Lessons from the Winds: Óðinn and Breath

I stand on a path on a rocky moor, the clouds like steel overhead. Below me the wild, deep azure of the river cuts through the valley. It’s cold here, and noisy as I walk. I hear the rush of the water and feel the wind beating against my ears.

I follow the noise to the source – a waterfall, but it isn’t just any waterfall.

Goðafoss sits like a watery giant reclining against the hard rock face of the valley to stretch out feet into the land around. There is a sense of expansiveness, but also layers of story stored in the depths.

Þorgeir and his Cloak

One of those stories is that of the godposts of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði Þorkelsson. Þorgeir you see, was a lawspeaker who lived around 1000 CE, a time when Christianity was putting down roots in the north. The crisis faced by the people of Iceland was one of conversion, and it had fallen to Þorgeir to decide how to proceed as he was the one person trusted by both Heathen and Christian alike.

Þorgeir’s decision was unenviable. On the one hand, there was growing pressure from Norway for the Icelanders to convert, and many Icelanders had already converted. But on the other, those who remained Heathen in Iceland wished to continue to worship the gods of their forefathers.

Now that’s a very condensed version of what was going on when Þorgeir elected to go under the cloak to see what was to be done.

Going under the cloak is one of those Heathen period magical practices that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention by modern Heathens. (There are a few Óðinn - cloakpractices like that though, if I’m being honest.)

Part of the problem is that we don’t really know a whole lot about the practice. But we can be reasonably certain that for Þorgeir, on that fateful day at Þingvellir, it was a method of seeking wisdom about a seemingly impossible situation.

And so he went under the cloak, lying as though sleeping or dead for long hours until he surfaced and made the announcement that a decision had been reached: the Icelanders were to publicly become Christians, but were able to keep their ancestral ways privately.

What’s in a Name?

It’s hard to imagine how Þorgeir must have felt after making that decision. He himself was a Heathen, and yet one of the first things he did on leaving the Allþing was to cast his godposts into the rushing depths of Goðafoss.

This is why it’s called ‘Goðafoss’; it’s the waterfall of the gods (though some say ‘goði’ as Þorgeir was a goði).

The Lone Weirdo

I’d gone to Goðafoss as part of a Land Sea Sky tour group. I was a presenter on the tour, along with the incomparable Morgan Daimler, and I’d been experimenting with a method for going under the cloak that had been yielding interesting results.
That was my plan at the waterfall of the gods, and that’s what I did.

I’m probably in the background in a bunch of tourist photos – a lone weirdo hooded and wrapped in a shawl of serpentine patterns lying down as though to take a nap.

But that’s okay, I hope they found the falls as special as I did.

Now I’m not here today to talk about the experience of going under the cloak, or how I do that. I have a description of my entire process (as well as how I came to practice in that way) in my upcoming book that’s coming out at the end of this year/early next year.

(Did I mention that yet? I don’t think I did. Btw guys, I’ve got a book coming out on Heathen magic.)

No, today I’m here to talk about what happened after I got up from the cloak and the practice I discovered from that experience. That is what I would like to share today – what I’m being nudged to share.

Óðinn Gave Breath

So I get up from the ground and dust myself off. But suddenly, I become aware of the sound of heavy wing beats even above the din of the waters. I feel them in my heart even, and search them out with my eyes.

Two ravens fly the breadth of the waterfall and come up the opposite side of the river to draw level with me.

Time slows, becomes weighty with presence and I know that I’m being shown something.

I feel my breath mingle with the wind – with Óðinn, the god who first gave breath-soul to humans. For a long moment there is a communion of sorts. But this isn’t just a connection with a god. He’s there too but it’s bigger than that. Instead it’s like my sense of self falls away, expanding to include the world and people around me, and it’s wonderful. A true place of potential.

Connecting With Óðinn Through Breath

Think about every breath you take. From the beginning of life when a baby takes that first breath before releasing a scream into the world, to the end when those borrowed breaths are finally released back to the winds, breath is our constant companion. This is life, death, interconnectedness, and the mother of spoken sounds.

Some say the Old English Rune Poem credits the Old Man as the source of all speech. I think in a sense he is.

This is how I like to check in with Óðinn, and I think some of you might like it too.

The best place to do this is outside, preferably in a high place where the winds blow wild. Those have always been the places where I’ve felt his presence the strongest.

For a Heathen, relationships are built with gifting, so bring a gift with you (wine is good). Prayers don’t hurt either. Then simply sit and focus on your breath.

