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
In my last post, we began with a story of creation on a windswept beach. But today, we’ll begin by following in the footsteps of a wandering god to a field.
The god in question is the same as the giver of önd in our first story. He is Óðinn, a god of many names, the one who I call “Old Man”. This time though, it’s not trees he encounters, but two “tree-men”. And there is no giving of önd, óðr, or lá and litr here. This time, the Old Man simply gives them clothes (Hávamál 49).
This always reminds me of a story written by the twelfth century poet, Marie de France. In one of her lais, Bisclavret, a man-turned-werewolf is prevented from returning to his shape of birth by an unfaithful lover hiding his clothes. You see, when it comes to masking and its sibling, shapeshifting, there always seems to be an element of dressing for the “job” you want. The person who wishes to become a wolf must do as Sigmund and Sinfjotli did in the Saga of the Volsungs and don the skin of a wolf. And perhaps the tree that is to become a person, must wear a person’s clothes.
So, we have two sets of trees being made people when encountering a certain One-Eyed God. One might call that an M.O.
But what does that have to do with us and the magic we might create?
Mythological Fix Points and Magic
Some of you may have already heard of Mircea Eliade, the Romanian historian of religion who openly supported the Romanian fascist organization, The Iron Guard. He is a problematic figure, for sure. But when it comes to working with historical forms of magic, I have found some of his work to be quite useful. You see, for Eliade, every significant human activity (as well as acts of creation and foundation) had a mythological “fix point”. They are rooted in myth and we are acting in pale imitation of what the gods are depicted as doing in mythological time.
Eliade can’t really take the credit for this concept though. The idea that humans imitate the gods is quite ancient. There are texts in the Yajurveda (a veda which concerns ritual practice), that specifically mention this concept. In the Satapatha Brahmana, the reader (presumably a budding ritualist) is instructed to ”do what the Gods did in the beginning” (VII, 2, 1, 4). And the Taittiriya Brahmana further underlines the importance of this idea with the following statement: “Thus the Gods did; thus men do” (I, 5, 9, 4).
Woden Worhte Weos: Animation as Woden’s Magic
So we have a god with an MO of making people out of trees. Some would even say that this is a kind of magic specific to that god (Richard North, I’m looking at you).
There’s a curious passage in the Old English Maxims that is worth a look here.
”Woden worhte weos, wuldor alwalda, rume roderas: þæt is rice god sylf soðcyning, sawla nergend” (Maxims I, II, 132 – 34)
(Woden made idols, the almighty [made] glory, the roomy heavens; this is a powerful god himself the true king, healer of souls.)
As scholars have pointed out, this passage is clearly modeled on a line from Jerome’s Psalter iuxta Hebraeos. Maxims I isn’t the only place we find echoes of this line either. And curiously, in some of those other texts that contain reflections of this line, the “idols” are described as “demons”, suggesting that the idols themselves are more than carved wood. This idea of ‘living’ idols is made clearer in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum. In the Gesta, Óðinn (here, Othinus) is shown restoring a desecrated statue of himself, and ”by amazing craftsmanship made it respond with a voice to human touch” (Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, pp 88 – 90).
There’s a lot to unpack here – the idea of ‘living’ idols is probably quite a bombshell for a lot of modern Heathens. But that’s not the focus of this post – creation is. And once again, we see the Old Man associated with the act of creation.
But if the sentiment found in the the Yajurveda and advanced as a theory by Eliade is true, then we should expect to find some human imitation of this form of magic, right?
In the Hávamál passage mentioned earlier, Óðinn encounters two tree-men (‘trémönnom’ in ON). But this is not the only example of trémaðr (the singular form of ‘trémönnom’) in the ON corpus.
There are a number of mentions of tree-men, but two in particular stand out for the details they provide. In the Flateyjarbok, a group of men put ashore on the island of Sámsey. There they encounter a ‘tree-man’ who speaks to them of his purpose and origin. He was the product of sacrifice, and had been made to bring about the deaths of men in the southern part of Sámsey. But over the years, he’d become overgrown and his clothes and flesh rotted away.
(Those of you who are well read in the ON corpus will probably recognize Sámsey as the island where Loki claimed that Óðinn worked seiðr.)
The second example is in Þorleifs þáttr Jarlsskálds. In this story, Hákon Jarl creates a trémaðr to kill Þorleif Jarlsskáld after Þorleif cursed him with ‘itching sickness’.
Despite the connection between Óðinn and tree-men though, it was to the sisters, Þorgerðr Hörgi’s bride and her sister Irpa – a somewhat mysterious duo of goddesses that feature in a few sagas – that Hákon Jarl made his sacrifices. The process is outlined quite well for us here. First, Hákon Jarl makes the sacrifices until he receives a favorable oracle when he has a piece of driftwood brought in and fashioned into the shape of a wooden man. Then with “the monstrous witchcraft and python’s breath” of those two sisters, as well as the heart of a man sacrificed for the purpose and the proper attire for a man, they sent their tree-man, now named Þorgarðr, into the world to kill Þorleif (North 93 – 95).
But Óðinn’s hands are perhaps not entirely absent from this story. Because after Þorgarðr kills Þorleif (disappearing into the ground once his mission is complete), Þorleif’s dying words mention one of Óðinn’s kennings, Gautr in relation to the tree-man (North 95-96).
Creation: The Bare Ingredients
The parallels between Askr and Embla, and Þorgarðr are quite clear. And more importantly, provide us with a bridge between the mythological and the sagaic. Or in other words: the realm of gods and realm of men.
