If you’re a long time reader of this blog then you probably already know that dreams are important to me, that they’re something I work with. I keep a dream journal that lives in an app on my phone with a secondary residence in the cloud. Other people have dedicated paper and pen journals that they keep in a handy-to-reach place for when they wake up.
It doesn’t really matter what you use to record your dreams though. It just has to work for you, and more importantly you have to actually use it. Which means developing the discipline to write down everything you remember as soon as you wake up. (As opposed to clicking on social media and letting it all get washed away.)
What’s in a Dream?
Dreams aren’t just random brain junk for me. Many of them contain lessons and interactions. Sometimes I find myself in what might be called the Otherworld, and occasionally there’s a good bit of prophecy in there too. But all of this only really becomes clear when you start recording your dreams. A clear record can make the various patterns and themes in your dreams clear, which can in turn, help you understand what those dreams could mean for your waking life.
Moreover, if you also are the kind of person who encounters otherworldly beings in dreams, then it’s just smart to keep a record of those interactions full stop. As humans we’re largely at a disadvantage in dream, and lucidity can be hit or miss (depending on how practiced you are). You may receive requests, be given tasks to do, or even pressured into making oaths with some of these beings. At the very least you need to create a record. An agreement made in dream is still an agreement to the Othercrowd (and as with all agreements they expect you to keep it).
Oh the Places You’ll Go (in Dream)!
Before waking up on Monday morning, I’d been at a bus interchange. I knew the place – had been there six months earlier. (Thank you for the reminder, dream journal!) And I also knew what had happened in my life after having that dream. (Hello, pattern!)
In short, it got me thinking about the places we find ourselves over and over again in dream, what they mean, and the role/s they can play in waking life (if you let them).
For the sake of simplicity I’ve divided these different types of spaces into two categories: the ‘Regular Spaces’ (ie spaces you visit on a reasonably regular basis that seem ‘fixed’), and ‘Intermediary Spaces’ (or spaces which either indicate transition or may be transited through to the Otherworld).
These are some of the spaces I encounter. (I’d love to hear about yours!)
The Otherworldly School
This is a space I find myself in quite often. I’m never alone there but in classes full of what I suspect may be other sleeping witches. The environment is extremely strict – it would make a Victorian school room look lax. And there’s an underlying sense of danger should you mess up. But as with all schools, there are lessons here too (and not only in etiquette). I’ve received some of my most interesting magical lessons from this school, and yes, they often assign homework too.
The Old House with a Hearth
Another interesting space I often find myself in is an old house somewhere in Germany. Well I say “somewhere”, but that’s not quite right either. It’s like an amalgamation of the town where I used to live in Germany and several others. The house is situated along a winding street of old houses that date back to the 16th century and has a flagstone floor and huge hearth upon which various symbols are carved. The back of the house is somewhat lighter thanks to the great windows that open out into the hof. It’s a familiar place to me despite never having lived there. And every time I am there I am working magic in what appears to be an earlier period of history.
The Creepy Ruined Church
Until last year, the Creepy Ruined Church was my least favorite place to find
myself in dream. There has always been something malevolent about the place. It feels twisted. Unhæl. And I’ve always wanted to leave. But last year I realized that the Creepy Ruined Church was a training ground of sorts – a kind of magical troubleshooting simulator, if you will. And the more I’ve worked with it in this way, the more it’s become somewhere I don’t really mind anymore. It even looks better now.
Out with the possessed pigs and in with the chill dead people, I guess.
You know, it’s kind of “funny” really that an ex-Kindergarten teacher winds up in a dream kindergarten helping to teach non-human children. But it is what it is.
The Facsimile of Iceland
Ever since I went to Iceland in 2018, I feel like a part of myself sort of dug in there like some kind of anchor for when I die. There was a sense of home to Iceland, and so it’s probably not surprising that I end up there quite often in my dreams. Out of all the recurring places, Iceland, and especially northern Iceland, probably features the most. And these dreams almost always come with a message or involve elves in some way.
The Train Station
When I encounter the train station, it’s usually as a transitory space in and of itself that symbolizes an upcoming period of transition in life (surprise!). But it can also be something that I call to me in dream or trance to escape a space that’s either uncomfortable or just plain dangerous.
(There’s a whole backstory there about lessons from dead relatives who reside in Fairy but I’ll have to save that for a different post).
The Bus Interchange
The bus interchange is not so different from the first function of the train station. The only major difference that I’ve found is that the clothes I wear while at the bus interchange seem to be indicative of the type of change that I’ll be facing in waking life.
So for example, wearing armor at the bus interchange would be a bad sign (it was).
The Unrealistic Supermarket
What if I were to tell you that one of my most common entrances into the Otherworld (and lucidity) in dream, was through a massive supermarket?
When we think about the Otherworld, I think there’s a tendency to imagine it as some old-fashioned, almost Renn-Faire-looking kind of deal. And don’t get me wrong – in my experience, those places do exist. But I’ve also found that there are a lot of modern-looking places associated with the Otherworld as well.
The Unrealistic Supermarket is one such place for me.
Imagine a supermarket, but even more random than your local Walmart Supercenter. Maybe there is an entire row of functioning shower cubicles along one row with people using them? Or maybe there’s an aisle full of preserved, ornate human hands? Perhaps next to those there are hammers and Oreos?
See what I mean? Random and unrealistic.
When I find myself in the Unrealistic Supermarket, I usually start at the front of the store and move toward the back. And as I’m walking to the back of the store, I encounter a series of bearded men who stare at me as I pass.
It’s pretty weird and uncomfortable. But it also snaps me into lucidity right before I enter whatever section of the Otherworld proper I wind up in that time. (And for that I’m grateful.)
So did you all know I have a book coming out next month? I do! It’s called Elves, Witches and Gods: Spinning Old Heathen Magic in Modern Day. If a somewhat atypical look at Heathen worldview and magic with an emphasis on experimentation and practice interests you, then it may be right up your alley. Available for preorder here.
I’m also running my class ‘Against the Evil that Roams the Land: Practices of Protection and Purification from the OE and ON/Icelandic Sources’ again on 2/27/21. This is for those of you who missed it last year, but also contains new material that I’ve been working with since the last time I ran this class. Interested? Sign up here.
The first time I cursed someone by accident I was angry. No, scrub that – I was furious. It was the kind of rage that heats the blood and causes the body to shake, to drive that pre-fight shot of adrenaline up the spine. And before I knew it the words had taken flight from my tongue, fully formed before I had even realized they’d been marshalled and ready to depart.
I’d felt it too at the time. There was the sensation of something leaving, something being unleashed into the world, and I knew then and there that what I had spoken into the world would come to pass; that my victim would fall from his ladder at work.
I remember then rushing to work protective magic on the person I’d cursed. You see, I didn’t really hate them, and I really didn’t want them to be hurt either. I was still young in my craft back then and my fury had been the one in the driving seat.
The next day the target of my wrath experienced the effects of both my curse and protection. He fell from his ladder at work while cleaning the top floor windows of a house and walked away completely unharmed. His boss was so shook up by the entire thing he gave him the rest of the day off anyway and sent him home.
This isn’t a boast. If anything, I’m not particularly proud of this moment. There is no ‘win’ here, just a loss of control that could have potentially seriously hurt someone I didn’t actually want to hurt. But it is a memory that has been coming up of late as I’ve been digging into the relationship between inspiration, fury/frenzy, and charms.
Furious Gods, Inspired Gods
As both a writer and magic worker, inspiration forms an integral part of my practice. In my fiction I birth new characters, and commit to word the speech of beings who I am fairly sure existed long before my birth and who will still exist long after I am gone. In magic…well, maybe in another post (this one is super long).
I’ve written about Óðinn/Woden here before, of his wisdom and relationship to breath. Without a doubt he is the god who has had the greatest influence over my life, answering my prayers and gifting to me in return in every land I’ve ever lived. But there is one element of this god that hasn’t really made sense to me until relatively recently, and that is the collocation between fury/frenzy and inspiration.