This works best when you can forget about all the things that keep you separate and different from the rest of the world. Óðinn is a mutable god. He is a god of masks and becoming other people as needed. Hell, even his name refers to temporary states of being! It’s a lot easier if you try to become mutable too.

You won’t always experience his presence when you do this. But there are worse ways to spend a morning or evening than exploring the interconnectedness of breath and wind on a hill somewhere so it’s no loss.

Just be sure to dress for the weather.

And that’s it.

Happy Wednesday, all!

The Gold in Heathenry

heart - gold

I haven’t had the chance to blog for a while. I was going to do a whole Q&A about the dead and ancestor veneration. But sometimes, a topic comes up that is just so front and center in the old noggin that you just can’t ignore it.

I’d like to talk (rant?) today about Heathenry. Or rather the bullshit that drags Heathenry down and sullies its gold.

I’ve been a Heathen for a long time. Honestly, I’ve been Heathen longer than some of you good folks have been alive. I’m married to a Heathen too, and magical adventures aside, our collective hearth cult is predominantly Heathen.

For me, Heathenry is, as my friend Andrea would say, “a heritage of gold”. The stories you find in the Old Norse and Germanic sources hold true beauty and wisdom if you have eyes to see it.

But the problem is, not everyone has eyes to see that gold, and all too often, those stories become tainted by the toxic filters we ourselves can bring to those texts.

The Eyes and Hearts We Bring to Myth

In many ways, these stories can be like a Rorschach test that reveals the inner insecurities and fears of a person. This is what is really at the root of the incessant fapping off over Vikings, and toxic ideas about tribe and ancestry. The people who fall into these traps want to feel anything but what they actually feel. They don’t want to feel all those insecurities and fears, and so they try to mask it with what they perceive as “strength”. This is the core of what is at stake for a fascist. This is why they fight so hard against anything resembling sense.

In doing this though, they only achieve the opposite. It’s no kind of strength to run or hide from one’s feelings, or to hate people who look different to you. Hate isn’t strength. The ‘separate but equal’ nonsense that’s often dressed up as ‘I just want to be with “my folk” (but don’t really hate others)’ isn’t strength either. ( Hot tip: If that’s an explanation you’re going with, you’re just in the phase where you’re still trying to find “polite” ways of saying “POC scare me and/or give me an inferiority complex”.)

Whereas my Heathenry is expansive and wondrous, theirs is reductive and cuts out anything that discomforts them. Where they only see trees in tree - goldisolation, mine sees each tree as it is: connected through roots and mycorrhizal fungi to other trees. Trees that have been found to provide mutual aid to each other regardless of tree ‘type’.

In Völuspá, the story goes that people come from trees. This isn’t scientifically true but we could learn a lot from trees all the same.

Just don’t try to give me that tired old adage about how ‘a tree without roots will fall’, and act like it somehow sensibly explains the obsession with DNA and skin color. Because the Hávámál the far right Heathens like to quote so much says nothing about tree roots and ancestors.

You know what it does talk about though? Having people who love you:

The withered fir-tree which stands on the mound,
neither bark nor needles protect it;
so it is with the man whom no one loves’
why should he live for long?
Hávámál 50, Larrington trans.

Without love, every person falls.

The Groaning Tree

Yggdrasil shudders, the tree standing upright,
the ancient tree groans, and the giant is loose.
Völuspá 47, Larrington trans.

In all honesty, I’m tired of trying to keep the gold clean, but it’s important to keep trying all the same. This is a sacred duty, and for too long we Heathens have allowed the ill to define us. Worse still, when we form communities, we often do so by defining what we are not as opposed to what we are, and in this way they shape us too. I don’t know that this is the same in other parts of the world, but this has very much been my experience in the US Heathen scene.

However in my opinion, this is entirely the wrong way to build community and/or counter the far right elements in our faith.

We need to begin by naming these people for what they are.

These are not people who are hale and whole. They’re damaged and broken on the inside. They are not inheritors of that gold, and no amount of DNA-testing, ‘pure-blood’ anything will make them so.

the ancient tree groans, and the giant is loose

giant - goldThe word Jötunn is thought to come from the Proto-Germanic *etunaz, which is in turn thought to be semantically connected to the Proto-Germanic *etanan, or ‘greedy’, ‘voracious’, ‘gluttonous’, ‘consuming’. Although the above snippet from Völuspá pertains to Ragnarök, it is also relevant here.

Fascism is inherently greedy. It always requires an ‘other’ to sacrifice, then turns on people in the in-group who are not quite “in” enough to appease that greed. It is an evil Thurs, a ravenous spirit, and those in its thrall are equally ravenous.

This is how we should be naming this evil. They are, or are possessed of greedy, greedy, spirits who will never be sated and who can only be driven out.

