Within the past two days, I’ve had two friends tell me of sleep disturbances that had a certain quality of otherness about them. One person had the experience while we were camping in the Black Hills of Maryland, and the other in her own home. In the case of the first person, she’d felt physically touched by whatever it was through the wall of her tent – a touch that she felt was a very deliberate poke which had been kind of ‘introduced’ in her dream before it happened. In the case of the second person, it was more of a classic ‘Old Hag’ experience that they had had to fight off.
To Me Came A Dream
In both cases, each individual felt very strongly as though what had happened wasn’t just a simple nightmare, and that some kind of interaction with the Other had taken place. It’s very easy for modern people to discredit dream and what happens in the altered states of consciousness between sleeping and awake.
However, as I have discussed previously in this blog, this attitude towards dream seems to have been the result of a concerted effort by Christian authorities to dismantle the power of dream among their flocks in order to censor dream, for to censor dream is to censor one form of access to the Otherworld. In Germanic tradition, dreams were thought of as coming from outside the sleeper – a concept that is reflected linguistically in both Old Norse and Old English in phrases such as dreymdi mik draumr (“a dream came to me”) and mec gemætte (“to me came a dream”) (Pollington 490). The ON term draumstolinn suggests that the ability to dream was one that could be stolen, and in The Saga of the Jómsborg Vikings a man is refused marriage if he does not dream (LeCouteux 28).
However, the sleeper was not entirely passive, and as we shall see, could sometimes also enact their own visitations in dream.
So dream was important. It wasn’t just some whimsical and harmless thing to the Pagan/Heathen mind, but a way in which the sleeper could interact with both the Otherworld, and other sleepers. And it was consideration of my friends’ dreams that got me thinking about the bad side of dream: maran, night-walkers, and elves.
”Wið eallum f?ondes costungum”
When it comes to discussing maran, night-walkers, and elves, it can be hard to give solid definitions. Mare (from which we derive the word “nightmare”) could refer to either a human woman – usually but not always intentionally a witch – that attacked sleepers, or a supernatural being that did the same (Jolley 86, Hall 125). The term night-walkers seems self-explanatory, though Hall still expresses uncertainty as to what they could have been in more precise terms (Hall 124). And the problems of defining what an elf was considered to be (not to mention their relationship to magic and witches) are perennial.
What we can say with some certainty though, is that certain effects were considered to be common to these beings, and that they were connected/overlapped in terms of function. In some charms, we may see this uncertainty as to who/what was doing what to the patient, reflected in the more general terms f?ondes costunga (“tribulations of the enemy”), and/or Ælfs?den (“elf-seiðr” – a form of magic) used.
On the symptoms of attack and forms of treatment however, the OE magico-medical sources are remarkably consistent on the matter of nightmares, and it is upon these consistencies that I shall now focus.
Symptoms of Attack
For those of you who have experienced the terror of “sleep paralysis” (or as it’s sometimes called, “Old Hag”), this is all going to sound very familiar. While the explanation for this sleep disturbance has changed in modern times (no elves or night-goers need apply!), modern descriptions of this experience would have been familiar to our ancestors. In some accounts, such as that of the Swedish king Vanlandi of the Ynglinga saga, the victim was even “trod on” or “pressed down on” until dead. It is worth mentioning here that the attacking force was the witch/mara Drifa (Hall 125, 135). Interestingly, while the Ynglinga saga was composed post-conversion, a segment of the 9th century Ynglingatal referencing the death of king Vanlandi as a result of the witch (referred to in the Ynglingatal segment as mara) attests to the potential Heathen origins of this concept.
Rather disturbingly, there was also potentially considered to be a sexual or lustful element to these nocturnal attacks too. As Hall points out, mære was glossed with incuba in the 7th century (Hall 125). This connection is repeated in the 13th century South English Legendary which not only juxtaposes maren with eluene (or “elves”), but describes these attacks in sexual terms (Hall 140-142). This sexual aspect is also alluded to by Karen Jolly in Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context” (Jolly 149).
Other symptoms of attack by maran, night-walkers, or elves that can potentially be discerned from the sources are those of fever and delusion (Hall 121-125). Though it bears pointing out here that fevers often come with delusion, it is also worth noting that there is an entire category of elf-related illnesses in the OE magico-medical texts (Hall 96-108). In any case, whether (more specifically in this case) the elves are considered to cause the sickness or the more delusional symptoms associated with fever, Hall seems to imply that the sick are potentially more of a target by virtue of being sick:
Ælfs?den is also associated with nihtgengan and with the riding of the sick by maran.” (Hall 130)
Lastly, before finishing this current section, I would like to point out the parallels between the ON and OE lore regarding maran/night-walkers, and that of the Hmong being, the Dab Tsog.
In the late 70s to mid 80s, Hmong refugees became something of a curiosity to US medical professionals and researchers for one reason and one reason only: their men were dying in their sleep. There was no explanation that could be found, and the term SUNDS (or Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome) was coined by the FCDC.
However, the cause of death was no mystery to the Hmong themselves – it was the Dab Tsog who brought the chest crushing death of the Tsog Tsaum. Incredibly there are survivors of SUNDS, who when interviewed, related horrifying dream-experiences in which they were attacked by a kind of creature that tried to kill them by sitting on their chests and forcing the air out. These survivors also experienced paralysis and remembered being able to clearly hear the sounds of their houses around them.
The Hmong are not the only people to report these kind of beings either, the Dab Tsog mirrors cases attributed to the Filipino Batibat.
Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity Karen Jolly – Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context Claude LeCouteux – Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages Stephen Pollington – Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant-Lore and Healing
It was a different world for Pagans and Witches when I first started out. My books were whatever was in the local library, and my tools were whatever I’d cobbled together from hikes and thrift stores. Most importantly though for back then, they were all easy to hide, and my ‘altar’ was a small foot stool that could easily slide under my bed.
My first rituals were performed either far off the beaten path in the wilds, or long after my parents
had gone to bed – invocations whispered and candles extinguished outside my bedroom window to minimize that telltale extinguished candle smell. To the me of twenty-three years ago, my current level of openness (not to mention the availability of books and tools we have now), would have been unimaginable.
Nowadays though, we can source the most obscure ritual supplies and have them delivered to our doorsteps, all with the click of a mouse or finger tap on a touchscreen. Need some lignum aloes for that ritual incense you’re making? A white-handled knife for some invocation to a grimoire demon? Need a bag of iron nails? Some ‘mercury head’ dimes? That fancy candle that promises it was made with all organic oils and blessed under (insert relevant moon phase here)?
We live in an era in which these things are not all that hard-gotten. And that accessibility can be its own problem.
Products Sold as Life-Fixes
This isn’t an anti-tool post though, not at all. It’s just that with the advent of the ‘basic witch’, I just wanted to start the conversation around necessary as opposed to pretty junk.
When I was younger, a friend once advised me to never own more than I could fit in my backpack, because you’re only as free as your ability to carry the possessions you own. While her point was ostensibly about the physical freedom of being able to move when you want (and I did do that for a few years), over the years I’ve noticed that possessions are weightier in other ways too.
We get attached to possessions, and to make matters worse (?), we live in a society in which we’re constantly told that we need to have the right product in order to fix whatever it is that is wrong/fill that hole/make life perfect.
How many of us have heard the slogan “Better living through (insert random shit here)”?
We are surrounded by this message that products can make our lives better, and while it’s nice to have possessions (and goodness knows, I love mine), I think it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking one’s possessions *are* the point. Having the best car and a house that’s way too big for your family to live in can easily become obsessions to which family time and relaxation are sacrificed. The things become more important than the people – which is an inversion of how things should be. So it only makes sense that this inversion can occur when it comes to products of a more occult or Pagan nature too. After all, we’re already pre-programmed to consume.
Tools vs Junk
Some magical paths come with a lot of tools, and some come with hardly any – this is not an indictment against either end of this spectrum. And when you’re like me and figuratively have your fingers in many magical pies, you’re likely to have all kinds of magical tools knocking about.
For example, my more PGM and grimoire-based work involves scrying bowls, tables of art, knives, various kinds of incense, and goodness knows what else. However, my more Seidr/witchcraft-related stuff involves a staff/distaff, spindle, ‘cauldron’, and a whole lot of wool (skulls are optional). I would also add a ‘spade’ for the necromantic work (but I guarantee, not for the reason you may think, that kind of thing will get you arrested). That’s a *lot* of stuff, and it only ever accumulates as you expand your practice to work with new grimoires etc.
But what is the difference between those things and junk?
Quite simply, they’re either necessary for the form of magic being practiced, part of the etiquette of contacting whichever spirit or group of spirits you’re looking to work with, or necessary for constructing whatever kind of ritual space you work in in your tradition.
Anything that does not fulfill one or more of the above functions is, strictly speaking, junk.
