“No One Understands About Black”

My daughter wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day:

Mom, I love you the blackest!
I love you the color of a mystery cave.
I love you the color of a blackbird singing its territory.
A summer midnight.
A bat’s wings.
And an evening talk with no meaning.

 

(Yes, I’m proud.)

“You really describe black so people can feel how bright and beautiful it is,” I told her.

“I know,” she said with rapture in her voice. “Isn’t black wonderful?” And it’s true. She has always loved black. When she was two she took her black crayola marker and (re) colored our living room couch (usually sage green) black. She was very proud.

The next day after school she came back and said to me, “No one understands about black.”

“You can help them understand,” I told her. “By writing poems and stories. By making art. You can share your thoughts about how warm and comforting, how strong and glorious black is.”

One of the tropes I am most tired of is the binary opposition of “light/good/white” versus “dark/bad/black.” This is everywhere in our language and culture, and especially deeply entrenched when we talk about religion, soul, spirit, knowledge and wisdom.

Darkness nurtures the seed, the babe. The dark nests us all when we sleep. Dark allows us space to mourn, and also space to grow, to change, to cast off an old skin and try on a new. Night is the nurturing mother of us all.

Light without dark is the intolerable bright glare of torture and interrogation.  We need our shadows. We need the dark. We need black.

And those of us who are makers, writers, story tellers, artists, songwriters and creatives of all stripes, we have a responsibility to help our culture(s) rethink this binary. We need to find a way to embrace black, and the trope of darkness. We need to remember—and to say, repeatedly—that light (and white) is not always good and beneficent.

This is not about race.

This is about race.

Mandala Things Come Together

Gender and sexuality in Wicca

This is the video of my talk at Witchfest in Croydon, November 2014. The talk discusses expanding and deepening our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle (our whole self, or do we bring only our essence, and what does our essence include?) and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history.

"All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca", by Yvonne Aburrow

All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca, by Yvonne Aburrow, published by Avalonia Books, 2014

In my talk, and in my book, I advocate a more nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality, and biological sex, and using these understandings to inform our understanding of magical concepts like polarity and fertility.

In the middle of my talk, we did a practical demonstration of another form of polarity, asking all the people who were born under Air and Fire signs to create energy together, and all the people who were born under Earth and Water signs to make energy together. We then merged the two energies together. Polarity happened. And the room became warmer and everybody became more animated. The energy changed.  (We didn’t video that part of the event because of issues of consent.)

There are many different forms of polarity, and whilst it is great that a man and a woman can make polarity, many other pairings can also make polarity – and even if you are focussing on male/female polarity in your rituals, you may be sure that other types of polarity are also occurring at the same time. The bottom line is: if one person can generate polarity with another person, regardless of gender, sexuality, or biological sex, let them do so. If a same-sex couple, or a man and a woman who are not a couple, or a person born under an Air sign and a person born under an Earth sign, or any other combination where oppositeness can be generated, want to make magic together, then let them do so. And no-one is saying you can’t have male-female polarity and heterosexual symbolism. We are just saying, why does it have to be that 100% of the time?

At a previous discussion of this, back in the summer, a couple of people said they felt that you don’t bring your personal stuff into circle (of course you don’t bring petty concerns about the shopping and the car etc into circle, but you do bring your core identity, which includes sexual orientation). But I bring my whole self, including my politics, gender identity, and sexual orientation, before the deities. I don’t leave behind my concerns about the struggle for justice for Black communities, or First Nations, or women, or LGBTQI people, when I am in circle – I do magic to support those struggles.

Others have commented that we should not adapt religious traditions to suit ourselves, but should allow the tradition to transform us. Yes, up to a point, but when the tradition excludes a whole group of people because of who they are, then it is time to dig deeper.  If we look at the concepts of polarity, fertility, and gender as they are expressed in traditional magical texts (which are the source material for Wiccan ritual, as demonstrated in the excellent book Wicca: Magickal Beginnings, by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine), we can see that they are separate and distinct concepts, which are not reducible to a simple and restrictive gender binary. If we look at ancient pagan traditions (which Wicca also claims to draw upon) then we can see that they were also inclusive of people with diverse gender and sexual identities.

For me, Wicca is neither solely a path of self-development, not is it only a path of service to the deities. I was taught that we work in partnership with the deities. The deities are more powerful in their realm, but they need our physical embodied presence and co-operation to get stuff done in the physical world. I discuss this in some depth in chapter 14 of my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca, and I also touched on it in chapter 16. I wrote a whole chapter on it in Priestesses, Pythonesses, and Sibyls, edited by Sorita d’Este.

Traditions evolve, and Wicca is evolving. They evolve because they are living and moving discourses, not fossils set in stone. Wicca is received differently by the different cultures in which it is practised, because of history and culture and context. Tradition is not a fixed and unchanging thing. Of course we should be mindful of accuracy in transmitting what has been handed down to us, because history and oral transmission of lore are important – but that does not mean we cannot change and adapt things, provided we transmit the original versions of the rituals that we received.

I discuss all of this in more depth in the video and in the book, so I would be grateful if you would watch the video before commenting.

A happy New Year to all the readers of Sermons from the Mound, and may 2015 bring you happiness, health, and peace.

Diverse communities are less racist

A recent sociological study has shown that white people become less racist when they live in ethnically diverse areas, which is a very encouraging finding.

A diverse group of friends

Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

I have always lived in ethnically diverse districts. When I was a student, I lived in a terraced house in Lancaster, in an area that was home to many people of different ethnic backgrounds. In 1988, I went to southern Germany, and was bewildered by the sea of white faces. I think I saw one Black person the whole time that I was there, and a few Turkish people. I missed the availability of food from different cultures, and I missed the diversity of clothing styles.

After I graduated, I moved to Cambridge, and lived in the Mill Road area, also very ethnically diverse. Here is a photo of a mural on the railway bridge, celebrating that diversity.

I lived in South Gloucestershire and North Somerset for ten years, and they were less ethnically diverse. Sadly, Black and minority ethnic friends and colleagues reported a high number of racist incidents, such as being more frequently stopped by the police, finding unpleasant items on the doormat of one’s house, and an assumption that BME people don’t live in the region (except in Bristol). This tends to bear out the findings of the sociological study.

I now live in Oxford, which is very ethnically diverse, has a thriving interfaith body which organises events (and includes Pagans), and has a Christmas tree and a Hanukiah in Broad Street, and has a liberal mosque where the sermons are in English. On the street where I live, in a small suburb, there are two shops run by Muslims, a Polish shop, a hardware store run by a Sikh, a post office run by a Hindu couple, a chip shop run by a family of Italian background, a Caribbean cafe, and a Polish shop. The residents of the houses are equally diverse. Other shopping streets also have many different shops and restaurants, and there are Moroccan, Turkish, Italian, Chinese, Libyan, Russian, Thai, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, and many other restaurants only a bus ride away.  On my bus ride into work, there are people of many different ethnicities on the bus, and the same when I arrive at work.

I love living in a diverse area, where I can see faces of many different colours around me, both in the city centre and in the suburbs, where I can chat to people from different backgrounds and cultures and get their perspectives on things, and where I can easily buy food from all around the world.

As Pagans, we should be aware that people of all ethnicities are manifestations of the divine (or however your theology would express that concept).

Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

~ Black Elk, quoted in Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux (1961), as told to John Neihardt

Where there is acceptance and welcoming towards Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists, there will eventually also be acceptance and welcoming towards Pagans. If we participate in interfaith dialogue, we can build friendships and alliances with people of other religions.

The subjugation and oppression of Black, Asian, Latino, and First Nations people is part of the dominionist, capitalist, exploitative approach that says that the Earth is there to be exploited and subjugated, and so are other people. it is part of the worldview that claims that industrialisation and mechanisation will lead to increased human happiness, whereas in fact it has led to destruction of habitats, eradication of indigenous people and their life-ways, oppression, and alienation – and the view that any culture that does not buy into the myth of progress and the cult of consumerism is somehow more primitive and less civilised than the over-consuming West. I cannot see how any of this can ever be part of Paganism, and yet there are many Pagans posting racist comments on blog-posts about systemic racism, Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter protests.

To those of you who do not understand the deep systemic connections between exploitation, capitalism, and systemic racism, I do not know what to say, except, may you gaze deep into the mirror of your own soul, and find a way out of the abyss.

We need to get angry, and we need to get active. We need to value the lives of our fellow human beings as much as we value our own. We need to see all the colours of humanity as sacred, just as Black Elk did. To do this, we need to build bridges between different communities, and learn about each others’ traditions – not force people to live in separate enclaves, ghettos, and barrios where they can never meet.

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle and the Forgotten Origins of Neopagan Theology

This week, we are pleased to once again host an original research article by Christopher Scott Thompson, exploring an alternative origin for the “maiden, mother, crone” Goddess theology that has been so influential in contemporary Paganism. Thanks, Christopher, for the intriguing argument!


Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Three Brigits: Just Not the Three You’re Thinking Of

Any Brigidine pagan, on hearing the phrase “Three Brigits” would think immediately of the famous passage from Cormac’s Glossary:

Brigit, i.e., a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e., Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.[1]

Some would also be aware that there were other Brigits, women mentioned in passing in the medieval Irish lore. There’s been some debate about whether these women had anything to do with the goddess Brigit or not, and in any case they are very obscure figures. Because Brig means power, a woman with the prefix Brig in her name may be the power of a particular thing; for example, Brig Brethach could be read as “Brigit of the Judgments” or “Power of Judgment.”

