Tag Archives: martyrdom

The Bastard of St Genevra: A Review


I was approached to see if I’d like to review this title as a consequence of another book I’d reviewed here. Author Diane Gallagher lured me in with the promise of magical realism, healing ancestral lines and a story that revolves around the lives of women. I was not disappointed. As if often the case with good books, it is tricky to talk about the story without spoiling bits of it. What I can safely say is that this story occupies two time frames, one runs from the late twentieth century through to the present day, and the other is concerned with events in the twelfth century. It’s a charming book, highly readable and engaging with thoughtfully rendered characters.

I was especially taken with the way in which the author is able to meet the magic and mysticism of 12th century Catholicism on its own terms. Her historical characters occupy their beliefs and superstitions, the world they inhabit is full of the scope for miracles and divine intervention, ill wishing, cursing, and so forth. It all feels very real and there’s no sense of modern judgements getting in the way. It really makes clear what a magical reality Catholicism was part of in its early days. Coming at this as a Pagan, I found the religious and mystical aspects of the book highly readable and enjoyable.

This is a book about the lives of women – there are three main female characters, and a whole cast of other complex women surrounds them. There are of course men as well, but the action takes place firmly in the female sphere and relates to female life experience. I really enjoyed that. We see everything from the royal courts down to the lowliest peasants, it’s very rich reading.

I greatly appreciated the way love is handled in this book. There are love affairs, relationships, marriages – these are part of life and are explored with care and treated with importance. But, they don’t define the shape of the story, it isn’t ‘a romance’ it’s a weave of life in which love has a significant role to play. It’s rare to get a book with a strong feminine focus that explores love but does not succumb to the romance genre.

I think the biggest take-away for me is the way in which this book has prompted me to re-think the concept of martyrdom. Regulars to the blog will know that I’ve commented repeatedly that there’s no place for martyrdom in Paganism. I’ve previously thought about martyrdom as something that is done to a person, that it is about violence and oppression, and not something to celebrate. There is a martyrdom in this story that entirely defied my expectations and assumptions. The power of the character in question to choose her path, to face her mortality and pain to transform herself is fascinating. For a while there, I was thinking instead about the cruelty inherent in this kind of religion, but as the story plays out, it becomes clear that this martyrdom is a lot more like Odin hanging in the world tree than ever it is the story of a victim. And it struck me that perhaps what makes martyrdom significant is not the horrible death aspect, but the way in which the person on the receiving end refuses to have their spirit broken by it.

The Bastard of St Genevra should be out on the 30th May, you can find out more on the author’s website – https://dianegallagherwritings.com/published-works/novels/the-bastard-of-saint-genevra/

No martyrdom in Druidry?

I have on a number of occasions described Druidry as a tradition which does not reward or encourage martyrdom. There are no tales of Druid martyrs, and there is no encouragement to suffer. Except…

I’ve also been thinking lately about how many Celtic stories feature heroic death. Heroism was celebrated in many of our ancestral cultures – the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were big on it too. Proper heroes risk death, for a cause, for the tribe, for glory, to uphold their honour… and may well encounter it.

Martyrdom and heroism both work on the same basic principle that acting well and upholding your beliefs regardless of the risk or cost, is more important that whether you suffer or die. We tend to see martyrdom in religious terms and heroism as more worldly, but when your spiritual path doesn’t separate the spiritual from the physical, that division isn’t worth much. Heroism suggests personal glory, martyrdom is supposed to be more self effacing… except I think we know that doesn’t hold up because religions with martyrdom elements celebrate their martyrs.

It’s not even clarified by the issue of death – yes, martyrs normally die for the cause, but the Celts invented the White Martyrdom – leaving your ancestral community for the church, which was such a huge personal sacrifice that it counted as a form of martyrdom.

In fact, regardless of which term you favour, ‘sacrifice’ or the willingness to be sacrificed is definitely part of the deal.

‘Martyr’ can be flung as an insult where ‘hero’ lends itself far less. Calling someone a martyr can imply needless suffering, a form of attention seeking, smugness, holier than thou attitudes and other less desirable things. To make ‘hero’ an insult depends on using it ironically, and does not come so easily, I find.

Both are social constructs. If no one is looking who cares as you bleed to death, you will be neither hero, nor martyr, just corpse.

I realise that I would like to be heroic. I would like to do potent, risky things for good causes. I would gladly risk my life to protect others, or to make the world a better place, but there’s just not much call for that where I am. I know other parts of the world could use heroes, but my lack of language skill, physical prowess and political insight are something of a barrier. Dying uselessly for a cause has never seems that appealing. And so, unable to express anything heroic, I step up to things that look a lot more like martyrdom. Things that come into my life as slow exercises in being stripped of skin and bled dry. It’s not proper martyrdom, because there is no one to celebrate it, the way (for example) the quiet martyrdom of many mothers of small children goes unnoticed. The martyrdom of those who go without in small ways so that others can have what they need.

