Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hooray! My new rune book has arrived.

I'm going to go into runes in reasonable detail when the PBP rolls around to R, I think. On a personal level, rune study has been for a long time something I've been a bit slack about. It doesn't help that one of the books I have is fluffy in the extreme (Aswynn) or that they generally take years to fully internalise anyway.

But, I have been more studious of late, and this book will help. It has had some good reviews from sensible rune-workers.

It arrived on a Wednesday, which makes me smile. 

I am only a few pages into it and to be honest, it is pretty poorly written. Either that or it lacked an editor. But I think this is a situation wherein the content is more important than the way the book reads, and I hope this one helps me out. I had some minor difficulties with Eihwaz and could do with the alternative perspective Gerrard will provide.

Looking over that particular rune's notes now, it's apparent that Gerrard accesses her UPG often, but it is clearly indicated that this is her UPG, and can be discarded or filed away for consideration. I do wish she had mined the rune-poems more thoroughly for clues as to its meaning, but having said that, she takes quite a different view of it than many books about runes, and this different perspective is interesting. Many rune-readers, as relayed in Paxson's tome, leant towards meanings of balance, life and death, and so on. Gerrard suggests it's a call for help, or a rallying call to arms; a rune of protection halfway between the attack of Thurisaz and the defence of Algiz. She also gives ideas of how one might intone it - although I hate the way she conflates rune magic with galdr. Just because runes could be used in galdr doesn't mean all rune magic is galdr. Most rune magic seems to be related to inscribing the runes, not singing them. 

There are elements of things that irritate me in the first few chapters. Journeying and guided meditation are very different things, to begin with, and telling someone to leave their body and journey to Asgard? not a good idea. This is a book on runes, not seidhr; she shouldn't really be telling people who have quite probably had no prior experience with leaving one's body to go to Asgard, or how to tell entities they're not inclined to meet with to bugger off. She also thinks Kenaz is fire, not knowing that the "Kaun" she did not translate means "sore" or "ulcer" rather than "fire". However, her interpretation for how that might be happens to be somewhat in line with my own interpretation so I forgive her. A little. (Really though why has she not read Pollington.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

F is for Familiars

I was going to write about familiars. And one day, I probably will. But not today. And rather than just leave this .... you know what, no. I am going to write about familiars. They are, after all, a major part of witchcraft, and everyone seems to think it means your pet.

Just to start with, I'd like to mention that the term "familiar" in this sense doesn't mean "something I recognise", but implies a sense of friendship and intimacy. I think the etymology is relevant here. From etymonline:
familiar: mid-14c., "intimate, very friendly, on a family footing," from O.Fr. famelier, from L. familiaris "domestic, of a household;" also "familiar, intimate, friendly," dissimilated from *familialis, from familia. The sense gradually broadened. Of things, from late 15c. The noun meaning "demon, evil spirit that answers one's call" is from 1580s.

There's this idea in Neo-Pagan witchcraft that a familiar is a pet. A pet with whom you have a special bond, maybe, but definitely an animal friend. Your cat likes your altar, so he must be your familiar. But this is a new idea. The association with animals comes not from actual witchcraft (or rather, what we now think of as actual witchcraft), but from the observations of those who associated witchcraft with devil-worship: the familiar was no animal, but a demon helper that took animal form. Somehow, somewhere along the way, this idea mutated into the idea that living animals themselves could be familiars. 

Things are confused by the way different groups used terms like "witch". Historically, "witch" was a largely negative term; your local wise woman or cunning man wouldn't be likely to use the term to refer to themselves. Others might, painting these people as, depending on the time period, devil-worshippers or  Today, the term is much more neutral, so when we speak about "witches" in history we are often referring to these cunning folk rather than the figures of Satan-worship in the popular imagination of the time. I will try very hard to make it clear whether I'm talking about modern witches, cunning folk of the past, or the "bad witch" of the Malleus Maleficarum, but I appreciate that things may get confused. (Is Mercury still in retrograde?)

"Familiar" was originally, and really still is, "familiar spirit", meaning essentially a spirit with whom one was friendly. In witch-related speech, the familiar spirit of the cunning folk became the familiar demon of the witch became the pet of the modern witch. But for a lot of witches who have a more "crooked path" type of craft, the element of spirit interaction is a major defining aspect not only of what they do but of witchcraft itself. 

At one point last year someone asked me what witches believe. I answered that witches don't necessarily believe anything specifically, that different witches believe different things. He, quite rightly, called me on it. He asked how witchcraft could be a thing if there was not much we had in common. It got me thinking, and I decided to compile a list of things witches believed. The basis of the list is not that all witches believe all of these things, but that they will believe most of them. At least three out of the six.  Disagree with too many of these things, and, well, maybe you're not a witch. 

