In the last post, I talked about some of the helpful herbs you can use for smoke cleansing. This is the third and final part of a series that began in 2014. Or rather, I wrote the first post in 2014, then was inspired to return to it, revise it, and add to it.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at an Old English procedure for preparing herbs for smoke cleansing.
Smoke Cleansing in Bald’s Leechbook III
Dating back to the mid-tenth century, Bald’s Leechbook is a collection of remedies for everything from headaches to “elf-diseases.” There are two different procedures for preparing herbs for smoke fumigation that I’ve found, but I’m going to stick to the simplest. If you are curious about the second procedure, you can read it here.
In the charm we’re going to focus on, charm Lxii, we are given the following instructions:
“Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.”
This was actually very close to the kind of healing the church fathers spoke out against. Contemporary writings show us that there was a clear preference for healing through prayer, or miracles. But herbal healing wasn’t viewed as necessarily being bad in and of itself for the most part. Simply making yourself some chamomile tea to settle a stomach and maybe speaking a blessing over it was fine. And really, that’s not all that different from what millions of Christians do today when they pray before eating. But when you’re using prayers and Christian liturgy as spells and throwing in a few ritual acts, that cure then transitions into the gray space between “magic” and “miracle” referred to by Karen Jolly as “middle practices” (Jolly 89).
So what do we have in our Leechbook charm?
We have the healer collecting the herbs and dipping them into holy water three times. In the Lacnunga, we see the number three usually associated with holiness. Alternatively, singing a prayer three times could also be a way of timing whatever the healer was doing.
Then, the herbs are hid under the altar while three masses are sung over them. Is this blessing or Christian prayers as galdor? See what I mean about that gray area?
Finally, the person is fumigated with the herbs – both in the morning and at night – while the healer sings further prayer/spells. (Plus draws crosses on the patient and feeds them some of the consecrated herb mixture boiled in milk with holy water.)
So, how do we take that procedure and Heathenize it for our own purposes? If Aelfric can replace spoken charms (galdre) with blessings, we can replace prayers and blessings with galdre.
(Fair’s fair, my dude!)
1. Collecting the Herbs
The first step comes in collecting the herbs. Here is where I look to a combination of the Nine Herbs Charm and the vervain charm from Harland. In both charms, the herbs are addressed as sentient beings in and of themselves. This is despite the 700-800 year gap between the Lacnunga and the charm recorded by Harland mentioned above.
“All-hele, thou holy herb, Vervin, Growing on the ground…” So, you may want to say a few words of your own when approaching and pulling the herbs. Pray to them as the spirits they are and take respectfully.
And just a note on the herbs mentioned in the Leechbook. I don’t use that particular mix of herbs because I prefer to work with plants I know and can easily forage/grow. In my experience, this procedure is good for preparing a wide range of herbs for smoke fumigation.
2. Washing the Herbs
In the original charm, the herbs are bound in cloth and dipped in holy water three times. Now, I suspect the cloth was largely to prevent bits of leaves breaking off into the font, so I don’t bother with that part. I’m also a Heathen, and where they say “holy water,” I say “Lemme go hallow this water with some galdor.”
Water from a local spring you consider sacred also works.
Now, give your plant friends a little bath.
3. Three Masses?
Here we come to the final step for prepping the herbs for later use. (As opposed to prepping the herbs in order to go treat a patient as soon as possible.) And the way I do this is I lay out the herbs (nicely spread out on a cloth so they dry out) on my shrine and then I hold three rituals to my gods and plant spirits on three consecutive days. I make offerings, I ask the gods and spirits to make the herbs so holy that ill-wights flee from their smoke. I also address the spirits of the plants themselves again. If I’m working with mugwort, I speak the verse from the Nine Herbs Charm that reminds her of what she can do while asking her to bring her powers to bear. With other plants, I fall back on relating any stories I know about them, reminding them of what they can do and asking them to help.
Then, after the three days of rituals are complete (and the herbs are dry), I put them away for later use.
Yesterday I got a message from a friend. They were asking if it were okay to link one of my older posts about white sage on The Troth website. She’s working to educate people on the cultural appropriation and sustainability issues surrounding white sage and palo santo. This is especially important for a community that aspires to inclusivity, so I agreed.
But then I remembered an issue with the pictures on my older posts. Some of them are missing their pictures – an issue I fix as I go. So, I asked for some time to go through and check. But when I took a look this morning, I found a whole bunch of issues. And the biggest was that it needed a bit of a rewrite to match what I now know.