In both stories of creation, the creator begins with driftwood and imbues the creation with breath, color and vital blood/warmth, and mind/purpose. In the mythological story these are attributes that are magically given. But in the sagaic, the önd remains the domain of deities (at least for Hákon); the blood and heart from the sacrificed man provide the lá and litr; and the incantations/empowerment, the óðr.
So now we have the bare ingredients for creation. Now I’m not suggesting that people begin creating tree-men (assuming that’s even magically possible at this time given the current dominant paradigm). But in my experience, this process of creation is useful for everything from the creation of magical tools, to poppets and magical cures.
This process does require some adaptation though. I most certainly do not advise that any of us engage in human sacrifice as it’s illegal and wrong. Moreover, we’re not trying to animate whole men, so in terms of scale, it’s
probably not even necessary either.
When I create magically, I follow the order of creation in the myth of Askr and Embla, and begin with my breath. For those of you who engage in possessory work, sessions in which you are carrying the Old Man would be the perfect time to engage in magical creation (with his agreement, of course). For those of you who don’t, you can take a leaf out of the migration period warlord’s playbook and simply ritually assume the role of Óðinn while you work. Remember that dressing for the job you want is a thing – yes, even with this.
Then comes the lá and litr. For me, this heat/blood can be either my own blood, or water and passing over a candle flame. Color can come from sigils, markings, or simply a coat of paint. Depending on what you’re doing, you may or may not wish to use your own blood (and if you do, be safe and sterile about it).
The final step is incantation, which I take to be the giving of óðr to your creation. This is often tied in with the giving of breath/önd in more practical terms. And in my opinion, this was probably the case historically too – at least when it came to herbal infusions and salves. The Old English magico-medical manuscripts give the instruction to “let the breath go wholly in” while chanting galdor. I do not think this to be coincidental.
Depending on what you are creating, you may wish to also give your creation a name. There is a long tradition of named objects in the North, as well as objects with a sense of agency and ‘fate’.
But whatever you create, you must always create carefully. Because this kind of magical creation isn’t just some arts and crafts project to use in a LARP. You are creating, and you will always have some degree of responsibility for (and to) what you create. You may wish to also bear this in mind when you’re writing your wills.
In the next post, I’m going to be talking about how I approach the elements in my magical practice. But until then, be well.
Like many people, my first introduction to the witch goddess Holda was through folklore. I don’t remember if I ever read Grimm’s fairy tale Mother Holda before I moved to Germany. But one of my first purchases in Germany was a book of folk tales local to where I lived. My reasoning was that I could translate the tales as a learning activity, and then my husband and I could go and visit the places mentioned in the tales.
The book, Es Spukt in Franken by Michael Pröttel begins with a tale about Frau Hulle set not far from Wintersbach. And this is the tale that led me down the rabbithole so to speak. First came the spinning, and then more research and a pilgrimage of sorts to the Hollenteich up on the Hoher Meißner. There, on a frozen pond before a modern statue, I had a deeply holy (and unexpected) experience.
But the tales I encountered in Franconia and Hessen aren’t the most famous. That distinction goes to the tale retold by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and it’s this tale and its deathly themes that we’re going to take a look at today.
Down the Well with Mother Holda
Perhaps you’ve heard this tale before?
It begins with a girl and a cruel stepmother who is forced to labor while her step-sister sits idle. This girl is industrious and kind, conscientious and good. But one day, while spinning at the side of a well, she accidentally drops her spindle into the well after pricking her finger.
Her stepmother is consistent in her cruelty, and orders her into the well to retrieve the lost spindle. Terrified and filled with despair, the girl jumps into the well expecting to find death in the dark watery depths.
But there is no death for the girl (maybe). Instead, she finds another world in which she is asked to complete a series of tasks. After completing these tasks, she encounters the scary-looking figure of Mother Holda. Unlike her stepmother, Mother Holda is fair and treats her kindly. She gives her a home and the girl performs her chores with diligence.
And that is where we’re going to leave the retelling of this tale – at least in this blog post. The rest is not necessary for our discussion here.
Mother Holda’s Origins
A lot of words have been written about the origins of Mother Holda and her related beings. (If you’re interested, you can find some of them here.) But those are not the origins I’m going to look at today.
The portion of the tale recounted above can be found in Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm. And although it may appear to be the “king’s road” to Holda’s origins (as German scholar Erika Timm puts it). As Professor Timm concludes, that is unfortunately not the case. In all likelihood, Grimm’s Mother Holda is the Germanic version of a fairytale that originated in the Middle East (Timm 7).
So you’re probably wondering why I’m blogging about this tale then? The answer, friends, is that symbolism and story are far more fluid and complicated than ‘who came up with what first’. And just because a thing came from outside your usual scope, doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned.
Spindles, Water, and the Dead
As the girl’s adventure to Holda’s meadow begins with a spindle, this is where we will also begin. Because in many ways, the spindle acts like a key to Holda’s realm. Would the girl have found that meadow had she not followed a spindle and simply thrown herself in? We cannot say. But the fact her step-sister made sure to cut herself and throw a spindle into the well before she herself took the plunge is perhaps telling.
Spindles are symbolically rich across the Indo-European world, often connecting the living with the under and/or other worlds. European folklore is full of tales of otherworldly yarn and ghosts appearing as bloody balls of wool. For the ancient Hittites, a group of beings known as the Kattereš were said to spin the fates of kings from the underworld. For the Greeks, the dead were pulled down to Hades by means of the ‘snares of death’. And there is one mention of ‘Hel Ropes’ in Norse literature (Giannakis, “Fate-as-Spinner” I&II)
Whether snares or ropes though, it should be noted that both forms of ligature were the end product of something spun.
