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
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. Having 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).
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 Wilby’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:
” 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?
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
In the first part of this post, I discussed the importance of dream, the various kinds of beings that were thought to attack sleepers, and what symptoms of those attacks were thought to look like in OE sources. In this part, I’m going to discuss the charms themselves and how we can use them in modern practice to hopefully sleep undisturbed.
Charms and Herbs: The Magico-Medical Prescription
The Old English charms are referred to as being magico-medical for good reason. Because unlike modern medicine which only seeks to treat the physical causes of disease, the Early English also recognized non-physical or”spiritual” causes of disease/illness, and tailored their treatments accordingly. So among the charms, you will find everything from recipes to treat physiological ailments, to charms that combined magical acts, verbal formulae, or both. Here follows a short overview of the relevant charms with analysis of the commonalities between the charms and how they may be used.
This is one of the more general charms against elves and ‘strange/unusual’ s?dsa, or “magic” (again, cognate with “Seiðr”). Kitson suggests that the ingredients of this charm betray a foreign origin for the charm, but one that has been adapted to native tradition (Hall 120).
Against an elf/against elves and against unknown/strange/unusual s?dsa, crumble myrrh into wine and the same amount of white frankincense and shave a piece of jet [the stone] into that wine, drink on three mornings, fasting at night, or nine, or twelve.
L?cnunga, section 29, ff. 137r -138r
This is the holy/blessed drink against ælfs?den and against all tribulations of the enemy (Hall 120-121)
I only include this title as a matter of interest and to add to the evidence demonstrating the collocation of ælfs?den with f?ondes costunga. I largely agree with Richard North in Heathen Gods in OE Literature that this is more of an exorcism charm that might have been employed against those considered to be ylfig or “engaged with an elf”. As such, further detail is not particularly relevant for the purposes of this post.
Make a good salve against the tribulations of the enemy: bishopwort, lupin, viper’s bugloss,
strawberry stalk, the cloved lesser celandine, eorðr?ma, blackberry, pennyroyal, wormwood, pound all those plants; boil in good butter, strain through a cloth; place under the altar; sing nine masses over them; then smear the person with it generously on the temples, and above the eyes and on the top of the head and the breast and under the arms. This salve is good against each tribulation of the enemy and ælfs?den and Lent-illness.
Leechbook I, section 64, f. 52v: Læced?mas wiþ ælcre l?odr?nan 7 ælfs?denne
Prescriptions against every l?odr?ne and ælfs?den, being a charm, powder, drinks and a salve, for fevers: and if the illness should be upon livestock; and if the illness should happen to a person or a mære should ride and happen; in all 7 remedies
If a mære should ride a person: take lupin and garlic and betony and incense; bind in fawn-skin; the person should have this on him and he should walk wearing these plants
Leechbook III, section 61, f. 123: Wið ælfcynne
Make a salve against ælfcynne and a night-walker and for/against those people whom the devil has sex with: take hops(?), wormwood, bishopwort, lupin, vervain, henbane, h?rewyrt, viper’s bugloss, stalk of whortleberry, (?)crow garlic, garlic, seed of goosegrass, cockle and fennel. Put these plants in a vessel, place under an altar, sing 9 masses over them; boil in butter and in sheep’s fat; put in plenty of holy salt; strain through a cloth. Throw the plants into running water. If any evil tribulation or an ælf or a night-walker happens to a person, smear his face with this salve and put it on his eyes and where his body is sore/in pain, and burn incense about him and sign [with the cross] often; his problem will soon be better.
As you can see from the above charms, treatment/prevention of attack by maran/night-walkers/elves generally takes the form of a salve to be applied to certain parts of the body (but especially parts of the face). There are some commonalities in both the herbs and methodology employed, and while no one of the herb charms are one hundred percent clear, I believe it is possible to pull the most common herbs from these charms when recreating our own salves.
From these charms, bishopwort (betony), lupin (suggested to be lupinus albus), viper’s bugloss, wormwood, garlic, and some kind of berry stalk seem to be the most common. Most of them are also quite accessible to modern people. These herbs are then taken and made into a salve either before or after having 9 masses sung over them while positioned under the altar.
From my own survey of the use of numbers in the L?cnunga, the number 9 tends to be associated with banishing or driving out. So in order to create a ‘Heathenized’ version of this charm, I would simply ensure that the herbs I use for my salve would be under an altar during 9 rites of similar purpose to the mass. These would potentially be rites that combine aspects of consecration, seeking divine favor, and empowerment – in whatever form you’d like that to take for your tradition.
