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.
Welcome back to another thrilling installment of this blog series examining the intersection of reconstruction and gnosis!
Before I get stuck in though, I just wanted to add a quick note about my use of the word “reconstructionism,” in this series. This can be something of a nebulous word among modern Heathens. At its core, it’s a methodology that allows scholars to experience a thing in as accurate a way as possible to potentially gain insights about that thing. However, it’s also come to signify a movement within modern Heathenry that sits at the opposite end of the (fake) spectrum from “woo.” This was the meaning we first began with in the beginning of this series. Some might even argue that this “recon” movement has developed a dogma of its own over time, thus making it a kind of sect. (And a weirdly evangelical one at that.)
Within the context of this series, I use the term “reconstructionism” and its variants to refer to either the methodology as I approach it or the movement as it relates to the “recon – woo” scale. When referring to the research phase of the process, I also use “scholarship” or “research,” as that’s the bulk of the work involved at that stage. However, it’s important to note reconstruction doesn’t just include research but experimentation and post-experiment evaluation as well.
Some Limitations Of Reconstructing Magic
It should probably go without saying, but magical reconstruction is a completely different kettle of fish from reconstructing medieval bow shooting (for example). I’ve discussed this before in previous posts, but there are a couple of extra points we need to bear in mind when reconstructing magic.
The first is that the ON primary sources were written from the observer’s perspective, often long after the events they describe took place. Sometimes there are further clues from archaeological finds (especially when they seem to support the textual sources and vice versa). However, the vast majority of the time, interpreting those finds is (to put it crudely) ultimately a matter of educated guesswork.
The second point relates to outside influences. Even textual sources that appear to have been written for practitioners are not without their problems. The most relevant example of this within the context of my own work are OE magico-medical texts like the Lacnunga. Though they clearly contain earlier remnants, these texts were written hundreds of years after the English officially converted. So, while there may be Heathen elements, there are also clear Christian and Classical influences in the mix as well, and it can be difficult to tease those different strands apart.
Step One: Building A Working Theory
One of the first things you’ll notice if you try experimenting with historical magic, is that there are “gaps.” We often talk about different magical traditions or currents as systems. And like any other kind of system, there are certain processes/actions/objects required to make a magical system work.
Historical Heathen magic was likely no different.
I find it helpful to think of magical systems as languages for communicating with and mediating issues with the Holy Powers and Unseen of this world. As with any other kind of language, there needs to be a grammar-like framework as well as some agreement on performance if it is to be understood.
So, part of the work involved in creating magical experiments has to include a working theory of how the system you’re experimenting with may have worked. Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong. At this point, it’s best to think in terms of degrees of accuracy anyway. You’re not aiming for the magical equivalent of being able to write a book in a second language (big shout out to Daniela Simina for that one!). Your aim here is to figure out enough to do the equivalent of successfully ordering a hotdog at a gas station without confusing or pissing off the staff.
When formulating your working theory/theories, it’s important to remember that magical systems are not separable from worldview. They exist within the worldview from which they were born. So, for example, as magic is very much concerned with fate, it’s wise to learn everything you can about how Historical Heathens may have thought about “fate.” You would also do well to read up about souls and eschatology, as well as how they may have viewed their neighbors (both Seen and Unseen) in this wondrous Middle-Earth.
Once you have your working theory though, then you can begin to think about the elements they may have thought necessary, the order of ritual, and well…everything else. Because working theories—while daunting—give you a place to start figuring out some of the missing pieces.
Filling In The Missing Pieces AKA “Plotholes”
If you’ve been practicing magic for any amount of time, you can probably read a ritual, mentally walk it though, and have a good idea of whether it’s going to work. In doing this (whether you realize it or not), you’re effectively assessing the “story” of the ritual/spell/working for “plot holes.”
At times, these potential plot holes reveal themselves through sources of similar practices or comparable sites within your focus culture/s. Other times though, you may find yourself suspecting a plot hole when looking into similar practices from related cultures or cultures with whom your focus culture/s had a lot of interaction.
Much rarer (at least in my experience) is when the author unintentionally leaves a hint of a plot hole via a stock phrase. A phrase that seems to indicate a practice/action/incantation the author considered so basic and common to their intended audience they didn’t think it worth the bother of writing down. Those of you who have studied the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri are probably very familiar with the phrase “do the usual.” This is the kind of hint I mean here.
However a plot hole is revealed though, my first step is to widen my field of research to try and find something with enough of a similar “shape” to fill those gaps. This is when I begin to look into sources from related cultures or later time periods from the same culture. (Because we clearly also need to add in some comparativism and retrospective methods too.)
Finally, I also pay attention to my gnosis as well as lessons learned from previous experiences and incorporate those too. Remember how I extolled the importance of writing everything down in the last post? Well, this is where all of that recorded gnosis and XP starts to come in.
Filling In The Missing Pieces: The “Not Attested But We Know This Shit Keeps Us Safe” Parts
The last kind of plot hole to consider are the practices and precautions we have no historical evidence for but know from experience to be smart. These include (but are not limited to) some mainstays of modern witchcraft practice like grounding/centering/shielding and energy manipulation.
There can be a temptation to try and be the most authentic and accurate little magical explorer that could. But as a witch, I’m nothing if not practical, and I’ve seen what happens when people don’t have those so-called “basics” down when engaging in this kind of work.
Magic isn’t safe, and this is especially the case when working outside established traditions. Established traditions have structure and methods of working and people generally have an idea of how rituals are going to go. Moreover, when things do go wrong, a practitioner working within an established tradition has a layer of protection and backup people like myself don’t have. Let’s just say things can get a little wild when you’re building experiments from historical sources, frameworks of educated guesses, and gnosis.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s also mad fun. This kind of work makes my souls sing and has led me to the most incredible experiences. Performing a ritual I’ve put together for an experiment with next to zero idea of what’s going to happen next is my happy place.
But it’s really not safe.
So, regardless of historical accuracy, I recommend adding some safety mechanisms to your experiments as well. Those so-called “basic” witchcraft skills can actually be the difference between “Eh, things got a bit hairy” and “Yeah, I was lucky to get out in one piece.”
As an aside, if you don’t believe the Unseen can really harm you and/or that you’re somehow in charge/are owed something/are more powerful because you’re a witch, then please keep away from this work. To put it bluntly: you’d be a danger to yourself, anyone who works with you, and eventually those who live with you as well.
I also recommend that you create amulets, make sure your go-bag includes apotropaics for if (when) shit goes sideways, and begin a purification practice if you don’t already have one. Some beings/energies/kinds of work aren’t exactly good for humans from a health/wellness perspective. So, find ways to get clear that work for you. (If you dig smoke cleansing, here’s the third in a series of posts about that very thing.) These are important for staying healthy/well. Ideally, you’ll have methods/things you can use directly after finishing an experiment and methods/things you can use when you get home and in the following days. Additionally, you may find that you have instincts that kick in after certain types of work. One example of such an instinct that Martin Coleman kind of also wrote about in Communing With The Spirits is post-necromancy horniness. As long as those instincts are not harmful to yourself or others, my advice is to go with them. Go forth and bang that necromancy out of your system (or whatever).
Finally, don’t forget to figure out some protocols for wrapping up your experiments, containing anything that needs containing, and getting clear of any influence/effects/interlopers before you get home. Please bear in mind that “going sideways” does include the possibility of things like possession and plan accordingly. It’s wise to have a buddy system in place; people you or your family members can call if extra help is needed.
I was initially hoping to stick to a single post on experiment building. However, as with all things in this series, it didn’t quite work out like that, and when my post tipped 5000 words, I figured it was best to split it into two posts. In the next post (now I’ve gotten all of those caveats out of the way), I’m going to talk about how I put together my first Götavi grid experiment, the underlying reasons why I made the choices I did as well as all the fuck-ups along the way. So, until next time. Be well.
