Modern Apotropaios

Typically, when we think about magic, we think of it as being the domain of the magical or ritual specialist – as being some occult domain that was forbidden to the average person, and that there was some unseen line that wasn’t to be crossed.

That there was such a line, is indisputable, but it wasn’t as clear cut as a line between ‘magic’ and ‘absolutely NO magic’. In fact, there was often an entire body of folk practice that was magical in nature, but that somehow did not cross the line in most cases.

One type of folk practice, known as ‘apotropaic magic’, or magic focused on ‘turning away(evil)’ was (if the numerous finds of apotropaic items in old houses are anything to go by) widely practiced by people that in all likelihood were not magical or ritual specialists.

From shoes up chimneys and dried cats buried in walls, to horse skulls under floors, witch bottles, and mysterious marks made on fireplaces, apotropaios spanned from the gruesome to the seemingly odd. But what, if anything, can we take from these practices today?

Old Shoes in Chimneys

When I was at college, there was a tree in the local park called (unsurprisingly)’The Shoe Tree’. It was a large tree, with eye-like knots covering its wide trunk, and in its branches were hundreds of pairs of shoes. Nobody really knows how it started, but by the time I was studying in the area, it was something of a local tradition for people to knot the laces of their old shoes and throw them into the branches. It was so popular that the local authorities had to periodically come and remove batches of shoes from the branches lest the tree itself be damaged. There was something very eery about that tree, and its branches filled with the shoes of people living and dead. To think of all the daily wear, all the footsteps taken, all the places visited, and all the aspects of human life that might be imprinted on those shoes is just fascinating to me. So innocuous, and yet ever present.

Which is one of the main characteristics of apotropaic magic. In all cases, the apotropaic items were innocuous in some way (mostly through concealment or careful placement), but they were always present, always there to work in the background.

An old shoe superstition is that one should not be buried with one’s shoes lest the spirit be trapped in the coffin with the body, the implication being that the shoes function as some kind of ‘spirit trap’, and conceivably, the apotropaic chimney shoes performed the same function. There is a long tradition of trapping spirits, especially evil ones in shoes in English folklore, and as a practice, we can date it back to the 14th century and Sir John Schorne and his reputed trapping of the devil in a boot.

However, while I am going to focus on the use of shoes as protective devices, as this survey by June Swann demonstrates, there were probably many traditions attached to the keeping of old shoes in homes, and that they weren’t just kept in chimneys.

In the modern day though, many of us don’t have chimneys to put shoes up, but I don’t think that makes them irrelevant to us. In my own case, I’ve used them to trap bad dreams (tied to my bedpost with a written charm stuffed inside), and have found other places to hide them. I also like to take my shoes off at the door and keep them in a rack in the near vicinity.

Because of how often a person wears them, shoes are such a useful magical tool and can be combined with charms and knot spells laced into the lacing holes.

Dried Cats and Horse Skulls

This category is probably the hardest or even least desirable for us to recreate in the modern day. Typically buried in the walls or floorboards, and positioned post-mortem as though on the hunt, it’s not clear whether dried cats for apotropaic purposes typically died because of natural purposes, or were killed specifically for the purpose. Regardless of cruelty issues though, the rationale behind the placement of dried cats in walls, and horses in bell towers or under floors, appears to have been the same.

In folklore, both are animals that are credited with the ability to see that which humans cannot typically see, and while the protective/hunter aspect of a horse is less obvious to me than that of a cat (especially with the positioning of some of the cats into ‘hunt positions’), it would seem (especially with the connection between the horse skull and bell tower – bells being believed to scare away evil spirits), that both cat and horse were considered protective.

Interestingly enough, while the cats are very widespread, the horse skulls have been found in England, Wales, and Ireland, but not in Scotland. One has to wonder if it’s not so much a quality of the horse itself that’s being invoked in the use of horse skulls, but rather something or some protective being connected to horses in some way, and one that wasn’t to be found in Scotland at that.

As I mentioned before, it’s far less desirable for us moderns to go round killing cats or horses for either apotropaic purposes, or even those of a foundation sacrifice. However, I see nothing wrong with the settled family that loses a beloved pet cat, drying or preserving that cat and then encasing it in the walls of the home to serve the same purpose. And although I do realise that many would think that macabre, I think it’s no more odd than say funeral jewellery! If you can source a horse skull ethically, I’d say go for it there, too.

Hearth Marks and Written Charms

Along the theme of ‘innocuous but always present’ are what were previously called ‘Witch Marks’ but are now known as ‘Ritual Marks’ so as to avoid any confusion with the kind of ‘Witch marks’ that were used to identify Witches in the middle ages. Generally found along hearth lintels, wooden ceiling beams, and doorways in houses pre-dating the 18th century, the meanings of these marks are not entirely clear. Commonly these marks include the letters ‘W’, ‘P’, ‘M’, ‘V’, circles, and ‘daisy wheels’ (compass drawn flowers in a circle, not unlike what you might see in a hex sign). One characteristic which is common is that in a lot of cases, they’re either carved somewhere that is not so easy to see, or can only be seen if you know where to find them and are shining a light directly on them.

