Heathen Deity Relationships

The Relationship Divide

If you’ve been around the wider Heathen community for any amount of time, then you’ve probably heard this one before. It’s something that comes out whenever people start discussing their relationships and experiences with individual gods. At some point in the conversation, someone will invariably come along and tell everyone that such individual deity relationships are a modern thing. That deity worship was communal – something that was only done as a community. And that the gods are far too important to bother with relationships with lowly individual humans. So stick to your ancestors (at their gravesites) and the local spirits, guys!

But for all the appeals to historical authority in these arguments, I don’t see a lot of actual historical support for them.

A Word on ‘Relationships’

Before getting into the evidence though, I need to clarify what I mean by ‘relationship’ here. Because for most people, the connotation is of a sexual or romantic relationship. And while there are certainly modern practitioners who claim that kind of relationship with certain deities, that is not the only kind of relationship meant here. As we will see, there are a number of types of relationship possible with deities (as there are other humans). My use of the word ‘relationship’ in this post is intended in this more general sense.

Textual Evidence

Generally speaking, modern Heathens tend to be more familiar with the textual sources than archaeological evidence, so this is where we’ll start.

Roughly 1/4 of a ‘Heathen Starter Pack’ circa 1998-2000.

If you are like me, and first encountered Heathenry in the 90s, then you’re probably quite familiar with the term fulltrúi. Everyone seemed to be/have one back then (yay for horrible anglophone understandings of ON terms!). There was definitely a sense that ‘having’ a fulltrúi was part of the ‘Heathen Starter Pack’ (along with a horn, bowl, and hammer pendant).

One of the biggest problems with modern Heathenism is that we all seem to be incapable of being anything but extra AF. We do backlashes like no one else. After over twenty years in Heathenry, I feel like I can almost guarantee that if we go balls to the wall on one thing, a whole other group of us will go balls to the wall in completely the opposite direction. And this is what I suspect lay beneath a lot of the backlash to the use and abuse of fulltrúi back in the late 90s/early 2000s. (For a similar response, see the ‘UPG vs recon’ debate).

Modern fuckery aside though, there is evidence of relationships in which a

Eh…not quite.

deity was described as being the fulltrúi of a person in the primary sources. For example, in cha. 9 of Víga-Glums Saga, a man called Þorkell refers to the god Freyr as his fulltrúi. And in cha. 8 of Eiríks saga rauða , Þórhall refers to Þórr as his fulltrúann. Now it’s worth bearing in mind here that the word fulltrúi held a variety of meanings in Old Norse (as it does in modern Icelandic), and could be used to refer to deities, humans, and inanimate objects alike. Fulltrúi could be a confidant, patron, protector – someone you can fully trust. In modern Icelandic, it tends to refer to someone who is an agent or service representative. So it’s important to realize that the word ‘fulltrúi’ isn’t some specifically religious term.

But in all cases, where it is used, it is indicative of different kinds of relationship.

Other Relationships with Deities: Hrafnkel Edition

But these two examples of fulltrúi are not the only evidence of different kinds of relationships between deities and humans (or worship on an individual level). Another excellent example of a deity-human relationship is that of Hrafnkel and Freyr in Hrafnkels saga. In the second chapter of Hrafnkels saga, we’re told the following:

”Hrafnkel loved no god more than Freyr, and to Freyr had devoted a half share of all his greatest valuables.” (Translation taken from Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson A Piece of Horse Liver)

On the surface, Hrafnkels saga seems to be a story about the uselessness of such relationships with deities. Hrafnkel’s behavior as a result of his religious dedication is quite extreme at times (especially from our modern perspective), and that extremism seems to lead to his downfall. Hrafnkel is famous for having jointly kept a horse with Freyr by the name of Freyfaxi, and for swearing an oath to kill anyone who dared to ride him without permission. But as always, such an oath seems to be like that proverbial ‘big red button’ that shouldn’t be pushed, and the sanctity of Freyfaxi is inevitably violated by a herdsman who decides to take the horse for the 10th century equivalent of a ‘joy ride’.

“Hrafnkell, that herdsman asshole *rode* me! Go get him for me?”

Interestingly, the horse seems to come and inform Hrafnkel of the violation and Hrafnkel sets off to kill the herdsman (Aðalsteinsson 1998, 116-117).

