This week, I’m coming back to a topic that should be a lot more familiar to everyone (pun intended): the witch’s familiar.
Introducing the Early Modern Witch’s Familiar
The witch’s familiar is an ancient phenomenon, though the most commonly held ideas surrounding them seem to owe more to Early Modern Britain. Simply put, a familiar was a form of spirit helper with which the witch or cunning person held a certain kind of relationship. The kinds of familiars possessed by both cunning folk and witches differed too, with the familiars associated with “Cunning Folk” being more of fairy, and those associated with witches being
more demonic. It is the latter form that is the most recognizable today (Wilby 2005).
For witch or cunning person, the acquisition of a familiar was for the most part by chance. Accounts of encounters recorded during the witch trials, paint these encounters as happening spontaneously, as the witch or cunning person went about their business (Wilby 2005). Often the witch or cunning person would also be impoverished, or recently subjected to some kind of further hardship or tragedy. There is an undeniably folkloric feel to these encounters, and not unlike the kind of deal made by the girl forced to spin straw in Rumpelstiltskin (for example).
Unlike period descriptions of encounters with the dead, the fairy or demon familiars are described in stunningly naturalistic terms – they’re as real-looking as you or I. They were of vivid color, and animation and sound. But that’s not to say that they were “really” just the pets of people who looked a little “witchy”; it’s one thing to assume the shape of a thing, and quite another to actually be that thing. Having said that though, there were cases in which the pets of people suspected of witchcraft also shared the fates of their owners. But witch crazes are nothing if not illogical, let’s not mistake misplaced bloodlust for authenticity.
However, while the majority of accounts depict a person coming across the spirit that would become their familiar in a spontaneous way, there were ways in which familiar spirits could also be acquired. For example, one might petition a condemned person to return and serve as your familiar as in the case of Mary Parish’s familiar, a one George Whitmore (Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”). In other cases, one could gain a familiar by somehow encountering fairy royalty and showing them the proper respect thus acquiring a familiar as a gift. Alternatively, you might acquire a familiar as a gift from another witch – most commonly a family member (Wilby 2005). And lastly, if none of those methods were available to you, you could always try petitioning a demon such as the Verum demon Sustugriel who was reputed to ”give good familiars” (Stratton-Kent 2010).
As I said above though, the Early Modern familiar is simply just the most well-known form of spirit helper. The fact of the matter is that magical practitioners have been finding helping spirits and making pacts with them for a very, very long time. And like wands, familiars traverse a wide range of different cultures (albeit under different names – obviously).
The earliest account of what might be recognized as a familiar is the ob (pronounced “ov”) of the biblical Witch of Endor. The ob was both a spirit “of the dead or minor underworld deity that “speaks from the earth in whispering voices”, and an object of worship whose spirit can enter into a human and reside within them (Barrabbas 2017). In other words, to have a familiar is to be possessed by a familiar (something which I will speak of more towards the end of this post).
Among the Greeks, we find the parhedros who fulfills a similar function to that of the ob and the familiar. Given that the Greek Magical Papyri begins with ways in which to acquire a parhedros, we have to assume that they were considered an integral part of performing magic (Skinner 2014). Moreover, like their Hebrew counterparts, there is also the aspect of worshiping objects associated with the paredros. For those of you who are interested in the idea of performing one of these paredros rituals, it bears mentioning that those early methods of acquisition require blood sacrifice. Far less bloody to summon a demon in this case!
Moving over to Heathen period Northern Europe now, we find evidence that witches partnered with elves in order to perform their magic. Alaric Hall argues that rather than being the result of attacks by elves, the phenomenon of elfshot was more likely curses thrown by elf-empowered witches (Hall 2001). This is where we find our way back to Wilby’s period of study. Hall traces a pattern of witches working with mound-connected elves from the tenth century Old English magico-medical charm Wið Færstice and term ælfs?den (literally “elf-Seiðr”, or “elf-magic”); to Martin Luther’s account of being “shot” by a neighborhood witch; and finally to Isobel Gowdie’s accounts of encountering the Queen of Elfhame in a mound and seeing elves fashioning the shot. I personally take it somewhat further and point to the portrayal of Frey and Freyja in the Ynglingasaga. Freyja as the sacrificial priestess (and as we know, goddess associated with the form of magic known as “Seiðr”) ends up overseeing the cult to her brother, Freyr (who is associated with elves), even as he lies in the burial mound. The people bring offerings to the mound for peace and good seasons, and so even in death, he possesses a power that his sister does not.
