Tag Archives: deity

The Temple I am Building

I have known for years that there is a temple I am called to dance in. It does not have a name. When I see it, it is a place of cool stone, quiet beauty, shafting sunlight, comforts and pleasures. I have been dancing there most of my adult life, but it isn’t something I’ve talked about much. I dance where I can, and when the music, the atmosphere and my dancing are just right, I also dance in the temple.

Of course it is a Goddess temple. But there has never been a named Goddess, or any sense of presence or interaction. I dance in the temple because it’s what I do, and there is a sense of sacredness and significance, but not of specific deity. I’m not very good at deity, or at belief. Aside from some distant experiences in my late teens, this just isn’t part of my life. But the temple has a kind of reality for me.

There is no physical temple I can dance in, and I do not have the resources to build a temple. There isn’t a suitable space I could hire. So the question of how to make the temple a bit more real, how to honour it and work with it, has been on my mind for years.

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of music I dance to and why. I realise that some of my sense of the temple comes out of the goth nightclubbing experiences of my youth. I started putting together a playlist of songs that gave me a sense of the temple dancing. Most of them are goth tunes from that time in my life, but I’ve found other things along the way and there are a fair few steampunk bands with songs that fit. It has a definite tone – passionate, sensual, deliciously, shamelessly a bit sleazy. Sexy and totally in control of that. Active, not passive. Playful, expressive.

I dance because I want to. I dance because this is my body and I am entitled to enjoy it. I dance to delight others, but I get to say who I dance for, and I get to say what happens around that and dancing most assuredly is not consent. I dance as an act of rebellion because this body is not the sort of body my wider culture considers sexy or appealing – which is true for most of us. I dance as an act of reclamation.

I have built a temple playlist. It may be the only temple I ever build, but for now, it will do.


Beloved of the Gods

Who would not choose to be loved by the divine? It’s the ultimate validation, the proof of worth that none can challenge, the proof of rightness and righteousness and whatever else you want it to be, to go forth into the world confident that a deity, or deities, love you.

There’s a vast array of perspectives within Paganism about what deities are, and how you might interact with them. How much scope to pick and choose the deity has can vary – in people’s minds at least. For some (based on what I’ve read) it’s enough to show up interested, your relationship with the divine will flow from this. This is often the Christian perspective – when they postulate their God as one of unconditional love, all you have to do is show up for Jesus and that love will flow towards you. My understanding is that when Christianity came along, this was one of its more unusual features and that historical Paganism viewed its deities as a fussier and more demanding lot.

In my teens I was drawn to the idea of deity for a while, and there were moments, but nothing clear aside from a couple of very intense dreams. In my twenties I lost all sense of divinity, and in my thirties, as part of a deliberate project (When a Pagan Prays) I set out to try and reconnect. The gods do not talk to me, I do not feel called to work for, or be lead by, or blessed by any deity in particular, and no matter what I do or how I do it, nothing much happens. And I know, because I’ve faced the sentiments repeatedly, how much of a validation it would be to be picked. Special. Chosen. Wanted by a deity for some purpose that I alone can serve. It’s not happening. My wanting it does not make it happen. Either what I’m doing is sufficient and requires no interference, or there’s nothing I could do, or I’m irrelevant or combinations thereof.

It raises some interesting questions about the idea of equality within spirituality. Are we all on an even footing, or are some of us more spiritually advanced than others? If you think we’re reincarnating towards perfection, then it’s a given that some are doing better at this than others. While there’s something tempting about the idea that we’re all good enough and loved by the gods, there’s also something bland and limiting about that idea. The heroic cultures of our ancestors were all about standing out, being memorable, and myth-worthy. But taken too far, the urge to specialness becomes a way to put down those you see as less special. To speak for the deity is to have power, importance and status. For fallible humans, there’s a lot of risk to your spiritual wellbeing involved in buying into the idea of your own importance. It’s so often the case in organised religion that worldly power becomes more important than personal spirituality. For some people people to be special, others of us have to get our heads round not being special, and I’m increasingly inclined to think that’s ok.

