When I wrote this, I did so to get it out of my head. To write, for me, is to reify and process, and I very much felt the need to do this. Long time readers of this blog will know that I have been encountering the dead since I was a child, and that it is something that I have often struggled with over the years. In many ways, last year marked a watershed of sorts for me in that I formally committed to working with the dead. I began a lot of deep ancestor work within my own lineages, and found my life and practices changing quite dramatically.
The experience that I write about here, I believe to have been one of the initiations of that work. That it took place in dream is still strange to me despite my deeply held beliefs on the importance of dream and its scope for interaction with the dead and Other. However, I find myself very much changed by the experience, and am finding myself doing things now that I could not do before. There will probably be quite a few blogs about my work with the battlefield dead. It is the work of my heart, and I have only just begun.
An Account of Dream Initiation
I enter the room nervously. I had been told nothing of what was to come except for that I would undergo an initiation of sorts. The room is hazy with incense – a pungent scent I struggle to identify – and candles flow as a wave over every available surface. A young man I think I recognize leads me to the center of the room, and the priest begins her invocations. On the floor, I notice a large black sheet.
For a moment I panic, and hope that I do not misspeak. I pray to my gods that any errors be forgiven, and mentally prepare myself for any invocations that I must also give.
But there are none.
There is only the black sheet on the floor, and the young man beckoning me to lie down upon its surface.
I soon notice that half the sheet is gathered at the bottom, and when I lie down, it is pulled up to cover me; it covers all parts of me.
“You need to journey now. You need to let it take you where you must go.”
And I am confused, for I am already in dream. But I school myself quickly, and begin my usual processes for entering trance.
For what seems like the longest time, nothing happens. But then, I realize I’m moving; a gentle rocking motion carries me forth. Soon I regain my eyes and notice a roughly woven cloth upon my face. I can see through the holes to the sky above, this is not the cloth from the ritual room floor. Above me, trees curve over the path to form an archway, and I try to move but cannot. I am bound but not by ropes, conveyed forth by unseen hands.
The thought soon comes to me that I’m dead, and travel a corpse path, and for the longest time I abide in this knowledge. What am I to learn here? How long will this go on for? What about the room and the ritual?
The Inevitable Path
I have so many questions, and little patience. I work to exit trance, and find myself rolling out from under the sheet in the ritual room. The priest is now gone and only the candles and the young man remain. I stagger around without sense and understand that unless I finish what was begun, that I would not return whole. So I reenter the now-red-sheet and hunker down once more, returning to the endless plod of the corpse-road.
At some point I decide that I’m thinking too hard, that I’m too agitated for one
who is already dead, and so I let go, and that’s when I find myself within the mound.
I sit up to find myself surrounded by the dead; dead of many different ages, some appearing bigger, and others appearing smaller. The shroud loosens and I sit with corpse-pale arms and hear their words.
They have much to tell me about how they wish to be worshipped, and the kinds of things they wish me to do. They also gift me something too. I can feel it within me, intangible and indescribable. Like something returned, it feels familiar and right. Then they release me from the mound, the door opening to bright sunlight.
As the sun touches my skin, it lives again. I live again. I step out into light that’s far too bright for my eyes, and into the path of the one I know as Gwyn. We walk back together along the corpse way, and he talks to me of owls and pathways down. The road does not seem so long on the way back, but it was never really about time or distance in the first place. I know that now.
I return to my dream once more, to the ritual room where the young man waits. He’d been waiting the whole time, he says. I’d been gone longer than was normal, and he wanted to make sure I was alright. Three and a half hours was quite a while, and it was kind of his job. I stand up and this time I’m clear. There’s no staggering and I feel whole. I leave the room and find myself at a party for a while, watching people as they perform for the dead they have lost. Their songs are their offerings, their dances are prayers, and it makes their hearts shine.
The heart is the key to this kind of work.
Eventually it’s time to go. My husband and child await, and I’m suddenly aware that I have new clothes that I must pick up. They’re green, and were also once lost but now returned. I put them on and wake up with a scream.
A Rough Awakening
My body hurts now, my trance had been deep. My shoulder is dislocated, and it takes me three days to fully put it back in. I should probably feel angry or upset about that but I don’t.
If anything, I just thole. It’s a small matter next to the monumental change that took place within. I cannot yet name what was given that night in the mound. Yet weeks later, when I step out onto one of the battlefields of Manassas and walk towards the Dead with my equally touched companions, I feel it as keenly as I feel my limbs.
The Dead surround me here too, but this time, it’s myself and my companions who guide the way along the corpse path for now.
Oh look, it’s another PSA (and all in the same week)!! This time my friends, I’d like to ask you all how you’re feeling. So how are things?
You see I’m asking because I’ve noticed that a fair few people seem to be either a little overwrought and on edge, or feeling completely drained at the moment. It’s beginning to look a little bit like people are feeling somewhat overloaded.
Signs of Overload
We’ve all been to places where we’ve felt a bit off, right? Or felt the change in subtle energies with the waxing and waning of the moon? This is because we humans, even those of us who try to cling to the physical, tend to react to the energy in our environments. And there are any number of environmental factors that can kick up the energy in a place and leave you feeling…off. (This is what I mean by “overload”.)
Some of the most common environmental factors that lead to this are things like “psychic impressions” left by horrid historical events; the influence of celestial bodies (as the aforementioned example of the lunar cycle); the time of year (liminal points especially); strong emotions from other humans; and especially strong emotions from other humans en masse. Of course, the degree to which these things will affect you very much depends on your personal level of sensitivity, and the most sensitive and empathic typically themselves more acutely affected than others.
If this is you, you may find yourself feeling on edge or particularly emotional (when you have no discernible reason to be so). You may also feel as though there are too many things going on, a sensation like you’re somehow running out of time, or like you just can’t settle. Conversely, you may feel inexplicably exhausted and drained (likely from the effort of trying to process the overload). And while we’re on the subject, how are you sleeping? Because if you’re on the “inexplicably antsy” end of the spectrum, I’m betting you’re also not sleeping for shit either – at least not without help.
Here is where self-care comes in. So what kind of self-care can you practice when the causes are from more subtle sources?
Your first step is to take a deep breath and try to figure out what’s going on. The question you need to ask yourself here is if these emotions are really yours (ie intrinsic to you), or if you are reacting to something external.
In some cases, this is simple. For example, if you have only just started to feel like this after entering an environment but feel fine when you leave, then that can be a pretty clear indicator that the cause was external. However in other cases, this is where self-knowledge comes in and knowing the shape of your own thoughts. For those of you who regularly practice meditation, this is probably relatively easy for you. For those of you who aren’t there yet though, this is where grounding and centering can be helpful.
Grounding and Centering
From the perspective of self-care, or “psychic first aid” (or whatever the hell else you want to call it), grounding allows you to rid yourself of excess energy, and centering helps you to restore your balance. If you suspect overload and are not sure if what you are experiencing is external or not then try grounding and centering. It’s a great way of shifting that excess energy into the earth, giving you the space you need to take stock and figure out your next move.
Feel better now? Then the cause was likely external.
Feel about the same? You need to look within.
Many forms of grounding and centering involve some kind of tree visualization, during which the person envisions themselves as a tree with roots sinking down into the earth and branches reaching up to the heavens. However, if you’re not really in a place where you can do that because you’re just too wired, I have a kickass alternative that a friend of mine came up that is great for kinesthetic types (thanks Becky!).
Becky’s method is based on the realization that the iron in our bodies is a match for the iron within the earth, and the iron that is to be found in space (which created some of humankind’s earliest iron artifacts). Leveraging the principle of “like attracts like”, Becky’s method involves concentrating on, and feeling for the iron in one’s own bloodstream, then mentally feeling out and reaching for the like substance in the earth, and in the skies above. If you do it right, it should make you feel like someone just opened a sluice, like that excess is draining out, and like you’re suddenly more present.
So you’ve grounded and centered, and figured out that you’re getting reamed by whatever the hell is going on where you are. Now what?
Now you shield in order to minimize if not outright stop the factors causing the overload from getting through. Depending on how extreme the conditions are where you are, you may need to keep an eye on and redo your shields as needed. Here, I would advise you to see these shields as being “in addition to” whatever else you use for defense (if you do). This is more like ‘magical sunblock’ as opposed to hardcore defenses.
So how do you crack out the magical sunblock for a bit of continued sanity?
One of the most commonly touted methods is the “disco ball” method, in which the individual visualizes themselves within a disco ball. Of course, you’re not only visualizing here, but also willing this to be so. It won’t work unless you’re fully invested.
