Spinning, Seiðr, and Witchcraft (Part Two)

Adventures in Spun Seiðr

We chanted and danced, our bodies whirling with our spindles, the cords lengthening as the twist travelled up the fibers locking them in place. We chanted in praise of a goddess of spinning and witches, but then the song changed and we chanted differently. This time we *pulled*, the spinning of our spindles aiding us as we pulled what we wanted to pull. A shift fell over the room and it was as though the fan no longer worked within the confines of our weoh bonds, but yet we danced and spun and passed the drum between us, taking turns with both spindle and drum. The dance went on, around the shrine with idol and well, around the candles without tumbling; in trance, these things happen.

When we stopped, we were no longer fully *here* but somewhere between, panting with exertion and sweating from the heat that the fans would no longer touch.

And that’s when the real work began.

In my last blog, I presented the idea that the magic of spindle and distaff is a magic of fate, a magic of pulling, of binding, and sometimes, even a magic of creation. Dealing with what you spin up (f you spin it up) often requires other skills of course, but for now though, I’m going to concentrate on the spinning up.

Tablet-weaving tablet in antler with curse inscription: "Sigvor's Ingvar may have my bad luck"  - From Viking Answer Lady

Tablet-weaving tablet in antler with curse inscription: “Sigvor’s Ingvar may have my bad luck” – From Viking Answer Lady


The first thing to understand about this kind of magic – or indeed any magic within the Germanic cultural context – is that some types of magic are temporary, and some are far longer lasting. Most of the examples you read of in the primary sources are temporary in nature; the mind ensnared until the will of the witch is carried out, or the weather temporarily made bad until the ship is sunk. Don’t get me wrong, temporary can cause a lot of damage. When it comes to long-lasting magics though, it’s all about setting down the layers, about repeated actions and intent. It’s about the tablet weaving tablet with a curse written on it, so that every turn of the tablet builds on the curse to imbue the victim with the ill luck of the caster. It’s about the spindle whorls scratched with prayers and blessings. It’s about the charms and staves left in hidden places to work continuously. It’s also probably why the SATOR square eventually became so popular in Northern Europe. If you remember that what we do in the now is what is set down as past layers for the future, then repeated actions over a period of time in the now and the not-so-far from now, set down that which a person has to work with in the future.

The second thing to understand here, is that this kind of spun magic, tends to be of a more chthonic nature. In my last blog post, I mentioned the connection between spinning and death, and spun threads made into various tools used to drag people down to the underworld. This idea was continued in various European folklore traditions that held that the dead had to cross over into the underworld over a bridge of thread, flax, or human hair (which actually kind of resembles flax).

Flax. See how much it looks like hair?

Flax. See how much it looks like hair?

When I first started to look at spun witchcraft – or Seiðr, it was most definitely from the point of view of the non-spinner, or newbie spinner. Spinning is a craft that takes time, practice, and patience to become good at. Before you even begin to try your hand at spun Seiðr, you have to build up the muscle memory that makes it possible to spin without really thinking about it enough to go into trance.

The process of synthesis is often one of trial and error and this blog post is about my process of synthesis when it comes to spun Seiðr.

For me, it often starts with a flash of a vision of how you need to be doing something. But it’s one thing to see something happening and quite another to figure out the mechanics of how to do that thing or the framework within which you need to make it happen. That flash of a vision then becomes research, often years of research, experimentation, and most importantly evaluation before you have something workable. I think we often forget this because people are so reticent in the modern community to discuss their fuck ups, but let’s face it, everyone fucks up.

When I first began my experiments in spinning Seiðr I was doing so on the premise that the spindle was a tool for trance induction rather than for the magic itself. But as time went on and I experimented, I found that while you can get into a light trance state while spinning, it’s not necessarily good for deep trance, nor does it really go much beyond that (although it’s possible to have flashes of vision in this state). The breakthrough came when I decided to try changing my premise and taking the meaning of the word ‘Seiðr’ at face value – a ‘snare’. From that point on, I started to consider my spindle a tool that created a kind of snare ‘thought form’ that could be ‘sent forth’ or ‘ridden upon’ and used to ensnare and pull what I wanted or needed. My first experiments working in this way were a revelation, finally I felt like I’d hit on the mechanics of what I was meant to be doing.

