Welcome back to another thrilling installment of this blog series examining the intersection of reconstruction and gnosis!
Before I get stuck in though, I just wanted to add a quick note about my use of the word “reconstructionism,” in this series. This can be something of a nebulous word among modern Heathens. At its core, it’s a methodology that allows scholars to experience a thing in as accurate a way as possible to potentially gain insights about that thing. However, it’s also come to signify a movement within modern Heathenry that sits at the opposite end of the (fake) spectrum from “woo.” This was the meaning we first began with in the beginning of this series. Some might even argue that this “recon” movement has developed a dogma of its own over time, thus making it a kind of sect. (And a weirdly evangelical one at that.)
Within the context of this series, I use the term “reconstructionism” and its variants to refer to either the methodology as I approach it or the movement as it relates to the “recon – woo” scale. When referring to the research phase of the process, I also use “scholarship” or “research,” as that’s the bulk of the work involved at that stage. However, it’s important to note reconstruction doesn’t just include research but experimentation and post-experiment evaluation as well.
Some Limitations Of Reconstructing Magic
It should probably go without saying, but magical reconstruction is a completely different kettle of fish from reconstructing medieval bow shooting (for example). I’ve discussed this before in previous posts, but there are a couple of extra points we need to bear in mind when reconstructing magic.
The first is that the ON primary sources were written from the observer’s perspective, often long after the events they describe took place. Sometimes there are further clues from archaeological finds (especially when they seem to support the textual sources and vice versa). However, the vast majority of the time, interpreting those finds is (to put it crudely) ultimately a matter of educated guesswork.
The second point relates to outside influences. Even textual sources that appear to have been written for practitioners are not without their problems. The most relevant example of this within the context of my own work are OE magico-medical texts like the Lacnunga. Though they clearly contain earlier remnants, these texts were written hundreds of years after the English officially converted. So, while there may be Heathen elements, there are also clear Christian and Classical influences in the mix as well, and it can be difficult to tease those different strands apart.
Step One: Building A Working Theory
One of the first things you’ll notice if you try experimenting with historical magic, is that there are “gaps.” We often talk about different magical traditions or currents as systems. And like any other kind of system, there are certain processes/actions/objects required to make a magical system work.
Historical Heathen magic was likely no different.
I find it helpful to think of magical systems as languages for communicating with and mediating issues with the Holy Powers and Unseen of this world. As with any other kind of language, there needs to be a grammar-like framework as well as some agreement on performance if it is to be understood.
So, part of the work involved in creating magical experiments has to include a working theory of how the system you’re experimenting with may have worked. Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong. At this point, it’s best to think in terms of degrees of accuracy anyway. You’re not aiming for the magical equivalent of being able to write a book in a second language (big shout out to Daniela Simina for that one!). Your aim here is to figure out enough to do the equivalent of successfully ordering a hotdog at a gas station without confusing or pissing off the staff.
When formulating your working theory/theories, it’s important to remember that magical systems are not separable from worldview. They exist within the worldview from which they were born. So, for example, as magic is very much concerned with fate, it’s wise to learn everything you can about how Historical Heathens may have thought about “fate.” You would also do well to read up about souls and eschatology, as well as how they may have viewed their neighbors (both Seen and Unseen) in this wondrous Middle-Earth.
Once you have your working theory though, then you can begin to think about the elements they may have thought necessary, the order of ritual, and well…everything else. Because working theories—while daunting—give you a place to start figuring out some of the missing pieces.
Filling In The Missing Pieces AKA “Plotholes”
If you’ve been practicing magic for any amount of time, you can probably read a ritual, mentally walk it though, and have a good idea of whether it’s going to work. In doing this (whether you realize it or not), you’re effectively assessing the “story” of the ritual/spell/working for “plot holes.”
At times, these potential plot holes reveal themselves through sources of similar practices or comparable sites within your focus culture/s. Other times though, you may find yourself suspecting a plot hole when looking into similar practices from related cultures or cultures with whom your focus culture/s had a lot of interaction.
Much rarer (at least in my experience) is when the author unintentionally leaves a hint of a plot hole via a stock phrase. A phrase that seems to indicate a practice/action/incantation the author considered so basic and common to their intended audience they didn’t think it worth the bother of writing down. Those of you who have studied the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri are probably very familiar with the phrase “do the usual.” This is the kind of hint I mean here.
However a plot hole is revealed though, my first step is to widen my field of research to try and find something with enough of a similar “shape” to fill those gaps. This is when I begin to look into sources from related cultures or later time periods from the same culture. (Because we clearly also need to add in some comparativism and retrospective methods too.)
Finally, I also pay attention to my gnosis as well as lessons learned from previous experiences and incorporate those too. Remember how I extolled the importance of writing everything down in the last post? Well, this is where all of that recorded gnosis and XP starts to come in.
Filling In The Missing Pieces: The “Not Attested But We Know This Shit Keeps Us Safe” Parts
The last kind of plot hole to consider are the practices and precautions we have no historical evidence for but know from experience to be smart. These include (but are not limited to) some mainstays of modern witchcraft practice like grounding/centering/shielding and energy manipulation.
There can be a temptation to try and be the most authentic and accurate little magical explorer that could. But as a witch, I’m nothing if not practical, and I’ve seen what happens when people don’t have those so-called “basics” down when engaging in this kind of work.
Magic isn’t safe, and this is especially the case when working outside established traditions. Established traditions have structure and methods of working and people generally have an idea of how rituals are going to go. Moreover, when things do go wrong, a practitioner working within an established tradition has a layer of protection and backup people like myself don’t have. Let’s just say things can get a little wild when you’re building experiments from historical sources, frameworks of educated guesses, and gnosis.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s also mad fun. This kind of work makes my souls sing and has led me to the most incredible experiences. Performing a ritual I’ve put together for an experiment with next to zero idea of what’s going to happen next is my happy place.
But it’s really not safe.
So, regardless of historical accuracy, I recommend adding some safety mechanisms to your experiments as well. Those so-called “basic” witchcraft skills can actually be the difference between “Eh, things got a bit hairy” and “Yeah, I was lucky to get out in one piece.”