I first stumbled across the Gõtavi grid in a paper entitled Nine Paces from Hel: Time and Motion in Old Norse Ritual Performance by the archaeologist, Neil Price. I’d been down a rabbit hole researching eschatology, its possible relationship to mortuary behavior, and how it may be reflected in funerary archaeology. This, by the way, was all thanks to a dream I’d had, which I’ve blogged about before due to its initiatory nature. But just to give you the TL;DR version: I was carried down a Hel-Road and interred in a mound where I had a nice chat with the dead. Among the topics we’d chatted about was the advice to pay attention to how the land is shaped for the shape of the story being told. Or in other words: the setting reflects/is made to reflect the story. Given that they weren’t telling me to go out and murder someone or wife-swap like John Dee, I decided to get on that.
I remember reading through the section of Price’s paper discussing the grid with fascination, with this ember of excitement flaring to life deep in my belly along with a knowing that this was a thread I needed to follow. And so follow it, I did.
A Quick Note on Threads, Gnosis, and the Process
Now you probably already noticed the gnosis sneaking in. This is one of the main reasons why I find it impossible to separate research from “woo.” As I said in my last two posts, they have never been entirely separate for me. I am a thread-tugging Cat, and I will tug the shit out of any threads I’m inspired to go tug on.
But here is where things can get precarious.
Because if you’re not careful, the excitement can take over, making it easy to lose sight of where you began. And as with all things magical for me when every fiber of my being is shouting, ”GO DO THE THING NOW, YOU KNOW THIS SHIT IS GOING TO WORK!”, it becomes a drive.
Now, I’m going to be honest here: it can be really tempting to blow off the research phase and get right down to the experimentation. But trust me when I say it’s not worth it. In my experience, the rewards are always so much better when you see the process through.
So what do you do?
You tell that excitement “Not yet!”, you get to work and write everything down as you go. Write down your research and the sources you worked from. Write down the gnosis that crops up as you research. Be honest what came from where. All of it will likely come in later anyway, regardless of where you got it from.
So, let me tell you about this grid!
Describing the Götavi Grid
The grid I’m referring to here was found at a place called Götavi, in what was once the historic Swedish province of Närke. Götavi is thought to be a theophoric toponym, or a place name that refers to or bears the name of a god/s. When I was first researching this site, the only meaning I encountered was the one given by Neil Price. He translates Götavi as “sanctuary of the gods,” but I should mention here that the meaning of Götavi is still disputed by Swedish scholars (Price, Nine Paces, 182; Vikstrand, Ullevi och Götavi, 60-64). Don’t worry, I’ll refrain from posting a summary of the main theories about Götavi and the surrounding arguments. In the interest of full disclosure, I only managed to access them after the initial research phase, and well. I’m not going to pretend I found more than I did in this post.
So, back to the grid! It’s rectangular in shape, measures 15 x 18 meters (or roughly 49 x 59 feet), and was constructed in a salt marsh some time in the late tenth to mid-eleventh centuries (Common Era).Interestingly, the grid was buried under a layer/platform of clay, which would have hidden it from participants when the site was in use (Price, Nine Paces, 183).
This Devil’s Hopscotch was composed of nine parallel lines/enclosures packed with stone, as well as a stone-packed square in one corner. The site is oriented along a SW/NE axis—which I’ll discuss later. And there is a slight, bowl-shaped depression at the center (Price, Nine Paces, 183).
Along each of the short sides of the grid, there is evidence of timber fencing, as well as evidence for additional wooden posts, especially at the NE end of the grid. Though archaeologists (rightfully) hesitate to assign meaning to this site, there is little doubt its purpose was ritual in nature. Chemical analyses conducted on the clay surface show large amounts of fat and blood along the NE end, and especially near where the wooden posts would have stood. Evidence of further deposits (probably food remains), was found in the SE sector of the grid (Price, Nine Paces, 183; Svensson, Götavi – en vikingatida kultplats i Närke, 69).
So, that’s the long and the short of the grid in terms of its physical characteristics.
(It’s a rectangle, get it? Never mind.)
However, here is where we magic practitioners need to part ways with the archaeologists and scholars. Our foci and goals—our destinations, in other words—are too different to stay on the same path. Their task is to learn about the past from surviving evidence. And it would be inappropriate for them to assign meaning or make declarations of “What It All Means” (Price, Performing the Vikings, 71). However, as I discussed in the first post of this series, my goals are quite different. To reach them, I need to pull enough from the sources to develop practical experiments and hopefully have experiences which I can then evaluate and further refine into workable practices.
In many ways, this is like reenactment, only without the cool period garb. What differentiates my work from the reenactor (aside from garb), is that I need a working theory related to meaning and magical mechanics before I start.
Performing Ritual and Cosmology in Land
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned a dream I’d had in which I was dead, got carried down a Hel-road and interred in a mound, and had a nice little chat with the dead. As I said at the beginning, a big part of their message was that there is a connection between how the land is shaped and the shape of a story.
The story they were referring to was eschatology.
When most think of eschatology, they think about the end of the world/s. However, eschatology can also be the final things of a human life as well. This is a huge topic when you think about it, encompassing everything from the afterlife and the journey to get there, to necromancy, psychopomps, the possibility of rebirth, and the shape of a human soul. When I first read about the Götavi grid and its features, I was immediately reminded of this dream and began thinking about the grid in eschatological terms. There are a few source-based reasons for this (which I will go into), but ultimately, it felt like I was on the right path.
Despite my main driver being little more than a gut feeling, I knew I wasn’t alone in working from the perspective of story and setting. Ever since the archaeologist Anders Andrén demonstrated that the imagery on a group of Gotland picture stones could be “read” like sequential episodes from the story of Sigurðr, archaeologists have begun to examine mortuary behavior in terms of performing and representing narrative/story as well. The picture stones commemorate the dead and are generally set between property boundaries. They are neither in-field nor out-field. But what’s really striking about Andrén’s findings, is that the story is told intergenerationally, with the stone from each generation depicting a “chapter” (Price, Performing the VIkings, 64-65).
Which, let’s face it, is kind of shit that you had to wait until someone died to catch the next episode. And we thought mid-season hiatuses sucked!
The consideration of story and setting isn’t limited to mortuary behavior and funerary archaeology either. Terry Gunnell, for example, writing on the origins of Norse drama, argued that some of the mythological material was written with performance in mind. And Olof Sundqvist has made the case for applying that same framework to the remains of cultic sites such as Gamla Uppsala (Sundqvist, The Temple, the Tree, and the Well: A Topos or Cosmic Symbolism at Cultic Sites in Pre-Christian Northern Europe?).
So, with all of that in mind, what made me think the “story” of the grid relates to eschatology?
Well, you know…aside from my gnosis and gut feeling.
Evidence For An Eschatological Story
Islands and Mounds
As I said above, the grid was constructed in a salt marsh and would have been hidden to observers thanks to that clay covering. This location would have also made the site a de facto island (albeit a pretty underwhelming one). But this island-like construction may be significant in and of itself. In his paper Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water, Eldar Heide demonstrates a long association between islands (as places that exist on the other side of water), and Hel and/or the Otherworld in Northwestern European textual sources. The evidence Heide cites isn’t limited to textual sources, though. He also points to a number of physical sites, such as the Iron Age graves on uninhabitable islets in Northern Norway and the relatively common occurrence of grave fields separated from living people settlements by streams.
Most relevant to us however, is Heide’s argument for considering burial mounds a parallel to those islands of the dead, citing archaeological pollen analyses conducted in the ditches surrounding the mounds of Borre. To summarize the findings: water plants grew in some of them there ditches. What do you call a burial mound surrounded by a ditch filled with water?
Sounds like an island of the dead to me!
