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Dark Goddesses and Strong Women: On the Constructive Uses of Aggression

I was sitting in a circle discussion on the Sunday morning of a recent Buddhist retreat when the word 'aggression' came up and was decried as a thing that ought to be scoured out of our minds if we want to create an enlightened society. I disagreed and reclaimed the word 'aggression' with a liberal dose of straightforward humor, whereupon it was suggested to me that (1) 'aggression' was the wrong word for what I was describing, and (2) I'd 'get it' eventually if I just kept working on myself. This while one of the men in the circle tittered and exchanged sidelong glances with another man as I spoke. Of course these responses were problematic, especially since much of the conversation was about the aggression, assertiveness and strength of women. But I understood them, coming as they did from basically good people at a Buddhist retreat who were working toward peace. Still, they reminded me of the reasons why I'm not a Buddhist.

Let me stir the pot a bit before I continue. This is a poem I wrote in 2008, which was published by Goblin Fruit and later appeared in The Ruin of Beltany Ring:

The Warrior

I am the warrior on top of the mountain --
White-breasted queen of ravens,
Red-handed mistress of hounds.
I know the name of my weapon.

The bones of my enemies rest under my boot --
Ivory shards crunching in the mud,
Useless now for anything but decoration.
I wear the teeth that sank into my flesh.

I am the night mare assuaged by screaming --
Long limbed slitter of throats,
Bright-maned collector of scalps.
My breastplate is oiled in entrails.

The hearths of my enemies are covered in ice --
Sooty depths waiting for an ember,
Useless now for anything but interment.
I took the fire that was taken from me.

This piece is an unapologetic look at the archetype of the aggressive woman. It's meant to make you nervous, to make you question your reactions to women who 'know the names of their weapons'. How do you cope with women who do not soften, evade or yield when your life experience has taught you that they need leveling and not acceptance? How do you make room in your psyche for this archetype? How do you even address the underlying paradigm of these questions without an instinctual negative reaction?

Admittedly, modern culture doesn't offer the best tools for this undertaking. We're having a hard enough time getting our superheroines out of bathing suits and brass bras, let alone providing consistent examples of undistorted female aggression. And on the rare occasions that we do, there is no concurrent example to emulate when interacting with aggressive women. If they are aggressive, then you are taught to view them as unnatural and either ostracize them from the community (preferably with your sins nailed to their backs) or rehabilitate them into something less frightening, if possible. There is no model for the simple acknowledgement that this way of being is valid and makes a constructive contribution to the world (note I didn't write positive, good or pleasant there; I wrote constructive).

However, there are many examples of constructive aggression among the dark Goddesses in our polytheistic history, and there are many examples of appropriate interaction with them. Pagans who hold these Goddesses and their stories sacred have good role models for both of these things and learn not to scour their human nature until the aggression is gone but rather to master the use of it, just as they learn to master so many other aspects of the shadow self. Let's have a look at one of these Goddesses to learn more about this.

The Morrigan

Over his head is shrieking
a lean hag, quickly hopping
Over the points of weapons and shields.
She is the gray haired Morrigu - Annals of Leinster

The Morrigan (Old Irish 'mór'- great and 'rígan' - queen) is among the most ancient of Irish Goddesses, whose name itself denotes sovereignty. One aspect of a trinity Goddess, her 'sister' Macha's name is derived from the Old Irish word 'mag', which means 'plain' as in the place name 'Maige Tuiread'. When viewed together, it's clear that part of the Morrigan's power is rooted in the sovereignty of the land itself. But Irish Sovereignty Goddesses such as the Morrigan are more than representations of the landscape; they are directly linked to the wealth of the land and personify it as a queen who grants worthy kings the right to rule. A prosperous land then becomes a sign of the queen's favor, while the opposite indicates her disfavor and can lead to the king's replacement. In this way, the Morrigan literally gives and takes away kingship.

But the Morrigan's name might well be older than the Irish language itself and have its roots in Pan-Celtic or Indo-European, in which case 'mor' connotes monstrousness or terror and her name then translates as 'Monstrous Queen' or 'Terrible Queen'. (She's sometimes referred to as the Phantom Queen.) This is certainly apparent in the other sisters of her trinity; Nemain the venomous one, who personifies the frenzy of war, and Badb the hooded crow, who washes the clothing and armor of men she selects to die in battle. In Irish mythology, the Morrigan appears as a Goddess of sex, magic, war and death who uses her sexual and magical power to influence people and events and who not only engages the battle herself but also goads men into battle only to reap the slain thereafter. She is an unapologetic aggressor so powerful and enduring that battlefield visions of her dancing upon the points of spears were reported as late as the 10th century.

So on the one hand, we have a Sovereign Goddess who personifies the land and determines the right of kings to rule. On the other, we have a War Goddess who uses all of the power available to her. They are the same woman. But how is it that a land goddess and king-maker is also a war goddess? She is both because prosperous lands and good kings do not endure unless there are those willing to protect them. This protection demands more than a milquetoast manning of the walls while the enemy marshals its forces against you. It demands that you take the fight to the enemy with sufficient force to permanently curtail future incursions. That requires aggression, and this is why the Morrigan is a Phantom Queen. She is the dark surety that those who threaten the peace once never do it again. No, it isn't pleasant, good or positive. Yes, it is constructive. Yes, it is a necessary part of the human experience. Why? Because while the Morrigan might believe enough in enlightened society to embody the land and put a good king upon it, not everyone shares her belief, and she knows it.

