I have been Heathen for roughly twenty years and a northern tradition shaman for a little less than half that time. I’ve walked the warrior’s path for even longer than all of that combined and I think it’s safe to say, that my spirituality and spiritual Work have taken some pretty unexpected turns throughout my lifetime. You’d think I’d be used to that by now but every so often (probably more often than I’m willing to admit), the Gods and ancestors catch me by surprise. That happened just a few months ago with Scathach.
Scathach is an interesting figure in Celtic lore. Her name means ‘she who strikes fear,’ (or “the Shadowy One’) and she was one of the most fearsome and renowned warriors and teachers of warrior-craft in all of Celtic legend. Most of her story is told in the Ulster Cycle, one of the great collections of heroic stories in Irish lore. Here, she was called ‘foster mother to warriors’ and as such, Scathach was responsible for training many of the greatest of Celtic warriors. A roster of her students reads like a ‘who’s who’ of Celtic heroes, including Cu Chulainn. In addition to being a teacher and pretty much undefeatable warrior, she was also a powerful diviner and seer. She was said to have a stronghold on the Isle of Skye which could only be reached by nearly impossible feats of physical courage and acumen. Obviously, she didn’t want to deal with any but the best and most committed of students (and can any teacher blame her?)! She was a teacher of military champions and held her students to very high standards. Scathach had a daughter Uathach, also a warrior, (who had an affair with Cu Chulainn—with her mother’s blessings) and a rival, who may have been her sister, named Aoife. As payment for his training, Cu Chulainn defeats Aoife in battle and forces her to make peace (and later beds her to produce a son Conlaoch—though that’s another tale in and of itself). Beyond that, I don’t believe we know very much more. For years, Scathach flitted in and out of my devotional awareness in ways that puzzled me, occasionally perturbed me, and almost always inspired me. Recently she has claimed a definite place in my spiritual life in ways that have proven most enlightening.
For as many years as I have known about her, I wasn’t sure whether Scathach was a Goddess, a heroic ancestor, a demi-Deity or something in between. I have heard it speculated by a respected colleague that she was a representative of a War Goddess, (likely the Morrigan) and as such, a servant or reflection of the War Goddess she served. That makes sense to me though there are many scholars who would disagree. Either way, it is clear that she was powerful and given both respect and honor during her lifetime. Furthermore, in pre-Christian Celtic religions, as in most other indigenous religions, honoring the ancestors was important. It was actively done and that also very likely included special cultus for honoring tribal heroes (like Cu Chulainn). Granted, we don’t know for certain that the Celts had this, but a compelling argument could be made in favor of it. At least I think so and it makes sense to me that Scathach would have been honored as just such a hero. Frankly, my own feeling today is that Deity or ancestor, whether she had such a cultus in the past or not, she is deserving of honor and respect today. Everything else really does become moot, at least for me.
All of that being said (or, well, written), I wasn’t really prepared to have her come calling again. Perhaps I should have been. I have a tiny bit of Scottish blood courtesy of my maternal line and the past two years I’ve been called more and more to ancestor work. Moreover, I walk a warrior’s path and that informs my approach to every single bit of work that I do and every personal decision that I make. I began my spiritual work by serving a bevy of War Goddesses, for all that I now belong to Odin and on occasion, I honor Them still (and Odin is no stranger to the arts of war). Beyond that, a huge part of my work as a shaman and a priest has involved helping people to learn to honor their dead effectively and to get right with their dead (or, as I and other colleagues might put it: to get their ancestral houses in order). Part of having one’s ancestral house in order involves having one’s “house of war” in order too. So perhaps I really shouldn’t’ have been all that surprised to have a master warrior come calling to show me how to do just that well.
As I’ve said before in various articles, we are engaged in a war. It’s not a war with guns and bombs and armaments. There are no armies massed against borders, or diplomatic envoys battling with heads of state. Yet we are in a war nonetheless, a war of reclaiming, restoring, restructuring traditions once violently sundered. We’re in a war of ideas and attitudes, a war in which we ourselves are the worst of all enemies. (1) We are fighting, whether we realize it or not to turn the tide of a terrible flood that once destroyed and washed away our traditions leaving us with nothing but fragments, crumbs, and scattered, misleading references in documents of “lore” that we’ve enshrined as holy despite the fact that they were written by the monotheistic victors. We’ve been so disconnected from our indigenous ways that the average person doesn’t even realize we had indigenous ways once upon a time. And yet, let’s ask ourselves: how well has monotheism worked for us? How balanced is our world? How healthy?
There’s been a real push lately from our collective ancestors. An awful lot of us who do this work as specialists (your shamans, your spiritworkers, your mystics, your dedicated ancestor workers) have noticed this. They want to be honored. They want to be recognized. Moreover they want us to restore and rebuild what some of our ancestors trashed (by converting from polytheism to monotheism, or by abandoning ancestral obligations). They want us to recognize that there was never anything wrong with our indigenous traditions. They didn’t need to be fixed. We didn’t need to evolve. We certainly didn’t need monotheism and we didn’t need to abandon our ancient contracts with the Gods, the land, and the spirits for some nebulous sense of modernity and “progress.” We can have all the progress we want while living in balanced respect with the various Powers that fill our world.