This idea of hidden magical symbols that work in the background is something that has been noticed by runologists in their examinations of certain runestones and the existence of runic cyphers such as branch runes, or beard runes (!!) in order to obscure the meaning of inscriptions. I could probably do an entire blog post and more about the hidden or concealed aspect of magical runic inscriptions, but for now, I’m just going to stick to what I have and follow up with how we as modern Heathens can take this information and use it to create our own ‘Ritual Marks’ in our homes.

Many modern Heathens make use of bindrunes, and I would say that they would work perfectly as ‘Ritual Marks’ in this way. Many of the extant examples of ‘Ritual Marks’ that we have to this day, are a combination of the letters ‘V’, ‘M’, and ‘W’ with intersecting lines. In his paper, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’, Timothy Easton makes the case for these particular marks as being a kind of invocation to the Virgin Mary for her help and protection. I think we can look to a runic inscription on a bracteate found in Sjaelland here for our inspiration here.

Vadstena-brakteaten,_Nordisk_familjebok

I’m not the Sjaelland bracteate, but I’m a type C, so at least you have that!

The bracteate, Sjaelland-II-C dates back to the Migration period (around 500 AD), and carries the following inscription in Elder Futhark runes:

hariuha haitika : farauisa : gibu auja : ttt’

Roughly translated, this is taken to mean, ‘Hariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one (also translated as ‘travel-wise one’, ‘danger-wise one’): I give luck.’

Typically, the final ‘ttt‘, or triple tiwaz runes, are interpreted to be an invocation of Tyr, however the inscription not only seems to be referring more to Odin, but is found on a type-C bracteate, a type of bracteate which is generally interpreted to depict Odin and a quadruped.

Regardless of how we interpret it though, the key elements are clear and useful to us:

*Reference to a luck-giving god/goddess (either through reference to a quality of the god, written in the first person, or through triple repetition of the first rune of the deity’s name).
*The formula ‘gibu auja’ (I give luck).

So, for example, you might want to go with ‘ttt gibu auja’, or write something narrative as though the god is giving the message ‘gibu auja’ to you. In this way, you’re making use of two traditions: that of the apotropaic Ritual Mark, and an attested runic formula.

AbracadabraAlso in the ‘written’ category is the written charm, which again, were pretty widespread. However, unlike the other types of apotropaic practice here, also had a negative application should the practitioner so wish. Charms for protection, and charms for cursing have both been found. Often, these charms take the form of a prayer calling upon divine protection of land, livestock, and loved ones. Sometimes they’re augmented by magical formulae such as the Abracadabra triangle or the SATOR square, which although these formulae are not Germanic in origin, were not so dissimilar from the ‘thistell, mistell, kistell’ formula (thistle, mistletoe, casket) which was rendered thus:

þmk iii sss ttt iii lll

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMoreover, the similarity of concept was such that the Norse adopted the Abracadabra and SATOR formulae into their own practice. (1)

In one case, one charm was found hidden in a bottle, however you can get pretty creative with this. Some friends of mine wrote charms and then plastered them into the walls of their new home, other people *ahem* write them directly onto the walls when the wallpaper is being replaced so that they’re hidden by the wallpaper for another few years. For those that paint rather than wallpaper, charms can be written in ballpoint pen on the wall and then easily painted over, thus sealing the charm onto the wall in a way that no one will see.

Witch Bottles

Beginning in the 16th century and most popularly in the stone wear Bellarmines of the time, the witch Bottle is quite a common find in old homes. Generally containing urine and nails,but also smashed glass and sometimesBellarmine_jug00 even human hair, the witch bottle is often misunderstood by modern witches.

Nowadays, a cursory glance of recommended uses for witch bottles on the internet gives the impression that it’s often taken to be protective in a general sense, as opposed to the directed counter-curse that it originally was.

The original witch bottle was created with a specific person in mind,and in many cases it was designed to hurt the person you believed to have cursed you so that they would remove the curse from you. For extra effect, it could be boiled to provide extra discomfort for the witch in question.

In my opinion, the witch bottle works best with that specific person in mind, especially if you are able to get something of them to personalise the bottle with, however it does also work well as a kind of ‘absorber’ and destroyer of ‘negative energy’ (urine performs the function of destroying malefic magic in several folklore traditions), especially when buried under the threshold of a home, or at any other potential entry point.

Making a bottle is simple enough, and sadly never depicted in the kind of TV shows that depict witchcraft – which is a shame – Alyssa Milano trying to get pee into a bottle or mason jar for a Witch bottle would have made great prime time viewing…

Other Apotropaic Practices

Throughout the ages, be it dried cats, witch bottles, or charms plastered into the very walls of your home, people have always sought to find ways to protect their homes from less tangible threats. In the modern day, the hanging of crucifixes, placement of bibles, and use of the dreaded white sage are perhaps most common among mainstream folks. In PA, there is the added heritage of the hex sign magic. Amulets may be made from natural materials believed to have certain inherent properties e.g the use of rowan crosses bound with red thread as a protection against baneful wights (typically fae). Personally, I’ve used all kinds of measures at various addresses, from bottles, to rune-marked stakes driven into the ground around a property. Were I to ever settle down in one place, maybe I’d consider including any pet cats that pass over or take other equally permanent measures.