The known Brig-figures include Brig Ambue (“Brigit of the Cowless”), Brig Euit (“Brigit of Piety”), Brig Briugu (“Brigit of Hospitality”), Brig Brethach (“Brigit of the Judgments”) and Great Brid of the Horses.[2]

The reference to Brig Euit makes it clear that she was actually St. Brigid. Brig Brethach is used several times as a nickname for Brig Ambue and at least once as another name for Brig Briugu, but there was also another Brig Brethach, the wife of Sencha MacAilella. Great Brid of the Horses is arguably a duplicate of this Brig Brethach. In a later era, the legendary (if not infamous) poet Senchan Torpeist had a wife named Brigit, who makes a brief appearance in “The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Assembly” and stars in its derivative tale “Great Brid of the Horses.”

Senchan Torpeist has deep links to the Ulster Cycle (he is the bard who recovered the Tain, among other things) and the name Senchan is obviously close to Sencha. This implies that Sechan and his wife Brigit are later reflexes of Sencha MacAilella and his wife Brig Brethach.

If we set aside Brig Euit and Great Brid of the Horses for now, we have three Brig figures: Brig Briugu, Brig Brethach and Brig Ambue, all of whom were sometimes referred to as Brig Brethach. However, these are not three random Irish women mentioned at disconnected points in the medieval lore. Instead, they are three generations of the same family!

According to a footnote by Eugene O’Curry:

Several women of the name of Brig are mentioned in. the ancient laws as female judges; some of them appear to have been connected with each other. The mother of Senchan, chief judge and poet of Ulster in the time of Conchobar Mac Nessa, was called Brig ban Brughad or Brig the female Brugad; his wife was called Brig Brethach or Brig of the judgments; and his daughter, the Brig A mbui alluded to in the text, was also it would appear called Brig “of the Judgments”, and was wife of Celtchoir Mac Uthichair, a renowned personage of the Tain Bo Chuailgne, and other heroic tales of that period. She is mentioned as one of the nine, or rather ten, women who accompanied Queen Mugan, wife of Conchobor Mac Nessa, at the Fled Bricrind or Bricriu’s Feast.[3]

Brig Ambue was the wife of Celtchar MacUthechair of the Ulster Cycle, but she was sometimes referred to as Brig Brethach or “Brigit of the Judgments,” supposedly because she gave a famous legal judgment in correction of her father Sencha mac Ailella, poet and judge to Conchobar MacNessa. The name Sencha is very similar to senchas, a word that means lore or tradition. This is especially significant because the references to Brig Ambue come from the Senchas Mor or “Great Tradition,” a medieval collection of Brehon law.

Brig Brethach was her mother, the wife of the same famous judge and poet.

Sencha’s mother was Brig Briugu or “Brigit of Hospitality,” but the glosses to a story called Din Techtugud identify this Brig as the Brig Brethach who corrected Sencha’s false judgment.[4]   

Three Brigits: the mother, wife and daughter of a famous poet whose name actually means Lore or Tradition, and who are known mostly from a book called the Great Tradition.

We are not dealing with scattered references to women named Brigit, but with a second trinity of Three Brigits. Unlike the more well-known trinity of three sisters from the Mythological Cycle, these three are from the Ulster Cycle. As such, they are described as being human women- but their connection to the goddess is now unmistakable, and they are probably best described as avatars.

 

Brig Briugu

O’Curry calls the grandmother Brig ban Brughad. According to the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, briugu means:

Landowner, hospitaller, in later sources also farmer, yeoman. In legal texts the b. is a rich landowner with a public function of dispensing unlimited hospitality to all persons in his hostel, which must be in an accessible position. For this he is given the same honour-price as the king of a túath… recognized as common intervener in disputes.[5]

According to eDIL, the word briugas means “function of a briugu; hospitality, riches, abundance:; plenty,” and briugaid is a form of this word.[6] All the other meanings of brugad are not relevant, so Brig ban Brughad must mean “Brigit the Female Hosteler,” a variation on the name Brig Briugu.

A hosteler in ancient Ireland was a wealthy peasant or successful farmer who could attain a semi-noble status by offering free hospitality to travelers. Hostels figure prominently in Irish lore, and especially in the lore of this particular family. A hostel was essentially an inn where you didn’t have to pay for food or lodging. So, Brig Briugu is connected with agriculture, hospitality and the Celtic ideal of open-handed generosity without thought of reward. It seems likely that anecdotes about St. Brigid’s generosity with food and drink derive from the lore about Brig Briugu.

 

Brig Brethach

Brig Brethach or “Brigit of the Judgments” is the wife of Sencha the judge and poet. The fili in ancient times combined both roles, so Brig Brethach was presumably a fili as well. Sencha was one of the men who volunteered to serve as foster-fathers for the hero Cuchulain. Sencha never became a full-time foster-father to Cuchulain, but did teach him the skill of eloquence — presumably with the assistance of his wife Brig Brethach. In Gaelic folklore, St. Bride is often referred to as Muime or “foster-mother,” referring to the legend that she was the foster-mother of Jesus Christ. Considering this fact, it seems significant that a pre-Christian Brigit was a foster-mother of sorts to Cuchulain, the son of the god Lugh.

Sencha’s role in the Ulster Cycle is that of peacemaker. Considering that this was a typical role of the briugu, he may have inherited this position from his mother. When the stubborn, vainglorious and recklessly violent warriors are about to lose their tempers, Sencha shakes his “branch of peace” and persuades them to either submit the matter to arbitration, talk it out instead of fighting or at least agree to a cooling-off period. He is described as having a voice as sweet as music, which must have helped him in his profession[7]. Although Sencha is described as reciting a rosc or battle-incitement poem by royal request on one occasion, he is essentially a professional deescalator, like the “violence interruptors” who try to prevent gang violence in modern Chicago.

Confusingly enough, Bretha for Conslechtaib states that the wife of Sencha was named Brig Ambue, so there is no clear distinction between the three members of this trinity. They are all, apparently, Brig Brethach.

 

Brig Ambue

Brig Ambue or “Brigit of the Cowless” is a complex figure. On the one hand, she was a famous female jurist (“the female expert of the men of Ireland in wisdom and prudence”) known for her role in defending the rights of women. On the other hand, she was a femme fatale, whose manipulations led to the deaths of her own husband Celtchar Mac Uthechair and the hosteler Blai Briugu.

Brig Ambue’s name implies a connection to the Ambue, a class of people with no property in old Irish society. As the granddaughter of a hosteler and the wife of a famous Ulster warrior she would have been quite wealthy, so she most likely earned this name by rendering legal judgments on behalf of the disenfranchized and powerless. P. Sufenus Virius Lupus, in the article The Hidden Imbolc, has suggested that Brig Ambue was connected to the purification and reintegration of “cowless” or outlaw Fian warriors around the time of Imbolc.[8]

Brig Ambue plays a role in two of the Ulster Cycle tales, although she is referred to as Brig Brethach in one and not mentioned by name in the other. We know the Brig Brethach in these stories is really Brig Ambue thanks to O’Curry’s footnote- Brig Ambue was the wife of Celtchar Mac Uthechair, not of Sencha Mac Ailella who was her father.

Her father Sencha is the wise counselor and peacemaker at Bricriu’s Feast who oversees the “War of Words of the Women of Ulster” after Bricriu incites the wives of the Ulster heroes against each other. As Brig Ambue’s husband Celtchar is mentioned as having been in attendance, she must have been one of the participants in the War of Words, although her speech is not given.

Sencha shows himself to be a misogynist in this tale by blaming all the trouble — and all warfare in general — on the women:

“It is through the fault of women the shields of men are broken, heroes go out to fight and struggle with one another in their anger… It is the folly of women brings men to do these things…”[9]

He received his comeuppance for this sort of attitude from his own daughter Brig, who earned her nickname Brig Brethach by correcting his judgment on a legal matter affecting the rights of women. Sencha had ruled unfairly, causing blotches to magically appear on his face. When Brig gave the correct judgment, his blotches disappeared.

Despite this obvious reference to Brig Ambue as a figure of justice, The Tragic Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair portrays her as either a ruthless schemer or a destructive embodiment of destiny, depending on how you interpet her role.

For whatever reason, Brig Ambue seems to have determined on the death of Blai Briugu, because she deliberately put him in one of the geasa traps beloved by old Irish storytellers. In the story, she travels alone to Blai’s hostel despite knowing that he has a geis or taboo requiring him to sleep with any unaccompanied woman under his roof. When he complains that she’s going to get him killed, she replies “It is a wretched man that violates his own geasa.” Blai has sex with her, and when her husband Celtchar hears about it he hunts Blai down.

Blai attempts to escape his fate by staying as near the king and Cuchulain as possible, but Celtchar comes up and stabs him dead with a spear while he’s watching his two protectors play a board game. The blood splatters on the board, but it’s a little bit closer to the king’s side so the duty of revenge for Blai’s death falls to him.

Celtchar flees south to Munster, but is lured back with guarantees of safety. His fine or “blood-price” for Blai’s murder is to protect Ulster from its three worst threats. He successfully disposes of a warrior with sword-proof skin by promising his daughter Niam to the man and then getting her to find out his weak point. He kills a giant, maneating mouse by ripping its heart out. However, the third monster Conchobar asks him to kill is his own dog, which is running wild and killing people. When Celtchar does so, a drop of the dog’s blood rolls down his spear and burns right through him, killing him instantly.[10]

The presence of a wild dog in this story may be significant, as outlaw warriors of the Ambue class referred to themselves as being wolves or werewolves, and there was no distinction in the Irish language between a wolf and a dog. According to Katherine Simms, the Irish law tracts refer to Brig Ambue as the first person ever to train a lapdog[11].

