Reconstructionism and Gnosis: Some “Rules”

Reconstructionism and Gnosis: The Story (Of These Blogs) So Far

In my last post, I talked about the interplay between reconstructionism and gnosis as I experience it. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear: it is my very sincere belief that both are necessary if we are to create workable and effective magical practices.

When I first got the idea for the post that spawned this series, I had three main points I wanted to communicate/dig into:

  • The necessity of combining reconstructionism and gnosis when attempting to create modern versions of historically attested forms of magic.
  • How that process can look from the inside/up-close.
  • The historical argument for gnosis and why gnosis cannot be ignored in matters of ritual and magic.

My original plan was for this to be a three-part series, with this second post focusing on specific examples from my own practice. Essentially it would have been a storytime blog. But the more I thought about it, the less satisfied I was with the idea of just telling stories. Storytelling is one of the oldest teaching methods known to man, but stories have to be chosen and presented carefully if they are to be effective teachers. A collection of stories would only provide the same bird’s eye view of the subject as the gold mine analogy from the first post.

I make a plan for a simple, three-part series of blog posts and the whole f**king universe laughs

A New Plan Emerges

Instead, I would prefer to provide a more in-depth perspective to accommodate as many learning styles as possible. Because if there is one thing I’ve found from talking to people about this, it’s that many find it hard to imagine this process in practice. Part of this, at least in my opinion, is likely down to how the reconstructionist movement played out in Heathen spaces in the mid-to-late 2000s. From my perspective, the research phases of the method eclipsed the experimentation and evaluation phases. So, we don’t really have that space in our communities for the experimentation and evaluation discussions (yet). Moreover, when you wade into those warm, tempting waters of experimentation and evaluation, you’re inevitably getting into experience and gnosis. To return to a point I made last week: another mistake we Heathens made as a movement/group of movements back then was to largely neglect the subject of discernment. Instead, there was a tendency to either write gnosis off as “made-up-shit” or cling to it uncritically depending on where you sat on the fake “recon” vs “woo” spectrum.

So, rather than a round of storytelling, I’m going to take one story and use it as a framework to demonstrate my process of researching/creating experiments/conducting experiments/recording/evaluating/tweaking. Along the way, I will also highlight where gnosis makes an appearance, what I consider the “tipping point,” and touch upon discernment and assessing gnosis. I will also discuss the responsibility I feel to keep my family safe from any effects of my clarting around with old magical tech as well as what I consider to be necessary safety and wellness measures while engaging in this work.

Fair warning, but I have no idea how long this section of the series will be. This thing that started out as a single post seems to be spawning “babies” faster than rabbits in spring.

I guess we’ll get to the third section when we get there.

Some “Rules” For Blending Reconstruction And Gnosis

Before beginning the story though, I would like to discuss some of the unofficial “rules” I observe when engaging in this work. Though I refer to them as “rules,” I have found them to be far more helpful than restrictive. Please do not feel obligated to adopt them for yourself, but if you do, I hope you find them as helpful as I have.

Honesty

The first rule is honesty, and this applies in several ways.

In my experience, one of the biggest sources of contention between those who lean more to reconstruction vs those who lean more to gnosis boils down to labeling sources. Or in other words: not being entirely honest about where you got your information from. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people trying to pass off gnosis as something textually attested. This is something that irritates me too even as a weird-experimenter and haver-of-gnosis.

PSA: This is what comes up if you use the search term “rules” on Pixabay. You’re welcome.

If anything, I think it’s even more important for those of us who are experimenting with magic to be honest about our work and sources than your average Heathen. And there are two main reasons for this:

The first is that it’s both dishonest and rude to the humans you’re interacting with. Moreover, when you’re found out, it ruins the credibility of your work for those who are interested.

The second and most important reason is that you essentially deny the experiences, Powers, and relationships from which that gnosis flowed when you deny their role. It’s incredibly disrespectful to pass that other-gotten-gnosis off as coming from a book. Sure, the humans you’re interacting with might take the gnosis you’re sharing more seriously. But what of your relationships with those who helped you? If you find yourself prioritizing the approval of human strangers on the internet over your working relationships with allies, then you may want to ask yourself why.

Another area in which honesty is important pertains to interactions with other-than-human people. It’s never a good idea to lie to the kind of beings you can come across in magic. So, be careful with your words. Don’t promise anything you won’t do or give. Don’t be afraid to use direct but polite speech instead of flowery words if you suspect those flowery words might get you in trouble. And remember that silence is an option and always better than a lie. Never underestimate the abilities of the beings you may meet, as the consequences can be dire.