(And as someone who originally came from an island Procopius labeled as one big hangout for the dead, I think I know an island of the dead when I see it.f)
The Number Nine
The most obvious feature of this “Devil’s Hopskotch” (never not calling it that btw), is the pattern. Probably the easiest way to describe it is as a square with nine other shapes around it on all sides.
“Three,” as De La Soul once sang, “is the magic number.” But if you’ve been Heathening for any amount of time, you probably already know that nine is symbolically potent and (dare I say it?) a magic number in Old Norse sources. Rán has nine daughters, Heimdallr has nine mothers (don’t ask me how that works), Mengloð has nine maidens, and Gróa has nine spells (Price, Nine Paces, 184).
We also see the number nine in contexts related to death and/or the dead. For example, that one time in Völuspá 53 and Gylfaginning cha. 51—you know, that when Þórr gets a venom shower from Jörmungandr—he walks (staggers?) nine paces before dropping dead (Dronke, The Poetic Edda, 22; Sturluson, Edda, 54). Another example of the number nine being the magic (dead) number can be found in Gylfaginning cha. 49. This is when Hermôðr does everyone a solid after Baldr gets unalived by riding for nine nights to the river Gjöll on his way to Hel (Sturluson, 50.) And Gylfaginning cha. 34 tells us that Hel was “thrown into Niflheim” and given authority over nine worlds, or as they’re also known, “the worlds you can die in” (Sturluson, 27). Catchy, right?
But don’t worry, little brother, there’s more!
You’ve all heard of Óðinn, right? That whole thing in Hávamál vs 138 where he hung on a “windswept tree” for “nine days and nights,” while “pierced by a spear.” Sound familiar?
(By the way, don’t try that at home!)
Well anyway, we’re also told that he’s sacrificing “himself to himself.” If there’s anything Baldr’s story and the boss battle called “Ragnarök” can teach us, it’s that gods can die. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume a god can die from this whole “hanging from a tree while stabbed” business. Moreover, we’re told the tree is “windswept,” which adds another layer of symbolism to the scene. As Maria Kvilhaug points out, there are clear associations between wind and death, and windlessness and immortality in Old Norse Poetry. Maria’s interpretation of “windswept”? Deadly AF (Kvilhaug, The Seed of Yggdrasill, 662).
So we have nine nights on the tree, nine nights on a Hel-ride, and nine paces before a god dies—all examples of the number nine and its connection to the journey to Hel.
Another significant feature of the grid is its SW/NE orientation. This orientation seems to be particularly associated with the dead or sites associated with the dead. In Doors to the Dead: The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia, Marianne Hem Eriksen, which is an absolute banger of a paper (if you’re into that kind of thing), provides several examples of this SW/NE orientation in conjunction with sites associated with the dead (such as burial mounds). Hem Eriksen is all about the doors in that paper, so she focuses more on doors than other forms of access (like causeways).
One specific example she gives is of the catchily named “mound 30,” in Helgö, Sweden, which has a portal/threshold structure constructed to its SW. This is not the only example she gives, though. Hem Eriksen also points out that archaeologists have identified at least 80 examples of SW portals associated with mounds or other kinds of graves. And interestingly—like the Götavi grid—the majority of them contain no human burials.
A different kind of site she discusses with this orientation, is the grave field structure known as the Åby portal. Evidence suggests this was a large, pentagonal, free-standing monument constructed in the SW corner of a grave field, with a doorway in the SW of the structure. As you can see, they were really sticking to that SW theme. Unlike the grid though, the Åby portal does contain a cremation burial, which is clear evidence of its association with the dead. You know…if the grave field location wasn’t enough for you.
Going back to that Gylfaginning episode where Hermóðr missions it through a bunch of deep, dark valleys, we also discover that after you get to the river, Hel is in a “northward” direction from there (Sturluson, 50). So, okay, Peter Pan’s directions aren’t the worst out there. And it’s not NE exactly, but the idea is that Hermóðr (AKA the living god-person) is riding from the south to interact with the dead.
You know, there’s a series of roundabouts in my hometown where the local council have gone absolutely hog wild erecting posts in that area. You’ve probably already heard the term “wonder of the world.” Well, take whatever comes to mind when you hear that term and imagine the antithesis, and it may get you close to the level of underwhelm I’m talking about here.
As I mentioned earlier, posts feature in the grid as well. Archaeologists have found evidence of a number of posts in the grid, especially in the NE. The Götavi grid however, isn’t the only post-containing site with features that also potentially connect it with the dead.
Enter: Lilla Ullevi, or the “little sanctuary of Ullr.”
Again, we have an usual stone feature that looks like a trapezoid shape with “legs” on the aerial photos. Archaeologists have interpreted it as a platform. But I’m not here to talk about that right now; I’m here for the posts. Because the evidence suggests that there were actually more posts at Lilla Ullevi than at the aforementioned series of roundabouts in my hometown. If you happen to be a fan of erect wooden poles jutting out of the fecund earth, then you probably would have fucking loved Lilla Ullevi.
This place seems to have been a hive of activity back in the day. There’s a theory that the platform was a seiðhjallr, which sounds like a stretch. But seeing as archaeologists found the basket-like part of an iron “staff of sorcery” just outside the southern edge of the platform, that isn’t too wild (Price, Nine Paces, 182).
(I use double quotations here, because this is the usual interpretation of these objects vs certainty.)
Now, Lilla Ullevi didn’t just have posts, there were groups of posts. (Hooray!) The platform itself is oriented east-west (depending on how you look at it), but evidence suggests activities took place north-south. Around 15m east of the “platform,” there’s evidence of a north-south line of posts—my favorite! The area to the south of the platform seems to have been the place to be (unless you were the theoretical völva in this situation). There’s an area of baked soil south of the platform that had fires burned on it over and over again. And there’s evidence for groupings of 3 posts with 60 iron rings buried in the ground in lines between the groupings of posts. Archaeologists also found miniature shield amulets along with lances, arrows, and fire steels in this area too. And if that wasn’t enough, roughly 36 knives were found dug down into the dirt around the stone platform as well (Price, Nine Paces, 182).
Smells like apotropaic use of iron against the dead to me! (Here’s a paper about that very thing if you’re curious.) Either way, the south seems to have been the place for the ordinary living to hang out. That was my point there. And sure, while we don’t know that the presence of posts are an indication of necromantic activities, I figured it was worth mentioning anyway.
Fat and Blood
Finally, there are the fat and blood stains in the NE of the grid to consider. Given the orientation, I’d expect these to be related to the dead in some way. But while there is evidence for feasting with cooked meat at graves/sites suggestive of graves, I think there’s a more useful parallel in the account of necromancy in The Odyssey.
Think: less BBQ with the dead and more “satiating the dead with blood.”
In book 11, lines 30-50, Odysseus decides to get his necromance on. He begins by digging a pit, which he fills with offerings to the dead. Then, he sacrifices a number of sheep, slitting their throats and allowing their blood to flow into the pit, while calling on the dead. After that, a whole load of rando dead people show up, which is pretty par for the course in these stories. Odysseus shits himself (figuratively, not literally like Cellini’s friend) and uses his sword to keep the dead back (apotropaic use) until he gets to talk to Tiresius (Homer, The Odyssey, 280).
Færeyinga Saga: A Potential Match?
So far, I’ve talked a whole lot about the possible meanings of the various features of the grid. However, the best evidence by far (at least in my opinion), that the “story” of the grid pertains to eschatology, comes from Færeyinga saga cha. 41. In this scene, a bunch of people are trying to find out how someone died, and so this guy called Þrándr sets up the following ritual: “Þrándr had great fires made up in the hall, and had four hurdles (?) set up to form a square. Then he marked out nine enclosures from the hurdles, in all directions, and he sat on a stool between the fire and the hurdles.” (Davidson, The Road to Hel, 161)
From there, the dead show up, they figure out how their boy Sigmundr Bretison got unalived, and then they get back on with their bullshit. But just look at that description again.