It could be that the dog in this story is no dog at all, but an Ambue warrior once loyal to Celtchar but now gone rogue- or simply carrying out Brig Ambue’s desire to see both Blai and her husband dead. The story gives no explanation for why she sets this destructive train of events in motion, but three possibilities come to mind.

One is that she could have been seeking retribution for some wrongdoing committed by both Blai and her husband.

Two is that the storytellers could have cast her in the role of the otherworld woman who forces a doomed man to violate his geasa  for no other reason than the fact that he is doomed.

Three is that her role in this myth is actually a metaphor for the nature of justice. Blai knows what he is supposed to do but he’s scared to do it; she reminds him of his obligations and he fulfills them – even at the cost of his own life.

Brig Ambue appears in another anecdote under the odd nickname Cúicthi or “Five,” again to correct her father’s judgment. In this case, a mysterious woman interrupts a duel between Conall Cernach and Láegaire Buadach to ask them to delay the fight and seek arbitration. They ask Sencha how long they should wait for, but he doesn’t know so they ask the woman. She tells them to wait five days, and they ask her name. She tells them her name is Cúicthi or “Five,” but a gloss on the manuscript says the woman was really Sencha’s daughter “Brighi”- in other words, Brig Ambue. Her father didn’t recognize her because of a magic veil. Strangely enough, it also says she was married to Cuchulain — perhaps after Celtchar’s death?[12]

In any case, this anecdote is used as precedent for setting the standard waiting period before distraint at five days. For instance, if a man lost a judgment and had to pay a fine of ten cows, the plaintiff would have to give him notice and then wait the required number of days before staging a cattle raid to recover the fine. The waiting period created space and time for the defendant to pay the fine, reducing the likelihood of violence. Distraint also applied to cases involving women, but the rules were different. This was the primary theme of the “judgments of Brig.”

 

The Judgments of Brig

Modern pagans often interpret Brigit as a goddess of social justice or even of activism, partly because of several stories that cast St. Brigid in this role and partly because of fragmentary references to the judgments of Brig Ambue or Brig Brethach.

According to Katharine Simms, references in the legal tracts to a work called Bretha Brígi Ambue or “The Judgments of Brig Ambue” do not mean that such a document ever actually existed. Instead, the Bretha Brígi Ambue was a mythical book, invoked when it was deemed necessary to make changes to established law. When the judges of medieval Ireland came to the conclusion that a particular law was unfair, they would make up an anecdote in which Brig Ambue or Brig Brethach gave a judgment on the matter.[13]

In culturally conservative traditional societies, change is managed by pretending it isn’t change in the first place. One way to do this is to invoke a fictional ancient precedent, so that the new law isn’t  described as being new but as an older and more authentic tradition more in line with what the Irish called firinne or universal Truth.

The blemishes on Sencha’s face were caused by his deviation from firinne, and they went away automatically when firinne was restored. If a medieval Irish judge had been around when Americans were debating about giving women the vote in 1920, he would have made up a story in which the first justice of the Supreme Court ruled against women’s suffrage and immediately got blisters on his face until his daughter Brigit corrected him. Then our time-traveling Irish judge could feel totally comfortable about his support for the 19th Amendment, because it would no longer be a radical new idea but an older and more traditional tradition.

So, the “Judgments of Brig” do not actually represent pre-Christian myths, but changes to early medieval law justified by reference to a shadowy pre-Christian figure called “Brigit of the Judgments.” The specific cases described as “Judgments of Brig” all have this characteristic.

Brig Ambue’s most famous judgment involved cases of distraint over inherited property. Under ancient Irish law, a man who inherited property but didn’t have physical posession of it was expected to follow a detailed procedure. First he had to bring two yoked horses and one witness over the boundary line to give legal notice of his claim on the land. If the current owner refused to acknowledge his claim he could return ten days later with four horses and let them graze for a little while. If he returned ten days later with eight horses he could move into the house and make a fire, at which point the land was his regardless of what the original owner said[14].

Acording to the story, a woman named Ciannachta asked Sencha whether she could use this process to press her claim to a piece of land. Sencha told her she couldn’t do so; it was only for men. While this was obviously a sexist law, the logic behind it was based on the clan mentality of ancient Ireland rather than on hatred for women per se. If a man inherited property it would remain within his fine or kinship group; if a woman inherited property the fine could lose it if she got married. In addition, property owners were expected to show up for military service at the king’s request, and while there may have been some female warriors most women were not trained as fighters.

Regardless of the logic behind Sencha’s sexist judgment, blisters appeared on his face overnight- it was a violation of firinne. He tried to get rid of the blisters by telling Ciannachta she could use the same process, but the blisters stayed.[15] This second attempt at a judgment was something of a cyncial ploy on Sencha’s part, as a man was a lot more likely to have access to eight horses than a woman was. If this judgment had been upheld, women would have had the right to inherit land in name only, because it would have been much harder for them to press a claim.

This is when Brig Ambue stepped in, ruling that Ciannachta could use a different procedure. All she had to do was bring two sheep and a witness, bring the sheep back to graze after eight days and move into the house after another eight days. As soon as she baked bread in her new house it was legally hers[16].

Although the legal logic involved is obviously specific to ancient Ireland, this law would clearly be considered “progressive” in modern terms, because it modifies an existing law to make it more just to women.

This anecdote was then used as precedent for similar changes in Irish law on distraint. Men were required to follow a variety of different procedures with different waiting periods depending on the urgency of the situation and the rank and gender of the defendant, but the law was reformed to allow women to give only two days notice regardless of the defendant.

Another “Judgment of Brig” gave women the right to pass down property to their daughters in some circumstances. This had previously been illegal, because it would cause the father’s kinship group to lose some of its land. However, there was apparently a custom in which a new husband pleased with how the wedding night had turned out could give his bride a piece of property as a gift. This was called “land of hand and thigh,” and Brig is supposed to have ruled that land of hand and thigh could be passed down to daughters. Leaving aside the several layers of archaic thought in this entire concept, this is once again a progressive law. Women previously could only hold life-interest in any land belonging to the clan and couldn’t own it outright, but after the law was changed it was possible for women to own some of this land outright.[17]

These examples suggest that the modern understanding of Brigit as a goddess of social justice and progressive reform is fully supported by the lore, since “Brigit of the Judgments” was invoked to validate progressive changes to medieval Irish law.

Mother, Wife and Daughter

Despite Sencha’s sexist tendencies, the man clearly had his good points, foremost of which was his role as a peacemaker and “violence interrupter.” Sencha’s use of verbal eloquence to deescalate and defuse potentially violent situations is in line with traditions that the goddess Brigit and her animals keened and mourned for any violent conflict.

If we think of Sencha not as a human being but as a personification of Tradition- which is what his name implies- then we get an interesting pattern. Brigit of Hospitality, a farmer and commoner as all hostelers were, is the mother of Tradition. Brigit of the Judgments is the wife of Tradition. Brigit of the Cowless, who challenges her father’s unfair judgments, is the daughter of Tradition.

This can be read as a kind of commentary: “The mother of Tradition is the wisdom of the common people, the wife of Tradition is good judgment and learning, and the daughter of Tradition is the willingness to challenge Tradition in the name of justice.”

All three of them are Brigit.

 

Nora Chesson’s Three Brigits

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle were virtually forgotten for many centuries before early Celtic scholars such as Eugene O’Curry and Henry O’Neill recorded their existence in passing. When O’Curry wrote On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish he didn’t draw any particular attention to the Three Brigits- his reference to them is only a footnote in a very large book. O’Neill’s reference is also quite short:

The right of women to inherit property was admitted at a very early period, certainly long before their exemption from war, if we can be sure that it really was St. Adamnan who secured their freedom from obligation to serve, and not some early pagan legislator of whose act this is merely a Christian echo. Tradition states that it was a learned woman who secured for women in Ireland a part of any succession, namely, a third part of the landed estate if there were no sons. Later the whole property went to the daughters in default of male heirs.

The one who reflected this change for women was Brig or Brigit Ambui, the daughter of Senchan, chief poet and judge to King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster, and the third of her name. For her mother was Brig Brethach, or Brigit of the Judgments, and her grandmother Brig ban Brughad, or Brigit the Farmerwoman. The name recurring so often makes one suspect that we have to do with matters so far back that the name of Brig the goddess of learning has been varied to suit poetic treatment.[18]

However, these short references must have made a big impression on at least one person: the English poet, writer and mystic Nora Jane Hopper Chesson (1871-1906), whose Ballads in Prose was published in 1894.

Chesson was a dreamer of the Celtic Twilight type, and although she had an Anglo-Irish father and a Welsh mother she had no personal connection to Celtic folk traditions and never visited Ireland in her life. Despite this fact, she was surprisingly influential in the Irish literary renaissance, influencing Yeats among others. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Yeats was irritated by her mildly plagiaristic habits, but inspired enough by her version of Celtic mysticism that he considered founding his own occult order along Celtic lines.

Chesson created at least two new myths about Brigit, along with at least one poem. All three of them are overtly pagan, so Chesson could be considered the first Brigidine pagan of modern times.