Equally, Leechbook I, section 64 suggests that a kind of amulet can be made that is not unlike a hoodoo hand. Again, we see the use of garlic, betony, and lupin. However, there is also the addition of ‘incense’ – which sounds quite vague until you look at other Leechbook cures in which incense is also a recommended. Interestingly, these cures (found in Leechbook III, section 62) also involve elves – more specifically how to cure forms of ‘elfsickness’.
In these charms, the healer is advised to prepare incense in a rather specific way and then burn it in the environment where the patient is in order to ‘smoke out’ the elf/illness. The instructions should look at least a little familiar by now.
Take a handful of each, bind all of the herbs in cloth, dip into hallowed spring-water three times. After this, against that (illness), lay these herbs under an altar and let them be sung over.
This suggests that this process of purification and laying under and altar is important to the success of the charm, and so I recommend that should you decide to try these charms, you find a way to incorporate this stage of purification/consecration and empowerment. As for the herbs for incense, I would recommend that you again choose from herbs mentioned previously in similar charms.
The Münchener Nachtsegen Charm
The following charm is not OE, but I include it here for its usefulness. Alb here means ‘elf’, and in Austria it was believed that the ‘alb’ was the soul of an evil woman under a spell by which she was compelled to leave her body and go out and torment people by night (LeCouteux 100)
Alb, or also elbelin [little alb]
you shall remain no longer
alb’s sister and father,
you shall go out over the gate;
trute [female monster] and mar,
you shall go out to the roof-ridge!
Let the mare not oppress me,
let the trute not pinche me
let the mare not ride me,
let the mare not mount me!
Alb with your crooked nose,
I forbid you to blow on [people]
Hopefully the importance of dream to the Pagan/Heathen mindset has been made clear over the course of these past two posts. As I’ve written before, dream is something that I believe we need to fight for and reclaim.
However, few things as powerful as dream, come without any accompanying hazards. When we open these doors, when we invite in what was once chased back, we are often doing so half-blind. We have a lot of sources on various Heathen and Pagan worldviews, however none of them can tell us things like what it was to actually fear things like elves or faeries. None of them can tell us what it was actually like to live in such a populated and enchanted world; that is for us to [re]discover for ourselves. And there are few things more terrifying than the thought of being attacked by something that cannot be fought while already in a vulnerable state.
Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity
Karen Jolly – Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context
Claude LeCouteux – Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages Stephen Pollington – Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant-Lore and Healing
Within the past two days, I’ve had two friends tell me of sleep disturbances that had a certain quality of otherness about them. One person had the experience while we were camping in the Black Hills of Maryland, and the other in her own home. In the case of the first person, she’d felt physically touched by whatever it was through the wall of her tent – a touch that she felt was a very deliberate poke which had been kind of ‘introduced’ in her dream before it happened. In the case of the second person, it was more of a classic ‘Old Hag’ experience that they had had to fight off.
To Me Came A Dream
In both cases, each individual felt very strongly as though what had happened wasn’t just a simple nightmare, and that some kind of interaction with the Other had taken place. It’s very easy for modern people to discredit dream and what happens in the altered states of consciousness between sleeping and awake.
However, as I have discussed previously in this blog, this attitude towards dream seems to have been the result of a concerted effort by Christian authorities to dismantle the power of dream among their flocks in order to censor dream, for to censor dream is to censor one form of access to the Otherworld. In Germanic tradition, dreams were thought of as coming from outside the sleeper – a concept that is reflected linguistically in both Old Norse and Old English in phrases such as dreymdi mik draumr (“a dream came to me”) and mec gemætte (“to me came a dream”) (Pollington 490). The ON term draumstolinn suggests that the ability to dream was one that could be stolen, and in The Saga of the Jómsborg Vikings a man is refused marriage if he does not dream (LeCouteux 28).
However, the sleeper was not entirely passive, and as we shall see, could sometimes also enact their own visitations in dream.
So dream was important. It wasn’t just some whimsical and harmless thing to the Pagan/Heathen mind, but a way in which the sleeper could interact with both the Otherworld, and other sleepers. And it was consideration of my friends’ dreams that got me thinking about the bad side of dream: maran, night-walkers, and elves.
