Tracing Back the Threads from Witches to Viking Age Seiðr
“Are you doing Voodoo?!”
The cashier looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and fear, her hands frozen mid-scan. I looked to my own hands, to the perfectly innocuous spindle and fiber, and then looked at her again. The line had been long and so I’d taken out my spindle and started to do a little spinning – some lovely soft Shetland wool with which I was going (am going) to knit a traditional lace shawl.
For a moment, I was stuck for words, I mean, how *do* you respond to an obviously scared cashier accusing you of doing ‘Voodoo’ in the checkout line when all you’re doing (at least that time) is spinning yarn? Part of me was amused, but another part of me was a little saddened that as a society we’ve become so ignorant to the processes involved in the production of clothing, that someone doing something that would have been commonplace not all that long ago ( especially in the grand scheme of things) was now suspect and participating in ‘Voodoo’.
I decided to try and go for the teachable moment, to explain that I was spinning, turning wool into yarn that could then be knitted, woven, or crocheted into hats, sweaters, blankets etc. From the look on her face though and talk of how she was going to leave her register and run away if it really was ‘Voodoo’, I’m not quite sure I got through; she did seem genuinely scared. I’m guessing the ridiculously dramatic Hollywood depictions of ‘Voodoo’ are probably to blame for that, because real Vodou as I understand it, is a beautiful faith centered around family and community (read ‘Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn’ for a lovely portrayal of this very misunderstood faith).
In spite of the mundane nature of the spinning I was doing that day though, it really cannot be said that spinning and witchcraft are entirely unconnected. No, if anything, there is a connection there that runs very deep and is still yet largely unexplored by modern practitioners.
The only exception that I’ve found to this has been potentially among those belonging to the 1734 tradition of modern Traditional Witchcraft. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not involved in 1734, or any of the modern tradcrafter groups. I come at my craft from a different angle – albeit one with quite a few similarities with some modern Traditional Witchcraft.
From Witches to Seiðr
According to Cochrane, there are three branches of witchcraft: One pertaining to the male mysteries, one pertaining to the female mysteries, and the other pertaining to the mysteries of the Dead and Underworld. Those female mysteries based in spindle and distaff (or stang, in yet another use) are what I’m going to concentrate on in this post. In ‘On Cords’, Robert Cochrane wrote that, “The so-called ‘sacred object’ held in such reverence by some witches was in fact a weaver’s distaff–and could easily be mistaken for a phallic symbol. The weaver’s distaff, bound with reeds or straw, appears frequently in rural carvings and elsewhere. It again has reference to the Craft and supreme Deity. It would appear that the witches were not in the least influenced by Freudian concepts.”
As I’ve already said, I’m not involved in any of those modern traditions mentioned above, if I were, I may feel differently about claims of ancient origins for these traditions. Personally I’m not really sure how much I buy, however there are most definitely ‘threads’ (no pun intended) that *can* be traced back through history; it just so happens that the connection between spinning and witchcraft is one of them.
Moving backwards in time from when Cochrane was writing, we easily find a tradition of depicting witches riding distaffs on woodcuts and in drawings from the 15th and 16th centuries.
If we continue to trace that thread further back, especially in Northern Europe -the place where much of our modern witchcraft is rooted – if we go as far back as the Viking Age, we find mentions of a type of magic called Seiðr.
For most people nowadays though, Seiðr is about the High Seat and seeing, there’s very little though to connect that practice with Seiðr as it was shown in the primary sources. Even the oft-cited Erik the Red’s saga doesn’t feature a Seiðkona but a spá-kona (spae-wife, seeress). You see, Seiðr was in all likelihood a spun form of magic.
Let’s begin with the etymology – or at least Seiðr’s etymological equivalents in Old High German and Old English (which are on far surer footing than the etymology itself) that mean ‘snare’, ‘cord’, or ‘halter’. In support of this is one example of skaldic poetry in which the word ‘seiðr’ is used to refer to ‘cord’, ‘girth’, or ‘girdle’. Moreover, multiple accounts in the primary sources involve spun Seiðr (check out the paper by Eldar Heide linked below for more). Seiðr is a magic that can not only bind, but can also attract things, in fact roughly half of the accounts involving Seiðr in the primary sources are related to attracting things; be those things fish, people, or resources.
This concept of using thread based magic to attract things is one that was retained in later folklore too – as was the tradition of linking spinning and weaving implements with prophecy and magic in general. For example, a witch was believed to be able to steal a neighbor’s milk by milking a length of rope, and the spindle remained the symbol of the witch in Germany until quite late on.
But *why* spinning and witchcraft? Why does such a link make sense, and what can we learn about how spun magic can be used?
Spinning, Fate, and Death
It might be said that there is a common thread (again with the threads) running through many Indo-European descendant cultures, which associates the act of spinning with ‘fate’ (for want of a better word). This is a connection that was reflected linguistically in many older versions of IE languages (Old English among them) and the verb for ‘to be’, a verb which often had connotations with ‘turning’ or ‘spinning’. What is now is what is being turned or what is being spun. Multiple IE cultures also had groups of numina who were often associated with spinning, whose role it was to spin the fates of men. Among the Hittites there were the Kattereš, Underworld goddesses who spun the lives of kings; among the Greeks there were the Moirai, or ‘Apportioners’, one of whom spun the lot of men; among the Slavs you had the Sudice or Rodzanice; the Parcae among the Romans; and the Nornir (who differ in that they’re not explicitly shown to spin) among the Norse. There is also a reference in the Atharva Veda hinting at a similar concept among the Vedics:
“The goddesses who spun, wove, and stretched, and who gave the ends (of the thread) let them wrap you together to old age; as one long-lived, put around you this garment.”
And then there is Death to consider, Death who ensnares and pulls the Dead down to the Underworld of the Dead, using cord, rope, or a snare – in other words, that which is an end product of spinning to complete her task.
