I started the month with The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams but I just couldn’t get into it. Feeling nostalgic, I reread The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates, and then Quantum Night by Robert Sawyer (for a reading group that I’ve started at work).
Recently, Icelandmag reported that Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and the members of the Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) had received hate mail from a few vocal homophobic and racist bigots for their intention to conduct same-sex marriages in their new Heathen temple, and their view that a person of any ethnicity can be a Heathen.
So I decided to launch a page where people could sign to show their support. A petition site seemed wrong, as we were thanking them for being inclusive, rather than asking them to do anything, so initially I launched a page on 38 degrees – but quickly discovered that only people in the UK could sign it. So I launched a change.org page as well: Thank you for supporting same-sex marriage and inclusiveness. At the same time, Haimo Grebenstein created a Facebook event in solidarity: “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!” The event is sponsored by Asatru-EU, an informal group of people of Germanic Heathen background, most of them members of associations from many European countries. They have been active since 2006 and are hosting the International Asatru Summer Camp (IASC), which starts on 25 July in Sweden.
The Facebook event has 2400 people supporting it, from many different Pagan and polytheist religions; the change.org petition has 640 signatories, and the 38 degrees petition has 124 signatories.
Meanwhile, if you can see the Facebook social plugin on the Icelandmag article (I can’t see it on a PC or an iPhone, and only intermittently on my iPad, but I am getting notifications of who has replied to my comment on there), then you will see that the haters appear to be in a tiny minority compared to the people who support inclusivity towards both LGBT people and people of other ethnic backgrounds.
Icelandmag ran a follow-up story about the messages of support, but again focused on the original hate-mail rather than on the messages of support:
Over the weekend we will be publishing an exclusive interview with Hilmar Örn, about the honourable and respectful nature of Ásatrú as it is practiced in Iceland, his interaction with foreign pagans and the disturbing messages he has received from foreign pagans.
The Wild Hunt also did an article, Ásatrúarfélagið Threatened with Vandalism over LGBTQ Support– also focusing somewhat more on the hate-mail than the outpouring of support, though kindly linking to Haimo’s Facebook event and my petitions. I am glad that the issue has been covered, but concerned that what I believe to be a small minority of haters is getting more coverage than the overwhelming number of people who support inclusivity. Maybe it is because hate and bigotry (despite what you might think from reading the newspapers) are actually the exception rather than the norm? Or is it because the mainstream media wants to make us feel small and isolated and powerless in the face of all this bad news?
The same thing happens with Christian bigotry against LGBT people. Granted that there are some loud voices of hate, but there are also many Christians who support same-sex marriage and regard same-sex love as natural, and are welcoming towards LGBT people. In the UK, Stonewall, the LGBT pressure group, did a survey of attitudes of religious people, and found that 58% were in support of same-sex marriage (as compared to 68% of the general population). So the difference in support between the religious population and the general population is 10%. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but given the focus on religious bigotry by the media, most people would probably be surprised by how small the difference is. It is also noticeable that church leadership (who are often the ones making the bigoted pronouncements) are seriously out of step with the laity on this. Not only that, but the list of religious groups where leaders and laity alike support LGBT equality is quite long and impressive, and some groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews, and Pagans) have supported and campaigned for LGBT equality for decades.
It is also noticeable that Heathens, Polytheists, Wiccans, Druids, Kemetics, and Pagans from all over the world have signed the change.org petition. There are so many awesome comments, I urge you to go and read all of them – it is very heart-warming.
So here are a few of the signatories of the thank you petition, and why they signed:
Kurt Hoogstraat ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL
I’m gay and a heathen. My husband and I have been together 25 years, raised a daughter and have two grandchildren. Family is very important to us, and I live the practices of my religion every day with my family. Besides, the Gods communicate with me and protect my family every day — they don’t seem to mind I’m gay!
Dale Overman WEST VALLEY CITY, UT
Our ancestors were far more open minded than many modern heathen in some parts of the world. The world and its religions and deeply divided as it is. We modern heathen and Asatruar need a bit of common unity and respect. Inclusiveness and hospitality is part of a decent human community.
Wendell Christenson CLOVIS, CA
I know in the news reports when they said that “foreign practitioners” of Asatru are sending hate mail, that “foreign practitioners” really means “American Heathens.” It is embarrassing! Not all American Heathens are simply Protestant Christians who grew up to drink mead and “play Viking” on the weekends! Thank you, Ásatrúarfélagið, for building a modern-day temple and providing services to all.