With the disco ball, the idea is that the outer mirrors reflect away anything unwanted, thus leaving the person within protected and insulated. Give it a try, and see how you feel. How does the imagery work in your head? Because this is the funny thing about this kind of skill: not all imagery works equally in all people. This makes sense because not all people get equally invested in the same things, and like I said, you need to be invested. So if this is you, you need to find imagery representative of the same principles then work to build that imagery. Just be aware though that how you build your shields can affect how others perceive and react to you. I know some who prefer to create their shields out of a kind of woven net rather than an impenetrable and reflective surface as they believe that that degree of shielding impedes their ability to work.
Finally, don’t forget purification. In my opinion, purification is one of those massively important but generally somewhat neglected practices among modern Pagan practitioners. Which is a pity because we pick up so much dreck in our lives that it’s pretty easy to become somewhat bogged down and heavy. This is where purification comes in, both for homes and individuals.
Keeping your home clean is your most basic home purification, but it’s also good to try and burn purifying récels (incense) around your home such as either mugwort, or a rosemary/vervain/juniper mixture. This smoke can also be used for the self too (I like to burn it in a cast iron Dutch oven and just stand over it so that I’m enveloped by the smoke).
Taking cleansing baths with cleansing herbs like rosemary or birch is also helpful; saltwater is also good. I also like to keep herb oils on hand for emergency situations – hyssop oil is good for this.
These are clearly not the only purification methods that you can use; I could write an entire post just on purification (and I may just do so at some point). This whole post is intended as more of a rough and ready survival guide (and reminder to take care of you).
Well, the gym is calling (more self-care), and I’ve got to angry-run on a treadmill. Be well.
There’s something of a theme du jour in my spookier friend circles right now. It’s complex – there’s a lot of background strangeness here – but the TL;DR version is that people (myself included) either feel the need to make oaths of fealty to numinous powers, or are witnessing others making similar oaths in either dream or trance. Now that strikes me as being pretty odd, and makes me wonder whether this is something which is confined to my various friend circles, or if it’s more widespread. (Answers on a postcard, please!) It also makes me wonder what on earth is going on at the moment. Because as I mentioned above, there is a background of strangeness here. This is not something that I’m prepared to write about it yet, but some of what John Beckett touches on here is eerily similar.
Either way, regardless of whatever the hell is going on, and whether or not this is a localized or more widespread phenomenon, it’s never a bad time to address the matter of oaths of fealty. After all, oathing to numinous powers is a serious business with potentially serious consequences. Friends don’t let friends oath to massively powerful entities without first giving them some tools.
And by “tools”, I mean this handy five-point list.
(Why a five-point list? Because this is the fucking internet, and everything seems to be a five-point list nowadays.)
1. You Can Refuse
This might seem like a no-brainer. However (as a few skeletons that won’t stay in their cupboards can attest), we seem to have consent issues in modern Paganism. We see this in a number of ways, and thankfully there are movements to work on all of that. But one of the ways in which those problematic ideas of consent
surface (at least in my opinion), is in how oathing to numinous powers is presented in some quarters. There’s this creepy narrative that oathing is like a kind of pursuit by the numinous that the human doesn’t really have any say in, and quite frankly, that’s just plain fucked up.
It’s also wrong to boot, because that’s not how actual reciprocal relationships work. You have a choice, these are reciprocal relationships (read up on those here if you don’t know what that means), you can say no. So if it seems like a bad idea to get in cahoots with whoever, and your gut is twisting with the thought (there’s a clue right there), you can decline – politely.
If you do find yourself in a situation in which you believe you are being pursued by the numinous equivalent of Chris Pratt, then go and get a second opinion from someone you trust. Narrative can frame experience just as much as experience can frame narrative. Just a word to the wise though: not everything is what it claims to be either, so again, it’s good to get a fresh perspective.
2. The Devil is in the Detail
As mentioned above, these are relationships that are reciprocal by nature. In other words, they an exchange of sorts, which means you’re effectively entering into a contract. Now, if you’ve watched that episode of South Park where Kyle clicks the iTunes user agreement without reading it first, you’ll know that blind agreement with a greater power is not a good idea.
Well, it’s the same principle here. You need to be honest about, and lay out what you are prepared to do, and how long for. This is key – you don’t have to oath to a power for life, and you don’t have to give yourself to them after death
either. Temporary alliances for a set period of time or until the completion of certain criteria are a thing, oaths that are renewed on a yearly basis are also a thing. NOTHING SAYS YOU HAVE TO OATH FOR LIFE.
So make a list of your conditions, and pay special attention to any potential loopholes you find. Because some beings out there (naming no names) are *experts* at finding ways to creatively screw humans over while adhering to the letter of any oaths made. So get good at thinking twenty steps ahead and doing thought experiments with potential outcomes. Also, remember that any oaths will also by extension affect your families, so factor your loved ones into those thought experiments too.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to try and figure out what they actually want from you, and assume that has value even if you cannot see it. And that might sound like the most hubristic shit ever until you remember that some beings quite enjoy consuming humans. It’s good to not become food, it’s like a rule for life.
But before you do *any* of that….
3. Do Your Research, Dammit!
If some sparkly and awesome (or dark and scary, or BOTH) shows up trying to entice you into some kind of oath, your first move is always research. Go find out everything you can about them, and if it’s not available in physical sources, go pester allies for more information. Because there are a whole bunch of things you need to know here. For example, you need to know their MO; if they’re presenting themselves as they actually are; how others have fared dealing with them; and if they have a GSOH and enjoy long walks on the beach at sunset. Because all of that will not only help you figure out *who* you’re dealing with, but also help you better word any oaths you make so that you can do stuff like insert more protective clauses (which is #winning, trust me).
4. Consult Ye the Ye Olde Book of Oaths!
There’s a lot to be said for those old school handwritten pacts. On the one hand, they were utter shit for getting you convicted and burned (poor Father Grandier). But on the other hand, they also helped you remember just who you had pacts with, and exactly what was entailed. So if you’re in the business of holding oaths with numinous beings, it’s a damn good idea to have somewhere safe where you can write down all the details as precisely as you can (if you don’t already). It’s also good to read those oaths regularly – after all, you want to make sure you’re not fucking up your end of the bargain. However, it’s especially important to re-read your prior oaths when in the process of considering and creating oathed relationships with whatever new beings on the block because you need to know what you can agree to without violating the conditions of your other oaths. Sometimes those prior oaths can turn out to be pretty protective in the long run.
5. Phone a Friend
Finally, when you have all your research, and have tweaked the wording for
your oath as much as you can, run it all by a friend or trusted clergy. For some of you, this would have likely been a continuous thing anyway throughout this entire process, and that’s fine. Just don’t formalize anything until you’ve had that feedback from someone you trust and who has a good head on their
shoulders. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in things and hurtle towards a thing at breakneck speed, so it’s good to have someone prepared to remind you that there are such a thing as brakes.
But whether you do say yes to the oath-dress or not, you should record everything in as much detail as you possibly can. Because even if you don’t end up oathing, it’s just always good to keep a record.
If you do formally oath though, consider the creation of a pact-style document that both parties agree to before the oath is formally sworn. This document should contain the exact wording of your oath and clearly outline the conditions of the oath.
Lastly, if you are in this situation, I wish you smooth negotiations. May the odds be ever in your favor.
This week, I’m coming back to a topic that should be a lot more familiar to everyone (pun intended): the witch’s familiar.
Introducing the Early Modern Witch’s Familiar
The witch’s familiar is an ancient phenomenon, though the most commonly held ideas surrounding them seem to owe more to Early Modern Britain. Simply put, a familiar was a form of spirit helper with which the witch or cunning person held a certain kind of relationship. The kinds of familiars possessed by both cunning folk and witches differed too, with the familiars associated with “Cunning Folk” being more of fairy, and those associated with witches being
more demonic. It is the latter form that is the most recognizable today (Wilby 2005).
For witch or cunning person, the acquisition of a familiar was for the most part by chance. Accounts of encounters recorded during the witch trials, paint these encounters as happening spontaneously, as the witch or cunning person went about their business (Wilby 2005). Often the witch or cunning person would also be impoverished, or recently subjected to some kind of further hardship or tragedy. There is an undeniably folkloric feel to these encounters, and not unlike the kind of deal made by the girl forced to spin straw in Rumpelstiltskin (for example).