“The ropes of Hel Came swiftly; They swung at my sides. I wanted to break them. But they were tough. Light it is to fare when free!”
“You who are richer than the unrifled Treasuries of the Arabs, and the wealth of India – You may fill all the Tyrrhenian and the Apulian sea with the foundations [for your villa], [But] if grim Necessity drives Her adamantine nails in the highest heavens, You’ll not free your soul from fear Nor your head from the snares of Death”
Horace Ode 3.24 lines 1-8
“What awaits goodness, or chaste loyalty, or worship paid to heaven? The dark snares of death encompassed around the wretched woman, the Sisters’ ruthless threads are tightened, and there abides but the last portion of the exhausted span.”
Statius Silvae, V. I. 129-157
Again, these were ideas which were retained in later folklore too. Mirjam Mencej wrote an amazing paper about spinning lore and beings associated with spinning in European folklore. She wrote about how birth and death are conceptualized as being spun into life and then your fibers falling undone when dying, about the idea of womb and burial mound as the wool basket from where one begins and ends, about the crossing to the Underworld of the Dead over a strand of wool, and the incidence of dead appearing as balls of yarn (sometimes leaving trails of blood!) in various European folklore traditions.
With all this in mind, and the historical connection between women and spinning (seriously, ladies used to spin pretty much constantly when not otherwise engaged), why *wouldn’t* any women’s mysteries in witchcraft revolve around spinning? It’s a magic of fate, of pulling, of binding, and at times, even of creation!
Stangs, Staffs, and Distaffs, oh my!
To return to the distaffs, although it’s not a ‘weaving distaff’ (weaving and spinning are distinct, dammit!) Robert Cochrane (who died in 1966) seems to have been right at least about the importance of the distaff. More recent work by archaeologists on the so-called ‘staffs of sorcery’ found in (mostly) Viking Age graves has highlighted the resemblance between many of the ‘staffs of sorcery’ (many of which were made of iron, making them too heavy for work use) and distaffs of the same time period.
Admittedly, those distaffs/staffs didn’t look like stangs, but I rather suspect that the function of distaff may have been added to the stang’s already multi-purpose nature (as much as some people may disparage them, they are the original ‘port-a-witch’ kit). Then there are the crooked staffs to take into account – but more on those another time.
Unfortunately this topic is far too big to be covered fully in a blog post, so I’m including some links to sources for any of you that are interested in exploring this topic further. If there are any specific points you would like clarifying, or a specific source citation, please feel free to mail me and ask. In my next post, I’m going to talk more about the nuts and bolts of working spun magic, and some of my experiences in this kind of work.
Suggested Further Reading:
Eldar Heide – Spinning Seidr George Giannakis – The “Fate as Spinner” motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greece and Indo-European (Parts I and II) (may be obtainable via ILL) Bruce Lincoln – Death, War, Sacrifice Mirjam Mencej – Connecting Threads Leszek Gardela – Into Viking Minds: Reinterpreting the Staffs of Sorcery and Unravelling Seidr (or anything by Leszek Gardela on the Staffs of Sorcery – go find him on academia.edu)
So there was this one time, when I was fleeing down a dark path with two friends. More specifically, we were running from a burial mound where we’d been since before sunset. One of my friends was experienced in the occult and the other, not so much. I was probably somewhere in between at that point. It was dark and it was scary, and the sound of footfalls following us on the path behind us as we moved was nothing short of unnerving.
Or at least it would have been had I not already crossed from ‘terrified’ into ‘pissed off’.
We made our way as carefully and as fast as we could down this old rocky path, trying to get to the car parked at the road, my terrified friend’s arm interlinked with mine as she talked about how she’d never experienced anything like that before and how it had been a wakeup call for her.
It had started off well, we’d arrived before the sun went down and made offerings before heading inside the mound. Carefully lighting tealights in places where they wouldn’t cause any scorchmarks or other damage, we made our offering of ‘silver’ to Weyland as is customary at that site, and got down to work. We tranced and we called, sung invocations and drummed, we enticed, and eventually the spirits paid attention.
There’s that adage that a person should be careful what they wish for, and that’s usually the kind of response this story gets. Usually from the kind of people who’ve never done anything that didn’t involve pushing back the sofa and doing whatever they do. But let’s face it, if we weren’t the kinds of people to wish for *more*, then we probably wouldn’t be doing witchcraft in the first place.
To cut a long story short, things got dangerous in every way imaginable, and I really wasn’t up for being stuck in a burial mound with a half-possessed person sitting blocking the doorway and everything shifting. You see, there comes a point in a mound sitting, at least in my experience, when everything shifts, when you’re not longer in a burial mound per se, but you are definitely ‘on their turf’. I mean, it’s their turf anyway, but it’s kind of like the difference between visiting the embassy of a country and being in that country.
So we ended up fleeing as fast as we could down a rocky path without breaking any bones until we reached the car and it became clear that the troublesome one from the mound had no intention of not following us. One friend was thrown back as he tried to put stang mark in dirt, and my other friend – the scared one – lacked the level of conviction at that point to make any magic work, let alone the kind needed on the hoof against something not-so-friendly. Her faith had simply been shaken too badly by what had happened. There was a time when she would have probably shared that meme about exorcism via banging pans and telling things to fuck off that goes around Facebook, but now she knows better.
You see, when you get out there, when you leave the comfort of your home and go to places that are dark and old and maybe even inhabited by the Unseen, you tend to come across things that are really not impressed by someone banging pans and yelling “Fuck off!”
In the end, it was my anger that put an end to it following us, that beat of adrenaline and high emotion channeled that so often makes for effective witchcraft.
Whenever I tell this story, I tend to get a number of reactions – most of them about ‘safety’ and comments of ‘ineptitude’ by people who have quite frankly never been there or to anywhere like there. You see, modern witchcraft has an issue – well, it has several – but one of the greatest is that so much emphasis has been put on making it ‘safe’ that many are simply not recognizing the usefulness of fear to a witch, or indeed, what a great teacher it is.