Perhaps the gods speak to me in ways that I remain too ignorant, fearful or closed to hear. Perhaps there are right things I could do that I’m not doing. Perhaps I’m not good enough. Perhaps it isn’t my path. On the whole though, it may be as well for me that I have nothing of this in my life. I watch the debates go by on blogs and social media about fashions in deities, and who really knows what, and who really is in a relationship with their god… and I am glad to have nothing to say. There’s a certain relief in having nothing to contribute. There’s nothing of mine that can be hurt by other people believing or not believing me. There’s nothing in my spiritual experience that gives me any entitlement to claim authority.

Of course there are times when the security of being loved by the divine would be a welcome, encouraging thing, a balm for my troubled soul perhaps. There is no one to do the work for me, and whatever is broken inside me is mine to fix, and only mine. On the plus side it makes me easier to be around for other people who do not get miracle cures, magical insights and demands for action. I think the days when I am jealous of those who have a personal experience of deity, is outweighed by the days when I’m glad of not having to deal with that, and not having to navigate my all too fragile ego through the many traps spiritual authority has to offer a person. I’m just a scruffy Druid, muddling along, and learning how to be ok with that has been an important part of my personal journey.


Sacred submission

Deity orientated religions often talk about submission to the divine, or the will of the divine as being the goal of spiritual practice. Religious activities are designed to attune the believer, and enable them to submit to the will of their deity. Paganism isn’t always so submission orientated, many prefer to stand before their gods, but we have these threads too.

Sacred submission isn’t an event. It’s not something you do once and then are all sorted. Submission to deity, to a belief system, to a way of living, is a day to day, moment to moment sort of process involving every choice and action in a person’s life. It is the ongoing nature of it that makes it so powerful; the constant, conscious submission of personal desires to a higher goal. I don’t follow that path, but I can entirely respect it.

Submission is a gift. It is a gift we may offer to deity, or to a partner, or to a cause. The problems start when the flow is in the other direction. Submission should be an act of gifting from one who submits, not forced on them by someone with more power. If you are making someone act in accordance with your religious rules, or making them perform acts that you want, in no way are they submitting. They may be coerced into going along, but this is a whole other thing, and it tends to be very toxic, and very abusive not only of its victims, but of the ideas that have been subverted.

For a spiritual path to be meaningful, it has to be chosen. Anything we do in fear, under duress and threat of violence, is not being given freely. If there is no gifting, there is no spiritual power. There is no spiritual depth and value in what is done, you just go through the motions to stay alive. From the outside, it isn’t always easy to tell who is giving freely, and who is forced to conform – the veiling of women provides a wealth of examples of both. Veiling by choice is a powerful act of dedication. Veiling out of necessity is an affront.

You can’t force gifts out of someone. They cease to be gifts and become the fruits of conquest. An act of submission, is an act of gifting, and needs valuing as such. It should flow from love and be an expression of love. To demand submission is to be a tyrant, and there is no love if the submission is not gifted.


The voice of God

I wanted to be a polytheist. It’s not an easy confession to make, because despite my best efforts at various times in my life, I have never had any coherent experience of deity. Only shadows and suggestions, and odd moments in dreams. I’ve encountered enough words from true polytheists to know that personal gnosis is a big part of how they experience the world. My failure to have any kind of serious firsthand experience informed a lot of writing When a Pagan Prays. It’s not a book for people who have comfortable exchanges with their deities – more for anyone else out there who does not get what they went looking for, or is not easy with believing.

I had a bit of a lightbulb moment last week. I realised that I’ve been so busy angsting over my failure to experience deity, that I really haven’t given enough thought or attention to what I do experience. There are other things in my life, and it’s subtle, it seldom comes with a side-order of words, (although I talk to everything) and it occurs to me that this is, for me at least, the most important stuff.

Here’s an example. My computer is at the window, if I raise my gaze I can see trees, and sky. On any given day I will at some point raise my head at just the right moment to see buzzards, a heron, woodpeckers, nuthatches, flocks of little birds, comedy squirrel activity, rainbow light, tiny whirwinds… It’s the same when I go walking – I always see something. If I walk the hills I’ll find fossils, or limestone quartz. It’s easy not to notice, because it is normal for me. I’m very open to what’s around me, and had got into the habit of considering it all fairly mundane.