Dieter Tussing GERMANY
Celtoi and Gaulish Polytheists say thanks. We are in complete agreement with you.
Carl Guldbrand LINDESBERG, SWEDEN
Bröder och Systar, jag står med er.
Reverend Janet Farrar CLOGHRAN, IRELAND
They truly represent the old Gods of their land.
Elma O’Callaghan BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM
Basically, some people are so full of hate when they see others being happy. They need to know that Paganism is all encompassing and inclusive of equality and human rights. Well done Iceland and Hilmar for showing the true face of humanity.
Heather Demarest WANCHESE, NC
I honor these same deities and know that deep wisdom is its truth, that our souls are equal and even Odin supposedly dressed as a woman. Once you get past all the chest-thumping, Heathenry has deep and profound and beautiful wisdom that can empower all of us, regardless of gender, sexual preference or race.
Mike Stygal LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
There should indeed be no room for racism or homophobia or transphobia in Heathenry, Druidry, Wicca, witchcraft, Paganism, polytheism, and kindred traditions.
Alexander ter Haar ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS
The Asatruarfelagid give an example of how heathenism can be: tolerant and open-minded, hospitable and respectful. It is saddening to hear that they receive hate-mails because of that. And at the same time it is wonderful to see how many people stand with them. I am proud to count myself amongst them.
Rev. Selena Fox BARNEVELD, WI
Appreciation, Well-Wishes, Support to You for your support of same sex marriage.
Jay Friedlander ANDOVER, ENGLAND
As British Heathen I support equal rights for same-sex marriage. Homophobia and transphobia has no place in modern heathenry or modern society either! I support inclusivity of all regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, social class or any other ‘difference’ and believe tolerance of all is the only way forwards in a modern multi-cultural world.
Freya Aswynn CóMPETA
I am Asatru.
The Icelandic Asatru Association conducted my marriage last year.
Different Pagan traditions have different festivals. The Heathen community celebrates its own cycle of festivals. Wiccans, Druids, and many eclectic Pagans celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year. Polytheists have their own festivals too, usually based on the particular ethnic tradition they are working with.
The festivals of specific Pagan paths
- The Eightfold Wheel of the Year & the Druid Festivals by Philip Carr-Gomm. An exploration of the Druidic symbolism of the festivals of the Wheel of the Year.
- Heathen rites, festivals and practices – BBC religion page introducing Heathenry, its festivals, rituals, and practices.
- Traditional Heathen Festivals (UK) – WikiPagan. A list of festivals celebrated by Heathens in the UK based on historical festivals and festivals from British folklore. Other festival lists exist based on the solar year, the lunar year and monthly festivals dedicated to individual gods and goddesses. The celebration of festivals varies greatly between groups and individuals who will only celebrate the festivals they consider the most relevant to their path. Typically a festival year will include three, eight or twelve of the following festivals.
- Calendar of Religio Romana festivals – Nova Roma. There were many festivals in ancient Rome, dedicated to various different deities, and commemorating mythological events. Some of them were major events involving the whole city; others were small local affairs for the devotees of a particular deity.
- Kemetic festivals – Kemet.org. The Kemetic Orthodox faith celebrates many festivals, both ancient and modern. These include major holidays such as Wep Ronpet (the Kemetic New Year), Aset Luminous, and Wag Festival. All of these festivals and many more (there’s nearly one for every day of the year!) can be found in the ancient calendars. While they do celebrate the ancient traditions, it’s not always known exactly how every festival was celebrated or all of the ritual events which took place. As a living and modern faith, Kemetics find as much information as they can on these ancient traditions and celebrate them in a modern way, both together in person and from afar. They’ve also created some entirely modern celebrations to honor the Gods.
The Wheel of the Year – Wiccan and Druid
Samhain (31 October) – Samhain
Samhain is a festival honouring ancestors. It is also the “harvest of meat” when cattle would be slaughtered before the winter. To the ancient Celts, however, Samhain was a festival of liberation from oppression. In East Anglia, it was known as Hollantide. Many Wiccans use Samhain rituals to honour, remember, and commune with our loved ones who have passed on.
