The No Woman’s Land of the Inner Yard

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 women's witchestraumas 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’.

women's breeches

The worst though, was that this new order sought to isolate women from each other, making them wholly dependent on, and entirely under the authority of their husbands. English women were actively discouraged from friendship with other women or visiting one’s own parents ‘too often’ after marriage, German women were forbidden to live alone or with other women, and Mediterranean women could no longer be on the streets unaccompanied without risking sexual assault (Federici 100).

Of this, Silvia Federici writes:
“Simultaneously, female friendships became an object of suspicion, denounced from the pulpit as subversive of the alliance between husband and wife, just as women-to-women relations were demonized by the prosecutors of the witches who forced them to denounce each other as accomplices in crime. It was also in this period that the word “gossip,” which in the Middle Ages had meant “friend,” changed its meaning, acquiring a derogatory connotation, a further sign of the degree to which the power of women and communal ties were undermined.” (Federici 186)

When it came to relationships with men, the propaganda of infanticide, baneful magics wrought by female hands, and the creeping threat of female domination was so effective that though there were individual attempts by husbands, sons, and fathers to save their female relatives from the stake, there was no collective uprising to save their womenfolk from the fires of persecution.

And it is from here, this place of tattered bonds and violent subjugation, in a society full of mistrust and hate, that we look to the far past, and the witches of the Heathen period.

A War of Spears, A War of Hearts

21. The war I remember, the first in the world,
When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig,
And in the hall of Hor had burned her,
Three times burned, and three times born,
Oft and again, yet ever she lives.

22. Heiðr they named her who sought their home,
The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise;
Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic,
To evil women a joy she was.

The themes of burning and torture are already familiar in this essay. However, unlike the women of the Early Modern Period, Gullveig has the capacity for resurrection, rising thrice from the ashes of the flames and reborn anew as Heiðr. In a sense, she is the mother of witches, as Heiðr is the archetypal name for the wild witch of the outer who travels between the inner yards of men.

In chapter 4 of the Ynglinga saga we are told of how the goddess Freyja, a blótgyðja or ‘sacrificial priestess’ (who unlike her male relatives was never named among the Diar though she was clearly divine), taught the art of Seiðr to the “Asaland people”. For the scholars Ursula Dronke and Hilda Ellis-Davidson, Freyja and Gullveig were one and the same.

However Freyja is not the only Old Norse goddess of magic by any stretch of the imagination, and it might well be argued that the adversarial nature of the story of Gullveig parallels the account contained within the Volsa þáttr of the cultic rite to a group of beings referred to as the ‘Mornir’. As Clive Tolley points out in ‘Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic’, the Volsa þáttr account is clearly that of a female-led home cult coming into conflict with the male state cult of Christianity. It should also be noted that Völuspá contains clear allusions to Christian ideas, and so it is entirely possible that the antipathy of the Gullveig account may not have reflected actual Heathen period views.

Magic and encounters with the supernatural are common themes in Old Norse literature. The Lokasenna poem introduces us to a number of other deities who have either the gift of seership, or who work magic as witches. Both Frigga and Gefjun, are credited with the gift of prophecy, and Oðinn is referred to as working magic as a witch (an aspect of the Allfather which is reiterated in chapter 7 of Ynglinga saga). Regardless of whether they have the skills of a seeress or of a witch though, they are all accused of sexual promiscuity.

Of Insatiable Lust and Passivity

“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”
-Malleus Maleficarum

Though we have no evidence for the integration of sexual activity into the human practice of Seiðr, the association between witches and carnality is far older than the fevered fears of the Early Modern Period, with evidence presenting itself from the mythical realm rather than the historical (Tolley 164). It is a thread that connects witchcraft, or rather ideas of witchcraft throughout the ages.
Gefjun tricks King Gylfi into giving her land in exchange for ‘amusement’ and Freyja beds dwarves in exchange for Brisingamen. Each is referred to as being a farandi kona, or ‘travelling woman’ – a term that held connotations of both ‘witch’ and ‘whore’ (Tolley 451). The insatiable woman was 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.

Loki spake:
“They say that with spells in Samsey once
Like witches with charms didst thou work;
And in witch’s guise among men didst thou go;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.”

Lokasenna 24

Nor is this the healing and building of community that we so sorely need. This is only ever a path to war and genocide, facilitated by the false buoying of the downtrodden by the introduction of the cause (and scapegoat) du jour. This is not a solution (even if it may seem to be so to some at the time).
Unfortunately, this man and the forces of dissolution represented by his organization are not the whole game, but manifestations of a wider social malaise. Our inner yards are broken, and relatively few of us even know what it is to live in an actual community. The ties that bind us, that weave us together become ever more frayed by the day. But this should be no surprise, for who is there to weave and repair what has been sundered, when the lady has been driven from the hall to be made servant to the childbed?
As witches, we tend to look to the wilds, but we have been driven to them as surely as missionaries drove the wihta further and further away from the enclosed spaces of man. And just as with wihta, it was by means of iron and fire that witches were driven back. Heiðr wanders the wilds because as Gullveig she was pierced by the iron of a spear and burned.

