My Modern Rune Practice I

In my last post, I talked about the origins of modern rune magic and the importance of the stories we connect with when working magic. In this post, I’m going to talk about  my modern rune magic practice and some of the ways in which I use rune magic in my everyday life.

My Introduction to the Runes

As ridiculous as it may sound, my first exposure to the runes was in primary

I’m originally from the bit roughly labeled “Norse Settlements”.

school at around the age of eleven.  Back then our history classes focused on an era per school term, so we spent an entire term learning about the Vikings. Growing up in what was once the Danelaw,  the history felt more immediate.  I think it’s always nice to know about where you live, to talk about historical things happening in familiar places. And it was in these classes that we also learned about the runes.

One of the things our teacher had us do during one of these classes, was to write a short essay in runes. We began with the Elder Futhark (with a few Anglo-Jutish additions to make transcription easier for us), but that was the start of it for me. It wasn’t long after that that I started to write on things in runes.  I liked knowing a different alphabet and found them easy to write with and remember.

But it would be a while yet before I began to use them magically.

First Forays into Rune-ing It

My oldest magical journal goes back to 1998, and it’s here that I find the first references of rune magic in my practice. I was in my late teens back then, and on the whole, the Heathenry of those times was a lot less informed than the Heathenry of now. I was living in a backwards town that wouldn’t see its first coffee shop for another seven years, and my involvement in reconstructionism was just under a decade away. Despite being largely ignorant of the actual scholarship though (and absorbing a whole lot of dross),

Ah, the true song of my people!

I was deliriously happy soaking it all up anyway.

For those of you who weren’t around during this time, you have to understand how hard it was to find any information about Heathenry and/or magic at all in those days- especially if you grew up in a more rural area. And even when the internet became more widely accessible, it really wasn’t like how it is now. I mean, I’m talking about the days before Google existed here. So almost any source I could get my hands on was precious – even the junk. Printer access was also limited for me back then, and much of what I did find on websites and in library books had to be copied by hand.

But despite the lack of information, my rune divinations (which I performed  using a set of runes I’d made out of oven-hardening clay), were shockingly accurate. I also started incorporating runes into what I would now recognize as petition papers and other forms of pen and paper magic. I used them to write charms and deity names when making offerings; visualized them and chanted their names; used them in shielding and protection, and for clearing spaces of unwanted guests; and enchanted with them to get work and escape bad situations.

If anything, I owe the life I have now to a combination of rune magic and fiber magic. And while my life isn’t perfect, it is measurably better than it was before. Embroidered rune magic put me on the path to the life I have now.

Early Stories

So as you might expect, I’ve done a lot of thinking about runes and how they work over the years.

An example of the kind of 90s era fantasy that was around when I was a young whippersnapper.

The first stories I told myself about the runes and how they work were that the runes themselves were inherently magical. That there was something in the shape and sound of the rune that made things happen. And why wouldn’t I think that when there are so many proponents of that idea out there? Moreover, I’ve also always been a fan of fantasy books and movies – a genre which largely reinforces that idea of runes. When you get down to it though, this isn’t all that different from the ideas put forth by Marby and Kummer; that these letters are not just letters that you can write words with, but energy fields permeating the cosmos that can be tapped into. (Like I said in my previous post, their ideas are still very pervasive.)

Runes and Story: The Mythology I Connect With

So which “rune stories” do I connect with now? Well, there are a few layers to this.

On the mythological level, I connect with the story of a One-Eyed god who gave all humans breath hanging on the tree for nine nights in a quest to snatch up the runes from (probably) Hel. I also (and this is perhaps more relevant to

Picture by Ludwig Burger

magic), connect with the story of how the Nornir inscribe the ørlög of every person on a slip and speak it into being before (presumably) dropping it into Urðarbrunnr to rest together with all the other slips of ørlög in the waters. And sure, we don’t know that the Nornir write on those slips in runes, but there’s something about it that fits.

The magical use of runes in the way that we use them now may not be historical, but that’s not to say that we can’t connect them with older stories anyway. There is value to emulating the divine in ritual and magic. As the Taittirya Brahmana says, ” Thus the gods did; thus men do”.

Nowadays I find myself thinking about the story or stories attached to the runes quite a lot. I’ve written a little about the magical qualities of story in this blog before. (You can find this in my posts on the Hellier phenomenon and the intersection of that story with that in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). Stories for me are inherently magical, and the more people buy into them, internalize and work with them, the more powerful that magic will be. And stories have never been more powerful; we now live in a world in which more people than ever before have access to books and mass media.

Runes and Story: The Rune Poems

On another level, the rune stories are the “stories” you find in the various rune poems. It’s possibly a stretch to call the short stanzas ascribed to each rune a “story” – they’re more like strange writing prompts if anything. But I’ve found they’re enough to spark the beginnings of story within the mind, stories that become enriched and filled out through time and experience.

The rune poems themselves have been theorized to have been created as mnemonic devices for the runes. But in some ways, I use the runes as mnemonic devices for the small “stories” of the poems. When I chant, visualize, create bindrunes, or stitch amulets, I am using the runes as visual and aural representations of the pieces of story that I’m weaving together. This is not so different from how I see and work with materia magica. For me, magic is about story, about bringing smaller stories together to either create or edit a larger metaplot.

Runic Touchstones

There’s also something very powerful about having a symbol or sound to focus on when working magic – especially when you’re working on a piece for a long time. It can give you something to focus on and come back to when your mind wonders. It can also give you something to cling to and put your faith in when scared, And for people who need things to be more concrete than abstract, having those things to hold onto can make all the difference (but more on that in a future post).

Rune Stories, Belief and Change?

But when you get into the realm of story, it’s never as simple as just deciding which stories you connect with and want to tell.

This is a discussion that has been cropping up in response to a post on the origins of the SATOR square. It’s a really interesting post, and in my opinion, very credible. But it has brought up the question of which “stories” are more useful when it comes to the SATOR square? Is the theorized origins story more useful than the ones that came later or are all the stories useful? Can they be selectively tapped into depending on the desired results?

Whatever the answer, the questions are not all that dissimilar from those we need to consider when contemplating modern rune magic. Because despite my desire to distance myself from the influence of Marby and Kummer, the stories they developed are still out there. At this point, generations of runesters have come up practicing modern rune magic, each learning that the runes represent and can be used to tap into cosmic energies.

Now just think about that for a moment.

How much belief, intensity, ritual, passion, and even blood has gone into that?

Stories upon stories upon stories.

The runes may not have originally been cosmic energy fields, but after decades of people working with them as though they are (plus the reinforcement from the fantasy genre), can we really say that the runes absolutely do not function in a like manner?

I don’t think we can.

That “story” is part of the wider magical “playing field” we all work on. Moreover, there are plenty of people out there (myself included) who can attest to the efficacy of that approach.

And that isn’t even taking into account other newer stories that are springing up about the runes. For example, you also have people who consider the runes to be beings in and of themselves. I personally cannot agree with that yet, and this is clearly my personal gnosis. But that’s not to say that they won’t ever become beings of a sort, especially if people continue to see them as beings and work with them in that way. I mean, if writers can create characters and then have sightings of them while out and about in the world (as in the case of John Constantine), who’s to say that someday we won’t be hearing of people reporting sightings of a being called FEHU?

Rune Contemplation

One of the things I love to do, regardless of whether a system of magic is ancient or modern, is to create and perform experiments. Modern rune magic is no exception to this and I will be talking about both my experiments and some of the ways that I work over the course of the next couple of posts. In this final section though, I’m going to talk about a couple of contemplative practices I experiment with that involve the runes. Feel free to try them out and let me know how they feel for you!

Where Do You Feel The Sounds?

As I’ve said before, I don’t consider the sounds of the runes to be particularly magical in and of themselves. But I also can’t deny that people have been intoning the runes since the beginning of the modern Heathen revival. Moreover, as “silly” as intoning letters that people use to write every day things may sound to more reconstructionist Heathens, it isn’t unheard of in Indo-European cultures. Pythagoras, for example, considered those everyday ordinary vowels to be the sounds of the planets, and vowel intonation was a part of the Graeco-Egyptian magic of the Greek Magical Papyri. And while I’m making this point, it’s probably also a good time to bring up the Greek Alphabet Oracle. Because for as much as people like to mock others for using letters that some guy called Halfdan might have used to write about his penis size, the Greeks had no problem with using their letters for writing about dick size or as an oracle.

Really, there’s a whole conversation we could have here about how this idea of having a separate language or alphabet for sacred things just doesn’t work when you look at the ancient world, but that’s not why I’m here.

So where was I?

“I’m sorry, but we’re out of aurochs right now. Please enjoy this cute cow instead.”

One of the practices I like to do is to intone runes, try to feel where they resonate the strongest in my body, and then contemplate how that location may or may not reflect the stories associated with that rune. So for example, when I intone URUZ, I feel it in my shoulders down to my fists. There’s a battering ram feeling there. But there’s also a feeling of groundedness and standing one’s ground, of being too big to be moveable unless I choose. In turn, I’ve found that this sensation itself brings up certain feelings surrounding being immovable and able to smash things.

When I look to my stories about URUZ – the ones I’ve internalized – I find that the sensations I experience when intoning this rune largely match. It’s the aurochs rune in the Old English rune poem – a beast that can fight and be quite destructive. It’s a beast of mettle, savage. It’s a beast that I imagine can stand its ground.

I’ve found this to be a useful exercise for a couple of reasons. The first is that it gives me insight into the stories I’ve internalized for each rune. The second is that over time, it’s proven to be a way to provoke necessary emotions for the magical work I’m doing. The more I do it and contemplate the sound, the stories, and the emotions, the easier it is to summon those emotions using the sound of the rune itself. This isn’t so different from using self-hypnosis to “program” yourself with body cues for things like grounding.

Grounding and Connecting with the Around World

Speaking of grounding, the second contemplative activity I’m going to describe today focuses on that very thing.

This is something I came up with while walking my dog in the local woods. I begin by closing my eyes and breathing for a moment. Just connecting my breath with the air around me and working to feel that sense of interconnectedness with every being else that breathes. Then, I move into

“The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy on native land.”
OE Rune Poem

intoning a rune that’s grounding. For some people this is URUZ, for me it’s EIHWAZ (or a combination of the two). As I chant, I let my voice find its own pitch and melody if one comes. I try to feel the vibrations in my body and visualize rooting down deep into the earth.

Then, when I feel like I have got that, then I change to chanting MANNAZ. For me, MANNAZ is the story of connection between not just humans, but all kinds of people. And this is what I focus on as I chant. I focus on that animistic sense of interconnectedness. As strange as it may sound, I strive to allow the boundaries between myself and the rest of the world to melt away until all I can feel is vibration and energy.

And if I’m lucky and actually get to that place (which is surprisingly hard), I tend to set off all the local birds. Which is really neat.

One of my favorite times working with this technique was in a forest with a friend. We’d been walking and I started to show her what I’d been experimenting with. She joined in and we were getting good responses from the world around us. Then she decided to throw in some LAGUZ – the water rune – and it started to rain.

It was brilliant.