Now if there’s one thing Icelanders seemed to enjoy back in the day (I’m joking here, they didn’t), it was a good, old-fashioned blood feud. And as you might imagine, the herdsman’s father did not take the death of his kid well. To cut a long story short though, this killing started a chain of events that saw Hrafnkel’s temple destroyed, Freyfaxi killed, and Hrafnkel himself in some severe legal shit.

Okay, so that wasn’t that big of a deal compared with other Icelandic feuds (I’m looking at you, Njáls saga!)

In the saga, Hrafnkel’s devotion seems one-sided on his part. Yet as scholars such as Aðalsteinsson have pointed out, it’s no coincidence that the devotee of a god of fertility then went on to experience good luck with his meager livestock, or that great shoals of fish began to appear in the lake near his home. Aðalsteinsson also makes the argument that Hrafnkel’s declaration that he would no more believe in gods is out of keeping with what we know of tenth century Icelandic religion, but that’s another matter and beyond the scope of this post (Aðalsteinsson 124-125).

Other Relationships with Deities: Wife/Priestess of Freyr Edition

It may sound simplistic to say this, but the world of the Viking Age (and before) was not our world, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, would probably be quite alien to us in a lot of respects. This is something that Neil Price acknowledges in the second edition of The Viking Way when he makes the observation that ”we seem reluctant to acknowledge that aspects of these and many other facets of their lives come to us filtered through a world-view that most of us would find incomprehensibly distant, unpalatable, even terrifying.”

Their world was not ours, and this may very well explain the sense of taboo or even mockery towards the concept of sexual and marital relationships with deities.From the perspective of modern humans born and grown in predominantly Christian societies, this is delusion at best, and blasphemous hubris at worst. But if the textual evidence found in Gunnars þáttr helmings is indicative of attitudes towards such relationships in the Heathen period, then party on, deity spouses!

The þáttr is set in around the tenth century (but written in the fourteenth century), and as the name suggests, relates the exploits of a man called Gunnarr.

Now Gunnarr was something of a character. If he were from where I grew up, we’d probably have referred to him as a “ right rum un”, and this “right rum un” was on the run from none other than King Óláfr Tryggvason of Norway. Gunnarr ends up hiding out in a sanctuary in Sweden where he encounters an idol of Freyr and his wife.

Per the þáttr ” it was the peasants’ belief that Freyr was alive, as in some ways it seemed he was, and they thought he would need to have marital relations with his wife.”

Freyr and his wife don’t just stay at the sanctuary though, and Gunnarr obtains

“Listen, if the wain is rocking, DON’T come knocking!”
-Gunnarr, maybe.

permission from Freyr’s wife to accompany them in the wagon ‘when he makes the season better for men’. So he goes on the road with Freyr’s wife and the Freyr idol, leading them from place to place until one day they find themselves stuck in a snowstorm on a mountain road. At this point, Freyr’s idol comes to life and fights Gunnarr (+1 points for living idols, yo), and Gunnarr fights back. Unfortunately the story becomes a conversion narrative at this point, because Gunnarr, while getting his ass whooped by idol-Freyr, begs the Christian god to help him in exchange for converting and eventually wins. Then, because Gunnarr was indeed a “right rum un”, he spent a bunch of time telling people he was Freyr, sleeping with Freyr’s wife, and eventually getting her pregnant (North 24-25).

The Swedes for their part didn’t seem to give a shit that the Freyr was now a human man either. They had good weather for their crops and that was the important thing there.

Now, shitty (and rather predictable) conversion narrative aside, assuming this þáttr reflects Heathen period practice with regards to Freyr’s wife, the wider community role of this woman was clear. Her position was not questioned and nor was it taboo. Even when it became somewhat farcical with Gunnarr blatantly pretending to be Freyr, the Swedes were more about the outcome than anything else. As long as the weather did its thing and the crops grew, it was all good.

Archaeological Evidence

In my opinion though, some of the best evidence for individual worship comes from archaeology. There are a number of statues that have been found that are interpreted to represent different gods.

The statues I present here date to the Viking Age. Pay attention to their size!

First we have the Rällinge statuette. As you can see, he’s a very well-endowed figure. Unsurprisingly, he’s been interpreted as a representation of Freyr. But for all of his blessings beneath the belt, this ‘God of the World’ is all of 7cm/2.75” tall. So, pocket-sized for your convenience. Just ask Ingimund from the Vatnsdæla saga about his missing Freyr amulet..