Water is also suggestive of a transition from the ThisWorld of the living to whatever lies beyond. As Norwegian scholar, Eldar Heide points out in Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water, stories of the dead departing over water to their final destination are not uncommon in Northwestern Europe. And even where the journey to the afterlife takes place along some kind of Hel road, there is still typically a body of water that must be crossed.
Finally, we must consider the symbolism of the well itself. Most obviously, the well is a passage that leads down into the depths of a watery place. Some see parallels here with the birth canal. But the well has also served as a site for human sacrifice throughout the ages too (“Human Sacrifices?”).
Trials of Character
So whichever way you cut it, the girl was both symbolically and physically plunging to her death. But we do not see her die. Instead, she wakes up in a meadow and finds herself subjected to what might be thought of as trials of character. And it is here that I see a parallel between the afterlife journey of the girl in Mother Holda, and the journey described in the old song A Lyke Wake Dirge
A Lyke Wake Dirge is an old song, designed to be sung over a corpse. Thematically, the song both guides the dead to the afterlife and describes the tribulations along the way.
First the dead pass over a thorny moor (‘Whinny muir’) that will prick them. Then they must pass over the ‘Brig o’Dread’. And then finally, because this is a Christian song, they must roast in Purgatory for a while. But at every turn, these tortures can be mitigated by one’s behavior in life. Those who gave the charity of socks and shoes (‘hosen or shoon’) will find socks and shoes to protect them on the thorny moor. Those who gave the charity of food and drink, will not be shrunk and burned by Purgatory’s fires. (The Brig o’Dread is its own challenge, and I’ll be taking a look at it in the next section.)
Here, as in the story of Mother Holda, the dead must pass through trials that test their character. In both A Lyke Wake Dirge and Mother Holda though, it is their charity and generosity that is tested. The girl pulls the bread from the oven and shakes the apples from the tree because they cry out for relief. It is not merely a task to be done.
Bread, Apples, and the ‘Brig o’ Dread’
But what of bread, apples, and this ‘Brig o’ Dread’?
Bread (or the key ingredient, grain) has long played a part in offerings to the dead, both in England and continental Germany. It was a staple food for the living, so we should perhaps not be surprised to find it offered to the dead. The Penitential of pseudo-Egbert and Carloman’s Capitulary of 742 both indicate burnt grains as an offering to the dead (Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, 113).
We may even see a similar transformation to that of the spinning and spun here. The grains offered by the living are the raw material. But it is in the realm of the dead that they reach their final form (just as we do).
This connection with the dead is one that apples share as well. The 11th century Icelandic poet Þórbjörn Brúnason made a curious mention of the ‘apples of Hel’. And apples also featured as grave goods in both Scandinavian and early English graves. But apples are not only associated with the dead in Norse lore. The apple seems to be both a food for the dead and a substance of renewal for the gods.(Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, 165-166).
Finally, we come to the Brig o’Dread. This was the bridge that the deceased had to cross on the way to the afterlife. Curiously, given our spinning theme, this bridge of dread was described as being “no broader than a thread” in English folk songs. A similar bridge exists in Slavic lore, only here it is made of hair. Yet as folklorist Mirjam Mencej points out, there is little difference between hair and thread in folk tradition. Lithuanian legends tell of ‘spinning goddesses’ and witches who are wont to spin hair when they run out of flax (Mencej, “Connecting Threads”).
And here, despite our foray from German fairytale to a 14th century English dirge, we return to goddesses of spinning and witches. Funny how that happens, yes?
Uncovering the Imaginal in a Folktale and a Dirge
As we have seen, the themes of these two very different sources share some striking similarities. We tread here, I believe, in the imaginal.
For those of you who are yet to encounter the concept of the imaginal, perhaps the best way of introducing the mundus imaginalis is as something akin to Gaiman’s “The Dreaming”. This is the example that Rhyd Wildermuth gives in his amazing post The Imaginal World over on Gods and Radicals. Though not perfect (as Rhyd goes on to acknowledge), this analogy is both accessible and relevant to our discussion here:
”Readers familiar with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series might find some parallels here: the mundus imaginalis is like “The Dreaming,” a realm populated by the dreaming of every being, living or dead, god or human or plant, where each “place” has a geography only inasmuch as it’s necessary for those who visit to travel within it and find the same place again (or visit a place another once visited). In fact, Gaiman likely stole the entire idea for his cosmology from Corbin’s essay.”
As previously mentioned, Rhyd does go on to acknowledge some important differences between the imaginal and the “The Dreaming”. But none of those differences affect the point I wish to make here about the nature of the imaginal.
A Revisited Place, A Liminal Place
The road between the land of the living and that of the dead is one that has been encountered and journeyed many times (arguably repeatedly depending on your afterlife beliefs). As with all things imaginal, it is a place none of us have ever seen concretely, but once we catch a glimpse of its representation in song or story, it feels familiar despite its strangeness.
This is also an inherently liminal road – an intermediary state in all senses of the term. And as such, it seems fitting to connect it with the imaginal given the liminal nature of the imaginal itself. To quote Rhyd once more:
“…the imaginal realm, intersects the others (and exists, according to these mystics, at an intersection of all other realms) and is accessed through the imaginal (not imaginary) capacities of humans.”
So we have tales of a liminal passage undertaken by people in a liminal state, being glimpsed in a liminal space.
Most of us who practice magic know the imaginal already. We just tend to call it UPG, SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis), or PVPG (Peer Verified Personal Gnosis).
