So there I was, standing on a little finger of land between two streams with my jacked-up Götavi grid drop-cloth. I was on my magical experiment bullshit again up a mountain in WV, perfumed with eau de DEET and wishing it wasn’t so fucking humid.
Crunch time had come; it was time to test my working theory. And come Hel or high water, I was going to test it—sweat patches and all!
(Oh the glamour!)
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Allow me, dear reader, to wind things back a little.
The Story So Far
This series began as a single post that was supposed to stand alone. But the more I wrote, the clearer it became that I had too much to say on this topic to fit in a single post. Eventually (and much like my antiperspirant in WV), I had to concede to a greater force, and thus this series was born.
If this post is the first you’ve seen of this series, I encourage you to go back and read the rest in order. There have been five posts so far. Five posts filled with research, musings, and discussion that you won’t want to miss out on going forward. It’s all necessary context for what comes next. I’ve even linked them below to save you the trouble of hunting them down.
It’s been a while since the last installment and you may have been wondering where I was. Well, life got kind of exciting! I got jumped by a bunch of deadlines and facilitated a week-long devotional magical practice for the Cult of the Spinning Goddess group. I also held some community-building events called Spin ‘n’ Witches, gave a class, and kicked off a podcast with Morgan Daimler. In the middle of all of that, I’ve also been working on several books, learning Japanese with my kid, and studying Welsh (as well as doing all the usual life-y stuff).
And that’s even without mentioning my personal magical practices (both the daily and experimental). For me, there are no words on the screen without the dirty boots, sweat patches, and magical adventures. As weird as it may sound, this kind of work is also really whole-making for me, a key part of my wellness. It’s a good portion of the roots that help the tree that is me to grow.
In one way or another, practice forms a large part of the foundation for pretty much everything I produce. And I will absolutely move some projects to the back burner if it means reclaiming some time for the work that makes my souls sing. Which is what happened to these blog posts for a while, and I’m never going to apologize for that.
When I last left you, I’d just finished talking about the research and planning phases of magical experimentation. In this post, I’m going to talk about that first experiment and how it all shook out. This is where the gnosis is really going to start to come in. If that isn’t your thing or reading other people’s gnosis makes you rage, then I advise you to hit the back-button.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
For those of you who stick around, I hope these posts serve to illustrate how wonderful it can be when research and gnosis meet. Because frankly, it’s amazing and I hope some of you feel inspired to go make your own magical adventures.
So anyway, I initially began researching the grid in 2019. However as it turns out, nothing wrecks plans for magical mischief and mayhem like a global pandemic. But by the time May 2021 rolled around, things seemed to be getting back on track thanks to the advent of the first COVID vaccine. So I booked a cabin up a mountain in West Virginia with a couple of friends. We were going to hang out, do the experiment, then hang out some more.
When it came to the experiment though, my friends realized they weren’t actually all that comfortable with active participation. One was concerned about the possibility of adverse effects on their health issues, and the other just didn’t want to do something with such a high degree of uncertainty attached.
These were both sensible concerns. Some forms of magic really aren’t good to participate in if you’re already sick. And some people have vulnerable folks in their care to think of too. So while I would have loved for them to have also taken part, I’m also really glad they didn’t. When you’re attempting to work with historical magic in this way, you need to know and be honest about your limits. And I’d much rather my friends tell me “Hey, this isn’t for me,” than participate and have something potentially bad happen to them.
Instead, my friends acted as observers, which meant my experiment also had the benefit of an outside perspective as well.
And that was one hell of a silver lining.
Back To The Experiment
Anyway, back to that little finger of land between two streams (and those sweat patches).
Before setting up, I made offerings to the local spirits and explained what I was going to do. The mountain was active; I’d been catching glimpses of the local beings since I’d arrived. It would have been rude to not ask.
There was a sense of acceptance toward my request, but also the feeling that it was only good until nightfall, and so I proceeded. Despite my earlier plans to set up the grid after circumambulating, I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to see where I’d walked without first setting up the grid. The ground was too uniform to discern marker points. So I opened the grid and set up posts at the north-northeast edge.
From that point on, the set-up went pretty much as planned. I circumambulated the space counterclockwise and made an offering of wine to Hel, asking her to allow temporary passage for some from her realm. Then I settled at the southwest edge of the grid.
According to my notes, I heard a male voice while circumambulating but couldn’t make out what he was saying so began to sing the dirge. Whenever I sing this dirge in ritual, I do so in a light trance in order to visualize/see the journey between the realms. This time when I peered at the road, I saw a blonde-haired man dressed in a white tunic.
A suspiciously shining man, as it happened.
As I finished the song, I heard what sounded like geese. And when I checked doorposts to the north of the grid, to my satisfaction, the space between the posts appeared “pixelated.”
There was a cool breeze like wove its way like a ribbon through the trees and the skies above grumbled, three thunderous complaints.
“Yes!” I remember thinking to myself. “This is working just like I thought it would!”
The Curveball (Because What’s An Experiment Without One?)
But that’s when the shift happened and my working theory went down like Das Boot. I’d originally theorized that the grid worked like other intermediary spaces I’d worked with like as crossroads effigies and doorposts. However, the shift that had taken place was more like what I’d experienced in my mound sitting experiments instead. When I’d sang the dead through doorposts or crossroads effigies in the past, I’d felt them enter into the space. Usually, their entrance came with a cool breeze that flowed from whichever medium they’d passed through. But most importantly, all of this would take place within an intermediary space rooted in this Middle Earth.
My experience with mounds though, is that the space shifts so that it’s no longer rooted in Middle Earth. It reminds me of the difference between being inside a different nation’s embassy while still within your own country and in your nation’s embassy while within another country.
Recognizing that feeling from those experiments with mound sitting, I moved onto the cloth, my ears filled with a buzzing that sounded like white noise. The cloth felt cool to the touch, and I had the feeling that someone was on their way.
I was both shocked and delighted by the discovery.
Unfortunately though, that thunder had only heralded a coming storm. I wasn’t able to spend as much time feeling out my discovery as I would have liked. So I began the process of wrapping things up. I sang the dead back and made offerings of gratitude to Hel. Then I closed down the doorposts and grid, before circumambulating clockwise to return the space back to how it was before.
(Or so I thought.)
The Experiment: Observer Perspective
From talking to my two wonderful observers, I learned that during the circumambulation they’d seen the leaves to the north of me appear to “twitch.” From their perspective, it appeared as though whoever was making the leaves twitch was moving toward me.
One observer seems to have seen the same ribbon of wind I’d seen, and described it as coming from the east, before veering to the north, west, and south to wrap around the space. What’s especially interesting to me is that this ribbon of wind seems to have moved counterclockwise as I had during the circumambulation.
The next main observation was that as I was getting into the rite, a big bee appeared in front of the door to the covered porch they were observing from. Apparently, this bee seemed to be trying to get in and was loud enough to drown out my voice. They (as in the bee) went on their merry way again once the rite had ended.