Now, I happen to like the junk, but it’s important to always keep it in mind that while sometimes even occult tchotchke can be useful at times, it’s still no less junk than the piece of paper you fished out of the trash to scrawl a hasty table of art or sigils on (although I’d hope none of you are in such dire straits that you’d need to do such a thing).
Because all too often, the junk can become the point, and therein lies a trap that I think a lot of people fall into (but hardly ever discuss). Unless it’s an item stipulated by a spirit as a condition of conjuration (and potentially pacting) that spirit, or ingredients for something like a hoodoo hand, if ever you find yourself thinking that you can’t do something magically without a certain item or that you need that thing to *fix* your practice, then you may have a problem. This is especially the case if that magical thing you think you can’t do without that thing is actually down to the application of a basic skill.
Knowing Thyself and Mindful Spending
There are some hard lessons to be learned in the examination of our motivations for buying junk, and the paths it may lead us down. In some cases, having that need to find a ‘fix’ in the form of a product may be indication that the practitioner has become impatient with having to take the long road, and do the hard work it takes to become ‘advanced’. In other cases, it can be an indication that the practitioner needs to ‘go deeper’ and try to face whatever it is inside themselves that is making them feel as though there is a hole to be filled.
The most important thing though is that the practitioner is both able to examine those motivations mindful of one’s spending.
*and* be honest about what it means for their practice. Magical practitioners are told to ‘know thyself’, and for good reason: the practice of magic (in whatever form) contains many pitfalls. For many, if not all of us, exercises involving mindfulness and discipline, form a chunk of the core of our training.
Which means that while we may be as susceptible to the allure of spiritual junk as the next person, most of us already have the tools for avoiding that trap.
Questions like “Why do you want that thing?” and “What use has it?” are important to ask when considering a purchase. It’s important to be
However, equally important is the idea that you can buy something just because you happen to like it. Sometimes I think (and I know I do this at times, it’s a side effect of growing up poor), we try to justify our purchases too much by finding a use for them.
But which is worse?
Buying something because you like it, or buying something because you’ve not only convinced yourself you need it but have come to believe it necessary? There’s a kind of liberation to be had here too – especially if you’re the kind of person to try and justify your purchases like that. Because the chance is that if you cannot even indulge yourself with the odd bit of tchotchke without feeling guilty (assuming no dire financial straits here), then you’re also likely the kind of person who feels guilty about spending your free time doing the things you want, or having hobbies that do not produce items to sell or give as gifts. And that is no healthy mindset to have.
Several years ago, I had a dream that people told me couldn’t possibly come true. There was simply no way, it was too unlikely, and though it had left me shaken for the entire day, it was really nothing to worry about.
After all, how likely were pitched battles on the streets between Nazis and non-Nazis? Moreover, the dream had taken place in my hometown and I no longer lived there, right? But dream works differently, what is detail in life is symbol in dream, and I remember that dream all too well after the events of this past weekend. Nazis bearing swastika flags, spewing messages of hate and throwing projectiles, armed and deadly on unwelcoming streets. The harassed sounds of police horses and the clip of boots covering the feet of hastily deployed soldiers.
The sound of rounds being chambered.
And in the background, or maybe superimposed – who knows, dream is like that – was the voice exhorting the masses to rise up for ‘Queen and country’.
My friends had been right, it was highly unlikely back then, and yet it filled me with a sense of horror and dread. I can’t help but notice today, that aside from the police horses and setting in Lancashire, it wasn’t too far off what did happen in Charlottesville, VA. Not that I’m claiming my dream somehow predicted that, I’m not. But I do think it was a warning of what was then a coming wave.
Tea With the Dead
The Dead have always played a role in my life and practice. I grew up in a family that was very nominally Anglican, and not so ‘nominally’ Spiritualist. I grew up with a dad whose family had cut their teeth in Spiritualism in post (and presumably during) wartime London. Though I never knew either of my grandmothers and only one of my grandfathers, I had the benefit of a great uncle who still lived down in London, and whom I would go visit with my father as a kid.
My uncle Lew and auntie Ada were incredible people, always laughing, and they could drink enough tea to sink a ship. Like the rest of my father’s family, they’d also spent a lot of time around the Spiritualist circles, and that sense of otherness was palpable in their home. There was nothing threatening there, but I never quite felt like I was alone even when there was no one else around. Our visits there were mostly spent laughing over countless cups of tea – I loved them dearly.
But uncle Lew and auntie Ada also had stories to tell, and some of them were quite dark. You see, they’d been of an age to be around for WWII, and as Londoners -or more specifically Cockneys -they’d experienced the very worst of the Blitz.
Amazingly, most of their stories about this era were told with humor. They told stories of a world on fire in which no one knew if they would survive or not, and so they’d decided to enjoy what they could anyway for the most part. They were a people who had learned to dance on the knife’s edge, living as though every day was their last. And all of that might have sounded like bravado but for the heavy shadow that fell upon some of their words, that though delivered in such a matter of fact manner, had all the impact of a gut punch.
I often think about what they’d think had they lived to see the days we live in now. Would they recognize in us the same descent they experienced? Did the Dead scream in warning as loudly to them in the build-up to the war as they do to some of us now? Are we on the path to similar or worse?
The Use and Abuse of History
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984
As I’ve written previously, to know the past is to be able to predict the future. Divination in the Heathen period played many roles, but it was never about getting a set answer about what was going to happen next. It was for discerning the will of the gods (and perhaps receiving a heads up from them about the future), for finding that which was lost, and for discovering past and present events that were not yet known to the enquirer. To know what was past and what was yet unseen was to be able to have a greater chance of predicting the future.
But what if you do not like what the past holds, or the world around you promises? What if none of that fits the model that you would like to see become dominant in the world?
Then you smash the statues, you break that link, and you harass anyone who presents evidence that contradicts that. Oh you claim to care while making those appeals to history/tradition/authority/science (all often incorrectly), but ultimately the people who would go down this route have no real respect for any of it. They simply recognize the truth that George Orwell expressed so succinctly in the quote above.
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
This is why history, and perhaps to a lesser degree, memory matters. History shows us the patterns that are best off never repeated again, and a memory that is clear and true is the best protection against the hazards of the Overton Window.
One of the names I go by online is that of “Seo Helrune”, an Old English term that Pollington translates as meaning ‘one skilled in the mysteries of the world of the dead’ (Pollington 51). Though we do not know much about the actual magical tech employed by a Heathen period Helrune, this term still feels fitting for me. From the family I was born into, the kind of magical practice I do, and the history I voraciously devour, the dead and their world have always been a part of me. As strange as it sounds, I find a form of holiness in history; for not only is it in a sense the ‘world’ of the dead, but I believe it also contains the keys to creating a better future for my descendants. Put a pin in that thought though for now, I’ll return to this idea later.
To Conscript a God
Unfortunately, the dead and their world are not the only powers to have been pressed into service for the traditionalist cause – the gods have also fallen victim.
Or rather one god in particular has, and it does not go unnoticed that he is a god associated with the dead and the mysteries of their world.
”Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord of the mounds.” (Ynglinga 7)
Again the theme and story repeats.
The god of course, is Odin/Woden/Wotan, and he now finds himself figurehead of a very 21st century phenomenon, the ‘meme war’. What a demotion! From having one’s names on the lips of actual warriors and kings, to being the figurehead of a fucking meme war comprised of keyboard warriors and internet personalities.
However his role does not end with ‘figurehead’, but he also fulfils the role of sacrificial victim too – sacrificed at the altar of ‘the white race’, or ‘folk’.
Consider these words: ”Now, I happen to have been a follower of Wotan, under his name of Odin, for some 45 years, and my personal experience is that He is utterly real, if inherently mysterious. But I don’t expect my Christian, or Atheist, or Agnostic, or Other friends to agree on that. Instead, I invite them to think of Wotan as Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, did: Namely, as an inherited symbol in the collective unconscious of the Germanic Peoples. Either way, as God or as Archetype, Wotan is a source of immense power, and we need to call upon that power to stir the European Peoples into action.” (From: here)
The only ‘god’ here that this worldview has room for is race, like a friend of mine says, My religion is gifting, theirs is white people.
And while I know that historically leaders and kings sought the favor of deities in their various campaigns, the difference is that they did not use them as tools in quite the same way. The rituals were expressions of do ut desas opposed to PR (though PR almost certainly played a part, as it does with any savvy leader), and they knew how to gift.
The Ancestors Bring Blessings
Modern people, at least in our society, have a problem with death. We do not like to be reminded of it, it is taboo. The majority of us no longer lay out our own dead, or even see anything other than a sanitized version of death when we do. An entire industry exists to relieve us of those final duties to our kin, and it is an industry that has become adept at occulting death from society in general.
All of which I believe helps to draw a big, funerary black curtain between the dead and ourselves in terms how we understand our ancestors.
Don’t get me wrong, we do very well with remembrance, but it can be quite a surprise to us that our Heathen and Pagan ancestors didn’t just engage in rites to the Dead for the sake of remembrance, but for tangible gains too.