Finally, be as honest as you can with yourself about what you experience. Make a point of recording your experiences as soon as you are able. Because once an experiment ends, you begin the journey into the same kind of territory as crime scene witnesses. So, try to get everything down as quickly as possible and be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to add notes like “I also got the impression of _____ but I’m not sure that actually came from interacting with (being) or was an intrusive thought/my brain elaborating as I could feel the trance weakening and it sounds similar to something I saw/heard the other day.” The mind loves to make connections and elaborate on experiences, and often we don’t even notice it. With practice though, it can get easier to spot.

So, that’s honesty.

No One Is Under Any Obligation To Accept Your Gnosis

My second “rule” is that no one is under any obligation to accept my gnosis (but they’re welcome to it if it resonates).

In my experience, this is another bone of contention when it comes to gnosis. Gnosis is a funny old thing, and especially in a group of religious movements mostly made up of ex-Christians burdened with largely unexamined Christian baggage.

I’ve written about how Christian baggage is a proverbial elephant in the room for a lot of Pagans and Heathens. Too many of us pretend that we shook off all vestiges of Christianity or the influence of growing up in a Christian-dominant society as soon as we put on a hammer and picked up a drinking horn. But unfortunately, life (and religious conversion) isn’t nearly that simple. And is it really surprising? Changing a worldview isn’t some quick, dump-water-on-head-and-call-Odin-a-bitch thing—no matter how it’s portrayed in Christian narratives. In my opinion, one of the areas in which Christian baggage has influenced modern Heathens can be found in some of the reactions to gnosis.

Now, this isn’t just something that happens to the more “recon-minded.” I think we find the same underlying concepts playing out (albeit differently) among some of the more “woo” aligned folks as well.

I AM A VERY REALISTIC PICTURE

Ask yourself, “What does it mean to Christians when a Christian claims to have spoken to their god and received divine wisdom from him?”

It’s prophecy, right? Divine revelation that others must heed because it’s the Word of God.

This is the kind of thing wars have been fought over. Because that kind of a claim can be deeply problematic from a Christian perspective, especially if that message challenges dogma. There’s also the matter of who receives that communication and how they are viewed in the eyes of religion and society. What is their sex? Their social status? Their perceived closeness to god? The pope making divinely revealed pronouncements ex cathedra is fine, but it’s another matter if the person doing it is considered deficient or less holy in some way, or even simply too ordinary. That is when things have a tendency to get a little…spicy, shall we say?

And this is the framing that many are coming with to Heathenry and Paganism. Is it any wonder we see the reactions we do? The people with the gnosis who try to act like it’s imperative everyone goes along with it? The people who rule out the possibility of anyone interacting with a deity who doesn’t fit a certain, restrictive set of criteria? The defensiveness on all sides?

So, what do we do about it?

As someone who has a lot of gnosis, I think it’s imperative that we change the way we think about gnosis. We need to cultivate space for gnosis to simply exist without being a prophecy or divine revelation that everyone must follow. Not all communication with deities is revelation or prophecy that must be shared, or something that can only happen to certain, special people. And we do that by only considering our gnosis relevant to ourselves, listening respectfully to the gnosis of others, and retaining the right to accept or reject what you hear (preferably politely).

You Are Responsible For Keeping Others Safe!

Shockingly, conducting magical experiments based on historical sources isn’t always the safest way to pass the time. Things can happen that you had no way of foreseeing. You can find yourself experiencing unforeseen physical effects. And there’s always the chance of attracting the attention of unhelpful, opportunistic, or even hostile beings with your antics.

Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, the unforeseen consequences of your experiments can all-too-easily spread to the people around you.

Think about your roles in life and who you live with. I’m a mom; I have a little person entrusted to my care, and they tend to be attractive to a lot of beings. I’m also married, and my little family also counts a dog and a cat among us. These are all lives that I could inadvertently bring stress and harm to if I’m not careful. In addition to this, I live in a row house and my neighbors on both sides have family members who have been made vulnerable by sickness—yet more lives to take into account. And on top of that, the town where we live is bizarrely busy with the Otherworldly and generally strange activity.

(I say “bizarrely” as no one can figure out why the town where I live is so active. As an aside, it was like that before I moved in).