Óðinn’s connection with the poetic (and by extension, the inspiration that makes poetry possible) is quite well established in the lore. In Skáldskaparmál, it is Óðinn – or as he is also known, Fimbulþulr (Mighty Poet/Mighty Speaker) – who steals Óðroerir, or the ‘mead of inspiration/poetry’ from the giant Suttung (Price 63). It is because of him (at least according to the Prose Edda), that any of us even have any poetic ability at all (even the bad poets, who apparently are the recipients of the mead Óðinn shat out while escaping Suttung – seriously, look it up!). Yet as the myth makes clear, he is not the source of inspiration but its liberator – he too had to acquire it.
Óðinn’s association with the poetic and inspired seems to have persisted outside the mythical realm as well. In the sagas we find the famous Viking Age poet Egill Skallagrímsson, the protagonist of Egils Saga. Egill was a quintessentially Odinic figure, a warrior-poet who had knowledge of runes, was possessed of a berserker’s wrath, and carried one of Óðinn’s heiti as a compound in his name (Grímr).
Further possible support for a connection between Óðinn and poets comes from more modern criticism of the Eddas and the worldview they present (that of Óðinn as the head god who presides over a Norse pantheon). For these critics, this is a skewed perspective that was likely unknown to people who lived away from the centers of power that arose during the migration period, the ruling elites that inhabited them, and the poets they patronized. After all, what was a ruler back then without a poet to provide PR?
This is the core of the argument that scholar Terry Gunnell makes in Pantheon? What Pantheon? and From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God. For Gunnell, it is potentially thanks to the poets – those purveyors of Óðinn-centric religion – that the Eddas and the skáldic corpus survived in later years. The art of poetry was valued by both Heathen and Christian alike, and these sources may have been used as skáldic teaching texts therefore justifying their preservation.
Of course, an easy counterargument to this theory would be that the god of poets in the Eddas was Bragi and that the Óðinnic focus of the skálds could be easily explained by the necessity of pleasing their Óðinn-worshipping patrons. However, we should also note the inclusion of poetic meters such as galdralag (magic spell meter), and as Magnus Olsen argued, even dróttkvætt in magical charms – an area with which Óðinn is far more securely associated (Simek 98; Olsen 1916, “On Magical Runes”).
But we’ll get to that later. First, we need to embrace the fury.
Woden id est Furor
Writing in Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum IV, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen wrote of Woden, Woden id est furor, or “Woden, that is to say fury” (Simek 1993, 242). This is probably the most well known reference to Woden or Óðinn’s furious tendencies, but it isn’t by any means the only one. We’re going to return to this phrase and the other possible translations of the Latin word fūror later, but a translation of “fury” or “frenzy” is sufficiently complete for now.
Although best known as Óðinn (a name which may be translated as “Frenzied/Furious One”), the deity we mostly call “Óðinn” is a god of many names or heiti. In The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, Neil Price lists roughly 180 different heiti for the One Eyed God (depending on how you count them), which he divides thematically into 17 different categories. In the ‘Frenzy-, trance- and anger’ category, Price counts no fewer than 22 heiti or 10.5% of all heiti listed (including the name Óðinn itself) (Price 63 – 68).
Woden id est furor indeed!
What’s in a Name?
One of the most amusing things to me as a long-time worshipper of Óðinn is the tendency for those (usually on the far right) to see him as some unyielding, hypermasculine force. And as I’ve argued before, often the associations they place upon Óðinn are far more reflective of their own ideas about leadership and masculinity as opposed to what we find in the source material.
The etymology of Óðinn/Woden/Wodan/Wuotan/Wuodan (as they are all phonetic variants of the same name), is another area I believe further disproves this idea of the One Eyed God (Liberman, “Wednesday’s Father”). Not that that’s the point of this essay, but I may as well mention it while I’m here.
The name Óðinn is related to the ON adjective óðr, a word that translates as “frantic” or “furious”. In turn, óðr is believed to derive from the Proto-Germanic *wōda, a word meaning “delirious”. Also derived from *wōda and related to the ON óðr are the Gothic wods (“possessed”), OE wod (“insane”), and the now obsolete Dutch word woed meaning “frantic”, “wild”, or “crazy”.
Generally speaking, the further you trace an etymology back, the less secure and more theoretical that etymology becomes. If you notice, I used the term “believed to derive from” when referring to the Proto-Germanic root of óðr. This is because etymology at this time depth largely relies on words that are reconstructed using a series of educated guesses about things like sound changes. Words that are reconstructed in this way are written with an asterisk (*) at the beginning so as to clearly delineate them as linguistic reconstructions.
When you do trace that etymology back further to the WEUR (Germanic/Italo-Celtic) root *uoh2-tó though, you also arrive at the root of a number of Celtic language terms related to prophecy and soothsaying such as the OIr fáith (“soothsayer, prophet”), fáth (“prophesy”), and the Welsh word gwawd (“poem, satire”).
Interestingly, despite the degrees of linguistic separation that stand between the Celtic descendants of that WEUR root and ON óðr, the meanings of the nounóðr occupy a surprisingly similar semantic field as their Celtic counterparts on the other side of the language tree. As a noun, óðr may be translated as “mind”, “feeling”, “song”, and “poetry”. This is the óðr that is the third of the life-giving gifts to Askr and Embla.
All words for mutable, intangible qualities bobbing around in the shifting sands of etymology, but a remarkably consistent picture all the same.
Which brings us quite neatly back to the Latin word fūror. Because although you only ever usually see it translated as “fury” or “frenzy” within the context of Woden, the word fūror carries a number of other meanings that make Adam’s choice of descriptor really quite accurate.
According to Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (1987, 98), the word fūror may be translated in the following way:
Once again, even with a word most commonly translated as “fury”, when we dig down further, we find that same collocation of fury, frenzy, poetry and prophecy as we saw in the etymology of óðr and its various linguistic relatives given in the section above.
As mentioned above, the art of the poet could also be turned towards the sorcerer’s art – there was even an entire poetic meter for writing spells (galdralag). Unlike with poetry however, Óðinn’s position as galdrs föður, or “Father of Galdr” (as he was named in Baldrs Draumar) is both explicit and well-established, and not just in the ON sources either (Simek 242). Woden is the only Heathen god to be mentioned in the OE magico-medical manuscripts; it is he who rests at the center of the so-called “Nine Herbs Charm” found in the Lacnunga. And it is Woden who is depicted chanting a spell over an injured horse’s leg in the Second Merseburg Charm (Waggoner, xv).
In my opinion, it is noteworthy that it is Óðinn who features in two of the most well known healing charms, especially given the normally combative nature of magical healing in Germanic cultures. Sickness was often perceived as being an invading force – often personified in some way -to be driven out or defeated, rendering the healer a magical warrior of sorts (Storms 49-54).
And this is where the various pieces of information laid out in this post begin to coalesce.
Enter The Tietäjä
For the final part of our exploration of fury, inspiration, and charms, we’re going to leave behind the Old Norse world and move eastwards and forwards in time to the lands of the Finnish magical specialist, the tietäjä (“knower, one who knows”).
The first written record of a tietäjä is relatively late, dating back to the 18th century at the earliest, However there is evidence to suggest that the “technology of incantations” that form the basis of the tietäjä’s interactions with the unseen world was adapted into North Finnic traditions from Germanic cultural influences during the Iron Age (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”).
That is not to say that the tietäjä somehow belongs to the Germanic cultural
sphere though. If scholars such as Anna Leena Siikala are correct in their assertion that the ‘tietäjä institution’ took shape in the first millennium CE, then there have been at least hundreds of years of Finnish cultural adaptation of this “technology of incantations” despite its Germanic roots (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”). Rather than looking at the tietäjä’s art as a wholesale survival of Germanic charm magic, it is the potential echoes of those older Germanic “technology of incantations” that interest us.
Throughout the course of this essay we’ve focused on the figure of Óðinn and the seeming paradox of a god of charms who is associated with poets, inspiration, fury, frenzy, madness, and berserkers (remember Egill?). I believe these characteristics provide the best clue to those older Germanic echoes that survived in the tietäjä’s art. Moreover, I believe that through examining accounts of tietäjäs (some of them from the perspective of the tietäjäs themselves) – especially where behavior is concerned – can provide important insight into working with Germanic charm material in the modern day.