Final Word

Whatever you use though, always remember that concealment was a factor for good reason. There has always been a power in secrets and mysteries, hell, one of the meanings of the word ‘rune’ itself is ‘secret’. More pragmatically though, to keep silent is to stay protected, whereas to let others know what you have and where, is to give them a way to figure out an ‘in’ should things turn sour.

And then before you know it, you’re trying to aim piss into a mason jar…

To read more about Apotropaios and see some cool photos, go here

References:
1. Runic Amulets and Magic Objects -Mindy MacLeod, Bernard Mees Pp. 139 – 152

Question

So, my last post provoked some interesting discussion over on Facebook. Some were unaware that there’s life beyond white sage, others brought up the interesting fact that white sage is so sought after by new age practitioners nowadays that the plant is now becoming endangered, and others shared tips and personal experience. It was a wide-ranging conversation, the kind I absolutely adore, that leapt from the now-trendy appropriation of NA practices and its role in the endangerment of white sage, to apotropaic practices, to questions that I really didn’t want to just limit to my personal Facebook. And so, rather than typing out a long post over there, with the author’s permission, I decided to feature that question here.

” I know a number of folks under tremendous stress and strain right now. My own pattern is that stress gets shed at home, like shoes at the end of the day, and it accumulates. With colder weather coming and the need to keep windows closed, it settles and can be harder to shift. How about something for that?”

– Skylark Crowfancier (Pseudonym semi-invented for both reasons of fun and privacy)

When looking at this question, my first instinct is that it would be better that a person dealing with these kind of issues needs to be proactive rather than purely relying on something hung or installed in the home (although, I have some ideas for that too). Better yet would be to endeavour to not bring that kind of energy into the home in the first place, as I know Skylark knows, that kind of energy knocking about can cause all kinds of issues (as can any loose energy really).

But how would one go about doing that?

There are numerous ways, we’ve all seen those worry dolls in the ‘hippy’ stores, but how many of us keep a worry penny that we might handle while mentally going over our stresses on the commute home? A penny that that energy might then be pushed into and then discarded into running water or buried at the end of the week? A new penny for each week. We might even create our own worry dolls and mentally tell them our worries, or even write a journal entry on the way home from work in a private journal. Practicing mindfulness (either on its own, or as a part of one of these other measures) also helps because that training helps to get to place where we can confront our stresses in an ultimately detached way, and come up with more objective ways to deal (which in turn, gives us greater ability to manage stress). There are some great apps too for people on the go that teach mindfulness. If you have ten minutes of sitting in one place on your commute, you could definitely make use of the free versions of apps like Headspace or Calm. I also really like SuperBetter.

You might even set up a post outside your front door for ‘wiping’ off the dreck of the outside world. It needn’t be a complicated affair, a piece of 2×4 planted in a plant pot filled with earth to both ground and weight it. And of course, it could be as simple or as fancy as you’d like it to be. But it would require the ability to manipulate your stressed emotional energy into your hand, that you would then wipe off onto the post. To help with the process, you might even put a charm on the wall-facing side to imbue the post with the intent that any negative energy would be attracted to it and grounded out through the earth.

Such a set up would also be helpful inside the home, if you’re looking for something to have working away in the background. Just remember to change out the earth on a periodic basis.

Once in the home though, a shower in which you visualise the dreck of the day being washed from you, or even just taking some more time to sit in meditation/talking things through with friends/finding ways to laugh (yes laugh, laughter is so often underestimated for its healing abilities) would go a long long way.

Although these suggestions are simple, things that seem like no brainers to folks when you suggest them, it’s often hard to see the forest for the trees when under serious stress – stress is nefarious in that it robs us of our clarity, motivation, and energy. And it’s not about having a charm to make things right either. Sure, you can have the charm working away in the background, the grounding post that attracts negative energy like some kind of psychic air freshener, but the root issues need to be dealt with as well or things ultimately won’t get much better. Often, part of the stress is that we’re in situations in which we cannot change the current circumstances that are adding to the stress.

Which only adds more stress, and so the cycle continues.

In these situations, the only thing that is left to change is how that stress is handled on a personal level, and make time to work on that – after all, at that point, it’s the only variable left. Which *is* hard, it’s hard to be motivated to meditate or work out when under severe stress. Even when you start in the smallest of ways and build up slowly. But it’s soimportant to push through that and find ways to get it out in a healthy way, be those ways as ‘mundane’ as going to the gym and getting your stress and anger out through physicality, or via more psychological or magical means such as those suggested above.

Because at the end of the day, aside from issues of negative energy in our living environments, stress can take us down as surely as any illness.

The only difference is, we’re far less likely to ignore illness.

So don’t ignore stress, find those tiny chunks in the day, use them to wage your own war on stress, and see it pay dividends in your lives and homes.

NOTICE: If you are dealing with stress and really feel that you’ve come to the end of your tether, please reach out and get professional help. Stress kills.

Step Away From the White Sage…

When I grow up, I'm going to be a smudge stick!