There are dangers that can and should be mitigated when going abroad into the dark and in search of the hidden. Practical measures such as letting someone know where you’re going and how long you should be, having some form of self-defense at your disposal, packing for the elements, carrying adequate survival supplies and a phone – these are all good things.
As is carrying things like salt, hagstones, iron (if your stang isn’t already ‘shod’), and offerings of appeasement. Knowing how to use these things and employ other forms of magical protection is a must, as is knowing the etiquette of dealing with the Other in your area – folk tales are how you learn this.
There are things you can and should mitigate, but witchcraft will never be, nor never should be ‘safe’, and nor should we seek to make it so.
Witchcraft is also not glamorous and sanitized, it’s pissing into bottles full of nails and glass and accidentally getting some on your fingers; it’s blood and bone, it’s using things you’ve come across (or that have come across you); it’s making deals with things you’d damn well better keep an eye on and have a backup plan for; it’s often the mother of cuts and scrapes earned during pitch black hikes with entheogens pumping through your system; it’s not mass-produced and packaged for convenience.
It’s not bland.
I don’t know when ‘fear’ became considered a bad thing in witchcraft, or when danger became considered a failing rather than one of the ‘occupational hazards’ of the witch, but I think it has been very much to the detriment of the Craft.
Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned have been when my back has been to the wall and I’ve swallowed down the fear and worked with the kind of desperation that you never get when dealing with the ‘safe’. At the mound, I learned to change that fear into white-hot rage to work against something dangerous – something which has saved my ass numerous times since. At the mound, my friend learned that things weren’t as safe as she’d previously believed and that magic is much more than simply saying words and performing actions. Those are some very deep lessons, and lessons that none of us would have learned had we not gone out there into the night and in search of the potentially dangerous.
Fear can be a teacher, it’s not something to be avoided but a test to pass. Sometimes passing that test is getting away hale and whole and having a new tool in your skillset for the future. Other times, passing that test leads you to some of the greatest highs of your life.
But you cannot pass if you never sit the test, and you can never sit the test unless you leave the safe and sanitized behind.
About a week ago on my Facebook page, I asked if any of my friends would be interested in reading posts about some of the many (many) spooky things that have happened to me over the years. The answer was a resounding “yes”, and so this post is the first in what will hopefully become a collection of spook-tastic stories.
The problem though with coming up with such an idea, is choosing which stories to tell. It’s easy to think of them when you’re in a conversation or watching something about similar events, but when you’re sitting in front of the cold, unforgiving screen of your computer, it’s quite another matter.
This week, we’ve had (what we believe to be) a plumbing issue stemming from mains work done in our area. At first, we just noticed that the bed shook, and I don’t know what it says about me that I was both simultaneously glad that our bed is heavy as shit, and pissed off that something might be messing with us just as I was turning off my kindle to get some sleep.
Back in my late teens, I did a semester on parapsychology at junior college as part of my psychology A-level. I also used to belong to a paranormal investigation group in my home town, and so while I do see and experience a lot, I also have this instinct to investigate and debunk. So, out came my hands, feeling different surfaces to try and isolate a source for the shaking – the headboard – it felt like it was coming from the headboard and shaking down the bed. When my husband got up to go to the bathroom during the shaking, the shaking intensified and so I got up, turned on the light and began to video it. The bed didn’t touch the wall, and as far as we knew then, there were no pipes behind that wall. I put my hand against the wall, but it felt less intense than the bed. As I videoed the shaking though, and began to film down the crack between our bed and the wall, it stopped.
“Of course you fucking did.”, I said to myself. Because how many of us have had things happen only to stop when you’re getting evidence?
We climbed back into bed and slept until morning with no further issues. As I wasn’t getting the creep factor, I didn’t bother worrying about it. Until the next night when we were shaken awake at 5 am. That day, I pulled up the mattress and looked to see if somehow, some kind of animal or rodents had managed to slot themselves in between the under bed drawers without the dog and two cats noticing.
To cut a long story short though, it was the next night that I saw the drywall moving and my concerns shifted to far more mundane (and less exciting) issues around structural integrity. Regardless of this though, the shaking did remind me of something that happened to me over a decade ago.
I’ve never really been a fan of being in houses or apartments when you’re in the process of moving. They feel too liminal and open to me, like anything can just walk in. When you’re moving, you’re either relinquishing a claim on a place, or about to be making a claim. In truth, this is why I tend to avoid taking down all of the shrines for as long as I can, and they’re among the first things that are set up in the new home.
I’d been living in this two-level apartment for about three months when this happened. It was the final evening and I was yet to pack, but I wasn’t concerned as I was living out of a backpack at the time and packing in those days took an hour at most.
I’d spent the evening watching TV alone as my housemates were either at work or had gone out for the night, and it had all been very uneventful until it came time to go into my bedroom and begin to pack.
In my experience, with the exception of pure poltergeist phenomenon (in which you only have moving items and literally nothing else going on), there’s always a vibe that accompanies a haunting. It may begin with the sensation of being watched, or simply just a sense of something ‘building’ up in the atmosphere around you. If you ‘see’ things as I do, you might perceive a disturbance in the air around you, an amping up that looks not too dissimilar from ‘snow’ on an old TV set. Except all around you. Making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Often, there’s a preturnatural cold, and if you have any pets, you might notice them beginning to behave very oddly; either trying to escape or barking aggressively at ‘nothing’.
This is what I felt as I began the process of turning off the TV, turning out the lights, and going through the motions of washing my face and cleaning my teeth. There was this sense of ‘building up’, and like I was no longer alone. Knowing my housemates wouldn’t be back for hours and that I really had nowhere else to go, I resolved to get my packing done, and then just go to sleep and ignore it. After all, you wouldn’t believe the amount of weird things I’ve ignored and just gone to sleep on. I’d imagine it’s the ghost equivalent of giving someone a handy J and then stopping right before they come.
