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.
I think it was some time in the 2000s when I first noticed this kind of ‘anti-circle sentiment’ in the Pagan community. I was at an event, and someone who was clearly much smarter than I am had devolved into mocking me for still casting circles. It was a classic case of someone trying to score social capital at the expense of another, and as I was still new to interacting with other Pagans on a regular basis, I was far more timid in response than what I would be now.
Casting a circle had been declared both “Wiccan” and “fluffy”, and if John Beckett’s anecdote from his recent blog is anything to go by, circle-casting still suffers somewhat from this reputation. All the cool kids seem to find other ways to create sacred space within which to work. Moreover, even when a circle is cast, some will still refer to it by any other name.
But there’s a huge problem with this kind of mentality – well actually, there are two:
1. You’re basing your practice around trying to avoid being something as opposed to trying to figure out where that practice needs to go, and just going there.
2. You’re more focused on ideological purity and the opinion of others rather than what you’re actually doing.
Both of these issues can lead to some severe casting out of the proverbial baby with the bathwater, and that is what I believe has happened to the circle to some extent. Or at least, we don’t appreciate circles as much as we maybe should.
The History of the Circle
The magic circle is mostly associated with Wicca in modern Paganism, however, the use of magic circles predates Wicca by millennia. Scholar and practicing occultist, Professor Stephen Skinner, traces the earliest mention of protective floor circles to Classical Indian magic. The Ramayama (dating from 4th to 5th century BCE) describes the drawing of a circle on the ground to protect a person from a demon. When that person is persuaded to cross the circle, they are then taken by that demon (Skinner 79).
The circle could also be found among the Assyrians. Referred to as an u?urtu (“ring”), the Assyrian circle seems to have either been made with the intention of containment or protection. This is important to note, because although modern practitioners may give many different reasons for casting circles, and explanations of their function/s, in the ancient world the primary functions were that of containment and protection (Skinner 79).
Sometimes lime was used for marking out the Assyrian circle, and sometimes a mixture of water and flour (substances sacred to relevant Assyrian deities); both types of circle may be found in the sources. Once created though, it was then important that the circle was then consecrated with a charm such as this:
”Ban! Ban! [O] Barrier that none can pass,
Barrier of the gods, that none may break,
Barrier of heaven and earth that none can change, Which no god may annul,
Nor god nor man can loose,
A snare without escape, set for evil, A net whence none can issue forth, spread for [against] evil.
Whether it be evil spirit, or evil demon, or evil ghost, Or evil devil, or evil god, or evil fiend, Or hag-demon, or ghoul, or robber-sprite, Or phantom, or night-wraith, or handmaid of the phantom Or evil plague, or fever sickness, or unclean disease which have attacked the shining waters of Ea (the water from the water/flour mix), May the snare of Ea catch it;
Or which hath assailed the meal of Nisaba (the flour from the water/flour mix),
May the net of Nisaba entrap it…” (Skinner 80)
I also include a Mesopotamian consecration charm here for its eminent usefulness and interest:
”We, therefore, in the names aforesaid, consecrate this piece of ground for our defence, so that no spirit whatsoever shall be able to break the boundaries, neither be able to cause injury nor detriment to any of us here assembled, but that they may be compelled to stand before this circle and answer truly our demands.” (Skinner 80)
Both consecration charms make it clear that at its core, the circle is a form of boundary or barrier through which nothing may pass if created correctly. By its very nature, it both contains and protects, this is the core function of a magic circle in the earliest sources – everything else is just gravy.
(Btw, if you do not already own Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, I cannot recommend it enough.)
Circles, often in the form of an ouroboros, also feature in Egyptian depictions of magic – again as
this kind of impermeable barrier (Skinner 82-83). Skinner posits that although the ouroboros circle is only specifically mentioned twice in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the creation of a circle was probably taken for granted and covered by phrases such as “do the usual”. It is no coincidence that the ouroboros features in later grimoires such as the 18th century Clavis Inferni. Indeed, it’s likely that the use of a protective circle in the form of an ouroboros and directions marked out (and associated with elemental entities) were inherited magical tech from those old-school Graeco-Egyptian magicians (Skinner 87).
The Core Purpose and its Gravy
However, even the most cursory study of the ‘how’ of casting magic circles shows that there is no one way to cast a circle. Instead, there is variation and adaptation depending on any number of factors, including (but not limited to) the tradition of the practitioner, and the spirits being worked with. For example, in the Book of Oberon, different circles are given for different spirits. Unlike most modern circles, these circles were – like the Assyrian and Indian circles – meant to be drawn out on the ground usually using substances considered to have apotropaic properties either by virtue of the substance itself or by association with a deity/deities.
It would seem that a simple impermeable barrier is not enough though, and much may be included in either the design (when drawn physically) or circumambulation portion of circle casting (also important in the ancient sources).
However, variation is typically reflective of differing ideas about how the cosmos looks and/or the worldviews of the practitioners involved. Here we must not only consider the idea of the circle as barrier, but also the circle as and Eliade-esque “sacred center” and map of macrocosmic creation recreated in the microcosm.
To give you an example of this, take a look at this goetic circle.
You have three circles, a triangle, some candles, and a censer. That doesn’t look like there’s much else going on there, right?
Well now take a look at this circle for the Luridan conjuration.
Just to give you some backstory here – Luridan was one of the spirits associated with the Icelandic volcano, Hekla (Stratton-Kent, Pp 68-71). But here we see a volcano placed in the usual spot for the censer. Now, your average magician isn’t going to manage to get a volcano in his or her circle (not unless you’re working on a scale that’s just completely unfeasible), so it’s logical to assume that within this circle the volcano is represented by the censer. In my opinion, this is a clear recreation of the part of the cosmos inhabited by the spirits the magician wishes to summon (and is a whole lot easier than going to Hekla for the same).
I mean, there’s also some local adaptation to old school chthonic Greek religion and Hephaestus stuff in there, but nifty, huh?
This is why circles are as long lived as they are. Because not only do they work, but they are customizable, meaning you can optimize to get better results if you understand enough of the underlying mechanics.
Pimping Your Circles
So, this is me proposing a more flexible view of creating sacred space. A view in which customization and optimization in order to get better results is a thing. For those of you who only work with the same spirits and within the same system, this is perhaps less useful to you. But for those of you who are like myself, total fucking magpies who straddle multiple systems like a fat cat spilling out into multiple boxes, read on.
If you are looking at ways to pimp your circles, or indeed create new ways of casting circles, then it’s a good idea to consider the following:
1. The Purpose of the Rite
The circle for a celebratory rite is not going to be the same as the circle for a rite summoning something potentially dangerous. For example, you’re going to be want to really focus on building that kickass barrier for the summoning, but the circle for a celebratory rite might see the circle mostly envisioned as a representation of the cycle of the year (just to give an example).
2. The Gods/Spirits Summoned
When summoning gods or spirits, you may like the Luridan conjuration, want to recreate the part of the cosmos associated with that god or spirit within the cosmology of the circle. Moreover, depending on *which* gods or spirits you summon, you may also have to incorporate things like spirit hierarchies and thwarting angels into the design of your circle. To return to the image from the Clavis Inferni above for a quick example of this, the symbols of the four directional demon kings sit outside the circle, and the thwarting angels for those kings sit within.
3. The Cosmos they Inhabit
This idea of going to “play” with a different cosmos can be hard to get your head round. After all, everyone thinks their worldview and idea of how things are in the cosmos is right, right? Relativism can be hard, especially when it comes to deeply held beliefs that are often also tied up in personal experience.
Try imagining it like this – a huge endless space filled with countless temples. In and around each temple, the view of the cosmos inherent to the religion and gods/spirits of the temple not only holds sway but is reality. So if you’re going to go and interact with those gods/spirits, you need to “go to their temples”.
Naturally though, there are a lot of common threads between the “temples” and a *whole* lot of shared history. Lots of people (not to mention those dratted grimoires) did a lot of traveling, spreading ideas and magical tech like magical clap to everyone they came across. So some of those temples aren’t exactly autochthonous in what they display.
But that doesn’t mean that we can start engaging in fuckery like going to a Pagan “temple” where we feel more comfortable and essentially placing a collect call to a more Judeo-Christian “temple” where we might think some of the spirits are cool but not the head honcho. That’s kind of rude. Sort of like calling up someone you don’t know at an unsociable hour, and not only asking them to help you out but to do it entirely on your terms.
Some might even argue that they all really share the same basement too anyway, you know…if you go to the *right* sub-level. Even worse, there are some rumors that some of those grimoires even made it down to the basement a few centuries before the current crop of magic users started their sneaking expeditions down there. So you know, that’s a whole lot to take into consideration.
But it’s also a lot of possibilities and scope for improvement. Because magic isn’t something that is static and relegated to what is passed down in books – they can only help us put our feet on the path. No, magic is a living thing that evolves in concert with our interactions with the Other (once we have gained our proper introductions, of course). That, to my mind, is the greatest thing of all about magic, and of course, it all starts with the circle.
Sources Dr Stephen Skinner – Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic Jake Stratton-Kent – Geosophia: The Argo of Magic (Vol II)
As far as invocations go, this had been a disaster.
I’m not going to go into all of the ways I’d fucked up, but I had. The pinnacle of that fuck up
however, was the fire alarm going off. Instead of giving up though, I’d chosen to see the first attempt as some kind of botched practice run, attended to the fire alarm, and started again. There’s a lot to be said for perseverance and not giving up too quickly.