But what if the wild witch were to remember her sister and her craft? What if she were to learn how to weave hearts and minds together as well as seeking partnership and initiation among the trees? How would our society look if relationality and reciprocity were returned?

What if the wild witch were to remember that there was a time when she too worked the magic of the hall as her sister also worked the magic of the wilds, and that there wasn’t really any difference between them?

To be a witch is to bend, it is to manipulate and shape, and although I have little talent for diplomacy, I ask us to weave and be shapers here anyway.
I ask you to dream, to see the world in which you would have your children live and then work to help others to see it too. I ask you to become the shapers of words that help change the world for the better. I ask you to shape the words that teach relationality, compromise, community, and reciprocity, instead of that harsh individualism that ultimately robs a person of their humanity. I ask you to step out onto that No Woman’s Land and engage in this war for hearts and minds.

For if all of this is ergi, then we would do well to remind ourselves that it is in the practices that involve ergi that lies the greatest power.

Gullveig rose from the ashes of her pyre.
woman - wonder woman

Sources referenced
Caliban and the Witch – Silvia Federici
Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic – Clive Tolley
Stories, Identities, and Political Change – Charles Tilly

A Witch That Cannot Hex Cannot Heal Pt 2

In the first part of this two-part series on hexing and healing, I wrote about my views on hexing. Now it’s time to look at the opposite end of that spectrum, and the ‘why’ behind the adage that a ‘witch that cannot hex cannot heal’.

One of the things that has always struck me about mainstream Pagan or Witch views is that while cursing is often disparaged, healing is not. Countless words have been written about the dangers of cursing from both spiritual and material perspectives, and yet little has been written about the dangers of healing.

If anything, we encourage people to participate in healing rites regardless of how well trained they are, and view them as being almost harmless. However, I would argue that healing can be a more dangerous activity to the healer – depending of course on how it’s done.

A Family Heritage Of Sorts

As I’ve mentioned about fifty billion times before, I come from a family of Spiritualists – mostly Spiritualist healers – and if there’s one thing I’ve seen from those who do a lot of healing, it’s that they often suffer from a lot of sickness themselves.  I can even name family members who I believe wound up in an early grave because of their involvement in healing practices.

My dad once explained that when it comes to healing, he takes on what they have. I’ve had more people than I can count approach me to tell me about how my dad was talking to them, began wincing, described something they hadn’t mentioned, and then healed them of that pain. These people were often people we didn’t really know too – one woman was a stall-holder at the local market who sold rugs!

Looking at my family’s Spiritualist background, it’s all too easy to turn around and say that that’s something that happens to Spiritualists, and that they’re obviously doing x, y, and z wrong. After all, what else could my father expect if he takes on what others have? And yet, I’ve never seen it be an intentional thing for my father – more like something that is triggered when he comes into contact with the sick.

I also have a friend who is a professional healer. Unlike my father, he’s trained in multiple healing traditions, has years of experience, and yet healing can make him sick if he’s not careful. Sometimes it’s the expenditure of energy, but sometimes, a healer cannot help but have to go and encounter that which is causing the sickness in the first place – especially when working within an animist paradigm.

The point of this though, is that both cursing and healing are potentially dangerous to those who do them. They’re also opposite ends of the same continuum.

Introducing ‘Hælu’

I think a lot of people have a sense of this continuum if not the words and historical evidence. However, there are words and there is evidence for both.

We find our first word in the Old English word ‘Hælu’. It’s a lovely word, the Old English word from which we get our modern word ‘hale’, as in ‘hale and hearty’. But unlike the modern version of the word, the meanings of hælu were much ‘wider’ in scope. To quote Stephen Pollington from p453 of Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore and Healing:

“The quality which keeps a person well is called in Old English, ‘hælu’, which can be translated as ‘health’ or ‘wholeness’, although this is slightly misleading. ‘hælu’ is a derivative of the adjective ‘hal’ which survives into modern times as the words ‘whole’ and ‘hale'; it implies good fortune, prosperity, good health, general benefit and well-being (and in Christian times, salvation). From it are derived also the verb ‘ hælan’ (make whole), our word ‘heal’ and another adjective ‘halig’ (holy) with the sense ‘blessed’, ‘fortunate’, ‘favoured by the gods’. The reverse of ‘ hælu’ is ‘unhælu’ which is a kind of ‘negative health'; to have ‘unhælu’ is both to lack the positive quality of health and to have the negative ‘unhealth’, disease, illness, misfortune.”[1]

As you can see from the above description, physical health was connected with what we would today consider completely unrelated matters, like ‘good fortune’, and ‘prosperity’. By extension it’s also connected with words that refer to a state of being ‘blessed’, or ‘favored by the gods’. The fact that those seemingly disparate concepts are all able to be expressed by one word suggests that at one point they were considered to be all part and parcel of the same thing – a quality inherent to a person.

