Witch-Making

“You cannot simply draw a bath, light a few scented candles, and declare yourself a witch. Take your bath, but you are only a witch after the demons have come calling, which they most certainly will.” (1)

Growing up in Blighty, sometimes it feels as though most of my childhood took place under steely grey skies. Of course, it wasn’t like that *all* the time, but that is my dominant memory – or maybe it’s simply just the way I like to remember it.

Witch - sheepI remember running wild under those steely grey skies, I remember countless adventures up on the moors and in the hidden places where adults didn’t seem to go: like the ‘ravine’ that was really a small stream down the side of an old Victorian factory that led into a more modern industrial park; or the ruins of Victorian farms built in the shadow of a brooding moor.

We never seemed to be dressed for the weather either; choosing little more than the ubiquitous 90s ‘combat pants’ (you know, those pants with all the pockets on – perfect for adventuring), a t-shirt, and a hoodie for the vast majority of these jaunts.

I think about those times on days like this – days clouded over and raining in a way that my mum would describe as ‘spitting’. You know the kind of rain I mean, the kind that isn’t particularly heavy but just feels as though maybe the sky is spitting at you. It’s a kind of rain I played in often as a kid.

The last post I wrote was about how the summer makes me feel dead inside. Well, not quite, that’s a bit of hyperbole. But there is a draining sensation at the end of the summer, and a dragging, and an “Oh for fucks sake, why can’t it be Fall already?”
But Fall *is* coming. The leaves are turning, the sky is looking more ‘right’, and I am beginning to come out of my slump.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, reading up on things that are a little bit different than my usual topics, and it has been truly excellent.

It’s from one of those books that I pulled both the quote at the beginning of this post (and the inspiration for this post as a whole).

You ever read something where you find yourself agreeing so much with what the writer is saying that you find witch-making - preachyourself nodding, and mentally giving the author a “Right on, man! You tell em!”? Well, I’m reading a book like that right now. Had this been a church sermon, the entire section that inspired this post would have had me shouting “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lard!”, because it is just so nice to come across someone who writes things that you so completely agree with. That doesn’t happen a lot for me.

The question of what makes a witch is a perennial one in online discussions. Some people think it’s initiation within a specific tradition. Other people think it’s in the doing. For my part, I think initiation is a part of it, and that it is through the doing that you put yourself on the path to that initiation. But it’s not the kind of initiation that comes from other humans (although other humans can set you on that road), but from the Unseen powers.

Today I’m going to talk about the kind of initiation that happens when the demons come calling.

During the course of the summer, I seem to have somehow acquired a couple of students. We had a good first session – covered a lot of ground – and I’m pleased that I have two lovely students with as much potential as they have. I’m really looking forward to seeing them grow (and seeing how much I’ll learn from teaching them, you always learn more from the teaching if you’re doing it right). But at the end of the first session, I warned them that when you set feet upon this path, that there are things that will come a-knocking. When you start doing things, things that garner attention from the Unseen, things that effectively put you in a position for (as Gordon White put it) ‘the cosmic croupier to deal you in’, you will get into situations in which you have to think on your feet and deal with some really fucked up circumstances.

This may sound like I’m rehashing my previous post about Witchcraft not being safe, but if anything, I don’t think I went far enough with that post. Because in spite of what some people think, it’s not about being edgy or ‘dark’, it’s about having the kind of experiences that leave you (to quote Gordon again), “with a lasting, visceral, unshakable knowing that the universe extends beyond what can be physically observed.”

It’s about interacting with the Unseen.

There was a time when witches were considered to learn their craft predominantly from the Unseen as opposed to from other humans. You see this reflected in the Irish beliefs surrounding the Fairy Doctors, Mná feasa, and Cailli – they were all believed to have gotten their powers and learning from the Other Crowd. This same idea was also reflected in the Germanic cultural sphere too, except the Germanic witches were believed to work with the elves – again, members of the Unseen.

It’s about breaking chains.

In Paul Huson’s classic Mastering Witchcraft, the student is advised to light a candle right before going to bed and to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards while visualizing the breaking of chains, a move that Jason Mankey referred to as ‘repugnant’ in his review of the book. But in spite of his distaste for Huson’s methodology, Mankey concedes that Huson’s rationale for this makes perfect sense. And it does.

Because we live in a society in which there are many barriers to even coming across the Unseen, let alone seeking initiation from those hidden powers. Our lives are so busy, so full of noise and distraction, and I’m not decrying electricity or anything (I LOVE living in a place with solid walls and mod cons), but there are reasons why when we do have those soul-shattering experiences they tend to be out in the lonely places.

In the liminal places.

Far from the buzz of tech with its incessant reminder of the outside world.

And that’s even before I talk about the barriers of belief involved here. Like the materialism that says that such things simply *cannot* happen, or the generations of dogma that declares that seeking out or trafficking with such things is a sin.

How many new Pagans and Witches claim to no longer believe in their previous monotheisms? And yet how many would baulk at sitting before a candle and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards?

“Nema! Livee morf su revilled tub
Noishaytpment ootni ton etc…”

witch-making- pacyderm
“Fight me or find a way to get along with me! Ignoring me won’t make me go away.

How many Pagan paths offer an alternative to Christianity without eschewing it completely, an alternative in which that person can go an entire lifetime without wrestling with that Jesus-y elephant in the room? Because I think that sooner or later, if you practice witchcraft and you truly want that kind of transformation that witchcraft makes possible, you have to find a way to take that motherfucking pachyderm down. (Or at least figure out how it fits in within your worldview. Clue: it’s all just spirits). You can’t break the chains if you ignore them.