So I’m standing there in my living room, with my less than stellar table of art set up (I’m really no artist), surrounded by various sigils, and rattling through invocations. You know, as you do. Time passes, and I begin to feel a little hopeless – I’m used to getting things in the air much sooner than this – but I carry on.
Then I start to doubt myself and this can be disastrous for a magic user. Maybe I’d messed up too badly? Maybe I’d gotten something wrong? Maybe I’d even offended the spirit I’d been attempting to conjure? There had been a sense of build-up before the fire alarm, so maybe the alarm had put the spirit off somehow?
Refocusing again, I set myself once more to purpose and continued to rattle through the invocations, allowing myself to fall into their rhythm. To pull me up and build with them. In short, I allowed them to put me into a kind of altered state – an ecstatic one in which my body thrummed, my voice soared, and spittle formed on my lips. My vague swaying became a purposeful rocking as I moved with the words.
And somewhere in that, that’s when things began to happen.
There was a sensation of something with weight descending into the scrying bowl before me, then a sense of expectation.
I greeted the spirit in the water and waited for a response.
I had been so certain it had been there, but I was beginning to have serious doubts. Forcing myself to refocus on the water, I let my eyes relax and got into my usual headspace for scrying.
The doubts began to coalesce and take on a life of their own. Melding together, I found they formed an almost tangible barrier – something against which I could push and that would in turn push me back.
I tried a different tactic and fell back on the physical cues I’d programmed into myself over time with self-hypnosis. I’d done that work for times such as these when the doubts and disbelief weigh heavy but I need to work anyway.
The voice rang through my head, loud and booming, and the doubts – though still persisting – began to fall away.
Then the surface of the water began to change, appearing to ‘burn over’ with what I can only describe as “purple fire”. With the exception of my level of focus, this was more typical of my scrying sessions. They all seem to start with that burning over of “purple fire”.
Suddenly though, this time, a face rose from the fire, and startled me a little as it turned from side to side (presumably to show me its profile).
Normally when I scry, I don’t get anything like that. Usually I have to hold the bowl in some way and receive images, each one seeming to bubble up from a depth deeper than the shallow bowl I use. Each image is preceded by an icy coldness, the bowl paradoxically switching between colder and warmer despite being held in my hands for the entire time.
This was a far cry from the usual flat images sent though, and somehow clearer despite my working in broad daylight. Moreover, I wasn’t even touching the bowl, when normally I get nothing if I do not.
Regardless, my brain still went into debunk mode.
The mouth began to move, “Why do you do this when you know what is real?”
And thus followed a 30 minute berating session with a spirit in a bowl.
We talk about reenchanting the world in modern Paganism/Witchcraft a lot, but there is relatively little discussion of the barriers to that re-enchantment. Or indeed, whether that re-enchantment is a case of needing to bring something back, or simply see what has been with us all along.
It’s one thing to advocate for something, but it’s quite another to get down into the weeds, examine strategy, and come up with a plan. The spirit’s question to me was insightful.
“Why do you do this when you know what is real?”
I’ve seen and experienced so many things that are considered ‘impossible’. I’ve seen, heard, felt, and been physically moved/scratched/touched by unseen forces. You’d think someone like myself would no longer have any doubts or constant urge to debunk what I experience. You’d think my world already completely re-enchanted.
Yet if there’s one thing I’ve found in around two decades of this kind of thing, it’s that in the cold light of morning, the walls always come back up again. It doesn’t matter how many scratches you’re wearing from whatever you were dealing with, or how many other people witnessed what you did, the walls always come back.
The best explanation for this, in my opinion, is the Chaos Magic concept of the “psychic censor”. In Psychonaut, Peter J. Carroll introduces the concept and provides the following description:
”When people are presented with real magical events they somehow manage not to notice. If they are forced to notice something uncontrovertibly magical they may become terrified, nauseated, and ill. The psychic censor shields us from intrusions from other realities. It edits out most telepathic communication, blinds us to prescience, and reduces our ability to register significant coincidences, or recall dreams. The psychic censor is not just put there out of divine malice; ordinary physical life would be impossible without it……The psychic censor on the other hand, is a material thing, which protects the mind from magic and from being overwhelmed by the awesome strangeness of the psychic dimension which appears to us as chaos.” Liber Null and Psychonaut 162
Now, how many of us have felt that? How many of us have found ourselves pressed up against that barrier and wondering how to bring it down because we know there’s something there seemingly just beyond reach? How many of us have felt it resurrecting itself after an experience?
It can be hard to see the psychic censor as the necessary and protective thing it is. But imagine a world in which it did not exist! Carroll talks about this on the individual level, but imagine it on a wider societal scale. Imagine if everyone had nothing but certainty – it would be a disaster. You would have an entire world full of people either going insane or trying to change reality to fit with their ideas of how it should be.
Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we humans could agree on how things are supposed to be, but you know, we can’t.
So we struggle with the censor, and anyone who doesn’t is likely either lying or just plain crazy.
The Censor and Reenchantment
This concept of the psychic censor though, raises a lot of questions about the very idea of re-enchanting the world. After all, at what point has that re-enchantment gone too far (and to what lengths would the censor go to maintain control)? And yet, it might be argued that we live in a time in which the psychic censor not only exists but is further supported by human-made material distractions and barriers.
These factors make the matter of reenchantment a far more complex issue than simply reconnecting with the natural world (both seen and unseen). Historically, we humans found enough danger in the natural world to limit our interaction with it. We built our hedges and gathered together for mutual protection, and that is something that is always worth keeping in mind in all the talk of rewilding and reenchantment.
By virtue of seeking to ‘cross the hedge’, the magic user, regardless of ‘flavor’, is the odd duck here. It is also no coincidence that the strongest experiences tend to happen away from the civilized world of man. ‘Consensus reality’ must be maintained, and there’s plenty about human habitation that is distasteful to the Other.
Mapping the Route Past the Censor
According to Carroll, the psychic censor is more active on some levels than on others. He subdivides human consciousness into five parts: unconsciousness, dreaming, awareness, robotic, and gnosis (Carroll 121).
The awareness level – the level of conscious thought and emotion – is given the greatest level of protection by the censor (Carroll 162). Dreams can be magically useful but the censor steals away memory upon waking. On the robotic level, insights and perceptions may be received when performing menial tasks that require little thought, but this time the censor works to steal our perception or memory of them.
What Carroll refers to as the ‘gnosis’ level though, a state described as being quiescent concentration or ecstatic excitement is the least protected by the censor. This gnosis level is not what we do when we engage in most trance work though – Carroll places these as typically lying somewhere between robotic and dreaming states. Gnosis is that which comes when the mind is focused entirely on one thing – that kind of altered state you may have experienced when experiencing so much terror or anger that the entirety of your awareness has narrowed down to a single point.
So to sneak by, we must work to thwart the censor in a number of ways. We must train ourselves to remember our dreams, making them the first thing we think of and record when we wake up in those spare moments before the material world crashes in and those memories are stolen. Some may even try setting alarms in the middle of the night, or attempt to practice first and second sleep with the aim of moving towards more natural sleep patterns for humans in order to facilitate the incubation of dream.
Removing phones from one’s bedside is a good move here too – the psychic censor is a material thing, and those first interactions with that symbol of modern materiality is one of the best methods of banishing memories of dream.
On a personal note, I’ve found that the regular practice of the Stele of Jeu/Headless rite from the Greek Magical Papyri is one of the best methods of having richer dreams that are far more easily remembered. It’s probably not a coincidence that the rite is a form of exorcism and makes me wonder if the censor can be temporarily exorcised (or otherwise temporarily manipulated magically). The Headless Rite does involve some Judeo-Christian names, but seeing as it’s apparently “Shadow Work October”, this is the perfect time to finally confront that Judeo-Christian baggage, right?
We can also work to attain a state of gnosis by either inhibitory or ecstatic methods, and this is where the hard work will come in. Don’t be fooled, if you truly wish to reenchant the world, it’s not enough to just go spend more time in nature. Yes, it will increase your chances of coming across something simply by virtue of being in the right environment, but without working on all this other stuff you’re likely going to miss out.
There are numerous ways to attain gnosis, some more socially acceptable and legal than others. Ecstatic means include drumming and dancing, ordeal work, sexual methods, the use of excitatory drugs, forced over-breathing, and other forms of sensory overload. Inhibitory methods include concentration exercises such as image/sound/object concentration, some types of magical trances, drugs of a more hypnotic nature, and sensory deprivation. This is not encouragement, this information is provided in the interest of completeness. It is up to you to investigate the risks and legalities where you live, and make your decisions accordingly.
But the point is that none of this is easy. Reenchanting our worlds in so far as we feel comfortable is going to take far more work and experimentation than simply walking in the woods and leaving offerings (though none of that is useless either).There are also likely some very real dangers to reenchantment too – not the least insanity. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of the (currently?) Unseen that is just not that nice
As with everything pertaining to magic though, the real question is simple: how badly do you want it and what are you prepared to sacrifice?
In the first part of this post, I discussed the importance of dream, the various kinds of beings that were thought to attack sleepers, and what symptoms of those attacks were thought to look like in OE sources. In this part, I’m going to discuss the charms themselves and how we can use them in modern practice to hopefully sleep undisturbed.
