Communicating With the Dead

Magic With The Dead

I shuffled the cards as best I could, laughing at myself and my cackhandedness. I’ve never been able to shuffle, and my knowledge of tarot is rudimentary at best. It just never spoke to me in the same way as it seems to speak to every other witch on the planet.

I’ve always been better with runes and ogham – especially when I’m trying to do my periodic ‘drunken and completely inaccurate’ readings over on my personal Facebook. Things can get somewhat uncanny with that.

But this time I had cards, albeit Magic: The Gathering cards.

I was at a Samhain event, and had been participating in a discussion on tarot.

“I hear you can read anything” I’d said, as I tried to shuffle the cards. “I’ve heard of a woman who used to read beer mats like tarot while in the pub. She was apparently super accurate.”

A couple of cards tried to escape the deck and I simply added them back in, laughing to myself as I continued.

“Some people think it’s the symbols, but others? They think the cards are more like props, and that they sort of draw out the psychic impressions the reader is getting anyway.”

Finishing my shuffle, I laid out three Magic cards as though they were tarot.

“And if I had that skill, I’d be able to give you a full reading off of these bad boys right here.”

I laughed again, and without really knowing why snapped a photo.dead - magic cards

“But I don’t have that skill, so all you’d get out of me is that there’s something to do with a train and movement, then an hourglass, and then this guy here who looks like a right dick.”

(Conversation paraphrased, this happened a while ago.)

Someone else at the table made a joke, and I put the cards away.

Later that evening though, I’d look back on this tomfoolery with different eyes.

Under Darkened Skies

It was dusk when we came to do ritual – the perfect time really for this kind of rite. We’d gathered around a blazing fire and sang the dead forth using an old dirge with psychopompic elements. We’d adapted it of course;we’d wanted to raise the dead, not lay them. The night darkened, the temperature dropped, and there was the distinct sense that we were no longer alone.

We’d gotten some attention.

But then again, we were using borrowed necromantic tech in Gettysburg of all places.

We set out a place for the dead and shared mourning cookies, offered food and clothing. Then we’d set out a bread man as substitute “sin eater” for those who felt the burden of sin too heavily to move on. That’s not uncommon for those who die in battle after a certain era. For all the talk of “glory”, war continues to torture and torment long after the guns fall silent and lungs empty.

I perceived a line of dead coming from the passage of trees to my right. I watched them as they wound a procession around the fire, each man taking his turn with the bread man. The temperature dropped further, and there was the sensation of a small breeze where they passed. (I would later find out that they had come from the direction of one of the battlefields that sits only a mile down the road.)

The ritual progressed and we asked for an omen, and this was where things began to get interesting.

The Dead Opine

The designated seer for the rite had chosen tarot, as it was not only potentially more recognizable to the dead than runes or ogham, but she also has the gift I lack with that medium.

“Is there anything you wish for us to know?”

That had been the question (or near enough). One by one, she laid out the cards, carefully positioning them in the firelight so she could read them.

The first was the Chariot reversed, which I’m told speaks of movement that is out of control and a need to regain control lest the wheel falls off.

The second was Temperance reversed that further underlined the lack of balance and control first spoke of by the Chariot.

And the final card was the Hierophant reversed, the card of a despotic leader.

The year was 2016, and that was when I knew Donald Trump would win the election.

But the weirdness would not end there. Because after the rite, when we’d returned to the warmth of our host’s house, I realized something about the cards the seer had pulled.

The images were basically the same images as I’d pulled from the Magic deck earlier.

It would seem the dead didn’t just have a message but had been screaming it all day.dead - tarot

The Dead v Our Ideas Of The Dead

There was an oddness to 2016 that I feel in this year too – albeit somewhat different; 2019 has its own flavor. Death came for many at the birth of the year. Terrifying clown sightings filled the news as the northern hemisphere moved into Fall only to stop before the election. And political campaigning took a turn for the nativist, throwing out appeals to history with abandon.

“Make America Great Again”

Like the “good old days”, just like “how our ancestors lived”.

As the living, we like to put a lot on the dead and our ancestors. We like to try and speak for them, we like to try and act in ways we think they would approve of most (even if subconsciously).

Every time you use that old family recipe or wear the jewelry your grandma died clutching. Every time you gather photos or go tidy up a grave site. All of it is a form of either engaging with ancestors or in the cult of the dead depending on what you’re doing). We just no longer recognize it as such.

How many times have you heard or thought people expressing the sentiment that by doing an action, they would make (dead person) happy (if they could see them)?

You see? We invoke the ancestors often.

Anthropologists have noted that this tends to lead to a more conservative society – especially when the veneration of ancestors is limited to only a few generations (Lehman and Myers 283-284).

But the dead are often not what we think of or assume them to be, and depending on which group of dead, can differ wildly from us in what they approve of (as opposed to what we might think they would approve of).

The problem here is communication, and this is something that we need to talk about before getting into ancestor veneration proper.

So how does a person communicate with the dead?

Communicating With The Dead

Contrary to popular media, one doesn’t have to be psychic in order to have meaningful communication with one’s ancestors or more recent dead. Often times, you just need to be able to recognize that communication for what it is.

Dream

dead - dreams
No accuracy guaranteed!

In many ways, the dead are far easier to communicate with than most people think. Moreover, there are a lot of tools that can help and mediums through which they can communicate.

One of the most common ways in which the dead can communicate is through dreams. This is something you see in pretty much every culture in which ancestor veneration exists.

