You are a poet and a seer. Say you are a V.I.P (very important poet; in the first century CE when I lived such a thing was possible). Because of your poetic prowess, your ability to go between the worlds and see into the heart of the matter, it has fallen upon you to seek a vision. Who will be the new leader of the tribe? Here is no simple matter of primogeniture. Here no ballots to be counted or stolen. No one has had to endure televised political conventions or candidate debates. It goes hardest for the sacrificial bull, who has been slaughtered and must be consumed—by you, sometimes raw, sometimes cooked, depending on local tradition. In either case, you consume the flesh and blood of the sacred bull. Then you are wrapped in its still-bloody hide. You fall into a trance, you dream….
My name is Maeve (rhymes with brave). I came to be known as Mary Magdalen. (How that happened is a long and exciting story, but not the subject of today’s post.) I am taking Elizabeth’s place to make some commentary from my first century perspective as you twenty-first century Americans prepare to elect new leaders. (You hope you will be electing them. I’d trust poets in bloody bull hides over electronic voting machines any day.) The rite described above, called the tarbhfleis or bull-sleep, was used to select the kings of Tara. The Celts counted wealth in cattle, so the bull was revered. The Gallic god Esus (as the druids called Jesus) was associated with the sacrificial bull. The infamous Queen Maeve of Connacht (for whom I am named), that champion of women’s sovereignty, went to war over a bull that defected from her herds to her husband’s. People said that the bull did not want to be ruled by a woman. Those were fighting words for Queen Maeve.
There is another Celtic tale of king-making that is worth considering when in your time women’s sovereignty over their own bodies is once again at stake. Five brothers went out into the forest to prove their worth to be king. Each went in turn to seek water from a sacred well guarded by a fearsome hag who demanded a kiss in exchange for water. Three brothers refused and went away thirsty. A fourth grudgingly complied and was granted a grudging prophecy of limited success for his line. Only the fifth brother kissed her in full measure. Before his eyes the hag turned into a beautiful woman. “Who are you?” he asked. She answered, “King of Tara, I am Sovereignty.” *(see note for source)
Among Celts of my time, Lady Sovereignty was a goddess, you might say the goddess (though we didn’t know from monotheism) because she was the land itself, alive, conscious, responsive, the ground and giver of all life. If a ruler was not in right relation with the land, he or she could not rule. Power literally had grass roots; it came from the earth. It was the task of poets to challenge a corrupt ruler and to foresee (as they did in the custom of the Bull Sleep) a just one.
Did Bull Sleep always work? I don’t claim to know. (I was exiled when I was fifteen for interfering with human sacrifice. (Remember Esus?) I spent a lot of my life looking for my lost beloved. I found him and accompanied him on his ministry, witnessing his steadfast refusal to be made king. I returned to the Holy Isles in my old age to witness the last stand of my daughter Boudica, a great, tragic Celtic queen.) But it is worth noting that your elections take place in the season of Samhain, the Celtic New Year when the veil between the worlds is thin. At this time, messages can come from the dead and from the future generations. Listen. Cast a vote for the earth, for her sovereignty. Dream deep and seek visions. Be bold outspoken poets. Have courage!
*Account of this story comes from Celtic Heritage by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Thames and Hudson, 1961, reprinted 1991.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known for The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple. An ordained interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she celebrates the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. For more: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com and www.highvalley.org.