For today’s blog, I’d like to tell you the story of how I learned witchcraft, and some of the best lessons I learned from my first teacher.
Like many people who end up getting into witchcraft, I felt a draw to all things witchy. Most importantly though, the weird and otherworldly was also drawn to me. Which is good, because witchcraft without the dead and/or Other is just a party for one.
I grew up in a town on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England, and I was the weird kid everyone else came to ask about getting the “power of Manon” when the movie The Craft came out.
When I was first starting out at the (stereotypical) age of thirteen, our local library boasted only a couple of books on witchcraft. One was The Witches’ Bible and absolutely out of bounds because I knew the librarians would call your parents for taking it out on account of all the photos of naked Janet Farrar. The other was Z Budapest’s The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, and as it had no photos of naked people or overtly witchy imagery (at least on the cover), this made it the perfect candidate for withdrawal.
Now, I realize that Z Budapest is a TERFY dumpster fire, and I’m not promoting her in any way. Even then, her work wasn’t to my taste and there wasn’t really any discussion about transfolx to even have the language to describe a TERF. In my backwards hometown in the 90s, dumpster fire or not, she was about the only game in town.
But while Z Budapest’s book may have taught me how to cast my first circle, the moors were my real teacher.
My First Teacher in the Craft: The Moors
The moors where I grew up are a wild place, windswept and barren with rocks littered across the heather and grass like broken bones. It’s a place where the clouds meet the land and modern people walk on ancient ruins. And it’s as dangerous as it is beautiful.
When the mists drop and you can’t see further than a couple of feet, it’s easy to get lost. The landscape is treacherous, and the weather can go from snowy to warm sunshine within the space of a half hour. Like Gullveig, the moors of my home county have burned and been reborn. Unlike Gullveig though, she’s performed this trick more than just the three times that Gullveig did.
Then there are the bogs – the reason why a lot of people tend to stick to the paths.
But for all the danger and creepy stories, I loved them and would spend hours in the wild places up on the tops away from the paths with my little dog.
Some of my first rituals were worked up on those moors, and I’ve seen things up there that few would believe.
There I learned to map the hidden dimensions of a landscape, committing to memory all the places where the Good Folk lived when I found them, and building up relationships as I went.
There I learned to sit out on burial mounds.
There I learned to enjoy my own company and be happy observing the shadows of the clouds moving over the valleys below.
There I learned that no matter how badass you think yourself, some places are still best avoided after dark.
Teacher, Counselor, Friend
I haven’t had many teachers during my time, but the best teachers I’ve known happen to also have been friends who give good counsel.
When times were hard, I would take my pain and pound it into the earth through the bottom of my boots. Then (usually at the top of a hill), I would fall to the ground to thank the hills when the knots around my heart lifted.
Other times I’d bring her my magical problems, and I’d think about them as I walked until I happened upon the perfect piece of materia magica to work into a spell. Soon I was bringing back things like sheep skulls and working the teeth into amulets. It didn’t matter what she threw me either. When I got the sense that I was supposed to use a thing, I instinctively knew what to do with it.
From there, I began to think about questions I needed an answer to, and I would pick up nine straight (ish) sticks at random as I walked. Then when I had
my nine, I’d hold them between my hands to whisper my question before casting them to be read as runes.
At some point though, I began to think about the ‘why’. Why did she throw me those things and why did they work for what I needed to do? Why did I work in that way when working those spells and why did that work?
This is how one of my greatest magical interests was born – deconstructing magical workings in order to discover the underlying “mechanics”. And that kids, is how I got started taking historical accounts of magical workings and trying them out.
The Four Main Lessons my Moorland Teacher Taught
When you learn witchcraft from a land, much of it is going to be heavily localized and possibly even useless outside of that land. But the moors taught me four main transferable lessons that have stood me in good stead no matter where I’ve been.
1. Take a Place as You Find It
The first lesson is one that embraces impermanence. Places change, as do the beings that inhabit them. And a place and its inhabitants may be one way on one day, and completely different on another day. Even if you’ve been somewhere before, never assume that a place is going to be or feel the same when you go back there. Keep on top of your basic witchy skills, and always have your apotropaics and best manners to hand.
2. Avoid a Feeling of Ownership
This is a big one, and it’s something we humans (at least in Anglophone culture) generally suck at anyway. This idea of ownership of land (and all the non-human people on it) goes to the animism thing all the cool kids are talking about. And if we’re being real, as a group we’re still pretty crap at that there animism. I mean, how many of us actually respect the agency of non-human persons? How many people still see them as basically being some twee little vending machines for favors (in exchange for some pretty subpar offerings)?
(Clearly I’m using “us” in the macro sense here. I’m referring to the modern Pagan movement as a whole, so hold your knickers, Beryl!)
The truth is, we all come from a culture obsessed with individualism. A culture in which selfishness and cruelty are lauded as a twisted form of morality – and that kind of fucks us when it comes to the animism thing. Because when everything is already about you and you getting yours, that puts you on a terrible footing for interacting with the not-you. But when you bring a sense of ownership into the equation (of both the land and by extension the sentient beings who also live there)?
I mean hell, we can’t even get it right with other humans. Feeling a sense of ownership over anyone or anyland is one of the first paving stones on the road to hell.
And this is not me saying ‘don’t buy property’ or that I’m coming to take your toothbrushes and make you use some communal, opossum-managed toothbrush (holy shit but I love opossums). No. Own on paper if you need to, but recognize that it’s just a formality for the stupid humans. Instead work to become a part of your land and grow the understanding of belonging to in your heart.