These are all factors that need to be taken into account when planning magical experiments. Because they don’t deserve to deal with any unwanted interlopers or other consequences from my activities, and it’s entirely down to me if they do.

“Cleanliness” is next to “Clean room” in The American Heritage College Dictionary.

So, I factor them into my planning. I build extra layers of containment and protection into my experiments. And when I really have no idea what could happen, I find the time to go and do my experiments somewhere away from other humans. I always keep a good supply of apotropaics handy. And I am careful with shutdown and clean-up.

Also important is what I do outside my experiments in my day-to-day life. I have and maintain close relationships with the deities I worship and my allies.  Those relationships are often a magical practitioner’s first form of defense. I also regularly meditate, practice basic skills, and check in with my souls. And as someone whose practice is also informed by the Old English magico-medical manuscripts, I am very careful with purification practices too. All of these are intended to ensure that I am as hæl as I can be going into my experiments, that I’m not out of practice, and that I remain me.

Final Word

The “rules” I have just given are not the only ones I observe, but they are the main ones. I will introduce others as they become relevant throughout the rest of the series. It should go without saying, but whether you choose to adopt them for yourself is entirely up to you. Either way, I hope the accompanying discussion has given you plenty of food for thought.

In the next post, I’m going to take you through the first stage of the reconstructionist process: research. This is where I’ll introduce you to a fascinating Swedish site archaeologists refer to as the Götavi grid. I’ll talk about where I first found out about it; the various features of the grid, their symbolism, and other examples of those features; potential references from textual sources; and possible meanings and interpretations. If the post doesn’t run too long, I’ll also talk about my first attempt to recreate the grid and what happened.

So, until next time!

Why Not Both? Bridging Reconstructionism and Gnosis

Reconstructionism vs Gnosis: A (Lame) War Between Two Ideological Camps

Once upon a time (well, back in the mid-2000s) a complete and utter weirdo got involved in a reconstructionist community online. Things were kind of wild back then. I was teaching English in South Korea and had just met the love of my life. Like me, he was a Heathen, and through him, I was increasingly introduced to the US Heathen community.

Nowadays, I know that’s a silly thing to say. The “US Heathen community” sounds like a monolith when there are very clear regional differences. But as an outsider looking in, you tend to notice the broad strokes before the nuances.

One of those broad strokes was the fault line stretching between two seemingly separate ideological camps: the reconstructionists and the gnosis-focused (or “woo”) people.

Straddling Camps

As a neurodivergent person, reconstructionist spaces were much easier for me to inhabit with their clearly defined “rules of engagement.” I couldn’t talk about the stuff that made my soul sing—namely my experiments and experiences in magic. But that was a small price to pay for knowing where I stood. Conversely, the gnosis-centered groups were confusing and the rules far less clear. Sometimes people wanted to hear about my research and read my sources, but other times…well, I may as well have been offering them the option of sitting in a diarrhea-filled spacesuit.

This was a time during which one camp extolled the virtue of keeping gnosis to oneself (like genitals) and the other seemed to consider bookishness a barrier to gnosis.

(Fun fact: I was once told I was too bookish to have gnosis.)

If you were lucky enough to miss the whole thing, it was like Romeo vs Juliet, only with less death and mostly online.

0/10 would not recommend.

And the absolutely wild part of it all? It was completely unnecessary.

Reconstructionism and Gnosis, Sitting In A Tree…

Before continuing, I want to get something straight: there is nothing wrong with either reconstructionism or gnosis.

(Well, reconstructionism the methodology is fine. I’m not so keen on the weird sect-like version of reconstructionism found in online groups.)

They’re also not really at opposing ends of a spectrum either. I would even argue that reconstructionism is one of the most useful methodologies for reviving/creating workable magical practices rooted in accounts of historical Heathen magic.

However, if I have learned anything from my twenty-or-so years of experimenting in this way, it’s that scholarship (regardless of methodology) can only take you so far. At some point, you want gnosis to take over and guide you the rest of the way.

But what do I mean by this?

Seams of Gold and Old-Ass Mineshafts

I would like you to imagine for a moment a seam of gold under the earth. It’s a special seam of gold—let’s say it represents all the ritual and magical knowledge we’re currently missing. Now, you could just try digging for that seam without any instructions. But who in their right mind would do that? Mining comes with hazards, and if you’re not careful, you might miss the seam entirely and happen upon something you don’t want. Moreover, the soil in different places is…well, different. The composition is different, the kinds of rocks are different—these are all factors that affect how you dig.