Unlike period descriptions of encounters with the dead, the fairy or demon familiars are described in stunningly naturalistic terms – they’re as real-looking as you or I. They were of vivid color, and animation and sound. But that’s not to say that they were “really” just the pets of people who looked a little “witchy”; it’s one thing to assume the shape of a thing, and quite another to actually be that thing. Having said that though, there were cases in which the pets of people suspected of witchcraft also shared the fates of their owners. But witch crazes are nothing if not illogical, let’s not mistake misplaced bloodlust for authenticity.
However, while the majority of accounts depict a person coming across the spirit that would become their familiar in a spontaneous way, there were ways in which familiar spirits could also be acquired. For example, one might petition a condemned person to return and serve as your familiar as in the case of Mary Parish’s familiar, a one George Whitmore (Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”). In other cases, one could gain a familiar by somehow encountering fairy royalty and showing them the proper respect thus acquiring a familiar as a gift. Alternatively, you might acquire a familiar as a gift from another witch – most commonly a family member (Wilby 2005). And lastly, if none of those methods were available to you, you could always try petitioning a demon such as the Verum demon Sustugriel who was reputed to ”give good familiars” (Stratton-Kent 2010).
As I said above though, the Early Modern familiar is simply just the most well-known form of spirit helper. The fact of the matter is that magical practitioners have been finding helping spirits and making pacts with them for a very, very long time. And like wands, familiars traverse a wide range of different cultures (albeit under different names – obviously).
The earliest account of what might be recognized as a familiar is the ob (pronounced “ov”) of the biblical Witch of Endor. The ob was both a spirit “of the dead or minor underworld deity that “speaks from the earth in whispering voices”, and an object of worship whose spirit can enter into a human and reside within them (Barrabbas 2017). In other words, to have a familiar is to be possessed by a familiar (something which I will speak of more towards the end of this post).
Among the Greeks, we find the parhedros who fulfills a similar function to that of the ob and the familiar. Given that the Greek Magical Papyri begins with ways in which to acquire a parhedros, we have to assume that they were considered an integral part of performing magic (Skinner 2014). Moreover, like their Hebrew counterparts, there is also the aspect of worshiping objects associated with the paredros. For those of you who are interested in the idea of performing one of these paredros rituals, it bears mentioning that those early methods of acquisition require blood sacrifice. Far less bloody to summon a demon in this case!
Moving over to Heathen period Northern Europe now, we find evidence that witches partnered with elves in order to perform their magic. Alaric Hall argues that rather than being the result of attacks by elves, the phenomenon of elfshot was more likely curses thrown by elf-empowered witches (Hall 2001). This is where we find our way back to Wilby’s period of study. Hall traces a pattern of witches working with mound-connected elves from the tenth century Old English magico-medical charm Wið Færstice and term ælfs?den (literally “elf-Seiðr”, or “elf-magic”); to Martin Luther’s account of being “shot” by a neighborhood witch; and finally to Isobel Gowdie’s accounts of encountering the Queen of Elfhame in a mound and seeing elves fashioning the shot. I personally take it somewhat further and point to the portrayal of Frey and Freyja in the Ynglingasaga. Freyja as the sacrificial priestess (and as we know, goddess associated with the form of magic known as “Seiðr”) ends up overseeing the cult to her brother, Freyr (who is associated with elves), even as he lies in the burial mound. The people bring offerings to the mound for peace and good seasons, and so even in death, he possesses a power that his sister does not.
Equally, elves were also associated with possessory divinatory trances that may have resembled or been confused with epileptic fits (Hall 2001), and so here too we find the possessory aspect of the ob.
Familiars and Hierarchy
The themes of hierarchy and spiritual authority also play their respective roles here. You may have already noticed that outside of the spontaneously acquired familiars, a higher power must be approached. This is an important distinction to make: the familiar gifted by fairy royalty will obey you if their royals command it. For those who inherit their familiars from others, one has to assume that the same terms and conditions of whatever pact was agreed upon transfer to the new witch.
Mary Parish’s familiar George is the obvious exception to this. Unlike most other familiars in the accounts, he was a dead human whose service was contracted by means of an oath before dying. This allowed Mary the authority she needed in order to work with him postmortem. However, his story is not completely devoid of involvement by a higher (fairy) power.
At some point, a minor aristocrat by the name of Goodwin Wharton became covetous of George (who he had become aware of through his love affair with Mary), and endeavored to have Mary gift him her familiar. However, a fairy queen referred to as the Queen of the Lowlanders steps in. From Wharton’s journal:
” The transfer of George was further complicated by the queen of the Lowlanders, who demanded that Goodwin stop attempting to have George as his own personal spirit. At first Goodwin was a little resistant, but the queen insisted that if he would not willingly show her this preference, he should never see any of the Lowlanders. She wanted to be his number-one contact with the spirit world. Goodwin had little choice but to agree to her terms. As a consolation, George agreed to answer any questions directed at him as long as Goodwin turned his back and did not look directly where George stood. However, Goodwin could not understand the spirit very clearly, as he spoke in a low, soft voice close to Mary’s ear. So throughout their relationship, Goodwin relied on Mary to communicate with George.”
(Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”)
It would seem that even when it comes to contracting the familiar services of the dead, the fairies will still have their say.
Pets as Familiars
Now to come to something a little polemic, but that I find weirdly irritating all the same.
I’ve noticed a tendency among some in the Pagan/Witch/Heathen communities to refer to their pets as their “familiars”. At first, I thought it was just a joke being made (and for most people, it does seem to be). However, I seem to be coming across more people who actually think their pets are their familiars.
Now hopefully this blog has illustrated all the ways in which that is just fucking stupid. And I think one of the reasons why I get so angry about this is that after having worked with a familiar for a number of years, the collocation of “pet” with “familiar” is just yet more disrespect and treating the Other like some fun and twee little thing that’s just here for our edification, or worse – our entertainment. I feel like I’m quickly running out of ways to say that it’s not all about us humans.
Let’s just stop this, please. We’re better than this. And your dog/cat/bird/whatever may be cool, but he isn’t your familiar. Moreover, if you actually kept your dog as animal familiars were most commonly kept (in a wool basket, being fed milk, blood, or whatever), you’d be in trouble for animal cruelty.
So let’s just not; okay?
Barrabbas, Frater (2017) Spirit Conjuring For Witches
Cummins, Al (2017)The Rain Will Make a Door III: Faerie and the Dead
Hall, Alaric (2009) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Health, Belief, Gender, and Identity
Skinner, Stephen (2014) Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic
Stratton-Kent, Jake (2010) The True Grimoire
Wilby, Emma (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic
Welcome to the third part of what is turning out to be a gargantuan series! You know, when I first decided to write this series of posts, I didn’t think I’d end up churning out so many words on this subject (especially not from a predominantly Pagan perspective). However, like almost every time I’ve gone to a bar for “just a couple of pints” only to come back completely trollied, this seems to have gone a little bit further than expected.
So, where was I?
Ah yes, that’s right. I was discussing the matter of authority, the necessity of attaining it, and ways in which it may be obtained. You can pick up those earlier posts here and here. But all you need to start out here knowing is that otherworldly hierarchies and spiritual authority have always been a part of magic (speaking in a relatively general sense here). And like kids trying to bribe the toughest kid in school to keep the bullies in line, we’ve sought blessings and favor from the big kids among the Unseen since we first started grabbing wands and spitting out barbarous words in our circles.
Wands and Authority?
Which is where we come to wands, because they’re not *just* for channeling energy; there is a connection to spiritual authority here too.
If you look at the older grimoires (and more specifically the sections on tooling), you’ll often find quite detailed instructions on how to make the tools required for working the magic of that particular grimoire. Certain materials may be required, things must be done at certain times, and certain prayers or incantations must be said while doing those things. For the most part, I don’t think the majority of Pagans understand why all of that is even necessary, and some seem to consider complexity a sign that something is new.
However, I don’t believe that to have been the original purpose of a wand, and if anything, it is my opinion that the grimoire instructions (for all their seeming complexity), are the product of far more ancient concepts.
(Side note: Why do we always equate “older” with “less complexity”?)
A Brief History of Wands: Ancient World Edition
For the ancient Egyptians, wands were either in the form of a snake or the form of a “throwing stick”. The throwing
stick wands were quite decorated, like far finer versions of the “throwing sticks” used by the Ancient Egyptians to bring down birds; they were evidently also thrown during ritual (Skinner 126-127). The snake wands though, were more akin to the wands we carry now; the oldest of which (as far as I’m aware) was found in a 16th century BCE tomb in Thebes. Made out of bronze and in the form of an elongated cobra, it would have been a fine, impressive piece in its day.
