Reconstruction and Gnosis: Building Experiments I

A Note On The Term “Reconstruction”

Welcome back to another thrilling installment of this blog series examining the intersection of reconstruction and gnosis!

Before I get stuck in though, I just wanted to add a quick note about my use of the word “reconstructionism,” in this series. This can be something of a nebulous word among modern Heathens. At its core, it’s a methodology that allows scholars to experience a thing in as accurate a way as possible to potentially gain insights about that thing. However, it’s also come to signify a movement within modern Heathenry that sits at the opposite end of the (fake) spectrum from “woo.” This was the meaning we first began with in the beginning of this series. Some might even argue that this “recon” movement has developed a dogma of its own over time, thus making it a kind of sect. (And a weirdly evangelical one at that.)

Okay, not the most accurate, but it made me laugh.

Within the context of this series, I use the term “reconstructionism” and its variants to refer to either the methodology as I approach it or the movement as it relates to the “recon – woo” scale. When referring to the research phase of the process, I also use “scholarship” or “research,” as that’s the bulk of the work involved at that stage. However, it’s important to note reconstruction doesn’t just include research but experimentation and post-experiment evaluation as well.

Some Limitations Of Reconstructing Magic

It should probably go without saying, but magical reconstruction is a completely different kettle of fish from reconstructing medieval bow shooting (for example). I’ve discussed this before in previous posts, but there are a couple of extra points we need to bear in mind when reconstructing magic.

The first is that the ON primary sources were written from the observer’s perspective, often long after the events they describe took place. Sometimes there are further clues from archaeological finds (especially when they seem to support the textual sources and vice versa). However, the vast majority of the time, interpreting those finds is (to put it crudely) ultimately a matter of educated guesswork.

Actual depiction of my magical experimentation (take 1)

The second point relates to outside influences. Even textual sources that appear to have been written for practitioners are not without their problems. The most relevant example of this within the context of my own work are OE magico-medical texts like the Lacnunga. Though they clearly contain earlier remnants, these texts were written hundreds of years after the English officially converted. So, while there may be Heathen elements, there are also clear Christian and Classical influences in the mix as well, and it can be difficult to tease those different strands apart.

Step One: Building A Working Theory

One of the first things you’ll notice if you try experimenting with historical magic, is that there are “gaps.” We often talk about different magical traditions or currents as systems. And like any other kind of system, there are certain processes/actions/objects required to make a magical system work.

Historical Heathen magic was likely no different.

I find it helpful to think of magical systems as languages for communicating with and mediating issues with the Holy Powers and Unseen of this world. As with any other kind of language, there needs to be a grammar-like framework as well as some agreement on performance if it is to be understood.

So, part of the work involved in creating magical experiments has to include a working theory of how the system you’re experimenting with may have worked. Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong. At this point, it’s best to think in terms of degrees of accuracy anyway. You’re not aiming for the magical equivalent of being able to write a book in a second language (big shout out to Daniela Simina for that one!). Your aim here is to figure out enough to do the equivalent of successfully ordering a hotdog at a gas station without confusing or pissing off the staff.

When formulating your working theory/theories, it’s important to remember that magical systems are not separable from worldview. They exist within the worldview from which they were born. So, for example, as magic is very much concerned with fate, it’s wise to learn everything you can about how Historical Heathens may have thought about “fate.” You would also do well to read up about souls and eschatology, as well as how they may have viewed their neighbors (both Seen and Unseen) in this wondrous Middle-Earth.

Once you have your working theory though, then you can begin to think about the elements they may have thought necessary, the order of ritual, and well…everything else. Because working theories—while daunting—give you a place to start figuring out some of the missing pieces.

Filling In The Missing Pieces AKA “Plotholes”

If you’ve been practicing magic for any amount of time, you can probably read a ritual, mentally walk it though, and have a good idea of whether it’s going to work. In doing this (whether you realize it or not), you’re effectively assessing the “story” of the ritual/spell/working for “plot holes.”

At times, these potential plot holes reveal themselves through sources of similar practices or comparable sites within your focus culture/s. Other times though, you may find yourself suspecting a plot hole when looking into similar practices from related cultures or cultures with whom your focus culture/s had a lot of interaction.

Much rarer (at least in my experience) is when the author unintentionally leaves a hint of a plot hole via a stock phrase. A phrase that seems to indicate a practice/action/incantation the author considered so basic and common to their intended audience they didn’t think it worth the bother of writing down. Those of you who have studied the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri are probably very familiar with the phrase “do the usual.” This is the kind of hint I mean here.

