Renewing the Pact
“Given the crisis the world presently faces, the most potent form of offering may be action in the world: mutual aid and solidarity, direct action against injustice or climate change, and so on. The Renewal of the Pact will require more than symbolism.”
Restoring the Friendship Between Gods and Humans
This is the second in a series of essays on magical-religious practices for radical pagans in the Celtic tradition. The purpose of these practices is to restore the broken pact of friendship between humanity and the gods, committing us to the protection of the Three Realms of Land, Sea, and Sky.
There was a wondrous king over the Tuatha Dé in Ireland, the Dagda by name. Great was his power, even over the sons of Mil after they had seized the land. For the Tuatha Dé blighted the grain and the milk of the sons of Mil until they made a treaty with the Dagda. Thereafter they preserved their grain and their milk for them.
- From “The Taking of the Sid/ De Gabáil in t-Sída” in the Book of Leinster, translated by John Carey
The source of all the environmental devastation, social injustice, and personal despair of our society is alienation: alienation from our own bodies, from other human beings, and from the physical world. To restore these connections, to repair the web of our relationships, is to renew the broken treaty of friendship or Cairdes between humans and the spiritual powers of the world we live in.
In Irish lore, the Dagda or “good god” is a complex figure: a crude and even buffoonish giant wearing a short tunic and carrying a mighty club, the Dagda is also a god of Druidry, using his magic harp to set the seasons in order. According to the Coir Anmann or Fitness of Names, the Dagda is both a god of magic who has “the perfection of the heathen science” and a god of nature who controls the weather and the fertility of the crops:
He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.
There are many layers of meaning to the myths of the Dagda, but the aspect that concerns us here is this duality of spiritual wisdom and gross, exaggerated physicality. In the Second Battle of Moytura, the Dagda consumes an immense amount of porridge at the Fomorian encampment, staggers away with a bloated belly, then has sex with a daughter of the Fomorian king. This is not a deity of “denial of the flesh.”
Many centuries later, when the Milesians invaded and drove the Tuatha Dé Danann into the Sídh or Fairy Mounds, the Dagda blighted the crops with his power until the Pact was made.
The story of the Milesian invasion of Ireland is usually read as a tale about the coming of the Gaelic Celts and the displacement of older peoples, but the archeological record does not support the idea that ancient Ireland became Celtic through any large invasion or migration. Great myths can be read in more than one way, and another way to read this myth is as a story of how the human race arose on earth.
When the Milesians first come to Ireland, the gods and spiritual powers oppose them mightily – yet these early humans are almost godlike themselves, especially their bard and druid Amergin. Despite his use of magic to aid his own tribe against the gods, Amergin addresses the gods respectfully and deals with them fairly. He agrees to name the island of Ireland after the goddesses of the Land (Eriu, Banba, and Fodla) thus securing their consent to the human presence. However, Amergin must agree to take the Milesian fleet beyond the ninth wave of the sea before attempting a landing, at which point the gods and spirits send a magic wind that nearly destroys the entire fleet.
Amergin’s arrogant and violent brother Donn announces his intention to put everyone then in Ireland to the sword – wiping out the spiritual powers and creating a purely human world. A magical wind casts Donn into the sea and kills him, after which he becomes the Irish god of the dead. Amergin invokes the Land to accept the presence of humanity, and the Milesian fleet successfully lands.
Amergin ultimately prevails, and humanity takes the surface of the earth while the gods and spirits take the Sídh or fairy mounds. The Dagda then blights the milk and crops of the invading humans, until they agree to a Pact of friendship. From that point on, he protects their crops and herds.
I read the story of the Milesian invasion as a story of alienation and how to heal it, especially the alienation that comes from denial of the physical, the desire to conquer and kill, and the desire to take everything for your own. These urges are part of our inheritance, but so is the possibility of another way of life.
Although humans have made a place for themselves and caused much destruction in the process, it is still possible for us to heal the wounds we have dealt and to create a new Pact of friendship with the spiritual powers. As the Dagda teaches, “spiritual” in this context is not the opposite of the physical. Instead, it is the latent power and wisdom that emerges from full engagement with the real, living, physical world. The first step in this process is to reconnect with the spirits through offerings of food and drink.
The Pact between humanity and the otherworld is called a “treaty of friendship,” so I think of offerings as gifts to a friend. The simplest way to leave an offering is to prepare an extra plate of food and serving of drink when you are preparing an important meal, as if inviting the spirits to share dinner with you. Just as it would not be customary to eat your guest’s dinner, it is not traditional to eat or drink the offering. Of course, as in any friendship, there is an element of reciprocity. Before the Milesians made the treaty, the Dagda blighted their crops and milk. Once the treaty was concluded, he protected them.