Our dead can help us with that. Many of them were living inheritors of those very traditions we’re struggling now to unearth. There is power in honoring the dead: they are our roots. It’s not just our own dead that we should be honoring either. For those of us who are diviners, shamans, priests, warriors, mystics, or even craftsmen (another holy and oft neglected job), we need to be honoring those of our spiritual lineage. For example: as a diviner, I am one person, the inheritor of a long line of men and women who engaged in this sacred work to honor their Gods, serve their communities, and further their craft. They have wisdom and knowledge that I can draw upon. They are my lineage as a diviner. Those of us engaged in this process of restoration are doing warrior’s work. The weapons used have changed, but the reality of battle has not. We are engaged in warrior’s work and we would do well to call upon the warriors in our ancestry, and in our various spiritual lineages for help.
Perhaps that is why Scathach recently spoke for me. I think that this was her first and perhaps most important lesson. This is the work that I have committed to doing and I need all the help I can get! If our regular ancestors can help us, what can our heroic ancestors do -those whose deeds are larger than life, whose skill and power and knowledge was larger than life? I believe our society and world is so grievously out of balance that we need our warrior-dead more than ever before. We need all the help we can get in order to restore balance and that process is going to take both sides of the equation – living and dead—working in tandem. So I honor Scathach. I speak for the warrior dead, the military dead, and I pour out offerings to my own.
My intent, though I’ve no idea exactly how to accomplish this, is to do whatever I can to revive her cultus. Now honoring an elevated ancestor like Scathach (or Cu Chulainn for that matter) is not something that I’ve done before. I know there’s been a great deal of talk about hero cultus on the Roman Paganism and Hellenismos fronts but it hasn’t happened really within Heathenry yet. Not to mention, I’m not a Celtic Pagan so culturally I’m several steps away from even approaching what would have been done before the arrival of Christianity to Celtic shores. Still, when I finally discerned what she wanted from me, I added a large section for her to my ancestral shrine, which I maintain daily. She promptly started teaching me about the importance of honoring one’s spiritual lineages. That was lesson two. Lesson three was a bit more insidious. I found myself going to the gym six days a week, working out with a trainer twice a week, as well as eating much more healthily and it all happened quite organically. I didn’t even realize what a change had been effected in my life until several weeks into the process. She is a warrior teacher. It makes sense that those committed to honoring her would also be expected to honor their physical bodies by working toward better health and strength. She seems to value discipline, and that starts with the discipline to treat oneself and one’s body right. Sometimes, we must carry the wisdom of our Gods in our flesh, manifest it in the way that we treat ourselves before tumbling forward to transform our world. It all starts with discipline.
In fact, I think that has been her biggest gift to date for me: honing a warrior’s discipline. I value discipline greatly. It is a thing that I strive for in almost every area of my life, but while I’m immensely disciplined in my studies and my work, I find that I sometimes lack the requisite control in interpersonal settings. She grants no quarter. She reminded me, forcefully, of a lesson I had learned long ago: I am responsible for every single word I speak, action I take, and action I choose not to take. I am responsible for everything in my world. No excuses. That includes not allowing exasperation or irritation to guide my actions. Victory comes control, control through discipline, discipline through hard, ongoing, mindful work. That is the warrior’s way. No excuses.
This understanding of duty and discipline are important for far more than just those who happen to be warriors. As a teacher, one of the things that I have been tasked with teaching is the importance of discipline, hierarchy, protocol, and seeking an understanding and knowing about one’s place in the structure of things; where we each fit in the weave of the grand tapestry that we all move through. How can you know who to go to for wisdom and counsel if you don’t know who is above you? How can you know whom it is your obligation and duty to protect, or to whom you may turn for protection and help, if you do not have a sense of this structure? There is no value judgment there. There is only balance, respect, and commitment to excellence. These are lessons that should come easily to a warrior, but Scathach’s lessons in these areas are for all who would be accountable agents in this world, or any other.
Sadly, our world, however, often has difficulty receiving these lessons. We would prefer to indulge in feel-good metaphysics, and insist on egalitarianism even with our Gods, and deny the fact that hierarchy is a natural and necessary state. We are taught to be wary of hierarchy and distrust any who claim a place within it, in some misguided and misunderstood application of the progressive social philosophies for which the heroes of the civil rights movement bled and died. We don’t want to hear that there we may have spiritual obligations. We don’t want to think about duty. Instead, we ignore the lessons of our surviving indigenous communities, which understand organically that everyone has a place and essential purpose in favor of contemporary politically correct pabulum. We pretend our post-post modern way of doing things actually works.