Charms and Herbs: The Magico-Medical Prescription
The Old English charms are referred to as being magico-medical for good reason. Because unlike modern medicine which only seeks to treat the physical causes of disease, the Early English also recognized non-physical or”spiritual” causes of disease/illness, and tailored their treatments accordingly. So among the charms, you will find everything from recipes to treat physiological ailments, to charms that combined magical acts, verbal formulae, or both. Here follows a short overview of the relevant charms with analysis of the commonalities between the charms and how they may be used.
This is one of the more general charms against elves and ‘strange/unusual’ s?dsa, or “magic” (again, cognate with “Seiðr”). Kitson suggests that the ingredients of this charm betray a foreign origin for the charm, but one that has been adapted to native tradition (Hall 120).
Against an elf/against elves and against unknown/strange/unusual s?dsa, crumble myrrh into wine and the same amount of white frankincense and shave a piece of jet [the stone] into that wine, drink on three mornings, fasting at night, or nine, or twelve.
L?cnunga, section 29, ff. 137r -138r
This is the holy/blessed drink against ælfs?den and against all tribulations of the enemy (Hall 120-121)
I only include this title as a matter of interest and to add to the evidence demonstrating the collocation of ælfs?den with f?ondes costunga. I largely agree with Richard North in Heathen Gods in OE Literature that this is more of an exorcism charm that might have been employed against those considered to be ylfig or “engaged with an elf”. As such, further detail is not particularly relevant for the purposes of this post.
Make a good salve against the tribulations of the enemy: bishopwort, lupin, viper’s bugloss,
strawberry stalk, the cloved lesser celandine, eorðr?ma, blackberry, pennyroyal, wormwood, pound all those plants; boil in good butter, strain through a cloth; place under the altar; sing nine masses over them; then smear the person with it generously on the temples, and above the eyes and on the top of the head and the breast and under the arms. This salve is good against each tribulation of the enemy and ælfs?den and Lent-illness.
Leechbook I, section 64, f. 52v: Læced?mas wiþ ælcre l?odr?nan 7 ælfs?denne
Prescriptions against every l?odr?ne and ælfs?den, being a charm, powder, drinks and a salve, for fevers: and if the illness should be upon livestock; and if the illness should happen to a person or a mære should ride and happen; in all 7 remedies
If a mære should ride a person: take lupin and garlic and betony and incense; bind in fawn-skin; the person should have this on him and he should walk wearing these plants
Leechbook III, section 61, f. 123: Wið ælfcynne
Make a salve against ælfcynne and a night-walker and for/against those people whom the devil has sex with: take hops(?), wormwood, bishopwort, lupin, vervain, henbane, h?rewyrt, viper’s bugloss, stalk of whortleberry, (?)crow garlic, garlic, seed of goosegrass, cockle and fennel. Put these plants in a vessel, place under an altar, sing 9 masses over them; boil in butter and in sheep’s fat; put in plenty of holy salt; strain through a cloth. Throw the plants into running water. If any evil tribulation or an ælf or a night-walker happens to a person, smear his face with this salve and put it on his eyes and where his body is sore/in pain, and burn incense about him and sign [with the cross] often; his problem will soon be better.
As you can see from the above charms, treatment/prevention of attack by maran/night-walkers/elves generally takes the form of a salve to be applied to certain parts of the body (but especially parts of the face). There are some commonalities in both the herbs and methodology employed, and while no one of the herb charms are one hundred percent clear, I believe it is possible to pull the most common herbs from these charms when recreating our own salves.
From these charms, bishopwort (betony), lupin (suggested to be lupinus albus), viper’s bugloss, wormwood, garlic, and some kind of berry stalk seem to be the most common. Most of them are also quite accessible to modern people. These herbs are then taken and made into a salve either before or after having 9 masses sung over them while positioned under the altar.
From my own survey of the use of numbers in the L?cnunga, the number 9 tends to be associated with banishing or driving out. So in order to create a ‘Heathenized’ version of this charm, I would simply ensure that the herbs I use for my salve would be under an altar during 9 rites of similar purpose to the mass. These would potentially be rites that combine aspects of consecration, seeking divine favor, and empowerment – in whatever form you’d like that to take for your tradition.
Equally, Leechbook I, section 64 suggests that a kind of amulet can be made that is not unlike a hoodoo hand. Again, we see the use of garlic, betony, and lupin. However, there is also the addition of ‘incense’ – which sounds quite vague until you look at other Leechbook cures in which incense is also a recommended. Interestingly, these cures (found in Leechbook III, section 62) also involve elves – more specifically how to cure forms of ‘elfsickness’.
In these charms, the healer is advised to prepare incense in a rather specific way and then burn it in the environment where the patient is in order to ‘smoke out’ the elf/illness. The instructions should look at least a little familiar by now.
Take a handful of each, bind all of the herbs in cloth, dip into hallowed spring-water three times. After this, against that (illness), lay these herbs under an altar and let them be sung over. This suggests that this process of purification and laying under and altar is important to the success of the charm, and so I recommend that should you decide to try these charms, you find a way to incorporate this stage of purification/consecration and empowerment. As for the herbs for incense, I would recommend that you again choose from herbs mentioned previously in similar charms.
The Münchener Nachtsegen Charm
The following charm is not OE, but I include it here for its usefulness. Alb here means ‘elf’, and in Austria it was believed that the ‘alb’ was the soul of an evil woman under a spell by which she was compelled to leave her body and go out and torment people by night (LeCouteux 100)
Alb, or also elbelin [little alb] you shall remain no longer alb’s sister and father, you shall go out over the gate; alb’s mother, trute [female monster] and mar,
you shall go out to the roof-ridge!
Let the mare not oppress me,
let the trute not pinche me
let the mare not ride me, let the mare not mount me!
Alb with your crooked nose, I forbid you to blow on [people]
Hopefully the importance of dream to the Pagan/Heathen mindset has been made clear over the course of these past two posts. As I’ve written before, dream is something that I believe we need to fight for and reclaim.
However, few things as powerful as dream, come without any accompanying hazards. When we open these doors, when we invite in what was once chased back, we are often doing so half-blind. We have a lot of sources on various Heathen and Pagan worldviews, however none of them can tell us things like what it was to actually fear things like elves or faeries. None of them can tell us what it was actually like to live in such a populated and enchanted world; that is for us to [re]discover for ourselves. And there are few things more terrifying than the thought of being attacked by something that cannot be fought while already in a vulnerable state.
Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity
Karen Jolly – Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context
Claude LeCouteux – Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages Stephen Pollington – Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant-Lore and Healing
Within the past two days, I’ve had two friends tell me of sleep disturbances that had a certain quality of otherness about them. One person had the experience while we were camping in the Black Hills of Maryland, and the other in her own home. In the case of the first person, she’d felt physically touched by whatever it was through the wall of her tent – a touch that she felt was a very deliberate poke which had been kind of ‘introduced’ in her dream before it happened. In the case of the second person, it was more of a classic ‘Old Hag’ experience that they had had to fight off.
To Me Came A Dream
In both cases, each individual felt very strongly as though what had happened wasn’t just a simple nightmare, and that some kind of interaction with the Other had taken place. It’s very easy for modern people to discredit dream and what happens in the altered states of consciousness between sleeping and awake.
However, as I have discussed previously in this blog, this attitude towards dream seems to have been the result of a concerted effort by Christian authorities to dismantle the power of dream among their flocks in order to censor dream, for to censor dream is to censor one form of access to the Otherworld. In Germanic tradition, dreams were thought of as coming from outside the sleeper – a concept that is reflected linguistically in both Old Norse and Old English in phrases such as dreymdi mik draumr (“a dream came to me”) and mec gemætte (“to me came a dream”) (Pollington 490). The ON term draumstolinn suggests that the ability to dream was one that could be stolen, and in The Saga of the Jómsborg Vikings a man is refused marriage if he does not dream (LeCouteux 28).
However, the sleeper was not entirely passive, and as we shall see, could sometimes also enact their own visitations in dream.
So dream was important. It wasn’t just some whimsical and harmless thing to the Pagan/Heathen mind, but a way in which the sleeper could interact with both the Otherworld, and other sleepers. And it was consideration of my friends’ dreams that got me thinking about the bad side of dream: maran, night-walkers, and elves.
”Wið eallum f?ondes costungum”
When it comes to discussing maran, night-walkers, and elves, it can be hard to give solid definitions. Mare (from which we derive the word “nightmare”) could refer to either a human woman – usually but not always intentionally a witch – that attacked sleepers, or a supernatural being that did the same (Jolley 86, Hall 125). The term night-walkers seems self-explanatory, though Hall still expresses uncertainty as to what they could have been in more precise terms (Hall 124). And the problems of defining what an elf was considered to be (not to mention their relationship to magic and witches) are perennial.
What we can say with some certainty though, is that certain effects were considered to be common to these beings, and that they were connected/overlapped in terms of function. In some charms, we may see this uncertainty as to who/what was doing what to the patient, reflected in the more general terms f?ondes costunga (“tribulations of the enemy”), and/or Ælfs?den (“elf-seiðr” – a form of magic) used.
On the symptoms of attack and forms of treatment however, the OE magico-medical sources are remarkably consistent on the matter of nightmares, and it is upon these consistencies that I shall now focus.
