Thinking about colonisation

I am a member of a group called Heathen Women United and this year we have begun a year long project that links with the Year of Aun. Each month we are presenting a theme connected to a figure from history or the sagas and linked in some way to a being. We began this project in February with the figure of Uun the Deep Minded , Unnr one of the nine daughters of the oean deities Rán and Aegir and the themes of community and frith-weaving. In March we focussed on Þorbjörg lítilvölva (“Thorbjörg little-völva“), the deity Jörð (whose name literally means earth or land) and connections to the land.

This month our figure is Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, sometimes referred to as Gudrid the Far Traveller with themes of migration, colonisation and the Goddess Freya who according to the myths was part of a hostage exchange to end the Vanir-Aesir war and also travelled the world seeking her husband. While each of these figures are interesting in their own rights for various reasons, the theme of colonisation is what has triggered this post.

Colonisation is a complex subject and an often emotive one. It’s also something that very few, if any, countries in this world have not been touched by in some way or another through history. There have been many occasions in history when a nation first became powerful and then sought to expand into other countries, sometimes neighbouring ones, sometimes more distant ones. Frequently that expansion became hostile at some point with indigenous communities pushed out of their homes and abused. Native languages and cultural practices were often forbidden, sometimes for many generations leading to long term losses and sometimes the extinction of a culture and language. The traumas of these events often result in unseen and sometimes unrecognised multi generational wounds.

I live in Scotland. A nation that has had people forcibly removed from the land in some areas during the highland clearances. A land where the native languages of Gaelic and Scots were forbidden in schools and the numbers of native speakers of both has suffered immensely because of this. Similar events have taken place in other part of the United Kingdom. And yet Scotland is also still part of the United Kingdom, once known as the centre of the British Empire. Sons and daughters of Scotland, and the rest of the United Kingdom, were part of colonisation efforts in many other countries doing to others what had also been done to them and worse. Trauma begetting trauma and for many that trauma is still ongoing. A cycle that is known of in other areas of human interactions. I may not have been personally involved in the wounds of colonisation but there is a strong likelihood that at least some of my ancestors were.

As an individual where does my responsibility lie within these tangled threads? What lessons can I learn from history? Are there generational traumas connected to colonisation in my ancestry that could do with healing and if so how do I heal them? Or are have they already healed to some extent leaving old scars that should be acknowledged but not broken open again? I don’t think there are any easy answers.

And what of those whose colonisation traumas are still very much ongoing? At the very least I can to listen to their experiences so I can help my children learn. Maybe together all our children will learn the way to heal each other of these painful wounds.

Healing Pool

I walked along a rough path. On my right a small stream burbled along in a ditch with shrubs and trees beyond, on my left were fields. The day was pleasant, neither too hot or cold and just a gentle breeze. I relaxed to the sound of the stream and the song of birds going about their business.

As I walked I could see that the stream curved away into a pool. The path led me to the edge of an area with rough flat stones laid in the ground that curved part way round the side of the pool. There were a couple of rough wooden seats made from tree trunks beside the paved area, clearly placed so people could sit beside this pool and rest. The far side of the pool looked marshy and it looked like a range of wild plants grew in the marshy area. The land on the near side of the pool beyond the paved area curved into the edge of another field. Another stream ran out from the pool between the two areas of land making the pool a liminal place between wild and tamed land.

I sat on one of the benches, watched the dance of light across the water and listened to the insects and birds around me.

After a while I realised the light wasn’t reflected sunlight as the sun was behind a cloud. A quiet voice said “It’s healing energies.” I turned my head to see a woman sat on the other bench. She smiled and told me that healing energies gathered in this pool and that they could be added to and taken from but it was important not to disturb the balance. Healing energies added would gradually seep into the land at the edges of the pool and from the stream that flowed away from it. Adding energies to that flow was usually fine, taking it had to be done with care not to dry the pool out. I asked her if the pool had a name. “Many,” she said smiling, “but I know it as Eir’s Pool.” I thanked her and looked back at the pool for a moment. When I turned back to ask another question she was gone.

My painting of Eir’s Pool.

Sticking a label on it

For the last couple of years my path has gradually been changing. A lot of what I do in my personal practice is the same but there are newer elements. It all started when Loki came into my life. I now honour an increasing number of Heathen deities along with those from Celtic lands I have honoured for years.

Most Druids and Heathens honour ancestors and spirits of the land in some way. And in both communities if you ask a question you will get a multitude of answers – although Heathens will more often refer you to various written sources such as the Eddas and Sagas.

At the same time as these changes have been happening with my spiritual life I’ve also gradually become more confident about referring to myself as autistic in spite of being told that I didn’t fully meet “diagnostic criteria”. Yes, it still annoys me. Fortunately those that know me best, including my kids, as well as an assortment of adult autistic friends have recognised that I am autistic. I refer to it as being peer recognised.