Four hurdles set up to form a square. Nine enclosures from the hurdles in all directions.
What does that sound like? Could it be this?
What Might This Tell Us?
Now, assuming that the grid pattern found at Götavi and Þrándr’s grid are one and the same, we can make the following five conclusions:
That the grid or some of the uses for the grid are necromantic in nature.
Given the symbolism of the features discussed and the contexts in which they appear, the grid possibly functions by mapping out or opening up the passage between the worlds of living and dead. To return to Odysseus: when you believe the dead reside underground, digging a pit might be thought of as meeting them halfway.
Physical remains are not necessary to interact with the dead.
Grids can be created on a temporary basis; they are not bound to any one place.
The grid was a potentially known/recognized method for interacting with the dead beyond Närke.
This is exactly what I meant earlier when I said the rewards are better when you see the process through. Because now, we don’t just have a solid possible “story” for the setting that is the Götavi grid, we also have a bunch of other details and a framework for ritual mechanics as well.
In other words: all things we can use to cook up an experiment.
So, first of all, congratulations for making it this far. This was a long-ass blog post, but unfortunately, splitting it up didn’t really seem feasible. In the next (hopefully much shorter) post, I’m going to talk about the process of putting my first grid experiment together, the further considerations I took into account, and how I went about constructing the grid. Unsurprisingly, it was super underwhelming compared with building a little island in a salt marsh, but unless I get some marshland and a construction crew, it’ll have to do. On the bright side though, there’s a lot you can do with supplies from your local hardware store, and I’m going to show you how.
Anyway, take care, and I’ll ramble at you again next time.
Davidson, Hilda Ellis. The Road to Hel Dronke, Ursula. The Poetic Edda. Vol II Dronke, Ursula, The Poetic Edda. Vol I Heide, Eldar. Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water Hem Eriksen, Marianne. Doors to the Dead: The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia Homer (Emily Wilson trans.). The Odyssey Kvilhaug, Maria. Seeds of Yggdrasill Price, Neil. Nine Paces from Hel: Time and Motion in Old Norse Ritual Performance. Price, Neil. Performing the Vikings: From Edda to Oseberg Sundqvist, Olof. The Temple, the Tree, and the Well: A Topos or Cosmic Symbolism at Cultic Sites in Pre-Christian Northern Europe? Sturluson, Storri (Anthony Faulkes trans.). Edda. Svensson, Kenneth. Götavi – en vikingatida kultplats i Närke, Vikstrand, Per. Ullevi och Götavi
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.
They’ve just become an accepted part of life, right?
Yet another thing putting adverts in front of our eyes trying to get us to buy more. That unseen force that compels us to add a photo to social media posts as “tax,” so more people see what we have to say.
They even often shape what and how we say what we say.
Take this post, for example. Like the vast majority of blog posts, I’ve tried to write it to make the algorithms happy. I’ve kept my sentences short and have used as much active speech as possible – anything to keep Yoast happy, right?
Twenty words or less per sentence, that’s the standard.
When you really think about it, it’s messed up, but it’s become our norm all the same.
Billions of voices all writing in lockstep with algorithms, all producing a product called content.
You know—that thing I’m doing right here with this post.
No one is saying algorithms are actually demons, of course. Just that, as Mark Pesce argues, algorithms share certain characteristics with demons, or at least a certain view of demons.
To quote the Medium essay I’m using to refresh my memory:
”What might you call a creature that feeds on your energy, knows your weaknesses, and can tamper with your emotional state in ways that compel you to act beyond your best interest? Centuries ago we might call this a demon. As algorithms are programmed to exploit humans in order to do their bidding, perhaps it’s time to interrogate the Faustian bargains we make each time we sign up, log in, and click thru.”
In an age of online occult influencers, this has become a helpful framework for me when navigating matters of authenticity and content. What do we lose when we tailor our content to appease the algorithms enough to be rewarded with virulence? When we aid the algorithms in their exploitation?
A Faustian bargain indeed!
Algorithms and Authenticity
Unfortunately, this bargain is a tough one to break. We live in an economy where the production of such content is often tied to the economic survival of the creator. And herein lies the biggest problem with the commodification of creativity: products are created for customers. Appease the algorithms and your work gets in front of more people. Appease the people, and hopefully that translates to dollars.
Those all-important dollars that keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on your table.
Those are some pretty hefty motivations, right? They’re downright existential. But (and this is question I find myself returning to from time to time) what of authenticity?
Because here’s the thing about writing spiritual content (horrible term, but I’m going with it). It is, by its very nature, personal. It’s intimate and subtle in ways that blog posts about chimneys or recipes for cakes are not.
(Please, for the love of Sweet Baby West Virginia Jeebus, Karen, no one wants to read about your fifteen kids! Or your upholstery business. I get there are good reasons why you do this, but please, do the world a solid and add in-page links to the recipes? Sincerely, Everyone.)
Anyway, back to the topic.
For these reasons, one would always hope that content discussing spiritual matters comes from a place of authenticity within the creator. Except I don’t see how it can when survival for so many depends on increasingly getting caught in a trap of uniformity and writing to order vs giving voice to what’s actually in our souls.
But we’ve made our pacts, it’s time to make the best of it.
Walking the Balance
For me, creativity is a whole-making, inspirited thing, and the inspiration that fuels it, sacred. There’s almost an element of horror for me when I consider this issue. Because if creativity and inspiration can be spirit work (and for me, my various souls are also spirits in their own rights), then what of them in all of this? How do they dance with the algorithms?
At times, I think they dance well together. Sometimes the stories and ideas those spirits want to get out mesh well with the algorithms. Other times, that dance is hard. That line of appeasing algorithms and audiences can become a noose while remaining true to those stories and ideas. Of course, none of that erases any of our existential needs. Bellies still need filling and bills still need paying.
The key then perhaps is being mindful of the dance and striving for balance. According to Douglas Rushkoff, creator of Team Human, weirdness is our best weapon. So perhaps sprinkling in some authenticity by way of letting your particular brand of freak flag fly is the way to go? (But be careful to be authentic with your weirdness for that too can also be commodified. I know, I fucking hate this world for shit like this.)
Embrace your weird, talk about your fuck ups, be subversively human. (Just remember to use the active voice and do it in twenty words per sentence or less.)
And if you can, don’t be afraid to ignore the current discourse du jour unless it’s something you actually care about.
The purpose of this post wasn’t to make anyone feel bad. It was a call to my fellow authors and creators to think about that line where appeasement and authenticity meet in our work. There are plenty of other conversations to be had here too. Such as platforms and responsibility, social media and mental health, and honoring our comfort levels and authenticity while trying to make that cabbage. Today though, I wanted to talk about the dance we often find ourselves performing for the algorithms. It’s quickly paced and can be exciting at times, and it’s easy to get swept up—especially when people begin to copy you.
But don’t forget you have your own steps too. They also need to be danced if you want to keep yourself whole.
A few years ago, back when this idea of the otherworld bleeding through began to make its way into Pagan/Witch discourse, I had a curious incident at the side of a river with a witchy friend. We’d been on a walk together as we often did back then in the pre-plague years, end eventually (unsurprisingly) we’d begun to “talk shop.” You see, both of us had noticed the uptick in otherworldly activity, in a similar way to how hunters are often the first to notice disease in deer.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing the Other with disease here (I wouldn’t dare). I’m just saying that as magical practitioners, we tend to be among the first to notice this kind of thing.
But we were both also getting messages from multiple people. Moreover, these were often from people who didn’t ordinarily experience our kind of strangeness, and that stood out.
At some point in our discussion, I mentioned the fact that a witch’s knowledge and power was believed to come from otherworldly sources where I’m from. And I wondered what the effects of this otherworldly “bleed” would have on magic and what we humans can do with magic. Naturally (because I’m an idiot like this), I grabbed a stick and drew a sigil I use when creating portals into the sand and silt of the riverbank.