Symptoms of Attack
For those of you who have experienced the terror of “sleep paralysis” (or as it’s sometimes called, “Old Hag”), this is all going to sound very familiar. While the explanation for this sleep disturbance has changed in modern times (no elves or night-goers need apply!), modern descriptions of this experience would have been familiar to our ancestors. In some accounts, such as that of the Swedish king Vanlandi of the Ynglinga saga, the victim was even “trod on” or “pressed down on” until dead. It is worth mentioning here that the attacking force was the witch/mara Drifa (Hall 125, 135). Interestingly, while the Ynglinga saga was composed post-conversion, a segment of the 9th century Ynglingatal referencing the death of king Vanlandi as a result of the witch (referred to in the Ynglingatal segment as mara) attests to the potential Heathen origins of this concept.
Rather disturbingly, there was also potentially considered to be a sexual or lustful element to these nocturnal attacks too. As Hall points out, mære was glossed with incuba in the 7th century (Hall 125). This connection is repeated in the 13th century South English Legendary which not only juxtaposes maren with eluene (or “elves”), but describes these attacks in sexual terms (Hall 140-142). This sexual aspect is also alluded to by Karen Jolly in Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context” (Jolly 149).
Other symptoms of attack by maran, night-walkers, or elves that can potentially be discerned from the sources are those of fever and delusion (Hall 121-125). Though it bears pointing out here that fevers often come with delusion, it is also worth noting that there is an entire category of elf-related illnesses in the OE magico-medical texts (Hall 96-108). In any case, whether (more specifically in this case) the elves are considered to cause the sickness or the more delusional symptoms associated with fever, Hall seems to imply that the sick are potentially more of a target by virtue of being sick:
Ælfs?den is also associated with nihtgengan and with the riding of the sick by maran.” (Hall 130)
Lastly, before finishing this current section, I would like to point out the parallels between the ON and OE lore regarding maran/night-walkers, and that of the Hmong being, the Dab Tsog.
In the late 70s to mid 80s, Hmong refugees became something of a curiosity to US medical professionals and researchers for one reason and one reason only: their men were dying in their sleep. There was no explanation that could be found, and the term SUNDS (or Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome) was coined by the FCDC.
However, the cause of death was no mystery to the Hmong themselves – it was the Dab Tsog who brought the chest crushing death of the Tsog Tsaum. Incredibly there are survivors of SUNDS, who when interviewed, related horrifying dream-experiences in which they were attacked by a kind of creature that tried to kill them by sitting on their chests and forcing the air out. These survivors also experienced paralysis and remembered being able to clearly hear the sounds of their houses around them.
The Hmong are not the only people to report these kind of beings either, the Dab Tsog mirrors cases attributed to the Filipino Batibat.
Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity Karen Jolly – Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context Claude LeCouteux – Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages Stephen Pollington – Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant-Lore and Healing
It was a different world for Pagans and Witches when I first started out. My books were whatever was in the local library, and my tools were whatever I’d cobbled together from hikes and thrift stores. Most importantly though for back then, they were all easy to hide, and my ‘altar’ was a small foot stool that could easily slide under my bed.
My first rituals were performed either far off the beaten path in the wilds, or long after my parents
had gone to bed – invocations whispered and candles extinguished outside my bedroom window to minimize that telltale extinguished candle smell. To the me of twenty-three years ago, my current level of openness (not to mention the availability of books and tools we have now), would have been unimaginable.
Nowadays though, we can source the most obscure ritual supplies and have them delivered to our doorsteps, all with the click of a mouse or finger tap on a touchscreen. Need some lignum aloes for that ritual incense you’re making? A white-handled knife for some invocation to a grimoire demon? Need a bag of iron nails? Some ‘mercury head’ dimes? That fancy candle that promises it was made with all organic oils and blessed under (insert relevant moon phase here)?
We live in an era in which these things are not all that hard-gotten. And that accessibility can be its own problem.
Products Sold as Life-Fixes
This isn’t an anti-tool post though, not at all. It’s just that with the advent of the ‘basic witch’, I just wanted to start the conversation around necessary as opposed to pretty junk.
When I was younger, a friend once advised me to never own more than I could fit in my backpack, because you’re only as free as your ability to carry the possessions you own. While her point was ostensibly about the physical freedom of being able to move when you want (and I did do that for a few years), over the years I’ve noticed that possessions are weightier in other ways too.
We get attached to possessions, and to make matters worse (?), we live in a society in which we’re constantly told that we need to have the right product in order to fix whatever it is that is wrong/fill that hole/make life perfect.
How many of us have heard the slogan “Better living through (insert random shit here)”?
We are surrounded by this message that products can make our lives better, and while it’s nice to have possessions (and goodness knows, I love mine), I think it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking one’s possessions *are* the point. Having the best car and a house that’s way too big for your family to live in can easily become obsessions to which family time and relaxation are sacrificed. The things become more important than the people – which is an inversion of how things should be. So it only makes sense that this inversion can occur when it comes to products of a more occult or Pagan nature too. After all, we’re already pre-programmed to consume.
Tools vs Junk
Some magical paths come with a lot of tools, and some come with hardly any – this is not an indictment against either end of this spectrum. And when you’re like me and figuratively have your fingers in many magical pies, you’re likely to have all kinds of magical tools knocking about.
For example, my more PGM and grimoire-based work involves scrying bowls, tables of art, knives, various kinds of incense, and goodness knows what else. However, my more Seidr/witchcraft-related stuff involves a staff/distaff, spindle, ‘cauldron’, and a whole lot of wool (skulls are optional). I would also add a ‘spade’ for the necromantic work (but I guarantee, not for the reason you may think, that kind of thing will get you arrested). That’s a *lot* of stuff, and it only ever accumulates as you expand your practice to work with new grimoires etc.
But what is the difference between those things and junk?
Quite simply, they’re either necessary for the form of magic being practiced, part of the etiquette of contacting whichever spirit or group of spirits you’re looking to work with, or necessary for constructing whatever kind of ritual space you work in in your tradition.
Anything that does not fulfill one or more of the above functions is, strictly speaking, junk.
Now, I happen to like the junk, but it’s important to always keep it in mind that while sometimes even occult tchotchke can be useful at times, it’s still no less junk than the piece of paper you fished out of the trash to scrawl a hasty table of art or sigils on (although I’d hope none of you are in such dire straits that you’d need to do such a thing).
Because all too often, the junk can become the point, and therein lies a trap that I think a lot of people fall into (but hardly ever discuss). Unless it’s an item stipulated by a spirit as a condition of conjuration (and potentially pacting) that spirit, or ingredients for something like a hoodoo hand, if ever you find yourself thinking that you can’t do something magically without a certain item or that you need that thing to *fix* your practice, then you may have a problem. This is especially the case if that magical thing you think you can’t do without that thing is actually down to the application of a basic skill.
Knowing Thyself and Mindful Spending
There are some hard lessons to be learned in the examination of our motivations for buying junk, and the paths it may lead us down. In some cases, having that need to find a ‘fix’ in the form of a product may be indication that the practitioner has become impatient with having to take the long road, and do the hard work it takes to become ‘advanced’. In other cases, it can be an indication that the practitioner needs to ‘go deeper’ and try to face whatever it is inside themselves that is making them feel as though there is a hole to be filled.
The most important thing though is that the practitioner is both able to examine those motivations mindful of one’s spending.
*and* be honest about what it means for their practice. Magical practitioners are told to ‘know thyself’, and for good reason: the practice of magic (in whatever form) contains many pitfalls. For many, if not all of us, exercises involving mindfulness and discipline, form a chunk of the core of our training.
Which means that while we may be as susceptible to the allure of spiritual junk as the next person, most of us already have the tools for avoiding that trap.
Questions like “Why do you want that thing?” and “What use has it?” are important to ask when considering a purchase. It’s important to be
However, equally important is the idea that you can buy something just because you happen to like it. Sometimes I think (and I know I do this at times, it’s a side effect of growing up poor), we try to justify our purchases too much by finding a use for them.
But which is worse?
Buying something because you like it, or buying something because you’ve not only convinced yourself you need it but have come to believe it necessary? There’s a kind of liberation to be had here too – especially if you’re the kind of person to try and justify your purchases like that. Because the chance is that if you cannot even indulge yourself with the odd bit of tchotchke without feeling guilty (assuming no dire financial straits here), then you’re also likely the kind of person who feels guilty about spending your free time doing the things you want, or having hobbies that do not produce items to sell or give as gifts. And that is no healthy mindset to have.
Several years ago, I had a dream that people told me couldn’t possibly come true. There was simply no way, it was too unlikely, and though it had left me shaken for the entire day, it was really nothing to worry about.
After all, how likely were pitched battles on the streets between Nazis and non-Nazis? Moreover, the dream had taken place in my hometown and I no longer lived there, right? But dream works differently, what is detail in life is symbol in dream, and I remember that dream all too well after the events of this past weekend. Nazis bearing swastika flags, spewing messages of hate and throwing projectiles, armed and deadly on unwelcoming streets. The harassed sounds of police horses and the clip of boots covering the feet of hastily deployed soldiers.
The sound of rounds being chambered.
And in the background, or maybe superimposed – who knows, dream is like that – was the voice exhorting the masses to rise up for ‘Queen and country’.
