Heathen Deity Relationships

The Relationship Divide

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

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

A Word on ‘Relationships’

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

Textual Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

Eh…not quite.

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

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

Other Relationships with Deities: Hrafnkel Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Relationships with Deities: Wife/Priestess of Freyr Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archaeological Evidence

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Odin from Lejre, Denmark

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

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

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

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

So what can we take from these statuettes?

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

Important Lessons for Modern Relationships

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

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

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

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

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Creation

To a Creation, Clothes

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

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

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

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

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

Mythological Fix Points and Magic

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

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

Woden Worhte Weos: Animation as Woden’s Magic

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

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

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

(Maxims I, II, 132 – 34)

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

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

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

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

Tree-Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creation: The Bare Ingredients

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

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

Adaptation

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

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

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

probably not even necessary either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breath and ‘Soul’

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

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

The Nature of Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with Breath

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

A Story in Parts

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

Until we meet again, friends!

Be well.

Sympathy for the Devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you worship the Devil?”

Christian Baggage: The Devil Edition

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

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

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

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

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

History is Written by the Victors

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

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

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

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

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

Pagan Respectability Politics

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

Spank-bank worthy Lucifer in a cathedral.

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

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

Which is…no.

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

To Dare, To Keep Silent

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

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

Have a nice weekend.

Awe and the Witch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Awe

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

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

Awe and the Numinous

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

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

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

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

Awe and Fear

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

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

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

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

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

Witches and the Numinous

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

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

Victorian Arthur Rackham Vintage Old Ancient

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

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

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

Awe with ‘Big’ Numina vs ‘Smaller’ Numina

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

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

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

Oaths, Offerings, and Omens

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

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

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

Awe and the Degree of Potential Harm

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

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

Mother Holda, the Hel(l) Road, and Magic

Like many people, my first introduction to the witch goddess Holda was through folklore. I don’t remember if I ever read Grimm’s fairy tale Mother Holda before I moved to Germany. But one of my first purchases in Germany was a book of folk tales local to where I lived. My reasoning was that I could translate the tales as a learning activity, and then my husband and I could go and visit the places mentioned in the tales.

The book, Es Spukt in Franken by Michael Pröttel begins with a tale about FrauHolda Hoher Meissner Hulle set not far from Wintersbach. And this is the tale that led me down the rabbithole so to speak. First came the spinning, and then more research and a pilgrimage of sorts to the Hollenteich up on the Hoher Meißner. There, on a frozen pond before a modern statue, I had a deeply holy (and unexpected) experience.

Experience led to more research, and my experience upon that mountain sparked roughly a decade of research. In many ways, my forthcoming book, Elves, Witches, and Gods: Spinning Old Heathen Magic in Modern Day is the fruit of that decade (and more).

But the tales I encountered in Franconia and Hessen aren’t the most famous. That distinction goes to the tale retold by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and it’s this tale and its deathly themes that we’re going to take a look at today.

Down the Well with Mother Holda

Perhaps you’ve heard this tale before?

It begins with a girl and a cruel stepmother who is forced to labor while her step-sister sits idle. This girl is industrious and kind, conscientious and good. But one day, while spinning at the side of a well, she accidentally drops her spindle into the well after pricking her finger.

Her stepmother is consistent in her cruelty, and orders her into the well to retrieve the lost spindle. Terrified and filled with despair, the girl jumps into the well expecting to find death in the dark watery depths.

But there is no death for the girl (maybe). Instead, she finds another world in which she is asked to complete a series of tasks. After completing these tasks, she encounters the scary-looking figure of Mother Holda. Unlike her stepmother, Mother Holda is fair and treats her kindly. She gives her a home and the girl performs her chores with diligence.

And that is where we’re going to leave the retelling of this tale – at least in this blog post. The rest is not necessary for our discussion here.

Mother Holda’s Origins

A lot of words have been written about the origins of Mother Holda and her related beings. (If you’re interested, you can find some of them here.) But those are not the origins I’m going to look at today.

The portion of the tale recounted above can be found in Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm. And although it may appear to be the “king’s road” to Holda’s origins (as German scholar Erika Timm puts it). As Professor Timm concludes, that is unfortunately not the case. In all likelihood, Grimm’s Mother Holda is the Germanic version of a fairytale that originated in the Middle East (Timm 7).

So you’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about this tale then?
The answer, friends, is that symbolism and story are far more fluid and complicated than ‘who came up with what first’. And just because a thing came from outside your usual scope, doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned.