When I grow up, I’m going to be a smudge stick!

As far as cleansing and purifying herbs go, I’ve never really liked white sage (despite its many recommendations). It does the job of course, but it does it rather too well for my liking, and I honestly can’t see that as a good thing. And this really isn’t an issue of one Heathen taking umbrage with smudging either. After all, I can point to parts of Bald’s Leechbook in which smudging, or ‘recelsian‘(1) is a recommended treatment for various afflictions (of an arguably magical nature).

No, my problem with white sage is far more complex than that.

Over the years of having many homes in many different places, I’ve found several things to be true: upkeep is always preferable to repair, it’s the little things that make a home, and the home is like an ecosystem shared between the various beings (both seen and unseen) that inhabit it.

In my home, there’s myself, my human family, my dog, two cats, and various ancestors, Aelfe, and cofgodas to take into consideration. Between us, we maintain relationships built over years and continued over continents. Again and again, we’ve moved and gone through the process of cleaning, unpacking, and (re) building our shrines in each place. Again and again, we’ve made offerings, invited our wights to join us, offered to the wights of the new place, and so on and so forth. If there’s one thing this kind of nomadic life does though, it’s build appreciation of those you travel and move with. As much as you might make friends in a place, your most important bonds are to your more immediate kin group, be that kin living or dead, human or otherwise.

By now, it’s probably become obvious that when I talk about ‘upkeep’, and a home ‘ecosystem’, my words have a double entendre. That I’m not purely talking about upkeep in the mundane ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ kind of sense, or necessarily referring purely to the various layers of organisms and microorganisms that make up a space (any space) on this planet. So, what do I mean by this kind of ‘upkeep’? And how does that have anything to do with white sage?

Over the years I’ve heard a lot about the more sacred side of housekeeping, and talk of ‘women’s roles’ in Heathenry. First of all, I’m going to dispense with the idea that this is purely the domain of women, living in a clean environment is the concern of everyone that lives in that place. We all know that if you don’t keep a home clean to a certain standard, then the inhabitants will get sick, insect populations will move in – in short, the place will become unhealthy.

It will become unhael.

Ah, haelu, that old chestnut!

For something to be hael, it’s means that it’s not only healthy, but whole, lucky, and holy. A place that is unhealthy to inhabit, that is unhael, is by definition, unlucky, lacking in something, and…I don’t want to say ‘unholy’, but for those of us that believe in things like hauntings, it’s no coincidence that there is a correlation between negative hauntings and unhael living spaces.

When you clean, you aren’t just removing physical dirt, this kind of upkeep isn’t purely about dominance over the dust motes, or staying on top of the washing up. It isn’t even purely about physical health. It’s about luck and creating a place where holiness might reside from time to time. You want to live in a home in which gods and ancestors would not be insulted to go when invited.

‘May I be pure, that I might enter the sacred,
May I enter the sacred, that I might attain the holy,
May I attain the holy, that I might be blessed in all things’
(2)

Whether it be cleaning with regular cleaning materials, or making your own that are also infused with protective herbs, cleaning is also cleansing.

But just as you don’t want to clean so much that people end up living in some antibacterial, sterile lab of a house, you also don’t want to manage your home’s ecosystem so tightly that the good things go too (which I feel is the case with white sage). Not to make the comparison between the Holy Powers and dirt, but we humans are healthier when living somewhere that isn’t sterile, the spider on the wall kills the disease-carrying fly, and it’s always better to have and keep good relations with neighbours and helpful wights in the home.

If the home ecosystem were a human stomach, white sage would be a course of antibiotics, and the wights would be your helpful gut microbiota.

It’s too indiscriminate for my liking. Far better, in my opinion, is Mugwort.

Named the ‘Oldest of herbs’, Mugwort is said to stand against three and thirty, against poison and contagion, and against ‘the loathsome one that roams the land'(3). She’s valued in healing traditions around the globe, and is called upon to stand against infection and cysts, to chase out the menses that will not come, as a tonic, and in great enough quantities, she has enough similarities with her sister, Wormwood, that she can also affect perception.

But given her power, when it comes to more ‘spiritual’ forms of cleansing, Mugwort is often forgotten and neglected in favour of white sage, even by Germanic Heathens. Which is a real shame as she works wonderfully in home made floor wash, as recels (incense/smudging), and brewed as a tea to use as a spray. In the Nine Herbs Charm, we’re told specifically that Mugwort stands against three and thirty, which to me, suggests that she’s far more discriminating in her action and that she only stands against those that are attacking (while preserving your home ‘ecosystem’, thus leaving your ancestors, cofgodas, Aelfe etc. unmolested and able to help keep your home safe from all kinds of nasties!).

Mugwort can also be paired with vervain, garlic, or wormwood for greater effect.

All of which, as far as I’m concerned, makes her far more valuable for use in the home.

References:
1. Bald’s Leechbook, III. 61, 62
2. Ceisiwr Serith – Deep Ancestors
3. http://www.heorot.dk/woden-9herbs-i.html

Heathen Prayer: The Art of Speaking Runes

What do you think of when you think of the word, ‘prayer’? Perhaps you envisage a person piously kneeling in church, or even rocking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Maybe you even think of the Muslim with a prayer mat, or the Sufi worshippers swirling in their billowing robes?