Samhain is the Irish word for the month of November. The ancient Irish festival held at this time was about the renewal of freedom – legends associated with it tell of heroes who freed their people from bondage. So the association with the dead was probably imported to this country by Christianity, as this was the feast of All Saints and All Souls. After the Reformation, of course, the importance of these festivals was downplayed, and by the early 20th century, folklorists were speculating that the origins of All Hallows were actually Pagan. The first stirrings of the Pagan revival started in the early 20th century, so the idea of Samhain being associated with the dead was imported into Paganism.
Pagans tend to focus on the preciousness of this life, not some future one beyond death. Hence we want to celebrate and remember the lives of our ancestors. Ancestors can be relatives and friends who have died, or people from the past whom we admire (we often honour both). These people have shaped who we are now – given us life, given us inspiration, guided us, comforted us, and nurtured us – and it comforts us to remember them and commune with them.
Many people believe in reincarnation, and that the consciousness resides in an in-between place between lives. In Paganism, the dead are seen as not being very far away – only a heartbeat away – and many Pagans say that “the veil between the worlds is thin” at Samhain, because the tides of life are on the ebb as winter approaches, and because the encroaching darkness of winter is seen as a time for contemplation, remembrance, and introspection.
Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth. If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight. If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost. Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.
Samhain or Hallowe’en is part of the dance of the elements around the wheel of the seasons, one of the many interlocking cosmic cycles of which our lives are an intimate part.
In many cultures, especially in Mexico, All Souls is the Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – when people go to visit family graves, and set up altars for them in the home. This is not a morbid practice, but an acknowledgement of death in the midst of life, death as part of the natural cycle.
So why should we reintegrate this festival into our spiritual practice? Because in Britain, death is swept under the carpet, ignored and feared. If we acknowledged it (at least once in the year), it would be an invitation to live more fully and mindfully. If we ignore it, it becomes part of the shadow, the part of our psyche that we reject and that contains our fears and follies, and which we project onto other people: the Other, the outsider, the transgressor.
Whereas if we recognise death as being part of the natural cycle, like the seasons of the year, then we can live more integrated lives, living in and for the moment.
Samhain is also the time when, as the nights get longer and the winter grips the land, we descend into our own depths. Summer is a time for being extrovert, creative and expansive; winter is a time for curling up by the fireside and going within oneself to find the poetic, the spiritual and the quiet side of ourselves – the forgotten aspects, perhaps even the side of ourselves that we have repressed and need to examine.
The presiding deity of winter is the Crone Goddess. She has been feared and denigrated in recent centuries – people speak of old wives’ tales, haggard old witches muttering in corners, and so on. But traditionally, old women were the ones who were the keepers of stories and other traditional wisdom such as herb lore and midwifery. She is the midwife and the one who washed, anointed and laid out the dead, the one who cuts the cord of both life and death. She represents merciful release; but she also possesses the wisdom of old age. Wisdom is traditionally represented as a feminine being or quality. Wisdom is the joining together of instinct and experience and knowledge. It is the wisdom of the body, the knowledge of when to act and when to refrain from acting, when to speak and when to keep silent. Wisdom comes from reflection upon experience and knowledge.
The Crone is also the Goddess of the Waning Moon, which represents a time of letting go and ebbing away, so it is traditional at Samhain to let go of aspects of your life that you do not need or want any more.
Yule (21 December) – Alban Arthan
The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.
When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.
The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.
The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.
At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t literally descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the Sun god goes.
Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)
Imbolc (2 February) – Imbolc
Imbolc is a festival celebrating the lactation of ewes, the coming of lambs, and the first stirrings of spring. The name means either “ewes’ milk” (Oimelc) or “in the belly” (im bolg).
In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint. The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft. The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare – which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times. There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.
Candlemas (also on 2 February) is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Torah.
Both these festivals have traditionally focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud. They are also a celebration of goddesses.
Spring Equinox (21 March) – Alban Eilir
Spring Equinox is a festival of balance, as day and night are equal (but after this the days get longer). It’s also the time when the coming of spring is really becoming apparent. According to Bede, the ancient Germanic pagans honoured a goddess called Eostre. She was later conflated with Ostara by the Brothers Grimm, who said she was associated with hares and the Moon and eggs; however there is no reference to this goddess in any other text, so much of the modern mythology associated with her is extrapolated from Bede, and does not have any basis in older mythology. That does not mean that it is not valid as mythology, just that people should not claim ancient origins for it. There are also some other, more interesting, myths around the Spring Equinox, such as the Easter Fox.
