The Agency of the Unseen

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about spirits, big or small, having something called agency. In other words, they’re capable of acting independently and of making their own choices. Most of the discussion on this has been framed within the context of the perennial Pagan community debate about whether deities should be seen as archetypes or as beings with agency (there’s that word again!),  but I’m yet to see any talk about what it means to live in a world populated by countless unseen beings who all also have agency.

Ok, that’s not fair, I think Morgan Daimler spends a lot of time talking about that kind of thing – heck, along with articles telling you how not to get completely fucked over by all things fae and sorely needed new translations of Old Irish materials, I would say that a good chunk of what Morgan does is try to impress upon her readership this idea of agency and the Unseen.

But how many of us truly think about that? How many of us truly appreciate just how *big* that idea is? This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently (hence the lull period in blogs, I mull while I lull), and I’ve come to the conclusion that while a lot of us would agree with the sentiment when asked, that very few of us have really internalized that concept and way of looking at the world.

I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, nobody is ‘lesser’ for it, it’s just that I think we forget that conversion isn’t something that happens overnight, and what is really taking place is a complete worldview overhaul. That shit takes time and it isn’t easy, especially when most of us live in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society in which so much that many of us take for granted is a product of that worldview. When you first start noticing those innocuous little things that you’ve never really thought much about before but that are Judeo-Christian though, it’s kind of like that moment when Neo first sees the Matrix – only thankfully a lot less dramatic.

(Note to reader: Don’t watch the Matrix after drinking a load of absinthe, Morpheus becomes kind of creepy and you’ll never hear him say that long “yes” the same way ever again.)

TomandjerryIt’s everywhere: from the cartoon depictions of souls leaving bodies; to the virtues that most of us are brought up with; to terrifyingly huge chunks of political discourse and so much more. After a couple of decades at this malarkey, I’m finding the differences to be substantial enough that it’s starting to feel like code-switching when talking to people who aren’t Heathen/Pagan/Witches/Druids, and I didn’t even grow up in a particularly religious home. Seriously, I grew up only vaguely Church of England (cake or death) with a mother who graffitied her bible with the names of the Monkees and a Spiritualist father.  I also know I still have a long, long way to go and probably won’t manage to completely throw off that Judeo-Christian worldview in my lifetime. Realistically speaking, this is really a generational game, and NONE of us should feel bad or ‘less’ if we struggle to internalize a concept.

So what would internalizing that concept of the unseen having agency really mean or be like for most of us?

Only like going down the best motherfucking rabbit hole of all time!!!

"Hi, I'm a tardigrade."

“Hi, I’m a tardigrade.”

We’re all used to living on this beautiful and mighty Middle Earth, we’re all used to sharing it with other humans, flora, fauna, insects, and countless other things at the microscopic level. I mean, tardigrades! How neat are they? They’re brilliant, like little bears that were made out of off-cuts from a camp bed factory before being inflated, and that can only survive pretty much EVERYTHING! If those guys had a theme tune, it would be this (btw, you’re welcome for the earworm). Now imagine how much *bigger* that all gets when you include the countless different types of Unseen (of all types and sizes), because where else do you think they live?

They’re all right here with us, and guess what, if we accept that we can build reciprocal relationships with them, then we also have to accept that they have their own ideas and plans about *everything*. Just as we look to interact with them, what if they look to interact with us? What if they go out of their way to do so? What if, like us, some of them are better at it than others?

Now look at history, do you really think they just left us to our shit? What about current affairs? Do they still just leave us to do what we do (which seems to be “mostly fucking up” by the looks of it)? And if they have agency, what about their histories and their current affairs? How much do we affect those? What about the unseen that inhabit certain realms like the sea or sky, do they affect things like the weather? And in the same way that we humans can pick up on the emotions of others and get carried away by mob mentalities, can that bleed through from either them or us?

It all gets pretty big when you think about it like that, doesn’t it? Like a massive, knotted ball of string that is weirdly very important to unravel, but at best all we can do is work carefully so as not to make anything worse.

You know…and then pass it on to our children when we die.

Kinda like this, but BIGGER!

Kinda like this, but BIGGER!

For some good tips on working carefully while trying to unravel that ball and maybe even have some wins, check out this blog post by that Morgan lady; and I’ll be back with a post on elves and witches when I figure out how to condense such a big topic into a blog post.

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