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.
It’s probably no surprise to those that know me, but I have many bugbears with the New Age movement. However, no bug is so big to bear for me as the concept of one’s individual ‘path’.
And I know, I get it. For those that don’t feel they belong sufficiently to a specific religious tradition to adopt the label, the words ‘my path’ are a convenient way of talking about what you do and believe. Your ‘journey’, in other words.
Not that I’m a fan of the term ‘journey’ in this context either, but that’s another conversation for another time.
However, I think when you start thinking in terms of individual paths, it’s not going to be too shocking when you also start to consider those not on your path as being either intersecting forces, or people to help you on your way. In fact, I *know* some people that think like that. Hell, I’ve been on the receiving end of an angry ‘my path-er’ for not playing what they saw as my role as being a helpful means to an end on their spiritual path.
And that right there, in this society of selfishness, is where the problem lies. It’s spirituality meeting the ‘people-as-means-to-an-end’ mentality of corporate retail culture in which instead of seeing others as rational beings that are (to paraphrase Kant)’ ends as themselves’, you treat them as means to your own ends. When you treat others in this way, what then is the difference between how you treat other humans and inanimate objects? Honestly, I fail to see how anyone can ‘develop spiritually’ with such a mentality.
Moreover, if you really care so much about your own path, what of family? What of children? What of community?
After all, if you’re only caring about your own individual path, what time do you have for others? It’s all about *your* enlightenment, *your* development, *your* progression along the path.
Throughout my time as a magic-worker, I’ve noticed that when it comes to working with others, several things seem to hold true. This post is going to take a look at four of those things.
People *want* you to build them a mystery
Regardless of whether or not a person is your client or a potential student, very often, that person has a mental image of how what you do should look like, and for all they’re decried, sometimes the ‘Dog and Pony show’ can be useful for this very reason (it can also simply just be the tradition of the group in question).
As a magic worker, I understand the importance of ritual, of building those actions and setting the scene for that *shift* to occur. It can be useful when your mind is being more of a chattering monkey than usual. It can be useful in getting the non-active participants into the right frame of mind. You see, depending on who you speak to, ritual either works to facilitate an internal psychological shift that allows the individual to get past whatever mental blocks were hindering them and allowing change (something which Terry Pratchett referred to as ‘Headology’), or it works via that far less intangible medium that we call ‘magic’.
However, there comes a point where this becomes problematic. It’s no longer that which facilitates and enables, it’s the whole *point* of the exercise.
And it will suck a person in as surely as a black hole.
When inhabiting a mystery, there is no rational thought, there is no consideration of the subtleties that are happening, or indeed if there is consideration, it’s interpreted from within the mindset of what atheists call ‘magical thinking’. And it doesn’t matter what that person is interpreting, even running out of something in your cupboards at the wrong time can be interpreted as some kind of ‘sign’.
Now this probably sounds like a weird thing for a self-described ‘magic-worker’ to discuss. Almost like I don’t believe in magic, right? That it’s ALL headology.
While headology is a good and useful (very useful) part of a magic-worker’s repertoire, magic – at least real magic – is rarely how we think it’s going to look, and it’s far simpler than we might imagine. The fact of the matter is, the rituals, the garb, the tools, the drums – none of that is actually needed. We do it because the dog and pony show is paradoxically easier than doing it without. But to forget the role of the dogs and ponies…well, as I said before, that’s where trouble starts. Moreover, you miss what’s actually real.
People want the shortcuts to somehow work
In a way, this sort of plays back into the ‘building a mystery’ section, as the mystery can be one big shortcut in a lot of ways.
When you bake a cake, you typically cream your butter and sugar, then add your eggs, flour and milk (and whatever else). At no point does anyone say, “Well, I don’t have flour, so I’ll just omit it, it’ll be fine, I’ll have cake!”, no, you have to substitute it for something similar that performs the same function as flour in the recipe. However, when it comes to magic, people never want to work on their mental discipline, which is as key to magic as the flour in a cake. Again and again, I hear people lament that meditation and/or visualisation is just too hard, and that they just ‘can’t’ do it.
Let me get this straight, most humans can do these things. It’s just that meditation and visualisation take work, practice, and losing the fear of failure at something that looks so easy from the outside.
Meditation is hard, visualisation is hard, these are skills that have to be built up by the practitioner, and along the way, you also get the bonus of developing mental discipline and your Will.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to this, you put the work in and have it, or don’t, and well…don’t.
