Monday, September 24, 2012

I give thanks to the Dark Lord

So, I may have mentioned it a few times before (here, or elswhere), but I am a devotee (and soon to be client) of a deity with a very peculiar history and purpose. Peculiar, perhaps, because the natural extension of the function of the deity does not lend itself to easy or simple application in a practical setting. Those who find themselves as devotees of say, An Dagda or Brigid can easily enough apply mysticism or poetry to their daily lives, can actively write poetry or study arcane lore (and really, who doesn't like curling up with a musty tome of ancient lore, and a nice cuppa?); they can even share this information or creation with others, and find fulfillment in this, even purpose. But what is one to do when your god is a god of the dead? How best does one appreciate just what that means, or facilitate any sort of functional applicability in ones day to day life. Well, it isn't easy, but it is simple: you work with the dead.

I don't mean you hang about with sketchy types at 2:15 am in cemeteries, and do grave rubbings (necromancy, while interesting, doesn't have any explicit associations with this particular god.) I mean you become a human psychopomp and make it your job to help the dead transition from this world to the otherworld. You do what I did, and become a funeral director (mortician, undertaker, etc.)

Now, it may be a tad presumptious to call myself a "psychopomp", but hear me out. The function of a psychopomp is first and foremost the collection, care and transportation of the spirit/genius/soul of a living person who finds themselves, well not living anymore. They transport these spirits/souls generally to a more or less temporary/permanant abode, the realm of the god(esses) who are the lords of the dead. Among the Gaels, there are two to three deities which can be said to have aspects which are psychompomic: An Morrigan, Manannan Mac Lir and Donn. An Morrigan tends to preside over slaughter and battle in her capacity as a psychopomp and so it is reasonable to posit that the war dead are "hers" to claim. Of course, unlike say Greek or Icelandic counterparts, the fate of the war dead is never explicitly explained in the tales. Manannan, on the other hand, tends to get the psychopompic function association because of his representation of boundry crossing, and his associations with the otherworld (which is often believed to be in some capacity a realm of the dead.) Donn, however, does not seem to be as active in soul collecting (albeit there are some interesting literary figures who may reflect just this.), but he above any other deity is the best candidate for being the god of the dead. This is not generally disputed, and is infact widely held to be sensible for two particular reasons.

In later Irish folklore, Tech Duinn, "The House of Donn" (generally thought to be Bull Rock) is the place that the souls of the Irish go before they face the final judgement; and in some versions where the wicked souls go, as Donn is really the Christian Devil. It has been suggested that this is in fact a reflection of a much older belief, and like much of the mythic tales, is at its heart pre-Christian, with some enhumerization tacked on to make it sensible within the Christianized world. This is interesting in its own right, but the tales regarding how and why Donn came to be the god of the dead, and its tantalzing IE cultural ties so delicious, that few seem to have much doubt.

The reason that Donn is the god of the dead (particularly of the Irish), is that he is the first Gael to die after setting foot on Ireland. Following the initial landing of the Sons of Mil on Ireland, Donn (eldest of the sons, and in some stories jealous of his brothers) spurns the epyonymous goddesses Eriu, Banba and Fodla and so is cursed by them never again to set foot on their land. In some versions Donn is killed by the magic of the Tuatha De Danannan, in others he is killed by trying to upstage his brothers; in all versions the goddesses curse is fulfilled and he dies. He is burried (placed in a cairn) on a small island, usually identified as Bull Rock, and it is said that his ancestors will follow him, and reside with him ever after in his house. This is important for a couple of reasons; primarily the importance of precedent having both practical and symbolic meaning, tends to make the first of anything a big deal. Secondly, the broad IE motif of the sacrificial twins/ sacrificed king in cosmogenic narratives is an aspect of the assorted tales which could shed some light on just why Donn, who was not originally a god, was deified and held to be one. He can be seen, essentially, as a primoridal sacrifice, and through his death the Sons of Mil are then able to offer a suitable sacrifice and appease the gods. Again keeping with the IE motifs, the sacrificed king/twin is then elevated to godhood by becoming the ruler of the realm of the dead. There is a lot of hypothesis here, but it is based largely on established mythic paterns and provides a reasonable explanation.

So I still haven't explained the self aggrandizment of using the moniker of psychopomp. This is not rooted so much in mythic thinking, than in some basic... lets call it "funeral theory". The overall period/process of the funeral extends beyond the funeral service and burial, and encompasses the entire process (from death to disposition), known as "funeralization". One of the key cultural features of funeralization, an explanation as to why it occurs at all, is refered to as "persistence of personality". The persistence of personality is a non-specific way of refering to the cultural belief that between the physical death and disposistion, the personality of the individual persists in some capacity. For the religious, this is the soul/spirit/genius; for humanists this would be the "memory" or "prescence" of an individual. The idea of liminality, and its ritual and symbolic significance in Gaelic (and broadly Celtic) practice is well attested to in both the mythic texts and folklore/custom. Death and the dead are no exception, and actually almost embody the very essence of liminality. The most potent liminal periods of the year have overt associations with the dead, be they the more recent or our distant ancestors.

There are all manner of folk customs which arise and surround the proper method of funeralization in Irish tradition, and all of which seek to assist the dead in reaching their final place of rest; while at the same time protecting the still living from any latent wrath or retribution from the dead. There are taboos and appropriate rites which need to be performed to ensure a correct transition, and the body (and treatment thereof) is held to be as important as the state of the spirit. The finality and significance of the (again in folk custom) burial, but any disposition, can not be understated. So when I say that act, at least in part as a psychopomp, I do so with the knowledge of tradition and propriety, and just why it is a sacred duty.

I am fortunate, in that through my profession, through the tasks that I do daily, I am also communing with and fulfilling the duty I believe I have been charged with, by seeking out Donn as a Patron. I am convinced that the gods do have an influence over us, and can effect change in our lives; they are not afterall simply our imaginary friends. In saying as much, I do believe and reason, that Donn has influenced me in my career choices, and broadly in other aspects of my life. I'm sort of at the point when I look back at everything that has occured, and see what it has culminated in, and can see the threads. I think of the harmony and general flourishing which seems to surround me, and see the fruits of reciprosity and fir.

For these reasons, and many more I am unable to articulate; I give thanks and praise to Donn, the haunted god. Donn, the sacrificed king. Donn, the dark lord.