Beltane (1 May) – Beltane
Beltane is a festival celebrating sacred sexuality. It is typically celebrated by jumping over fires and dancing round maypoles. Pagan rituals often include symbolic expressions of sexuality.
A celebration of Beltane could include celebration of sexuality in all its forms. It could also include celebrations of the senses, and something to honour the coming of spring and the renewal of life.
Midsummer (21 June) – Alban Hefin
Midsummer is a festival celebrating the Sun. At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for our consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self goes inward and becomes more introspective.
A celebration of midsummer could focus on the aspects related to consciousness, and emphasise the shift from outward to inward preoccupations.
Lammas (1 August) – Lughnasadh
Lammas commemorates the death of John Barleycorn, the dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god. The corn was believed to be inhabited by the corn-spirit, which was killed at every harvest and resurrected in the planting of the new corn. In Ireland, Lammas was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu, the mother of Lugh the sun god, and was called Lughnasadh. The harvest is an important symbol of cyclicity, growth, and change. The wheel turns, and what has grown must die, so that the seeds can be planted for the new cycle of growth.
Autumn Equinox (21 September) – Alban Elued
At the Autumn Equinox, day and night are equal (but after this the nights get longer), so most rituals focus on this, and on the importance of balance. The festival is also said to honour the Celtic god Mabon, who was imprisoned in a tower for many years. It’s also the fruit harvest; for this reason, I associate it with the Roman deities Pomona and Vertumnus. A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on the sensual delights of food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.
In China, they see life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence, the dynamic equilibrium of nature. Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.
This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons. The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring. As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.
In British folk traditions, there are three harvests; the corn harvest at Lammas; the fruit harvest at Autumn Equinox; and the harvest of meat at Samhain, when some of the cattle would have been slaughtered and preserved for the winter.
A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on gratitude for food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.
“I think it is absolutely essential that people think for themselves because unless they make their own contact with the inner planes, they won’t have any power. This is enormously important that people do not slavishly follow anyone’s lead. I hope witchcraft never has any gurus or leaders. I know that people have criticised Gerald Gardner; I have myself but he once told me, the power is in you and you have to bring that power out.” – Doreen Valiente 1
Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with having leaders, but it depends what you mean by leaders. If you mean the kind of people who empower, nurture and teach others, those are the leaders we want. If you mean the kind of people who block others’ access to the numinous, and fleece them of large amounts of money, we don’t want those in the Pagan community – but frankly they would not get very far anyway. Even those paid leaders who work hard and serve others don’t make a lot of money.
We might have a lot of leaders, but I don’t see a lot of followers. Pagans are not sheep, we are goats. We don’t really have congregations (which is basically Latin for “flock”); we are more like tribes. There are many people who serve the Pagan community in an administrative or representative capacity. There are many people who share their thoughts on blogs and in books. There are some leaders who want power, admiration, and followers (fortunately these are fairly few and far between). But I don’t think leaders who want to get rich quick or have a lot of followers will get very far within the Pagan community. Pagans are too independent-minded.
Sometimes Pagans’ independent-mindedness can backfire, as any time someone looks even vaguely like they are on a pedestal, someone will come along and knock them off it. It is good to check first whether the person actually wants to be on the pedestal, or whether they would rather get off it.
Incidentally, I have a small team of people with instructions to kick me up the backside if ever I start exhibiting the symptoms of a Big Name Pagan with a lot of neophytes in tow. This is unlikely, as I am too lazy to organise my own life, let alone anyone else’s.
My approach to leadership is to seek to empower others, and enable them to write and facilitate ritual and so on. However, not everyone who joins a coven wants to write and facilitate rituals, and that is alright. They may have other abilities which could be nurtured.
In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, every initiated Wiccan is a priestess or priest in their own right. However, a first degree is a priestess or priest unto themselves; a second degree can be a priestess or priest to others; and a third degree to the rest of the community. This is not a hard and fast rule – it is just that the degrees are not expected to take on being a priestess or priest for others until they attain the higher degrees. It is also worth remembering that in Wicca, witches are held to be ‘the hidden children of the Goddess’ – in other words, we do our public service covertly, not necessarily advertising that we are witches. If someone asks me for help, they do so because I have a sympathetic manner, not necessarily because they know that I am a witch. We don’t need to wear a special hat – if we are any good, people will recognise the qualities of witchiness in us, and seek our help. I don’t hide the fact that I am a Wiccan, but I don’t advertise either.