But as soon as I stepped into my room – a room that had been completely fine before then – all thoughts of ignoring it were gone as I was physically shoved across the room. Righting myself to the sound of my furious heartbeat in my ears, I scanned the room around me, trying to see what had just got me, while trying to control my adrenaline and fear enough to start protecting myself. As I turned though, before I could get a hold on myself, this voice that was more like an air canon sounded in my ear.
I ducked as though I could avoid the force of the word, which was emitted with such pressure it was almost tangible.
And so it went for as long as it took me to pack. Shoves punctuated with words punched into my ear and seeming to come from just over my shoulder. For my part, I simply tried to get a grip of myself as I packed desperately as the *thing*, the interloper that was taking advantage of the transience, mocked and promised me that moving wouldn’t get rid of him.
By the time one of my housemates came home, I was seriously shaken – on every level. Until that point, I had never had anything actually physically hurt me in that way. But my 23 year old self was nothing if not resilient – if a lot less disciplined than now – and I soon shook it off after I moved the next day.
So, I don’t normally ‘go there’ with this blog, but I’ve been reading some of the posts about the current Pagan controversy du jour. You know the ones I’m on about, the ones talking about offering bullets to the Morrigan.
And you know, I can’t help but look at it and just wonder what the hell is wrong with people?
In my previous two posts, I talked about pushing things forward, but this to me is the opposite of that. It’s a completely pointless debate that has far more to do with kneejerk reactions about guns than anything that any of us should be bothering with.
So, some Morrigan cultists feel that bullets make a good offering for the Morrigan – a goddess who is, among other things, a goddess of war.
Whoop de doo. Really, whoop de doo.
So what if it’s not your cup of tea, surely what counts is that the people doing the offering genuinely think it to be a good offering, and that they are doing and giving their best? Yes, there are some issues around the safe disposal of live rounds, especially those that as sacrificed items, by definition have passed out of human usage. And there should be discussion around the practicalities and safety issues of offering live rounds. Now there is an issue folks didn’t really have to consider when depositing swords (or whatever) in bogs. But some of the comments made have been ridiculous. One blog post talked about how they questioned the UPG of anyone that had UPG to offer bullets and how those that had such UPG should assess if it really was UPG or just the product of conditioning oneself to block all other messages out.
I feel like I’m saying that a lot here (I am).
How is UPG that bullets are a good offering down to bias, but UPG that says they’re not a good offering somehow not? Then there was the slippery slope argument, after all, why not napalm? After all, I hear it smells great in the morning.
Like it or not, the gun has played a significant role in American history – for the good and the bad. Without the gun, America would never have gained independence from my people – the Mexicans.
Just kidding. The British. I’m British, what what!
You know, that whole sovereignty thing again.
Then there’s my favourite argument that somehow, by offering bullets, you’re changing the Morrigan. You’re changing a deity/group of deities who is/are predominantly (a) war goddess/es (depending on which of the Morrigna you’re talking about here), with what? US gun culture? Really? Like the deity who is said to collect the heads of men is somehow going to become more bloodthirsty and behind every school and racially-motivated police shooting? Like somehow our human culture could teach a goddess how to suck eggs. I don’t agree with the sentiment that the gods are formed by humans. Certainly different cultures with the same gods understand those gods differently, but could that really be said to be a reflection of a change in the nature of those gods themselves? I think that mentality is a convenient one, because the person that adopts it doesn’t really have to go out of their comfort zone in their worship – after all, the deity will eventually adapt to your cultural norms in all your human greatness, right?
Getting back to it though, to me, this particular controversy feels like something that maybe had its birth in the ‘worshipping the Morrigan is feeding the military-industrial complex’ post that became infamous a while ago.
And it’s all so laughable, really what are we doing here? How is any of this not silly? Especially when set against the other recent controversies du jour, like ‘Why you shouldn’t celebrate Lughnasadh’, or ‘Why you shouldn’t bother with Imbolc’ (I’m paraphrasing here). Seriously, I’m almost going to be disappointed if there’s no ‘Why you shouldn’t go anywhere near Beltane because it feeds into an STD spirit’ post.
After a while, it gets so tiresome too – all the drama that just swirls around sucking up people’s attention and distracting them from things that actually matter. It’s a doldrum, and we need to sail the fuck out of it.
Last night, I read the blog of a man who was lucky to survive boyhood, and for whom the gun is a very real symbol of survival and being safe. Again sovereignty – this time of the bodily kind. Maybe I’m just reading into his tone, but he sounded despondent, yet still trying to explain why he feels the need to make those offerings that others find so objectionable – *why* they made sense to him and why it wasn’t some political thing. In reading that blog, that man’s reaction to the controversy, this whole thing almost felt like a form of bullying and so very ultimately useless.
We have incomplete theologies, ritual formats that need some serious work, reciprocal relationships to honour, communities that need building, skills that need honing, friends that need shenanigans, and family members that need love.
On the day she came home, they’d been happy to see their daughter return. Communication had been difficult at times, sometimes even impossible. Like every child out adventuring out in the world, there were times when she simply hadn’t even remembered to check in, to let them know she was ok. But that was ok too, because she always did eventually. Full of life and happy to see home again even for the short time she’d be there before the next adventure.
This time though, things were different. When she’d arrived this time, they’d worried as she coughed, a dark shadow falling on her chest like never before. Watching her struggle to climb hills and moors that she’d climbed hundreds of times before with ease, they felt only sadness. But she always was a stubborn one and she’d carried on walking uphill regardless. They’d gone with her to see the doctor a week or so later, her coughing…no asthma had gotten so bad.
“I remember how bad that was for me”, Violet had said, “Marvellous what they can do nowadays with medicine.” Lillian had simply stroked their granddaughter’s forehead as she breathed in the nebulizer and her breathing stabilized.
Eventually though, she’d gone again, got onto the plane with her husband and left.
And after a few hours they couldn’t feel her anymore.