Equally, elves were also associated with possessory divinatory trances that may have resembled or been confused with epileptic fits (Hall 2001), and so here too we find the possessory aspect of the ob.
Familiars and Hierarchy
The themes of hierarchy and spiritual authority also play their respective roles here. You may have already noticed that outside of the spontaneously acquired familiars, a higher power must be approached. This is an important distinction to make: the familiar gifted by fairy royalty will obey you if their royals command it. For those who inherit their familiars from others, one has to assume that the same terms and conditions of whatever pact was agreed upon transfer to the new witch.
Mary Parish’s familiar George is the obvious exception to this. Unlike most other familiars in the accounts, he was a dead human whose service was contracted by means of an oath before dying. This allowed Mary the authority she needed in order to work with him postmortem. However, his story is not completely devoid of involvement by a higher (fairy) power.
At some point, a minor aristocrat by the name of Goodwin Wharton became covetous of George (who he had become aware of through his love affair with Mary), and endeavored to have Mary gift him her familiar. However, a fairy queen referred to as the Queen of the Lowlanders steps in. From Wharton’s journal:
” The transfer of George was further complicated by the queen of the Lowlanders, who demanded that Goodwin stop attempting to have George as his own personal spirit. At first Goodwin was a little resistant, but the queen insisted that if he would not willingly show her this preference, he should never see any of the Lowlanders. She wanted to be his number-one contact with the spirit world. Goodwin had little choice but to agree to her terms. As a consolation, George agreed to answer any questions directed at him as long as Goodwin turned his back and did not look directly where George stood. However, Goodwin could not understand the spirit very clearly, as he spoke in a low, soft voice close to Mary’s ear. So throughout their relationship, Goodwin relied on Mary to communicate with George.”
(Cummins 2017 “The Rain Will Make a Door III”)
It would seem that even when it comes to contracting the familiar services of the dead, the fairies will still have their say.
Pets as Familiars
Now to come to something a little polemic, but that I find weirdly irritating all the same.
I’ve noticed a tendency among some in the Pagan/Witch/Heathen communities to refer to their pets as their “familiars”. At first, I thought it was just a joke being made (and for most people, it does seem to be). However, I seem to be coming across more people who actually think their pets are their familiars.
Now hopefully this blog has illustrated all the ways in which that is just fucking stupid. And I think one of the reasons why I get so angry about this is that after having worked with a familiar for a number of years, the collocation of “pet” with “familiar” is just yet more disrespect and treating the Other like some fun and twee little thing that’s just here for our edification, or worse – our entertainment. I feel like I’m quickly running out of ways to say that it’s not all about us humans.
Let’s just stop this, please. We’re better than this. And your dog/cat/bird/whatever may be cool, but he isn’t your familiar. Moreover, if you actually kept your dog as animal familiars were most commonly kept (in a wool basket, being fed milk, blood, or whatever), you’d be in trouble for animal cruelty.
So let’s just not; okay?
Barrabbas, Frater (2017) Spirit Conjuring For Witches
Cummins, Al (2017)The Rain Will Make a Door III: Faerie and the Dead
Hall, Alaric (2009) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Health, Belief, Gender, and Identity
Skinner, Stephen (2014) Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic
Stratton-Kent, Jake (2010) The True Grimoire
Wilby, Emma (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic
Welcome to the third part of what is turning out to be a gargantuan series! You know, when I first decided to write this series of posts, I didn’t think I’d end up churning out so many words on this subject (especially not from a predominantly Pagan perspective). However, like almost every time I’ve gone to a bar for “just a couple of pints” only to come back completely trollied, this seems to have gone a little bit further than expected.
So, where was I?
Ah yes, that’s right. I was discussing the matter of authority, the necessity of attaining it, and ways in which it may be obtained. You can pick up those earlier posts here and here. But all you need to start out here knowing is that otherworldly hierarchies and spiritual authority have always been a part of magic (speaking in a relatively general sense here). And like kids trying to bribe the toughest kid in school to keep the bullies in line, we’ve sought blessings and favor from the big kids among the Unseen since we first started grabbing wands and spitting out barbarous words in our circles.