To restore this quality (by whatever means) is to heal, to take this quality is to curse. This is why ill health often plagues those who are cursed and can even be one of the signs that a person has been cursed (if other signs are also observed concurrently). To manipulate this quality in any way without knowing what you’re doing is dangerous, and to manipulate this quality in any way while sick is eventually deadly.

Never So Simple A Story

But even then, the lines between healing and cursing were not so clear cut. Sometimes you had to curse an illness or growth in order to heal the person as in charm number 162 of the Lacnunga (a book of Old English magico-medical cures). In this charm, which is believed to cure cysts, we are given a story about the ‘nine sisters of noðþ’. Who this ‘noðþ’ is beyond an anthropomorphic representation of the medical complaint is not important (which is good, because we don’t know anyway). What is important is that the charm essentially counts them out of existence, in other words, this is a form of curse.

‘…then the nine became eight, and the eight to seven, and the seven to six, and the six to five, and the five to four, and the four to three, and the three to two and the two to one, and the one to none’

Bye Felicia.

Remember those pesky elves and their shot from the last post?

Well, we also see cures for all manner of ‘elf’ ailments in the Leechbooks too. Some of these can be traced to actual physical diseases, however others may refer to elfshot (curses) by witches, and other elf-related afflictions (which were, with the exception of some identifiable ailments, normally related to pains of the torso or mental ailments producing delusions). And elves weren’t just connected with cursing either – the right offering to the elves could hasten the healing of a loved one or friend as in Chapter 22 of The Saga of Cormac the Skald.

Again, my point here is that these things are not so clear cut, and that by viewing cursing and healing as some kind of ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy, we’re not only missing the point, but potentially endangering would-be healers by not acknowledging the danger inherent in being a healer, nor the necessity of training and aftercare. Because at the end of the day, healers work far more intimately and generally for far longer periods of time with their patients and the ailments they bring than most people ever do with curses.

So if anyone is going to get the metaphorical sticky turd on them, it’s the healers. It’s about time we respected that and stopped encouraging every one and their mother to have a go like it’s some harmless thing anyone can do without consequence.

[1]    Pollington, S. (2000). Appendix 3 Causes of Disease. In Leechcraft: Early English charms, plant lore, and healing (p. 453). Norfolk, England: Anglo-Saxon Books.

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)

Haunted Helrune

About a week ago on my Facebook page, I asked if any of my friends would be interested in reading posts about some of the many (many) spooky things that have happened to me over the years. The answer was a resounding “yes”, and so this post is the first in what will hopefully become a collection of spook-tastic stories.

The problem though with coming up with such an idea, is choosing which stories to tell. It’s easy to think of them when you’re in a conversation or watching something about similar events, but when you’re sitting in front of the cold, unforgiving screen of your computer, it’s quite another matter.

This week, we’ve had (what we believe to be) a plumbing issue stemming from mains work done in our area. At first, we just noticed that the bed shook, and I don’t know what it says about me that I was both simultaneously glad that our bed is heavy as shit, and pissed off that something might be messing with us just as I was turning off my kindle to get some sleep.

Back in my late teens, I did a semester on parapsychology at junior college as part of my psychology A-level. I also used to belong to a paranormal investigation group in my home town, and so while I do see and experience a lot, I also have this instinct to investigate and debunk. So, out came my hands, feeling different surfaces to try and isolate a source for the shaking – the headboard – it felt like it was coming from the headboard and shaking down the bed. When my husband got up to go to the bathroom during the shaking, the shaking intensified and so I got up, turned on the light and began to video it. The bed didn’t touch the wall, and as far as we knew then, there were no pipes behind that wall. I put my hand against the wall, but it felt less intense than the bed. As I videoed the shaking though, and began to film down the crack between our bed and the wall, it stopped.

“Of course you fucking did.”, I said to myself. Because how many of us have had things happen only to stop when you’re getting evidence?

We climbed back into bed and slept until morning with no further issues. As I wasn’t getting the creep factor, I didn’t bother worrying about it. Until the next night when we were shaken awake at 5 am. That day, I pulled up the mattress and looked to see if somehow, some kind of animal or rodents had managed to slot themselves in between the under bed drawers without the dog and two cats noticing.

Nada.

To cut a long story short though, it was the next night that I saw the drywall moving and my concerns shifted to far more mundane (and less exciting) issues around structural integrity. Regardless of this though, the shaking did remind me of something that happened to me over a decade ago.