This is where the sources and reconstructionism come in. Imagine that the sources contain the equivalent of geological data, analysis of the material you’re looking for, and possibly even instructions for how best to dig down.

Sometimes they may even purport to reveal the location of an older mine. A mine that the historical Heathens originally dug (but almost always never works out).

So, what to do?

Enter Gnosis

This is where reconstructionism ideally hands the baton over to gnosis.

Like many, I used to fall into the trap of thinking that historical record was the same as authenticity and/or efficacy. But years of research, experimentation, evaluation, and experience have taught me that gnosis/inspiration/guidance from the Holy Powers can be just as important. More often than not, it’s the latter that makes the difference between practices that work and practices that fall flat.

And regardless of era, the proof is always in the pudding with magic.

You see (and I’m probably going to blog about this in the future), magic has never solely been the product of human hands. As a technology, magic is inherently Other —- something that is passed from Themselves to us. There’s a good example of this exchange in the witch-familiar relationship as recorded in English and Scottish sources from the Early Modern Period. I wrote about it in more depth here, if you’re interested. But the quick version is that the source of the witch’s power and learning was the familiar (who was Otherworldly vs demonic in earlier accounts). It was the familiar who was in charge.

Pro-Tip: This is not your familiar (and neither is your dog/cat/hamster/opossum/fish).

I would argue that this makes interacting with that Other (as well as associated deities and ancestors) an important part of the process for creating workable practices rooted in accounts of Heathen period magic. It’s their tools we work with. And if anyone knows how to work with those tools (or how best to work with them over a thousand years after other humans used them), it’s Themselves.

You just have to get their attention first, and this is where reconstruction and other methodologies can help. Because in my experience, if you reconstruct enough for somebeing to recognize what you’re trying to do, then you might find somebeing who’s inclined to help you out.

(I’m sure that’s like a form of ergi for some folks out there, but whatever.)

Thwarted Words, Insufficient Mechanisms

Unfortunately, all of the above requires something called discernment. And if we’re being honest, the ridiculous war between Reconstructio and Gnosiet stymied a lot of necessary discussion about how to assess and process gnosis in a healthy way. I believe this has been to our detriment.

You see, there will always be people in any religious group who have a drive to go deeper and to experience more. There will always be those of us who need to be in those liminal spaces and working with weird practices.

One of the most curious things about modern US Heathenry is how protestant it can be at times. A number of Heathens are simply uncomfortable with other people having gnosis and even go so far as to refer to it as MUS (or “made up shit”). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the assertion that “magic isn’t a part of Heathenry” (despite accounts of magic in every genre of ON literature and probable physical evidence). And there’s a segment of Heathens who would probably be far happier if all of us subscribed to the “gods of limited access” model.

As humans, we all have varying levels of religious/mystical/spiritual needs. True communities (vs the protestant church model many seem to emulate) focus on inclusion instead of shunning. In an actual community, there are always people you don’t like and who believe differently than you. That’s normal; that’s just organic communities for you.

Moreover, when a religious community doesn’t address discernment in a useful way;when a community doesn’t provide tools and space for “woo-inclined” members to mutually support each other; or worse, when a community ostracizes the “weirdos,” then the ground is ripe for bad actors to come in. And when it comes to the magical and mystical, humans are especially vulnerable to exploitation.

This is something I’ve seen play out over and over again.

So, we need to have those conversations, I think. In the meantime though, Jason Miller created this excellent checklist for assessing gnosis. I encourage you to check it out.

Final Word

Thankfully, many Heathens (at least in the communities I’m in) have moved on from such hard divisions between scholarship and gnosis. Discussing gnosis has become less of a fraught proposition, and previously hostile communities have become less so.

If you are curious about the line where reconstruction (or any scholarship) can end and gnosis begin on a practical level, hopefully this post has given you some ideas. This is not the only way in which scholarship and gnosis can enrich, enable, and support each other either. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given up on a line of research only to be told what to look for next in a dream. Or been told in a dream to look into something seemingly unrelated to my research interests only to find that lead panning out. On occasion, I’ve even had people randomly message me sources they felt they needed to send to me that filled in some research gaps.

In the next post, I’m planning to dig deeper into the gnosis element of my magical experimentation with some examples of things I’ve experienced (story time!). After that, I’m planning a post on the Otherworldly origins of magic and partnership between witches and the Other.