The Tietäjä’s Body and Behavior
According to the account of a tietäjä recorded in 1835, the tietäjä had to possess “terrible luonto (inner supernatural force)” and anger in order to perform a charm successfully. The theme of extreme anger and violence is one that is often conveyed both in the ritual actions of the tietäjä as well as embodied by the tietäjä himself while working his magic. It is not enough to just feel enraged, one must act like it too.
Of the tietäjä’s behavior, Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot gives the following summary:
“the tietäjä 1) becomes enraged, 2) his speech becomes loud and frenzied, 3) he foams at the mouth, 4) gnashes his teeth, 5) his hair stands on end, 6) his eyes widen, 7) he knits his brows, 8) he spits often, 9) his body contorts, 10) he stamps his feet, 11) he jumps up and down on the floor, and 12) makes many other gestures.”
-taken from Laura Stark, The Charmer’s Body and Behavior in Charms, Charmers and Charming
For the tietäjä, fury was a source of power, and as such people took great pains to avoid incurring the wrath of a tietäjä. In one story an old tietäjä becomes so angry at a farmhand who unwittingly vandalizes his bird-trap that the farmhand goes insane. And when asked if the farmhand could be spared his fate, the old sorcerer simply tells them that it’s impossible as he became “too angry” (presumably while working his magic) (Stark, 8).
A Berserker and a Tietäjä Walked into a Bar…
There are also some interesting parallels between the tietäjä and ON berserkr here as well. Though the behavior is more extreme in the following account (a depiction of the berserker’s famous imperviousness to fire and iron), there are still notable parallels between this account and the list of behaviors compiled by Lönnrot.
“These men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity.”
-Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum Book VII.
Like the berserker, the tietäjä was also said to be impervious to fire and iron ( Stark, 9). There was a belief that the tietäjä had to “harden” his body, making it impervious to both magical and physical damage.This “hardness” was not only dependent on the tietäjä’s inherent qualities (such as a “hard” or “strong” luonto), but could also be achieved through incantation and ritual as well.
Hardening the Body
Much like ourselves, tietäjäs also seem to have made use of magical shielding. But whereas modern practitioners might set themselves inside a magical bubble, the tietäjä seems to have called down protection from holy powers in the form of magical iron clothing or armor.
Give to me an iron coat, Iron coat, iron cap, Iron mantle for my shoulders, Iron mittens for my hands, Iron boots for my feet, With which I shall enter the Hiisi’s lands, Move about in Evil’s realm, So that the sorcerer’s arrows will not penetrate, Nor the wizard’s knives, Nor the shooter’s weapons, Nor the tietäjä’s blades (Stark, 8)
The tietäjä who was summoned to war was said to be bulletproof – “hardened” by wearing a shirt in which a corpse had been buried, or by holding a bullet that had killed someone in the mouth. One former soldier by the name of Alatt claims to have “brushed handfuls of bullets off his chest when they didn’t penetrate his skin” (Stark, 9).
Conversely, we do not know what rituals (if any) were performed by berserkers (though there have been plenty of theories suggested over the years).
Conclusions and a Question
At the beginning of this essay I began with a story of rage and magic. Of what rage can do, and what can (almost) happen when it’s allowed to burn out of control. Over the course of this study, we’ve looked at Óðinn’s seemingly disparate associations with poets, poetry, charms, frenzy and fury. We’ve dug into his heiti as well as the etymology of his name, and a surprisingly consistent collection of characteristics have emerged. From there, we shifted focus to the tietäjä and the ways in which they embodied many of those characteristics while working their charms and incantations (themselves a form of poetry). Finally, we looked at the similarities between tietäjäs and berserkers and methods used by tietäjäs to “harden” their bodies against physical and magical attack.
Though the tietäjä institution is undoubtedly Finnish, there seem to be some distinctly Óðinnic echoes here. It’s my opinion that the tietäjä’s use of fury as a source of magical power may be seen as a model for not only understanding Óðinn’s fury, but also the potential role of that kind of weaponized fury in galdr. However, despite the meaning of his name or the 10.5% of heiti pertaining to frenzy, we never actually see Óðinn in the kind of berserker rage that is so associated with him (at least not in any sources that I can think of).
Rage is powerful – it is a source of power when chanting spells – yet without control it is just as easily our undoing as our success. The berserker wielded rage without control, becoming a danger to not only his enemies but his allies too, and was often outcast for it. The tietäjä wielded rage with control, but still often fell into the trap of becoming petty and punitive, and in some cases dooming entire families with their incantations (Stark, 11). Yet the “furious” god of many names does not seem to rage but remains the “Father of Charms”.
Gunnell, Terry – Pantheon? What Pantheon? Kroonen, Guus – Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic Liberman, Anatoly – “Wednesday’s Child”, OUP Blog Olsen, Magnus – On Magical Runes Price, Neil – The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2nd Ed.) Simek, Rudolf – Dictionary of Northern Mythology Stark, Laura – “The Charmer’s Body and Behavior as a Window Onto Early Modern Selfhood”, in Roper, Jonathan (Ed.) Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic Storms, Godfrid – Anglo-Saxon Magic Waggoner, Ben – Norse Magical and Herbal Healing: A Medical Book from Medieval Iceland
I’m going to begin this post with a story about the Devil. And I dare say it’s one many of you already know.
It begins with a young witch in the employ of a local monastic order. Of course, they weren’t overtly monastical when the witch applied – assurances were made.
“We’re a secular company,” promised the interviewer. So the witch took the job and went to work for a monastic order in a hamlet on the moors.
For a while, things were fine. The witch enjoyed the work, the workplace was satisfyingly haunted, and life went on. At no point did the witch hide what they were though, and soon co-workers began to notice.
In the beginning, it was little things. Like the way the witch would argue with the dead people who would make it impossible to open windows and doors. Or the way the witch saw the shadowy figure come to carry off one of the residents when they passed. Then there was that time when the witch divined the delicate marital situation of a co-worker. And well…these kinds of things tend to get noticed, and as that’s when the questions typically begin.
For the most part, I’m happy to answer genuine questions. But there is one question that I find particularly irritating (though not for the reasons you may think).
“Do you worship the Devil?”
Christian Baggage: The Devil Edition
In my younger years, it was almost a knee jerk reaction to disavow any and all connections with Old Nick. I was very mindful of how my response could reflect on other Witches/Pagans/Heathens (and in turn affect their future treatment).
“No no no, not I,” I’d say, half-paranoid that they wouldn’t believe me (while trying to look as harmless as possible).
But over the years, I’ve found myself thinking about the Devil quite a bit. After all, why do I as a Heathen and witch give two shits what Christians say about a being? It’s not like they’re particularly kind about my (non-Devil) gods! I mean, let’s face it, all of our gods are devils and demons to them.
And yet how many of us find ourselves unconsciously buying into Christian ideas about the Devil? How many of us would recoil at the thought of saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or walking counterclockwise around a church at midnight (lest we meet Old Scratch)?
When we typically think about Christian baggage within the context of modern Paganism/Witchcraft/Heathenry, it’s usually more about our issues with their god and church. But I would argue that the way we see the Devil is also a form of Christian baggage, and in these “interesting” times, it’s a form of baggage we’d do well to face.
History is Written by the Victors
“We have never heard the devil’s side of the story, God wrote all the book.” ― Anatole France
We’ve encountered this concept before – that history is written by the victors. Yet why do we never consider this when it comes to the Devil? I don’t have the time to give a full history of the Devil here (if you are interested in that though, I recommend reading Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey). Perhaps fittingly, the Devil’s story is full of twists, turns, and deceptions.
One of the simplest explanations of the Devil is that he’s aggregate. He is a cloven hoof comprised of Lucifer and Satan (to borrow Grey’s analogy). But there is more to this spirit – especially the Devil of the (witch) confessional record. Per Wilby, this Devil was rooted in ”genuinely popular ideas about embodied folk spirits, such as fairies and the dead”.
And that part about Lucifer and Satan may sound quite frightening at first. But when you dig into the actual histories of those beings, there’s something undeniably Pagan in a really cool chthonic-astral kind of way. Oh, and let’s not forget those fairies and the dead! That’s familiar territory, no?
