Have you ever wondered why movies like Practical Magic are so popular among modern witches?
I remember the first time I saw it. I felt like I’d been given a hug. I was a lone witch in the late 90s and the Owens’ lives seemed wonderful, even with the prejudice from the townsfolk, the curse, and Jimmy Angelov’s bullshit. Such is the power of loneliness, I guess. And I was lonely back then. I was a lone witch living in the kind of place people would shout threats at me on the street for being a witch (which they’d seemingly discerned from my general vibe as opposed to me being out of the broom cupboard).
When I saw the Owens’, I saw something enviable. Because Jimmy Angelov may have been an abusive dick, and they too lived around people who wished they could still get away with setting fire to people, but unlike me, the Owens’ sisters were never alone. They had people who got what it was to have the kinds of experiences we have as witches and what it is to inhabit that liminal space in relation to the rest of society. Even better though, they uplifted each other and had each other’s backs.
And if we’re being honest, that’s really rare nowadays, even within covens. But fret not, friends. Because if we’re being really really honest, family-like covens don’t seem to have been all that common historically either.
Alliances Over Bonds
One of the most endearing qualities of the Owens family is that you get the impression that they wouldn’t just fight for each other, but die for each other too. However, historically, practitioners seem to have been for the most part solitary, with their fairy familiars serving as their primary point of contact with the fairy royalty or devilish figure to whom they are ultimately pacted (Wilby 84, 85). For the Early Modern person, it was the familiar that made the witch, but that familiar (though often appearing as a solitary figure), existed within an otherworldly or devilish hierarchy to which the witch was ultimately also bound (Wilby 125). And where witches are shown gathering together at sabbath or as a group, rather than being an event organized for convenience by humans, it is convened at the behest of that otherworldly or devilish power to whom both witch and familiar are beholden (Wilby 84). Invitations to the event itself, are commonly depicted as being conveyed by either the witch’s familiar or via animal spirits sent by the presiding power (Wilby 84). It was a time for engaging in dancing, merrymaking, learning new magic, working baneful magic, and engaging in intercourse and other deviant acts with otherworldly or devilish beings (Wilby 86). Or in other words: the sabbath showcased the kind of deviance the fairies themselves were thought to engage in.
To modern practitioners, the coven is often viewed as something akin to family. But the witches’ sabbath and coven of the time of Isobel Gowdie (from whose testimony we get the first attestation of the word ‘coven’), bears little resemblance to this more modern familial imagining. Where members of modern covens center their bonds with each other, it is the otherworldly power to whom each witch (and familiar) is pledged that is at the center of any group or proceedings in the historical sources (Wilby 81). This is about the familiar rather than the familial, and rather than protecting her ‘sisters’ at any cost as an Owens would, Isobel named the members of her group in her testimony (apparently without the use of torture to loosen her lips). Which can seem quite treacherous until you consider that for her, her main loyalty was probably not to any humans at all.
Although largely under-explored (at least from what I have been able to find), the origin of the word ‘coven’ itself may also elucidate the matter further. It’s not exactly clear where Gowdie got the word from. But given the wide use of the term ‘covenant’ in Early Modern English and Scottish witchcraft accounts and legal records, it would not be unreasonable to consider there to be a relationship between ‘coven’ and ‘covenant’. If this is the case, then perhaps the word ‘coven’ would be better understood to mean ‘one who has a covenant with the otherworldly power in charge of the group or sabbath the witch attends’?
Comfort of Covens vs. Power of Other
The fiction presented by the Owens’ sisters and other such media is comforting, and I think it speaks to the part of us that always wants to belong somewhere and be around people who get us. This is a desire that is all the more keen in groups of people who exist at the edges of human society as witches do.
However, as delicious as that may be, there is also a defanging that has occurred that I believe we need to pay attention to here. Well known fairy-firkler Morgan Daimler has written at length about the ways in which fairies have been rendered harmless in the popular imagination (the reality of fairies being another matter), and I believe a similar process has taken place with the coven and sabbath. Where fairies have gone from being figures of fear and awe to figures of whimsy and childlike innocence, I believe the coven and sabbath have shared a similar fate. Where once they were subversive, deviant fairy-led events in which learning and baneful magic took place, they have been made human-led covens and events made up of people with mostly human-led initiations who practice together in what is hoped to be a familial atmosphere.
Which is undeniably nice – but it’s also pretty convenient too when you think about it. Because it offers the promise of comfort in exchange for that traditional (but often lonely) connection with the otherworldly. However, it is when we witches work in partnership with the otherworldly that the witch has always been, and will always be the most glorious, subversive, and threatening.
I’m not saying to leave your covens if you’re in one, just don’t forget your primary <em>familiar</em> partnership in witchcraft along the way.
Source Emma Wilby – Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
My blog post today is about story. And I’m going to begin it by telling you a story (about story).