But what about Pagans and Heathens? Do we pray? Should we pray? And how should that prayer ‘look’ in comparison to the prayer of other religions?

A while ago, I posed the question of prayer on a group that I frequent – it’s a lovely group, very calm, and a lot of the members find it supportive. A lot of the respondents said that they did indeed pray, and then we went on to have a wonderful conversation about prayer. However, there were a few that expressed views that they don’t pray so much as just ‘talk to the gods, ancestors, and wights’. This isn’t unusual either. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the prayer question come up in both Heathen and Pagan circles over and over again, and the ‘I don’t pray, but talk to the gods’ response is one that I’ve seen come up a lot.

But what is prayer, and what was it for Heathens?

Many of the sources we have for the Heathen period were written by Christians, in some cases centuries after conversion. With this in mind, when we examine these sources, we have to treat them with some degree of caution and bear in mind that we’re reading these events as presented through the filter of a Christian worldview.

The ‘Heliand’ however, is pretty unique in that it’s the Christian gospel written in a way that the Heathen Saxons could understand it. In other words, it’s the story of Jesus adapted to the Heathen worldview. Through comparing the rendering the ‘Heliand’ gives, with the actual Christian gospel, I believe it’s possible to discern aspects of the Heathen worldview.

When it comes to prayer, and the way it is introduced in the ‘Heliand’, the difference between the Christian version and the version as rendered for Heathens is obvious.

In Luke 11:1, the introduction to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is short, and with the expectation that the reader will already understand what is going on:

“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

In contrast though, the ‘Heliand’ presents prayer very differently:

“Our good Lord”, he said, “we need Your gracious help in order to carry out Your will and we also need Your own words, Best of all born, to teach us, Your followers, how to pray – just as John the good Baptist, teaches his people with words every day how they are to speak to the ruling God. Do this for Your own followers – teach us the secret runes.”

– Song 9

Runes are prayers? Next you're going to tell me these aren't runes anymore!

Runes are prayers? Next you’re going to tell me these aren’t runes anymore!

With those words, ‘teach us the secret runes’, or ‘gerihti us that geruni’, the normally ineffectual wish-prayer of the pious, is made understandable within the context of Germanic culture as a kind of spell of great performative power; the word ‘geruni’ conveying both the ideas of secrecy and petitioning.

From the importance of skalds and their craft ( that often bordered on the magical) to the belief that certain combinations of words could have a magical effect, the idea of the power of language, is something that permeated Germanic culture. In the Old English medical texts, certain prayers such as the ‘Pater Noster’ (the Latin name of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) are considered to heal when said a certain number of times, and texts like ‘Solomon and Saturn’ often advocate the same prayers as war-spells for in battle.

But none of this really sounds like the Judeo-Christian idea of what a prayer is. The word ‘prayer’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘precari’, and has the Proto Indo-European root ‘*prek’, meaning ‘to ask, request, or en

treat’. In a sense, the asking and entreating does form a part of these formulaic ‘rune-prayers’ from Germanic tradition:

‘Give us support each day, good Chieftain,
Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector of Heaven
Our Many crimes, just as we do to other human beings
Do not let evil little creatures lead us off
to do their will, as we deserve’

– Excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Heliand, Song 19

But there is never really a sense with Christian prayer that the prayer itself is a kind of magical formula, or a ‘rune’ to be used as a form of magic in of itself. Christian prayer hinges on the entreaty, on the benevolence of the being you’re entreating. However, not only did Germanic prayer make that entreaty to the higher, as a subject might go to a King, it was also powerful in of itself. In other words, the formula and language used were important.

So while the word ‘prayer’ might not hold up within a Germanic context, at least not in the same sense as prayer in other religious traditions, a sense of respect, formality, of formula, and tradition does.

For health, for protection, for battle-victory, and for support – these were all reasons to make these entreaties and use these inherently magical formulae, these were the reasons that made sense to the Germanic tribes. There was no asking for ‘our daily bread’, which would have rendered the asker little more than a beggar, and asking for forgiveness is replaced by the more judicial ‘pardon’ from crimes.

So where does that leave us as moderns? Do we still call it ‘prayer’? How often should we do it? And if we bear in mind that a prayer was believed to hold an inherent magic based in the words used, how would this affect the prayers we come up with?

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how often they pray or…I dunno… speak runes? However one thing is clear to me; the formal and formulaic is not the sole domain of Christians, and when coming up with our prayers or ‘runes’, we should take as much care as possible, and never forget that we are addressing the Holy Powers.