This communication may be spontaneously obtained or via incubation practices. For example, ancient Greek seekers would go to a psychomanteion/nekyomanteion for this purpose. The nekyomanteions are thought to have mimicked the geography of the afterlife in some way, and often involved tunnels leading down into the earth, and bodies of water. Those wishing to communicate with their ancestors (either via speaking with a priest-oracle or dream) would make preliminary sacrifices and/or ingest narcotics (depending on the sought experience) before entering the sleeping rooms or tunnels.

In some ways, this mimics the Northern European practice of sleeping the night on a burial mound in order to gain wisdom or poetic ability from the dead. In both cases, the seeker goes to a place in which the underworld may be accessed in physical or symbolic form in order to sleep.

This is something that we too can make use of in our practices even if we don’t live near any burial mounds or grave sites where we may sleep without getting arrested, but I’ll get into that in a future post.

Divination Tools

As we saw in the story above, the dead can also divination tools (either ‘official’ or improvised) in order to communicate with the living. This was one of my first methods of communicating with the dead while still in the

dead - cards
“One of 54 Devils checking in for your middle school necromantic needs!”

equivalent of middle school. Only we used a set of regular playing cards for our seances with the school ghosts, and the suits and their colors were how we derived our answers. As unlikely as it sounds, we had some fairly strange things happen while experimenting in this way, and it was enough to concern our parents.

Unfortunately, the substitute activity my father asked me to use (the key and the bible) never got the same results (so I stuck to the cards).

In my experience, tools often take on a chill when used for relaying the messages of the dead. That’s probably good to know. As an aside, this is not so dissimilar from the manipulation of modern tech in order to deliver a message.

Ouija Boards

This is obvious and also probably something I’m going to catch heat for. However, there are ways in which you can use a Ouija board safely, and conveniently, most of those ways also correspond with general spirit etiquette and psychic hygiene.

I’ll write more about Ouija boards in another post. But for now I’ll just stick with saying that if you’re absolutely terrified of these things, keep away from them. You already lost the head game.

(If you can’t wait until I finally get round to writing about ouija, this post is great.)

Synchronicity

When you start associating with different groups of ancestors, you might find

dead - clock
“Maybe it’s ancestors, maybe it’s Maybelline.”

things pertaining to them cropping up. For example, when I was working particularly closely with my Irish ancestors, I began to randomly win Irish-related things. Information that led me further into connecting with them better also just sort of landed in my lap. Often it can feel as though you’re being pushed along when this stuff happens.

Manifestation And Apports

dead - white feather
“Whatup sis! I’m doing good. Got myself some new threads and everything!”

Finally, sometimes the dead can be pretty direct. They can appear, and they can cause other things to appear. Like the white feather that appeared in the air and fell into my mother’s lap when she was thinking about her deceased brother and feeling sad. Or disembodied voices speaking with my native accent and dialect in a place separated by thousands of miles from any other speakers. Or that deceased relative stood by your bed when you wake up from an awful nightmare. The nightmare may have been awful, but when you fall asleep again it’s but a lovely dream.

Well, you get the idea…

Next Time

In the next few posts, I’m going to start getting into the meaty bits of this topic. First I’ll be covering the different conventions for setting up an ancestral shrine. Then I’ll take a look at the pros and cons of doing so. I’ll also be discussing some of the ways in which you can work at your shrine. This will include offerings, prayers, songs, and anything to help you get your dead on. Then, I’ll be taking a look at the different mediums through which the ancestors may be contacted.

Ancestor Cult is Not Saint Cult (And Other Stories)

ancestors - gallery

I talk about the dead a lot. Not because I’m a morbid fucker, but because death, dying, and what happens next are important topics to grapple with. After all, we’re all going to die someday, it’s one thing (along with shitting) that all humans have in common. So we may as well get to grips with it all now.

ancestors - bird
“Tweet tweet, motherfucker! I’m a new series of posts!”

(This is the sound of a new series of posts being born.)

But we’re not all that great with this stuff. Talking about death is still somewhat taboo, and ancestor veneration among European-descended Pagans and Heathens suffers from poor modeling. There are also a lot of misconceptions that don’t seem to exist among people who follow traditions that still include ancestor veneration.

So what’s going on? Why do we mostly suck when it comes to ancestors?

And that kids, is going to be the topic of this post. So grab yourselves a snack and buckle in, because I’m going to learn you some shit.

European-Descended Pagans and Ancestors

But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Why do we get it so wrong?

Well once upon a time (or more accurately the 6th century), Pope Gregory I wrote a letter to the Abbot Mellitus about his mission to spread Jesus like Herpes among the Heathen Anglo-Saxons. Instead of the usual message of “burn it down like a latrine full of spiders” though, pope Greg advocated repurposing holy sites and co-opting rituals for Christian worship. I mean, they were even

Ancestors -letter
“I really liked those English lads, so don’t go burning their shit down. I really want them to be on ‘Team Jesus’.”

cool with cow sacrifices at first, as long as they were cow sacrifices for Jesus (bet you never learned that at school, right?). This and similar policy is probably why you see so many Christian sites on former Pagan sites all over Europe.

(Fun fact, but there’s an anecdote that pope Greg’s eye was quite taken by a couple of fair-haired English boys at a slave market in Rome…and if that’s not the most Catholic story ever…wow.)

Unfortunately, this also meant that the church took control of any and all rituals pertaining to the dead (something the Vatican is still flexing its muscles on in modern times), making themselves the (weirdly conical) intercessors between the living and our dead kin (Lee 105-106).