I’ve never really been a fan of being in houses or apartments when you’re in the process of moving. They feel too liminal and open to me, like anything can just walk in. When you’re moving, you’re either relinquishing a claim on a place, or about to be making a claim. In truth, this is why I tend to avoid taking down all of the shrines for as long as I can, and they’re among the first things that are set up in the new home.

I’d been living in this two-level apartment for about three months when this happened. It was the final evening and I was yet to pack, but I wasn’t concerned as I was living out of a backpack at the time and packing in those days took an hour at most.

I’d spent the evening watching TV alone as my housemates were either at work or had gone out for the night, and it had all been very uneventful until it came time to go into my bedroom and begin to pack.

In my experience, with the exception of pure poltergeist phenomenon (in which you only have moving items and literally nothing else going on), there’s always a vibe that accompanies a haunting. It may begin with the sensation of being watched, or simply just a sense of something ‘building’ up in the atmosphere around you. If you ‘see’ things as I do, you might perceive a disturbance in the air around you, an amping up that looks not too dissimilar from ‘snow’ on an old TV set. Except all around you. Making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Often, there’s a preturnatural cold, and if you have any pets, you might notice them beginning to behave very oddly; either trying to escape or barking aggressively at ‘nothing’.

This is what I felt as I began the process of turning off the TV, turning out the lights, and going through the motions of washing my face and cleaning my teeth. There was this sense of ‘building up’, and like I was no longer alone. Knowing my housemates wouldn’t be back for hours and that I really had nowhere else to go, I resolved to get my packing done, and then just go to sleep and ignore it. After all, you wouldn’t believe the amount of weird things I’ve ignored and just gone to sleep on. I’d imagine it’s the ghost equivalent of giving someone a handy J and then stopping right before they come.

But as soon as I stepped into my room – a room that had been completely fine before then – all thoughts of ignoring it were gone as I was physically shoved across the room. Righting myself to the sound of my furious heartbeat in my ears, I scanned the room around me, trying to see what had just got me, while trying to control my adrenaline and fear enough to start protecting myself. As I turned though, before I could get a hold on myself, this voice that was more like an air canon sounded in my ear.

“BOO!”

I ducked as though I could avoid the force of the word, which was emitted with such pressure it was almost tangible.

And so it went for as long as it took me to pack. Shoves punctuated with words punched into my ear and seeming to come from just over my shoulder. For my part, I simply tried to get a grip of myself as I packed desperately as the *thing*, the interloper that was taking advantage of the transience, mocked and promised me that moving wouldn’t get rid of him.

By the time one of my housemates came home, I was seriously shaken – on every level. Until that point, I had never had anything actually physically hurt me in that way. But my 23 year old self was nothing if not resilient – if a lot less disciplined than now – and I soon shook it off after I moved the next day.

Thankfully, whatever it was, did not follow.

Really?

So I don’t normally ‘go there’ with this blog, but I’ve been reading some of the posts about the current Pagan controversy du jour. You know the ones I’m on about, the ones talking about offering bullets to the Morrigan.

And you know, I can’t help but look at it and just wonder what the hell is wrong with people?

In my previous two posts, I talked about pushing things forward, but this to me is the opposite of that. It’s a completely pointless debate that has far more to do with kneejerk reactions about guns than anything that any of us should be bothering with.

So, some Morrigan cultists feel that bullets make a good offering for the Morrigan – a goddess who is, among other things, a goddess of war.

Whoop de doo. Really, whoop de doo.

So what if it’s not your cup of tea, surely what counts is that the people doing the offering genuinely think it to be a good offering, and that they are doing and giving their best?  Yes, there are some issues around the safe disposal of live rounds, especially those that as sacrificed items, by definition have passed out of human usage. And there should be discussion around the practicalities and safety issues of offering live rounds. Now there is an issue folks didn’t really have to consider when depositing swords (or whatever) in bogs. But some of the comments made have been ridiculous. One blog post talked about how they questioned the UPG of anyone that had UPG to offer bullets and how those that had such UPG should assess if it really was UPG or just the product of conditioning oneself to block all other messages out.

Really?

I feel like I’m saying that a lot here (I am).

How is UPG that bullets are a good offering down to bias, but UPG that says they’re not a good offering somehow not? Then there was the slippery slope argument, after all, why not napalm? After all, I hear it smells great in the morning.

Like it or not, the gun has played a significant role in American history – for the good and the bad. Without the gun, America would never have gained independence from my people – the Mexicans.

Just kidding. The British. I’m British, what what!

You know, that whole sovereignty thing again.