In OBOD Druidry, there are also three grades – Bard, Ovate, and Druid. The Bard is a storyteller and uses words to enchant. The Ovate is more shamanic and prophetic. The Druid is more of an all-round magical practitioner. It is worth reading OBOD’s explanations of what each grade does, as it is more complex than I have suggested with my simple summary.
In Heathenry, there are goði and gyðja (priests and priestesses) who are generally selected by acclaim of their group, because of their experience, or end up leading rituals because they are the most experienced.
In Religio Romana, priestesses and priests are expected to have a sincere calling to the deity for whom they wish to be a priestess or priest, and to carry out research on their chosen deity, and to worship the chosen deity in their home.
In my experience, even if some leaders of Pagan groups let it go to their head for a while, they soon learn that they are leader by consent of the group, and if they do not care for the needs of all the members of the group, and nurture and empower their members, people will leave.
The best Pagan leaders are those who listen – both to the promptings of spirit, and to their group members. A Pagan leader should not regard their community as serving them, but feel that they are serving the community (which includes other-than-human beings). Those who think they are elders are probably not elders; one gets that title by being acclaimed by others (and not just by virtue of being old, either, but by having wisdom and experience). In return, the community should value those who serve. They should not be expected to cover their expenses from their own pocket; if they spend time preparing a day or weekend workshop, and travelling long distance to deliver it, then they should be remunerated for their time, skill, and expenses. I do not think people should ever pay for coven training in Wicca, but I do think leaders of public workshops should be adequately remunerated. We need an organic approach to paying clergy.
When I was high priestess of my coven, I was in that role because I was the most experienced member of the group. As high priestess, I encouraged members of my coven to develop their skills in ritual and magic, so that they could also design and facilitate ritual. If a new member wanted to join, every member of the group had to agree that they could join (it was not just on my say-so).
What are your thoughts on Pagan leadership? How is it in your tradition? Please share in the comments.
Thanks to Julie W for posting the Doreen Valiente quote in the Centre for Pagan Studies Facebook group – as you can see, it inspired this post.
They eye me warily. It’s a crowded room, filled with the presence of the living in t-shirts or traditional costume, and the shades of the ancestral dead in their own garb, all ranged together along tables and benches. A TV broadcasts the game up in the corner, silent and flickering. I close the door, moving to the fireplace at the far end. I don’t know anyone.
You’re not Asatru. Not Heathen. Not one of us.
No. Maybe not. But I would stay awhile, as guest, if I may.
You value hospitality, I think? It’s cold out there tonight.
A murmur of distrust, but it’s true. Their code of hospitality gives me opportunity to pause here with them a while, to bear witness to their lore and stories, and share my own, and maybe also share a drink or two, if I’m lucky.
What is it to be approached by the voice and figure of a god of a religion not your own? Revelation? Delusion? Conversion…or merely conversation?
Whatever you call it, however you understand it, this was not looked for. I was haunted for months by a vision of fire. And in the firelight, eyes. Who was this? No one I knew. Theology lives at the pulse point. At the library I began reading through the mythology stacks, systematically, searching.
Hephaestus? …no. Nothing. No buzz of recognition.
Ptah? (also a maker god, also associated with fire).…no. Still blank. Radio silence except for the sound of the crackling flames, and a low chuckle.
My breakthrough came thanks to Facebook. A friend on my feed linked to an article about Paul MacDonald, a swordsmith in Edinburgh looking to take on two apprentices. An internationally known smith, McDonald’s crafted swords for traditional martial artists, but also replica swords from the movies The Highlander, The Princess Bride and, possibly best of all, the He-Man movie and I was halfway through ordering plane tickets to Edinburgh before I remembered myself. I’m married, with two kids. I have no skills with power tools, no mechanical skills at all, really, and probably not enough upper body strength to lift some of the swords he makes, let alone craft them. Why then did this opportunity feel like an answer?
Moving to Scotland to apprentice myself to a swordsmith made sense on the deepest levels, not on the surface of my life. I looked at the picture on the screen again. I thought of the forge, the fire, the laughing eyes, the location.
Wayland Smith? I asked tentatively, not even remembering why or how I knew the name.
Electricity lifted me an inch off my chair. Wayland indeed.
My sisters laugh, terrified
at how I change, crack
open, change and crack again.
A faulty pot, misfired.
