Sunday, February 26, 2012

D is for Death and the Dead

I've talked about this before. I talked about it here, and a little bit here, and in the PBP entry here. And I was going to write about devotionals instead. But here we are. This is probably more important. Though, in having written this and coming back up to the beginning... it's rather a wandering entry.

I grew up like many young girls idolising figures like Wednesday Addams and Lydia Deetz. I grew up with the idea that a ghost was the best sort of friend to have. I grew up loving graveyards. I grew up with a fascination for crypts. And mummies! Good lord. "Hey dad, did you know that when they made mummies, they pulled the brains out through the nose with a hook?!" Maybe it's a kid thing. I always assumed it was a kid thing. Then I discovered some children were actually afraid of Beetlejuice. Frankly I'm ashamed to share a generation with people such as that. Genuinely. I mean really.

I've seen a great many skulls and bones. I've seen far more human skulls than I have any other creature, now I think of it, and so have you if you'd been through the Catacombs in Paris (or indeed elsewhere). As a child, I wasn't afraid of skulls, although I did have one particular fear, at one point, of skeletons coming into my room at night and looking at me. I don't know why. Perhaps it was symbolic, or something. But when you come face to face with them they're really such cheerful looking things.

See? Such friendly chappies. In a geriatric sort of way, perhaps. It's the lack of teeth. 

(That's my photo, by the way. I took that. Hold your applause.)

It's hard to see a skull and not smile. But then, they're just bones. They're not all covered in gunk, most of the time. Whoever had been in there has long gone. There's nothing ghoulish or frightening about them, when you're face to face with them. Although, that's not to say there's nothing there... I'm an animist, in my way, and I think when something like a skull has been hanging around for a while, they do get a spirit to them, of sorts. Not the spirit of the dead person, unless said person actively wanted to be there. (But would you, really? It would have to be pretty dull. A doorway for a dead person, perhaps, a method of reaching the world of a living.) The spirit of the skull in and of itself, though, that's what I think one comes face to face with, when one meets a skull.

Or perhaps it's just projecting. It's hard not to anthropomorphise something with such a face. 

Anyway. Where was I. Death.

I find myself drawn towards deities related to the dead, without any particular desire to do so. Hades was the first god I met - from any palaeo-Pagan pantheon. We got along famously. I developed a fondness for his wife and her friend Hekate. I have something of a fascination for Hel. The god who keeps my eyes wandering back towards Egypt is Anpu (or Anubis). And why? who knows.

Heathenry has an aspect of ancestor worship. Ancestors who don't hang around knocking pictures off walls, but are more distant and therefore easier to worship. If Granny kept returning to her rocking chair, enjoyed scaring the dogs and occasionally berated you for not dusting behind the television, you might not feel quite to inclined to worship her. At any rate... there are the Dísir, already mentioned, and the Alfar who may or may not count (things get a little blurred). Honouring ancestors in a blót or sumbel is standard practice, and of course some of the dead were said to reside in burial mounds and mountains.

Burial practices! Why such an obsession? It must have a reason to it somewhere. Aside from just the world-crossing and dead-talking, I mean. Or maybe that's just it, and the whole bones-and-burial thing is just another aspect of the veils being thin. But I really feel such a fondness for the dead, and the paraphernalia thereof, even though when you get right down to it the dead don't spend a lot of time around the paraphernalia. 

Some of my best friends are dead. And the dead are really very much like the living, albeit sometimes with a different set of etiquette rules and who can blame them really. But dead people are still people, and that's why I get very angry and upset when people treat them like some sort of entertainment...