In Celtic cosmology, the world is conceived of as Three Realms: the Sky, the Land, and the Sea. The Sky is the celestial realm, the Land is the surface of the earth, and the Sea is the watery underworld or chthonic realm. Many practices are directed at one realm specifically, and some forms of magic are more appropriate for one realm than another – for example, curses and baneful magic are traditionally chthonic, so offerings to the Sea realm would be most appropriate in that situation.
When leaving offerings, you can direct them toward a particular realm in various ways. For instance, you can make a Sea offering by pouring a libation into a body of water, or by leaving food in a pit in the ground. You can make a Land offering by leaving a bowl of milk out on your doorstep. You can make a Sky offering by burning a stick of incense or cooking food in an outdoor fire.
If you want to make a single offering for all the different kinds of spirits, the easiest way to do it is to combine all three types of symbolism. For instance, you can burn a stick of incense on your altar next to a plate of buttered scones and a bowl of water, milk or ale. This offering will honor the gods and spirits of all three realms.
Given the crisis the world presently faces, the most potent form of offering may be action in the world: mutual aid and solidarity, direct action against injustice or climate change, and so on. The Renewal of the Pact will require more than symbolism.
The Fire Festivals
As people begin to realize the need for radical changes in the way we live and relate to the Three Realms of Land, Sea, and Sky, the old Celtic fire festivals have been coming back into popularity:
Samhain (November 1)- The holiest day in the Celtic calendar. A celebration of the ancestors and the dead. Also associated with the war between the giants and the gods. On the night before Samhain, the barriers between our own world and the spirit world are relaxed. The beginning of the wintery or dark half of the year. A good day for divinations and communing with the ancestors.
Imbolc (February 1)- The holy day of the goddess Brigid, who visits every home on the night before Imbolc to give her blessings and bring back the spring. As Brigid is strongly associated with social justice and hospitality, this would be a good day for acts of mutual aid and solidarity.
Bealtaine (May 1)- A celebration of light, life, prosperity and fertility. The beginning of the summery or light half of the year. The day when the gods first descended to earth. Also May Day, a traditional celebration of working class struggle.
Lunasa (August 1)- The holy day of the god Lugh and of earth goddesses such as his foster mother Tailtiu. A “first fruits” or early harvest festival.
The ancient Irish may also have celebrated midsummer and midwinter, although this is less certain. Midsummer seems to have been sacred to the fairy queen Aine and to Manannán mac Lir. The monument of Newgrange is aligned to the winter solstice, so midwinter could be seen as sacred to Óengus because he is the fairy king of Newgrange. There is no evidence of any equinox celebration.
The basic components of a fire festival include:
1- The Feast: a special meal of some kind, the best you can manage. You can hold this on your own or invite company, but “the more the merrier” definitely applies.
2- The Offering: the feast is ritually shared with the appropriate spirits by leaving a full plate of food as an offering.
3- The Blessing: sain or purify everyone present with fiery water, then do the same with the four corners of the house, starting with the east and moving sunwise.
4- Storytelling: read or retell appropriate myths from Irish lore.
5- The Fire: at Imbolc, this was traditionally a hearthfire but at the other holy days a large bonfire. Depending on your circumstances, you can use a candle, a fireplace, a bonfire or anything in between.
6- Games and Contests: anything fun and appropriate to the theme.
7- Song and Dance: music and celebration!
There are specific customs associated with specific holy days, and you can incorporate as many of these as you wish. However, the outline given here would be appropriate for any of the fire festivals.
Invocation of the Shining Ones
This is a ritual to honor the gods, restore the treaty of friendship between humanity and the spiritual powers, and invoke the Buada or excellences of each god – the “skills” in the phrase Tuatha Dé Danann or “people of the gods of skill.” It can be performed on the New Moon, on one of the Fire Festivals, or as a devotional.
Facing the east, repeat this verse:
I invoke the magic of Manannan
The eloquence of Ogma
The craft of Goibniu
The healing of Dian Cecht
The sovereignty of Morrigu
The foresight of the Badb
The might of Macha
The strength of Nuada
The abundance of the Dagda
The poetry of Brigid
The inspiration of Boann
The cunning of Óengus
And the skill of Lugh
In defense of the Land, Sea, and Sky
And in the friendship of the gods.
As you speak each line, breathe in and raise both arms to about the height of your face, elbows bent, and fists clenched in the “Dagda” posture. Breathe out while crossing both arms across the chest with palms open and facing in, taking the “Donn” posture, then recite the next line as above until you are finished. (You can use the “Brigid” and “Boann” postures instead if you prefer.)
Repeat once, three times, or nine times while facing east, or while facing each of the quarters in turn. Alternatively, you can repeat only the line you wish to focus on for a specific excellence.
Christopher Scott Thompson
is an anarchist, martial arts instructor, devotee of Brighid and Macha, and a wandering exile roaming the earth.