Jotnar.

Þursar.

‘Þurs of wound-fever, lord of the Þursar! Flee now! (You) are found. Have for
yourself three pangs, wolf! Have for yourself nine needs, wolf!
III ice (runes). These ice (runes) may grant that you be satisfied (?), wolf.
Make good use of
the healing-charms!’

Runic healing charm from Sigtuna, Sweden.
‘Runic Amulets and Magical Objects’ by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees

Have for yourself three pangs, wolf! Have for yourself nine needs, wolf!
These ice runes may grant that you be satisfied, wolf!

It’s not often we get usable models. We should probably take advantage of them when we do.

The Stone Turns at the Command of an Unjust King

There’s a story in the Poetic Edda that I’ve found myself thinking about quite a lot recently. It’s called ‘The Song of Grotti’, and in it a king takes two female slaves and puts them to work endlessly at a magical millstone, forcing them to grind out endless wealth with little thought for their welfare or basic needs. He is beyond all shadow of a doubt, an unjust king.

We too live in an unjust society in which workers are increasingly expected to millstone - goldproduce with little concession to human wants or needs. Productivity and profit have become king now, and people work like cattle but then struggle to survive regardless of their labor.

This is exactly the kind of environment that produces fascists. With the help of some already extant racial biases, it produced fascists in the 30s, and is producing them now.

Wealth let’s grind for Frodi, grind out happiness,
grind many possessions on the wonderful stone!
Let him sit on his wealth, let him sleep on a quilt,
let him wake to happiness! That is well ground out.

At first, the women sang their songs and ground out wealth for Frodi. But again and again he denied them pleasure, rest, and warmth. Over time, the women became angry, remembered their mighty deeds before being forced to Frodi’s hall.

Now we have come to the dwellings of the king
without mercy, and live as slaves,
mud eats away at our feet, the rest of us is chilled through,
we drag the calmer of strife; it’s dull at Frodi’s house.

But what do you think they did next?

Did one blame the other for the king’s greed and lack of compassion? This is essentially the option offered by fascism and does nothing to address the underlying issues that make people so miserable in the first place.

No. The women worked together and turned the magic millstone against Frodi, churning out woeful fate for the unjust king. (The Marxists among you will laugh at how they seized the means of production in this tale.)

Hands shall grip the hard shafts,
the bloodstained weapons, wake up, Frodi!
Wake up, Frodi, if you want to hear
our songs and ancient tales.

I see fire burning east of the city,
warfare awakened, that must be a beacon;
an army is coming here very shortly,
it will burn the settlement despite the prince.

You shan’t hold onto the throne of Lejre,
the red-gold rings, nor this magic grindstone.
Let’s seize the handle, girl, turn more swiftly!
We are not yet warmed by the blood of slaughtered men.

By the end of the tale, the king is dead and millstone destroyed. The women are now free from their endless labor

There are lessons to be learned here too, but it is the central lesson you find over and over again in these texts (along with punishments for bad or violated hospitality): stick together, work together, fight together.

And that for me is what Heathenry is about. It is a religion of relationship and relationality with human and otherworldly people alike. Of gifting and story. Of rainbow bridges made of fire, and a shared world alive around us. It’s a religion of magic too. In which people may send parts of themselves forth, speak prophecy, ensnare and bind, and break weapons with charms.

It’s a religion of beauty, the most precious of gold, and I’m asking you to help me keep that gold clean.

heart - gold

Bad Witch Checking In!

Earlier today, famous Fairy-firkler Morgan Daimler, posted their blog confessing the ways in which she’s apparently a ‘Bad Witch’. Just to be clear, they’re not talking about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the sense of ethics here. But rather the ways in which they suck at some of the things usually expected of a witch.

In all honesty, I quite like this conversation. As a group we have this ridiculous tendency to act like we know more than we do, or don’t fuck up as often as we do. A good chunk of us could also do with laughing at ourselves more (but that’s another conversation and another rant).

So in the interests of adding to this conversation, here are the witch things I’m utterly shit at.

Bad Witch Fail #1: Remembering What to Say

This is my biggest issue right here. I can craft some really beautiful ritual but

Bad witch - ridiculous magician
This is in fact me.
(No, no it’s not)

can I remember it? No I really fucking can’t – and that blows. I’m that person in ritual who has to read from the book/paper because she can’t remember what the hell she’s supposed to say. In my defense though, I have memory issues. My thyroid shat the bed a few years ago and now I have a real hard time remembering things like I used to.