Be well, everyone. And happy chanting!

Modern Rune Magic: History

The Rune Reading That Never Was

Around fifteen years ago I was sitting in a pub at a Pagan moot. It was the final moot I would attend before moving to Korea. I’d gone there to meet up with my co-host to discuss the moot we ran together (a different moot from the one I was at), and basically do the handover of my end of things. But at one point, a woman on another table called me over to her. She’d decided I needed to have a rune reading from her, and I, several pints into the evening, decided to go along with it.

So I pick up my pint and go over to this individual’s table. Because that’s another “funny” thing about this interaction – I didn’t even know her. But she’s getting out her runes, and soon those runes also include various crystals that she arranges around the table.

“These are amplifiers,” she informs me, then pulls out some jewelry that she starts to don. Before long, she’s wearing some kind of circlet and a bracelet. “Dampeners,” she says, as though it’s the most logical thing in the world.

I give her a puzzled look and ask “Why not just get rid of the amplifiers so you wouldn’t need the dampeners?”

That earns me a look that leaves me in no doubt that she thinks I’m an idiot. I work hard to keep the growing look of amusement off my face and she continues to set up, now making all kinds of spurious claims about runic ancestral teachings as she does so. Her mother apparently was taught this at her grandmother’s knee, and then there was non sequitur about illuminated manuscripts thrown in there too.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see where this whole thing would go as my fellow moot organizer chose that moment to come find me for our meeting and I left shortly afterwards.

History vs Story

Despite having practiced runic divination for years with some startling results, I was full of skepticism for what this reader was bringing. I knew there was no historical evidence solidly linking the runes to divination and that claims of hereditary rune reading going back to the 12th century (or whenever she claimed) were bunk. But what I wasn’t paying attention to (and what I have come to realize over the years), is that it’s not the history that makes a practice useful, but our abilities to connect with and buy into the stories surrounding that practice.

And runes, with their long inclusion in fantasy and slew of occult writings, have plenty of stories to connect with and buy into as tools for magical and divinatory practice.

Now, I would probably see that reader in the pub with her amplifiers, dampeners, and spurious claims as a weaver of stories. Her stories just weren’t any I could personally buy into.

Ruining the Runes I: Guido von List

But it would be wrong to consider modern rune magic and divination to have no historical precedent whatsoever. If anything, the early history of modern rune magic can serve as a cautionary tale that we should also be careful of the stories we tell – even with modern things/old things repurposed for modern use.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the vast majority of what we

List’s Armanen runes. From: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8b/Armanen_Runes.JPG

consider to be modern rune magic actually comes from early 20th century ethnonationalist (or völkisch) occultists who had originally been inspired by Theosophy. For them, as members of the “Aryan root race” (a concept they drew from Theosophy), it was from the purported wisdom of Germanic ancestors that they should draw instead of India. One of the first proponents of this racial mysticism was Guido von List who claimed to have tapped into ancestral memories of the Armanen, the alleged priesthood of the “Aryans” (Our Troth, vol. 1, Pp232 – 233).

Eventually, List put forth an 18 rune futhark known as the Armanen runes, to which he ascribed complex symbolism and that was contained within a Kabbalah-like system (that List would go on to falsely claim was originally of Germanic origin but preserved by Jewish Rabbis in Cologne). Despite this, List would never go on to develop a system of runic practice (outside of some lame rip off of the New Aeon English Qabalah gematria).

Ruining the Runes II: Marby and Kummer

List died in 1919, but unfortunately völkisch mysticism would stick around for a while yet. The next two people of note were followers of List: Friedrich Bernhard Marby and Siegfried Kummer. This is when we see the development of “Runic yoga” and the use of “runic mudras” as well as chanted runes as a form of “mantra”. For Kummer, who developed these chants, runes were energy fields permeating the cosmos that could be tapped into. ( (Our Troth, vol. 1, Pp233-234)

Now there’s a lot we could say about the whole “chanting runes as mantras” thing. Mantras are ancient (the earliest dating back to the Vedic period) and enough common elements have been found between different Indo-European cultures that comparativism is an established methodology. But the fact of the matter is that we simply can’t make the argument the ancient Germans or Scandinavians had mantras or what they would have been. Some modern esotericists might make an argument for “ALU” based on personal gnosis, but again, that’s not something we can prove.

As it happens though, this story did not end well for either Kummer or Marby. And ironically, it was their fellow racists that took them out. Because once the Nazi Party got into power, they were all about suppressing those weird pagan and occult groups. Marby was imprisoned from 1937 to 1945 and Kummer disappeared. And in 1941, the Gestapo was ordered to take out “secret doctrines and fringe societies” (Our Troth, vol. 1, p244-245).

Which makes you wonder why any modern Heathen would ever find sympathy with racist ideologies really. And despite racist Heathen talk about the primacy of “the folk” and “no more brother wars”, comments from non-Heathen far right spaces reveal a desire to stamp out far right Heathens almost as much as anyone else. Patterns repeat, people! Mark this one well if you are “folkish”, your fellow “brothers” will take you out if they ever gain power.

Ruining the Runes III: Edred Thorsson and the Modern Movement

But unlike Kummer, the ideas about runes developed by the völkisch mystics wouldn’t disappear for long – at least not in the grand scheme of things. If the ideas surrounding runes and the practices surrounding them (such as chanting) sounded familiar to you when reading through the section on Marby and Kummer, you can largely thank Edred Thorsson for that. Because it’s from Marby and Kummer that he largely drew his material (albeit adapted to the 24 rune futhark) (Our Troth, vol. 1, p 234).

The influence of Marby, Kummer, and to a lesser extent, List’s work on modern rune magic is pervasive. Which is unsurprising given how prolific Thorsson is and how influential he has been over the years. The chances are that if you pick up a book on modern rune magic, Thorsson’s influence is present.

Uncomfortable Histories and Bad Stories

There’s no doubt that the origins story of modern rune magic is bad. Some of us might also feel that the practices initially developed by Marby, and Kummer were poisoned by the ideology of the same racist movement that would eventually turn on Marby and Kummer.

But the fact of the matter is that modern runic magic has been with us for around forty-five years now, in a religious movement that’s not really been around for a whole lot longer. In many ways, the origins story of modern rune magic parallels that of Heathenry itself in that many of the early founders of modern Heathenry were also folkish/völkisch. (Btw I really recommend you pick up Our Troth Vol. 1: Heathen History or check out the Heathen History Podcast and learn about the early history of the modern Heathen movement.)

Yet though there are some outside of Heathenry who feel that no one should be Heathen because of this history, the majority of us stick around. Why?

The same reason as always: We found something within Heathenry that made sense to us and made our souls sing (whatever a “soul” is). And as someone who has been a Heathen since roughly 1997, this is the first time I’ve seen anything approaching a coherent inclusive movement within Heathenry that is based in relationship and ideas of interconnectedness, and it is beautiful. More importantly, it has the potential for growth.

The far right may have had a heavy hand in its creation (especially in the Anglosphere), but it’s our Heathenry now. It’s what we do now that matters.

Stories for Runes

As mentioned above, I find it ironic that it was the poisonous part of Marby and Kummer’s ideas that eventually came back to bite them. I also find it meaningful and a potential lesson. Because here’s the thing about magic: It doesn’t matter how new or old it is, if you are getting results and seeing change then you are interacting with “something bigger”. And whatever that “something bigger” is, however you experience it within your paradigm, you will find out when you fuck up (and usually in a way that highlights the nature of your fuck up). So to me, the fate of Marby and Kummer suggests that their völkisch beliefs were the fuck up.

Now this is clearly only my personal gnosis. And just to be clear, the magical slap downs I’m referring to here tend to come from angered deities/spirits and/or broken oaths vs the threefold law or the pervasive (and inaccurate) Western idea of Karma.

So where do we go from here with modern rune magic (for those of us who do find value in it)?

Inclusive Runes for Inclusive Heathens

The first thing is to be aware of the origins story of modern rune magic. We cannot erase that story, but we can damn well decide where we take it from here.

And there are people out there who are creating new/old stories for the runes,

The Sacrifice of Odin by Frølich

stories that reflect their own ideas of interconnectedness and connection and who connect those ideas and their practice with mythological elements. Such as the story of a hanged god who gave all beings breath snatching up the runes from Hel. Or the Nornir who carve the ørlög of every person on slips despite having no way of knowing whether the Nornir do actually carve in runes. They’ll take inspiration from Hávamál, Sigdrífumál, and Egil’s saga for their magic. Chant “ALU” from the bracteates and derive their meanings for divination from the rune poems.

These aren’t historically accurate stories, but that doesn’t really matter. Because they’re good stories, and more importantly, they’re stories they can buy into.

Just don’t try to pass them off as something they’re not. Be clear that your practice is modern. Embrace that.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about my modern rune magic practice and how I see what I do when I am working with the runes in this way. I’m also going to talk about the ways in which I use it, and especially how useful it’s been for my daughter.

Be well everyone.

Tower Time and Children

.In John Beckett’s blog last week, he tackled the question of how to prepare and explain the concept of Tower Time to Pagan children without giving them nightmares.

John was very upfront about the limitations of his advice as a non-parent, and focused more on practical matters as well as age-appropriate dissemination of knowledge. Because as John wisely said (and it bears repeating here): “Young children shouldn’t be burdened with troublesome projections about the future.”

It was a good answer, and I’m really glad he took the question on. Because if there is a conversation we need to be having in our Heathen, Pagan and Witch communities, it’s how we can support our children during a period of time many are referring to as Tower Time. (If you are new to the concept of ‘Tower Time’, I invite you to read more about it here from the originator of the term. I have also posted some of my musings of Tower Time here.)

The Brave New World of Do All The Things!

As John also wisely observed, Tower Time isn’t some far away apocalypse that we’re supposed to be prepping for – it’s already here. It’s both the background music and protagonist in the drama of our time.

When the pandemic first hit and schools closed, a lot of wonderful community-minded people set up online events for children. Parents in local groups posted overly ambitious Pinterest schedules for their families and children. People made homemade hand sanitizer, grew sourdough starters and worried about where the next rolls of toilet paper would come from.

We sewed masks, traded supplies with our neighbors, and shared any and all tip-offs we got about where to find help and supplies.

But one year in and around a half a million dead later (in the US alone), things look pretty different. People are struggling in every way imaginable, previously papered-over issues have been brought into sharp relief, and we may now actually be hitting the ominously named “third quarter”.

Science is winning though. The battle has been long, and the doctors and lab coat warriors courageous. We can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel now.

It’s just going to take a while to get there and there’ll probably be a few more bumps before we do.

Children in Tower Time

And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it were only the isolation of the pandemic to deal with? But a month and change ago my child got to watch me pack bug out bags for our family. (Because why not also throw an attempted coup in there as well?)

I mean, we clearly didn’t have enough shit to be getting on with before Y’all Q’aeda rolled up at the Capitol Building after weeks of planning their glorious revolution/liberal purge over on Parler.

And then there’s systemic racism, growing economic inequality, and increasing environmental challenges to deal with as well.

The big, crumbling, future-threatening towers are pretty obvious.