I like to write fiction, and I’ve been creating and writing stories for as long as I can remember. There’s something magical about the process of creating characters and allowing them to reveal the next stages in what inevitably becomes their story. For the most part, these characters are my creations, beginning as hastily plotted-out spider diagrams on whatever scrap of paper I can find and growing into themselves as I write.
By Human or Non-Human Hands?
But around this time last year, two characters began to take shape in my mind without conscious plotting on my part. I still made hastily-scribbled diagrams, but instead of being spiderlike sigils of creation, they were more like a record of beings that were already there..
I wrote them almost obsessively, unable to think about anything else. And this entire world began to take shape as I worked, growing up around the characters in a suspiciously organic fashion.
But one day around Beltane, they were suddenly gone. The world and its inhabitants no longer spoke to me. I could no longer see where I next needed to go, and so I let the project fall. Because while I could have simply invented the details and carried on writing, it felt wrong to do so.
For months I missed them like distant friends. I wanted to continue their story and spend more time in their world, and in September I got my wish.
They had returned. I could see their world once more, and their stories began to speak to me again.
But instead of jumping back into their world, I held back. Why?
Because I realized that they had returned at the same time as the acronychal rising of the Pleiades. Moreover, their Beltane disappearance coincided with the yearly disappearance of the Pleiades from the night sky. It seemed a little too coincidental, especially when the characters you’re writing are Gentry who worship the ‘Seven Queens’.
Now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this instead of simply getting into the CAOS.
I’m telling you this because I wanted to illustrate the point that story doesn’t always come from humans, and that sometimes there are non-human hands in the mix as well.
Otherworldly Media and Narrative
What do a bunch of ‘cave goblins’, Irish fairies, and a long-dead Icelandic völva spirit have in common?
If my sources are correct on this: they have all either historically been interested in modern communications technology and/or media, have already arguably exerted their influence, or have reportedly expressed an interest in doing so.
As outlandish as all of this may seem, this is not so different from the kind of otherworldly interest in creative types recorded in older sources. The storytelling bard has become the TV show writer, artists who may have painted scenes from Fairy while locked up in Bedlam, now create digitally, and famous Fairy-Firkler Morgan Daimler has been pointing out the weird waves of disinformation about Themselves online for a while.
(I mean, come on…plastic is the ‘new iron’?)
Why would humans be the only beings to adapt to an ever-changing world? Why would the otherworldly not continue to interact with and influence creative types as they have done for generations?
Sabrina Goes to Hell(ier)
Which brings me to the point of this post. Yet again, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has angered modern Pagans and Witches. This time though, it’s the depiction of the ‘Pagans’ that seems to be the source of the greatest ire.
I have a lot of say about that ire in general. But I’m going to limit myself to making the following two points:
That the ‘Pagans’ are not so much human worshippers of Pagan gods, but beings that were seen as being potentially monstrous (if not outright so) by their own Pagan period peers. Yes, as unjust as a monstrous read is when it comes to figures like Medusa and Circe, that’s probably how many people at the time probably saw them.
That the Greendale coven now worship Hecate. Which means that they’re now technically Pagans too. (Congratulations! You no longer have to get mad that they’re Satanic witches.)
Oh and about that whole thing with Pan and the Green Man: didn’t it feel a little familiar? Kind of like we’ve seen that alliance somewhere before?
Ah right, yes. Hellier season two. Again.
And I’m not the only person to have noticed the similarities either. According to the Twitterverse there was even a tin can moment in CAOS pt 3 (that I missed, probably because I tend to watch things like sewing/knitting/spinning).
A Topsy-Turvy Story
CAOS pt 3 was a story of different factions and battlelines. The Satanic was revealed to be codependent on the Christian for not only its ascent and power, but also help in the form of Mambo Marie (who is at one point described as being Catholic as well as a vodouisante). The ‘Pagans’ were largely actually monstrous beings, ‘Robin Goodfellow’ allies himself with the humans, and the Greendale coven end up (a different kind of) Pagan anyway.
If there’s one thing about the underlying ‘string-pullers’ of Hellier, it’s that the history doesn’t quite add up – at least not in the usual way. Greg is sent a pdf of The Rebirth of Pan: Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit, a book by a man called Jim Brandon (pseudonym). It’s a wild ride through archaeology, conspiracy theory, cryptozoology, paranormal phenomena, and Crowley. Rather than the Ancient Greek figure, the ‘Pan’ spoke of in this book (a being which the author argues is actually the conscious, collective identity of the earth/contained within the earth) is an aggregate term, a way of naming what the author believes to be manifestations of this consciousness of/within the earth.
And then there’s Hecate – a deity that seems to be becoming more prominent among modern Pagans at the moment, often in a protective/tutelary capacity. Funny how she’s associated with dogs, isn’t it?
The Stories We Tell and the Fucking Zeitgeist
When people on Twitter first began to notice the similarities between Hellier2 and CAOS pt 3, one person remarked that the CAOS producers should have given credit to Greg and Dana Neukirk.