Pagan Respectability Politics
Yet this prejudice (let’s be honest about what this is) cannot solely be the product of Christian baggage. A large part of how we react to the question of
Now I’m not saying that we should all start worshipping huge Devil phalluses at our altars and making the beast with two backs with some seriously cold Nick dick (though if that’s your thing, I’m not going to yuck your yum). What I am saying though, is that we shouldn’t buy into Christian propaganda about a spirit/entity/deity. And also that we should remember that we aren’t the harmless people we may present ourselves as (or at least shouldn’t be).
Because we live in the kind of times where the older, more potent forms of magic are needed. By all means, be the kind of person to take tea with the vicar. But don’t forget the mounds, spirits, and stars in that veneer of mutual respect and nicety. The Devil isn’t always the worst deal-broker in town.
I would like for you to take a few moments and think about the last time you experienced awe.
When was it? And what was the source of that awe?
As a word, awe is used somewhat loosely nowadays. It has become more
commonplace and casual than it used to be. How often do you hear people referring to something quite ordinary as being awesome? Or the performance of an athlete as being awe-inspiring? Perhaps you’ve even told a friend that you’re in awe of them?
But despite these modern uses, awe is actually a powerful (and useful) word. More importantly though, I would argue that an understanding of, and experience of awe is integral to witchcraft.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, awe may be defined as an emotion that variously combines “dread, veneration, and wonder”, and “that is inspired by authority or by the sacred and sublime.”
Witches have always held a reputation for transgression and subversion. So clearly it’s not the kind of awe that is inspired by authority that is of interest here. As always, we are concerned with the sacred (at least to our eyes) and sublime.
In its most archaic meanings, awe is “dread” and “terror”, but also having the power to inspire that dread. And this is where we come to the numinous. Because beings that are capable of inspiring awe in the first place, cannot be harmless and always “good” (at least by human standards). There can be no awe without the ability to cause dread and terror, and no ability to cause that dread and terror without the agency and capacity to either seriously harm you or take your life.
If you have never encountered a being that you have known, on some bone-deep level, could hurt and/or even kill you, then you have arguably never experienced awe or the numinous.
And this isn’t even about encountering hostile beings or having bad experiences. You can have the best and most wonderful experiences and still experience that awe. Because awe is not about what happens on the day, but rather an ever-present potential outcome should you misstep.
Awe and Fear
In 2016, I wrote a post entitled Witchcraft is not Safe (and nor Should it Be!), in which I detailed a nocturnal experience from over a decade ago in an ancient burial mound. To cut a long story short, we encountered a hostile numinous being, got out okay, and it was a learning experience for all.
As one might expect, it provoked a variety of reactions. One of the most confusing of those reactions though, was the notion that witches should only interact with those beings that are “on their level”. Or in other words, “don’t punch above your weight”.
Which is a rather curious response. Because every time we invite deities and/or members of the Other to our rituals, or try to cut deals, we are attempting to “punch above our weight”.
(Yes, deities, and the Other are “above our weight”. We wouldn’t need to bother them if they weren’t.)
Yet few seem to realize this, and if anything, deities (especially) are almost seen as being “safe” to work with. There are of course layers of nuance here. And as many will point out, there is an association between many deities and some form of social/cosmological order. This (or so many seem to believe), makes them less unpredictable (and ergo less potentially harmful) than other types of numinous being.
Witches and the Numinous
However, as witches, those of us working within a Northwest European framework have to recognize that much (if not all) of our magic originally comes from the Other. This is a consistent theme that you find from the Viking Age to the Early Modern Period. In fact, it was the initial encounter with the more mercurial and Otherworldly numinous powers that made the witch. And these encounters were often quite terrifying! For example, one 17th century cunning woman, Janet Trall, claimed to have almost lost her mind with fear on encountering the fairies (Wilby 82)!
Moreover, this is something we see even with a spirit as intimate to the witch
as their familiar/s. There is a power imbalance inherent in this relationship too, and one that does not favor the witch. Familiars too are “punching above” the witch’s “weight”! And when you further contextualize that relationship within the wider system of Otherworldly hierarchies, then the witch really ain’t all that and a sack of spuds when it comes to position and power!
That’s not to say that we human witches are like driftwood being tossed by a far greater sea though. If we’re clever, we can make allies, employ risk management strategies, and use our cunning to bring down much bigger foes. If we’re not…well…
All of this is simply part and parcel of being a witch.
Awe with ‘Big’ Numina vs ‘Smaller’ Numina
Before concluding this post, I’m going to make one final point regarding hierarchy and awe. And that is, that in my experience, there is a difference in the degree of awe experienced when encountering a ‘big’ numen vs a ‘smaller’ numen.
Let me explain, the first time I encountered Frau Holle/Holda, I had crept over frozen ice to lay an offering at the foot of a statue. (This is clearly a ‘don’t try this at home, kids’ moment.)
When I first stepped out onto the ice, I thought I was just going to look at a cool statue of a folkloric figure. I wanted to get a photo from up close. But as soon as I got there, I was hit with such a sense of awe that I instinctively fell to my knees. Looking up to the eyes of the (modern!) statue, I knew I wasn’t just seeing the statue of a folkloric figure. Flashes of deep, ancient roots going back through time ran through my mind. And though it was my first time “meeting” her, I felt love, wonder, terror, and yes, dread.
Oaths, Offerings, and Omens
Oaths started to tumble from my lips – to dig into those roots and put information out into the world about her true origins. There was a strong sense that I should give her some incentive to not take me on my way back over the ice. I gifted her a small berkano pendant I’d been sent by a silversmith friend out of the blue, buried it at the foot of her statue in the snow to run off into the pond with the spring melt.
Then on my way back over the ice, I heard this indescribable sound. It sounded as though it was rushing up from depths and whirring all at the same time. I rushed back to the banks of the pond and into my husband’s arms.
Tense moments passed as we stood and waited for an omen. Then suddenly the atmosphere changed. The fog cleared and bright sunshine broke through the trees to bathe the statue and us in golden light. When we went to walk back to our car, we found we’d been parked less than five minutes walk from the pond though it had taken us around two hours of wandering over a frozen mountain to get there.
Awe and the Degree of Potential Harm
Other beings have produced awe to a lesser degree in me. Instead of outright terror, there’s an edge of caution. Over the years, I’ve noticed that these tend to be the beings who seem less capable of harming me, or at least can only harm me to a lesser degree. And so I’ve learned to listen to those feelings. When not obscured by bullshit ideas garnered from Victorian nonsense and scientific materialism, those feelings can be a useful guide to who you are dealing with and how careful you should be.
So I ask you again. When was the last time you felt awe?
Like many people, my first introduction to the witch goddess Holda was through folklore. I don’t remember if I ever read Grimm’s fairy tale Mother Holda before I moved to Germany. But one of my first purchases in Germany was a book of folk tales local to where I lived. My reasoning was that I could translate the tales as a learning activity, and then my husband and I could go and visit the places mentioned in the tales.
The book, Es Spukt in Franken by Michael Pröttel begins with a tale about Frau Hulle set not far from Wintersbach. And this is the tale that led me down the rabbithole so to speak. First came the spinning, and then more research and a pilgrimage of sorts to the Hollenteich up on the Hoher Meißner. There, on a frozen pond before a modern statue, I had a deeply holy (and unexpected) experience.
But the tales I encountered in Franconia and Hessen aren’t the most famous. That distinction goes to the tale retold by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and it’s this tale and its deathly themes that we’re going to take a look at today.
Down the Well with Mother Holda
Perhaps you’ve heard this tale before?
It begins with a girl and a cruel stepmother who is forced to labor while her step-sister sits idle. This girl is industrious and kind, conscientious and good. But one day, while spinning at the side of a well, she accidentally drops her spindle into the well after pricking her finger.
Her stepmother is consistent in her cruelty, and orders her into the well to retrieve the lost spindle. Terrified and filled with despair, the girl jumps into the well expecting to find death in the dark watery depths.
