The squash leaves are huge; big, hairy, plates of green that cover smaller plants indiscriminately. I go through them, uncovering patches of kale, collards, lambs quarters, and dandelion greens, picking off pests and checking for various eggs as I do. It’s dusk, and once again it’s just me, my garden, and my trusty green watering can.
When I first started my garden, my daughter ripped up almost all of the seedlings I’d so carefully started, and I’d despaired. All that time, all that money, and all that work had been destroyed in less than a minute by a determined toddler with a stick. After a few tears and talking to friends about growing seasons in my local area, I decided to start again and began to grow more seedlings – this time outside. Eventually they grew, as seedlings do, and I had enough to fill my two plots. I also had some surprises, for nature is nothing if not tenacious, and a toddler’s harsh stick work is nothing in the face of that.
When I first started a garden, I imagined beautiful rows of perfect vegetables that were unmolested by bugs and
blight. These rows were tidy too, the kind of thing you might see in a gardening magazine. But fantasy and reality rarely match, and my garden became this wild pile of squash, tomatoes, jalapeños, various edible leaves, and an orchard orb spinner I like to call ‘Edwin’.
I move the leaves and wedge them around a little fence so the smaller plants can get some sun too, I water, and I harvest leaves for salad as I go. When I’m done, I invariably end up at the bottom of the garden near the wild patch I keep for the wights. Then stretching myself up, I take a deep breath and look around me at the plants, wooden fence, and forest behind our garden gate. I see the odd flare of a lightning bug in the trees above, and I can’t help but smile. I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling at those things, not for any big or deep reason, but because we just didn’t have them where I grew up.
Everything feels so alive, there’s a buzz in the air, a rightness of place, and not for the first time I think to myself that this is what it must be like to put down roots somewhere.
And of course that’s what I’ve done. My travel shrines have become permanent and my idols unpacked for what I hope will be a good long while.
There’s a difference in magic and religion when you’re settled and rooted as opposed to nomadic and wandering where the wind takes you. As a nomadic witch, I would McGyver supplies a lot more, and I would take pains to make my tools and supplies much more innocuous to the casual viewer. Because when you’re an outsider to somewhere, you never know how locals are going to react to things like Witchcraft and Heathenism. I would still practice, of course I would, to be a witch is an active thing – you have to do witchcraft in order to be a witch, but it was different.
I would always begin by walking the local area over and over, taking into account the areas that felt ‘thin’/uneasy/friendly/active/dead and noting what grew where. The lavender that grew across from the supermarket and sphagnum moss I collected from under a tree that helped to heal a hornet’s sting; the wormwood growing out of a stone wall, its roots somehow clinging to the dirt between the rocks; the locations of various tree woods for amulets; the blackberries near the river that I ate one evening with cream – all came from my walks. As I trod the miles, my mind would become a catalogue of what grew where, where I could go to practice my craft, where to offer, and where to avoid.
But it’s different when you’re settled and own the land, both from a Heathen and a Witch perspective. From the moment you walk the boundaries with fire to take your land, you’re granted an agency in that place that you don’t have as a traveler. In your home, you get to create your cosmos, your inner-yard, your most holy of spaces instead of moving between the inner-yards of others and dodging the dangers of the outer-yard. You build reciprocal relationships with the wights in a way that you never did before, like the kind that neighbors make with neighbors who bought as opposed to those who rent. Wandering, liminal gods are joined by gods of ‘peace and good seasons’ in your hearth rites; and the magic you work is less because some scary ‘could kill you’ shit is going down, and more because your family needs a little extra help at times to continue thriving, or even simply just to keep your hand in.
There are times when I miss the outer-yard and being on the road. I think a part of me will always be that itchy-footed kid that wandered the moors as though the miles were food and moved countries at the drop of a hat. But as I stand each evening, stretching up at the bottom of my garden with my trusty green watering can in hand, I can’t help but feel and appreciate the sweetness of it all.
On the 9th of June, Patheos blogger John Beckett wrote that the Otherworld is ‘bleeding through’, and that even though his awareness of this is a more recent thing, he’s of the opinion this has been going on for longer.
Although that might sound like crazy talk (after all, how many people have believed themselves to be living in pivotal times?), it’s no surprise to the people that know me that I agree with John.
I would say it’s been going on for a while – years even. Back then I was foolish enough to email a famous paranormal investigator for their input, to see if they’d noticed a rise in cases, but as I wasn’t mailing about a potential opportunity for publicity or financial gain, I was called ‘unprofessional’ and sent on my way. Back then it felt more like flood and ebb, there would be periods of crazy activity and periods of relative calm – or at least it did to me. It was around late August last year though when things really ramped up. After asking friends on Facebook if they were noticing or experiencing anything, and receiving affirmative replies from people who typically don’t experience the strange, I really began to take notice.