As an aside, if you don’t believe the Unseen can really harm you and/or that you’re somehow in charge/are owed something/are more powerful because you’re a witch, then please keep away from this work. To put it bluntly: you’d be a danger to yourself, anyone who works with you, and eventually those who live with you as well.
I also recommend that you create amulets, make sure your go-bag includes apotropaics for if (when) shit goes sideways, and begin a purification practice if you don’t already have one. Some beings/energies/kinds of work aren’t exactly good for humans from a health/wellness perspective. So, find ways to get clear that work for you. (If you dig smoke cleansing, here’s the third in a series of posts about that very thing.) These are important for staying healthy/well. Ideally, you’ll have methods/things you can use directly after finishing an experiment and methods/things you can use when you get home and in the following days. Additionally, you may find that you have instincts that kick in after certain types of work. One example of such an instinct that Martin Coleman kind of also wrote about in Communing With The Spirits is post-necromancy horniness. As long as those instincts are not harmful to yourself or others, my advice is to go with them. Go forth and bang that necromancy out of your system (or whatever).
Finally, don’t forget to figure out some protocols for wrapping up your experiments, containing anything that needs containing, and getting clear of any influence/effects/interlopers before you get home. Please bear in mind that “going sideways” does include the possibility of things like possession and plan accordingly. It’s wise to have a buddy system in place; people you or your family members can call if extra help is needed.
I was initially hoping to stick to a single post on experiment building. However, as with all things in this series, it didn’t quite work out like that, and when my post tipped 5000 words, I figured it was best to split it into two posts. In the next post (now I’ve gotten all of those caveats out of the way), I’m going to talk about how I put together my first Götavi grid experiment, the underlying reasons why I made the choices I did as well as all the fuck-ups along the way. So, until next time. Be well.
I first stumbled across the Gõtavi grid in a paper entitled Nine Paces from Hel: Time and Motion in Old Norse Ritual Performance by the archaeologist, Neil Price. I’d been down a rabbit hole researching eschatology, its possible relationship to mortuary behavior, and how it may be reflected in funerary archaeology. This, by the way, was all thanks to a dream I’d had, which I’ve blogged about before due to its initiatory nature. But just to give you the TL;DR version: I was carried down a Hel-Road and interred in a mound where I had a nice chat with the dead. Among the topics we’d chatted about was the advice to pay attention to how the land is shaped for the shape of the story being told. Or in other words: the setting reflects/is made to reflect the story. Given that they weren’t telling me to go out and murder someone or wife-swap like John Dee, I decided to get on that.
I remember reading through the section of Price’s paper discussing the grid with fascination, with this ember of excitement flaring to life deep in my belly along with a knowing that this was a thread I needed to follow. And so follow it, I did.
A Quick Note on Threads, Gnosis, and the Process
Now you probably already noticed the gnosis sneaking in. This is one of the main reasons why I find it impossible to separate research from “woo.” As I said in my last two posts, they have never been entirely separate for me. I am a thread-tugging Cat, and I will tug the shit out of any threads I’m inspired to go tug on.
But here is where things can get precarious.
Because if you’re not careful, the excitement can take over, making it easy to lose sight of where you began. And as with all things magical for me when every fiber of my being is shouting, ”GO DO THE THING NOW, YOU KNOW THIS SHIT IS GOING TO WORK!”, it becomes a drive.
Now, I’m going to be honest here: it can be really tempting to blow off the research phase and get right down to the experimentation. But trust me when I say it’s not worth it. In my experience, the rewards are always so much better when you see the process through.
So what do you do?
You tell that excitement “Not yet!”, you get to work and write everything down as you go. Write down your research and the sources you worked from. Write down the gnosis that crops up as you research. Be honest what came from where. All of it will likely come in later anyway, regardless of where you got it from.
So, let me tell you about this grid!
Describing the Götavi Grid
The grid I’m referring to here was found at a place called Götavi, in what was once the historic Swedish province of Närke. Götavi is thought to be a theophoric toponym, or a place name that refers to or bears the name of a god/s. When I was first researching this site, the only meaning I encountered was the one given by Neil Price. He translates Götavi as “sanctuary of the gods,” but I should mention here that the meaning of Götavi is still disputed by Swedish scholars (Price, Nine Paces, 182; Vikstrand, Ullevi och Götavi, 60-64). Don’t worry, I’ll refrain from posting a summary of the main theories about Götavi and the surrounding arguments. In the interest of full disclosure, I only managed to access them after the initial research phase, and well. I’m not going to pretend I found more than I did in this post.
So, back to the grid! It’s rectangular in shape, measures 15 x 18 meters (or roughly 49 x 59 feet), and was constructed in a salt marsh some time in the late tenth to mid-eleventh centuries (Common Era).Interestingly, the grid was buried under a layer/platform of clay, which would have hidden it from participants when the site was in use (Price, Nine Paces, 183).
This Devil’s Hopscotch was composed of nine parallel lines/enclosures packed with stone, as well as a stone-packed square in one corner. The site is oriented along a SW/NE axis—which I’ll discuss later. And there is a slight, bowl-shaped depression at the center (Price, Nine Paces, 183).
Along each of the short sides of the grid, there is evidence of timber fencing, as well as evidence for additional wooden posts, especially at the NE end of the grid. Though archaeologists (rightfully) hesitate to assign meaning to this site, there is little doubt its purpose was ritual in nature. Chemical analyses conducted on the clay surface show large amounts of fat and blood along the NE end, and especially near where the wooden posts would have stood. Evidence of further deposits (probably food remains), was found in the SE sector of the grid (Price, Nine Paces, 183; Svensson, Götavi – en vikingatida kultplats i Närke, 69).
So, that’s the long and the short of the grid in terms of its physical characteristics.
(It’s a rectangle, get it? Never mind.)
However, here is where we magic practitioners need to part ways with the archaeologists and scholars. Our foci and goals—our destinations, in other words—are too different to stay on the same path. Their task is to learn about the past from surviving evidence. And it would be inappropriate for them to assign meaning or make declarations of “What It All Means” (Price, Performing the Vikings, 71). However, as I discussed in the first post of this series, my goals are quite different. To reach them, I need to pull enough from the sources to develop practical experiments and hopefully have experiences which I can then evaluate and further refine into workable practices.