But here is the thing: both series were produced more or less concurrently. Season 2 of Hellier dropped on 11/29/19, and CAOS on 1/24/20. While there are a couple of months between both shows, there wasn’t enough time for anyone to copy anyone else. Moreover, per CAOS showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, they were filming episode six in August – roughly around the same time as Greg and Dana et al. were still filming Hellier season two.
Good humans, I give you the zeitgeist…maybe.
Or maybe instead we see non-human hands in human stories and hints of narratives yet to be shaped?
I believe the unseen world gained a new faction, and it’s something of a ‘new kid’ on the block. Based on what I’ve seen so far of this new kid, I’m pretty sure the ‘old kids’ aren’t too happy with it. Something – a collection of beings in a trench coat masquerading as something else is trying to come onto their turf. And as humans, the creators and consumers of stories that shape the dominant consensus, we’re faced with a choice (another one).
In CAOS, the Greendale coven is given the (false) choice of joining the ‘Pagans’. But instead they choose Hecate, their ancestors (of blood and of practice), and ultimately each other.
Despite the fact that it’s a TV show, I think there’s a valuable lesson in that for witches. Because regardless of tradition, most of us already have relationships with have gods, ancestors, and other beings. Some of us also have magical siblings of sorts too. These are the relationships that have long sustained us. And even when we don’t have those things, the older beings tend to have track records that we can refer to when making our choices. Cleaving to those that are proven hael (by experience or reputation) is probably the best choice.
Yesterday I saw an article written by a British author about how she apparently tried being a witch for a week. It was offensive and stupid in a way that would have made the Daily Mirror proud. Today (and sadly all too predictably), seemingly anyone and everyone who’s ever gotten their witch on is mad about this article.
But (and please don’t take this the wrong way), why do we care what this individual thinks?
Not All Challenges Are Worth Fighting
This article wasn’t some amazing takedown of anyone’s lives. It was little more than clickbait masquerading as a so-called ‘enlightened’ and pro-science point about wider society. It was a collection of cheap shots against groups of people who already face discrimination in society. Rather than emerging as a ‘defender of science’, Ceri Bradford cast herself as the ‘mean girl’ that would be more at home in a schoolyard picking on the kid she hopes can’t fight back.
I mean, let’s face it. It’s not like any of us clicked on that link without even the tiniest sneaking suspicion that we were going into yet another mocking article about witches. That photo of her in a pointy hat was a dead giveaway; her facial expression reminds me of every drunk woman who ever picked a fight over nothing outside a kebab shop at 2 am.
And that’s what I think she’s doing here. I think she’s attempting to create drama because it will get her more clicks, more likes, and possibly lead to more work. I think she knew her work was going to cause upset, but I think she’s fine with that. Moreover, I suspect that no amount of complaining or appeals to decency will make her apologize or even feel vaguely bad (though it would be nice to be wrong here).
Target Selection for Bullies 101
The fact of the matter is that she could have made her alleged point about the rise in unscientific beliefs (if she even really cares about that) without punching down. After all, it’s not like virgin births, prayer (which is often magical in nature), resurrection of the dead, and transubstantiation are scientific either. Yet aside from the slight mention of religion in a general sense, she reserved all of her ire and mockery for those of us of minority faiths and practices.
In other words, she stuck to the people she doesn’t think can hurt her emotionally, legally, or professionally. She probably knows that rather than garnering a bunch of lol reacts, any article leveling that same style of mockery at Christianity would be met with disdain and/or censure.
And that, in my opinion, makes her a coward.
Oh Hai,Silver Lining!
Hit articles like this are nothing new in the UK press. I’m honestly surprised she wasn’t writing for the Daily Mail considering their long tradition of publishing hit pieces against Pagans and witches. And if anything, in a world of growing
As a community we spend quite a bit of time discussing modern media and debating the possible lessons that can be taken from different shows or movies. And this is a good thing. Because despite the all-pervasive and easily-accessible nature of this particular consumable, the media we produce and consume as a society is important.
You see, I don’t think that there is any such thing as “just a TV show”, “just a book”, or “just a story”. Storytelling, in whichever form it takes, is inherently magical. It is the mirror that shows us who we are, shadows and all. But most importantly, it can be an agent for change. Especially when millions of people become emotionally invested in a story.
Take a moment to think about the last spell or magical working you carried out. Think about what you did, and (more importantly) why you did it. Think about the reasons why you used the materia magica you did, or why you performed the actions you did, or approached the deities you did (if you did). I’m betting there were parts of the backstories of those deities etc. that fit with the story you were trying to tell, right? What is magic if not changing the plotline of one’s life or current circumstances? (Congratulations, you’re all fanfic authors!)
If anything, we should be thinking about media and what is being presented to us more, not less.
The Witcher and Witches
Like many people, I kicked off my Yuletide by watching Henry Cavill wielding a big sword while wearing leather pants (just kidding, I also finished a spinning taboo-along and did religious things too). It was pretty much everything I like in a show: swords and sorcery, humor, likable characters, and at times, absolutely balls-to-the-wall weird.
