Sgàthach, the Pictish God of Liminality – part 1: Personal Gnosis
First of all, a wee disclaimer: If you know me at all, you know I dislike the “pagan” label. There was a time when I dabbled in neopaganism, but I soon found it to be a tad too superficial for my taste. I thought I should mention it first of all, because when we start talking about deities (in particular European deities), everyone’s first impulse is to think I am “pagan”. Nope. Not all polytheists are “pagan” in the modern sense of the word. In fact, the whole neopagan movement started as a reaction to Christianity and the status quo – whereas my own faith is very Christian-friendly and was not inspired by the same political ideals as neopaganism. So let’s just agree I am a witch, or a spirit worker.
One of the first things I usually teach about my path is that it’s heavily involved in spirit work and open to interpretation in terms of theology. That is to say: it’s impossible to follow this path if your beliefs aren’t animistic, since the very foundation of the practice is to work with the spirits all around us. However, one could definitely choose to follow my path even if they are Christian or Atheist. The forces which I call “deities” could very well be considered “saints”, “superior ancestors”, “spirits from the upperworld”, etc depending on other people’s theological beliefs. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I feel a connection to Sgàthach, of all possible gods.
God or Mortal?
If you’ve heard of Sgàthach (pronounce “Skah-hah”), you probably know Her from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, where She is a very prestigious fighter/sorcerer who lives in Skye and helps Irish hero Cú Chulainn become a warrior. A lot of people consider Her to be a mere mortal – accomplished at martial arts and magic, but still mortal. This is a given! Although I and a small number of people around the globe consider Her a god, there’s no denial that it is not a consensus – and probably will never be. In a similar fashion, I do not side-eye the Irish Christians who pray to St. Brigit or other canonised Celtic deities. It is simply a different way to look at the same immaterial superior being, and just as respectfully.
Now, I know the comparison above isn’t perfect. Sgàthach, “she who strikes fear”, isn’t exactly fit for the category of “saint”. Whenever I’m mentoring Christians or Atheists who happen to have a connection with Her, I tend to compare Her to the Archangel Michael… or even to the Orisha in Afro traditions instead – superior beings, but subordinate to God (or not); virtuous but very capable of revenge, warfare, and other baneful things when necessary. So in that case, I call Her a “superior spirit”. In my eyes She is a goddess, but I will not impose my view on everyone. I accept and respect other denominations and points of view, because who am I to say they are less respectful than mine? I do not read minds. And I don’t wish I did, either.
As for the reconstructionists getting uneasy at my assertion, don’t worry: I do agree the surviving mythology is unclear on whether or not She is immortal and immaterial – but here is the keyword: “unclear”. It does not deny that She could be a deity, either. I could touch the subject of Her allegedly “sleeping with mortals” but quite frankly now, that is not something unheard of in European mythology at all. Plenty Greek and Norse gods slept with mortals, and are still undoubtedly deities (only their children would be considered demigods), so why wouldn’t it happen in Celtic mythology too? If you think the Celts were isolated and never influenced or exchanged ideas with their Greek and Germanic neighbours, boy are you naive!
My Own Story
As some of you may know, only last year I decided to embrace my spiritual mediumship and actively pursue animism, after a 10 year long hiatus of ignoring signs and paying no attention to spirituality. I am still developing my practice, and as such, I am still learning who I am and where I stand in the spirit world. It should come as no surprise that it took me a while to realise I had a special connection with Sgàthach, going back to a decision made in a previous life. In fact, my first impulse when I received certain signs and synchronicities was to mistake Her for the Morrigan. Things unfolded very gradually, and now I know who the deity I have a long lasting agreement with actually is.
So, let’s say I have always visited the Isle of Skye (named after Sgàthach) in my dreams, since a very early age. I still keep this drawing, which I made as a young teen, and recently compared to an actual photo of – specifically – Her fortress in Skye (Dùn Sgàthaich). In the dream the fortress was covered by a thick fog but I knew it was there. I never knew this mysterious place was Skye though, and as a South American kid in the 90s I certainly hadn’t ever seen a mention to this Scottish island. So although the signs and synchronicities have always existed in my life, I never really connected them to any deity – much less a Celtic deity – up until very recently.