Wands and Authority?
Which is where we come to wands, because they’re not *just* for channeling energy; there is a connection to spiritual authority here too.
If you look at the older grimoires (and more specifically the sections on tooling), you’ll often find quite detailed instructions on how to make the tools required for working the magic of that particular grimoire. Certain materials may be required, things must be done at certain times, and certain prayers or incantations must be said while doing those things. For the most part, I don’t think the majority of Pagans understand why all of that is even necessary, and some seem to consider complexity a sign that something is new.
However, I don’t believe that to have been the original purpose of a wand, and if anything, it is my opinion that the grimoire instructions (for all their seeming complexity), are the product of far more ancient concepts.
(Side note: Why do we always equate “older” with “less complexity”?)
A Brief History of Wands: Ancient World Edition
For the ancient Egyptians, wands were either in the form of a snake or the form of a “throwing stick”. The throwing
stick wands were quite decorated, like far finer versions of the “throwing sticks” used by the Ancient Egyptians to bring down birds; they were evidently also thrown during ritual (Skinner 126-127). The snake wands though, were more akin to the wands we carry now; the oldest of which (as far as I’m aware) was found in a 16th century BCE tomb in Thebes. Made out of bronze and in the form of an elongated cobra, it would have been a fine, impressive piece in its day.
For Geraldine Pinch (quoted in Skinner P126), the rationale behind these wands was clear: ”Staffs of various kinds were standard symbols of office in Ancient Egypt, so magicians who wished to command demons and spirits naturally used them too. In the Book of Exodus, Pharoah’s magicians and the Hebrew leader Aaron are all able to turn their staffs into live snakes but Aaron’s snake is said to have overcome and swallowed the others.
And we cannot overlook the materials with which these wands were made. For the most part, the snake wands were of bronze, and the throwing sticks of ivory. However we also find reference to the use of an iron staff by Anubis. Is it any coincidence that the god who guided the souls of the dead would wield a staff made of the metal that the dead are reputed to fear? Or that the necromantic rites of the Greeks also featured the use of iron swords in order to keep the press of the mighty dead in line? Put a pin in this, for we shall return to it later.
Picking up the trail from Ancient Egypt, we find the earliest reference to a wand in the Greek epic The Odyssey, where Hermes was characterized as the “god with the golden wand”. Skinner points out here that the wand of Hermes is the Caduceus – itself a snake wand of sorts (Skinner 127).
But as we saw from Geraldine Pinch’s interchangeable use of the words “wand” and “staff” and the example of Anubis’ staff, the wand could take other forms. Or rather, different items could fulfil the function of the wand. To further elucidate, I refer you to P201 of Aaron Leitch’s endlessly interesting Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires:
“…the magicakal wand or scepter also possesses a probable origin in ancient fertility rites. It is the symbol of male virility, and may have once been used in a very practical manner in conjunction with anointing oil. Later on, this was utilized in a symbolic manner in the rite of marriage related to the consecration of the sacred king. The taking of the scepter was often as important as the donning of the crown in the inaugural ceremonies.
From that point, the significance of the scepter or rod spread in several cultural directions. In the hands of the king the scepter became a standard symbol of power and governance…The magickal wand has been a tool of the priest and magickian for thousands of years , as we can see in lands such as Egypt, from which we most directly borrow our occult understanding of the instrument. The wand held by the mage confirms his own authority over spiritual and earthly forces.”
Because what greater staff of status is there than that of a king’s scepter?
When viewed from this perspective and from within the framework of spiritual hierarchies, the complex instructions of the grimoires make perfect sense: you are creating a counterfeit of the status symbol carried by whichever authority figure is recognized by the spirits of that grimoire.
The Germanic Perspective
But the evidence for the concept of wand-as-symbol-of-spiritual-authority is not limited to the Classical World, Near East, and Ancient Egypt. There is also evidence for similar concepts in Northwestern Europe in the form of the staffs of sorcery (a category of staffs found in the graves of suspected ritual specialists which often resemble distaffs). I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book by way of explanation here.