The Aftermath I
As I mentioned before, I only had the benefit of observers because my friends hadn’t felt comfortable with active participation. Again, I’m going to reiterate the fact that you really don’t know what’s going to happen when creating magical experiments based on historical sources, places, or objects. And this is also true for the aftermath.
The first thing I noticed in the aftermath was that I kept seeing the blonde man in the white tunic in the land outside. There was something very elven about him, but his presence confused me at that time given my location. (Now I’m a few more experiments in with the grid, his presence makes total sense.)
The next thing I noticed was that the cloth itself had a certain energy to it, and was still chill to the touch. The lights in the cabin dimmed as I brought it in, and one of my friends expressed the concern that it might not be safe to drive with in the car. Agreeing with her, I worked up a quick and dirty chaos magic sigil for containment on a plastic bag big enough to hold the cloth and stuffed it in.
The room visibly brightened.
Once that was taken care of, I made sure to purify myself as I always do after clarting around/potentially clarting around with the dead and settled in for the night.
The Aftermath II
The afternoon gave way to the evening and eventually night. We ate dinner together and got comfy in the lounge to hang out and shoot the shit. After a while though, we began to notice that there were creaking noises coming from an empty wooden chair in the lounge area. It sounded exactly like the kind of creaking older chairs make when someone moves, shifting their weight. Curious, I put my hand out to feel the space and felt a cool presence there.
We had an unseen guest.
He (because he felt like a “he”) would remain with us for the rest of the evening and into the next morning.
When something like that happens, I generally find that you have a few options. You can ignore them and hope they don’t cause trouble. Another option is to kick them out. But my preferred option (at least in this case) was to offer him hospitality in the form of a cup of mead in exchange for him being a good guest. There can be a level of protection in the host-guest relationship, and when it goes right, everyone leaves happy.
And he was a good guest, though he would show his displeasure by creaking his chair and flickering the lights whenever we talked about other ghosts who were assholes while trading stories. Whenever this happened, we’d reassure him we didn’t mean him and he’d calm down again.
It was a real “not all ghosts” moment.
After the After-Aftermath
So that was the first experiment with the grid. Looking back, there were a lot of mistakes and my working theory was just plain wrong. However, this is all par for the course with this kind of magical experimentation. If that’s not something you can handle—that uncertainty—then I recommend you steer clear of this work. You need to be able to think on your feet and McGyver solutions relatively quickly. And I’m not saying that to be an elitist. It’s just that there’s so much you can’t know or plan for as the first human (often) to work with a space/object/kind of magic in a thousand-or-so years.
But that uncertainty and those first experiment fuck-ups is where the next step comes in: evaluation and optimization. And that is what I’m going to talk about in the next post in this series.
Welcome back to my series taking a look at blending reconstruction and gnosis! This series has grown to be a monster, and I still (shockingly) have so much more to say. But this post is where we finally start to translate that research/gnosis/prior results/experience into practical application. (I mean it this time.)
So, let’s jump right into the fuckery. And as always, we begin with a working theory.
My Working Theory (Take One)
When I put my first Götavi grid experiment together, my working theory was that the grid was a way to call up the dead. You know, some good, old-fashioned, pants-shitting necromancy.
By that point, I’d already experimented with calling up the dead. I’d worked with doorposts and crossroads effigies and sang them forth with dirges. And at the time, I thought the grid might work in a similar way. My expectation was that it would create some kind of portal with similar effects to what I’d experienced before. Effects like a discernible drop in temperature, “winds” that seem to move with intent, noises, apparitions, psychic communication etc.
But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Looking back now, this working theory is laughable—a massive oversight.
It was also far from my only fuck-up as well.
But mistakes aren’t just to be expected in this kind of work; they often turn out to be the best teachers we have. Without my mistakes, I literally wouldn’t have the insights I have now or a workable grid practice.
Like the late, great Bob Ross used to say, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.”
(Unless of course those mistakes get you killed, and then we replace “happy” with “deadly.”)
As an aside, did I mention this isn’t exactly safe?
Reconstruction And Magical Stories
Once you have your working theory (as jacked up as it may be), then it’s time to take a look at the components of the magical story you want to tell.
You may have noticed that I think of magic in terms of story. And there are a whole bunch of reasons for this. But for now, let’s just say the story analogies in this post are an easy way to convey a lot of ideas relatively quickly.
Well, first I gave a description of the Götavi grid (or as I like to call it, the “Devil’s Hopscotch”). Then, I deconstructed the various elements of the grid, which included the number nine, islands/mounds, posts, the SW orientation, and kinds of offerings found. As a part of this deconstruction, I discussed similar finds and their contexts as well as any possible symbolism.
In other words: I attempted to dig into the background stories of each of those elements in order to form a theory about the meta plot.
By the end of that post, I’d outlined a range of textual and archaeological evidence supporting my initial (gnosis-based) theory that the grid’s ritual story was eschatological in nature.
Here is where we get to the question: What now?
This seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people. They’re fine with the research or fine with the woo, but find it hard to bridge the two. (Hey, that rhymes!) The transition from research to practice, and especially in a way that incorporates gnosis, can be hard to imagine. But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially not when you choose to think about magic as story.
Now ask yourself: What do you need to put on a performance?
You need a setting, actors, props, choreographed actions, and a script—all of which need to come together coherently to tell the story.
In the context of my grid experiment, the grid and its orientation were the setting. The actors would be the ritualists as well as any beings that showed up. From my perspective, that cast also included some of my ritual tools as well, though I know not everyone thinks that way. The choreography for the production were the ritual actions, and the script was…well, it was the script.
From studying the description of Hermóðr’s Hel-ride, scholarship analyzing conceptions of death and mounds, and potential examples of eschatology in archaeology, I even had a basic plotline from which to derive a framework. I summarize it here as follows (please feel free to write some fanfic if inspired):
“Area ritualist opens doorway to dead in symbolically potent space that possibly symbolizes the Hel-Road in order to facilitate the passage of dead into ritual space for communication.”
Ugh…I got it so fucking wrong. But hopefully you get the point about the story thing.
Reconstructing The “Stage”: The Physical Elements
I have many regrets in life, but one of my greatest is that I wasn’t born rich and therefore able to buy real estate on a salt marsh. As you might imagine, growing up barely hugging the poverty line while Maggie Thatcher broke unions and snatched milk was a huge impediment to me. (Those Poll Tax riots were pretty lit though!) The sad fact of the matter is that the intergenerational poverty I was born into not only prevented me from buying a salt marsh for weird, necromantic experiments, but also stopped me from hiring a construction crew to build a grid on that hypothetical salt marsh as well.
(In case it wasn’t clear, that entire last paragraph was sarcasm.)
When I think about the utter fripperies the über rich spend their money on instead of trying to solve world hunger/the climate crisis/buying salt marshes and reconstructing (theoretical) Viking Age necromantic tech, I just…
(Okay, that bit wasn’t so much sarcasm as genuinely held sentiment about solving world hunger and the climate crisis.)
Well anyway, I don’t have those resources, so I had to get a little creative.
One of the key take-aways from the Færeyinga saga grid is that grids could be drawn and temporary.