Finally, I’ll be holding a free online class on the 28th of January 2023 at 2pm EST on spinning. Nothing magical (you’d need to develop muscle memory first for that). Just a bunch of people learning to make yarn out of fluff with spindles. If that interests you, save the date. I’ll post an event sign-up later this week and guidance on beginner-friendly fluff and spindles. If you do not have any spinning tools or fluff, you will need to order them. Spots will likely be limited, so please only order after you’ve signed up.

Joy and the Greed-Wolf in a Time of Towers

The Wolf in a Tower Time Oracle

Like many mornings during this period of time many call Tower Time, I woke up to a message from a friend about “weird shit.” My friend was asking me if I’d  seen John Beckett’s most recent blog post. You may have already seen it as it’s doing the rounds. But in case you haven’t, it’s about an oracular ritual during the Mystic South conference and the messages received by some of the participants.

I’m going to be honest here: None of these messages are particularly surprising to me. If anything, much of it tallies with what I’ve been getting from other sources.

But there’s one message in particular that I want to focus on today. It’s the message that there must be joy or “Fenris will eat the world.”

Wolves and Greed

On the surface, Bergrune’s message (an oracle I know personally) may sound simplistic and strange. But I’ve found myself turning it over and over in my mind. This past weekend I taught the second in a two-part series of classes about Animistic Heathenry and magic in which greed was a major talking point. This message dovetails nicely with my current meditations on how best to deal with greed.

In her book  The Seed of Yggdrasill, Maria Kvilhaug points out that wolves are associated with greed in the ON sources. This is something Snorri is quite clear on in Skáldskaparmál, the text in which he teaches the art of writing and understanding the language of poetry.

“But these things have now to be told to young poets who desire to learn the language of poetry and to furnish themselves with a wide vocabulary using traditional terms; or else they desire to be able to understand what is expressed obscurely.”

Sturluson, Snorri. Skáldskaparmál (Faulkes trans.). p. 64.

Those of you who are already familiar with Norse mythology will probably already know the names of Óðins wolves: Geri and Freki. Both names are words that mean “greed,” and both names can be used as common nouns for “wolf” in skaldic poetry (Sturluson. 135, 164). Along similar lines, it was also considered normal to refer to wolves in relation to blood and corpses as their food and drink (Sturluson 135).

The Meanings in the Myth

From Maria Kvilhaug’s perspective (which I share), the ON myths are not simply stories of gods and other beings. They contain true wisdom if you know how to look for it. Kvilhaug is someone who’s learned how to look for it. And if we listen to her, we can learn to look for it too.

Bergrune’s message mentioned Fenrir, which inescapably leads us to the Ragnarök myth – an appropriate choice in our collapsing world.

So, what wisdom can we find in the myth of Ragnarök? What lesson can we take from this?

As a wolf, Fenrir may be thought to represent greed, and greed brings destruction. His opponent at Ragnarök is Óðinn, the giver of our breath-soul. We should ask ourselves here about the possible meanings of the god who gave breath-souls to humans falling to greed.

To me, the battle between this soul-giving deity – one of our creators even – and greed indicates that this isn’t only a battle for gods. It is a battle that we humans face too.

The Nature of Greed

There are surprisingly few psychological studies about the causes of greed. But what I managed to dig up seems to suggest that greed often has its roots in feelings of lack, unmet physical/emotional needs, and anxiety about future struggles.
But what about countering greed? Here is where we can perhaps take wisdom from another myth of Fenrir.

Binding the Wolf

In Gylfaginning, the gods read prophecies predicting destruction by Loki’s children and decide to act. Snorri tells us they cast Hel into Niflheim and  Jörmungandr  into the ocean. With Fenrir though, they brought him home and raised him in their halls. But as he grew bigger, they became increasingly afraid and decided to try binding Fenrir with chains.
Here is where my personal conclusions diverge from Kvilhaug’s. This is only to be expected; a myth can be read from multiple perspectives and hold more than one truth.
The first chain is Læðing, which Kvilhaug translates as “Harm Council” (Kvilhaug 442). She also provides a second possible translation, but I’ll refrain from providing that here as it diverges from the points I want to make.
This idea of a chain called “Harm Council” reminds me of the kind of measures many attempt to overcome negative qualities. You’re probably already familiar with the kind of measures I mean. Everything from cruel self-talk, strict self-discipline (then more self-talk when it fails), and in extreme cases mortifying the flesh. In a sense, when we put it this way, it’s not hard to see those  measures as a “council of harms.”
This will probably come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever dealt with addiction. But it doesn’t take long for Fenrir to break that chain.
The second chain is Drómi, which means “Fetters.” An important point Kvilhaug makes is that “fetters” is a common metaphor for the gods themselves in Skaldic poetry.  When viewed through this lens, I’m reminded of people who cling to religion and the imagined wrath of a deity as a way to keep themselves in line. To force themselves into what they see as better, more virtuous behaviors.
This lasts longer. But in the end, Fenrir breaks that too.