The Magical Imaginal
When we get down to it, regardless of whether we seek it out for ourselves or rely on the visions of others, these glimpses and encounters with the imaginal lay the foundations for much of what we do. Take the afterlife journey discussed throughout this post, for example. These descriptions give us a kind of map to this road to the afterlife. First the person dies/passes through water, and then they encounter two different trials. Yet the trials in both sources are far from insurmountable, presenting little problem for the compassionate person.
(Remember how the bread in the oven screamed to be removed from the oven and the apples shook from the tree? Those trials were as much about relieving suffering as they were industriousness.)
Finally, the deceased comes to their destination, which varies depending on the underlying belief system. For the Christian dead in the dirge, it is to Purgatory they must go. But for the girl in Mother Holda, it is to live a kinder existence than she did before. She may have worked, but the work was fair. Mother Holda was kind, and the girl never wanted for food.
For those of us who work with the dead, this story and song can provide a useful model for necromancy and psychopomp work. The song itself is easily adaptable for both Heathen and Christian alike, and the symbolism of the bread and apples in the tale of Mother Holda leads us to handy suggestions for offerings.
See how easy that was?
We began this post with a story and a song, and we’re ending with the bare bones of ritual for guiding the dead along the road to/from the afterlife. And this is the thing, when you find those glimpses in poems/songs/folk tales/ the writings of mystics/in that space between wakefulness and dream, the magic usually isn’t all that far behind.
Before I crack on, did you know that I’m holding an online class about magic circles? It’s kind of like this blog post but with a whole lot more information and discussion. So if you’ve got an hour or so (it’s probably going to be between 1-2 hours) on 9/15 at around 3pm, join me for a crazed exploration of the history, purpose, and ways in which magic circles can be tweaked. Can’t make it? The class will be recorded so participants can listen later!
It began like so many conversations on magical Facebook groups – admin posts link, person replies, and another person decides that it’s a great time to start something.
“Oldest” story on the ‘Book, amirite?
But it was the input of a third person that I’m going to focus on here. Because it’s something that I’ve seen again and again in Pagan and magical spaces since moving to the US.
“What is your lineage?”
Whenever most people ask this question I see that Eddie Izzard sketch in my head – “Do you have a flag?”
But Eddie Izzard sketches aside, the matter of lineage is a complex one in modern Pagan and magical traditions. For many, the idea of belonging to a lineage conveys a certain legitimacy (regardless of the actual abilities of the practitioner). However, depending on which tradition you practice, the existence of lineage in the sense that it is typically understood today may be completely unnecessary.
Lineaged and Unlineaged Traditions
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that all lineages are bullshit. But lineages are far from universal to every tradition.
Take early modern English witchcraft, for example. Most of the witches in the accounts became witches because they had an encounter with an otherworldly spirit (either a fairy or elf). This encounter was usually by chance,
and could either be with the familiar spirit itself, or with fairy royalty, who then gift the witch a fairy familiar if shown proper respect. In this worldview, it was not lineage, but the familiar (which could also be a member of the dead), that made the witch.
Having said that though, there are accounts of these otherworldly familiars being passed on from witch to witch (usually family members), and that could be considered to be a lineage of sorts. However, the otherworldly figure was still probably the king (or witch!) maker in this equation as they (presumably) had to agree to this transfer. Despite many modern ideas about the Othercrowd, they have never been at our beck and call. It simply does not follow that a being who is the source of knowledge and power for a witch would not be in charge. (Wilby 60)
Kinda makes you look at that story of Freyja as the priestess of dead-Freyr’s mound cult in the Ynglinga saga a little differently, right? If ever there was an Eliade-esque “paradigmatic fix point” for this particular paradigm, that would likely be it.
But none of that takes from the fact that there are lineaged traditions in the world. Moreover, there are a lot of benefits (not to mention safety nets) from being a part of a lineaged tradition that has its shit together. Notice that caveat there?
Because let’s not try to pretend here – some lineaged traditions are clusterfucks that just happened to have been started because (often) one person didn’t like something long-established about an actual lineage and decided to set up their own tree house. That’s not to say that all breakaway lineaged traditions are shit though. Plenty of breakaway lineages turn into actual lineages, but some…yeah.
Legitimate lineages (however they’re judged) can be excellent for a number of reasons though. Because not only do you have access to a far more systematic way of learning, but you also have the safety nets of more experienced elders as well as the lineage itself. If you are interested in a tradition that has lineages then you should absolutely do the work and enter in the correct way. In some cases, it can actually be dangerous to you if you don’t. For those of you who are trying to live that early modern life though, keep flashing your sweet fairy/elf bait asses (and good luck)!
Okay, I was joking about the ‘fairy bait’ bit.
(Maybe. Just try to be the right kind of bait, okay?)
Lineage and College Degrees
In some ways, the question “What is your lineage?” (especially in groups of mixed practitioners who come from both lineaged and non-lineaged traditions) feels symptomatic of a far greater social issue in the US. Now I’m not going to get all Mike Rowe on you all here, but I feel like the obsession over college degrees for any old crap has kind of carried over into how we perceive magical capacity in others too.
It was one of the thing that first struck me when I moved to my current area. Where I’d lived before didn’t really have much of a magical community. But where I am now is like a fucking soap opera (possibly addictive horror series) with that shit.
When I first moved here, I was excited to come across so many other
practitioners. But soon, I was relegated to some kind of ‘discard pile’ when it became clear that I didn’t have any lineage they cared about. Nor was I interested in learning from the main teachers in the area (a seemingly necessary ‘qualification’ if one is to be taken seriously regardless of actual ability). They just weren’t selling what I wanted, and frankly some of it felt ‘icky’ and even corrupted to me.