“it should be noted that the ancestors, as part of their ongoing concern for their descendants, are thought to bring blessings to family, flock, and field. This is why the Hunt was believed to be propitious, and why people welcomed it despite the chaos and even danger that came with it, an attitude as Höfler, Meuli, Wolfram, and others have amply attested. The *koryos brings increase for the same reason it brings order: because it makes the ancestors present among their people. And so, while the fertility aspects of the cult became all-important, after the conversion, among the country people who kept up these practices, they were always present.” (Kershaw 34)
Presumably what must be propitiated may also be offended, and consequences reaped.
”Three features, writes Meuli, govern the primitive’s conception of the dead person: He continues to live. He is powerful. He is at once well-disposed and malicious (Meuli 1975: I, 303).” (Kershaw 23-24)
Over the past few days, I’ve seen lots of people declare the deeds of their ancestors. Stories of participation in D-Day or at Dunkirk. Stories of liberation and blood, of freeing holocaust survivors and the long deep hatred of Nazis that permeated the words and minds of our more recent ancestors. Are we to think that the rise of this ideology once more, though touting the cause of ancestors would somehow be acceptable to those of our lines who fought those battles?
I suppose it all depends on your ancestors, but I know what mine would think. Tea and memories in a small house in a London suburb have seen to that.
The rhetoric of the far right is often framed in terms of survival of ‘the white race’. We see that ideology condensed into fourteen infamous words:
”We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” (Source: Wikipedia)
One would almost think that were they truly representing the will of the Holy Powers, that the ‘white race’ would be experiencing a fertility boom, right? (Well you know, if those lazy white women would just accept their role as childbearers…)
I would like to tell you a tale of two witches, (goddesses really) inhabitants of a time beyond time. The first goddess was ordered and seemingly tame. Elegance and poise personified, she navigated the oft-tempestuous social waters of her hall with ease, winning words of kindness and oaths of peace from even the most hardened of warriors who sat at her benches. A skilled politician, she wove hearts and minds together as surely as she and her ladies wove the handspun yarn into wadmal, their movements around the room like a shuttle moving through the shed of a great loom, binding warp to weft and person to person.
She is not often called ‘witch’, but she has the talent and skills to be one. She is farsighted, foresighted and deep of mind, yet silent for the most part when it comes to revealing what she knows. She is also voluptuous and comely, with shapely arms and legs that pull lovers in. Those two things do not sound like they should be connected, but they are. This you will come to understand if you do not already.
Her sister however, if we may even call her that, is not of the hall but the wild between. From house to house she goes, “always the delight of an evil bride”. “Witch” some whisper, others whisper “whore”, but to some she is both. Where the lady of the hall is comely, she is magnetic, possessed of the kind of beauty that tempts, entices, and leads men to their deaths. Her prophecies are weapons that fall from her lips, sharp-barbed words that topple kings and sink ships. She is a lady of many names, known to many peoples, both human and other.
Her magnetism calls to us too, and her call to ecstasies are clearly heard. But I believe we have neglected the Lady of the Hall.
There has been much written about the need to re-wild witchcraft, to go out into the wilds and work with the land. To seek initiation from otherworldly powers and be the Heiðr who traverses the hedge. The natural world is hurting, we are to blame, and we are to work to heal and make amends as best we can. Now I’m not saying that I disagree with any of that. I too have seen and felt the suffering and anger of the outer. I too feel this need, as I would imagine anyone with anything approaching an animistic worldview would.
However, we live in a world that prefers and loves absolutes. We love our labels, our boxes, and our causes. Absolutism in thought though, often means that the subtleties are missed, and sometimes it is in those subtleties that some of the keys to a solution are found.
The Poisoned Vines That Choke Our Inner Yards
We humans have always sought somewhere safe in which we can dwell, work, and have our families. We’ve made villages, posted guards, built fences and homes. Since we first began to be recognizably human (and maybe even before), we’ve sought places in which we can keep out the dangers of the outer. For it is instinct to create safe space, and it is a good one. It has ensured our survival.
But it is my contention that the inner is just as poisoned, polluted, and sick as the outer, and until we heal that damage and pull back those choking vines, then there is no hope for doing anything more concrete for either inner or outer.
A Heritage of Flames
History is the greatest of smiths, it forms and forges us, giving us both our identity and the collective traumas that we carry within the very fiber of our beings. The heritage of modern witches is not the same as the heritage of those who might have been called witches in the Heathen period, we hold different traumas in our collective psyche. The biggest trauma for those of us working within predominantly European-derived cultures, is that of the lamentably much-ridiculed period of history that was the European witch craze.
The witch craze was noteworthy in many ways, but rarely is it taken particularly seriously, or examined beyond the mutilation of the torture rooms and agonies of death at the stake. However, in examining the years preceding that systematized routing of female self-determination and magic, there is much that can be learned that is disturbingly useful for fighting the battles we face today.
The social setting in which the European witch craze took place was one of complexity and deceptively slow escalation, each incremental step laying the foundations for the extreme violence that would come. To speak in very general terms, there was an economic crisis of sorts, which was accompanied by an increasing obsession with both female reproduction, and controlling the behavior of women. This increase in misogyny was also unsurprisingly comorbid with a reframing of gender roles, and focus on masculinity. To cut a long story short, many of our modern ideas about ‘traditional’ gender roles were actually systematically introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries and further refined in the 19th century with the creation of the full-time housewife who only fucked out of a sense of duty (Federici 75).
“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again” wrote J.M Barrie in the children’s classic Peter Pan, and it certainly does seem to be the case that we are treading much the same path as our ancestors, albeit slightly differently. Stop me if any of this doesn’t sound at least a little familiar.
In parts of 14th and 15th century Europe, the rape of non-aristocratic women was practically decriminalized, with the perpetrators receiving little to no punishment for their actions. For example, gang rape was not uncommon in many French cities of this period and was carried out openly, without fear of legal consequence (Federici 47-48). This, scholars like Silvia Federici argue, “desensitized the population to the perpetration of violence against women, preparing the ground for the Witch-hunt which began in the same period.”
By the 1580s, the population of Western Europe was in decline and continued to be so into the 17th century. Times were hard, and people simply did not wish to reproduce (Federici 86). Concurrently a new ideology was forming, one that declared that the wealth of a nation might be determined by the number of citizens it has (Federici 87). In this climate, reproduction became a matter of fanaticism, and in the 16th century European governments began introducing laws that levied the severest punishments against contraception, abortion, and infanticide. New forms of surveillance were also employed to ensure that the eye of the state did not leave the womb of the woman: a 1556 French royal edict required all pregnant women to register their pregnancies and sentenced to death any women with concealed deliveries whose babies died before baptism; similar statutes were passed in both Scotland and England; and in France and Germany, midwives became de facto spies of the state, often being called in to examine women suspected of having recently given birth. In the 16th and 17th centuries, more women were executed for infanticide than for any other crime (Federici 88 -89).
The 15th century also saw the rise of a new male obsession with the idea of being dominated by women (and thus being rendered unmanly in the process). This has been referred to as the ‘Battle for the Breeches” and was often depicted in popular literature of the time. For the men of the time, the depiction of a man being beaten by a disobedient (breeches-wearing) wife, was one that provoked fear (Federici 96). It would seem that men in every era have feared the loss of their ‘man cards’.
The worst though, was that this new order sought to isolate women from each other, making them wholly dependent on, and entirely under the authority of their husbands. English women were actively discouraged from friendship with other women or visiting one’s own parents ‘too often’ after marriage, German women were forbidden to live alone or with other women, and Mediterranean women could no longer be on the streets unaccompanied without risking sexual assault (Federici 100).
Of this, Silvia Federici writes: “Simultaneously, female friendships became an object of suspicion, denounced from the pulpit as subversive of the alliance between husband and wife, just as women-to-women relations were demonized by the prosecutors of the witches who forced them to denounce each other as accomplices in crime. It was also in this period that the word “gossip,” which in the Middle Ages had meant “friend,” changed its meaning, acquiring a derogatory connotation, a further sign of the degree to which the power of women and communal ties were undermined.” (Federici 186)
When it came to relationships with men, the propaganda of infanticide, baneful magics wrought by female hands, and the creeping threat of female domination was so effective that though there were individual attempts by husbands, sons, and fathers to save their female relatives from the stake, there was no collective uprising to save their womenfolk from the fires of persecution.
And it is from here, this place of tattered bonds and violent subjugation, in a society full of mistrust and hate, that we look to the far past, and the witches of the Heathen period.
A War of Spears, A War of Hearts
21. The war I remember, the first in the world, When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, and three times born, Oft and again, yet ever she lives.
22. Heiðr they named her who sought their home, The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise; Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic, To evil women a joy she was.
The themes of burning and torture are already familiar in this essay. However, unlike the women of the Early Modern Period, Gullveig has the capacity for resurrection, rising thrice from the ashes of the flames and reborn anew as Heiðr. In a sense, she is the mother of witches, as Heiðr is the archetypal name for the wild witch of the outer who travels between the inner yards of men.