There were two main types of these staffs of sorcery as far as we can tell from the sources and archaeological finds: the first type was of wood, and the second of iron. These staffs differed from the distaffs of everyday use in a number of ways. The ones of iron were heavy, which would have made them all but impossible to spin with. One does not need to spend much time spinning with a distaff to find out that it must be relatively light in order to be useful. With a heavier distaff, your arms would quickly grow tired from trying to hold it in place, and this would make it an impractical tool for every day use. The wooden staffs would have made better distaffs in terms of weight, however I still do not believe they would have made a particularly good choice for everyday use. There is reason to believe that they may have been as “crooked” as the divinely crooked staffs once carried by the Baltic priests of old. This would make the process of pulling fibers from the distaff for spinning less smooth. Moreover, in the case of the one found in the Oseberg ship burial, at least one of those staffs was actually hollow in the center – a modification which I believe would have made it too breakable for daily use.
There was also the matter of length too; the historical staffs of sorcery were also somewhat shorter than the staffs carried by modern practitioners. For example, the Oseberg staff measures 107cm; which is a far cry from the usual image of the seer/ess with a staff that comes up to at least shoulder length.
But the peculiarities do not stop there, and this is where things get really interesting.
The iron staffs are quite curious in a number of ways. Firstly, they were in all likelihood far harder to make than swords. This means that not every blacksmith could have produced one, and so there is the aspect of rarity and prestige that must have gone hand-in-hand with possessing one. Secondly, there is a good chance that they were carbonized with human or animal remains, thus producing a link to the ancestral or animal world. Indeed, ironproduction itself was sometimes even located in cemeteries.
Moreover, we cannot forget that the smith was not just a worker of metals: they too were liminal figures in the Viking Age. It is a deep magic to create a staff that has not only touched both the dead and the Other, but that few of your contemporaries could reproduce. That is not something that can simply be bought from a craftsman on the internet, that is more like the dwarven-forged spear-staff carried by the God of the Roads.
Which brings us to another interesting set of crossroads.
In many ways, despite the more shamanic interpretations, these staffs were like wands in that they often seemed to denote authority: authority to those around you, and also the authority wielded on the behalf of whichever deity patronized your arte.
“It may be …(..)..that both Woden’s spear and the sibyl’s staff have the same origin and the difference is accounted for by the fact that each denotes authority in different areas. In Woden’s hand the staff becomes a spear because that is an ancient symbol of warrior rule; Veleda’s symbol remains staff-like weaving beam or distaff, however, because it still suggests one type of authority and is also easy to associate with weaving sticks, spindles, and weaving swords, all of which remind one of the widespread concept of the weaving of fate.” world. Indeed, iron
The iron distaffs, though conceivably of the Dead, could also be wielded against the Dead. Iron is an age-old apotropaic, and when needed, the distaff could so easily have become as the Greek sword wielded at the pit.
The wooden staffs also had their connection to the underworld and Other; for you could not just walk out into the woods and take any stick. As best as we can tell, these staffs were received *from* the Other. This is also true to some extent with the iron staffs, as the smith is also other (albeit in his own way).
But times and beliefs diversify. The staff that started out as one but became a spear in the hand of a god of warriors and remained a distaff in the hands of a seeress would go through many changes over the years.
Hopefully you can see the various threads of commonality between the Germanic/Scandinavian evidence, and that of the ancient world. There are some interesting questions that come up here. For example, could it be mere coincidence that iron staffs would be connected with the dead in both Ancient Egypt/Greece and Northwestern Europe? Is it mere coincidence that divinely “crooked” staffs of sorcery – snakelike perhaps in their appearance – would exist thousands of miles from those of the Egyptians with their very crooked snake wands?
I honestly don’t know. Regardless of all of those wonderful rabbit holes though, I think there is a good argument that the idea that wands were tools that denoted authority was both ancient and widespread.
So how can you incorporate that knowledge into your work?
Think about the beings from whom you derive your patronage, or in other words, your authority. What are their symbols? What were they depicted as carrying? What did those things look like? What are the connections in terms of materials (ie iron with the dead)? What can you recreate, and most importantly, are your patrons okay with you carrying such status symbols in their name? (Divination can help here, preferably from someone who is not you.)
Then get to work – it’s as simple as that.
As for the Other gotten staffs, well, I’ll get to that next time.