Now, I don’t normally like to do this, but a post entitled “Step Away from the White Sage!” is kind of catchy. It’s easy to remember – the kind of thing people share. So, I wanted to make sure the post that people are more likely to remember is accurate (while noting my older fuck ups).
As I wrote though, I decided it would be a good idea to talk about what herbs would be good to use, and hence this post was born.
Smoke Cleansing Outside of Indigenous Cultures
In the revised version of the older blog post, I talked about how there is nothing wrong with smoke cleansing or smoke fumigation. After all, there are examples of smoke fumigation in multiple European traditions (along with practices such as carrying fire and sprinkling water).
As a Heathen, I tend to look to the Old English and Old Norse sources for magical tech – especially the Old English magico-medical manuscripts. And luckily for us, there’s a set of instructions for smoke fumigation in Bald’s Leechbook iii!
I’ll talk about these and look at how they can be adapted for modern non-Christian use below.
So, first thing’s first! Which herbs are good to use for smoke cleansing? In this section, I’m going to talk about three different groups of herbs (plus mugwort) that I personally look to in my practices. As with anything herb-related though, be careful of sensitivities when working with them.
First up is mugwort!
She is by far the plant ally I work with the most in this kind of work. Named the “Oldest of herbs” in charm 79 in the Lacnunga, mugwort is a badass. If she were in a D&D campaign, she’d be the tank of the group. The charm tells us that she “stands against three and thirty,” against poison and infection, and against “the evil that travels the land.” And she’s valued in healing traditions around the globe. She fights infection and cysts and brings on menses. Many also ingest her as a tonic. In great enough quantities, she has enough similarities with her sister, Wormwood, that she can also affect perception.
Mugwort can also be paired with vervain, garlic, or wormwood for greater effect.
She’s so awesome, I gave her her own section despite her really belonging in the next.
Mugwort isn’t the only herb ally we learn about in the Old English magico-medical manuscripts though. There are a plethora of holy herbs in those texts! You can find them in charms such as charm 63 in the text known as the Lacnunga. Charm 63, or as it’s better known, The Holy Salve charm, contains a huge list of herbs that were thought useful to put into the creation of a holy salve. Among them are mugwort, fennel, bishopwort, rue, and vervain.
Another famous list is the so-called “Nine Herbs Charm” (AKA charm 79 mentioned above).
You can also find these holy and helpful herbs in many of the cures for “elf-diseases” (especially those involving perception impairment). Seriously, go digging into these texts. Ignore the Christian veneer – they didn’t use herbs or smoke in the same way during that period. (Incense was for carrying prayers, and herbs were a little too close to charms for the truly faithful.)
We have a lot more than we think we do.
Vervain and Rowan
Another strand in my magic comes from my birth region, Lancashire. The old county of Lancashire was notorious for magic and witches at one point. And fascinatingly, some of the recorded charms from the witch trials there are very similar to the OE narrative charms.
With such a reputation, it’s hardly surprising the county is thick with tales of boggarts, hauntings, witches, and the devil. Equally unsurprising are the traditional apotropaic herbs.
One that will likely already be familiar to people is mountain ash, or rowan. This was believed to stop bewitchment (and witches in general), and they would make the churn-staffs of butter churns from this wood. (Our witchy ancestors liked to fuck with people’s butter back in the day, I guess.) Despite its reputation for protecting people from bewitchment though, you also see rowan used as a magic wand in at least one folktale.
Another herb was vervain, which we already saw from The Holy Salve. This was considered seriously holy and gathered while speaking charms. John Harland records one such charm in his book Lancashire Folk-Lore, with the remark that such charms and their accompanying ceremonies were “infinite” (Harland 76)
Vervain was traditionally worn as protection against fairy-blasts and other otherworldly perils. And you often see magic circles constructed using vervain (sometimes along with bay leaves and holly) in folktales detailing necromantic adventures (Bowker The Sands of Cocker, The Christmas Eve Vigil).
The herbs you can look to are those known as “solar herbs,” or those herbs that are considered to correspond with the sun in Natural Magic. Now, this isn’t particularly Heathen, and I think we need to sit and think about the concept of correspondences within an animistic framework. But this works, and so I’m including them.
Solar herbs like bay laurel, ash, broom, rosemary, rue, rowan, St John’s Wort etc., are all incredibly effective for driving out ill. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be particularly effective nowadays.
Just a quick note about rosemary before moving on: rosemary is both associated with remembrance of the dead and protection. Take from that what you will.
A Note about Smoke Cleansing Safety
Now, not all of these herbs are necessarily suitable for smoke cleansing. And different substances irritate different people’s lungs. Please be mindful of this in your practice, especially when working with older sources.