Spindles, Water, and the Dead

As the girl’s adventure to Holda’s meadow begins with a spindle, this is where we will also begin. Because in many ways, the spindle acts like a key to Holda’s realm. Would the girl have found that meadow had she not followed a spindle and simply thrown herself in? We cannot say. But the fact her step-sister made sure to cut herself and throw a spindle into the well before she herself took the plunge is perhaps telling.

Spindles are symbolically rich across the Indo-European world, often connecting the living with the under and/or other worlds. European folklore is full of tales of otherworldly yarn and ghosts appearing as bloody balls of wool. For the ancient Hittites, a group of beings known as the Kattereš were said to spin the fates of kings from the underworld. For the Greeks, the dead were pulled down to Hades by means of the ‘snares of death’. And there is one mention of ‘Hel Ropes’ in Norse literature (Giannakis, “Fate-as-Spinner” I&II)

Whether snares or ropes though, it should be noted that both forms of ligature were the end product of something spun.

Water is also suggestive of a transition from the ThisWorld of the living to whatever lies beyond. As Norwegian scholar, Eldar Heide points out in Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water, stories of the dead departing over water to their final destination are not uncommon in Northwestern Europe. And even where the journey to the afterlife takes place along some kind of Hel road, there is still typically a body of water that must be crossed.

Finally, we must consider the symbolism of the well itself. Most obviously, the well is a passage that leads down into the depths of a watery place. Some see parallels here with the birth canal. But the well has also served as a site for human sacrifice throughout the ages too (“Human Sacrifices?”).

Trials of Character

So whichever way you cut it, the girl was both symbolically and physically plunging to her death. But we do not see her die. Instead, she wakes up in a meadow and finds herself subjected to what might be thought of as trials of character. And it is here that I see a parallel between the afterlife journey of the girl in Mother Holda, and the journey described in the old song A Lyke Wake Dirge

A Lyke Wake Dirge is an old song, designed to be sung over a corpse. Thematically, the song both guides the dead to the afterlife and describes the tribulations along the way.

First the dead pass over a thorny moor (‘Whinny muir’) that will prick them. Then they must pass over the ‘Brig o’Dread’. And then finally, because this is a Christian song, they must roast in Purgatory for a while. But at every turn, these tortures can be mitigated by one’s behavior in life. Those who gave the charity of socks and shoes (‘hosen or shoon’) will find socks and shoes to protect them on the thorny moor. Those who gave the charity of food and drink, will not be shrunk and burned by Purgatory’s fires. (The Brig o’Dread is its own challenge, and I’ll be taking a look at it in the next section.)

Here, as in the story of Mother Holda, the dead must pass through trials that test their character. In both A Lyke Wake Dirge and Mother Holda though, it is their charity and generosity that is tested. The girl pulls the bread from the oven and shakes the apples from the tree because they cry out for relief. It is not merely a task to be done.

Bread, Apples, and the ‘Brig o’ Dread’

But what of bread, apples, and this ‘Brig o’ Dread’?

Bread (or the key ingredient, grain) has long played a part in offerings to the dead, both in England and continental Germany. It was a staple food for the living, so we should perhaps not be surprised to find it offered to the dead. The Penitential of pseudo-Egbert and Carloman’s Capitulary of 742 both indicate burnt grains as an offering to the dead (Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, 113).

We may even see a similar transformation to that of the spinning and spun here. The grains offered by the living are the raw material. But it is in the realm of the dead that they reach their final form (just as we do).

This connection with the dead is one that apples share as well. The 11th century Icelandic poet Þórbjörn Brúnason made a curious mention of the ‘apples of Hel’. And apples also featured as grave goods in both Scandinavian and early English graves. But apples are not only associated with the dead in Norse lore. The apple seems to be both a food for the dead and a substance of renewal for the gods.(Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, 165-166).

Finally, we come to the Brig o’Dread. This was the bridge that the deceased had to cross on the way to the afterlife. Curiously, given our spinning theme, this bridge of dread was described as being “no broader than a thread” in English folk songs. A similar bridge exists in Slavic lore, only here it is made of hair. Yet as folklorist Mirjam Mencej points out, there is little difference between hair and thread in folk tradition. Lithuanian legends tell of ‘spinning goddesses’ and witches who are wont to spin hair when they run out of flax (Mencej, “Connecting Threads”).

And here, despite our foray from German fairytale to a 14th century English dirge, we return to goddesses of spinning and witches. Funny how that happens, yes?

Uncovering the Imaginal in a Folktale and a Dirge

As we have seen, the themes of these two very different sources share some striking similarities. We tread here, I believe, in the imaginal.