People gravitate to the ‘wolves’
I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen this over the years; perfectly good people interested in magic and getting taken in by a charismatic wolf in sheep’s clothing. In fact, I heard about another case of this, this weekend just gone!
Thankfully, when you know what you’re looking for, these sweater-wearing wolves are easy to spot.
1. Do they have a discernible goal from being around you? What is it? Some of these folks use magical learning as a way to secure sexual favours from the naive. Others use it to feed their desire for power over others. Is anything that they want to do, or do, in violation of your bodily sovereignty?
2. Do they give you what you want? In other words, do they ever correct you or tell you you’re wrong about something, or do they allow you to labour under false ideas (as long as you don’t question them)?
3. Do you ever *actually* learn from them, or do they mostly tell you that you’re learning (and progressing) and yet you can’t actually quantify what you’ve learned?
4. How does the thought of bringing up a disagreement with them feel? How does the atmosphere in the room feel when you disagree even respectfully?
5. Is there a reliance on building the mystery as opposed to emphasis on the actual skills? Are people encouraged to stay locked within the mystery?
People will gravitate to the chaotic thinking they understand it better than ancestors that eschewed it
We live in the age of the underdog and the anti-hero. Our villains are portrayed in film as having a hidden sensitive and misunderstood side that just lures an audience in. We learn to forgive the negative because, “Oh look, he’s not a pure bastard, he’s *redeemable*!”
When looking at figures from mythology, figures that people now worship again, that mentality transfers over with some people, and beings that were given offerings to keep them away, are now being taken for ‘patrons’. There’s a romance there that our ancestors would have found truly puzzling.
Over the years, I’ve seen many take this path, and a good number of them have their luck turn to poo. Instead of accepting the cause of their troubles, they turn to other gods and beings to try and fix matters, and in the most extreme cases, they become serial ‘luck grabbers’. Jumping from deity to being, fostering a reciprocal relationship, and then moving on to the next once the initial excitement wears off.
Typically when questioned, they’ll talk philosophically about how chaos and order need to be balanced in the world, not once considering that maybe it’s plenty ‘balanced’ and doesn’t need any ‘help’ from them.
And that’s the thing, natural chaos that happens organically is good, natural chaos strengthens and leads to overcoming and growth. Inviting more in just makes no sense.
We humans are complex creatures, and as products (mostly) of societies that are based largely in a religious worldview that devalues personal power, and values complexities, it can be hard to discern what’s actually needed and what is simply fulfilling a psychological need.
I’ve had a few teachers over the years, and though not always in a formal format, without exception, each of them emphasised the importance of developing the skill of discernment when it comes to working with anyone in any capacity.
More than being able to discern spiritual or social matters, the skill of discernment teaches us something far more important – to know ourselves, our motivations, and how they affect our actions.
For it’s all too easy to fall into a trap when you’re not looking where you’re going.
So, my last post provoked some interesting discussion over on Facebook. Some were unaware that there’s life beyond white sage, others brought up the interesting fact that white sage is so sought after by new age practitioners nowadays that the plant is now becoming endangered, and others shared tips and personal experience. It was a wide-ranging conversation, the kind I absolutely adore, that leapt from the now-trendy appropriation of NA practices and its role in the endangerment of white sage, to apotropaic practices, to questions that I really didn’t want to just limit to my personal Facebook. And so, rather than typing out a long post over there, with the author’s permission, I decided to feature that question here.
” I know a number of folks under tremendous stress and strain right now. My own pattern is that stress gets shed at home, like shoes at the end of the day, and it accumulates. With colder weather coming and the need to keep windows closed, it settles and can be harder to shift. How about something for that?”
– Skylark Crowfancier (Pseudonym semi-invented for both reasons of fun and privacy)
When looking at this question, my first instinct is that it would be better that a person dealing with these kind of issues needs to be proactive rather than purely relying on something hung or installed in the home (although, I have some ideas for that too). Better yet would be to endeavour to not bring that kind of energy into the home in the first place, as I know Skylark knows, that kind of energy knocking about can cause all kinds of issues (as can any loose energy really).
But how would one go about doing that?