Fast forward to last year: I came to terms with my spirituality, finally welcomed my guides, and started befriending witches everywhere. This is when I finally started to notice certain signs and connect them to deity communication. The obvious sight were the ravens and crows: they started following me everywhere a lot more eagerly than before, immediately after I accepted my spirit guides back into my life. Well, I learned they are companions for a bunch of deities, but since I am in Ireland, I simply assumed “maybe the Morrigan is with me”.
All was grand until… Whenever I prayed to this deity who called me, I started receiving signs that didn’t quite match mythology regarding the Morrigan. I felt a strong urge to harvest heather and keep it near me. Thistle seeds (the white fluffy things that resemble a bigger version of dandelion seeds) started to follow me as eagerly as the crows – while naturally numerous here, it was just “too much”. They’d even enter places with me in big cities. I had visions not of the well-known black-haired deity dressed in black and red, but… a red-haired woman in a WHITE dress. That was definitely not the Morrigan! Something was very off.
That is when I saw the photo of Dùn Sgàthaich (which I compared to my drawing) on social media. The person who posted it was visiting Skye, mentioned the name of the fortress and gave a quick summary of the mythology behind it. That was the first time I ever saw the name “Sgàthach”, and a lot of things started to make sense. I started connecting the dots… Of course, my spirit guides were Pictish, not Irish! So were all the spirits who help me; thistle and heather are well-known symbols of Scotland, and it is very plausible this folklore could date back to the Pictish period. Sgàthach, like the Morrigan, relates to warfare and death, and is friends with the crows. The last piece of the puzzle was when I found that She is indeed described as a redhead in a white dress in the surviving mythology.
What does devotion to Sgàthach feel like?
In order to answer this question, I thought it would be wiser to interview a few friends who also follow this deity instead of simply presenting my own point of view. We aren’t talking about Hekate, after all. Sgàthach is pretty obscure in terms of modern devotion, there isn’t a ton of surviving info on Her, and most of the work ends up depending on personal gnosis alone. Sit down, grab a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable here in the Hut.
- Confhaol Mac Thon
A friend who goes by the warrior name Confhaol (pronounce “Konyarl”) tells me that Sgàthach is like a mother to him. In his own words, “I was taught to refer to Sgàthach as my Gentle Foster Mother. She generally presents herself to me as motherly”. He proceeded to clarify that by “motherly” he doesn’t mean nurturing. Professoral is a better word. I agree. I often compare Sgàthach to a good teacher who truly loves teaching: She will do everything to prepare Her precious students as well as possible, and keep an eye on them at all times – just like a mother. That being said, She won’t go as far as nurturing or showing affection.
His experience reflects mythology very well: one of the fundamental traits of Sgàthach is the fact She was regarded as not only a good warrior, but also an excellent instructor. This is very different from the Morrigan, who does not have the same “classroom” association.
Confhaol comes from a clan who literally keeps Her fortress in Skye.
He says he has always naturally had a passion for martial arts, and often incorporates devotion to Sgàthach into his practice. Similar to my own story, nobody directly told him to go find Sgàthach – he simply felt compelled to do it, so he looked for Her through the mother of his clan. I can relate, as I know the feeling of Her calling quite well: it is like a burning eagerness, almost uncontrollable, and an intuitive certainty of where exactly to go.
Her communication, he says, is mostly non-verbal, to which I can also relate pretty well. I’d go a step further and tell you that this is a very Pictish thing. All Picts in the spirit world – deities and human spirits alike – communicate non-verbally, through a “very strong intuition” which we translate into words “like telepathy”. I suspect it has to do with the fact their language is dead and wouldn’t be very useful now. More on that in a future blog post.
Another friend, whose witch name is Aurora, defines Sgàthach as a “Warrior Priestess of Fire and Queen of Picts”. I almost feel like this could be a book title! So poetic, yet straight to the point! Aurora told me a very interesting thing: Sgàthach taught her to work with the sun, instead of the moon, for energy work and witchcraft. That confirms my own experience! I have learned the same lesson from Her, and see Her as a lot more solar than lunar. So although Aurora is not a practitioner of martial arts, in contrast to myself and Confhaol, she still follows the same paradigm of solar/yang energy in her devotion.