My friends had been right, it was highly unlikely back then, and yet it filled me with a sense of horror and dread. I can’t help but notice today, that aside from the police horses and setting in Lancashire, it wasn’t too far off what did happen in Charlottesville, VA. Not that I’m claiming my dream somehow predicted that, I’m not. But I do think it was a warning of what was then a coming wave.
Tea With the Dead
The Dead have always played a role in my life and practice. I grew up in a family that was very nominally Anglican, and not so ‘nominally’ Spiritualist. I grew up with a dad whose family had cut their teeth in Spiritualism in post (and presumably during) wartime London. Though I never knew either of my grandmothers and only one of my grandfathers, I had the benefit of a great uncle who still lived down in London, and whom I would go visit with my father as a kid.
My uncle Lew and auntie Ada were incredible people, always laughing, and they could drink enough tea to sink a ship. Like the rest of my father’s family, they’d also spent a lot of time around the Spiritualist circles, and that sense of otherness was palpable in their home. There was nothing threatening there, but I never quite felt like I was alone even when there was no one else around. Our visits there were mostly spent laughing over countless cups of tea – I loved them dearly.
But uncle Lew and auntie Ada also had stories to tell, and some of them were quite dark. You see, they’d been of an age to be around for WWII, and as Londoners -or more specifically Cockneys -they’d experienced the very worst of the Blitz.
Amazingly, most of their stories about this era were told with humor. They told stories of a world on fire in which no one knew if they would survive or not, and so they’d decided to enjoy what they could anyway for the most part. They were a people who had learned to dance on the knife’s edge, living as though every day was their last. And all of that might have sounded like bravado but for the heavy shadow that fell upon some of their words, that though delivered in such a matter of fact manner, had all the impact of a gut punch.
I often think about what they’d think had they lived to see the days we live in now. Would they recognize in us the same descent they experienced? Did the Dead scream in warning as loudly to them in the build-up to the war as they do to some of us now? Are we on the path to similar or worse?
The Use and Abuse of History
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984
As I’ve written previously, to know the past is to be able to predict the future. Divination in the Heathen period played many roles, but it was never about getting a set answer about what was going to happen next. It was for discerning the will of the gods (and perhaps receiving a heads up from them about the future), for finding that which was lost, and for discovering past and present events that were not yet known to the enquirer. To know what was past and what was yet unseen was to be able to have a greater chance of predicting the future.
But what if you do not like what the past holds, or the world around you promises? What if none of that fits the model that you would like to see become dominant in the world?
Then you smash the statues, you break that link, and you harass anyone who presents evidence that contradicts that. Oh you claim to care while making those appeals to history/tradition/authority/science (all often incorrectly), but ultimately the people who would go down this route have no real respect for any of it. They simply recognize the truth that George Orwell expressed so succinctly in the quote above.
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
This is why history, and perhaps to a lesser degree, memory matters. History shows us the patterns that are best off never repeated again, and a memory that is clear and true is the best protection against the hazards of the Overton Window.
One of the names I go by online is that of “Seo Helrune”, an Old English term that Pollington translates as meaning ‘one skilled in the mysteries of the world of the dead’ (Pollington 51). Though we do not know much about the actual magical tech employed by a Heathen period Helrune, this term still feels fitting for me. From the family I was born into, the kind of magical practice I do, and the history I voraciously devour, the dead and their world have always been a part of me. As strange as it sounds, I find a form of holiness in history; for not only is it in a sense the ‘world’ of the dead, but I believe it also contains the keys to creating a better future for my descendants. Put a pin in that thought though for now, I’ll return to this idea later.
To Conscript a God
Unfortunately, the dead and their world are not the only powers to have been pressed into service for the traditionalist cause – the gods have also fallen victim.
Or rather one god in particular has, and it does not go unnoticed that he is a god associated with the dead and the mysteries of their world.
”Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord of the mounds.” (Ynglinga 7)
Again the theme and story repeats.
The god of course, is Odin/Woden/Wotan, and he now finds himself figurehead of a very 21st century phenomenon, the ‘meme war’. What a demotion! From having one’s names on the lips of actual warriors and kings, to being the figurehead of a fucking meme war comprised of keyboard warriors and internet personalities.
However his role does not end with ‘figurehead’, but he also fulfils the role of sacrificial victim too – sacrificed at the altar of ‘the white race’, or ‘folk’.
Consider these words: ”Now, I happen to have been a follower of Wotan, under his name of Odin, for some 45 years, and my personal experience is that He is utterly real, if inherently mysterious. But I don’t expect my Christian, or Atheist, or Agnostic, or Other friends to agree on that. Instead, I invite them to think of Wotan as Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, did: Namely, as an inherited symbol in the collective unconscious of the Germanic Peoples. Either way, as God or as Archetype, Wotan is a source of immense power, and we need to call upon that power to stir the European Peoples into action.” (From: here)
The only ‘god’ here that this worldview has room for is race, like a friend of mine says, My religion is gifting, theirs is white people.
And while I know that historically leaders and kings sought the favor of deities in their various campaigns, the difference is that they did not use them as tools in quite the same way. The rituals were expressions of do ut desas opposed to PR (though PR almost certainly played a part, as it does with any savvy leader), and they knew how to gift.
The Ancestors Bring Blessings
Modern people, at least in our society, have a problem with death. We do not like to be reminded of it, it is taboo. The majority of us no longer lay out our own dead, or even see anything other than a sanitized version of death when we do. An entire industry exists to relieve us of those final duties to our kin, and it is an industry that has become adept at occulting death from society in general.
All of which I believe helps to draw a big, funerary black curtain between the dead and ourselves in terms how we understand our ancestors.
Don’t get me wrong, we do very well with remembrance, but it can be quite a surprise to us that our Heathen and Pagan ancestors didn’t just engage in rites to the Dead for the sake of remembrance, but for tangible gains too.
“it should be noted that the ancestors, as part of their ongoing concern for their descendants, are thought to bring blessings to family, flock, and field. This is why the Hunt was believed to be propitious, and why people welcomed it despite the chaos and even danger that came with it, an attitude as Höfler, Meuli, Wolfram, and others have amply attested. The *koryos brings increase for the same reason it brings order: because it makes the ancestors present among their people. And so, while the fertility aspects of the cult became all-important, after the conversion, among the country people who kept up these practices, they were always present.” (Kershaw 34)
Presumably what must be propitiated may also be offended, and consequences reaped.
”Three features, writes Meuli, govern the primitive’s conception of the dead person: He continues to live. He is powerful. He is at once well-disposed and malicious (Meuli 1975: I, 303).” (Kershaw 23-24)
Over the past few days, I’ve seen lots of people declare the deeds of their ancestors. Stories of participation in D-Day or at Dunkirk. Stories of liberation and blood, of freeing holocaust survivors and the long deep hatred of Nazis that permeated the words and minds of our more recent ancestors. Are we to think that the rise of this ideology once more, though touting the cause of ancestors would somehow be acceptable to those of our lines who fought those battles?
I suppose it all depends on your ancestors, but I know what mine would think. Tea and memories in a small house in a London suburb have seen to that.
The rhetoric of the far right is often framed in terms of survival of ‘the white race’. We see that ideology condensed into fourteen infamous words:
”We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” (Source: Wikipedia)
One would almost think that were they truly representing the will of the Holy Powers, that the ‘white race’ would be experiencing a fertility boom, right? (Well you know, if those lazy white women would just accept their role as childbearers…)
I would like to tell you a tale of two witches, (goddesses really) inhabitants of a time beyond time. The first goddess was ordered and seemingly tame. Elegance and poise personified, she navigated the oft-tempestuous social waters of her hall with ease, winning words of kindness and oaths of peace from even the most hardened of warriors who sat at her benches. A skilled politician, she wove hearts and minds together as surely as she and her ladies wove the handspun yarn into wadmal, their movements around the room like a shuttle moving through the shed of a great loom, binding warp to weft and person to person.
She is not often called ‘witch’, but she has the talent and skills to be one. She is farsighted, foresighted and deep of mind, yet silent for the most part when it comes to revealing what she knows. She is also voluptuous and comely, with shapely arms and legs that pull lovers in. Those two things do not sound like they should be connected, but they are. This you will come to understand if you do not already.
Her sister however, if we may even call her that, is not of the hall but the wild between. From house to house she goes, “always the delight of an evil bride”. “Witch” some whisper, others whisper “whore”, but to some she is both. Where the lady of the hall is comely, she is magnetic, possessed of the kind of beauty that tempts, entices, and leads men to their deaths. Her prophecies are weapons that fall from her lips, sharp-barbed words that topple kings and sink ships. She is a lady of many names, known to many peoples, both human and other.
Her magnetism calls to us too, and her call to ecstasies are clearly heard. But I believe we have neglected the Lady of the Hall.
There has been much written about the need to re-wild witchcraft, to go out into the wilds and work with the land. To seek initiation from otherworldly powers and be the Heiðr who traverses the hedge. The natural world is hurting, we are to blame, and we are to work to heal and make amends as best we can. Now I’m not saying that I disagree with any of that. I too have seen and felt the suffering and anger of the outer. I too feel this need, as I would imagine anyone with anything approaching an animistic worldview would.
However, we live in a world that prefers and loves absolutes. We love our labels, our boxes, and our causes. Absolutism in thought though, often means that the subtleties are missed, and sometimes it is in those subtleties that some of the keys to a solution are found.
