Hail Eris!

The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.

What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.

Confetti by Andreas Graulund

Throwing it all up in the air to see where it lands…
Confetti by Andreas Graulund on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Metaphor and Analogy

Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.

  • A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
  • An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
I see John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods as a metaphor, not as an analogy.

What’s wrong with chocolate cake?

I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.


Many flavours are available

If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).

None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.

We don’t all like the same flavours

The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.

And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.



Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far

Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.

Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.



Are Polytheists an Endangered Species?

Some people have suggested that polytheism is endangered by archetypalist, non-theist, monist, and/or non-theist world views (especially those who would claim that somehow it’s all the same really, or that they are actually polytheists). The word polytheist means believing in many gods. If you want to add any more definition to it, I think you need a qualifying adjective.

This is an endangered species. Photo by J Patrick Fischer, CC-BY-SA 3.0

This is an endangered species. Photo by J Patrick Fischer, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Monotheism and Pantheism

I stopped being a monotheist in 1985, when I was 17. The reason for this was that I couldn’t see how an all powerful God could allow suffering and horror on the scale of the Holocaust and other horrors. I reasoned that if God was all-powerful, then “he” would prevent such horrors (free will notwithstanding) and therefore there must be many deities, none of whom were all-powerful.

Later, I discovered pantheism and monism, the idea of an all-pervading immanent deity. For me, this doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it.

An excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 arguments for the existence of God, disproves every single one of them except Spinoza’s view that the universe itself is God, which is completely different to the conventional monotheist view. Nothing is said about the existence of many gods, however, and in my view, the idea of many gods is in a completely different category to the idea of a single all-powerful deity.

Personal Deities

Interestingly, some Christians I’ve talked to seemed to assume that I’m a pantheist, as they seemed to assume that the advantage of Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus. But I don’t actually like Jesus (and don’t believe the gospel accounts are reliable). So for me, the advantage of polytheism is that you can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. I think this is why the Catholics found they needed to have the idea of patron saints – but I find most saints pretty uninspiring and insipid. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. To paraphrase some famous French bloke: if the gods didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

What is a deity?

There are many different types of deity: personifications of natural phenomena (winds, storms, trees and rocks and water), deified humans, patrons of arts and crafts, city goddesses, river goddesses. In my opinion, they are immanent in, or emergent from, the physical universe, in the same way that human consciousness emerges from the complexity of the human brain. Why shouldn’t other complex systems give rise to consciousness?

There is currently some discussion about what “real” means when we are talking about deities. No one has offered a definition of “real” in this context (or if they have, I missed it). My definition of a deity is a being with consciousness. A deity’s body (if they have one) is the natural phenomenon from which they emerged, if that’s how they came into existence. Or if they are a deified human, then their body is the etheric body (or whatever is divine in us that survives death). It’s also worth pointing out that love is real even though it doesn’t have either a body or consciousness – but that’s why a discussion of what “real” means is a distraction when it comes to deities: because being “real” applies to a lot of other things that aren’t deities. So it doesn’t matter so much what people think deities are, as that they think you can interact with them – that’s the point of relating to them and/or being devoted to them.

Honest doubt

There also has to be room for honest doubt – we do live in a culture where most people deny the existence of multiple deities, so if someone has a wobble or a dry season where they have difficulty relating to deities, or if they have a different view of what deities are, then that is a natural fluctuation in belief that is difficult to avoid. Even when I had doubts that deities were conscious beings, the “many” part was never in doubt. And if you try to restrict access to polytheist ritual on the grounds of belief, then you will never give anyone the opportunity to encounter deities – though of course you might want to develop some sort of initiatory pathways to assist people to develop deeper relationships with deities. Or perhaps there might be open access rituals for everyone, and other rituals specifically for devotees.

Why duotheism is not polytheism

Some Pagans are duotheists (the idea of one Goddess and one God who may or may not be emanations from a single source). I have difficulty with this idea because I don’t see the universe in binary terms, but rather as a multiplicity. The major attraction of polytheism for a genderqueer and/or LGBTQ person is that there are multiple expressions of gender and sexuality among deities. And the idea of duotheism has the same problem for me that monotheism does: how can there be anything that big that perceives existence on the same scale we do?