Is it any wonder we don’t really understand the ancestors or what to do anymore? We let a middle man take over and change our ancestor traditions, then got rid of the middle man!

When it comes to ancestor veneration, we lack the basics, and it shows in how we think of and interact with the dead. If anything, what we have is like a strange mishmash of Hero Cult, Cult of Saints, and what scholars refer to as “memoria”.

So what are the top three basics of ancestor veneration that we’re probably missing?

1. Individualism vs. Collective

The most important concept we need to get to grips with is this idea that the ancestors are probably best thought of as a collective (with individuals that pop out from time to time to give messages and such). This is pretty much how it is in the vast majority of cultures that still have living ancestor veneration traditions.

It’s also the most practical view of ancestor veneration. Because when ancestors are a collective, a big, burgeoning mass of power, then a few shitty dead are no longer a barrier to practice. Moreover, it also allows for a belief in rebirth (ask Olaf Geirstad-Alf about that). Because when your ancestors are a collective, then what matter if some in the line are being reborn and others are staying dead?

However when you think about it, it also makes sense within a European historical context. (Well okay, I’m going to be focusing on Northwestern Europe here because that’s my jam, you Classical kids can sort yourselves out).

I mean, could you ever imagine worshipping only one of the Matronae? Or thinking of the Wild Hunt as a bunch of individuals? It sounds strange, doesn’t it? And yet these are ostensibly ancestral or at least associated with the world of the dead. The same goes for elves too, albeit within certain contexts.

So where did the idea of focusing on individual dead come from?

Truth be told, we’ve always worshipped some individual members of the dead. But these aren’t ordinary dead people. These are big or greater in some way. These are the dead who were possessed of some intangible quality that made them an ælf/álf. These were the dead who were worshipped in the mound and thought to be able to bless the people and land around them.

Guess what people were probably reminded of when the cult of the Saints came around?

Like elves in their mounds, martyrs/saints (because what even was the difference back then?) inhabited their tombs and were considered able to essentially bless the land and people. And as with elves, people would feast

their tombs in the Pagan fashion – except more Roman-like. Because they were actually in Rome, and it was the 4th century, and it was all cool until Augustine of fucking Hippo went all ‘ixnay on the sacrificial mortuorum’ (Lee

ancestors - elves
E L V E S

116).

And yes, I realize that I just conflated saints with elves, deal with it.

Elves.

Fucking Augustine.

When the church began to take over burial rites and rites for the dead in Northwestern Europe though, something that scholars refer to as memoria came into being as an alternative to feasting the dead at the grave. This term referred to every kind of rite in honor of/for the care of the dead created by the church. There are no parallels in Jewish ritual, and so the likelihood is that the concept was in some way descended from or inspired by Pagan rites – only with the Paganisms removed as much as possible.

ancestors - relic
“Coming soon to a church near you – our new and improved, porta-Elf! (Now with added Jesus)”

For a long period of time, these memoria – or rather individual memoria – and the Cult of the saints were closely associated (Lee 116). It’s not hard to see how we came to view ancestors as individuals from whom we expect the highest ideals. It was after all, a very slow separation between the individual memoria and the Cult of the Saints.

But for all of the individual memoria, a prayer referred to as Pro Anima Kari in the 8th century Bobbio Missal suggests that the ‘dead-as-collective’ thing wasn’t entirely…dead. Designed as a prayer to aid the dying, the Pro Anima Kari called upon all of the descendants of Adam who were deceased – basically all human ancestors – and if that isn’t a collectivist view of the dead, then I’ve got some hang glider engines I’d be happy to sell you ( Lee 109-110).

2. The Cult of the Dead vs The Cult of the Ancestors

The next thing to be aware of is that the Cult of the Dead and the Cult of the Ancestors are not the same thing. Okay, so they both pertain to the dead. But when you look at ancestor veneration around the world, it’s like you have different grades of “dead” (that go beyond “fresh” and “not fresh”). In some cultures, the dead are guided through ritual processes that formally install them or acknowledge them as part of the collective ancestors of the group. In other cultures (such as Japanese Shinto), the dead are thought to gradually merge with the generalized group of family dead. The newly dead (shirei), take on characteristics of new buddhas, then buddhas, then ancestors (senszo), then kami (gods) over the course of 35 to 50 years (Klass 63-64). Regardless of how it takes place though, there is the sentiment that the recent dead are not the same as ancestors, and that some form of elevation takes place.

However, what would that process look like in a Northwestern European context?

Well, as far as I know, we don’t know. However, older traditions such as feasting the dead at the gravesite (a practice known as Dadsisas) are suggestive of a Cult of the Dead that took place at the graves of the more recently deceased (Lee 113-114). We may perhaps also infer from the collective terms mentioned above (such as the “Wild Hunt”, “Matronae” etc.) that some form of elevation also took place for at least some of the dead (although the picture provided to us by source materials is far from clear).

Regardless of how much we don’t know though, the concept of elevation provides us with a useful model for beginning to understand the different kinds of dead we may find ourselves dealing with, and the ritual remedies required as part of our cultic revivals.

The Unwell or Angry Dead Can Fuck With The Living

There are reasons why the dead are generally feared, but mostly it’s because

Ancestors - outhouse
Haunted outhouse, the worst. Will literally scare the crap out of you.

when the dead are unwell or angry, then that’s generally bad news for the living too (Oesterdieckhoff 585) . Because I mean, if the big dead are able to influence the land and people for good, then why wouldn’t the angry or unwell dead also have this capability – especially en masse? So for many humans around the world, it’s considered to be kind of in our interest to care for and remedy the matter of bad dead via ritual. (And no, I’m not talking about magical murderhobo-dom here.)