If you’re living in a situation where smoke cleansing absolutely isn’t an option, you still have options. One such option is making a room/house cleansing spray with holy herbs. Another, which is usually a better option when it’s a person that’s afflicted rather than a space, is an oil or salve.
You don’t have to only cleanse with smoke.
In the next post: How to adapt an old-ass procedure for preparing herbs for smoke fumigation. See you next time!
Lancashire Folk-Lore – John Harland
Goblin Tales of Lancashire – James Bowker
Encyclopedia of Natural Magic – John Michael Greer
Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore, and Healing – Stephen Pollington
They’ve just become an accepted part of life, right?
Yet another thing putting adverts in front of our eyes trying to get us to buy more. That unseen force that compels us to add a photo to social media posts as “tax,” so more people see what we have to say.
They even often shape what and how we say what we say.
Take this post, for example. Like the vast majority of blog posts, I’ve tried to write it to make the algorithms happy. I’ve kept my sentences short and have used as much active speech as possible – anything to keep Yoast happy, right?
Twenty words or less per sentence, that’s the standard.
When you really think about it, it’s messed up, but it’s become our norm all the same.
Billions of voices all writing in lockstep with algorithms, all producing a product called content.
You know—that thing I’m doing right here with this post.
No one is saying algorithms are actually demons, of course. Just that, as Mark Pesce argues, algorithms share certain characteristics with demons, or at least a certain view of demons.
To quote the Medium essay I’m using to refresh my memory:
”What might you call a creature that feeds on your energy, knows your weaknesses, and can tamper with your emotional state in ways that compel you to act beyond your best interest? Centuries ago we might call this a demon. As algorithms are programmed to exploit humans in order to do their bidding, perhaps it’s time to interrogate the Faustian bargains we make each time we sign up, log in, and click thru.”
In an age of online occult influencers, this has become a helpful framework for me when navigating matters of authenticity and content. What do we lose when we tailor our content to appease the algorithms enough to be rewarded with virulence? When we aid the algorithms in their exploitation?
A Faustian bargain indeed!
Algorithms and Authenticity
Unfortunately, this bargain is a tough one to break. We live in an economy where the production of such content is often tied to the economic survival of the creator. And herein lies the biggest problem with the commodification of creativity: products are created for customers. Appease the algorithms and your work gets in front of more people. Appease the people, and hopefully that translates to dollars.
Those all-important dollars that keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on your table.
Those are some pretty hefty motivations, right? They’re downright existential. But (and this is question I find myself returning to from time to time) what of authenticity?
Because here’s the thing about writing spiritual content (horrible term, but I’m going with it). It is, by its very nature, personal. It’s intimate and subtle in ways that blog posts about chimneys or recipes for cakes are not.
(Please, for the love of Sweet Baby West Virginia Jeebus, Karen, no one wants to read about your fifteen kids! Or your upholstery business. I get there are good reasons why you do this, but please, do the world a solid and add in-page links to the recipes? Sincerely, Everyone.)
Anyway, back to the topic.
For these reasons, one would always hope that content discussing spiritual matters comes from a place of authenticity within the creator. Except I don’t see how it can when survival for so many depends on increasingly getting caught in a trap of uniformity and writing to order vs giving voice to what’s actually in our souls.
But we’ve made our pacts, it’s time to make the best of it.
Walking the Balance
For me, creativity is a whole-making, inspirited thing, and the inspiration that fuels it, sacred. There’s almost an element of horror for me when I consider this issue. Because if creativity and inspiration can be spirit work (and for me, my various souls are also spirits in their own rights), then what of them in all of this? How do they dance with the algorithms?
At times, I think they dance well together. Sometimes the stories and ideas those spirits want to get out mesh well with the algorithms. Other times, that dance is hard. That line of appeasing algorithms and audiences can become a noose while remaining true to those stories and ideas. Of course, none of that erases any of our existential needs. Bellies still need filling and bills still need paying.
The key then perhaps is being mindful of the dance and striving for balance. According to Douglas Rushkoff, creator of Team Human, weirdness is our best weapon. So perhaps sprinkling in some authenticity by way of letting your particular brand of freak flag fly is the way to go? (But be careful to be authentic with your weirdness for that too can also be commodified. I know, I fucking hate this world for shit like this.)
Embrace your weird, talk about your fuck ups, be subversively human. (Just remember to use the active voice and do it in twenty words per sentence or less.)
And if you can, don’t be afraid to ignore the current discourse du jour unless it’s something you actually care about.