3. Try to Figure out Your Place in the Big Picture
Speaking of belonging to – this mindset sets you up to contextualize yourself within the bigger picture of the place you inhabit. You’re no longer an individual over but cohabiting with. Where are you in your “neighborhood”? Who do you need to avoid pissing off and who do you need to give a little more care and attention to?
If you consider yourself an animist, try putting yourself in the shoes (or roots) of a tree or plant in your community of lives. What do they experience on a daily basis? Who do they interact with the most? What problems do they have with their nearest neighbors? How do you help them (or harm them)?
An interesting thought exercise, no?
Every Land has its Stories and You Should Learn Them
When we were kids, we passed stories like schoolkids pass nits. Stories about
Granny Greenteeth, “Bannister Dolls” (don’t ask), black dogs, ghosts, and the occasional boggart tale all ran round our groups. Especially on the dark nights when we couldn’t find anything really to do but lurk on the streets and tell each other creepy stories (in winter it’s usually getting dark by four in the afternoon where I’m from).
But these stories are important because they’re what help you to fill out the hidden dimensions of a land when you first arrive. This is how you build your witchy map of a place and figure out where to start attempting to build relationships. Not only that, but they can also give you clues as to how to survive should you encounter some of the nastier parts of the local unseen.
For example, I now live in Maryland. There is an alleged cryptid here called the Snallygaster who is apparently the mortal enemy of the Dwayyo – a kind of huge, monstrous, wolf-like being. I’ve also noticed some interesting parallels between some of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious National Park disappearances and Jinn lore, and I know that wolves are also associated with causing Jinn to vanish. So now I include ground down (legally obtained) wolf bones in the black salt I make to carry in my bag of tricks. See what I mean?
In my last blog I talked about the process of putting together a magical go-bag, and some of the reasons why a witch might want to. In this post, I’m going to give you all a tour around my main magical go-bag to give you an idea of some of the options that are out there when putting these bags together.
My Magical Go-Bag: A Backstory
Call me paranoid, but I’ve always carried some kind of magical supplies on me. I’ve just had that kind of life. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been the proverbial poop pile to the supernatural flies, and so always having some supplies on hand just makes sense. However, the impetus to create a dedicated bag for going out on the battlefield (or whatever else I’m up to) only came last year. Before then, my bags were all repurposed, or small bags that I’d just shoved into other, bigger bags. Last year though, things changed
To cut a long story short, working more intensely with the dead led to other spirits showing up. One of those spirits was a crane-dancing woman who told me to create a what was essentially a magical go-bag. Jokingly, I called it a “crane bag” (because it was a crane-dancing woman who told me to make it). However, the connection between the crane bag of Irish lore, and the Irish analog of the Welsh god who has played a pivotal role in my battlefield work also did not go unnoticed.
So off to the internet I went to scroll through endless pictures of “crane bags”. But none of them worked for me, and soon became clear that the best option was to make my own. So I did.
I knew from the outset that it had to be grey and hardwearing. The inner fabric – which could be softer – was a chance find that I chose for the deer in the pattern (an animal that’s long held significance for me). I came across the giant crane-patch by chance while searching for fabric, and well, the idea of a “crane bag” with a giant crane on it gave me a chuckle, so naturally I slapped the ‘purchase’ button.
Making the Bag
I’ve never been a good (or even competent seamstress). I don’t know what happens but I can start off with a perfectly good sewing machine, and then it all goes wrong. The tension decides to do its own thing, then the thingie in the bottom is also like “fuck you”, and in the end, it’s raining, the earth is falling in, and I’m about ready to pitch the machine out of a window. So the prospect of creating a go-bag was daunting to say the least.
I used this tutorial at the recommendation of my mum (thanks mum!), and although it didn’t quite work out (because: me), I came away with a serviceable bag with the custom pockets that you can see here.
Once made, I consecrated it in a small ritual to Manannán Mac Lir as it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. And in the end, I think it was the right decision as it triggered the dream experience that you can read about here.
So that’s how, and the why of creating my go-bag.
My Essential Items
Now here is where I finally get to the things I consider essential for how I work, But as I mentioned in my last blog on this topic, your mileage may vary.
Function: Apotropaic and tool.
First on the list (but not necessarily in order of importance) is the hag stone or holey stone. These are stones that have naturally occurring holes through the middle of them, and although I haven’t really found good scholarship on them, my experience has been that these are both effective tools and apotropaics. They’re protective against the Unseen, and allow you – again, in my experience – to see through glamours and things that are normally unseen if you look through them.
You can sometimes find them along rivers, but they are also readily available to purchase online. I would advise caution when purchasing these online though as some unscrupulous vendors try to pass off drilled stones as genuine hag stones.
Function: Hardcore apotropaic.
Next up is black salt. Salt is a great addition to any magical go-bag in general because it has so many uses. You can use it to salt boundaries, protect, and banish. But black salt is just taking regular old salt and leveling it the fuck up! The addition of iron, ash, and (in my case) ground wolf bone, makes black salt an excellent addition to a go-bag. It’s like an apotropaic powerhouse!
Even better, if you make your own black salt, you can build in extra layers of apotropaic magic into the creation process! Why just scrape some iron from your pan when you can use your pan to burn prayers asking for divine favor with some protective herbs, then add that to your fire ash before scraping the pan for iron? I have a dutch oven that I use specifically for ritual work so that I don’t have to wreck my cast iron cookware; it was $10 from a thrift store – bargain!