Those gods-awful programs where people go to supposed "haunted houses" and stand around with the lights off going "I FEEL SOMETHING! MY GADGET IS MAKING A NOISE! THE TEMPERATURE JUST DROPPED! THERE'S ACTIVITY HERE ALL RIGHT!" as if this sort of behaviour was in any way appropriate. Why do people think the dead get agitated? You just came into their place of habitation and started poking around as if you owned the place. Places of "paranormal activity" or whatever are not amusement parks, and the dead are not fairground attractions. Show some fucking respect. Why the dead are supposed to be automatically a) evil, b) mysterious or c) deeply troubled just by virtue of no longer being alive I shall never know. It's not a different species you're dealing with here. They're the same as they were before they died, with a little extra information and perhaps a little more self-awareness. 

You see, my theory is that when you die, the little illusions you built up over your lifetime evaporate. You face yourself and your actions and you have nowhere to put your face, as they say. And you have to deal with whether or not your actions were honourable. Whether or not they were the right actions - or the best actions. You evaluate your life. No lying to yourself, no delusions or self-deceptions. And after that, you move on. I don't think the good and the bad go to different places. Everyone has different reasons for doing what they do, and why. Not excusing poor actions here, but when you're dead, you're dead. Game over, Redo From Start. Death is the great leveller. We all end up in the same place. The Conqueror Worm eats rich and poor, good and bad alike. There is no Justice. (Pratchett readers will follow this sentence up in their heads with Oɴʟʏ ᴍᴇ.) And I don't mind there being no justice. I don't require justice. Just understanding, and maybe empathy. I don't see the point in justice when all's dead and gone. Besides, I'm a bleeding heart. And there's no justice in eternal punishment, or in getting short shaft in your next life if you can't remember the wrongdoings committed anyway.

I speak with the dead, but I'm not a necromancer. I've never really understood necromancy. In my experience the dead don't know much about the future, and some of them will make stuff up in order to sound important, or just to mess with you because they can. I wouldn't bother, really. But just having a chat can be nice, if you've formed a friendship. I like having a ghost about the house. Even if you do have to be a bit more diligent while in the shower. But I suppose being dead has to have some perks.

As for Death, the anthropomorphic personification? I like to believe he's real. Perhaps I read too much Pratchett, or perhaps I was far too into the idea of the Grim Reaper as a child. Oh, I was obsessed with the Grim Reaper. How marvellous he was! how fearsome! Cutting the souls from the bodies with his scythe. And of course it was such a reassuring idea that there would be someone to greet you when you died - not evil, but coolly and calmly Doing His Duty. 

And sometimes it becomes too normal and loses that fun sense of mystery... of cool earth and incense and darkened rooms and spoo00ookiness I loved as a child. I still like to steep myself in that. In the theatre of death. And pretend that the next world really is like a gothic playground, rather than the mostly pleasant place I suspect it largely is.

And it's all somehow reassuring.

Memento mori.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Books books books

So, a while ago I mentioned that I had started reading "Witch Crafting" by Phyllis Curott, and that I probably wouldn't be reviewing it right away. A review will happen eventually, I think, but not for a while. I wanted the ability to just read and enjoy without critiquing as I went along, and I did. Sort of.

I think I said when I began that I was actually quite enjoying it despite some obvious flaws. As it turns out, it's a pretty awful book. My enjoyment faded and my frustration grew the more I read it. It's part of the whole "Pat yourself on the back, witches is special" breed of Ravenwolf-esque shite that makes me twitch. The main issues, of course: complete unawareness of non-"Wiccan" Paganisms; sexism; basic lack of knowledge on subject matter. (Seriously, some of her errors would be obvious to someone who had only been studying a few months.) Not to say I didn't get anything from it, because I did... but the fact that I got something out of it is more due to the mindframe I was in at the time than anything the book was trying to teach. It's certainly not a book I'd recommend.

But anyway. Now I am done, I can move on to something I plan to very much enjoy: Elves, Wights and Trolls by Gundarsson. 