Or in other words: no wild construction projects needed.
Now, we obviously don’t actually know for sure that the saga grid had the same design as the salt marsh grid. But sometimes you just have to say “fuck it!” and do the thing anyway. (Also, the description was pretty damn close to what the archaeologists dug up.)
Reconstructing the Grid and Posts
The easiest option for reconstructing the grid would obviously be chalking it on a floor somewhere. You could even make some ritual chalk for the purpose, incorporating layers of herbal and charm magic into the process. But as we had a carpet back then and I’d already decided the first experiment would be away from my family, I went a different way instead.
Drawing magic circles on drop cloths from the paint department of your local DIY store is old hat in the occult community. And this is the direction I decided to go in as well. So, off I toddled to my local big box LowesDepot and picked up a drop cloth and some of those jumbo sharpie markers. I also recommend picking up one of those huge wooden rulers as well if you do this and care about straight lines. (Which I don’t.)
The OG Devil’s Hopscotch was 15m x 18m or 49ft x 59ft. For those of you who measure by alligators, this would be roughly equivalent to one large American alligator wide and one large American alligator plus a fifth of another large American alligator long.
Unfortunately though, those dimensions were way too big for any space I could imagine myself using. There’s no way a large alligator would fit in my living room, and I wanted the option of using the grid chez moi if all went well. So in the end, I wound up freehanding my first grid on a 6ft x9ft canvas drop cloth and sort of said “That’ll do!” while laughing maniacally.
And here is where my second fuck-up happened.
Because I had that really unfortunate thing happen where my photograph of the grid got flipped, placing the square on the wrong side…which I then replicated on the cloth and didn’t realize until later. I also couldn’t find any photos of the grid with the directions marked out. All I knew back then was that it had a SW-NE orientation, and that the blood and fat business end of things was in the NE. I had no idea which end of the grid was supposed to be in which direction.
This, by the way, is one of the many reasons why the evaluation and tweaking stages are so important.
But anyway, I had a jacked up grid cloth to go with my jacked up working theory.
The next thing I wanted to recreate was the posts, and here is where I ran into another issue. The information in Nine Paces about their number and location is quite unclear. It could also be the case that archaeologists simply couldn’t get an accurate count of them as well. But given the prevalence of doorpost/thresholds within necromantic/funerary contexts, and me going balls-to-the-wall on my working theory, I was going to have some fucking doorposts. These wound up being a couple of fallen branches I found then chanted over before my first experiment.
(Don’t worry, I’ll get to the chanting later.)
Reconstructing the “Stage”: The Action Elements
Once I had my jacked up grid, I turned my attention to recreating the island/mound element. Between the work cited in the research post and my dream about landscape/ritual space reflecting cosmology/story, I knew that I had to find a way to incorporate them into my experiment. So, I opted to do so symbolically, through circumambulation while pouring out water and chanting. As the Götavi people built the island first before the grid in the salt marsh, I decided the symbolic recreation of an island had to come first in my experiment as well.
There’s a lot of ire in some Heathen communities regarding ritual spaces that happen to be circular in shape. For many, circles are “what Wiccans do” and their use therefore automatically, “Wiccatru.” A nefarious vector for Wiccan cooties, and also probably a leading cause of men losing the ole “man card.”
Okay, that was going a little too far.
However, despite these more modern ideas and the (thankfully lessening) accompanying irrational fears of things like circumambulation/drumming/entheogens/dance, circumambulation and/or turning is attested in conjunction with magic in OE and ON sources.
Circumambulation And Directionality
In the OE sources, the most obvious example is the Old English Journey Charm, the first part of which reads:
”I encircle myself with this rod and entrust myself to God’s grace, against the sore stitch, against the sore bite, against the grim dread, against the great fear that is loathsome to everyone, and against all evil that enters the land. A victory charm I sing, a victory rod I bear, word-victory, work-victory. May they avail me;”
The above charm, at least according to scholars like Karin Rupp, was originally intended to be performed. In other words, the traveler was to physically turn in a circle while speaking the charm, effectively casting a protective circle around themselves. (You can read all about it here.)
There’s no mention of directionality here. However, if we look to other examples of ritual turning in the OE sources, we can infer a clockwise direction. One example of this can be found in the Æcerbot (“field remedy”) charm, a charm for removing curses or poison from agricultural land. In the charm, the ritualist is instructed to “turn thrice with the sun’s course (clockwise) as part of the preparatory stages for the main ritual in order to bless four sods from each corner of the affected field. The Field Remedy has an undeniably Christian veneer. However, Jolly considers it “highly likely” that parts of the charm are survivals of a pre-Christian predecessor that was co-opted and Christianized (Jolly, Popular Religion, 7, 26).
Outside of the Field Remedy, circles feature a number of times in the OE magico-medical manuscripts. In one adder bite charm, they’re used to create a protective circle around the bite to prevent the poison from spreading. In another charm, the healer is instructed to make a circle of animal fats and wine and another of bone within which to prepare the cure (Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, 41, 86).
In the ON sources, counterclockwise/withershins circumambulation is attested within the context of baneful magic. At the time when I was putting together my first grid experiment though, I only knew of a single example from Grettis saga.
In cha. 79, the “full-cunning” woman, Þuríðr, circumambulates a log backwards and against the course of the sun (ansœlis) as part of her baneful magic against the outlaw Grettir. Once she’s done, the log is then pushed out to sea where it drifts out to Grettir’s hideout on Drangey and torpedoes his remaining luck. This eventually leads to his death (Price, The Viking Way, 273)
In addition to the historical sources, I also had previous experimentation and ritual experience to go on as well. Interestingly, the results of my experimentation have aligned with what we find in the sources. I’ve found it best to circumambulate clockwise when building, healing, or performing ritual to the Holy Powers. And for baneful magic, destruction, communication with the Dead and/or Other, I walk against the sun, sometimes even backwards.
And that is how a person winds up circumambulating widdershins while chanting and pouring out water to fake a mound!
Reconstructing the “Stage”: The Power of Speech
As much as I’ve bemoaned my lack of salt marsh and construction crew in the past two posts, the fact of the matter is that they’re not actually necessary. Speech is a weighty thing in the ON sources. In the Hauksbók version of Völuspá, we’re told that (contrary to the popular perception of spinning) the Norns choose and speak the ørlög of men (Bek-Pedersen, The Norns, 182).
But the power of choice made real by fateful, weighty speech isn’t limited to Nornir. The prophecies of völur also seem to have been a matter of choice and speech as well. In cha. 3 of Hrólfs saga kraka, the völva, Heiðr, hastily recants a negative prophecy and speaks a more positive one out loud (and into being) in order to avoid physical harm. And in cha. 12 of Víga-Glúms saga, Saldís berates the völva, Oddbjörg, for what she sees as a bad prophecy for her sons with the following words:
”I should have thought good hospitality deserved something better, and you’ll be driven away if you go round predicting evil“
(Bek-Pedersen, Nornir, 201-202.)
Moral of this story, kids? Be careful who you read or work magic for!