Of course, the Morrigan is not the only dark Goddess with lessons to teach in shadow mastery. Another notable figure is that of Kali, the destroyer of false consciousness, the darkness into which all names and forms disappear, the seer into past, present and future, the woman whose protruding tongue tastes all things. The action of her influence is an aggressive stripping away of illusion, and while that action is often unpleasant, it is certainly constructive. The correct response to this aggression is not to level, ostracize or rehabilitate it but rather to embrace it as one might embrace the cauterization of a wound.

"But we are not Gods!" you might reply. "We don't have the right to wield such aggressive power." We are more than Gods. We are the creators of Gods, the codifiers of power into anthropomorphic forms, the acknowledgers of human nature and the inventors of the means to master it. We not only have the right, we have the responsibility to understand and respect the weapon of our own aggression and to wield it properly when it is called for. And when we observe aggression properly wielded by another, we have an equal responsibility to support that person even and especially if she is a woman.

Here's another poem about that very thing; one I wrote some years ago for Mythic Delirium and republished in The Ruin of Beltany Ring:

Two Servants of the Morrighan

When She led the army at Maigh Tuireadh, She had a legitimate foe.
Your bad tattoos, your stint with cocaine, your failure to thrive are your fault.
I don’t care what you’re calling yourself now.

Didn’t you get the memo? Queens don’t need to affect twenty-something cunt
Or spit epithets at the backs of Christian colleagues in order to effect change,
Not especially Queens who can dance on the point of a spear.

She came to me huge and black and seething with maggots when I was your age.
“Die to yourself. Be reborn in yourself. Let the infection be cleansed.”
I was slick and sleek and shining after the flies hatched.

And when I sounded her depth at Emhain Macha, She spoke sooth behind my teeth,
But She neglected to mention whether or not you should go back to waitressing
After grad school because you hate this shit and everybody here.

She did say the sons of Ulster are still at war with one another, and their birth pangs
Are the sorrow of nations. Have you ever prayed for their release?
Do you even know why Conchobhar’s men were cursed?

She doesn’t exist to grant us permission, and we are the least of Her concerns.
“Keep the pace or step aside. Do the work or pass the tools. Speak the truth or shut up.”
Whose blood do you think the Badb wrings from our clothes?

You cannot scour a piece of the human condition out of your mind and still have an enlightened society. What you have in that case is a thing rubbed so raw that when it emerges unexamined from the place you have locked it away, it rules you. Rather, you must look at it in the face, acknowledge its worth and set it in a place of honor alongside the more palatable elements of your psyche; a dark and glittering weapon that perhaps gathers dust but remains visible on the mantel nonetheless. And should you be called upon to use that weapon on the mantel, to be a consequence of transgression, to destroy falsehood or to undertake any other aggressive but constructive task, you must use it forthrightly and with skill. To do otherwise is to deprive the world of a thing it very much needs; people willing to take the fight to the enemy of all that creates and preserves that enlightened society.

Pagan women (indeed all Pagans) who work with dark Goddesses know this. Our weapons are sharp, they don't gather dust and that's okay. We also know that we are queens of our own darkness because we have chosen role models who teach us how to use aggression, sexuality and other cthonic forces for the betterment of ourselves and the world. We are not afraid of our own power, and we wish other people weren't either. That fear does no service to their own sacred darkness, and it gets in the way of the work.

Mirrored to:

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C.S. MacCath is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, Murky Depths, Witches & Pagans and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award, and her fiction has received honorable mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection. Ceallaigh's first collection of fiction and poetry entitled The Ruin of Beltany Ring has been called 'wonderful, thoroughly engaging, always amazing', a book of 'tiny marvels' and 'well-worth reading'. At present, she's working on a science fiction series entitled Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom and a second collection of fiction and poetry.  


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 12 July 2015

    Once again, Ceallaigh, you have blown me away with the power and utter clarity of your writing. This is the best article on the utter (if uncomfortable) necessity of balancing War and Peace that I've ever read.

    "note I didn't write positive, good or pleasant there; I wrote constructive." "We are more than Gods. We are the creators of Gods, the codifiers of power into anthropomorphic forms" - wonderful, paradigm-changing insights. Thank you.

    By the way, how do you pronounce Ceallaigh? The mysteries of Celtic phonetics remain elusive to me.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Sunday, 12 July 2015

    Thanks very much, Ted! It's nice to be back after my hiatus.

    And it's just 'Kelly'. =)

  • Robyn Ryan
    Robyn Ryan Tuesday, 14 July 2015

    The suppression of women in European culture is so absolute, I suspect it must have pre-euro-Christian roots. The seminal 'the king must die' is an eminently practical way of managing male aggression and territorial impulses.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Tuesday, 14 July 2015

    Possibly, though there are accounts of women who had status and myths (especially Celtic) that feature women of power. Still, I think you're definitely onto something with 'the king must die' vis-a-vis territorial impulses.

  • Robyn Ryan
    Robyn Ryan Wednesday, 15 July 2015

    Logically, if women were the makers of things and life and shelter, they controlled society. I suspect men and semi-domesticated dogs were relegated to the fringes of settlement life. Access to food, sex and leisure was dependent on good behavior. Bringing large protein, fur and raw materials was a means of access to fire, social amenities and a better diet. Males who demanded status without contributing had value as breeding stock, but excessive aggression got you nailed to a tree for 9 days or scattered as fertilizer. "The king must die" because he's getting delusions of grandeur. That vague memory may be the source of the snake brain deep fear of women in European culture. "Make yourself useful. Or else."

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 15 July 2015

    Gee - that's what strong American women tell their men now! :)

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