For those of you who are yet to encounter the concept of the imaginal, perhaps the best way of introducing the mundus imaginalis is as something akin to Gaiman’s “The Dreaming”. This is the example that Rhyd Wildermuth gives in his amazing post The Imaginal World over on Gods and Radicals. Though not perfect (as Rhyd goes on to acknowledge), this analogy is both accessible and relevant to our discussion here:

”Readers familiar with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series might find some parallels here: the mundus imaginalis is like “The Dreaming,” a realm populated by the dreaming of every being, living or dead, god or human or plant, where each “place” has a geography only inasmuch as it’s necessary for those who visit to travel within it and find the same place again (or visit a place another once visited). In fact, Gaiman likely stole the entire idea for his cosmology from Corbin’s essay.”

As previously mentioned, Rhyd does go on to acknowledge some important differences between the imaginal and the “The Dreaming”. But none of those differences affect the point I wish to make here about the nature of the imaginal.

A Revisited Place, A Liminal Place

The road between the land of the living and that of the dead is one that has been encountered and journeyed many times (arguably repeatedly depending on your afterlife beliefs). As with all things imaginal, it is a place none of us have ever seen concretely, but once we catch a glimpse of its representation in song or story, it feels familiar despite its strangeness.

This is also an inherently liminal road – an intermediary state in all senses of the term. And as such, it seems fitting to connect it with the imaginal given the liminal nature of the imaginal itself. To quote Rhyd once more:

“…the imaginal realm, intersects the others (and exists, according to these mystics, at an intersection of all other realms) and is accessed through the imaginal (not imaginary) capacities of humans.

So we have tales of a liminal passage undertaken by people in a liminal state, being glimpsed in a liminal space.

Most of us who practice magic know the imaginal already. We just tend to call it UPG, SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis), or PVPG (Peer Verified Personal Gnosis).

The Magical Imaginal

When we get down to it, regardless of whether we seek it out for ourselves or rely on the visions of others, these glimpses and encounters with the imaginal lay the foundations for much of what we do. Take the afterlife journey discussed throughout this post, for example. These descriptions give us a kind of map to this road to the afterlife. First the person dies/passes through water, and then they encounter two different trials. Yet the trials in both sources are far from insurmountable, presenting little problem for the compassionate person.

(Remember how the bread in the oven screamed to be removed from the oven and the apples shook from the tree? Those trials were as much about relieving suffering as they were industriousness.)

Finally, the deceased comes to their destination, which varies depending on the underlying belief system. For the Christian dead in the dirge, it is to Purgatory they must go. But for the girl in Mother Holda, it is to live a kinder existence than she did before. She may have worked, but the work was fair. Mother Holda was kind, and the girl never wanted for food.

For those of us who work with the dead, this story and song can provide a useful model for necromancy and psychopomp work. The song itself is easily adaptable for both Heathen and Christian alike, and the symbolism of the bread and apples in the tale of Mother Holda leads us to handy suggestions for offerings.

See how easy that was?

We began this post with a story and a song, and we’re ending with the bare bones of ritual for guiding the dead along the road to/from the afterlife.
And this is the thing, when you find those glimpses in poems/songs/folk tales/ the writings of mystics/in that space between wakefulness and dream, the magic usually isn’t all that far behind.

Sources
Davidson, Hilda Ellis – Gods and Myths of Northern Europe
Giannakis, George – The “Fate-as-Spinner” motif: A study on the poetic and metaphorical language of Ancient Greek and Indo-European (parts I & II)
Griffiths, Bill – Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic
Heide, Eldar – Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water
Mencej, Mirjam – Connecting Threads  
National Museum – Human Sacrifices?
Rumens, Carol – Poem of the Week: A Lyke Wake Dirge
Timm, Erika – Frau Holle, Frau Percht und verwandte Gestalten: 160 Jahre nach Jacob Grimm aus germanistischer Sicht betrachtet

Witches, Covens, and Sabbaths

Have you ever wondered why movies like Practical Magic are so popular among modern witches?

I remember the first time I saw it. I felt like I’d been given a hug. I was a lone witch in the late 90s and the Owens’ lives seemed wonderful, even with the prejudice from the townsfolk, the curse, and Jimmy Angelov’s bullshit. Such iscoven the power of loneliness, I guess. And I was lonely back then. I was a lone witch living in the kind of place people would shout threats at me on the street for being a witch (which they’d seemingly discerned from my general vibe as opposed to me being out of the broom cupboard).

When I saw the Owens’, I saw something enviable. Because Jimmy Angelov may have been an abusive dick, and they too lived around people who wished they could still get away with setting fire to people, but unlike me, the Owens’ sisters were never alone. They had people who got what it was to have the kinds of experiences we have as witches and what it is to inhabit that liminal space in relation to the rest of society. Even better though, they uplifted each other and had each other’s backs.