So, both Nornir and völur have the power of fateful speech, and more importantly, the power of choice.
But even outside Nornir and völur, speech was a weighty thing. In her book, The Norns in Old Norse Mythology, Karen Bek-Pedersen highlights multiple examples of non-magical people displaying hesitance around making future predictions lest they come true (Bek-Pedersen, The Norns, 186-191).
By the by, the word “fate” is derived from the Latin fatum, which is the past participle of the verb fari, meaning “to speak.” One way we can understand this word is “that which was spoken,” which is one of the main reasons why I continue to use the word “fate” within a Heathen context. Other reasons include compelling arguments like:
“There are six different words for different types of “fate” in ON, and we don’t have clear definitions of what they all mean anyway.”
(Source: Me bitching about ON fate words.)
Speech To Create, Speech to Manipulate
As magical practitioners, we can and should understand speech to be a powerful, world-changing act. Returning to my earlier point about magic and story, it’s important to note that speech is key to one of our oldest forms of storytelling. Nowadays though, we live in a world in which words seem cheap (even as national and global actors wield them as Noopolitical weapons.)
We would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with this power.
Perhaps the best and most useful summaries of speech as a magical tool that I’ve found comes from Shamans, Christians, and Things, a paper by Mr Frog. Ostensibly, he’s discussing the differences between the worldview and mechanics of shamanic magic and those of the tietäjä institution. But this discussion leads to some interesting considerations regarding the “Germanic technology of incantations.”. Specifically, Mr Frog argues that the underlying mechanics of the Finnish tietäjä’s charming practices are rooted within that Germanic incantation technology.
To (partially) quote Mr Frog with this wonderful summary of how charms work:
”…this was the verbal interface with ‘the unseen world,’ which it simultaneously represented and manipulated, actualizing unseen aspects of reality in order to change the experiential world.”
So, never underestimate the power of speech to create what you need when building your experiments.
The salt marsh really doesn’t matter.
Speaking Into Being
To return to Mr Frog’s words above, your speech is the vehicle through which you represent and manipulate the unseen world. In my case, there were two elements I wanted to include but could not in a physical manner. The first was the water around the mound. We can interpret this water as a representation of the water the dead must cross when traveling between our world and theirs. Then there were the doorposts, which we can possibly interpret as a representation of Hel’s gate.
Working theories for rituals tend to lead to working theories about the purpose of the various elements comprising the ritual. These “second order” working theories about purpose and place in cosmology are what will allow you to create the verbal elements, or “script.”
Technically speaking, when representing otherwise impossible elements for magical experimentation, your magical speech needs to do the following:
Effectively introduce the element you wish to represent. Locate that element within the cosmology within which your magic experiment is “set” (according to your initial working theory).. Delineate the function of the element within the context of the ritual or magical story you’re creating.
Speaking Into Being: Prose and Function
Fancy liturgy is wonderful when done well. If you can write that kind of liturgy while meeting the above criteria, that’s wonderful! But I want to be clear that there’s also nothing wrong with being blunt and to the point either.
Saying, “These sticks are now the doorposts of the mighty Helgrindr!” might not sound great, but it gets the job done. I think even the most skilled liturgist gets blunt when things go sideways and they have to work quick and dirty.
Look at me extolling the virtues of bluntness! (It’s the shocking plot twist absolutely everyone who knows me saw coming.)
We just can’t always have amazing liturgy, you know? So, no one should feel ashamed about theirs for not being fancy enough. It’s far more important to have accurate speech than speech that sounds wonderful but has more “plot holes” than Swiss cheese. And especially when there are plenty of beings out there who are known for exploiting those holes.
On that note, it’s always good to have some charms memorized that you can pull out as needed. Hallowing charms, protection charms, and exorcism charms are all useful to have floating around in the brain for if (when) things get “spicy.” I already gave you one in the first verse of the Old English Journey Charm quoted above. Just adapt the first couple of lines to better fit your own worldview, and get memorizing!
Oh, and like any magical skill, don’t forget to practice performing those charms.
One final thing I want to mention before giving a specific example, is to pay attention to rhythm if you have the luxury to do so. One of the benefits of working with poetic meters like the ON galdralag (“magic spell meter”) is that it has a good rhythm for chanting when done well. This is excellent if you have to chant a charm over and over again. It makes it easier to remember, harder to fuck up, and also helps you into an altered state. There’s a transformative element within the final lines of the meter as well, which I find does some of the work for me. Handy, right?
Prose And Function: A Handy-Dandy Example
Anyway, here’s an example of the kind of thing I might say while circumambulating with water:
”Step by step, Against the sun The moat of a mound I make A Gjöll on the Hel-Road A ring between Within this ring the dead reside Within this ring the dead remain”
Now, that wasn’t great, but hopefully you see what I mean. When combined with the actions themselves, I’ve communicated what I’m doing and what that action symbolizes. I also locate the mound moat/Hel-road river within the wider cosmology, conveying the general idea of a body of water separating the realms of living and dead. Finally, I name the purpose of the mound-moat/Hel-road within the context of the ritual. Because it doesn’t just serve to symbolize cosmology but also needs to contain any dead who show up as Hel or the mound contain the dead. As a part of this, I use an approximation of galdralag. This allows me to also take advantage of the transformative function conveyed within the final two lines of the charm.
When actually calling the dead though, I rely on a different form of speech: song. For the grid experiment, the most natural choice for me given my working theory was an adaptation of an old dirge called A Lyke Wake Dirge. The original—which likely would have been sung over a corpse—describes the journey to the afterlife. This journey was very much as a Christian might have seen it during the time the song was composed. So, to better reflect the story I wanted to tell, I needed to create an adaptation.
This is coming entirely from experience, but there really is nothing quite like wailing a dirge to a slow beat to call up the dead.
Putting It All Together
Moving on from physically and verbally reconstructing the various elements, the next thing I focused on was figuring out the “order of business.” This is basically when you sit down and figure out the most logical way to bring together the various elements of your ritual. Another way to think about this is along the lines of ordering the elements of your story so that it forms a coherent narrative.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made when putting together experiments before is overcomplicating what I’m doing. So, I try to keep things as simple as possible and try to avoid adding extraneous elements and/or steps.
Shockingly (especially with all of my other fuck ups by this point), I did actually manage to keep things simple for my first grid experiment.
The Order Of Business (Take One)
Get out cloth and chant over “posts.” Make sure I have everything I need.
Create/delineate ritual space through incantation and circumambulation with water.
Open up grid cloth within ritual space. Ritual speech locating the cloth in cosmology and delineating function according to my working theory.
Speak charm over sticks to make doorposts. Install in the NE. Speak charm locating the posts in cosmology and delineating function.
Make initial offering to Hel asking her to open Helgrindr and allow some of her subjects to temporarily visit. (I included this step because it’s both good manners but smart to include relevant death deities when potentially working necromancy IME.) Deposit offerings in NE.
Move to SW. Enter light trance so as to monitor physical and magical effects. Sing adapted dirge (the version that describes the journey from Hel.)