Spindle and Fiber
Function: Tool and offering.
I use a lot of spinning in my magic, and especially when it comes to working with spirits. Spinning in a space can trap both dead and leftover remnants of energy that might “grow up” to get its own ideas and start its own trouble. Spun fiber can provide a bridge, delineate space, and serve as an offering in its own right. I have two spindles that I typically use in ritual work: one is a collapsible spindle that fits in my bag; and the other, my large one, was a gift to thank me for help given. I adore my large one because it feels weighty and authoritative – like a wand. It’s something I’ve wielded in ritual before now when opening portals and working my will. The collapsible one lives in my purse (yes, it’s that small) along with the sheep knuckle I use for yes/no divination.
Function: Apotropaic and tool.
This is something I tend to swap out with my black-handled knife. There’s a resonance to this item that just works. I’ve engraved it with words of power (which I won’t show here), and it’s one of my favorite spirit weapons for subduing, setting up some hardcore protective space, or for when things go bad. I don’t know whether it’s wholly iron or steel (which is mostly iron anyway), but it’s kickass anyway.
Function: Apotropaic, tool, McGyver goodness.
This is one of my more McGyver-type items. Red thread can be used to bind and protect, or create new items (like a crossroads effigy or protective rowan cross). It can also be used for knot spells, marking off space, and much more. The yarn I use is hand spun with intent and then ritually consecrated.
Offerings of some kind
Function: Offerings, because being a magical murderhobo is bad.
And finally, because being the magical equivalent of a D&D murderhobo is not something that any of us should aspire to, I carry offerings. So many situations can be avoided or calmed by just communicating and making propitiatory offerings. Easy offerings to carry on the regular are cornmeal, tobacco, water, cedar, and small sealed butter or cream packets. Just please, take any trash home with you so you don’t ruin any of your good work by doing anyone the disrespect of leaving trash in their space.
There’s something of a theme du jour in my spookier friend circles right now. It’s complex – there’s a lot of background strangeness here – but the TL;DR version is that people (myself included) either feel the need to make oaths of fealty to numinous powers, or are witnessing others making similar oaths in either dream or trance. Now that strikes me as being pretty odd, and makes me wonder whether this is something which is confined to my various friend circles, or if it’s more widespread. (Answers on a postcard, please!) It also makes me wonder what on earth is going on at the moment. Because as I mentioned above, there is a background of strangeness here. This is not something that I’m prepared to write about it yet, but some of what John Beckett touches on here is eerily similar.
Either way, regardless of whatever the hell is going on, and whether or not this is a localized or more widespread phenomenon, it’s never a bad time to address the matter of oaths of fealty. After all, oathing to numinous powers is a serious business with potentially serious consequences. Friends don’t let friends oath to massively powerful entities without first giving them some tools.
And by “tools”, I mean this handy five-point list.
(Why a five-point list? Because this is the fucking internet, and everything seems to be a five-point list nowadays.)
1. You Can Refuse
This might seem like a no-brainer. However (as a few skeletons that won’t stay in their cupboards can attest), we seem to have consent issues in modern Paganism. We see this in a number of ways, and thankfully there are movements to work on all of that. But one of the ways in which those problematic ideas of consent
surface (at least in my opinion), is in how oathing to numinous powers is presented in some quarters. There’s this creepy narrative that oathing is like a kind of pursuit by the numinous that the human doesn’t really have any say in, and quite frankly, that’s just plain fucked up.
It’s also wrong to boot, because that’s not how actual reciprocal relationships work. You have a choice, these are reciprocal relationships (read up on those here if you don’t know what that means), you can say no. So if it seems like a bad idea to get in cahoots with whoever, and your gut is twisting with the thought (there’s a clue right there), you can decline – politely.
If you do find yourself in a situation in which you believe you are being pursued by the numinous equivalent of Chris Pratt, then go and get a second opinion from someone you trust. Narrative can frame experience just as much as experience can frame narrative. Just a word to the wise though: not everything is what it claims to be either, so again, it’s good to get a fresh perspective.
2. The Devil is in the Detail
As mentioned above, these are relationships that are reciprocal by nature. In other words, they an exchange of sorts, which means you’re effectively entering into a contract. Now, if you’ve watched that episode of South Park where Kyle clicks the iTunes user agreement without reading it first, you’ll know that blind agreement with a greater power is not a good idea.
Well, it’s the same principle here. You need to be honest about, and lay out what you are prepared to do, and how long for. This is key – you don’t have to oath to a power for life, and you don’t have to give yourself to them after death
either. Temporary alliances for a set period of time or until the completion of certain criteria are a thing, oaths that are renewed on a yearly basis are also a thing. NOTHING SAYS YOU HAVE TO OATH FOR LIFE.
So make a list of your conditions, and pay special attention to any potential loopholes you find. Because some beings out there (naming no names) are *experts* at finding ways to creatively screw humans over while adhering to the letter of any oaths made. So get good at thinking twenty steps ahead and doing thought experiments with potential outcomes. Also, remember that any oaths will also by extension affect your families, so factor your loved ones into those thought experiments too.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to try and figure out what they actually want from you, and assume that has value even if you cannot see it. And that might sound like the most hubristic shit ever until you remember that some beings quite enjoy consuming humans. It’s good to not become food, it’s like a rule for life.
But before you do *any* of that….