On the Five Valley’s Walk we saw a lizard and a deer. 1700 people walking the 21 mile route – hardly an invitation to wild things to show up. I watched half a dozen other people walk right past the lizard, not seeing it, but I had been drawn to it at once. I knew it was there. I see kingfishers and little grebes, I hear owls. I do not experience these as messages from the divine or the otherworld, just nature doing its thing and me noticing. I do not read what I see for omens or symbols, but I do feel blessed.

Even as I try and square up to the idea that this could be something really precious and important, I am conscious of my own reluctance to put any big names on it. Knowing when to turn my head to see the deer is just being present. It’s not the voice of gods or the voice of spirit, it’s just me in a wood and everything else in the wood. Would someone else construct a different narrative? Would someone else feel the need to turn, and in turning, see something beautiful, and understand that as the presence of deity?

I’ve spent about twenty years stumbling around, feeling lost and that on a very fundamental level, I wasn’t a very good Pagan at all. It may be that I just do not default to the language of deity when making sense of experience. I don’t see the horned god in the deer, I don’t see goddess in the flash of kingfisher wings. I see the deer and the kingfisher. Perhaps that isn’t a failing. Perhaps I am not as shut out of mystery, as incapable of experiencing it as I had feared myself to be. It may have been the case that I’ve been so busy being enchanted by one tree at a time that I did not grasp that I’d been in the forest all along. I don’t know. Not knowing is pretty fundamental to how I interact with the world. My not knowing has shifted in tone a tad, opening up new possibilities.


Understanding the nature of deity

The short answer would be, that I don’t – but as that’s not much of a blog post, let’s keep poking about! My sense of what deity is and whether there really is any varies from one day to the next. There are days when my rational inclinations leave me with a more atheistic perspective. The universe is complete unto itself. I can go from there to a feeling that the sacred force in the universe, is the universe itself and that we are all part of a growing consciousness. However, the scale of that is so daunting and impersonal that it’s not unlike having no gods at all.

I do however have this unshakable sense of the sacred, that stays with me on my most questioning, uncertain and atheistic days. It comes as a response to land and ancestry, to experiences in the moment and is informed by a sense of wonder. There are several personified deities associated with the land I live on, so I have a sense of them as both forms in the landscape and historical presences.  But as distinct consciousnesses with intentions and powers… I really don’t know.

I am aware that many Pagans experience deity as discrete individuals with whom it is possible to interact. The sense of deity as something anthropomorphic and human orientated, interested in our concerns and able to interact with us in ways that make sense… makes more sense with some deities than others. Many of the figures in ancient pantheons come across as being human-like – very much gods of the tribe. However, the gods of nature, or the possibility of the divine in nature clearly isn’t going to be so innately human-centric. Gods of earth, sky, seasons, gods of storm and sun seem very unavailable to me. I might experience them, but I do not feel much hope of understanding them or sharing with them in reliable ways.

This blog over at Corvid’s viewpoint has had me pondering though. If consciousness begets physical reality, and not the other way round… then what might that consciousness be? My small consciousness clearly isn’t creating much reality. In the warp and weft of existence, perhaps the gods are the underlying threads onto which the rest of reality is woven. Perhaps the gods are the loom, or the wool. I like craft metaphors such as this.

I still have no idea how reality works. No matter how much pondering I do, I will not come to a place of certainty, because my uncertainty is one of the few things I’m a bit dogmatic about. Other people may know… I do not.


The silence of the Gods

A great many Pagans and Druids talk about serving the Gods, and doing what the Gods ask of them. I have a confession to make: I do not hear the voice of deity. I used to, years ago, but it went away. There may be reasons. I became too wrapped up in my pain. I become too weary to give – my acts of service went to the material realm, I had nothing to offer the Gods beyond that, and so, perhaps, they ceased bothering with me. Perhaps I have become spiritually deaf. Perhaps there is nothing they want from me right now and they have more important things to be doing. They are Gods, after all.

