taught these categories. I had many black friends and female friends and even a few (but very few) wealthy friends when I was a child. But it was not until our differences were explained (and re-iterated, and enforced) that I understood that there was a difference between them and I. The skin-color of my friends was a mere characteristic, not a difference until I was told that being “white” meant something and being “black” meant something else. Similarly with female: a girl was a sort of a friend, not an opposition to boy. Different genitals was like different hair-length–utterly inconsequential.

But male and female, like white and black, mean something, or mean something to lots of people. Being one means you get paid less, being the other means you get paid more. It’s better to be white and male than all the other things, depending on where you live, but only because people have decided that white and male are better things than black or female.

Even our divine was male for awhile (and maybe even white, judging from most popular depictions of Jesus). Having a female divine as well is certainly nice and having her be equal (and in some traditions superior) to him corrects some imbalances certainly.

But there are many sorts of men, and many sorts of women. There are very old, withered-but-wise men, and very young, mewling, just-out-of-the-womb men. There are the strong and muscled ones, the furry ones (my favorite), but also the lithe or round ones. And the same for women–the maidens, the mothers, the crones, the really strong ones and the really graceful ones, the large and fecund or the diminutive and fierce. To say they are all women or are all men is a strange thing to say.

There are several ways people have gone about re-imagining gender, or re-enforcing gender, and these attempts are worth staring at.

One of perhaps the more common treatments has been to re-inforce the divisions between them, cutting deeper “no-man’s lands” betwixt her and him. One strand of thought focuses primarily on the genitals of the person, and to some degree the genetics. On the side of “her” has been Z Budapest and other Second-Wave feminists, insisting that women are only those who’ve been born into such things as “the uterine mysteries.”

On the side of “him” have been writers characteristic of the New Right gaining increasing popularity within Paganism, such as Jack Donovan. “Men” for them are those who possess not just testicles, but also certain physical characteristics defined precisely by their opposition to an imagined Feminine.

In both cases, it is the fault of the other which has brought them to such matters. Second-Wave feminists cite patriarchy as the cause of their need for exclusion, and writers like Donovan cite Feminism as the reason men are bound to desk-work and served “manly” drinks in thin stemware.

A second treatment of gender fails equally. The “Radical Feminism” (which is hardly radical at all) of people like Lierre Keith and Derrick Jenson of Deep Green Resistance, as well as certain positions leftover from late 60’s American Paganism, attempts to resolve the matter of gender by abolishing it altogether. On its surface, such an idea is appealing, as must have been Atheism to Enlightenment writers, noting the problems of European Monotheism. Without gender, there is no division, and all humanity becomes one. Only in its particular violence against a certain group of people, however, does one begin to see the flaws in this.

In fact, what all these attempts have in common is a shared hatred of a specific class of people–trans-folk. Humans, who have chosen to physically embody a gender according to their will rather than circumstance of birth, attract such vitriol from all these groups that we should seriously consider why. Donovan, Budapest and Keith, all on apparently opposite sides of the gender question, stand united in their venom against trans-folk. Why?

The trans-person (and, equally perhaps, the queer) stands in a place more revolutionary and radical than any of their critics can hope to occupy. By choosing their gender, they do not abolish gender, they transform it into a human act, reminding the rest of us that gender, like race, is something we create and can choose to embody, rather than something we are born into. The all is split into many; each half of humanity split into a multitude of individual embodiments.

This transformation is revolutionary because it affects the rest of us. I am a cis-male, deep voiced, muscular, “man,” but if I rely only on accident of birth to claim my specific maleness, I exist in a passive realm of non-choice. For the multitude of other sorts of men, is it not the same thing? As well, for women; if a female relies on her uterus for her identity, what sort of identity is that?

That is, we cannot merely say woman, we must also ask “which woman?” Just as we cannot merely say Goddess or God, but rather ask which goddess? Which god?

The Multitude and the Myriad

640px-Starry_Night_at_La_SillaTo lump a very large group of things, or people, or beings into one whole has not gone very well for us humans these past few millenia, particularly because we’ve had to, like Cinderella’s step-sisters, take some bloody steps to force things to fit into the receptacle of our categories.

Monotheism required the annihilation of other gods except the One God; just as it required the destruction of cultural forms to make people fit into its categories. Communism and Fascism both require similar annihilation, crushing all humans within their realm into the worker or the volk. But likewise, Atheism is hardly an adequate answer, which abolishes all gods just as some would abolish all gender. More pernicious has been Capitalism’s answer, which erases identity altogether, except what can be purchased or sold, leaving individuality to one’s choice of smartphone or automobile. Any anyway, it hates forests.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt introduced the idea of “the Multitude,” the vast teeming flood of humans and their experiences which threaten always to overwhelm Empire. I suggest we Pagans embrace it and expand upon it. I like, particularly, the word Myriad, as in a “myriad of stars,” an immeasurable number which likely has a limit but one we cannot quite reach.