For Geraldine Pinch (quoted in Skinner P126), the rationale behind these wands was clear: ”Staffs of various kinds were standard symbols of office in Ancient Egypt, so magicians who wished to command demons and spirits naturally used them too. In the Book of Exodus, Pharoah’s magicians and the Hebrew leader Aaron are all able to turn their staffs into live snakes but Aaron’s snake is said to have overcome and swallowed the others.
And we cannot overlook the materials with which these wands were made. For the most part, the snake wands were of bronze, and the throwing sticks of ivory. However we also find reference to the use of an iron staff by Anubis. Is it any coincidence that the god who guided the souls of the dead would wield a staff made of the metal that the dead are reputed to fear? Or that the necromantic rites of the Greeks also featured the use of iron swords in order to keep the press of the mighty dead in line? Put a pin in this, for we shall return to it later.
Picking up the trail from Ancient Egypt, we find the earliest reference to a wand in the Greek epic The Odyssey, where Hermes was characterized as the “god with the golden wand”. Skinner points out here that the wand of Hermes is the Caduceus – itself a snake wand of sorts (Skinner 127).
But as we saw from Geraldine Pinch’s interchangeable use of the words “wand” and “staff” and the example of Anubis’ staff, the wand could take other forms. Or rather, different items could fulfil the function of the wand. To further elucidate, I refer you to P201 of Aaron Leitch’s endlessly interesting Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires:
“…the magicakal wand or scepter also possesses a probable origin in ancient fertility rites. It is the symbol of male virility, and may have once been used in a very practical manner in conjunction with anointing oil. Later on, this was utilized in a symbolic manner in the rite of marriage related to the consecration of the sacred king. The taking of the scepter was often as important as the donning of the crown in the inaugural ceremonies.
From that point, the significance of the scepter or rod spread in several cultural directions. In the hands of the king the scepter became a standard symbol of power and governance…The magickal wand has been a tool of the priest and magickian for thousands of years , as we can see in lands such as Egypt, from which we most directly borrow our occult understanding of the instrument. The wand held by the mage confirms his own authority over spiritual and earthly forces.”
Because what greater staff of status is there than that of a king’s scepter?
When viewed from this perspective and from within the framework of spiritual hierarchies, the complex instructions of the grimoires make perfect sense: you are creating a counterfeit of the status symbol carried by whichever authority figure is recognized by the spirits of that grimoire.
The Germanic Perspective
But the evidence for the concept of wand-as-symbol-of-spiritual-authority is not limited to the Classical World, Near East, and Ancient Egypt. There is also evidence for similar concepts in Northwestern Europe in the form of the staffs of sorcery (a category of staffs found in the graves of suspected ritual specialists which often resemble distaffs). I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book by way of explanation here.
There were two main types of these staffs of sorcery as far as we can tell from the sources and archaeological finds: the first type was of wood, and the second of iron. These staffs differed from the distaffs of everyday use in a number of ways. The ones of iron were heavy, which would have made them all but impossible to spin with. One does not need to spend much time spinning with a distaff to find out that it must be relatively light in order to be useful. With a heavier distaff, your arms would quickly grow tired from trying to hold it in place, and this would make it an impractical tool for every day use. The wooden staffs would have made better distaffs in terms of weight, however I still do not believe they would have made a particularly good choice for everyday use. There is reason to believe that they may have been as “crooked” as the divinely crooked staffs once carried by the Baltic priests of old. This would make the process of pulling fibers from the distaff for spinning less smooth. Moreover, in the case of the one found in the Oseberg ship burial, at least one of those staffs was actually hollow in the center – a modification which I believe would have made it too breakable for daily use.
There was also the matter of length too; the historical staffs of sorcery were also somewhat shorter than the staffs carried by modern practitioners. For example, the Oseberg staff measures 107cm; which is a far cry from the usual image of the seer/ess with a staff that comes up to at least shoulder length.
But the peculiarities do not stop there, and this is where things get really interesting.
The iron staffs are quite curious in a number of ways. Firstly, they were in all likelihood far harder to make than swords. This means that not every blacksmith could have produced one, and so there is the aspect of rarity and prestige that must have gone hand-in-hand with possessing one. Secondly, there is a good chance that they were carbonized with human or animal remains, thus producing a link to the ancestral or animal world. Indeed, ironproduction itself was sometimes even located in cemeteries.
Moreover, we cannot forget that the smith was not just a worker of metals: they too were liminal figures in the Viking Age. It is a deep magic to create a staff that has not only touched both the dead and the Other, but that few of your contemporaries could reproduce. That is not something that can simply be bought from a craftsman on the internet, that is more like the dwarven-forged spear-staff carried by the God of the Roads.
Which brings us to another interesting set of crossroads.
In many ways, despite the more shamanic interpretations, these staffs were like wands in that they often seemed to denote authority: authority to those around you, and also the authority wielded on the behalf of whichever deity patronized your arte.
“It may be …(..)..that both Woden’s spear and the sibyl’s staff have the same origin and the difference is accounted for by the fact that each denotes authority in different areas. In Woden’s hand the staff becomes a spear because that is an ancient symbol of warrior rule; Veleda’s symbol remains staff-like weaving beam or distaff, however, because it still suggests one type of authority and is also easy to associate with weaving sticks, spindles, and weaving swords, all of which remind one of the widespread concept of the weaving of fate.” world. Indeed, iron
The iron distaffs, though conceivably of the Dead, could also be wielded against the Dead. Iron is an age-old apotropaic, and when needed, the distaff could so easily have become as the Greek sword wielded at the pit.
The wooden staffs also had their connection to the underworld and Other; for you could not just walk out into the woods and take any stick. As best as we can tell, these staffs were received *from* the Other. This is also true to some extent with the iron staffs, as the smith is also other (albeit in his own way).
But times and beliefs diversify. The staff that started out as one but became a spear in the hand of a god of warriors and remained a distaff in the hands of a seeress would go through many changes over the years.
Hopefully you can see the various threads of commonality between the Germanic/Scandinavian evidence, and that of the ancient world. There are some interesting questions that come up here. For example, could it be mere coincidence that iron staffs would be connected with the dead in both Ancient Egypt/Greece and Northwestern Europe? Is it mere coincidence that divinely “crooked” staffs of sorcery – snakelike perhaps in their appearance – would exist thousands of miles from those of the Egyptians with their very crooked snake wands?
I honestly don’t know. Regardless of all of those wonderful rabbit holes though, I think there is a good argument that the idea that wands were tools that denoted authority was both ancient and widespread.
So how can you incorporate that knowledge into your work?
Think about the beings from whom you derive your patronage, or in other words, your authority. What are their symbols? What were they depicted as carrying? What did those things look like? What are the connections in terms of materials (ie iron with the dead)? What can you recreate, and most importantly, are your patrons okay with you carrying such status symbols in their name? (Divination can help here, preferably from someone who is not you.)
Then get to work – it’s as simple as that.
As for the Other gotten staffs, well, I’ll get to that next time.
Like I said, it feels like a number of us are poking at the same nebulous mass (albeit from different angles). I was going to post the third part of my series on authority and hierarchies today, but after reading these posts, I have things to say, and say them I shall.
Religion and Baggage
I’m going to begin with John Beckett’s post, as that is the post I came across first. On the one hand, I couldn’t agree more with his points that Pagans need to get over previous religious baggage, and that there are very definite benefits to religion. However, I have real issues with looking to the framework of other (typically monotheistic) religions for a model of how Pagan religion should look now. Granted, this may not have been Beckett’s intention here, however, I don’t think you can extol the virtues of religion for Pagans without also going into what Pagan religion could look
To my mind, this is an important distinction to make too, because when you use a word like “religion” – like any word – it comes with certain expectations of what that thing looks like. And after something like 1500-2000 years of predominantly Judeo-Christian religion, we really need to ask what that looks like for a good chunk of us. In other words, how does the shape of Abramic religion affect the shape we give to Pagan religion?
Let’s take Christianity, for example. Christianity is universalist, in fact, new adherents are actively sought. It’s also orthodoxic in nature, meaning that having the “correct” belief is of the utmost importance. Relationships with deity require submission, and the end reward for good behavior comes after death.