From a first look, it seems a fair bit more practical and hands-on than I anticipated it would be; when I bought it, I thought it was going to be a straight scholarly work. I'm not sure at the moment whether or not I'm pleased that it turned out to be a bit different. I guess pleased... A teeny bit disappointed, in that I was looking forward to a good dive into the scholarly, but also rather chuffed to find a book with a slant towards the scholarly that is written for the believer. Gundarsson uses sources and citations to give basic advice on dealings with these various spirits and entities. A Pagan book full of citations and footnotes? It's true!

Friday, February 17, 2012

D is for Dísir

A Heathen-specific entry this week. For next week I'm musing over perhaps "death" or "drinking". But this week, a discussion on the Dísir.

The Dísir are female spirits worshipped in Heathenry. It's a very general term - the Norns are referred to as Dísir, and one of the names of Freyja is "Vanadís" (or Lady of the Vanir). It may have originally been another term for the Valkyries, and it's a common name element (For example, Freydís). But the term as it is used now most often refers to female ancestral spirits who watch over the family. Our Troth vol I mentions that "in Skaldic kennings, someone's dís is their kinswoman, living or dead" so perhaps that accounts for the variety of entities to whom the word applies; a term of affection for goddesses perhaps, or acknowledgement that they are our kin?

The Dísir are honoured at a Dísablót. (Check me out with all my accents on my letters. I am trying hard.) When you hold your Dísablót is rather up to you, but there's evidence historically from the sagas of people holding them at the beginning of winter (along with Álfablót, another holiday with possible ancestral elements), as well as at Dísting (or Idís-thing) in early spring. The Dísir may also be honoured during Mother Night as a part of Yuletide. Really, now I think about it, they tend to get honoured quite a bit. 

As family ancestor spirits, they are guardians of hamingja (familial fortune, luck) and related to fylgia (sort of, like, inherited animal spirits and totems). They're not land spirits, and they and their protection will follow a family, and individuals who go across the seas. As spirits of worship, they're asked particularly for help in magic and childbirth:
Learn help runes eke, if help thou wilt
a woman to bring forth her babe;
on they palms wear them and grasp her wrists,
and ask the dísir's aid.
 - Sigrdrífumál, 11

But, these being Teutonic entities, some of that magic is in defense and warfare. In Road to Hel, H.E. Davidson talks about various female spirits, such as the personification of hamingja (metaphorically? or literally?) fighting alongside warriors in battle, and links them to the Dísir (p 135):
The evidence certainly seems to suggest that the guardian Valkyries, the guardian hamingjur of the family and the guardian dísir are one and the same conception.

As I write this, Twitter is going berserk over the recent comments and so on made by Republican politicians in the USA. (Probably some Democrats too.) Not only is it suddenly apparent to me how much apathy there is towards women's healthcare, but - and I was shocked - there was a panel on contraceptive pills and women's health from which women were excluded. Was this just an oversight? Quite possibly, but that reflects the undercurrent of quiet, subtle sexism: no one looked at the line-up of experts and wondered why none of them were women.

You know what's funny? When I was a kid, I was a conscientious objector. More or less still am. But the point is, I had discussions with my father (he and my grandfather were both in the army) about what would happen if there was a draft and I was called up to war. Perfectly naturally, to the extent that now, as an adult, I find out that if there was a draft women probably wouldn't be called up, and I am quite perplexed. Really? I mean... really? I love, actually, that I was raised just taking it for granted that I'd be drafted, were it to come to that. (I was adamant that I would refuse to go to war and go to jail instead, because I was practically Lisa Simpson, but my point stands.) Turns out, were I am American, I wouldn't be drafted and if I dared to join the army I'd probably be raped too much, and I'd deserve it for wanting equality. ("Are you not horrortained?!") I am glad I live here, not there. But of course, my country is not exempt. I'm looking at you, Alasdair Thompson.