I proposed that witches believe:
  • That there is energy, and that this energy can be raised, gathered, and manipulated.
  • That this energy resides in oneself and in the world around one, and that this can include objects.
  • That spirits exist, whatever their nature.
  • That the world, and possibly the future, can be further understood via divination.
  • That there are Mysteries, and things that can be known.
  • That there are other worlds, that one might be able to travel to, if one has the knack and puts in the work. 
That "spirits" one is, I feel, particularly important if one feels that one's witchcraft has a historical basis. Historical witchcraft - that is, the craft of the cunning folk - was usually Christian, but the Christianity of "popular religion". Christianity, but Christianity with a great deal of folk belief; residual cultural ideas that were a part of Pagan religion and when the old gods were ousted remained as a part of the culture, local beliefs in land-spirits, "superstition", and so on. Perhaps, though, that isn't precisely correct; it was largely the witches who were Christian, rather than their craft specifically. Regardless, both cunning folk and malevolent witches had familiar spirits, and it was this aspect of the Craft was the most likely, according to Hutton, to have Pagan origins and influences. I suggest that regardless of one's god/s, or wider religious beliefs, the belief in and interaction with spirits is a major element of witchcraft. - But of course, the belief in spirits has never been limited to witches, at least in Britain. Wilby comments that:
"The guiding principles in the lives of many ordinary people in early modern Britain were essentially 'animist' rather than Christian, and some of the most cherished beliefs and rituals paid little lip service to Christianity at all... A significant proportion of common folk seldom attended church at all... Of those who attended church, many just went through the motions with little real understanding. A large proportion of the laity could not recite the Lord's Prayer or the Ten Commandments and knew little of Christian scripture or doctrine."
p. 15, "Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits"

You do see spirit work in modern witchcraft. Much of modern witchcraft is now Pagan, but there are a great number of non-religious witches who work with spirits of various sorts and I would imagine that most Christian witches would be, like their predecessors, a little outside the bounds of orthodox Christian belief, at least regarding spirits. Familiar spirits seem to have more in common with "spirit guides" than with living animal friends. I think this more popular term - "guides" - comes from Spiritualism and Theosophy. Doreen Valiente suggests as much in her ABC of Witchcraft:
"...Spiritualist mediums of the present day claim to be aided by spirits whom they call Guides; that is, spirits who particularly attach themselves to the medium for the purpose of assisting in the production of phenomena, and of advising the medium. Without wishing in any way to give offence to Spiritualists, this is exactly what the human familiar of the witches did and still does.
 - p.127
 Valiente splits things into three kinds of familiars, the first two types of spirits, the last "an actual material creature" or small animal companion. She seems pretty specific about the "small" thing; her examples, particularly "witchy", are a cat, ferret or toad. I am a fan of Valiente's but often disagree with her, and this is one of those times she and I don't really see eye to eye. Animal friends are animal friends, but not something I would call a familiar. At any rate, somewhere along the line "familiar spirits" fell out of vogue, in favour of the more new-age "guides". For my part, I tend to use the word "guide" more often, as it feels more general to me. On the other side of the coin, "familiar spirit" feels a great deal more personal, affectionate and, well, familiar a term, which really is the sort of relationship one should hope to engender with one's spirit friends.

Emma Wilby has made a fairly good argument for the witch as spirit-worker in her Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. I'm trying to work out a way to sum her book up in such a way as to give this entry a little more depth, but I'm having trouble. I'm very much tempted to just tell everyone to go and read it, as it makes my point better than I could. (At any rate, she is mentioned at length in the wikipedia article on familiars, which you can read yourselves.) But have I made my point yet, really? "Familiars are really spirits, hence 'familiar spirits'" is a brief idea and I could have been done with just that and moved on, so why did I keep talking? Why bother digging into the books at all?

I guess the reason I made this post is because the modern idea of the "familiar" annoys me. It does not contain truthiness (not to be confused with "truth"); it does not jive with my Craft, or my way of thinking about the world. It seems forced, false, plastic and part of what I feel is the clean-and-sparkly version of witchcraft, in which blood is never used in spells, spirits are avoided because they might be "negative" and people don't care where their crystals come from but will shy away from using the bones from roadkill. It's nice that you love my cat. I love my cat. Eh beats up other cats, and doesn't afraid of anything. But he is a cat; he's not a familiar spirit. On the other hand, if your cat hangs around after he's dead, then sure, I'll give you that. Then he's a familiar. It's not so much that I feel witchcraft knowledge is being lost, or that the Craft is being degraded. I just don't like it. Maybe it's that a failure to acknowledge if not understand familiar spirits, even as a precursor to the modern pet familiar, shows a lack of knowledge regarding witchcraft as a whole. And I suppose, in a way, the changing of the meaning of this word changes the feeling of what witchcraft is. It takes it one step more away from the shadows. Along with "who's your patron/matron?" it's one of those red-letter topics in particular ENP witchcraft circles - "do you have a familiar? pics!" - that subtly implies that until you have one, you're not a proper witch. In a certain way, maybe that is true of familiar spirits! but not having a special animal friend.