No, no, I say. This
is what human looks like, this
closed-off Northern face,
lost and falling, sky-colored
sidewalks, the angular
scrawk of a lone goose, yawn
of traffic over the drawbridge.
I am not Asatru. If I’m Heathen, I’m an “Eclectic Heathen” at best –which means to many, I’m not Heathen at all. My allegiance is to my pen. My faith is in the hand that holds the pen and the spaces that it opens, the shapes it makes. The inky blue line on the page, ribboning left to right, is my winding path, how I hear the questions and how I seek the answers. I am in this place, this space, among these gregarious and generous people because there is a story to be told and it has found me. It starts with a smith god, but where it will end I don’t yet know.
Following Wayland’s lead, I spend a half day attempting the art of blacksmithing at Shake Rag Alley. I make a hook. One hook. I work for over an hour and still my project is incomplete when we bank the forge fire for lunch. Our teacher admits an experienced smith would turn a hook like that out in five minutes.
When I drive back to Madison, Wayland shows up in the passenger seat.
So what did you learn?
I learned I should stick to writing.
Perhaps true. But what did you learn about hammers?
I glance over. I would have thought Thor would teach me that lesson.
A smile. That’s a different matter. Thor’s hammer is his own, and serves him well.
What did you learn of a smith’s hammer?
Let me think about that.
It’s a pretty steep learning curve, to start blogging in the same season you start exploring a whole new family of religions. I don’t know why exactly, but these are the myths and figures I have to tangle with and I’m still figuring out how to make sure my bio appears at the bottom of this post and get the spacing right and then I go try to learn my Rune for the Day and finally I hop over to Facebook and scan through the polytheist groups I’ve joined and figure out the shorthand slang and the interpersonal politics and I’m not even sure I’ll like mead.
Another riff on the definition of poem:
interruption, not illustration. Poem as hammer
to crack the narrative wide, allow blue
springing wet to the page. Kafka said it best:
the ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.
I search out Wayland the next morning.
A hammer in the hands of a smith brings transformation.
Transformation comes through fire.
Trust to the materials of this good green earth.
These are three lessons I learned.
Hold to those and you’ll be safe enough. My people trust the hammer’s voice.
You travel under my protection, he tells me. I’m not the biggest God in these parts,
he smiles at his own joke, but I am –respected. You will go safely.
The fire pops and crackles. The TV flickers silently up in the corner. Someone nods to the server to bring me a glass, but no one fills it yet.
Writer, do well by us.
I look around at their faces. Part of me, a young part, wants to say, I will, oh I will! I want them to like me. But—what promises can I make that I can be sure of? Honesty and honor count with these folks. I look back at them, each in turn.
I’ll do as I’m done by. How’s that for a fair deal.
“Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.”
Christine Hoff Kraemer, “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue,”
Sermons from the Mound blog, Dec. 7, ‘12
I have described myself as “pagan” for years without really knowing what I meant. Or what the word meant. It occurred to me recently I should maybe learn a little more. So, this past semester I went back to school and took an introductory class on Pagan Theologies at Cherry Hill Seminary, taught by Christine Hoff Kraemer. I went into the class defining myself as a loose-ish, pagan-ish follower-ish of an undefined goddess figure, and I more or less believed that all the gods and goddesses are really archetypes—representing facets of the human experience, common to us all whether or not we are aware of them.
I changed my mind pretty quick when I was approached by Wayland the Smith, a more-than-mortal figure about whom I knew nothing.
The dark river unloosed.
The bright-eyed bird sought rest
in pine trees full of a broken clock
music of grackles, ditches full
of the chonk-a-ree of redwings.
It’s a birdy world, a pratfall
of lost, pit of resist, as rinky-tink
meets honky-tonk, minister
meets medicine show meets last
night in the eyes and tempest
tossed. Comical and sad,
that glottal halt, salt water
taffy and the smell of lilac.
Listen. You can’t go back.
Fallen and falling like a waterfall,
the music that cracks
the sturdy little egg of the world.
Raven Kaldera, shaman, priest and author, says, “You get the god you call.” Maybe, but I think I placed the call in my sleep. So now I’m learning as much as I can about polytheism and the Norse, or Northern, as I prefer, traditions that Wayland is part of, reading books and searching websites and trying to memorize the runes. Occasionally Wayland himself chimes in, telling me what he wants or giving me advice. He can be quite specific. Recently, he asked me to keep my eye out for a ceramic grail or goblet, bone-colored.