There’s a whole lot more I could say here, but I’m not going to. I think that was enough to illustrate my point. Despite my lack of lineage or connection to local big names though, I’ve somehow become the person people come to when things aren’t just getting bad, but really bad.
I’ve found myself thinking about this curious situation quite a lot over the years too. I’ve found so many talented people in my area who don’t have the qualifications people are looking for, and who get completely overlooked if they try to sell their services despite their talent. For example, I have a friend who is ridiculously talented – especially with the dead – and she has been “negged” by people who just happen to be better known or “qualified”. And part of it reminds me of how some jobs now require a bachelor’s degree despite never needing them before.
But part of it is also undoubtedly down to competition and the psychology of buying services. Services are always a greater risk to a customer than products. It’s far easier to see the quality of a product than a service before purchase. So we’ve evolved ways of making the customer feel better – more certain – when buying a service. (Incidentally, this is where “the customer is always right” comes from.) This is especially necessary for those who sell “less tangible” services, and especially those that go against the consensus (such as spell work, healing work, or exorcisms).
See what I’m saying?
In these cases, belonging to a lineage or having qualifications from the “right” teacher can give a customer reassurance (I say “right” here because I think the very concept of “right teacher”, especially in the context of a whole geographical area, is always debatable).
A Big Dog Party
Now I’m not saying that lineage is bad here, because it can be an overwhelmingly positive thing in a practitioner’s life. And before anyone says “oh she’s just bitter because she doesn’t have a lineage”, I do. (No I’m not telling any of you what it is because frankly it’s no one’s business but my own and that of those in my lineage).
What I’m saying here is that I can see both sides of the coin.
I’ve been that non-lineaged witch who gained a familiar through a chance encounter, and I’m now in a lineage and kicking names and taking ass there too (hopefully – I just wanted a chance to use that quote).
All I’m saying is that there should be space for both.
We’re a modern movement, but we’re massively diverse. Some of our traditions are lineaged and some not, and we need to respect those differences. Because at the end of the day, it’s far more important that we get off the fucking sofa and actually do.
(Just don’t do lineaged stuff if you’re not in the lineage).
And yes, that final subheading was from Dr Seuss ‘Go, Dog. Go!’
Hall, Alaric – Elves in Anglo-Saxon England Wilby, Emma – Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
For today’s blog, I’d like to tell you the story of how I learned witchcraft, and some of the best lessons I learned from my first teacher.
Like many people who end up getting into witchcraft, I felt a draw to all things witchy. Most importantly though, the weird and otherworldly was also drawn to me. Which is good, because witchcraft without the dead and/or Other is just a party for one.
I grew up in a town on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England, and I was the weird kid everyone else came to ask about getting the “power of Manon” when the movie The Craft came out.
When I was first starting out at the (stereotypical) age of thirteen, our local library boasted only a couple of books on witchcraft. One was The Witches’ Bible and absolutely out of bounds because I knew the librarians would call your parents for taking it out on account of all the photos of naked Janet Farrar. The other was Z Budapest’s The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, and as it had no photos of naked people or overtly witchy imagery (at least on the cover), this made it the perfect candidate for withdrawal.
Now, I realize that Z Budapest is a TERFY dumpster fire, and I’m not promoting her in any way. Even then, her work wasn’t to my taste and there wasn’t really any discussion about transfolx to even have the language to describe a TERF. In my backwards hometown in the 90s, dumpster fire or not, she was about the only game in town.
But while Z Budapest’s book may have taught me how to cast my first circle, the moors were my real teacher.
My First Teacher in the Craft: The Moors
The moors where I grew up are a wild place, windswept and barren with rocks littered across the heather and grass like broken bones. It’s a place where the clouds meet the land and modern people walk on ancient ruins. And it’s as dangerous as it is beautiful.
When the mists drop and you can’t see further than a couple of feet, it’s easy to get lost. The landscape is treacherous, and the weather can go from snowy to warm sunshine within the space of a half hour. Like Gullveig, the moors of my home county have burned and been reborn. Unlike Gullveig though, she’s performed this trick more than just the three times that Gullveig did.
Then there are the bogs – the reason why a lot of people tend to stick to the paths.
But for all the danger and creepy stories, I loved them and would spend hours in the wild places up on the tops away from the paths with my little dog.
Some of my first rituals were worked up on those moors, and I’ve seen things up there that few would believe.
There I learned to map the hidden dimensions of a landscape, committing to memory all the places where the Good Folk lived when I found them, and building up relationships as I went.
There I learned to sit out on burial mounds.
There I learned to enjoy my own company and be happy observing the shadows of the clouds moving over the valleys below.
There I learned that no matter how badass you think yourself, some places are still best avoided after dark.
Teacher, Counselor, Friend
I haven’t had many teachers during my time, but the best teachers I’ve known happen to also have been friends who give good counsel.
When times were hard, I would take my pain and pound it into the earth through the bottom of my boots. Then (usually at the top of a hill), I would fall to the ground to thank the hills when the knots around my heart lifted.
Other times I’d bring her my magical problems, and I’d think about them as I walked until I happened upon the perfect piece of materia magica to work into a spell. Soon I was bringing back things like sheep skulls and working the teeth into amulets. It didn’t matter what she threw me either. When I got the sense that I was supposed to use a thing, I instinctively knew what to do with it.
From there, I began to think about questions I needed an answer to, and I would pick up nine straight (ish) sticks at random as I walked. Then when I had
my nine, I’d hold them between my hands to whisper my question before casting them to be read as runes.
At some point though, I began to think about the ‘why’. Why did she throw me those things and why did they work for what I needed to do? Why did I work in that way when working those spells and why did that work?