Final Words

Ancestor veneration is something that many of us of European ancestry find difficult to get our heads around, or find our rooting in. However, as we have seen above, there are some excellent reasons for that disconnect, and a general lack of understanding. This is a real shame, because research has shown that even just thinking about our ancestors can have positive effects. I truly believe that healthy ancestor veneration can be one of the keys to happier, more rooted, more connected, and more compassionate lives.

In the next blog, I’m going to ramble some more about the dead – possibly about some of our issues with ancestor veneration.

But just for today, pick a dead family member or older ancestor who you know went through some shit, and take a few moments to think about them. Think about what they endured or overcame, and reflect on that badassery. You’re here because of that badassery, and shades of that badassery are in you. How does that make you feel? Now try to imagine how much badassery your ancestors collectively have.

That’s one hell of a deep well, isn’t it?

Sources

Christina Lee – Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals
Dennis Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, Steven Nickman – Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief
Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff – Why Premodern Humans Believed in the Divine Status of their Parents and Ancestors

Sex and the Dead: A Right Load of Fuckery

ancestor - skull

The Paradox of Sex and the Dead

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the onion was considered a vegetable of the dead. Perhaps it’s because it grew in the ground as the deceased are planted? Or perhaps the reasoning was something else. Either way, along with parsley and celery, the onion commonly graced the tables of funeral feasts

sex and the dead - onions
Viagra, a long time ago.

(“Eating with the Dead”).

But here is where we come to a paradox, because the onion was also well known as an aphrodisiac. And what of grim and unyielding Hades himself? Not only was he connected with the cycle of the year, but was also arguably connected to fertility too.

As it turns out though, this collocation of sex and death is not unusual, and it’s not limited to the classical world either.

Among the Germanic tribes, for example, the god of the mound is also the god who fertilizes the earth. It is he who is depicted with a large phallus – a sign of his virility. Ruler of Alfheim, so too do his subjects share the same associations. Mound-dwelling and sexually deviant, elves would eventually come to be known as incubi.

Moving slightly further afield, the Canaanite Ba’al the god of life and fertility is shown to be constantly locked in battle with Mot, the god of death and sterility.

To move even further afield (at least from the perspective of my resting paradigm), we see the same dichotomy in the Haitian deity Papa Ghédé who presides over both death and eroticism.

Again and again, fertility (or even straight up eroticism) and death walk hand in hand. Life is spun and then unspun in a cycle of generation and dissolution, the fibers falling away only to be respun again. These are in truth, two sides of the same cycle, and without the one there cannot be the other.

Man Imitates Gods (or Elves)

This also seems to be the case for many humans who work with the dead too, and the grave may be just as inseparable from sex and generation within some human practitioners, as it is with the aforementioned gods.

“Thus the Gods did, thus men do”

Taittirīya Brāhmana
(Eliade 98)

sex and the dead - beso negro
Those witches will get with any old unclean spirit!

There also seems to be something in the “wiring” here too. For anyone who has studied historical witchcraft accounts, accusations of “sexual deviancy” go hand in hand with accusations of trucking (sexually or magically) with demons or elves. Again and again we see this pattern of chthonic beings with fertility aspects and their human partners engaged in both necromancy and apparent sexual deviancy. (See Lee Morgan’s ‘A Deed without a Name’ for further discussion on these relationships both among historical and modern practitioners)

It would seem that one cannot separate the sex/eroticism from the chthonic, and by extension, death itself. And this can be unsettling to our modern WEIRD minds. (I note here that apparently Papa Ghédé enjoys fucking with white people because of exactly this kind of hang up. Go Papa Ghédé!)

But patterns rarely emerge without reason, and this one is no exception.

A Matter of “Wiring”?

First though, I’d like to talk about the matter of the “wiring” of human practitioners for a moment. Because here too are patterns to be observed. Why is it that the witch was so associated with sexual deviancy in historical accounts? Why did Jordanes write of the Halirunnae (Gothic for Helrune), if you’re interested) going out and having issue with “unclean spirits”? Why was that so believable to him that people associated with Hel practices would be all about fucking the “unclean spirits”? (Getica XXIV, 121-123)

This matter of “wiring” is something that Martin Coleman (aka Draja Mickaharic) comments on in Communing with the Spirits: The Magical Practice of Necromancy. To quote him regarding women with the propensity for necromancy:

“If you are a woman you may have had occasional vivid dreams of a sexual nature which you remember upon awakening. In some cases, the dream may

sex and the dead - necromancy
According to Pixabay, this is what necromancy looks like

have been so vivid that you awakened as a result of the orgasm that the dream produced. This is not an uncommon phenomena found in those women who are able to work with the spirits of the dead. Women who are able to work well with the spirits of the dead often have very little sense of physical modesty. In a few cases they are excessively modest. Often women who can work with spirits of the dead are quite uninhibited in comparison with most of the women of their generation. Occasionally they are asexual, but these women are usually found at the extreme ranges of dress and sexual behavior.”

So what is going on here? Why can working with the dead turn into such fuckery? (Ha, see what I did there?) Why does this collocation exist?