”Wið eallum f?ondes costungum”
When it comes to discussing maran, night-walkers, and elves, it can be hard to give solid definitions. Mare (from which we derive the word “nightmare”) could refer to either a human woman – usually but not always intentionally a witch – that attacked sleepers, or a supernatural being that did the same (Jolley 86, Hall 125). The term night-walkers seems self-explanatory, though Hall still expresses uncertainty as to what they could have been in more precise terms (Hall 124). And the problems of defining what an elf was considered to be (not to mention their relationship to magic and witches) are perennial.
What we can say with some certainty though, is that certain effects were considered to be common to these beings, and that they were connected/overlapped in terms of function. In some charms, we may see this uncertainty as to who/what was doing what to the patient, reflected in the more general terms f?ondes costunga (“tribulations of the enemy”), and/or Ælfs?den (“elf-seiðr” – a form of magic) used.
On the symptoms of attack and forms of treatment however, the OE magico-medical sources are remarkably consistent on the matter of nightmares, and it is upon these consistencies that I shall now focus.
Symptoms of Attack
For those of you who have experienced the terror of “sleep paralysis” (or as it’s sometimes called, “Old Hag”), this is all going to sound very familiar. While the explanation for this sleep disturbance has changed in modern times (no elves or night-goers need apply!), modern descriptions of this experience would have been familiar to our ancestors. In some accounts, such as that of the Swedish king Vanlandi of the Ynglinga saga, the victim was even “trod on” or “pressed down on” until dead. It is worth mentioning here that the attacking force was the witch/mara Drifa (Hall 125, 135). Interestingly, while the Ynglinga saga was composed post-conversion, a segment of the 9th century Ynglingatal referencing the death of king Vanlandi as a result of the witch (referred to in the Ynglingatal segment as mara) attests to the potential Heathen origins of this concept.
Rather disturbingly, there was also potentially considered to be a sexual or lustful element to these nocturnal attacks too. As Hall points out, mære was glossed with incuba in the 7th century (Hall 125). This connection is repeated in the 13th century South English Legendary which not only juxtaposes maren with eluene (or “elves”), but describes these attacks in sexual terms (Hall 140-142). This sexual aspect is also alluded to by Karen Jolly in Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context” (Jolly 149).
Other symptoms of attack by maran, night-walkers, or elves that can potentially be discerned from the sources are those of fever and delusion (Hall 121-125). Though it bears pointing out here that fevers often come with delusion, it is also worth noting that there is an entire category of elf-related illnesses in the OE magico-medical texts (Hall 96-108). In any case, whether (more specifically in this case) the elves are considered to cause the sickness or the more delusional symptoms associated with fever, Hall seems to imply that the sick are potentially more of a target by virtue of being sick:
Ælfs?den is also associated with nihtgengan and with the riding of the sick by maran.”
Lastly, before finishing this current section, I would like to point out the parallels between the ON and OE lore regarding maran/night-walkers, and that of the Hmong being, the Dab Tsog.
In the late 70s to mid 80s, Hmong refugees became something of a curiosity to US medical professionals and researchers for one reason and one reason only: their men were dying in their sleep. There was no explanation that could be found, and the term SUNDS (or Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome) was coined by the FCDC.
However, the cause of death was no mystery to the Hmong themselves – it was the Dab Tsog who brought the chest crushing death of the Tsog Tsaum. Incredibly there are survivors of SUNDS, who when interviewed, related horrifying dream-experiences in which they were attacked by a kind of creature that tried to kill them by sitting on their chests and forcing the air out. These survivors also experienced paralysis and remembered being able to clearly hear the sounds of their houses around them.
The Hmong are not the only people to report these kind of beings either, the Dab Tsog mirrors cases attributed to the Filipino Batibat.
Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender
and Identity Karen Jolly – Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context Claude LeCouteux – Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral
Doubles in the Middle Ages Stephen Pollington – Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant-Lore and Healing
Back in 2008, an Icelandic lady by the name of Hallgerður Hallgrímsdóttir published her seminal (ha, see what I did there?) work ‘Please YousELF – Sex With The Icelandic Invisibles’. Now, Iceland isn’t a country in which elves making the news is all that uncommon, however this was particularly standout. Because for all the stories of road rerouting (like here), it’s really not that common for Icelanders to claim to be banging elves.