It might, on the whole, be a lot easier for me if Druidry did offer a martyrdom tradition that would allow me to feel differently about what I end up doing. The concept of martyrdom can, at least, convey a degree of dignity and nobility to situations that are otherwise entirely devoid of those things.

No Sacrifice

I don’t do sacrifice. I have no doubt that many of our pagan ancestors, druids included, sacrificed both creatures and humans to the gods. They did so to avoid divine wrath, and to seek good fortune. Sometimes perhaps also for divination. Theirs was a different world to ours. Sacrifice in that sense is about doing something to get what you want. Then along came Christianity and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, a new consciousness in which we don’t kill people to please god (unless it’s a holy war, or they are heretics or pagans…). Sacrifice is of the self in that context. It becomes martyrdom and sainthood. We give our lives for our faith. Ideally in painful and horrible ways.

I’m not interested in killing anything and I’m not interested in martyrdom. I am also absolutely convinced that all historical ‘sacrifice’ (Jesus aside, he may be a special case) was to get something for the self. Be that good luck for a voyage, or the pleasure of knowing yourself to be on the way to sainthood. If we’re calling it sacrifice, we do probably, at some level, expect to get something for it. If we really thought a deity wanted us to do something of no benefit to ourselves, or the world, where the only gain would be that we have suffered for the deity – this is not a God I want anything to do with. To do something, or be asked to do something that is good in some way, should never be thought of as sacrifice, as I see it.

I recall Bobcat saying, or writing that sacrifice should hurt. If we’re doing it for ourselves in some way, it’s not sacrifice. What she also directs people towards, is the sacrifice of ignorance. It is the only one worth doing, and it can hurt. However, we benefit when we do this. Maybe we do give up some of the blind comforts and mindless distractions of modern life, the ease of apathy. What we get is a real life in a real world, where we are able to act, where what we do counts for something. What feels like pain and a hair shirt becomes the best of who we are. That’s not really sacrifice I think, it’s just the cost of learning. If there is a cost/benefit, sacrifice is not the right word.

The burden of sacrifice is also a thing to consider. If we give everything, nobly, self sacrificing for spouse, child, queen and country or whatever we martyr ourselves for, what are we putting on them? How much pressure and expectation does that create? How much requirement to make good, to justify? Don’t do this one lightly.

I’d be delighted if the idea of sacrifice fell out of pagan language altogether. I don’t think it’s helpful. It does more to mislead than to assist us. We do need to let go of our ignorance and all that it allows us to blindly, carelessly do. That’s a process, one to work on every day, and there is no end to it. Let’s not call that a sacrifice, let’s call that learning to be present, happy, fulfilled in the world. Let’s call it entering into conscious relationship with everything. Presenting spirituality as pain, is not going to encourage many people to start living more spiritual lives. Probably the opposite.

More than anything, what we need to do, is learn to love. When actions are born of love, they flow naturally. When we are steeped in honour, keenly alert to justice and compassion, when we are open to loving what we encounter and treating it with care and respect, doing the right things is not monstrously difficult. Often, it becomes a no-brainer. If we think we’re being noble and self sacrificing in what we do, it’s probably a sign that we’re doing what we think we ought to do, not what we feel is right. The more consciously we’re trying to do the right thing, the more it suggests that we’re fighting some inner impulse to go the other way. Now, when a person is steeped in all the dispassionate, consumerist, soulless vices of normal life, that may indeed be a struggle. It may seem that giving up the hours before the telly, the total car dependence, and all other mind eaters and planet killers, is hellish. It may feel like sacrifice. But it isn’t. For as long as we feel like we’re depriving ourselves for our religion, we live in constant risk of lapsing back into old habits of doing and thinking. The answer is not spiritual flagellation, or bigging up the idea of how much we’re doing for the gods. The answer is love.

Love yourself, and you will not want to fill your body with rubbish or your mind with desensitizing, noxious crap. Love your community and you won’t turn a blind eye to what others need, it will become a pleasure to help. Love your planet and it will be natural, and easy to try and take care of it. Love the sky, the plants and birds, the creatures. Love the oceans. Love your children, your grandchildren, love ten generations on as yet unborn and love your ancestors. Love the inevitability of death and the cycles of living. Love the process of aging and the way nature manifests in your body. Love being alive. Do what comes from this.