 

 

 

 

Odin from Lejre, Denmark

Next up is the one that triggers all the bro types. Yes, it’s this lovely silver and niello figure from Lejre that’s interpreted as Óðinn (but you see he’s wearing lady clothes so that’s bad apparently). Once again, he’s pocket sized for your convenience, measuring only 18mm tall (0.7”).

After that, we have the Eyarland Þórr statuette.
This guy comes in at 6.7cm/2.6” (with his hammer taking up a good deal of those centimeters/inches).

Finally, in before anyone can say “but that was Viking Age and a response to Christianity”, here’s the migration period Trollhätten “Tyr” bracteate.

The funny thing about Heathen responses to Christianization is that per Danish archaeologist Lotte Hedeager, the entire myth of Tyr losing his hand was a migration period invention created in response to Christianization (Lotte Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality, pp 207 – 211). There are literally hundreds of years of Heathen responses to Christianization before what we typically think of as the conversion period in the North.

So what can we take from these statuettes?

They simply don’t make sense for community worship, and as the Vatnsdæla saga story of Ingimund and his Freyr amulet demonstrates, people do seem to have carried personal deity representations. Why would they have done this if only communities looked to gods?

Important Lessons for Modern Relationships

There are more examples I could have included here, but this blog post is already quite long (congratulations for making it this far), so I will move on to summarizing a few of the ‘lessons’ I think we could take from these sources.
The first is despite the examples given here, it seems to have been perfectly fine to just go to community events and do your part to uphold the customs of the community. Then as now, not everyone is going to be Hrafnkell or Þorkell level of relationship. And that’s fine.

One of the coolest things about these sources for me is the way in which people largely just did their own thing and didn’t really overly-concern themselves with what other people were up to in terms of belief and ritual unless it bled out onto the community level. Unless you have good reason to believe that someone is causing harm to others (and especially to those who cannot consent), it’s fine to just let people do what they’re doing. So if someone wants to set up a hof, start a cult around the worship of a preserved horse dick, or start some peripatetic Freyr sex cult, whatever. As long as it’s informed, consensual, and not illegal, go for it! You go get your damn völsi on.

But whatever you do, I think it’s wise to remember that these relationships go both ways, that that trustworthiness isn’t just something to be expected of a deity, but also on our end too. If you consider a deity to be your fulltrúi, ask yourself, are you really a faithful friend to the deity? Because sure, you can’t do nearly as much for them as they do for us, but wise kings always value their trustworthy followers. It’s the same kind of thing here. So don’t rush into these kinds of things, and remember that relationships are not built on oaths alone.

Sources
Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson – A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual, and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources
Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson – Under the Cloak: A Pagan Ritual Turning Point in the Conversion of Iceland
Lotte Hedeager – Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD 400 – 1000
Richard North – Heathen Gods in Old English Literature
Neil Price – The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2nd Ed.)
The Old Norse World 
The Saga Database

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Creation

To a Creation, Clothes

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?

Tree-Men

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.

Adaptation

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

From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty) Witchcraft Tools

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.

Mother Holda, the Hel(l) Road, and Magic

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 FrauHolda Hoher Meissner 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.

Experience led to more research, and my experience upon that mountain sparked roughly a decade of research. In many ways, my forthcoming book, Elves, Witches, and Gods: Spinning Old Heathen Magic in Modern Day is the fruit of that decade (and more).

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.

Sources
Davidson, Hilda Ellis – Gods and Myths of Northern Europe
Giannakis, George – The “Fate-as-Spinner” motif: A study on the poetic and metaphorical language of Ancient Greek and Indo-European (parts I & II)
Griffiths, Bill – Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic
Heide, Eldar – Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water
Mencej, Mirjam – Connecting Threads  
National Museum – Human Sacrifices?
Rumens, Carol – Poem of the Week: A Lyke Wake Dirge
Timm, Erika – Frau Holle, Frau Percht und verwandte Gestalten: 160 Jahre nach Jacob Grimm aus germanistischer Sicht betrachtet

Watch Out for the Snakes, It’s All About the Snakes

A long time ago in a land far away, a land of colour and mystery and things that went BUMP in the night, there lived a girl. Like many others, she had arrived with her backpack heavy with clothes and her mind heavy with dreams. She’d always wanted to travel in the east, ever since she’d read her first library book about China and learned how to snakes - green pythonwrite three simple phrases in Chinese.

