A Tale of Two Goddesses
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”
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 ǫrg, 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.
“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.”
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.
Caliban and the Witch – Silvia Federici
Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic – Clive Tolley
Stories, Identities, and Political Change – Charles Tilly