The Poisoned Vines That Choke Our Inner Yards
We humans have always sought somewhere safe in which we can dwell, work, and have our families. We’ve made villages, posted guards, built fences and homes. Since we first began to be recognizably human (and maybe even before), we’ve sought places in which we can keep out the dangers of the outer. For it is instinct to create safe space, and it is a good one. It has ensured our survival.
But it is my contention that the inner is just as poisoned, polluted, and sick as the outer, and until we heal that damage and pull back those choking vines, then there is no hope for doing anything more concrete for either inner or outer.
A Heritage of Flames
History is the greatest of smiths, it forms and forges us, giving us both our identity and the collective traumas that we carry within the very fiber of our beings. The heritage of modern witches is not the same as the heritage of those who might have been called witches in the Heathen period, we hold different traumas in our collective psyche. The biggest trauma for those of us working within predominantly European-derived cultures, is that of the lamentably much-ridiculed period of history that was the European witch craze.
The witch craze was noteworthy in many ways, but rarely is it taken particularly seriously, or examined beyond the mutilation of the torture rooms and agonies of death at the stake. However, in examining the years preceding that systematized routing of female self-determination and magic, there is much that can be learned that is disturbingly useful for fighting the battles we face today.
The social setting in which the European witch craze took place was one of complexity and deceptively slow escalation, each incremental step laying the foundations for the extreme violence that would come. To speak in very general terms, there was an economic crisis of sorts, which was accompanied by an increasing obsession with both female reproduction, and controlling the behavior of women. This increase in misogyny was also unsurprisingly comorbid with a reframing of gender roles, and focus on masculinity. To cut a long story short, many of our modern ideas about ‘traditional’ gender roles were actually systematically introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries and further refined in the 19th century with the creation of the full-time housewife who only fucked out of a sense of duty (Federici 75).
“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again” wrote J.M Barrie in the children’s classic Peter Pan, and it certainly does seem to be the case that we are treading much the same path as our ancestors, albeit slightly differently. Stop me if any of this doesn’t sound at least a little familiar.
In parts of 14th and 15th century Europe, the rape of non-aristocratic women was practically decriminalized, with the perpetrators receiving little to no punishment for their actions. For example, gang rape was not uncommon in many French cities of this period and was carried out openly, without fear of legal consequence (Federici 47-48). This, scholars like Silvia Federici argue, “desensitized the population to the perpetration of violence against women, preparing the ground for the Witch-hunt which began in the same period.”
By the 1580s, the population of Western Europe was in decline and continued to be so into the 17th century. Times were hard, and people simply did not wish to reproduce (Federici 86). Concurrently a new ideology was forming, one that declared that the wealth of a nation might be determined by the number of citizens it has (Federici 87). In this climate, reproduction became a matter of fanaticism, and in the 16th century European governments began introducing laws that levied the severest punishments against contraception, abortion, and infanticide. New forms of surveillance were also employed to ensure that the eye of the state did not leave the womb of the woman: a 1556 French royal edict required all pregnant women to register their pregnancies and sentenced to death any women with concealed deliveries whose babies died before baptism; similar statutes were passed in both Scotland and England; and in France and Germany, midwives became de facto spies of the state, often being called in to examine women suspected of having recently given birth. In the 16th and 17th centuries, more women were executed for infanticide than for any other crime (Federici 88 -89).
The 15th century also saw the rise of a new male obsession with the idea of being dominated by women (and thus being rendered unmanly in the process). This has been referred to as the ‘Battle for the Breeches” and was often depicted in popular literature of the time. For the men of the time, the depiction of a man being beaten by a disobedient (breeches-wearing) wife, was one that provoked fear (Federici 96). It would seem that men in every era have feared the loss of their ‘man cards’.
The worst though, was that this new order sought to isolate women from each other, making them wholly dependent on, and entirely under the authority of their husbands. English women were actively discouraged from friendship with other women or visiting one’s own parents ‘too often’ after marriage, German women were forbidden to live alone or with other women, and Mediterranean women could no longer be on the streets unaccompanied without risking sexual assault (Federici 100).
Of this, Silvia Federici writes: “Simultaneously, female friendships became an object of suspicion, denounced from the pulpit as subversive of the alliance between husband and wife, just as women-to-women relations were demonized by the prosecutors of the witches who forced them to denounce each other as accomplices in crime. It was also in this period that the word “gossip,” which in the Middle Ages had meant “friend,” changed its meaning, acquiring a derogatory connotation, a further sign of the degree to which the power of women and communal ties were undermined.” (Federici 186)
When it came to relationships with men, the propaganda of infanticide, baneful magics wrought by female hands, and the creeping threat of female domination was so effective that though there were individual attempts by husbands, sons, and fathers to save their female relatives from the stake, there was no collective uprising to save their womenfolk from the fires of persecution.
And it is from here, this place of tattered bonds and violent subjugation, in a society full of mistrust and hate, that we look to the far past, and the witches of the Heathen period.
A War of Spears, A War of Hearts
21. The war I remember, the first in the world, When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, and three times born, Oft and again, yet ever she lives.
22. Heiðr they named her who sought their home, The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise; Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic, To evil women a joy she was.
The themes of burning and torture are already familiar in this essay. However, unlike the women of the Early Modern Period, Gullveig has the capacity for resurrection, rising thrice from the ashes of the flames and reborn anew as Heiðr. In a sense, she is the mother of witches, as Heiðr is the archetypal name for the wild witch of the outer who travels between the inner yards of men.
In chapter 4 of the Ynglinga saga we are told of how the goddess Freyja, a blótgyðja or ‘sacrificial priestess’ (who unlike her male relatives was never named among the Diar though she was clearly divine), taught the art of Seiðr to the “Asaland people”. For the scholars Ursula Dronke and Hilda Ellis-Davidson, Freyja and Gullveig were one and the same.
However Freyja is not the only Old Norse goddess of magic by any stretch of the imagination, and it might well be argued that the adversarial nature of the story of Gullveig parallels the account contained within the Volsa þáttr of the cultic rite to a group of beings referred to as the ‘Mornir’. As Clive Tolley points out in ‘Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic’, the Volsa þáttr account is clearly that of a female-led home cult coming into conflict with the male state cult of Christianity. It should also be noted that Völuspá contains clear allusions to Christian ideas, and so it is entirely possible that the antipathy of the Gullveig account may not have reflected actual Heathen period views.
Magic and encounters with the supernatural are common themes in Old Norse literature. The Lokasenna poem introduces us to a number of other deities who have either the gift of seership, or who work magic as witches. Both Frigga and Gefjun, are credited with the gift of prophecy, and Oðinn is referred to as working magic as a witch (an aspect of the Allfather which is reiterated in chapter 7 of Ynglinga saga). Regardless of whether they have the skills of a seeress or of a witch though, they are all accused of sexual promiscuity.
Of Insatiable Lust and Passivity
“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable” -Malleus Maleficarum
Though we have no evidence for the integration of sexual activity into the human practice of Seiðr, the association between witches and carnality is far older than the fevered fears of the Early Modern Period, with evidence presenting itself from the mythical realm rather than the historical (Tolley 164). It is a thread that connects witchcraft, or rather ideas of witchcraft throughout the ages. Gefjun tricks King Gylfi into giving her land in exchange for ‘amusement’ and Freyja beds dwarves in exchange for Brisingamen. Each is referred to as being a farandi kona, or ‘travelling woman’ – a term that held connotations of both ‘witch’ and ‘whore’ (Tolley 451). The insatiable woman was ?rg, as the male practitioner of Seiðr was ergi (Tolley 156).
To approach an understanding of ergi though, one must first understand something of Viking Age ideas on gender roles. As in the Early Modern Period, the people of the Viking Age had very definite ideas about what was proper with regards to sex and gender. In ‘Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.’, Carol J Clover makes the case that the sex a person was assigned by their social peers depended on their behavior, and that in given circumstances, both men and women could belong to the female gender. The male was seen as ‘active’, ‘honorable’, the ‘default sex’ even. And contrary to what many think, it was no shame or considered ergi for a man to participate in homosexual activity during this period, as long as he remained the penetrator as opposed to the penetrated.
Though it is hard to find a definition of ergi that works in all cases, I think that the one provided by Tolley serves. Ergi, regardless of sex, was the ”opening oneself up for sexual penetration by an inappropriate person”. For a woman, this was anyone outside of a licit relationship, however for a man, this was anyone or anything.
To solely focus on the sexual aspects of ergi though, would be to miss an important point. As the servant girl in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, observes ”everyone grows argr as he grows older”, which potentially implies a loss of virility, might, or even both. In terms of Clover’s work, this would represent a feminization of man as he ages and loses his ability to live without the help of others (Tolley 158-159).
Tolley asserts that there is value in considering ergi from the perspective of individualism vs relationality (relationality being “ the doctrine that transactions, interactions, social ties and conversations constitute the central stuff of social life.”) (Tolley 159-160, Tilly 2002) . The ideal Norse male was a hero, self-sufficient, strong – an individual that stands out even from his battle brothers (should he have them): “Once individuality is set up as the favored focus of aspiration, expressions of relationality come to be despised, and when realized in extreme forms (such as acts viewed as involving ergi) as shameful.” (Tolley 159). To practice magic, regardless of type or purpose, is to enter into a series of reciprocal relationships with, and to some degree rely on other beings. For the woman, relationality and that magic of the ties that bind – that frithweaving has always been her domain. It is telling that whatever forces were working to shape the vast social and economic changes of the Early Modern Period saw to it that the bonds between women, and between women and men, were destroyed.