Now compare this with what we (think we) know of Heathen period religion. Here “religion” goes hand in hand with
community, and is made up of the reciprocal relationships held by that community and the customs by which they are maintained (orthopraxy). Religion is not universal, and though there are common threads between groups that are culturally similar enough, it differs by tribe. There are no active attempts to seek out new adherents either, as it is handed down from parent to child. Joining the religion in these cases, is more of a case of tribal enculturation. Afterlife beliefs vary from group to group.
See what I mean? That’s quite a difference! However instead of exploring that, as a group we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater and make weak arguments about “being spiritual instead of religious”.
Along similar lines are the following statements:
“I don’t pray, I chat with my gods.”
“I don’t kneel, that’s a Christian thing.”
“I don’t worship, I honor my gods.”
And it doesn’t matter that the acts of prayer and kneeling is well attested among multiple pagan cultures, or that worship (meaning “to give worth to/acknowledge the worth of”) is the perfect word for what we do, we just keep running.
So I see this issue as twofold: on the one hand, we avoid anything that looks a little too much like the religions we ran from; and on the other, we allow those religions to continue defining our worlds for us.
Don’t believe me on the last one? Consider the Devil for a moment. How do you feel about him? If you’re getting an icky feeling, where do you think that’s coming from? And yet from the probable perspective of someone from the Pagan period, he’d be another animistic power to trade the troll market with (as always, terms and conditions may apply).
Hold the Gods!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Laura Tempest Zakroff’s post argued for the validity of witchcraft without deities – or at least, devotional relationships with those deities.
I’m not going to lie, I think that’s also a problematic approach to take. As I discussed in my last post on Authority and Hierarchies, having reciprocal relationships with higher powers was a part of having spiritual authority. Hell, even the virtue of piety itself was something that could be held up as a form of authority when trucking with the dead.
This is not to completely slate Ms Zakroff’s post (apologies if that is the wrong honorific, I’m happy to amend accordingly, as I do respect her). I do think she makes an excellent point about the duotheisms held dear by the earlier Pagan revivalists, and their incompatibility with both modern and ancient ideas on deity. But does that mean that we should once more throw out yet another baby with the water it was bathing in? (Which per this account was a dirty dirty water, possibly filled with spunk and other sexual fluids.) Does that mean that we let (this time) Wiccan ideas on deities in witchcraft define the matter of deities for all witches? Because witch or not, you don’t have to have a god and a goddess. And while it’s true that witchcraft can be practiced without deities, in the old accounts and old charms, there was always the matter of the witch requiring the authority to work her craft (be that authority the Devil or Fairies, or Yahweh).
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again
Isobel Gowdie, of course.
The most striking thing for someone who spends a lot of time reading both old grimoires and ancient texts about magic though, is how much our expectations of magic have lowered over the years. There was a time when it was perfectly reasonable to have spells for getting your animated divinatory skull back under control. But now what do we have? To quote Ms Zakroff, “magic as an every day practice to change you, your living space, and the world around you. There’s no chapter on “how to choose your patron deities” – but there may be one on finding your inner goddess.”
So were those earlier spells just delusional?
I’m not so sure; let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I was perusing the vendors at a Pagan convention. One vendor was selling (among other things), little sequined books that she was calling “wish books”, the idea being that you write wishes in them and they would come true. Nice novelty, but no one who is magically operant is going to take that seriously. However, as I was looking through her wares, an African gentleman came up and honed in on these “wish books”, wanting to know if they really worked. You see, as someone who had grown up in a place in which witchcraft is a very real prospect that is routinely thought capable of things we might think fantastical, he was as serious as a heart attack. The vendor
when faced with this, recognized her conundrum: she could either admit that her products were bunk, or she could lie to the gentleman and potentially face his wrath down the line. Because in his culture, you can bet that bought magic is considered the same as any other product that doesn’t work when it doesn’t work!
So were those older spells delusional? I doubt that gentleman would think so – or any number of people around the world actually. As a community, we talk a lot about “reenchanting the world”, as though the whole world is missing its enchantment, but maybe it’s just our bits of it?
I’ve covered a lot of ground here (that’s happening a lot at the moment), but if I were to boil down my points, they would be as follows:
1. Religion itself isn’t a bad thing, but we need to stop running and start figuring out what that can look like for us.
2. We also need to stop throwing out bathwater babies because of how others define things (seriously, we’re creating an army of Útburðir). Don’t like Wicca-esque duotheisms? You don’t need to dump all ideas of forming relationships with animistic powers.
3. It’s about reciprocal relationships, and no matter how awesome your inner goddess is, she probably is going to still be useless if you ever find yourself up shit creek without a paddle with things going sideways faster than the fools at my gym who try to use the treadmills sideways. Plus side though, you can always try shitting yourself, so there is that.
4. It’s also about expectations, and we cannot reenchant the world if we’re not only removing the animistic powers, but also simultaneously lowering our expectations of what magic can do.
So there you go! My Monday ramblings about all the things. I’m still aiming to get the third part of my series out this week (probably on Thursday), but the posts by Mr Beckett and Ms Zakroff were too relevant to ignore.
This blog series isn’t just about grimoire spirits and fairies. In fact, as we will see in this post, the concepts of spiritual authority and hierarchy aren’t limited to grimoire spirits and fairies. My choice of grimoire spirits and fairies when introducing this topic was, in a sense, a foreshadowing of the argument that I would make here: that hierarchies and authority among non-human person groups are not simply the product of Judeo-Christian influence. As we will see in this post, these things are relevant and have implications for us too.
I’m going to begin this post by first taking a look at what a reciprocal relationship is, the various types of reciprocal relationship found in Pagan period sources, and the ways in which they also exist within a framework of hierarchy and authority. Then I will take a look at why spiritual authority is important and the various types of spiritual authority.
Curious? Dive on in!
The Role of Reciprocity
The concept of reciprocal relationships have been out of favor for a couple of millennia. (Caveat here: this has not been, nor is the case with all human societies.) So it’s unsurprising that a lot of modern Pagans and Heathens struggle with the concept of reciprocity, and understanding the various kinds of reciprocal relationship. This issue is further exacerbated by the baggage that many carry from prior religious affiliations. It would seem the submission demanded by the Abrahamic faiths makes it difficult for many among us to freely give those acts of worship they associate with their former faiths.
Do ut Des
Reciprocity is the idea that we cannot get what we need from others, unless we are willing to give something back in return. This is do ut des or “I give so that you may give”, and it’s important for us to understand that this cycle of gifting is the foundation of every single relationship that the ancient Pagan or Heathen would have had. Without that relationship built by reciprocity and perhaps further cemented by oaths, there simply wasn’t any reason to care a whole lot about what happened to others. The land spirits you have no relationship with will not help save your crops, and the Patron you do not serve will not give you support.
But here is where hierarchy and authority come in, because like the spirits, humanity has never existed as a society of equals. Yet reciprocity was a fact of life, and something which applied to all relationships; regardless of whether those involved were of equal or unequal status. Reverend Kirk Thomas of ADF identifies three types of reciprocal relationships in his book Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. What follows here is a but a (necessarily) brief summary of what he covers in far more depth.
The first type of reciprocal relationship was that of guest and host. Hospitality in the ancient world was not a choice but a duty, and it was incumbent upon both host and guest to obey the rules of conduct. The host was expected to feed, house, and entertain any guests; in return, the guest was expected to be on their best behavior (Thomas 16-17). Within the context of hospitality, either guest or host may be of equal or unequal status, with each expected to provide within their means.
A Friendship of Equals
The second type of reciprocal relationship is one that would be familiar to all of us: friendship. This is a type of relationship which has historically tended to exist between people of equal status. Traditionally, differing social status was thought to be a barrier to friendships outside one’s social milieu. Of course nowadays (at least in our society), that is not always the case, and there is some blurring of the lines. However, even now, it can be hard to ignore the power differentials at play in friendships between people of unequal status. One example which Thomas gives is that of the friendship with one’s boss. Yes, a friendship can exist there, however, that boss may one day be called upon to fire you.
Patrons and Clients
The final form of reciprocal relationship that Rev. Thomas gives in his book is that of Patrons and Clients. This is a form of relationship in which one party has vastly more resources than the other, and in which the Patron would essentially take care of his clients in exchange for that client’s service and loyalty. Sound familiar? This is the form of reciprocal relationship which, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, most closely matches what we humans have with the majority of non-human persons we interact with.
Admittedly, there were some relationships mentioned in the primary sources between gods and mortals that did look more like friendships (such as that between Athena and Odysseus). However, that does not change the basic fact that the power balance between mortal and god is still unequal (Thomas 160 -161). In my opinion, these cases are perhaps best viewed as examples of patrons having favorites.