I am still me. I am still Pauline, daughter of Siusaidh. I am also Potia Nighean a’Chailliche (the second part of that name I took in October 2019 as part of my promises to the Ancient One). I’m still a Hearth Druid and I’m proudly autistic. But now I’m adding a new label to my collection, I’ve fully accepted that I’m also Heathen.

More experiences with A’ Chailleach

This post follows on from my last one.

In late 2009 I had another very powerful experience in my growing relationship with A’ Chailleach. I was asked to be involved with the closing ritual at a Pagan conference held in Glasgow. I wasn’t organising the ritual or the conference but months before the conference I was asked by the conference organisers (who happen to be my parents) to take part in a ritual that would be centred around A’ Chailleach. I didn’t know the others that were going to be involved in the ritual but I said yes because at the time I was told that there shouldn’t be anything in it that would be a problem after all it was a public ritual and that further details would be sorted out nearer the time with those who would be leading the ritual who happened to be speakers at the conference.

And here I’ll just add that yes, my parents are also Pagan and their main path is Wicca. And no, I didn’t grow up with them as Pagans we all came to it separately in later life, my mum was first when I was in my late teens. It does however mean that I feel a sense of family loyalty in supporting some of the things they have organised over the years and I expect the same goes for them in supporting some of the things I have organised over the years.

Anyway the conference took place on Saturday 29th August and it wasn’t until the Thursday before that I heard anything more about the ritual and then it was only brief notes. By this time though I felt it was far too late for me to back out of the ritual even though what little I did see made me feel uncomfortable. The basic outline of this ritual was to put me on what was in effect a high seat at the centre of the ritual and for me to be A’ Chailleach and sing. The ritual leaders clearly had a different idea of what this could mean than I did, for me this wasn’t just being Her priestess but Her host. They hadn’t met me or talked to me before this time at all, they just knew I was reasonably capable from what they’d been told by others.

One of the other speakers was a friend of mine and I was able to discuss my concerns with him and before the ritual itself we laid out a couple of preparations which would allow him to help me if it was needed.

I had two major concerns. The first was that nothing would take place and that I would be acting. The second was that something quite powerful would take place and that I would have problems in coming back to myself. Recent online discussions and some hypnotherapy experiences had made me think that I may be more suggestible to trance situations than I had previously thought and this was a ritual situation that sounded likely to trigger a change in consciousness.

I had decided that in doing this ritual it would be more appropriate for me to remove my glasses and personal jewellery and wear items linked in my thoughts to A’ Chailleach. As part of my preparations I took my things off with ritual intent and gave them to my friend to hold for me. In returning them to me he would be able to help me ground myself in my more mundane life if that’s what I needed.

The ritual had me seated on a chair in the centre of the room with a circle of what must have been close to a hundred people around me. I wore a black robe with a plaited cord belt in colours I associate with A’ Chailleach that I had made a few years before. My face had been decorated and I was also wearing a veil that concealed my face. I held that precious wooden hammer I have mentioned earlier on my lap as this was a strong link to A’ Chailleach.

A bit of introductory words were said to introduce everyone present to who “the Cailleach” was and that the ritual would be calling on Her and asking for Her blessing. Then a ritual circle was cast and quarters were called by members of my parent’s development circle and coven. A few words were said gently calling “the Cailleach” to come to those gathering and show Her face. Then a chant and spiral dance was started off. The focus of all that energy was me and calling “the Cailleach” in through me.

I remember feeling that energy was building and feeling oddly colder as if someone had opened a door or window and I was in a breeze. The words of the chant were “We are many, we are one” As the spiral continued I started to hear words in my head “But I was first!” The chant became “We are many, we are one. But I was first!” in my mind.

I remember my body slowly standing. The spiral was no longer moving but the chant had sped up and feet were being stamped. I remember my body throwing up my arms, lifting the veil as it did so and then a shout “BUT I WAS FIRST!”. After that I was no longer I. I was there in the background but no longer the one controlling what I said or did. She said something about asking them to listen to Her words and to embrace Her challenge if they would. She then sang through me the “Challenge of the Cailleach” in the first person. It was different to how I sang usually. Part my voice, part my words but not completely either. In the last verse which mentions the Cailleach sleeping my body began to sit down again. As the voice stopped my head fell forward and my eyes closed and inside I felt this deep need to sleep. The “me” part of this knew that there were oatcakes and mead to be blessed so we struggled to stay alert enough to do this. After everyone else had had some the cup was brought to us and we drank and we were offered some oatcake – it felt dry and almost like dust. The ritual then started closing and oddly I remember strongly that there wasn’t a proper thanks and farewell made to the Cailleach.