The Enemy Unmasked
I believe that this has all been to our detriment. To be an individualist is to see the self as primary, it is inherently selfish and egotistical. It is that which says ‘give me’, and ‘I will’. It is that which does and takes without thinking of the consequences to others, whereas those who work within a web of reciprocal relationships must work within the web and keep the consequences of not doing so ever in mind. Here is where we find the root of the poisonous vine that has us wrapped within its clutches. It is perhaps fitting that our greatest weapon is that which the inquisitors tried to kill – our ability to create meaningful, reciprocal relationships with each other.
And once more, we find ourselves in a race back to those days of subjugation and reproductive control, of relationships based on fear rather than love and trust, an excessive legal interference.
Reclaiming the Hall
This morning I watched a video on Youtube by the former leader of a racialist ‘Asatru’ organization in which he talks about producing content to push an ‘awakening of the folk’ though producing content. Content, he contends, facilitates social shifts – drastic social shifts. He is not wrong, this was certainly the case during the Early Modern Period. It was content that was then delivered in the form of books, pamphlets and illustrations that helped to render the very fabric of society asunder and subjugate half the population. For all this individual’s talk of ‘folk’ though – a term that implies relationality – he and people like him, still bow to the cult of individualism and the focus on hyper-masculinity that inspires it. For them, the Holy Powers are tools to be used for human political ends as opposed to being ends in of themselves, and once again, the bodies of women are commandeered for the ‘War of the Wombs’. White women are told to ‘breed for the folk’, in other words, to try and make enough white babies to stop the ‘browning of America’.
Though these people invoke Oðinn’s name often, these are not the acts based in relationality that he himself engaged in.
Loki spake: “They say that with spells in Samsey once Like witches with charms didst thou work; And in witch’s guise among men didst thou go; Unmanly thy soul must seem.” Lokasenna 24
Nor is this the healing and building of community that we so sorely need. This is only ever a path to war and genocide, facilitated by the false buoying of the downtrodden by the introduction of the cause (and scapegoat) du jour. This is not a solution (even if it may seem to be so to some at the time). Unfortunately, this man and the forces of dissolution represented by his organization are not the whole game, but manifestations of a wider social malaise. Our inner yards are broken, and relatively few of us even know what it is to live in an actual community. The ties that bind us, that weave us together become ever more frayed by the day. But this should be no surprise, for who is there to weave and repair what has been sundered, when the lady has been driven from the hall to be made servant to the childbed? As witches, we tend to look to the wilds, but we have been driven to them as surely as missionaries drove the wihta further and further away from the enclosed spaces of man. And just as with wihta, it was by means of iron and fire that witches were driven back. Heiðr wanders the wilds because as Gullveig she was pierced by the iron of a spear and burned.
But what if the wild witch were to remember her sister and her craft? What if she were to learn how to weave hearts and minds together as well as seeking partnership and initiation among the trees? How would our society look if relationality and reciprocity were returned?
What if the wild witch were to remember that there was a time when she too worked the magic of the hall as her sister also worked the magic of the wilds, and that there wasn’t really any difference between them?
To be a witch is to bend, it is to manipulate and shape, and although I have little talent for diplomacy, I ask us to weave and be shapers here anyway. I ask you to dream, to see the world in which you would have your children live and then work to help others to see it too. I ask you to become the shapers of words that help change the world for the better. I ask you to shape the words that teach relationality, compromise, community, and reciprocity, instead of that harsh individualism that ultimately robs a person of their humanity. I ask you to step out onto that No Woman’s Land and engage in this war for hearts and minds.
For if all of this is ergi, then we would do well to remind ourselves that it is in the practices that involve ergi that lies the greatest power.
Gullveig rose from the ashes of her pyre.
Sources referenced Caliban and the Witch – Silvia Federici Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic – Clive Tolley Stories, Identities, and Political Change – Charles Tilly
On the 20th of August 2016, some clowns allegedly tried to lure a kid into the woods near his apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina. Over the course of the next week, a further five sightings were reported to the local police department. Those of us who didn’t live in Greenville, especially those of us raised on Stephen King’s IT, were relieved to not be there. Over the course of the coming weeks, the number of sightings grew – as did the number of locations. People speculated that it was all some kind of publicity stunt for the upcoming IT remake, but the movie’s producer denied all. A kind of paranoia and hysteria grew around the clowns, and as the reports grew, so did the debate around just what the clowns were and why they had started to become so prominent. Some people pointed out the Fortean aspects of these crazes (which happen periodically), whereas others just stuck to more mundane explanations of creepy attention-seekers in bought or rented suits and masks. In a kind of collective madness, exacerbated by the fever of the late election cycle, we hurtled towards Halloween and rumors of a ‘clown purge’. With the exception of one Halloween night attack on a family by a gang of clowns that thankfully left them with comparatively minor injuries, there was no purge. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the clowns disappeared from the news.
But regardless of whether some of the clowns were supernatural as some claimed, or simply fucked up people in scary masks, there is a curious history to clowns and the act of masking that deserves some examination. Because sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to dress for the job you want.
A Dichotomy of Clowns
Believe it or not, but as creepy as clowns are, the original clown (at least in the Anglosphere) was supposed to be a kind of harmless rustic fool. According to the Etymological Dictionary Online, the word ‘clown’ (as ‘cloyne’ or ‘clowne’) is theoretically derived from various Scandinavian language words for ‘clumsy’, and was first used in the 1560s to denote a ‘rustic boor, peasant’. (1) However, the word is not the thing, and the history of the ‘rustic fool’ figure in entertainment settings goes back to the Ancient Greek sklêro-paiktês, a word which comes from the verb paizein ‘to play like a child’. (2) This is not the only word for this kind of performer in Greek theater, but I do not need to include them here to further make the point that this figure of a ‘rustic fool’ that we call ‘clown’ is quite ancient.
Ancient Greek theater was inextricably tied up in acts of ritual, Aristotle even cited the cult of Dionysius as being the origins of drama.(3) While this is a claim that is still debated, it does illustrate that theater was not merely a form of entertainment for the Greeks (although it was undoubtedly that too).
The clowns, or rather ‘clown-like’ performers of today arguably have their origin in the Zanni of the 16th century Italian Commedia dell’Arte. There were essentially two types of Zanni: the stupid and boorish ( in other words, those we would recognize as being clowns today); and the intelligent trickster types. Strangely, it is the more threatening Zanni, the member of the Zanni known as Arlecchino – despite his somewhat darker theorized origins – who is considered to be among the stupid. To quote Jennifer Meagher from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
” The zanni (servants) were in many ways the most important—and certainly the most subversive—characters of the commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers, disagreeable vecchi, and each other. Perhaps best known of these is Arlecchino, or Harlequin (1974.356.525), a character whose origin is contested. It is likely that he derived either from Alichino, a demon from Dante’s Inferno (XXI-XXIII), or from Hellequin, a character from French Passion plays, also a demon charged with driving damned souls into Hell. Arlecchino is characterized as a poor man, often from Bergamo, whose diamond-patterned costume suggests that he is wearing patchwork, a sign of his poverty. His mask is either speckled with warts or shaped like the face of a monkey, cat, or pig, and he often carries a batacchio, or slapstick.”(4) (Emphasis is my own.)
Also worthy of note here, is the fact that “All characters except Pedrolino and the innamorati wore masks, a tradition deriving from ancient Roman comedies, Atellanae Fabulae, that featured character types similar to those of the commedia.” (5) The Commedia has its roots in old old custom.
To return to that first quote though, and Arlecchino’s connection with hell in both of his origins stories, there is a far richer history to be found here that makes this hellish connection, and especially with the dead especially apt.
Harlequin and Herela Cyng
Harlequins are curious things, both in terms of their dress as the black-masked performer in checkered material carrying a club, and the history suggested by the etymology of their name. The most complete exposition of the history of both the name and character comes from Flasdieck in his 1937 article entitled “Harlekin. Germanischer Mythos in romanischer Wandlung”. In it, the origins of the word ‘Harlequin’ are traced back to the OE *Her(e)lacyng, or ‘King Harilo’, which is itself a by-name of Wodan – a god connected with leading the dead in the form of the Wild Hunt. (6) In turn, Flasdieck traces ‘Her(e)la’ back to *Xarilan – a word deriving from *Xaria, or ‘army’. This is synonymous with Herjann, and leads us to the Germanic tribal name, the Harii. (It’s all a lot more complex than that, I’m trying to condense about seven pages of etymology into less than a paragraph. Seriously, get Kershaw’s book if you can.)
Remember the black mask of the Harlequin? Maybe it’s no coincidence – per Tacitus in Germania 43 (emphasis is my own):
“As for the Harii, quite apart from their strength, which exceeds that of the other tribes I have just listed, they pander to their innate savagery by skill and timing: with black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered.”
Masks and Ritual
Returning to the ancient classical world though, and this time the funerals of Rome, we see the act of masking in impersonation of the dead. One of the living would wear a death mask and clothes of the newly deceased, and impersonate them as much as they could. To clarify a little here, by ‘death mask’, I mean masks molded from the actual face of the deceased usually after death. Other mourners would similarly impersonate the ancestors of the deceased with their own respective masks. (7) Viewed from this perspective, the funeral then becomes a drama in which the decedent is escorted to the grave by the dead themselves.