Binding the Wolf and the River of Hope

The final chain was, Gleipnir, or “Open One,” a silk-like binding that they used to bind the wolf to a giant stone slab on an island. At first glance, this is reminiscent of an oubliette. This island is not only a place to bind a potential future danger, but to forget about it as well. But we’re not yet done here, because Fenrir reacted violently and tried to bite them. From his perspective, this was likely a grave betrayal; after all, they were his foster family, and that meant a lot back then.

In response to his lashing out, the gods stabbed him through the roof of his mouth with a sword. A clear foreshadowing of the final doom he would meet at Viðarr’s hand. Then, they left him howling in pain and drooling. We’re told his saliva forms a river called “Hope” (Sturluson. 29).

As always, hope is often the only thing to continue flowing when we’re otherwise trapped and/or in pain.

Of course, those bindings didn’t work either in the long run. If anything, I’d argue those actions only made everything worse. As with all prophecies, you run the risk of fulfilling them yourself if you’re not careful – something that becomes especially likely the more afraid you are.

There’s a lot to take from this myth, a lot to notice about our society. Like the gods, we prefer the wolf bound in a place where we can forget about it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Kvilhaug translates the name of the waters surrounding the island (Ámsvartnir) as “Deep Darkener,” which for me at least, suggests a kind of oblivion (Kvilhaug 441). How many people even engage with the notion that greed is a serious and dangerous problem? That the act of non-stop consumption at the root of so many of our modern problems  is something we need to reckon with before we bring about our own Ragnarök?

No. Best to ignore it.

Remember, kids: Don’t look up!

But What of Joy?

The message that Bergrune relayed, that message to embrace joy as a way of countering the “greed-wolf” seems simple on the surface. But here we need to ask ourselves how possible it is to feel real joy when you have unmet needs/a sense of lack/anxieties about the future that are so great they’ve collectively created a hole within your self and souls? A hole that seems bottomless and spurs an insatiable hunger to fill.
Here is where I believe the advice given via other oracular messages comes in.
These messages encourage us to interrogate those shadowy areas of self and souls. The advice to seek out those holes within us that gape like the maw of a wolf and try to understand them is excellent. It is also I believe, our way forward.
Because if we are to experience joy,  real joy, then we need to first sit with our own greed-wolves and get to know them. As the myth of binding Fenrir hopefully demonstrates, we can’t bind them or pretend they don’t exist. Would not the wiser path be to figure out what drives them – the hurts in the holes and what they really want?
The wolf within isn’t inherently bad, just very good at what they do. They’re hunters at heart, and in turn directed by the heart and its ever-changing sea of emotions and hurts in their efforts. Again, they’re not inherently bad. I would argue these “wolves” are a part of self – a soul even. If you follow Winifred Hodge-Rose’s Soul Lore work, this would be the hugr-soul.
But who could these “wolves” be when cared for and those anxieties removed?

Domesticating the Wolf

As a species, we’ve domesticated wolves before. We domesticated wolves before we started to keep cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens even. We domesticated wolves before we began growing grain.

Over the millennia, they’ve helped us to get food and stay safe. They’ve been our companions, workers, family members, protectors, and friends. Those wolves contributed immeasurably to the success of our species and eventually became dogs.

If you live with dogs and they’re anything like my little old man, you’ll know they show their love, pleasure, and joy in the most uninhibited and lovely ways. As a kid, my parents impressed upon me the importance of always raising dogs with love, kindness, and care; outside of genetic issues, the problems usually come when you raise them without those things.  But when raised with love, care, and their needs (physical, yes, but more than that, the need for pack and to belong) provided for, they become life-long companions and true friends.
And this, I think, is where we find the key to our question.