The effect was almost instantaneous: a shifting sensation that used to take more effort to achieve.
I closed it and scrubbed it from the sand almost as soon as my friend and I noticed the shift. But I’ve been musing about the changing limits of magical possibility, consensus, and opposition ever since.
John’s Rising Currents
Discourse is a funny old thing. Sometimes we can have an observation or thought sitting in the soil of our mind for a long time without writing about it. But then, something will happen to water it, and it’ll take root and grow.
(As an aside, it’s interesting how we refer to events that spark action as “precipitating events.” Soil and seeds. Soil and seeds.)
I’m a firm believer that most things have their season. And if the blog John Beckett posted this morning is anything to go by, then this subject’s season has come.
In The Currents of Magic are Getting Stronger, John Beckett makes the same observation I did at the side of that river. Ironically, he uses the analogy of a river running higher and faster to explain his observation that the “currents” of magic are getting stronger and enabling an increase in possibility/greater results. He also goes on to cautiously suggest some possible causes, and this is where I feel like I have something to add.
Magic and the Otherworldly
I’ve blogged about this before, but in the historical witchcraft traditions where I’m from, the source of the witch’s power and knowledge was otherworldly. This is where we get into familiars and hierarchy. These are all complex topics, and more than I can cover in this blog, so I encourage you to read the posts I’ve linked here if you want to go deeper. That’s not to say that what we call the “otherworldly” is the only possible source of magic and knowledge though, nor the only possible framework through which these changes can be understood.
We also cannot ignore the fact that most of the discussion on this topic is coming from US sources. I’m not saying that strange things aren’t also happening elsewhere—some of my mother’s stories from back in Lancashire have been decidedly stranger than usual of late. But we also cannot assume that just because this stuff is happening here, it’s happening everywhere.
In my opinion, an important consideration in this discussion of how widespread or localized this “trend” is, boils down to the relationship between a culture and the otherworldly beings they interact with. ( Assuming the relationship between Otherworldly beings and magic is found within those cultures in the first place.)
Fairy-like beings are found in lore pretty much all over the world, but not all cultures have responded in the same way to their presence over time. Some cultures—such as many Western European cultures—equated them with demons and/ fallen angels, destroyed their sanctuaries, and drove them out after humans converted to Christianity (LeCouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Pp. 23-28, 68-80).
And I’m not saying that folk practices involving the otherworldly didn’t still exist, of course. We know they did. But as I’ll hopefully make clear in the next section, consensus (like all stories) is a powerful and often binding thing.
This process wasn’t limited to Western Europe either. If Cotton Mather is to be believed in his Wonders of the Invisible World, early colonizers in what would become the US also drove out “devils.” He even goes on to blame the apparent preponderance of witches in Salem on a counterattack by the devils, thus retaining that link between witches and the Otherworldly in his interpretation of events.
The otherworld is bleeding through, the devils are coming back, and they’re bringing us witches with them?
However in some places, maybe the Otherworld didn’t need to bleed back in from anywhere else at all.
Reality, Consensus, Possibility, and Feedback Loops
Another story now. Back in the mid-2000s, I came across an interesting interaction at a Pagan Conference in England between a gentleman from an African country (I didn’t get chance to ask him which), and a vendor who was selling these tacky, crystal-encrusted “wish books.” For her, even as someone who considered herself a witch, these books were just a bit of fun and to be commonly understood as such. There was no real expectation that writing your wishes in them would yield any concrete results. But her potential customer clearly had far greater expectations of the “wish book” than her and kept asking her in a deadly serious voice if it really worked.
As you might imagine, this became increasingly more uncomfortable the longer it went on.
This is impossible to separate from consensus. I believe that consensus, in a sense, both delineates and limits the boundaries of possibility.
From this perspective, the more people that experience and/or interact with the strange and Otherworldly, the more the consensus that THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN IN “REALITY” is challenged. And over time if enough people start to have these experiences, the consensus of a culture shifts to include them in the realm of possibility. This in turn, creates a kind of feedback loop in which that consensus is progressively widened. (A process that is not so different from what you find in a propaganda campaign.)
This is theory, but I would argue we have historical proof of the reverse: the binding effects of consensus.
I’ve written about this before, but we can see this in how concepts of dreaming change in Northwestern Europe after the advent of Christianity. People went from considering dreams a place where they could encounter the dead and otherworldly in a concrete way, to a state of consciousness in which people only experience nonsensical or anxiety-driven scenarios.
(Again, another way of driving out the otherworldly, I might add.)
This is all very exciting to think about, but I think we need to also be cautious here too.
The Other Side of the Coin
Within the Pagan and Witch communities, I think there is a tendency to assume that we are the only ones out there working magic. We forget that Christians also have their magic, and that a more forgiving consensus is also going to benefit them as well.
Unfortunately for us, they tend to be very much against our kind of magic, and they still largely label the Other as “demonic.” They also have an established tradition of weaponized “prayer” in the form of “prayer warriors,” who often work together in groups and are capable of a level of faith and zeal very few Pagans and Witches can muster.
Another area of concern is that I suspect a lot of the more “fringe” Christians are feeling the same uptick in activity as we are. I’m far from an expert on this subject, but I keep an eye on some of these groups as part of my omen-taking, and this is something I’ve noticed. There seems to have been an uptick in videos of “demonic possession” over the past few years. And talk of spiritual warfareagainst demons and witches seems to have become more common. (Here’s a recent example.) There have also been large events such as the Jericho March earlier this year. Participants of the march blew shofarim and marched around the Capitol building seven times while praying- a clear imitation of the Israelite siege of the city of Jericho. The next day was 1/6, in case you were wondering about their intentions.
If there’s anything we can learn from history when it comes to religious fundamentalists of a certain kind, it’s that this usually doesn’t go well for us. The more people believe in the possibilities of magic in general, the more they tend to blame magic (and practitioners) when things go wrong. So, the Otherworldly may be more present, and “currents of magic” may be rising and growing in strength, but they’re not without a brewing backlash.
In my last post, I talked about the origins of modern rune magic and the importance of the stories we connect with when working magic. In this post, I’m going to talk about my modern rune magic practice and some of the ways in which I use rune magic in my everyday life.
My Introduction to the Runes
As ridiculous as it may sound, my first exposure to the runes was in primary
school at around the age of eleven. Back then our history classes focused on an era per school term, so we spent an entire term learning about the Vikings. Growing up in what was once the Danelaw, the history felt more immediate. I think it’s always nice to know about where you live, to talk about historical things happening in familiar places. And it was in these classes that we also learned about the runes.
One of the things our teacher had us do during one of these classes, was to write a short essay in runes. We began with the Elder Futhark (with a few Anglo-Jutish additions to make transcription easier for us), but that was the start of it for me. It wasn’t long after that that I started to write on things in runes. I liked knowing a different alphabet and found them easy to write with and remember.
But it would be a while yet before I began to use them magically.
First Forays into Rune-ing It
My oldest magical journal goes back to 1998, and it’s here that I find the first references of rune magic in my practice. I was in my late teens back then, and on the whole, the Heathenry of those times was a lot less informed than the Heathenry of now. I was living in a backwards town that wouldn’t see its first coffee shop for another seven years, and my involvement in reconstructionism was just under a decade away. Despite being largely ignorant of the actual scholarship though (and absorbing a whole lot of dross),
I was deliriously happy soaking it all up anyway.
For those of you who weren’t around during this time, you have to understand how hard it was to find any information about Heathenry and/or magic at all in those days- especially if you grew up in a more rural area. And even when the internet became more widely accessible, it really wasn’t like how it is now. I mean, I’m talking about the days before Google existed here. So almost any source I could get my hands on was precious – even the junk. Printer access was also limited for me back then, and much of what I did find on websites and in library books had to be copied by hand.