To quote Kershaw in her ‘The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde’, “It is the nature of the dead that they are not seen”, and yet there were times during the ritual year when the dead very much needed to be present. So how to solve a problem like that? How to give form to the unseen?(8)
Again from Kershaw (emphasis is my own): “The means by which they become the dead are Masks. By mask we do not necessarily mean something which covers the face. The most primitive form of masking is simply painting the face (and body). And while we have, from Scandinavia, representations of cultic dancers wearing very realistic wolfs’ heads and fur garments reaching to the knees, as in the helmet plate from Torslunda described in 1.4.3 above, other masks consist of (or are made to look like ?) parts of an animal’s head, or the whole head with the jaws agape and the masker’s face showing, as in the pictures of Herakles in his lion skin or Hades in his ????….The mask shows that the wearer is a dæmonic, or more-than-natural, being. He is no longer himself: he is an Ancestor.” (9)
Though Kershaw was writing about the embodiment of ancestors by living warriors by means of donning masks, this same principle applies equally to the impersonation of the deceased at the Roman funeral – the belief in possession by ghosts or the ‘more-than-natural’ is quite ancient.
Exapanding the ‘More-Than-Natural’
Earlier on in this post, I made the joke that sometimes you have to dress for the job you want, hopefully that joke is becoming somewhat clearer now. But I do not believe that this principle applies solely to the dead, and that we can see a form of this kind of embodiment of the ‘more-than-natural’ in some of the sources on shapeshifting too. For example, Sigmund and Sinfjötli of the Volsunga Saga become wolves through the donning of skins, and this theme survived into the 17th century when Thiess the self-described werewolf of Livonia testified that he and his fellow werewolves [on their journey to hell to retrieve seeds stolen by a sorcerer called Skeistan] had to strip off and don skins. (10)
Conversely, a person might return to the human state by either shucking the mask or skin, and/or dressing once more in the clothes of man. We see this at play in Petronius’s Satyricon in which a soldier protects his clothes by magically turning them into stone before turning into a werewolf. To protect one’s clothes is to protect one’s ability to return to the human state. This theme is also present in Marie de France’s 12th century lay Bisclavret (a Breton word meaning ‘werewolf’) in which a werewolf’s clothes are stolen him from returning to his human form.(11) This is not so different from the protective powers of cultivated land when being pursued by the Other in the wilds, the clothes acting as a civilizing influence in much the same way as working the land does a field.
Of Masks and Clowns
The 2016 spate of clown sightings were noteworthy in numerous ways, not in the least because every single clown described was of the ‘horror’ variety. They were embodying the Pennywise, the sick, murderous clown that goes out of its way to terrify children and adults alike, and all during a time of high passion and acrimonious national discourse. Given the historical use of masking within ritual contexts, and the meaning of that act of masking, a whole new dimension is added to the question of just what possessed those people to don those masks and go out behaving in ways they perhaps wouldn’t normally. Now obviously, I’m not suggesting that all of those clowns were possessed by some spirits stirred up by the then-zeitgeist, but it is an interesting thought, isn’t it?
Sources (1) Etymological Dictionary Online – Clown http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=clown (2) Etymological Dictionary Online – Coulrophobia http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=coulrophobia (3) The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama – Eric Csapo, Margaret C. Miller P (4)+(5) Commedia dell’Arte – Jennifer Meagher http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm (6) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (Pp 11, 15-19, 38-40) (7) Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals – Geoffrey S. Sumi (8) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (p26) (9) Ibid. (10) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp 118-121) (11) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp113-116)
In the first part of this two-part series on hexing and healing, I wrote about my views on hexing. Now it’s time to look at the opposite end of that spectrum, and the ‘why’ behind the adage that a ‘witch that cannot hex cannot heal’.
One of the things that has always struck me about mainstream Pagan or Witch views is that while cursing is often disparaged, healing is not. Countless words have been written about the dangers of cursing from both spiritual and material perspectives, and yet little has been written about the dangers of healing.
If anything, we encourage people to participate in healing rites regardless of how well trained they are, and view them as being almost harmless. However, I would argue that healing can be a more dangerous activity to the healer – depending of course on how it’s done.
A Family Heritage Of Sorts
As I’ve mentioned about fifty billion times before, I come from a family of Spiritualists – mostly Spiritualist healers – and if there’s one thing I’ve seen from those who do a lot of healing, it’s that they often suffer from a lot of sickness themselves. I can even name family members who I believe wound up in an early grave because of their involvement in healing practices.
My dad once explained that when it comes to healing, he takes on what they have. I’ve had more people than I can count approach me to tell me about how my dad was talking to them, began wincing, described something they hadn’t mentioned, and then healed them of that pain. These people were often people we didn’t really know too – one woman was a stall-holder at the local market who sold rugs!
Looking at my family’s Spiritualist background, it’s all too easy to turn around and say that that’s something that happens to Spiritualists, and that they’re obviously doing x, y, and z wrong. After all, what else could my father expect if he takes on what others have? And yet, I’ve never seen it be an intentional thing for my father – more like something that is triggered when he comes into contact with the sick.
I also have a friend who is a professional healer. Unlike my father, he’s trained in multiple healing traditions, has years of experience, and yet healing can make him sick if he’s not careful. Sometimes it’s the expenditure of energy, but sometimes, a healer cannot help but have to go and encounter that which is causing the sickness in the first place – especially when working within an animist paradigm.
The point of this though, is that both cursing and healing are potentially dangerous to those who do them. They’re also opposite ends of the same continuum.
I think a lot of people have a sense of this continuum if not the words and historical evidence. However, there are words and there is evidence for both.
We find our first word in the Old English word ‘Hælu’. It’s a lovely word, the Old English word from which we get our modern word ‘hale’, as in ‘hale and hearty’. But unlike the modern version of the word, the meanings of hælu were much ‘wider’ in scope. To quote Stephen Pollington from p453 of Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore and Healing:
“The quality which keeps a person well is called in Old English, ‘hælu’, which can be translated as ‘health’ or ‘wholeness’, although this is slightly misleading. ‘hælu’ is a derivative of the adjective ‘hal’ which survives into modern times as the words ‘whole’ and ‘hale’; it implies good fortune, prosperity, good health, general benefit and well-being (and in Christian times, salvation). From it are derived also the verb ‘ hælan’ (make whole), our word ‘heal’ and another adjective ‘halig’ (holy) with the sense ‘blessed’, ‘fortunate’, ‘favoured by the gods’. The reverse of ‘ hælu’ is ‘unhælu’ which is a kind of ‘negative health’; to have ‘unhælu’ is both to lack the positive quality of health and to have the negative ‘unhealth’, disease, illness, misfortune.”
As you can see from the above description, physical health was connected with what we would today consider completely unrelated matters, like ‘good fortune’, and ‘prosperity’. By extension it’s also connected with words that refer to a state of being ‘blessed’, or ‘favored by the gods’. The fact that those seemingly disparate concepts are all able to be expressed by one word suggests that at one point they were considered to be all part and parcel of the same thing – a quality inherent to a person.
To restore this quality (by whatever means) is to heal, to take this quality is to curse. This is why ill health often plagues those who are cursed and can even be one of the signs that a person has been cursed (if other signs are also observed concurrently). To manipulate this quality in any way without knowing what you’re doing is dangerous, and to manipulate this quality in any way while sick is eventually deadly.
Never So Simple A Story
But even then, the lines between healing and cursing were not so clear cut. Sometimes you had to curse an illness or growth in order to heal the person as in charm number 162 of the Lacnunga (a book of Old English magico-medical cures). In this charm, which is believed to cure cysts, we are given a story about the ‘nine sisters of noðþ’. Who this ‘noðþ’ is beyond an anthropomorphic representation of the medical complaint is not important (which is good, because we don’t know anyway). What is important is that the charm essentially counts them out of existence, in other words, this is a form of curse.
‘…then the nine became eight, and the eight to seven, and the seven to six, and the six to five, and the five to four, and the four to three, and the three to two and the two to one, and the one to none’
Remember those pesky elves and their shot from the last post?
Well, we also see cures for all manner of ‘elf’ ailments in the Leechbooks too. Some of these can be traced to actual physical diseases, however others may refer to elfshot (curses) by witches, and other elf-related afflictions (which were, with the exception of some identifiable ailments, normally related to pains of the torso or mental ailments producing delusions). And elves weren’t just connected with cursing either – the right offering to the elves could hasten the healing of a loved one or friend as in Chapter 22 of The Saga of Cormac the Skald.
Again, my point here is that these things are not so clear cut, and that by viewing cursing and healing as some kind of ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy, we’re not only missing the point, but potentially endangering would-be healers by not acknowledging the danger inherent in being a healer, nor the necessity of training and aftercare. Because at the end of the day, healers work far more intimately and generally for far longer periods of time with their patients and the ailments they bring than most people ever do with curses.
So if anyone is going to get the metaphorical sticky turd on them, it’s the healers. It’s about time we respected that and stopped encouraging every one and their mother to have a go like it’s some harmless thing anyone can do without consequence.
 Pollington, S. (2000). Appendix 3 Causes of Disease. In Leechcraft: Early English charms, plant lore, and healing (p. 453). Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books.