But despite its fantastical nature, I think there is an important lesson to be gleaned from the show, and one that is becoming increasingly important.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher – a mutant created through mysterious and deadly processes in order to fight the otherworldly and monstrous on the Continent. It sounds like the stereotypical D&D dungeon crawl (but on TV), right?
As a dungeon-crawling fool myself, that was my expectation too. But then I noticed something about how Geralt dealt with the beings he encountered that I think more witches need to take to heart.
Geralt doesn’t just kill/drive out indiscriminately. Again and again, you see him trying to walk a middle path between the monstrous or otherworldly, and the humans who are all too often selfish and uncaring. Instead of just seeing the monster, he sees beings with needs and motivations, and only kills where necessary.
And this is where I think we can learn from him.
Banishing as Default
If you’re a witch and your life is anything like mine, you’ve probably been called upon to clear houses or deal with troublesome spirits more than a few times. I’ve been that person that people go to for that kind of thing since I was about nineteen ( I’m almost forty now), and I’ve dealt with situations that quite frankly belong in a horror movie. I have a whole bunch of XP in scary shit and a fucked up sense of humor to boot.
Like pretty much everyone else coming up in our cultural paradigm, banishing, binding, or trapping was a default response. That’s kind of our predominant cultural paradigm when dealing with those we consider ‘other’? Hell, even the infamous BBQ Becky is engaging in this on a mundane level when she calls the cops on Black people for having the audacity to have a BBQ.
The knight always kills the dragon, the exorcist always drives out the demon, and the otherworldly or monstrous is pretty much always slain. That is what our media typically shows us, and it’s also the message of the dominant religious paradigm.
But these methods of “dealing” aren’t the only ways to deal, and they’re not necessarily the best in most cases. Like Geralt of Rivia, I think we need to start thinking in terms of needs and motivations, and seeing what we can do to address them.
In other words, we need to be walking our talk and actually treating the other as people.
(Warning: Some reflection of how you treat other people may occur.)
Leaving the Magical Murderhobo Life
I’ve been working on this for about five years now, and I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy. However, my life has been much easier since I adopted this approach. The simple act of asking a non-human person what they need or if there’s anything to be done to make amends and potentially lay the foundations for friendship is powerful. It’s also in most cases (in my more recently acquired XP), far more successful.
But it is hard to change approach. Because if I’m being honest, I have quite a lot of knee jerk reactions and trauma there that I have to clamp down on. I may have become the person people go to for clearings at around the age of nineteen, but it really didn’t start there for me. I was very…popular…with all manner of beings as a kid, and a good percentage of them were quite harmful. So it’s a work in progress, and a lot of dealing with the old shadow baggage.
I don’t think I’m alone in finding this change difficult either. Others I’ve spoken to about this have expressed similar sentiments. Trauma or not, cultural paradigm and habits are difficult things to break from.
And I’m not saying that you should never use more wrathful methods – it’s good to be able to handle yourself when things go wrong. But it should never be your first instinct to fight someone just because they’re different.
I would like to tell you a tale of two witches, (goddesses really) inhabitants of a time beyond time. The first goddess was ordered and seemingly tame. Elegance and poise personified, she navigated the oft-tempestuous social waters of her hall with ease, winning words of kindness and oaths of peace from even the most hardened of warriors who sat at her benches. A skilled politician, she wove hearts and minds together as surely as she and her ladies wove the handspun yarn into wadmal, their movements around the room like a shuttle moving through the shed of a great loom, binding warp to weft and person to person.
She is not often called ‘witch’, but she has the talent and skills to be one. She is farsighted, foresighted and deep of mind, yet silent for the most part when it comes to revealing what she knows. She is also voluptuous and comely, with shapely arms and legs that pull lovers in. Those two things do not sound like they should be connected, but they are. This you will come to understand if you do not already.
Her sister however, if we may even call her that, is not of the hall but the wild between. From house to house she goes, “always the delight of an evil bride”. “Witch” some whisper, others whisper “whore”, but to some she is both. Where the lady of the hall is comely, she is magnetic, possessed of the kind of beauty that tempts, entices, and leads men to their deaths. Her prophecies are weapons that fall from her lips, sharp-barbed words that topple kings and sink ships. She is a lady of many names, known to many peoples, both human and other.
Her magnetism calls to us too, and her call to ecstasies are clearly heard. But I believe we have neglected the Lady of the Hall.
There has been much written about the need to re-wild witchcraft, to go out into the wilds and work with the land. To seek initiation from otherworldly powers and be the Heiðr who traverses the hedge. The natural world is hurting, we are to blame, and we are to work to heal and make amends as best we can. Now I’m not saying that I disagree with any of that. I too have seen and felt the suffering and anger of the outer. I too feel this need, as I would imagine anyone with anything approaching an animistic worldview would.