Like I said, it feels like a number of us are poking at the same nebulous mass (albeit from different angles). I was going to post the third part of my series on authority and hierarchies today, but after reading these posts, I have things to say, and say them I shall.
Religion and Baggage
I’m going to begin with John Beckett’s post, as that is the post I came across first. On the one hand, I couldn’t agree more with his points that Pagans need to get over previous religious baggage, and that there are very definite benefits to religion. However, I have real issues with looking to the framework of other (typically monotheistic) religions for a model of how Pagan religion should look now. Granted, this may not have been Beckett’s intention here, however, I don’t think you can extol the virtues of religion for Pagans without also going into what Pagan religion could look
To my mind, this is an important distinction to make too, because when you use a word like “religion” – like any word – it comes with certain expectations of what that thing looks like. And after something like 1500-2000 years of predominantly Judeo-Christian religion, we really need to ask what that looks like for a good chunk of us. In other words, how does the shape of Abramic religion affect the shape we give to Pagan religion?
Let’s take Christianity, for example. Christianity is universalist, in fact, new adherents are actively sought. It’s also orthodoxic in nature, meaning that having the “correct” belief is of the utmost importance. Relationships with deity require submission, and the end reward for good behavior comes after death.
Now compare this with what we (think we) know of Heathen period religion. Here “religion” goes hand in hand with
community, and is made up of the reciprocal relationships held by that community and the customs by which they are maintained (orthopraxy). Religion is not universal, and though there are common threads between groups that are culturally similar enough, it differs by tribe. There are no active attempts to seek out new adherents either, as it is handed down from parent to child. Joining the religion in these cases, is more of a case of tribal enculturation. Afterlife beliefs vary from group to group.
See what I mean? That’s quite a difference! However instead of exploring that, as a group we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater and make weak arguments about “being spiritual instead of religious”.
Along similar lines are the following statements:
“I don’t pray, I chat with my gods.”
“I don’t kneel, that’s a Christian thing.”
“I don’t worship, I honor my gods.”
And it doesn’t matter that the acts of prayer and kneeling is well attested among multiple pagan cultures, or that worship (meaning “to give worth to/acknowledge the worth of”) is the perfect word for what we do, we just keep running.
So I see this issue as twofold: on the one hand, we avoid anything that looks a little too much like the religions we ran from; and on the other, we allow those religions to continue defining our worlds for us.
Don’t believe me on the last one? Consider the Devil for a moment. How do you feel about him? If you’re getting an icky feeling, where do you think that’s coming from? And yet from the probable perspective of someone from the Pagan period, he’d be another animistic power to trade the troll market with (as always, terms and conditions may apply).
Hold the Gods!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Laura Tempest Zakroff’s post argued for the validity of witchcraft without deities – or at least, devotional relationships with those deities.
I’m not going to lie, I think that’s also a problematic approach to take. As I discussed in my last post on Authority and Hierarchies, having reciprocal relationships with higher powers was a part of having spiritual authority. Hell, even the virtue of piety itself was something that could be held up as a form of authority when trucking with the dead.
This is not to completely slate Ms Zakroff’s post (apologies if that is the wrong honorific, I’m happy to amend accordingly, as I do respect her). I do think she makes an excellent point about the duotheisms held dear by the earlier Pagan revivalists, and their incompatibility with both modern and ancient ideas on deity. But does that mean that we should once more throw out yet another baby with the water it was bathing in? (Which per this account was a dirty dirty water, possibly filled with spunk and other sexual fluids.) Does that mean that we let (this time) Wiccan ideas on deities in witchcraft define the matter of deities for all witches? Because witch or not, you don’t have to have a god and a goddess. And while it’s true that witchcraft can be practiced without deities, in the old accounts and old charms, there was always the matter of the witch requiring the authority to work her craft (be that authority the Devil or Fairies, or Yahweh).
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again
Isobel Gowdie, of course.
The most striking thing for someone who spends a lot of time reading both old grimoires and ancient texts about magic though, is how much our expectations of magic have lowered over the years. There was a time when it was perfectly reasonable to have spells for getting your animated divinatory skull back under control. But now what do we have? To quote Ms Zakroff, “magic as an every day practice to change you, your living space, and the world around you. There’s no chapter on “how to choose your patron deities” – but there may be one on finding your inner goddess.”
So were those earlier spells just delusional?