Late at night, when most people are comfortably ensconced inside, they would meet on the beach, the sometimes stormy Irish sea before them. Something about that direction, that place made them feel ever so slightly closer to her, their errant family member. Sometimes Lew would make comments like “She gets that from me, you know!”, and his sister and wife would slap him on the shoulder and tell him not to be so daft, and that he’d never literally disappeared before.
One of those nights, when the surf was up and they could almost hear what sounded like her voice on the wind, James came to the conclusion that this not being able to hear her thing had to have something to do with the sea and then the ocean beyond that. After all, she *couldn’t* be in Ireland, they’d know. They had family and blood there. At one point, Peter had even stood on the opposite shore and called to them that she absolutely wasn’t there. Thanking him, they’d engaged in a bit of banter before going back to keep an eye on the rest of the family.
It was finally when William was sitting next to his son, in the living room of 35 Primrose street that he’d heard Val say something about her being in America. It all made sense to them now, but still they missed her.
“It’s probably best if you go to Southport when the tide’s up” said Ken, he still wasn’t comfortable in his new role in the family, but he was doing well even though it hurt him to see his wife still so sad. “Take it easy, son. These things take time.”, his dad had said. He knew better than most how it was to go through that kind of separation, and Ken had always been the kind of big brother to take his responsibilities to his siblings very seriously.
So it was that they came to be sitting there on the beach during what was a horrible storm (for those that could still feel that kind of thing), straining their ears and trying to hear their long-lost daughter, they sat. They had all but given up, when they finally heard it, her voice weak on the winds.
It was their names in prayer, asking them to do their best to find her.
And right then and there, they decided that if the wind could find a way, so could they
It would seem that I struck a nerve with my post yesterday. Frankly I’m a little overwhelmed that it’s been shared so many times and that quite a few people agree with what I had to say. This corner of the internet is usually so quiet, and if anything, I was expecting more of a e-lynch mob for my views; after all, my position is uncompromising. While I’m flattered and overwhelmed that people are sharing and talking about my post, I’m far happier that I’m not the only person who sees this issue, and who wants to roll up her sleeves and do something about it. How often do we hear that the first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge that there is one in the first place? It feels like a lot of people want to take that first step now.
And yes, it is controversial to admit that there is a problem with our expectations of ritual, experience, and magic. It’s controversial because it calls into question so many people within our various communities, and I’m really not trying to be like the person whose shit doesn’t stink here. I am nobody’s guru, I have no interest in being anyone’s guru, I fuck up and have my ‘off’ days. I’ve tangibly experienced, and also tangibly fucked up in ways that would make you not even trust me with children’s safety scissors. Some days, I’ve fucked up so much that nothing has happened, the energy hasn’t been there, the spell (or whatever I was doing) didn’t work, and the whole thing was like the magical equivalent of the flan in the oven that just doesn’t make it out right. But you know, I think it’s important to be honest about that, it’s something we can ultimately learn from, all a part of the developmental process.
But this is nothing if not a nuanced issue, and as a friend commented on my Facebook post in which I initially shared this blog, it really isn’t so simple as ‘I felt nothing so ergo *this* is shit’ either. To quote Heather O’Brien:
“I think sometimes the cynics build walls too high that they block themselves in, others have a trust and fear to overcome and will only be able to do that through directly engaging. Still, there are those who are roasting Twinkies. It’s a tangled ball.“
I think Heather puts this beautifully, this is a ‘tangled ball’. The question of discernment, of figuring out if something has its roots in the sacred and magical, or profane and chicane is not an easy one. Further compounding this, there are some individuals who do block themselves off from experiences for various reasons. This sounds like a kind of handy ‘get out clause’ that the less scrupulous could use as a way to explain away any lack of experience, but bear with me here.
When I was a kid, things got quite intense at times, and sometimes they got to the point where I was so scared and so resistant to seeing or experience things that I then wouldn’t. As time would pass though, I’d begin to feel like I’d lost a faculty, like something was missing, and then I’d realise that I’d shut myself down. These experiences were the beginning of learning to open up and shut down for me, but most people who build those walls so high don’t learn to ever open up a door so that they can have those experiences.
Some experiences are so powerful they break through anyway.
There was this one time when I lived in France that a friend of mine – a vocal skeptic – saw a shadow person under the full beam of a street lamp. That was enough to pull down those walls for her, and that was her introduction to a world that was far less certain and manageable. As you might imagine, this was quite terrifying for her. Unlike me when I was a child, she’d never had any experience before,so her walls weren’t walls erected out of fear but what she felt was logic.
So, how do we know when we’re dealing with a ‘null event’, or if we have somehow bricked ourselves into a protective keep? Because it’s important to know the difference. Knowing the difference is how we maintain a sense of realism even with the ‘unreal’.
I have no hard and fast answers for this, but again, I do think this is something we should be thinking about, discussing, and figuring out in a more concrete sense.
Thinking of my own experiences in this though, during the times I’ve sat behind the thick, impenetrable walls of my own keep, my disconnect has been so utterly complete that *nothing* would get through to me. If you go to one ritual and feel nothing, then maybe the ritual was badly done. But if you go for months feeling nothing – even doing activities that were previously guaranteed (well, as much as things can be guaranteed with this kind of thing) to give you those experiences – then the chances are that you’ve shut down and you probably need to figure out why.
However, if you’re not having experiences or being grabbed by the guts within certain contexts (but outside of those contexts still have things happen), then it’s those rituals and magical contexts that are the issue.
That’s my ‘twopennorth’ on the matter anyway.
The second comment that I’ve seen in relation to my first post (which can be found here) is one that has baffled me a little. A couple of people have gotten enthusiastic and said that they’re in and pretty much asked, “What’s next?”
I have ideas, oh goodness do I have ideas, and I fully intend on pestering certain people in my local community about those ideas in the coming months, but I don’t have a magical ‘fix’ or product entitled ‘How To Up Our Collective Magical/Ritual Game’. As I said above, I’m not a guru, I’m not here to sell anything (except maybe things that I knit/crochet/spin/felt, or workshops filled with months worth of research and come with citation-filled handouts).