And if we’re being honest, that’s really rare nowadays, even within covens. But fret not, friends. Because if we’re being really really honest, family-like covens don’t seem to have been all that common historically either.

Alliances Over Bonds

One of the most endearing qualities of the Owens family is that you get the impression that they wouldn’t just fight for each other, but die for each other too. However, historically, practitioners seem to have been for the most part solitary, with their fairy familiars serving as their primary point of contact with the fairy royalty or devilish figure to whom they are ultimately pacted (Wilby 84, 85). For the Early Modern person, it was the familiar that made the witch, but that familiar (though often appearing as a solitary figure), existed within an otherworldly or devilish hierarchy to which the witch was ultimately also bound (Wilby 125). And where witches are shown gathering together at sabbath or as a group, rather than being an event organized for convenience by humans, it is convened at the behest of that otherworldly or devilish power to whom both witch and familiar are beholden (Wilby 84). Invitations to the event itself, are commonly depicted as being conveyed by either the witch’s familiar or via animal spirits sent by the presiding power (Wilby 84). It was a time for engaging in dancing, merrymaking, learning new magic, working baneful magic, and engaging in intercourse and other deviant acts with otherworldly or devilish beings (Wilby 86). Or in other words: the sabbath showcased the kind of deviance the fairies themselves were thought to engage in.

To modern practitioners, the coven is often viewed as something akin to family. But the witches’ sabbath and coven of the time of Isobel Gowdie (from whose testimony we get the first attestation of the word ‘coven’), bears little resemblance to this more modern familial imagining. Where members of modern covens center their bonds with each other, it is the otherworldly power to whom each witch (and familiar) is pledged that is at the center of any group or proceedings in the historical sources (Wilby 81). This is about the familiar rather than the familial, and rather than protecting her ‘sisters’ at any cost as an Owens would, Isobel named the members of her group in her testimony (apparently without the use of torture to loosen her lips). Which can seem quite treacherous until you consider that for her, her main loyalty was probably not to any humans at all.

Although largely under-explored (at least from what I have been able to find), the origin of the word ‘coven’ itself may also elucidate the matter further. It’s not exactly clear where Gowdie got the word from. But given the wide use of the term ‘covenant’ in Early Modern English and Scottish witchcraft accounts and legal records, it would not be unreasonable to consider there to be a relationship between ‘coven’ and ‘covenant’. If this is the case, then perhaps the word ‘coven’ would be better understood to mean ‘one who has a covenant with the otherworldly power in charge of the group or sabbath the witch attends’?

Comfort of Covens vs. Power of Other

The fiction presented by the Owens’ sisters and other such media is comforting, and I think it speaks to the part of us that always wants to belong somewhere and be around people who get us. This is a desire that is all the more keen in groups of people who exist at the edges of human society as witches do.

However, as delicious as that may be, there is also a defanging that has occurred that I believe we need to pay attention to here. Well known fairy-firkler Morgan Daimler has written at length about the ways in which fairies have been rendered harmless in the popular imagination (the reality of fairies being another matter), and I believe a similar process has taken place with the coven and sabbath. Where fairies have gone from being figures of fear and awe to figures of whimsy and childlike innocence, I believe the coven and sabbath have shared a similar fate. Where once they were subversive, deviant fairy-led events in which learning and baneful magic took place, they have been made human-led covens and events made up of people with mostly human-led initiations who practice together in what is hoped to be a familial atmosphere.

Which is undeniably nice – but it’s also pretty convenient too when you think about it. Because it offers the promise of comfort in exchange for that traditional (but often lonely) connection with the otherworldly. However, it is when we witches work in partnership with the otherworldly that the witch has always been, and will always be the most glorious, subversive, and threatening.

I’m not saying to leave your covens if you’re in one, just don’t forget your primary <em>familiar</em> partnership in witchcraft along the way.

Source
Emma Wilby – Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

The Work of Our Time: COVID-19 Edition

The world (or at least my part of it) has changed since the last time I blogged. We now find ourselves in a global pandemic facing a tsunami of illness and death. We live in a world of ‘shelter-in-place’, ‘social-distancing’, and ‘lockdowns’, and society has been turned on its head with the “essential” 1% being shown to be far less essential than the healthcare workers, trash collectors, department of public works Work - caduceusemployees, and grocery store clerks (among others, please forgive me if I missed you).

This pandemic has been illuminating in other ways too.