Sex as a Safety Mechanism

One thing you quickly learn when interacting with the dead is that to interact with the dead is to interact with death, and pull away from life. But to engage in the primal act of intercourse is to pull away from death and to reassert one’s place within the living world. It is to leave the world of shadows and rejoin the world of the heart pounding, heavy breathing, and corporeality of skin and bodily fluids. To fall once more under the spell of the sensual and reconnect with one of the joys of this world. It is in this sense, a way of exorcising the touch of death from yourself in the same way that you may take salt or wash your feet, or whatever else you do to purify when leaving the places of the sex and the dead - life and deathdead.

This is not some sick and perverted thing as some might think. There is no sexual attraction to the dead present (and I actually hate that I feel like I have to say that). Instead, I find it to be more like the triggering a safety mechanism that occurs in response to a certain degree of proximity to death. It’s a form of medicine. When you think about it, this is really no different from people fucking at or after funerals. It is, I believe, the same underlying mechanism at work.

In short, this is a piece of protective wiring for those of us who experience it, and deities like Papa Ghédé rightfully mock us when repression keeps us from this act of self-healing.

(Ace folx, I’d be curious to hear what you experience post-interacting-with-the-dead!)

Bibliography

Eating With the Dead: Funeral Meal Practices, by Tylluan Perry in MEMENTO MORI A Collection of Magickal and Mythological Perspectives On Death, Dying, Mortality and Beyond

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, by Mircea Eliade

Communing with the Spirits: The Magical Practice of Necromancy, by Martin Coleman

Law and the Dead

An Encounter with the Restless Dead

The saga refers to what happened as wonders, but I would not call them such. After all, people had died. Oh, it wasn’t just those who had initially died. No, they had returned, others had fallen sick, and more had joined their ranks.law - farmstead

Unlike the dead of other Indo-European descendant cultures, the dead always walked in Iceland. Draugar, they were called, revenants. Other places had them too – the Greeks, for example. They too knew revenants and practiced arm-pitting dead enemies, severing the vital tendons that would allow ambulation should the deceased arise to walk and seek revenge (Ogden 162). But the Greeks also had ghosts; the preference for cremation during the Archaic Era coincided with a diversification of Greek underworld beliefs. The previously faceless dead that existed unaware of the living world above now understood that their descendants poured out and burned offerings for them. The expansion of cremation burial also coincided with the arrival of the psychopomps – a role which would be extended during the Classical Era (F. P. Retief “Burial Customs”).

The Icelanders though, they did not burn their dead, and so their dead walked as you or I do (Davidson 9).

The Court is Convened

But these were not the mindless rotting zombies of movies; let’s not think that they were. No, draugar didn’t rot, and were fully capable of thought and action, passing through the earth of their mounds to visit and all too often harass the law - doorliving. But their visits also brought sickness, and that’s just what they brought to the people of a place called Frodis-water.

So the people of Frodis-water decided to hold a dyradómr, a kind of door-court during which the dead would be judged in accordance with the law, and hopefully sent on their way. Now doorways are significant; they’re liminal places where living and dead can meet. To keep your beloved dead close, you might bury them in a doorway, and the door post holes found before Bronze Age burials could not have been a coincidence (Hem-Eriksen “Doorways”). So they held their door-court at the doorway and called the dead to them to hear their judgement.

Surprisingly, the dead took their judgements and left without argument. But that was the power of the law, and no one living or dead, wants to reside outside of the protection of the law.

The Law is Sacred

You see, law – or at least a certain kind of law – was sacred. It was the difference between order and chaos, between thriving and destruction, and as such, it was valued. It is the ŗta of the Vedic texts and the asha known to the Zoroastrians. These were in turn cognate with the Greek aristos, ‘the best’; harmonia, ‘harmony’; and ararisko, or ‘to fit, adapt, harmonize’. All though, can probably be traced to the same Proto-Indo-European root word, *H²er-, or ‘to fit together according to the proper pattern’ (Serith 30).

The First Rule?

We don’t know that “proper pattern” though, and we cannot claim to know it despite the fact that it would be useful to anyone who follows any traditions inspired by pre-Christian IE cultures. However, we can perhaps infer what law - noosesome of those laws might be. I am going to infer one right now: that our rights to this world are lost when we breathe our last.

This is why the dead must be dragged by fetters or snares from the world of the living. It is why the Rig Veda refers to the “foot fetter of Yama” (the Lord of the Dead); why there are hel ropes in the Sólarljóð; why Horace wrote of mortis laqueis, or “snares of death; and it is why Clytemnestra had a net (Giannakis “Fate-As-Spinner”). The dead do not wish to go, so they must be dragged. It is noteworthy that they only return at the end of all things (Ragnarök), or that their return brings sickness and death. This is one law we can infer; this is part of the proper pattern.

The Rule of Law

Another is that nothing exists outside of this. To be removed to the Underworld is not to be removed from the reach of law. The Underworlds are varied, and descendants would not have made ancestor offerings were those ancestors truly gone and wholly disconnected. We must always remember that a human community has two sides: the living who dwell in the Middle Earth, and the dead who dwell below.

law - gibbetThe story of the door-courts suggests that both living and dead are equally bound by the law. We also see this reflected in the burial customs of those deemed to exist outside the protection of the law. These were often the criminals left to rot at the crossroads, those buried in unhallowed grounds, and those who were too young at the time of their passing to be formally accepted in a community (Petreman “Preturnatural Usage”). Is it any coincidence that the materia magica sought from the human body came most often from these sources? Is it also coincidence that those were the sources thought by the Ancient Greeks to carry the least miasma (Retief “Burial”)? To exist as dead inside the protection of the law is to sleep soundly – or at least it should mean that. Of course, there have always been violations as Burke and Hare could well attest.