There are numerous ways, we’ve all seen those worry dolls in the ‘hippy’ stores, but how many of us keep a worry penny that we might handle while mentally going over our stresses on the commute home? A penny that that energy might then be pushed into and then discarded into running water or buried at the end of the week? A new penny for each week. We might even create our own worry dolls and mentally tell them our worries, or even write a journal entry on the way home from work in a private journal. Practicing mindfulness (either on its own, or as a part of one of these other measures) also helps because that training helps to get to place where we can confront our stresses in an ultimately detached way, and come up with more objective ways to deal (which in turn, gives us greater ability to manage stress). There are some great apps too for people on the go that teach mindfulness. If you have ten minutes of sitting in one place on your commute, you could definitely make use of the free versions of apps like Headspace or Calm. I also really like SuperBetter.
You might even set up a post outside your front door for ‘wiping’ off the dreck of the outside world. It needn’t be a complicated affair, a piece of 2×4 planted in a plant pot filled with earth to both ground and weight it. And of course, it could be as simple or as fancy as you’d like it to be. But it would require the ability to manipulate your stressed emotional energy into your hand, that you would then wipe off onto the post. To help with the process, you might even put a charm on the wall-facing side to imbue the post with the intent that any negative energy would be attracted to it and grounded out through the earth.
Such a set up would also be helpful inside the home, if you’re looking for something to have working away in the background. Just remember to change out the earth on a periodic basis.
Once in the home though, a shower in which you visualise the dreck of the day being washed from you, or even just taking some more time to sit in meditation/talking things through with friends/finding ways to laugh (yes laugh, laughter is so often underestimated for its healing abilities) would go a long long way.
Although these suggestions are simple, things that seem like no brainers to folks when you suggest them, it’s often hard to see the forest for the trees when under serious stress – stress is nefarious in that it robs us of our clarity, motivation, and energy. And it’s not about having a charm to make things right either. Sure, you can have the charm working away in the background, the grounding post that attracts negative energy like some kind of psychic air freshener, but the root issues need to be dealt with as well or things ultimately won’t get much better. Often, part of the stress is that we’re in situations in which we cannot change the current circumstances that are adding to the stress.
Which only adds more stress, and so the cycle continues.
In these situations, the only thing that is left to change is how that stress is handled on a personal level, and make time to work on that – after all, at that point, it’s the only variable left. Which *is* hard, it’s hard to be motivated to meditate or work out when under severe stress. Even when you start in the smallest of ways and build up slowly. But it’s soimportant to push through that and find ways to get it out in a healthy way, be those ways as ‘mundane’ as going to the gym and getting your stress and anger out through physicality, or via more psychological or magical means such as those suggested above.
Because at the end of the day, aside from issues of negative energy in our living environments, stress can take us down as surely as any illness.
The only difference is, we’re far less likely to ignore illness.
So don’t ignore stress, find those tiny chunks in the day, use them to wage your own war on stress, and see it pay dividends in your lives and homes.
NOTICE: If you are dealing with stress and really feel that you’ve come to the end of your tether, please reach out and get professional help. Stress kills.
As far as cleansing and purifying herbs go, I’ve never really liked white sage (despite its many recommendations). It does the job of course (as a good many things do), but it’s never been a herb I’ve felt particularly connected to or happy to work with.
And this isn’t an issue of one Heathen taking umbrage with smoke fumigation or smoke cleansing practices either. After all, I can point to Bald’s Leechbook III in which smoke fumigation, or ‘recelsian‘ is a recommended treatment for various afflictions (of an arguably magical nature). I will discuss the use of smoke cleansing, suitable herbs, and preparation in these older texts in a follow-on post that I’ll link below.
No, my problems with white sage are far more complex than that.
Three Problems with White Sage and Smudging
1. Overharvesting and Exploitation
The first, and most obvious issue with the use of White Sage (and Palo Santo too, if we’re going there), is overharvesting. I mean, those sage bundles that companies like Urban Outfitters, Amazon, and Walmart are selling have to come from somewhere. And sure, a lot of companies (both large and small) promise ethical harvesting practices. But in reality, that’s all too often not the case. I encourage you to read more here about the issues surrounding the harvesting of white sage and some of the unethical business practices involved.
2. The Problem with Using the Term, “Smudge” Outside of an Indigenous Context
The second issue regards terminology. Now, this wasn’t something I knew about when I first wrote this post. After all, everyone was calling the act of smoke cleansing, “smudging.” So, the original version of this post did use the word “smudge.” That was almost eight years ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then.