3. Do Your Research, Dammit!
If some sparkly and awesome (or dark and scary, or BOTH) shows up trying to entice you into some kind of oath, your first move is always research. Go find out everything you can about them, and if it’s not available in physical sources, go pester allies for more information. Because there are a whole bunch of things you need to know here. For example, you need to know their MO; if they’re presenting themselves as they actually are; how others have fared dealing with them; and if they have a GSOH and enjoy long walks on the beach at sunset. Because all of that will not only help you figure out *who* you’re dealing with, but also help you better word any oaths you make so that you can do stuff like insert more protective clauses (which is #winning, trust me).
4. Consult Ye the Ye Olde Book of Oaths!
There’s a lot to be said for those old school handwritten pacts. On the one hand, they were utter shit for getting you convicted and burned (poor Father Grandier). But on the other hand, they also helped you remember just who you had pacts with, and exactly what was entailed. So if you’re in the business of holding oaths with numinous beings, it’s a damn good idea to have somewhere safe where you can write down all the details as precisely as you can (if you don’t already). It’s also good to read those oaths regularly – after all, you want to make sure you’re not fucking up your end of the bargain. However, it’s especially important to re-read your prior oaths when in the process of considering and creating oathed relationships with whatever new beings on the block because you need to know what you can agree to without violating the conditions of your other oaths. Sometimes those prior oaths can turn out to be pretty protective in the long run.
5. Phone a Friend
Finally, when you have all your research, and have tweaked the wording for your oath as much as you can, run it all by a friend or trusted clergy. For some of you, this would have likely been a continuous thing anyway throughout this entire process, and that’s fine. Just don’t formalize anything until you’ve had that feedback from someone you trust and who has a good head on their
shoulders. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in things and hurtle towards a thing at breakneck speed, so it’s good to have someone prepared to remind you that there are such a thing as brakes.
But whether you do say yes to the oath-dress or not, you should record everything in as much detail as you possibly can. Because even if you don’t end up oathing, it’s just always good to keep a record.
If you do formally oath though, consider the creation of a pact-style document that both parties agree to before the oath is formally sworn. This document should contain the exact wording of your oath and clearly outline the conditions of the oath.
Lastly, if you are in this situation, I wish you smooth negotiations. May the odds be ever in your favor.
Like I said, it feels like a number of us are poking at the same nebulous mass (albeit from different angles). I was going to post the third part of my series on authority and hierarchies today, but after reading these posts, I have things to say, and say them I shall.
Religion and Baggage
I’m going to begin with John Beckett’s post, as that is the post I came across first. On the one hand, I couldn’t agree more with his points that Pagans need to get over previous religious baggage, and that there are very definite benefits to religion. However, I have real issues with looking to the framework of other (typically monotheistic) religions for a model of how Pagan religion should look now. Granted, this may not have been Beckett’s intention here, however, I don’t think you can extol the virtues of religion for Pagans without also going into what Pagan religion could look
To my mind, this is an important distinction to make too, because when you use a word like “religion” – like any word – it comes with certain expectations of what that thing looks like. And after something like 1500-2000 years of predominantly Judeo-Christian religion, we really need to ask what that looks like for a good chunk of us. In other words, how does the shape of Abramic religion affect the shape we give to Pagan religion?
Let’s take Christianity, for example. Christianity is universalist, in fact, new adherents are actively sought. It’s also orthodoxic in nature, meaning that having the “correct” belief is of the utmost importance. Relationships with deity require submission, and the end reward for good behavior comes after death.
Now compare this with what we (think we) know of Heathen period religion. Here “religion” goes hand in hand with
community, and is made up of the reciprocal relationships held by that community and the customs by which they are maintained (orthopraxy). Religion is not universal, and though there are common threads between groups that are culturally similar enough, it differs by tribe. There are no active attempts to seek out new adherents either, as it is handed down from parent to child. Joining the religion in these cases, is more of a case of tribal enculturation. Afterlife beliefs vary from group to group.
See what I mean? That’s quite a difference! However instead of exploring that, as a group we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater and make weak arguments about “being spiritual instead of religious”.
Along similar lines are the following statements:
“I don’t pray, I chat with my gods.” “I don’t kneel, that’s a Christian thing.” “I don’t worship, I honor my gods.”
And it doesn’t matter that the acts of prayer and kneeling is well attested among multiple pagan cultures, or that worship (meaning “to give worth to/acknowledge the worth of”) is the perfect word for what we do, we just keep running.
So I see this issue as twofold: on the one hand, we avoid anything that looks a little too much like the religions we ran from; and on the other, we allow those religions to continue defining our worlds for us.
Don’t believe me on the last one? Consider the Devil for a moment. How do you feel about him? If you’re getting an icky feeling, where do you think that’s coming from? And yet from the probable perspective of someone from the Pagan period, he’d be another animistic power to trade the troll market with (as always, terms and conditions may apply).
Hold the Gods!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Laura Tempest Zakroff’s post argued for the validity of witchcraft without deities – or at least, devotional relationships with those deities.
I’m not going to lie, I think that’s also a problematic approach to take. As I discussed in my last post on Authority and Hierarchies, having reciprocal relationships with higher powers was a part of having spiritual authority. Hell, even the virtue of piety itself was something that could be held up as a form of authority when trucking with the dead.