Over time, I found that when I pulled and bound things, the spinning would become hard for no reason, that I would have to twist harder and that lumps would form in the spinning as the things I pulled were entrapped. I began to use my spindle when called in to help clear houses to attract and bind any leftover remnants of nastiness. Eventually, as I became more confident in this usage, I began using my spindle to pull and bind the kind of things that go bump in the night.

The more I spun and witched, the more I learned that spinning witchcraft is a magic that moves, it’s a magic that makes you want to sway and stamp your feet; to spin as you spin and work the energy out. It’s a magic that reverberates through your entire body, leaving you shaking and your yarn crackling with energy. Wool carries magic exceptionally well, and depending on what kind of magic you’re working, it can feel sharp and biting or warm and protective. It can be your favorite sweater or scarf that you wear when you know your day will be challenging, or it can be that one item that just feels unlucky. It can also carry stories – histories – and be used for divination for those skilled in psychometry.

Eventually I found others who were interested in working on this, on working to try to breathe life into and enliven that old spun Seiðr – people who were prepared to look beyond the high seat and get away from tidy and formal. We spun weoh bonds that we’d imbued with spells and prayers, and set up sacred space. We recreated our cosmos, or at least the lower half of it, with a ‘well’ to represent both the well of wyrd and the water the Dead must often cross between this world and the underworld. We also developed songs of various kinds; songs for pulling, songs for binding, songs for clearing, and songs of praise. Songs that would fill you with joy and songs that can make you feel as though something is walking over your grave. We found a place for those who couldn’t spin, because the drumming fuels our movements, our ecstasy, and we work to go deeper each time.

There is so much more that we haven’t explored yet and so many more possibilities to be integrated into our rites; such as extra magical steps in the preparation of the wool for Seiðr spinning, or the water with which you wash or wet your fingers with when spinning flax from a distaff. There are also ladders to be spun and woven, and an above world to look to as well.

Nowadays in witchcraft (and in other types of Seiðr group), it’s far more common to present a complete tradition, preferably one that’s been handed down in whatever way it has. I think because of this, we forget that most of us are *all* doing something relatively new, but again this is something we hide along with our fuck ups. As far as I know, myself and the people with whom I do spinning Seiðr are a minority out there. We have no lineages, no how-to books, and we’ll probably have our share of fuck ups too. I think it’s important to be honest about this, I think we do a huge disservice to those that come after us when we are not, and moreover, I think sometimes there is the trap of kidding oneself that what we have is the be all and end all of what there is. How can we get better at what we do if we cannot admit and learn from our mistakes? What has anyone ever really learned from a (fake) image of perfection?

For all the *newness* and experimental nature of this practice though, I *know* we’re on the right path. It’s not an objective knowing of course (when is it ever with this kind of thing?), but I *know* as surely as the air rushes back in when the weoh bonds come down.

Spinning, Seiðr, and Witchcraft (Part One)

Tracing Back the Threads from Witches to Viking Age Seiðr

“Are you doing Voodoo?!”

The cashier looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and fear, her hands frozen mid-scan. I looked to my own hands, to the perfectly innocuous spindle and fiber, and then looked at her again. The line had been long and so I’d taken out my spindle and started to do a little spinning – some lovely soft Shetland wool with which I was going (am going) to knit a traditional lace shawl.

For a moment, I was stuck for words, I mean, how *do* you respond to an obviously scared cashier accusing you of doing ‘Voodoo’ in the checkout line when all you’re doing (at least that time) is spinning yarn? Part of me was amused, but another part of me was a little saddened that as a society we’ve become so ignorant to the processes involved in the production of clothing, that someone doing something that would have been commonplace not all that long ago ( especially in the grand scheme of things) was now suspect and participating in ‘Voodoo’.

I decided to try and go for the teachable moment, to explain that I was spinning, turning wool into yarn that could then be knitted, woven, or crocheted into hats, sweaters, blankets etc. From the look on her face though and talk of how she was going to leave her register and run away if it really was ‘Voodoo’, I’m not quite sure I got through; she did seem genuinely scared. I’m guessing the ridiculously dramatic Hollywood depictions of ‘Voodoo’ are probably to blame for that, because real Vodou as I understand it, is a beautiful faith centered around family and community (read ‘Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn’ for a lovely portrayal of this very misunderstood faith).

In spite of the mundane nature of the spinning I was doing that day though, it really cannot be said that spinning and witchcraft are entirely unconnected. No, if anything, there is a connection there that runs very deep and is still yet largely unexplored by modern practitioners.