Make offerings to any dead who show up to welcome them. See what happens. React accordingly. (Welcome to the “find out” section of this flavor of “fuck around and find out”)
Express gratitude for their presence when done and make a final offering to them. If no one showed up, make offering anyway in case they did but you just didn’t perceive them.
Sing/guide any dead back using the version of the dirge describing the journey to Hel. (Important: perform this step anyway even if you felt/saw nothing!)
Express gratitude to Hel and make final offering.
Chant another incantation over the posts to return them to being sticks and take them up.
Take up the grid cloth once you’re sure any visitors are gone. (Monitor for environmental changes associated with dead and perform divination if unsure.)
Circumambulate clockwise, chanting a charm returning the space to its previous state.
Purification, assessment, and more purification.
Once I had all of the above figured out/in place, the only things left to figure out were offerings and location.
As I discussed in the post on research, the evidence of offerings on the grid demonstrates offerings of blood and fat made to the NE of the grid and less bloodier ones to the SW. Price also suggests in Nine Paces that the grid was likely a site of blood sacrifice as well.
However, blood and fat were not really doable options for me. Especially seeing as I also planned to conduct that first experiment away from home. One potential solution to this could have been melted lard and blood from meat purchased from the supermarket. The latter is something I’ve offered before in the vein of Kormaks saga to the ælfe; I have no issue doing that. But blood congeals when exposed to air and fat congeals when it cools, which would have made it impossible to pour out either substance. So, with all of that in mind, I leaned into the symbolic again and went with red wine.
As far as I know, I was the first human to experiment with the grid in this way since the Götavi site was discovered. This meant that I had absolutely no idea what to expect (if anything) going into that first experiment. Because of this, I opted to perform the first experiment away from home and basically in the middle of nowhere. I may not have known what was going to happen, but my instincts were telling me something was</em? going to happen. Moreover, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that “something” would be pivotal in some way.
But events can be “pivotal” in many ways. For example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was pivotal as fuck, and that turned out terrible for millions of humans. I didn’t want to expose my family and neighbors to any potentially dangerous effects stemming from my experiments.
So naturally, I booked a cabin up a mountain in WV with some friends.
I’ll talk about that first experiment in my next post.
Reconstructionism and Gnosis: The Story (Of These Blogs) So Far
In my last post, I talked about the interplay between reconstructionism and gnosis as I experience it. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear: it is my very sincere belief that both are necessary if we are to create workable and effective magical practices.
When I first got the idea for the post that spawned this series, I had three main points I wanted to communicate/dig into:
The necessity of combining reconstructionism and gnosis when attempting to create modern versions of historically attested forms of magic.
How that process can look from the inside/up-close.
The historical argument for gnosis and why gnosis cannot be ignored in matters of ritual and magic.
My original plan was for this to be a three-part series, with this second post focusing on specific examples from my own practice. Essentially it would have been a storytime blog. But the more I thought about it, the less satisfied I was with the idea of just telling stories. Storytelling is one of the oldest teaching methods known to man, but stories have to be chosen and presented carefully if they are to be effective teachers. A collection of stories would only provide the same bird’s eye view of the subject as the gold mine analogy from the first post.
A New Plan Emerges
Instead, I would prefer to provide a more in-depth perspective to accommodate as many learning styles as possible. Because if there is one thing I’ve found from talking to people about this, it’s that many find it hard to imagine this process in practice. Part of this, at least in my opinion, is likely down to how the reconstructionist movement played out in Heathen spaces in the mid-to-late 2000s. From my perspective, the research phases of the method eclipsed the experimentation and evaluation phases. So, we don’t really have that space in our communities for the experimentation and evaluation discussions (yet). Moreover, when you wade into those warm, tempting waters of experimentation and evaluation, you’re inevitably getting into experience and gnosis. To return to a point I made last week: another mistake we Heathens made as a movement/group of movements back then was to largely neglect the subject of discernment. Instead, there was a tendency to either write gnosis off as “made-up-shit” or cling to it uncritically depending on where you sat on the fake “recon” vs “woo” spectrum.
So, rather than a round of storytelling, I’m going to take one story and use it as a framework to demonstrate my process of researching/creating experiments/conducting experiments/recording/evaluating/tweaking. Along the way, I will also highlight where gnosis makes an appearance, what I consider the “tipping point,” and touch upon discernment and assessing gnosis. I will also discuss the responsibility I feel to keep my family safe from any effects of my clarting around with old magical tech as well as what I consider to be necessary safety and wellness measures while engaging in this work.
Fair warning, but I have no idea how long this section of the series will be. This thing that started out as a single post seems to be spawning “babies” faster than rabbits in spring.
I guess we’ll get to the third section when we get there.
Some “Rules” For Blending Reconstruction And Gnosis
Before beginning the story though, I would like to discuss some of the unofficial “rules” I observe when engaging in this work. Though I refer to them as “rules,” I have found them to be far more helpful than restrictive. Please do not feel obligated to adopt them for yourself, but if you do, I hope you find them as helpful as I have.
The first rule is honesty, and this applies in several ways.
In my experience, one of the biggest sources of contention between those who lean more to reconstruction vs those who lean more to gnosis boils down to labeling sources. Or in other words: not being entirely honest about where you got your information from. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people trying to pass off gnosis as something textually attested. This is something that irritates me too even as a weird-experimenter and haver-of-gnosis.
If anything, I think it’s even more important for those of us who are experimenting with magic to be honest about our work and sources than your average Heathen. And there are two main reasons for this:
The first is that it’s both dishonest and rude to the humans you’re interacting with. Moreover, when you’re found out, it ruins the credibility of your work for those who are interested.
The second and most important reason is that you essentially deny the experiences, Powers, and relationships from which that gnosis flowed when you deny their role. It’s incredibly disrespectful to pass that other-gotten-gnosis off as coming from a book. Sure, the humans you’re interacting with might take the gnosis you’re sharing more seriously. But what of your relationships with those who helped you? If you find yourself prioritizing the approval of human strangers on the internet over your working relationships with allies, then you may want to ask yourself why.
Another area in which honesty is important pertains to interactions with other-than-human people. It’s never a good idea to lie to the kind of beings you can come across in magic. So, be careful with your words. Don’t promise anything you won’t do or give. Don’t be afraid to use direct but polite speech instead of flowery words if you suspect those flowery words might get you in trouble. And remember that silence is an option and always better than a lie. Never underestimate the abilities of the beings you may meet, as the consequences can be dire.
Finally, be as honest as you can with yourself about what you experience. Make a point of recording your experiences as soon as you are able. Because once an experiment ends, you begin the journey into the same kind of territory as crime scene witnesses. So, try to get everything down as quickly as possible and be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to add notes like “I also got the impression of _____ but I’m not sure that actually came from interacting with (being) or was an intrusive thought/my brain elaborating as I could feel the trance weakening and it sounds similar to something I saw/heard the other day.” The mind loves to make connections and elaborate on experiences, and often we don’t even notice it. With practice though, it can get easier to spot.
So, that’s honesty.