In many ways, this is like reenactment, only without the cool period garb. What differentiates my work from the reenactor (aside from garb), is that I need a working theory related to meaning and magical mechanics before I start.
Performing Ritual and Cosmology in Land
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned a dream I’d had in which I was dead, got carried down a Hel-road and interred in a mound, and had a nice little chat with the dead. As I said at the beginning, a big part of their message was that there is a connection between how the land is shaped and the shape of a story.
The story they were referring to was eschatology.
When most think of eschatology, they think about the end of the world/s. However, eschatology can also be the final things of a human life as well. This is a huge topic when you think about it, encompassing everything from the afterlife and the journey to get there, to necromancy, psychopomps, the possibility of rebirth, and the shape of a human soul. When I first read about the Götavi grid and its features, I was immediately reminded of this dream and began thinking about the grid in eschatological terms. There are a few source-based reasons for this (which I will go into), but ultimately, it felt like I was on the right path.
Despite my main driver being little more than a gut feeling, I knew I wasn’t alone in working from the perspective of story and setting. Ever since the archaeologist Anders Andrén demonstrated that the imagery on a group of Gotland picture stones could be “read” like sequential episodes from the story of Sigurðr, archaeologists have begun to examine mortuary behavior in terms of performing and representing narrative/story as well. The picture stones commemorate the dead and are generally set between property boundaries. They are neither in-field nor out-field. But what’s really striking about Andrén’s findings, is that the story is told intergenerationally, with the stone from each generation depicting a “chapter” (Price, Performing the VIkings, 64-65).
Which, let’s face it, is kind of shit that you had to wait until someone died to catch the next episode. And we thought mid-season hiatuses sucked!
The consideration of story and setting isn’t limited to mortuary behavior and funerary archaeology either. Terry Gunnell, for example, writing on the origins of Norse drama, argued that some of the mythological material was written with performance in mind. And Olof Sundqvist has made the case for applying that same framework to the remains of cultic sites such as Gamla Uppsala (Sundqvist, The Temple, the Tree, and the Well: A Topos or Cosmic Symbolism at Cultic Sites in Pre-Christian Northern Europe?).
So, with all of that in mind, what made me think the “story” of the grid relates to eschatology?
Well, you know…aside from my gnosis and gut feeling.
Evidence For An Eschatological Story
Islands and Mounds
As I said above, the grid was constructed in a salt marsh and would have been hidden to observers thanks to that clay covering. This location would have also made the site a de facto island (albeit a pretty underwhelming one). But this island-like construction may be significant in and of itself. In his paper Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water, Eldar Heide demonstrates a long association between islands (as places that exist on the other side of water), and Hel and/or the Otherworld in Northwestern European textual sources. The evidence Heide cites isn’t limited to textual sources, though. He also points to a number of physical sites, such as the Iron Age graves on uninhabitable islets in Northern Norway and the relatively common occurrence of grave fields separated from living people settlements by streams.
Most relevant to us however, is Heide’s argument for considering burial mounds a parallel to those islands of the dead, citing archaeological pollen analyses conducted in the ditches surrounding the mounds of Borre. To summarize the findings: water plants grew in some of them there ditches. What do you call a burial mound surrounded by a ditch filled with water?
Sounds like an island of the dead to me!
(And as someone who originally came from an island Procopius labeled as one big hangout for the dead, I think I know an island of the dead when I see it.f)
The Number Nine
The most obvious feature of this “Devil’s Hopskotch” (never not calling it that btw), is the pattern. Probably the easiest way to describe it is as a square with nine other shapes around it on all sides.
“Three,” as De La Soul once sang, “is the magic number.” But if you’ve been Heathening for any amount of time, you probably already know that nine is symbolically potent and (dare I say it?) a magic number in Old Norse sources. Rán has nine daughters, Heimdallr has nine mothers (don’t ask me how that works), Mengloð has nine maidens, and Gróa has nine spells (Price, Nine Paces, 184).
We also see the number nine in contexts related to death and/or the dead. For example, that one time in Völuspá 53 and Gylfaginning cha. 51—you know, that when Þórr gets a venom shower from Jörmungandr—he walks (staggers?) nine paces before dropping dead (Dronke, The Poetic Edda, 22; Sturluson, Edda, 54). Another example of the number nine being the magic (dead) number can be found in Gylfaginning cha. 49. This is when Hermôðr does everyone a solid after Baldr gets unalived by riding for nine nights to the river Gjöll on his way to Hel (Sturluson, 50.) And Gylfaginning cha. 34 tells us that Hel was “thrown into Niflheim” and given authority over nine worlds, or as they’re also known, “the worlds you can die in” (Sturluson, 27). Catchy, right?
But don’t worry, little brother, there’s more!
You’ve all heard of Óðinn, right? That whole thing in Hávamál vs 138 where he hung on a “windswept tree” for “nine days and nights,” while “pierced by a spear.” Sound familiar?
(By the way, don’t try that at home!)
Well anyway, we’re also told that he’s sacrificing “himself to himself.” If there’s anything Baldr’s story and the boss battle called “Ragnarök” can teach us, it’s that gods can die. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume a god can die from this whole “hanging from a tree while stabbed” business. Moreover, we’re told the tree is “windswept,” which adds another layer of symbolism to the scene. As Maria Kvilhaug points out, there are clear associations between wind and death, and windlessness and immortality in Old Norse Poetry. Maria’s interpretation of “windswept”? Deadly AF (Kvilhaug, The Seed of Yggdrasill, 662).
So we have nine nights on the tree, nine nights on a Hel-ride, and nine paces before a god dies—all examples of the number nine and its connection to the journey to Hel.
Another significant feature of the grid is its SW/NE orientation. This orientation seems to be particularly associated with the dead or sites associated with the dead. In Doors to the Dead: The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia, Marianne Hem Eriksen, which is an absolute banger of a paper (if you’re into that kind of thing), provides several examples of this SW/NE orientation in conjunction with sites associated with the dead (such as burial mounds). Hem Eriksen is all about the doors in that paper, so she focuses more on doors than other forms of access (like causeways).