As to the idea that all deities are emanations from an underlying substrate of energy or consciousness, I can’t see why this is a problem for polytheism as long as the deities are viewed as distinct beings, and humans are also viewed as emanations from that substrate. I can see it could be a problem if the emphasis was more on the divine source than the individual deity – because then we’re back to monism again.

Polytheism is the “default setting”

Interestingly, if you look at Hinduism, you can find monism, polymorphism (the idea that deities are forms of the ultimate divine), and polytheism all co-existing within the Hindu dharma. And if Buddhism is included as part of the same dharma (some Hindus view itthat way), then non-theism also exists alongside these other beliefs. Henotheism (devotion to one deity, acknowledgment that others exist) is also found within Hinduism.

I think it is worth clarifying terminology and describing clearly what we are doing, mostly in order to make the path easier for others to find. But I don’t feel that polytheism is endangered. I think it is pretty much the “default setting”, to which all religion will gravitate in the end. Christianity tried monotheism, but it gradually introduced saints and a goddess (the Virgin Mary is a goddess in all but name). Buddhism moved the focus of religion away from gods towards personal enlightenment, and ended up introducing Bodhisattvas. Even Islam has 99 names of God, and Sufis and Shi’ites have saints. In Judaism, God has aspects (especially in Kabbalah). So even in monotheist and non-theist religions, the multiplicity keeps re-asserting itself. You can’t keep a good deity down.

Even if the archetypalists succeed in convincing everyone that gods are only archetypes, people will still have real experiences of the gods.

It’s not so much that polytheism is under siege from monism or non-theism or monotheism – on the contrary: they are constantly on guard against the emergence of polytheism and animism. Everyone knows there’s a spirit that lives in the photocopier which must be propitiated. That’s why atheists are constantly on guard against “woo”. Everyone needs a personal deity to relate to, which is less than the Great All. If they happen to be a monotheist, they invent a smaller god of their own devising, whether that is saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a more manageable version of Yahweh. It’s a very rare person who feels they can relate to a completely impersonal deity.

And the final reason that I don’t think polytheism is under siege is the deities themselves. They survived for centuries with hardly any worshippers, and that didn’t finish them off: so a few people claiming they are just archetypes is pretty small beer. They have the power to communicate with humans and they do use it. I think we and they will be just fine.

The Devil is in the Detail

Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.

Francisco de Goya's Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by Satanic witches. The Witch Cult hypothesis states that such stories are based upon a real-life pagan cult that revered a horned god

Francisco de Goya’s Witches Sabbat (1789), which depicts the Devil flanked by witches. [CC0 – Public Domain]

The Devil and witchcraft

Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.

I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.

Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.

However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.

I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.

It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?

I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions,  but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.

Who cleft the Devil’s foot?

From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).

Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity.  However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists.  I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin.  I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?

Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.

I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)

As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict).  If I acknowledge the existence of  Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.

My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?

As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.

What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)

In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.

Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.

It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.

My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.

Adversaries in ancient paganisms

Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.

Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.

Be careful

I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.

However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?

Civilisation and its discontents

It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.

Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.

If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.

So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.

Overlapping Circles

When I started writing for this blog, I had some sort of idea that I would systematically wade through the various areas covered by theology – the personal, the interpersonal, our relationships with spirit, the nature of deities and spirits, interfaith dialogue within the Pagan movement, dialogue with other religions, community, society, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and so on.

But all  of these issues overlap with each other and are intertwined.

What has happened in reality is that my writing has focussed on issues that are important to me (gender, sexuality, Black Lives Matter, migration, consent), or responded to things that have happened – both online and in the physical world – that I felt could be addressed from a Pagan perspective.

It has become apparent that there is not really a roadmap for writing Pagan theology. I think that all the best theological writing assumes and acknowledges that it is a personal reflection on a theological issue, and runs with that assumption. I do not think that theology should be prescriptive. It is more about opening a space for dialogue on theological issues. That is why a blog is the ideal place to host a theological conversation – because people can post comments, or send in a guest post, or write a post in response on their own blog.