Those of us with chronic illness have learned just how many of our friends and loved ones are okay with COVID-19 ‘just’ killing ‘those people’. (Psst, we are ‘those people’, and sorry bud, but it doesn’t ‘just’ kill ‘those people’ anyway.) Healthcare workers are hailed as heroes even as they’re being sent to the frontlines of this fight with insufficient PPE, and a whole host of gig workers and minimum wage staff are forced to risk their health and maybe their lives to hopefully avoid homelessness and starvation with no PPE.

And yet, the entitled Chads and Karens of this world are still bitching about the ‘injustice’ of being unable to go boating on the bay on nice days.

As the meme goes, ‘if COVID is a black lamp, America is a cum-stained hotel room’. This public health crisis has illustrated the weaknesses of the inherent iniquities in our society like nothing else.

The deaths are climbing, but this is still the calm before the storm. This is the boiling sea before the deluge that sweeps away lives and tosses them aside like broken driftwood.

The Storm and Tower Time

When I was younger, I used to wonder if people had sensed the coming of major disasters, or killing times like WWI and WWII in a way that went beyond political analysis. It just didn’t seem possible to me that there hadn’t been dreams, visions, or some kind of extrasensory ‘tip off’ about these things given the level of resulting mass trauma. Unsurprisingly, when you dig into the stories around these events, it’s not uncommon to find premonitions of impending doom.

People have been writing about ‘The Storm’ and  ‘Tower Time’ in the Pagan blogosphere for a while now, and many of us have privately confessed our intuitions to each other that ‘something is coming’, that ‘something’ is ramping up and going to happen.  The thing about prophecy and intuition though, is that timing is often quite hard to parse. How much of what we declared to be ‘Tower Time’ before was preview, and how much of it was us actually existing within that temporal space?

Moreover, where did ‘The Storm’ come into it all? Was ‘The Storm’ the preview to the Tower as we see in the card? After all, it’s a bolt of lightning that brings the top of the tower down.

Tower Time has been on the cards for a while now, but it’s always been a feeling of ‘not yet’ for me. Now though, I’m getting the ‘yes now’ ringing clearly. The die has been cast, and if my cards are to be believed, this is but one thing in a chain of fundamentally changing events.

Doing the Work

Which brings me to the work of this time.

Before now, the exhortation to ‘do the work’ has always been annoyingly vague to me, and the examples cited have often just been the things I do anyway. If anything, it felt like we were weathering the circumstances similarly to how one weathers a storm. But of late, ‘the work’, and what it entails, has come sharply into focus along with The Tower.

These are the activities I consider to be the most important parts of the Work of our time.

Offerings

The biggest work I’m seeing the need for right now is making offerings to the hale and holy powers. This is complete UPG, but there is a sense that the gods are also fighting something in my part of the ThisWorld, and that they need Work - offeringofferings.

If this is a vibe you’re also feeling, then I invite you to join me in making offerings to them on the full moon (4/7). Make them before then too – but make the full moon date special. Tell your friends. Turn it into a thing. Have Zoom rituals if you want. Just show those hale and holy powers in your life some major love, (and especially those with the ability to renew and regenerate).

In addition to this, I am also making offerings to the local spirits. Because if we have pissed them off (and possibly provoked them to inflict a virus on us as some traditional healing modalities suggest), then it’s just common sense to apologize and try to appease them. It can be as simple as a stick of incense in your backyard, or milk poured at the base of any trees or bushes you have. Please do not violate any stay at home or shelter in place orders to do this. The best way we can protect each other is to physically stay away from each other in times like these. So be considerate in how you make your offerings.

Healing Work/Supplication to Healing/Disease Subduing Deities

Work with any healing deities or deities that are known for subduing disease? Great! Make offerings to them! Do healing work in their name. Pray, pray, and pray some more for them to step in and help the folks who are sick and dying, as well as their family members and the frontline medical staff working to save them.

Pray for protection for those healthcare workers too (and harass your congress people about that PPE). If they fall, things will become immeasurably worse for all of us. And shit, but they deserve to come home safe to their families.

Singing the Dead

In my opinion, this is by far one of the most important parts of the work of our time. In a couple of weeks, we’re going to have a lot of dead people. And these are people who are going to have passed in terrifying, lonely circumstances.  I already personally know one person  with the story of only being able to say goodbye to a dying relative over FaceTime because they could not risk allowing family members to be with the dying because of the risk of infection.

That is going to make for a lot of hurt dead who aren’t necessarily going to get to where they need to go. The thought of this is absolutely heartbreaking to me, and so I’ve started praying for and singing the dead every night. At the moment, my songs are improvised. My usual psychopomp song (A Lyke Wake Dirge) seems insufficient for this purpose. But if I come upon something particularly good, I will share here.