This is not to completely slate Ms Zakroff’s post (apologies if that is the wrong honorific, I’m happy to amend accordingly, as I do respect her). I do think she makes an excellent point about the duotheisms held dear by the earlier Pagan revivalists, and their incompatibility with both modern and ancient ideas on deity. But does that mean that we should once more throw out yet another baby with the water it was bathing in? (Which per this account was a dirty dirty water, possibly filled with spunk and other sexual fluids.) Does that mean that we let (this time) Wiccan ideas on deities in witchcraft define the matter of deities for all witches? Because witch or not, you don’t have to have a god and a goddess. And while it’s true that witchcraft can be practiced without deities, in the old accounts and old charms, there was always the matter of the witch requiring the authority to work her craft (be that authority the Devil or Fairies, or Yahweh).
I shall go into a hare, With sorrow and sych and meickle care; And I shall go in the Devil’s name, Ay while I come home again Isobel Gowdie, of course.
The most striking thing for someone who spends a lot of time reading both old grimoires and ancient texts about magic though, is how much our expectations of magic have lowered over the years. There was a time when it was perfectly reasonable to have spells for getting your animated divinatory skull back under control. But now what do we have? To quote Ms Zakroff, “magic as an every day practice to change you, your living space, and the world around you. There’s no chapter on “how to choose your patron deities” – but there may be one on finding your inner goddess.”
So were those earlier spells just delusional?
I’m not so sure; let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I was perusing the vendors at a Pagan convention. One vendor was selling (among other things), little sequined books that she was calling “wish books”, the idea being that you write wishes in them and they would come true. Nice novelty, but no one who is magically operant is going to take that seriously. However, as I was looking through her wares, an African gentleman came up and honed in on these “wish books”, wanting to know if they really worked. You see, as someone who had grown up in a place in which witchcraft is a very real prospect that is routinely thought capable of things we might think fantastical, he was as serious as a heart attack. The vendor
when faced with this, recognized her conundrum: she could either admit that her products were bunk, or she could lie to the gentleman and potentially face his wrath down the line. Because in his culture, you can bet that bought magic is considered the same as any other product that doesn’t work when it doesn’t work!
So were those older spells delusional? I doubt that gentleman would think so – or any number of people around the world actually. As a community, we talk a lot about “reenchanting the world”, as though the whole world is missing its enchantment, but maybe it’s just our bits of it?
I’ve covered a lot of ground here (that’s happening a lot at the moment), but if I were to boil down my points, they would be as follows:
1. Religion itself isn’t a bad thing, but we need to stop running and start figuring out what that can look like for us. 2. We also need to stop throwing out bathwater babies because of how others define things (seriously, we’re creating an army of Útburðir). Don’t like Wicca-esque duotheisms? You don’t need to dump all ideas of forming relationships with animistic powers. 3. It’s about reciprocal relationships, and no matter how awesome your inner goddess is, she probably is going to still be useless if you ever find yourself up shit creek without a paddle with things going sideways faster than the fools at my gym who try to use the treadmills sideways. Plus side though, you can always try shitting yourself, so there is that. 4. It’s also about expectations, and we cannot reenchant the world if we’re not only removing the animistic powers, but also simultaneously lowering our expectations of what magic can do.
So there you go! My Monday ramblings about all the things. I’m still aiming to get the third part of my series out this week (probably on Thursday), but the posts by Mr Beckett and Ms Zakroff were too relevant to ignore.
I’d recommend Rune Soup premium memberships to anyone, because they really are worth the $10 per month. They’re all are well-presented, the content is killer, and the grimoire course was no exception.
One phrase from that course has been going round my head on repeat this week:
“Lobsters are just gonna lobster.”
You’re probably wondering what I mean by that. After all, it is a pretty weird (yet self-evident) statement when presented without context. (Because what else are lobsters going to do but lobster as hard as their little crustacean selves can lobster?)
I would hazard a guess that no one has any issues with that concept, and would think anyone strange who expected dog or human behavior from lobsters. Yet when it comes to the world of the Unseen, we seem to lose the ability to understand that, and our expectations become entirely contemporary and human.
In the first part of this mini-series of posts on authority and hierarchies, I’m going to take a look at the way modern human ideas about numinous beings run counter to more traditional ideas. I’ll move more explicitly into discussing the implications for practice in the following posts.
Perceptions of Spirits, Fairies, and Other Non-Human Persons
We humans engage in anthropomorphism often. We do it with our pets, with senators, and even with numinous beings. However, this is a deeply problematic approach, because when you try to ascribe a certain set of characteristics to something, then you miss what they actually are.
Unfortunately, we humans are often not content with simple anthropomorphism; our perceptions of these beings must also match our very human politics too. We see this bias the clearest in the consideration of spirit and otherworldly hierarchies.
“Whether or not there are two set courts of Fairy, one thing that is clear is that the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by kings and queens. When we look at the bulk of the folklore it is usually a Fairy Queen who holds power, often with an unnamed King at her side or else ruling alone. In only a few Irish examples do we see solitary Fairy Kings. In the later folklore and ballads the Fairy Queens and Kings are often unnamed, going simply by their titles, but in older mythology and some local folklore we do have examples of named Fairy Queens and Kings, often beings who we know were once Gods.” Morgan Daimler, ‘Fairies’, p61
“The Kinds of Spirits. In regard to spirits, there are the superior and the inferior. Names of the superiors are: Lucifer, Beelzebuth, Astaroth. The inferiors of Lucifer are in Europe and Asia, and obey him. Beelzebuth lives in Africa, and Astaroth inhabits America.
Of these, each of them has two who order their subjects all that which the Emperor has resolved to do in all the world, and vice-versa.”