The purpose of this post wasn’t to make anyone feel bad. It was a call to my fellow authors and creators to think about that line where appeasement and authenticity meet in our work. There are plenty of other conversations to be had here too. Such as platforms and responsibility, social media and mental health, and honoring our comfort levels and authenticity while trying to make that cabbage. Today though, I wanted to talk about the dance we often find ourselves performing for the algorithms. It’s quickly paced and can be exciting at times, and it’s easy to get swept up—especially when people begin to copy you.
But don’t forget you have your own steps too. They also need to be danced if you want to keep yourself whole.
But I’m posting today because I feel like a definite line has been crossed.
The Book Burners Set Their Sights on Witches
The Pagan blogosphere was full of takes about Greg Locke’s book burning antics in TN, and rightfully so. The act of burning books is a line in and of itself, and historically, often a precursor to far worse.
Most people don’t want to believe that “far worse” will ever happen. But if there’s anything history teaches us, it’s that plenty of people have thought “it” (whatever it is) will never happen only to have it happen to them. The sad truth of the matter is that humans are capable of great evil, but a fear of consequences (where present) generally keeps us in check.
This morning a friend sent me this link. It contains clips of Greg Locke’s preaching. But this isn’t the usual fare of a fire and brimstone preacher. Here, Locke is talking about how he has the names of six witches, three of whom are allegedly members of his church.
Now, the chances are, there are no actual witches in his church. But that doesn’t really matter now, does it?
It doesn’t change the atmosphere of excitement among the congregation or shouts of encouragement. It doesn’t change his ability to rile them up against witches.
This is bringing the nameless and unknowable “witches” of earlier preaching videos into the realm of the knowable, and gods forbid, actionable.
This is how people wind up getting killed, witches or not.
The Profit and Potential of Hunting Witches in Uncertain Times
And he probably won’t be the only preacher to go down this road either. People often forget that witch-hunting was very profitable. The art of providing spectacle and convenient scapegoats is a tried and tested formula for making that profit. And if there’s anything these preachers love, it’s money, right?
Another factor we need to take into account when considering this issue is that we live in uncertain times and are facing issues on multiple fronts. We live in a time The witch-hunt has never really been a feature of prosperous times. For example, the Bamberg witch trials, some of the most infamous in Germany, began after a series of crop failures against the backdrop of the Thirty Years war. And Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, plied his trade during the English civil war. Witch-hunts tend to rear up when people are struggling, violence and division are rife, and resources more difficult to obtain.
You know, the times when people really want an easy scapegoat to blame for their suffering.
Today, we’re in the third year of a pandemic that’s killed around a million people in the US alone. We live in a time of intense social and political division and are looking at further possible challenges in the form of a truckers’ blockade. (This was a tactic used by the CIA destabilize the democratically elected Chilean government to install the dictator, Augusto Pinochet, I might add). And Russia is looking set to invade Ukraine, possibly (probably?) dragging us (and NATO) into conflict.
In short, these are exactly the kind of times when this kind of witch-hunting bullshit happens.
So, what can you do?
Witches Staying Safe
My best recommendation would be a book that my friend Amy Blackthorn wrote about protection (magical and mundane) that’s coming out in a couple of weeks. But until then, here are some other things you can do to stay safe:
Cultivate situational awareness. Know your exits, potential threats, and possible improvised weapons at all times.
Get to know your neighbors (if possible) and figure out who could be a problem.
Work protection magic.
Keep an eye on your local fundamentalists and share anything particularly worrying with other Witches/Heathens/Pagans in your area. (Because let’s face it, we’re all targets to these folks.)
If you are comfortable with weapons, get a gun. This may be an unpopular suggestion, but I’m not joking here. If things keep on going as they are with everything that’s happening, debates about who should be able to own what aren’t really going to be a concern. If you do get a gun though, be sure to train with it and store it in a responsible way.
There are probably a bunch more suggestions I could put here, but our lunch hour is almost done and I need to get back to teaching. I welcome and will add any good suggestions sent my way though.
Now, I realize all of this might sound pretty paranoid, but I’m of the opinion that it’s always better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I’ve also been here before, and not in a “past life” kind of way.
I’ve been threatened for being a witch and physically attacked. I’ve had photocopied book pages about killing witches posted through my door. And that was mild compared to some of the stories my friends have.
The people who attacked me weren’t even religious or particularly ideologically invested. Most importantly though, they still worried about consequences and I suspect that limited how far they were prepared to go.