Aurora tells me she usually sees Sgàthach while journeying to the Underworld, and the visions tend to incorporate the sea. This is another piece of personal gnosis that can be verified in mythology: Sgàthach isn’t merely a martial arts instructor; She is also a sorcerer who helps human souls cross the “veil” into the underworld after death, before reincarnating, or whatever it is that happens after we die. On a separate note, it is worth mentioning that Her fortress in Skye is by the sea. (I suspect Sgàthach and Lir are very close friends, but that goes back to unverified gnosis again). There is also a general consensus in Celtic belief that the element of water connects with the Underworld, which probably explains the sea in Aurora’s visions. In summary, we could conclude that Sgàthach uses solar energy when teaching Her craft, while also connecting with water whenever she is guiding the souls of the departed.
“Sometimes I feel I have an epiphany, which has some kind of divine feeling to me – I know She is giving me guidance at that moment.”
With this quote, Aurora confirms what myself and Confhaol also experience: the non-verbal communication, typical of an encounter with a Pict. Aurora tells me Sgàthach isn’t very talkative. I smiled when I read this bit of info, because of how relatable it was. Non-verbal communication isn’t necessarily shy. The human Picts I communicate with can be real chatterboxes! Talorc hardly ever shuts up, for example. Sgàthach, on the other hand, is very economic with words and will only ever say the strictly necessary. When She does speak, though, it tends to be unforgettable and very meaningful.
I think the most beautiful thing about Aurora’s relationship with Sgàthach is she has no idea why it came to be! She simply felt the calling, and feels thankful to learn from this Pictish master. Whereas my own connection probably comes from a past life, and Confhaol got to know Sgàthach through his lineage, I am very confident that we are the exception, not the rule. The world is probably full of people like Aurora, who feel the calling and simply respond to it, even before any kind of justification presents itself.
- My Own Experience
I have already told a (very summarised) story of how I found Sgàthach. In terms of devotion, though, there are a few things I would like to compare and contrast with the experience of my 2 guests.
In terms of looks, my experience tells me She is a shapeshifter. I have specifically included the term in one of the questions, and both guests answered it by telling me they haven’t ever seen Her actively shapeshifting, but feel certain that She knows the skill. Confhaol went as far as telling me Sgàthach taught him to shapeshift. Although I haven’t yet learned it myself, I have indeed seen Her become a raven and fly over me a few times. The general consensus tends to be that She is a redhead with “ocean blue” eyes, though Confhaol sees Her with hair as dark as a raven – which leads me to believe She in fact has many faces, similar to the Morrigan.
My own relationship with Sgàthach is that of student, follower and priestess. I believe all three to be permanent conditions: I won’t ever be finished learning, so I am eternally a student; I have committed to follow Her and assist with any task She occasionally needs me to fulfill on Earth; finally, although my commitment to priesthood is for one lifetime only, I consider it permanent in its own way.
Sgàthach tends to be, as Confhaol puts it, “never shy about letting me know that she needs something”. I can relate. I would personally elaborate on this by adding that She always insists I keep her missions a secret, only to be shared with whoever is directly helping me – both dead and living. She will actively help me meet the right people, and the right spirits, to fulfill certain tasks here on Earth. They can range – in general terms – from Underworld “bureaucracy” to mundane tasks among the living and all things in between.
I especially agree with Aurora in that Sgàthach “seems very understanding towards my energy levels and my mundane life”. You may have heard that in Polytheism, deities can range from virtuous to trickster – Sgàthach is on the very virtuous extreme of the spectrum. She may be one of the so-called “wrathful” deities, but She is very far from impulsive. If Sgàthach senses your honesty and good faith, She will accommodate your needs without a problem. In contrast, though: if She senses you’re feeling entitled or trying to bend the rules for egotistic reasons, She will not waste Her time.
A God of Liminality
Although this sounds like a generic title, I think it does Sgàthach more justice than simply considering Her “a war deity” or “Cú Chulainn’s trainer”. My own experience, as well as everyone else’s experience I have heard of, confirms that She reigns over the liminal – between fire and water, the Middle and Under worlds, conflict (war) and peace (specifically education). Possibly, even between death and life, awaiting the souls who return to Earth to fulfill their destiny.
Anyone who gets to know Her beyond the scarce literature knows that She is so much more than a wrathful being, and so much older than the written record we have of the Ulster Cycle. However, as with all things Pictish in the realm of devotion, working with Sgàthach requires a very open mind, and an equally open heart.