No, you know that’s not it. I want a goblet made of bone.
But where on earth will I find something like that? We’re at Sears. I see a white coffee mug and pick it up.
It’s $3.49, on sale, mass produced. This is Sears. Put it down.
I look sideways at him. You’re not going to be a cheap date, are you.
You have no idea.
I could be more worried about undertaking a theological life journey with a largely forgotten deity who wants to wake up again, but I’m a poet. I figure it comes with the territory.
Who am I? Why am I here? Big questions—but inserting myself into an established blog space seems to demand some account of myself. My life, like this essay, is a patchwork of prose, poetry, daily life, spiritual musings, occasional interruptions and eruptions. Intro to Pagan Theologies brought me full circle to my life twenty years ago, an undergraduate majoring in Religion. I loved every minute of the Cherry Hill class. When it ended, I grieved a little and wrote in my journal, “I need community. I need adventure. I need a way to sink my teeth into life and not let go.”
And then Christine emailed, asking if I wanted to write for Patheos.
Okay, that’s a wrap. I think you’re in, kid.
No buts. You can do this. I could point to poems where you already have.
Write the shadows. Write the taboos. Write me.
But—I’ll sound like I’m crazy.
Oh come on. Where’s your courage? Where’s your sense of adventure?
Right. “Fear nothing.”
Fear nothing. Including ridicule. Remember, they laughed at me.
Yes. Yes, I –I know that story.
I know you do.
Your story. Wayland, lord, I—
There’s one very, very old, relatively well-known story about Wayland from the source materials that have survived. As a writer, I can’t wait to wrestle it down onto the page in my own language. But before I tell someone else’s story, I need to be honest about my own. Who am I, then?
Self in the world is a kind of performance, an interpretive dance of at times painfully mundane movements. When I walk out my front door and wave to the neighbors, there I am: wife, mother of two, school and church and community volunteer. I have a book of poems, Somewhere Piano, published by Mayapple Press, a couple of smaller chapbooks. You can look me up any day of the week.
But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it. Shortly after Somewhere Piano was published, it became clear to me that my domestic and domesticated self had said all she had to say. She no longer held the pencil. I needed to find wilder fingers.
So, like Albus Dumbledore drawing his silver memories down into a pensieve, I turned myself inside out and drew out a new self:
Shadow, Sad Eye, Said I, Sadie
Dicey, Doosie, Do See, Do Say, Ducet
I turned myself into a pun, a smile. A way to breathe underwater, created of shadow and possibility. I set myself dancing on the page.
Career suicide, conventional wisdom argued, aghast. Changing your name midstream.
I’m exploring unconventional wisdom. It’s my hope to touch in here every once in a while, to explore the connections between poetry, myth, Wayland’s story and my own wanderings and wonderings, and how it all relates to current events, life in this twenty-first century. Just like my favorite bread-and-butter pickle recipe, the Journey is “good alone or with somebody,” but I think it’s best when shared with others.
Unconventional wisdom keeps me in motion, dancing in the spaces between Sarah and Sadie, able to change, to disappear and then reappear, eyes a slightly different color than they were. Unconventional wisdom encourages me to imagine a person can be verb instead of noun. Truth lies somewhere between fictions. I would not posit this essay as truth.
A book is a basket of deaths. Small ones.
A web with no spider (hide
her), this is the secret dilation,
the interior shore, a little
lagniappe, something more,
a dance for the sake of dancing.
Verse. Reverse. Press in, be pressed
upon and disappear. Address,
redress and put your clothes on, honey.
Embrace arrest. Treat and retreat. Flight
does not equal resist. This is
the walled garden, the invitation,
an intimate penetration.
Let’s not lie or cover over.
It’s sexy as hell, what’s going on.
(“Riff on the Definition of Poem”)
This is the path I’m on, maybe not quite so rational in my approach as the epigraph by Christine would suggest—more of a perceived glimmer, a scent I follow down the road, trusting peripheral vision, sideways, sidewise.
The eyes in the greenery, wild, watching, just out of reach. Meet me there.
*All poems in these entries written by Sadie Ducet unless noted otherwise. “Riff on the Definition of Poem” is included, with a whole bunch of other lovely poems by many, many poets, in the 2015 Wisconsin Poets’ calendar, which is available for sale at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets website.