I have no trouble at all holding to the idea that Gods exist. But I’ve never been good at holding relationship with anything I couldn’t interact with. Belief without relationship doesn’t work for me, I don’t know how to do it. I love and respect the natural world, and the energies of human creativity. I pay a lot of attention to the things I encounter, to the reeds and the grebes, the sky, the earth. I have a sense of the sacredness in all that is around me, but based on previous experience, that’s not the same as a feeling of relationship with deity.

I could beat myself up over this. I have spent a lot of time wondering what changed, and why, and whether this is some judgement upon me, some proof of insufficiency and of not being a proper Druid after all. When the rain falls on me, I do not think it is a divine judgement on my shortcomings. I think it’s rain, falling. When something random and shitty happens in my life, I don’t tend to think “ah, the gods are pissed off with me again, better sacrifice a goat.” Shit happens, and it happens to everyone, and some of the best people I know have had some really hard things in their lives. So that can’t be it. That said, when unimaginable good fortune comes my way, I do tend to wonder if I have been smiled on by some benevolent force, and I express my gratitude.

There are people in my life I haven’t heard from in years. People on the folk scene, for example. The silence does not suggest to me that they no longer exist. It doesn’t make me think they hate me. Based on experience to date, when I next run into them, we’ll sit down somewhere and talk, and the intervening years won’t matter much at all, aside from the work of filling in the gaps. Why should I assume the gods are any less busy, and any less pleasant, than folk musicians? I don’t.

I’m saying this partly because it’s something I have made my peace with. Partly also in response to the many online pagans who are talking about their personal relationships with the divine. I would be prepared to bet I’m not the only one who doesn’t have that right now. Am I less of a human because of it? I don’t think so. Am I less of a Druid because of it? Well, maybe, but also maybe not. Perhaps the work I need to be doing right now is quietly inside myself, and the Gods are leaving me alone until I get straight enough to be useful again. I also don’t think of the Gods as being omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, I think they are finite entities and they may be busy elsewhere.

So if you’re one of the people who isn’t talking about what the gods ask you to do for them, I hope this comes at least as some kind of comfort.


Offerings and Dedications

Moving on from No Sacrifice, what does a modern Druid do? I’m going to wave a couple of concepts here today. Offerings are something I have strong opinions about, and where my take does not match what I’ve seen Druids and Pagans generally doing. So, this is not authority, it’s my banging on about personal preference. Obviously, if I convince you all of my superior argument, that would be lovely, but I’m not expecting anything of the sort!

Offerings and dedications are things that we might do for gods, or spirits, that are also things we do for ourselves. Not unlike giving a gift or making a vow to a human companion, we do it for the joy of doing it, and for the subsequent strengthening of bonds, and knowing it will encourage them to feel benevolent towards us. It’s a friendly exchange, it’s not supposed to hurt.

I have an animist world view. I think everything has spirit. Not all pagans are animist and that’s probably key for how you think about offerings. It confuses the hell out of me when people turn up at rituals with offerings that basically consist of having uprooted a bit of spirit from where it was living and plonking it down in front of another spirit with a ‘there you go’.  Wildflowers from the hedgerow, feathers and other gleanings are popular. What makes this ours to give? When some of your own creativity has gone in the mix, it makes a degree more sense. What does the spirit of a tree need with a few fragments of sea shell offered to its roots? (seen that done). Why do all the dark places need offerings of tea lights? Often, the offerings become litter, or there’s a pile of stuff for the celebrant to take away and sort out at the end. Think about what happens to your offerings, after you leave them behind. Also think about what the spirits you were offering to might have a use for. I’d rather take water to plants in times of need, or, more usually, take in a dustbin bag and clear up the litter. Making a temporary altar out of what is in the space, an improvised art working with what lives there, seems a far more fitting offering than a thing bought in a shop or uprooted from where it was happily being a spirit of place in its own right.