But what about our children in all of this?

We can teach skills in preparedness and give the best explanations in the world. Those things are helpful. But our kids are still going to struggle – they are still struggling. And is it any surprise? Hell, we adults have explanations and an entire internet full of preparedness skills to learn and how many of us are struggling?

Children don’t live in boxes – they’re often a lot more perceptive than we give them credit for and sometimes it’s what we don’t say that ends up worrying them the most.

So I guess the question here is how best to support them in this Tower Time?

I’m going to be honest with you right now: I have no answers here. I’m struggling with this too.

(Hopefully) Keeping Our Children Hale and Whole

The question of what we can do for our children in this shitty semi-apocalyptic scenario is one I think a lot of us have struggled with. And depending on where you live and the levels of infection in your community, you may not have a whole lot of choices. (This is me, I live in such a community.)

For the most part adults have gone virtual, and that’s actually turned out to be a pretty great thing for a lot of people. A whole slew of events are suddenly a lot more accessible to more people and I hope that virtual element is something event organizers retain once the world finally reopens.

But as fulfilling as many adults have found the virtual option to be, I imagine it must feel pretty weird for a category of human that ordinarily prefers to play away from the watchful eyes of parents who might tell them off for doing dumb kid stuff.

And sure, we can also focus on teaching them the skills we believe they may need in the years to come (while providing age-appropriate explanations of events). But I think a lot of people are wondering where Pagan or Heathen religious beliefs come into it as well. After all, how many of us turn to our beliefs when times are tough?

As I said before, I really don’t have any solid answers here. I do however, have a few points I’d like to throw out there for consideration should a wider conversation about children happen within our communities.

1. Religion and Resilience

Religion can be a real source of comfort for a lot of people, and has been shown to be a resilience factor in a number of studies now.

According to Dr Michael Ungar who studies resilience, religion can help children to be resilient as well. But as Dr Ungar also points out, it’s more likely the resources that are associated with religion that are the source of that resilience as opposed to the spiritual beliefs themselves. So we can’t exactly be like, “Here’s a deity, pray to them and feel better.”

Membership in a religion can confer a host of benefits for a child. It can bring relationships and community. Religion can give children a sense of identity in which to anchor themselves. Depending on the religion in question, a child may even get to make decisions within ritual and possibly also gain a feeling of control. Participation in religious groups can also give a child the opportunity to engage in acts of generosity which can make them feel good. Religious communities often meet the physical needs of children too through their charitable programs. And finally, participation in rituals and holidays can help give a child a sense of routine and prove grounding.

So with those points in mind, I think the importance of tackling this subject as a community is clear. If we are to be in-community with others then we must consider the needs of all age groups.

2.a. Storytelling and Cooperative Gaming

One of the needs I think is the hardest for us to meet for our children (again, depending on where we live), is socialization and the need for friendship.

My child has historically avoided Zoom-based hangouts with other children outside of school. The prospect has always seemed about as appealing as a fart in a spacesuit to her. But her Friday afternoon My Little Pony Zoom RPG session is becoming a firm favorite.

For those of you who have never played RPGs (Role-Playing Games), they are a form of collective storytelling in which players and the person running the game imaginatively co-create story together.

Humans have told stories since some of our earliest days and stories are probably our biggest consumable. They are the TV shows and movies we watch, the books we read, and games we play. Not all forms of story consumption are equal though, and some confer benefits that others do not. For example, people who read fiction have consistently been shown to have stronger social cognition abilities than those who don’t. When it comes to TV and movies, studies on mirror neurons suggest that the same parts of the brain that are activated when you perform a goal-oriented action are also activated when you view someone else doing it too! And RPGs have been shown to enable people to fulfill a range of social needs (such as friendship maintenance).

In short, story (depending on how you consume it),can be wonderful for everything from social cognition and friendship maintenance, to fulfilling social needs and possibly maintaining or increasing neuroplasticity by activating areas of the brain you may not otherwise ordinarily use.

Story is important, but perhaps it becomes even more so to socially isolated children?

2.b. Story and the Child

Now I’m not saying to give them a free reign over TV and Minecraft. Just that in a world of inorganic Zoom-based interactions, something like gathering to play in a well-loved fictional setting (such as My Little Pony), may be a good option for social interaction with other kids. And the cool thing about fantastical settings, is that even with parental supervision/help, the children can still feel relatively free to explore (which I think probably makes everything so much less awkward for them).

After all, no one is going to get into trouble for “teleporting the bad guy’s head off”.

Moreover, depending on the age of the child, RPGs can and often do include mythological themes (some of them particularly well researched) and can be an avenue for learning Pagan and Heathen mythologies.

Finally, RPGs can also be played within the family and provide a safe outlet for difficult emotions. Which I think we can all agree is something a lot of us struggle with from time to time.

Just a warning though, children’s storytelling can be quite twisted and bizarre (and this is apparently super normal).

3. Tower Time is The Long Game

Finally, I just want to talk about the ‘long game’ here. Because Tower Time is not going away any time soon, and nor will its mark upon us.

Pandemics, societal unrest, attempted coups and environmental disaster are all high stress situations/events. Even if we were to solve all the things in the most perfect way, the effects of this era are going to haunt us all for years to come. And when it comes to the children growing up in this time, I would guess those effects are going to be far more profound.

This is something that will affect this entire generation and I think we need to be prepared for that.

The “Little” Things

Before finishing this insanely long post though, I just want to say something that I hope brings hope to those of you out there who are looking at your kids and feeling kind of powerless and burned out by everything:

Don’t underestimate the little things.

When I look back to my own childhood growing up and the challenges my generation faced there, the things I keep coming back to are the “little” ways in which my parents consistently showed love. We were poor – very poor in fact. We were the kind of poor where we had back-up plans that involved foraging, setting snares on the local moors, and gathering wood (my dad kept the old chimney in place for reasons). I was the kid in homemade clothes with thrift store Christmas gifts bulking up the presents my parents scrimped and saved to get us all year. But although times were clearly not great for us then, my childhood isn’t some blot in my memory.

I remember the love there. The work my mum put into those clothes she knitted and stitched for us. Her hugs. I think about the way her voice still sounds like a hug even 3,500 miles away. And I think of traveling with my dad in his truck during school vacations and talking about all kinds of things. Because that’s when I got to see him the most.

I’m no expert on this. And I think what our kids are going through now is way worse than anything I experienced. But still, I think those so-called “little things” play a big role.

And we shouldn’t underestimate them. They’re not a “fix” by any stretch, but I think knowing you’re loved maybe goes a long way. And I dearly hope the conversation about how we and our communities can support children during these trying times takes root.

Until the next time.

Be well.

The Places We Go In Dream

It’s been a while since I last posted about dreams in a general way. But after the dream I had on Sunday night, I find myself inspired to revisit the topic.

If you’re a long time reader of this blog then you probably already know that dreams are important to me, that they’re something I work with. I keep a dream journal that lives in an app on my phone with a secondary residence in the cloud. Other people have dedicated paper and pen journals that they keep in a handy-to-reach place for when they wake up.

It doesn’t really matter what you use to record your dreams though. It just has to work for you, and more importantly you have to actually use it. Which means developing the discipline to write down everything you remember as soon as you wake up. (As opposed to clicking on social media and letting it all get washed away.)

What’s in a Dream?

Dreams aren’t just random brain junk for me. Many of them contain lessons and interactions. Sometimes I find myself in what might be called the Otherworld, and occasionally there’s a good bit of prophecy in there too. But all of this only really becomes clear when you start recording your dreams. A clear record can make the various patterns and themes in your dreams clear, which can in turn, help you understand what those dreams could mean for your waking life.

Moreover, if you also are the kind of person who encounters otherworldly beings in dreams, then it’s just smart to keep a record of those interactions full stop. As humans we’re largely at a disadvantage in dream, and lucidity can be hit or miss (depending on how practiced you are). You may receive requests, be given tasks to do, or even pressured into making oaths with some of these beings. At the very least you need to create a record. An agreement made in dream is still an agreement to the Othercrowd (and as with all agreements they expect you to keep it).

Oh the Places You’ll Go (in Dream)!

Before waking up on Monday morning, I’d been at a bus interchange. I knew the place – had been there six months earlier. (Thank you for the reminder, dream journal!) And I also knew what had happened in my life after having that dream. (Hello, pattern!)

In short, it got me thinking about the places we find ourselves over and over again in dream, what they mean, and the role/s they can play in waking life (if you let them).

For the sake of simplicity I’ve divided these different types of spaces into two categories: the ‘Regular Spaces’ (ie spaces you visit on a reasonably regular basis that seem ‘fixed’), and ‘Intermediary Spaces’ (or spaces which either indicate transition or may be transited through to the Otherworld).

These are some of the spaces I encounter. (I’d love to hear about yours!)

Regular Spaces

The Otherworldly School

This is a space I find myself in quite often. I’m never alone there but in classes full of what I suspect may be other sleeping witches. The environment is extremely strict – it would make a Victorian school room look lax. And there’s an underlying sense of danger should you mess up. But as with all schools, there are lessons here too (and not only in etiquette). I’ve received some of my most interesting magical lessons from this school, and yes, they often assign homework too.

The Old House with a Hearth

Another interesting space I often find myself in is an old house somewhere in Germany. Well I say “somewhere”, but that’s not quite right either. It’s like an amalgamation of the town where I used to live in Germany and several others. The house is situated along a winding street of old houses that date back to the 16th century and has a flagstone floor and huge hearth upon which various symbols are carved. The back of the house is somewhat lighter thanks to the great windows that open out into the hof. It’s a familiar place to me despite never having lived there. And every time I am there I am working magic in what appears to be an earlier period of history.

The Creepy Ruined Church

Until last year, the Creepy Ruined Church was my least favorite place to find

See this ruin? Yeah, it’s way nicer than where I go.

myself in dream. There has always been something malevolent about the place. It feels twisted. Unhæl. And I’ve always wanted to leave. But last year I realized that the Creepy Ruined Church was a training ground of sorts – a kind of magical troubleshooting simulator, if you will. And the more I’ve worked with it in this way, the more it’s become somewhere I don’t really mind anymore. It even looks better now.

Out with the possessed pigs and in with the chill dead people, I guess.

The Kindergarten

You know, it’s kind of “funny” really that an ex-Kindergarten teacher winds up in a dream kindergarten helping to teach non-human children. But it is what it is.

The Facsimile of Iceland

Ever since I went to Iceland in 2018, I feel like a part of myself sort of dug in there like some kind of anchor for when I die. There was a sense of home to Iceland, and so it’s probably not surprising that I end up there quite often in my dreams. Out of all the recurring places, Iceland, and especially northern Iceland, probably features the most. And these dreams almost always come with a message or involve elves in some way.

Intermediary Spaces

The Train Station

When I encounter the train station, it’s usually as a transitory space in and of itself that symbolizes an upcoming period of transition in life (surprise!). But it can also be something that I call to me in dream or trance to escape a space that’s either uncomfortable or just plain dangerous.

(There’s a whole backstory there about lessons from dead relatives who reside in Fairy but I’ll have to save that for a different post).