Reciprocal Relationships, Hierarchy, and Authority
Hopefully, If there is anything this (very) brief survey of reciprocity has demonstrated, it’s that even when you leave the grimoires( with their undeniable Judeo-Christian influence) out of the equation, it’s impossible to get away from matters of hierarchy and authority. That can be hard for a lot of modern people to swallow, however nothing says that we have to abandon our modern ideas of equality. It just means that lobsters are gonna lobster, and that when dealing with the gods and Other, the old rules probably still apply.
But given my rant in last week’s post about the perils of anthropomorphizing the Other, how do we know that these types of reciprocal relationships also apply here?
In this case, I believe we can find explicit evidence for at least the first and third types of reciprocal relationship among both fairies and gods.
Hospitality seems to be as important to gods as it was to Pagan period Europeans. For the Greeks, it was from the gods – or more specifically, Zeus – that the rule of hospitality originally came (Thomas 18-19). Similarly, stanza 135 of the Hávamál (or “Sayings of the High One”, a text attributed however erroneously to Odin) contains the following advice regarding hospitality:
I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take advice;
you would benefit, if you took it,
good will come to you, if you accept it:
do not scorn a guest
nor drive him away from your gates;
treat the homeless well.
Refusal of hospitality could be disastrous too. In the Irish text, Cath Maige Tuired, the lack of hospitality shown by Bres towards a poet, as well as his own ill-treatment of his clients (the Tuatha Dé Danann), was what ultimately led to his own downfall (Thomas 38). The violation of the rules of hospitality among gods or god-adjacent beings also led to Loki’s downfall in the Lokasenna.
Evidence of hospitality among the Good Neighbors – while not absent – is not nearly as forthcoming. I turned to intrepid Fairyologist (just kidding)…ahem…Fairy Doctor, Morgan Daimler for an answer on that one:
“In stories that’s hard to say – we more have stories have them as rivals with other groups and having strict rules about things like theft and honor between themselves.
We do have stories of them expecting hospitality from us and also offering hospitality to us, although the second bit can of course get tricksy.
But there are stories for example of how people were expected to leave the fire banked but glowing and a bit of food and drink out for any of the Good People who might come in during the night (when the household was sleeping) and also of people who stumbled across the Fair Folk having some sort of gathering who were welcomed in and offered a place in the dancing and food, etc., as a guest – usually if the offer was extended by the Lord or King/Queen though”
(Thank you, Morgan!)
The Patron/Client relationship is also well attested in various Pagan period cultures. The Irish, Norse, and Greek cultures all considered there to be rulers or kings among the gods. Lugh (formerly Nuada) ruled over the Tuatha Dé Danann; Odin was described as being the foremost among the Norse (at least per Snorri); and among the Greeks, it was Zeus who was believed to rule the Olympians. Flowing down from the High one, domains/riches and roles are divided accordingly; with the domains perhaps representing the physical support provided by the High God/Patron, and the roles performed by each of the clients/deities the service rendered to the High God. This pattern is also repeated between the other gods and their respective servants (such as with Freyr and Skirnir, and Thor with Þjálfi and Röskva).
In my opinion, the concept of reciprocity, or rather the different types of reciprocal relationships (with their implied status differentials) further support the assertions that I made in my last post regarding hierarchy and authority. Only this time, these assertions are more firmly grounded with an Indo-European Pagan worldview.
Spiritual Authority, Or “Why This ALL Fucking Matters!”
So having made the case (a few times now), that hierarchies are not only important, but basically underpin the entire system through which we build our reciprocal relationships, it’s time to look at why that matters.
The most obvious reason why it matters boils down to respect, and showing the proper amount of respect to those with whom you have relationship. As I argued above, while many humans have changed with regards to how we consider hierarchy, the old rules still apply when it comes to the Holy Powers. So in order to show the proper respect, you need to understand your place within the hierarchy. We humans are lower, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the various kinds of reciprocal relationships (with their attendant expectations and duties) provide us with avenues through which we may petition to have our needs met.
The less obvious reason (at least for those who really don’t bother with that magic and witchcraft rubbish) is authority; namely, how you can gain enough favor in order to have what is the magical equivalent of your queen or king’s seal upon your person when you ride out into the land. Royal seals are useful, because they confer upon the bearer the authority of the royals themselves. This means that subjects of those royals are compelled to do what you say, and this is the underlying idea when it comes to spiritual authority.
Authority is a layered thing too, because why bother trying to get the seal of the High King or Queen when you only need the subjects of a dukedom or clergy at a temple to do what you need? Sometimes you just need to court the favor of the more specialized bosses. However, if they don’t come through, then like why not go up the “chain of command”?
Without that royal seal, or (to bring this analogy back to the magical) deity patronage, you’re essentially just some snot-nosed human rocking up and demanding shit. And it’s generally a pretty terrible idea. No one knows who you are, and they’re under absolutely no obligation to do anything you ask of them. Equally bad is showing up with the magical equivalent of a royal seal from a ruler not recognized by the group of spirits you wish to work with. Because again, why should they listen to you? So if any of you are liking the look of Verum spirits (for example), but think you could somehow “Paganize” the superior spirit and deity names – please don’t. “Tech” we can borrow, but we cannot just plug in the names we like better and play.
But just how do you gain that royal seal?
The Role of Piety in Authority
The pre-Christian Pagan Europeans were orthopraxic. In other words, they considered how a person worshipped to be more important than what a person believed. This, and the framework of reciprocity, had major implications for how they saw the matter of piety.
Piety was about fulfilling religious duties, about keeping up with one’s prayers and offerings. It was about carefully nourishing those relationships and not letting them fall away. It was about being a good client. Piety was so important, that it could be held up as a form of authority in itself when compelling the dead. Take the following from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), for example:
“I ask you, daimon of the dead, not to listen to them [but to] listen [only] to me, Neilammon, [since I am]/ pious [toward the] gods, [and to cause them to be] ill for their [whole] life.
Excerpted from PGM LI 1-27
Equally, a lack of piety could be used as incitement of the dead against a person.
…[Spell to bind…(?)]: Take a lamella [made of lead]…: “I say to you who died prematurely and who were [called and taken] away by the wicked [Typhon. Commanding you] is/ the great god who has [dominion above and rules over the lower [gods]. Take into custody this wicked [and impious] man, because this [is the one who burned the papyrus boat of Osiris] and who [ate the sacred fish]. Take into custody [him, NN, whom NN bore…]
PGM LVIII 1-14
See what I’m saying? In order to have authority, you need to have patronage. In order to have patronage, you need to have cultivated relationship, and in order to cultivate relationship, you need to be pious.
You may not always need to “flash your royal seal”; most of us seem to get by in day to day life just fine through building relationship. But for the times you do, you’ll be glad of the hours of prayer and offerings.
In next week’s post, I’m going to take the discussion of authority a little bit further, and move into an examination of wands and how they relate to the matter of authority. For now though, I’ll leave you with the following words taken from the Rig Veda (RV 1.26.8).
I’d recommend Rune Soup premium memberships to anyone, because they really are worth the $10 per month. They’re all are well-presented, the content is killer, and the grimoire course was no exception.
One phrase from that course has been going round my head on repeat this week:
“Lobsters are just gonna lobster.”
You’re probably wondering what I mean by that. After all, it is a pretty weird (yet self-evident) statement when presented without context. (Because what else are lobsters going to do but lobster as hard as their little crustacean selves can lobster?)
I would hazard a guess that no one has any issues with that concept, and would think anyone strange who expected dog or human behavior from lobsters. Yet when it comes to the world of the Unseen, we seem to lose the ability to understand that, and our expectations become entirely contemporary and human.
In the first part of this mini-series of posts on authority and hierarchies, I’m going to take a look at the way modern human ideas about numinous beings run counter to more traditional ideas. I’ll move more explicitly into discussing the implications for practice in the following posts.
Perceptions of Spirits, Fairies, and Other Non-Human Persons
We humans engage in anthropomorphism often. We do it with our pets, with senators, and even with numinous beings. However, this is a deeply problematic approach, because when you try to ascribe a certain set of characteristics to something, then you miss what they actually are.
Unfortunately, we humans are often not content with simple anthropomorphism; our perceptions of these beings must also match our very human politics too. We see this bias the clearest in the consideration of spirit and otherworldly hierarchies.