The only exception that I’ve found to this has been potentially among those belonging to the 1734 tradition of modern Traditional Witchcraft. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not involved in 1734, or any of the modern tradcrafter groups. I come at my craft from a different angle – albeit one with quite a few similarities with some modern Traditional Witchcraft.

From Witches to Seiðr

According to Cochrane, there are three branches of witchcraft: One pertaining to the male mysteries, one pertaining to the female mysteries, and the other pertaining to the mysteries of the Dead and Underworld. Those female mysteries based in spindle and distaff (or stang, in yet another use) are what I’m going to concentrate on in this post. In ‘On Cords’, Robert Cochrane wrote that, “The so-called ‘sacred object’ held in such reverence by some witches was in fact a weaver’s distaff–and could easily be mistaken for a phallic symbol. The weaver’s distaff, bound with reeds or straw, appears frequently in rural carvings and elsewhere. It again has reference to the Craft and supreme Deity. It would appear that the witches were not in the least influenced by Freudian concepts.

As I’ve already said, I’m not involved in any of those modern traditions mentioned above, if I were, I may feel differently about claims of ancient origins for these traditions. Personally I’m not really sure how much I buy, however there are most definitely ‘threads’ (no pun intended) that *can* be traced back through history; it just so happens that the connection between spinning and witchcraft is one of them.

Moving backwards in time from when Cochrane was writing, we easily find a tradition of depicting witches riding distaffs on woodcuts and in drawings from the 15th and 16th centuries.

See!

distaff witch

Witch riding a goat backwards while holding a distaff between her legs as though in use. Depiction by Albrecht Duerer ca. 1500.

Artist and date unknown. Witch with distaff spinning up a storm.

Artist and date unknown. Witch with distaff spinning up a storm.

Flax witch

Witch with distaff of flax beating her husband at the encouragement of a demon.

If we continue to trace that thread further back, especially in Northern Europe -the place where much of our modern witchcraft is rooted – if we go as far back as the Viking Age, we find mentions of a type of magic called Seiðr.

For most people nowadays though, Seiðr is about the High Seat and seeing, there’s very little though to connect that practice with Seiðr as it was shown in the primary sources. Even the oft-cited Erik the Red’s saga doesn’t feature a Seiðkona but a spá-kona (spae-wife, seeress). You see, Seiðr was in all likelihood a spun form of magic.

Let’s begin with the etymology – or at least Seiðr’s etymological equivalents in Old High German and Old English (which are on far surer footing than the etymology itself) that mean ‘snare’, ‘cord’, or ‘halter’. In support of this is one example of skaldic poetry in which the word ‘seiðr’ is used to refer to ‘cord’, ‘girth’, or ‘girdle’. Moreover, multiple accounts in the primary sources involve spun Seiðr (check out the paper by Eldar Heide linked below for more). Seiðr is a magic that can not only bind, but can also attract things, in fact roughly half of the accounts involving Seiðr in the primary sources are related to attracting things; be those things fish, people, or resources.

This concept of using thread based magic to attract things is one that was retained in later folklore too – as was the tradition of linking spinning and weaving implements with prophecy and magic in general. For example, a witch was believed to be able to steal a neighbor’s milk by milking a length of rope, and the spindle remained the symbol of the witch in Germany until quite late on.

But *why* spinning and witchcraft? Why does such a link make sense, and what can we learn about how spun magic can be used?

Spinning, Fate, and Death

It might be said that there is a common thread (again with the threads) running through many Indo-European descendant cultures, which associates the act of spinning with ‘fate’ (for want of a better word). This is a connection that was reflected linguistically in many older versions of IE languages (Old English among them) and the verb for ‘to be’, a verb which often had connotations with ‘turning’ or ‘spinning’. What is now is what is being turned or what is being spun. Multiple IE cultures also had groups of numina who were often associated with spinning, whose role it was to spin the fates of men. Among the Hittites there were the Kattereš, Underworld goddesses who spun the lives of kings; among the Greeks there were the Moirai, or ‘Apportioners’, one of whom spun the lot of men; among the Slavs you had the Sudice or Rodzanice; the Parcae among the Romans; and the Nornir (who differ in that they’re not explicitly shown to spin) among the Norse. There is also a reference in the Atharva Veda hinting at a similar concept among the Vedics:

“The goddesses who spun, wove, and stretched, and who gave the ends (of the thread) let them wrap you together to old age; as one long­-lived, put around you this garment.”