Chesson herself claimed that all of her writing was nothing but “moonshine,” and told others she had based none of it on genuine Celtic lore[19]. However, this appears to have been false modesty on her part, as the following piece could only have been written by someone familiar with one of these passing references to the Three Brigits, and only someone very well-read in Celtic lore would have even stumbled on them:

THE THREE BRIGITS

From “Ballads in Prose” by Nora Chesson, 1894

They sat in the uncertain sunshine of a wintry day, the three Brigits: Brigit, the Farmer, old and brown and withered — her daughter, Brigit of the Judgments, a tall and comely woman ripened and sweetened by fifty autumns — and the grand-daughter Brigit, straight and slim as a rush, with all the beauty of her face folded and sleeping still.

Now the eldest Brigit sat nodding in her carved chair, with the sunlight warm on her blind eyes, but the house-mistress, Brigit of the Judgments, sat spinning busily, and her daughter stood in the open air under the blessed thorn, watching her busy mother, with a smile in her dreamy eyes. And as she dreamed, there came a step on the ringing road, and a shadow fell across the girl’s feet – the shadow of a tall woman with a face kind and sad and beautiful, who carried a sleeping boy in her arms.

“The gods save all here!” she said, softly, “and bless the work!”

“Come in, and welcome,” said Brigit of the Judgments, heartily. Then she raised her eyes to the stranger’s face, and her own grew white and strange, as does that face which looks on something that is not of this world.

“Who are you ?” she cried.

“My name,” said the woman, softly, “is Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan: and his — ” looking down with a smile in her grey eyes at the lad in her arms, “Oh, one may call him Aongus (Love), or Eireag (Beauty), or Aighneann (Lover), or Gort (Sourness); he has nigh as many names as he has faces. What will you call him, Brigit of the Judgments?”

Brigit of the Judgments turned a hungry face to meet her guest’s clear eyes.

“He is the child I lost long ago,” she muttered, “he is my little Culainn, and he has his father’s eyes — there never was a comelier lad than my Eoghan: and because his dead beauty kept the door of my heart I never kissed the lips of thy father, Brigit, good mate though he made me. Let me have the child, daughter of the stranger: he is mine.”

Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan smiled. “Told I not that he was Moran of the many names? Now,” turning to the youngest Brigit, ” tell me what he seemeth to thee, O little maiden of the yellow cool?” And the third Brigit drew back with a face that blossomed red as the leaves at a rose’s heart.

“I see –” she said, and put back the yellow hair that the wind blew in her face, “I see — Oh mother I see what you saw in Eoghan’s face – and now shall I say all that I see? I see short joy and long sorrow, shame and severance and suffering, patience and pride — and do I not also see that I would thole the sorrow for the sake of the short joy? Oh mother, hold me fast lest I gather the shame, too.”

“I said,” quoth Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, “that he was Moran of the many names. Aongus or Aighneann wouldst thou call him, O little one? and to thy mother is he her lost child and her lost husband: and what to me? Ah, when last I looked him in the face, I called him Conasg (War): for I saw a light in his eyes that was like the light of swords. And now, O old mother, rise up and say what thou seest in his face.”

“I am blind, Lady,” muttered Brigit the Farmer. “I am blind and I cannot see.”

“Rise up,” said Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, as if she had not heard, “and look on him, and say what thou seest in his face.”

So the old woman rose and came to her side, without help of either staff or guiding hand, and she fixed her blind eyes on the face asleep on the breast of Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan. Then to the watching mother and daughter it seemed that the blind eyes gathered colour and depth as they gazed: and last, the light that had left them. And then with a cry the grandmother fell back into Brigit of the Judgments’ arms, and women came from the house and bore her in, and laid her softly on her bed, seeing that she was stricken with death. And Brigit of the Judgments wept over the happy face of her gray mother, and never heeded that she hindered her soul from passing: and, outside in the winter sunshine, Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan waited with her back against the holy white-thorn. And beside her the youngest Brigit stood, dreaming, looking past bawn and barn away to the silvery ribbon of the Boyne running swiftly away to wooded Brugh where Aongus Oge was still thought to have his golden house. And Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan turned her eyes on the girl’s face, and, holding them there, again she turned back the mantle from the face of him she bore on her bosom. And softly she said, ” Look!” and Brigit obeyed her. And as she looked, there came a smile over the sleeping face, and the smile smote to the girl’s heart with sorrow as sharp as a spear: but Kathaleen’s look kept back the tears from her eyes and the cry from her lips: and for a little while the twain kept silence. And then Kathaleen covered the sleeping face, and with that Brigit’s tongue was loosed, and she cried out, sobbing, ” Oh! fair he is and dear he is, Dark Woman, and a while since would I have died to walk the world with him: and now it seems to be better to live and die without him – and that your frowns were dearer than his praising, Beauty of the World!”

“I am not she!” said Kathaleen NyHoulahan. “She passes away, and I can never die-for even when my own children stone me, I must rise again, and go on my road. And – oh! Flesh of my flesh, but you have stoned me often !” she cried. “And oh! but how good it were to feel the shamrocks growing over me!”

“But then the world would end, Pulse of our hearts,” said Brigit. “And must you go on your way again, you and Moran of the many names? Will you not stay a little – and we would serve you well?”

“It is for me to serve my people,” said Kathaleen. “But I must not stay: for I was born when the wandering wind met the wandering fire, and the twain are in my blood.”

“Then take me with you,” Brigit cried, “for I shall never be wife or mother, and what use is there for me in my mother’s house? Take me with you, Heart of hearts, and let me wander, too, till I die.”

“Brigit the Farmer served me well in her eighty years, and never she served me better than when she milked her kine in the byres of Conor the King. And well has Brigit your mother served me, and all the better for the loss of her fair Eoghan: and when your father Senchan sang before Conor MacNessa he was serving me, though he knew it not. And now,” said Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, “do you also serve me, Brigit. My daughters dwell in their father’s houses, and see the green lands pass to the thriftless man and the hard man: and are they better than hostages even in their husbands’ houses? Go out and cry shame till this thing cease, my Brigit: till the women that have no brothers take the wasted lands and deal gently by them. Cry out — and cry loudly, though every Brehon in the land say you nay: Conor MacNessa has ears to hear.”

Then she turned and went, and young Brigit stood alone under the thorn-tree, making ready for the task laid upon her: and from the house came the voice of women keening for the dead, but very softly, lest they should wake the dreadful hounds that lie in wait to catch the naked soul. But they might have shrieked their shrillest, for the soul of Brigit the Farmer walked safely in the shadow of Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan.

The flowery language of Chesson’s story makes her a little hard to follow, but the Three Brigits in this myth are clearly the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle. “Brigit the Farmer” is Brig Briugu, as every hosteler was a farmer. Brigit of the Judgments is Brig Brethach the wife of Sencha, as the story makes plain. The youngest Brigit is Brig Ambue, although Chesson makes her an idealistic maiden who chooses a life of chastity — a very different life than the one the Ulster Cycle gave her.

Chesson also makes Brig Ambue self-consciously feminist. Kathleen ni Houlihan (the personification of Ireland) describes women as “hostages even in their husbands’ houses” and directs the young Brigit to go out into the world and “cry shame till this thing cease.” The story refers directly to the specific laws Brig Ambue is credited with changing, so at least some of Chesson’s “moonshine” turns out to be genuine ancient lore of the sort the strictest reconstructionist would find congenial.

“TheThree Brigits” is a story about three human beings, but Chesson also wrote a myth about Brigit the goddess. In this second story, a starving boy named Maurice becomes a voluntary human sacrifice to Brigit to stop a famine, and his sister (betrayed in love as a teenager) spends the rest of her life as a virgin in Brigit’s service, later to become a ghostly specter who selects other girls for the same fate.

THE LAMP OF BRIGHID

From “Ballads in Prose” by Nora Chesson, 1894

Fever and famine were in the country of Tirconnell, and betwixt these two fires the people forgot the gods: women turning their faces to the wall, and dying with never a prayer, while men held up accusing hands to the blank blue skies, and cursed Kasar among the gods of the Fomoroh, and Lug and Dagde of the De Dananns. Even the Shee were neglected, and everywhere the Vanitha (mistress of the house) forgot to scatter crumbs and spill drops of milk upon her threshold for Dark Joan and Oonah and Cleena and Donn of the Sandhills: and the little People went hungry past the closed doors at twilight, while within the famished human things made short work of the thin milk and the poor bread.

At last even the lights in the great House of Brighid went out one by one as, one by one, the holy women died of hunger or plague, till at last there was left alight only one of all the gold and silver lamps, and just as this one lamp had been refilled and lighted before the great carved image of Brighid, sitting with a huge golden book open on her knees – just as the scented oil gave out its odour of pine — the last recluse dropped her oil-cruse and fell dead at the feet of the holy statue. Some good women, coming to do hopeless worship to holy Brighid, found her lying there, and having done the last kind offices for her, and laid her with hurried prayers in the common grave of her sisters, went back to their hungry homes, leaving the door of the shrine wide open. Presently there came two small figures timidly across the threshold, and so into the deserted holy place — a boy and girl dressed in mere rags, for all the cold March wind that whistled outside, twin children whose dead mother had mocked at holy Brighid adying, and whose living father would have torn down her very shrine if his hands had been as strong as his hatred.

“Breed,” said the boy, lifting his gentle blind eyes from the ground, “where’s the wind that I feel blowing?”

“It comes from the open door,” Breed answered hurriedly, “and never a stir will it stir for all my pushing – bad cess to it for a stubborn door! And the blessed lamp will be blown out altogether, Maurice, unless we can do something to save it.”

