On the Nature of Sovereignty
In the history of our language, the meanings of words tend to migrate. For example, when I was a young man, just about everyone politically to the left of the Klan was proud to proclaim themselves as being "feminist". Well, that was the 70's. Since then, the Reaganite conservative backlash of the 1980's and its wildfire takeover of our culture so altered popular attitudes to many so-called "liberal" topics that it actually redefined parts of the American lexicon. Persons who came of age after that period were subtly taught by this trend in our language to be made uncomfortable by words like "feminist" or "liberal", perhaps in much the same way that the previous generation was cultured to squirm when confronted with words like "patriotism" or "morality".
In our Neopagan subculture we work with the power of words like witch, pagan, shaman or druid, changing and even inverting their traditional meanings, hoping to reclaim the power once stolen from them by the advent of Christianity. Such lexicon-shuffling makes sense to us as insiders but continues to baffle those on the outside in the general culture. Trends like this, along with the examples mentioned above, started out representing the politics of those who initiated the change, yet later we find the changes being propagated along in the common language, by those relatively unaware of the words' essential or traditional usage.
Another linguistic trend for us to consider is the effect of using terms outside of their original contexts, in a metaphorical or even hyperbolic sense, often as a means to represent an aspect of the self or a new perspective on certain psychological issues. "Spiritual Warrior" and "(Urban) Shaman" spring forward as familiar examples. Which, brings us a little closer to our main topic....
- What is sovereign?
- Who is sovereign?
- Who is a sovereign?
- What is a sovereign?
Look closely. For a start, there we have four uses: implying at least four definitions with significant distinctions between them, some of which are very different than the others. Let it suffice that they all share one primary concept: rulership.
In our Druidic studies, the definitions we most often encounter are those used in anthropology and the study of society. The role and symbols of sovereignty are of great interest in Indo-European Studies and considered key to understanding one of the main components of the much-touted threefold division of the IE worldview and societal structure Dumezil called the Tripartite Ideology.
Georges Dumezil described the IE society as having rested on the shoulders of the farmers and tradesfolk, who he referred to as the Providers (keyword: Fecundity), working in service-to and protected by the Warriors (keyword: Force), lorded over and guided by a dual top function he called Sacred Sovereignty. This was comprised of the shared rulership of a Magician-King, in concert with a powerful Jurist-Priest. To me, the clearest example of this is the one I never seem to find in the literature: the medieval kingship of England, described as a Divine Kingship with it's formalized sharing of power with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Arthur and Merlin also come to mind. The King (or Queen) as an individual, represented the embodiment of the nation of people, magically wed to the land itself. This sacred relationship was tended and sustained through the stewardship of the chief priest as interpreter of sacred law, constantly informing the actions of the ruler with the will of the gods.
So is sovereignty just a matter of rulership at the top of a societal structure? Well certainly there are other uses for the term and more are being spun up all the time. The socio-political definition we just discussed has much room for exploration at the mythic level; for a thorough treatment of the subject as it appears in the Mabinogion and Arthurian lore, see Caitlin Matthews' book Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain. Dumezil's book Mitra-Varuna is one of his most focused studies of the dual role of Sacred Sovereignty.
In the psychology of personality and the mystical systems for personal self-knowledge and transformation such as Magick and Alchemy, sovereignty is seen less as a goddess or sacred role in society but rather as an element of the self, one through which we reclaim the right to the wholeness of the self and the invincibility of the self-actualized individual. The notion of becoming personally sovereign, recovering full rulership of one's self, is potentially a healing and liberating prospect for the mystic in us all.
Lughnassad and Sovereignty
So how does Sovereignty come to figure so prominently in our Lughnassad rites? Why Lughnassad? In previous articles I have spoken of the essential need for our rites to combine ancient tradition with a seasonal theme to assure that the rite functions in a way that makes some sense to the modern soul. Not simply cobbling together a bogus "historical reenactment" from a bunch of fragments but striving to create something that is symbolically and mythically functional at many levels, we incorporate the powerful effect of rooting it in the seasonal calendar of our lives. Thereby the seasonal connection can be used as a personal metaphor for the current cycle in one's development or life-passages.
Each of the eight intervals of the year is like a step along the pathway of a lifetime, the seasons of a life. Through this pattern we can find our way at many symbolic levels, transitioning from one stage to another. The Year becomes a great emblem of all cycles great and small and we see ourselves inextricably woven into its turning.
Following the living mystery in the nested metaphor: "a day is a year, is a lifetime",we can see our lives now at Lammastide, as the grain stands ready for the Harvester's return, the divine role of the long awaited responsibility for our own Dharma or sacred life-work is presented before us: an initiation for ourself, unto our Self.
Of horses, fairs, and the bridled bride, the King takes a bride and the beggars approach the table of the newlywed sovereigns...
To the Celts, Lughnassad, seems to have been a gathering of the tribes, a time not only for for horse-trading and various competitions but we also find a persistent theme of weddings, particularly weddings of state and investitures. One somewhat obscure citation has Lugh, the golden Lord of All Skills, wedded to Aine or Eire on this feast, hence the name: "the Wedding Games of Lugh". Through this investiture, the divine wedding of the monarch to the land, the celestial realm of the divinities is linked with the fertile, chthonic power of the Earth and those who dwell below. Symbolic of that union and of the nation as the union of the people and the land, Sovereignty, honored as a goddess, emerges from the lore of many IE cultures. The goddesses Eire, Britannia, and perhaps even our own Lady Liberty have more life to them than the metal in our pockets which has borne their images over the centuries. It is no accident that in the common language, the term "sovereigns" also referred to coinage, for whether it had the king's head upon it or the queen's, or the very symbol of the Union which their role served, the spirit for which it stood was always Her...