Now I’m not saying that people have to go and recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards tonight or something, but it’s certainly something to think about. Witchcraft is not just unsafe, it is also transgressive. Usually when people talk about that transgression nowadays, it seems to be in very political terms, but I think it’s a lot deeper than that.

This is the kind of transgression in which simply having transgressive opinions isn’t enough. It’s not enough to want to ‘stick it to the man’ (or whatever), you have to step outside of the norm, you have to pass beyond. You have to go from the safe places of the inner yard that everyone else huddles in, away from those electric lights, and the safety and comfort of traditional religion.

You have to cross that boundary, try to traffic with the spirits, get that dirt under your fingernails, muddy up those boots, fuck up, make mistakes, and just have those crazy experiences that are usually highly unpleasant, but that leave you with the kind of clarity that comes with the dawn.

Because it’s often in those times, that the most meaningful of initiations are found.
witch-making - dawn

References
(1) Quote taken from The Chaos Protocols by Gordon White.

Heathen Prayer – Or the Art of Speaking the Runes

What do you think of when you think of the word, ‘prayer’? Perhaps you envision a person piously kneeling in church, or even rocking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Maybe you even think of the Muslim with a prayer mat, or the Sufi worshipers swirling in their billowing robes?

But what about Pagans and Heathens? Do we pray? Should we pray? And how should that prayer ‘look’ in comparison to the prayer of other religions?

A while ago, I posed the question of prayer on a group that I frequent – it’s a lovely group, very calm, and a lot of the members find it supportive. A lot of the respondents said that they did indeed pray, and then we went on to have a wonderful conversation about prayer. However, there were a few that expressed views that they don’t pray so much as just ‘talk to the gods, ancestors, and wights’. This isn’t unusual either. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the prayer question come up in both Heathen and Pagan circles over and over again, and the ‘I don’t pray, but talk to the gods’ response is one that I’ve seen come up a lot.

But what is prayer, and what was it for Heathens?

“Teach us the Secret Runes”

Many of the sources we have for the Heathen period were written by Christians, in some cases centuries after conversion. With this in mind, when we examine these sources, we have to treat them with some degree of caution and bear in mind that we’re reading these events as presented through the filter of a Christian worldview.

The ‘Heliand’ however, is pretty unique in that it’s the Christian gospel written in a way that the Heathen Saxons could understand it. In other words, it’s the story of Jesus adapted to the Heathen worldview. Through comparing the rendering the ‘Heliand’ gives, with the actual Christian gospel, I believe it’s possible to discern aspects of the Heathen worldview.

When it comes to prayer, and the way it is introduced in the ‘Heliand’, the difference between the Christian version and the version as rendered for Heathens is obvious.

In Luke 11:1, the introduction to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is short, and with the expectation that the reader will already understand what is going on:

“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

In contrast though, the ‘Heliand’ presents prayer very differently:

“Our good Lord”, he said, “we need Your gracious help in order to carry out Your will and we also need Your own words, Best of all born, to teach us, Your followers, how to pray – just as John the good Baptist, teaches his people with words every day how they are to speak to the ruling God. Do this for Your own followers – teach us the secret runes.”

– Song 9

With those words, ‘teach us the secret runes’, or ‘gerihti us that geruni’, the normally ineffectual wish-prayer of the

Heathen Prayer - Runes
Runes are prayers? Next you’re going to tell me these aren’t runes anymore!

pious, is made understandable within the context of Germanic culture as a kind of spell of great performative power; the word ‘geruni’ conveying both the ideas of secrecy and petitioning.

From the importance of skalds and their craft ( that often bordered on the magical) to the belief that certain combinations of words could have a magical effect, the idea of the power of language, is something that permeated Germanic culture. In the Old English medical texts, certain prayers such as the ‘Pater Noster’ (the Latin name of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) are considered to heal when said a certain number of times, and texts like ‘Solomon and Saturn’ often advocate the same prayers as war-spells for in battle.

But none of this really sounds like the Judeo-Christian idea of what a prayer is. The word ‘prayer’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘precari’, and has the Proto Indo-European root ‘*prek’, meaning ‘to ask, request, or en

treat’. In a sense, the asking and entreating does form a part of these formulaic ‘rune-prayers’ from Germanic tradition:

‘Give us support each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector of Heaven
Our Many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let evil little creatures lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve’

– Excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Heliand, Song 19

But there is never really a sense with Christian prayer that the prayer itself is a kind of magical formula, or a ‘rune’ to be used as a form of magic in of itself. Christian prayer hinges on the entreaty, on the benevolence of the being you’re entreating. However, not only did Germanic prayer make that entreaty to the higher, as a subject might go to a King, it was also powerful in of itself. In other words, the formula and language used were important.

So while the word ‘prayer’ might not hold up within a Germanic context, at least not in the same sense as prayer in other religious traditions, a sense of respect, formality, of formula, and tradition does.

For health, for protection, for battle-victory, and for support – these were all reasons to make these entreaties and use these inherently magical formulae, these were the reasons that made sense to the Germanic tribes. There was no asking for ‘our daily bread’, which would have rendered the asker little more than a beggar, and asking for forgiveness is replaced by the more judicial ‘pardon’ from crimes.

So where does that leave us as moderns? Do we still call it ‘prayer’? How often should we do it? And if we bear in mind that a prayer was believed to hold an inherent magic based in the words used, how would this affect the prayers we come up with?

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how often they pray or…I dunno… speak runes? However one thing is clear to me; the formal and formulaic is not the sole domain of Christians, and when coming up with our prayers or ‘runes’, we should take as much care as possible, and never forget that we are addressing the Holy Powers.

Sources

The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel – Translation and Commentary by G.Ronald Murphy. S.J.
The Lacnunga
Solomon and Saturn
The Holy Bible NIV