One of the things I’ve learned is that people share this post. It’s a post that seems to get shared by people trying to convince non-indigenous practitioners to avoid white sage and Palo Santo. As someone with even a modest platform, I feel a responsibility here. I wanted this post, the post people know and remember to share, to be as accurate as I could make it with the knowledge I have. And so because of this, I chose to edit this one instead of writing new. I just wanted to acknowledge that the previous version of this post did include the use of the word “smudge” for smoke cleansing.
Anyway, back to the point.
Another thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that we also shouldn’t use the term “smudge.” There are two main reasons for this. The first is that although the word “smudge” is English, it’s been used as a term for the indigenous practices since the 19th century. Practices that the US government actively tried to wipe out. So, you can imagine how shitty it is to see a bunch of white influencers on IG burning sage, calling it “smudging,” and (likely) making bank. The second is that what you’re doing probably doesn’t even quality as “smudging” from a native perspective. As the indigenous folks in this article point out, there is a lot more to smudging than smoke fumigation.
Smoke cleansing and smoke fumigation are perfectly respectable terms for what most of us non-indigenous folks do.
3. Purpose and Mechanism
The final reason comes down to purpose, mechanism, and the spirits you work with.
As a practitioner of modern Heathen magic well-rooted in the older sources, smoke fumigation is about introducing something hale into a space to drive out the unhale. It’s about making a space uninhabitable to beings that may cause sickness and/or harm to me and mine.
That is underlying purpose and mechanism of what I do when I fumigate with smoke. And that informs everything about my fumigation practice, from the herbs I work with, to the rituals I perform when preparing them. As a non-indigenous person, I frankly don’t know enough about those elements of smudging. For all I know, the purpose and underlying mechanism of what I do compared to what they do is very different.
And the Spirits?
Another important element regards the spirits themselves.
Over the years, I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I’ve found several things to be true. Firstly, upkeep is always preferable to repair; secondly, it’s the little things that make a home; and thirdly, my home is an ecosystem shared between both seen and unseen beings.
In my home, there’s myself, my human family, my dog, cat, various ancestors, Aelfe, and cofgodas to take into consideration. Between us, we maintain relationships built over years and continued over continents. Again and again, we’ve moved and gone through the process of cleaning, unpacking, and (re) building our shrines in each place. Again and again, we’ve made offerings, invited our wights to join us, offered to the wights of the new place, and so on and so forth.
If there’s one thing this kind of nomadic life does, it’s build appreciation of those you travel and move with. As much as you might make friends in a place, your most important bonds are always to your more immediate kin group, be they living or dead, human or otherwise.
To put it simply: my kin group does not get on with white sage.
Moreover, I don’t come from a culture that has relationships with white sage. I come from a culture that has a text referencing a group of 9 holy herbs making oaths at a great council to help. I come from a culture that looks to rowan and vervain (among others). And the herbs I have relationships with are very good at driving out the unhale spirits, while not disturbing the hale. (In other words, our purposes are aligned on this.)
Once upon a time, there was a great Ash – some say Yew, and depending on which culture is talking about this tree, some even say Oak or Birch. It doesn’t matter though, because whether you call it Yggdrasil or Bile, it’s the same tree, the ‘world tree’. Vast beyond imagining, with roots that grow deep into the depths of the Below World and beyond, and branches that grow high into the Above World and beyond, it stands. Proud and strong even as wyrmas gnaw at its roots and deer graze upon its leaves. We live in what might be called the ‘Around World’, but some call it Middle-Earth, or Midgarð. I don’t like to get into names of worlds though, because when you get into names, then you get into counting them, and that’s where things get controversial. I like to keep things simple and I like the number three, so I’m going to talk about the ‘Below World’, the ‘Above World’, and the ‘Around World’, any differentiation within those worlds are just countries…yeah, that’s what they are, just countries. But the point is, the tree is everything, and everything inhabits the worlds that are on the tree.
In spite of the gnawing and munching, things aren’t entirely miserable for the tree, the tree has help in the form of three women that keep it wet with ‘white water’. But that’s not their entire function (thankfully). Eternity would be awfully boring if all you had to do was water a tree.
No, these ladies are special, and moreover, it’s because of them that a Heathen seer does not and cannot ‘see’ the future.
Introducing the Nornir
The first thing to know about these ladies is that they have names, of course they have names, and like many old names, they give us a clue about what these ladies did or the forces they may represent. They might not even be their ‘real’ names, the ancient and sacred often hides behind kennings, but the names they have serve us just fine. The second thing to know is that time and happening don’t work for them in the same way that it does for us, chronology takes a back seat to context. Lastly, because of this, the third thing to know is that they’re not in any ‘order’ that we would recognise. In other words, they aren’t working on some assembly line of ‘fate’.
