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 - 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.


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. <>.
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.

A Year With Our Gods: Brighid

year with our gods - banner

Gadzooks! It’s a Review!

I really didn’t know what to expect from an online Polytheist conference, and especially not from one which describes itself as a “balanced mix of hands-on, devotional, and experimental practice with academic and lore-based studies”. So it was with a good degree of curiosity that I entered the Zoom room.

The conference, which was entitled ‘A Year With Our Gods: Brighid’, was the first of a series of conferences being hosted by Land, Sea, Sky Travel, a Pagan pilgrimage company that focuses on ethical pilgrimages to sites of spiritual and historical importance around the world.

The Kick-Off

The conference kicked off with a short devotional to Brighid, which included an absolutely gorgeous song sung by

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Andrea Maxwell who led the devotional. Andrea’s voice was sublime, and it was a truly beautiful experience to hear her sing. From there, we had a short group chat focused on setting the intention for the day. Participants discussed expectations and what they hoped to gain from the conference. For my own part, I was there to try and understand a little more about whatever strange connection I seem to have to Brighid – or rather Brigantia, the tutelary goddess of the land where I grew up. I say “strange”, because by that point, the goddess I’d felt hints of on the hills of my home seemed to bear little resemblance to the goddess as most modern Pagans see her. But more on that later.

A Journey to Éire

The first presenter was Lora O’Brien, an Irish woman and Draoí who has spent years working as a guide to a lot of Ireland’s sacred sites. Lora’s presentation was very informative. She gave an overview of who Brighid is, and described her own history of encountering the A year with our gods - boatgoddess in the land. Always an advocate of authentic Irish culture, Lora also described the continuing importance of Brighid in Ireland, and the traditions that persist to this day.

The highlight of Lora’s presentation for me though, was the trance journey to meet Brighid. As someone who works predominantly in a completely different tradition, her method was different from what I’m used to, but extremely effective. I was honestly surprised by just how deep I got into trance during that session and the quality of experience that I had.

To cut a long story short, trance-Brighid touched my arm and I felt a physical burn there that persisted for the rest of the day. The day after that, the area was still quite tender too, and since then, it’s like (pardon the pun), someone lit a year with our gods - flamefire up my ass. I’ve been hardcore getting things done! For anyone who is interested in Lora’s work and a chance to experience trance as she does it, she does actually offer journeying courses, the first part of which is free. I’d also recommend signing up for her newsletter because she always includes a lot of really good resources on Irish culture both historical and modern.

A Path of Service

The next presenter was Gemma McGowan, who talked about what it means to serve as a priestess of Brighid. Gemma has been a recognized priestess of Brighid in her community for years, and her dedication to her calling is frankly inspiring. There is nothing that I didn’t love about this talk. Gemma was funny, open, earnest, and remarkably humble. From her priestess origins story, to the more experiential exercises she led us through, her personality just shone through. I wish she had a blog  I could follow!

Moo Money, Moo Problems and Mooogan’s Presentation

The keynote speaker was Morgan Daimler, and although I talk about Morgan a lot, I’d never seen her in any form before the conference. Getting to see Morgan on camera was brilliant, and I’m not just saying this because it will

A year with a our gods - mooo
So okay, it’s not an Irish cow. But when do you get to see a child holding an umbrella over a cow?

probably embarrass the hell out of her, but she. Is. adorable! The best kind of nerd with a penchant for translating Old Irish! Now Morgan is a veritable walking encyclopedia – her presentation was just jam-packed with information about all things Brighid, AND she still had plenty of stuff she didn’t have time to get to even *with* the two hour time allotment! Morgan has a real talent for presenting information, and as a more Heathen type, I really appreciated the background details that she gave to the information she was presenting that helped me to better understand the cultural context. For example, her explanation of the cultural background on the importance of cows in ancient Ireland gave me a far better appreciation of who Brig Ambue (or Brighid of the cowless) is. I have mad love for Brig Ambue, so that was great! If you ever get chance to hear or see Morgan speak, do it. At the least pick up her book on Brighid, you know, if this interests you.

On a personal note, hearing about the fire temple that was apparently kept in honor of Brigantia was very satisfying. If anything, the Brighid I have been experiencing for years (but not really getting it) is closer to Brig Ambue – only with a fire temple and a spring coming out of a massive oak tree. Hooray, insight!

