Anyone who’s known me for longer than .05 seconds knows that I’m ridiculously smitten with Badb and that she’s my Main Lady, first in my heart, she for whom I am priest, etc etc. Naturally this means I have Thoughts & Opinions & UPG about her as a goddess in her own right, not as simply an extension or epithet of the Morrígan: a deity who lives at the point where fate meets free will, who incites to turn potentiality into actuality, who brings wild liberation not for the sake of itself but for directed purpose.
Note that this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study or whatever but instead a word-vomit of love and devotion based on my personal experience of, and with, Badb. As usual, YMMV.
The Meeting Point of Fate & Free Will
In the mythological cycle of Irish lit, Badb seems to most often show up at significant moments: warriors and kings encounter her in rivers on their way to a battle or fatefully significant event; active battlefields ring with her shrieking; someone breaks a geas, or taboo-oath, and she comes bearing the consequences of that breaking. What’s notable is that these incidents are, loosely speaking, only moments – she doesn’t remain in the narrative as a sustained character, as Macha does in both “The Debility of the Ulstermen” and “The Founding of Emain Macha.” Arguably this is also true of the Morrígan, but although the names of Badb and the Morrígan tend to be used more interchangeably than, say, with Macha, both names do tend to show up alongside specific kinds of situations (e.g. Badb with bringing consequences of broken geasa, the Morrígan in ensuring victory or delivering formal prophecy).
Appropriately enough, these moments remind me of the fleeting presence of a bird who suddenly drops onto the fencepost beside you and chitters for a few seconds before abruptly taking off again. Whether or not that bird carries away some of your flesh in its claws is, of course, your own business.
The association of the Queens with fate, to varying individual degrees, is pretty well accepted by both practicing polytheists and scholars, I think. The poetry they speak, for example, walks that fine line of prophecy-as-foretelling and prophecy-as-bringing-manifestation, and we often see the Morrígan maneuvering behind the scenes like she’s playing the world’s biggest and longest game of chess.
But we don’t really see Badb appearing to engage in the long game in terms of maneuvering behind the scenes. Instead, we see her in moments that Greek nerds might call kairos, a “time out of time” associated with the crossroads of decision-making or the omniscient narrative. When you see me washing the blood from your clothes, will you choose to continue forward knowing that this is the likeliest outcome? When you hear my cries on the battlefield, will your heart stop dead in terror or will it lift you to new heights of power? When you break your oath, will you be able to look those consequences in the eye? Badb’s appearances brings a collapse of linear time, the unmoving stone in the center of a relentlessly flowing river. It’s never so obvious as when she’s the Washer at the Ford, where she’s encountered before an event as both omen and incitement while she’s simultaneously washing blood from the aftermath of the event in question. Here, past and future meet in the present to create a pause in which Choice and Fate shake hands and stare uncomfortably at each other to see who blinks first.
The first time I ever journeyed to meet Badb, using Lora O’Brien’s technique, I began on an island and called out for Badb repeatedly, asking for clear signs and communication. Before I found her, however, I suddenly fell through a hole in the ground and landed hard on the floor of a 1950s kitchen, complete with some darling paisley curtains over the sink. I stared for a breath or two, wondering if my ADHD had somehow gained independent sentience and taken control of the journeying, when the door of a closet I hadn’t noticed burst open. Skeletons with bones that had never been properly cleaned tumbled out in a roaring clatter, their metacarpals and phalanges wrapped around knives that were little more than long bones snapped in half to make shivs, and they lunged at me in a tangle of snapping teeth and sharpened bone. I fell back over a chair, shrieked, “What the shit,” and somehow managed to find my feet so I could throw myself out of the kitchen door and back onto – the island.
It took me a while to realize I could hear the echoes of Badb’s cackling. It took me longer than that to stop being irritated enough to remember that…well, I had asked for clearer signs, and I suppose there are few clearer ways to tell someone to work on their shit than to have the skeletons in the closet quite literally come crashing out. Touché.
My point here is that one way of reading into this little bundle of laughs is to recognize the implicit challenge of the moment: what will you choose to do, knowing that this is in your future?