One specific example she gives is of the catchily named “mound 30,” in Helgö, Sweden, which has a portal/threshold structure constructed to its SW. This is not the only example she gives, though. Hem Eriksen also points out that archaeologists have identified at least 80 examples of SW portals associated with mounds or other kinds of graves. And interestingly—like the Götavi grid—the majority of them contain no human burials.
A different kind of site she discusses with this orientation, is the grave field structure known as the Åby portal. Evidence suggests this was a large, pentagonal, free-standing monument constructed in the SW corner of a grave field, with a doorway in the SW of the structure. As you can see, they were really sticking to that SW theme. Unlike the grid though, the Åby portal does contain a cremation burial, which is clear evidence of its association with the dead. You know…if the grave field location wasn’t enough for you.
Going back to that Gylfaginning episode where Hermóðr missions it through a bunch of deep, dark valleys, we also discover that after you get to the river, Hel is in a “northward” direction from there (Sturluson, 50). So, okay, Peter Pan’s directions aren’t the worst out there. And it’s not NE exactly, but the idea is that Hermóðr (AKA the living god-person) is riding from the south to interact with the dead.
You know, there’s a series of roundabouts in my hometown where the local council have gone absolutely hog wild erecting posts in that area. You’ve probably already heard the term “wonder of the world.” Well, take whatever comes to mind when you hear that term and imagine the antithesis, and it may get you close to the level of underwhelm I’m talking about here.
As I mentioned earlier, posts feature in the grid as well. Archaeologists have found evidence of a number of posts in the grid, especially in the NE. The Götavi grid however, isn’t the only post-containing site with features that also potentially connect it with the dead.
Enter: Lilla Ullevi, or the “little sanctuary of Ullr.”
Again, we have an usual stone feature that looks like a trapezoid shape with “legs” on the aerial photos. Archaeologists have interpreted it as a platform. But I’m not here to talk about that right now; I’m here for the posts. Because the evidence suggests that there were actually more posts at Lilla Ullevi than at the aforementioned series of roundabouts in my hometown. If you happen to be a fan of erect wooden poles jutting out of the fecund earth, then you probably would have fucking loved Lilla Ullevi.
This place seems to have been a hive of activity back in the day. There’s a theory that the platform was a seiðhjallr, which sounds like a stretch. But seeing as archaeologists found the basket-like part of an iron “staff of sorcery” just outside the southern edge of the platform, that isn’t too wild (Price, Nine Paces, 182).
(I use double quotations here, because this is the usual interpretation of these objects vs certainty.)
Now, Lilla Ullevi didn’t just have posts, there were groups of posts. (Hooray!) The platform itself is oriented east-west (depending on how you look at it), but evidence suggests activities took place north-south. Around 15m east of the “platform,” there’s evidence of a north-south line of posts—my favorite! The area to the south of the platform seems to have been the place to be (unless you were the theoretical völva in this situation). There’s an area of baked soil south of the platform that had fires burned on it over and over again. And there’s evidence for groupings of 3 posts with 60 iron rings buried in the ground in lines between the groupings of posts. Archaeologists also found miniature shield amulets along with lances, arrows, and fire steels in this area too. And if that wasn’t enough, roughly 36 knives were found dug down into the dirt around the stone platform as well (Price, Nine Paces, 182).
Smells like apotropaic use of iron against the dead to me! (Here’s a paper about that very thing if you’re curious.) Either way, the south seems to have been the place for the ordinary living to hang out. That was my point there. And sure, while we don’t know that the presence of posts are an indication of necromantic activities, I figured it was worth mentioning anyway.
Fat and Blood
Finally, there are the fat and blood stains in the NE of the grid to consider. Given the orientation, I’d expect these to be related to the dead in some way. But while there is evidence for feasting with cooked meat at graves/sites suggestive of graves, I think there’s a more useful parallel in the account of necromancy in The Odyssey.
Think: less BBQ with the dead and more “satiating the dead with blood.”
In book 11, lines 30-50, Odysseus decides to get his necromance on. He begins by digging a pit, which he fills with offerings to the dead. Then, he sacrifices a number of sheep, slitting their throats and allowing their blood to flow into the pit, while calling on the dead. After that, a whole load of rando dead people show up, which is pretty par for the course in these stories. Odysseus shits himself (figuratively, not literally like Cellini’s friend) and uses his sword to keep the dead back (apotropaic use) until he gets to talk to Tiresius (Homer, The Odyssey, 280).
Færeyinga Saga: A Potential Match?
So far, I’ve talked a whole lot about the possible meanings of the various features of the grid. However, the best evidence by far (at least in my opinion), that the “story” of the grid pertains to eschatology, comes from Færeyinga saga cha. 41. In this scene, a bunch of people are trying to find out how someone died, and so this guy called Þrándr sets up the following ritual: “Þrándr had great fires made up in the hall, and had four hurdles (?) set up to form a square. Then he marked out nine enclosures from the hurdles, in all directions, and he sat on a stool between the fire and the hurdles.” (Davidson, The Road to Hel, 161)
From there, the dead show up, they figure out how their boy Sigmundr Bretison got unalived, and then they get back on with their bullshit. But just look at that description again.
Four hurdles set up to form a square. Nine enclosures from the hurdles in all directions.
What does that sound like? Could it be this?
What Might This Tell Us?
Now, assuming that the grid pattern found at Götavi and Þrándr’s grid are one and the same, we can make the following five conclusions:
That the grid or some of the uses for the grid are necromantic in nature.
Given the symbolism of the features discussed and the contexts in which they appear, the grid possibly functions by mapping out or opening up the passage between the worlds of living and dead. To return to Odysseus: when you believe the dead reside underground, digging a pit might be thought of as meeting them halfway.
Physical remains are not necessary to interact with the dead.
Grids can be created on a temporary basis; they are not bound to any one place.
The grid was a potentially known/recognized method for interacting with the dead beyond Närke.
This is exactly what I meant earlier when I said the rewards are better when you see the process through. Because now, we don’t just have a solid possible “story” for the setting that is the Götavi grid, we also have a bunch of other details and a framework for ritual mechanics as well.