But there is no death for the girl (maybe). Instead, she finds another world in which she is asked to complete a series of tasks. After completing these tasks, she encounters the scary-looking figure of Mother Holda. Unlike her stepmother, Mother Holda is fair and treats her kindly. She gives her a home and the girl performs her chores with diligence.
And that is where we’re going to leave the retelling of this tale – at least in this blog post. The rest is not necessary for our discussion here.
Mother Holda’s Origins
A lot of words have been written about the origins of Mother Holda and her related beings. (If you’re interested, you can find some of them here.) But those are not the origins I’m going to look at today.
The portion of the tale recounted above can be found in Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm. And although it may appear to be the “king’s road” to Holda’s origins (as German scholar Erika Timm puts it). As Professor Timm concludes, that is unfortunately not the case. In all likelihood, Grimm’s Mother Holda is the Germanic version of a fairytale that originated in the Middle East (Timm 7).
So you’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about this tale then? The answer, friends, is that symbolism and story are far more fluid and complicated than ‘who came up with what first’. And just because a thing came from outside your usual scope, doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned.
Spindles, Water, and the Dead
As the girl’s adventure to Holda’s meadow begins with a spindle, this is where we will also begin. Because in many ways, the spindle acts like a key to Holda’s realm. Would the girl have found that meadow had she not followed a spindle and simply thrown herself in? We cannot say. But the fact her step-sister made sure to cut herself and throw a spindle into the well before she herself took the plunge is perhaps telling.
Spindles are symbolically rich across the Indo-European world, often connecting the living with the under and/or other worlds. European folklore is full of tales of otherworldly yarn and ghosts appearing as bloody balls of wool. For the ancient Hittites, a group of beings known as the Kattereš were said to spin the fates of kings from the underworld. For the Greeks, the dead were pulled down to Hades by means of the ‘snares of death’. And there is one mention of ‘Hel Ropes’ in Norse literature (Giannakis, “Fate-as-Spinner” I&II)
Whether snares or ropes though, it should be noted that both forms of ligature were the end product of something spun.
Water is also suggestive of a transition from the ThisWorld of the living to whatever lies beyond. As Norwegian scholar, Eldar Heide points out in Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water, stories of the dead departing over water to their final destination are not uncommon in Northwestern Europe. And even where the journey to the afterlife takes place along some kind of Hel road, there is still typically a body of water that must be crossed.
Finally, we must consider the symbolism of the well itself. Most obviously, the well is a passage that leads down into the depths of a watery place. Some see parallels here with the birth canal. But the well has also served as a site for human sacrifice throughout the ages too (“Human Sacrifices?”).
Trials of Character
So whichever way you cut it, the girl was both symbolically and physically plunging to her death. But we do not see her die. Instead, she wakes up in a meadow and finds herself subjected to what might be thought of as trials of character. And it is here that I see a parallel between the afterlife journey of the girl in Mother Holda, and the journey described in the old song A Lyke Wake Dirge
A Lyke Wake Dirge is an old song, designed to be sung over a corpse. Thematically, the song both guides the dead to the afterlife and describes the tribulations along the way.
First the dead pass over a thorny moor (‘Whinny muir’) that will prick them. Then they must pass over the ‘Brig o’Dread’. And then finally, because this is a Christian song, they must roast in Purgatory for a while. But at every turn, these tortures can be mitigated by one’s behavior in life. Those who gave the charity of socks and shoes (‘hosen or shoon’) will find socks and shoes to protect them on the thorny moor. Those who gave the charity of food and drink, will not be shrunk and burned by Purgatory’s fires. (The Brig o’Dread is its own challenge, and I’ll be taking a look at it in the next section.)
Here, as in the story of Mother Holda, the dead must pass through trials that test their character. In both A Lyke Wake Dirge and Mother Holda though, it is their charity and generosity that is tested. The girl pulls the bread from the oven and shakes the apples from the tree because they cry out for relief. It is not merely a task to be done.
Bread, Apples, and the ‘Brig o’ Dread’
But what of bread, apples, and this ‘Brig o’ Dread’?
Bread (or the key ingredient, grain) has long played a part in offerings to the dead, both in England and continental Germany. It was a staple food for the living, so we should perhaps not be surprised to find it offered to the dead. The Penitential of pseudo-Egbert and Carloman’s Capitulary of 742 both indicate burnt grains as an offering to the dead (Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, 113).
We may even see a similar transformation to that of the spinning and spun here. The grains offered by the living are the raw material. But it is in the realm of the dead that they reach their final form (just as we do).
This connection with the dead is one that apples share as well. The 11th century Icelandic poet Þórbjörn Brúnason made a curious mention of the ‘apples of Hel’. And apples also featured as grave goods in both Scandinavian and early English graves. But apples are not only associated with the dead in Norse lore. The apple seems to be both a food for the dead and a substance of renewal for the gods.(Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, 165-166).
Finally, we come to the Brig o’Dread. This was the bridge that the deceased had to cross on the way to the afterlife. Curiously, given our spinning theme, this bridge of dread was described as being “no broader than a thread” in English folk songs. A similar bridge exists in Slavic lore, only here it is made of hair. Yet as folklorist Mirjam Mencej points out, there is little difference between hair and thread in folk tradition. Lithuanian legends tell of ‘spinning goddesses’ and witches who are wont to spin hair when they run out of flax (Mencej, “Connecting Threads”).
And here, despite our foray from German fairytale to a 14th century English dirge, we return to goddesses of spinning and witches. Funny how that happens, yes?
Uncovering the Imaginal in a Folktale and a Dirge
As we have seen, the themes of these two very different sources share some striking similarities. We tread here, I believe, in the imaginal.
For those of you who are yet to encounter the concept of the imaginal, perhaps the best way of introducing the mundus imaginalis is as something akin to Gaiman’s “The Dreaming”. This is the example that Rhyd Wildermuth gives in his amazing post The Imaginal World over on Gods and Radicals. Though not perfect (as Rhyd goes on to acknowledge), this analogy is both accessible and relevant to our discussion here:
”Readers familiar with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series might find some parallels here: the mundus imaginalis is like “The Dreaming,” a realm populated by the dreaming of every being, living or dead, god or human or plant, where each “place” has a geography only inasmuch as it’s necessary for those who visit to travel within it and find the same place again (or visit a place another once visited). In fact, Gaiman likely stole the entire idea for his cosmology from Corbin’s essay.”
As previously mentioned, Rhyd does go on to acknowledge some important differences between the imaginal and the “The Dreaming”. But none of those differences affect the point I wish to make here about the nature of the imaginal.
A Revisited Place, A Liminal Place
The road between the land of the living and that of the dead is one that has been encountered and journeyed many times (arguably repeatedly depending on your afterlife beliefs). As with all things imaginal, it is a place none of us have ever seen concretely, but once we catch a glimpse of its representation in song or story, it feels familiar despite its strangeness.
This is also an inherently liminal road – an intermediary state in all senses of the term. And as such, it seems fitting to connect it with the imaginal given the liminal nature of the imaginal itself. To quote Rhyd once more:
“…the imaginal realm, intersects the others (and exists, according to these mystics, at an intersection of all other realms) and is accessed through the imaginal (not imaginary) capacities of humans.”
So we have tales of a liminal passage undertaken by people in a liminal state, being glimpsed in a liminal space.
Most of us who practice magic know the imaginal already. We just tend to call it UPG, SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis), or PVPG (Peer Verified Personal Gnosis).
The Magical Imaginal
When we get down to it, regardless of whether we seek it out for ourselves or rely on the visions of others, these glimpses and encounters with the imaginal lay the foundations for much of what we do. Take the afterlife journey discussed throughout this post, for example. These descriptions give us a kind of map to this road to the afterlife. First the person dies/passes through water, and then they encounter two different trials. Yet the trials in both sources are far from insurmountable, presenting little problem for the compassionate person.
(Remember how the bread in the oven screamed to be removed from the oven and the apples shook from the tree? Those trials were as much about relieving suffering as they were industriousness.)
Finally, the deceased comes to their destination, which varies depending on the underlying belief system. For the Christian dead in the dirge, it is to Purgatory they must go. But for the girl in Mother Holda, it is to live a kinder existence than she did before. She may have worked, but the work was fair. Mother Holda was kind, and the girl never wanted for food.