“Big man”
“Big man sits down”
“Man too big”

Not that was any use really in Korea, but still.

She even found herself liking the look of the Korean script better than Chinese, its characters reminded her of the fish she used to go catch with her dad as a child; sitting on the banks of the canal and pulling up trout, gudgeon, and the odd tench.

Her first night in Korea was punctuated by a bad case of ‘Dehli Belly’, and waking up to what she thought were three bloodied women at the bottom of her bed, talking at her emphatically with words she didn’t understand. Unsure if she was hallucinating from the dehydration and sickness, she vaguely remembered that civil war and starvation were still within living memory for many in the country and went back to sleep.

The next day she felt better after drinking a little bottle of tonic a co-worker gave her. She didn’t even notice the weird tone her co-worker’s questions took.

“Is your apartment ok?”

“Are you sure?”

Not even when she told her that everything worked as it should and it was quite comfortable.

“Ahhh” *nod* ” But is your apartment…ok?”

These are the things you don’t necessarily pick up or think about until later on when things become apparent that maybe your apartment is a little weird.

It started with the noise of what sounded like a wet body trying to get out of a bathtub coming from the bathroom. From 11pm every night, she would hear and ignore that. At first she investigated it, stood there in the bathroom looking at the tub as the noises emanated from it. It wasn’t the neighbours – those impossible people who managed to be ever so quiet in spite of five kids and plastic walls.

A couple of weeks after that, the toilet exploded. She fixed it, moved on, and ignored the weird vibe in the apartment. She was being watched, and it wasn’t necessarily nice. Deciding to create a ‘safe room’, she worked protections on her bedroom – it’s at least good to get some sleep, right? So what if she could hear the wet body noises every night for two hours? She was good at ignoring things like that.

She met a boy, they hit it off, and thank goodness he was there the night her plastic bathroom ceiling set on fire. Even though the electrician ‘fixed it’ and declared it ‘safe’ with one layer of tape, it was still the end of the bathroom light.

Things moved on their own, from the empty candy tub that sailed ten feet across the room while she was on the phone with her mother, to the toaster oven door that would open and shut on its own. She made sure to always put the chairs under the table before going to bed because part of her was sure she would see figures sitting in them during a late night bathroom trip.

As she gained her feet in the new land, she gained ways of dealing with it. She set up a shrine to appease the spirits with coins. A spirit showed up one evening, “My men call me the General, General Yi”, and she felt a little safer. The next day at work while leafing through books, she found a picture of the man that had leaned over her the night before – General Yi Soon Shin, a native of the area where she was living, made Admiral posthumously. So the General found a place on her shrine too.

Periodically she’d bury the coin pile of offerings that built up and start again, and something resembling an easy peace was kept. When she forgot though, that’s when the scratches would start.

“OMG you have a ghost!”

That had been her boss’s response when she’d seen the scratches – along with her heavily bitten fingernails, nails her boss had gently chided her over before.

Then there were the dreams in Korea, dreams that blurred reality, dreams that bordered on trance and made her feel exhausted come daylight.

Once such dream scared the daylights out of her. It felt significant, a dream of life and death, of witchcraft, underworld beings, and women – goddesses undulating with snakes around their bodies, “watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”

It had been so unsettling, she’d awoke, relieved to see her then boyfriend sleeping beside her – until he spoke in his sleep.

Those words.

Again.

“Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”

Where UPG (or Dream) and Research Meet

The thing about dreams and visions is that they don’t always make a whole lot of sense at the time, and it doesn’t mean anything. These things only gain meaning when you figure out their context. Until that point, it’s best to simply file them away for future reference, and keep the to the ‘personal’ aspect of ‘UPG’.

Sometimes they sit there until you forget them, or just put it down to a brain fart. Other times though, you find that context and the meaning hits you like a ten tonne truck.

Sometimes you find that context in a conversation or a place. Other times you find it in a book or indeed many books. No matter where you find it though, the effect is still the same.

It’s like a door unlocks and you’re plunged into potential and new avenues for exploration.

The Hittites used snakes in divinatory practices related to the ancestors, snakes and wells. Snakes and water – routes to the underworld, where a serpent called ‘MUŠ’

‘ sat upon wool being ever bound and unbound. Some IE cultures kept some of these pieces of worldview, some held only the barest echoes. Context found.

“Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”

Slither on down and down.