The internet naturally responded as you might imagine – with mockery. However, I for one am grateful for people like Hallgerður Hallgrímsdóttir for a couple of reasons:
1. The woman has balls of steel to put a book out about her elf-fucking experiences, under her own name, and go on camera talking about it too.
But on a more serious note, I was mostly happy to see Hallgerður’s stuff for another reason, and that’s because it got
people talking about elves and sex, and well…that’s not that weird of an association to make.
To examine this further though, we need to start with the ‘D’. You know, ‘demons’ (and the devil too to some degree).
Checking Out The D
There’s actually some pretty good evidence that at one point, elves were equated with the devil and demons. For example, the eighth century Royal Prayer Book contains the phrase ‘Satanae diabolus aelfae’, meaning ‘devil of the elf Satan’, and in Beowulf, elves are aligned with ‘misbegotten beings’ of the not very nice variety (Hall 69-71). Another example of this can be found in a Lacnunga charm against elves that borrows from the same liturgy as a Christian exorcism (North 54-56). When it comes to the word ‘Ælfs?den’, a word probably referring to a type of magic (‘s?den’ being cognate with the Old Icelandic word ‘seiðr’), Richard North tells us that ‘All temptations, but especially demonic possession, are indicated in Ælfs?den’(North 55).
Speaking of possession, it’s in the specifics of these particular associations with demons where things become really interesting, especially with regards to elf-sex.
In the Bosworth & Toller dictionary, a possible translation of the word ‘ælf’, is incubus (Bosworth & Toller 14), or in other words, a type of male demon known for its penchant for boning people in their sleep. This translation is likely taken from Chaucer, who equated elves with incubi in the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ (Hall 162); and even though we’re out of the Heathen period by quite a long time by Chaucer’s time, there are some interesting points about elves in earlier sources that make this connection pretty reasonable.
The first thing is that the earliest elves were male. Yup, it was an elven sausage fest back in the day. No elven ladies to
be found anywhere – that came later (Hall 157-166 ). Secondly, the connection with sex, and more specifically sexual deviancy with elves (by the standards of culture back then), is not an uncommon theme. You just have to know what constituted sexual deviancy back then, because if you were hoping for something that looked like ball gags and whips, you’d be sorely disappointed.
Taking a quick trip over the Atlantic to medieval Iceland, we come across the terms hvatr and blauðr. Now, some of you are possibly going to absolutely hate these terms, but to cut a long story short, hvatr was ‘bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, and sharp’, and blauðr ‘weak, soft, powerless, yielding’. Scholars such as Carol J Clover have argued that initially these terms were separate from biological sex, having more to do with power and independence. However in spite of this initial lack of alignment with biological sex, hvatr was more the domain of aristocratic males, and blauðr, that of women (Clover).
Regardless of whether those dick Christians turned us all from whatever egalitarian pagan utopia though, some sources do suggest that elves didn’t really fit into the manly man hvatr category (hvategory?).
The first way in which elves totally blew that one out of the water is that they were reputedly beautiful, and in a way that doesn’t really suggest handsome either. The elf Volundr, for example, is described as having a white neck, which although doesn’t seem particularly significant to us, is significant in that that was the kind of description only applied to women back in the day (Hall 43-45). Hell, if you trace the etymology of ‘elf’ back, you get ‘white’. The only other male figure to be described as being hvitr or ‘white’ is Heimdall, and given the collocation of Álfar with Vanir, plus Heimdall’s ability to divine the future, it’s arguable that he might also be considered an elf (as well as a god) anyway. Significantly, the description of Heimdall’s whiteness (and ergo his girly beauty), appears in the same stanza as Heimdall suggesting that Thor participate in a spot of cross-dressing in order to win back Freyja’s necklace, Brisingamen.
This association with elves and beauty can also be found in the OE word ælfscyne – which is used within the context of a kind of bewitching, otherworldly, yet dangerous beauty (Hall 88-95).
So they were hawt, probably in a Prince or Bowie kind of way.
Secondly, they defied the usual expectations about manly roles. For example, in The Lay of Volund, we’re told that a maiden called ‘Svanhvit’ guarded Volund’s white neck. Remember that whole thing with hvatr and blauðr? Which category do you think Volundr would have fallen into? Unfortunately for Volundr, nine winters into shacking up with this swan lady, she leaves; and unlike his brothers (who are also in the story, and also have ladies of their own), he stays home and doesn’t go in search of Svanhvit. From this point forth, things go seriously downhill for Volundr, because a certain king by the name of Douchebag (just kidding, his name was Níðuðr) heard that Volundr was no longer protected and he wanted Volundr to make him a load of swag. Poor Volundr is then hamstrung, imprisoned on an island, and forced to make bling for king Douchebag (Hall 39-46).