However, we live in a world that prefers and loves absolutes. We love our labels, our boxes, and our causes. Absolutism in thought though, often means that the subtleties are missed, and sometimes it is in those subtleties that some of the keys to a solution are found.
The Poisoned Vines That Choke Our Inner Yards
We humans have always sought somewhere safe in which we can dwell, work, and have our families. We’ve made villages, posted guards, built fences and homes. Since we first began to be recognizably human (and maybe even before), we’ve sought places in which we can keep out the dangers of the outer. For it is instinct to create safe space, and it is a good one. It has ensured our survival.
But it is my contention that the inner is just as poisoned, polluted, and sick as the outer, and until we heal that damage and pull back those choking vines, then there is no hope for doing anything more concrete for either inner or outer.
A Heritage of Flames
History is the greatest of smiths, it forms and forges us, giving us both our identity and the collective traumas that we carry within the very fiber of our beings. The heritage of modern witches is not the same as the heritage of those who might have been called witches in the Heathen period, we hold different traumas in our collective psyche. The biggest trauma for those of us working within predominantly European-derived cultures, is that of the lamentably much-ridiculed period of history that was the European witch craze.
The witch craze was noteworthy in many ways, but rarely is it taken particularly seriously, or examined beyond the mutilation of the torture rooms and agonies of death at the stake. However, in examining the years preceding that systematized routing of female self-determination and magic, there is much that can be learned that is disturbingly useful for fighting the battles we face today.
The social setting in which the European witch craze took place was one of complexity and deceptively slow escalation, each incremental step laying the foundations for the extreme violence that would come. To speak in very general terms, there was an economic crisis of sorts, which was accompanied by an increasing obsession with both female reproduction, and controlling the behavior of women. This increase in misogyny was also unsurprisingly comorbid with a reframing of gender roles, and focus on masculinity. To cut a long story short, many of our modern ideas about ‘traditional’ gender roles were actually systematically introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries and further refined in the 19th century with the creation of the full-time housewife who only fucked out of a sense of duty (Federici 75).
“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again” wrote J.M Barrie in the children’s classic Peter Pan, and it certainly does seem to be the case that we are treading much the same path as our ancestors, albeit slightly differently. Stop me if any of this doesn’t sound at least a little familiar.
In parts of 14th and 15th century Europe, the rape of non-aristocratic women was practically decriminalized, with the perpetrators receiving little to no punishment for their actions. For example, gang rape was not uncommon in many French cities of this period and was carried out openly, without fear of legal consequence (Federici 47-48). This, scholars like Silvia Federici argue, “desensitized the population to the perpetration of violence against women, preparing the ground for the Witch-hunt which began in the same period.”
By the 1580s, the population of Western Europe was in decline and continued to be so into the 17th century. Times were hard, and people simply did not wish to reproduce (Federici 86). Concurrently a new ideology was forming, one that declared that the wealth of a nation might be determined by the number of citizens it has (Federici 87). In this climate, reproduction became a matter of fanaticism, and in the 16th century European governments began introducing laws that levied the severest punishments against contraception, abortion, and infanticide. New forms of surveillance were also employed to ensure that the eye of the state did not leave the womb of the woman: a 1556 French royal edict required all pregnant women to register their pregnancies and sentenced to death any women with concealed deliveries whose babies died before baptism; similar statutes were passed in both Scotland and England; and in France and Germany, midwives became de facto spies of the state, often being called in to examine women suspected of having recently given birth. In the 16th and 17th centuries, more women were executed for infanticide than for any other crime (Federici 88 -89).
The 15th century also saw the rise of a new male obsession with the idea of being dominated by women (and thus being rendered unmanly in the process). This has been referred to as the ‘Battle for the Breeches” and was often depicted in popular literature of the time. For the men of the time, the depiction of a man being beaten by a disobedient (breeches-wearing) wife, was one that provoked fear (Federici 96). It would seem that men in every era have feared the loss of their ‘man cards’.
The worst though, was that this new order sought to isolate women from each other, making them wholly dependent on, and entirely under the authority of their husbands. English women were actively discouraged from friendship with other women or visiting one’s own parents ‘too often’ after marriage, German women were forbidden to live alone or with other women, and Mediterranean women could no longer be on the streets unaccompanied without risking sexual assault (Federici 100).
Of this, Silvia Federici writes: “Simultaneously, female friendships became an object of suspicion, denounced from the pulpit as subversive of the alliance between husband and wife, just as women-to-women relations were demonized by the prosecutors of the witches who forced them to denounce each other as accomplices in crime. It was also in this period that the word “gossip,” which in the Middle Ages had meant “friend,” changed its meaning, acquiring a derogatory connotation, a further sign of the degree to which the power of women and communal ties were undermined.” (Federici 186)
When it came to relationships with men, the propaganda of infanticide, baneful magics wrought by female hands, and the creeping threat of female domination was so effective that though there were individual attempts by husbands, sons, and fathers to save their female relatives from the stake, there was no collective uprising to save their womenfolk from the fires of persecution.