The Bus Interchange

The bus interchange is not so different from the first function of the train station. The only major difference that I’ve found is that the clothes I wear while at the bus interchange seem to be indicative of the type of change that I’ll be facing in waking life.

So for example, wearing armor at the bus interchange would be a bad sign (it was).

The Unrealistic Supermarket

What if I were to tell you that one of my most common entrances into the Otherworld (and lucidity) in dream, was through a massive supermarket?

When we think about the Otherworld, I think there’s a tendency to imagine it as some old-fashioned, almost Renn-Faire-looking kind of deal. And don’t get me wrong – in my experience, those places do exist. But I’ve also found that there are a lot of modern-looking places associated with the Otherworld as well.

The Unrealistic Supermarket is one such place for me.

Imagine a supermarket, but even more random than your local Walmart Supercenter. Maybe there is an entire row of functioning shower cubicles along one row with people using them? Or maybe there’s an aisle full of preserved, ornate human hands? Perhaps next to those there are hammers and Oreos?

See what I mean? Random and unrealistic.

When I find myself in the Unrealistic Supermarket, I usually start at the front of the store and move toward the back. And as I’m walking to the back of the store, I encounter a series of bearded men who stare at me as I pass.

It’s pretty weird and uncomfortable. But it also snaps me into lucidity right before I enter whatever section of the Otherworld proper I wind up in that time. (And for that I’m grateful.)

Housekeeping

So did you all know I have a book coming out next month? I do! It’s called Elves, Witches and Gods: Spinning Old Heathen Magic in Modern Day. If a somewhat atypical look at Heathen worldview and magic with an emphasis on experimentation and practice interests you, then it may be right up your alley. Available for preorder here.

I’m also running my class ‘Against the Evil that Roams the Land: Practices of Protection and Purification from the OE and ON/Icelandic Sources’ again on 2/27/21. This is for those of you who missed it last year, but also contains new material that I’ve been working with since the last time I ran this class. Interested? Sign up here.

A Furious God and Father of Charms

Furious Witch is Furious

The first time I cursed someone by accident I was angry. No, scrub that – I was furious. It was the kind of rage that heats the blood and causes the body to shake, to drive that pre-fight shot of adrenaline up the spine. And before I knew it the words had taken flight from my tongue, fully formed before I had even realized they’d been marshalled and ready to depart.

I’d felt it too at the time. There was the sensation of something leaving, something being unleashed into the world, and I knew then and there that what I had spoken into the world would come to pass; that my victim would fall from his ladder at work.

I remember then rushing to work protective magic on the person I’d cursed. You see, I didn’t really hate them, and I really didn’t want them to be hurt either. I was still young in my craft back then and my fury had been the one in the driving seat.

The next day the target of my wrath experienced the effects of both my curse and protection. He fell from his ladder at work while cleaning the top floor windows of a house and walked away completely unharmed. His boss was so shook up by the entire thing he gave him the rest of the day off anyway and sent him home.

This isn’t a boast. If anything, I’m not particularly proud of this moment. There is no ‘win’ here, just a loss of control that could have potentially seriously hurt someone I didn’t actually want to hurt. But it is a memory that has been coming up of late as I’ve been digging into the relationship between inspiration, fury/frenzy, and charms.

Furious Gods, Inspired Gods

As both a writer and magic worker, inspiration forms an integral part of my practice. In my fiction I birth new characters, and commit to word the speech of beings who I am fairly sure existed long before my birth and who will still exist long after I am gone. In magic…well, maybe in another post (this one is super long).

I’ve written about Óðinn/Woden here before, of his wisdom and relationship to breath. Without a doubt he is the god who has had the greatest influence over my life, answering my prayers and gifting to me in return in every land I’ve ever lived. But there is one element of this god that hasn’t really made sense to me until relatively recently, and that is the collocation between fury/frenzy and inspiration.

Óðinn’s connection with the poetic (and by extension, the inspiration that makes poetry possible) is quite well established in the lore. In Skáldskaparmál, it is Óðinn – or as he is also known, Fimbulþulr (Mighty Poet/Mighty Speaker) – who steals Óðroerir, or the ‘mead of inspiration/poetry’ from the giant Suttung (Price 63). It is because of him (at least according to the Prose Edda), that any of us even have any poetic ability at all (even the bad poets, who apparently are the recipients of the mead Óðinn shat out while escaping Suttung – seriously, look it up!). Yet as the myth makes clear, he is not the source of inspiration but its liberator – he too had to acquire it.

Egill – the man, the legend.

Óðinn’s association with the poetic and inspired seems to have persisted outside the mythical realm as well. In the sagas we find the famous Viking Age poet Egill Skallagrímsson, the protagonist of Egils Saga. Egill was a quintessentially Odinic figure, a warrior-poet who had knowledge of runes, was possessed of a berserker’s wrath, and carried one of Óðinn’s heiti as a compound in his name (Grímr).

Further possible support for a connection between Óðinn and poets comes from more modern criticism of the Eddas and the worldview they present (that of Óðinn as the head god who presides over a Norse pantheon). For these critics, this is a skewed perspective that was likely unknown to people who lived away from the centers of power that arose during the migration period, the ruling elites that inhabited them, and the poets they patronized. After all, what was a ruler back then without a poet to provide PR?

This is the core of the argument that scholar Terry Gunnell makes in Pantheon? What Pantheon? and From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God. For Gunnell, it is potentially thanks to the poets – those purveyors of Óðinn-centric religion – that the Eddas and the skáldic corpus survived in later years. The art of poetry was valued by both Heathen and Christian alike, and these sources may have been used as skáldic teaching texts therefore justifying their preservation.

Of course, an easy counterargument to this theory would be that the god of poets in the Eddas was Bragi and that the Óðinnic focus of the skálds could be easily explained by the necessity of pleasing their Óðinn-worshipping patrons. However, we should also note the inclusion of poetic meters such as galdralag (magic spell meter), and as Magnus Olsen argued, even dróttkvætt in magical charms – an area with which Óðinn is far more securely associated (Simek 98; Olsen 1916, “On Magical Runes”).

But we’ll get to that later. First, we need to embrace the fury.

Woden id est Furor

Writing in Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum IV, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen wrote of Woden, Woden id est furor, or “Woden, that is to say fury” (Simek 1993, 242). This is probably the most well known reference to Woden or Óðinn’s furious tendencies, but it isn’t by any means the only one. We’re going to return to this phrase and the other possible translations of the Latin word fūror later, but a translation of “fury” or “frenzy” is sufficiently complete for now.

Although best known as Óðinn (a name which may be translated as “Frenzied/Furious One”), the deity we mostly call “Óðinn” is a god of many names or heiti. In The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, Neil Price lists roughly 180 different heiti for the One Eyed God (depending on how you count them), which he divides thematically into 17 different categories. In the ‘Frenzy-, trance- and anger’ category, Price counts no fewer than 22 heiti or 10.5% of all heiti listed (including the name Óðinn itself) (Price 63 – 68).

Woden id est furor indeed!

What’s in a Name?

One of the most amusing things to me as a long-time worshipper of Óðinn is the tendency for those (usually on the far right) to see him as some unyielding, hypermasculine force. And as I’ve argued before, often the associations they place upon Óðinn are far more reflective of their own ideas about leadership and masculinity as opposed to what we find in the source material.

The etymology of Óðinn/Woden/Wodan/Wuotan/Wuodan (as they are all phonetic variants of the same name), is another area I believe further disproves this idea of the One Eyed God (Liberman, “Wednesday’s Father”). Not that that’s the point of this essay, but I may as well mention it while I’m here.

The name Óðinn is related to the ON adjective óðr, a word that translates as “frantic” or “furious”. In turn, óðr is believed to derive from the Proto-Germanic *wōda, a word meaning “delirious”. Also derived from *wōda and related to the ON óðr are the Gothic wods (“possessed”), OE wod (“insane”), and the now obsolete Dutch word woed meaning “frantic”, “wild”, or “crazy”.

Generally speaking, the further you trace an etymology back, the less secure and more theoretical that etymology becomes. If you notice, I used the term “believed to derive from” when referring to the Proto-Germanic root of óðr. This is because etymology at this time depth largely relies on words that are reconstructed using a series of educated guesses about things like sound changes. Words that are reconstructed in this way are written with an asterisk (*) at the beginning so as to clearly delineate them as linguistic reconstructions.

When you do trace that etymology back further to the WEUR (Germanic/Italo-Celtic) root *uoh2-tó though, you also arrive at the root of a number of Celtic language terms related to prophecy and soothsaying such as the OIr fáith (“soothsayer, prophet”), fáth (“prophesy”), and the Welsh word gwawd (“poem, satire”).

Interestingly, despite the degrees of linguistic separation that stand between the Celtic descendants of that WEUR root and ON óðr, the meanings of the noun óðr occupy a surprisingly similar semantic field as their Celtic counterparts on the other side of the language tree. As a noun, óðr may be translated as “mind”, “feeling”, “song”, and “poetry”. This is the óðr that is the third of the life-giving gifts to Askr and Embla.

All words for mutable, intangible qualities bobbing around in the shifting sands of etymology, but a remarkably consistent picture all the same.

Furor?

Which brings us quite neatly back to the Latin word fūror. Because although you only ever usually see it translated as “fury” or “frenzy” within the context of Woden, the word fūror carries a number of other meanings that make Adam’s choice of descriptor really quite accurate.

According to Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (1987, 98), the word fūror may be translated in the following way:

Fūror:  madness, raving, insanity, furious anger, martial rage; passionate love; inspiration, poetic or prophetic frenzy…

Once again, even with a word most commonly translated as “fury”, when we dig down further, we find that same collocation of fury, frenzy, poetry and prophecy as we saw in the etymology of óðr and its various linguistic relatives given in the section above.

Charm Father

As mentioned above, the art of the poet could also be turned towards the sorcerer’s art – there was even an entire poetic meter for writing spells (galdralag). Unlike with poetry however, Óðinn’s position as galdrs föður, or “Father of Galdr” (as he was named in Baldrs Draumar) is both explicit and well-established, and not just in the ON sources either (Simek 242). Woden is the only Heathen god to be mentioned in the OE magico-medical manuscripts; it is he who rests at the center of the so-called “Nine Herbs Charm” found in the Lacnunga. And it is Woden who is depicted chanting a spell over an injured horse’s leg in the Second Merseburg Charm (Waggoner, xv).

In my opinion, it is noteworthy that it is Óðinn who features in two of the most well known healing charms, especially given the normally combative nature of magical healing in Germanic cultures. Sickness was often perceived as being an invading force – often personified in some way -to be driven out or defeated, rendering the healer a magical warrior of sorts (Storms 49-54).

And this is where the various pieces of information laid out in this post begin to coalesce.

Enter The Tietäjä

For the final part of our exploration of fury, inspiration, and charms, we’re going to leave behind the Old Norse world and move eastwards and forwards in time to the lands of the Finnish magical specialist, the tietäjä (“knower, one who knows”).