But there’s a point with religious fundamentalists, where the fear of consequences is superseded by self-righteousness or belief in divine decree. The other becomes dehumanized and actively demonized, and that’s when things get really dangerous, even without the power of a state behind them. (I think a lot of people are only thinking about this issue in terms of if the fundies seize power.)
That’s what I think we have in people like Greg Locke and his ilk. (Well, in Greg’s case there’s probably also the draw of profit too, as I said before.) And they are exactly the kind of people who will walk that road to hell one “good” intention at a time.
Worse still, they’ll even convince themselves that what they’re doing is holy.
I’d been itching to get out on the moor as soon as I arrived. It reminded me too much of the land I’d grown up on, and there was a sense of familiarity that called to me that I was yet to understand. It was late afternoon when we arrived on our bus from Reykjavik, and I’d spent the evening watching local people of all ages making their way up the path to the top.
My plan that evening was simple. I was going to see if anyone wanted to come with me to the top, bring some offerings, and hopefully see the aurora borealis. But as we were to find out, timing can be everything.
The first strange thing to happen that night was that we passed between two rows of birch trees on our way to the road. That may not sound so strange in of itself, but the sense of shifting as we walked between most certainly was, as was the figure I saw momentarily step out from behind one of the trees. But ours was a group used to such things, and so we continued in our quest for the path to the moors.
The second strange thing to happen was that the path we’d been watching the entire afternoon had not only disappeared, but the moon was suspiciously full when it was not supposed to be so for another five days. If the birch trees had not warned us that something very other was afoot, then this was a sure sign. After some discussion we opted to continue, turning around after reaching the village and heading back the way we came. This time though, I prayed as I walked, asking them to show me the path to the moor.
This time, we found the path to the moor down the side of a house we’d walked by less than fifteen minutes earlier. The lights were on inside and a confused-looking Icelander watched us as we made our way towards the iron bridge separating the moor from the cultivated world of man. I remember thinking at the time that the bridge could be apotropaic, and the choice of materials intentional. After all, people who live in active places tend to find subtle ways to build protections in both custom and architecture. Here too I was met by another darting figure that appeared on the other side of the bridge only to disappear as quickly. But the wind was wild and the moor was dark, and I was ecstatic to be on a moor again for the first time in far too long.
But as would soon become clear, the hidden folk had other plans. We began our ascent with ease, finding it every bit as easy as the various families we’d seen earlier that evening. But as is so often the case with this kind of wild witchcraft, things can shift on a dime.
The easy ascent became hard and the gradient seemed to shift, becoming steeper by the second. I began to slide downwards with every step I took! Potentially more dangerous though, was the sense of countless hands reaching out from the moor grabbing at our ankles and trying to trip us. Right then and there, I decided to pull the plug on the adventure. We were on a geothermal moor, the path had become impassable for all but one (who we suspect would never have been seen again had they continued up the hill), and the ground around the path was too dangerous to walk on because of the possibility of fissures. Danger from the other is one thing, but a physically safe exit is a must.
So we made our way back down off the moor, helping each other balance as we went and trying to avoid the various attempts at tripping. We passed over the iron bridge and allowed ourselves to laugh a little at what had just happened, then passed back through the rows of birches back to the hotel. By the time we got back to the hotel, the moor had become a mass of activity and we watched countless figures of various shapes and sizes move across the dark landscape. To our eyes, it seemed as though we had inadvertently gatecrashed some kind of gathering. The moor became increasingly dark, but the Pleiades hung conspicuously clear and bright in the sky above. The wind grew, and so did the strange noises that had started to emanate. The moor continued to darken, and soon we couldn’t distinguish moor from sky. We went inside.
However, the hidden folk were not yet done with us for the night. Back in my room, we discussed our experiences, sharing our perspectives on what had happened. Out of all of us, only one of us felt as though they were welcome to proceed, but had they done so, they probably would never have been allowed to leave. Right at that moment, as soon as they had finished speaking, a loud disembodied voice echoed through the room with a single word: “Yup!”
Later that night though, the image of the Pleiades above the dark moor filled with moving figures wouldn’t leave my mind. There was a distinct feeling they were significant in some way, and somehow related to what had happened on the moor.
I was not the only member of our group who had had that impression either, and thanks to their skill, tenacity and research, the modern Fairy Faith now has a new (old) ritual calendar.
A few years ago, back when this idea of the otherworld bleeding through began to make its way into Pagan/Witch discourse, I had a curious incident at the side of a river with a witchy friend. We’d been on a walk together as we often did back then in the pre-plague years, end eventually (unsurprisingly) we’d begun to “talk shop.” You see, both of us had noticed the uptick in otherworldly activity, in a similar way to how hunters are often the first to notice disease in deer.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing the Other with disease here (I wouldn’t dare). I’m just saying that as magical practitioners, we tend to be among the first to notice this kind of thing.