It’s not even really ‘fate’ that they do either. Fate implies a set future that is not one of many possible futures but a ‘The Future’. There is no fate for us, there is simply ‘what was’, ‘what is’, and ‘what is owed’. Moreover, because the layers we lay down aren’t only laid down by us, but our ancestors and those we interact with too, then unless we live our lives in bubbles, there is no way to lay layers without ‘our’ layers interacting with the layers of others, whether we realise that at the time or not. Just as the tree holds all, wyrd’s well holds more than just our own personal wyrds.
But back to the ladies…Collectively known as ‘Nornir’ in Old Norse and ‘Wyrdae’ in Old English, the ‘first’ of the three is ‘Urðr’, or ‘Wyrd’, she is that what was, that which is set down layer by layer, and her partner is ‘Verðandi’, or ‘becoming’, in other words, ‘what is’.
Together they are bound in a constant interaction in which Urðr is the past and Verðandi the present continuous. ‘What was’, and ‘what is becoming’. ‘What is now’ lays down the future layers of ‘what was’, and the layers of ‘what was’ often lead to the creation of the ‘what is’ – but not always. You see, sometimes the ‘weird’ in our lives, the things we cannot explain given current circumstances (be those things good or bad) are often the product of ‘what was’ affecting ‘what is’. We rightfully call these things ‘weird’ in English, but most of us have forgotten the root of this word, that once it was Wyrd, and that Wyrd belonged in a well in which context rather than chronology has the most meaning.
Standing a little off on her own is ‘Skuld’, or as I will call her here, ‘what is owed’, and for the most part that’s where she stays. However, she may also be a Valkyrie, so the perception by some that she’s linked to death is not unfounded. In my experience, you also very rarely see her at work, most rough times that people have are down to wyrd, to the layers they set down in the past.
Whether these three ladies are personifications of forces as intrinsic to natural laws as gravity, or distinct beings that actually exist to manipulate these forces is not clear. The image of the Nornir gathered around wyrd’s well though, is stirring to say the least, and whether you choose to ‘journey’ to the well to look within to peel back the layers on your client, replicate the waters by use of skrying bowl or mirror, or pester various unseen beings for answers, as Heathens we have to be clear on what is actually being done.
For the most part, when a person approaches with a question, what he or she is really doing is asking the seer to take a look at ‘what was’ and ‘what is now’ in a targeted way, and then with wisdom, construct the ‘most likely outcome’ for the questioner if there are no attempts to change course.
But with this in mind, how is a seer still a seer?
The Art of Seeing “What is”
Often, when we are in a situation, it’s hard to see all the angles because we’re too close to it, or we’re protecting ourselves emotionally from coming to the conclusions we really need to come to. Moreover, while a seer cannot see a set future (because there is no such thing – at least not in the sense that is usually meant), he or she can see the layers of both ourselves, our ancestors, and other involved parties, and see factors hidden to the querent at the time of questioning. A good seer can then identify the layers in the querent’s past that continue to be problematic in the becoming, and counsel the querent on how to change that pattern that the future becoming might be better. Of course, we can all question and explore the layers of another in order to help them create better layers, but one way to think of a seer for ease of differentiation, is as a person with the facility to perceive wyrd (or the ability to question the unseen about ‘what was’ and ‘what is’).
In some ways, modern science is even coming to reinforce these ideas. Recent research in DNA has shown that we can not only inherit the health of our ancestors, but their phobias too. Entire disciplines in counselling rely on the idea that one must explore the client’s past and work with changing their current behaviour and perceptions in order to create a better future for the client. We are counselled that you can make new habits by doing them at least twenty-one times, in other words, by laying new layers to begin the process of offsetting Wyrd, and evolution teaches us that we are related to every single living thing on this planet.
But regardless of whether you’re looking for more scientifically or ‘magically’ based wyrd-counselling, as always, it’s important to choose your counsel well.
What do you think of when you think of the word, ‘prayer’? Perhaps you envision a person piously kneeling in church, or even rocking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Maybe you even think of the Muslim with a prayer mat, or the Sufi worshipers swirling in their billowing robes?
But what about Pagans and Heathens? Do we pray? Should we pray? And how should that prayer ‘look’ in comparison to the prayer of other religions?