For the Germanic and Scandinavian palaeo-Pagans, women were respected. Qualities in the sagas that women of note possess are often the same as those possessed by men: courage, strength, honour. I'm not going to suggest women then had the same freedoms we do now, because there were definitely particular gender roles - for both men and women - and so on. There were those little facetious comments in the Havamal and so on. But the way women were viewed back then makes that situations like what is going on in America right now seem... I mean, why is this happening? What happened, somewhere along the line, to turn women from honoured members of the community into whores on the one side and uppity lesbians on the other? 

I didn't mean to turn an entry on the Dísir into a diatribe on women's rights in another country, it just sort of turned out that way. Here I am writing about female spirits and ancestors, honoured well, and there are tweets and retweets popping up with the most unbelievable anti-woman rhetoric. We've come from a situation where female ancestors and spirits were honoured several times a year in festivals, were asked for help, wisdom and protection, were thought to guard and watch over the family. Women were once just as holy as men. I can only hope that the Dísir still watch over our menfolk regardless of the hate and apathy of some, or at least, that when the worship for them strengthens, they will return. I can only hope that our cultures will remember the female spirits that are in some ways still such a part of our lives, and that in remembering, this sort of action against women will be looked back on and viewed with horror by the sons and daughters of all those people currently trying to cripple the rights of women.

For more on the Dísir, see Our Troth vol I, which has a chapter devoted to them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Phases of Attention

Things come in phases. Or in waves, maybe. Focuses of interest: Hedgecraft, tarot, green magic, then back into Heathenry and so on. I focus most of my attention and learning on one thing, something that's grabbed my interest the most at the time.

A Heathenry phase is on the horizon. I feel it settling in, that it is right to focus here and on this. Of course, my first autumnal ritual for the Heathen gods has yet to be held. I'm saving it for a week from now, when I'll have time to bake some bread. In the lead-up, a major focus on Heathen lore and activities will be pleasant. I might reread the Eddas. I've read the Bellows, parts of it quite a few times, but I haven't read my Hollander much. I'll sit down with that, and devour it. 

I've put on my hammer. This afternoon I'll pull out my rune books - I think the last one I looked at was Isaz. Isaz is strange and I haven't yet internalised it; it may be more difficult because of the environment in which I live and how little ice affects me.

I've a ritual to record from my other Lammas celebrations. When I put this record book away, I'll change my focus entirely. Perhaps more of my entries here will be Heathen-focused, but then perhaps they won't. I have two Ds from the blog project coming up, and I have no idea about what I shall be writing.

It can be a bit difficult practising two religions. They are separate, but interrelated; in a sense I walk only one path. It is, however, easier and less confusing than being eclectic, as I once was. I feel more rooted, more stable, happier and more at ease. On the other hand, I still have interests in Hellenic and Kemetic polytheisms. I don't think I'll ever practice them fully, in the way I practise Heathenry - if only because the very idea of practising three or four religions simultaneously makes me feel incredibly tired.

In other news, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.

Friday, February 10, 2012

C is for Censer

I had great trouble thinking of a C for this week. I was thinking of doing one week for Heathen stuff, one week for Hedgecraft stuff - but as it turns out, there's not a great deal really that begins with C in Heathenry. My main option would be the Christian conversions, which isn't really something I want to discuss at length. Suffice it to say that compared to most other conversions, the ones across Scandinavia were pretty bloody.

But anyway, today's C is censer, or incense burner.

I have a few. The most used are a long stick burner with a grotesque that holds the stick, that I use solely for non-religious incense burning, and one I use for ritual, my favourite:

(You can tell my altar is a working space, hmm?)

This censer, my favourite, was a gift from my grandmother a few years ago, who knows that I like incense, but would never imagine quite what that star means or why it might please me. So perhaps the gods were whispering in her ear.

One hangs the stick of incense upside down from a ring in the top, and smoke billows out through the holes. It rather surprised me the first time I used it quite how atmospheric it was. A pleasing atmosphere (candlelight, billowing smoke) makes for an effective ritual.