In chapter 4 of the Ynglinga saga we are told of how the goddess Freyja, a blótgyðja or ‘sacrificial priestess’ (who unlike her male relatives was never named among the Diar though she was clearly divine), taught the art of Seiðr to the “Asaland people”. For the scholars Ursula Dronke and Hilda Ellis-Davidson, Freyja and Gullveig were one and the same.
However Freyja is not the only Old Norse goddess of magic by any stretch of the imagination, and it might well be argued that the adversarial nature of the story of Gullveig parallels the account contained within the Volsa þáttr of the cultic rite to a group of beings referred to as the ‘Mornir’. As Clive Tolley points out in ‘Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic’, the Volsa þáttr account is clearly that of a female-led home cult coming into conflict with the male state cult of Christianity. It should also be noted that Völuspá contains clear allusions to Christian ideas, and so it is entirely possible that the antipathy of the Gullveig account may not have reflected actual Heathen period views.
Magic and encounters with the supernatural are common themes in Old Norse literature. The Lokasenna poem introduces us to a number of other deities who have either the gift of seership, or who work magic as witches. Both Frigga and Gefjun, are credited with the gift of prophecy, and Oðinn is referred to as working magic as a witch (an aspect of the Allfather which is reiterated in chapter 7 of Ynglinga saga). Regardless of whether they have the skills of a seeress or of a witch though, they are all accused of sexual promiscuity.
Of Insatiable Lust and Passivity
“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable” -Malleus Maleficarum
Though we have no evidence for the integration of sexual activity into the human practice of Seiðr, the association between witches and carnality is far older than the fevered fears of the Early Modern Period, with evidence presenting itself from the mythical realm rather than the historical (Tolley 164). It is a thread that connects witchcraft, or rather ideas of witchcraft throughout the ages. Gefjun tricks King Gylfi into giving her land in exchange for ‘amusement’ and Freyja beds dwarves in exchange for Brisingamen. Each is referred to as being a farandi kona, or ‘travelling woman’ – a term that held connotations of both ‘witch’ and ‘whore’ (Tolley 451). The insatiable woman was ?rg, as the male practitioner of Seiðr was ergi (Tolley 156).
To approach an understanding of ergi though, one must first understand something of Viking Age ideas on gender roles. As in the Early Modern Period, the people of the Viking Age had very definite ideas about what was proper with regards to sex and gender. In ‘Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.’, Carol J Clover makes the case that the sex a person was assigned by their social peers depended on their behavior, and that in given circumstances, both men and women could belong to the female gender. The male was seen as ‘active’, ‘honorable’, the ‘default sex’ even. And contrary to what many think, it was no shame or considered ergi for a man to participate in homosexual activity during this period, as long as he remained the penetrator as opposed to the penetrated.
Though it is hard to find a definition of ergi that works in all cases, I think that the one provided by Tolley serves. Ergi, regardless of sex, was the ”opening oneself up for sexual penetration by an inappropriate person”. For a woman, this was anyone outside of a licit relationship, however for a man, this was anyone or anything.
To solely focus on the sexual aspects of ergi though, would be to miss an important point. As the servant girl in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, observes ”everyone grows argr as he grows older”, which potentially implies a loss of virility, might, or even both. In terms of Clover’s work, this would represent a feminization of man as he ages and loses his ability to live without the help of others (Tolley 158-159).
Tolley asserts that there is value in considering ergi from the perspective of individualism vs relationality (relationality being “ the doctrine that transactions, interactions, social ties and conversations constitute the central stuff of social life.”) (Tolley 159-160, Tilly 2002) . The ideal Norse male was a hero, self-sufficient, strong – an individual that stands out even from his battle brothers (should he have them): “Once individuality is set up as the favored focus of aspiration, expressions of relationality come to be despised, and when realized in extreme forms (such as acts viewed as involving ergi) as shameful.” (Tolley 159). To practice magic, regardless of type or purpose, is to enter into a series of reciprocal relationships with, and to some degree rely on other beings. For the woman, relationality and that magic of the ties that bind – that frithweaving has always been her domain. It is telling that whatever forces were working to shape the vast social and economic changes of the Early Modern Period saw to it that the bonds between women, and between women and men, were destroyed.
The Enemy Unmasked
I believe that this has all been to our detriment. To be an individualist is to see the self as primary, it is inherently selfish and egotistical. It is that which says ‘give me’, and ‘I will’. It is that which does and takes without thinking of the consequences to others, whereas those who work within a web of reciprocal relationships must work within the web and keep the consequences of not doing so ever in mind. Here is where we find the root of the poisonous vine that has us wrapped within its clutches. It is perhaps fitting that our greatest weapon is that which the inquisitors tried to kill – our ability to create meaningful, reciprocal relationships with each other.
And once more, we find ourselves in a race back to those days of subjugation and reproductive control, of relationships based on fear rather than love and trust, an excessive legal interference.
Reclaiming the Hall
This morning I watched a video on Youtube by the former leader of a racialist ‘Asatru’ organization in which he talks about producing content to push an ‘awakening of the folk’ though producing content. Content, he contends, facilitates social shifts – drastic social shifts. He is not wrong, this was certainly the case during the Early Modern Period. It was content that was then delivered in the form of books, pamphlets and illustrations that helped to render the very fabric of society asunder and subjugate half the population. For all this individual’s talk of ‘folk’ though – a term that implies relationality – he and people like him, still bow to the cult of individualism and the focus on hyper-masculinity that inspires it. For them, the Holy Powers are tools to be used for human political ends as opposed to being ends in of themselves, and once again, the bodies of women are commandeered for the ‘War of the Wombs’. White women are told to ‘breed for the folk’, in other words, to try and make enough white babies to stop the ‘browning of America’.
Though these people invoke Oðinn’s name often, these are not the acts based in relationality that he himself engaged in.
Loki spake: “They say that with spells in Samsey once Like witches with charms didst thou work; And in witch’s guise among men didst thou go; Unmanly thy soul must seem.” Lokasenna 24
Nor is this the healing and building of community that we so sorely need. This is only ever a path to war and genocide, facilitated by the false buoying of the downtrodden by the introduction of the cause (and scapegoat) du jour. This is not a solution (even if it may seem to be so to some at the time). Unfortunately, this man and the forces of dissolution represented by his organization are not the whole game, but manifestations of a wider social malaise. Our inner yards are broken, and relatively few of us even know what it is to live in an actual community. The ties that bind us, that weave us together become ever more frayed by the day. But this should be no surprise, for who is there to weave and repair what has been sundered, when the lady has been driven from the hall to be made servant to the childbed? As witches, we tend to look to the wilds, but we have been driven to them as surely as missionaries drove the wihta further and further away from the enclosed spaces of man. And just as with wihta, it was by means of iron and fire that witches were driven back. Heiðr wanders the wilds because as Gullveig she was pierced by the iron of a spear and burned.
But what if the wild witch were to remember her sister and her craft? What if she were to learn how to weave hearts and minds together as well as seeking partnership and initiation among the trees? How would our society look if relationality and reciprocity were returned?
What if the wild witch were to remember that there was a time when she too worked the magic of the hall as her sister also worked the magic of the wilds, and that there wasn’t really any difference between them?
To be a witch is to bend, it is to manipulate and shape, and although I have little talent for diplomacy, I ask us to weave and be shapers here anyway. I ask you to dream, to see the world in which you would have your children live and then work to help others to see it too. I ask you to become the shapers of words that help change the world for the better. I ask you to shape the words that teach relationality, compromise, community, and reciprocity, instead of that harsh individualism that ultimately robs a person of their humanity. I ask you to step out onto that No Woman’s Land and engage in this war for hearts and minds.
For if all of this is ergi, then we would do well to remind ourselves that it is in the practices that involve ergi that lies the greatest power.
Gullveig rose from the ashes of her pyre.
Sources referenced Caliban and the Witch – Silvia Federici Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic – Clive Tolley Stories, Identities, and Political Change – Charles Tilly
On the 20th of August 2016, some clowns allegedly tried to lure a kid into the woods near his apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina. Over the course of the next week, a further five sightings were reported to the local police department. Those of us who didn’t live in Greenville, especially those of us raised on Stephen King’s IT, were relieved to not be there. Over the course of the coming weeks, the number of sightings grew – as did the number of locations. People speculated that it was all some kind of publicity stunt for the upcoming IT remake, but the movie’s producer denied all. A kind of paranoia and hysteria grew around the clowns, and as the reports grew, so did the debate around just what the clowns were and why they had started to become so prominent. Some people pointed out the Fortean aspects of these crazes (which happen periodically), whereas others just stuck to more mundane explanations of creepy attention-seekers in bought or rented suits and masks. In a kind of collective madness, exacerbated by the fever of the late election cycle, we hurtled towards Halloween and rumors of a ‘clown purge’. With the exception of one Halloween night attack on a family by a gang of clowns that thankfully left them with comparatively minor injuries, there was no purge. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the clowns disappeared from the news.