From these perspectives, the case against the dead at Frodis-water may already seem airtight. After all, we’ve already established that by virtue of being dead they’re not supposed to be in the world of the living, and that they are just as subject to this “proper pattern” law as we ourselves are. However, there is one more legal argument pertinent to the dead that we have not yet examined, and that is the law of possession.

Claiming and Keeping Space

Fire has always been sacred to the various Indo-European descendant cultures, and was considered to have various functions. We’re perhaps the most familiar with fire as a medium through which offerings may be made to law - firethe holy powers, but fire also played an important role in property ownership too. For the Norse, carrying fire sunwise around land you wished to own was one method of claiming that land (LeCouteux 89), and under Vedic law new territory was legally incorporated through the construction of a hearth. This was a temporary form of possession too, with that possession being entirely dependent on the ability or willingness of the residents to maintain the hearthfire. For example, evidence from the Romanian Celts suggests that the voluntary abandonment of a place was also accompanied by the deliberate deconstruction of the hearth. And the Roman state conflated the fidelity of the Vestal Virgins to their fire tending duties with the ability of the Roman state to maintain its sovereignty. The concept of hearth as center of the home and sign of property ownership continued into later Welsh laws too; a squatter only gained property rights in a place when a fire had burned on his hearth and smoke come from the chimney (Serith 2007, 71).

Sovereignty and the Dead

There is more here too – the matter of sovereignty looms large. So too perhaps is a form of imitation of the relationship between king and goddess of sovereignty played out here between men and the wives who keep the hearthlaw - hearth fires burning. To maintain the hearth was to maintain possession of property, and to maintain the hearth, a woman was required. (Or several, if you happen to be the Roman state.)

And here is where I come to my final argument regarding law and the dead: the dead keep no fires in the habitations of the living. Without the ability to maintain a hearth fire, the dead cannot claim sovereignty in the land of the living, and this is an important point to bear in mind. Because while we often joke that possession is nine tenths of the law, thankfully for the people of Frodis-water, it most likely was that which saved them.

Sources

Davidson, H. R, Ellis. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.
Giannakis, George. “The “Fate-as-Spinner” Motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greek and Indo-European (Part II).” Indogermanische Forschungen Zeitschrift Für Indogermanistik Und Historische Sprachwissenschaft / Journal of Indo-European Studies and Historical Linguistics 104 (2010): 95-109. Web.
Hem Eriksen, Marianne. “Doorways to the Dead. The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia.” Archaeological Dialogues 20.2 (2013): 187-214. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. <https://mariannehemeriksen.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/eriksen-marianne-hem-2013.pdf>.
Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land – Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions Bear And Comp, 2015.
Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Petreman, Cheryl. “Preternatural Usage of Human Body Parts in Late Medieval and Early Modern
Germany.” Diss. U of New Brunswick, 2013.
Retief, Fp, and L. Cilliers. “Burial Customs, the Afterlife and the Pollution of Death in Ancient Greece.” Acta Theologica 26.2 (2010): n. pag. Web.
Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. ADF Pub., 2009.

Dream Initiation

Dream - skull

Dream Initiation – Preface

When I wrote this, I did so to get it out of my head. To write, for me, is to reify and process, and I very much felt the need to do this. Long time readers of this blog will know that I have been encountering the dead since I was a child, and that it is something that I have often struggled with over the years. In many ways, last year marked a watershed of sorts for me in that I formally committed to working with the dead. I began a lot of deep ancestor work within my own lineages, and found my life and practices changing quite dramatically.

The experience that I write about here, I believe to have been one of the initiations of that work. That it took place in dream is still strange to me despite my deeply held beliefs on the importance of dream and its scope for interaction with the dead and Other. However, I find myself very much changed by the experience, and am finding myself doing things now that I could not do before. There will probably be quite a few blogs about my work with the battlefield dead. It is the work of my heart, and I have only just begun.

An Account of Dream Initiation

I enter the room nervously. I had been told nothing of what was to come except for that I would undergo an initiation of sorts. The room is hazy with incense – a pungent scent I struggle to identify – and candles flow as a wave over every available surface. A young man I think I recognize leads me to the center of the room, and the priest begins her invocations. On the floor, I notice a large black sheet.

For a moment I panic, and hope that I do not misspeak. I pray to my gods that any errors be forgiven, and mentally prepare myself for any invocations that I must also give.

But there are none.

There is only the black sheet on the floor, and the young man beckoning me to lie down upon its surface.

I soon notice that half the sheet is gathered at the bottom, and when I lie down, it is pulled up to cover me; it covers all parts of me.

“You need to journey now. You need to let it take you where you must go.”dream - path

And I am confused, for I am already in dream. But I school myself quickly, and begin my usual processes for entering trance.

For what seems like the longest time, nothing happens. But then, I realize I’m moving; a gentle rocking motion carries me forth. Soon I regain my eyes and notice a roughly woven cloth upon my face. I can see through the holes to the sky above, this is not the cloth from the ritual room floor. Above me, trees curve over the path to form an archway, and I try to move but cannot. I am bound but not by ropes, conveyed forth by unseen hands.

The thought soon comes to me that I’m dead, and travel a corpse path, and for the longest time I abide in this knowledge. What am I to learn here? How long will this go on for? What about the room and the ritual?