I believe Scathach offers to those who understand these ways the patience and fortitude to help others in restoring these foundational lessons. I honor her and I ask her guidance that I may become a master teacher, that I may learn to present the uncomfortable lessons in ways my students and those who come to me can well and truly hear. She who was master of the javelin and spear, let my words fly like spears to the heart of their mark, even when my students do not wish to hear. I pray that her teaching will gird me well for this battle. I pray also that others will rise as allies in this, heeding the teachings of this courageous warrior, seer, and teacher. Her lessons are vital ones for each and every one of us engaged in reconstructing and restoring our ancestral ways. We all lost something very precious in the wake of monotheism and it’s time to get that back. With that work I pray for aid in the restoration of duty, discipline, and social structuring that are vital for the survival of any truly connected world. Through embrace a natural and balanced social order, and finding one’s valuable and empowered place within it, each person in a given community will find greater access to the resources required to fulfill their divine purposes in this life. (2) Let us all, wherever we hail from, wherever our ancestors hailed from, whichever of our many lost ways we are struggling to resurrect, honor them and take up again the mantle of responsibility that they once, very long ago, maintained with the land, with the Gods, with their own honored dead. (3)
Those were Scathach’s lessons for me. I suspect I have only scratched the surface of what she has to teach. I know that even now, only a few months into honoring her regularly, my relationship with my warrior dead has deepened, my concept of how one ought to live out one’s commitments as a warrior has evolved, and my commitment to my own spiritual work has been renewed. We’re not alone in what we do. We have more support than we could ever dream of if only we reach out and ask for it.
For those of you wondering how I began honoring her in concrete terms, I set up a small shrine. I have no image of her, so I put out a corvid feather (for I associate crows and ravens with Celtic War Goddesses, especially the Morrigan), two stones from the Isle of Skye, kindly gifted to me by a Celtic Pagan, and a knife. It is a beautiful knife, a black single edged gem honed to be razor sharp. It is a knife that I proudly wear in my many ritual roles, including that of blotere or sacrificial priest. It is a weapon, a warrior’s knife. She asked that I blood myself with it and gladly I did and now it has a place of honor as a sign of my commitment toward those lessons that she would have me learn and toward her and my warrior dead. There is an offering bowl and it never goes empty. Beyond that, every time I teach, and every single time I go to the gym or dojo, I do so as an offering to her. It is simple but sometimes the biggest graces grow out of the simplest of things.
So, I’m not a Celtic Pagan or Reconstructionist. While I honor the Morrigan on occasion, I really have little affinity with any of the Celtic Gods when it comes to my personal devotions. I’m Heathen. I belong to Odin. But I honor Scathach and with her all my warrior dead.
May we walk in the footsteps of our honored dead.
May we walk with courage, respect, and honor.
May our path be one of integrity.
May our warrior dead inspire us.
May we honor Scathach well,
and perhaps partake of her wisdom.
Hail to our honored dead.
To the War Goddesses I say hail.
Hail to our wise warrior teacher.
I honor Scathach,
and all the lessons she may teach.
2) My thanks to Andrew Carlson for his invaluable assistance in hashing this all out.
3) This is in no way intended to be taken as a support for any type of nationalism or any racist agenda. Those things are the absolute antithesis of this wisdom. It would never even have occurred to me that someone might read such garbage into the idea of traditional building and ancestor work, but the point was raised to my surprise by one of my proof-readers so I want to address it here. As a society we bear many, many grievous wounds to our collective psyche. We no longer know what positive, healthy hierarchy looks like. We have precious few contemporary models. We have only the horrific aftermath of genocide and colonialism, racism, slavery, and social oppression to inform our views. Part of the power of ancestor work is that through their collective experience, experience that reaches back farther than we can even imagine, we are able to tap into ancient collective ancestral remembrances. We are able to tap into a time before we sustained such terrible cultural injuries. That is not to say that our ancestors lived in a golden age. They didn’t. They struggled and fought just like we do today and their world was also flawed, but somewhere they had a piece or two of the social ‘medicine’ that we’re lacking. I believe that piece lay deeply, crucially, integrally entwined in their polytheism and animism. Someone engaging in racism, Nazism, or any of that social crap is perverting the message and frankly, shaming their ancestors instead of honoring them. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.
Soon (if not by the time this article goes to press), I will be sponsoring a virtual shrine to Scathach and our warrior dead. It is a very small thing, but a place where people will be able to go and light virtual candles, make offerings, etc. So keep an eye out on my blog for updates. I’ll be sure to post when the shrine goes live.
For Wiccans out there, there’s also Kerr Cuhulain’s “Order of Scathach”
One nice way to honor your warrior dead is to donate to an organization that supports our veterans today. If your ancestors hadn’t put their own lives on the line, taking up arms to defend their families, villages, and tribes you might just not be here today. It’s a sobering thought and one that demands a little respect. There are many military and veterans’ organizations to which one can donate out there, but (writing from the US) I like DAV and Fisher House.
For information on Celtic Paganism:
[Galina Krasskova is an ardent devotee of Odin and has been a priest since 1995. She is a Northern Tradition Shaman, whose primary focus is encouraging and developing a tradition of Heathen devotional work. She is the author of several books including Exploring the Northern Tradition; The Whisperings of Woden; and Sigyn: Our Lady of the Staying Power. Krasskova is currently at work on a devotional for Kali (she owes Her a debt). She holds a diploma in interfaith ministry, a Masters degree in religious studies and lectures frequently throughout the US. She may be contacted here.]