In other words: all things we can use to cook up an experiment.
So, first of all, congratulations for making it this far. This was a long-ass blog post, but unfortunately, splitting it up didn’t really seem feasible. In the next (hopefully much shorter) post, I’m going to talk about the process of putting my first grid experiment together, the further considerations I took into account, and how I went about constructing the grid. Unsurprisingly, it was super underwhelming compared with building a little island in a salt marsh, but unless I get some marshland and a construction crew, it’ll have to do. On the bright side though, there’s a lot you can do with supplies from your local hardware store, and I’m going to show you how.
Anyway, take care, and I’ll ramble at you again next time.
Davidson, Hilda Ellis. The Road to Hel Dronke, Ursula. The Poetic Edda. Vol II Dronke, Ursula, The Poetic Edda. Vol I Heide, Eldar. Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water Hem Eriksen, Marianne. Doors to the Dead: The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia Homer (Emily Wilson trans.). The Odyssey Kvilhaug, Maria. Seeds of Yggdrasill Price, Neil. Nine Paces from Hel: Time and Motion in Old Norse Ritual Performance. Price, Neil. Performing the Vikings: From Edda to Oseberg Sundqvist, Olof. The Temple, the Tree, and the Well: A Topos or Cosmic Symbolism at Cultic Sites in Pre-Christian Northern Europe? Sturluson, Storri (Anthony Faulkes trans.). Edda. Svensson, Kenneth. Götavi – en vikingatida kultplats i Närke, Vikstrand, Per. Ullevi och Götavi
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.
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.
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.
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 roomfor 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
In the last post, I talked about some of the helpful herbs you can use for smoke cleansing. This is the third and final part of a series that began in 2014. Or rather, I wrote the first post in 2014, then was inspired to return to it, revise it, and add to it.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at an Old English procedure for preparing herbs for smoke cleansing.
Smoke Cleansing in Bald’s Leechbook III
Dating back to the mid-tenth century, Bald’s Leechbook is a collection of remedies for everything from headaches to “elf-diseases.” There are two different procedures for preparing herbs for smoke fumigation that I’ve found, but I’m going to stick to the simplest. If you are curious about the second procedure, you can read it here.
In the charm we’re going to focus on, charm Lxii, we are given the following instructions:
“Against elf-disease: take marsh mallow, fennel, lupin, the lower part of bittersweet nightshade and the lichen from a holy crucifix and frankincense. Take a handful [of all of the plants]. Bind all the plants in a cloth. Dip [them] into a fountain with holy water three times. Let three masses be sung over them: one Omnibus Sanctis, another Contra Tribulationem, a third Pro Infirmis. Then put hot coals in a chafing dish and lay those plants in [it]. Smoke that person with the plants before 9 a.m. and at night, and sing litanies and credos and Pater Noster, and write the sign of the cross on each of his limbs, and take a little handful of the same plants of that kind, likewise consecrated, and boil in milk. Drip three [drops] of the holy water into [it] and sup [it] before his food. Soon he will be well.”
This was actually very close to the kind of healing the church fathers spoke out against. Contemporary writings show us that there was a clear preference for healing through prayer, or miracles. But herbal healing wasn’t viewed as necessarily being bad in and of itself for the most part. Simply making yourself some chamomile tea to settle a stomach and maybe speaking a blessing over it was fine. And really, that’s not all that different from what millions of Christians do today when they pray before eating. But when you’re using prayers and Christian liturgy as spells and throwing in a few ritual acts, that cure then transitions into the gray space between “magic” and “miracle” referred to by Karen Jolly as “middle practices” (Jolly 89).
So what do we have in our Leechbook charm?
We have the healer collecting the herbs and dipping them into holy water three times. In the Lacnunga, we see the number three usually associated with holiness. Alternatively, singing a prayer three times could also be a way of timing whatever the healer was doing.
Then, the herbs are hid under the altar while three masses are sung over them. Is this blessing or Christian prayers as galdor? See what I mean about that gray area?
Finally, the person is fumigated with the herbs – both in the morning and at night – while the healer sings further prayer/spells. (Plus draws crosses on the patient and feeds them some of the consecrated herb mixture boiled in milk with holy water.)
So, how do we take that procedure and Heathenize it for our own purposes? If Aelfric can replace spoken charms (galdre) with blessings, we can replace prayers and blessings with galdre.
(Fair’s fair, my dude!)
1. Collecting the Herbs
The first step comes in collecting the herbs. Here is where I look to a combination of the Nine Herbs Charm and the vervain charm from Harland. In both charms, the herbs are addressed as sentient beings in and of themselves. This is despite the 700-800 year gap between the Lacnunga and the charm recorded by Harland mentioned above.
“All-hele, thou holy herb, Vervin, Growing on the ground…” So, you may want to say a few words of your own when approaching and pulling the herbs. Pray to them as the spirits they are and take respectfully.
And just a note on the herbs mentioned in the Leechbook. I don’t use that particular mix of herbs because I prefer to work with plants I know and can easily forage/grow. In my experience, this procedure is good for preparing a wide range of herbs for smoke fumigation.
2. Washing the Herbs
In the original charm, the herbs are bound in cloth and dipped in holy water three times. Now, I suspect the cloth was largely to prevent bits of leaves breaking off into the font, so I don’t bother with that part. I’m also a Heathen, and where they say “holy water,” I say “Lemme go hallow this water with some galdor.”
Water from a local spring you consider sacred also works.
Now, give your plant friends a little bath.
3. Three Masses?
Here we come to the final step for prepping the herbs for later use. (As opposed to prepping the herbs in order to go treat a patient as soon as possible.) And the way I do this is I lay out the herbs (nicely spread out on a cloth so they dry out) on my shrine and then I hold three rituals to my gods and plant spirits on three consecutive days. I make offerings, I ask the gods and spirits to make the herbs so holy that ill-wights flee from their smoke. I also address the spirits of the plants themselves again. If I’m working with mugwort, I speak the verse from the Nine Herbs Charm that reminds her of what she can do while asking her to bring her powers to bear. With other plants, I fall back on relating any stories I know about them, reminding them of what they can do and asking them to help.
