The Ear is Off the King: Polytheism, Magic, and Sovereignty
The following is an excerpt from issue 4 of Stone, Root, and Bone, written by myself and published by Hagstone Publishing in August of 2020. Reprinted with permission. While Hagstone Publishing is currently on indefinite hiatus, the entire issue can be purchased on Etsy.
Every year August is the hardest month for me. It triggers a loneliness and anxiety leftover from a childhood of summertime isolation with an unstable and unsafe parent, and a longing for the changes that come with September’s shortened days and cooling nights. Here in my adopted home of Oregon, August is a blazing month with barely a drop of rain. The grass yellows and withers, the clay soil grows hard as bricks underfoot, and I wilt in the heat of the day. The sun, which during the rest of the year feels like a benevolent God, in August feels like a monster sucking life from the Land.
This year we are entering August amidst a global pandemic and in the United States a wave of protest over police brutality is being met with ever-escalating violence from the police, with unidentified federal officers tear-gassing crowds of peaceful protestors and kidnapping citizens off the street in the dead of night. Across the world, fear has us in its grip, and it feels even more than usual like the world is on fire. We’re burning up under the baleful eye of unjust rulers who abuse their power, their people, and the Land with impunity. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, as we tilt toward the dark half of the year, I feel real fear for the hard days to come.
I’ve been taking a deep dive into ancient Irish lore, reading the tales of Gods and the sídhe with fascination and a prickling sense of urgency. Over and over I am finding passages that speak of Gods who are preoccupied with justice and right sovereignty. The old Gods of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, had high standards for their leaders. Kings must be without blemish: a king who lost a body part also lost his throne. While this flawlessness was a literal, physical flawlessness, I believe it was also symbolic of an even deeper kind of perfection, a perfection of justice and right relationship with the Land and the Otherworld. The Gods and the people alike were expected to abide by this standard.
So when, in the Cath Maige Tuired, a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann lost his throne by “my own injustice and arrogance. I deprived them of their valuables and possessions and their own food,” and went to his father for warriors to take the land, his father told him “You ought not to gain it by injustice if you do not gain it by justice.”1
And when, in The Battle of Mag Mucrama, on the side of a fairy hill on Samhain night, the human king, Ailill, raped Áine, daughter of a fairy king, she bit off his ear and un-kinged him saying:
“You have been wicked to me … violating me and slaying my father. I will cause great injury to you for it. I will leave no property in your possession when we part.”
In disfiguring Ailill, Áine gained more than revenge: she marked him to show his people what he had hidden from them thus far with his appearance of physical wholeness: she showed them he was cruel, violent, and unfit to rule. And because of this unfitness he lost everything.
Now, in 2020, the ear is off the king. The unfitness of our rulers is blatantly evident in the violence of the police and the federal government against its own citizens; in the devastation they have wrought on the Land; in the way the people suffer in poverty, oppression, imprisonment, and illness around the world. Our rulers have violated the sacred pact between the sovereign and the Land, between the sovereign and the Otherworld, between the sovereign and the people, and the result is worldwide devastation. To deny this truth now is to cling to a delusion so deep it must surely crack the psyche of anyone who embraces it. Denial has already broken much of the world.
Truth matters to the Gods, the spirits, and the Land. For centuries our rulers, arm in arm with the institution of the church, have urged us to forget this truth. It’s time for us to remember. In whatever way we are called to speak our truth and fight this fight – and I believe the ways to do so are many – let’s also remember the powers we serve care about justice and right rulership. Let’s remember our ancestors cared about their descendants. Let’s remember the Land has consciousness and agency as surely as humans do. Let us call on the powers we know and trust to aid us in the work of reviving justice. The time of insisting politics are not spiritual is over. The time of whitewashing the world with “love and light” because we don’t want to “bring our vibrations down” is over. People are literally dying. The Land is literally dying. If we refuse to call the considerable powers of our Gods, spirits, and ancestors into the struggle, we will continue to be crushed by regimes with no qualms about twisting their own religion into a corrupt tool that will soon destroy the world.
We stand on the knife blade of change: changing seasons, changing climate, changing world. We can call on the Gods who have tapped us on the shoulder and drawn us into their dance for help. We can call on the ancestors for help. We can call on the Land to lend strength to our work on Her behalf. We can ask the spirits with whom we have relationships to inspire and empower us to create something better while we still have a chance.
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