Wedding the Otherworld

Samhain approaches. In the northern latitudes of this world, the last berries are on the Blackthorn and the Hawthorn. The Apples grow drunk on the fermentation of their own fallen fruit before slipping into their winter dreaming. For White-tailed Deer of the forests I call home and the Red Deer of my ancestral home, now is both the season of the rut and the season when hunters come to cull the herd.

In the Otherworld, white blossoms open. The scent of the flower of the Hawthorn, which will bloom in this world at Bealtaine is a cipher revealing the connection between Samhain and Bealtaine: it smells of sex and death.

At Tara in the Boyne River Valley, well into the twelfth-century, this was the time of the great assembly when the Ard Rí, the High King, was ritually wedded to the land. His sovereignty arose from this sacred bond.

We have no records to tell us why this happened at Samhain, but I suspect the reasons for the timing of this ceremony were three-fold: it came in the same season* in which the seanchas, the lore of story and genealogy and law, tells us that the Dagda, god of great skill and abundance, became the lover of the Morrigan, dark Raven Queen, ensuring victory for his people in their war to liberate the land from the false King whose gaze brought corruption and death; it came at a time when the dead of the tribe and the old Gods who slept beneath the Hollow Hills could partake in the feast and bless the ritual; and it came at the time when the power and love of the High King’s ecstasy could feed the blossoming of the Otherworld and the sleeping seeds and roots of this one.

“High King” is indeed the closest English translation we have for the word “Ard Rí,” but it is not a precise translation. “Ard” has the connotation not just of hierarchy, but of a refined and exalted nature. A “Rí” is not a monarch in the sense we are used to, not a maker and enforcer of laws, but a figure who unites the will of the people, and binds the will of the people to the will of their ancestors and the will of the land by wedding an Otherworld Queen. In modern terms, his role is more ritual than political, but that distinction would not likely have made sense to ancient Irish people.

The Irish “Ard Rí” also has interesting echoes of the Welsh word “Arddur,” Anglicized as “Arthur,” which means “Bear King.” There is much in Welsh tradition to suggest that this Bear King served as a mediator between his people and Annwn, the Otherworld of the dead and the fair folk.

This Samhain, as the dead and the Otherworld draw near, I hear again the call for all who would do so to reclaim true sovereignty by, in the presence of our ancestors, committing to living our lives in a way that sustains the life of the land and brings honor and blessings to our people.

Séasúr Shamnha shona doaibh!

(I will be exploring these themes in depth in my next book, Courting the Wild Queen, coming out sometime next year.)

* The mating of the Morrigan and the Dagda took place shortly before Samhain, but Samhain was the closest of the ancient festivals to this date.

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