Not that I didn’t take notice before, but generally when the people who don’t usually get that kind of thing happen to them start to get that, well, it’s far more compelling than when people like myself (for whom these things tend to be ten a penny) get them.
Friends told me of white dog apparitions that lurked at the edges of the woods, of dreams of the dead that felt far more prescient than dream, and premonitions that came to pass. As time has gone on since then, more ‘woo’ friends have told me of hauntings returning that hadn’t haunted for years, of the return of spirits lain years before by exorcism, and of sighting the Slúa of all things.
At first I worried about what could be going on. I ritualized and performed divination after divination, and kept getting the same message back. That the ‘Other’ was now here, that they were rising up and coming back, and couldn’t be happier about it. This was to be our new normal.
In January I wrote my posts about upping our collective game as witches, pagans, ritualists, or whatever sweet label we go by. This is a big part of why I wrote that post, because in spite of all the fake being sold as real that flies around, the real shit is there too – and really *close*. Regardless of whether this situation is temporary or permanent (I’ve seen some debate on that) though, we need to be bringing our A-game because things have the potential to get far more real, far more quickly than before.
Even outside of the more dramatic encounters, on a more day to day level, the sensitive people in our communities are already suffering in this current climate – that’s if the communities my friends are involved in are anything to go by. I’m seeing and hearing about a lot of sleeplessness and nervous issues cropping up right now among many, and I’d like to address some tools for dealing with this.
Right now, I would say that we need our gods, and to honor the reciprocal relationships we keep with the beings we keep them with. People looked to the gods for order and keeping the destructive forces outside of the inner yard, I would say that that’s a good thing all the time, not just when woo woo shit is going wild.
We need to make sure we ground and center often, and if you don’t know how to do that, now is the time to learn. We also need to work on our protections, to getting them down so they’re automatic – preferably tied to some kind of physical action so that when things get overwhelming, the muscle memory can take over and pull you back where you need to be. Muscle memory is powerful and often overrides emotional and/or mental states. We need to come up with back up plans for whenever we’re working for the ‘just in case’, and take hard looks at our liturgy to make sure we’re being smart with our words too (I’ll take a look at this in a future blog post, I think). Words in sacred space have weight and one can invite a whole host of trouble when words are used without thought.
We need to dust off the old tales and charms. Folktales can often provide us clues and ways to interact with or survive interaction with the Otherworld. Most of the etiquette that you see going around about how to interact with the feeorin (fae) for example, comes from these folktales; simple things like not thanking them, calling them honorific names such as ‘The Gentry’, or not letting them know that you can see them come from these stories. The old charms are often the most effective too. Iron carried upon the person or under the pillow can lead to more peaceful nights and costs far less in the long term than melatonin after the initial outlay. Shoes can be utilized as ‘spirit traps’, hung on bedposts, or stuffed on ledges up chimneys. Rowan crosses bound with red thread can protect against the feeorin, salt can be poured over thresholds, and multiple types of herb can be hung/burned/sprinkled in the home to clear or protect.
Admittedly, some of the old practices can be downright dangerous (probably even illegal nowadays), especially to children, but can be made safe with some adaptation. For example, the opened iron scissors hung over a crib can easily be a forged iron troll cross (or anything else that’s iron and not sharp) stuffed under the mattress of the child’s bed (or hung on the wall if the child is old enough), and we really don’t need to go back to testing our children to make sure they’re not changelings (by incidentally torturing or killing them).
But most importantly, we need our human tribes, our families, our friends, and our trusted people. We need to look after each other, because while things may not get horrific, we may be in for a bumpy ride while we adjust.
I enjoy studying apotropaic magic – especially when that magic involves the use of shoes. I like trying to uncover the history and rationale behind it, and I especially like to ‘repurpose’ the old charms.
Recently, I’ve been looking at the use of the SATOR square in the Viking Age. For those of you that haven’t already come across this lovely piece of apotropaic (possibly) magic, the SATOR square is pre-Christian in origin, and is a 5×5 square made up of the word and anagram ‘SATOR’. Kinda like this:
S A T O R A R E P O T E N E T O P E R A R O T A S
As you can see, the square renders the words readable both left to right, horizontally and vertically, and in reverse. The words SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS are Latin, and are most easily translated as meaning ‘The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work”. Now that’s interesting in of itself, but it’s the charm’s popularity in Northern Europe that *really* interests me. Heck, there are even examples of it being rendered in runes (albeit with misspellings that potentially suggest errors from oral transmission). But misspellings not withstanding, I think there’s a good argument to be made that the operation of the SATOR square was considered to have had enough similarities with how Germanic magical traditions were considered to have worked for it to have been adopted as widely as it was. Now I’m not claiming that everyone was cracking out the odd SATOR square as the fancy came upon them, or that it was *common* by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the vast majority of archaeological finds are non-magical in nature, and we are talking about a subset of a subset here. But it’s also a subset of a subset that was found in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, and which continued to be used in Norwegian and Danish black magic as late as the 19th century.