Eventually Volundr has his revenge (part of which happens to be raping the king’s daughter) and flies off using his feet as propellers or wings (I shit you not).
Another possible example is that of the god, Freyr. Again, we have a potential ‘god and elf’ situation here. In Grimnismal 5, we’re told that Freyr was given Álfheim (elf-home) as a gift for cutting his first tooth, which aligns Freyr with the elves. Once again, we see the theme of a man undone by love – this time by giving up his sword as part of wooing the giantess Gerðr (in the Lay of Volund, his sword is taken from him by king Douchebag). Moreover, Freyr’s manservant, Skirnir, who is sent to ‘woo’ Gerðr has to resort to magical threats in order to coerce her into to ‘saying yes to the dress’ (North 52-54). As an aside, this kind of magical coercion is a disturbing feature of old school ‘love’ spells.
For Richard North, who spends over three hundred pages densely building his arguments in ‘Heathen Gods in Old English Literature’, Freyr is the god associated with hieros gamos rituals, and whose cultic passage through the land signaled a period of sexual license (270-271). He is the god who the church came to see as the devil, and like the devil, was known as ‘god of the world’ (76).
Then there is the matter of Freyr’s priests per the description in the Gesta Danorum (chapter 6):
“After Bemoni’s death Starkather, because of his valour, was summoned by the Biarmian champions and there performed many feats worthy of the tellings. Then he entered Swedish territory where he spent seven years in a leisurely stay with the sons of Frø (Freyr), after which he departed to join Haki, the lord of Denmark, for, living at Uppsala in the period of sacrifices, he had become disgusted with the womanish body movements, the clatter of actors on the stage and the soft tinkling of bells. It is obvious how far his heart was removed from frivolity if he could not even bear to watch these occasions. A manly individual is resistant to wantonness.”
See what I’m getting at here? Doesn’t exactly fit in the ‘hvategory’.
Elves and those associated with the worship of elves, though male, deviated from ideas about how males should act – at least within a sacred context (on the part of human worshippers).
Out of all the legions of demons, whicht type in particular do you think would fit the bill for elves? And that isn’t even taking into account all of the later stories about elven seduction and half-elf children, OR the associations with elves and nightmares that came throughout the intervening years. Hello, nocturnal-slumbering-person-boner demon! Hallgerður’s path is a very well-trodden one.
Carol J Clover – Regardless of Sex
Alaric Hall – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Richard North – Heathen Gods in Old English Literature
This past fortnight seems to have been a time for confronting and dealing with what may seem to each of us to be “alien views”. But I don’t want to get into the politics of that here, because that conversation is dominating the discourse pretty much everywhere else.
No, I want to go in a different direction with this post. Instead, I want to talk once more about agency, patterns, and if it is truly possible to understand that ‘alien’, non-human logic of the Unseen.
In “Fair” Facebook Do We Lay Our Scene
It all started with a conversation on Facebook (where else?) this morning, with a young man who thought there was nothing wrong with putting on a Native American war bonnet while in the ‘wilderness’ and invoking the energies of a Native American chief. (This is a young man who is from and still lives in the UK, I might add.)
I have to admit, the idea of that – all of it – is just so wrong to me for so many reasons. I can’t even understand the thought process behind it or what this man would hope to even gain from doing so, let alone the amount of false entitlement involved in the use of a war bonnet and expectation that the spirit of a Native American chief would just show up for a person in a completely foreign geographical area.
The conversation went on for a while, but along the way, we got back to the question of agency and spirits of land again. (Ah, that old chestnut!) So here I am, writing another post on the Unseen and agency, only with a little twist.