However a plot hole is revealed though, my first step is to widen my field of research to try and find something with enough of a similar “shape” to fill those gaps. This is when I begin to look into sources from related cultures or later time periods from the same culture. (Because we clearly also need to add in some comparativism and retrospective methods too.)

Finally, I also pay attention to my gnosis as well as lessons learned from previous experiences and incorporate those too. Remember how I extolled the importance of writing everything down in the last post? Well, this is where all of that recorded gnosis and XP starts to come in.

Filling In The Missing Pieces: The “Not Attested But We Know This Shit Keeps Us Safe” Parts

The last kind of plot hole to consider are the practices and precautions we have no historical evidence for but know from experience to be smart. These include (but are not limited to) some mainstays of modern witchcraft practice like grounding/centering/shielding and energy manipulation.

There can be a temptation to try and be the most authentic and accurate little magical explorer that could. But as a witch, I’m nothing if not practical, and I’ve seen what happens when people don’t have those so-called “basics” down when engaging in this kind of work.

Magic isn’t safe, and this is especially the case when working outside established traditions. Established traditions have structure and methods of working and people generally have an idea of how rituals are going to go. Moreover, when things do go wrong, a practitioner working within an established tradition has a layer of protection and backup people like myself don’t have. Let’s just say things can get a little wild when you’re building experiments from historical sources, frameworks of educated guesses, and gnosis.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s also mad fun. This kind of work makes my souls sing and has led me to the most incredible experiences. Performing a ritual I’ve put together for an experiment with next to zero idea of what’s going to happen next is my happy place.

But it’s really not safe.

So, regardless of historical accuracy, I recommend adding some safety mechanisms to your experiments as well. Those so-called “basic” witchcraft skills can actually be the difference between “Eh, things got a bit hairy” and “Yeah, I was lucky to get out in one piece.”

As an aside, if you don’t believe the Unseen can really harm you and/or that you’re somehow in charge/are owed something/are more powerful because you’re a witch, then please keep away from this work. To put it bluntly: you’d be a danger to yourself, anyone who works with you, and eventually those who live with you as well.

Actual image of me off on an adventure.

I also recommend that you create amulets, make sure your go-bag includes apotropaics for if (when) shit goes sideways, and begin a purification practice if you don’t already have one. Some beings/energies/kinds of work aren’t exactly good for humans from a health/wellness perspective. So, find ways to get clear that work for you. (If you dig smoke cleansing, here’s the third in a series of posts about that very thing.) These are important for staying healthy/well. Ideally, you’ll have methods/things you can use directly after finishing an experiment and methods/things you can use when you get home and in the following days. Additionally, you may find that you have instincts that kick in after certain types of work. One example of such an instinct that Martin Coleman kind of also wrote about in Communing With The Spirits is post-necromancy horniness. As long as those instincts are not harmful to yourself or others, my advice is to go with them. Go forth and bang that necromancy out of your system (or whatever).

Finally, don’t forget to figure out some protocols for wrapping up your experiments, containing anything that needs containing, and getting clear of any influence/effects/interlopers before you get home. Please bear in mind that “going sideways” does include the possibility of things like possession and plan accordingly. It’s wise to have a buddy system in place; people you or your family members can call if extra help is needed.

Final Words

I was initially hoping to stick to a single post on experiment building. However, as with all things in this series, it didn’t quite work out like that, and when my post tipped 5000 words, I figured it was best to split it into two posts. In the next post (now I’ve gotten all of those caveats out of the way), I’m going to talk about how I put together my first Götavi grid experiment, the underlying reasons why I made the choices I did as well as all the fuck-ups along the way.
So, until next time. Be well.

A Magical Go-Bag Tour

magical go-bag - hag stone

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.

magical go-bag - crane bag

magical go-bag - pockets
Custom knife pockets ftw.

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.

Hag Stone

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 magical go-bag - hag stonemiddle 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.

Black Salt

Function: Hardcore apotropaic.

Next up is black salt. Salt is a great addition to any magical go-bag in magical go-bag - black saltgeneral 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 magical go-bag - mini spindleenergy 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, magical go-bag - large spindlemy 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.

Railroad Spike

Function: Apotropaic and tool.

This is something I tend to swap out with my black-handled knife. There’s a magical go-bag - spikeresonance 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.

Red Yarn

Function: Apotropaic, tool, McGyver goodness.

magical go-bag - red yarnThis 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.