This is how one of my greatest magical interests was born – deconstructing magical workings in order to discover the underlying “mechanics”. And that kids, is how I got started taking historical accounts of magical workings and trying them out.
The Four Main Lessons my Moorland Teacher Taught
When you learn witchcraft from a land, much of it is going to be heavily localized and possibly even useless outside of that land. But the moors taught me four main transferable lessons that have stood me in good stead no matter where I’ve been.
1. Take a Place as You Find It
The first lesson is one that embraces impermanence. Places change, as do the beings that inhabit them. And a place and its inhabitants may be one way on one day, and completely different on another day. Even if you’ve been somewhere before, never assume that a place is going to be or feel the same when you go back there. Keep on top of your basic witchy skills, and always have your apotropaics and best manners to hand.
2. Avoid a Feeling of Ownership
This is a big one, and it’s something we humans (at least in Anglophone culture) generally suck at anyway. This idea of ownership of land (and all the non-human people on it) goes to the animism thing all the cool kids are talking about. And if we’re being real, as a group we’re still pretty crap at that there animism. I mean, how many of us actually respect the agency of non-human persons? How many people still see them as basically being some twee little vending machines for favors (in exchange for some pretty subpar offerings)?
(Clearly I’m using “us” in the macro sense here. I’m referring to the modern Pagan movement as a whole, so hold your knickers, Beryl!)
The truth is, we all come from a culture obsessed with individualism. A culture in which selfishness and cruelty are lauded as a twisted form of morality – and that kind of fucks us when it comes to the animism thing. Because when everything is already about you and you getting yours, that puts you on a terrible footing for interacting with the not-you. But when you bring a sense of ownership into the equation (of both the land and by extension the sentient beings who also live there)?
I mean hell, we can’t even get it right with other humans. Feeling a sense of ownership over anyone or anyland is one of the first paving stones on the road to hell.
And this is not me saying ‘don’t buy property’ or that I’m coming to take your toothbrushes and make you use some communal, opossum-managed toothbrush (holy shit but I love opossums). No. Own on paper if you need to, but recognize that it’s just a formality for the stupid humans. Instead work to become a part of your land and grow the understanding of belonging to in your heart.
3. Try to Figure out Your Place in the Big Picture
Speaking of belonging to – this mindset sets you up to contextualize yourself within the bigger picture of the place you inhabit. You’re no longer an individual over but cohabiting with. Where are you in your “neighborhood”? Who do you need to avoid pissing off and who do you need to give a little more care and attention to?
If you consider yourself an animist, try putting yourself in the shoes (or roots) of a tree or plant in your community of lives. What do they experience on a daily basis? Who do they interact with the most? What problems do they have with their nearest neighbors? How do you help them (or harm them)?
An interesting thought exercise, no?
Every Land has its Stories and You Should Learn Them
When we were kids, we passed stories like schoolkids pass nits. Stories about
Granny Greenteeth, “Bannister Dolls” (don’t ask), black dogs, ghosts, and the occasional boggart tale all ran round our groups. Especially on the dark nights when we couldn’t find anything really to do but lurk on the streets and tell each other creepy stories (in winter it’s usually getting dark by four in the afternoon where I’m from).
But these stories are important because they’re what help you to fill out the hidden dimensions of a land when you first arrive. This is how you build your witchy map of a place and figure out where to start attempting to build relationships. Not only that, but they can also give you clues as to how to survive should you encounter some of the nastier parts of the local unseen.
For example, I now live in Maryland. There is an alleged cryptid here called the Snallygaster who is apparently the mortal enemy of the Dwayyo – a kind of huge, monstrous, wolf-like being. I’ve also noticed some interesting parallels between some of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious National Park disappearances and Jinn lore, and I know that wolves are also associated with causing Jinn to vanish. So now I include ground down (legally obtained) wolf bones in the black salt I make to carry in my bag of tricks. See what I mean?
I haven’t had the chance to blog for a while. I was going to do a whole Q&A about the dead and ancestor veneration. But sometimes, a topic comes up that is just so front and center in the old noggin that you just can’t ignore it.
I’d like to talk (rant?) today about Heathenry. Or rather the bullshit that drags Heathenry down and sullies its gold.
I’ve been a Heathen for a long time. Honestly, I’ve been Heathen longer than some of you good folks have been alive. I’m married to a Heathen too, and magical adventures aside, our collective hearth cult is predominantly Heathen.
For me, Heathenry is, as my friend Andrea would say, “a heritage of gold”. The stories you find in the Old Norse and Germanic sources hold true beauty and wisdom if you have eyes to see it.
But the problem is, not everyone has eyes to see that gold, and all too often, those stories become tainted by the toxic filters we ourselves can bring to those texts.
The Eyes and Hearts We Bring to Myth
In many ways, these stories can be like a Rorschach test that reveals the inner insecurities and fears of a person. This is what is really at the root of the incessant fapping off over Vikings, and toxic ideas about tribe and ancestry. The people who fall into these traps want to feel anything but what they actually feel. They don’t want to feel all those insecurities and fears, and so they try to mask it with what they perceive as “strength”. This is the core of what is at stake for a fascist. This is why they fight so hard against anything resembling sense.
In doing this though, they only achieve the opposite. It’s no kind of strength to run or hide from one’s feelings, or to hate people who look different to you. Hate isn’t strength. The ‘separate but equal’ nonsense that’s often dressed up as ‘I just want to be with “my folk” (but don’t really hate others)’ isn’t strength either. ( Hot tip: If that’s an explanation you’re going with, you’re just in the phase where you’re still trying to find “polite” ways of saying “POC scare me and/or give me an inferiority complex”.)