Then, after the three days of rituals are complete (and the herbs are dry), I put them away for later use.
Yesterday I got a message from a friend. They were asking if it were okay to link one of my older posts about white sage on The Troth website. She’s working to educate people on the cultural appropriation and sustainability issues surrounding white sage and palo santo. This is especially important for a community that aspires to inclusivity, so I agreed.
But then I remembered an issue with the pictures on my older posts. Some of them are missing their pictures – an issue I fix as I go. So, I asked for some time to go through and check. But when I took a look this morning, I found a whole bunch of issues. And the biggest was that it needed a bit of a rewrite to match what I now know.
Now, I don’t normally like to do this, but a post entitled “Step Away from the White Sage!” is kind of catchy. It’s easy to remember – the kind of thing people share. So, I wanted to make sure the post that people are more likely to remember is accurate (while noting my older fuck ups).
As I wrote though, I decided it would be a good idea to talk about what herbs would be good to use, and hence this post was born.
Smoke Cleansing Outside of Indigenous Cultures
In the revised version of the older blog post, I talked about how there is nothing wrong with smoke cleansing or smoke fumigation. After all, there are examples of smoke fumigation in multiple European traditions (along with practices such as carrying fire and sprinkling water).
As a Heathen, I tend to look to the Old English and Old Norse sources for magical tech – especially the Old English magico-medical manuscripts. And luckily for us, there’s a set of instructions for smoke fumigation in Bald’s Leechbook iii!
I’ll talk about these and look at how they can be adapted for modern non-Christian use below.
So, first thing’s first! Which herbs are good to use for smoke cleansing? In this section, I’m going to talk about three different groups of herbs (plus mugwort) that I personally look to in my practices. As with anything herb-related though, be careful of sensitivities when working with them.
First up is mugwort!
She is by far the plant ally I work with the most in this kind of work. Named the “Oldest of herbs” in charm 79 in the Lacnunga, mugwort is a badass. If she were in a D&D campaign, she’d be the tank of the group. The charm tells us that she “stands against three and thirty,” against poison and infection, and against “the evil that travels the land.” And she’s valued in healing traditions around the globe. She fights infection and cysts and brings on menses. Many also ingest her as a tonic. In great enough quantities, she has enough similarities with her sister, Wormwood, that she can also affect perception.
Mugwort can also be paired with vervain, garlic, or wormwood for greater effect.
She’s so awesome, I gave her her own section despite her really belonging in the next.
Mugwort isn’t the only herb ally we learn about in the Old English magico-medical manuscripts though. There are a plethora of holy herbs in those texts! You can find them in charms such as charm 63 in the text known as the Lacnunga. Charm 63, or as it’s better known, The Holy Salve charm, contains a huge list of herbs that were thought useful to put into the creation of a holy salve. Among them are mugwort, fennel, bishopwort, rue, and vervain.
Another famous list is the so-called “Nine Herbs Charm” (AKA charm 79 mentioned above).
You can also find these holy and helpful herbs in many of the cures for “elf-diseases” (especially those involving perception impairment). Seriously, go digging into these texts. Ignore the Christian veneer – they didn’t use herbs or smoke in the same way during that period. (Incense was for carrying prayers, and herbs were a little too close to charms for the truly faithful.)
We have a lot more than we think we do.
Vervain and Rowan
Another strand in my magic comes from my birth region, Lancashire. The old county of Lancashire was notorious for magic and witches at one point. And fascinatingly, some of the recorded charms from the witch trials there are very similar to the OE narrative charms.
With such a reputation, it’s hardly surprising the county is thick with tales of boggarts, hauntings, witches, and the devil. Equally unsurprising are the traditional apotropaic herbs.
One that will likely already be familiar to people is mountain ash, or rowan. This was believed to stop bewitchment (and witches in general), and they would make the churn-staffs of butter churns from this wood. (Our witchy ancestors liked to fuck with people’s butter back in the day, I guess.) Despite its reputation for protecting people from bewitchment though, you also see rowan used as a magic wand in at least one folktale.
Another herb was vervain, which we already saw from The Holy Salve. This was considered seriously holy and gathered while speaking charms. John Harland records one such charm in his book Lancashire Folk-Lore, with the remark that such charms and their accompanying ceremonies were “infinite” (Harland 76)
Vervain was traditionally worn as protection against fairy-blasts and other otherworldly perils. And you often see magic circles constructed using vervain (sometimes along with bay leaves and holly) in folktales detailing necromantic adventures (Bowker The Sands of Cocker, The Christmas Eve Vigil).
The herbs you can look to are those known as “solar herbs,” or those herbs that are considered to correspond with the sun in Natural Magic. Now, this isn’t particularly Heathen, and I think we need to sit and think about the concept of correspondences within an animistic framework. But this works, and so I’m including them.
Solar herbs like bay laurel, ash, broom, rosemary, rue, rowan, St John’s Wort etc., are all incredibly effective for driving out ill. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be particularly effective nowadays.
Just a quick note about rosemary before moving on: rosemary is both associated with remembrance of the dead and protection. Take from that what you will.
A Note about Smoke Cleansing Safety
Now, not all of these herbs are necessarily suitable for smoke cleansing. And different substances irritate different people’s lungs. Please be mindful of this in your practice, especially when working with older sources.
If you’re living in a situation where smoke cleansing absolutely isn’t an option, you still have options. One such option is making a room/house cleansing spray with holy herbs. Another, which is usually a better option when it’s a person that’s afflicted rather than a space, is an oil or salve.
You don’t have to only cleanse with smoke.
In the next post: How to adapt an old-ass procedure for preparing herbs for smoke fumigation. See you next time!
Lancashire Folk-Lore – John Harland
Goblin Tales of Lancashire – James Bowker
Encyclopedia of Natural Magic – John Michael Greer
Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore, and Healing – Stephen Pollington
They’ve just become an accepted part of life, right?
Yet another thing putting adverts in front of our eyes trying to get us to buy more. That unseen force that compels us to add a photo to social media posts as “tax,” so more people see what we have to say.
They even often shape what and how we say what we say.