And yes, I know there are some of you out there saying “Pshaw amateur! I just make it up as I go along!” Well bully for you, Keith! I don’t, and that’s largely down to knowing the fuckery of my own brain.

You see, I believe that when I’m in ritual I’m interacting with numinous powers. That may seem like a no-brainer, but again (for the kids at the back), these are beings with agency. Which means they generally have their own plans and they aren’t necessarily plans we’d particularly like.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years (and especially since my memory became less useful), it’s that you can cut some really shit deals if you don’t go in there with a plan. Writing it all down before stepping into a circle is kind of like going to the store with a shopping list: it helps to keep you on track. It helps to keep you out of trouble, and even better, you don’t have to rely on your post-ritual memory to have a record of just what went down – it’s already there!

Which is adaptive and logical. But some folks can still get pretty dogmatic about it all.

Bad Witch Fail #2: I Suck at Growing Useful Gardens

I lose both Heathen and Witch points on this one, but for the past two years I’ve had shit gardens. I think I must have had a lucky year the first year I moved

bad witch - vegetables
My dreams, literally every spring.

here. We had lettuce for pretty much the whole summer, tomatoes that wouldn’t stop coming, zucchini, summer squash, okra, jalapenos, and green peppers. It. Was. Wonderful.

But last year we only got two loads of tomatoes and some lettuce (largely because a groundhog ate everything), and this year…

Yeah. I fail at this.

Ok, so my gardening isn’t a total loss. I’ve somehow kept an elder bush alive for a few years now (and it’s *huge*), a pile of wormwood is taking over the lower end of my garden, and my henbane seems to be happy. I just wish I could get fresh edible foods!

I know people who seem to just leave a trail of plants in their wake – almost as though they’re pooping them out or something. And it seems like almost everyone in my kindred has amazing gardens that they feed their families with. Except me.

But I’m not giving up! In fact, I’m going to go for a fall crop next. Because you know, why limit your failure to summer?!

Bad Witch Fail #3:Forgetting Tools/Offerings

Have you ever had that thing happen where you think you’ve got everything you need and you start the rite only to realize once you’re halfway through

bad witch - forget elephant
Fat. Chance. Dumbo!

whatever you’re doing that you’ve forgotten something and it’s actually pretty key?

Because that’s me. No joke, but I’ve actually had spirits do something to stop the right and then tell me to do it again and do it properly.

This is why you will see a ‘You Will Need’ section at the beginning of any rituals I create – because I literally make that list for myself to try and mitigate that whole thing.

Bad Witch Fail #4: I Often Miss Moon Observances

Bad witch - full moon
Fucking space egg. You are NOT the boss of me! That’s my 4 year old.

I know a lot of (if not most) witches observe the full moon, but it’s hit or miss for me. It largely depends on factors like how tired I am, when I have to get up the following day, and if I’ve lost track of the month or not.

I know, those are all really lame reasons. About the only thing I can say in my defense is that I deal with some pretty chronic exhaustion between my thyroid issues and a kid that hates sleep.

Bad Witch Fail #5: I Can’t Read Theban

I should probably qualify that: I can’t read Theban anymore. Because if my old Bad witch - Thebanjournals are anything to go by, I could back then. But now? Nope! It’s the so-called ‘Witches’ Alphabet’ (taken from Trithemius who apparently got it from a possibly mythical character), and I can’t read it.

That’s me, witchy as fuck.

Anyway, those are my confessions. The confessional is open if anyone else would like to have a try!

Why a Heathen seer does not and can not see ‘The Future’

Ár var alda…

Once upon a time, there was a great Ash – some say Yew, and depending on which culture is talking about this tree, some even say Oak or Birch. It doesn’t matter though, because whether you call it Yggdrasil or Bile, it’s the same tree, the ‘world tree’. Vast beyond imagining, with roots that grow deep into the depths of the Below World and beyond, and branches that grow high into the Above World and beyond, it stands. Proud and strong even as wyrmas gnaw at its roots and deer graze upon its leaves. We live in what might be called the ‘Around World’, but some call it Middle-Earth, or Midgarð. I don’t like to get into names of worlds though, because when you get into names, then you get into counting them, and that’s where things get controversial. I like to keep things simple and I like the number three, so I’m going to talk about the ‘Below World’, the ‘Above World’, and the ‘Around World’, any differentiation within those worlds are just countries…yeah, that’s what they are, just countries. But the point is, the tree is everything, and everything inhabits the worlds that are on the tree.

In spite of the gnawing and munching, things aren’t entirely miserable for the tree, the tree has help in the form of three women that keep it wet with ‘white water’. But that’s not their entire function (thankfully). Eternity would be awfully boring if all you had to do was water a tree.