Then there’s my favourite argument that somehow, by offering bullets, you’re changing the Morrigan. You’re changing a deity/group of deities who is/are predominantly (a) war goddess/es (depending on which of the Morrigna you’re talking about here), with what? US gun culture? Really? Like the deity who is said to collect the heads of men is somehow going to become more bloodthirsty and behind every school and racially-motivated police shooting? Like somehow our human culture could teach a goddess how to suck eggs. I don’t agree with the sentiment that the gods are formed by humans. Certainly different cultures with the same gods understand those gods differently, but could that really be said to be a reflection of a change in the nature of those gods themselves? I think that mentality is a convenient one, because the person that adopts it doesn’t really have to go out of their comfort zone in their worship – after all, the deity will eventually adapt to your cultural norms in all your human greatness, right?

Getting back to it though, to me, this particular controversy feels like something that maybe had its birth in the ‘worshipping the Morrigan is feeding the military-industrial complex’ post that became infamous a while ago.

And it’s all so laughable, really what are we doing here? How is any of this not silly? Especially when set against the other recent controversies du jour, like ‘Why you shouldn’t celebrate Lughnasadh’, or ‘Why you shouldn’t bother with Imbolc’ (I’m paraphrasing here). Seriously, I’m almost going to be disappointed if there’s no ‘Why you shouldn’t go anywhere near Beltane because it feeds into an STD spirit’ post.

After a while, it gets so tiresome too – all the drama that just swirls around sucking up people’s attention and distracting them from things that actually matter. It’s a doldrum, and we need to sail the fuck out of it.

Last night, I read the blog of a man who was lucky to survive boyhood, and for whom the gun is a very real symbol of survival and being safe. Again sovereignty – this time of the bodily kind. Maybe I’m just reading into his tone, but he sounded despondent, yet still trying to explain why he feels the need to make those offerings that others find so objectionable – *why* they made sense to him and why it wasn’t some political thing. In reading that blog, that man’s reaction to the controversy, this whole thing almost felt like a form of bullying and so very ultimately useless.

We have incomplete theologies, ritual formats that need some serious work, reciprocal relationships to honour, communities that need building, skills that need honing, friends that need shenanigans, and family members that need love.

We have work to do.

Ancestral Shores

 On the day she came home, they’d been happy to see their daughter return. Communication had been difficult at times, sometimes even impossible. Like every child out adventuring out in the world, there were times when she simply hadn’t even remembered to check in, to let them know she was ok. But that was ok too, because she always did eventually. Full of life and happy to see home again even for the short time she’d be there before the next adventure.

This time though, things were different. When she’d arrived this time, they’d worried as she coughed, a dark shadow falling on her chest like never before. Watching her struggle to climb hills and moors that she’d climbed hundreds of times before with ease, they felt only sadness. But she always was a stubborn one and she’d carried on walking uphill regardless. They’d gone with her to see the doctor a week or so later, her coughing…no asthma had gotten so bad.

“I remember how bad that was for me”, Violet had said, “Marvellous what they can do nowadays with medicine.” Lillian had simply stroked their granddaughter’s forehead as she breathed in the nebulizer and her breathing stabilized.

Eventually though, she’d gone again, got onto the plane with her husband and left.

And after a few hours they couldn’t feel her anymore.

Late at night, when most people are comfortably ensconced inside, they would meet on the beach, the sometimes stormy Irish sea before them. Something about that direction, that place made them feel ever so slightly closer to her, their errant family member. Sometimes Lew would make comments like “She gets that from me, you know!”, and his sister and wife would slap him on the shoulder and tell him not to be so daft, and that he’d never literally disappeared before.

One of those nights, when the surf was up and they could almost hear what sounded like her voice on the wind, James came to the conclusion that this not being able to hear her thing had to have something to do with the sea and then the ocean beyond that. After all, she *couldn’t* be in Ireland, they’d know. They had family and blood there. At one point, Peter had even stood on the opposite shore and called to them that she absolutely wasn’t there. Thanking him, they’d engaged in a bit of banter before going back to keep an eye on the rest of the family.

It was finally when William was sitting next to his son, in the living room of 35 Primrose street that he’d heard Val say something about her being in America. It all made sense to them now, but still they missed her.

“It’s probably best if you go to Southport when the tide’s up” said Ken, he still wasn’t comfortable in his new role in the family, but he was doing well even though it hurt him to see his wife still so sad. “Take it easy, son. These things take time.”, his dad had said. He knew better than most how it was to go through that kind of separation, and Ken had always been the kind of big brother to take his responsibilities to his siblings very seriously.

So it was that they came to be sitting there on the beach during what was a horrible storm (for those that could still feel that kind of thing), straining their ears and trying to hear their long-lost daughter, they sat. They had all but given up, when they finally heard it, her voice weak on the winds.

It was their names in prayer, asking them to do their best to find her.

And right then and there, they decided that if the wind could find a way, so could they.