Take this post, for example. Like the vast majority of blog posts, I’ve tried to write it to make the algorithms happy. I’ve kept my sentences short and have used as much active speech as possible – anything to keep Yoast happy, right?
Twenty words or less per sentence, that’s the standard.
When you really think about it, it’s messed up, but it’s become our norm all the same.
Billions of voices all writing in lockstep with algorithms, all producing a product called content.
You know—that thing I’m doing right here with this post.
No one is saying algorithms are actually demons, of course. Just that, as Mark Pesce argues, algorithms share certain characteristics with demons, or at least a certain view of demons.
To quote the Medium essay I’m using to refresh my memory:
”What might you call a creature that feeds on your energy, knows your weaknesses, and can tamper with your emotional state in ways that compel you to act beyond your best interest? Centuries ago we might call this a demon. As algorithms are programmed to exploit humans in order to do their bidding, perhaps it’s time to interrogate the Faustian bargains we make each time we sign up, log in, and click thru.”
In an age of online occult influencers, this has become a helpful framework for me when navigating matters of authenticity and content. What do we lose when we tailor our content to appease the algorithms enough to be rewarded with virulence? When we aid the algorithms in their exploitation?
A Faustian bargain indeed!
Algorithms and Authenticity
Unfortunately, this bargain is a tough one to break. We live in an economy where the production of such content is often tied to the economic survival of the creator. And herein lies the biggest problem with the commodification of creativity: products are created for customers. Appease the algorithms and your work gets in front of more people. Appease the people, and hopefully that translates to dollars.
Those all-important dollars that keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on your table.
Those are some pretty hefty motivations, right? They’re downright existential. But (and this is question I find myself returning to from time to time) what of authenticity?
Because here’s the thing about writing spiritual content (horrible term, but I’m going with it). It is, by its very nature, personal. It’s intimate and subtle in ways that blog posts about chimneys or recipes for cakes are not.
(Please, for the love of Sweet Baby West Virginia Jeebus, Karen, no one wants to read about your fifteen kids! Or your upholstery business. I get there are good reasons why you do this, but please, do the world a solid and add in-page links to the recipes? Sincerely, Everyone.)
Anyway, back to the topic.
For these reasons, one would always hope that content discussing spiritual matters comes from a place of authenticity within the creator. Except I don’t see how it can when survival for so many depends on increasingly getting caught in a trap of uniformity and writing to order vs giving voice to what’s actually in our souls.
But we’ve made our pacts, it’s time to make the best of it.
Walking the Balance
For me, creativity is a whole-making, inspirited thing, and the inspiration that fuels it, sacred. There’s almost an element of horror for me when I consider this issue. Because if creativity and inspiration can be spirit work (and for me, my various souls are also spirits in their own rights), then what of them in all of this? How do they dance with the algorithms?
At times, I think they dance well together. Sometimes the stories and ideas those spirits want to get out mesh well with the algorithms. Other times, that dance is hard. That line of appeasing algorithms and audiences can become a noose while remaining true to those stories and ideas. Of course, none of that erases any of our existential needs. Bellies still need filling and bills still need paying.
The key then perhaps is being mindful of the dance and striving for balance. According to Douglas Rushkoff, creator of Team Human, weirdness is our best weapon. So perhaps sprinkling in some authenticity by way of letting your particular brand of freak flag fly is the way to go? (But be careful to be authentic with your weirdness for that too can also be commodified. I know, I fucking hate this world for shit like this.)
Embrace your weird, talk about your fuck ups, be subversively human. (Just remember to use the active voice and do it in twenty words per sentence or less.)
And if you can, don’t be afraid to ignore the current discourse du jour unless it’s something you actually care about.
The purpose of this post wasn’t to make anyone feel bad. It was a call to my fellow authors and creators to think about that line where appeasement and authenticity meet in our work. There are plenty of other conversations to be had here too. Such as platforms and responsibility, social media and mental health, and honoring our comfort levels and authenticity while trying to make that cabbage. Today though, I wanted to talk about the dance we often find ourselves performing for the algorithms. It’s quickly paced and can be exciting at times, and it’s easy to get swept up—especially when people begin to copy you.
But don’t forget you have your own steps too. They also need to be danced if you want to keep yourself whole.
But I’m posting today because I feel like a definite line has been crossed.
The Book Burners Set Their Sights on Witches
The Pagan blogosphere was full of takes about Greg Locke’s book burning antics in TN, and rightfully so. The act of burning books is a line in and of itself, and historically, often a precursor to far worse.
Most people don’t want to believe that “far worse” will ever happen. But if there’s anything history teaches us, it’s that plenty of people have thought “it” (whatever it is) will never happen only to have it happen to them. The sad truth of the matter is that humans are capable of great evil, but a fear of consequences (where present) generally keeps us in check.
This morning a friend sent me this link. It contains clips of Greg Locke’s preaching. But this isn’t the usual fare of a fire and brimstone preacher. Here, Locke is talking about how he has the names of six witches, three of whom are allegedly members of his church.
Now, the chances are, there are no actual witches in his church. But that doesn’t really matter now, does it?
It doesn’t change the atmosphere of excitement among the congregation or shouts of encouragement. It doesn’t change his ability to rile them up against witches.
This is bringing the nameless and unknowable “witches” of earlier preaching videos into the realm of the knowable, and gods forbid, actionable.
This is how people wind up getting killed, witches or not.
The Profit and Potential of Hunting Witches in Uncertain Times
And he probably won’t be the only preacher to go down this road either. People often forget that witch-hunting was very profitable. The art of providing spectacle and convenient scapegoats is a tried and tested formula for making that profit. And if there’s anything these preachers love, it’s money, right?
Another factor we need to take into account when considering this issue is that we live in uncertain times and are facing issues on multiple fronts. We live in a time The witch-hunt has never really been a feature of prosperous times. For example, the Bamberg witch trials, some of the most infamous in Germany, began after a series of crop failures against the backdrop of the Thirty Years war. And Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, plied his trade during the English civil war. Witch-hunts tend to rear up when people are struggling, violence and division are rife, and resources more difficult to obtain.
You know, the times when people really want an easy scapegoat to blame for their suffering.