In all our multitudes of experience, we define ourselves and our genders. Each man is a sort of man, each woman a sort of woman. Each goddess is a sort of goddess, each god a sort of god. They are themselves them selves, just as we are each neither cog nor component.

How many gods are there? I do not know, anymore than I could hope to innumerate the sorts of women I’ve met, or of trees. I know it’s more than two and, definitely, more than none.

Likewise, how many ways of encountering the Other, or of making love, or of relating to each other are there?  How many sorts of sunlight are there, how many kinds of illumination does the sun shine upon the earth?.

A multitude, certainly.

A Myriad.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a nomadic autonomous Marxist witch-bard, devotee of the Raven King, the Lady of the Flames, the Crown of the North, the Harrower, several sea witches and quite a few mountain giants.  He’s also the co-founder of Gods&Radicals. Find his work on Paganarch and support his forest-soaked revolution here.


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Morrigan, Queen of the Witches

“The witch has been created by the land to speak and act for it.” -Peter Grey, Rewilding Witchcraft

When I took Iron Pentacle, one of Reclaiming’s core classes, I had only the vaguest idea of who the Morrigan was. I knew she had something to do with crows. There was an intense-looking statue in the shop that hosted the class. She was Celtic? I didn’t know. I didn’t think about it.

Overall I’m very happy in the Reclaiming Tradition, but our approach to deity–at least, in my particular community–can feel a bit like a gumball machine at times, with a different god and goddess invoked for every ritual, class, or planning meeting. At best, our relationships to these deities can feel a bit shallow unless we work with them personally. At worst, gods–whether they’re entities or archetypes–sometimes don’t even show up. Halfway through the evening you realize you’ve forgotten who was supposedly invoked.

That was not the case the night we worked the Power point of the pentacle.

Partly it was because the teachers’ invocation rocked. Partly it was because we did some especially deep work that night. But that session was one of the few times that the deity called was unmistakably present. Present, strong, and very interested in a roomful of witches.

After we worked with the Morrigan that night, I became obsessed with her. My classmates–soon to become my coven–did, too. It was clear that she was powerful and that she’d scooped us all up. But I was puzzled. When I’d started practicing witchcraft almost twenty years earlier, the Morrigan had been absent from all my books. Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves only mention her in passing. Granted, you access different information in your thirties than you do as a teenager, but it still struck me as odd that a goddess so rich with archetypal and magical significance, a natural ally for the burgeoning witchcraft movement, seemed relatively dormant until the beginning of the 21st century.

Isn’t that interesting? Global capitalism soars to new heights of oppression and destruction, and a goddess of sovereignty suddenly appears on the scene?

As I went through the process of becoming a devotee, I struggled to figure out what my relationship to the Morrigan was. Most sources I found emphasized her association with battle and nightmares, and I couldn’t figure out why I kept feeling her so strongly in my garden. I felt her in the twining of the jasmine plant and the spiders spinning webs over my pots. I felt her in a gale and a meteorite and the swaying branches of the jacaranda trees. For me, she was the breath of the wild world buried under a bloated civilization. I explored literal notions of warriorhood; I looked into some martial arts classes. But that just wasn’t the language she spoke to me.

The Táin is a very interesting myth. If you skim it, the Morrigan seems like a mean, almost petty figure, trying to bring Cú Chulainn down after he rejects her offer of love. After he injures her during each of her attempts, she has to trick him into healing her, and he grows indignant at having been fooled. Cue the trumpets: waah waaaah.

But the meaning of the story goes much deeper than that, of course. Here’s one possible reading: as goddess of sovereignty, the Morrigan is the personification of the landscape that forms a symbiotic relationship with its inhabitants. Usually this relationship is characterized by a symbolic marriage between the goddess and the king. Cú Chulainn isn’t a literal king, but as half-divine champion of the Ulstermen, he plays a similar role. The land offers itself to him in a spirit of partnership and love; Cú Chulainn rejects it under the misapprehension that he needs no such partnership; and the land subsequently hinders his efforts–not out of spite, but as an effect of natural law. In tricking Cú Chulainn into healing the Morrigan’s wounds, the land attempts to bring him back into that mutually beneficial partnership, although Cú Chulainn is still too pigheaded to see the benefit.

Here in the 21st century, one might read this story as a clear parable for capitalism. We’ve rejected the land and it’s begun to hinder us, sending us droughts and superstorms and deadly temperatures. The only way our story ends happily is for us to reestablish our partnership with the land by healing it–and, unlike Cú Chulainn, we need to do so willingly.