But regardless of whether some of the clowns were supernatural as some claimed, or simply fucked up people in scary masks, there is a curious history to clowns and the act of masking that deserves some examination. Because sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to dress for the job you want.
A Dichotomy of Clowns
Believe it or not, but as creepy as clowns are, the original clown (at least in the Anglosphere) was supposed to be a kind of harmless rustic fool. According to the Etymological Dictionary Online, the word ‘clown’ (as ‘cloyne’ or ‘clowne’) is theoretically derived from various Scandinavian language words for ‘clumsy’, and was first used in the 1560s to denote a ‘rustic boor, peasant’. (1) However, the word is not the thing, and the history of the ‘rustic fool’ figure in entertainment settings goes back to the Ancient Greek sklêro-paiktês, a word which comes from the verb paizein ‘to play like a child’. (2) This is not the only word for this kind of performer in Greek theater, but I do not need to include them here to further make the point that this figure of a ‘rustic fool’ that we call ‘clown’ is quite ancient.
Ancient Greek theater was inextricably tied up in acts of ritual, Aristotle even cited the cult of Dionysius as being the origins of drama.(3) While this is a claim that is still debated, it does illustrate that theater was not merely a form of entertainment for the Greeks (although it was undoubtedly that too).
The clowns, or rather ‘clown-like’ performers of today arguably have their origin in the Zanni of the 16th century Italian Commedia dell’Arte. There were essentially two types of Zanni: the stupid and boorish ( in other words, those we would recognize as being clowns today); and the intelligent trickster types. Strangely, it is the more threatening Zanni, the member of the Zanni known as Arlecchino – despite his somewhat darker theorized origins – who is considered to be among the stupid. To quote Jennifer Meagher from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
” The zanni (servants) were in many ways the most important—and certainly the most subversive—characters of the commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers, disagreeable vecchi, and each other. Perhaps best known of these is Arlecchino, or Harlequin (1974.356.525), a character whose origin is contested. It is likely that he derived either from Alichino, a demon from Dante’s Inferno (XXI-XXIII), or from Hellequin, a character from French Passion plays, also a demon charged with driving damned souls into Hell. Arlecchino is characterized as a poor man, often from Bergamo, whose diamond-patterned costume suggests that he is wearing patchwork, a sign of his poverty. His mask is either speckled with warts or shaped like the face of a monkey, cat, or pig, and he often carries a batacchio, or slapstick.”(4) (Emphasis is my own.)
Also worthy of note here, is the fact that “All characters except Pedrolino and the innamorati wore masks, a tradition deriving from ancient Roman comedies, Atellanae Fabulae, that featured character types similar to those of the commedia.” (5) The Commedia has its roots in old old custom.
To return to that first quote though, and Arlecchino’s connection with hell in both of his origins stories, there is a far richer history to be found here that makes this hellish connection, and especially with the dead especially apt.
Harlequin and Herela Cyng
Harlequins are curious things, both in terms of their dress as the black-masked performer in checkered material carrying a club, and the history suggested by the etymology of their name. The most complete exposition of the history of both the name and character comes from Flasdieck in his 1937 article entitled “Harlekin. Germanischer Mythos in romanischer Wandlung”. In it, the origins of the word ‘Harlequin’ are traced back to the OE *Her(e)lacyng, or ‘King Harilo’, which is itself a by-name of Wodan – a god connected with leading the dead in the form of the Wild Hunt. (6) In turn, Flasdieck traces ‘Her(e)la’ back to *Xarilan – a word deriving from *Xaria, or ‘army’. This is synonymous with Herjann, and leads us to the Germanic tribal name, the Harii. (It’s all a lot more complex than that, I’m trying to condense about seven pages of etymology into less than a paragraph. Seriously, get Kershaw’s book if you can.)
Remember the black mask of the Harlequin? Maybe it’s no coincidence – per Tacitus in Germania 43 (emphasis is my own):
“As for the Harii, quite apart from their strength, which exceeds that of the other tribes I have just listed, they pander to their innate savagery by skill and timing: with black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered.”
Masks and Ritual
Returning to the ancient classical world though, and this time the funerals of Rome, we see the act of masking in impersonation of the dead. One of the living would wear a death mask and clothes of the newly deceased, and impersonate them as much as they could. To clarify a little here, by ‘death mask’, I mean masks molded from the actual face of the deceased usually after death. Other mourners would similarly impersonate the ancestors of the deceased with their own respective masks. (7) Viewed from this perspective, the funeral then becomes a drama in which the decedent is escorted to the grave by the dead themselves.
To quote Kershaw in her ‘The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde’, “It is the nature of the dead that they are not seen”, and yet there were times during the ritual year when the dead very much needed to be present. So how to solve a problem like that? How to give form to the unseen?(8)
Again from Kershaw (emphasis is my own): “The means by which they become the dead are Masks. By mask we do not necessarily mean something which covers the face. The most primitive form of masking is simply painting the face (and body). And while we have, from Scandinavia, representations of cultic dancers wearing very realistic wolfs’ heads and fur garments reaching to the knees, as in the helmet plate from Torslunda described in 1.4.3 above, other masks consist of (or are made to look like ?) parts of an animal’s head, or the whole head with the jaws agape and the masker’s face showing, as in the pictures of Herakles in his lion skin or Hades in his ????….The mask shows that the wearer is a dæmonic, or more-than-natural, being. He is no longer himself: he is an Ancestor.” (9)
Though Kershaw was writing about the embodiment of ancestors by living warriors by means of donning masks, this same principle applies equally to the impersonation of the deceased at the Roman funeral – the belief in possession by ghosts or the ‘more-than-natural’ is quite ancient.
Exapanding the ‘More-Than-Natural’
Earlier on in this post, I made the joke that sometimes you have to dress for the job you want, hopefully that joke is becoming somewhat clearer now. But I do not believe that this principle applies solely to the dead, and that we can see a form of this kind of embodiment of the ‘more-than-natural’ in some of the sources on shapeshifting too. For example, Sigmund and Sinfjötli of the Volsunga Saga become wolves through the donning of skins, and this theme survived into the 17th century when Thiess the self-described werewolf of Livonia testified that he and his fellow werewolves [on their journey to hell to retrieve seeds stolen by a sorcerer called Skeistan] had to strip off and don skins. (10)
Conversely, a person might return to the human state by either shucking the mask or skin, and/or dressing once more in the clothes of man. We see this at play in Petronius’s Satyricon in which a soldier protects his clothes by magically turning them into stone before turning into a werewolf. To protect one’s clothes is to protect one’s ability to return to the human state. This theme is also present in Marie de France’s 12th century lay Bisclavret (a Breton word meaning ‘werewolf’) in which a werewolf’s clothes are stolen him from returning to his human form.(11) This is not so different from the protective powers of cultivated land when being pursued by the Other in the wilds, the clothes acting as a civilizing influence in much the same way as working the land does a field.
Of Masks and Clowns
The 2016 spate of clown sightings were noteworthy in numerous ways, not in the least because every single clown described was of the ‘horror’ variety. They were embodying the Pennywise, the sick, murderous clown that goes out of its way to terrify children and adults alike, and all during a time of high passion and acrimonious national discourse. Given the historical use of masking within ritual contexts, and the meaning of that act of masking, a whole new dimension is added to the question of just what possessed those people to don those masks and go out behaving in ways they perhaps wouldn’t normally. Now obviously, I’m not suggesting that all of those clowns were possessed by some spirits stirred up by the then-zeitgeist, but it is an interesting thought, isn’t it?
Sources (1) Etymological Dictionary Online – Clown http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=clown (2) Etymological Dictionary Online – Coulrophobia http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=coulrophobia (3) The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama – Eric Csapo, Margaret C. Miller P (4)+(5) Commedia dell’Arte – Jennifer Meagher http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm (6) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (Pp 11, 15-19, 38-40) (7) Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals – Geoffrey S. Sumi (8) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (p26) (9) Ibid. (10) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp 118-121) (11) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp113-116)
In the first part of this two-part series on hexing and healing, I wrote about my views on hexing. Now it’s time to look at the opposite end of that spectrum, and the ‘why’ behind the adage that a ‘witch that cannot hex cannot heal’.
One of the things that has always struck me about mainstream Pagan or Witch views is that while cursing is often disparaged, healing is not. Countless words have been written about the dangers of cursing from both spiritual and material perspectives, and yet little has been written about the dangers of healing.
If anything, we encourage people to participate in healing rites regardless of how well trained they are, and view them as being almost harmless. However, I would argue that healing can be a more dangerous activity to the healer – depending of course on how it’s done.
A Family Heritage Of Sorts
As I’ve mentioned about fifty billion times before, I come from a family of Spiritualists – mostly Spiritualist healers – and if there’s one thing I’ve seen from those who do a lot of healing, it’s that they often suffer from a lot of sickness themselves. I can even name family members who I believe wound up in an early grave because of their involvement in healing practices.