But despite the lack of information, my rune divinations (which I performed using a set of runes I’d made out of oven-hardening clay), were shockingly accurate. I also started incorporating runes into what I would now recognize as petition papers and other forms of pen and paper magic. I used them to write charms and deity names when making offerings; visualized them and chanted their names; used them in shielding and protection, and for clearing spaces of unwanted guests; and enchanted with them to get work and escape bad situations.
If anything, I owe the life I have now to a combination of rune magic and fiber magic. And while my life isn’t perfect, it is measurably better than it was before. Embroidered rune magic put me on the path to the life I have now.
So as you might expect, I’ve done a lot of thinking about runes and how they work over the years.
The first stories I told myself about the runes and how they work were that the runes themselves were inherently magical. That there was something in the shape and sound of the rune that made things happen. And why wouldn’t I think that when there are so many proponents of that idea out there? Moreover, I’ve also always been a fan of fantasy books and movies – a genre which largely reinforces that idea of runes. When you get down to it though, this isn’t all that different from the ideas put forth by Marby and Kummer; that these letters are not just letters that you can write words with, but energy fields permeating the cosmos that can be tapped into. (Like I said in my previous post, their ideas are still very pervasive.)
Runes and Story: The Mythology I Connect With
So which “rune stories” do I connect with now? Well, there are a few layers to this.
On the mythological level, I connect with the story of a One-Eyed god who gave all humans breath hanging on the tree for nine nights in a quest to snatch up the runes from (probably) Hel. I also (and this is perhaps more relevant to
magic), connect with the story of how the Nornir inscribe the ørlög of every person on a slip and speak it into being before (presumably) dropping it into Urðarbrunnr to rest together with all the other slips of ørlög in the waters. And sure, we don’t know that the Nornir write on those slips in runes, but there’s something about it that fits.
The magical use of runes in the way that we use them now may not be historical, but that’s not to say that we can’t connect them with older stories anyway. There is value to emulating the divine in ritual and magic. As the Taittirya Brahmana says, ” Thus the gods did; thus men do”.
Nowadays I find myself thinking about the story or stories attached to the runes quite a lot. I’ve written a little about the magical qualities of story in this blog before. (You can find this in my posts on the Hellier phenomenon and the intersection of that story with that in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). Stories for me are inherently magical, and the more people buy into them, internalize and work with them, the more powerful that magic will be. And stories have never been more powerful; we now live in a world in which more people than ever before have access to books and mass media.
Runes and Story: The Rune Poems
On another level, the rune stories are the “stories” you find in the various rune poems. It’s possibly a stretch to call the short stanzas ascribed to each rune a “story” – they’re more like strange writing prompts if anything. But I’ve found they’re enough to spark the beginnings of story within the mind, stories that become enriched and filled out through time and experience.
The rune poems themselves have been theorized to have been created as mnemonic devices for the runes. But in some ways, I use the runes as mnemonic devices for the small “stories” of the poems. When I chant, visualize, create bindrunes, or stitch amulets, I am using the runes as visual and aural representations of the pieces of story that I’m weaving together. This is not so different from how I see and work with materia magica. For me, magic is about story, about bringing smaller stories together to either create or edit a larger metaplot.
There’s also something very powerful about having a symbol or sound to focus on when working magic – especially when you’re working on a piece for a long time. It can give you something to focus on and come back to when your mind wonders. It can also give you something to cling to and put your faith in when scared, And for people who need things to be more concrete than abstract, having those things to hold onto can make all the difference (but more on that in a future post).
Rune Stories, Belief and Change?
But when you get into the realm of story, it’s never as simple as just deciding which stories you connect with and want to tell.
This is a discussion that has been cropping up in response to a post on the origins of the SATOR square. It’s a really interesting post, and in my opinion, very credible. But it has brought up the question of which “stories” are more useful when it comes to the SATOR square? Is the theorized origins story more useful than the ones that came later or are all the stories useful? Can they be selectively tapped into depending on the desired results?
Whatever the answer, the questions are not all that dissimilar from those we need to consider when contemplating modern rune magic. Because despite my desire to distance myself from the influence of Marby and Kummer, the stories they developed are still out there. At this point, generations of runesters have come up practicing modern rune magic, each learning that the runes represent and can be used to tap into cosmic energies.
Now just think about that for a moment.
How much belief, intensity, ritual, passion, and even blood has gone into that?
The runes may not have originally been cosmic energy fields, but after decades of people working with them as though they are (plus the reinforcement from the fantasy genre), can we really say that the runes absolutely do not function in a like manner?
I don’t think we can.
That “story” is part of the wider magical “playing field” we all work on. Moreover, there are plenty of people out there (myself included) who can attest to the efficacy of that approach.
And that isn’t even taking into account other newer stories that are springing up about the runes. For example, you also have people who consider the runes to be beings in and of themselves. I personally cannot agree with that yet, and this is clearly my personal gnosis. But that’s not to say that they won’t ever become beings of a sort, especially if people continue to see them as beings and work with them in that way. I mean, if writers can create characters and then have sightings of them while out and about in the world (as in the case of John Constantine), who’s to say that someday we won’t be hearing of people reporting sightings of a being called FEHU?
One of the things I love to do, regardless of whether a system of magic is ancient or modern, is to create and perform experiments. Modern rune magic is no exception to this and I will be talking about both my experiments and some of the ways that I work over the course of the next couple of posts. In this final section though, I’m going to talk about a couple of contemplative practices I experiment with that involve the runes. Feel free to try them out and let me know how they feel for you!
Really, there’s a whole conversation we could have here about how this idea of having a separate language or alphabet for sacred things just doesn’t work when you look at the ancient world, but that’s not why I’m here.
So where was I?
One of the practices I like to do is to intone runes, try to feel where they resonate the strongest in my body, and then contemplate how that location may or may not reflect the stories associated with that rune. So for example, when I intone URUZ, I feel it in my shoulders down to my fists. There’s a battering ram feeling there. But there’s also a feeling of groundedness and standing one’s ground, of being too big to be moveable unless I choose. In turn, I’ve found that this sensation itself brings up certain feelings surrounding being immovable and able to smash things.
When I look to my stories about URUZ – the ones I’ve internalized – I find that the sensations I experience when intoning this rune largely match. It’s the aurochs rune in the Old English rune poem – a beast that can fight and be quite destructive. It’s a beast of mettle, savage. It’s a beast that I imagine can stand its ground.
I’ve found this to be a useful exercise for a couple of reasons. The first is that it gives me insight into the stories I’ve internalized for each rune. The second is that over time, it’s proven to be a way to provoke necessary emotions for the magical work I’m doing. The more I do it and contemplate the sound, the stories, and the emotions, the easier it is to summon those emotions using the sound of the rune itself. This isn’t so different from using self-hypnosis to “program” yourself with body cues for things like grounding.
Grounding and Connecting with the Around World
Speaking of grounding, the second contemplative activity I’m going to describe today focuses on that very thing.
This is something I came up with while walking my dog in the local woods. I begin by closing my eyes and breathing for a moment. Just connecting my breath with the air around me and working to feel that sense of interconnectedness with every being else that breathes. Then, I move into
intoning a rune that’s grounding. For some people this is URUZ, for me it’s EIHWAZ (or a combination of the two). As I chant, I let my voice find its own pitch and melody if one comes. I try to feel the vibrations in my body and visualize rooting down deep into the earth.
Then, when I feel like I have got that, then I change to chanting MANNAZ. For me, MANNAZ is the story of connection between not just humans, but all kinds of people. And this is what I focus on as I chant. I focus on that animistic sense of interconnectedness. As strange as it may sound, I strive to allow the boundaries between myself and the rest of the world to melt away until all I can feel is vibration and energy.