And then there is Death to consider, Death who ensnares and pulls the Dead down to the Underworld of the Dead, using cord, rope, or a snare – in other words, that which is an end product of spinning to complete her task.

The ropes of Hel
Came swiftly;
They swung at my sides.
I wanted to break them.
But they were tough.
Light it is to fare when free!

Sólarljóð 37

You who are richer than the unrifled Treasuries of the Arabs, and the wealth of India –
You may fill all the Tyrrhenian and the Apulian sea with the foundations [for your villa],
[But] if grim Necessity drives
Her adamantine nails in the highest heavens,
You’ll not free your soul from fear
Nor your head from the snares of Death

Horace Ode 3.24 lines 1-8

What awaits goodness, or chaste loyalty, or worship paid to heaven? The dark snares of death encompassed around the wretched woman, the Sisters’ ruthless threads are tightened, and there abides but the last portion of the exhausted span.

Statius Silvae, V. I. 129-157

Again, these were ideas which were retained in later folklore too. Mirjam Mencej wrote an amazing paper about spinning lore and beings associated with spinning in European folklore. She wrote about how birth and death are conceptualized as being spun into life and then your fibers falling undone when dying, about the idea of womb and burial mound as the wool basket from where one begins and ends, about the crossing to the Underworld of the Dead over a strand of wool, and the incidence of dead appearing as balls of yarn (sometimes leaving trails of blood!) in various European folklore traditions.

With all this in mind, and the historical connection between women and spinning (seriously, ladies used to spin pretty much constantly when not otherwise engaged), why *wouldn’t* any women’s mysteries in witchcraft revolve around spinning? It’s a magic of fate, of pulling, of binding, and at times, even of creation!

Stangs, Staffs, and Distaffs, oh my!

To return to the distaffs, although it’s not a ‘weaving distaff’ (weaving and spinning are distinct, dammit!) Robert Cochrane (who died in 1966) seems to have been right at least about the importance of the distaff. More recent work by archaeologists on the so-called ‘staffs of sorcery’ found in (mostly) Viking Age graves has highlighted the resemblance between many of the ‘staffs of sorcery’ (many of which were made of iron, making them too heavy for work use) and distaffs of the same time period.

Some examples of Seiðr staff finds.

Some examples of Seiðr staff finds.

Admittedly, those distaffs/staffs didn’t look like stangs, but I rather suspect that the function of distaff may have been added to the stang’s already multi-purpose nature (as much as some people may disparage them, they are the original ‘port-a-witch’ kit). Then there are the crooked staffs to take into account – but more on those another time.

Unfortunately this topic is far too big to be covered fully in a blog post, so I’m including some links to sources for any of you that are interested in exploring this topic further. If there are any specific points you would like clarifying, or a specific source citation, please feel free to mail me and ask. In my next post, I’m going to talk more about the nuts and bolts of working spun magic, and some of my experiences in this kind of work.

Suggested Further Reading:

Eldar Heide – Spinning Seidr
George Giannakis – The “Fate as Spinner” motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greece and Indo-European (Parts I and II)
(may be obtainable via ILL)
Bruce Lincoln – Death, War, Sacrifice
Mirjam Mencej – Connecting Threads
Leszek Gardela – Into Viking Minds: Reinterpreting the Staffs of Sorcery and Unravelling Seidr (or anything by Leszek Gardela on the Staffs of Sorcery – go find him on academia.edu)

Witchcraft is not Safe (and nor should it be!)

Witchcraft is not Safe (and nor should it be!)

So there was this one time, when I was fleeing down a dark path with two friends. More specifically, we were running from a burial mound where we’d been since before sunset. One of my friends was experienced in the occult and the other, not so much. I was probably somewhere in between at that point. It was dark and it was scary, and the sound of footfalls following us on the path behind us as we moved was nothing short of unnerving.

Or at least it would have been had I not already crossed from ‘terrified’ into ‘pissed off’.

We made our way as carefully and as fast as we could down this old rocky path, trying to get to the car parked at the road, my terrified friend’s arm interlinked with mine as she talked about how she’d never experienced anything like that before and how it had been a wakeup call for her.