Today, we’re in the third year of a pandemic that’s killed around a million people in the US alone. We live in a time of intense social and political division and are looking at further possible challenges in the form of a truckers’ blockade. (This was a tactic used by the CIA destabilize the democratically elected Chilean government to install the dictator, Augusto Pinochet, I might add). And Russia is looking set to invade Ukraine, possibly (probably?) dragging us (and NATO) into conflict.
In short, these are exactly the kind of times when this kind of witch-hunting bullshit happens.
So, what can you do?
Witches Staying Safe
My best recommendation would be a book that my friend Amy Blackthorn wrote about protection (magical and mundane) that’s coming out in a couple of weeks. But until then, here are some other things you can do to stay safe:
Cultivate situational awareness. Know your exits, potential threats, and possible improvised weapons at all times.
Get to know your neighbors (if possible) and figure out who could be a problem.
Work protection magic.
Keep an eye on your local fundamentalists and share anything particularly worrying with other Witches/Heathens/Pagans in your area. (Because let’s face it, we’re all targets to these folks.)
If you are comfortable with weapons, get a gun. This may be an unpopular suggestion, but I’m not joking here. If things keep on going as they are with everything that’s happening, debates about who should be able to own what aren’t really going to be a concern. If you do get a gun though, be sure to train with it and store it in a responsible way.
There are probably a bunch more suggestions I could put here, but our lunch hour is almost done and I need to get back to teaching. I welcome and will add any good suggestions sent my way though.
Now, I realize all of this might sound pretty paranoid, but I’m of the opinion that it’s always better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I’ve also been here before, and not in a “past life” kind of way.
I’ve been threatened for being a witch and physically attacked. I’ve had photocopied book pages about killing witches posted through my door. And that was mild compared to some of the stories my friends have.
The people who attacked me weren’t even religious or particularly ideologically invested. Most importantly though, they still worried about consequences and I suspect that limited how far they were prepared to go.
But there’s a point with religious fundamentalists, where the fear of consequences is superseded by self-righteousness or belief in divine decree. The other becomes dehumanized and actively demonized, and that’s when things get really dangerous, even without the power of a state behind them. (I think a lot of people are only thinking about this issue in terms of if the fundies seize power.)
That’s what I think we have in people like Greg Locke and his ilk. (Well, in Greg’s case there’s probably also the draw of profit too, as I said before.) And they are exactly the kind of people who will walk that road to hell one “good” intention at a time.
Worse still, they’ll even convince themselves that what they’re doing is holy.
I’d been itching to get out on the moor as soon as I arrived. It reminded me too much of the land I’d grown up on, and there was a sense of familiarity that called to me that I was yet to understand. It was late afternoon when we arrived on our bus from Reykjavik, and I’d spent the evening watching local people of all ages making their way up the path to the top.
My plan that evening was simple. I was going to see if anyone wanted to come with me to the top, bring some offerings, and hopefully see the aurora borealis. But as we were to find out, timing can be everything.
The first strange thing to happen that night was that we passed between two rows of birch trees on our way to the road. That may not sound so strange in of itself, but the sense of shifting as we walked between most certainly was, as was the figure I saw momentarily step out from behind one of the trees. But ours was a group used to such things, and so we continued in our quest for the path to the moors.
The second strange thing to happen was that the path we’d been watching the entire afternoon had not only disappeared, but the moon was suspiciously full when it was not supposed to be so for another five days. If the birch trees had not warned us that something very other was afoot, then this was a sure sign. After some discussion we opted to continue, turning around after reaching the village and heading back the way we came. This time though, I prayed as I walked, asking them to show me the path to the moor.
This time, we found the path to the moor down the side of a house we’d walked by less than fifteen minutes earlier. The lights were on inside and a confused-looking Icelander watched us as we made our way towards the iron bridge separating the moor from the cultivated world of man. I remember thinking at the time that the bridge could be apotropaic, and the choice of materials intentional. After all, people who live in active places tend to find subtle ways to build protections in both custom and architecture. Here too I was met by another darting figure that appeared on the other side of the bridge only to disappear as quickly. But the wind was wild and the moor was dark, and I was ecstatic to be on a moor again for the first time in far too long.
But as would soon become clear, the hidden folk had other plans. We began our ascent with ease, finding it every bit as easy as the various families we’d seen earlier that evening. But as is so often the case with this kind of wild witchcraft, things can shift on a dime.
The easy ascent became hard and the gradient seemed to shift, becoming steeper by the second. I began to slide downwards with every step I took! Potentially more dangerous though, was the sense of countless hands reaching out from the moor grabbing at our ankles and trying to trip us. Right then and there, I decided to pull the plug on the adventure. We were on a geothermal moor, the path had become impassable for all but one (who we suspect would never have been seen again had they continued up the hill), and the ground around the path was too dangerous to walk on because of the possibility of fissures. Danger from the other is one thing, but a physically safe exit is a must.
So we made our way back down off the moor, helping each other balance as we went and trying to avoid the various attempts at tripping. We passed over the iron bridge and allowed ourselves to laugh a little at what had just happened, then passed back through the rows of birches back to the hotel. By the time we got back to the hotel, the moor had become a mass of activity and we watched countless figures of various shapes and sizes move across the dark landscape. To our eyes, it seemed as though we had inadvertently gatecrashed some kind of gathering. The moor became increasingly dark, but the Pleiades hung conspicuously clear and bright in the sky above. The wind grew, and so did the strange noises that had started to emanate. The moor continued to darken, and soon we couldn’t distinguish moor from sky. We went inside.
However, the hidden folk were not yet done with us for the night. Back in my room, we discussed our experiences, sharing our perspectives on what had happened. Out of all of us, only one of us felt as though they were welcome to proceed, but had they done so, they probably would never have been allowed to leave. Right at that moment, as soon as they had finished speaking, a loud disembodied voice echoed through the room with a single word: “Yup!”
Later that night though, the image of the Pleiades above the dark moor filled with moving figures wouldn’t leave my mind. There was a distinct feeling they were significant in some way, and somehow related to what had happened on the moor.
I was not the only member of our group who had had that impression either, and thanks to their skill, tenacity and research, the modern Fairy Faith now has a new (old) ritual calendar.