Whereas my Heathenry is expansive and wondrous, theirs is reductive and cuts out anything that discomforts them. Where they only see trees in isolation, mine sees each tree as it is: connected through roots and mycorrhizal fungi to other trees. Trees that have been found to provide mutual aid to each other regardless of tree ‘type’.
In Völuspá, the story goes that people come from trees. This isn’t scientifically true but we could learn a lot from trees all the same.
Just don’t try to give me that tired old adage about how ‘a tree without roots will fall’, and act like it somehow sensibly explains the obsession with DNA and skin color. Because the Hávámál the far right Heathens like to quote so much says nothing about tree roots and ancestors.
You know what it does talk about though? Having people who love you:
The withered fir-tree which stands on the mound, neither bark nor needles protect it; so it is with the man whom no one loves’ why should he live for long? Hávámál 50, Larrington trans.
Without love, every person falls.
The Groaning Tree
Yggdrasil shudders, the tree standing upright, the ancient tree groans, and the giant is loose. Völuspá 47, Larrington trans.
In all honesty, I’m tired of trying to keep the gold clean, but it’s important to keep trying all the same. This is a sacred duty, and for too long we Heathens have allowed the ill to define us. Worse still, when we form communities, we often do so by defining what we are not as opposed to what we are, and in this way they shape us too. I don’t know that this is the same in other parts of the world, but this has very much been my experience in the US Heathen scene.
However in my opinion, this is entirely the wrong way to build community and/or counter the far right elements in our faith.
We need to begin by naming these people for what they are.
These are not people who are hale and whole. They’re damaged and broken on the inside. They are not inheritors of that gold, and no amount of DNA-testing, ‘pure-blood’ anything will make them so.
the ancient tree groans, and the giant is loose
The word Jötunn is thought to come from the Proto-Germanic *etunaz, which is in turn thought to be semantically connected to the Proto-Germanic *etanan, or ‘greedy’, ‘voracious’, ‘gluttonous’, ‘consuming’. Although the above snippet from Völuspá pertains to Ragnarök, it is also relevant here.
Fascism is inherently greedy. It always requires an ‘other’ to sacrifice, then turns on people in the in-group who are not quite “in” enough to appease that greed. It is an evil Thurs, a ravenous spirit, and those in its thrall are equally ravenous.
This is how we should be naming this evil. They are, or are possessed of greedy, greedy, spirits who will never be sated and who can only be driven out.
‘Þurs of wound-fever, lord of the Þursar! Flee now! (You) are found. Have for yourself three pangs, wolf! Have for yourself nine needs, wolf! III ice (runes). These ice (runes) may grant that you be satisfied (?), wolf. Make good use of the healing-charms!’
Runic healing charm from Sigtuna, Sweden. ‘Runic Amulets and Magical Objects’ by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees
Have for yourself three pangs, wolf! Have for yourself nine needs, wolf! These ice runes may grant that you be satisfied, wolf!
It’s not often we get usable models. We should probably take advantage of them when we do.
The Stone Turns at the Command of an Unjust King
There’s a story in the Poetic Edda that I’ve found myself thinking about quite a lot recently. It’s called ‘The Song of Grotti’, and in it a king takes two female slaves and puts them to work endlessly at a magical millstone, forcing them to grind out endless wealth with little thought for their welfare or basic needs. He is beyond all shadow of a doubt, an unjust king.
We too live in an unjust society in which workers are increasingly expected to produce with little concession to human wants or needs. Productivity and profit have become king now, and people work like cattle but then struggle to survive regardless of their labor.
Wealth let’s grind for Frodi, grind out happiness, grind many possessions on the wonderful stone! Let him sit on his wealth, let him sleep on a quilt, let him wake to happiness! That is well ground out.
At first, the women sang their songs and ground out wealth for Frodi. But again and again he denied them pleasure, rest, and warmth. Over time, the women became angry, remembered their mighty deeds before being forced to Frodi’s hall.
Now we have come to the dwellings of the king without mercy, and live as slaves, mud eats away at our feet, the rest of us is chilled through, we drag the calmer of strife; it’s dull at Frodi’s house.
But what do you think they did next?
Did one blame the other for the king’s greed and lack of compassion? This is essentially the option offered by fascism and does nothing to address the underlying issues that make people so miserable in the first place.
No. The women worked together and turned the magic millstone against Frodi, churning out woeful fate for the unjust king. (The Marxists among you will laugh at how they seized the means of production in this tale.)
Hands shall grip the hard shafts, the bloodstained weapons, wake up, Frodi! Wake up, Frodi, if you want to hear our songs and ancient tales.
I see fire burning east of the city, warfare awakened, that must be a beacon; an army is coming here very shortly, it will burn the settlement despite the prince.
You shan’t hold onto the throne of Lejre, the red-gold rings, nor this magic grindstone. Let’s seize the handle, girl, turn more swiftly! We are not yet warmed by the blood of slaughtered men.
By the end of the tale, the king is dead and millstone destroyed. The women are now free from their endless labor
There are lessons to be learned here too, but it is the central lesson you find over and over again in these texts (along with punishments for bad or violated hospitality): stick together, work together, fight together.
And that for me is what Heathenry is about. It is a religion of relationship and relationality with human and otherworldly people alike. Of gifting and story. Of rainbow bridges made of fire, and a shared world alive around us. It’s a religion of magic too. In which people may send parts of themselves forth, speak prophecy, ensnare and bind, and break weapons with charms.
It’s a religion of beauty, the most precious of gold, and I’m asking you to help me keep that gold clean.