Hierarchies are a feature among both the spirits of the grimoires and traditional fairy lore. As we see from the examples above, the Fairies have their courts and royalty, and superior spirits reign above the legions of inferior spirits of the Grimoirium Verum (and others).
However, an adherence to hierarchical social structure is not the only common trait shared by both Fairies and grimoire spirits. There is also the matter of power, and where that being lies on the scale of power in relation to its position within the hierarchy; these are dominance hierarchies after all. For example, in the above quote Morgan ties the older Fairy royalty with previous godhood. This is also a factor with the superior grimoire spirits cited above. Beelzebuth, as Jake Stratton-Kent reveals, is none other than one of the Ba’als of the ancient near East, and Asteroth none other than the goddess Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna (depending on time period and culture) (Stratton Kent “The True Grimoire” Pp. 136, 185-189 ).
So we kind of have to assume that the reason why those who sit at the top of their respective hierarchies do so because they are the most powerful. Power is a universal passport to authority other others, and it doesn’t matter if a spirit or fairy belongs to a particular court or hierarchy, inherent power is always recognized. Especially by those who appreciate the ability to size up and not antagonize those who are stronger as an excellent means of ensuring continued existence.
It can be hard for a modern person to get their head around the concept of these kinds of hierarchies, and I believe this to be especially the case with modern Pagans (who tend to lean more towards the liberal end of the political spectrum). A lot of us tend towards ideas of equality, and some of us may even find the very concept of hierarchy distasteful. However, we cannot just simply decide that we somehow know better despite the literally thousands of years of precedent in multiple cultures. Because like the lobsters (who also interestingly form dominance hierarchies), those spirits are going to do what they’re gonna do despite our silly human feelings.
Centering the Silly Human Feelings
While we’re talking about those silly human feelings, we may as well address another key issue here: anthropocentrism. As a culture, we have a horrible tendency to center human feelings and human experience in all interactions with the Other, and it’s laughable. We act as though everything non-human out there is there for us in some way, when that is simply not the case. This is a large part of what it means to have agency. A being with agency doesn’t exist for others, they are not the means to another’s ends, but ends unto themselves. Moreover, I can all but guarantee that they don’t see us as the special snowflakes some of us seem to think we are, and if any of them seem to, it’s generally best to assume they probably believe you to be delicious in the culinary sense. (Oh yes, some of them are known to eat people.)
Like I said earlier, “Lobsters are just gonna lobster”.
Birds of a Feather
Lastly, you know how humans tend to all stick together in alien encounter movies? It seems like a natural response to something so different from ourselves, right? And that’s not even taking into account the many ways in which we privilege our own species over others on this earth. Again and again, we put the needs of humans over those of the flora and fauna of this place, and we generally see nothing wrong with it.
Now think about that, and ask yourself why any spirits or race of otherworldly beings should feel any differently? Perhaps it is also anthropomorphism to ascribe this human trait also to fairies? However, that is not what we see in the centuries of fairy lore involving interactions between Fairies and mortals. If anything, the implication that there is a loyalty between Fairies that is not extended to humans (Daimler “Fairies” Pp 34-38).
Avoiding the Perils of Perception
Hopefully if there’s anything this post has made clear, it’s the importance of questioning our perceptions of the Other. Because not doing so, can lead to some very dangerous (if not deadly) situations depending on who you’re dealing with.
However, there is also a greater lesson here that can be applied to our human-to-human interactions in everyday life. You see, much of the way in which many of us consider the Otherworldly, is a reflection of how we consider other humans who are different from us (albeit on a different level). And I don’t believe it to be any coincidence that we mostly belong to cultures that were and/or are still colonialist powers. The cultural backgrounds within which most of us originate, are steeped in taking from and commodifying the “other” among our fellow humans. This is an important point to recognize and think upon, especially if you find it hard to get away from this mindset. Because if you still carry that baggage, you are not fully considering the “Other” (be it humans who are “other” to your cultural or racial group, or otherworldly beings/spirits) as persons with agency and worthy of genuine respect.
And of course, it has to be said that there is something very fitting about a discussion on the agency of the Fair Folk – who are known for their glamours – pulling the sins of humans towards each other into sharp focus. Sometimes the greatest horror is in the revealing.
In the next post, I’m going to look at the importance of authority when dealing with spirits and the otherworldly. This is quite a large topic, and so it will be sub-divided to save you from slogging through a 3000 – 5000 word post (including an excerpt from my upcoming book). Then finally, I’m going to look at how matters of authority and hierarchy play into the process of acquiring a familiar. So watch this space, and in the meantime repeat after me:
“I am not king shit.” “Favors may be gained through relationship or reciprocity.” “Others have agency too.”
For more in-depth coverage of fairy hierarchies and royalty, check out Morgan Daimler’s book ‘Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fairy Folk’. For more information about the True Grimoire (which contains detailed discussion of hierarchy), check out Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘The True Grimoire’. If grimoires and goetia in particular are your thang, be sure to check out the rest of the works in his Encyclopedia Goetica (available from the same link).
I think it was some time in the 2000s when I first noticed this kind of ‘anti-circle sentiment’ in the Pagan community. I was at an event, and someone who was clearly much smarter than I am had devolved into mocking me for still casting circles. It was a classic case of someone trying to score social capital at the expense of another, and as I was still new to interacting with other Pagans on a regular basis, I was far more timid in response than what I would be now.