By the way, I'm not ragging on your relationships with your animals. Many people who describe pets as "familiars" aren't doing so lightly. They feel a remarkable and genuine bond with their animals. I don't want to make it seem like those bonds aren't there, or aren't important, or even aren't spiritually significant. But animal bonds exist with a great many different types of people, not just witches - particularly in working relationships such as police dogs. Our pets often rely on us just to know what they should and shouldn't do, and there are situations when we certainly rely on them. They are our friends, our family, our working partners. And this is significant to us as humans, I think, rather than as witches.

People will tell me language moves on and develops, and I will sulk because in a way that is true, but nevertheless I refuse to use the word "familiar" to refer to animal companions or pets. We already have the word "pet" for that, after all. For what it's worth, dictionaries tend towards the spirit or demon definition, rather than a living animal. I'm not taking another step away from the shadows. I am jealously guarding the word "familiar" as an aspect of down-and-dirty witchcraft. The adding of another meaning shouldn't lead to an old meaning dying, particularly if that old meaning still has relevance, and especially as that relevance is with the same subject area. Yet... when people say "familiar", how often do they mean "spirit"? Is this simple ignorance, or are people doing it on purpose to piss me off?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Family, Ancestors and so on.

Hello all. I'm in a quandry, regarding this coming Friday's PBP. I was going to write about familiars, and then realised I could (and perhaps should?) write about the concept of fulltrui. (Admission of ignorance: no idea what the plural for "fulltrui" would be. I am fairly sure that that's the singular masculine and that the feminine would be fulltrua... but not certain.) So I'm torn and may end up writing a bonus entry, just because people might be interested in fulltrui.

I was having a look at my page stats (as one does) and discovered someone on tumblr had linked to my entry on the Dísir. It's very warm-fuzzy inducing to know people are enjoying some of the things I write, but I also saw that someone had reblogged the link to add their own input. It's an interesting read, and I thought I would share it, as I enjoyed reading it.

For my own sake, I'm told I'm a great deal like my grandmother and her mother, Doris, whom I never met, but about whom I am terribly curious - apparently she had "the Sight" and "the 'Fluence" as my grandmother cryptically refers to them. Doris was in her kitchen when their house was bombed during the Blitz and ended up with a face full of glass. (She went on to live a long life. Just not quite long enough for me to meet her, unfortunately.) My grandmother was shot in the arm that same day by a German plane, and her older sister went off to be a nurse and alas died not long after of TB. It all sounds a terribly exciting time to have been alive. My grandfather never wrote his memoirs, despite my badgering. I am sad at stories lost. I think there are many things about his time in the army that he never told us. My grandmother really must write hers, before more stories are forgotten. 

I may have mentioned this in my entry on the fylgjur; memory, as we know from the Havamal, is important. Those remembered are never gone, and those stories remembered are told and retold, and become legend. 
"For Muninn my care is more."
There was a man who took my grandfather's place in an army.... mission.... thing, whatever it was, in Egypt. My grandfather had three children and this mission might have proved dangerous, so this man volunteered himself. Their party met trouble, and did not survive. Had that man not taken my grandfather's place it might have been my grandfather dead. In fact, my grandmother thought it was, when a soldier came to her door to tell her of the party's death. In any event, my grandfather often raised a glass to this man, though my grandfather was an atheist and did not believe in life after death. This story was told at my grandfather's funeral, but I have heard it many times. I don't know if that man has any surviving family, anyone to remember his name, so it's a name I have committed to memory. If no one else says his name at their hearth, I shall.

This isn't to give you all a full commentary on my family history, just a way of illustrating memory and the dead. That's just recent family history; genealogy is actually rather fascinating. If you or a family member can afford an account on something like there is much that can be found. I discovered a tiny village in what was once West Yorkshire that is still tiny, whence one off-shoot of my family came. I was rather pleased to discover that some of them were from York itself, also, with York's history of Viking settlement. On the other side of my family I have some ancestors from Ireland, one of whom came to this land in 1845. I can look at the ships' records. I can go to his grave-site. I know the regiment of the British army in which he served. I can go to MOTAT and see the sort of cottage in which he and his family of far too many children would have lived. Many people I know are most interested in seeing what cousins they have floating about the place, but I am more interested in the links to the past, digging out old stories for the new generations. I recommend it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

F is for Fylgja

So apparently my last week's post pissed off an arrogant eclectic or two who took offence to the suggestion that everything in the world is not theirs to steal. Who'd've thought. So this week could have been F for Fluffy, but that's a bit too much holding-forth for a fortnight, I think, so instead we will talk about Fylgjur. This is a subject on which I am not terribly well-versed; it's one of those vague sort of Heathen spiritual concepts, and so I'll be learning a bit more about them myself as I exhaust my current knowledge and dig up more information.