A while ago, I posed the question of prayer on a group that I frequent – it’s a lovely group, very calm, and a lot of the members find it supportive. A lot of the respondents said that they did indeed pray, and then we went on to have a wonderful conversation about prayer. However, there were a few that expressed views that they don’t pray so much as just ‘talk to the gods, ancestors, and wights’. This isn’t unusual either. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the prayer question come up in both Heathen and Pagan circles over and over again, and the ‘I don’t pray, but talk to the gods’ response is one that I’ve seen come up a lot.
But what is prayer, and what was it for Heathens?
“Teach us the Secret Runes”
Many of the sources we have for the Heathen period were written by Christians, in some cases centuries after conversion. With this in mind, when we examine these sources, we have to treat them with some degree of caution and bear in mind that we’re reading these events as presented through the filter of a Christian worldview.
The ‘Heliand’ however, is pretty unique in that it’s the Christian gospel written in a way that the Heathen Saxons could understand it. In other words, it’s the story of Jesus adapted to the Heathen worldview. Through comparing the rendering the ‘Heliand’ gives, with the actual Christian gospel, I believe it’s possible to discern aspects of the Heathen worldview.
When it comes to prayer, and the way it is introduced in the ‘Heliand’, the difference between the Christian version and the version as rendered for Heathens is obvious.
In Luke 11:1, the introduction to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is short, and with the expectation that the reader will already understand what is going on:
“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
In contrast though, the ‘Heliand’ presents prayer very differently:
“Our good Lord”, he said, “we need Your gracious help in order to carry out Your will and we also need Your own words, Best of all born, to teach us, Your followers, how to pray – just as John the good Baptist, teaches his people with words every day how they are to speak to the ruling God. Do this for Your own followers – teach us the secret runes.”
– Song 9
With those words, ‘teach us the secret runes’, or ‘gerihti us that geruni’, the normally ineffectual wish-prayer of the
pious, is made understandable within the context of Germanic culture as a kind of spell of great performative power; the word ‘geruni’ conveying both the ideas of secrecy and petitioning.
From the importance of skalds and their craft ( that often bordered on the magical) to the belief that certain combinations of words could have a magical effect, the idea of the power of language, is something that permeated Germanic culture. In the Old English medical texts, certain prayers such as the ‘Pater Noster’ (the Latin name of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) are considered to heal when said a certain number of times, and texts like ‘Solomon and Saturn’ often advocate the same prayers as war-spells for in battle.
But none of this really sounds like the Judeo-Christian idea of what a prayer is. The word ‘prayer’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘precari’, and has the Proto Indo-European root ‘*prek’, meaning ‘to ask, request, or en
treat’. In a sense, the asking and entreating does form a part of these formulaic ‘rune-prayers’ from Germanic tradition:
‘Give us support each day, good Chieftain, Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector of Heaven Our Many crimes, just as we do to other human beings Do not let evil little creatures lead us off to do their will, as we deserve’
– Excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Heliand, Song 19
But there is never really a sense with Christian prayer that the prayer itself is a kind of magical formula, or a ‘rune’ to be used as a form of magic in of itself. Christian prayer hinges on the entreaty, on the benevolence of the being you’re entreating. However, not only did Germanic prayer make that entreaty to the higher, as a subject might go to a King, it was also powerful in of itself. In other words, the formula and language used were important.
So while the word ‘prayer’ might not hold up within a Germanic context, at least not in the same sense as prayer in other religious traditions, a sense of respect, formality, of formula, and tradition does.
For health, for protection, for battle-victory, and for support – these were all reasons to make these entreaties and use these inherently magical formulae, these were the reasons that made sense to the Germanic tribes. There was no asking for ‘our daily bread’, which would have rendered the asker little more than a beggar, and asking for forgiveness is replaced by the more judicial ‘pardon’ from crimes.
So where does that leave us as moderns? Do we still call it ‘prayer’? How often should we do it? And if we bear in mind that a prayer was believed to hold an inherent magic based in the words used, how would this affect the prayers we come up with?
Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how often they pray or…I dunno… speak runes? However one thing is clear to me; the formal and formulaic is not the sole domain of Christians, and when coming up with our prayers or ‘runes’, we should take as much care as possible, and never forget that we are addressing the Holy Powers.
The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel – Translation and Commentary by G.Ronald Murphy. S.J. The Lacnunga Solomon and Saturn The Holy Bible NIV