For those of us who work with the dead, this story and song can provide a useful model for necromancy and psychopomp work. The song itself is easily adaptable for both Heathen and Christian alike, and the symbolism of the bread and apples in the tale of Mother Holda leads us to handy suggestions for offerings.
See how easy that was?
We began this post with a story and a song, and we’re ending with the bare bones of ritual for guiding the dead along the road to/from the afterlife. And this is the thing, when you find those glimpses in poems/songs/folk tales/ the writings of mystics/in that space between wakefulness and dream, the magic usually isn’t all that far behind.
My blog post today is about story. And I’m going to begin it by telling you a story (about story).
I like to write fiction, and I’ve been creating and writing stories for as long as I can remember. There’s something magical about the process of creating characters and allowing them to reveal the next stages in what inevitably becomes their story. For the most part, these characters are my creations, beginning as hastily plotted-out spider diagrams on whatever scrap of paper I can find and growing into themselves as I write.
By Human or Non-Human Hands?
But around this time last year, two characters began to take shape in my mind without conscious plotting on my part. I still made hastily-scribbled diagrams, but instead of being spiderlike sigils of creation, they were more like a record of beings that were already there..
I wrote them almost obsessively, unable to think about anything else. And this entire world began to take shape as I worked, growing up around the characters in a suspiciously organic fashion.
But one day around Beltane, they were suddenly gone. The world and its inhabitants no longer spoke to me. I could no longer see where I next needed to go, and so I let the project fall. Because while I could have simply invented the details and carried on writing, it felt wrong to do so.
For months I missed them like distant friends. I wanted to continue their story and spend more time in their world, and in September I got my wish.
They had returned. I could see their world once more, and their stories began to speak to me again.
But instead of jumping back into their world, I held back. Why?
Because I realized that they had returned at the same time as the acronychal rising of the Pleiades. Moreover, their Beltane disappearance coincided with the yearly disappearance of the Pleiades from the night sky. It seemed a little too coincidental, especially when the characters you’re writing are Gentry who worship the ‘Seven Queens’.
Now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this instead of simply getting into the CAOS.
I’m telling you this because I wanted to illustrate the point that story doesn’t always come from humans, and that sometimes there are non-human hands in the mix as well.
Otherworldly Media and Narrative
What do a bunch of ‘cave goblins’, Irish fairies, and a long-dead Icelandic völva spirit have in common?
If my sources are correct on this: they have all either historically been interested in modern communications technology and/or media, have already arguably exerted their influence, or have reportedly expressed an interest in doing so.
As outlandish as all of this may seem, this is not so different from the kind of otherworldly interest in creative types recorded in older sources. The storytelling bard has become the TV show writer, artists who may have painted scenes from Fairy while locked up in Bedlam, now create digitally, and famous Fairy-Firkler Morgan Daimler has been pointing out the weird waves of disinformation about Themselves online for a while.
(I mean, come on…plastic is the ‘new iron’?)
Why would humans be the only beings to adapt to an ever-changing world? Why would the otherworldly not continue to interact with and influence creative types as they have done for generations?
Sabrina Goes to Hell(ier)
Which brings me to the point of this post. Yet again, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has angered modern Pagans and Witches. This time though, it’s the depiction of the ‘Pagans’ that seems to be the source of the greatest ire.
I have a lot of say about that ire in general. But I’m going to limit myself to making the following two points:
That the ‘Pagans’ are not so much human worshippers of Pagan gods, but beings that were seen as being potentially monstrous (if not outright so) by their own Pagan period peers. Yes, as unjust as a monstrous read is when it comes to figures like Medusa and Circe, that’s probably how many people at the time probably saw them.
That the Greendale coven now worship Hecate. Which means that they’re now technically Pagans too. (Congratulations! You no longer have to get mad that they’re Satanic witches.)
Oh and about that whole thing with Pan and the Green Man: didn’t it feel a little familiar? Kind of like we’ve seen that alliance somewhere before?
Ah right, yes. Hellier season two. Again.
And I’m not the only person to have noticed the similarities either. According to the Twitterverse there was even a tin can moment in CAOS pt 3 (that I missed, probably because I tend to watch things like sewing/knitting/spinning).
A Topsy-Turvy Story
CAOS pt 3 was a story of different factions and battlelines. The Satanic was revealed to be codependent on the Christian for not only its ascent and power, but also help in the form of Mambo Marie (who is at one point described as being Catholic as well as a vodouisante). The ‘Pagans’ were largely actually monstrous beings, ‘Robin Goodfellow’ allies himself with the humans, and the Greendale coven end up (a different kind of) Pagan anyway.
If there’s one thing about the underlying ‘string-pullers’ of Hellier, it’s that the history doesn’t quite add up – at least not in the usual way. Greg is sent a pdf of The Rebirth of Pan: Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit, a book by a man called Jim Brandon (pseudonym). It’s a wild ride through archaeology, conspiracy theory, cryptozoology, paranormal phenomena, and Crowley. Rather than the Ancient Greek figure, the ‘Pan’ spoke of in this book (a being which the author argues is actually the conscious, collective identity of the earth/contained within the earth) is an aggregate term, a way of naming what the author believes to be manifestations of this consciousness of/within the earth.
And then there’s Hecate – a deity that seems to be becoming more prominent among modern Pagans at the moment, often in a protective/tutelary capacity. Funny how she’s associated with dogs, isn’t it?
The Stories We Tell and the Fucking Zeitgeist
When people on Twitter first began to notice the similarities between Hellier2 and CAOS pt 3, one person remarked that the CAOS producers should have given credit to Greg and Dana Neukirk.
But here is the thing: both series were produced more or less concurrently. Season 2 of Hellier dropped on 11/29/19, and CAOS on 1/24/20. While there are a couple of months between both shows, there wasn’t enough time for anyone to copy anyone else. Moreover, per CAOS showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, they were filming episode six in August – roughly around the same time as Greg and Dana et al. were still filming Hellier season two.
Good humans, I give you the zeitgeist…maybe.
Or maybe instead we see non-human hands in human stories and hints of narratives yet to be shaped?
I believe the unseen world gained a new faction, and it’s something of a ‘new kid’ on the block. Based on what I’ve seen so far of this new kid, I’m pretty sure the ‘old kids’ aren’t too happy with it. Something – a collection of beings in a trench coat masquerading as something else is trying to come onto their turf. And as humans, the creators and consumers of stories that shape the dominant consensus, we’re faced with a choice (another one).
In CAOS, the Greendale coven is given the (false) choice of joining the ‘Pagans’. But instead they choose Hecate, their ancestors (of blood and of practice), and ultimately each other.
Despite the fact that it’s a TV show, I think there’s a valuable lesson in that for witches. Because regardless of tradition, most of us already have relationships with have gods, ancestors, and other beings. Some of us also have magical siblings of sorts too. These are the relationships that have long sustained us. And even when we don’t have those things, the older beings tend to have track records that we can refer to when making our choices. Cleaving to those that are proven hael (by experience or reputation) is probably the best choice.
I stand on a path on a rocky moor, the clouds like steel overhead. Below me the wild, deep azure of the river cuts through the valley. It’s cold here, and noisy as I walk. I hear the rush of the water and feel the wind beating against my ears.
I follow the noise to the source – a waterfall, but it isn’t just any waterfall.
Goðafoss sits like a watery giant reclining against the hard rock face of the valley to stretch out feet into the land around. There is a sense of expansiveness, but also layers of story stored in the depths.
Þorgeir and his Cloak
One of those stories is that of the godposts of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorkelsson. Þorgeir you see, was a lawspeaker who lived around 1000 CE, a time when Christianity was putting down roots in the north. The crisis faced by the people of Iceland was one of conversion, and it had fallen to Þorgeir to decide how to proceed as he was the one person trusted by both Heathen and Christian alike.
Þorgeir’s decision was unenviable. On the one hand, there was growing pressure from Norway for the Icelanders to convert, and many Icelanders had already converted. But on the other, those who remained Heathen in Iceland wished to continue to worship the gods of their forefathers.