So what the hell was I on about with my exhortation to push things forward if I wasn’t presenting what that ‘forward’ looks like?
I’m talking about honesty, discernment, and adopting an almost scientific methodology. I’m talking about approaching spirituality with all of those things and using them to figure out what worked, what didn’t work, and having the honesty, courage, and integrity to ask “What went wrong?”. I’m talking about being willing to go back to the drawing board, look the sources we have on how people did things in the past, and then trying them out now. I’m talking about a constant process of trial, error, and growth. I’m talking about no endpoint, only constantly striving to improve. I’m talking about knowing.
That goes for basic skills too – I mean, I’ve lost count of the number of self-described magic workers who have told me they can’t do basic meditation, let alone visualisation, pathworkings, or really any of the exercises used by pretty much every occult tradition to build the various types of discipline in practitioners. In a lot of ways, if we want to ‘up our game’, we need to emphasise the basics more. Aside from being necessary in terms of developing skill and honing our arte, there is no greater test of commitment than sticking to and practicing those (mostly boring) exercises. I would even refuse to teach people that don’t demonstrate that commitment to practice, or in other words, that lack Will or the ability and commitment to developing it/developing it further.
You see, I’m talking about work here, hard work, the kind of work that takes years. In other words, not something that can be neatly packaged and sold as a product. By the way, the people that asked me about how to go forward from here are not work-shy or lacking in commitment in the slightest. I don’t want anyone to get any wrong ideas about that here, I respect these people greatly.
But still, the point needs to be made that this shit can’t be neatly packaged and sold as a product (or, horror of horrors divided into ‘modules’ that may eventually make up a whole). A product is the end of a creative process, it’s selling an endpoint – usually with an accompanying title – and when people get titles and think they have an endpoint, they become entrenched.
Finally, we need to Dare. We need to suck up our fears, roll up our sleeves, stop pushing the goddamn sofa back, and get our asses down to the graveyards, into the forests, out to the crossroads, and onto the burial mounds. We need to dare to seek out the sacred and liminal, the holy and scary, and encounter it with our hard-earned knowledge and hard-won Will.
We need to not just talk about doing, but actually do too.
From the years as a kid having little chats with my dad about why I saw the dead and the odd exercises ‘reading’ objects or ‘channeling spirit’, to the (now decades) of witchcraft that followed, I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of ‘Other’. I’ve had everything from being pushed around a room repeatedly by something unseen, to seeing objects floating in the air, to watching scratches appear on my skin as the scratch was being made by something unseen,to losing my ability to walk until leaving a place, to having a crooked stick actually jump up at me in a forest, to…well, you get the idea. I’ve dealt with possessions and curses, cleared haunted homes, experienced a deity, and participated in the odd bout of necromancy.
In other words, I know what it is to experience the ‘supernatural’ in a very tangible way and to feel the kind of power inherent in that.
I’m going to be honest here – downright controversial even – but most of what passes for ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ in the Pagan or Heathen communities isn’t it. I see so much stuff that is simply wishy-washy, that may as well be cold reading, that relies on people wanting to believe and experience. It’s rare that I see something that truly grips a person by the guts.
We need to up our game, not just with magic, but with ritual in general. How many Heathens and Pagans can truly say they’ve ever experienced hierophany? I’m not talking about the ‘Odinn told me that he *wants* some Twinkies and he says that you need to do (insert hopefully inane activity here)’ variety of experience. I’m not talking about experience via intermediaries, but true hierophany where you learn on the deepest gut-level the real meaning of awe, where that indescribable sense of fear and love permeates every cell in your being and any doubts are completely swept away by something that is so.much.greater.than.yourself. If more people had experienced that, the enormity of that, then we’d have far fewer people claiming to speak for the gods.
You may have noticed that I keep mentioning guts too – they’re important. The real grabs you by your guts and when that real is nasty, digestive problems are not uncommon. You see, your head may not know the difference between the real and illusion, but your guts do. If you have a reading and you don’t feel like you’re going to throw up, like somehow that person is peeking inside you – renegotiate the price. If you are told that someone is channelling a god and they have a message for you yet you don’t feel anything in your guts – don’t buy it, take a look at the person that’s making the claim and assess what may be going on with them that they are saying such things. If you put on a ritual and you don’t feel anything in your guts – go back to the drawing board and figure out how to do it better.
Because the responsibility is on us, it’s for us to figure out how to do better so that we might experience more. So that we might push things forward.
The problem though, is that too many of us are convinced we’re already at the endpoint, that we already know all that we need to know.
That’s like seeding a quarter of a field in exactly the same way year after year and then wondering why the yield becomes less as time goes on. Eventually, the field becomes barren and those that engage in that particular tradition of seeding the field starve.
We can do better.
But we need to be prepared to try, we need to be prepared to push past our comfort zones and reach for that better. We need to stop thinking about our gods in such ‘convenient’ ways and to truly respect them for what they are. This isn’t some alternative to psychology, the spirits aren’t automatically benevolent, and magic is often dirty. Being half-assed isn’t how we grow, it isn’t how we create something coherent and rich to pass on to our descendants, and it isn’t what will bring our descendants back to pour out offerings on our graves when we’re gone.
So, are you in or out?
Edited to add: This post got quite a response and some interesting discussion ensued which led to Deepening the Line
A long time ago in a land far away, a land of colour and mystery and things that went BUMP in the night, there lived a girl. Like many others, she had arrived with her backpack heavy with clothes and her mind heavy with dreams. She’d always wanted to travel in the east, ever since she’d read her first library book about China and learned how to write three simple phrases in Chinese.
“Big man” “Big man sits down” “Man too big”
Not that was any use really in Korea, but still.