The Inevitable Path

I have so many questions, and little patience. I work to exit trance, and find myself rolling out from under the sheet in the ritual room. The priest is now gone and only the candles and the young man remain. I stagger around without sense and understand that unless I finish what was begun, that I would not return whole. So I reenter the now-red-sheet and hunker down once more, returning to the endless plod of the corpse-road.

At some point I decide that I’m thinking too hard, that I’m too agitated for one

dream - mound
My local mound where I grew up.

who is already dead, and so I let go, and that’s when I find myself within the mound.

I sit up to find myself surrounded by the dead; dead of many different ages, some appearing bigger, and others appearing smaller. The shroud loosens and I sit with corpse-pale arms and hear their words.

They have much to tell me about how they wish to be worshipped, and the kinds of things they wish me to do. They also gift me something too. I can feel it within me, intangible and indescribable. Like something returned, it feels familiar and right. Then they release me from the mound, the door opening to bright sunlight.

As the sun touches my skin, it lives again. I live again. I step out into light that’s far too bright for my eyes, and into the path of the one I know as Gwyn. We walk back together along the corpse way, and he talks to me of owls and pathways down. The road does not seem so long on the way back, but it was never really about time or distance in the first place. I know that now.

I return to my dream once more, to the ritual room where the young man waits. He’d been waiting the whole time, he says. I’d been gone longer than was normal, and he wanted to make sure I was alright. Three and a half hours was quite a while, and it was kind of his job. I stand up and this time I’m clear. There’s no staggering and I feel whole. I leave the room and find myself at a party for a while, watching people as they perform for the dead they have lost. Their songs are their offerings, their dances are prayers, and it makes their hearts shine.

The heart is the key to this kind of work.

Eventually it’s time to go. My husband and child await, and I’m suddenly aware that I have new clothes that I must pick up. They’re green, and were also once lost but now returned. I put them on and wake up with a scream.

A Rough Awakening

My body hurts now, my trance had been deep. My shoulder is dislocated, and it takes me three days to fully put it back in. I should probably feel angry or upset dream - manassasabout that but I don’t.

If anything, I just thole. It’s a small matter next to the monumental change that took place within. I cannot yet name what was given that night in the mound. Yet weeks later, when I step out onto one of the battlefields of Manassas and walk towards the Dead with my equally touched companions, I feel it as keenly as I feel my limbs.

The Dead surround me here too, but this time, it’s myself and my companions who guide the way along the corpse path for now.

Authority and Hierarchies IV: Or “Why Your Pet Isn’t Your Fucking Familiar”

familiar - Boye Dog

Returning to Familiar Ground

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been on an epic journey. We’ve taken a look at the evidence for hierarchies among grimoire spirits and fairies alike, and discussed agency, anthropocentrism, and to a small degree, colonialism too. We’ve also examined the different kinds of reciprocal relationships, spiritual authority, the role of piety, and finally took a brief tour through the history of magic wands.

This week, I’m coming back to a topic that should be a lot more familiar to everyone (pun intended): the witch’s familiar.

Introducing the Early Modern Witch’s Familiar

The witch’s familiar is an ancient phenomenon, though the most commonly held ideas surrounding them seem to owe more to Early Modern Britain. Simply put, a familiar was a form of spirit helper with which the witch or cunning person held a certain kind of relationship. The kinds of familiars possessed by both cunning folk and witches differed too, with the familiars associated with “Cunning Folk” being more of fairy, and those associated with witches being

Familiar - Hopkins
Prize prick Matthew Hopkins with some witches identifying their familiars.

more demonic. It is the latter form that is the most recognizable today (Wilby 2005).

For witch or cunning person, the acquisition of a familiar was for the most part by chance. Accounts of encounters recorded during the witch trials, paint these encounters as happening spontaneously, as the witch or cunning person went about their business (Wilby 2005). Often the witch or cunning person would also be impoverished, or recently subjected to some kind of further hardship or tragedy. There is an undeniably folkloric feel to these encounters, and not unlike the kind of deal made by the girl forced to spin straw in Rumpelstiltskin (for example).

Unlike period descriptions of encounters with the dead, the fairy or demon familiars are described in stunningly naturalistic terms – they’re as real-looking as you or I. They were of vivid color, and animation and sound. But that’s not to say that they were “really” just the pets of people who looked a little “witchy”; it’s one thing to assume the shape of a thing, and quite another to actually be that thing. Familiar - BoyeHaving said that though, there were cases in which the pets of people suspected of witchcraft also shared the fates of their owners. But witch crazes are nothing if not illogical, let’s not mistake misplaced bloodlust for authenticity.

However, while the majority of accounts depict a person coming across the spirit that would become their familiar in a spontaneous way, there were ways in which familiar spirits could also be acquired. For example, one might petition a condemned person to return and serve as your familiar as in the case of Mary Parish’s familiar, a one George Whitmore (Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”). In other cases, one could gain a familiar by somehow encountering fairy royalty and showing them the proper respect thus acquiring a familiar as a gift. Alternatively, you might acquire a familiar as a gift from another witch – most commonly a family member (Wilby 2005). And lastly, if none of those methods were available to you, you could always try petitioning a demon such as the Verum demon Sustugriel who was reputed to ”give good familiars” (Stratton-Kent 2010).

(About that fairy and devil/demon crossover? You might want to read this piece by Fairy in a Human Suit, Morgan Daimler.)