And it is from here, this place of tattered bonds and violent subjugation, in a society full of mistrust and hate, that we look to the far past, and the witches of the Heathen period.
A War of Spears, A War of Hearts
21. The war I remember, the first in the world, When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, and three times born, Oft and again, yet ever she lives.
22. Heiðr they named her who sought their home, The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise; Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic, To evil women a joy she was.
The themes of burning and torture are already familiar in this essay. However, unlike the women of the Early Modern Period, Gullveig has the capacity for resurrection, rising thrice from the ashes of the flames and reborn anew as Heiðr. In a sense, she is the mother of witches, as Heiðr is the archetypal name for the wild witch of the outer who travels between the inner yards of men.
In chapter 4 of the Ynglinga saga we are told of how the goddess Freyja, a blótgyðja or ‘sacrificial priestess’ (who unlike her male relatives was never named among the Diar though she was clearly divine), taught the art of Seiðr to the “Asaland people”. For the scholars Ursula Dronke and Hilda Ellis-Davidson, Freyja and Gullveig were one and the same.
However Freyja is not the only Old Norse goddess of magic by any stretch of the imagination, and it might well be argued that the adversarial nature of the story of Gullveig parallels the account contained within the Volsa þáttr of the cultic rite to a group of beings referred to as the ‘Mornir’. As Clive Tolley points out in ‘Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic’, the Volsa þáttr account is clearly that of a female-led home cult coming into conflict with the male state cult of Christianity. It should also be noted that Völuspá contains clear allusions to Christian ideas, and so it is entirely possible that the antipathy of the Gullveig account may not have reflected actual Heathen period views.
Magic and encounters with the supernatural are common themes in Old Norse literature. The Lokasenna poem introduces us to a number of other deities who have either the gift of seership, or who work magic as witches. Both Frigga and Gefjun, are credited with the gift of prophecy, and Oðinn is referred to as working magic as a witch (an aspect of the Allfather which is reiterated in chapter 7 of Ynglinga saga). Regardless of whether they have the skills of a seeress or of a witch though, they are all accused of sexual promiscuity.
Of Insatiable Lust and Passivity
“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable” -Malleus Maleficarum
Though we have no evidence for the integration of sexual activity into the human practice of Seiðr, the association between witches and carnality is far older than the fevered fears of the Early Modern Period, with evidence presenting itself from the mythical realm rather than the historical (Tolley 164). It is a thread that connects witchcraft, or rather ideas of witchcraft throughout the ages. Gefjun tricks King Gylfi into giving her land in exchange for ‘amusement’ and Freyja beds dwarves in exchange for Brisingamen. Each is referred to as being a farandi kona, or ‘travelling woman’ – a term that held connotations of both ‘witch’ and ‘whore’ (Tolley 451). The insatiable woman was ?rg, as the male practitioner of Seiðr was ergi (Tolley 156).
To approach an understanding of ergi though, one must first understand something of Viking Age ideas on gender roles. As in the Early Modern Period, the people of the Viking Age had very definite ideas about what was proper with regards to sex and gender. In ‘Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe.’, Carol J Clover makes the case that the sex a person was assigned by their social peers depended on their behavior, and that in given circumstances, both men and women could belong to the female gender. The male was seen as ‘active’, ‘honorable’, the ‘default sex’ even. And contrary to what many think, it was no shame or considered ergi for a man to participate in homosexual activity during this period, as long as he remained the penetrator as opposed to the penetrated.
Though it is hard to find a definition of ergi that works in all cases, I think that the one provided by Tolley serves. Ergi, regardless of sex, was the ”opening oneself up for sexual penetration by an inappropriate person”. For a woman, this was anyone outside of a licit relationship, however for a man, this was anyone or anything.
To solely focus on the sexual aspects of ergi though, would be to miss an important point. As the servant girl in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, observes ”everyone grows argr as he grows older”, which potentially implies a loss of virility, might, or even both. In terms of Clover’s work, this would represent a feminization of man as he ages and loses his ability to live without the help of others (Tolley 158-159).
Tolley asserts that there is value in considering ergi from the perspective of individualism vs relationality (relationality being “ the doctrine that transactions, interactions, social ties and conversations constitute the central stuff of social life.”) (Tolley 159-160, Tilly 2002) . The ideal Norse male was a hero, self-sufficient, strong – an individual that stands out even from his battle brothers (should he have them): “Once individuality is set up as the favored focus of aspiration, expressions of relationality come to be despised, and when realized in extreme forms (such as acts viewed as involving ergi) as shameful.” (Tolley 159). To practice magic, regardless of type or purpose, is to enter into a series of reciprocal relationships with, and to some degree rely on other beings. For the woman, relationality and that magic of the ties that bind – that frithweaving has always been her domain. It is telling that whatever forces were working to shape the vast social and economic changes of the Early Modern Period saw to it that the bonds between women, and between women and men, were destroyed.