No One Is Under Any Obligation To Accept Your Gnosis
My second “rule” is that no one is under any obligation to accept my gnosis (but they’re welcome to it if it resonates).
In my experience, this is another bone of contention when it comes to gnosis. Gnosis is a funny old thing, and especially in a group of religious movements mostly made up of ex-Christians burdened with largely unexamined Christian baggage.
I’ve written about how Christian baggage is a proverbial elephant in the roomfor a lot of Pagans and Heathens. Too many of us pretend that we shook off all vestiges of Christianity or the influence of growing up in a Christian-dominant society as soon as we put on a hammer and picked up a drinking horn. But unfortunately, life (and religious conversion) isn’t nearly that simple. And is it really surprising? Changing a worldview isn’t some quick, dump-water-on-head-and-call-Odin-a-bitch thing—no matter how it’s portrayed in Christian narratives. In my opinion, one of the areas in which Christian baggage has influenced modern Heathens can be found in some of the reactions to gnosis.
Now, this isn’t just something that happens to the more “recon-minded.” I think we find the same underlying concepts playing out (albeit differently) among some of the more “woo” aligned folks as well.
Ask yourself, “What does it mean to Christians when a Christian claims to have spoken to their god and received divine wisdom from him?”
It’s prophecy, right? Divine revelation that others must heed because it’s the Word of God.
This is the kind of thing wars have been fought over. Because that kind of a claim can be deeply problematic from a Christian perspective, especially if that message challenges dogma. There’s also the matter of who receives that communication and how they are viewed in the eyes of religion and society. What is their sex? Their social status? Their perceived closeness to god? The pope making divinely revealed pronouncements ex cathedra is fine, but it’s another matter if the person doing it is considered deficient or less holy in some way, or even simply too ordinary. That is when things have a tendency to get a little…spicy, shall we say?
And this is the framing that many are coming with to Heathenry and Paganism. Is it any wonder we see the reactions we do? The people with the gnosis who try to act like it’s imperative everyone goes along with it? The people who rule out the possibility of anyone interacting with a deity who doesn’t fit a certain, restrictive set of criteria? The defensiveness on all sides?
So, what do we do about it?
As someone who has a lot of gnosis, I think it’s imperative that we change the way we think about gnosis. We need to cultivate space for gnosis to simply exist without being a prophecy or divine revelation that everyone must follow. Not all communication with deities is revelation or prophecy that must be shared, or something that can only happen to certain, special people. And we do that by only considering our gnosis relevant to ourselves, listening respectfully to the gnosis of others, and retaining the right to accept or reject what you hear (preferably politely).
You Are Responsible For Keeping Others Safe!
Shockingly, conducting magical experiments based on historical sources isn’t always the safest way to pass the time. Things can happen that you had no way of foreseeing. You can find yourself experiencing unforeseen physical effects. And there’s always the chance of attracting the attention of unhelpful, opportunistic, or even hostile beings with your antics.
Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, the unforeseen consequences of your experiments can all-too-easily spread to the people around you.
Think about your roles in life and who you live with. I’m a mom; I have a little person entrusted to my care, and they tend to be attractive to a lot of beings. I’m also married, and my little family also counts a dog and a cat among us. These are all lives that I could inadvertently bring stress and harm to if I’m not careful. In addition to this, I live in a row house and my neighbors on both sides have family members who have been made vulnerable by sickness—yet more lives to take into account. And on top of that, the town where we live is bizarrely busy with the Otherworldly and generally strange activity.
(I say “bizarrely” as no one can figure out why the town where I live is so active. As an aside, it was like that before I moved in).
These are all factors that need to be taken into account when planning magical experiments. Because they don’t deserve to deal with any unwanted interlopers or other consequences from my activities, and it’s entirely down to me if they do.
So, I factor them into my planning. I build extra layers of containment and protection into my experiments. And when I really have no idea what could happen, I find the time to go and do my experiments somewhere away from other humans. I always keep a good supply of apotropaics handy. And I am careful with shutdown and clean-up.
Also important is what I do outside my experiments in my day-to-day life. I have and maintain close relationships with the deities I worship and my allies. Those relationships are often a magical practitioner’s first form of defense. I also regularly meditate, practice basic skills, and check in with my souls. And as someone whose practice is also informed by the Old English magico-medical manuscripts, I am very careful with purification practices too. All of these are intended to ensure that I am as hæl as I can be going into my experiments, that I’m not out of practice, and that I remain me.
The “rules” I have just given are not the only ones I observe, but they are the main ones. I will introduce others as they become relevant throughout the rest of the series. It should go without saying, but whether you choose to adopt them for yourself is entirely up to you. Either way, I hope the accompanying discussion has given you plenty of food for thought.
In the next post, I’m going to take you through the first stage of the reconstructionist process: research. This is where I’ll introduce you to a fascinating Swedish site archaeologists refer to as the Götavi grid. I’ll talk about where I first found out about it; the various features of the grid, their symbolism, and other examples of those features; potential references from textual sources; and possible meanings and interpretations. If the post doesn’t run too long, I’ll also talk about my first attempt to recreate the grid and what happened.
Reconstructionism vs Gnosis: A (Lame) War Between Two Ideological Camps
Once upon a time (well, back in the mid-2000s) a complete and utter weirdo got involved in a reconstructionist community online. Things were kind of wild back then. I was teaching English in South Korea and had just met the love of my life. Like me, he was a Heathen, and through him, I was increasingly introduced to the US Heathen community.
Nowadays, I know that’s a silly thing to say. The “US Heathen community” sounds like a monolith when there are very clear regional differences. But as an outsider looking in, you tend to notice the broad strokes before the nuances.
One of those broad strokes was the fault line stretching between two seemingly separate ideological camps: the reconstructionists and the gnosis-focused (or “woo”) people.
As a neurodivergent person, reconstructionist spaces were much easier for me to inhabit with their clearly defined “rules of engagement.” I couldn’t talk about the stuff that made my soul sing—namely my experiments and experiences in magic. But that was a small price to pay for knowing where I stood. Conversely, the gnosis-centered groups were confusing and the rules far less clear. Sometimes people wanted to hear about my research and read my sources, but other times…well, I may as well have been offering them the option of sitting in a diarrhea-filled spacesuit.
This was a time during which one camp extolled the virtue of keeping gnosis to oneself (like genitals) and the other seemed to consider bookishness a barrier to gnosis.
(Fun fact: I was once told I was too bookish to have gnosis.)
If you were lucky enough to miss the whole thing, it was like Romeo vs Juliet, only with less death and mostly online.
0/10 would not recommend.
And the absolutely wild part of it all? It was completely unnecessary.
Reconstructionism and Gnosis, Sitting In A Tree…
Before continuing, I want to get something straight: there is nothing wrong with either reconstructionism or gnosis.
(Well, reconstructionism the methodology is fine. I’m not so keen on the weird sect-like version of reconstructionism found in online groups.)
They’re also not really at opposing ends of a spectrum either. I would even argue that reconstructionism is one of the most useful methodologies for reviving/creating workable magical practices rooted in accounts of historical Heathen magic.