Sources:

The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel – Translation and Commentary by G.Ronald Murphy. S.J.
The Lacnunga
Solomon and Saturn
The Holy Bible NIV

Why a Heathen seer does not and can not see ‘The Future’

Yggdrasil_The_Tree_of_Life_Ratatosk_Nidhug

Oluf Olufson Bagge’s Yggdrasil

Once upon a time, there was a great Ash – some say Yew, and depending on which culture is talking about this tree, some even say Oak or Birch. It doesn’t matter though, because whether you call it Yggdrasil or Bile, it’s the same tree, the ‘world tree’. Vast beyond imagining, with roots that grow deep into the depths of the Below World and beyond, and branches that grow high into the Above World and beyond, it stands. Proud and strong even as wyrmas gnaw at its roots and deer graze upon its leaves. We live in what might be called the ‘Around World’, but some call it Middle-Earth, or Midgarð. I don’t like to get into names of worlds though, because when you get into names, then you get into counting them, and that’s where things get controversial. I like to keep things simple and I like the number three, so I’m going to talk about the ‘Below World’, the ‘Above World’, and the ‘Around World’, any differentiation within those worlds are just countries…yeah, that’s what they are, just countries. But the point is, the tree is everything, and everything inhabits the worlds that are on the tree.

In spite of the gnawing and munching, things aren’t entirely miserable for the tree, the tree has help in the form of three women that keep it wet with ‘white water’. But that’s not their entire function (thankfully). Eternity would be awfully boring if all you had to do was water a tree.

No, these ladies are special, and moreover, it’s because of them that a Heathen seer does not and cannot ‘see’ the future.

nornir

Ludwig Pietsch’s Nornir

The first thing to know about these ladies is that they have names, of course they have names, and like many old names, they give us a clue about what these ladies did or the forces they may represent. They might not even be their ‘real’ names, the ancient and sacred often hides behind kennings, but the names they have serve us just fine. The second thing to know is that time and happening don’t work for them in the same way that it does for us, chronology takes a back seat to context. Lastly, because of this, the third thing to know is that they’re not in any ‘order’ that we would recognise. In other words, they aren’t working on some assembly line of ‘fate’.

It’s not even really ‘fate’ that they do either. Fate implies a set future that is not one of many possible futures but a ‘The Future’. There is no fate for us, there is simply ‘what was’, ‘what is’, and ‘what is owed’. Moreover, because the layers we lay down aren’t only laid down by us, but our ancestors and those we interact with too, then unless we live our lives in bubbles, there is no way to lay layers without ‘our’ layers interacting with the layers of others, whether we realise that at the time or not. Just as the tree holds all, wyrd’s well holds more than just our own personal wyrds.

But back to the ladies…Collectively known as ‘Nornir’ in Old Norse and ‘Wyrdae’ in Old English, the ‘first’ of the three is ‘Urðr’, or ‘Wyrd’, she is that what was, that which is set down layer by layer, and her partner is ‘Verðandi’, or ‘becoming’, in other words, ‘what is’.

Together they are bound in a constant interaction in which Urðr is the past and Verðandi the present continuous. ‘What was’, and ‘what is becoming’. ‘What is now’ lays down the future layers of ‘what was’, and the layers of ‘what was’ often lead to the creation of the ‘what is’ – but not always. You see, sometimes the ‘weird’ in our lives, the things we cannot explain given current circumstances (be those things good or bad) are often the product of ‘what was’ affecting ‘what is’. We rightfully call these things ‘weird’ in English, but most of us have forgotten the root of this word, that once it was Wyrd, and that Wyrd belonged in a well in which context rather than chronology has the most meaning.

Standing a little off on her own is ‘Skuld’, or as I will call her here, ‘what is owed’, and for the most part that’s where she stays. However, she may also be a Valkyrie, so the perception by some that she’s linked to death is not unfounded. In my experience, you also very rarely see her at work, most rough times that people have are down to wyrd, to the layers they set down in the past.

Whether these three ladies are personifications of forces as intrinsic to natural laws as gravity, or distinct beings that actually exist to manipulate these forces is not clear. The image of the Nornir gathered around wyrd’s well though, is stirring to say the least, and whether you choose to ‘journey’ to the well to look within to peel back the layers on your client, replicate the waters by use of skrying bowl or mirror, or pester various unseen beings for answers, as Heathens we have to be clear on what is actually being done.

For the most part, when a person approaches with a question, what he or she is really doing is asking the seer to take a look at ‘what was’ and ‘what is now’ in a targeted way, and then with wisdom, construct the ‘most likely outcome’ for the questioner if there are no attempts to change course.

But with this in mind, how is a seer still a seer?

ruinsOften, when we are in a situation, it’s hard to see all the angles because we’re too close to it, or we’re protecting ourselves emotionally from coming to the conclusions we really need to come to. Moreover, while a seer cannot see a set future (because there is no such thing – at least not in the sense that is usually meant), he or she can see the layers of both ourselves, our ancestors, and other involved parties, and see factors hidden to the querent at the time of questioning. A good seer can then identify the layers in the querent’s past that continue to be problematic in the becoming, and counsel the querent on how to change that pattern that the future becoming might be better. Of course, we can all question and explore the layers of another in order to help them create better layers, but one way to think of a seer for ease of differentiation, is as a person with the facility to perceive wyrd (or the ability to question the unseen about ‘what was’ and ‘what is’).