But we were both also getting messages from multiple people. Moreover, these were often from people who didn’t ordinarily experience our kind of strangeness, and that stood out.
At some point in our discussion, I mentioned the fact that a witch’s knowledge and power was believed to come from otherworldly sources where I’m from. And I wondered what the effects of this otherworldly “bleed” would have on magic and what we humans can do with magic. Naturally (because I’m an idiot like this), I grabbed a stick and drew a sigil I use when creating portals into the sand and silt of the riverbank.
The effect was almost instantaneous: a shifting sensation that used to take more effort to achieve.
I closed it and scrubbed it from the sand almost as soon as my friend and I noticed the shift. But I’ve been musing about the changing limits of magical possibility, consensus, and opposition ever since.
John’s Rising Currents
Discourse is a funny old thing. Sometimes we can have an observation or thought sitting in the soil of our mind for a long time without writing about it. But then, something will happen to water it, and it’ll take root and grow.
(As an aside, it’s interesting how we refer to events that spark action as “precipitating events.” Soil and seeds. Soil and seeds.)
I’m a firm believer that most things have their season. And if the blog John Beckett posted this morning is anything to go by, then this subject’s season has come.
In The Currents of Magic are Getting Stronger, John Beckett makes the same observation I did at the side of that river. Ironically, he uses the analogy of a river running higher and faster to explain his observation that the “currents” of magic are getting stronger and enabling an increase in possibility/greater results. He also goes on to cautiously suggest some possible causes, and this is where I feel like I have something to add.
Magic and the Otherworldly
I’ve blogged about this before, but in the historical witchcraft traditions where I’m from, the source of the witch’s power and knowledge was otherworldly. This is where we get into familiars and hierarchy. These are all complex topics, and more than I can cover in this blog, so I encourage you to read the posts I’ve linked here if you want to go deeper. That’s not to say that what we call the “otherworldly” is the only possible source of magic and knowledge though, nor the only possible framework through which these changes can be understood.
We also cannot ignore the fact that most of the discussion on this topic is coming from US sources. I’m not saying that strange things aren’t also happening elsewhere—some of my mother’s stories from back in Lancashire have been decidedly stranger than usual of late. But we also cannot assume that just because this stuff is happening here, it’s happening everywhere.
In my opinion, an important consideration in this discussion of how widespread or localized this “trend” is, boils down to the relationship between a culture and the otherworldly beings they interact with. ( Assuming the relationship between Otherworldly beings and magic is found within those cultures in the first place.)
Fairy-like beings are found in lore pretty much all over the world, but not all cultures have responded in the same way to their presence over time. Some cultures—such as many Western European cultures—equated them with demons and/ fallen angels, destroyed their sanctuaries, and drove them out after humans converted to Christianity (LeCouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Pp. 23-28, 68-80).
And I’m not saying that folk practices involving the otherworldly didn’t still exist, of course. We know they did. But as I’ll hopefully make clear in the next section, consensus (like all stories) is a powerful and often binding thing.
This process wasn’t limited to Western Europe either. If Cotton Mather is to be believed in his Wonders of the Invisible World, early colonizers in what would become the US also drove out “devils.” He even goes on to blame the apparent preponderance of witches in Salem on a counterattack by the devils, thus retaining that link between witches and the Otherworldly in his interpretation of events.
The otherworld is bleeding through, the devils are coming back, and they’re bringing us witches with them?
However in some places, maybe the Otherworld didn’t need to bleed back in from anywhere else at all.
Reality, Consensus, Possibility, and Feedback Loops
Another story now. Back in the mid-2000s, I came across an interesting interaction at a Pagan Conference in England between a gentleman from an African country (I didn’t get chance to ask him which), and a vendor who was selling these tacky, crystal-encrusted “wish books.” For her, even as someone who considered herself a witch, these books were just a bit of fun and to be commonly understood as such. There was no real expectation that writing your wishes in them would yield any concrete results. But her potential customer clearly had far greater expectations of the “wish book” than her and kept asking her in a deadly serious voice if it really worked.
As you might imagine, this became increasingly more uncomfortable the longer it went on.
This is impossible to separate from consensus. I believe that consensus, in a sense, both delineates and limits the boundaries of possibility.