A fylgja (plural fylgjur) is something in between an animal totem and a guardian spirit. It's one of those Norse concepts that, to be honest, we're not sure about. We can't go back and ask about all the ins and outs so we make do as best we can with the sources we have, and some of the info we have is a bit contradictory. Suffice it to say that a fylgja is one of those spirit concepts akin to the Dísir and hamingja (or familial luck).

They are, essentially, a spirit and an element of the self, most often in the form of an animal. You might see it when asleep; seeing it when awake, as seeing your doppelgänger, is an omen of your possible impending death. Animals can apparently run in the family, and tend towards important animals in Germanic cultures such as wolves and bears. (As an aside, this is one of my theories as to the prevalence of wolves as "spirit animals".) In some ways they are similar to the animal companions in that book Northern Lights, as they accompany one (though one cannot see them). 

There are those who have linked "fylgjur" with the term "fetch", which is sort of popular in Trad Craft circles. In Irish folklore, a fetch is usually a human figure, more of a doppelgänger than an animal spirit. Then there's the whole concept of Familiars, which I may or may not end up talking about next week in detail. Familiars, or Familiar spirits, are... well, familiar spirits. That is to say, spirits with whom one is friendly and with whom one works witchcraft. A spirit guide, if you will. They're not your pet. More on this next week - I have a book from which I will provide citations! (Exciting, eh?)

The word "fylgja" means "follower" or "someone that accompanies" and is something like a semi-independent thing; a part of oneself and animal expression of one's nature, as well as an entity in its own right - this is where parallels with Northern Lights become apparent (although admittedly, I haven't read them, so wouldn't know for sure). It can also appear as a person of the opposite sex - but is this a fylgja or one of the Dísir, or what? Lines become blurred. We're talking such a span of time and location here, after all, that different perspectives aren't surprising - but when it comes to determining what was believed, and what these things actually are, things get very tricky. Particularly with the modern tendency to categorise things and draw lines of definition. (I am very guilty of this myself - I like words to mean something and I get uncomfortable when a proper distinct definition refuses to materialise.)

Fylgjur might be the distributors of hamingja, and maybe you could send them out to gather information for you. Perhaps they might tell you things in dreams, or give you warnings. Sometimes you are that animal in a dream and you Go Forth to do things. These things all get confused because sometimes the word just means a spirit ally, and sometimes it's the semi-independent animal manifestation of oneself.

I confess that this is one of those things I have trouble with, partly because the definition isn't as solid and defined as I would like. I do believe in familiar spirits, and animal guides. I'm bang alongside the concept of a family or tribe's animal totem. I'm not sure about the fylgjur, though. They are reportedly attached to you, in the sense that they follow you around, but you can't see them. You might see someone else's, but not your own - bad omen, like I said. How can one tell, then, what shape they are, unless one sees them in a dream? Does one make contact with something that is in some ways a part of oneself? Now, I have met some guides of mine - are any of these my fylgja? They can't all be. How would one tell which one it is? As a fylgja can sometimes mean a spirit of the opposite sex to oneself, does this mean that any female animal guides I have would thus be ruled out, or does that only count if it's in the guise of a human?

More questions than answers. It does make life difficult if one wished to work with one's fylgja when things are so unspecific. I think generally, it was simply something that hovered around and watched out for you, and isn't something one need think of unless one happens to see it. This is a little upsetting, as I like to work with spirits and if something is hovering around watching out for me, I'd like to thank it for its troubles. 

Or maybe it's a fucking metaphor. That'd be right, eh? A metaphor for one's own personal, familial and spiritual inclinations. That makes sense, but I'm not sure it is true. However, perhaps the word could be used in a metaphorical sense; Turville-Petre says in Myth and Religion of the North:
Although the word fylgja is generally used in such concrete senses as those quoted, it also developed a more abstract meaning, and thus became nearly synonymous with gipta, gæfa, words which are often translated by ‘luck, fortune’, but imply rather a kind of inherent, inborn force. When a man says of his enemies: hafa þeir brœðr rammar fylgjur, he does not mean that they have ‘strong fetches’, but rather that they are gifted with a mighty, inborn force.
A fylgja as a metaphor for one's own soul and self I do understand, though that appears to be only an element of the way the word was used. 