In some ways, modern science is even coming to reinforce these ideas. Recent research in DNA has shown that we can not only inherit the health of our ancestors, but their phobias too. Entire disciplines in counselling rely on the idea that one must explore the client’s past and work with changing their current behaviour and perceptions in order to create a better future for the client. We are counselled that you can make new habits by doing them at least twenty-one times, in other words, by laying new layers to begin the process of offsetting Wyrd, and evolution teaches us that we are related to every single living thing on this planet.

But regardless of whether you’re looking for more scientifically or ‘magically’ based wyrd-counselling, as always, it’s important to choose your counsel well.

High Seat – Introduction (Excerpted from ‘Out of the Waters Beneath the Tree’)

“I’d never seen a high seat before. Well, not a high seat for the purposes of Hrafnar-style Seiðr at least. My own preference is always to use my mother-in-law’s rocking chair in the privacy of my own home, but I was here to view how *they* did things. Those people that I’d heard and read plenty about over the years. By dimmed lights and with the wind howling outside, we huddled in our chairs. Around the edges of the audience were stood four people to ward and watch over both the audience and seers with one of their number carrying a horn that I would later learn was filled with water. Before us, initially seated at either side of the high seat were the seeresses that would eventually take the seat. In that darkened room that would one day become a hall, the seat stood out, a cultic object in its own right, as though all the previous usage had imbued it with its own energy and sense of presence. Bauschatz’s proverbial ‘space as container for action’.

The rite began with purification, in which we were asperged with water and then a sacred space set up enveloping all. The mood was expectant, the ritual cues already working as intended on a community that was already well accustomed to the rite. Songs were sung, songs that were mostly hypnotic in nature; repetitive, utilizing scales usually associated with altered states. The whole thing was a well-constructed psychodrama, designed to induce an altered state in both seers and audience, and unashamedly so. Indeed, the guest seeress and originator of the rite, Diana Paxson is very clear on this matter in her book ‘The Way of the Oracle’ in which she details the entire process, research and reasoning behind it.

Eventually, the final induction (at least for the audience) took place, and they were led through visualization to the gates of Hel. Wanting to remain the objective observer and not wishing to break a deeply held pregnancy taboo, I stayed behind even though the atmosphere and psychodrama called me to join them. A member of the audience went a little too deep, falling a little from his chair, to be helped up and talked back a little by the warders. The wind outside grew, and I watched as the seeress was veiled and completed her induction to trance.

In many ways, it was like a lot of the scéances I’d been to in the past, audience members stood up and asked their questions in the same way you would a medium, and were likewise answered. Sometimes in the form of a rhyme, and sometimes in the voice of those they would ask on the other side. As with other scéances, some questioners would cry, and some would be confused.

For me though, throughout the rite there was but one thought running through my mind, “I had come full circle”.

And it was strangely apt that this is where I would begin.”

When I first came across the word ‘Seiðr’, it was on a Geocities site in the late nineties. You know the kind, the sites with the obligatory black background common to most sites of a more ‘occult’ nature, ‘gold’ or purple text, and icons that spun and followed you as you scrolled down the page; the kind of site that would be laughed at nowadays but that we all felt very clever back then for being able to ‘build’.

There wasn’t a whole lot of *real* information on that early website that I found, if anything it made it sound like Seiðr was a form of Dungeons and Dragons that you ‘play’ in your own head, and some detractors might say that sounds pretty accurate. In true nineties style though, I copied that ‘information’ into notebooks, and every now and again on visits home to my parents, have myself a good laugh while reading through the various ‘instructions’ given for Seiðr. My favourite being to ‘push an Elhaz rune’ at any ‘dark elves’ that get in your way while ‘journeying’.

I even tried that journeying thing and found it rather easy – I’ve always had a brilliant imagination, always had lucid dreams, and I’ve always visualized stories in my head. But the lack of usefulness bothered me. After all, what was the point in going on these mental journeys and ‘fighting’ those pesky ‘dark elves’ other than it being a form of mental masturbation? What value would that have had to a community, and on the flip side of that, why would a community have found the practice of such a thing to be ‘threatening’?

Unfortunately the real world got in the way, as it often does, and during my various moves between England and France, an internet connection became a rare thing. Eventually though, in a more settled period, I found the Hrafnar Seiðr website and unlike the initial websites I’d seen, it talked of a group of people that not only did something that could conceivably be of use to a community, but looked to primary sources for inspiration.

And sure, although I now disagree with their interpretation of those sources, it doesn’t change the fact that their site, with its account of the High Seat rite such as the one described at the beginning of this introduction, was a welcome find at the time. Both excited and curious, I experimented with this method, and longed for the day when I would meet a community that had people that did things like taking the high seat to see for ‘the people’. And although the idea of finding such a community seemed so very far away for a girl in a backwoods town in Northern England, I got a drum and trained myself to use the beat to enter trance state anyway. Over time, I tried to deal with concepts such as the ‘soul complex’ and practiced ‘journeying’ with the aim of increasing both my concentration and clarity of vision. But the more I did, and the more I researched, the more it all came to feel ‘empty’ to me. Eventually, it felt so contradictory to other aspects of the pre-Christian worldview I’d read about, that I didn’t feel it logical that Seiðr would have existed in this fashion. The magical practices of a culture, while for the most part a kind of taboo in a lot of societies, don’t exist in some kind of cultural vacuum separate from the mainstream culture of a society. There may be subcultures centred around those practices, but generally speaking, it would be fair to say that the people making up those subcultures are still imbued with the worldview of their native culture. In settings where a set of beliefs is so diametrically opposed to the culture a person is raised in, then extreme measures often need to be employed in order to transform those beliefs. A great example of this is the brainwashing that modern day religious cults engage in. Another excellent example of this is that of Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Italy, in which participants (albeit willing), took hefty amounts of narcotics and participated in acts in order to ‘free themselves’ from their previous societal values. In both examples, mental illness came/comes as a consequence for some, and as I see little evidence that Seiðrworkers were thought to be outright mad, I have to conclude that there wasn’t any major paradigm shift involved in terms of culture.