The first written record of a tietäjä is relatively late, dating back to the 18th century at the earliest, However there is evidence to suggest that the “technology of incantations” that form the basis of the tietäjä’s interactions with the unseen world was adapted into North Finnic traditions from Germanic cultural influences during the Iron Age (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”).

That is not to say that the tietäjä somehow belongs to the Germanic cultural

Tietäjä Pekka Ruotsalainen and his wife. Photo by Ahti Rytkönen. Source: https://www.finna.fi/Record/musketti.M012:KK1482:315

sphere though. If scholars such as Anna Leena Siikala are correct in their assertion that the ‘tietäjä institution’ took shape in the first millennium CE, then there have been at least hundreds of years of Finnish cultural adaptation of this “technology of incantations” despite its Germanic roots (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”). Rather than looking at the tietäjä’s art as a wholesale survival of Germanic charm magic, it is the potential echoes of those older Germanic “technology of incantations” that interest us.

Throughout the course of this essay we’ve focused on the figure of Óðinn and the seeming paradox of a god of charms who is associated with poets, inspiration, fury, frenzy, madness, and berserkers (remember Egill?). I believe these characteristics provide the best clue to those older Germanic echoes that survived in the tietäjä’s art. Moreover, I believe that through examining accounts of tietäjäs (some of them from the perspective of the tietäjäs themselves) – especially where behavior is concerned – can provide important insight into working with Germanic charm material in the modern day.

The Tietäjä’s Body and Behavior

According to the account of a tietäjä recorded in 1835, the tietäjä had to possess “terrible luonto (inner supernatural force)” and anger in order to perform a charm successfully. The theme of extreme anger and violence is one that is often conveyed both in the ritual actions of the tietäjä as well as embodied by the tietäjä himself while working his magic. It is not enough to just feel enraged, one must act like it too.

Of the tietäjä’s behavior, Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot gives the following summary:

“the tietäjä 1) becomes enraged, 2) his speech becomes loud and frenzied, 3) he foams at the mouth, 4) gnashes his teeth, 5) his hair stands on end, 6) his eyes widen, 7) he knits his brows, 8) he spits often, 9) his body contorts, 10) he stamps his feet, 11) he jumps up and down on the floor, and 12) makes many other gestures.”

-taken from Laura Stark, The Charmer’s Body and Behavior in Charms, Charmers and Charming

For the tietäjä, fury was a source of power, and as such people took great pains to avoid incurring the wrath of a tietäjä. In one story an old tietäjä becomes so angry at a farmhand who unwittingly vandalizes his bird-trap that the farmhand goes insane. And when asked if the farmhand could be spared his fate, the old sorcerer simply tells them that it’s impossible as he became “too angry” (presumably while working his magic) (Stark, 8).

A Berserker and a Tietäjä Walked into a Bar…

There are also some interesting parallels between the tietäjä and ON berserkr here as well. Though the behavior is more extreme in the following account (a depiction of the berserker’s famous imperviousness to fire and iron), there are still notable parallels between this account and the list of behaviors compiled by Lönnrot.

“These men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity.”

-Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum Book VII.

Like the berserker, the tietäjä was also said to be impervious to fire and iron ( Stark, 9). There was a belief that the tietäjä had to “harden” his body, making it impervious to both magical and physical damage.This “hardness” was not only dependent on the tietäjä’s inherent qualities (such as a “hard” or “strong” luonto), but could also be achieved through incantation and ritual as well.

Hardening the Body

Much like ourselves, tietäjäs also seem to have made use of magical shielding. But whereas modern practitioners might set themselves inside a magical bubble, the tietäjä seems to have called down protection from holy powers in the form of magical iron clothing or armor.

Give to me an iron coat,
Iron coat, iron cap,
Iron mantle for my shoulders,
Iron mittens for my hands,
Iron boots for my feet,
With which I shall enter the Hiisi’s lands,
Move about in Evil’s realm,
So that the sorcerer’s arrows will not penetrate,
Nor the wizard’s knives,
Nor the shooter’s weapons,
Nor the tietäjä’s blades

(Stark, 8)

The tietäjä who was summoned to war was said to be bulletproof – “hardened” by wearing a shirt in which a corpse had been buried, or by holding a bullet that had killed someone in the mouth. One former soldier by the name of Alatt claims to have “brushed handfuls of bullets off his chest when they didn’t penetrate his skin” (Stark, 9).

Conversely, we do not know what rituals (if any) were performed by berserkers (though there have been plenty of theories suggested over the years).

Conclusions and a Question

At the beginning of this essay I began with a story of rage and magic. Of what rage can do, and what can (almost) happen when it’s allowed to burn out of control. Over the course of this study, we’ve looked at Óðinn’s seemingly disparate associations with poets, poetry, charms, frenzy and fury. We’ve dug into his heiti as well as the etymology of his name, and a surprisingly consistent collection of characteristics have emerged. From there, we shifted focus to the tietäjä and the ways in which they embodied many of those characteristics while working their charms and incantations (themselves a form of poetry). Finally, we looked at the similarities between tietäjäs and berserkers and methods used by tietäjäs to “harden” their bodies against physical and magical attack.

Though the tietäjä institution is undoubtedly Finnish, there seem to be some distinctly Óðinnic echoes here. It’s my opinion that the tietäjä’s use of fury as a source of magical power may be seen as a model for not only understanding Óðinn’s fury, but also the potential role of that kind of weaponized fury in galdr.
However, despite the meaning of his name or the 10.5% of heiti pertaining to frenzy, we never actually see Óðinn in the kind of berserker rage that is so associated with him (at least not in any sources that I can think of).

Rage is powerful – it is a source of power when chanting spells – yet without control it is just as easily our undoing as our success. The berserker wielded rage without control, becoming a danger to not only his enemies but his allies too, and was often outcast for it. The tietäjä wielded rage with control, but still often fell into the trap of becoming petty and punitive, and in some cases dooming entire families with their incantations (Stark, 11). Yet the “furious” god of many names does not seem to rage but remains the “Father of Charms”.

Now why do you think that is?

Sources

Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (1987)

Frog – Shamans, Christians, and Things in between: From Finnic–Germanic Contacts to the Conversion of Karelia
Grammaticus, Saxo – Gesta Danorum Book VII

Gunnell, Terry – From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God

Gunnell, Terry – Pantheon? What Pantheon? 
Kroonen, Guus – Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic
Liberman, Anatoly – “Wednesday’s Child”, OUP Blog
Olsen, Magnus – On Magical Runes
Price, Neil – The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2nd Ed.)
Simek, Rudolf – Dictionary of Northern Mythology
Stark, Laura – “The Charmer’s Body and Behavior as a Window Onto Early Modern Selfhood”, in Roper, Jonathan (Ed.) Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic
Storms, Godfrid – Anglo-Saxon Magic
Waggoner, Ben – Norse Magical and Herbal Healing: A Medical Book from Medieval Iceland

Heathen Deity Relationships

The Relationship Divide

If you’ve been around the wider Heathen community for any amount of time, then you’ve probably heard this one before. It’s something that comes out whenever people start discussing their relationships and experiences with individual gods. At some point in the conversation, someone will invariably come along and tell everyone that such individual deity relationships are a modern thing. That deity worship was communal – something that was only done as a community. And that the gods are far too important to bother with relationships with lowly individual humans. So stick to your ancestors (at their gravesites) and the local spirits, guys!

But for all the appeals to historical authority in these arguments, I don’t see a lot of actual historical support for them.

A Word on ‘Relationships’

Before getting into the evidence though, I need to clarify what I mean by ‘relationship’ here. Because for most people, the connotation is of a sexual or romantic relationship. And while there are certainly modern practitioners who claim that kind of relationship with certain deities, that is not the only kind of relationship meant here. As we will see, there are a number of types of relationship possible with deities (as there are other humans). My use of the word ‘relationship’ in this post is intended in this more general sense.

Textual Evidence

Generally speaking, modern Heathens tend to be more familiar with the textual sources than archaeological evidence, so this is where we’ll start.

Roughly 1/4 of a ‘Heathen Starter Pack’ circa 1998-2000.

If you are like me, and first encountered Heathenry in the 90s, then you’re probably quite familiar with the term fulltrúi. Everyone seemed to be/have one back then (yay for horrible anglophone understandings of ON terms!). There was definitely a sense that ‘having’ a fulltrúi was part of the ‘Heathen Starter Pack’ (along with a horn, bowl, and hammer pendant).

One of the biggest problems with modern Heathenism is that we all seem to be incapable of being anything but extra AF. We do backlashes like no one else. After over twenty years in Heathenry, I feel like I can almost guarantee that if we go balls to the wall on one thing, a whole other group of us will go balls to the wall in completely the opposite direction. And this is what I suspect lay beneath a lot of the backlash to the use and abuse of fulltrúi back in the late 90s/early 2000s. (For a similar response, see the ‘UPG vs recon’ debate).

Modern fuckery aside though, there is evidence of relationships in which a

Eh…not quite.

deity was described as being the fulltrúi of a person in the primary sources. For example, in cha. 9 of Víga-Glums Saga, a man called Þorkell refers to the god Freyr as his fulltrúi. And in cha. 8 of Eiríks saga rauða , Þórhall refers to Þórr as his fulltrúann. Now it’s worth bearing in mind here that the word fulltrúi held a variety of meanings in Old Norse (as it does in modern Icelandic), and could be used to refer to deities, humans, and inanimate objects alike. Fulltrúi could be a confidant, patron, protector – someone you can fully trust. In modern Icelandic, it tends to refer to someone who is an agent or service representative. So it’s important to realize that the word ‘fulltrúi’ isn’t some specifically religious term.

But in all cases, where it is used, it is indicative of different kinds of relationship.

Other Relationships with Deities: Hrafnkel Edition

But these two examples of fulltrúi are not the only evidence of different kinds of relationships between deities and humans (or worship on an individual level). Another excellent example of a deity-human relationship is that of Hrafnkel and Freyr in Hrafnkels saga. In the second chapter of Hrafnkels saga, we’re told the following:

”Hrafnkel loved no god more than Freyr, and to Freyr had devoted a half share of all his greatest valuables.” (Translation taken from Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson A Piece of Horse Liver)

On the surface, Hrafnkels saga seems to be a story about the uselessness of such relationships with deities. Hrafnkel’s behavior as a result of his religious dedication is quite extreme at times (especially from our modern perspective), and that extremism seems to lead to his downfall. Hrafnkel is famous for having jointly kept a horse with Freyr by the name of Freyfaxi, and for swearing an oath to kill anyone who dared to ride him without permission. But as always, such an oath seems to be like that proverbial ‘big red button’ that shouldn’t be pushed, and the sanctity of Freyfaxi is inevitably violated by a herdsman who decides to take the horse for the 10th century equivalent of a ‘joy ride’.

“Hrafnkell, that herdsman asshole *rode* me! Go get him for me?”

Interestingly, the horse seems to come and inform Hrafnkel of the violation and Hrafnkel sets off to kill the herdsman (Aðalsteinsson 1998, 116-117).