“Whether or not there are two set courts of Fairy, one thing that is clear is that the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by kings and queens. When we look at the bulk of the folklore it is usually a Fairy Queen who holds power, often with an unnamed King at her side or else ruling alone. In only a few Irish examples do we see solitary Fairy Kings. In the later folklore and ballads the Fairy Queens and Kings are often unnamed, going simply by their titles, but in older mythology and some local folklore we do have examples of named Fairy Queens and Kings, often beings who we know were once Gods.” Morgan Daimler, ‘Fairies’, p61
“The Kinds of Spirits. In regard to spirits, there are the superior and the inferior. Names of the superiors are: Lucifer, Beelzebuth, Astaroth. The inferiors of Lucifer are in Europe and Asia, and obey him. Beelzebuth lives in Africa, and Astaroth inhabits America.
Of these, each of them has two who order their subjects all that which the Emperor has resolved to do in all the world, and vice-versa.”
Hierarchies are a feature among both the spirits of the grimoires and traditional fairy lore. As we see from the examples above, the Fairies have their courts and royalty, and superior spirits reign above the legions of inferior spirits of the Grimoirium Verum (and others).
However, an adherence to hierarchical social structure is not the only common trait shared by both Fairies and grimoire spirits. There is also the matter of power, and where that being lies on the scale of power in relation to its position within the hierarchy; these are dominance hierarchies after all. For example, in the above quote Morgan ties the older Fairy royalty with previous godhood. This is also a factor with the superior grimoire spirits cited above. Beelzebuth, as Jake Stratton-Kent reveals, is none other than one of the Ba’als of the ancient near East, and Asteroth none other than the goddess Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna (depending on time period and culture) (Stratton Kent “The True Grimoire” Pp. 136, 185-189 ).
So we kind of have to assume that the reason why those who sit at the top of their respective hierarchies do so because they are the most powerful. Power is a universal passport to authority other others, and it doesn’t matter if a spirit or fairy belongs to a particular court or hierarchy, inherent power is always recognized. Especially by those who appreciate the ability to size up and not antagonize those who are stronger as an excellent means of ensuring continued existence.
It can be hard for a modern person to get their head around the concept of these kinds of hierarchies, and I believe this to be especially the case with modern Pagans (who tend to lean more towards the liberal end of the political spectrum). A lot of us tend towards ideas of equality, and some of us may even find the very concept of hierarchy distasteful. However, we cannot just simply decide that we somehow know better despite the literally thousands of years of precedent in multiple cultures. Because like the lobsters (who also interestingly form dominance hierarchies), those spirits are going to do what they’re gonna do despite our silly human feelings.
Centering the Silly Human Feelings
While we’re talking about those silly human feelings, we may as well address another key issue here: anthropocentrism. As a culture, we have a horrible tendency to center human feelings and human experience in all interactions with the Other, and it’s laughable. We act as though everything non-human out there is there for us in some way, when that is simply not the case. This is a large part of what it means to have agency. A being with agency doesn’t exist for others, they are not the means to another’s ends, but ends unto themselves.
Moreover, I can all but guarantee that they don’t see us as the special snowflakes some of us seem to think we are, and if any of them seem to, it’s generally best to assume they probably believe you to be delicious in the culinary sense. (Oh yes, some of them are known to eat people.)
Like I said earlier, “Lobsters are just gonna lobster”.
Birds of a Feather
Lastly, you know how humans tend to all stick together in alien encounter movies? It seems like a natural response to something so different from ourselves, right? And that’s not even taking into account the many ways in which we privilege our own species over others on this earth. Again and again, we put the needs of humans over those of the flora and fauna of this place, and we generally see nothing wrong with it.
Now think about that, and ask yourself why any spirits or race of otherworldly beings should feel any differently? Perhaps it is also anthropomorphism to ascribe this human trait also to fairies? However, that is not what we see in the centuries of fairy lore involving interactions between Fairies and mortals. If anything, the implication that there is a loyalty between Fairies that is not extended to humans (Daimler “Fairies” Pp 34-38).
Avoiding the Perils of Perception
Hopefully if there’s anything this post has made clear, it’s the importance of questioning our perceptions of the Other. Because not doing so, can lead to some very dangerous (if not deadly) situations depending on who you’re dealing with.
However, there is also a greater lesson here that can be applied to our human-to-human interactions in everyday life. You see, much of the way in which many of us consider the Otherworldly, is a reflection of how we consider other humans who are different from us (albeit on a different level). And I don’t believe it to be any coincidence that we mostly belong to cultures that were and/or are still colonialist powers. The cultural backgrounds within which most of us originate, are steeped in taking from and commodifying the “other” among our fellow humans. This is an important point to recognize and think upon, especially if you find it hard to get away from this mindset. Because if you still carry that baggage, you are not fully considering the “Other” (be it humans who are “other” to your cultural or racial group, or otherworldly beings/spirits) as persons with agency and worthy of genuine respect.
And of course, it has to be said that there is something very fitting about a discussion on the agency of the Fair Folk – who are known for their glamours – pulling the sins of humans towards each other into sharp focus. Sometimes the greatest horror is in the revealing.
In the next post, I’m going to look at the importance of authority when dealing with spirits and the otherworldly. This is quite a large topic, and so it will be sub-divided to save you from slogging through a 3000 – 5000 word post (including an excerpt from my upcoming book). Then finally, I’m going to look at how matters of authority and hierarchy play into the process of acquiring a familiar. So watch this space, and in the meantime repeat after me:
“I am not king shit.”
“Favors may be gained through relationship or reciprocity.”
“Others have agency too.”
For more in-depth coverage of fairy hierarchies and royalty, check out Morgan Daimler’s book ‘Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fairy Folk’.
For more information about the True Grimoire (which contains detailed discussion of hierarchy), check out Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘The True Grimoire’. If grimoires and goetia in particular are your thang, be sure to check out the rest of the works in his Encyclopedia Goetica (available from the same link).
I really didn’t know what to expect from an online Polytheist conference, and especially not from one which describes itself as a “balanced mix of hands-on, devotional, and experimental practice with academic and lore-based studies”. So it was with a good degree of curiosity that I entered the Zoom room.
The conference, which was entitled ‘A Year With Our Gods: Brighid’, was the first of a series of conferences being hosted by Land, Sea, Sky Travel, a Pagan pilgrimage company that focuses on ethical pilgrimages to sites of spiritual and historical importance around the world.
The conference kicked off with a short devotional to Brighid, which included an absolutely gorgeous song sung by
Andrea Maxwell who led the devotional. Andrea’s voice was sublime, and it was a truly beautiful experience to hear her sing. From there, we had a short group chat focused on setting the intention for the day. Participants discussed expectations and what they hoped to gain from the conference. For my own part, I was there to try and understand a little more about whatever strange connection I seem to have to Brighid – or rather Brigantia, the tutelary goddess of the land where I grew up. I say “strange”, because by that point, the goddess I’d felt hints of on the hills of my home seemed to bear little resemblance to the goddess as most modern Pagans see her. But more on that later.
A Journey to Éire
The first presenter was Lora O’Brien, an Irish woman and Draoí who has spent years working as a guide to a lot of Ireland’s sacred sites. Lora’s presentation was very informative. She gave an overview of who Brighid is, and described her own history of encountering the goddess in the land. Always an advocate of authentic Irish culture, Lora also described the continuing importance of Brighid in Ireland, and the traditions that persist to this day.
The highlight of Lora’s presentation for me though, was the trance journey to meet Brighid. As someone who works predominantly in a completely different tradition, her method was different from what I’m used to, but extremely effective. I was honestly surprised by just how deep I got into trance during that session and the quality of experience that I had.
To cut a long story short, trance-Brighid touched my arm and I felt a physical burn there that persisted for the rest of the day. The day after that, the area was still quite tender too, and since then, it’s like (pardon the pun), someone lit a fire up my ass. I’ve been hardcore getting things done! For anyone who is interested in Lora’s work and a chance to experience trance as she does it, she does actually offer journeying courses, the first part of which is free. I’d also recommend signing up for her newsletter because she always includes a lot of really good resources on Irish culture both historical and modern.
A Path of Service
The next presenter was Gemma McGowan, who talked about what it means to serve as a priestess of Brighid. Gemma has been a recognized priestess of Brighid in her community for years, and her dedication to her calling is frankly inspiring. There is nothing that I didn’t love about this talk. Gemma was funny, open, earnest, and remarkably humble. From her priestess origins story, to the more experiential exercises she led us through, her personality just shone through. I wish she had a blog I could follow!