It had started off well, we’d arrived before the sun went down and made offerings before heading inside the mound. Carefully lighting tealights in places where they wouldn’t cause any scorchmarks or other damage, we made our offering of ‘silver’ to Weyland as is customary at that site, and got down to work. We tranced and we called, sung invocations and drummed, we enticed, and eventually the spirits paid attention.

There’s that adage that a person should be careful what they wish for, and that’s usually the kind of response this story gets. Usually from the kind of people who’ve never done anything that didn’t involve pushing back the sofa and doing whatever they do. But let’s face it, if we weren’t the kinds of people to wish for *more*, then we probably wouldn’t be doing witchcraft in the first place.

To cut a long story short, things got dangerous in every way imaginable, and I really wasn’t up for being stuck in a burial mound with a half-possessed person sitting blocking the doorway and everything shifting. You see, there comes a point in a mound sitting, at least in my experience, when everything shifts, when you’re not longer in a burial mound per se, but you are definitely ‘on their turf’. I mean, it’s their turf anyway, but it’s kind of like the difference between visiting the embassy of a country and being in that country.

So we ended up fleeing as fast as we could down a rocky path without breaking any bones until we reached the car and it became clear that the troublesome one from the mound had no intention of not following us. One friend was thrown back as he tried to put stang mark in dirt, and my other friend – the scared one – lacked the level of conviction at that point to make any magic work, let alone the kind needed on the hoof against something not-so-friendly. Her faith had simply been shaken too badly by what had happened. There was a time when she would have probably shared that meme about exorcism via banging pans and telling things to fuck off that goes around Facebook, but now she knows better.

You see, when you get out there, when you leave the comfort of your home and go to places that are dark and old and maybe even inhabited by the Unseen, you tend to come across things that are really not impressed by someone banging pans and yelling “Fuck off!”

In the end, it was my anger that put an end to it following us, that beat of adrenaline and high emotion channeled that so often makes for effective witchcraft.

Whenever I tell this story, I tend to get a number of reactions – most of them about ‘safety’ and comments of ‘ineptitude’ by people who have quite frankly never been there or to anywhere like there.
You see, modern witchcraft has an issue – well, it has several – but one of the greatest is that so much emphasis has been put on making it ‘safe’ that many are simply not recognizing the usefulness of fear to a witch, or indeed, what a great teacher it is.

There are dangers that can and should be mitigated when going abroad into the dark and in search of the hidden. Practical measures such as letting someone know where you’re going and how long you should be, having some form of self-defense at your disposal, packing for the elements, carrying adequate survival supplies and a phone – these are all good things.

As is carrying things like salt, hagstones, iron (if your stang isn’t already ‘shod’), and offerings of appeasement. Knowing how to use these things and employ other forms of magical protection is a must, as is knowing the etiquette of dealing with the Other in your area – folk tales are how you learn this.

There are things you can and should mitigate, but witchcraft will never be, nor never should be ‘safe’, and nor should we seek to make it so.

Witchcraft is also not glamorous and sanitized, it’s pissing into bottles full of nails and glass and accidentally getting some on your fingers; it’s blood and bone, it’s using things you’ve come across (or that have come across you); it’s making deals with things you’d damn well better keep an eye on and have a backup plan for; it’s often the mother of cuts and scrapes earned during pitch black hikes with entheogens pumping through your system; it’s not mass-produced and packaged for convenience.

It’s not bland.

I don’t know when ‘fear’ became considered a bad thing in witchcraft, or when danger became considered a failing rather than one of the ‘occupational hazards’ of the witch, but I think it has been very much to the detriment of the Craft.

Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned have been when my back has been to the wall and I’ve swallowed down the fear and worked with the kind of desperation that you never get when dealing with the ‘safe’. At the mound, I learned to change that fear into white-hot rage to work against something dangerous – something which has saved my ass numerous times since. At the mound, my friend learned that things weren’t as safe as she’d previously believed and that magic is much more than simply saying words and performing actions. Those are some very deep lessons, and lessons that none of us would have learned had we not gone out there into the night and in search of the potentially dangerous.

Fear can be a teacher, it’s not something to be avoided but a test to pass. Sometimes passing that test is getting away hale and whole and having a new tool in your skillset for the future. Other times, passing that test leads you to some of the greatest highs of your life.

But you cannot pass if you never sit the test, and you can never sit the test unless you leave the safe and sanitized behind.