However, if I have learned anything from my twenty-or-so years of experimenting in this way, it’s that scholarship (regardless of methodology) can only take you so far. At some point, you want gnosis to take over and guide you the rest of the way.
But what do I mean by this?
Seams of Gold and Old-Ass Mineshafts
I would like you to imagine for a moment a seam of gold under the earth. It’s a special seam of gold—let’s say it represents all the ritual and magical knowledge we’re currently missing. Now, you could just try digging for that seam without any instructions. But who in their right mind would do that? Mining comes with hazards, and if you’re not careful, you might miss the seam entirely and happen upon something you don’t want. Moreover, the soil in different places is…well, different. The composition is different, the kinds of rocks are different—these are all factors that affect how you dig.
This is where the sources and reconstructionism come in. Imagine that the sources contain the equivalent of geological data, analysis of the material you’re looking for, and possibly even instructions for how best to dig down.
Sometimes they may even purport to reveal the location of an older mine. A mine that the historical Heathens originally dug (but almost always never works out).
So, what to do?
This is where reconstructionism ideally hands the baton over to gnosis.
Like many, I used to fall into the trap of thinking that historical record was the same as authenticity and/or efficacy. But years of research, experimentation, evaluation, and experience have taught me that gnosis/inspiration/guidance from the Holy Powers can be just as important. More often than not, it’s the latter that makes the difference between practices that work and practices that fall flat.
And regardless of era, the proof is always in the pudding with magic.
You see (and I’m probably going to blog about this in the future), magic has never solely been the product of human hands. As a technology, magic is inherently Other —- something that is passed from Themselves to us. There’s a good example of this exchange in the witch-familiar relationship as recorded in English and Scottish sources from the Early Modern Period. I wrote about it in more depth here, if you’re interested. But the quick version is that the source of the witch’s power and learning was the familiar (who was Otherworldly vs demonic in earlier accounts). It was the familiar who was in charge.
I would argue that this makes interacting with that Other (as well as associated deities and ancestors) an important part of the process for creating workable practices rooted in accounts of Heathen period magic. It’s their tools we work with. And if anyone knows how to work with those tools (or how best to work with them over a thousand years after other humans used them), it’s Themselves.
You just have to get their attention first, and this is where reconstruction and other methodologies can help. Because in my experience, if you reconstruct enough for somebeing to recognize what you’re trying to do, then you might find somebeing who’s inclined to help you out.
(I’m sure that’s like a form of ergi for some folks out there, but whatever.)
Thwarted Words, Insufficient Mechanisms
Unfortunately, all of the above requires something called discernment. And if we’re being honest, the ridiculous war between Reconstructio and Gnosiet stymied a lot of necessary discussion about how to assess and process gnosis in a healthy way. I believe this has been to our detriment.
You see, there will always be people in any religious group who have a drive to go deeper and to experience more. There will always be those of us who need to be in those liminal spaces and working with weird practices.
One of the most curious things about modern US Heathenry is how protestant it can be at times. A number of Heathens are simply uncomfortable with other people having gnosis and even go so far as to refer to it as MUS (or “made up shit”). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the assertion that “magic isn’t a part of Heathenry” (despite accounts of magic in every genre of ON literature and probable physical evidence). And there’s a segment of Heathens who would probably be far happier if all of us subscribed to the “gods of limited access” model.
As humans, we all have varying levels of religious/mystical/spiritual needs. True communities (vs the protestant church model many seem to emulate) focus on inclusion instead of shunning. In an actual community, there are always people you don’t like and who believe differently than you. That’s normal; that’s just organic communities for you.
Moreover, when a religious community doesn’t address discernment in a useful way;when a community doesn’t provide tools and space for “woo-inclined” members to mutually support each other; or worse, when a community ostracizes the “weirdos,” then the ground is ripe for bad actors to come in. And when it comes to the magical and mystical, humans are especially vulnerable to exploitation.
This is something I’ve seen play out over and over again.
Thankfully, many Heathens (at least in the communities I’m in) have moved on from such hard divisions between scholarship and gnosis. Discussing gnosis has become less of a fraught proposition, and previously hostile communities have become less so.
If you are curious about the line where reconstruction (or any scholarship) can end and gnosis begin on a practical level, hopefully this post has given you some ideas. This is not the only way in which scholarship and gnosis can enrich, enable, and support each other either. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given up on a line of research only to be told what to look for next in a dream. Or been told in a dream to look into something seemingly unrelated to my research interests only to find that lead panning out. On occasion, I’ve even had people randomly message me sources they felt they needed to send to me that filled in some research gaps.
In the next post, I’m planning to dig deeper into the gnosis element of my magical experimentation with some examples of things I’ve experienced (story time!). After that, I’m planning a post on the Otherworldly origins of magic and partnership between witches and the Other.
Finally, I’ll be holding a free online class on the 28th of January 2023 at 2pm EST on spinning. Nothing magical (you’d need to develop muscle memory first for that). Just a bunch of people learning to make yarn out of fluff with spindles. If that interests you, save the date. I’ll post an event sign-up later this week and guidance on beginner-friendly fluff and spindles. If you do not have any spinning tools or fluff, you will need to order them. Spots will likely be limited, so please only order after you’ve signed up.
Around fifteen years ago I was sitting in a pub at a Pagan moot. It was the final moot I would attend before moving to Korea. I’d gone there to meet up with my co-host to discuss the moot we ran together (a different moot from the one I was at), and basically do the handover of my end of things. But at one point, a woman on another table called me over to her. She’d decided I needed to have a rune reading from her, and I, several pints into the evening, decided to go along with it.
So I pick up my pint and go over to this individual’s table. Because that’s another “funny” thing about this interaction – I didn’t even know her. But she’s getting out her runes, and soon those runes also include various crystals that she arranges around the table.
“These are amplifiers,” she informs me, then pulls out some jewelry that she starts to don. Before long, she’s wearing some kind of circlet and a bracelet. “Dampeners,” she says, as though it’s the most logical thing in the world.
I give her a puzzled look and ask “Why not just get rid of the amplifiers so you wouldn’t need the dampeners?”
That earns me a look that leaves me in no doubt that she thinks I’m an idiot. I work hard to keep the growing look of amusement off my face and she continues to set up, now making all kinds of spurious claims about runic ancestral teachings as she does so. Her mother apparently was taught this at her grandmother’s knee, and then there was non sequitur about illuminated manuscripts thrown in there too.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see where this whole thing would go as my fellow moot organizer chose that moment to come find me for our meeting and I left shortly afterwards.
History vs Story
Despite having practiced runic divination for years with some startling results, I was full of skepticism for what this reader was bringing. I knew there was no historical evidence solidly linking the runes to divination and that claims of hereditary rune reading going back to the 12th century (or whenever she claimed) were bunk. But what I wasn’t paying attention to (and what I have come to realize over the years), is that it’s not the history that makes a practice useful, but our abilities to connect with and buy into the stories surrounding that practice.
And runes, with their long inclusion in fantasy and slew of occult writings, have plenty of stories to connect with and buy into as tools for magical and divinatory practice.
