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Focus on Earth
by Patricia Monaghan
Beltane 2003, Vol 2-3
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Tree of Life
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Copyright © 2000, Jen Delyth. Used with permission.
Healing Soldier's Heart

Chicago, March 13, 2003...
It is a stingingly cold morning, but spring is near. So the maples told me last week, their huge red buds swollen to twice the size of a mere week earlier. As the last snow sublimates in the bright sunlight, I consider planting peas.

In this part of the Midwest, old gardeners' tales claim one should plant peas on St. Patrick's Day, the nameday of Patricias as well as Patricks. March 17: an appropriate day for anything green. When I was a girl, we marched to church that day to celebrate our ethnic holiday; later, it was a day for roistering with non-Irish friends in leprechaun tee-shirts and "kiss me" buttons. I have since fallen away from both activities: St. Patrick's Day is now a day marked only by the exchange of bad Irish jokes with my siblings online. ("What do you call a fatally diseased short Irish person?" "Leper-caun." "What's green and stays on the porch all winter?" "Patty O'Furniture." And so on, and so forth, etcetera, ad nauseum.)

But this year, March 17 has taken on a different meaning. As I write, it is not clear whether my nameday will be co-opted as a deadline for war. As I write, it is not clear whether, by the time you read this, great destruction and unspeakable pain will have been wrought by people who have taken no risks themselves.

It has been a hard winter. I spent the fall equinox in Ireland, where for the first time I encountered strangers who, hearing my accent, shouted at me about my country's behavior. I could do nothing but witness that many of us do not support "preemptive strikes," that clever new euphemism for "imperialistic invasion." But at night, the quiet of Connemara was shattered by the sound of air convoys bringing soldiers and materiel to staging points in Germany. Those soldiers are now in the desert, where they wait to know whether they will be asked to kill to assure themselves that they will not be killed.

I say it has been a hard winter because, despite brilliant skies and glossy snow and chickadees at my birdfeeder and dark-eyed deer on my morning walks, nature's beauty has not erased what I see with my inner eye: women holding loved ones tight, touching their sweet eyelids as they sleep, wondering if they will soon hold bleeding mutilated bodies; household pets left to starve as refugees escape towards unsafe borders; ancient goddess statues blown to rubble and dust by penile rockets; and the hardened hearts of those on both sides of this unnecessary conflict.

My father was the victim of an earlier American war. He was in his early 20's when he went to Korea, a working-class man wooed by patriotic propaganda and promises of educational benefits. He was shot down, rescued, given a Purple Heart, sent back in one piece. He was, to outsiders, a survivor. He held a job, raised a family, did not become a sniper or street person. But for fifty years, he could not sleep in peace; every night, he drank until he passed out to avoid the nightmares that otherwise woke him, screaming in fear.

He suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a recurring psychological state in which terrifying flashbacks are common. I do not know what my father witnessed or what horrifying actions he took, for he never talked about his war experience. But I know that hundreds of thousands of young soldiers on both sides of this potential war will, if peace does not prevail, become like my father, like the damaged vet John Allen Muhammed ("the DC sniper"), like the homeless vets we see wandering Chicago streets on cold winter nights. Even if they live, they will not escape.

PTSD is nothing new. The ancient Celts knew it. They called it, poetically, Soldier's Heart. The Celts had many myths about people who, as the ancient poems say, "go mad from the din of battle." Their madness was different from ours, for their wars were closer and more personal. Our modern warriors can roll over civilians in huge armored tanks and throw rockets across continents at their victims. Ancient warriors hacked off limbs and punctured bellies at near quarters. They smelled the evacuating feces of their victims and heard their dying screams. Imagine the nightmares they carried from the battlefield.

Irish myth tells of two parallel figures who suffered from Soldier's Heart. One was Mis, a young woman of Kerry who saw her father struck down in battle as she watched. Running to his side, she found him still warm, his blood streaming from the last desperate pumps of his dying heart. She leaned over him and took his blood in her cupped palms and drank it. Then she ran, screaming, from the battlefield.

The other myth is set on the opposite side of the island, in northern Ulster. There the king, Suibhne (Sweeney), was leading his warriors in the battle of Mag Rath when the noise of the battle grew too much for his senses. He looked up and saw something dreadful in the sky and, his wits leaving him, raced from the battlefield and disappeared.

What interests me here is that both Mis and Suibhne's stories then become one. Both went into the wilderness, where they were transformed into animals. Mis grew hair and was soon mistaken for a wild beast; Suibhne grew feathers and lived in trees like a bird. Mis was ultimately brought back to humanity by a harper, who made love to her until she wept out the pain of her loss; when her harper was later killed in battle, Mis did not go mad again but instead became a poet to mourn his death.

As for Suibhne, he never returned to his senses. He spent his life as a transfigured bird, living in trees and flying about the island. Many beautiful medieval lyrics are said to have been composed by Suibhne. More likely, other poets spoke in his voice, composing some of the most beautiful nature poems I have ever read.

Since fall, I have been haunted by the figure of Suibhne, whose experience parallels my father's except that, where my father escaped into the wilderness of drink, the mad king lived in the real wilderness. How I wish that my father had found Suibhne's way; how blessed I feel that I found a way he did not, to heal from the wounds he gave us as he fought his own memories. The ancient Irish poems give me hope, for they say the natural world offers healing even to those who have been most violent and most violated. As the world stands on the edge of the abyss of war, I pray for nature's healing for us all, victims and victors alike.

Patricia Monaghan's new translations and adaptations of the medieval Suibhne poems can be found on the Mad Sweeney page of www.fourtherorder.org.

Graphics Credits
+ Tree of Life, Copyright © 2000, Jen Delyth. Used with permission (Keltic Designs).
+ Sorrow, Copyright © 2003 Emmie Laurie Harrison (staff artist). All rights reserved.

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