Lecouteaux (Phantom Armies of the Night.... I am pulling random books off my shelves at present and dragging through them for information) calls them "a tutelary spirit of men" and notes overlap with the Dísir (p191). Chisholm (True Hearth) defines them as "a numinous being... the respository of all past action and which accordingly affects the person's life: the personal divinity" (p113) which confuses the issue still further (and sounds more like hamingja than fylgja). The Journal of Contemporary Heathen Thought (vol I) suggests "a fetch may well represent our own personal Norn" and identifies it as "a being in its own right attached to an individual at birth" (p161).

Gerrard's comments are more complete and interesting. She notes that the fylgja is either a part of the spirit, or a helping spirit attached to one at one's birth (or naming as others have suggested), and that the role of the fylgja was apparently exploratory; that it went ahead of one, either as a vanguard or to announce one's arrival somewhere. This is an interesting idea, and makes me think of a place or situation in which one gets a wary feeling; perhaps this is the fylgja scouting ahead and sending back a warning. In this scenario, pleasingly, the fylgja could be either a part of one's own soul and self - one's instincts and so on - or a separate entity, and it wouldn't matter. She cites some various passages and examples - of people becoming sleepy before a visitor arrives, among others - and suggests one becomes tired when the fylgja frees itself from the body to explore or identify something. An interesting idea; I'll make more of a note of when I am feeling strangely sleepy in the future. (Although I feel sleepy nearly all the time so who knows how useful that would be.)

I think a part of my problem with this concept is that I have the idea of a single soul, whereas the Nordic view is more layered. Part of the soul resided with the body, at least for a period of time, and a part of it lives on with us in memory and tale. Krasskova lists quite a few "parts of the soul" but to be honest, I've never been sure how much credence I gave that idea. She doesn't cite sources and even before I became a Heathen I viewed that whole chapter in Exploring the Northern Tradition with some degree of suspicion. I still feel as if that was not unwise, however, the multi-faceted soul is still worth proper consideration.

There's also the whole parallel with the daimon of the Greeks (particularly Socrates). There could theoretically also (and this is pure speculation) be a relation to those people who have a feeling they are not human, but have the spirit of an animal.

Waaaaaait. Wait. Wait. HOLD THE FUCK ON. 
Haha, do you know, my fylgja was right in front of me the whole time and I just wasn't paying attention. I was off concentrating on something else and digging through other things and never clicked. It sometimes happens when you take new knowledge and don't properly assimilate it with old knowledge. How interesting. I think I understand the concept more now that I've identified my own, and what it means to me. In doing so, it's more clear that this isn't a separate spirit or thing that you honour, or even, say, an animal you would want to be, but a part of yourself and a thing with which you identify, even if perhaps you would rather identify with something else. I have a guide who is a wolf, I have run in spirit-form as a wolf, I have had interesting wolf-spirit interactions. But as it turns out, my fylgja is not a wolf. 

I feel much better now I've sorted that out. The whole concept is a lot more clear. Sort of. Well not really. At any rate, I think I am beginning to iron this out in my head.

Wasn't that fun, gentlemen and ladies? Did you not enjoy that brief flurry of research? I did. In fact I may need a cigarette.

Friday, March 9, 2012

E is for Elitism, Ego and the Eclectic

Elitism, in the sense of someone saying "Our way is the ONLY way" I tend to disagree with. And when I say "Our Way Only", I'm not referring to, say, maintaining that there's only one way to perform a particular ritual or pronounce a particular name. There are occasions where this is so. I mean more the sort of person who thinks their religion is the only valid religion, or objectively the very best religion, and everyone else's ways of doing things - even if those things are totally different in construct - are wrong, inferior or invalid. And these people do exist in Paganism. 

You get some people who say the only way to learn witchcraft is face to face. You get people who say you can't be Heathen if you're not white or straight. You get others who say the only way to be a witch is to be a Wiccan (lol?). Others still will maintain that you can't be a witch if you don't follow the Rede or believe in particular gods. This sort of thing, either about a wide term associated with a large number of different spiritual traditions and practices (such as "witch" or "pagan) is ridiculous. Likewise concepts unsupported by historical precedence or lore. I've seen people be snide bitches about non-coven-trained witches as if there's no way they could properly know anything about magic without that coven access. There are a great number of things you probably couldn't know without coven access, depending on coven, but magic isn't one of them.

Elitism in the sense of only allowing certain people into your group? That I'm fine with - although to be honest, it doesn't really fit the definition. If you had a group of people with whom you wanted to feel spiritually and emotionally comfortable, with whom you may well be naked, with whom you would be sharing sacred rituals and exchanging energies - wouldn't you want to know and trust them? Wouldn't you be selective about membership? But hey, if people feel that not allowing everyone access to religious Mysteries via your group is elitist, fine. It's elitist. But I don't have a problem with that. Nor do I have a problem with correcting someone - and that is certainly not elitist, and frankly it's anti-intellectual to insist it is.

