Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology


Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.


Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.


Time to get started

The Coming of Bride by John Duncan 1917
The Coming of Bride by John Duncan (1917)

If you’ve got any projects you’ve been planning to begin, or changes to make, this is the time to (as Shia LeBeouf would say) DOOOO IT!!!

Specifically, now through Wednesday, 3 February. Here’s why:

  • Today (1 Feb) is the feast day of St. Brigid. Some people regard this as a holy day of the putative goddess Brighid (for whom there is no textual evidence but whatever) and celebrate Imbolc now. Whether you regard her as a saint or goddess, Brigid (meaning “eminence”, “high place”) seems to be a pretty good person to have on your side. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, the nuns at her abbey in Kildare (“Church of the Oak”), known as “daughters of fire,” guarded a sacred flame. Keep that in mind because you will see a pattern…
  • Tomorrow (2 Feb) is Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of Mary, when in Christian mythology, Jesus was first taken out of the home and presented at the temple. Socially this is significant in two ways: first, Mary was cleansed of her birthing impurity (it ain’t fair, but we’re talking about ancient Hebrew society here, so don’t look for a vag-positive worldview) and could return to regular public worship, and Jesus officially became a person and a member of society. The theme is coming forth into the light. And of course, Candlemas refers to the lighting of candles which is a celebration of the return of light.
  • Tomorrow is also Groundhog Day here in the US. For those of you not familiar with this silly ritual, it is sortilege by rodent. If the ceremonial groundhog, christened Punxsutawney Phil, sees his shadow when he comes out of his burrow (i.e., if it is sunny), there will be six more weeks of cold weather.
  • Wednesday, 3 February, is Imbolc proper. Imbolc is the “cross-quarter” day between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and thus the first day of spring according to the solar calendar. (It is usually ceremonially observed on the 1st or 2nd of February, but this year it is, in fact, the 3rd.) Beyond that we don’t really know anything about it historically, so you can get creative. Only-slightly-tangential sidebar: Have you noticed how the solstices are regarded as the middle of their respective seasons–Midsummer, Midwinter–but the equinoxes are treated as the beginning of their seasons? That makes no sense. The solstices and equinoxes evenly divide the year, so if a solstice is in the middle of a season then an equinox is also in the middle. That means that March 21/22 is NOT the beginning of spring but the middle of spring–which certainly corresponds better to what one can observe going on in nature and on the farm at that time. Ergo the cross-quarter days are more properly treated as the beginnings of the seasons. And indeed, according to folklore that is exactly what they were in the British Isles in the old days. So, Imbolc is the beginning of spring, huzzah! You don’t need the calendar to tell you that–there are buds on the trees, the days are getting noticeably longer, it’s very muddy, dog poop has re-emerged where snow is melting, the geese are returning, the sap has started running, and the ewes (they say) are beginning to lactate (March 21 the beginning of spring my ass…arglebargle)…though it’s not exactly getting warmer around here, as it never really got cold to begin with this winter.
  • Also on Wednesday, the space weather will be good: The Sun in Aquarius sextiles Saturn in Sagittarius, putting them in mutual reception, which is nice because they will be getting along well. That makes it a good day for implementing new structures, patterns, routines, and boundaries. (Doubly nice for me, Saturn is finally moving off my personal Neptune. Whew!) Wednesday is the planetary day of Mercury and sacred to Hermes, a god of magic, so arguably a great time for divination or magic. Things start to get astrologically hairy again on Friday, so get while the gettin’s good.
  • Also also on Wednesday is the Japanese festival of Setsubun or Risshun, the day before the official first day of spring (as they currently calculate it; formerly the last day of the old year/winter). It is another purification day. Traditionally, roasted soybeans were thrown out the door, making a tremendous rattle as they hit the wooden porches that surround old-style Japanese houses, and people yell, “Oni wa…soto! Fuku wa…uchi!” (“Demons out! Good luck in!”). People still throw beans, they probably just don’t make quite the same apotropaically-potent racket. (Here is someone after my own heart, a “British Shinto-Pagan”, writing about “Japan’s Imbolc”.)
  • Also there is a rare quintet of planets visible before dawn, the “spear-bearers” heralding the return of the sun (this also from the Coppock link above), making it an extra juicy and powerful sun. These are Mercury (finally out of his retrograde and returning from the underworld), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is the first time all 5 planets have been visible at the same time since 2005.
  • Other things happening this month: February derives from the Latin meaning to purify. It refers to the purification rituals held at Lupercalia during the February full moon (that will be on the 22nd by our calendar). The 8th is the Chinese New Year, which is to say the traditional lunar new year in East Asia, beginning the year of the Fire Monkey (which sounds terrifying to me, but there’s a hint of light again). February 13 is the feast of St. Modomnoc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping–they could use our help. I will be taking a beekeeping-for-beginners class that day–someone in our local beekeeper’s association has got their finger on the saintly pulse, I see. I guess some people are into the feast of St. Valentine, but that day has been so tarted up and divorced from real love that, following Gordon, I have chosen to celebrate St. Dwynwen instead (her day is 25 January).

Seriously guys, there is so much juju in the air right now, and it’s all ripe for clearing out the old and bringing in the new. It is also a time, as Austin Coppock mentions in his weekly forecast to which I linked above, when the sun seems to take on a very feminine energy. Those of us familiar with the Classical, reconstructed Celtic, and Egyptian pantheons are accustomed to thinking of the sun as a distinctly masculine presence, but it’s by no means universal and I for one really feel the feminine sun this year.

I’m taking this opportunity to resume in earnest the magical studies that dropped off around the time my mom was dying. My autumn and winter were consumed by that event and its fallout, so now I am rejoining the world of the living (at least to the extent that I ever do). Things are getting rolling here at Firefly Farm too, as I expect to be getting a few laying hens as soon as I can convert one of our outbuildings into a coop, starting a compost pile, and ordering seeds. It would help if I had a job to fund the necessary supplies, but hopefully this month will see a new beginning for my income too. Bees will likely have to wait till next year, but you never know.

Let’s get to work!