Because I cannot go to the places where the dead are, I am relying on songs of enticement to pull the dead in and guide them home, and I advise you to make that your focus too. So please, again, stay home, find ways to work from home in your tradition, and stay the hell away from hospitals.

Loving the Living

As a few bloggers have remarked, the term ‘social distancing’ is something of a misnomer in the age of internet. What we are really talking about when we say ‘social distancing’ is physical distance. We can still support each other even at a distance.

These times are hard, and a lot of people are struggling with the enormity of the challenges we face. Many of us are also experiencing anxiety and going through some form of mourning, and that will only become keener as death closes in on us. So, part of the work needs to be checking in with each other, leading community worship/online events, and creating systems of support. These systems do not have to be solely religious in nature either. Religion should not be the only justification for gathering together (in cyberspace). What about your local community where you are? What about your neighbors? What about the folks you happen to share passions with? The more community networks we have the better.  The way our society previously worked was detrimental to communities and was isolating. There are reasons for this, shitty reasons. We don’t need to fall back into that again. We’re stronger when we’re together.

The Tower Made Stone

Three days ago, on the 28th of March, many of us were confronted with the literal image of The Tower in the city of Baltimore. Lightning struck the steeple of the Urban Bible Fellowship Church causing it to partially collapse and

Work - tower
Credit: Baltimore Sun

damage the adjacent Institute of Notre Dame. (Another year, another Notre Dame?)

As far as omens go, this one is loud.

We weathered the storm, the lightning struck, and Tower time is now. But how much will burn, how far the steeple will fall, what the wreckage will look like, and how we’ll recover is anyone’s guess. So do the work as you see it, choose as wisely as you can, and grow community like kudzu. Our survival in whatever comes next may depend on it.

May as many of us as possible live to see it.

Be well, my friends.

Story, Satanic Witches, and Hell(ier)

My blog post today is about story. And I’m going to begin it by telling you a story (about story).

I like to write fiction, and I’ve been creating and writing stories for as long as I can remember. There’s something magical about the process of creating characters and allowing them to reveal the next stages in what inevitably becomes their story. For the most part, these characters are my creations, beginning as hastily plotted-out spider diagrams on whatever scrap of paper I can find and growing into themselves as I write.

By Human or Non-Human Hands?

But around this time last year, two characters began to take shape in my mind without conscious plotting on my part. I still made hastily-scribbled diagrams, but instead of being spiderlike sigils of creation, they were more like a record of beings that were already there..

I wrote them almost obsessively, unable to think about anything else. And this entire world began to take shape as I worked, growing up around the characters in a suspiciously organic fashion.

But one day around Beltane, they were suddenly gone. The world and its inhabitants no longer spoke to me. I could no longer see where I next needed to go, and so I let the project fall. Because while I could have simply invented the details and carried on writing, it felt wrong to do so.

For months I missed them like distant friends. I wanted to continue their story and spend more time in their world, and in September I got my wish.

They had returned. I could see their world once more, and their stories began to speak to me again.

But instead of jumping back into their world, I held back. Why?

Because I realized that they had returned at the same time as the acronychal Story - pleiadesrising of the Pleiades. Moreover, their Beltane disappearance coincided with the yearly disappearance of the Pleiades from the night sky. It seemed a little too coincidental, especially when the characters you’re writing are Gentry who worship the ‘Seven Queens’.

Now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this instead of simply getting into the CAOS.

I’m telling you this because I wanted to illustrate the point that story doesn’t always come from humans, and that sometimes there are non-human hands in the mix as well.

Otherworldly Media and Narrative

What do a bunch of ‘cave goblins’, Irish fairies, and a long-dead Icelandic völva spirit have in common?

If my sources are correct on this: they have all either historically been interested in modern communications technology and/or media, have already arguably exerted their influence, or have reportedly expressed an interest in doing so.

As outlandish as all of this may seem, this is not so different from the kind of otherworldly interest in creative types recorded in older sources. The storytelling bard has become the TV show writer, artists who may have painted scenes from Fairy while locked up in Bedlam, now create digitally, and famous Fairy-Firkler Morgan Daimler has been pointing out the weird waves of disinformation about Themselves online for a while.

(I mean, come on…plastic is the ‘new iron’?)

Why would humans be the only beings to adapt to an ever-changing world? Why would the otherworldly not continue to interact with and influence creative types as they have done for generations?

Sabrina Goes to Hell(ier)

Which brings me to the point of this post. Yet again, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has angered modern Pagans and Witches. This time though, it’s the depiction of the ‘Pagans’ that seems to be the source of the greatest ire.