Now if there’s one thing Icelanders seemed to enjoy back in the day (I’m joking here, they didn’t), it was a good, old-fashioned blood feud. And as you might imagine, the herdsman’s father did not take the death of his kid well. To cut a long story short though, this killing started a chain of events that saw Hrafnkel’s temple destroyed, Freyfaxi killed, and Hrafnkel himself in some severe legal shit.

Okay, so that wasn’t that big of a deal compared with other Icelandic feuds (I’m looking at you, Njáls saga!)

In the saga, Hrafnkel’s devotion seems one-sided on his part. Yet as scholars such as Aðalsteinsson have pointed out, it’s no coincidence that the devotee of a god of fertility then went on to experience good luck with his meager livestock, or that great shoals of fish began to appear in the lake near his home. Aðalsteinsson also makes the argument that Hrafnkel’s declaration that he would no more believe in gods is out of keeping with what we know of tenth century Icelandic religion, but that’s another matter and beyond the scope of this post (Aðalsteinsson 124-125).

Other Relationships with Deities: Wife/Priestess of Freyr Edition

It may sound simplistic to say this, but the world of the Viking Age (and before) was not our world, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, would probably be quite alien to us in a lot of respects. This is something that Neil Price acknowledges in the second edition of The Viking Way when he makes the observation that ”we seem reluctant to acknowledge that aspects of these and many other facets of their lives come to us filtered through a world-view that most of us would find incomprehensibly distant, unpalatable, even terrifying.”

Their world was not ours, and this may very well explain the sense of taboo or even mockery towards the concept of sexual and marital relationships with deities.From the perspective of modern humans born and grown in predominantly Christian societies, this is delusion at best, and blasphemous hubris at worst. But if the textual evidence found in Gunnars þáttr helmings is indicative of attitudes towards such relationships in the Heathen period, then party on, deity spouses!

The þáttr is set in around the tenth century (but written in the fourteenth century), and as the name suggests, relates the exploits of a man called Gunnarr.

Now Gunnarr was something of a character. If he were from where I grew up, we’d probably have referred to him as a “ right rum un”, and this “right rum un” was on the run from none other than King Óláfr Tryggvason of Norway. Gunnarr ends up hiding out in a sanctuary in Sweden where he encounters an idol of Freyr and his wife.

Per the þáttr ” it was the peasants’ belief that Freyr was alive, as in some ways it seemed he was, and they thought he would need to have marital relations with his wife.”

Freyr and his wife don’t just stay at the sanctuary though, and Gunnarr obtains

“Listen, if the wain is rocking, DON’T come knocking!”
-Gunnarr, maybe.

permission from Freyr’s wife to accompany them in the wagon ‘when he makes the season better for men’. So he goes on the road with Freyr’s wife and the Freyr idol, leading them from place to place until one day they find themselves stuck in a snowstorm on a mountain road. At this point, Freyr’s idol comes to life and fights Gunnarr (+1 points for living idols, yo), and Gunnarr fights back. Unfortunately the story becomes a conversion narrative at this point, because Gunnarr, while getting his ass whooped by idol-Freyr, begs the Christian god to help him in exchange for converting and eventually wins. Then, because Gunnarr was indeed a “right rum un”, he spent a bunch of time telling people he was Freyr, sleeping with Freyr’s wife, and eventually getting her pregnant (North 24-25).

The Swedes for their part didn’t seem to give a shit that the Freyr was now a human man either. They had good weather for their crops and that was the important thing there.

Now, shitty (and rather predictable) conversion narrative aside, assuming this þáttr reflects Heathen period practice with regards to Freyr’s wife, the wider community role of this woman was clear. Her position was not questioned and nor was it taboo. Even when it became somewhat farcical with Gunnarr blatantly pretending to be Freyr, the Swedes were more about the outcome than anything else. As long as the weather did its thing and the crops grew, it was all good.

Archaeological Evidence

In my opinion though, some of the best evidence for individual worship comes from archaeology. There are a number of statues that have been found that are interpreted to represent different gods.

The statues I present here date to the Viking Age. Pay attention to their size!

First we have the Rällinge statuette. As you can see, he’s a very well-endowed figure. Unsurprisingly, he’s been interpreted as a representation of Freyr. But for all of his blessings beneath the belt, this ‘God of the World’ is all of 7cm/2.75” tall. So, pocket-sized for your convenience. Just ask Ingimund from the Vatnsdæla saga about his missing Freyr amulet..

 

 

 

 

Odin from Lejre, Denmark

Next up is the one that triggers all the bro types. Yes, it’s this lovely silver and niello figure from Lejre that’s interpreted as Óðinn (but you see he’s wearing lady clothes so that’s bad apparently). Once again, he’s pocket sized for your convenience, measuring only 18mm tall (0.7”).

After that, we have the Eyarland Þórr statuette.
This guy comes in at 6.7cm/2.6” (with his hammer taking up a good deal of those centimeters/inches).

Finally, in before anyone can say “but that was Viking Age and a response to Christianity”, here’s the migration period Trollhätten “Tyr” bracteate.

The funny thing about Heathen responses to Christianization is that per Danish archaeologist Lotte Hedeager, the entire myth of Tyr losing his hand was a migration period invention created in response to Christianization (Lotte Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality, pp 207 – 211). There are literally hundreds of years of Heathen responses to Christianization before what we typically think of as the conversion period in the North.

So what can we take from these statuettes?

They simply don’t make sense for community worship, and as the Vatnsdæla saga story of Ingimund and his Freyr amulet demonstrates, people do seem to have carried personal deity representations. Why would they have done this if only communities looked to gods?

Important Lessons for Modern Relationships

There are more examples I could have included here, but this blog post is already quite long (congratulations for making it this far), so I will move on to summarizing a few of the ‘lessons’ I think we could take from these sources.
The first is despite the examples given here, it seems to have been perfectly fine to just go to community events and do your part to uphold the customs of the community. Then as now, not everyone is going to be Hrafnkell or Þorkell level of relationship. And that’s fine.

One of the coolest things about these sources for me is the way in which people largely just did their own thing and didn’t really overly-concern themselves with what other people were up to in terms of belief and ritual unless it bled out onto the community level. Unless you have good reason to believe that someone is causing harm to others (and especially to those who cannot consent), it’s fine to just let people do what they’re doing. So if someone wants to set up a hof, start a cult around the worship of a preserved horse dick, or start some peripatetic Freyr sex cult, whatever. As long as it’s informed, consensual, and not illegal, go for it! You go get your damn völsi on.

But whatever you do, I think it’s wise to remember that these relationships go both ways, that that trustworthiness isn’t just something to be expected of a deity, but also on our end too. If you consider a deity to be your fulltrúi, ask yourself, are you really a faithful friend to the deity? Because sure, you can’t do nearly as much for them as they do for us, but wise kings always value their trustworthy followers. It’s the same kind of thing here. So don’t rush into these kinds of things, and remember that relationships are not built on oaths alone.

Sources
Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson – A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual, and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources
Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson – Under the Cloak: A Pagan Ritual Turning Point in the Conversion of Iceland
Lotte Hedeager – Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD 400 – 1000
Richard North – Heathen Gods in Old English Literature
Neil Price – The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2nd Ed.)
The Old Norse World 
The Saga Database

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Creation

To a Creation, Clothes

In my last post, we began with a story of creation on a windswept beach. But today, we’ll begin by following in the footsteps of a wandering god to a field.

The god in question is the same as the giver of önd in our first story. He is Óðinn, a god of many names, the one who I call  “Old Man”. This time though, it’s not trees he encounters, but two “tree-men”. And there is no giving of önd, óðr, or lá and litr here. This time, the Old Man simply gives them clothes (Hávamál 49).

This always reminds me of a story written by the twelfth century poet, Marie de France. In one of her lais, Bisclavret, a man-turned-werewolf is prevented from returning to his shape of birth by an unfaithful lover hiding his clothes. You see, when it comes to masking and its sibling, shapeshifting, there always seems to be an element of dressing for the “job” you want. The person who wishes to become a wolf must do as Sigmund and Sinfjotli did in the Saga of the Volsungs and don the skin of a wolf. And perhaps the tree that is to become a person, must wear a person’s clothes.

So, we have two sets of trees being made people when encountering a certain One-Eyed God. One might call that an M.O.

But what does that have to do with us and the magic we might create?

Mythological Fix Points and Magic

Some of you may have already heard of Mircea Eliade, the Romanian historian of religion who openly supported the Romanian fascist organization, The Iron Guard. He is a problematic figure, for sure.  But when it comes to working with historical forms of magic, I have found some of his work to be quite useful. You see, for Eliade, every significant human activity (as well as acts of creation and foundation) had a mythological “fix point”. They are rooted in myth and we are acting in pale imitation of what the gods are depicted as doing in mythological time.

Eliade can’t really take the credit for this concept though. The idea that humans imitate the gods is quite ancient. There are texts in the Yajurveda (a veda which concerns ritual practice), that specifically mention this concept. In the Satapatha Brahmana, the reader (presumably a budding ritualist) is instructed to ”do what the Gods did in the beginning” (VII, 2, 1, 4). And the Taittiriya Brahmana further underlines the importance of this idea with the following statement: “Thus the Gods did; thus men do” (I, 5, 9, 4).

Woden Worhte Weos: Animation as Woden’s Magic

So we have a god with an MO of making people out of trees. Some would even say that this is a kind of magic specific to that god (Richard North, I’m looking at you).

There’s a curious passage in the Old English Maxims that is worth a look here.

”Woden worhte weos, wuldor alwalda,
rume roderas: þæt is rice god
sylf soðcyning, sawla nergend”

(Maxims I, II, 132 – 34)

(Woden made idols, the almighty [made] glory,
the roomy heavens; this is a powerful god
himself the true king, healer of souls.)

As scholars have pointed out, this passage is clearly modeled on a line from Jerome’s Psalter iuxta Hebraeos. Maxims I isn’t the only place we find echoes of this line either. And curiously, in some of those other texts that contain reflections of this line, the “idols” are described as “demons”, suggesting that the idols themselves are more than carved wood. This idea of ‘living’ idols is made clearer in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum. In the Gesta, Óðinn (here, Othinus) is shown restoring a desecrated statue of himself, and ”by amazing craftsmanship made it respond with a voice to human touch” (Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, pp 88 – 90).

There’s a lot to unpack here – the idea of ‘living’ idols is probably quite a bombshell for a lot of modern Heathens. But that’s not the focus of this post – creation is. And once again, we see the Old Man associated with the act of creation.

But if the sentiment found in the the Yajurveda and advanced as a theory by Eliade is true, then we should expect to find some human imitation of this form of magic, right?

Tree-Men

In the Hávamál passage mentioned earlier, Óðinn encounters two tree-men (‘trémönnom’ in ON). But this is not the only example of trémaðr (the singular form of ‘trémönnom’) in the ON corpus.

There are a number of mentions of tree-men, but two in particular stand out for the details they provide. In the Flateyjarbok, a group of men put ashore on the island of Sámsey. There they encounter a ‘tree-man’ who speaks to them of his purpose and origin. He was the product of sacrifice, and had been made to bring about the deaths of men in the southern part of Sámsey. But over the years, he’d become overgrown and his clothes and flesh rotted away.