Tracing an Older Pattern

As I said above though, the Early Modern familiar is simply just the most well-known form of spirit helper. The fact of the matter is that magical practitioners have been finding helping spirits and making pacts with them for a very, very long time. And like wands, familiars traverse a wide range of different cultures (albeit under different names – obviously).

The earliest account of what might be recognized as a familiar is the ob (pronounced “ov”) of the biblical Witch of Endor. The ob was both a spirit “of the dead or minor underworld deity that “speaks from the earth in whispering voices”, and an object of worship whose spirit can enter into a human and reside within them (Barrabbas 2017). In other words, to have a familiar is to be possessed by a familiar (something which I will speak of more towards the end of this post).

Among the Greeks, we find the parhedros who fulfills a similar function to that of the ob and the familiar. Given that the Greek Magical Papyri begins with ways in which to acquire a parhedros, we have to assume that they were considered an integral part of performing magic (Skinner 2014). Moreover, like their Hebrew counterparts, there is also the aspect of worshiping objects associated with the paredros. For those of you who are interested in the idea of performing one of these paredros rituals, it bears mentioning that those early methods of acquisition require blood sacrifice. Far less bloody to summon a demon in this case!

Moving over to Heathen period Northern Europe now, we find evidence that witches partnered with elves in order to perform their magic. Alaric Hall argues that rather than being the result of attacks by elves, the phenomenon of elfshot was more likely curses thrown by elf-empowered witches (Hall 2001). This is where we find our way back to familiar - burial moundWilby’s period of study. Hall traces a pattern of witches working with mound-connected elves from the tenth century Old English magico-medical charm Wið Færstice and term ælfs?den (literally “elf-Seiðr”, or “elf-magic”); to Martin Luther’s account of being “shot” by a neighborhood witch; and finally to Isobel Gowdie’s accounts of encountering the Queen of Elfhame in a mound and seeing elves fashioning the shot. I personally take it somewhat further and point to the portrayal of Frey and Freyja in the Ynglingasaga. Freyja as the sacrificial priestess (and as we know, goddess associated with the form of magic known as “Seiðr”) ends up overseeing the cult to her brother, Freyr (who is associated with elves), even as he lies in the burial mound. The people bring offerings to the mound for peace and good seasons, and so even in death, he possesses a power that his sister does not.

Equally, elves were also associated with possessory divinatory trances that may have resembled or been confused with epileptic fits (Hall 2001), and so here too we find the possessory aspect of the ob.

Familiars and Hierarchy

The themes of hierarchy and spiritual authority also play their respective roles here. You may have already noticed that outside of the spontaneously acquired familiars, a higher power must be approached. This is an important distinction to make: the familiar gifted by fairy royalty will obey you if their royals command it. For those who inherit their familiars from others, one has to assume that the same terms and conditions of whatever pact was agreed upon transfer to the new witch.

Mary Parish’s familiar George is the obvious exception to this. Unlike most other familiars in the accounts, he was a dead human whose service was contracted by means of an oath before dying. This allowed Mary the authority she needed in order to work with him postmortem. However, his story is not completely devoid of involvement by a higher (fairy) power.

At some point, a minor aristocrat by the name of Goodwin Wharton became covetous of George (who he had become aware of through his love affair with Mary), and endeavored to have Mary gift him her familiar. However, a fairy queen referred to as the Queen of the Lowlanders steps in. From Wharton’s journal:

familiar - fairy queen” The transfer of George was further complicated by the queen of the Lowlanders, who demanded that Goodwin stop attempting to have George as his own personal spirit. At first Goodwin was a little resistant, but the queen insisted that if he would not willingly show her this preference, he should never see any of the Lowlanders. She wanted to be his number-one contact with the spirit world. Goodwin had little choice but to agree to her terms. As a consolation, George agreed to answer any questions directed at him as long as Goodwin turned his back and did not look directly where George stood. However, Goodwin could not understand the spirit very clearly, as he spoke in a low, soft voice close to Mary’s ear. So throughout their relationship, Goodwin relied on Mary to communicate with George.”
(Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”)

It would seem that even when it comes to contracting the familiar services of the dead, the fairies will still have their say.

Pets as Familiars

Now to come to something a little polemic, but that I find weirdly irritating all the same.

I’ve noticed a tendency among some in the Pagan/Witch/Heathen communities to refer to their pets as their “familiars”. At first, I thought it was just a joke being made (and for most people, it does seem to be). However, I seem to be coming across more people who actually think their pets are their familiars.

Now hopefully this blog has illustrated all the ways in which that is just fucking stupid. And I think one of the reasons why I get so angry about this is that after having worked with a familiar for a number of years, the collocation of “pet” with “familiar” is just yet more disrespect and treating the Other like some fun and twee little thing that’s just here for our edification, or worse – our entertainment. I feel like I’m quickly running out of ways to say that it’s not all about us humans.

Let’s just stop this, please. We’re better than this. And your dog/cat/bird/whatever may be cool, but he isn’t your familiar. Moreover, if you actually kept your dog as animal familiars were most commonly kept (in a wool basket, being fed milk, blood, or whatever), you’d be in trouble for animal cruelty.

So let’s just not; okay?

Sources

Barrabbas, Frater (2017) Spirit Conjuring For Witches
Cummins, Al (2017)The Rain Will Make a Door III: Faerie and the Dead
Hall, Alaric (2009) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Health, Belief, Gender, and Identity
Skinner, Stephen (2014) Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

Stratton-Kent, Jake (2010) The True Grimoire
Wilby, Emma (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic