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?
Yesterday afternoon was hot and sunny, a day of baked earth and precious little wind. It was also the day that our naissent ‘protogrove’ had chosen to celebrate the high day of Lughnasadh. On a more personal note, this Lughnasadh marks two years since I first went to an ADF ritual and started ‘druiding-it-up’.
That sounds crude, I don’t mean it that way. My people are masters of understatement, and using humor or sarcasm to hide our true feelings about the things that are important to us. It’s why you’ll see sick jokes flying around after pretty much every national disaster. We seem to hide our hurts so they cannot be used against us and treasure our deepest joys to keep them safe.
A week ago, a friend asked me if I was now ‘dual trad’ because of my involvement in ADF, but to me that suggests a kind of separation, when my experience has been anything but one of separation; it’s been whole-making. Metaphorically speaking, my Heathenry waters one side of my ‘tree’, and the Druidry waters the other. Joining ADF has been literally life-changing, I’ve been much happier, and feel like my worldview is far more coherent than before.
Comparative Indo-European studies will do that for you. When you only see the Norse sources, you only see the tree, the eagle, the deer, and the serpent. When you only see the Irish Celtic sources, you only see the land, sea, and sky. But when you trace it back, eventually you’ll get back to the Hittites and find a tree with the eagle representing the sky, the deer representing the land, and the serpent representing the sea.
So yesterday, I was baking under the hot Pennsylvania sun with people I consider to be genuinely good, celebrating an Irish High Day in accordance with ADF’s Core Order of Ritual.
The Importance of Good Ritual
Good ritual is something I find lacking in many Heathen circles, we seem constrained by the bid to not be too ‘Wiccan’, or too ‘Christian’. We use words like ‘honour’ rather than ‘worship’, we ‘talk to’ the gods rather than ‘pray’, and bending a knee to the Holy Powers is rare. We typically laud simplicity and mostly veer away from scripted rituals , when all the evidence from other Indo-European cultures suggests that not only did ritual involve the recreation of the cosmos in ritual space, but that once that cosmos was recreated, great care was taken over what words were spoken within that space.
“<em>If anything was said improperly, if anything was done improperly, let it be as if it were done correctly.”</em>
These were words that were written on the Inguvine tablets, a set of seven tablets discovered in Italy in the 15th century, and dating back to possibly the 3rd century BCE. When you stand at the centre of the cosmos performing actions and prayers with the intent of upholding the sacred contract between the community of man, and the Holy Powers, a misstep can affect so much.
Let it be gone.
Let it be as though those mistakes were never made.
This is one reason why there is such a thing as the ‘Core Order of Ritual’ in ADF, by creating a framework we minimize the missteps. Another reason is because we’re an orthopraxy.
The past few High Days, our little group has been finding our pace, figuring out what works for us, and how best to organise our rites. Some High Days have been almost pulled out of our asses, and the omens have reflected that, others, like yesterday, have felt like we *got it right*.
On a personal level, I often feel self-conscious when I have to speak in ritual. I can drill myself on what I am to say over and over again, for days before the actual day, and I can almost guarantee it that I will go blank around the third line. When I go blank, I typically notice the people I’m around rather than the the Holy Powers that I’m addressing; the focus becomes less on the contract and doing it right in the sacred centre for the good of the whole, and more on petty concerns like, “Oh no, I can’t remember what I’m saying, *think*, I think people are looking at me, they probably know..”
And it becomes a kind of tailspin, when it is the last thing anyone should do or think about in that kind of a situation.
Learning to Focus on the Music
When I was a teenager, I used to play tenor horn/ B flat cornet in a band, I used to perform often, and as the lead, I couldn’t blend in with the background. One day in music class, we each had to stand up and perform with our chosen instrument. As each classmate stood up and performed, I felt myself getting more and more nervous, until eventually my mouth went dry and my heart pounded. When it came to my turn, I stood up, fluffed my notes, forgot what I was playing, and sat down ashamed as my classmates laughed at my ineptitude. The teacher, who had heard me play before and had placed me as lead trumpet in the band scolded them, then pulled me aside and gave me a marble telling me to focus on hearing the music instead of their faces, and suck on the marble so my mouth didn’t go dry; an old bandsman’s trick. The second time I stood up, I played a fantastic rendition of ‘Rock Around the Clock’, to the now shocked faces of my classmates. When I sat down, I sat down to complements.
It’s lesson I’ve been working on resurrecting, sometimes with more success than others. Yesterday during ritual, I remembered how to ‘hear the music’. It’s not about us, it’s about doing it right, being focused, and doing the job at hand. Anything else is as incidental as the complements I got as I sat down with instrument in hand, high off the adrenaline and my soul still buzzing with the dance of the notes.
So what the fresh hell is this “Cult of the Spinning Goddess”?
The ‘Cult of the Spinning Goddess’ is not an established cult or set of practices, but rather an attempt to create such a cult for the modern day. I was originally going to embark on this endeavor alone, but figured that there might be other interested parties and so decided to open it up. This cult construction is going to have the following requirements:
1. The creation of a space where cultic matters might be discussed, research shared, liturgy, ritual year, and cultic practices fleshed out.
2. A commitment to researching the figure of the ‘spinning goddess’, spinning lore, and what remnants might remain to this day through a combination of reconstruction, retrospective methods, and comparison of related mythologies.
3. Given that the ‘spinning goddess’ was a figure from further back in history than Heathens typically look, it’s obvious that it will not be possible to be completely historical. We’re aiming for a percentage, a percentage of history supplemented by practices created now that fit within the Heathen worldview. All new creations will be labelled as such and the rationale behind them given.
Okay, but who was this ‘spinning goddess’ you’re wanting to set up a cult to?
I’ll admit, she’s an illusive creature, her traces found (I believe) mainly in a series of bracteates (a type of amulet that depicted various things such as gods, goddesses, zoomorphic designs etc.), grave goods that combine ritual items with spinning items (and bracteates), later accounts of Gullveig and Heið, tales of magic that was spun, völva staffs that resemble ornate distaffs of the same period, and the continued existence of a group of numina in Germany heavily connected to spinning and magic. It’s my belief, based on the research I have carried out, that all of these things pertain to that original spinning goddess of the bracteates. I would like to attempt to create a working cult in her honour.
No, it is my opinion that what we see referred to as Seiðr in the sagas is actually the final remnants of practices that had their roots in some of the cultic practices of this goddess and I believe that there is some support for this in John McKinnell’s work, namely his paper titled ‘On Heið’. In ‘On Heið’, McKinnell makes the argument that the name ‘Gullveig’ is actually referring to an idol of wood that is covered in gold.
The war I remember, the first in the world,
When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, and three times born, Oft and again, yet ever she lives.
Heiðr they named her who sought their home The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise; Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic, To evil women a joy she was.”
If McKinnell is right about Gullveig, then the above passage in Völuspá is potentially telling the tale of the stamping out of a cult by the followers of Hor (Oðinn), and the survival in the form of ‘Heið’, a title for Seiðr women.
It is my hope to focus on the ‘Gullveig’ rather than the ‘Heið’.
if Oðinn was a doo doo head to Gullveig, does that mean I can’t also worship him if I join this cult?
No, not at all. No migration period vandalism is going to be the boss of us!
It’s also not my intention that this cult becomes something separate or separating when it comes to other cultic activities or groups our cult members are involved in. I’m looking for the ‘as well as’, as opposed to ‘instead of’. I’m guessing it was a mentality of ‘instead of’ that led to any desecration (IF that’s what happened!).
Is that all the evidence you have for this whole spinning goddess thing though? I mean, this is pretty light on details.
You’re right, this is. But this is some initial FAQ that I hammered out in response to the many questions I received when I first mentioned the intention to create this cult. There’s a lot of research and a lot of sources, but that’s going to require an actual paper. It’s not something that would be particularly useful in some quick FAQ format.
So, are you all going to be doing witchy shit?
Some of the cultic practices are going to be magical in nature, but not all, and not all members have to participate in that. As a cultus, our primary function will be to create a reciprocal relationship with the spinning goddess, and some form of coherent cultic practice. So, we’re talking more worship, with some witchy shit for those that are interested.
Do you all want sausages with your clams?
All genders/sexualities are welcome here!
Are there any requirements for members?
So far, it would seem that there are three categories of interested parties:
* Those that spin, are interested in the intersection between spinning and magic, and who are interested in getting involved in the cultus.
* Those that don’t spin, but are curious about the cultus (but not the spinning).
* Those that are curious about both spinning and cultus and would like to learn.
Considering that we’re going to be a cult dedicated to a SPINNING GODDESS I’m going to stipulate that members must be able to spin or in the process of learning.
However, curious parties can be considered ‘friends of the cult’, and engage their curiosity by having access to a certain level of documents pertaining to the cult. As time goes on, if we are successful, I expect us to develop closer bonds and eventually practices that will be kept ‘in-cult’ only.
What’s your role going to be in this?
Well, I was considering becoming a Jim Jones, or David Koresh type dude…or maybe like that guy in Japan that collects pubic hair and puts people in giant microwaves! Just kidding. We may be starting a cult, but we’re not losing our fucking minds. You can all rest assured that I won’t be collecting anyone’s pubic hair, trying to score illicit sex with brainwashed minions, or creating some weird Heathen Waco. The only money I’d be taking from anyone would be if anyone wants to buy my book (when it’s finally out), but that’s called commerce, and as a capitalist society, that’s quite ok.
My role in this is going to be that of founder and leader. I encourage discussion and participation. Disagreement is cool, as long as you don’t be a dick about it. As things coalesce, if they coalesce, I’ll look into starting a council to work on different areas and so we have some kind of system and forum to discuss anything that crops up, but I’ll always retain my position.
When I was a little girl, I was the kind of girl that learned more from her father than her mother. Although my mother did try to teach me to knit and sew, I had no interest whatsoever. I devalued fiber arts, I didn’t understand what they were, I looked down on them. In my nascent feminism, Germaine Greer’s words were ever in mind, “Women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand.” In those early years, my interest was always in being outside, in travelling, being out in the wilds, and well basically being some feral little savage that wandered the moors like Ibn Fadlan’s proverbial swamp donkey.
I would learn the value and sacredity of fiber arts later in life.
Fiber Arts and the Sacred
My first fiber art was embroidery, which I came to after finding my grandmother’s silks and hoop in the attic. For days, I’d heard the intermittent song of a music box. Trying to track it down, I turned my room upside down, but found nothing with the same tune. Eventually I decided to go into the attic and look there. Finally I found a box containing a music box, my grandmother’s silks, and her hoop. The song from the music box matched the song I’d been hearing. I never seemed to need teaching, my mother never embroidered or cross stitched, but it was easy to me. My first use of fiber arts for the sacred was embroidered pieces dedicated to deities, magical house protections incorporating the ALU charm, and shrines that could be folded away.
The next fiber art was knitting, which I came to reticently – at least initially, but ended up teaching myself via YouTube videos and copying a woman on the train when I lived in Germany.
While in Germany, it was our habit that I would find local folktales, translate them, and then we’d visit the place. This hobby rendered some interesting finds, including a place that folklore held to have been a cultic place of Wodan’s, an amazing site called Druidenhain, and eventually, Frau Holle. Around the same time, I developed an interest in spinning, and this pull to Frau Holle and spinning developed hand in hand. Over time, and through research, I found that aside from my UPG, that bone-deep certainty that Frau Holle is far far older than her medieval tales, that there was also a lot of very solid and thorough scholarship that supports this in the form of Erika Timm’s ‘Frau Holle, Frau Percht, und verwandte Gestalten‘. Through her in-depth study, Timm presents her theory that names like ‘Frau Holle’, ‘Frau Gode/Wode’, and ‘Frau Herke’ were regional ‘taboo names’ for the survival form of a far older goddess – the Germanic Frija – a spinning goddess, and whose functions,as Lotte Motz shows in her paper, ‘Nerthus: A New Approach‘, match those of the ‘Terra Mater’ of Tacitus’s description in his Germania.
Well, with the exception of the human sacrifice, but you know, times change…
Spinning to me, was now a sacred act. I learned about spinning taboos, and instituted some of my own to better understand what a taboo can be. I became a devotee of the ‘spinning goddess’, and over time, not only did I come to wear a symbol of her, and her image on my skin, but her connection (and by extension the connection of spinning) to Seiðr and prophecy.
Fiber Arts and Ancestry
Before I continue, and talk more about each of the different skills I practice in depth, I would like to talk a little about ancestry and the role of fiber arts in ancestral practice. When I work these traditional skills, my knitting, spinning, or even crochet, these skills from the ‘spindle side’ (and old term for the woman’s side of a family, usually denoting the women of a family line), several things are going on, at least for me. People belittle these skills, and consider them the domain of someone like Martha Stewart. I find this kind of insulting because, in my opinion, Martha Stewart is an ex-con that’s making money off these traditional arts by repackaging them in nice plastic simplicity and lifting them from all tradition and heritage. And while the argument exists that she’s potentially bringing new blood into old crafts, the new blood she’s bringing in is being introduced by the corporate mass-packaged version of what should be individual, heartfelt, and bespoke. It’s things like Martha Stewart, with her cookie-cutter versions of ‘creativity’ that leads to people seeing these arts as being mundane and producing the kind of ‘things for which there is no demand’ that Germaine Greer spoke of.
I realise that these are very strong opinions, and it’s not my wish to offend. In some ways, I’m impressed that Martha Stewart has managed to turn such a profit on crafts that are usually not particularly lucrative – at least not for the average stitcher.
However, aside from Martha and her cookie cutters, I find this form of belittling – especially by people that are supposed to grok the sacred and magical to be very short sighted and mundane in of itself.
If you just take a moment to think about what these fiber arts represent, the histories of things like the various traditional patterns (that even made it possible to identify the village or even family of the wearer), the various techniques employed, and how they related to the lives of the people that employed them, there’s something very tribal there. For example, the Fair Isle technique, as well as being colourful and providing a way to show local identity through specific patterns, also allows the knitter to layer numerous strands of wool upon each other in one garment, thus providing a far warmer garment. If you take into account the further consideration that wool garments can still provide warmth while wet (to a point), then it makes absolute sense that Fair Isle would be a part of the culture of northern fishing villages.
In these arts, there’s tradition, ancestry, there are wishes and intent, there’s knowing where you’re from and who you
are; there are stories, there are layers there. Every stitch you make, every length of yarn you spin, you are connecting with generations of women before you who, although you do this for pleasure, did this out of necessity. This is a way to connect with and honour ancestors.
Better still when you have something of theirs that remains unfinished or can be incorporated into something you’re making. That is when heirlooms are born, their stitches and intent nestling with your own, and joining those of your descendants.
Fiber, Magic, and Prophecy
Historically, and perhaps due to what I would call the ‘operative’ nature of Germanic magic (repeated actions carried out over time, integrated as part of daily function seem to have been preferred), the two main fiber arts connected with magic were, unsurprisingly, spinning and weaving.
The most famous examples of fiber magic are those of the raven banner, typically a banner woven by the mother or sister of the warrior in question, that was said to guarantee victory to the warband that carried it. The price of this victory being the death of the banner bearer (Orkneyinga saga, ch. 6, 11, 14, 17; Njáls saga, ch. 157).
Another famous example of weaving in magic is the killing shirt of the Orkney saga, which was a shirt woven with the intent of killing the wearer. This was a Seidr that was again, worked by women, and in the case of the killing shirt of the Orkney saga, was created by Helga and her sister Frakkok, who intended it for the Earl’s brother. However, the Earl himself found it and wanted it:
“..the sisters pulled off their bonnets, tore their hair and said that if he put on the garment his life would be at risk. Though they were both in tears he didn’t let that stop him, but no sooner was the garment upon his back than his flesh started to quiver and he began to suffer terrible agony. He had to go to bed and not long after that he died. “ —Orkneyinga saga, ch. 55
I can think of no examples of woven magic which do not include some kind of blood shed, or blood price. Like other forms of magic, the practice continued after conversion:
“Have you been present at or consented to the vanities which women practice in their woollen work, in their weaving, who when they begin their weaving hope to be able to bring it about that with incantations and with their actions that the threads of the warp and the woof become so intertwined that unless someone makes use of these other diabolical counter-incantations, he will perish totally? If you have been present or consented, you must do penance for thirty days on bread and water.”
-Corrector Burchard of Worms, ca. 1010
Spinning magic however, was more of a magic of creation and attraction, with archaeological evidence demonstrating a link between some of the various Seidr staffs found among grave goods, and medieval distaffs (Heide 2006, Enright 1996; 245). However, these distaff-like-staffs were usually made out of metal, which rendered them cumbersome and impractical for actual use. Many of these staffs have strong points of similarity with the staff described in Eirik the Red’s Saga (Price 2002). Metallurgical analysis has shown that many of these staffs were forged with the inclusion of organic matter, mostly bones of the dead, or of animals (Gardela 2009). Post mortem, these staffs were often symbolically killed, by means of being pressed by a rock – in this, they often shared the same fate as their owners (in a number of cases, the bodies of suspected Seidrworkers were crushed post-mortem by rocks). In numerous accounts in lore, the spindle, distaff, and act of spinning are linked to Seidr, such as the following:
* In Laxdoela saga, the Seidr which causes a storm that sinks a boat is called ‘harðsnúin frœði’, or ‘hardtwisted knowledge/sorcery’, suggesting a link between storms that are spun. * In Fóstbrœðra saga, a man is made invulnerable by a type of Seidr that involved working a kind of magic while spinning hanks of yarn that were then placed under the man’s clothes. * There are two accounts of spun magic used to create invisibility.
There are many more accounts that link spinning with Seidr, and I cannot recommend this paper highly enough for a far more in-depth examination of the link between Seidr, Gandr, and spinning.
It’s also worth mentioning that the spindle remained the symbol of witch or wise woman in German folklore, and witches continued to be depicted with distaffs (which conceivably had some crossover with brooms).
As the spindle and distaff was often the status symbol of the witch, or at least that which set her out in society as a witch in much the same way as the warrior his weapons, the same can be said for the tools of weaving too. Bracteates from the Fuerstenberg-B series that depict goddesses carrying spindles and weaving swords, are reminiscent of Fedhelm – the prophetess from the Táin Bó Cúailnge – whose symbol of status – whose *staff* was an ornate weaver’s beam. Fedhelm identified herself as banfhili (female poet), but is addressed as banfháith (prophetess) by queen Medb.
It’s interesting to note here that Fedelm regarded herself as a woman ‘fili’, or…roughly, a type of Irish poet that
originally prophecized and spoke her prophecies in poetry. Purportedly the fili composed their poems in the dark, or in other words, while ‘under the cover’ of darkness. This goes back to a wider theme of going under the cloak in order to speak prophecies (often in poetry) as found in Icelandic literature (Aðalsteinsson 1999).
While this is by no means an exhaustive blog post, I hope that the connection between magic and fiber arts is at least made clear. So much magic can be worked into fiber. Each stitch can be worked with intent, protective symbols can be worked in Fair Isle or stranded knitted pieces – a pair of mittens can become a prayer that is worn. The numerical patterns of lace can be an invocation or protection, in a shawl that’s worn while practicing Seidr, or as a way to ‘go under the cloak’. A thought form can be spun and put to rest as easily as burning a skein of yarn, and the lowly distaff may function equally well in the creation of a Gandus or as a holder for unspun roving.