Casting a circle had been declared both “Wiccan” and “fluffy”, and if John Beckett’s anecdote from his recent blog is anything to go by, circle-casting still suffers somewhat from this reputation. All the cool kids seem to find other ways to create sacred space within which to work. Moreover, even when a circle is cast, some will still refer to it by any other name.
But there’s a huge problem with this kind of mentality – well actually, there are two:
1. You’re basing your practice around trying to avoid being something as opposed to trying to figure out where that practice needs to go, and just going there.
2. You’re more focused on ideological purity and the opinion of others rather than what you’re actually doing.
Both of these issues can lead to some severe casting out of the proverbial baby with the bathwater, and that is what I believe has happened to the circle to some extent. Or at least, we don’t appreciate circles as much as we maybe should.
The History of the Circle
The magic circle is mostly associated with Wicca in modern Paganism, however, the use of magic circles predates Wicca by millennia. Scholar and practicing occultist, Professor Stephen Skinner, traces the earliest mention of protective floor circles to Classical Indian magic. The Ramayama (dating from 4th to 5th century BCE) describes the drawing of a circle on the ground to protect a person from a demon. When that person is persuaded to cross the circle, they are then taken by that demon (Skinner 79).
The circle could also be found among the Assyrians. Referred to as an u?urtu (“ring”), the Assyrian circle seems to have either been made with the intention of containment or protection. This is important to note, because although modern practitioners may give many different reasons for casting circles, and explanations of their function/s, in the ancient world the primary functions were that of containment and protection (Skinner 79).
Sometimes lime was used for marking out the Assyrian circle, and sometimes a mixture of water and flour (substances sacred to relevant Assyrian deities); both types of circle may be found in the sources. Once created though, it was then important that the circle was then consecrated with a charm such as this:
”Ban! Ban! [O] Barrier that none can pass,
Barrier of the gods, that none may break,
Barrier of heaven and earth that none can change, Which no god may annul,
Nor god nor man can loose,
A snare without escape, set for evil, A net whence none can issue forth, spread for [against] evil.
Whether it be evil spirit, or evil demon, or evil ghost, Or evil devil, or evil god, or evil fiend, Or hag-demon, or ghoul, or robber-sprite, Or phantom, or night-wraith, or handmaid of the phantom Or evil plague, or fever sickness, or unclean disease which have attacked the shining waters of Ea (the water from the water/flour mix), May the snare of Ea catch it;
Or which hath assailed the meal of Nisaba (the flour from the water/flour mix),
May the net of Nisaba entrap it…” (Skinner 80)
I also include a Mesopotamian consecration charm here for its eminent usefulness and interest:
”We, therefore, in the names aforesaid, consecrate this piece of ground for our defence, so that no spirit whatsoever shall be able to break the boundaries, neither be able to cause injury nor detriment to any of us here assembled, but that they may be compelled to stand before this circle and answer truly our demands.” (Skinner 80)
Both consecration charms make it clear that at its core, the circle is a form of boundary or barrier through which nothing may pass if created correctly. By its very nature, it both contains and protects, this is the core function of a magic circle in the earliest sources – everything else is just gravy.
(Btw, if you do not already own Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, I cannot recommend it enough.)
Circles, often in the form of an ouroboros, also feature in Egyptian depictions of magic – again as
this kind of impermeable barrier (Skinner 82-83). Skinner posits that although the ouroboros circle is only specifically mentioned twice in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the creation of a circle was probably taken for granted and covered by phrases such as “do the usual”. It is no coincidence that the ouroboros features in later grimoires such as the 18th century Clavis Inferni. Indeed, it’s likely that the use of a protective circle in the form of an ouroboros and directions marked out (and associated with elemental entities) were inherited magical tech from those old-school Graeco-Egyptian magicians (Skinner 87).
The Core Purpose and its Gravy
However, even the most cursory study of the ‘how’ of casting magic circles shows that there is no one way to cast a circle. Instead, there is variation and adaptation depending on any number of factors, including (but not limited to) the tradition of the practitioner, and the spirits being worked with. For example, in the Book of Oberon, different circles are given for different spirits. Unlike most modern circles, these circles were – like the Assyrian and Indian circles – meant to be drawn out on the ground usually using substances considered to have apotropaic properties either by virtue of the substance itself or by association with a deity/deities.
It would seem that a simple impermeable barrier is not enough though, and much may be included in either the design (when drawn physically) or circumambulation portion of circle casting (also important in the ancient sources).
However, variation is typically reflective of differing ideas about how the cosmos looks and/or the worldviews of the practitioners involved. Here we must not only consider the idea of the circle as barrier, but also the circle as and Eliade-esque “sacred center” and map of macrocosmic creation recreated in the microcosm.
To give you an example of this, take a look at this goetic circle.
You have three circles, a triangle, some candles, and a censer. That doesn’t look like there’s much else going on there, right?
Well now take a look at this circle for the Luridan conjuration.
Just to give you some backstory here – Luridan was one of the spirits associated with the Icelandic volcano, Hekla (Stratton-Kent, Pp 68-71). But here we see a volcano placed in the usual spot for the censer. Now, your average magician isn’t going to manage to get a volcano in his or her circle (not unless you’re working on a scale that’s just completely unfeasible), so it’s logical to assume that within this circle the volcano is represented by the censer. In my opinion, this is a clear recreation of the part of the cosmos inhabited by the spirits the magician wishes to summon (and is a whole lot easier than going to Hekla for the same).