Two types of religions within Paganism tend to be scathingly referred to as "elitist". First, the initiatory religions, which require you to join a particular group in order to access their Mysteries, their core teachings, or even their gods. Second, the reconstructionist religions, who tend to get frowny and cross when someone refers to one of their gods in a way contradicted by lore, worships them in a way that from their perspective seems alien or bizarre, or treats something sacred in a way they consider frivolous.

In both of these types of religion you will get "Our Way Only" types. You will also get people who are closed-minded, hide-bound, aggressive or silly. You will get bigots, racists, and jerks. It happens; all people are people. The issue is when someone is not being any of these things, and is still referred to as "elitist", usually because they won't "let" someone have something.

This accusation comes nearly always from someone whose own faith tends towards the Ego-Driven Eclectic. This is in contrast to what we might call the Responsible Eclectic, someone who is conscious in their eclecticism and tries to be wise and thoughtful about what they adopt, and how and why. The Ego-Driven Eclectic, on the other hand, is not conscious, and does not think. They see something and they adopt it. They worship a god because the god might benefit them in some way - the spell in their book calls for invoking a god of love so that's what they do. They like the way Ogham looks - and anyway it's Celtic which is cool - so they use it. The Ego-Driven Eclectic is a magpie, picking up everything that looks shiny and sticking it in the nest without first looking at it in the context in which they find it. And whenever someone says "hey, stop! what are you doing?" that person is elitist.

Religions like Wicca, that are initiate-only religions, get accused of things like elitism and being (another E) exclusionary for two main reasons: first that they don't release all their sacred knowledge for general consumption, and second because they don't let everyone and their dog join in. The issue I think isn't that these religions are "elitist" as such; I haven't yet met a Wiccan who thinks Wicca is the best religion and everyone else is "lower" than they. On the contrary, most Wiccans seem to believe that Wicca simply isn't for everyone, and that Wicca is simply one religion among many.

Maybe it's an aspect of Western churches and Christian thought filtering down through our cultures. There's this idea that if there's a religious meeting, or a church group or a Mystery, everyone should have access to it. I don't think that's even true for Christianity; there's certain Mysteries women know that men will never understand and vice versa. A Nun will have access to Christian Mysteries that a priest will not that a layman will not. And that's before we even take a look at the Heretical and Gnostic groups! But for the most part, the idea is that everyone is Damned, and so everyone should be given access to a church and a priest and the religion itself in order to be Saved.

Most Pagan religions don't work like that. If there are many gods there are many options. You come from over the horizon, with different gods? Neat. These are our ones. Historically, and nowadays as well, polytheism carries with it this assumption that different people will end up with different gods or different religions, and there's no problem with adding - as the Viking traders did with Jesus or the Romans with local deities they met on their journey across Europe - another one to the bunch. If there are many gods, indeed many pantheons, then there are many truths. Not having access to one of these truths isn't a death sentence for your immortal soul. And not every religion suits everyone. Many Wiccans, being of a priesthood and in a role of service to their deities, recognise that not everyone will be suited to that role or to those deities, or indeed to a religion with such a stress on fertility, and don't mind if their religion is not for you. What does tend to annoy is when their refusal to share their sacred things is referred to as "elitist", and someone nicks off with the name of their religion. 

Reconstructionist and recon-derived religions, such as Heathenry, Hellenic polytheism, CR and Kemet, get similarly upset when they see their sacred things misused. And the response is "why is it their sacred thing, but not mine? It's sacred to me too". There's an element of education, an element of understanding and an element of context. Germanic cultures tend to be open; technically, you can take what you like, so long as you do so with respect and awareness. Not every culture or Pagan religion will work this way. Some are closed cultures, and you can't take this or that. Others had Mysteries that are actually lost to us now. And open or closed, all aspects of these religions will have things, taken and modified by eclectics for their own use, that rely very much on context and other elements of the faith to make sense. Regardless of whether a culture is open or closed there will be sacred things in those religions and  it can be jarring and offensive to see, for example, Runes plastered all over someone's ritual knife in glitter.

"Well why can't I have them? Why can't I learn the Runes?" Actually, you can. You can. If you put the effort in. They're not just pretty symbols, they're not just a writing system, not just the Norse equivalent of the Tarot. In order to learn them, actually learn them, you need to Take Them up. You need to learn about Norse culture and religion, and you need to at least respect Oðinn, as he's the god who won them for you in the first place. So learn them. Don't just use them and say it's OK because you have a book by Sirona Knight or Ralph Blum, actually learn them. Don't just buy a set drawn with gold marker on a bunch of tumbled amethysts, actually carve your own and blood them. That's the difference between responsible eclecticism and stealing sacred things from another religion because you like the look of them. If you want to say "this is sacred to me too", treat it like it's sacred. That means a lot more than just putting it on your altar in pride of place. That means putting in the effort to truly understand it.