Sometimes my posts are just “thinking aloud“, and the comments on them significantly change my thinking about the topic being discussed, or highlight something that I hadn’t thought of.

I think that theology should always be discursive and not prescriptive. It is not up to me to tell anyone what to think – just to open up a space for discussion. I write to work out what I think, and to get feedback on it. I think the comments on a blogpost can sometimes be as illuminating as the blogpost.

Reasons for addressing God as Mother

There has been quite a bit of hoo-hah recently as some Anglican women are campaigning for the phrase “God the Mother” to be included in the liturgy. In the Pagan movement and much of Judaism, the concept of a female aspect of divinity is uncontroversial. The name YHWH is widely recognised to contain both masculine and feminine elements, and as Jason Mankey points out, the Jewish creation story acknowledges this.

But, as numerous progressive Christians have pointed out, there is a long history of addressing and acknowledging the feminine aspects of their God. There is also a long tradition of misogyny and denial of the feminine in the churches.

Sophia icon, By Ждан Дементьев, Василий Новгородец. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sophia icon By Ждан Дементьев, Василий Новгородец. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Would Christianity and Judaism pass the Bechdel test?

The Tanakh (as I prefer to call the “Old Testament”) would pass the Bechdel Test; I am not at all sure that the New Testament would pass it. The Bechdel Test is a way of testing for gender equality in films: it has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man. In the Tanakh, there are numerous strong female characters (Ruth and Naomi, Esther, Deborah, etc), who do have conversations with each other about something other than a man (at least Ruth and Naomi do, and some of the others may do so as well). There are also mentions of the feminine aspects of their deity: the Shekhinah, the Ruach, and Wisdom (in the Book of Proverbs, and in the Apocrypha). So Judaism passes the Bechdel Test; I am not at all sure that Christianity does.

The Divine Feminine

Mystics of all traditions have honoured the Divine Feminine. Julian of Norwich, the great Christian mystic, referred to God the Mother (in the context of Trinitarian theology):

And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. …The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. [http://www.gloriana.nu/mother.htm]

In the Orthodox Church, there is also a long tradition of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (known as Sapientia in Western Christianity); indeed the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was dedicated to Her. She is both the Bride of Christ and the feminine aspect of Christ. There is also the very important concept of Holy Silence (Hagia Hesychia). The Orthodox Church makes a distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies. God’s essence has no gender, though the persons of the Trinity are regarded as male, and the energies (Wisdom, Silence, light, and so on) are generally personified as female. The Virgin Mary has the title God-Bearer (Theotokos) in Orthodoxy, and is held in the highest regard in that tradition.

Niki Whiting has written an excellent piece on why the Catholic Church ought properly to regard Mary as co-redemptrix, which would have the added benefit of getting away from substitutionary atonement theology. In Catholicism, Mary is very highly regarded, but she is a Virgin Mother, which is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.

Many liberal Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God – again following Jewish tradition, as both the breath of God, Ruach, which is translated in Christian versions of the text as the Holy Spirit, is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

In Judaism, there is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, and the Ruach, the Breath of God, both of which are seen as feminine. The Shekhinah is believed to descend on the Sabbath eve at the lighting of the candles (usually done by the lady of the house). The Shekhinah is exiled in the physical world and trying to rejoin the Godhead. We can help reunite them in the process of Tikkun – the exercise of compassion, which helps to heal the rift between the worlds. Also, it is regarded as a holy thing to make love on the Sabbath eve, as this helps to reunite the Shekhinah and the Godhead.

In Islam, there is the Sakina, the peace of God, which descends upon believers, who is mentioned twice in the Quran.

In Paganism, it is probably the existence of priestesses and the influence of feminism that have ensured the equality of women. Also, very importantly, all aspects of womanhood are represented: the maiden, the mother, the warrior, the sexual woman, the crone who is the embodiment of wisdom.  However, a certain amount of gender-role-stereotyping is present in Paganism, and perhaps Pagans need to think more about the Divine that transcends gender.