Typically, the SATOR square was used in blessings, for both general protection and more specific protective uses (e.g. protection against lightning, fire, sickness etc). Often, the SATOR charm was an addition to formula or other charm, but even when it was the only charm to be found, I believe it was likely used in conjunction with a spoken/sung/chanted formula or galdor expressing a clearer intent.
When we look at magic from the various Germanic cultures, there are threads of commonality that can be perceived. I believe that one of those threads is that there were temporary forms of magic and long-lasting forms of magic. Magic that would eventually permanently alter what a person had to work with in the future by laying down repeated layers over a period of time. I believe evidence of these long-lasting, more permanent forms of magic can be found in artifacts such as the antler tablet weaving tablet from Lund that wished the weaver’s weeping to ‘Sigvor’s Ingimar’, or the failed love charm of Egil’s saga that only succeeded in making the target sick until it was destroyed. These were magics that involved repeated action, or some form of charm that worked continuously in the background until destroyed.
This is where I think the SATOR square comes in.
Maybe ‘the sower Arepo’ not only ‘holds the wheels at work’, but also keeps the effects of a charm or formula going as well, thus enabling or ensuring that the charm would be continuous and therefore create long-lasting effects?
Furthermore, it’s hard to ignore the symbolism and cultural resonance the imagery of wheels would have had in cultures in which ‘happening’ and ‘being’ were strongly connected with this idea of ‘turning’. If ‘what is now’ is something that is being turned, and you require your intent to be continuously ‘turned’ in order to affect what a person has to work with in the future, then a charm that talks of a sower (one who sows seeds, which may here be viewed as ‘layers’) keeping ‘the wheels at work’ makes a lot of sense.
In terms of modern usage, I haven’t had cause yet to experiment with the SATOR square – I don’t do a whole lot of magic that’s intended to have long lasting consequences, I tend to lean more on the ‘temporary effects’ end of the spectrum. However, if I were to use it, I would use it in addition to another charm or working, as a way of ‘fixing’ the charm to ensure it remains working in perpetuity. Obviously lacking in practical experience here, I’m curious to read about the experiences of others who have used the SATOR square.
We chanted and danced, our bodies whirling with our spindles, the cords lengthening as the twist travelled up the fibers locking them in place. We chanted in praise of a goddess of spinning and witches, but then the song changed and we chanted differently. This time we *pulled*, the spinning of our spindles aiding us as we pulled what we wanted to pull. A shift fell over the room and it was as though the fan no longer worked within the confines of our weoh bonds, but yet we danced and spun and passed the drum between us, taking turns with both spindle and drum. The dance went on, around the shrine with idol and well, around the candles without tumbling; in trance, these things happen.
When we stopped, we were no longer fully *here* but somewhere between, panting with exertion and sweating from the heat that the fans would no longer touch.
And that’s when the real work began.
In my last blog, I presented the idea that the magic of spindle and distaff is a magic of fate, a magic of pulling, of binding, and sometimes, even a magic of creation. Dealing with what you spin up (f you spin it up) often requires other skills of course, but for now though, I’m going to concentrate on the spinning up.
The first thing to understand about this kind of magic – or indeed any magic within the Germanic cultural context – is that some types of magic are temporary, and some are far longer lasting. Most of the examples you read of in the primary sources are temporary in nature; the mind ensnared until the will of the witch is carried out, or the weather temporarily made bad until the ship is sunk. Don’t get me wrong, temporary can cause a lot of damage. When it comes to long-lasting magics though, it’s all about setting down the layers, about repeated actions and intent. It’s about the tablet weaving tablet with a curse written on it, so that every turn of the tablet builds on the curse to imbue the victim with the ill luck of the caster. It’s about the spindle whorls scratched with prayers and blessings. It’s about the charms and staves left in hidden places to work continuously. It’s also probably why the SATOR square eventually became so popular in Northern Europe. If you remember that what we do in the now is what is set down as past layers for the future, then repeated actions over a period of time in the now and the not-so-far from now, set down that which a person has to work with in the future.