(Lots of therapy, for one thing.)
It was never a guarantee that I would choose to take an oath and go through initiation with Badb. It was never a guarantee that I would survive past my twenties, or find the right professionals to help me take the shivs away from my skeletons and learn how to work with them instead, or end up where I am today as a professional in my own right. Having done so, however, has put me in a position in which I feel more in alignment with a proper purpose, and also Purpose, than I would’ve been otherwise, with the wonderful and terrifying knowledge that I ultimately chose to put myself here. Freely choosing something gives it meaning and depth and something not unlike life.
(Fun fact: the Queens got me started in domestic violence advocacy when I was in the depths of depression and thinking that maybe volunteering somewhere could be good for me, get me out of the house for once, and the Morrígan deadpanned with the air of a raised eyebrow, So when are you going to get off your ass and try it? A very mild incitement, all things considered, but it was the Boot, Meet Ass introduction I needed.)
Incitement as Liberation
“Nach scel laut?”
Stories are integral to the way humans contextualize their existence. Stories create identities (what it means to be from this culture, that country, this family lineage) and rationalize everything we experience (this happened because of this cause, because of the way I am in this specific way), and because we are finite mortal beings who by definition cannot know anything outside of our own perspective, everything we are is subjective.
So what happens when the stories we tell ourselves to explain how and why and why not turn out to be unhelpful?
In the time since I was relieved of an eight-year-old diagnosis for a disorder I don’t have and its accompanying medication, I’ve had to rebuild my understanding of who I am as a person. The story of craziness and instability isn’t true, and honestly never was, but I held onto it for so long that even months after the pharmaceuticals had finally left my body, I was still paralyzed by those associated fears. Be in control, because if you aren’t, you’ll hurt someone. Be in control, because if you aren’t, you’ll be put away. Be in control, and anything which threatens that control – love, ecstasy, righteous anger, happiness – must be eliminated from your life.
Those fears had boxed me in. I was too afraid to take chances, even those considered perfectly normal by general society. I was afraid of Badb herself. My world consisted of very dry, very neat lines of narrative in which I was unhappy but too numb to care enough to do anything about it.
Brighid saved my life and faith and the Morrígan got the crowbar shoved under my tightly nailed lid, but it was Badb who blew it open. And it fucking hurt, emotionally and also physically at times, and it was terrifying and horrible and wonderful, like the worst case of pins-and-needles you can imagine after sitting on your legs for a hundred years followed by the relief of finally stretching them out.
One of the ways in Badb facilitated this was, of course, the incitement. The challenge. C’mon, is that all you’ve got? I know you can do better than that, but do you know that? In crude terms, she can be a weird mix of all the best ‘hold my beer’ and ‘come at me bro’ and ‘challenge accepted’ memes, in a very purposeful sort of way. Sometimes it’s insulting warriors to make them better in their role than they would have otherwise been; sometimes it’s possessing a medium to yell at a group of people to stop standing around and do something. (Cough.)
It’s not an approach that works for everyone, and not all the time. If she’d done this too early in my process, before Brighid had helped stabilize me after I had a mental breakdown and struggled with suicidal ideation, she probably would’ve broken me apart completely. I needed to be in a place where I could push back just enough to have boundaries, to negotiate consent and communication between my needs as a human and as an individual with her much bigger and inhuman-deity needs. She’s not…gentle, in a way that goes beyond just being an accident of her inhuman nature like other deities, especially not in the beginning when the two of you haven’t settled into the dynamics of your relationship, but nor is she cruel for cruelty’s sake.
Balancing Liberation & Duty
But that incitement isn’t just wildness and freedom. I mean, yeah, sometimes you just have to dance around a bonfire at 2am while spitting whisky at it and howling, but there’s always a purpose behind these things beyond “eh, it’s fun,” and generally, that purpose is to help you fill exactly the amount of space in this world that is rightfully yours to fill. No more, and definitely no less. You shouldn’t have to make yourself small to justify your existence, and you’re less likely to get through whatever fate is throwing at you with cóir (the Irish concept which often gets compared to the Egyptian principle of ma’at; Story Archaeology explores it in this podcast episode) if you’re too busy dragging around your Impostor Syndrome.