She even found herself liking the look of the Korean script better than Chinese, its characters reminded her of the fish she used to go catch with her dad as a child; sitting on the banks of the canal and pulling up trout, gudgeon, and the odd tench.
Her first night in Korea was punctuated by a bad case of ‘Dehli Belly’, and waking up to what she thought were three bloodied women at the bottom of her bed, talking at her emphatically with words she didn’t understand. Unsure if she was hallucinating from the dehydration and sickness, she vaguely remembered that civil war and starvation were still within living memory for many in the country and went back to sleep.
The next day she felt better after drinking a little bottle of tonic a co-worker gave her. She didn’t even notice the weird tone her co-worker’s questions took.
“Is your apartment ok?”
“Are you sure?”
Not even when she told her that everything worked as it should and it was quite comfortable.
“Ahhh” *nod* ” But is your apartment…ok?”
These are the things you don’t necessarily pick up or think about until later on when things become apparent that maybe your apartment is a little weird.
It started with the noise of what sounded like a wet body trying to get out of a bathtub coming from the bathroom. From 11pm every night, she would hear and ignore that. At first she investigated it, stood there in the bathroom looking at the tub as the noises emanated from it. It wasn’t the neighbours – those impossible people who managed to be ever so quiet in spite of five kids and plastic walls.
A couple of weeks after that, the toilet exploded. She fixed it, moved on, and ignored the weird vibe in the apartment. She was being watched, and it wasn’t necessarily nice. Deciding to create a ‘safe room’, she worked protections on her bedroom – it’s at least good to get some sleep, right? So what if she could hear the wet body noises every night for two hours? She was good at ignoring things like that.
She met a boy, they hit it off, and thank goodness he was there the night her plastic bathroom ceiling set on fire. Even though the electrician ‘fixed it’ and declared it ‘safe’ with one layer of tape, it was still the end of the bathroom light.
Things moved on their own, from the empty candy tub that sailed ten feet across the room while she was on the phone with her mother, to the toaster oven door that would open and shut on its own. She made sure to always put the chairs under the table before going to bed because part of her was sure she would see figures sitting in them during a late night bathroom trip.
As she gained her feet in the new land, she gained ways of dealing with it. She set up a shrine to appease the spirits with coins. A spirit showed up one evening, “My men call me the General, General Yi”, and she felt a little safer. The next day at work while leafing through books, she found a picture of the man that had leaned over her the night before – General Yi Soon Shin, a native of the area where she was living, made Admiral posthumously. So the General found a place on her shrine too.
Periodically she’d bury the coin pile of offerings that built up and start again, and something resembling an easy peace was kept. When she forgot though, that’s when the scratches would start.
“OMG you have a ghost!”
That had been her boss’s response when she’d seen the scratches – along with her heavily bitten fingernails, nails her boss had gently chided her over before.
Then there were the dreams in Korea, dreams that blurred reality, dreams that bordered on trance and made her feel exhausted come daylight.
Once such dream scared the daylights out of her. It felt significant, a dream of life and death, of witchcraft, underworld beings, and women – goddesses undulating with snakes around their bodies, “watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”
It had been so unsettling, she’d awoke, relieved to see her then boyfriend sleeping beside her – until he spoke in his sleep.
“Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”
Where UPG (or Dream) and Research Meet
The thing about dreams and visions is that they don’t always make a whole lot of sense at the time, and it doesn’t mean anything. These things only gain meaning when you figure out their context. Until that point, it’s best to simply file them away for future reference, and keep the to the ‘personal’ aspect of ‘UPG’.
Sometimes they sit there until you forget them, or just put it down to a brain fart. Other times though, you find that context and the meaning hits you like a ten tonne truck.
Sometimes you find that context in a conversation or a place. Other times you find it in a book or indeed many books. No matter where you find it though, the effect is still the same.
It’s like a door unlocks and you’re plunged into potential and new avenues for exploration.
The Hittites used snakes in divinatory practices related to the ancestors, snakes and wells. Snakes and water – routes to the underworld, where a serpent called ‘MUŠ’
‘ sat upon wool being ever bound and unbound. Some IE cultures kept some of these pieces of worldview, some held only the barest echoes. Context found.
“Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”
Imagine a world that is like this one, except not – a “shadow world” maybe.
That is ‘here’, but somehow also ‘there’.
Imagine a world where the usually Unseen – like Aelfe (or any other type of wiht really) – may be readily seen. Imagine a world in which we-the-living and seen, are like sleepwalkers in this reality. Sometimes the colors are muted and washed out – the washed out blues of a wolf’s vision. But at other times, and in other places, they’re so vibrant that even modern animation techniques can’t touch it. Here too are shades of grey, punctuated by the odd flash of color.
There is a word in Old English, Scín. On the most basic level, it’s the skin that encases the meat suits we drive around, but on the the hand, it’s not. It’s ‘here’ but also ‘there’.
For the early English, though, and especially for those that knew a thing or two, this ‘skin’ that was here but also there was something that could also be manipulated, shaped, formed, and made to appear to others. It was ‘Scínlac’, for the Norse it was ‘Hamfarir’.
It was in this world/not world that the Seidrworker journeyed when any ‘journeying’ occurred. This world of the Unseen. Not Asgard, not Helheim, not anywhere but this glorious Middle Earth.
Among the pages of the Utrecht Psalter, there’s an illustration of these curious flying beings with horns and stingers. Creatures that couldn’t possibly exist in the physical world-‘áttor-coppe’ they were called, ‘poison heads’. Not the physical-but-unrelated ‘áttor-coppe’, no, they’re easily recognisable – we call them ‘spiders’, another kind of ‘poison head’ -Old English is nothing if not descriptive.
A kind of ‘flying sickness’ often taken as ‘infectious disease’ – but that’s only if the disease is physical, but who knows?
You see, these worlds don’t operate separately from each other, but in concert with each other – cause and effect. Sometimes the Unseen manifests here, sometimes the Unseen directly influences what happens here – lost keys, doors that open without anyone there to open them. Other times though, It’s the ‘Scín’-that-is-here-but-there that is affected and the whole becomes sick or well or gains some luck.