I mean, there’s also some local adaptation to old school chthonic Greek religion and Hephaestus stuff in there, but nifty, huh?
This is why circles are as long lived as they are. Because not only do they work, but they are customizable, meaning you can optimize to get better results if you understand enough of the underlying mechanics.
Pimping Your Circles
So, this is me proposing a more flexible view of creating sacred space. A view in which customization and optimization in order to get better results is a thing. For those of you who only work with the same spirits and within the same system, this is perhaps less useful to you. But for those of you who are like myself, total fucking magpies who straddle multiple systems like a fat cat spilling out into multiple boxes, read on.
If you are looking at ways to pimp your circles, or indeed create new ways of casting circles, then it’s a good idea to consider the following:
1. The Purpose of the Rite
The circle for a celebratory rite is not going to be the same as the circle for a rite summoning something potentially dangerous. For example, you’re going to be want to really focus on building that kickass barrier for the summoning, but the circle for a celebratory rite might see the circle mostly envisioned as a representation of the cycle of the year (just to give an example).
2. The Gods/Spirits Summoned
When summoning gods or spirits, you may like the Luridan conjuration, want to recreate the part of the cosmos associated with that god or spirit within the cosmology of the circle. Moreover, depending on *which* gods or spirits you summon, you may also have to incorporate things like spirit hierarchies and thwarting angels into the design of your circle. To return to the image from the Clavis Inferni above for a quick example of this, the symbols of the four directional demon kings sit outside the circle, and the thwarting angels for those kings sit within.
3. The Cosmos they Inhabit
This idea of going to “play” with a different cosmos can be hard to get your head round. After all, everyone thinks their worldview and idea of how things are in the cosmos is right, right? Relativism can be hard, especially when it comes to deeply held beliefs that are often also tied up in personal experience.
Try imagining it like this – a huge endless space filled with countless temples. In and around each temple, the view of the cosmos inherent to the religion and gods/spirits of the temple not only holds sway but is reality. So if you’re going to go and interact with those gods/spirits, you need to “go to their temples”.
Naturally though, there are a lot of common threads between the “temples” and a *whole* lot of shared history. Lots of people (not to mention those dratted grimoires) did a lot of traveling, spreading ideas and magical tech like magical clap to everyone they came across. So some of those temples aren’t exactly autochthonous in what they display.
But that doesn’t mean that we can start engaging in fuckery like going to a Pagan “temple” where we feel more comfortable and essentially placing a collect call to a more Judeo-Christian “temple” where we might think some of the spirits are cool but not the head honcho. That’s kind of rude. Sort of like calling up someone you don’t know at an unsociable hour, and not only asking them to help you out but to do it entirely on your terms.
Some might even argue that they all really share the same basement too anyway, you know…if you go to the *right* sub-level. Even worse, there are some rumors that some of those grimoires even made it down to the basement a few centuries before the current crop of magic users started their sneaking expeditions down there. So you know, that’s a whole lot to take into consideration.
But it’s also a lot of possibilities and scope for improvement. Because magic isn’t something that is static and relegated to what is passed down in books – they can only help us put our feet on the path. No, magic is a living thing that evolves in concert with our interactions with the Other (once we have gained our proper introductions, of course). That, to my mind, is the greatest thing of all about magic, and of course, it all starts with the circle.
Sources Dr Stephen Skinner – Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic Jake Stratton-Kent – Geosophia: The Argo of Magic (Vol II)
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
Imagine a world that is like this one, except not – a “shadow world” maybe.
That is ‘here’, but somehow also ‘there’.
Imagine a world where the usually Unseen – like Aelfe (or any other type of wiht really) – may be readily seen. Imagine a world in which we-the-living and seen, are like sleepwalkers in this reality. Sometimes the colors are muted and washed out – the washed out blues of a wolf’s vision. But at other times, and in other places, they’re so vibrant that even modern animation techniques can’t touch it. Here too are shades of grey, punctuated by the odd flash of color.
There is a word in Old English, Scín. On the most basic level, it’s the skin that encases the meat suits we drive around, but on the the hand, it’s not. It’s ‘here’ but also ‘there’.
For the early English, though, and especially for those that knew a thing or two, this ‘skin’ that was here but also there was something that could also be manipulated, shaped, formed, and made to appear to others. It was ‘Scínlac’, for the Norse it was ‘Hamfarir’.
It was in this world/not world that the Seidrworker journeyed when any ‘journeying’ occurred. This world of the Unseen. Not Asgard, not Helheim, not anywhere but this glorious Middle Earth.
Among the pages of the Utrecht Psalter, there’s an illustration of these curious flying beings with horns and stingers. Creatures that couldn’t possibly exist in the physical world-‘áttor-coppe’ they were called, ‘poison heads’. Not the physical-but-unrelated ‘áttor-coppe’, no, they’re easily recognisable – we call them ‘spiders’, another kind of ‘poison head’ -Old English is nothing if not descriptive.
A kind of ‘flying sickness’ often taken as ‘infectious disease’ – but that’s only if the disease is physical, but who knows?
You see, these worlds don’t operate separately from each other, but in concert with each other – cause and effect. Sometimes the Unseen manifests here, sometimes the Unseen directly influences what happens here – lost keys, doors that open without anyone there to open them. Other times though, It’s the ‘Scín’-that-is-here-but-there that is affected and the whole becomes sick or well or gains some luck.
Now imagine what all of what I’ve written here could potentially mean. How do you interact with the Unseen? Do you understand yet its importance, or what?