And if I’m lucky and actually get to that place (which is surprisingly hard), I tend to set off all the local birds. Which is really neat.
One of my favorite times working with this technique was in a forest with a friend. We’d been walking and I started to show her what I’d been experimenting with. She joined in and we were getting good responses from the world around us. Then she decided to throw in some LAGUZ – the water rune – and it started to rain.
The first time I cursed someone by accident I was angry. No, scrub that – I was furious. It was the kind of rage that heats the blood and causes the body to shake, to drive that pre-fight shot of adrenaline up the spine. And before I knew it the words had taken flight from my tongue, fully formed before I had even realized they’d been marshalled and ready to depart.
I’d felt it too at the time. There was the sensation of something leaving, something being unleashed into the world, and I knew then and there that what I had spoken into the world would come to pass; that my victim would fall from his ladder at work.
I remember then rushing to work protective magic on the person I’d cursed. You see, I didn’t really hate them, and I really didn’t want them to be hurt either. I was still young in my craft back then and my fury had been the one in the driving seat.
The next day the target of my wrath experienced the effects of both my curse and protection. He fell from his ladder at work while cleaning the top floor windows of a house and walked away completely unharmed. His boss was so shook up by the entire thing he gave him the rest of the day off anyway and sent him home.
This isn’t a boast. If anything, I’m not particularly proud of this moment. There is no ‘win’ here, just a loss of control that could have potentially seriously hurt someone I didn’t actually want to hurt. But it is a memory that has been coming up of late as I’ve been digging into the relationship between inspiration, fury/frenzy, and charms.
Furious Gods, Inspired Gods
As both a writer and magic worker, inspiration forms an integral part of my practice. In my fiction I birth new characters, and commit to word the speech of beings who I am fairly sure existed long before my birth and who will still exist long after I am gone. In magic…well, maybe in another post (this one is super long).
I’ve written about Óðinn/Woden here before, of his wisdom and relationship to breath. Without a doubt he is the god who has had the greatest influence over my life, answering my prayers and gifting to me in return in every land I’ve ever lived. But there is one element of this god that hasn’t really made sense to me until relatively recently, and that is the collocation between fury/frenzy and inspiration.
Óðinn’s connection with the poetic (and by extension, the inspiration that makes poetry possible) is quite well established in the lore. In Skáldskaparmál, it is Óðinn – or as he is also known, Fimbulþulr (Mighty Poet/Mighty Speaker) – who steals Óðroerir, or the ‘mead of inspiration/poetry’ from the giant Suttung (Price 63). It is because of him (at least according to the Prose Edda), that any of us even have any poetic ability at all (even the bad poets, who apparently are the recipients of the mead Óðinn shat out while escaping Suttung – seriously, look it up!). Yet as the myth makes clear, he is not the source of inspiration but its liberator – he too had to acquire it.
Óðinn’s association with the poetic and inspired seems to have persisted outside the mythical realm as well. In the sagas we find the famous Viking Age poet Egill Skallagrímsson, the protagonist of Egils Saga. Egill was a quintessentially Odinic figure, a warrior-poet who had knowledge of runes, was possessed of a berserker’s wrath, and carried one of Óðinn’s heiti as a compound in his name (Grímr).
Further possible support for a connection between Óðinn and poets comes from more modern criticism of the Eddas and the worldview they present (that of Óðinn as the head god who presides over a Norse pantheon). For these critics, this is a skewed perspective that was likely unknown to people who lived away from the centers of power that arose during the migration period, the ruling elites that inhabited them, and the poets they patronized. After all, what was a ruler back then without a poet to provide PR?
This is the core of the argument that scholar Terry Gunnell makes in Pantheon? What Pantheon? and From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God. For Gunnell, it is potentially thanks to the poets – those purveyors of Óðinn-centric religion – that the Eddas and the skáldic corpus survived in later years. The art of poetry was valued by both Heathen and Christian alike, and these sources may have been used as skáldic teaching texts therefore justifying their preservation.
Of course, an easy counterargument to this theory would be that the god of poets in the Eddas was Bragi and that the Óðinnic focus of the skálds could be easily explained by the necessity of pleasing their Óðinn-worshipping patrons. However, we should also note the inclusion of poetic meters such as galdralag (magic spell meter), and as Magnus Olsen argued, even dróttkvætt in magical charms – an area with which Óðinn is far more securely associated (Simek 98; Olsen 1916, “On Magical Runes”).
But we’ll get to that later. First, we need to embrace the fury.
Woden id est Furor
Writing in Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum IV, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen wrote of Woden, Woden id est furor, or “Woden, that is to say fury” (Simek 1993, 242). This is probably the most well known reference to Woden or Óðinn’s furious tendencies, but it isn’t by any means the only one. We’re going to return to this phrase and the other possible translations of the Latin word fūror later, but a translation of “fury” or “frenzy” is sufficiently complete for now.
Although best known as Óðinn (a name which may be translated as “Frenzied/Furious One”), the deity we mostly call “Óðinn” is a god of many names or heiti. In The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, Neil Price lists roughly 180 different heiti for the One Eyed God (depending on how you count them), which he divides thematically into 17 different categories. In the ‘Frenzy-, trance- and anger’ category, Price counts no fewer than 22 heiti or 10.5% of all heiti listed (including the name Óðinn itself) (Price 63 – 68).
Woden id est furor indeed!
What’s in a Name?
One of the most amusing things to me as a long-time worshipper of Óðinn is the tendency for those (usually on the far right) to see him as some unyielding, hypermasculine force. And as I’ve argued before, often the associations they place upon Óðinn are far more reflective of their own ideas about leadership and masculinity as opposed to what we find in the source material.
The etymology of Óðinn/Woden/Wodan/Wuotan/Wuodan (as they are all phonetic variants of the same name), is another area I believe further disproves this idea of the One Eyed God (Liberman, “Wednesday’s Father”). Not that that’s the point of this essay, but I may as well mention it while I’m here.
The name Óðinn is related to the ON adjective óðr, a word that translates as “frantic” or “furious”. In turn, óðr is believed to derive from the Proto-Germanic *wōda, a word meaning “delirious”. Also derived from *wōda and related to the ON óðr are the Gothic wods (“possessed”), OE wod (“insane”), and the now obsolete Dutch word woed meaning “frantic”, “wild”, or “crazy”.
Generally speaking, the further you trace an etymology back, the less secure and more theoretical that etymology becomes. If you notice, I used the term “believed to derive from” when referring to the Proto-Germanic root of óðr. This is because etymology at this time depth largely relies on words that are reconstructed using a series of educated guesses about things like sound changes. Words that are reconstructed in this way are written with an asterisk (*) at the beginning so as to clearly delineate them as linguistic reconstructions.
When you do trace that etymology back further to the WEUR (Germanic/Italo-Celtic) root *uoh2-tó though, you also arrive at the root of a number of Celtic language terms related to prophecy and soothsaying such as the OIr fáith (“soothsayer, prophet”), fáth (“prophesy”), and the Welsh word gwawd (“poem, satire”).
Interestingly, despite the degrees of linguistic separation that stand between the Celtic descendants of that WEUR root and ON óðr, the meanings of the nounóðr occupy a surprisingly similar semantic field as their Celtic counterparts on the other side of the language tree. As a noun, óðr may be translated as “mind”, “feeling”, “song”, and “poetry”. This is the óðr that is the third of the life-giving gifts to Askr and Embla.
All words for mutable, intangible qualities bobbing around in the shifting sands of etymology, but a remarkably consistent picture all the same.
Which brings us quite neatly back to the Latin word fūror. Because although you only ever usually see it translated as “fury” or “frenzy” within the context of Woden, the word fūror carries a number of other meanings that make Adam’s choice of descriptor really quite accurate.