Now that’s a very condensed version of what was going on when Þorgeir elected to go under the cloak to see what was to be done.
Going under the cloak is one of those Heathen period magical practices that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention by modern Heathens. (There are a few practices like that though, if I’m being honest.)
Part of the problem is that we don’t really know a whole lot about the practice. But we can be reasonably certain that for Þorgeir, on that fateful day at Þingvellir, it was a method of seeking wisdom about a seemingly impossible situation.
And so he went under the cloak, lying as though sleeping or dead for long hours until he surfaced and made the announcement that a decision had been reached: the Icelanders were to publicly become Christians, but were able to keep their ancestral ways privately.
What’s in a Name?
It’s hard to imagine how Þorgeir must have felt after making that decision. He himself was a Heathen, and yet one of the first things he did on leaving the Allþing was to cast his godposts into the rushing depths of Goðafoss.
This is why it’s called ‘Goðafoss’; it’s the waterfall of the gods (though some say ‘goði’ as Þorgeir was a goði).
The Lone Weirdo
I’d gone to Goðafoss as part of a Land Sea Sky tour group. I was a presenter on the tour, along with the incomparable Morgan Daimler, and I’d been experimenting with a method for going under the cloak that had been yielding interesting results. That was my plan at the waterfall of the gods, and that’s what I did.
I’m probably in the background in a bunch of tourist photos – a lone weirdo hooded and wrapped in a shawl of serpentine patterns lying down as though to take a nap.
But that’s okay, I hope they found the falls as special as I did.
Now I’m not here today to talk about the experience of going under the cloak, or how I do that. I have a description of my entire process (as well as how I came to practice in that way) in my upcoming book that’s coming out at the end of this year/early next year.
(Did I mention that yet? I don’t think I did. Btw guys, I’ve got a book coming out on Heathen magic.)
No, today I’m here to talk about what happened after I got up from the cloak and the practice I discovered from that experience. That is what I would like to share today – what I’m being nudged to share.
Óðinn Gave Breath
So I get up from the ground and dust myself off. But suddenly, I become aware of the sound of heavy wing beats even above the din of the waters. I feel them in my heart even, and search them out with my eyes.
Two ravens fly the breadth of the waterfall and come up the opposite side of the river to draw level with me.
Time slows, becomes weighty with presence and I know that I’m being shown something.
I feel my breath mingle with the wind – with Óðinn, the god who first gave breath-soul to humans. For a long moment there is a communion of sorts. But this isn’t just a connection with a god. He’s there too but it’s bigger than that. Instead it’s like my sense of self falls away, expanding to include the world and people around me, and it’s wonderful. A true place of potential.
Connecting With Óðinn Through Breath
Think about every breath you take. From the beginning of life when a baby takes that first breath before releasing a scream into the world, to the end when those borrowed breaths are finally released back to the winds, breath is our constant companion. This is life, death, interconnectedness, and the mother of spoken sounds.
Some say the Old English Rune Poem credits the Old Man as the source of all speech. I think in a sense he is.
This is how I like to check in with Óðinn, and I think some of you might like it too.
The best place to do this is outside, preferably in a high place where the winds blow wild. Those have always been the places where I’ve felt his presence the strongest.
For a Heathen, relationships are built with gifting, so bring a gift with you (wine is good). Prayers don’t hurt either. Then simply sit and focus on your breath.
This works best when you can forget about all the things that keep you separate and different from the rest of the world. Óðinn is a mutable god. He is a god of masks and becoming other people as needed. Hell, even his name refers to temporary states of being! It’s a lot easier if you try to become mutable too.
You won’t always experience his presence when you do this. But there are worse ways to spend a morning or evening than exploring the interconnectedness of breath and wind on a hill somewhere so it’s no loss.
Yesterday I saw an article written by a British author about how she apparently tried being a witch for a week. It was offensive and stupid in a way that would have made the Daily Mirror proud. Today (and sadly all too predictably), seemingly anyone and everyone who’s ever gotten their witch on is mad about this article.
But (and please don’t take this the wrong way), why do we care what this individual thinks?
Not All Challenges Are Worth Fighting
This article wasn’t some amazing takedown of anyone’s lives. It was little more than clickbait masquerading as a so-called ‘enlightened’ and pro-science point about wider society. It was a collection of cheap shots against groups of people who already face discrimination in society. Rather than emerging as a ‘defender of science’, Ceri Bradford cast herself as the ‘mean girl’ that would be more at home in a schoolyard picking on the kid she hopes can’t fight back.
I mean, let’s face it. It’s not like any of us clicked on that link without even the tiniest sneaking suspicion that we were going into yet another mocking article about witches. That photo of her in a pointy hat was a dead giveaway; her facial expression reminds me of every drunk woman who ever picked a fight over nothing outside a kebab shop at 2 am.
And that’s what I think she’s doing here. I think she’s attempting to create drama because it will get her more clicks, more likes, and possibly lead to more work. I think she knew her work was going to cause upset, but I think she’s fine with that. Moreover, I suspect that no amount of complaining or appeals to decency will make her apologize or even feel vaguely bad (though it would be nice to be wrong here).
Target Selection for Bullies 101
The fact of the matter is that she could have made her alleged point about the rise in unscientific beliefs (if she even really cares about that) without punching down. After all, it’s not like virgin births, prayer (which is often magical in nature), resurrection of the dead, and transubstantiation are scientific either. Yet aside from the slight mention of religion in a general sense, she reserved all of her ire and mockery for those of us of minority faiths and practices.
In other words, she stuck to the people she doesn’t think can hurt her emotionally, legally, or professionally. She probably knows that rather than garnering a bunch of lol reacts, any article leveling that same style of mockery at Christianity would be met with disdain and/or censure.
And that, in my opinion, makes her a coward.
Oh Hai,Silver Lining!
Hit articles like this are nothing new in the UK press. I’m honestly surprised she wasn’t writing for the Daily Mail considering their long tradition of publishing hit pieces against Pagans and witches. And if anything, in a world of growing
As a community we spend quite a bit of time discussing modern media and debating the possible lessons that can be taken from different shows or movies. And this is a good thing. Because despite the all-pervasive and easily-accessible nature of this particular consumable, the media we produce and consume as a society is important.
You see, I don’t think that there is any such thing as “just a TV show”, “just a book”, or “just a story”. Storytelling, in whichever form it takes, is inherently magical. It is the mirror that shows us who we are, shadows and all. But most importantly, it can be an agent for change. Especially when millions of people become emotionally invested in a story.
Take a moment to think about the last spell or magical working you carried out. Think about what you did, and (more importantly) why you did it. Think about the reasons why you used the materia magica you did, or why you performed the actions you did, or approached the deities you did (if you did). I’m betting there were parts of the backstories of those deities etc. that fit with the story you were trying to tell, right? What is magic if not changing the plotline of one’s life or current circumstances? (Congratulations, you’re all fanfic authors!)
If anything, we should be thinking about media and what is being presented to us more, not less.
The Witcher and Witches
Like many people, I kicked off my Yuletide by watching Henry Cavill wielding a big sword while wearing leather pants (just kidding, I also finished a spinning taboo-along and did religious things too). It was pretty much everything I like in a show: swords and sorcery, humor, likable characters, and at times, absolutely balls-to-the-wall weird.
But despite its fantastical nature, I think there is an important lesson to be gleaned from the show, and one that is becoming increasingly important.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher – a mutant created through mysterious and deadly processes in order to fight the otherworldly and monstrous on the Continent. It sounds like the stereotypical D&D dungeon crawl (but on TV), right?
As a dungeon-crawling fool myself, that was my expectation too. But then I noticed something about how Geralt dealt with the beings he encountered that I think more witches need to take to heart.
Geralt doesn’t just kill/drive out indiscriminately. Again and again, you see him trying to walk a middle path between the monstrous or otherworldly, and the humans who are all too often selfish and uncaring. Instead of just seeing the monster, he sees beings with needs and motivations, and only kills where necessary.
And this is where I think we can learn from him.