Now, I would probably see that reader in the pub with her amplifiers, dampeners, and spurious claims as a weaver of stories. Her stories just weren’t any I could personally buy into.
Ruining the Runes I: Guido von List
But it would be wrong to consider modern rune magic and divination to have no historical precedent whatsoever. If anything, the early history of modern rune magic can serve as a cautionary tale that we should also be careful of the stories we tell – even with modern things/old things repurposed for modern use.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the vast majority of what we
consider to be modern rune magic actually comes from early 20th century ethnonationalist (or völkisch) occultists who had originally been inspired by Theosophy. For them, as members of the “Aryan root race” (a concept they drew from Theosophy), it was from the purported wisdom of Germanic ancestors that they should draw instead of India. One of the first proponents of this racial mysticism was Guido von List who claimed to have tapped into ancestral memories of the Armanen, the alleged priesthood of the “Aryans” (Our Troth, vol. 1, Pp232 – 233).
Eventually, List put forth an 18 rune futhark known as the Armanen runes, to which he ascribed complex symbolism and that was contained within a Kabbalah-like system (that List would go on to falsely claim was originally of Germanic origin but preserved by Jewish Rabbis in Cologne). Despite this, List would never go on to develop a system of runic practice (outside of some lame rip off of the New Aeon English Qabalah gematria).
Ruining the Runes II: Marby and Kummer
List died in 1919, but unfortunately völkisch mysticism would stick around for a while yet. The next two people of note were followers of List: Friedrich Bernhard Marby and Siegfried Kummer. This is when we see the development of “Runic yoga” and the use of “runic mudras” as well as chanted runes as a form of “mantra”. For Kummer, who developed these chants, runes were energy fields permeating the cosmos that could be tapped into. ( (Our Troth, vol. 1, Pp233-234)
Now there’s a lot we could say about the whole “chanting runes as mantras” thing. Mantras are ancient (the earliest dating back to the Vedic period) and enough common elements have been found between different Indo-European cultures that comparativism is an established methodology. But the fact of the matter is that we simply can’t make the argument the ancient Germans or Scandinavians had mantras or what they would have been. Some modern esotericists might make an argument for “ALU” based on personal gnosis, but again, that’s not something we can prove.
As it happens though, this story did not end well for either Kummer or Marby. And ironically, it was their fellow racists that took them out. Because once the Nazi Party got into power, they were all about suppressing those weird pagan and occult groups. Marby was imprisoned from 1937 to 1945 and Kummer disappeared. And in 1941, the Gestapo was ordered to take out “secret doctrines and fringe societies” (Our Troth, vol. 1, p244-245).
Which makes you wonder why any modern Heathen would ever find sympathy with racist ideologies really. And despite racist Heathen talk about the primacy of “the folk” and “no more brother wars”, comments from non-Heathen far right spaces reveal a desire to stamp out far right Heathens almost as much as anyone else. Patterns repeat, people! Mark this one well if you are “folkish”, your fellow “brothers” will take you out if they ever gain power.
Ruining the Runes III: Edred Thorsson and the Modern Movement
But unlike Kummer, the ideas about runes developed by the völkisch mystics wouldn’t disappear for long – at least not in the grand scheme of things. If the ideas surrounding runes and the practices surrounding them (such as chanting) sounded familiar to you when reading through the section on Marby and Kummer, you can largely thank Edred Thorsson for that. Because it’s from Marby and Kummer that he largely drew his material (albeit adapted to the 24 rune futhark) (Our Troth, vol. 1, p 234).
The influence of Marby, Kummer, and to a lesser extent, List’s work on modern rune magic is pervasive. Which is unsurprising given how prolific Thorsson is and how influential he has been over the years. The chances are that if you pick up a book on modern rune magic, Thorsson’s influence is present.
Uncomfortable Histories and Bad Stories
There’s no doubt that the origins story of modern rune magic is bad. Some of us might also feel that the practices initially developed by Marby, and Kummer were poisoned by the ideology of the same racist movement that would eventually turn on Marby and Kummer.
But the fact of the matter is that modern runic magic has been with us for around forty-five years now, in a religious movement that’s not really been around for a whole lot longer. In many ways, the origins story of modern rune magic parallels that of Heathenry itself in that many of the early founders of modern Heathenry were also folkish/völkisch. (Btw I really recommend you pick up Our Troth Vol. 1: Heathen History or check out the Heathen History Podcast and learn about the early history of the modern Heathen movement.)
Yet though there are some outside of Heathenry who feel that no one should be Heathen because of this history, the majority of us stick around. Why?
The same reason as always: We found something within Heathenry that made sense to us and made our souls sing (whatever a “soul” is). And as someone who has been a Heathen since roughly 1997, this is the first time I’ve seen anything approaching a coherent inclusive movement within Heathenry that is based in relationship and ideas of interconnectedness, and it is beautiful. More importantly, it has the potential for growth.
The far right may have had a heavy hand in its creation (especially in the Anglosphere), but it’s our Heathenry now. It’s what we do now that matters.
Stories for Runes
As mentioned above, I find it ironic that it was the poisonous part of Marby and Kummer’s ideas that eventually came back to bite them. I also find it meaningful and a potential lesson. Because here’s the thing about magic: It doesn’t matter how new or old it is, if you are getting results and seeing change then you are interacting with “something bigger”. And whatever that “something bigger” is, however you experience it within your paradigm, you will find out when you fuck up (and usually in a way that highlights the nature of your fuck up). So to me, the fate of Marby and Kummer suggests that their völkisch beliefs were the fuck up.
Now this is clearly only my personal gnosis. And just to be clear, the magical slap downs I’m referring to here tend to come from angered deities/spirits and/or broken oaths vs the threefold law or the pervasive (and inaccurate) Western idea of Karma.
So where do we go from here with modern rune magic (for those of us who do find value in it)?
Inclusive Runes for Inclusive Heathens
The first thing is to be aware of the origins story of modern rune magic. We cannot erase that story, but we can damn well decide where we take it from here.
And there are people out there who are creating new/old stories for the runes,
stories that reflect their own ideas of interconnectedness and connection and who connect those ideas and their practice with mythological elements. Such as the story of a hanged god who gave all beings breath snatching up the runes from Hel. Or the Nornir who carve the ørlög of every person on slips despite having no way of knowing whether the Nornir do actually carve in runes. They’ll take inspiration from Hávamál, Sigdrífumál, and Egil’s saga for their magic. Chant “ALU” from the bracteates and derive their meanings for divination from the rune poems.
These aren’t historically accurate stories, but that doesn’t really matter. Because they’re good stories, and more importantly, they’re stories they can buy into.
Just don’t try to pass them off as something they’re not. Be clear that your practice is modern. Embrace that.
In the next post, I’m going to talk about my modern rune magic practice and how I see what I do when I am working with the runes in this way. I’m also going to talk about the ways in which I use it, and especially how useful it’s been for my daughter.
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 practices 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.
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 isolation, 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
The 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.
‘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 produce 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.
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.