Moo Money, Moo Problems and Mooogan’s Presentation
The keynote speaker was Morgan Daimler, and although I talk about Morgan a lot, I’d never seen her in any form before the conference. Getting to see Morgan on camera was brilliant, and I’m not just saying this because it will
probably embarrass the hell out of her, but she. Is. adorable! The best kind of nerd with a penchant for translating Old Irish! Now Morgan is a veritable walking encyclopedia – her presentation was just jam-packed with information about all things Brighid, AND she still had plenty of stuff she didn’t have time to get to even *with* the two hour time allotment! Morgan has a real talent for presenting information, and as a more Heathen type, I really appreciated the background details that she gave to the information she was presenting that helped me to better understand the cultural context. For example, her explanation of the cultural background on the importance of cows in ancient Ireland gave me a far better appreciation of who Brig Ambue (or Brighid of the cowless) is. I have mad love for Brig Ambue, so that was great! If you ever get chance to hear or see Morgan speak, do it. At the least pick up her book on Brighid, you know, if this interests you.
On a personal note, hearing about the fire temple that was apparently kept in honor of Brigantia was very satisfying. If anything, the Brighid I have been experiencing for years (but not really getting it) is closer to Brig Ambue – only with a fire temple and a spring coming out of a massive oak tree. Hooray, insight!
Personal Practice and Necessary Discussions
Next up was a panel discussion, and presenters discussed things like what they like to offer to Brighid, books, and the importance of doing the work. However, the highlight of this discussion for me was the part when the presenters explored the matter of worshipping deities from Europe in the New World, followed by the perspectives of the Irish presenters. I think that was a really important discussion to have. Some of the US and Canadian presenters cited Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a parallel to how they see the existence of Irish (or other European gods) in the US. People bring gods and spirits with them as they move, however, as someone who has been a long-term fan of American Gods, I couldn’t help but think about the different versions of the various gods that you find in the book and if that also plays into this parallel. For example, at the end of the book, the Odin experienced in Iceland is most definitely not the same Odin that was experienced in America. Further exploration of that would have made for an interesting follow-on discussion.
The responses of the Irish presenters – especially that of Lora – were extremely valuable here too. Lora underlined the necessity of engaging with Irish culture in an authentic way. In other words, to just take the gods and the “cool shit” is the bad kind of appropriation. Ireland was oppressed by my people for centuries. Between Cromwell and Trevelyan, and goodness knows how many other arseholes that rocked up on Ireland’s shores, Ireland has a history of blood and pain that cannot be ignored. Now that’s an uncomfortable conversation for people like myself, and it’s only further complicated by my familial ties to Ireland. But it’s necessary, and there’s no time for that kind of fragility if we are to do better.
The Flame Rekindled
Unfortunately, I had to catch the next two presentations in the after conference notes, as life got in the way again and I had to go back to being mom.
After the panel discussion, the next presentation was by Mael Bridge of the Daughters of the Flame. While this was far less my cup of tea than the other presentations, I definitely appreciated the historical background (both ancient and modern) on flamekeeping, and hearing about the role that flamekeeping plays in the lives of those who practice it. I find it absolutely incredible that the Daughters of the Flame and nuns of Kildare both elected to rekindle Brighid’s flame during Imbolc 1993, all without knowledge of each other. It would seem that an Dagda’s daughter had a hand in it.
Healing Fires, Healing Waters
The final presentation was by Julia Waters and focused on the healer aspect of Brighid. Given my background as the daughter of a Spiritualist healer, Julia’s presentation was like coming across common ground once more. She related her experiences with receiving healing as a cancer patient, and about how she was even able to perceive who was sending her healing by tracing back the golden strands of healing energy she saw entering her body. She then talked about how to go about healing and some of her traditions surrounding her healing practices – a lot of it was stuff that I could see my family engaging in, but it also stuff they never really explained to me in a coherent way. I really appreciated Julia making the point that people shouldn’t promise to pray or heal others if they’re not actually going to do it. I think we all see a lot of promises to pray for people or light candles for them online, but I often wonder how many people actually do it. Julia also touched on healing cauldrons, but sadly didn’t get to spend as much time on that as I hoped.
This was a very well run and satisfying conference that I came away from with actual tangible changes to both my practice and my life. Which sounds weird (and horribly clichéd) that I went to this conference and had what was a deep experience. But the fire that was lit under my ass has persisted for almost a whole month now with no signs of
abating. Projects that had stalled and courses that were stuck in the doldrums are now underway again, and I’ve been knocking out work like a crazy person. Moreover, Brighid worship in my home has continued beyond the weird yearly Brighid-instinct that normally strikes around mid-January and settles down right after Imbolc. A candle now sits on my stove that I light in her honor, and I’ve started practicing my healing skills again. I haven’t done that for years, despite working on it with my dad as a kid.
So yeah, would I recommend these Land, Sea, Sky conferences? Absolutely, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I will be facilitating a Land, Sea, Sky tour in Iceland later this year. But despite that, I wouldn’t have written as much as I did if I wasn’t really excited by it. As anyone who writes for a living will tell you, it’s *hard* to fake enthusiasm for something – especially over 1700 words of enthusiasm. I mean, that’s as much as a daily Nanowrimo goal!
If you’re interested in checking out any of the LSS A Year With Our Gods conferences, you can find out more information here. The next one is Blodeuwedd, hopefully I’ll see some of you there!
Probably a few months now, although truth be told, I haven’t been counting. There’s just been too damn much going on over here in Seo Helrune land.
First there was the website hosting disaster. Or that time when my hosting service upped my yearly fees by $40. You see, they’d decided to do away with the plan I’d signed up under, and as they were not contractually obliged to let me know, that made for a nice surprise. So I cancelled my service.
Then began the drama of trying to transfer my site…and then the URL….and well, anyway, I’m glad that’s mostly done now. I’ve moved to a much better hosting company and am more than satisfied with the service (check them out here if you’re curious, seriously). I’m still working on re-adding pictures to my older posts, but the site is more or less good to go again. Hence why I’m writing this post.
So that happened.
I also spent about a month and a half writing a new book (seemingly plumbing the depths of insanity while I did so). I’m currently working through the first round of editing this insomnia-fueled, oath-bound mess before handing it over to my beta readers, but it’s coming in at around 78k words so far. So it was no small undertaking. In case any of you are curious, it is a book about Pagan/Heathen/Witchy things. But more specifically, it’s a book of Helrunan and Seidr. My working title is “The Path of Ivy”, and it focuses on more chthonic practice. I’m also reproducing the liturgy for the Cult of the Spinning Goddess in there so that any who wish to found their own local Cults and hold their own rites in her honor have a foundation to do so. Either follow what we do, or take it and run with it. This isn’t in my hands. I’ll also be fleshing out the section about the cult here on this site in the coming weeks.
And speaking of herself? Did I mention the book was the result of an oath to her? I’ll be looking to pitch it to publishers when I’ve heard back from my beta readers. She wouldn’t want anything less. She wants to be known. That is a message I’ve been getting for years in dream and vision, and it feels as though we’re moving into the next phase of that now. The last Cult rite was our best yet, and we’re currently in the early stages of planning an open rite for April/May timeframe. Curious about her? I also put out a paper during the time I was away from my blog detailing the research I’ve done on her. You can find that bad boy here.
These past few months have also seen some pretty seismic shifts in my practice. A lot of things that had been up in the air for years seem to have fallen into place, and things I’ve done instinctively (again for years), now make a whole lot of sense. It’s been hard but ultimately positive, and I’m looking forward to writing about those things. I’m also planning some reviews in upcoming blog posts, because I’ve also done quite a lot of reading of late and I HAVE OPINIONS!!! Some of it is tacky urban fantasy stuff and paranormal romance, but I’ll spare you all that mess.
So there you go, it’s been all change in the house of Helrune.
Oh, one last thing before I go – if you’re interested in Celtic deities, there is an absolutely fantastic series of online conferences being put on this year by Land Sea Sky travel. I had the good fortune to attend the Imbolc one about Brighid and it was amazing. No joke. It was an absolutely perfect combination of scholarship, praxis, and inner work – which sounds odd for an online thing, but they totally pulled it off. The next one (around the Spring Equinox IIRC) is about Blodeuwedd, so get on that as soon as you can if you’re interested in ole Flower Face! I wouldn’t be surprised if these conferences become so popular they actually sell out. The Brighid conference was quality.