(Those of you who are well read in the ON corpus will probably recognize Sámsey as the island where Loki claimed that Óðinn worked seiðr.)

The second example is in Þorleifs þáttr Jarlsskálds.  In this story,  Hákon Jarl creates a trémaðr to kill Þorleif Jarlsskáld after Þorleif cursed him with ‘itching sickness’.

Despite the connection between Óðinn and tree-men though, it was to the sisters, Þorgerðr Hörgi’s bride and her sister Irpa – a somewhat mysterious duo of goddesses that feature in a few sagas – that Hákon Jarl made his sacrifices. The process is outlined quite well for us here. First, Hákon Jarl makes the sacrifices until he receives a favorable oracle when he has a piece of driftwood brought in and fashioned into the shape of a wooden man. Then with “the monstrous witchcraft and python’s breath” of those two sisters, as well as the heart of a man sacrificed for the purpose and the proper attire for a man, they sent their tree-man, now named Þorgarðr, into the world to kill Þorleif (North 93 – 95).

But Óðinn’s hands are perhaps not entirely absent from this story. Because after Þorgarðr kills Þorleif (disappearing into the ground once his mission is complete), Þorleif’s dying words mention one of Óðinn’s kennings, Gautr in relation to the tree-man (North 95-96).

Creation: The Bare Ingredients

The parallels between Askr and Embla, and Þorgarðr are quite clear. And more importantly, provide us with a bridge between the mythological and the sagaic. Or in other words: the realm of gods and realm of men.

In both stories of creation, the creator begins with driftwood and imbues the creation with breath, color and vital blood/warmth, and mind/purpose. In the mythological story these are attributes that are magically given. But in the sagaic, the önd remains the domain of deities (at least for Hákon); the blood and heart from the sacrificed man provide the lá and litr; and the incantations/empowerment, the óðr.

Adaptation

So now we have the bare ingredients for creation. Now I’m not suggesting that people begin creating tree-men (assuming that’s even magically possible at this time given the current dominant paradigm). But in my experience, this process of creation is useful for everything from the creation of magical tools, to poppets and magical cures.

This process does require some adaptation though. I most certainly do not advise that any of us engage in human sacrifice as it’s illegal and wrong. Moreover, we’re not trying to animate whole men, so in terms of scale, it’s

From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty) Witchcraft Tools

probably not even necessary either.

When I create magically, I follow the order of creation in the myth of Askr and Embla, and begin with my breath. For those of you who engage in possessory work, sessions in which you are carrying the Old Man would be the perfect time to engage in magical creation (with his agreement, of course). For those of you who don’t, you can take a leaf out of the migration period warlord’s playbook and simply ritually assume the role of Óðinn while you work. Remember that dressing for the job you want is a thing – yes, even with this.

Then comes the lá and litr. For me, this heat/blood can be either my own blood, or water and passing over a candle flame. Color can come from sigils, markings, or simply a coat of paint. Depending on what you’re doing, you may or may not wish to use your own blood (and if you do, be safe and sterile about it).

The final step is incantation, which I take to be the giving of óðr to your creation. This is often tied in with the giving of breath/önd in more practical terms. And in my opinion, this was probably the case historically too – at least when it came to herbal infusions and salves. The Old English magico-medical manuscripts give the instruction to “let the breath go wholly in” while chanting galdor. I do not think this to be coincidental.

Depending on what you are creating, you may wish to also give your creation a name. There is a long tradition of named objects in the North, as well as objects with a sense of agency and ‘fate’.

But whatever you create, you must always create carefully. Because this kind of magical creation isn’t just some arts and crafts project to use in a LARP. You are creating, and you will always have some degree of responsibility for (and to) what you create. You may wish to also bear this in mind when you’re writing your wills.

In the next post, I’m going to be talking about how I approach the elements in my magical practice. But until then, be well.

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Breath

Breath is sacred to me. And not just because I rely on it to stay alive.

As a Heathen, breath was the first life-bringing gift given to humans in the poem Völuspá. These first humans (at least according to this mythological account) began their existence as “trees”. In Gylfaginning, these “trees” are found on a windswept beach, I imagine them as logs possibly washed up by the sea.

So three gods happen upon these dendrous layabouts, and decide to give them life. And this is where Óðinn steps up and breathes önd into them.

Just imagine for a moment – the cold and unyielding wood somehow coming to breathe. I have to imagine those first breaths to be creaking and harsh, possibly even painful.

But then comes Loðurr with what might have been heat and color. (I say ‘might’ here because there’s some discussion about the ‘heat’ part.) I now imagine the harshness of creaking wood softening to flesh, and those harsh gasps becoming sighs of relief.

It’s probably a kindness that Hœnir’s gift came last really. Because he gave them óðr or mind, and presumably only then, an awareness of self.

There’s a lot to be said about these gifts and their relevance to magic. Today though, I’m going mostly to focus on Óðinn’s gift of önd.

Breath and ‘Soul’

You may have already inferred from the retelling above that önd is breath, and it is. But önd wasn’t just speaking to the breath that oxygenates the body. In both the Zoega and Cleasby-Vigfusson dictionaries, it is also translated as ‘soul’ too.

For me though, önd is also the steed upon which inspiration, or óðr rides. A fitting gift from the god of Skalds.

The Nature of Inspiration

But before we follow that thread any further, we first need to take a look at what inspiration may have originally been.

Unfortunately, the Norse and Germanic corpus isn’t particularly forthcoming on the nature of inspiration. We know that there are poetic meters associated with magic and necromancy. And we can infer that Skaldic craft was itself considered magical. We can also look at the story of Egill Skallagrimson covering his head with his cloak in order to compose poetry in Egill’s saga, and possibly infer certain practices related to the getting of inspiration (as Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson theorizes in <em> Going Under the Cloak</em>).

However, in my opinion, our best clues come from the Welsh sources.
Like the Norse, the Welsh had an advanced culture of poetry (as too did the Irish). To be a poet, was to be capable of magic, and poets possessed of awen had the ability to influence kings.

The Welsh word awen, or ‘poetic genius’ carried supernatural and magical connotations, and was associated with spiritual enlightenment and wisdom. This was not “inspiration” as we know it today. This was inspiration associated with ideas of ‘spiritual wind’ and ‘divine breath’. The words ‘awen’ and awel (a Welsh word meaning ‘wind’ or ‘breeze’) are both derived from the Indo-European *uel, or ‘breath’. (You can find out more about awen in this video by Welsh scholar, Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird here.)

But it’s when we get to the purported origin of awen that things become interesting. Because in the Welsh sources, awen comes from the Welsh Otherworld, or Annwfn, the ‘Very Deep World’, rising up as a ‘spiritual wind’ or ‘divine breath’ to fill the poet, bringing vision and other spiritual gifts.

As one might expect of the ‘Very Deep World’, Annwfn is often depicted as a chthonic realm in the medieval Welsh textsan underworld, if you will. It is a realm connected with spirits, both Otherworldly and dead alike. An idyllic realm, a perfected realm. And it’s here with this idea of inspiration that comes from spirits and is breathed in (inspired) where we come crashing back into the Norse sources.

The topic of spirits entering a person for prophecy or other purposes can be quite controversial in modern Heathenism – taboo in some circles even. But as Eldar Heide demonstrates in Spirits Through Respiratory Passages , there is ample evidence of spirits entering a person through the breath. The evidence presented by Heide in the paper is primarily concerned with hostile attacking spirits who enter by forcing a yawn in their victims and enter on the in-breath. But an example given from Hrólfs saga kraka, shows that ingress by spirits may have also been a part of seiðr. In the account given in Hrólfs saga kraka, a seiðkona is depicted yawning before giving (or attempting to give) prophetic answers. Moreover, it was not uncommon This occurs multiple times in the account. Could this be a potential parallel to the awen-filled speech of the Welsh poets?

Working with Breath

In the magico-religious practices that I’ve developed over the years, breath is one of the key ways through which I connect with Óðinn. For many people who work with this god, he is called Allfather because of his role in enlivening Askr and Embla. However, for me, he is the Allfather because as the giver of breath, he is the giver of the one gift that all humans share regardless of ethnicity. We all breathe from the same air when we take our first breaths as newborn infants, and our final breaths will leave us to mingle once more with the winds. This is one of the main ways in which we are all connected, and it is with that understanding that I explore the breath in my work.

Meditation

There are many ways in which you can work with breath in Heathen magic and magic in general. But today I’m going to begin with meditation.

Many types of meditation work with the breath. Usually, it is used as a vehicle for changing one’s mental state and/or as a focus or support for meditation. But breath can also be used as a medium for exploring that sense of interconnectedness I mentioned above.

The first time I experienced this, I was stood at the side of Goðafoss waterfall in Northern Iceland. I’d just been under the cloak and was thinking about the stories surrounding the falls when I found myself wondering about Óðinn in Iceland. Suddenly, my attention was drawn to the sound of heavy wing beats that somehow sounded louder than the roar of the waterfall. Two ravens were flying across the width of the falls and their wings were all I could hear. Time became weighty and the world more ‘real’. I became intensely aware of my breath, and suddenly I was not just myself anymore but engaging in a communion of sorts with the winds, the world around, and a certain one-eyed god. I was a part of the whole rather than a singular being. The ravens turned and flew towards me until they drew level and veered away, taking the moment with them.

It is this experience I try to replicate when I meditate in this way. I begin with offerings and a prayer before taking a few moments to calm myself and fall into a light trance state. Then I focus on my breath as a connecting medium. Each time I breathe in, I do so with the awareness that I am breathing in a substance of winds, spirits and inspiration shared by everybeing else that breathes as I do. Then I release it back into the wholeness of the world completing the circle once more. Each breath is a micro-reenactment of life from birth to death. On good days, I focus so completely on the breath and what it carries that I no longer feel the separation between myself and the whole, and that is when the real magic happens.

In my experience, this exercise is the most satisfying when performed in a high place where the winds blow free, but you do not need to be on a mountaintop to do this. Your backyard or sitting indoors near an open window will work just as well.

A Story in Parts

In this post, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We began in mythological time, with three gods on a windswept beach giving life to the first humans, and followed the breath to its connections with spirit-gotten inspiration in the Welsh tradition before returning to the North and the theme of spirits through respiratory passages. Those of you who are more familiar with the ON material will have probably noticed that the more typical word for both ‘inspiration’ and possibly also ‘possession’ too. There is no doubt that there is some overlap here, but we’ll be getting into that further in the next post.
Speaking of the next post, we’re going to be taking a look at the other gifts of life, some of their most important uses in magic, and the possible connections between those gifts and the most common elements found in Old Norse magic. Well, at least as I see them.

Until we meet again, friends!

Be well.

Sympathy for the Devil

I’m going to begin this post with a story about the Devil. And I dare say it’s one many of you already know.

It begins with a young witch in the employ of a local monastic order. Of course, they weren’t overtly monastical when the witch applied – assurances were made.

“We’re a secular company,” promised the interviewer. So the witch took the job and went to work for a monastic order in a hamlet on the moors.