A Life’s Work

In a sense, I believe we’re each born with a canine. But whether we end our lives with a canine that becomes a greed-wolf, a domesticated wolf, or even a dog is largely up to us. I see the process of getting to know that canine and taming them as part of the work of a well-lived life. It’s a challenge on the path to wisdom, a peril to the wise, and part of how we find victory in our own personal Ragnarök. The message was to “fight” the wolf with joy. But without first getting to know the “wolves” in our hearts, without that attention, love, and care – without healing the hurts of those holes – that joy will be hard to come by.
Food for thought, no?

Smoke Cleansing: From Leechbook to Modern Heathen Practice

Smoke Cleansing: The Proceduring

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

The Charm

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.”

Source

Looks pretty Christian, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Healing, Smoke Cleansing, and “Middle Practices”

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.)

Adaptation

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.

Empowering, right?

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.

Final Word

Hopefully, this series of posts has been both informative and helpful.  What began as a revision of an old blog post that still does the rounds, grew into an examination of helpful herbs. We end here with a framework for preparing those helpful herbs for smoke cleansing.

So, until next time. Be well.

Sources
Lancashire Folk-Lore – John Harland
Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context – Karen Louse Jolly
Leechbook – Stephen Pollington
Leechbook III 

Smoke Cleansing: Some Helpful Herbs

Smoke Cleansing: Step Away from the White Sage!

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.

Helpful Herbs

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.

“Remember, Mugwort…”

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.

Magico-Medical Sources

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).

Solar Herbs

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!

Sources

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

 

Algorithms

Algorithms.

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.

Algorithms as Demons

A while ago, I listened to an episode of a podcast called Team Human that discussed algorithms. It was an interesting conversation because it was taking a look at algorithms through the framework of demonology.

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.

Final Word

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.

Greg Locke and the Witches

Hello, Witches.

I know this sounds like an old tune now, but things have been busy of late.

A lot busier than usual even. But homeschooling will do that.

So this is going to be quick. (Well, for me, anyway.)

I’ve written about this kind of thing before though. I’ve warned about people taking us–witches–too seriously, and I’ve pointed to the rumblings I’ve seen among the Christian fundamentalists about witches and spiritual warfare.

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:

  • Be discreet.
  • 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.

Paranoia?

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.

May this only be paranoia.

 

Liminal Adventure: 2018 Edition

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.

Otherworldly Bleed, Consensus, and Magic

Otherworldly Observations

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.

To me though, as an observer, I couldn’t help but be struck by the wildly different expectations of magic that were revealed through this interaction. Again, this is something I’ve written about before, but much of what we commonly call “reality” is more accurately described as consensus. We take in far more information through our ordinary senses per second than we can even be conscious of, let alone store in our memories. Moreover, studies have shown that we’re more likely to become conscious of/retain the information that aligns with our existing beliefs and biases.

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 warfare against 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.

I just hope we don’t wind up in a place where humans meet the same fate as books.

Omens: The Otherworldly And Odin

An Opening of Omens

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?

“Speak rede, birb!”

These things tend to be subtle—until they’re not.

“Human Omens”

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)


World War I, a conflict that would claim around 40 million lives, broke out in July 1914. Yet artists and writers were examining those themes—sometimes with eerie accuracy— years before the first shots were even fired.

Dreams, Intuition, and Divination

The second source of “omens” I look to is my friends. Usually, by the time I get the sense that something is stirring, it’s not long before people start hitting me up if I don’t get in touch with them first. Whenever this happens, I ask about dreams and intuitive hits, as well as any divinatory themes they may be getting. When it comes to prophecy, the image of the seer prophesizing from a high seat is a powerful; it’s what we tend to imagine when we think of prophecy. But if you look back at some of the disasters that have plagued human history, there are often examples where multiple people have begun to dream about the same kind of horrific themes right before something awful happens.

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.

Strange Behavior

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.

These, to me, all have something of an otherworldly feel to them. As does the recent killing of the white stag by armed police in Bootle, UK. (Side note: probably a bad move to kill beings associated with the otherworld when your country is looking at food and fuel shortages.)

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.

Take the Migration Period, for example.

The Migration Period was not an easy time to live in. Peoples migrated and fought over resources. A volcanic eruption in 535-536 caused a dust veil thick enough to darken the sun enough that crops failed for at least two years in a row. And in those days of death and desperation, the warband religion of a certain one-eyed god of spears seems to have made its way north and into the elite centers of power.

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!

Be well.

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