I have a lot of say about that ire in general. But I’m going to limit myself to making the following two points:

  • That the ‘Pagans’ are not so much human worshippers of Pagan gods, but beings that were seen as being potentially monstrous (if not outright so) by their own Pagan period peers. Yes, as unjust as a monstrous read is when it comes to figures like Medusa and Circe, that’s probably how many people at the time probably saw them.
  • That the Greendale coven now worship Hecate. Which means that they’re now technically Pagans too. (Congratulations! You no longer have to get mad that they’re Satanic witches.)

Oh and about that whole thing with Pan and the Green Man: didn’t it feel a little familiar? Kind of like we’ve seen that alliance somewhere before?

Ah right, yes. Hellier season two. Again.

And I’m not the only person to have noticed the similarities either. According to the Twitterverse there was even a tin can moment in CAOS pt 3 (that I missed, probably because I tend to watch things like sewing/knitting/spinning).

A Topsy-Turvy Story

CAOS pt 3 was a story of different factions and battlelines. The Satanic was revealed to be codependent on the Christian for not only its ascent and power, but also help in the form of Mambo Marie (who is at one point described as being Catholic as well as a vodouisante). The ‘Pagans’ were largely actually monstrous beings, ‘Robin Goodfellow’ allies himself with the humans, and the Greendale coven end up (a different kind of) Pagan anyway.

If there’s one thing about the underlying ‘string-pullers’ of Hellier, it’s that the history doesn’t quite add up – at least not in the usual way. Greg is sent a pdf of The Rebirth of Pan: Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit, a book by a man called Jim Brandon (pseudonym). It’s a wild ride through archaeology, conspiracy theory, cryptozoology, paranormal phenomena, and Crowley. Rather than the Ancient Greek figure, the ‘Pan’ spoke of in this book (a being which the author argues is actually the conscious, collective identity of the earth/contained within the earth) is an aggregate term, a way of naming what the author believes to be manifestations of this consciousness of/within the earth.

The Green Man (a being associated with this ‘Pan’ by Brandon) of CAOS is also aggregate. The ‘Pagans’ of CAOS are trying to resurrect a supposedly ancient god (that’s apparently actually a bunch of other beings masquerading in a trench coat as ‘our lost connection to nature’). In a sense, he is a manifestation of Brandon’s ‘Pan’ (with a representation of Pan serving as his high priest), set within this uniquely American story that began with colonial era diabolist witches.

And then there’s Hecate – a deity that seems to be becoming more prominent among modern Pagans at the moment, often in a protective/tutelary capacity.  Funny how she’s associated with dogs, isn’t it?

The Stories We Tell and the Fucking Zeitgeist

When people on Twitter first began to notice the similarities between Hellier2 and CAOS pt 3, one person remarked that the CAOS producers should have given credit to Greg and Dana Neukirk.

But here is the thing: both series were produced more or less concurrently. Season 2 of Hellier dropped on 11/29/19, and CAOS on 1/24/20. While there are a couple of months between both shows, there wasn’t enough time for anyone to copy anyone else. Moreover, per CAOS showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, they were filming episode six in August – roughly around the same time as Greg and Dana et al. were still filming Hellier season two.

Good humans, I give you the zeitgeist…maybe.

Or maybe instead we see non-human hands in human stories and hints of narratives yet to be shaped?

Lessons from the Story of the Time

In my little corner of the world, I’ve noticed a lot of strange things post-Hellier 2. Moreover, more than a few people have hit me up out of the blue with stories that are spookily similar.

I believe the unseen world gained a new faction, and it’s something of a ‘new kid’ on the block. Based on what I’ve seen so far of this new kid, I’m pretty sure the ‘old kids’ aren’t too happy with it. Something – a collection of beings in a trench coat masquerading as something else is trying to come onto their turf. And as humans, the creators and consumers of stories that shape the dominant consensus, we’re faced with a choice (another one).

In CAOS, the Greendale coven is given the (false) choice of joining the ‘Pagans’. But instead they choose Hecate, their ancestors (of blood and of practice), and ultimately each other.

Despite the fact that it’s a TV show, I think there’s a valuable lesson in that for witches. Because regardless of tradition, most of us already have relationships with have gods, ancestors, and other beings. Some of us also have magical siblings of sorts too. These are the relationships that have long sustained us. And even when we don’t have those things, the older beings tend to have track records that we can refer to when making our choices. Cleaving to those that are proven hael (by experience or reputation) is probably the best choice.

Lessons from the Winds: Óðinn and Breath

I stand on a path on a rocky moor, the clouds like steel overhead. Below me the wild, deep azure of the river cuts through the valley. It’s cold here, and noisy as I walk. I hear the rush of the water and feel the wind beating against my ears.

I follow the noise to the source – a waterfall, but it isn’t just any waterfall.