I wouldn't have chosen it myself. I'm not all that into the pentacle as a symbol, really. I used it for the first time just on a whim, but fell in love with it when I saw how the incense smoke behaved as it floated up through the holes.

Just a light entry this week because Lock, Stock is on and there's a bottle of wine open.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

When the seasons change, I like to change the blog to suit. This year, after musing over a few different backgrounds, I went with the one that most matches what the weather is doing now: the late summer/early autumn sun through the trees. It might seem a bit wrong by the time Winternights rolls around, but that is something to be dealt with when it happens. I am happy for now.

There's a few changes to my links over on the right, with separate blog-roll and recommended websites lists. There are a few new ones added as well, which I may expand on as I come across new blogs via the PBP. In the meantime, check those ones out. I know the authors of some of them and they're great people. 

February 4 is my usual date for Lammas, but I missed it this year due to going out and getting drunk for a friend's birthday. I will hold it tonight instead. It's unusual, for me, to change the blog background before doing the ritual, but I was in the mood to fuss about. Autumnal cleaning, perhaps. I intend to postpone my Heathen celebrations for a couple of weeks, until I have some time to lay things out before me and do a bit of spiritual work. I could postpone my other celebrations as well, but I like to keep those as close to the astronomical date as possible. I'd also like to bake some bread around that time, and if I do I'll take some photos and post them up here. 

Speaking of the Pagan Blog Project: for all my occasional sniping regarding comments in the newsletter to which I take exception, I am rather enjoying it. Hagstone gets extra traffic, which is exciting; there are new people coming through the blog and commenting, which I love (by the way - most people have their blogs linked in their names, so click on them and check out those blogs as well); and I am flexing my mind and exploring ideas. I do much of my best thinking when I'm writing, and exploring things through words, and this is why I love prompts and blogging in general. I often come to some realisation or greater understanding when exploring a topic this way. I learn more about myself. I'm still unsure whether I want to go back (as many people have) and complete the three weeks I missed. I may do one day if I am particularly bored. Otherwise - eh.

It has been a mild summer. Few days have been the bright, hot, muggy unpleasantness that summer usually signifies. There have been days of heavy rain and days of fierce winds. Summer has been short, as winter seemed last year. All the same, February is often the hottest month, so I am not silly enough to think we have escaped the worst of it this year.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

C is for Crossroads

Today's piss-off from the PBP newsletter: the phrase "our Craft community". This is a Pagan blog project. Assuming any of the people participating are witches as a matter of course is insulting - not only that but there are many members of the "Craft community" who are not Pagans at all. The fact that there is some overlap is no excuse to throw around "Craft" as if it was some sort of fucking synonym for "Pagan". That's insulting to many Pagans and to many non-Pagan witches. I mean for some Pagans, the use of magic is impious!

This week's C could be "Craft community" for all the ranting I could do on the subject, but instead, it is "Crossroads". Ironically, given the first paragraph of this post, I am going to speak from the perspective of a religious witch. No it's not hypocritical! I'm annoyed at the assumption that all Pagans are witches, and that the Pagan and Occult communities are the same thing. I just happen to be a religious Pagan witch... And on top of that, I don't really feel like a part of the "Craft community". I feel like a part of the Pagan community, but most witches do things totally different to me, and the ones who do things similar to me tend to keep to themselves. Like a shadowy sub-community that isn't a community because there isn't much discussion or inter-relation. We're the scowl-y woman at the end of the village who everyone says is a witch even though they don't really know. We dress in black, keep cats and have nettles in our gardens to discourage small children climbing our walls in search of lost balls. We're Granny Weatherwax, and we can't be having with this "community" nonsense.


Nevertheless my witchcraft is spiritual, and it's religious, and it's Pagan - and the Crossroads has always been a part of it. So much a part, really, that it's almost a symbol of witchcraft to me. 