Treating what you call sacred like it is actually sacred is something you don't see much in Ego-Driven Eclecticism. For the Ego-Driven Eclectic, the only thing that's sacred is the Self. Everything else serves the self, regardless of where it comes from or who it belongs to. And if you give them a telling off, or even calmly point out where they have gone wrong, you are an Elitist, or even (oh hilarity) Closed-Minded. 

The Ego-Driven Eclectic is not rare. Often they're unaware of what they're doing or why it might be wrong. And this is due to cultural mindsets of want-take-have, encouragement from ethics-poor authors like Ravenwolf and Starhawk, who paint Paganism as this magical soup of whatever-you-want where everyone is Nice. And since you are a Pagan, you must be Nice, and if you are Nice and doing as Mama Silver says, nothing you are doing could be wrong. Right?

And, ironically, in the end, many of these people end up being the most elitist. Disagree with them, hold an opposing viewpoint, even dare to correct them and the insults fly, the defences go up, the troops are rallied around. You're banned from the forum or the chat room, called "elitist bitch" or "closed-minded". Phrases like "I expect this sort of thing from Christians, not from other Pagans!!", as if Christians were the ultimate hateful inferior (talk about Our Way Only). You aren't just Different, you're Wrong. It's quite possible you're even Evil. 

It can be a stage. I think many Pagans go through it if they discover Paganism young. It could be a teen thing, a sort of self-obsession and tunnel-viewed awareness that takes you a while to get through. Many people come out the other side, as more aware, more conscious, and much more passionately aware of the Sacred and what it means to use sacred things. On the other side is deeper spirituality, deeper respect for others, deeper self-knowledge. But you also get a lot of Pagans, even ones who have been practising upwards of 30 years and consider themselves "elders", who never get through that juvenile stage. And it's a great shame, because with experience and community they teach others not to respect the sacred and one another, but to want-take-have. And then to shout down anyone who tries to protest.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Some disjointed Heathen thoughts

I've started doing something I think quite a few Heathens do, which is praying to or connecting with gods for whom each day is named. Today, for example, is Wednesday or Woden's Day, so tonight I will honour Oðinn.

But not before I do a little rune study because I have been slack and I don't want him to be mad at me. 

It's just a little prayer, or has been so far, ad-libbed but somewhat formal - before my altar, hand on my hammer and so on. I have come across two issues in my not-yet-a-week of this activity.... the first being that there are no traditional prayers surviving on which to base these prayers aside from Sigrdrifa's Prayer. For me this is pretty depressing. I'd love something with historical roots to recite, and Sigrdrifa's prayer has too much... asking for daily use. Asking has its place, of course, but it's not the sort of thing I like to recite daily. 

The second issue is that there are four days named for the gods, then one named for Saturn, and then Sunday and Monday. To be honest, I've never gelled much with Sunna and Mani. Maybe I should connect more with them, but honouring weekly seems a bit... excessive? Did the palaeo-Heathens honour the Sunna and Mani regularly? Are they more a sort of poetic personification (as some claim Hel is)? Are they Jotun-kin, or more sort of Vaettir entities? (Gundarsson has nothing to say on the subject. *sulk*)

Random thought: I wonder if the wolves chasing them are clouds? 

The days of the week are named after the Latin days, with Roman gods associated with Germanic ones. Compare the French, for example... Mardi (Mars's Day) to Tuesday (Tyr's Day). The same is true of Sunday and Monday. I don't think a cult of the sun or moon was particularly big, back in The Day... I don't think praying to them weekly is something I'm going to incorporate in. Once in a while, perhaps. But this tangent has led me back to my second problem, gentlemen and ladies, namely that there are days not named for gods for which I need to pick someone to honour.

Last week on Saturday it was Heimdallr, as I had read something about him that day. I'm wondering if I should make a schedule, or something, or keep records. Should I go through Frigg's handmaidens? (I'm still not sure which ones are her and which ones aren't. Hlin? Saga and Eir seem to be separate entities, but I get a bit lost with the others. Lofn and Snotra seem similar to one another, too.) Should I focus more, on perhaps Sunday and Monday, on the landvaettir and so on? Thankfully Tyr, Oðinn, Thor and Frigg are gods I've always gotten along well with, and I might end up alternating Friday between Frigg and Freyja as by the time Friday was named the two goddesses had been coalesced into one, as I understand it.