“There’s the lamp at home,” Maurice said slowly, “and it’s full of oil, Breed. You might run and fetch it here, machree, and light it from the blessed lamp yonder. I’ll wait till you come.”

“Will you? It’s lonely here,” little Breed said, warningly. “‘Tis a mile home and a mile back, and the hunger makes me run slower than I used.”

“Set me close to the holy lady Brighid,” Maurice McCaura said, smiling, “where I can touch her with my hands: and then ye can go, Breed; I’ll be safe enough in Brighid’s own house.” Breed led him forward a step or two, and guided his hands till they touched the feet of Brighid’s image; then she turned and her bare feet pattered softly down the dusty aisle, across the threshold and out into the sparse pale sunshine outside. Her blind brother stood still where she had placed him, clinging to Brighid’s golden feet: and presently, when they began to quiver and move under his clinging fingers, he stood, if possible, even stiller than before.

“Who holds my feet?” said a deep sweet voice. “Who, of all my children?”

“It’s Maurice McCaura,” the boy said, faintly. “Lady Brighid, will you give us bread? Breed and Michael and my father are hungry, and baby Caitlin’s dead: and there’s the black Death in nearly every home in Munster.”

“And yourself, child?”

“I’m not so hungry now,” the boy whispered. “It’s Breed — and-and little Michael — and there’s no bread in the house, and no potatoes in the kish –”

‘”How many mouths to feed?” said the deep voice.

“Three, Lady Brighid. Will you feed them?” pleaded the blind lad.

“And yours is the fourth. Hark. — Now would you like to give bread to the children’s hungry mouths, and to your father’s? Will you give yourself to me to be my servant, child?”

“Yes,” said Maurice quietly. Two strong gentle arms closed round his slight body now and lifted him from the ground — lifted and held him breast-high, till he felt the goddess’s breath warm upon his blind eyes.

“Breed and Michael and your father shall have food this very day – and Breed shall not grieve long for you: I promise that,” Brighid said gently. “Now, child, let me seal you to my service.” She held him to her bosom and kissed his blind eyes with soft cold kisses, until the dull hunger pain and the fluttering heart stopped together; and Breed, come back and lighting her lamp from the sacred light, found only a dead boy awaiting her, at the feet of holy Brighid. There was but little moan made over Maurice McCaura; even Breed, who loved him better than herself, watched him buried in his mother’s grave with very few tears, and those not tears of bitterness. Smiles and tears were not plentiful with Breed henceforward: the moonlight quiet of her small white face was not disturbed for her drunken father, or Michael, rosy and romping when the fever and famine ceased as suddenly as they had come; her whole care was for the lamp she had lighted from the one which had long ago burned out in Brighid’s temple, and whose flame she nursed and tended, as other girls and women tended the fire of another Brighid, in a house under mighty oak-trees at Cill-dara. Days and weeks went by, and months merged into years: and old Michael McCaura dug a grave for young Michael in another year of famine: and Breed came to her seventeenth year.

And it fell to her lot to find a shadow at her side wherever she went, and to have a voice in her ears, that whispered of love and gladness: and Breed learned to blush and tremble like other girls, but still she was faithful to her chosen work of tending the holy fire of goddess Brighid. There came a day, however, when the lover turned from Breed’s moonlight to the lilies and roses of a better dowered maiden: and another day yet there came, when a fall of earth from the mountainside buried bride and groom and half a score of wedding guests in one common grave, to which came Breed with her lamp at dead of night, toiling with bleeding and bruised hands till she had cleared the earth from the two faces in the world that she most loved and most hated. Other hands drew them out and gave them holy burial, not Breed’s; she and her lamp vanished from the eyes of men when she had looked upon those two dead faces: and only now and then a dreamy colleen sees a slender figure gliding among the trees on a misty night with a lighted lamp of quaint shape held high in her hand. And the girl who sees this figure of Breed, however glad her love may be, and however true her lover, will never be wife or mother, but like Breed’s her life will be broken and sorrowful here, though it may be made beautiful and complete in Tir na n’Og, in the service of Brighid’s three, whose names are Law and Wisdom and Love.

Note that the second myth ends with a reference to the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle as “Law and Wisdom and Love,” and describes them as being resident in Tir na nOg.

Chesson also wrote a poem about Brig Brethach.

Brigit Of The Judgments

By Nora Chesson

I am Brigit-Wisdom, Light: yea, I am Bride.
I loosen all the knots that wrong has tied;
I knot all threads that should be woven in one.
I am the giver of laws; all evil done
Is on my heart until I may unravel
Its web with heavy tears and bitter travail.
My hair is coloured like the heather honey;
My brows are cloudy and my eyes are sunny.
Judgment I hold in one hand, in the other
Pity; I am both maiden and a mother.

I am the judgment-giver; but I give
Compassion to all burdened things that live,
Struggle, and prey, and so are preyed upon.
Because the work-girl’s hollow cheeks are wan,
Mine are so pale. Because the red ant dies
Under a careless foot my deathless eyes
Are dark with dool. Because the red fox went
Snarling to death, the lilies have no scent
That are amid my breast-knots tied, to show
I am the mother of all that fade and grow.

One man may call me Wisdom who has heard
Some darkling midnight stabbed through with my word.
One man will call me Light who, ere he dies,
Grasps at my hand and looks me in the eyes.
I am no Lianan-sidhe; I will not follow
The soul that seeks me even in the hollow
Lands where the moon is not or any sun,
No travail ended and no quest begun.
I slay the man who called me Law and strove
To slay me, but one name of mine is Love.

 

Maiden, Mother and Crone

Although many Wiccans and other neopagans accept the theology of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone without question, this trinity actually has no clear precedent in ancient myth. For instance, the Matres or triple mother goddesses of ancient Gaul are always portrayed as being the same age or as one young woman with two older women. The three sisters named Brigit in Cormac’s Glossary are obviously not a maiden, a mother and a crone. Nor are the three Morrigans. Hutton suggests that the poet Robert Graves invented the Maiden, Mother and Crone trinity when he was writing The White Goddess, but Chesson’s story suggests otherwise.

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle are Sencha’s mother, wife and daughter, but the daughter Brig Ambue is definitely not a “maiden” in the original version. Chesson reimagined Brig Ambue as an idealistic girl who chooses a life of chastity so she can fight for the rights of women. Chesson’s story of “The Three Brigits” is about a maiden, a mother and a crone.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one of the literary figures who “encouraged” Chesson in her research into Celtic lore was Alfred Perceval Graves, the father of Robert Graves. I believe Robert Graves must have read Chesson’s story of the Three Brigits, either through her acquaintance with his father or just because he was reading books about Celtic mythology. Chesson’s portrayal of the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle as maiden, mother and crone stuck with him and inspired the theology of The White Goddess. That book was so influential on the entire neopagan movement that Chesson’s version of the Three Brigits became the forgotten template for how neopagans conceive of their Triple Goddess.

I believe, after all these years, that she should get the credit for it.

 

 

[1]     http://www.brigitsforge.co.uk/brigitgoddess.html

[2]     From The Clann Bhride Book of Hours

[3]     O’Curry, Eugene, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, 1873

[4]     Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[5]     http://edil.qub.ac.uk/dictionary/results-new.php?srch=briugu&&dictionary_choice=edil_2012&&limit=10

[6]     http://edil.qub.ac.uk/dictionary/results-new.php?srch=brugad&dictionary_choice=edil_2012

[7]     Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[8]     http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pantheon/2011/02/the-hidden-imbolc/

[9]     http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cuch/lgc07.htm

[10]    http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/celtchar.html

[11]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[12]    Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[13]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[14]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[15]    Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[16]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[17]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[18]    O’Neill, Henry, The Fine Arts and Civilization of Ancient Ireland, 1863

[19]     Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for  ‘Hopper, Eleanor Jane (1871–1906)’


Christopher Scott ThompsonUnder the religious name of Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” Christopher Scott Thompson has been active in the pagan community for a number of years, serving as the vice president (and briefly the president) of Imbas, a board member of the Fellowship for Celtic Tradition, a flamekeeper of Ord Brighideach and now the Cauldron Cill, and a member of the Kin of the Old Gods temple. He is a member of Clann Bhride, an organization of Brigidine devotees, and writes the column “Loop of Brighid” at Patheos Pagan.

The Thirteen Vanic Virtues

 

fire in fall“Why did you change your name?” people ask, when they see the name on my book’s cover is different than the one I use in here.

I had a hundred and one reasons for changing my writing name but (attention, Facebook) none of them are nefarious. And the answer I give depends on the day, my mood, and the phase of the moon. They’re all true. It was a change coming for years and it was a moment’s decision.

“Why didn’t you go all the way and change your legal name, then?”

To this there is only one answer, but it stands up to all 101 on the other side and balances them: my husband asked me not to, and I adore my husband.

So I walk the world divided, and that provides the tension that sings through me, my poems, and keeps my pulse quick. I’m hardly alone. Writers and pagans are two communities who know all about pseudonyms, pen names, craft names.

Years ago I met a Sadie who has been a fundamental influence on me. Recently I’ve been thinking about her again:

 

Sadie and Maud

by Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-tooth comb.

She didn’t leave a tangle in.
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chits
In all the land.

Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.

When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie had left as heritage
Her fine-tooth comb.)

Maud, who went to college,
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.

 

I discovered this poem when I myself was… in college. And that may be why I read it not so much as a diatribe against education as an argument that the quality of one’s engagement with life has more to do with attitude than privilege. Maud had the privilege and played out the script, and look where she is at poem’s end. Sadie got nothing, and yet she leaves a rich legacy behind her…and had a good time in the meantime, by the sound of it.