In trying to find a Seiðr that wouldn’t have required a major paradigm shift of its practitioners, I tried many things on for size as I researched. I toyed with a non-dualist worldview but came to no longer care what happens after death (I figure I’ll find out when I get there, but hope my family and loved ones are involved somehow). I stopped trying to quantify the soul, or make neat little schemata to convince people, mostly because I only ever bother with two parts when I work anyway. And as time went on, I gave up caring about how many ‘worlds’ there are on Yggdrasil. We don’t have any evidence that living human Seiðrworkers, children of what might be termed a ‘world-accepting’ culture operated anywhere but this beautiful Middle-Earth anyway. At some point, Norse-focused Heathenism gave way to an Anglo Saxon/Continental Germanic focus, and so while I may use the word ‘Seiðr’ in this book (mostly because more people recognize it than they do cognate terms like ‘Sīdsa’, or ‘Aelfsīden’), a lot of the other terminology and worldview I use and have reflects this.

Perhaps a better way to explain how I feel about Seiðr, would be if you were to imagine yourself standing on the surface of the moon, looking across to the earth with its vast blue seas, sprawling continents, and ever-moving white clouds. Now imagine that you’d arrived at that place from a distant world, and that on your way into this system, you’d come across a rickety object floating through the lonely void of space, the orphan of an unknown place that was cast out to wander the stars. Of course, it had made you curious, and so you’d taken it on board and studied it. Peeling back the hard exterior, constructed of a material you couldn’t identify, you’d found a most glorious treasure; some disk-like objects, and what you had assumed to be a device of some kind. At first, you’d faltered, not quite understanding that the disk-shaped objects were to go into the device, and had almost written the whole thing off as just being mysterious space junk. But then, quite by accident, you’d placed one of those disks into a long slit-like aperture at the front of the device, and stood amazed as the crude technology had sputtered to life sending images of an alien world and people dancing across the walls of your ship. For a while, you’d lingered with the disks, floating in the black seas of space, letting them teach you about a people you’d never heard of before. Among these images were things were crude star maps, maps that you could follow, and so you’d decided to seek out this place the disks called ‘earth’.

Now you’re orbiting a satellite referred to in the disks as ‘the moon’, looking out at the next step of your journey. At this point, you probably think you have quite a good grasp of what this planet is about, after all, those disks had purported to depict life on earth.

It looks so beautiful, so blue, and so you take that next step, you take that closer look. ‘North America’ was the place most mentioned in the disks, and so you decide to start there. But as you travel, you come to realize that as you travel, things are increasingly different from what you had learned so far, and that’s when it hits – that what you knew wasn’t truly representative. There is differentiation, the east isn’t the same as the west, isn’t the same as the north etc. It’s annoying and confusing, but although it’s harder, it’s far more satisfying. You know this isn’t the only continent, after all, you’ve seen them all from space, so you decide to look to the other cultures of the earth and find yet more differentiation – not everything is as uniform as it initially seemed. Some places are more interesting to you and you decide to look closer and find subculture upon subculture. You think of the records you found in that poor rickety aimless satellite, recording only one aspect of that ‘North America’, and while you feel angry – duped- in some ways, there’s a part of you that feels sad. The information about that one aspect of ‘North America’ isn’t bad, or intentionally misleading, indeed, it was put together with the best of intentions, representing reality for one group of people as opposed to a plurality, but all the same, you’re very glad you made the extra journey and part of you really hopes that there will someday be many satellites for other would-be visitors.

You’re probably wondering what the hell any of that has to do with Seiðr. That poor rickety Geocities site that I spoke of earlier was my Voyager, and my process of trying to figure out how to work it to get the information is perhaps analogous to my search that led me to the Hrafnar site; which became the ‘disks’ that spurred me on to research further.

To put it simply, this book is my ‘golden record’, the stories of my experiences, the conclusions I’ve come to over the years, how I work, and the research I’ve done.

I hope for dialogue, I hope for many more ‘golden records’ out there, and I hope for experimentation, but I really hope that more people take up spinning.

”High Seat – Introduction’ excerpted from ‘Out of the Waters Beneath the Tree: A New Approach to Reconstructing Seidr’. COMING SOON!

For more information regarding ‘Out of the Waters Beneath the Tree: A New Approach to Reconstructing Seidr’, or if you’re interested in publishing my book, contact me at seo.helrune@gmail.com

spindle2