Deepening the Line

It would seem that I struck a nerve with my post yesterday. Frankly I’m a little overwhelmed that it’s been shared so many times and that quite a few people agree with what I had to say. This corner of the internet is usually so quiet, and if anything, I was expecting more of a e-lynch mob for my views; after all, my position is uncompromising. While I’m flattered and overwhelmed that people are sharing and talking about my post, I’m far happier that I’m not the only person who sees this issue, and who wants to roll up her sleeves and do something about it. How often do we hear that the first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge that there is one in the first place? It feels like a lot of people want to take that first step now.

And yes, it is controversial to admit that there is a problem with our expectations of ritual, experience, and magic. It’s controversial because it calls into question so many people within our various communities, and I’m really not trying to be like the person whose shit doesn’t stink here. I am nobody’s guru, I have no interest in being anyone’s guru, I fuck up and have my ‘off’ days. I’ve tangibly experienced, and also tangibly fucked up in ways that would make you not even trust me with children’s safety scissors. Some days, I’ve fucked up so much that nothing has happened, the energy hasn’t been there, the spell (or whatever I was doing) didn’t work, and the whole thing was like the magical equivalent of the flan in the oven that just doesn’t make it out right. But you know, I think it’s important to be honest about that, it’s something we can ultimately learn from, all a part of the developmental process.

But this is nothing if not a nuanced issue, and as a friend commented on my Facebook post in which I initially shared this blog, it really isn’t so simple as ‘I felt nothing so ergo *this* is shit’ either. To quote Heather O’Brien:

I think sometimes the cynics build walls too high that they block themselves in, others have a trust and fear to overcome and will only be able to do that through directly engaging. Still, there are those who are roasting Twinkies. It’s a tangled ball.

I think Heather puts this beautifully, this is a ‘tangled ball’. The question of discernment, of figuring out if something has its roots in the sacred and magical, or profane and chicane is not an easy one. Further compounding this, there are some individuals who do block themselves off from experiences for various reasons. This sounds like a kind of handy ‘get out clause’ that the less scrupulous could use as a way to explain away any lack of experience, but bear with me here.

When I was a kid, things got quite intense at times, and sometimes they got to the point where I was so scared and so resistant to seeing or experience things that I then wouldn’t. As time would pass though, I’d begin to feel like I’d lost a faculty, like something was missing, and then I’d realise that I’d shut myself down. These experiences were the beginning of learning to open up and shut down for me, but most people who build those walls so high don’t learn to ever open up a door so that they can have those experiences.

Some experiences are so powerful they break through anyway.

There was this one time when I lived in France that a friend of mine – a vocal skeptic – saw a shadow person under the full beam of a street lamp. That was enough to pull down those walls for her, and that was her introduction to a world that was far less certain and manageable. As you might imagine, this was quite terrifying for her. Unlike me when I was a child, she’d never had any experience before,so her walls weren’t walls erected out of fear but what she felt was logic.

So, how do we know when we’re dealing with a ‘null event’, or if we have somehow bricked ourselves into a protective keep? Because it’s important to know the difference. Knowing the difference is how we maintain a sense of realism even with the ‘unreal’.

I have no hard and fast answers for this, but again, I do think this is something we should be thinking about, discussing, and figuring out in a more concrete sense.

Thinking of my own experiences in this though, during the times I’ve sat behind the thick, impenetrable walls of my own keep, my disconnect has been so utterly complete that *nothing* would get through to me. If you go to one ritual and feel nothing, then maybe the ritual was badly done. But if you go for months feeling nothing – even doing activities that were previously guaranteed (well, as much as things can be guaranteed with this kind of thing) to give you those experiences – then the chances are that you’ve shut down and you probably need to figure out why.

However, if you’re not having experiences or being grabbed by the guts within certain contexts (but outside of those contexts still have things happen), then it’s those rituals and magical contexts that are the issue.

That’s my ‘twopennorth’ on the matter anyway.

The second comment that I’ve seen in relation to my first post (which can be found here)is one that has baffled me a little. A couple of people have gotten enthusiastic and said that they’re in and pretty much asked, “What’s next?”

I have ideas, oh goodness do I have ideas, and I fully intend on pestering certain people in my local community about those ideas in the coming months, but I don’t have a magical ‘fix’ or product entitled ‘How To Up Our Collective Magical/Ritual Game’. As I said above, I’m not a guru, I’m not here to sell anything (except maybe things that I knit/crochet/spin/felt, or workshops filled with months worth of research and come with citation-filled handouts).

So what the hell was I on about with my exhortation to push things forward if I wasn’t presenting what that ‘forward’ looks like?

I’m talking about honesty, discernment, and adopting an almost scientific methodology. I’m talking about approaching spirituality with all of those things and using them to figure out what worked, what didn’t work, and having the honesty, courage, and integrity to ask “What went wrong?”. I’m talking about being willing to go back to the drawing board, look the sources we have on how people did things in the past, and then trying them out now. I’m talking about a constant process of trial, error, and growth. I’m talking about no endpoint, only constantly striving to improve. I’m talking about knowing.

