Saturday’s Keynote and Guest Speakers
Keynote speaker 1: Rich Blackett, “Women Werewolves and She-wolves”
The first keynote speaker of the HWU conference was Rich Blackett, Chair of Asatru UK and his talk was titled “Women, Werewolves and She-wolves”. I really enjoyed this talk and took quite a few notes.
Rich started by talking about the amount of history there is linking humans to dogs and wolves across the world. He gave an example of some very early ritual activity in what is now the Ukraine involving dogs or wolves and that people from that area migrated across Europe, Asia and into Africa. He mentioned that there are some theories linking the female menstrual cycle to both lunar cycles and organising hunts, there are others that disagree with such theories too. Rich went on to give examples of deities linked to wolves and dogs mentioning Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis who sought out wolf country to give birth to the twins according to some versions of her mythology. In some versions the twins were suckled by wolves. Apollo is dipicted on coins with wolves or dogs and has many other connections to them with one of his sons also being suckled by wolves. Artemis as Lady of the hunt is often depicted with dogs and wolves. Hekate is another goddess depicted with wolves and dogs were sacrificed to her. Circe is another figure linked to many animals including wolves.
Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus were said to be suckled by a she wolf. Rich said that there are some theories that Romulus and Remus were cast out of one tribe and raised by a matriarchal tribe of “she-wolves”. Within Roman culture there is the Lupercalia festival and she wolves was also a name for prostitutes in Roman culture. There were other mentions of deities linked to wolves from other cultures including a Baltic goddess, I think Medeina, who is often shown riding a bear or with a pack of wolves and whose name apparently means she-wolf.
One story I found particularly fascinating was a something recorded by Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis, who tells of a priest travelling in Ireland approached by an elderly “were-wolf” asking for aid for his dying wife. From the story it is clear that the man and woman are human but tell the priest they are cursed to wear wolf skins. The priest gives last rites to the woman. It’s possible that werewolves in Ireland link to the ancient Fianna bands but to date Rich has not found any clear sources on this.
As Rich moved forward through history he mentioned a number of medieval tales and from these tales it is apparent that a cultural change was taking place where werewolves were being seen as much more dangerous and violent than in earlier times and also being seen as something evil. Some were documented in witch trials. Later still in 1692 there is a record of a man on trial as part of a group of werewolves and he says they are not evil. He is asked if there are females werewolves and says yes. Female werewolves then fade from literature and story for a while (not that there were many mentions before) until the nineteenth century and then werewolves are seen differently and female werewolves in particular used to describe sexually active women.
I didn’t note any of the questions and responses after the talk and can’t remember them clearly enough to mention them here.
Keynote speaker 2: Dr Jenny Blain, “Saga Women in Our Imaginings Today”
The second keynote speaker at the conference was Dr Jenny Blain talking on “Saga women in our imaginings today”. Jenny is an anthropologist and writer. Two of her books that I have read, enjoyed and can definitely recommend are “Nine Words of Seidr Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism on Northern European Pagnism” and “Wights and Ancestors: Heathenry in a Living Landscape“. I’ve heard Jenny speak a few times over the years and I always enjoy her talks both in style and content.
The books that first introduced Jenny to Sagas was called “The Land the Ravens Found” and she read it as a child, to quote a review on Amazon “on one level it tells the coming-of-age stories of three boys living in northern Scotland in the ninth century: Anlaf, the son of a viking chief, Yrp, his Irish foster brother, and Vivill, a Scottish slave. On another level it’s the story of a powerful woman, the real heroine of the story, Aud the Deep Minded, Anlaf’s grandmother.” And these characters and their stories are based on real life accounts of early Icelandic settlers, and their stories are among the Icelandic Sagas.
Jenny explained that there are debates about whether the Icelandic Sagas were written down versions of oral tales or crafted as literature with influences from what was going on in the world at the time they were written. From the way the sagas are written it’s unlikely they were direct recordings or oral tales but they may include oral tales known at the time of writing and later copyists may have added information they knew from other versions of tales.
The four types of female roles in sagas mentioned in a talk by Shani Oates earlier in the day are considered to be embodiments of masculine perceptions of feminine roles by the person who came up with the theory.
Another sees a masculine/feminine binary between hvatr (strong) and blaud (weaker) but both these are aspects of personality that people can move in and out of over time and in differing circumstances such as age, actions and inactions. Jenny gave an example of a man who in his prime was considered very strong and powerful in his actions but in his old age was much weaker, he was physically unable to do what he had done earlier in his life.
Most Sagas are written about the strong and powerful with day to day details of life rarely being included. Where ordinary tasks are detailed it is usually when they are linked to extraordinary events in some way. Jenny gave examples of this in her talk but I didn’t take notes on the specific examples.
“Placeness” is very important within the sagas and is often a key aspect of the tales. Often when you get versions of the sagas with maps included you can see that the people involved in the tales lived pretty closely to each other and often the places have several generations of the same family tied to that place.
Jenny spoke of seeress type figures in the Sagas and how many tales have them doing negative or malicious acts but that this was not only the case by any means. Many tales include aspects were wandering volvas were sought out by a community for aid and advice.
Again I didn’t take any notes on questions.
Keynote speaker 3: Dr Melissa Harrington, “Pagan Britain Heathenry in the context of the UK census 2001 and 2011.”
Dr Melissa Harrington was the third keynote speaker on Saturday speaking after the second panel. Melissa is a senior visiting lecturer in cognitive behavioral psychotherapy at the University of Cumbria.
Most of what Melissa spoke about was familiar to me from other places and I didn’t take any notes.
Guest speaker: Suzanne Rance, “The English Runes”
Suzanne has recently had published a book: The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination and her talk related to her work in this book. She was originally scheduled to be speaking on Sunday morning at the same time as a session on Galdr and if that had been the case I would have missed this talk in favour of the one on Galdr. As things worked out one of the Saturday speakers was ill so talks were re-arranged as so often happens at conferences. This turned out really well as far as I am concerned because I would have missed a fascinating talk that resulted in me buying her book. Like many my limited experience of runes has been of the Elder Futhark, the English runes were completely new to me.
Suzanne began her talk by mentioning that Tacitus had written of a divination method using pieces of wood marked with signs and that this is thought to be the earliest mention of using runes for divination. Runes began developing in approximately 250 BC and their are examples of inscriptions using them for magical purposes from a very early stage.
There’s a story recorded by Bede which mentions “loosening runes” which indicated that using runes for magic was well known.
The Ruthwell Cross includes English runes with a well known poem called the “Dream of the Rood” which gives and animistic view of the crucifixion from the perception of the cross. The Thames Scramasax, also known as the Seax of Beagnoth, is a tenth century seax found in the River Thames in 1857 and is now in the British Museum. It includes on one side all twenty eight runes of the Anglo-saxon (or English) runic alphabet.
As far as Suzanne knows there are no inscriptions on mainland UK in the Elder Futhark version of the runes. All are the Younger Futhark or the English runes. Tolkien mentioned and made us of the English runes in his works.
The Old English Rune Poem was recorded in the 8th Century and is the oldest surviving recorded rune poem, other runes poems and fragments that have been found are all recorded later. The runes poem includes descriptions that were almost certainly riddles and Suzanne gave some examples.
Towards the end of the talk Suzanne gave examples of ways that runes could be chanted and imagery that can go with chants for some of the runes and led a short practical session on chanting three examples.
This was a fascinating talk towards the end of a long day but I learnt a lot from it.
20/7/18 Edit: It was gently pointed out to me that I had referred to keynote speakers as guest speakers. Hopefully I have now corrected my notes for all those affected by my error.