Reading that poem at twenty, I decided a fine-tooth comb sounded like a fine way to live. But…what comprises such a comb? Where shall we find the thing, and how shall we know it?

And what do we do if we temporarily lose it?

I found myself remembering that fine-tooth comb again this week, as I’m reading excerpts from Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft (New World Library, 2003). Here’s an extended passage on the figure of the Wanderer: Devils Lake path October

 

…This is the time in life when a person is most intensely in search of her deepest self, a self she knows she will not find reflected back to her from within the familiar arenas of her merely human culture.  She searches for the seeds of her destiny in the more diverse, wild, and mysterious world of nature.  She no longer conforms to nor rebels against society.  She chooses a third way.  She wanders, beyond the confines of her previous identity. 

            The Wanderer crosses and recrosses borders in order to find something whose location is unknown and unknowable.  She will conclude she has found it not by its location in a certain place or by its matching a prior image, but by how it feels, how it resonates within her upon discovery.  She doesn’t know where or when or how clues will appear, so she wanders incessantly, both inwardly and outwardly, always looking, imagining, feeling.  In her wandering, she makes her own path. 

            The Wanderer discovers her unique path by perceiving the world with imagination and feeling.  She senses what is possible as well as actual.  She sees into people and places and possibilities, and she cultivates a relationship with the invisible realm as much as with the visible.  She is in conversation with the mysteries of the world, on the lookout for signs and omens.  She attend especially to the edges, those places where one thing merges with another, where consciousness shifts and opens, where the world becomes something different from what it initially appeared to be.

 

Plotkin’s Wanderer sounds a lot like a “livingest chit,” doncha think? And maybe, just maybe, what I’m writing my way towards in here is a Theology of the Livingest Chit.

By definition, there aren’t too many maps in this work I’m embarked upon. The Northern gods I’m tangled up with don’t set down rules to obey…but they do espouse virtues. Traditionally, these are

  • Courage
  • Truth
  • Honor
  • Fidelity
  • Hospitality
  • Discipline
  • Industriousness
  • Self-Reliance
  • Perseverance

The nine Norse virtues are all honorable ideals but honestly they never fit me very well. Trying to bend myself to that list feels, well, like a slog. That probably doesn’t say anything very good about me, but there it is. I realize this morning this could be because these virtues are community oriented and I am at heart a solitary. They seek to weave a group together into a village or town or other workable society and I live at the far edge. My true home is not…the home. (Which is, yes, another source of creative tension for someone currently in the role of at home parent.)

But I have discovered another set of virtues

Some of you will know the Northern gods are divided up into two groups: Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir are the ones most people know (thank you Marvel): Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Baldur, Tyr, Frigga…They tend to be sky gods, gods of justice and community. The Nine Virtues are Aesir virtues, for the most part.

The Vanir, on the other hand, are closer to the land, the seasons, the magics of earth. (And yes, I am grossly generalizing here…there is much subtlety in the system that I’m choosing not to go into in this space.) The Vanir deal a little more in the wild and fey. Frey, Freya, Njord are all Vanir…and so, by most contemporary accountings, is the Smith, Wayland.

And, I just discovered, searching online, they have their own set of virtues. Originally the list was twelve, but I split up Courage and Passion, which seem to me related, but separate:

For the original list, created by Nicanthiel Hrafnhild and Svartesol, see this link. I have slightly edited their list of Virtues and reworked the descriptions of each. (Author’s note: Svartesol is Nornoriel Lokason, whose more recent writings can be found here at Patheos Pagan at Ride the Spiral. And here is his official website.)

 

The Thirteen Vanic Virtues

Beauty
The pursuit of beauty and elegance in thought, form and speech, and the valuation of beauty as worthy in itself.

Courage
The strength of will to see a course of action through. The ability to face difficulty and danger.

Passion
Zeal, vigor; wholehearted zest for life.

Even-mood
Harmonious and balanced thought and action; tranquility, calm, serenity.

Openness
The quality of being receptive to the world around one, non-judgmental. To listen deeply.

Wildness/Ecstasy
Music and dance; the nurturing of inner wildness and radical innocence, being “fey”

Land-rightness
The recognition of nature and the environment as worthy of respect, care and reverence.

Love
The all-encompassing force which expands outward: love for family, for kin, for humanity, for all beings.

Frith
The peace and goodwill between people bound together; loyalty and the keeping of one’s word.

Giving
The binding of two parties into one common bond, generosity and hospitality.

Joy
The ability and willingness to surrender to overwhelming grace, the ability to feel happiness in the moment.

Faith/Piety
The trust that the Gods exist and are worthy of our worship, and Their ways worth following.

Brother(ahem, Sister)hood
The recognition that we – humans, animals, plants, spirits – are all part of the grander scheme of life,
and we share a common heritage, as children of the Earth.

 

So there it is. I think the Vanir have provided me my fine-tooth comb. At least for a while. This list connects me to myself, my true home (which may be no home?), and this earth that continually spins out from under my feet, leaving me dizzy.

 

Meanwhile, over my desk I’ve taped this up:

Do no harm.
Take no shit.
Be a “livingest chit.”

As they say at the end of church service every weekend, May it be so.

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

Freya, by Igor Alexis Osorio Solis

 

 

 

Joy at the Breakfast Table

I went out to my favorite trail to run again, Pheasant Branch in Middleton, a three mile loop that takes me through both the prairies and the woodlands of Southern Wisconsin. I know every turn and twist, which helps me see the minute changes from week to week as the seasons progress.

This connection to a specific place, as well as the running, grounds me.

shutterstock_169203356

shutterstock.com

A week ago, three sandhill cranes flew right over my head, belling their prehistoric music, maybe on their way to find the bigger flock they’ll migrate with. I don’t believe in coincidence. The card for JOY in my tarot deck shows three cranes dancing, and my jogged mind said to me, You better write about this.

Joy in the parents with their now-grown chick, headed back to join their community. What is more archetypal than that?

 ***

Not every dance a family does is quite so joyful. My oldest is thirteen now and suddenly my used-to-be-morning child is slugging pretty hard into his bed. No matter that his alarm goes off at 5:30, the past couple of mornings he’s tumbled downstairs, scarfed breakfast…and needed a ride to school because he missed the bus and it’s too late to walk.

“This is your problem to solve,” I holler up at him. “I’m not going to drive you to school every day.”

“I’ll skip breakfast!” he yells from upstairs. “I’ll skip lunch! I deserve to be punished!!”

Change is hard for my kid.

 

There’s the savvy old saying, You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. This is pretty practical advice for parents. Unless you give birth to a mule.

My kid is something of a mule. When he gets thirsty, I know from long experience I can’t lead him to the water. He’ll just balk. Instead, I have to nod my head casually and say, “I hear tell there’s water over thataway.”

I’d like to solve all his problems for him…but he resists that, and I know deep down he is right to resist it. He’s gotta figure it out for himself. Each of us does. My job may be, more or less, to keep a little space clear at home to give him the place and the quiet he needs to become himself in the world.

 ***

I’ve been sitting on this essay for a week, because there’s something about it that felt unfinished, half-realized. And I think, reading it over again, that it’s right here, in the acknowledgment of my own limits. This strange little piece is not just about one mother and son relationship. Maybe this is the best we can do for each other, ever: to keep a little space clear in all our relations to allow family, friends, colleagues, to be and become themselves. I can’t solve your grief. I can’t tell you how to fix your life. I can’t know you, ever, fully. But I can give you room. And I can help to define the boundaries of that space by listening closely, deeply, to your voice.  

 

If we could look at each other and promise, You can be yourself with me, it’s okay, what a gift that would be. What a revolution.

  ***

While I was driving my kid over to school, he said angrily, “Maybe I need to start setting my alarm for 3 a.m.”

“Well you know,” I said, eyes remaining on the road, “I don’t think the alarm is working. Maybe it’s already set too early.”

“Hey–yeah,” he said. Sometimes there’s grace. Sometimes a person is receptive to a new idea. We’ll see how it goes tonight.

 

 ***

Meanwhile, after the kids have gone to school I light a candle
and search out Wayland in my notebooks.

He’s reading a copy of The Anvil’s Ring and says absently,
Did you know they’re still trying to figure out
the Ulfbehrt swords?
He chuckles, shaking his head.

Hey, I say. I could use a little direction here.
This hasn’t been an easy season.

But I should know better by now.

He doesn’t even look up, just smiles to himself.
I hear there’s water over yonder. If
you’re thirsty. Follow those cranes.

 

***

One week later…my son walked to school this morning, and was probably late getting there. He’ll figure it out. Yesterday the three cranes were closer to the trail when I jogged by. You’re still here, I said. The tallest one looked at me. Of course. You haven’t published that essay yet.

shutterstock_147328601

shutterstock.com

 

 

 

When Storymaking Fails: Towards a Non-Narrative Theology

Late in the summer, I opened an old wooden writing desk I keep in my office.

A year or two ago, I went through a period of a few months where frenetic ideas were coming quickly but I had no energy to write them into poems or essays or the book I thought might be glimmering around the edges, so, excited, over stimulated, I stashed them all in a box and let them sit a while.

Casting through old pages for ideas this summer I remembered that stash of notes and pulled them out, brought them upstairs. I remembered them as notes, lines, half-poems started and ready to be finished. I remembered them as a coherent set of ideas ready to be filled out and expanded upon.