That goes for basic skills too – I mean, I’ve lost count of the number of self-described magic workers who have told me they can’t do basic meditation, let alone visualisation, pathworkings, or really any of the exercises used by pretty much every occult tradition to build the various types of discipline in practitioners. In a lot of ways, if we want to ‘up our game’, we need to emphasise the basics more. Aside from being necessary in terms of developing skill and honing our arte, there is no greater test of commitment than sticking to and practicing those (mostly boring) exercises. I would even refuse to teach people that don’t demonstrate that commitment to practice, or in other words, that lack Will or the ability and commitment to developing it/developing it further.

You see, I’m talking about work here, hard work, the kind of work that takes years. In other words, not something that can be neatly packaged and sold as a product. By the way, the people that asked me about how to go forward from here are not work-shy or lacking in commitment in the slightest. I don’t want anyone to get any wrong ideas about that here, I respect these people greatly.

But still, the point needs to be made that this shit can’t be neatly packaged and sold as a product (or, horror of horrors divided into ‘modules’ that may eventually make up a whole). A product is the end of a creative process, it’s selling an endpoint – usually with an accompanying title – and when people get titles and think they have an endpoint, they become entrenched.

Finally, we need to Dare. We need to suck up our fears, roll up our sleeves, stop pushing the goddamn sofa back, and get our asses down to the graveyards, into the forests, out to the crossroads, and onto the burial mounds. We need to dare to seek out the sacred and liminal, the holy and scary, and encounter it with our hard-earned knowledge and hard-won Will.

We need to not just talk about doing, but actually do too.

 

The Line in the Dirt

So, I’ve been around the block a few times.

From the years as a kid having little chats with my dad about why I saw the dead and the odd exercises ‘reading’ objects or ‘channelling spirit’, to the (now decades) of witchcraft that followed, I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of ‘Other’. I’ve had everything from being pushed around a room repeatedly by something unseen, to seeing objects floating in the air, to watching scratches appear on my skin as the scratch was being made by something unseen,to losing my ability to walk until leaving a place, to having a crooked stick actually jump up at me in a forest, to…well, you get the idea. I’ve dealt with possessions and curses, cleared haunted homes, experienced a deity, and participated in the odd bout of necromancy.

In other words, I know what it is to experience the ‘supernatural’ in a very tangible way and to feel the kind of power inherent in that.

I’m going to be honest here – downright controversial even – but most of what passes for ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ in the Pagan or Heathen communities isn’t it. I see so much stuff that is simply wishy-washy, that may as well be cold reading, that relies on people wanting to believe and experience. It’s rare that I see something that truly grips a person by the guts.

We need to up our game, not just with magic, but with ritual in general. How many Heathens and Pagans can truly say they’ve ever experienced hierophany? I’m not talking about the ‘Odinn told me that he *wants* some Twinkies and he says that you need to do (insert hopefully inane activity here)’ variety of experience. I’m not talking about experience via intermediaries, but true hierophany where you learn on the deepest gut-level the real meaning of awe, where that indescribable sense of fear and love permeates every cell in your being and any doubts are completely swept away by something that is so.much.greater.than.yourself. If more people had experienced that, the enormity of that, then we’d have far fewer people claiming to speak for the gods.

You may have noticed that I keep mentioning guts too – they’re important. The real grabs you by your guts and when that real is nasty, digestive problems are not uncommon. You see, your head may not know the difference between the real and illusion, but your guts do. If you have a reading and you don’t feel like you’re going to throw up, like somehow that person is peeking inside you – renegotiate the price. If you are told that someone is channelling a god and they have a message for you yet you don’t feel anything in your guts – don’t buy it, take a look at the person that’s making the claim and assess what may be going on with them that they are saying such things. If you put on a ritual and you don’t feel anything in your guts – go back to the drawing board and figure out how to do it better.

Because the responsibility is on us, it’s for us to figure out how to do better so that we might experience more. So that we might push things forward.

The problem though, is that too many of us are convinced we’re already at the endpoint, that we already know all that we need to know.

Bullshit.

That’s like seeding a quarter of a field in exactly the same way year after year and then wondering why the yield becomes less as time goes on. Eventually, the field becomes barren and those that engage in that particular tradition of seeding the field starve.

We can do better.

But we need to be prepared to try, we need to be prepared to push past our comfort zones and reach for that better. We need to stop thinking about our gods in such ‘convenient’ ways and to truly respect them for what they are. This isn’t some alternative to psychology, the spirits aren’t automatically benevolent, and magic is often dirty. Being half-assed isn’t how we grow, it isn’t how we create something coherent and rich to pass on to our descendants, and it isn’t what will bring our descendants back to pour out offerings on our graves when we’re gone.