I'm asking rhetorically of course. But here is something not rhetorical: I am interested, oh fellow Pagans, in your daily worship; will you share? Particularly Heathens out there: do you pray daily? Is there something particular you say?

I had this idea that typing all this out would straighten it somewhat in my head. This did not happen. I think my head is more jumbled now than it was when I began. 

In other news, I can now do 17 press-ups in a row. This is something of which I am enormously proud, because I started out, months and months ago, barely able to do five press-ups on my knees. I feel like some freaking superhero being able to do proper press-ups, and it's really gratifying to work at something and see improvement in such a real way. I feel like physical strength and fitness is important in Heathenry, insofar as pushing oneself to one's personal limit, whatever that might be, and seeing improvement. Being the best one can be, the strongest one can be, the most capable one can be. Strength is important generally, and more mentally and emotionally than physically - physical strength won't get you so far without determination or knowledge.

Someone brought up to me a while ago that they were disabled, and they felt like a bad Heathen because they were physically limited. But, at least to me, it's not about being physically able so much as it is doing as much as you can do. I mean I am stronger now than I was, but I'm still physically weak and will always be weaker than most men, probably. This person in question was working hard at physiotherapy, and seeing improvement, and what's more she was attentive to her body and knew when pushing too hard was wrong for her body, and not sensible, and when to pull back a little. Heathenry is not a religion that excludes the differently-abled, and I want to make that clear because I know statements like in the previous paragraph can be read to imply the opposite.

The lame can ride horse, the handless drive cattle,
the deaf one can fight and prevail,
'tis happier for the blind than for him on the bale-fire,
but no man hath care for a corpse.

- Havamal 71

But I do like becoming stronger, and I do feel like improving my physical fitness and exercise generally are aspects of my spirituality, as well as my physical and mental heath. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

E is for Edda

The Poetic, or Elder Edda, and the Prose or Younger Edda, are compiled myths of the people of the North. The Edda are highly important books for Heathens, corresponding to Homer and Hesiod for Greek Pagans or the Charge of the Goddess for Wiccans. 

Where the word "edda" comes from is a bit of a mystery, but the most popular theory at present is that the word meant "creed". It seems to have been applied to Snorri's work first, and then later to the collection we now think of as the Poetic or Elder Edda.

The Elder Edda is the first and perhaps most important source for Heathens. There are others: history and archaeology, folklore, the sagas. But this contains the bulk of the remaining Lore of our faith.

The Eddur are not infallible. They were, after all, written by Christians, some time after the conversion of Iceland. That authorship, and that passage of time, must have affected what was written. Additionally, they're not a complete record of the myths of the "Elder Troth"; others are mentioned, tantalising, but are lost to us. (For example, when did Loki and Odin make the oath that bound them together? Why did Loki spend time as a woman? etc, etc.) Some lays, such as Lokasenna, may well have been written post-conversion by a clever skald, as an amusing piece about the naughtiness of the gods. Snorri's work in particular is loaded with problems, such as his literary framing device and suggestion that the Aesir were a people from Asia. But his work remains important, and we are lucky to have it.

As such, though the Eddur are the closest we have to a "bible" or holy text, we continually question them, dig through it, seek out what our ancestors believed. They are a spring-board to the gods and to our faith, rather than a set of orthodox beliefs one should hold. 

The Havamal - saying of the High One, or Odin - is one of the most referenced lays. The first two sections contain advice for the Heathen person, and it is the closest we have to any sort of rule, law or guide of behaviour. Heathenry contains no commandments, just guidelines of proper behaviour. One is expected to be honourable, keep oaths, not murder people and so on, as in secular society. On top of that is the advice given by the Havamal, from which some people distil a set of virtues to strive towards. The Nine Noble Virtues are a popular example, but many Heathens find that lacking, not to mention focusing on some very odd virtues and ignoring more important ones. Do we really need a list of virtues, when we have the Havamal? No. This lay tells us what our ancestors valued, the advice that inspired them, the codes by which they lived. (Or aimed to live. No one pretends the Norsemen were moderate about their drinking all the time!)

It means a lot more to one when one believes in and actively worships these gods. Yet the Havamal in particular contains verses that appeal even to atheists, as they are focused on living well, rather than on promises of an afterlife.

Here are some verses.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.
Havamal, 75 (Bray)

"Much have I fared, | much have I found,
Much have I got from the gods:
What spake Othin himself | in the ears of his son,
Ere in the bale-fire he burned?"

"No man can tell | what in olden time
Thou spak'st in the ears of thy son;
With fated mouth | the fall of the gods
And mine olden tales have I told;
With Othin in knowledge | now have I striven,
And ever the wiser thou art."
Vafthruthnismal, 54 & 55 (Bellows)

O'er Mithgarth Hugin | and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear | lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.
Grimnismal, 20 (Bellows)