From this perspective, the more people that experience and/or interact with the strange and Otherworldly, the more the consensus that THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN IN “REALITY” is challenged. And over time if enough people start to have these experiences, the consensus of a culture shifts to include them in the realm of possibility. This in turn, creates a kind of feedback loop in which that consensus is progressively widened. (A process that is not so different from what you find in a propaganda campaign.)
This is theory, but I would argue we have historical proof of the reverse: the binding effects of consensus.
I’ve written about this before, but we can see this in how concepts of dreaming change in Northwestern Europe after the advent of Christianity. People went from considering dreams a place where they could encounter the dead and otherworldly in a concrete way, to a state of consciousness in which people only experience nonsensical or anxiety-driven scenarios.
(Again, another way of driving out the otherworldly, I might add.)
This is all very exciting to think about, but I think we need to also be cautious here too.
The Other Side of the Coin
Within the Pagan and Witch communities, I think there is a tendency to assume that we are the only ones out there working magic. We forget that Christians also have their magic, and that a more forgiving consensus is also going to benefit them as well.
Unfortunately for us, they tend to be very much against our kind of magic, and they still largely label the Other as “demonic.” They also have an established tradition of weaponized “prayer” in the form of “prayer warriors,” who often work together in groups and are capable of a level of faith and zeal very few Pagans and Witches can muster.
Another area of concern is that I suspect a lot of the more “fringe” Christians are feeling the same uptick in activity as we are. I’m far from an expert on this subject, but I keep an eye on some of these groups as part of my omen-taking, and this is something I’ve noticed. There seems to have been an uptick in videos of “demonic possession” over the past few years. And talk of spiritual warfareagainst demons and witches seems to have become more common. (Here’s a recent example.) There have also been large events such as the Jericho March earlier this year. Participants of the march blew shofarim and marched around the Capitol building seven times while praying- a clear imitation of the Israelite siege of the city of Jericho. The next day was 1/6, in case you were wondering about their intentions.
If there’s anything we can learn from history when it comes to religious fundamentalists of a certain kind, it’s that this usually doesn’t go well for us. The more people believe in the possibilities of magic in general, the more they tend to blame magic (and practitioners) when things go wrong. So, the Otherworldly may be more present, and “currents of magic” may be rising and growing in strength, but they’re not without a brewing backlash.
If you’ve ever watched Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, you may remember an episode that begins with a few seemingly inconsequential happenings. These are subtle things that range from the way a loaf of bread splits while being baked in the oven, to a broken mirror in an empty room.
Omens can be tricky things, especially when they’re subtle. How to know whether that flock of birds fighting in the parking lot is an omen or just some avian drama? Or what about the vultures that scream at each other so loudly you can’t help but look outside? (Double points if they fall silent as soon as you “get the message”.) Are those crows really sent by the Morrigan or those ravens of Odin? And what’s with that sudden, unseasonal influx of black insects in the home?
These things tend to be subtle—until they’re not.
So far, the omens I’ve described are quite traditional. People have been reading the movements of birds and insects (among other things) for a long time. But one thing we don’t seem to read as much when it comes to omens, is the behavior of other humans.
We humans often make plans and telegraph what we’re about to do next. That’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about here though—as always, we deal with subtleties. The kinds of human behaviors that interest me are those that aren’t quite so consciously realized.
So, what do I mean by that?
Inspiration, Creativity, and Prophecy
When I get the sense that something is stirring on a subtle level, one of the first places I look for omens is our collective “fruits of inspiration.” So, in other words, I look to what our writers and artists are putting out, both in our communities, as well as in larger media productions. I’ve discussed this before on this blog and will talk about it in more depth in my upcoming class, but inspiration is a deeply strange and other thing. In its purest form, it originates from outside the human (as least in the traditions I practice). And out of the three different sources of “human omens” I will detail in this post, this is the one that can also serve as a heads-up that something is brewing long before anything even begins.
Take this passage from the commentary in Jung’s Red Book, for example:
“In the years directly preceding the outbreak of war, apocalyptic imagery was widespread in European arts and literature. For example, in 1912, Wassily Kandinsky wrote of a coming universal catastrophe. From 1912 to 1914, Ludwig Meidner painted a series of works known as the apocalyptic landscapes, with scenes of destroyed cities, corpses, and turmoil.” (Jung Carl and Shamdasani Sonu, Pp 18-19)
My preference is to view these things in aggregate, with an eye to spotting patterns or themes. And when you get down to it, this is not so different from the process that comparativist scholars engage in when working to trace early Indo-European beliefs and practices through multiple descendant cultures. One a very basic level, you’re looking for frequency as well as cross-cultural examples—especially in cultures that aren’t known to have interacted with each other. Here, I’m looking for frequency as well as cross-tradition examples, and especially in groups of people who don’t know each other. Those are the patterns and themes that interest me the most—even if they run counter to my own experiences and impressions.