I have been enamoured of the Crossroads as a place of spirituality and folklore since childhood. Since well before I discovered witchcraft - because I was always interested in ghosts and the dead. A Crossroads seemed a place these entities might meet, as folklore prescribed a Crossroads as a good place to bury someone you did not want to walk. Apparently they would be confused, and not know the way home. If you wanted to be really sure, you could bury them face-down and cut their feet off. So I imagined the Crossroads as a place both of magic, and of the dead. I loved the dead. It's interesting that these people were usually "lost soul" types to begin with: criminals and suicides - "One more unfortunate, weary of breath". (And suspected vampires.) On top of that, the executed might be hung up in a gibbet at a Crossroads, one assumes so that they were seen by as many people as possible. Gibbets, torture and forms of execution were other childhood interests of mine.

Witchcraft is largely about the dead, in many ways - or Hedgecraft is, at least. Spirits and conversations with them, crossing to the Other Side... and a Crossroads is one of those places with a bit of spirit about it. It's like the Hedge, in a way, but unlike the Hedge it is not a barrier, but an open door. It's a place from which things radiate out, and come together; a place "betwixt and between".

Hekate, a goddess associated with witchcraft, is a deity of the Crossroads; she is portrayed as a triple goddess, her faces looking down each fork, for this reason. Offerings can be left to her at a Crossroads, perhaps buried, as she is a chthonic deity. She is also much associated with the Underworld, being a companion of Persephone. But is she associated with the Crossroads because she is associated with spirits and witchcraft, or is the Crossroads associated with spirits and witchcraft because of an association with her? My Greek studies are fairly limited; I do not know. There are other deities and entities associated with the Crossroads, such as Papa Legba, about whom I know even less.

The old Encyclopaedia Britannica says the Teutons used to erect their altars at a crossroads, but I'm not as sure about that.

To me a Crossroads has always been, in my mind, four-pronged, not just three. Three is interesting too, symbolising many things including choice, but when I imagine a Crossroads, it is always four. This may be related too to my attraction to the equal-armed cross - which in turn is related to the Nordic sunwheel.

The three-pronged Crossroads is also reminiscent of many stangs - but I won't speak at length on that, because to be honest, I've never been able to find much historically about the stang. I suspect it's rather a modern invention. (I see you there, Cochrane. I don't see any more reason to believe your craft is ancient than I do Gardner's. As far as I'm concerned you're as newfangled and modern as he is - "traditional" my arse.)

Speaking of equal-armed crosses - in my country, if someone dies in a car accident, there will often be a white cross erected at the side of the road, regardless of whether the person or their family was Christian, to mark the place of death. This serves a purpose besides remembrance: the more crosses, the more dangerous one knows a road is, and one takes more care. From their association with the graveyard crosses have become more than a symbol of Christianity; they are sometimes a symbol of death. And they are not uncommon at a Crossroads, particularly if it is a dangerous intersection. Along with books full of gibbets and burials, it is no small wonder I grew up associating the Crossroads with death. And not in a creepy way. In an exciting way.

As a liminal place it joins such areas as the cave, the shore, the marsh, the river... but it is also man-made, and therefore interesting: a liminal and sacred place created by humans. Like a bridge, and to a degree, a hedgerow. So, there: it's Border Country, so important to Hedgecraft, and it's a place associated with the dead, but it's not really associated with the God and Goddess of my craft. Still, They are hardly the only aspect of it; death has been an aspect of my spirituality long before I had any idea what spirituality was. And in a way, They are "passive" sorts of deities, and part of Their worship is fulfilling a certain role, walking a certain path. The Crossroads sums up all of that: the land of the dead, the dead themselves, the place-between-worlds, the journey. As such it may be the ultimate symbol of my spiritual witchcraft, and indeed the craft of many - but not, I think, that of any witch who wouldn't pick up a bone that had fallen from a gibbet.

Also I'm not sure why I capitalised "Crossroads" throughout. I started doing it for effect and then I had to keep doing it because it would be weird to chop and change between one and the other.