I’ve talked about the land being like an onion before: this idea that land from a more ‘spiritual’ perspective is made up of many layers comprised of the traditions, beliefs, actions, and magical practices of each people that has ever dwelled upon it. Of course, this onion also affects the kinds of Unseen that might be there: the types of Unseen, their attitudes towards humans, how they expect interactions to look, the pacts that were made between humans and Unseen in years past, and the kinds of offerings they like. Sometimes these layers are things that you might expect. After all, who doesn’t expect Native American layers, and other layers made up of mostly Christianity in America? But even in America, there are also often layers that are far less expected – like the layer of occultism derived from Francis Barrett’s ‘The Magus’ that permeated the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (Horowitz, 23), or the Freemason connections that a good number of the founders held. And regarding that first American religion, I can’t help but feel it significant in some way that its founder and first American prophet not only participated in the occult for years and scryed a holy book from a shew stone, but met his death by mob while allegedly wearing an incorrectly engraved Jupiter talisman. (Quinn 1998). Let that sink in for a moment. America may have layers of Native American religions and crosses, but she also has layers of sigils and magic – even among the saints. (As an aside, there’s a book I really want to pick up at some point called Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People that apparently attempts to track the plurality of religious expression, magic, and sacralization of the land in pre-revolutionary America.)
But that’s not the end of it. Now imagine that onion has a pattern running through it. Something scored on each
layer that has built up into a larger and more coherent pattern over time.
For those of you that bought my book (thankyouthankyouthankyou), you may recall the essay called Sources of Power, Layers of Action and the explanation of how what we do now affects what we have to work with in the future. For those of you that didn’t, a Cliff Notes version of that would be to say that every action a person undertakes sets down a ‘layer’ for that person that goes into a kind of universal store of events and that the accumulation of those ‘layers’ over time, affects what you have to work with in life. In other words, it all builds a pattern, but more about that later.
Space As A Container For Action
In ‘The Well and the Tree’, Paul Bauschatz wrote that “For the Germanic peoples, space, as it is encountered and perceived in the created worlds of men and other beings, exists, to any significant degree only as a location or container for the occurrence of action.” (Bauschatz 86). This is a pretty significant concept in of itself. After all, I think most of us have been to places that have had a certain vibe or lived in homes we’ve felt were ‘luckier’ than others. However, we are also told that , “Every action calls to itself other actions to which it is significantly linked.” (Bauschatz 64), and that “They would bring factors from beyond the immediate to work and predicate events, returning them, as it were, to the great universal store of events from which all power came and in which all meaningful action returned.” (Bauschatz 113).
In other words, if space is a container for action, actions set down layers (which call other similar actions to themselves), and there is a force that ensures that those contexts are revisited, then it would stand to reason that spaces have ‘patterns’ or contexts that get revisited again and again. Not only that, but these patterns don’t just affect humans; as the first Bauschatz quote says, these spaces-as-containers-for-action also seem to apply other beings too. Or at least that’s the best guess of what Germanic Heathens thought about the matter during the Heathen period.
As a caveat, Bauschatz does limit these space-containers to spaces that are enclosed, but I think they can apply to outside spaces too. After all, if we believe in the existence and agency of Unseen beings, then why wouldn’t we believe them to be capable of creating and delineating their own spaces and enclosures that we just cannot see?
When you really think about these ideas, ideas about layers and patterns, even just as a thought experiment, it’s really no surprise that you have oddities like the freak accident that kills every seven years at a river that was once
Bauschatz’s work may be theoretical, but I do find a lot of practical application in his ideas, especially in light of my own experiences and UPG.
To Forget the Past is to Repeat the Future….
Does any of this give us the keys to these “alien views” of non-human persons though? No, but there’s a lot to be said for drawing closer to an understanding of some of the (even theoretical) “rules of play” so to speak. As always, the best way to understand as much of that non-human logic as much as possible, is to go back to the fairy and folk tales. These rules of play further reinforce the importance of knowing the old tales, and the warnings and rules of etiquette they contain. To know the past and the things yet unknown to you in the present, is to have the best guess of how to proceed in the present. The future will be made when we get there.
I’ve written about understanding the previous religious, magical, and folk traditions held in the layers of the land onion before now. However, I think these layers are also patterns, groupings of actions that call out to actions that are similar to themselves and which are more likely to reoccur. For many people, the great religious story of the US is that of Christianity, and yet for people like you and I, the far greater story is in the Joseph Smiths, the Fox sisters, the many homes in which a copy of Barrett’s ‘The Magus’ sat, and the myriad of other long-standing religious traditions that cluster in this land somewhat off the beaten path of the Nazarene.
Because it’s a story in which the Unseen were somewhat more seen, and that’s not something they’re likely to forget.