In Unitarianism – the first denomination to have a female minister, Gertrude von Petzold, in 1904 – women are regarded as completely equal to men. Unitarians have also embraced the Divine Feminine to a certain extent, and use inclusive gender-neutral language wherever possible.  In the 19th century, the great Unitarian Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker, prayed to “God our Father and our Mother”, and also used gender-neutral terms like “Infinite Spirit” and “Infinite Presence”.

“O Father, who adornest the summer and cheerest the winter with thy presence, we thank thee that we know that thou art our Father, and our Mother, that thou foldest in thine arms all the worlds which thou least made, and warmest with thy mother’s breath each mote that peoples the sun’s beams, and blessest every wandering, erring child of man.” (5 February, 1854)

“Creating and Protecting Power, our Father and our Mother, we lift up our psalm of thanksgiving to You. You hold the world in Your arms of love. It sings thanksgiving to You every morning, evening and noon. We praise You for Your blessings. We desire to be deeply conscious of Your presence, which fills all time, which occupies all space. We would know You as You are.” (Our Father and Our Mother)

“Infinite Presence who lives and moves and has Your being in all that is above us and around us and underneath us: we remember that it is in You that we also live and move and have our being. Conscious of Your presence, we would look on our daily lives, that the murmur of our business, the roar of the street and the jar of the noisy world, may mingle in the prayer of our aspiration and hymn of gratitude. May the meditations of our hearts draw us nearer to You, always above us and about us and within.” (Our Daily Lives)

I think Parker’s strategy of mixing various different terms is good: it keeps his audience from ever settling on a specific gender for their deity. And since both Judaism and Christianity affirm that God doesn’t have a gender, this makes a lot of sense.

When I hear the word “God”, I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear “the Divine”, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn’t explicitly include the Divine Feminine – the Goddess. Of course, for Christians, the concept of the Goddess is immediately redolent of Paganism, which has a very different view of the Divine / deities. So, personally, I am quite happy for there to be a bit of distance between the two traditions: they are quite distinct from each other, and it’s no use pretending that they are not. I am not particularly keen on the idea that “all religions are one” – yes, religious traditions can and should learn from each other, but they are not the same.

So, how does the Goddess differ from traditional views of God?

  • In all traditions, she is regarded as immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be monotheist about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother – she is also the wise crone, the wild maiden, the sexual woman.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.

Because she is Mother Nature, she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (in contrast to much of Christianity, which regards it as a result of the Fall).

I think it is important, in honouring female images of the divine, not to start gender stereotyping, and assuming that some qualities are inherently masculine, and others inherently feminine. This is clearly not true. But rather than always using masculine and gender-neutral language to describe the divine, it would be great to use feminine language sometimes too, however you regard the Divine.

As Maud Robinson, a Unitarian minister, writes:

God does not have a gender and although we can readily accept that intellectually, we should be aware that many of us have a deep history of the use of male-centred language in prayer and that it is embedded in our collective psyche. The word God, in itself, causes me problems, it is a word, which despite our modern sophistication and political correctness can’t but conjure up images of a male godhead for many of us. How can we escape from these deeply ingrained images of a male godhead?

I think the answer to her question is to look at images of the Divine Feminine in your own religion. There are numerous books and websites devoted to Her.

I think it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that all religions are one, and for Christians to start stealing the clothes of Paganism. But there are plenty of images and descriptions of the Divine Feminine in the Christian tradition that they can use to get in touch with the feminine aspects of their God.

There are plenty of female images of deity in the Christian tradition, especially in Orthodox Christianity, and would-be reformers of the liturgy would do well to research them.  There are also many prayers addressed to God the Mother (especially in the Unitarian tradition), inclusive liturgy, and gender-neutral liturgy.

“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:


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.


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

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

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

Zeal, vigor; wholehearted zest for life.

Harmonious and balanced thought and action; tranquility, calm, serenity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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