The Enemy Unmasked
I believe that this has all been to our detriment. To be an individualist is to see the self as primary, it is inherently selfish and egotistical. It is that which says ‘give me’, and ‘I will’. It is that which does and takes without thinking of the consequences to others, whereas those who work within a web of reciprocal relationships must work within the web and keep the consequences of not doing so ever in mind. Here is where we find the root of the poisonous vine that has us wrapped within its clutches. It is perhaps fitting that our greatest weapon is that which the inquisitors tried to kill – our ability to create meaningful, reciprocal relationships with each other.
And once more, we find ourselves in a race back to those days of subjugation and reproductive control, of relationships based on fear rather than love and trust, an excessive legal interference.
Reclaiming the Hall
This morning I watched a video on Youtube by the former leader of a racialist ‘Asatru’ organization in which he talks about producing content to push an ‘awakening of the folk’ though producing content. Content, he contends, facilitates social shifts – drastic social shifts. He is not wrong, this was certainly the case during the Early Modern Period. It was content that was then delivered in the form of books, pamphlets and illustrations that helped to render the very fabric of society asunder and subjugate half the population. For all this individual’s talk of ‘folk’ though – a term that implies relationality – he and people like him, still bow to the cult of individualism and the focus on hyper-masculinity that inspires it. For them, the Holy Powers are tools to be used for human political ends as opposed to being ends in of themselves, and once again, the bodies of women are commandeered for the ‘War of the Wombs’. White women are told to ‘breed for the folk’, in other words, to try and make enough white babies to stop the ‘browning of America’.
Though these people invoke Oðinn’s name often, these are not the acts based in relationality that he himself engaged in.
Loki spake: “They say that with spells in Samsey once Like witches with charms didst thou work; And in witch’s guise among men didst thou go; Unmanly thy soul must seem.” Lokasenna 24
Nor is this the healing and building of community that we so sorely need. This is only ever a path to war and genocide, facilitated by the false buoying of the downtrodden by the introduction of the cause (and scapegoat) du jour. This is not a solution (even if it may seem to be so to some at the time). Unfortunately, this man and the forces of dissolution represented by his organization are not the whole game, but manifestations of a wider social malaise. Our inner yards are broken, and relatively few of us even know what it is to live in an actual community. The ties that bind us, that weave us together become ever more frayed by the day. But this should be no surprise, for who is there to weave and repair what has been sundered, when the lady has been driven from the hall to be made servant to the childbed? As witches, we tend to look to the wilds, but we have been driven to them as surely as missionaries drove the wihta further and further away from the enclosed spaces of man. And just as with wihta, it was by means of iron and fire that witches were driven back. Heiðr wanders the wilds because as Gullveig she was pierced by the iron of a spear and burned.
But what if the wild witch were to remember her sister and her craft? What if she were to learn how to weave hearts and minds together as well as seeking partnership and initiation among the trees? How would our society look if relationality and reciprocity were returned?
What if the wild witch were to remember that there was a time when she too worked the magic of the hall as her sister also worked the magic of the wilds, and that there wasn’t really any difference between them?
To be a witch is to bend, it is to manipulate and shape, and although I have little talent for diplomacy, I ask us to weave and be shapers here anyway. I ask you to dream, to see the world in which you would have your children live and then work to help others to see it too. I ask you to become the shapers of words that help change the world for the better. I ask you to shape the words that teach relationality, compromise, community, and reciprocity, instead of that harsh individualism that ultimately robs a person of their humanity. I ask you to step out onto that No Woman’s Land and engage in this war for hearts and minds.
For if all of this is ergi, then we would do well to remind ourselves that it is in the practices that involve ergi that lies the greatest power.
Gullveig rose from the ashes of her pyre.
Sources referenced Caliban and the Witch – Silvia Federici Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic – Clive Tolley Stories, Identities, and Political Change – Charles Tilly
“You cannot simply draw a bath, light a few scented candles, and declare yourself a witch. Take your bath, but you are only a witch after the demons have come calling, which they most certainly will.” (1)
Growing up in Blighty, sometimes it feels as though most of my childhood took place under steely grey skies. Of course, it wasn’t like that *all* the time, but that is my dominant memory – or maybe it’s simply just the way I like to remember it.
I remember running wild under those steely grey skies, I remember countless adventures up on the moors and in the hidden places where adults didn’t seem to go: like the ‘ravine’ that was really a small stream down the side of an old Victorian factory that led into a more modern industrial park; or the ruins of Victorian farms built in the shadow of a brooding moor.
We never seemed to be dressed for the weather either; choosing little more than the ubiquitous 90s ‘combat pants’ (you know, those pants with all the pockets on – perfect for adventuring), a t-shirt, and a hoodie for the vast majority of these jaunts.