Dedications, especially those made in ritual with human witnesses too, are ways of offering ourselves to the gods. They also serve to reinforce community bonds and help us develop in shared intentions together. Pledges to greener living are good. If one person says ‘from now on I shall grow all my own herbs’ other people may be inspired to have a go too. If the newbie dares to say ‘I’m going to recycle, diligently’ recognising that they are just starting out on a path, we can cheer them along. We dedicate to reducing consumption, to better sourcing, to making more of our own. We dedicate to living in more creative ways, giving more, being compassionate, upholding the values of a specific deity. During rites of passage, we dedicate to each other, as partners, parents, welcoming life in, waving it goodbye. We may dedicate as teachers, celebrants, bards – these human roles can be put before the gods too. These are things we can offer to the gods, to ourselves, to our communities and our planet. By formalising that intent into a ritual statement, we strengthen it.

Such efforts as these are not simple, one sided things. We are not giving something away for nothing, and it is not simply an activity which costs us. We are interacting with other things – divine, human, aspects of place, of our own lives. In this kind of undertaking we may be recognising all kinds of relationships. We make them conscious, choose how to conduct them, offer our intentions. By offering we affirm, we inspire others, we share the journey we are making. By offering, we nourish those around us, and when we hear their offerings and dedications, we can be inspired in turn. This is about how we craft our own lives, how we understand ourselves in relation to all things. It creates a focus.

When I make an offering or a dedication, the goodness of that action for me is something I am always conscious of. This undertaking will make my life feel cleaner and more honourable. This will strengthen me, give me purpose, focus me on the work my hands need to be doing. This will invite my community to support me in a new venture, to see me in a new way. This will keep me straight, I’ve pledged in public and will not lose face by then failing to follow through. But equally, if we just did it for personal reasons, it wouldn’t be worth much, and so these dedications are also for the good of the land and its other inhabitants, to honour the ancestors, to guard the future generations and so forth. The reality that everything we do is connected to everything else becomes clear, and that’s essential Druidry in itself.


Godless Pagan Ethics

Pretty much everyone who criticises pagans, if they stop doing the ‘it’s just silly’ routine go onto ‘but you have no proper ethics’. This has everything to do with the assumptions that ‘proper’ religions come with a rule book, and not having a rule book obviously means that we don’t have any rules. I could get distracted here down a side track about the precise usefulness of rules that are 2000 years and more out of date. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s decking, his BMW or his mobile phone contract…. You have to do some wriggling to make those old rule books fit. There’s a basic assumption here, that the rule books of ‘proper’ religions were all dictated by God. Never mind that some of them aren’t compatible and it wouldn’t be PC to discuss that. All of them, written by God, therefore, ethically sound.

Now, whether or not you think God was there at the beginning, the rules were written down by people. Translated into new languages, by people. Interpreted, and applied, by people. That, by my reckoning, puts a great many people in the mix. My suspicion is, that people came up with the rules and wrote them down in the first place.

What happens if we accept the idea that all of the great religious books were written by people (maybe inspired by god)? People are flawed and make mistakes. Also, times change, and religious ideas can become less relevant. But if people wrote the rules, then people are individually and collectively responsible for what those rules do. Including killing people for ‘moral’ crimes, starting war, spreading hatred etc etc.

The age of a thing s not even proof that we, as modern humans, reliably think it’s a good idea. The UK traditionally went in for hanging, and now it doesn’t. Laws can change. Understandings of crime, compassion and the value of human life can change, and should. What makes sense in one context can be pure madness in another.

So yes, I’m a pagan, and I don’t have a rule book. I feel personally responsible for all the choices I make and all the things I do, and feel entirely unable to blame any of my actions on supernatural beings. The gods have NEVER made me do anything. I also don’t have a rule book that I can quote to feel morally justified about killing people, depriving them of their land, their dignity, their human rights. I don’t feel the kind of moral superiority that makes me inclined to be hugely judgemental of people I don’t know, but who have apparently messed up. Compassion matters to me more than rules. And when I think about it, all those neighbour loving, shirt giving recommendations in the Bible seem to get overlooked in certain quarters.