They weren’t.

Instead, they were random jottings, strangely spooky and unfamiliar—like hearing a ghostly voice at great distance waft up from the scrids of paper. Some not even ideas—just nouns or doodles, unrelated. Or a half question. One slip of paper was entirely blank. Bits of dialogue in voices I now don’t recognize. There was no thread running through the group, there was no way to tie them together. I could weave no narrative.

It was a record of damage. Or maybe, damage control.

 

**

 

I know there is such a thing as Narrative Theology , or Postliberal Theology, as it is also known. I admit immediately I have only the faintest grasp of the subject, but it seems to be involved in moving away from a liberal Christianity that situates itself historically, back to one that centers itself in narrative—or story, or myth, if that word isn’t offensive. (It shouldn’t be, I think. Myth is the story that is always now and always true.)

If my understanding is correct, I have a lot of sympathy for the movement. A living religion has to situate itself in the ever-present yes of myth. (My easy embrace of a historically-based understanding of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity, for example, is rooted in the fact that I am not a Christian.)

Story is how the human animal makes meaning. Story is central to religion.

That said, I think again of my scraps of paper, scribbled down and saved from a period of my life when the narrative(s) I had created no longer worked. The story I created that was me no longer fit. It wasn’t an easy time…but I wouldn’t give up the knowledge I gained coming through it. And those little scraps bear a broken witness.

I distrust any religion that hands its followers too many answers. Answers close down the conversation, they take us from the journey to the idea of arrival, of finish line. We can’t help making narrative, any more than we can help seeing pattern. It’s what our species does. But I distrust stories that don’t leave some spaces.

Whatever my theology is, it needs to be able to encompass the gaps and ruptures as well.

 

**

A writer knows to leave some gaps in the narrative, to allow the reader to fill in some blank spaces. To invite co-creation.

 

**

 

I haven’t decided what to do with those folded up scraps of paper. Right now they’re in an envelope. Part of me wants to put them into some kind of book (to contain them is to give them a shape, even just a loose one, and shape is meaning). Part of me thinks they’re close to holy relics and ought to be kept private and secret. Part of me says Get real, it’s just some random jottings on bits of paper. You’re never going to come back to them.

Truth be told I’ve temporarily misplaced the envelope.

Moon over water (shutterstock)

shutterstock.com

We are made of scraps, unconnected, random experiences and actions that accrue through days and years as we grow. The bits that don’t fit our story, we conveniently let go. The mind sifts. But what happens when we’re faced suddenly with those fragments that we discarded, those little voices and stories and motions we forgot about? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats wrote. Theology has to make a place for the non-narrative moments too, or it fails us.

 

 

Storymaking, Artmaking, and the Work of the Soul

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Last week I posted a story, suggesting that we can understand our interior spiritual landscapes through the telling of a tale. Story acts as map—at least some of the time, was my idea.

 

I’ve been thinking about how to expand on this idea. I pieced that story together from experiences in my own life. It took some years to write, because it took some years to live. When I read it over now, in its purposeful abstraction, its folk tale feel, it feels to me like a supple fabric that flows through my hands, able (I hope) to be fit and shaped to different forms, depending on the reader’s own experience and requirement.

But the point I want to make today is: it is a pieced together thing.

 

Photo by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photo by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

One of my childhood friends just moved a lot closer to me, here in Wisconsin. She’s a visual artist, a photographer. It’s her images that grace this brief essay today.

Some photographers take their cameras out into the world and try to frame what they see, catching a moment for the viewer. (John Beckett has some good things to say about that here.)

That is not my friend’s way. She composes her pictures in her studio or on location, artfully placing the various pieces and props to make the image she wants.

To use my own trope: she pieces together her images.

 

I’m taking a class on soul work right now and we’re encouraged in these first weeks to read widely what others say and begin to define “soul” for ourselves. It’s common for people to use the image of a candle’s flame, or a small interior voice, when talking about soul…but today I’m wondering if maybe soul something we piece together for ourselves, through our lives. If it’s a lifework, this business, to (choose your verb) stitch/cobble/paste/weld the soul from the scraps and bits. We all go down, again and again, to what Yeats names “the foul rag-and-bone shop” and we use what we find there, because it is all we have to work with.

We don’t control how life rips us apart or subtly erodes us down over time…but we do make choices about what to do in response, and how to live. It could be that art, and story, and the process of art and story making, point us in the direction of the important interior work we have to do, as well.

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

 

Thanks to Heather Atkinson for the glorious art. You can find more of her work at heatheratkinson.com

Storytime: Spiritual Geography as Story

Map with Dragons (courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

Map with Dragons (courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

First we draw the map.

 

 

Then we ask, who lives there?

Then we ask, who goes there?

Sometimes the map is a story.

 

 

 

 

Here is a Story, to be told when the night grows long:

 

Once there was a woman who every day walked a well-worn path between her house and the town center, taking her basket of work and wares to sell or trade. Her path led through a woods, but was so well-used that where she walked was quite well lit and without hazard.

 

One afternoon, however, she tripped on an unseen stone and fell off the path, hard, to the ground. For a moment she lay stunned on the forest floor. As she lifted herself to a sitting position, head ringing, she saw all her goods scattered around, broken and shattered, her basket torn asunder and smashed in. “Oh no,” she cried. Her work was for naught, broken and destroyed. But it was clear there was no time for crying. The woods were growing fast dark with night and, having fallen, she could no longer see the path.

 

“If I’m to get home, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Up she rose, to make her way back as best she could but thorns caught at her clothing, tearing at it and shredding it. The sharp branches snagged at her face and hands. Disoriented by the fall, the dark, the stinging thorns, she could make no easy or quick progress, but held her hands up to protect herself from the briars and moved forward through the dark as best she could. It took some time.

 

Moon over water (shutterstock)

shutterstock.com

By the time she emerged, she was left with only a simple shift. The rest of her clothes had fallen away, snagged on the bushes and briars. She looked around, bruised, bleeding lightly and tired. The moon had risen in the sky, a full moon, giving her light to see by. She found herself on the shore of a lake so large she could not see across. The sand was smooth and white in the moonlight. She realized how quiet the night was, now that she was out of the thorns. The only sound was the water, gently lapping at the shore in small ripples and waves. Looking to left and right, she saw the beach was quite a small clearing. The woods came right down to the water to her left and right, and there was no path to be seen. She sighed, “If I’m to swim, I’d better be doing it.” Shrugging, she stripped off the shift she wore and entered the water, naked.

 

It was a calm night, and the water flowed around her easily. She was surprised to find that the swimming, although it tired her, was not difficult. As she moved farther from the shore, she became aware of a strange light rising up from beneath her in the water, eerie blue and green. It scared her a little, and she determined to swim past it as quickly as possible. But swim as she might, she could not move beyond the light flickering up from under.

 

“Oh very well,” she thought to herself. “If I’m to dive, I’d better be doing it.” So, tucking her legs up, down she went.


The light emanated from a cave on the lake’s bottom, and from that same cave came a sweet, unearthly singing. As she neared it, she was surprised to find she could breathe in this new element. Landing on the sandy floor outside the cave, well lit by the light that spilled out around the entrance, she walked in.


She saw first a large black pot, sitting on a fire, though how there could be fire at the bottom of the lake she did not know. The flames burned green, then blue. Someone was stirring the pot, she saw, and lifting her eyes, she saw a woman returning her gaze and smiling. It was this person that was singing as she stirred the giant black cauldron. It was impossible to tell if she was young or old. The light—blue, green, fire-filled and watery by turns—was all around, emanating from the fire, or possibly from the rock walls of the cave, it was impossible to discern. It might even have been coming from the pot, or from the singer herself. It flickered and bounced through the cave, off the surfaces and through the water in a kind of dance.

 

The cave was warm, and strangely comfortable, and, very tired from her long walk through the woods and her swim, the woman fell asleep before she could help herself. When she woke, she was marvelously refreshed and found herself wearing a new simple garment. The singer, still at the pot, smiled to see her awake. “You must learn my songs,” she told the woman. “And you must take a turn, stirring my pot.” And so, the woman took over at the fireside and the singer taught her, line by line, the songs to sing.

 

Without sunlight, it was impossible for the woman to tell how much time had passed. It might have been hours, or days, a year or a hundred years. But after she had learned the singer’s songs, she knew she must be going. She was oddly reluctant to leave, and the singer seemed to know this. “You may stay with me, if you like, sister” she offered. “There is plenty of room here for two and you are a good help to me.” The woman was very tempted. It was so peaceful there, and so simple. The light that reflected through the cave was so joyful and so refreshing. She took a long breath, considering. Then she thought of her family, waiting for her in the house up above. She remembered the path she was trying to find. Regretfully, she shook her head. “Thank you, no. There is a part of me that would love to stay, but I know I must go back to the surface. And if I must go—”


“You had better be doing it,” the Singer finished for her, smiling.


The Singer acknowledged her decision with a nod, then said, “At least I can give you a gift, before you go.” And leaning close, she whispered a word to the woman and handed her a large pearl. The woman put the pearl in her pocket and kicked off up through the water once again. When she surfaced, she found she was closer than she thought to the opposite shore. Swimming hard and fast now, she gave a final push and, exhausted by the effort, crawled up onto the rocks.

 

After catching her breath and drying out a bit, she looked around. It was early morning. The sun was just clearing the tree tops and mist was rising off the lake. She stood up, facing the rocks she must climb over to make her way. Looking down, she was astonished to see she cast no shadow. “What is this,” she cried. “Have I died? Am I transformed to something fearful?” She fell down frightened and wept, not knowing what to do or what she was.