No, these ladies are special, and moreover, it’s because of them that a Heathen seer does not and cannot ‘see’ the future.

Introducing the Nornir

Heathen seer - Nornir
Ludwig Pietsch’s Nornir

The first thing to know about these ladies is that they have names, of course they have names, and like many old names, they give us a clue about what these ladies did or the forces they may represent. They might not even be their ‘real’ names, the ancient and sacred often hides behind kennings, but the names they have serve us just fine. The second thing to know is that time and happening don’t work for them in the same way that it does for us, chronology takes a back seat to context. Lastly, because of this, the third thing to know is that they’re not in any ‘order’ that we would recognise. In other words, they aren’t working on some assembly line of ‘fate’.

It’s not even really ‘fate’ that they do either. Fate implies a set future that is not one of many possible futures but a ‘The Future’. There is no fate for us, there is simply ‘what was’, ‘what is’, and ‘what is owed’. Moreover, because the layers we lay down aren’t only laid down by us, but our ancestors and those we interact with too, then unless we live our lives in bubbles, there is no way to lay layers without ‘our’ layers interacting with the layers of others, whether we realise that at the time or not. Just as the tree holds all, wyrd’s well holds more than just our own personal wyrds.

But back to the ladies…Collectively known as ‘Nornir’ in Old Norse and ‘Wyrdae’ in Old English, the ‘first’ of the three is ‘Urðr’, or ‘Wyrd’, she is that what was, that which is set down layer by layer, and her partner is ‘Verðandi’, or ‘becoming’, in other words, ‘what is’.

Together they are bound in a constant interaction in which Urðr is the past and Verðandi the present continuous. ‘What was’, and ‘what is becoming’. ‘What is now’ lays down the future layers of ‘what was’, and the layers of ‘what was’ often lead to the creation of the ‘what is’ – but not always. You see, sometimes the ‘weird’ in our lives, the things we cannot explain given current circumstances (be those things good or bad) are often the product of ‘what was’ affecting ‘what is’. We rightfully call these things ‘weird’ in English, but most of us have forgotten the root of this word, that once it was Wyrd, and that Wyrd belonged in a well in which context rather than chronology has the most meaning.

Standing a little off on her own is ‘Skuld’, or as I will call her here, ‘what is owed’, and for the most part that’s where she stays. However, she may also be a Valkyrie, so the perception by some that she’s linked to death is not unfounded. In my experience, you also very rarely see her at work, most rough times that people have are down to wyrd, to the layers they set down in the past.

Whether these three ladies are personifications of forces as intrinsic to natural laws as gravity, or distinct beings that actually exist to manipulate these forces is not clear. The image of the Nornir gathered around wyrd’s well though, is stirring to say the least, and whether you choose to ‘journey’ to the well to look within to peel back the layers on your client, replicate the waters by use of skrying bowl or mirror, or pester various unseen beings for answers, as Heathens we have to be clear on what is actually being done.

For the most part, when a person approaches with a question, what he or she is really doing is asking the seer to take a look at ‘what was’ and ‘what is now’ in a targeted way, and then with wisdom, construct the ‘most likely outcome’ for the questioner if there are no attempts to change course.

But with this in mind, how is a seer still a seer?

The Art of Seeing “What is”

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

Often, when we are in a situation, it’s hard to see all the angles because we’re too close to it, or we’re protecting ourselves emotionally from coming to the conclusions we really need to come to. Moreover, while a seer cannot see a set future (because there is no such thing – at least not in the sense that is usually meant), he or she can see the layers of both ourselves, our ancestors, and other involved parties, and see factors hidden to the querent at the time of questioning. A good seer can then identify the layers in the querent’s past that continue to be problematic in the becoming, and counsel the querent on how to change that pattern that the future becoming might be better. Of course, we can all question and explore the layers of another in order to help them create better layers, but one way to think of a seer for ease of differentiation, is as a person with the facility to perceive wyrd (or the ability to question the unseen about ‘what was’ and ‘what is’).

In some ways, modern science is even coming to reinforce these ideas. Recent research in DNA has shown that we can not only inherit the health of our ancestors, but their phobias too. Entire disciplines in counselling rely on the idea that one must explore the client’s past and work with changing their current behaviour and perceptions in order to create a better future for the client. We are counselled that you can make new habits by doing them at least twenty-one times, in other words, by laying new layers to begin the process of offsetting Wyrd, and evolution teaches us that we are related to every single living thing on this planet.

But regardless of whether you’re looking for more scientifically or ‘magically’ based wyrd-counselling, as always, it’s important to choose your counsel well.