I think about those times on days like this – days clouded over and raining in a way that my mum would describe as ‘spitting’. You know the kind of rain I mean, the kind that isn’t particularly heavy but just feels as though maybe the sky is spitting at you. It’s a kind of rain I played in often as a kid.
The last post I wrote was about how the summer makes me feel dead inside. Well, not quite, that’s a bit of hyperbole. But there is a draining sensation at the end of the summer, and a dragging, and an “Oh for fucks sake, why can’t it be Fall already?” But Fall *is* coming. The leaves are turning, the sky is looking more ‘right’, and I am beginning to come out of my slump.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, reading up on things that are a little bit different than my usual topics, and it has been truly excellent.
It’s from one of those books that I pulled both the quote at the beginning of this post (and the inspiration for this post as a whole).
You ever read something where you find yourself agreeing so much with what the writer is saying that you find yourself nodding, and mentally giving the author a “Right on, man! You tell em!”? Well, I’m reading a book like that right now. Had this been a church sermon, the entire section that inspired this post would have had me shouting “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lard!”, because it is just so nice to come across someone who writes things that you so completely agree with. That doesn’t happen a lot for me.
The question of what makes a witch is a perennial one in online discussions. Some people think it’s initiation within a specific tradition. Other people think it’s in the doing. For my part, I think initiation is a part of it, and that it is through the doing that you put yourself on the path to that initiation. But it’s not the kind of initiation that comes from other humans (although other humans can set you on that road), but from the Unseen powers.
Today I’m going to talk about the kind of initiation that happens when the demons come calling.
During the course of the summer, I seem to have somehow acquired a couple of students. We had a good first session – covered a lot of ground – and I’m pleased that I have two lovely students with as much potential as they have. I’m really looking forward to seeing them grow (and seeing how much I’ll learn from teaching them, you always learn more from the teaching if you’re doing it right). But at the end of the first session, I warned them that when you set feet upon this path, that there are things that will come a-knocking. When you start doing things, things that garner attention from the Unseen, things that effectively put you in a position for (as Gordon White put it) ‘the cosmic croupier to deal you in’, you will get into situations in which you have to think on your feet and deal with some really fucked up circumstances.
This may sound like I’m rehashing my previous post about Witchcraft not being safe, but if anything, I don’t think I went far enough with that post. Because in spite of what some people think, it’s not about being edgy or ‘dark’, it’s about having the kind of experiences that leave you (to quote Gordon again), “with a lasting, visceral, unshakable knowing that the universe extends beyond what can be physically observed.”
In Paul Huson’s classic Mastering Witchcraft, the student is advised to light a candle right before going to bed and to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards while visualizing the breaking of chains, a move that Jason Mankey referred to as ‘repugnant’ in his review of the book. But in spite of his distaste for Huson’s methodology, Mankey concedes that Huson’s rationale for this makes perfect sense. And it does.
Because we live in a society in which there are many barriers to even coming across the Unseen, let alone seeking initiation from those hidden powers. Our lives are so busy, so full of noise and distraction, and I’m not decrying electricity or anything (I LOVE living in a place with solid walls and mod cons), but there are reasons why when we do have those soul-shattering experiences they tend to be out in the lonely places.
In the liminal places.
Far from the buzz of tech with its incessant reminder of the outside world.
And that’s even before I talk about the barriers of belief involved here. Like the materialism that says that such things simply *cannot* happen, or the generations of dogma that declares that seeking out or trafficking with such things is a sin.
How many new Pagans and Witches claim to no longer believe in their previous monotheisms? And yet how many would baulk at sitting before a candle and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards?
“Nema! Livee morf su revilled tub Noishaytpment ootni ton etc…”
How many Pagan paths offer an alternative to Christianity without eschewing it completely, an alternative in which that person can go an entire lifetime without wrestling with that Jesus-y elephant in the room? Because I think that sooner or later, if you practice witchcraft and you truly want that kind of transformation that witchcraft makes possible, you have to find a way to take that motherfucking pachyderm down. (Or at least figure out how it fits in within your worldview. Clue: it’s all just spirits). You can’t break the chains if you ignore them.
Now I’m not saying that people have to go and recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards tonight or something, but it’s certainly something to think about. Witchcraft is not just unsafe, it is also transgressive. Usually when people talk about that transgression nowadays, it seems to be in very political terms, but I think it’s a lot deeper than that.
This is the kind of transgression in which simply having transgressive opinions isn’t enough. It’s not enough to want to ‘stick it to the man’ (or whatever), you have to step outside of the norm, you have to pass beyond. You have to go from the safe places of the inner yard that everyone else huddles in, away from those electric lights, and the safety and comfort of traditional religion.
You have to cross that boundary, try to traffic with the spirits, get that dirt under your fingernails, muddy up those boots, fuck up, make mistakes, and just have those crazy experiences that are usually highly unpleasant, but that leave you with the kind of clarity that comes with the dawn.
Because it’s often in those times, that the most meaningful of initiations are found.