I’m not so sure; let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I was perusing the vendors at a Pagan convention. One vendor was selling (among other things), little sequined books that she was calling “wish books”, the idea being that you write wishes in them and they would come true. Nice novelty, but no one who is magically operant is going to take that seriously. However, as I was looking through her wares, an African gentleman came up and honed in on these “wish books”, wanting to know if they really worked. You see, as someone who had grown up in a place in which witchcraft is a very real prospect that is routinely thought capable of things we might think fantastical, he was as serious as a heart attack. The vendor
when faced with this, recognized her conundrum: she could either admit that her products were bunk, or she could lie to the gentleman and potentially face his wrath down the line. Because in his culture, you can bet that bought magic is considered the same as any other product that doesn’t work when it doesn’t work!
So were those older spells delusional? I doubt that gentleman would think so – or any number of people around the world actually. As a community, we talk a lot about “reenchanting the world”, as though the whole world is missing its enchantment, but maybe it’s just our bits of it?
I’ve covered a lot of ground here (that’s happening a lot at the moment), but if I were to boil down my points, they would be as follows:
1. Religion itself isn’t a bad thing, but we need to stop running and start figuring out what that can look like for us.
2. We also need to stop throwing out bathwater babies because of how others define things (seriously, we’re creating an army of Útburðir). Don’t like Wicca-esque duotheisms? You don’t need to dump all ideas of forming relationships with animistic powers.
3. It’s about reciprocal relationships, and no matter how awesome your inner goddess is, she probably is going to still be useless if you ever find yourself up shit creek without a paddle with things going sideways faster than the fools at my gym who try to use the treadmills sideways. Plus side though, you can always try shitting yourself, so there is that.
4. It’s also about expectations, and we cannot reenchant the world if we’re not only removing the animistic powers, but also simultaneously lowering our expectations of what magic can do.
So there you go! My Monday ramblings about all the things. I’m still aiming to get the third part of my series out this week (probably on Thursday), but the posts by Mr Beckett and Ms Zakroff were too relevant to ignore.
This blog series isn’t just about grimoire spirits and fairies. In fact, as we will see in this post, the concepts of spiritual authority and hierarchy aren’t limited to grimoire spirits and fairies. My choice of grimoire spirits and fairies when introducing this topic was, in a sense, a foreshadowing of the argument that I would make here: that hierarchies and authority among non-human person groups are not simply the product of Judeo-Christian influence. As we will see in this post, these things are relevant and have implications for us too.
I’m going to begin this post by first taking a look at what a reciprocal relationship is, the various types of reciprocal relationship found in Pagan period sources, and the ways in which they also exist within a framework of hierarchy and authority. Then I will take a look at why spiritual authority is important and the various types of spiritual authority.
Curious? Dive on in!
The Role of Reciprocity
The concept of reciprocal relationships have been out of favor for a couple of millennia. (Caveat here: this has not been, nor is the case with all human societies.) So it’s unsurprising that a lot of modern Pagans and Heathens struggle with the concept of reciprocity, and understanding the various kinds of reciprocal relationship. This issue is further exacerbated by the baggage that many carry from prior religious affiliations. It would seem the submission demanded by the Abrahamic faiths makes it difficult for many among us to freely give those acts of worship they associate with their former faiths.
Do ut Des
Reciprocity is the idea that we cannot get what we need from others, unless we are willing to give something back in return. This is do ut des or “I give so that you may give”, and it’s important for us to understand that this cycle of gifting is the foundation of every single relationship that the ancient Pagan or Heathen would have had. Without that relationship built by reciprocity and perhaps further cemented by oaths, there simply wasn’t any reason to care a whole lot about what happened to others. The land spirits you have no relationship with will not help save your crops, and the Patron you do not serve will not give you support.
But here is where hierarchy and authority come in, because like the spirits, humanity has never existed as a society of equals. Yet reciprocity was a fact of life, and something which applied to all relationships; regardless of whether those involved were of equal or unequal status. Reverend Kirk Thomas of ADF identifies three types of reciprocal relationships in his book Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. What follows here is a but a (necessarily) brief summary of what he covers in far more depth.