My dad once explained that when it comes to healing, he takes on what they have. I’ve had more people than I can count approach me to tell me about how my dad was talking to them, began wincing, described something they hadn’t mentioned, and then healed them of that pain. These people were often people we didn’t really know too – one woman was a stall-holder at the local market who sold rugs!
Looking at my family’s Spiritualist background, it’s all too easy to turn around and say that that’s something that happens to Spiritualists, and that they’re obviously doing x, y, and z wrong. After all, what else could my father expect if he takes on what others have? And yet, I’ve never seen it be an intentional thing for my father – more like something that is triggered when he comes into contact with the sick.
I also have a friend who is a professional healer. Unlike my father, he’s trained in multiple healing traditions, has years of experience, and yet healing can make him sick if he’s not careful. Sometimes it’s the expenditure of energy, but sometimes, a healer cannot help but have to go and encounter that which is causing the sickness in the first place – especially when working within an animist paradigm.
The point of this though, is that both cursing and healing are potentially dangerous to those who do them. They’re also opposite ends of the same continuum.
I think a lot of people have a sense of this continuum if not the words and historical evidence. However, there are words and there is evidence for both.
We find our first word in the Old English word ‘Hælu’. It’s a lovely word, the Old English word from which we get our modern word ‘hale’, as in ‘hale and hearty’. But unlike the modern version of the word, the meanings of hælu were much ‘wider’ in scope. To quote Stephen Pollington from p453 of Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore and Healing:
“The quality which keeps a person well is called in Old English, ‘hælu’, which can be translated as ‘health’ or ‘wholeness’, although this is slightly misleading. ‘hælu’ is a derivative of the adjective ‘hal’ which survives into modern times as the words ‘whole’ and ‘hale’; it implies good fortune, prosperity, good health, general benefit and well-being (and in Christian times, salvation). From it are derived also the verb ‘ hælan’ (make whole), our word ‘heal’ and another adjective ‘halig’ (holy) with the sense ‘blessed’, ‘fortunate’, ‘favoured by the gods’. The reverse of ‘ hælu’ is ‘unhælu’ which is a kind of ‘negative health’; to have ‘unhælu’ is both to lack the positive quality of health and to have the negative ‘unhealth’, disease, illness, misfortune.”
As you can see from the above description, physical health was connected with what we would today consider completely unrelated matters, like ‘good fortune’, and ‘prosperity’. By extension it’s also connected with words that refer to a state of being ‘blessed’, or ‘favored by the gods’. The fact that those seemingly disparate concepts are all able to be expressed by one word suggests that at one point they were considered to be all part and parcel of the same thing – a quality inherent to a person.
To restore this quality (by whatever means) is to heal, to take this quality is to curse. This is why ill health often plagues those who are cursed and can even be one of the signs that a person has been cursed (if other signs are also observed concurrently). To manipulate this quality in any way without knowing what you’re doing is dangerous, and to manipulate this quality in any way while sick is eventually deadly.
Never So Simple A Story
But even then, the lines between healing and cursing were not so clear cut. Sometimes you had to curse an illness or growth in order to heal the person as in charm number 162 of the Lacnunga (a book of Old English magico-medical cures). In this charm, which is believed to cure cysts, we are given a story about the ‘nine sisters of noðþ’. Who this ‘noðþ’ is beyond an anthropomorphic representation of the medical complaint is not important (which is good, because we don’t know anyway). What is important is that the charm essentially counts them out of existence, in other words, this is a form of curse.
‘…then the nine became eight, and the eight to seven, and the seven to six, and the six to five, and the five to four, and the four to three, and the three to two and the two to one, and the one to none’
Remember those pesky elves and their shot from the last post?
Well, we also see cures for all manner of ‘elf’ ailments in the Leechbooks too. Some of these can be traced to actual physical diseases, however others may refer to elfshot (curses) by witches, and other elf-related afflictions (which were, with the exception of some identifiable ailments, normally related to pains of the torso or mental ailments producing delusions). And elves weren’t just connected with cursing either – the right offering to the elves could hasten the healing of a loved one or friend as in Chapter 22 of The Saga of Cormac the Skald.
Again, my point here is that these things are not so clear cut, and that by viewing cursing and healing as some kind of ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy, we’re not only missing the point, but potentially endangering would-be healers by not acknowledging the danger inherent in being a healer, nor the necessity of training and aftercare. Because at the end of the day, healers work far more intimately and generally for far longer periods of time with their patients and the ailments they bring than most people ever do with curses.
So if anyone is going to get the metaphorical sticky turd on them, it’s the healers. It’s about time we respected that and stopped encouraging every one and their mother to have a go like it’s some harmless thing anyone can do without consequence.
 Pollington, S. (2000). Appendix 3 Causes of Disease. In Leechcraft: Early English charms, plant lore, and healing (p. 453). Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books.
It would seem that my last post confused a few people with regards to my position on hexing. Apparently satire is not so easy to spot in the age of fake news, regardless of how many hyperbolic statements are included, and I apologize for that. Judging by the comments, some people were so angry they didn’t even make it to the end of the post before exiting, and so didn’t see my final word on the matter.
But maybe that’s to be expected. This is one of those subjects that gets people’s backs up no matter what ‘side’ of the debate they fall on, and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.
There are a lot of reasons for this depth of ire, and a lot of layers here to dissect. From what I’ve seen on the anti-hexing side of things, you have the influence of Wicca and the threefold law on the wider community, coupled with what I believe is a genuine desire to be ‘good’ in many people… and perhaps no small amount of identity politics. There are of course other reasons both philosophical and theological to take into account, but they all essentially boil down to this idea that if you hex, then you will have some kind of negative return on it as a kind of punishment.
As someone who is not so much pro-hexing as just views it as yet another tool in my magical toolbox, I have a disdain for others acting as though their ethics and their way of seeing things is the one true way™, and that anyone who doesn’t agree isn’t a ‘real witch’ ™.
Listen, if you are someone who believes it’s wrong to hex, then all power to you. That’s fine for you, but when you start trying to tell others ‘how things are’, well then you really have to ask yourself what the difference is between yourself and the Christians who are convinced that we all worship devils. Because if you’re really going to get into that one true way mindset, then eventually you’re also going to have to address the matter of who is ultimately right.
The Problem of Morality in Witchcraft
Witchcraft is a path of moral relativism, for there is no morality inherent in Witchcraft other than that of the Witch him/her/them self/selves. Even when people claim to take their morality from their interactions with the Other or the Earth, there is still relativism there because it’s one thing to have an interaction with the other, but we all perceive and process our interactions differently. Sure, we all usually get the basics down the same, such as “I was walking down the street and bumped into Gavin and Sue”, “we were stood outside the supermarket and chatted”, and “Gavin had to leave after a while”. But when we get into the finer details, that’s when we see the differences in interpretation. Sue may say that Gavin seemed like he was being a bit short with everyone but the narrator may think Gavin was just being his usual self.
These differences are further compounded when we move into the less tangible realms of trance and Otherworldly experience, and while a common ‘gist’ may come through to multiple people. Those multiple people may process and interpret that gist very differently. And that’s even before we get into the matter of just what the Other you’re dealing with considers to be moral vs you as a human continuing to live lawfully in human society. It’s hyperbole, but taking morality tips from a bunch of redcaps (should you survive the experience) is likely to land you in jail for murder. See what I mean?
The Other Side of Hex
For me, it is in this consideration of the Other where the whole concept of a cosmic force that punishes baneful magics really falls down. After all, how often do you see stories of fae folk in which the ‘threefold law’ or karma, or whatever name you want to apply to that force fucks them up for cursing humans? I’m yet to find any.
And before anyone says “that’s different”, from a historical perspective it’s really not. In fact, the symptoms of a curse by human witch or fairy were so similar that in Irish culture the source had to be diagnosed by a kind of specialist (1). It is a theme in both Irish and Germanic cultures that witches derive their powers from the Other – including the power to curse (2). In the Germanic iteration of this theme, witches received the elfshot (curses) that they shoot or fire at other people from the elves (3).
So for me, I don’t see how a threefold law (or similar) can exist within any worldview that includes the Other Crowd in any kind of a meaningful way. Because if cosmic law be cosmic, then surely it applies to every being within the cosmos? This includes the Good Folk, and you can hardly separate the Gentry from the Witches.
Layers of Action, Layers of Magic
Another reason why this view of negative magics coming back to get you because of (insert term for force here), is because of how magic works within a Germanic context (which as my internet name suggests, is where I take most of my magical cues from). Because of the Germanic view of time, there are essentially two different kinds of magic within Germanic culture: temporary and permanent. To avoid getting into terminology, what we do in the now sets down layers in our past, and those layers accumulate over time into themes or patterns that keep repeating through our lives as we go along (4). What we put down now, affects what we’ll have to work with in the future. Makes sense, right?