Goðafoss sits like a watery giant reclining against the hard rock face of the valley to stretch out feet into the land around. There is a sense of expansiveness, but also layers of story stored in the depths.

Þorgeir and his Cloak

One of those stories is that of the godposts of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorkelsson. Þorgeir you see, was a lawspeaker who lived around 1000 CE, a time when Christianity was putting down roots in the north. The crisis faced by the people of Iceland was one of conversion, and it had fallen to Þorgeir to decide how to proceed as he was the one person trusted by both Heathen and Christian alike.

Þorgeir’s decision was unenviable. On the one hand, there was growing pressure from Norway for the Icelanders to convert, and many Icelanders had already converted. But on the other, those who remained Heathen in Iceland wished to continue to worship the gods of their forefathers.

Now that’s a very condensed version of what was going on when Þorgeir elected to go under the cloak to see what was to be done.

Going under the cloak is one of those Heathen period magical practices that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention by modern Heathens. (There are a few Óðinn - cloakpractices like that though, if I’m being honest.)

Part of the problem is that we don’t really know a whole lot about the practice. But we can be reasonably certain that for Þorgeir, on that fateful day at Þingvellir, it was a method of seeking wisdom about a seemingly impossible situation.

And so he went under the cloak, lying as though sleeping or dead for long hours until he surfaced and made the announcement that a decision had been reached: the Icelanders were to publicly become Christians, but were able to keep their ancestral ways privately.

What’s in a Name?

It’s hard to imagine how Þorgeir must have felt after making that decision. He himself was a Heathen, and yet one of the first things he did on leaving the Allþing was to cast his godposts into the rushing depths of Goðafoss.

This is why it’s called ‘Goðafoss’; it’s the waterfall of the gods (though some say ‘goði’ as Þorgeir was a goði).

The Lone Weirdo

I’d gone to Goðafoss as part of a Land Sea Sky tour group. I was a presenter on the tour, along with the incomparable Morgan Daimler, and I’d been experimenting with a method for going under the cloak that had been yielding interesting results.
That was my plan at the waterfall of the gods, and that’s what I did.

I’m probably in the background in a bunch of tourist photos – a lone weirdo hooded and wrapped in a shawl of serpentine patterns lying down as though to take a nap.

But that’s okay, I hope they found the falls as special as I did.

Now I’m not here today to talk about the experience of going under the cloak, or how I do that. I have a description of my entire process (as well as how I came to practice in that way) in my upcoming book that’s coming out at the end of this year/early next year.

(Did I mention that yet? I don’t think I did. Btw guys, I’ve got a book coming out on Heathen magic.)

No, today I’m here to talk about what happened after I got up from the cloak and the practice I discovered from that experience. That is what I would like to share today – what I’m being nudged to share.

Óðinn Gave Breath

So I get up from the ground and dust myself off. But suddenly, I become aware of the sound of heavy wing beats even above the din of the waters. I feel them in my heart even, and search them out with my eyes.

Two ravens fly the breadth of the waterfall and come up the opposite side of the river to draw level with me.

Time slows, becomes weighty with presence and I know that I’m being shown something.

I feel my breath mingle with the wind – with Óðinn, the god who first gave breath-soul to humans. For a long moment there is a communion of sorts. But this isn’t just a connection with a god. He’s there too but it’s bigger than that. Instead it’s like my sense of self falls away, expanding to include the world and people around me, and it’s wonderful. A true place of potential.

Connecting With Óðinn Through Breath

Think about every breath you take. From the beginning of life when a baby takes that first breath before releasing a scream into the world, to the end when those borrowed breaths are finally released back to the winds, breath is our constant companion. This is life, death, interconnectedness, and the mother of spoken sounds.

Some say the Old English Rune Poem credits the Old Man as the source of all speech. I think in a sense he is.

This is how I like to check in with Óðinn, and I think some of you might like it too.

The best place to do this is outside, preferably in a high place where the winds blow wild. Those have always been the places where I’ve felt his presence the strongest.

For a Heathen, relationships are built with gifting, so bring a gift with you (wine is good). Prayers don’t hurt either. Then simply sit and focus on your breath.

This works best when you can forget about all the things that keep you separate and different from the rest of the world. Óðinn is a mutable god. He is a god of masks and becoming other people as needed. Hell, even his name refers to temporary states of being! It’s a lot easier if you try to become mutable too.

You won’t always experience his presence when you do this. But there are worse ways to spend a morning or evening than exploring the interconnectedness of breath and wind on a hill somewhere so it’s no loss.

Just be sure to dress for the weather.

And that’s it.

Happy Wednesday, all!