According to Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (1987, 98), the word fūror may be translated in the following way:
Once again, even with a word most commonly translated as “fury”, when we dig down further, we find that same collocation of fury, frenzy, poetry and prophecy as we saw in the etymology of óðr and its various linguistic relatives given in the section above.
As mentioned above, the art of the poet could also be turned towards the sorcerer’s art – there was even an entire poetic meter for writing spells (galdralag). Unlike with poetry however, Óðinn’s position as galdrs föður, or “Father of Galdr” (as he was named in Baldrs Draumar) is both explicit and well-established, and not just in the ON sources either (Simek 242). Woden is the only Heathen god to be mentioned in the OE magico-medical manuscripts; it is he who rests at the center of the so-called “Nine Herbs Charm” found in the Lacnunga. And it is Woden who is depicted chanting a spell over an injured horse’s leg in the Second Merseburg Charm (Waggoner, xv).
In my opinion, it is noteworthy that it is Óðinn who features in two of the most well known healing charms, especially given the normally combative nature of magical healing in Germanic cultures. Sickness was often perceived as being an invading force – often personified in some way -to be driven out or defeated, rendering the healer a magical warrior of sorts (Storms 49-54).
And this is where the various pieces of information laid out in this post begin to coalesce.
Enter The Tietäjä
For the final part of our exploration of fury, inspiration, and charms, we’re going to leave behind the Old Norse world and move eastwards and forwards in time to the lands of the Finnish magical specialist, the tietäjä (“knower, one who knows”).
The first written record of a tietäjä is relatively late, dating back to the 18th century at the earliest, However there is evidence to suggest that the “technology of incantations” that form the basis of the tietäjä’s interactions with the unseen world was adapted into North Finnic traditions from Germanic cultural influences during the Iron Age (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”).
That is not to say that the tietäjä somehow belongs to the Germanic cultural
sphere though. If scholars such as Anna Leena Siikala are correct in their assertion that the ‘tietäjä institution’ took shape in the first millennium CE, then there have been at least hundreds of years of Finnish cultural adaptation of this “technology of incantations” despite its Germanic roots (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”). Rather than looking at the tietäjä’s art as a wholesale survival of Germanic charm magic, it is the potential echoes of those older Germanic “technology of incantations” that interest us.
Throughout the course of this essay we’ve focused on the figure of Óðinn and the seeming paradox of a god of charms who is associated with poets, inspiration, fury, frenzy, madness, and berserkers (remember Egill?). I believe these characteristics provide the best clue to those older Germanic echoes that survived in the tietäjä’s art. Moreover, I believe that through examining accounts of tietäjäs (some of them from the perspective of the tietäjäs themselves) – especially where behavior is concerned – can provide important insight into working with Germanic charm material in the modern day.
The Tietäjä’s Body and Behavior
According to the account of a tietäjä recorded in 1835, the tietäjä had to possess “terrible luonto (inner supernatural force)” and anger in order to perform a charm successfully. The theme of extreme anger and violence is one that is often conveyed both in the ritual actions of the tietäjä as well as embodied by the tietäjä himself while working his magic. It is not enough to just feel enraged, one must act like it too.
Of the tietäjä’s behavior, Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot gives the following summary:
“the tietäjä 1) becomes enraged, 2) his speech becomes loud and frenzied, 3) he foams at the mouth, 4) gnashes his teeth, 5) his hair stands on end, 6) his eyes widen, 7) he knits his brows, 8) he spits often, 9) his body contorts, 10) he stamps his feet, 11) he jumps up and down on the floor, and 12) makes many other gestures.”
-taken from Laura Stark, The Charmer’s Body and Behavior in Charms, Charmers and Charming
For the tietäjä, fury was a source of power, and as such people took great pains to avoid incurring the wrath of a tietäjä. In one story an old tietäjä becomes so angry at a farmhand who unwittingly vandalizes his bird-trap that the farmhand goes insane. And when asked if the farmhand could be spared his fate, the old sorcerer simply tells them that it’s impossible as he became “too angry” (presumably while working his magic) (Stark, 8).
A Berserker and a Tietäjä Walked into a Bar…
There are also some interesting parallels between the tietäjä and ON berserkr here as well. Though the behavior is more extreme in the following account (a depiction of the berserker’s famous imperviousness to fire and iron), there are still notable parallels between this account and the list of behaviors compiled by Lönnrot.
“These men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity.”
-Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum Book VII.
Like the berserker, the tietäjä was also said to be impervious to fire and iron ( Stark, 9). There was a belief that the tietäjä had to “harden” his body, making it impervious to both magical and physical damage.This “hardness” was not only dependent on the tietäjä’s inherent qualities (such as a “hard” or “strong” luonto), but could also be achieved through incantation and ritual as well.
Hardening the Body
Much like ourselves, tietäjäs also seem to have made use of magical shielding. But whereas modern practitioners might set themselves inside a magical bubble, the tietäjä seems to have called down protection from holy powers in the form of magical iron clothing or armor.
Give to me an iron coat, Iron coat, iron cap, Iron mantle for my shoulders, Iron mittens for my hands, Iron boots for my feet, With which I shall enter the Hiisi’s lands, Move about in Evil’s realm, So that the sorcerer’s arrows will not penetrate, Nor the wizard’s knives, Nor the shooter’s weapons, Nor the tietäjä’s blades (Stark, 8)
The tietäjä who was summoned to war was said to be bulletproof – “hardened” by wearing a shirt in which a corpse had been buried, or by holding a bullet that had killed someone in the mouth. One former soldier by the name of Alatt claims to have “brushed handfuls of bullets off his chest when they didn’t penetrate his skin” (Stark, 9).
Conversely, we do not know what rituals (if any) were performed by berserkers (though there have been plenty of theories suggested over the years).
Conclusions and a Question
At the beginning of this essay I began with a story of rage and magic. Of what rage can do, and what can (almost) happen when it’s allowed to burn out of control. Over the course of this study, we’ve looked at Óðinn’s seemingly disparate associations with poets, poetry, charms, frenzy and fury. We’ve dug into his heiti as well as the etymology of his name, and a surprisingly consistent collection of characteristics have emerged. From there, we shifted focus to the tietäjä and the ways in which they embodied many of those characteristics while working their charms and incantations (themselves a form of poetry). Finally, we looked at the similarities between tietäjäs and berserkers and methods used by tietäjäs to “harden” their bodies against physical and magical attack.
Though the tietäjä institution is undoubtedly Finnish, there seem to be some distinctly Óðinnic echoes here. It’s my opinion that the tietäjä’s use of fury as a source of magical power may be seen as a model for not only understanding Óðinn’s fury, but also the potential role of that kind of weaponized fury in galdr. However, despite the meaning of his name or the 10.5% of heiti pertaining to frenzy, we never actually see Óðinn in the kind of berserker rage that is so associated with him (at least not in any sources that I can think of).
Rage is powerful – it is a source of power when chanting spells – yet without control it is just as easily our undoing as our success. The berserker wielded rage without control, becoming a danger to not only his enemies but his allies too, and was often outcast for it. The tietäjä wielded rage with control, but still often fell into the trap of becoming petty and punitive, and in some cases dooming entire families with their incantations (Stark, 11). Yet the “furious” god of many names does not seem to rage but remains the “Father of Charms”.
Gunnell, Terry – Pantheon? What Pantheon? Kroonen, Guus – Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic Liberman, Anatoly – “Wednesday’s Child”, OUP Blog Olsen, Magnus – On Magical Runes Price, Neil – The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2nd Ed.) Simek, Rudolf – Dictionary of Northern Mythology Stark, Laura – “The Charmer’s Body and Behavior as a Window Onto Early Modern Selfhood”, in Roper, Jonathan (Ed.) Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic Storms, Godfrid – Anglo-Saxon Magic Waggoner, Ben – Norse Magical and Herbal Healing: A Medical Book from Medieval Iceland