Banishing as Default
If you’re a witch and your life is anything like mine, you’ve probably been called upon to clear houses or deal with troublesome spirits more than a few times. I’ve been that person that people go to for that kind of thing since I was about nineteen ( I’m almost forty now), and I’ve dealt with situations that quite frankly belong in a horror movie. I have a whole bunch of XP in scary shit and a fucked up sense of humor to boot.
Like pretty much everyone else coming up in our cultural paradigm, banishing, binding, or trapping was a default response. That’s kind of our predominant cultural paradigm when dealing with those we consider ‘other’? Hell, even the infamous BBQ Becky is engaging in this on a mundane level when she calls the cops on Black people for having the audacity to have a BBQ.
The knight always kills the dragon, the exorcist always drives out the demon, and the otherworldly or monstrous is pretty much always slain. That is what our media typically shows us, and it’s also the message of the dominant religious paradigm.
But these methods of “dealing” aren’t the only ways to deal, and they’re not necessarily the best in most cases. Like Geralt of Rivia, I think we need to start thinking in terms of needs and motivations, and seeing what we can do to address them.
In other words, we need to be walking our talk and actually treating the other as people.
(Warning: Some reflection of how you treat other people may occur.)
Leaving the Magical Murderhobo Life
I’ve been working on this for about five years now, and I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy. However, my life has been much easier since I adopted this approach. The simple act of asking a non-human person what they need or if there’s anything to be done to make amends and potentially lay the foundations for friendship is powerful. It’s also in most cases (in my more recently acquired XP), far more successful.
But it is hard to change approach. Because if I’m being honest, I have quite a lot of knee jerk reactions and trauma there that I have to clamp down on. I may have become the person people go to for clearings at around the age of nineteen, but it really didn’t start there for me. I was very…popular…with all manner of beings as a kid, and a good percentage of them were quite harmful. So it’s a work in progress, and a lot of dealing with the old shadow baggage.
I don’t think I’m alone in finding this change difficult either. Others I’ve spoken to about this have expressed similar sentiments. Trauma or not, cultural paradigm and habits are difficult things to break from.
And I’m not saying that you should never use more wrathful methods – it’s good to be able to handle yourself when things go wrong. But it should never be your first instinct to fight someone just because they’re different.
I met a new ‘demon’ yesterday. She was twisted and bent, doubled over with stress and covered in cysts. She walked with a cane, and was orangey-pink and red in color.
When I say ‘demon’ here, I clearly don’t mean the kind of demon that normally springs to mind in popular culture. There were no pitchforks or flames, no oppression or seeking the ruination of human souls. There wasn’t even anything even vaguely chthonic about this ‘demon’ either, and the only bowels involved were the bowels that live inside my body.
This ‘demon’ was instead more of a body-mind manifestation, and meeting her and hearing her out took my IBS pain from about a four to a zero.
I’m a fan of shadow work and find the process of examining one’s ‘shadow’ to be a useful activity. But as Pagans and Heathens, we’re not so good on the release/resolve stage of this process. Sure journaling, journey, and/or ritual can also help. However, I am yet to find anything within the Pagan/Witch/Heathen sphere that is nearly as effective as Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons. Out of all the possible ways for working with one’s shadow (or ‘demons’), this is the method that has brought me the most tangible returns.
So there I was with my ‘demon’, feeding her of myself until she became a beautiful woman in her 30s. I called her ”Mōdsefa” and promised to listen to her. Then we made friends, and my stomach hasn’t hurt since (long may it continue!).
how enlightenment is a male fantasy reserved for monks (and the cooking and cleaning reserved for nuns). Then my friend shared a poem/meditation on Mary’s ignored-role in birthing and nursing Jesus. As this poem so ably demonstrates, again men are able to concentrate on the transcendental whereas the woman is left with the bloody and painful practicalities of essentially making that happen. If we are to believe Christian mythology, Mary may have brought Jesus into the world (and is ‘venerated’ – not worshipped – for the fruit of her womb), but women were supposed to be silent in church, unable to give teachings or administer the symbolic representations of the body and blood of that woman-born child. Mary herself would be ineligible to serve the representations of the child that she herself birth and fed. Take some time to think about that.
In the context of both religions, we are nothing but supports for male aspirations and experiences, and like my poor Mōdsefa, our capabilities and contributions all too often ignored.
“Where the men’s hall occupies the cultural center and defines that “semblance of order,” women and women’s lives outside the hall in the places where they cooked the food, wove the cloth, and bore the children-all processes, as Sherry Ortner argues, transforming nature into culture-represent a potentially dangerous ambiguity. Given the logical oppositions male/female and human/nonhuman, if the norm for human is male, where does woman stand if not on the boundary between the human hall and the nonhuman wilderness?”
Jenny Jochens makes similar observations in Women in Old Norse Society. Not only were women excluded from all political life (beyond what influence they could garner through incitement and other forms of manipulation(, but they too were relegated to the role of server during feasts (which arguably held religious as well as cultural and religious dimensions). (Jochens 107-108, 113-114)
We modern folks may pretend that the Heathen period woman’s lot was a liberated one, but often the reality is that it might only be described so when compared with the most misogynist societies in Europe.
Heathen Women and Female-Presenting People Today
Unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon for modern Heathen males (as well as some females) to argue for the same bifurcation of spheres and labor today. This pattern is not unfamiliar in some communities from what I understand, and even among more progressive groups, you may still find the men peeling off to have the more philosophical discussions over beers while the female-presenting humans are left to basically facilitate everything else (or in some
cases face social censure).
For some modern Heathen women (especially on the right of the political spectrum), this is an acceptable state of affairs and considered to be ‘right’, and over the years I have observed attempts to sacralize housework and child rearing in some way in order to somehow make it seem less onerous and more “honored”. As with all “honored” things of this nature though, that “honor” only ever seems to take a form in which the woman/female-presenting person is divorced from physical and personal cost in the minds of men as readily as they are the political and religious spheres. This is “honor” that is convenient for men, and built almost entirely on platitudes and approval-seeking behaviors.
There is nothing wrong with finding fulfillment in housework or child rearing. But let’s not pretend that a polished turd is anything but what it is. True honor is recognizing the personal and physical costs as well as making efforts to include and listen to those you wish to honor in the political and religious processes of your community.
The Reconstructionist’s Dilemma
As with many aspects of modern Heathenism, many of the arguments surrounding the role of female-presenting humans center around history. This is to be expected in a group of religions with heavy reconstructionist influence. However, we do not reconstruct everything, and if anything, our reconstruction is often quite selective. Sometimes this is because we don’t like what the sources have to say, but other times it’s because we recognize that our society and the laws that we live by are very different.
The History of the Spindle Side
Like my poor, ignored Mōdsefa ‘demon’, the history of women and other female-presenting humans is all too often ignored. Though credited with preserving older tales while at work at spinning and in the weaving rooms by scholars such as Rumpf, women as a whole are left out of the conversation. No one talks about the labor of birthing the next generation, the countless hours spent clothing families and producing textiles to sell, or how it was the work of women that created the sails that drove the ships and enabled mankind tofirst go into space.
Whereas men have told their stories loudly and publicly, women have told them together and behind closed doors. Men have produced text and books of pages whereas women have produced textile and books of embroidery (Karen Bek-Pedersen 2007, pp 154 – 156).
And through it all, women (whether they understood themselves to be so or not) have worked to find their own ways to the holy (be it through cooking rice or renouncing the world in order to join religious communities for women).
In the Völuspá, ‘primal law’ (ørlög) is depicted as being something that is decided, scored, and spoken by women, and it is the völur that chooses and speaks the fates of men when asked at seance (Karen Bek-Pedersen, pp 200 – 201). There is a lot of power in choice, and I would like to see those of us who are either women or female-presenting people become choosers too.
I would like to see us choose solidarity and throw off the centuries of negative PR surrounding friendships between women (read Silvia Federici for more on that). I would like to see us choose to support each other and our own aspirations (be they spiritual or mundane). Finally, I’d like to see us choose a better path for our children. Because if there is one thing we can never forget, it’s that the patterns we create now, are what they will have to live with in the future.
So choose deliberately, friends, and learn to listen to the women/female-presenting people in your lives because we can do amazing things as a species when we actually work together.