Now imagine what all of what I’ve written here could potentially mean. How do you interact with the Unseen? Do you understand yet its importance, or what?
When I was at university, my housemates used to joke about me being that kid from ‘Sixth Sense’. I was…weird. I saw things they didn’t, I knew things I shouldn’t have known, and I did things that scared them. A good example of this was the time I described my housemate’s dream that she’d had the night before.
“Hey, I had a weird dream last night and you were in it, it went like this…”
Her white sheet face and stuttered “How did you know?” before she left the room let me know what had happened. The next day she left for home and came back a few days later wearing Catholic blessed metals. I’d scared her.
But although that kind of thing was funny by the time I was at university, it was anything but funny as a child.
Regular readers will know that I have a bit of an atypical background in that my father’s side of the family were/are spiritualists. My father once told me that ghosts were more likely to pester me because people that can see stand out like bright lights in a dark landscape. It sounds poetic, but it didn’t make it somehow easier or less scary as a kid when the dark got ‘fuzzy’ and ‘pixellated’, and that preternatural cold rolled in.
And it was always in the western corner of my room too, which probably isn’t a surprise for those of you that know a thing or two.
Having a dog made it easier, I soon learned that the dog would leave the room before the fuzziness and cold. My cairn terrier crossed with a Bedlington terrier became a sort of early warning system, and when I was around 13 or 14, I took up witchcraft as a way to give myself some tools for dealing.
This brings us back to the present day and a situation that affects a number of parents in my group of friends.
Two nights ago, while helping my husband to build a hutch for the living room, we were disturbed by the sounds of our shrieking toddler over the baby monitor. As I was less engaged in the project, I went up stairs to (or so I thought) simply rock her back to sleep or maybe give her something to drink. But when I got there, the atmosphere was strange, and her room was darker than dark. I could barely see my way to the rocking chair in spite of the light on in the hallway.
Snatching her up, I tried to calm her by singing and rocking her while I went through the usual ‘oh you’re just imagining things’, and ‘but it feels nice in this house’. But my toddler kept looking at the darkest part of the room with fear while screaming and the dog wouldn’t come in. Whatever was there felt alien – not in the ET sense of the word, just ‘far removed from human’. I’ll use the word ‘wight’, because it’s easier, and before anyone gets hysterical about ‘demons’ and ‘evil’, it wasn’t anything as dramatic as that.
The idea of lullabies-as-spells has intrigued me for years – ever since I read a theory that the ‘vouch-pledges’ that Gudrid sang/chanted for Thorbjorg Little Volva were possibly used as lullabies for her to preserve the songs.
I like to think that I would have been better prepared for this eventuality before I became a parent, you know, given my background? But it was in that rocking chair with that darker than dark presence with my frightened toddler in my arms that I came upon the idea of turning spell songs into lullabies.
I sing all the time at home. My own personal magical practice is filled with songs, songs to drive out, songs to bless, songs of worship. Songs to pull kicking and screaming, and songs to repel.
So I sang, I began with an song in Old English of driving out and the room got lighter. I sang a song of protection and the dog returned to lay at my feet, and then I sang prayers. By the time I was done, the room was calm and the toddler was happily snoring.
The Morning After
Yesterday, I saw whatever it was in the upstairs hallway. It was strange, its shape was unfamiliar, and almost animal in presentation. Later that day, my husband asked me if I’d felt or seen anything weird knocking around upstairs. Our house backs onto a forest, in which there is a creek that leads to the Patuxent river, this shouldn’t be a surprise that something may have found its way from there -especially if my daughter shares in the family ‘trait’. If my dad is right, they would have followed that bright little light and come to see what it was, and this thing was curious.
I have faith that the ancestors and Cofgodas of my home won’t let harmful in, but I put iron in my daughter’s room all the same and made offerings to the Cofgodas amending my prayers that they also keep out things that feel downright weird and alien. Today things feel normal again, but I’ll probably mugwort and salt my home for good measure.
This has made me worry a little though. I don’t want my daughter to spend as many nights afraid as I did as a child. It doesn’t matter if something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘not harmful’, as a kid, it’s strange and *still* scary. It takes time, practice, and support from good people to not be afraid when the usual signs of something coming begin, and the only exception I’ve seen to this are ancestors. I want her to have the tools to deal with whatever she may encounter, but she’s so small right now and too young to be taught.
The Parental Dilemma
When I was seventeen, I had a brush with what I would call ‘evil’. As always, this thing appeared in the West as a grey mist – after about an hour of this building sense of malice. I ran to my dad for help and got to see his face change completely from what I recognised to one I didn’t know. My dad wasn’t so much in charge of what he did as saw himself as an instrument of ‘Spirit’. His trances could be quite involved, but this was the only one I’ve ever seen him change so completely and gain features that weren’t his own – not to mention his voice, the timbre of which I still remember to this day as he said “Leave us!”.
Later that same week, while visiting with a friend, I found myself outside a locked, empty room, with furniture somehow moving around inside it.
That week was one for the books.
I want to spare her those kind of weeks and those kind of nights. I want to teach her so that she feels empowered and safe – well, as safe as you can really when it comes to stuff like that.
But in spite of my experiences as a child, and being far more proactive in my work than my father, I find myself , just like my friends who also deal with this, wondering how to go about it. No one writes books about child development and how it relates to teaching witchcraft. I mean, at what age can a child effectively visualise well enough to construct protections, and although I’m sure my stubborn toddler has the Will bit down, when will she gain the focus to consistently apply Will? How do you discipline a child that then takes the things you teach them and turns into an asshole with other kids or adults? What is an ideal model for gradually exposing your child to various types of wights so that they can gain confidence and not be afraid? What type of wight should you seek out or pull in first?
And once again, I find myself wishing my child came with a manual. Sound familiar?