The second thing to understand here, is that this kind of spun magic, tends to be of a more chthonic nature. In my last blog post, I mentioned the connection between spinning and death, and spun threads made into various tools used to drag people down to the underworld. This idea was continued in various European folklore traditions that held that the dead had to cross over into the underworld over a bridge of thread, flax, or human hair (which actually kind of resembles flax).
When I first started to look at spun witchcraft – or Seiðr, it was most definitely from the point of view of the non-
spinner, or newbie spinner. Spinning is a craft that takes time, practice, and patience to become good at. Before you even begin to try your hand at spun Seiðr, you have to build up the muscle memory that makes it possible to spin without really thinking about it enough to go into trance.
The process of synthesis is often one of trial and error and this blog post is about my process of synthesis when it comes to spun Seiðr.
For me, it often starts with a flash of a vision of how you need to be doing something. But it’s one thing to see something happening and quite another to figure out the mechanics of how to do that thing or the framework within which you need to make it happen. That flash of a vision then becomes research, often years of research, experimentation, and most importantly evaluation before you have something workable. I think we often forget this because people are so reticent in the modern community to discuss their fuck ups, but let’s face it, everyone fucks up.
When I first began my experiments in spinning Seiðr I was doing so on the premise that the spindle was a tool for trance induction rather than for the magic itself. But as time went on and I experimented, I found that while you can get into a light trance state while spinning, it’s not necessarily good for deep trance, nor does it really go much beyond that (although it’s possible to have flashes of vision in this state). The breakthrough came when I decided to try changing my premise and taking the meaning of the word ‘Seiðr’ at face value – a ‘snare’. From that point on, I started to consider my spindle a tool that created a kind of snare ‘thought form’ that could be ‘sent forth’ or ‘ridden upon’ and used to ensnare and pull what I wanted or needed. My first experiments working in this way were a revelation, finally I felt like I’d hit on the mechanics of what I was meant to be doing.
Over time, I found that when I pulled and bound things, the spinning would become hard for no reason, that I would have to twist harder and that lumps would form in the spinning as the things I pulled were entrapped. I began to use my spindle when called in to help clear houses to attract and bind any leftover remnants of nastiness. Eventually, as I became more confident in this usage, I began using my spindle to pull and bind the kind of things that go bump in the night.
The more I spun and witched, the more I learned that spinning witchcraft is a magic that moves, it’s a magic that makes you want to sway and stamp your feet; to spin as you spin and work the energy out. It’s a magic that reverberates through your entire body, leaving you shaking and your yarn crackling with energy. Wool carries magic exceptionally well, and depending on what kind of magic you’re working, it can feel sharp and biting or warm and protective. It can be your favorite sweater or scarf that you wear when you know your day will be challenging, or it can be that one item that just feels unlucky. It can also carry stories – histories – and be used for divination for those skilled in psychometry.
Eventually I found others who were interested in working on this, on working to try to breathe life into and enliven that old spun Seiðr – people who were prepared to look beyond the high seat and get away from tidy and formal. We spun weoh bonds that we’d imbued with spells and prayers, and set up sacred space. We recreated our cosmos, or at least the lower half of it, with a ‘well’ to represent both the well of wyrd and the water the Dead must often cross between this world and the underworld. We also developed songs of various kinds; songs for pulling, songs for binding, songs for clearing, and songs of praise. Songs that would fill you with joy and songs that can make you feel as though something is walking over your grave. We found a place for those who couldn’t spin, because the drumming fuels our movements, our ecstasy, and we work to go deeper each time.
There is so much more that we haven’t explored yet and so many more possibilities to be integrated into our rites; such as extra magical steps in the preparation of the wool for Seiðr spinning, or the water with which you wash or wet your fingers with when spinning flax from a distaff. There are also ladders to be spun and woven, and an above world to look to as well.
Nowadays in witchcraft (and in other types of Seiðr group), it’s far more common to present a complete tradition, preferably one that’s been handed down in whatever way it has. I think because of this, we forget that most of us are *all* doing something relatively new, but again this is something we hide along with our fuck ups. As far as I know, myself and the people with whom I do spinning Seiðr are a minority out there. We have no lineages, no how-to books, and we’ll probably have our share of fuck ups too. I think it’s important to be honest about this, I think we do a huge disservice to those that come after us when we are not, and moreover, I think sometimes there is the trap of kidding oneself that what we have is the be all and end all of what there is. How can we get better at what we do if we cannot admit and learn from our mistakes? What has anyone ever really learned from a (fake) image of perfection?
For all the *newness* and experimental nature of this practice though, I *know* we’re on the right path. It’s not an objective knowing of course (when is it ever with this kind of thing?), but I *know* as surely as the air rushes back in when the weoh bonds come down.
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.