(Cough. Sorry, don’t mind me.)
I see na Morrígna as being concerned with Fate even before War, that war was simply the most effective, dramatic, and powerful way of shaping Fate during the long-ago eras in which the Queens forged their specific relationships with their chosen communities of people, that the foundation of their relationship with humanity is ultimately managing the rightful flow of causal events in our universe. The ways in which the Queens do this, however, seem to be nuanced differently between them: the Morrígan is the most Big Picture in my sense of her, the trope of a master chessplayer, facilitating the relationship of Fate with the human world and Otherworld; Macha shapes and enforces the boundaries of a community and its rightful norms with accountability for the unjust ones, facilitating the relationship between community and Fate; Badb facilitates the relationship between the individual and Fate, and that can’t happen as long as the individual is fettered by unrightfully imposed limitations. However, it also means that you’re not supposed to just go running around all willy-nilly like a chicken that’s freshly mislaid its head causing all manner of chaos simply because you can and fuck all social norms, regardless of whether or not they’re just.
I’m insanely curious to see how the other Queens choose to individualize themselves among their contemporary worshipers and how this changes our understanding of their collective.
It’s probably worth noting here that I’m also a Kemetic and an initiated Bacchic Orphic mystes (albeit I’m only the latter because she sent me there, kicking and screaming in protest, saying I’d understand why she wants me there later). It doesn’t escape me that my understanding of Badb parallels concepts that are Egyptian or Dionysian pretty damn closely at times. Having language around similar concepts from other lineages can be useful if time’s of the essence and you need a human who isn’t entirely unfamiliar with these ideas, but it can also blur the lines of discernment; ergo, as always, YMMV.
(Also I keep coming back to the metaphor that in this kind of liberation work, Badb is the pluralism to Dionysus’ relativism, but I feel SO DAMN RIDICULOUS THAT THIS IS THE ONLY METAPHOR I CAN THINK OF that I’m just…going to leave it here without further comment.)
The Nature of Her Mysteries
I hesitated for a long time to share these thoughts in part because I worry about betraying mysteries which aren’t mine to share. However, Badb told me to quit worrying about that because the nature of her mysteries isn’t one that can be taught through fancy words or professorial lecture but only through the experiential. The intersection of a person’s will and their fate, the ways in which who they are shape their potential, are too uniquely tailored to them as an individual to fit anyone else, and studying lore and sharing gnosis with other polytheists can only take a person so far. At some point, they have to dig their bare hands into the bloodsoaked soil of their self and find their own bones.
So, y’know, go out there and do your best ecstatic stuff, see if Badb wants to join you and, if so, what happens from there. Whatever that is is gonna be for you, no one else.
In Conclusion: The Challenge
There’s no one right way to be a person. Value and moral judgments are useless if they blind you to the reality of your being because wishing you were different doesn’t actually make it so. Me, I’m capable of a great amount of cruelty and pettiness – and because I know it, and I’ve done work to understand what circumstances are likeliest to bring them out and how they manifest in my behavior towards myself and other people, I know how to direct those parts of my character to useful and sometimes even beneficial ends. If I pretended that those things weren’t part of me because I believed only Certain Kinds of People are Like That, then I wouldn’t be able to understand them and work with them and control how and when they impact the world around me.
Another version of this quandary often comes up in my conversations with domestic violence survivors, many of whom have learned to believe that “angry person” is equivalent to “abusive person” and that to feel anger, therefore, is to become an abusive person themselves. So we talk about how emotions are neither inherently good nor bad, not even anger; what makes an emotion ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – or rather, safe or unsafe, to use best practice vocabulary – is the measurable impact it has on you or the people around you. And since anger is a normal human emotion that is going to happen whether you want it to or not, it’s really in your best interest to acknowledge that it’s there so that you can focus on directing it in useful ways.
So the question I’ll leave you with is, not so simply:
Who are you?