Personal Practice and Necessary Discussions

Next up was a panel discussion, and presenters discussed things like what they like to offer to Brighid, books, and the importance of doing the work. However, the highlight of this discussion for me was the part when the presenters explored the matter of worshipping deities from Europe in the New World, followed by the perspectives of the Irish presenters. I think that was a really important discussion to have. Some of the US and Canadian presenters cited Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a parallel to how they see the existence of Irish (or other European gods) in the US. People bring gods and spirits with them as they move, however, as someone who has been a long-term fan of American Gods, I couldn’t help but think about the different versions of the various gods that you find in the book and if that also plays into this parallel. For example, at the end of the book, the Odin experienced in Iceland is most definitely not the same Odin that was experienced in America. Further exploration of that would have made for an interesting follow-on discussion.

The responses of the Irish presenters – especially that of Lora – were extremely valuable here too. Lora underlined the necessity of engaging with Irish culture in an authentic way. In other words, to just take the gods and the “cool shit” is the bad kind of appropriation. Ireland was oppressed by my people for centuries. Between Cromwell and Trevelyan, and goodness knows how many other arseholes that rocked up on Ireland’s shores, Ireland has a history of blood and pain that cannot be ignored. Now that’s an uncomfortable conversation for people like myself, and it’s only further complicated by my familial ties to Ireland. But it’s necessary, and there’s no time for that kind of fragility if we are to do better.

The Flame Rekindled

Unfortunately, I had to catch the next two presentations in the after conference notes, as life got in the way again and I had to go back to being mom.year with our gods - candle

After the panel discussion, the next presentation was by Mael Bridge of the Daughters of the Flame. While this was far less my cup of tea than the other presentations, I definitely appreciated the historical background (both ancient and modern) on flamekeeping, and hearing about the role that flamekeeping plays in the lives of those who practice it. I find it absolutely incredible that the Daughters of the Flame and nuns of Kildare both elected to rekindle Brighid’s flame during Imbolc 1993, all without knowledge of each other. It would seem that an Dagda’s daughter had a hand in it.

Healing Fires, Healing Waters

The final presentation was by Julia Waters and focused on the healer aspect of Brighid. Given my background as the daughter of a Spiritualist healer, Julia’s presentation was like coming across common ground once more. She related year with our gods - cauldronher experiences with receiving healing as a cancer patient, and about how she was even able to perceive who was sending her healing by tracing back the golden strands of healing energy she saw entering her body. She then talked about how to go about healing and some of her traditions surrounding her healing practices – a lot of it was stuff that I could see my family engaging in, but it also stuff they never really explained to me in a coherent way. I really appreciated Julia making the point that people shouldn’t promise to pray or heal others if they’re not actually going to do it. I think we all see a lot of promises to pray for people or light candles for them online, but I often wonder how many people actually do it. Julia also touched on healing cauldrons, but sadly didn’t get to spend as much time on that as I hoped.

Final Words

This was a very well run and satisfying conference that I came away from with actual tangible changes to both my practice and my life. Which sounds weird (and horribly clichéd) that I went to this conference and had what was a deep experience. But the fire that was lit under my ass has persisted for almost a whole month now with no signs of

year with our gods - candlehome
The candle on my stove.

abating. Projects that had stalled and courses that were stuck in the doldrums are now underway again, and I’ve been knocking out work like a crazy person. Moreover, Brighid worship in my home has continued beyond the weird yearly Brighid-instinct that normally strikes around mid-January and settles down right after Imbolc. A candle now sits on my stove that I light in her honor, and I’ve started practicing my healing skills again. I haven’t done that for years, despite working on it with my dad as a kid.

So yeah, would I recommend these Land, Sea, Sky conferences? Absolutely, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I will be facilitating a Land, Sea, Sky tour in Iceland later this year. But despite that, I wouldn’t have written as much as I did if I wasn’t really excited by it. As anyone who writes for a living will tell you, it’s *hard* to fake enthusiasm for something – especially over 1700 words of enthusiasm. I mean, that’s as much as a daily Nanowrimo goal!

If you’re interested in checking out any of the LSS A Year With Our Gods conferences, you can find out more information here. The next one is Blodeuwedd, hopefully I’ll see some of you there!