So, are you in or out?

Edited to add: This post got quite a response and some interesting discussion ensued which led to  Deepening the Line.

Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes

A long time ago in a land far away, a land of colour and mystery and things that went BUMP in the night, there lived a girl. Like many others, she had arrived with her backpack heavy with clothes and her mind heavy with dreams. She’d always wanted to travel in the east, ever since she’d read her first library book about China and learned how to write three simple phrases in Chinese.

“Big man”
“Big man sits down”
“Man too big”

Not that was any use really in Korea, but still.

She even found herself liking the look of the Korean script better than Chinese, its characters reminded her of the fish she used to go catch with her dad as a child; sitting on the banks of the canal and pulling up trout, gudgeon, and the odd tench.

Her first night in Korea was punctuated by a bad case of ‘Dehli Belly’, and waking up to what she thought were three bloodied women at the bottom of her bed, talking at her emphatically with words she didn’t understand. Unsure if she was hallucinating from the dehydration and sickness, she vaguely remembered that civil war and starvation were still within living memory for many in the country and went back to sleep.

The next day she felt better after drinking a little bottle of tonic a co-worker gave her. She didn’t even notice the weird tone her co-worker’s questions took.

“Is your apartment ok?”

“Are you sure?”

Not even when she told her that everything worked as it should and it was quite comfortable.

“Ahhh” *nod* ” But is your apartment…ok?”

These are the things you don’t necessarily pick up or think about until later on when things become apparent that maybe your apartment is a little weird.

It started with the noise of what sounded like a wet body trying to get out of a bathtub coming from the bathroom. From 11pm every night, she would hear and ignore that. At first she investigated it, stood there in the bathroom looking at the tub as the noises emanated from it. It wasn’t the neighbours – those impossible people who managed to be ever so quiet in spite of five kids and plastic walls.

A couple of weeks after that, the toilet exploded. She fixed it, moved on, and ignored the weird vibe in the apartment. She was being watched, and it wasn’t necessarily nice. Deciding to create a ‘safe room’, she worked protections on her bedroom – it’s at least good to get some sleep, right? So what if she could hear the wet body noises every night for two hours? She was good at ignoring things like that.

She met a boy, they hit it off, and thank goodness he was there the night her plastic bathroom ceiling set on fire. Even though the electrician ‘fixed it’ and declared it ‘safe’ with one layer of tape, it was still the end of the bathroom light.

Things moved on their own, from the empty candy tub that sailed ten feet across the room while she was on the phone with her mother, to the toaster oven door that would open and shut on its own. She made sure to always put the chairs under the table before going to bed because part of her was sure she would see figures sitting in them during a late night bathroom trip.

As she gained her feet in the new land, she gained ways of dealing with it. She set up a shrine to appease the spirits with coins. A spirit showed up one evening, “My men call me the General, General Yi”, and she felt a little safer. The next day at work while leafing through books, she found a picture of the man that had leaned over her the night before – General Yi Soon Shin, a native of the area where she was living, made Admiral posthumously. So the General found a place on her shrine too.

Periodically she’d bury the coin pile of offerings that built up and start again, and something resembling an easy peace was kept. When she forgot though, that’s when the scratches would start.

“OMG you have a ghost!”

That had been her boss’s response when she’d seen the scratches – along with her heavily bitten fingernails, nails her boss had gently chided her over before.

Then there were the dreams in Korea, dreams that blurred reality, dreams that bordered on trance and made her feel exhausted come daylight.

Once such dream scared the daylights out of her. It felt significant, a dream of life and death, of witchcraft, underworld beings, and women – goddesses undulating with snakes around their bodies, “watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”

It had been so unsettling, she’d awoke, relieved to see her then boyfriend sleeping beside her – until he spoke in his sleep.

Those words.

Again.

“Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”

The thing about dreams and visions is that they don’t always make a whole lot of sense at the time, and it doesn’t mean anything. These things only gain meaning when you figure out their context. Until that point, it’s best to simply file them away for future reference, and keep the to the ‘personal’ aspect of ‘UPG’.

Sometimes they sit there until you forget them, or just put it down to a brain fart. Other times though, you find that context and the meaning hits you like a ten tonne truck.

Sometimes you find that context in a conversation or a place. Other times you find it in a book or indeed many books. No matter where you find it though, the effect is still the same.

It’s like a door unlocks and you’re plunged into potential and new avenues for exploration.

The Hittites used snakes in divinatory practices related to the ancestors, snakes and wells. Snakes and water – routes to the underworld, where a serpent called ‘MUŠ’

‘ sat upon wool being ever bound and unbound. Some IE cultures kept some of these pieces of worldview, some held only the barest echoes. Context found.

“Watch out for the snakes, it’s all about the snakes.”

Slither on down and down.