As I studied the Morrigan, I learned that I wasn’t crazy: many scholars refer to her as an earth goddess. And her role of spirit of the land isn’t far removed, I think, from her roles of sovereignty and war goddess. Humans are creatures of earth, dependent on healthy ecosystems, and we see across the globe that oppression and environmental devastation stem from the same root causes. I’m not the first person to wonder if, in this age of mass, mechanized violence, the Morrigan isn’t gathering an army.

“Late capitalist culture simply does not care what our fantasy dress up life is like as long as we work our zero hour contracts, carry our mobile phones and keep consuming. The reason that social services are not taking your children away is that nobody believes in the existence of the witch….Marching in lock-step with what used to be called mainstream, but is now mono-culture, we have disenchanted ourselves, handed over our teeth and claws and bristling luxuriant furs.” -Peter Gray, Rewilding Witchcraft

“Witchcraft is a tool against oppressors. It sides with the oppressors at its own peril, for power is ever fickle, and our gifts ever mistrusted by the bullies and abusers who would make our power their own.” – Jason Thomas Pitzl, Witchcraft Today–Witchcraft Tomorrow: A Manifesto

Witchcraft is becoming synonymous with warriorhood.

How can it not? How can we practice plant magic when our plant allies are covered in pesticides? How can we believe in an immanent Goddess and let other human lives be destroyed? How can we “sing, feast, dance, make music and love” knowing what fueled the cars we drove to our secret places? At this juncture of history, to be a witch is to be a warrior. Diana and Aradia and Hekate are commonly known as Queens of the Witches; now, by necessity, the Morrigan is taking her place alongside them. Queen of sorcery and prophecy. She who sees the cycles of history.

penot-witch
“Départ pour le Sabbat” by Albert Joseph Pénot

But the Morrigan isn’t asking us to adore her with more trinkets and cosplay. It frustrates me when I meet holier-than-thou devotees who are eager to dress up as ancient Celts and call themselves warriors, but sniff at the idea of fighting any actual battles. Why waste your time phone banking or blocking freeways when you could be out shopping for replica swords? What on earth does a war goddess have to do with politics? (Yes, a real person actually said that to me, although they didn’t phrase it as a question.)

Let’s face it: about 90% of magical and spiritual work doesn’t involve cool costumes and elaborate rituals. It involves listening to your deepest self and doing what needs to be done. This isn’t to say that rituals aren’t important; I hear the Coru priests are as good at battlefield devotionals as they are at direct action. But if your rivers are being poisoned and your neighbors are being murdered by police and you’ve only got an hour to spare, then your priorities should be clear: put down the incense and do something.

Witchcraft is warriorhood. It wasn’t always. If I’m reincarnated as another witch in 500 years, I hope that my practice can consist of dancing in meadows and wearing flower crowns. But we witches of the 21st century drew the short straw: we got a poisoned earth and a rabid kyriarchy and an angry goddess. Yeah, it sucks. It’s our job to rise to the occasion.

It’s true that the Morrigan is also known as the Phantom Queen, and I’ve seen people warned away from her for this reason. “You can’t handle her,” the warnings say. “She’s too dangerous. Her name means nightmare, you know!”

If you don’t feel a need to work with the Morrigan, then obviously you shouldn’t. I’m not proselytizing here. I know many fine warrior witches who work with Hekate or Ceridwyn or Isis or Inanna. But if you’re feeling that tug from her–if she’s invading your thoughts and dreams and she’s not leaving you alone–then I’m going to give you some advice that runs contrary to what you’ll hear elsewhere.

Don’t be afraid.

Because, yes, the Morrigan is scary. Yes, I’ve seen some deeply disturbing things in dreams and trance. Yes, working with her might lead to physical or psychic injury (although if that injury isn’t transformative in some way, then something’s off).

But I guarantee–and I’m talking especially to you, white middle-class Americans–that nothing the Morrigan can do to you compares to the horror of human trafficking, drone strikes, militarized police, environmentally-caused cancers, nuclear meltdowns, or any of the other myriad effects of capitalism and kyriarchy that ordinary people deal with everyday. If you’re hearing her call, then listen to what she’s saying. Why be afraid of the Nightmare Queen when we are living in a fucking nightmare?

To be a witch is to be a warrior. This is not an ego trip, friends–it’s an obligation. Most of us didn’t ask for it, but we do have to own it. Even if we don’t know how to be warriors. Even if we’re not sure what the word “warrior” even means.

I can’t tell you what your warriorhood should look like. Suffice it to say that if it’s exactly what you always imagined warriorhood would be, with all the pomp and splendor you’ve always craved, then it’s probably not helping a whole lot. Seek out the unglamorous battles. Don’t strive to get your picture taken. Just do what needs to be done.

The Goddess has offered you her love; your job now is to heal her.