The first type of reciprocal relationship was that of guest and host. Hospitality in the ancient world was not a choice but a duty, and it was incumbent upon both host and guest to obey the rules of conduct. The host was expected to feed, house, and entertain any guests; in return, the guest was expected to be on their best behavior (Thomas 16-17). Within the context of hospitality, either guest or host may be of equal or unequal status, with each expected to provide within their means.
A Friendship of Equals
The second type of reciprocal relationship is one that would be familiar to all of us: friendship. This is a type of relationship which has historically tended to exist between people of equal status. Traditionally, differing social status was thought to be a barrier to friendships outside one’s social milieu. Of course nowadays (at least in our society), that is not always the case, and there is some blurring of the lines. However, even now, it can be hard to ignore the power differentials at play in friendships between people of unequal status. One example which Thomas gives is that of the friendship with one’s boss. Yes, a friendship can exist there, however, that boss may one day be called upon to fire you.
Patrons and Clients
The final form of reciprocal relationship that Rev. Thomas gives in his book is that of Patrons and Clients. This is a form of relationship in which one party has vastly more resources than the other, and in which the Patron would essentially take care of his clients in exchange for that client’s service and loyalty. Sound familiar? This is the form of reciprocal relationship which, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, most closely matches what we humans have with the majority of non-human persons we interact with.
Admittedly, there were some relationships mentioned in the primary sources between gods and mortals that did look more like friendships (such as that between Athena and Odysseus). However, that does not change the basic fact that the power balance between mortal and god is still unequal (Thomas 160 -161). In my opinion, these cases are perhaps best viewed as examples of patrons having favorites.
Reciprocal Relationships, Hierarchy, and Authority
Hopefully, If there is anything this (very) brief survey of reciprocity has demonstrated, it’s that even when you leave the grimoires( with their undeniable Judeo-Christian influence) out of the equation, it’s impossible to get away from matters of hierarchy and authority. That can be hard for a lot of modern people to swallow, however nothing says that we have to abandon our modern ideas of equality. It just means that lobsters are gonna lobster, and that when dealing with the gods and Other, the old rules probably still apply.
But given my rant in last week’s post about the perils of anthropomorphizing the Other, how do we know that these types of reciprocal relationships also apply here?
In this case, I believe we can find explicit evidence for at least the first and third types of reciprocal relationship among both fairies and gods.
Hospitality seems to be as important to gods as it was to Pagan period Europeans. For the Greeks, it was from the gods – or more specifically, Zeus – that the rule of hospitality originally came (Thomas 18-19). Similarly, stanza 135 of the Hávamál (or “Sayings of the High One”, a text attributed however erroneously to Odin) contains the following advice regarding hospitality:
I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take advice;
you would benefit, if you took it,
good will come to you, if you accept it:
do not scorn a guest
nor drive him away from your gates;
treat the homeless well.
Refusal of hospitality could be disastrous too. In the Irish text, Cath Maige Tuired, the lack of hospitality shown by Bres towards a poet, as well as his own ill-treatment of his clients (the Tuatha Dé Danann), was what ultimately led to his own downfall (Thomas 38). The violation of the rules of hospitality among gods or god-adjacent beings also led to Loki’s downfall in the Lokasenna.
Evidence of hospitality among the Good Neighbors – while not absent – is not nearly as forthcoming. I turned to intrepid Fairyologist (just kidding)…ahem…Fairy Doctor, Morgan Daimler for an answer on that one:
“In stories that’s hard to say – we more have stories have them as rivals with other groups and having strict rules about things like theft and honor between themselves.
We do have stories of them expecting hospitality from us and also offering hospitality to us, although the second bit can of course get tricksy.
But there are stories for example of how people were expected to leave the fire banked but glowing and a bit of food and drink out for any of the Good People who might come in during the night (when the household was sleeping) and also of people who stumbled across the Fair Folk having some sort of gathering who were welcomed in and offered a place in the dancing and food, etc., as a guest – usually if the offer was extended by the Lord or King/Queen though”
(Thank you, Morgan!)
The Patron/Client relationship is also well attested in various Pagan period cultures. The Irish, Norse, and Greek cultures all considered there to be rulers or kings among the gods. Lugh (formerly Nuada) ruled over the Tuatha Dé Danann; Odin was described as being the foremost among the Norse (at least per Snorri); and among the Greeks, it was Zeus who was believed to rule the Olympians. Flowing down from the High one, domains/riches and roles are divided accordingly; with the domains perhaps representing the physical support provided by the High God/Patron, and the roles performed by each of the clients/deities the service rendered to the High God. This pattern is also repeated between the other gods and their respective servants (such as with Freyr and Skirnir, and Thor with Þjálfi and Röskva).