Finally, the third source I look to, is strange behavior (albeit with some caveats).
In Germania, the Roman writer, Tacitus, wrote about a form of omen-taking from observing the behavior of sacred horses. Unfortunately, I don’t have any horses, sacred or otherwise. But over the years, I have found the observation of my fellow humans to be similarly effective.
Again, we’re talking about subtleties here. But we humans are no less affected by subtle energies and the stirrings of the unseen layers of our world than our fellow inhabitants of Middle Earth. We are no less a part of nature and no less animals for all our plastic and technology. And I’ve found that many of us will subconsciously react to changes in energy as well as whatever-the-hell our gut instincts are telling us at the time. Unsurprisingly, our behavior will often show it too.
I’m reminded here, of my epileptic brother’s behavior in a famously haunted house that stopped as soon as he was removed from the premises. Before my mother wrestled him out the door though, his behavior had become animalistic; he’d taken to the floor on all fours, barking and growling at the tour guide and fellow (ghost) adventurers.
Now, people do strange things all the time. But when you’re finding a lot of unrelated people behaving similarly, it’s time to pay attention, especially if you cannot discern a common cause. And again, in my opinion, this kind of thing is best observed in aggregate and with an eye to spotting patterns. Speaking of patterns: my brother apparently wasn’t the only person to have behaved like that in that space.
In other words, if the tour guide were to be believed, there was a pattern of some people exhibiting animalistic behavior at that site.
That was an extreme example, and I clearly cannot prove that my brother behaved like that due to the unseen of that place. But I do hope you understand what I’m getting at here.
The One-Eyed God on the Road
This all brings me to some of the possible omens I’ve noticed recently. On the one hand, there have been multiple strange conversations with neighbors about an increase in shadow people that “don’t move like shadow people” in the street. (Think less “dart-y” and more “people-y”.) Friends have told me about incidents where they have an experience of “pareidolia” that sounds more like glamour, and that leaves them in doubt of what is actually “real”. Other friends have told me about seeing critters that aren’t there. And a bunch of people are telling me about the disturbing dreams and messages they’ve received of late. Some of these things I’ve also experienced for myself.
But I’ve also noticed that a certain one-eyed god seems to be getting around a lot more nowadays too. More people (some of whom have never interacted with him before) are now telling me about their interactions with him and asking for advice. I’ve felt driven to write about him in great depth. An entire Heathen community performed a days-long ritual in his honor, erecting a 20ft god post. And for two Wednesdays in a row now, there’s been news that’s felt pointed in either its direct association with him (such as the announcement of this hoard of bracteates), or associated symbolism (such as the suspected electrical fire at this “Midgard’s” church on the island of Grímsey). Then today (as of the time of writing), this video of a Spiritualist who allegedly channeled Odin was shared in a group chat I’m on.
The bread has split, the ink has spilled, the mirror in the empty room is broken. But what could it mean?
Winter is Coming, Winter is Here, Winter is Coming Back for Another Go
I’ve followed the Old Man for over a decade and a half now. But even though I am very much “Team Odin”, I also know he has a tendency to become more prolific during “interesting” times.
Before that (in another time of death and desperation), his hands were probably guiding the spears of the Germans and Celtiberians led by a couple of one-eyed leaders who fought against Rome (Enright 217-240).
And before that, who knows?
Something tells me though, that it was probably another time of death and desperation. With this in mind, this new rise of the Spear God doesn’t exactly fill me with comfort in our time of plague, climate crisis, and burgeoning far right movements.
Death Will Make a Door
The final point I want to make today, is that times in which there is a lot of death, are times in which the dead and otherworldly tend to draw closer. If you’ve ever read about times of mass death in human history, you may have noticed that there are usually a lot of strange goings on reported during those times, as well as humans getting involved in strange cults and practices. If that kind of thing interests you, here are some folktales from the time of the bubonic plague. Pay attention to the kinds of beings sighted in conjunction with the plague, as well as the plants and days mentioned in the purported cures. Some of them are downright other.
They really shouldn’t have killed that stag.
Until the next time, good humans!
Books Cited Enright, Michael J. Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age. Jung, Carl and Shamdasani Sonu, The Red Book/Liber Novus: A Reader’s Edition
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
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),
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.
So as you might expect, I’ve done a lot of thinking about runes and how they work over the years.
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
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.
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?
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?
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!
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?
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
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.
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
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,
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.
.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 neuronssuggest 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.