This ‘mechanism’ is something you see at play in the descriptions of magic in the sources. Some forms of magic, like the spun magic that raises a storm or ensnares a mind, only last for as long as they’re being performed (5). As long as that action isn’t calling up a storm that sinks a ship and results in the deaths of people you hate, then these don’t have to be deadly. Sometimes, if you find the right place to ‘tweak’ with a single action, you can still cause some long-lasting woe for your enemy, but it’s usually not too difficult for them to fix should they discover that point of manipulation.
However, we also see the use implements such as the tablet weaving tablet (which I discuss more fully here) imbued with the intent of passing off the creator’s bad luck to a hated person. With every turn of that tablet, and every row woven, that would be a little layer being put down, a little more worked, a pattern created in the victim’s life (which would also potentially compound itself further as more and more bad things happen to the victim setting down their own layers). That would eventually grow and become something that lasts, and any attempts to change it would take a lot of effort and time. It may not even be possible for the victim to get out from under that.
With any of these magics though, you have to keep in mind that not only is the working of whatever you’re doing changing what is laid down for them, but also conceivably for you too – unless you find a way to set something up to work continuously in the background (also a popular option). But the woman with the tablet weaving tablet would have had as much time as she spent working that curse set down as layers for herself just as much as they were for her victim (albeit from the opposite side of things). What that could have meant for her is less clear than what it could have meant for her victim, but it didn’t have anything to do with a cosmic boogeyman.
It was the long-term accumulated consequences of her own actions, and in that way, baneful magics (or any other type of magics) are no different from anything else we do in life. No matter what we do, whatever action we take, we will always have to eventually face those long-term accumulated consequences. This can be as mundane as drinking too much alcohol or making bad financial decision after bad financial decision (especially if you’re not on the luckier end of the scale – but we’ll get to that another time).
Another theory that I see batted around about cursing is that in working with those more negative energies, you can’t help but get them on yourself like some kind of sticky turd. However, in my experience that isn’t nearly as much of an issue when you practice purification rites after doing your workings.
A Nuanced Tool
Ultimately though, this is just how I see things and the reasons for why I see them as I do. As I said earlier in this piece, cracking out the nasties is just one tool in my magical toolbox, and it’s a tool that is extremely nuanced in its use. Because of this nuance, you have to learn how to curse just as you have to learn how to heal – because if there is one thing that is truly dangerous about cursing to the practitioner, it’s screwing up your working. However healing is not without its risk either, but I’ll save that for the next blog.
Either way, none of us are ever going to change each other’s minds, but if there is one thing that we should all fight to preserve, it’s that there is no one true way in Witchcraft. Because even with the best of intentions, a person who believes they have the ultimate handle on the truth can do some truly evil things.
And I’m here to tell you that if you did that, if you *EVEN* think about cursing anyone, then you’re not a witch. So why are you all pretend witches if you curse then? Let me learn you a thing or two in my handy, serious as fuck, five point guide.
1. Rocks and Karma So here is the thing, karma is going to fuck you up if you curse someone. It’s like a cosmic hit-man that goes round getting people who do ‘no-no’s. But don’t get fresh and start thinking you’ll score a huge lottery win if you earn enough karma points! Everyone *knows* that it doesn’t work like that, because karma is a bit shy about giving you really good shit for huge acts of good, but really amazing about giving you epic shit for a tiny bit of bad. It’s like a zero tolerance policy with a threefold return.
One way to explain it, is if you pick up a rock and let go of it, it falls to the earth. Now a lot of people might call that ‘gravity’, but that’s really a demonstration of how karma works, and you can always tell you’ve already fucked up because when you drop it, it falls on your toe. Does this analogy make sense to you? Because if it doesn’t, you should probably stay away from *all* magic because I just learned you the physics of witchcraft right there.
2. Cursing is an Addiction Everyone knows that people who curse turn into power-hungry dickwads and that that power is addictive.
Studies have shown that cursing is just as addictive and as harmful as either meth, or four marijuanas injected intravenously between your toes. It’s a slippery slope, and it doesn’t matter *why* you do it or how ‘noble’ you think your reason for cursing is. As soon as you get out those poppets and pins, you are on a fast track to fiending all the baneful magics, and that is something Real Witches ™ just don’t do.
3. The People in the Past were Amateurs
Now some of you reading this will probably respond with a ‘witches in Britain cursed the nazis’, or that we have plenty of evidence for cursing going all the way back to the ancient world. Well, that’s great, but it doesn’t matter. Those people were obviously rank amateurs who didn’t understand the physics of witchcraft (see: point #1). It’s not their fault though that they didn’t know as much as we do now about the forms of magic they originated/were taught/existed within their culture with about the same level of commonality as hemorrhoids in the over 50s (or post childbirth) crowd. They just weren’t as enlightened as we are now, and we know that if Owd Demdike is giving it def at the other end of the village about you and using image magic on your hovel, the best answer is not necessarily to fiend the vile magics. What they didn’t understand about those situations is that in all likelihood, what Owd Demdike *really* needed was reiki, or some other form of healing, but sadly reiki hadn’t been invented by that point and so people suffered.
4. Famous Wiccan Authors Said Not To Do it This should be a no-brainer but it just isn’t. A lot of people say that what those famous people say doesn’t apply to them because they’re not Wiccans and those Wiccans can only say who is in their in-group or not. But that is simply not true. These people got to where they are because they know, and because of that, they get to decide who is real and who isn’t. Also, they were really really brave for writing about their religion despite their oaths like they did so that we can all know what they really do in their covens and circles (this is important, I was working in an oblong shape before reading some of those books, and once there was that really ill-advised parallelogram). #NeverAgainTheParallelogramTimes.
5. Cursing Often Requires You Do Or Use Gross Things This is one of the worst things about cursing, well, aside from the ethics, sometimes people who curse use dead
things. Ew, how nasty is that? That is NOT the witchcraft I know! I mean, they’re the kind of people to hide partially decomposed bits of animals in anthills to get them ‘cleaned’ so they can then put that shit in a jar or something. Or use things like animal hearts and blood. That’s just nasty, who does that?!
Addicts, that’s who. Like I said above, those baneful magics are as bad as meth, and just like meth, you can literally get your hands blown off cooking it up.
As you can see, none of these reasons are because of Wiccanism or Wiccanatism (except for maybe point #4), they’re about how things really work.
If you have someone you really hate or is threatening your family, you’d be far better off getting a teddy bear (or making a healing poppet if you’re not already a hex addict), and distance-reikying-it-up to give them the healing they so desperately need to advance and become enlightened.
You should also really ask yourself what you’ve done for karma to be giving you such trials and tribulations in putting that person on your path. Lastly, if you survive the experience, you need to ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. /sarcasm
Final Word Whatever you do though, it’s really none of my fucking business what another witch decides is an appropriate response to a situation, and unless you’re involved in the working or the one/s being worked against, it’s likely none of your business either. Also, let’s be real for a moment about all of this business of withdrawing other people’s ‘witch cards’ – on the most simple level, a ‘witch’ is someone who *does* witchcraft. It doesn’t matter if you like what another witch does, if they’re doing it, they are it. They’re just an example of that ‘it’ you disagree with, and that’s ok. Trying to attach an arbitrary set of ethics onto the craft that can then be used as a way to demarcate who is and who isn’t a ‘real witch’ is massively problematic. A religion may have a common set of ethics, but witches have traditionally held a myriad of religious views depending on their native cultures, and have often practiced the craft in opposition to those views. For example, the famous witches from my home county were Christians, we have recorded charms from them, and yet we all know what Christianity has to say about witchcraft. (Clue: it bad.) Wicca and other witchcraft traditions that blend religion with the craft are really the outliers in the grand scheme of things, and it’s cool that it works for them. But to then turn around and think the ethics of those paths are (or should be) common to all witches regardless of tradition, is just plain wrong. It’s also massively arrogant. The real ethics of witchcraft are the ethics of each individual witch alone, and that is that.
So let’s give the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy a break, and I’ll go prise my tongue from out of my cheek, aye?
I’m the whirling storm The maelstrom The howling wind over shingled roofs Wild and unfettered I wend my way Wind-breath soul in flight Through the tiniest of cracks in heavy wooden doors Without disturbing the latches I move A breath A dream I take to the skies I breathe deep the scent of ozone And I shriek
A Maddening Herb
I shriek of madness Of Strife And of “fuck you very much” I exorcise myself of things too long left unsaid Words impaled by teeth on tongue The metallic tinge of blood swallowed back My mouth is aflame All righteous fury as I spit
Stimulated According to My Desires
I am that which cannot be controlled I am the bee in the bonnet that which is stuck in the craw Subversive, I transgress My nails are arrows And my hair, snakes I am that which has always existed And that which always will And I’m never alone
Until the herb releases When I sink once more The wind finally calmed Slipping back through the door My lic barely breathing I lie on myself Yawn deep And I’m home
Brother Petrus’s office was small -cramped almost – a cell-like space with books stacked against every conceivable support. It had been a cell when he’d first taken the space over for the task that his superiors at the Holy See had assigned to him, but he’d arrived – a stranger to this small and seemingly insignificant port town church, and he’d done as he was bid.