To be pagan is not to be without ethics, it is to know that you, and only you are responsible for the ethical choices you make. No hiding behind a book. No waving your bloodstained hands in feigned innocence, saying ‘it is god’s will, we have to’. No neatly doging the requirement to think about what I do, and who I judge, and no assuming that any law is morally, unassailably right and leaving it alone. I care about what is good, what is needful, what makes the world a better place, and  do not think the ‘ethics’ of the market place or the ‘values’ of consumerism serve us very well at all by that measure.

I don’t even think it matters where ideas come from, how old they are, or who came up with them. What matters is what an idea does, what is achieves in the world, who it helps, who it harms. “By their fruit shall ye know them,” yes? Ask what good it is, and if the answer is ‘no good at all’ then consider that it might be derived from human fear and human failing, and not any kind of deity at all. What is human, can be changed by humans, and we owe it to ourselves to really consider the implications of that.


Tales of spirit and afterlife

One of my core beliefs is that we cannot know what comes after this life. We can guess, and we can make up stories but the uncertainty is intrinsic to the human condition, and I am sceptical about any claims to knowing. However, ideas about the afterlife shape what many people do in this one, and it’s nice to have some kind of working model to pin current existence to. Up until recently I had a very simple working model – accepting the state of not knowing, I would assume there was nothing beyond my own biology and no afterlife, and live accordingly. So while I’m a spiritual person, I have adopted a more atheistic mindset for how I approach life. It’s a good, pragmatic approach, but it lacked spirit and I’ve never been wholly easy with it.

What I’m going to share today is the new story about the afterlife that I’ve been working on, and have decided to adopt. It owes a bit to Phillip Pullman, there’s nothing especially original here.

If we took my computer apart, we would not find the internet inside it. We would not find the means to create and store the entire internet either. If the internet was an unproven, theoretical idea and we thought maybe it didn’t exist, we might find my computer passably supported this. And at time of writing, I’m not online. The quest for internet, from the boat, is frequently an act of faith and devotion! Now, there is no cluster of cells in the brain that can happily be designated as the soul. We’re not even entirely clear on how consciousness works. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. What if consciousness and soul are to the body what internet is to the computer? Or the television and radio signals are to those devices? Without getting bogged down in the metaphor, there is room in a rational reality for things that make a thing go, but do not live inside it.

Now, what if soul is not a single, indestructible lump of stuff? What if it has more in common with the rest of physical reality, such that it can disintegrate, and change? So when we get to the end of our lives, our continuation as a coherent spiritual identity might depend on a number of things – strength of soul and personality, having the kind of self that is able to survive (what would than mean?) being happy enough with oneself to want to continue, intact, into another form. A person could choose to merge into the whole, Nirvana style. They could choose to disintegrate from self loathing. They could choose to reincarnate. They could be too weak to do anything but disintegrate.

I like this for a number of reasons. All those people who think they were Napoleon in a former life get to be sort of right, they have a bit of something that once was, and those kinds of famous, high impact spirits are likely to be more visible even if you only get a shard. There is no requirement for an external judge in this story, we do it to ourselves, we get to choose. There is continuation of spirit, but not necessarily continuation of conscious awareness, which would explain why some of us remember bits of past life and some do not. There is room to find more than one person in life for whom you feel deep soul resonance, because there may be many souls with whom you have some sparks in common. There may be scope (I nod to Pullman here) for those who are very close to become part of the same entity after death. This story holds room for change, chaos and uncertainty, but also for continuity, it’s not offering any kind of clear certainty, but lots of possibility. There is scope for inherent justice within it, because to get to choose what happens to you after life, you will need the kind of soul whole enough, aware enough, strong enough to do that. What people will get at the end would depend a great deal on what they have done along the way.

While this story does not require the presence of a judgemental deity, it also doesn’t preclude the idea of deity, and I like that too. After all, what does happen to a really enlightened, really powerful soul that has been through various incarnations? There’s room to birth gods here.

I know it’s a story. I might be right, I might not, and I hold that uncertainty very carefully. I like this story because it has scope to be useful, and it gives me a new way of looking at the world. I’ve spent a decade or so with the ‘no afterlife’ story informing what I do, and that was interesting, but it’s time to experiment with a new perspective and see what I can learn by holding it. No doubt at some point along the way I will feel the urge to fettle it. I may even abandon it entirely in favour of something else. This is an idea I am increasingly comfortable with. Our relationship with reality must grow and change as we do. All good relationships grow and change if we stay in them. Absence of change is not a hallmark of fidelity, it’s a very slow way of smothering something to death.