For a while, things were fine. The witch enjoyed the work, the workplace was satisfyingly haunted, and life went on. At no point did the witch hide what they were though, and soon co-workers began to notice.

In the beginning, it was little things. Like the way the witch would argue with the dead people who would make it impossible to open windows and doors. Or the way the witch saw the shadowy figure come to carry off one of the residents when they passed. Then there was that time when the witch divined the delicate marital situation of a co-worker. And well…these kinds of things tend to get noticed, and as that’s when the questions typically begin.

For the most part, I’m happy to answer genuine questions. But there is one question that I find particularly irritating (though not for the reasons you may think).

“Do you worship the Devil?”

Christian Baggage: The Devil Edition

In my younger years, it was almost a knee jerk reaction to disavow any and all connections with Old Nick. I was very mindful of how my response could reflect on other Witches/Pagans/Heathens (and in turn affect their future treatment).

“No no no, not I,” I’d say, half-paranoid that they wouldn’t believe me (while Deviltrying to look as harmless as possible).

But over the years, I’ve found myself thinking about the Devil quite a bit. After all, why do I as a Heathen and witch give two shits what Christians say about a being? It’s not like they’re particularly kind about my (non-Devil) gods! I mean, let’s face it, all of our gods are devils and demons to them.

And yet how many of us find ourselves unconsciously buying into Christian ideas about the Devil? How many of us would recoil at the thought of saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or walking counterclockwise around a church at midnight (lest we meet Old Scratch)?

When we typically think about Christian baggage within the context of modern Paganism/Witchcraft/Heathenry, it’s usually more about our issues with their god and church. But I would argue that the way we see the Devil is also a form of Christian baggage, and in these “interesting” times, it’s a form of baggage we’d do well to face.

History is Written by the Victors

“We have never heard the devil’s side of the story, God wrote all the book.”
― Anatole France

Also available in a one-Devil-band ‘Party Satan’ edition!

We’ve encountered this concept before – that history is written by the victors. Yet why do we never consider this when it comes to the Devil? I don’t have the time to give a full history of the Devil here (if you are interested in that though, I recommend reading Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey). Perhaps fittingly, the Devil’s story is full of twists, turns, and deceptions.

One of the simplest explanations of the Devil is that he’s aggregate. He is a cloven hoof comprised of Lucifer and Satan (to borrow Grey’s analogy). But there is more to this spirit – especially the Devil of the (witch) confessional record. Per Wilby, this Devil was rooted in ”genuinely popular ideas about embodied folk spirits, such as fairies and the dead”.

And that part about Lucifer and Satan may sound quite frightening at first. But when you dig into the actual histories of those beings, there’s something undeniably Pagan in a really cool chthonic-astral kind of way. Oh, and let’s not forget those fairies and the dead! That’s familiar territory, no?

Pagan Respectability Politics

Yet this prejudice (let’s be honest about what this is) cannot solely be the product of Christian baggage. A large part of how we react to the question of

Spank-bank worthy Lucifer in a cathedral.

the Devil also boils down to respectability politics. In other words, a lot of us simply don’t want people who aren’t like us to be afraid of us or to think us evil. And so we try to appear “good” and harmless. We swap the whiff of brimstone for febreeze and defang ourselves to “fit in” (along with buying into Victorian ideas about fairies, making covens into private clubs, and tricking ourselves into thinking everything is all about us).

When asked about the Devil, we trip over ourselves denying any and all connection. And when we’re really scared, we modern Pagans historically denounced the Satanists to the authorities during the “Satanic Panic” to keep the wolves from our own doors.

Which is…no.

Moreover, it’s all ultimately useless. Because regardless of how much you deny that brimstone, there is no place within the Christian worldview for Pagan Holy Powers except from within the fires of hell. Those who subscribe strongly enough to those beliefs either consider us deluded, or are simply hoping for the day when they can legally put us to the flames once more.

To Dare, To Keep Silent

Now I’m not saying that we should all start worshipping huge Devil phalluses at our altars and making the beast with two backs with some seriously cold Nick dick (though if that’s your thing, I’m not going to yuck your yum). What I am saying though, is that we shouldn’t buy into Christian propaganda about a spirit/entity/deity. And also that we should remember that we aren’t the harmless people we may present ourselves as (or at least shouldn’t be).

Because we live in the kind of times where the older, more potent forms of magic are needed. By all means, be the kind of person to take tea with the vicar. But don’t forget the mounds, spirits, and stars in that veneer of mutual respect and nicety. The Devil isn’t always the worst deal-broker in town.

Have a nice weekend.

Awe and the Witch

I would like for you to take a few moments and think about the last time you experienced awe.

When was it? And what was the source of that awe?

As a word, awe is used somewhat loosely nowadays. It has become more

According to whoever labeled this photo on Pixabay, this is an example of “awesome”.

commonplace and casual than it used to be. How often do you hear people referring to something quite ordinary as being awesome? Or the performance of an athlete as being awe-inspiring? Perhaps you’ve even told a friend that you’re in awe of them?

But despite these modern uses, awe is actually a powerful (and useful) word. More importantly though, I would argue that an understanding of, and experience of awe is integral to witchcraft.

Defining Awe

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, awe may be defined as an emotion that variously combines “dread, veneration, and wonder”, and “that is inspired by authority or by the sacred and sublime.”

Witches have always held a reputation for transgression and subversion. So clearly it’s not the kind of awe that is inspired by authority that is of interest here. As always, we are concerned with the sacred (at least to our eyes) and sublime.

Awe and the Numinous

In the modern Pagan/Witch/Heathen communities, there is a tendency to consider the numinous in a more positive light than is traditional. As I have written before, we are inheritors of cultural ideas that have been systematically diminished over the ages. For example, dream is no longer commonly considered a place in which one may encounter the dead and Otherworldly. And fairies have been transformed from their original, often terrifying understanding, to cutesy and twee ‘nature spirit’ type beings.
Don’t believe me? Then take some time to imagine fairies as being awe-inspiring and capable of producing that curious combination of “dread, veneration, and wonder”. (If your mind found that incongruous in any way, then you have some unpacking to do.)

In its most archaic meanings, awe is “dread” and “terror”, but also having the power to inspire that dread. And this is where we come to the numinous. Because beings that are capable of inspiring awe in the first place, cannot be harmless and always “good” (at least by human standards). There can be no awe without the ability to cause dread and terror, and no ability to cause that dread and terror without the agency and capacity to either seriously harm you or take your life.

If you have never encountered a being that you have known, on some bone-deep level, could hurt and/or even kill you, then you have arguably never experienced awe or the numinous.

And this isn’t even about encountering hostile beings or having bad experiences. You can have the best and most wonderful experiences and still experience that awe. Because awe is not about what happens on the day, but rather an ever-present potential outcome should you misstep.

Awe and Fear

In 2016, I wrote a post entitled Witchcraft is not Safe (and nor Should it Be!), in which I detailed a nocturnal experience from over a decade ago in an ancient burial mound. To cut a long story short, we encountered a hostile numinous being, got out okay, and it was a learning experience for all.

As one might expect, it provoked a variety of reactions. One of the most confusing of those reactions though, was the notion that witches should only interact with those beings that are “on their level”. Or in other words, “don’t punch above your weight”.

Which is a rather curious response. Because every time we invite deities and/or members of the Other to our rituals, or try to cut deals, we are attempting to “punch above our weight”.

(Yes, deities, and the Other are “above our weight”. We wouldn’t need to bother them if they weren’t.)

Yet few seem to realize this, and if anything, deities (especially) are almost seen as being “safe” to work with. There are of course layers of nuance here. And as many will point out, there is an association between many deities and some form of social/cosmological order. This (or so many seem to believe), makes them less unpredictable (and ergo less potentially harmful) than other types of numinous being.

Witches and the Numinous

However, as witches, those of us working within a Northwest European framework have to recognize that much (if not all) of our magic originally comes from the Other. This is a consistent theme that you find from the Viking Age to the Early Modern Period. In fact, it was the initial encounter with the more mercurial and Otherworldly numinous powers that made the witch. And these encounters were often quite terrifying! For example, one 17th century cunning woman, Janet Trall, claimed to have almost lost her mind with fear on encountering the fairies (Wilby 82)!

Moreover, this is something we see even with a spirit as intimate to the witch

Victorian Arthur Rackham Vintage Old Ancient

as their familiar/s. There is a power imbalance inherent in this relationship too, and one that does not favor the witch. Familiars too are “punching above” the witch’s “weight”! And when you further contextualize that relationship within the wider system of Otherworldly hierarchies, then the witch really ain’t all that and a sack of spuds when it comes to position and power!

That’s not to say that we human witches are like driftwood being tossed by a far greater sea though. If we’re clever, we can make allies, employ risk management strategies, and use our cunning to bring down much bigger foes. If we’re not…well…

All of this is simply part and parcel of being a witch.

Awe with ‘Big’ Numina vs ‘Smaller’ Numina

Before concluding this post, I’m going to make one final point regarding hierarchy and awe. And that is, that in my experience, there is a difference in the degree of awe experienced when encountering a ‘big’ numen vs a ‘smaller’ numen.

Let me explain, the first time I encountered Frau Holle/Holda, I had crept over frozen ice to lay an offering at the foot of a statue. (This is clearly a ‘don’t try this at home, kids’ moment.)

When I first stepped out onto the ice, I thought I was just going to look at a cool statue of a folkloric figure. I wanted to get a photo from up close. But as soon as I got there, I was hit with such a sense of awe that I instinctively fell to my knees. Looking up to the eyes of the (modern!) statue, I knew I wasn’t just seeing the statue of a folkloric figure. Flashes of deep, ancient roots going back through time ran through my mind. And though it was my first time “meeting” her, I felt love, wonder, terror, and yes, dread.

Oaths, Offerings, and Omens

Oaths started to tumble from my lips – to dig into those roots and put information out into the world about her true origins. There was a strong sense that I should give her some incentive to not take me on my way back over the ice. I gifted her a small berkano pendant I’d been sent by a silversmith friend out of the blue, buried it at the foot of her statue in the snow to run off into the pond with the spring melt.

Then on my way back over the ice, I heard this indescribable sound. It sounded as though it was rushing up from depths and whirring all at the same time. I rushed back to the banks of the pond and into my husband’s arms.

Tense moments passed as we stood and waited for an omen. Then suddenly the atmosphere changed. The fog cleared and bright sunshine broke through the trees to bathe the statue and us in golden light. When we went to walk back to our car, we found we’d been parked less than five minutes walk from the pond though it had taken us around two hours of wandering over a frozen mountain to get there.

Awe and the Degree of Potential Harm

Other beings have produced awe to a lesser degree in me. Instead of outright terror, there’s an edge of caution. Over the years, I’ve noticed that these tend to be the beings who seem less capable of harming me, or at least can only harm me to a lesser degree. And so I’ve learned to listen to those feelings. When not obscured by bullshit ideas garnered from Victorian nonsense and scientific materialism, those feelings can be a useful guide to who you are dealing with and how careful you should be.

So I ask you again. When was the last time you felt awe?