 

A small bird fluttered around her head. “Do not weep,” chirped the bird. “I have seen your shadow. It runs ahead of you, hiding in those tall rocks.” “Then I must catch it,” said the woman, and up she jumped, clambering over the rocks. To the bird, she said, “Fly ahead, and tell my shadow to wait for me.” The bird flew off as the woman climbed and scrambled.


Soon it flew back, fluttering just above her again. “Your shadow runs ahead of you. It says it fears you too much to wait for you.” “Little friend, beg it to wait. Tell it there is nothing to fear from me.” The woman said, breathless as she climbed.


The next time the bird came back, it perched on a branch while the woman caught her breath. Very quietly, the bird chirped in her ear, “Your shadow waits just behind this rock right here.” And indeed, the woman could see it peeking out around at her. Slowly, so as not to fright the slip of a thing further, so slowly she rose to face it, and said, “You have nothing to fear from, me, Shadow. Come out, and tell me why you run.”


Equally slowly, the dark shape emerged from its hiding place, pouring out larger than she had thought it. “I run from you because I am afraid of you. I remember you too well and how you kept me caged.”


The woman laughed. “But I am not myself as you remember me. You need not fear. The Singer gave me a new name.” And she spoke the whispered word, her own new name, out clear.


The Shadow relaxed. “That is the name I was waiting to hear,” and lifting on the breeze, the dark shape flew straight into the woman’s open mouth and wiggled down through her fingers.
Ink Day 12-3-13


The woman danced a small step, happy to have her shadow back. “Small bird, I would thank you,” said the woman, “but I do not know how.”


The little bird rose from the branch to her shoulder. “If you would thank me, there is a task I need done. My nest is over a stream, but the stream has dried up,” said the bird. “If you would help clear the stream and start it flowing again, I would be grateful.”


“I owe you much. Show me the way,” said the woman.

 

When they arrived at the stream bed she saw it indeed was dry, choked at the source with dead wood and murky bracken. “What shall I do now,” she wept. “For this job is too big for me alone. I have no blade to clear the wood and weed, to help you, friend.”


The bird whistled a quiet song and said, “Along this path there is a Smith. Follow your way to his forge, and give him that pearl you carry and he may help you.”


The woman was loathe to lose the pearl, but she had promised to help, she knew. So, drying her eyes, she made her way through the woods. Soon, she heard the sound of a hammer hitting iron, the roar of the forge, and the hiss as hot metal met water. Approaching, she saw a low building, open to the road. In front was a clearing, and at the clearing’s center roared a large hot fire. Anvils large and small stood around. A Lady waited at the clearing’s edge with her horse, which was being shod by the smith. He was a broad man, his face ruddy from the heat, and his face, arms, hands all showed scars from his work. But his eyes were kind. The woman watched quietly as he fixed the last shoe onto the horse. Then he turned to her and said, “Hello, good woman. What brings you here this bright morning?”

 

The woman curtsied to the smith and Lady, both, and explained “I promised my friend the bird I would help clear the stream bed and start the water flowing again, but I have no blade to cut away the choking weeds and grass. I thought perhaps, if I paid you with this pearl, you might have some aid for me.”

 

The Lady nodded at her as she mounted her horse. “Friend Smith, we are done here. I thank you,” and then to the woman she said, “That stream bed is on my land as it happens. You will do me a kindness by clearing it too. You have my thanks.” So saying, she rode off into the trees.

 

The Smith chuckled to himself, then turned and glanced at the pearl the woman was holding. He took in his breath, then his eyes bored curious and deep into the woman’s. “This is no payment for me but the thing itself,” he said. “And I ask no payment for this work.” “If there is work to be done you had better be doing it,” she whispered, reluctantly giving her pearl to him. And taking it, he placed it on the largest anvil and with one blow he crushed it.

 

The woman cried out in fear at the sound, closing her eyes. When she opened them, she was astonished to see the smith held out to her a sword of steel with pearl shine and inlay. “You carried this the whole time, and never knew it,” he told her. “It’s a rare gift, and a rare one who carries such a thing. Now go you back to your bird. And know, you are welcome here any time.” And saying that, he turned his back and went to the bellows to urge the fire hotter.

 

The woman, marveling, went back to the stream bed. And indeed, from then the work was easy. Within a day she had wrestled the overgrowth and the dead wood away from the spring’s source, and freed the water to flow again. The little bird trilled happily to see it. “You have repaid my favor amply, thank you kind woman. Your way lies past the spring’s source, up the hill. Come back to see me any time.” And happily chirruping to herself, the little bird began constructing a new nest out of bits of saved string and twigs and other little sundry items.

 

The woman went on her way, tying her sword around her waist, happy to have it. And indeed, it was just as the bird said, her path did lie up on the hill over the spring, as clear as ever. With great relief, she began walking in a direction she knew would take her home. The afternoon was warm and clear, butterflies and bees hummed and fluttered in the grass and flowers, and she enjoyed herself in the fresh breeze, knowing she was headed home at last.


To her surprise, as night came on, she saw that the path led into a dark opening in a hillside.  “What is this,” she thought. But clearly, there was nothing for it but to enter, for the path was broad and well-cleared. “Well, if I must enter the hill, I’d better be doing it,” she said to herself. Just to be safe, the woman pulled out her sword, and, a little fearfully, entered into the hill.

 

She was surprised to find herself in a long passageway that seemed to go through the hill entirely. Torches lined either side, so the whole thing was lit up with the warmth of the flames, and shadows danced. Lining either side of the hall were all manner of thing—chests of treasure, dusty with time, dim pictures and forgotten oddments so old and strange it was impossible to know their value. And all along the walls were all manner of masks. In the light of the torches, the features of the masks moved, growing larger and smaller, brighter and darker. “What place is this,” the woman breathed to herself. Curiosity and awe filled her.

 

This is the hall of the ancestors, said a chorus of voices in her head. There was no sound to be heard with the ears except the quiet padding of her footsteps, the occasional clink as her sword knocked against something accidentally. You will find this hall open to you, should you want to return. Until then, you may take one torch to light your way, for when you emerge it will be night once more.

 

“Well, this will certainly be an easier passage than those thorny woods I started out in,” thought the woman to herself. “And… I might come back to see my friend the bird again.” So she curtsied to the spirits of the place and said, “I thank you, good folk. One torch will I take.  And when I come back I will bring you a gift as well.” And, putting her sword back in her belt, she lifted the torch closest to her and made her way forward.

 

Soon enough, she emerged out into the world once more and found herself in her own back yard and garden. Her family welcomed her into the house with open arms, curious and delighted to hear her story. “But mother, we are confused,” said her daughter, after she finished. “You say you have a sword, and a torch, but where are they?” And sure enough, astonished, the woman saw that the hand that had carried the torch held it no longer, and instead there gleamed a ring on her finger, fiery in the night. And as for her sword, it had melted into a pearl handled pen in her pocket. Laughing, she pulled it out to show her children, and promptly wrote down this story.

 

And now, a good night to you all. My story is done.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

 

Walking away from Omelas

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s classic short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas?

If you haven’t, go and read it now. This can wait.

Omelas is a privileged city, almost a utopia, apart from the one thing that enables its citizens to lead full, happy, and carefree lives – and that one thing is what makes many people walk away from Omelas.

Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you consider that the bargain is justified?

Light Walk in October by Hartwig HKD

The ones who walk away… (photo by Hartwig HKD)

The thing is, in a way, we all live in Omelas. If you live in the West and use products made by underpaid workers, or even slaves, in the Far East, shipped across the ocean at a high cost to marine wildlife, then you live in Omelas.

But our society is not Omelas for everyone. Some people cannot even walk down the street without fearing for their lives. Some people get arrested or even killed for the colour of their skin, the way they walk, the way they dress. If you are Black, or transgender, or gay, you are especially in danger.

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, or assault is not a privilege, it is a right. Those of us who pass for cisgender and/or straight and/or white take this right for granted, and are often unaware that it is a right that is denied to many of our fellow-citizens.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right (at least until the age of 16).

If you are right-handed, you take it for granted that the world fits you like a glove. You are unaware of the structural disadvantage faced by left-handers, and call us “awkward” and “cack-handed”.  (I use left-handedness as an example because whilst the structural disadvantages are fairly minor, it seems they are invisible to everyone except left-handers.)

A privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. A right is defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something”. By definition, rights are, or should be, available to everyone, whereas privileges are, or should be, only granted under exceptional circumstances. 

Walking down the street without fear of harassment, arrest, assault, or being murdered by police, is something to which every citizen has a moral and legal entitlement.  Being afraid every time your son or brother or father leaves the house, that he will get killed just for being Black – that should be a right, not a privilege.

There are many privileges that are granted only to white, straight, (cis) male, and cisgender people, that ought to be rights for everyone.

There are many privileges granted to people in the West that ought to be rights for everyone in the world – access to healthcare, not being in danger of famine, epidemics, enslavement, maiming or death by bombing, displacement by war and persecution, and other horrors. The relative peace and security and wealth of the West is built on the deprivation of the rest of the world – our cheap goods result from the economic disparity between East and West, and the fact that people in Bangladesh, China and other places, are prepared to work for very low wages.

Our Omelas is very big and very pervasive – and we seem to be trapped in it.

Perhaps it is not enough to walk away from Omelas – we need to dismantle it from within.