Those whom the gods most love

Heather left a powerful comment on my Downtrodden blog, about spiritual attitudes to poverty. I’ve been reflecting on that, and wanted to follow on from there. I’ve never been one for the New Age theories of like attracts like, or that misfortune is the paying off of karmic debts for some awfulness we did in a past life. Equally I have never seen wealth and affluence as proof of being in a deity’s good books. Until recently I hadn’t examined why I hold such beliefs, but on reflection I think it has everything to do with the Celtic element of my Druidry.

Skipping over how truly ancient any of the Celtic myths are, I would say it’s fair to describe them all as a bit mournful. Very few Celtic myths end happily ever after. Many end with the death of the ‘hero’. Tragedy is a pervasive theme. I think about Rhiannon, deprived of her child, blamed, humiliated and suffering. I think about the torments Branwen suffers, and all those doomed lovers, people destroyed by geas… Celtic myth is not resplendent with happily ever after, and this is a big part of what I grew up on. But then, the more I think about it, the less able I am to find stories where the righteous do not suffer. In most traditions, religious stories are all about being tested. From Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, onwards, the Old Testament makes it very clear they have a God who tests his followers.

What makes a hero, or a legend? Once upon a time, there was a man who the gods loved. They did everything imaginable to make life easy for him. He never had to work because money grew on a tree in his garden. He had a wonderful wife who recognised all the qualities in him that the gods loved, and did not want him solely for the money tree, and who bore him lots of charming, beautiful and well behaved children. Life was perfect for them in every way. It’s not a very good story, really. It’s dull, and you’re waiting for the moment when it all goes crushingly wrong, because that’s what happens in stories. It also raised a point. What are the qualities, in this deity-blessed man, that make him so appealing to the deities? If they do everything, and he does nothing, all they’ve got to go on is who he imagines he is. This man is untested. He is not a hero. He has never done anything of note, and he never will.

Compare this with the story of a woman who starts out badly – her parents are poor, maybe she’s blind, maybe she has some virtue – a good heart, a quick mind, a pretty face. To take care of her aging parents, she sets out into the world and faces terrible adversity. Bears chase her. Bandits steal her only possessions. She shares her last crust with a swan who turns out to be a fairy who can tell her how to find a fortune if only she will undertake to do three impossible things first. Not only is this more like a story, but at a symbolic level, it is more like real life.

In practice, being dishonourable, selfish, greedy and ambitious is more likely to pave the way to affluence than being generous and kind. A compassionate person won’t use their energy praying for a new car, they’ll be praying for the starving, for the homeless, and will spend their time trying to help others. Only someone who sees it as their god given right to strive after wealth above all else, will live that way. However, very few people like the idea that they might be morally bankrupt. So, by assuming money, ease and success to be signs of divine favour, they neatly get round the ethical issues. I must be fine, see how much the gods love me, see how much money I have…

If the stories are anything to go by, the gods are anything but kind to those they love most. You do not get to be a hero unless there are monsters to fight. Saints are given opportunity to die for their faith. Heroes die in battle. Mythical women die for love, or protecting their children, or defending their virtue. In face of adversity, the people who spawn legends, shine. We might take Nelson Mandela and Ghandi as more contemporary and famous examples here. The martyred icons of protest, the heroes of bloodless revolution, the ones who stand up to injustice. They are on the news every day. You can bet they aren’t praying for a pay rise. Those whom the gods love most, they challenge, sometimes to breaking point. But then, it’s only when you break a person that you see what’s inside them. Often it’s the cracks that let the light through. Often it is the wrongs, or the pain suffered that motivates a person to do amazing things. A person can have a life of ease and comfort, or they can have a life of trial and heroism, but not both. For me, one of the essential messages of the Celtic myths, is that I would seek out the latter if it did not come to me anyway.