In my opinion, the concept of reciprocity, or rather the different types of reciprocal relationships (with their implied status differentials) further support the assertions that I made in my last post regarding hierarchy and authority. Only this time, these assertions are more firmly grounded with an Indo-European Pagan worldview.
Spiritual Authority, Or “Why This ALL Fucking Matters!”
So having made the case (a few times now), that hierarchies are not only important, but basically underpin the entire system through which we build our reciprocal relationships, it’s time to look at why that matters.
The most obvious reason why it matters boils down to respect, and showing the proper amount of respect to those with whom you have relationship. As I argued above, while many humans have changed with regards to how we consider hierarchy, the old rules still apply when it comes to the Holy Powers. So in order to show the proper respect, you need to understand your place within the hierarchy. We humans are lower, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the various kinds of reciprocal relationships (with their attendant expectations and duties) provide us with avenues through which we may petition to have our needs met.
The less obvious reason (at least for those who really don’t bother with that magic and witchcraft rubbish) is authority; namely, how you can gain enough favor in order to have what is the magical equivalent of your queen or king’s seal upon your person when you ride out into the land. Royal seals are useful, because they confer upon the bearer the authority of the royals themselves. This means that subjects of those royals are compelled to do what you say, and this is the underlying idea when it comes to spiritual authority.
Authority is a layered thing too, because why bother trying to get the seal of the High King or Queen when you only need the subjects of a dukedom or clergy at a temple to do what you need? Sometimes you just need to court the favor of the more specialized bosses. However, if they don’t come through, then like why not go up the “chain of command”?
Without that royal seal, or (to bring this analogy back to the magical) deity patronage, you’re essentially just some snot-nosed human rocking up and demanding shit. And it’s generally a pretty terrible idea. No one knows who you are, and they’re under absolutely no obligation to do anything you ask of them. Equally bad is showing up with the magical equivalent of a royal seal from a ruler not recognized by the group of spirits you wish to work with. Because again, why should they listen to you? So if any of you are liking the look of Verum spirits (for example), but think you could somehow “Paganize” the superior spirit and deity names – please don’t. “Tech” we can borrow, but we cannot just plug in the names we like better and play.
But just how do you gain that royal seal?
The Role of Piety in Authority
The pre-Christian Pagan Europeans were orthopraxic. In other words, they considered how a person worshipped to be more important than what a person believed. This, and the framework of reciprocity, had major implications for how they saw the matter of piety.
Piety was about fulfilling religious duties, about keeping up with one’s prayers and offerings. It was about carefully nourishing those relationships and not letting them fall away. It was about being a good client. Piety was so important, that it could be held up as a form of authority in itself when compelling the dead. Take the following from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), for example:
“I ask you, daimon of the dead, not to listen to them [but to] listen [only] to me, Neilammon, [since I am]/ pious [toward the] gods, [and to cause them to be] ill for their [whole] life.
Excerpted from PGM LI 1-27
Equally, a lack of piety could be used as incitement of the dead against a person.
…[Spell to bind…(?)]: Take a lamella [made of lead]…: “I say to you who died prematurely and who were [called and taken] away by the wicked [Typhon. Commanding you] is/ the great god who has [dominion above and rules over the lower [gods]. Take into custody this wicked [and impious] man, because this [is the one who burned the papyrus boat of Osiris] and who [ate the sacred fish]. Take into custody [him, NN, whom NN bore…]
PGM LVIII 1-14
See what I’m saying? In order to have authority, you need to have patronage. In order to have patronage, you need to have cultivated relationship, and in order to cultivate relationship, you need to be pious.
You may not always need to “flash your royal seal”; most of us seem to get by in day to day life just fine through building relationship. But for the times you do, you’ll be glad of the hours of prayer and offerings.
In next week’s post, I’m going to take the discussion of authority a little bit further, and move into an examination of wands and how they relate to the matter of authority. For now though, I’ll leave you with the following words taken from the Rig Veda (RV 1.26.8).