We’ve been through one heck of a story arc with these past few posts. First, we took a look at the nature of reality and how consensus can literally delineate the boundaries of what we see, think, and experience. Then, I moved onto an exploration of the ideology underpinning much of our current consensus and the negative ways in which it affect spirituality/Paganism/Witchcraft in “WEIRD” cultures. In this post, I’m going to lay out some concrete measures that each of us can take in order to begin the process of freeing our minds, practices, and magic from the negative effects of our neoliberal consensus.
Work to Recognize the Patterns
The first and most important step that any of us can take is to read about neoliberal ideology and its inherent patterns. This allows us (at least theoretically), to better recognize the parts of our lives/practice/magic that are poisoned by this dehumanizing crud.
The next step after education, is mindfulness. You need to work to be mindful of what you do, think, and how you perceive the world. Your aim here is to recognize those neoliberal patterns as they come up, and actively choose to do, think, and perceive differently.
A good example of this in action would be the process of talking yourself out of buying yet more needless junk. The consensus we inhabit presents products as fixes for everything. Now, as I discussed here, there are likely things you do actually need to obtain for magical practice (depending on your paradigm). However, there’s no product on the market that can give you a greater connection with deity or greater magical ability. The only thing that will get you either of those things is putting in the work. So the next time you feel that drive to buy something like that, take the time to ask yourself why you feel you need it. What do you think it can really do for you and your practice. And then take a deep dive into why you feel that way.
Sounds like a lot of work, right?
Well, no one said it would be easy to hack your way out of the consensus.
If there’s one virtue that becomes a flaw when viewed through the neoliberal worldview, it’s compassion. This makes the act of developing compassion one of the most powerful acts of resistance anyone can participate in. We live in a society that seeks to make virtues out of cruelty and selfishness. A world in which the monetary aid sent for the reconstruction of a crumbling edifice outstripped the aid given for a disaster characterized as being the worst to hit the Southern Hemisphere. And not just by a little either – Portuguese/Macanese press reported a massive 16 times difference.
(But don’t you dare judge the super rich for what they choose to do with their money!)
Compassion in our society is seen as a weakness, and yet it is not. If anything, compassion that is properly rooted and developed can be one of the most powerful forces a human can manifest.
It’s not just about being meek and mild and feeding the poor. Compassion can be wrathful, it can be the sword wielded to protect or fight for justice. It can burn as strongly as Brighid’s hottest flames, and forge a person strong enough to stand their ground against the greatest of enemies.
Real compassion takes courage.
And if I’m being real, I think this is something we all know deep down too. How many people take refuge in selfishness because caring about others – because compassion is far harder?
So don’t take the easy way out. Stay with those feelings, let them stoke the fire within to relieve suffering, and reclaim humanity.
‘We’, Not “I”
As I discussed in my previous post, neoliberalism has a vested interest in keeping people from joining together. You see, not only was the fear of any kind of collectivism Hayek’s primary inspiration for what would become neoliberal ideology, but he also recognized that the greatest challenge to his ideology was people banding together.
Like selfishness, rampant individualism also became a virtue – it’s kind of necessary if one is to transform people who are primarily citizens into people who are primarily consumers. You see, ideally a citizen has responsibility to country and fellow citizens. Which is mightily inconvenient for the kind of folks who just want to throw money at politicians in order to do whatever the hell they want regardless of who gets hurt. This is why corporations tell us over and over again that “you can have it your way” and that “the customer always comes first”. Consumers aren’t invested in the whole but in self-gratification, and because of that, they’re much easier to control than citizens.
In my opinion, this is a huge part of why so many of us in the Pagan/Heathen/Witch spheres tend to think in terms of a personal path and personal spiritual development as opposed to doing better in order to uplift our wider communities. And this is hugely problematic, because with that mindset, it’s all too easy to consider those around you to be means to your spiritual ends. For example, with this mindset, it’s easy to put your need for something like white sage above the wider issue of hurting groups of people who have already seen far too much hurt. This makes spirituality into a shopping place that puts the consumer first, and it’s fucking bullshit.
The antidote to this is to step away from individualism and re-find your place in the wider web. Recognize that you are but one part of a whole system of interbeing, and learn to view the world accordingly.
As John Donne once famously wrote, “no man is an island entire of itself”.
Stop pretending you’re an island and recognize the whole from which you arise.
It’s one thing to change one’s view of the world, but unless it’s put into action, then very little changes. And the best way to put compassion and interbeing in action is to form and build community. And not in an exclusionary way either – too many people create community and think they need an outer enemy in order to maintain cohesion. This is called negative identity formation and has actually been the source of many negative forms of collectivism. This is what underpins ethno-nationalism, and we don’t need to go there in order to have communities in which we share genuine bonds of friendship and love.
So make communities, work to create them with a basis of mutual help, trust, friendship, and betterment of the whole. Practice feeling happiness for the successes of your community members instead of jealousy. And where you are successful, work to help your community members attain the same successes. Remember, this is about the ‘we’ and not the ‘I’. Witch wars need not apply here.
(And no, Heathenry, you can’t just put this all on the women because of something something “frithweavers”.)
Stay With the Trouble
Finally, as Gordon White says, you need to stay with the trouble. All the work described above is hard, it’s a massive change from the typical Anglosphere paradigm. It will provoke uncomfortable feelings and reflections, and you will need to stay with them and dig into them if you want to get to the other side. Realizing brokenness is hard, compassion is hard, de-centering yourself is hard, and communities can be extremely hard. But I would argue that until we do this, it’s near impossible to do pretty much any Pagan/Heathen/Witch faith authentically. Instead, we find ourselves significantly disconnected, distracted, declawed, and numbed.