Not since the days of the Inquisition had his superiors been so concerned about the affairs of the common folk. People still spoke heretical charms over butter to stop the elves from souring, and practiced foul heathenisms at wells and trees, and yet the Holy Mother Church had done nothing. In some places they’d even encouraged it, perhaps in the spirit of Pope Gregory of old, the pope who’d encouraged the church to allow the people their…indulgences, and instead of destroying, simply redirecting them to the worship of the risen Christ.
But this, this was different, and where they had only previously spoken of the foolish ways of the country folk and ‘little P Paganism’, they’d instead put people into place and plans in motion. He was one of those people, those tiny cogs in the greater machine of the Vatican stratagem against whatever it was they were worried about. He didn’t know the whole story, of course, and nor would he question. Brother Petrus knew his place and the virtue of keeping to one’s place, but still sometimes, maybe when trying to ignore the barely suppressed wrath of one of his subordinates as they carried out yet another seemingly senseless edict, he couldn’t help but get a little curious.
The one good thing about his ‘office’ was the window. It was barred, like all the others – an echo of a time when religious buildings were as much prison as sanctuary depending on who you were. But the view was unspoiled by the skillfully wrought iron that covered the orifice so ornately. Outside was a flurry of activity as the assorted cast of sailors, passengers, and merchants played their parts in the production that was yet another day at the dock. He sipped his tea, savoring the warmth as it worked its way down his too-rough throat. Too much shouting, too many orders for people who didn’t understand and who no longer seemed to see obedience as a virtue.
There was a knock at the door.
Turning from the temporary escape of the window, Brother Petrus set the tea down on his desk and wearily took his seat.
“You may enter!”
The heavy wooden door swung open pendulously to reveal one of the younger Brothers and a middle aged woman.
The younger monk bowed deferentially as he spoke, but his voice barely hid his disdain, “Madame Blavatsky, Brother Petrus…as you requested.”
For a moment, he considered abrading the other monk in front of their guest, introducing consequences for such behavior. He knew how they all spoke of him as soon as his back was turned, maybe it was time to remind them of their vows? Locking eyes with the other man, he let his anger bleed into his eyes and watched as it registered on the other monk’s face. “You are dismissed, Brother Erasmus,” he all but growled. The woman – a Madame Blavatsky that his superiors had wished him to seek out watched the display with no small amount of amusement on her face. Brother Petrus bit back his anger, shifting his demeanor to that of congenial host.
“Madame Blavatsky, please,” he said in perfect English as he gestured in invitation at a seat on the opposite side of his desk.
“Thank you,” she replied and took her seat. Once settled, he watched her look around the room, taking in the various books and map.
“You seem to be a man of learning.”, she began. “But I do not suppose I was invited here to discuss books with you.”
“Indeed,” he allowed, smiling slightly at her cynicism as he unfolded and spread out a yellowed map on his desk. Spidery ink trails of Latin crawled across almost the whole of Europe, but it was the two large triangles that connected six different cities that really drew the eye. Madame Blavatsky’s eyes widened.
“I take it you know what this is, Madame Blavatsky?”, he hazarded. Maybe it was simply the age of the map that had surprised her?
“Yes”, she breathed, her voice barely more than a whisper. “I’d heard rumors of this, of these triangles, but I had never seen any credible proof of such a thing until today.”
Brother Petrus opened an envelope, his briefing from his superiors. This was how these things usually went. He would receive the information for each task by messenger, including what information he had to impart, and sometimes even what he had to say. Brother Petrus opened up his script and said a silent prayer of thanks that it was easily legible this time.
Taking a deep breath, he began to read.
“Dear Madame Blavatsky, It is with the deepest gratitude that we thank you for agreeing to come and meet with Brother Petrus. We are very much aware of the strangeness of our request, please rest assured that had we greater latitude in this matter, we would not have done things thus.
Please also forgive our use of Brother Petrus in this manner. While it would be easier for you to simply read the letter, we have come to realize that that is not always safe for us or for you. Brother Petrus is uniquely single-minded in whichever task he is given; it is a trait that serves us well.
You are probably wondering why we requested this meeting and why you are looking at the priceless map that accompanied this letter.
It is simple, we understand that it is your intention to travel to London and to settle there for at least some time. We would ask that you stay in Oostende for not only your sake, but the sake of many many lives. It is hard to explain this request while also adhering to the necessary amount of circumspection, but we shall try.
You have already probably noticed the two triangles on the map: The first triangle connects Turin, Lyon, and Prague, and is known as ‘The Triangle of White Magic’. The second triangle, which connects Turin, St Francisco, and London, is known as ‘The Triangle of Black Magic’. As unbelievable as it may be, dear Madame Blavatsky, this in of itself is not a matter for concern, and were things left unchanged and how they are, this meeting would not be taking place. However, something has changed in London, something that our agents report can only be described as the feeling that there is something dark and magical emanating from some occulted subterranean cove. Our prophets tell us that this will herald the end of the world as we know it, and already we see the fruits of this poison in the popularity of Hermeticism in the city.
It is for this reason that we are asking you to stay in Oostende, lest you further inflame the situation. In exchange for your compliance, we are prepared to negotiate a sizeable compensation with you. You need only inform Brother Petrus of your answer in terms of ‘Yes’, or ‘No’. All documents pertaining to this communication will be burned and our good Brother Petrus will keep his silence. Brother Petrus silentium ad infinitum.
May you choose wisely.
The letter did not remain in his hands for long, scant seconds passed before he was almost automatically clearing the map from the table and carrying it to the fire kept burning in the grate. Madame Blavatsky simply sat there, a look of shock on her face, though he could not think why. He had no memory of what he’d just read even though it was less than a minute from his lips, and the logic of tossing everything that had arrived by messenger not one day ago into the flames eluded him. The urge to watch carefully until the fire had consumed the documents wholly was also difficult to explain to himself, and yet he did it as though he was incapable to do otherwise.
For a moment, he sort of remembered doing this before, and feeling the same way then as he did now. From this perspective, his life seemed like a confusing mess of drudgery intermingled with blank spots and the briefest moments of clarity. Something told him that an hour from now his memories would fall from his mind as surely as the snow fell in December.
Turning from the grate and the ashes of secrets, he regarded the woman. She seemed afraid, why was that?
“And what if I say no?”, she asked carefully, edgily, her voice barely betraying only the slightest hint of a shake.
Brother Petrus didn’t understand, what would she say no to?
“I’m sorry Madame Blavatsky, but I don’t understand, may I get you some tea?”, he offered.
Her head snapped round to look at him dead on and for a moment he felt as though his heart were a box to be opened and that she had somehow found the key. A look of indescribable pity chased fear across her face before settling and becoming the dominant emotion. The air in the room thickened – that was the problem with these little cells though, they only ever had the one, small window. He shifted uncomfortably as Madame Blavatsky stood, moving towards him and taking his hands in her own. Ozone tinged the air as he felt small, barely-there traces of sensation against his skin, almost as though she was drawing something on the top of his hands with her fingers, but he didn’t look. Her piercing eyes met his and held them there, fixing his gaze on her own. He barely noticed the slight movement of her lips or heard the impossibly quiet whisper of words. Instead he felt something he hadn’t felt for a long time – not since Bishop Gervasio had taken him to that strange round chamber in the deepest parts of the Vatican where so few get to tread: He felt free.
Madame Blavatsky’s words took form and shape and remade themselves in his mind as comprehensible words, words that he could once more understand. A phrase, repeated over and over again, a phrase that felt imperative that he also repeat.
“Liberate. I am liberate, you are liberate, we are liberate, we are free.”
His voice joined her own, the tickle on his hands became a buzz, and suddenly *everything* shifted. For a moment, they were no longer in his small office cell, with its even smaller window promise of freedom, except that they were, but not. It was different in ways that Petrus knew he’d never manage to explain even if he were given twenty years to do so. It was all so much more…real, as though he was seeing the world properly for the first time. They both stopped chanting simultaneously, and Madame Blavatsky smiled.
“There will be no snow fall this December,” she said enigmatically, and Petrus knew that to be true, nodding his agreement.
Taking her hands back, Madame Blavatsky brushed herself down, businesslike, as though she hadn’t really just broken whatever magic had been holding him prisoner and tipped his world on its head. Looking around his cell he smiled, there was no way he was ever going to miss this place.
She was already at the door, pausing before the heavy wood with its old iron bands before she turned back.
“It looks like things have…”, she cocked her head to the side, as though trying to shake the right word loose, “changed.”
He nodded his assent, shocked by how much easier such a simple movement seemed now. She studied him for a moment before continuing, “You have much to learn, Petrus. I will teach you – in exchange for work – if you desire it.”
Brother Petrus swallowed, “What will I need to bring?”