As the closing progressed my body started to shiver and feel more and more drained. Inside I silently said my own personal farewells to A’ Chailleach and asked Her to leave me now. I wasn’t confident She was leaving or that She was leaving me behind and I remember feeling a bit scared that I wouldn’t fully return to being simply me. But Her presence sank down and eventually let “me” go.

After the ritual finished I called for my glasses. I can’t remember if it was at that point, slightly before or slightly afterwards that my friend asked me how I was feeling and gave me a talisman to hold. Finally things began to break up. To me it felt like a longish time but it probably wasn’t very long at all. An experienced Heathen friend came up to me and touched my hand saying her name and offering help. I said something about my other friend and then he was beside me again too. They both helped me up and we left the room for another quiet room. I was shaky and feeling drained.

It took a while for me to feel more myself. Those who had offered me help stayed with me the whole time and were an immense help and support. When I felt ready I asked for my rings back and that helped me feel more myself. I then got to the stage where I felt much more me and that I needed to get out of the robe and into my normal clothes. After that we went to the park across from the location of the conference and I made an offering which was burnt or charred anyway and thrown in the river. I still needed to eat but I was at least feeling much more myself by that point. The whole experience left me feeling drained and somewhat emotional for several days afterwards.

I’ve gone into a fair amount of detail about this experience because I learnt a great deal from it that I will share here. The first and most important thing I learnt is always know more about what you are getting into that I did when this particular ritual began. My second most important criteria is that any being that is invited to attend a ritual should also be given thanks at the end and, if appropriate, asked politely to depart for their usual abode.

If a ritual is set up with a possibility of someone hosting a deity that person should be willing and have some knowledge of the possibilities even if they are relatively inexperienced in doing such things. They should also have support and that support should ideally include at least one person who has had experience with hosting. The supporting individuals should ideally be prepared to offer support for days after the ritual takes place if required. This was a profound experience for me and it took me months to process some aspects of it. To let A’ Chailleach ride me in the way I did required a level of trust and submission of ego and because I already loved Her it was fairly easy for me to let go and trust Her. But as She left me on that occasion I also felt that She almost took part of me with Her and that was scary. The effects on my emotions afterwards were also unsettling.

I was fortunate to have the support I did at the time and more experienced polytheists and Seidr workers in the Scottish Heathen community to turn to in the months afterwards for further advice and training.

About six months after that experience while there was still snow on the mountain tops I was at a weekend camp in Wales for the members of Brython, a brythonic polytheist group. I had thought that while I was there I would undertake a shamanic style journey to seek A’ Chailleach and apologise to Her for my part in not making sure She was appropriately thanked and farewelled at the end of that ritual. I took with me an offering for A’ Chailleach of something that I had commissioned and did not want to part with that would go on the communal fire on the Friday evening. One interpretation of the difference between a sacrifice and an offering is that a sacrifice hurts more and giving this to the fire for A’ Chailleach hurt! On the Saturday we went on a walk up into the foothills of the Snowdonia mountain range and spent that night in a bothy. I struggled a great deal with that walk and felt I’d gone through a much more physical ordeal to seek A’ Chailleach out than I had anticipated. Afterwards I felt I had been heard.

At the beginning of 2011 I separated from my first husband and we later divorced. As part of the surrounding difficulties at that time my ex-husband destroyed the incredibly precious gift that I had been given by Andy Guthrie in 2003, the handcrafted hammer. I had thought it was safe where I kept it but I was wrong. I have more recently sought A’ Chailleach out in the wild glens over this loss to see if I needed to make some form of reparation. I was shown an unusual sight of a birch tree growing out of a long dead tall stump of a much older tree and given the word “rebirth” to go with that sight. My conclusion from that experience is that nothing else is needed. We move on.

The lunar devotional practices that I had developed for A’ Chailleach and others continued until about 2016. Sometimes I sang for Her, sometimes I sat in silence in the darkness. I usually made a libation of alcohol and that varied a bit. Sometimes it would be wine, sometimes port, sometimes hot chocolate or warm milk with honey. And as I began to develop a taste for single malt whisky sometimes it was whisky I offered. In 2016 I began to shift my practices away from a lunar cycle into an almost daily devotional pattern.  I now offer A’ Chailleach a libation on a Monday evening. As before it’s usually alcohol of some kind but not always, I tend to go with what I feel is right on the day.

Over time and with various experiences my relationship with She who I know as the Ancient Mother has deepened. As I write this these words it is close to nineteen years since I first called out to Her behalf of my friend Insa. I never imagined then the relationship that would gradually develop.

A’ Chailleach is not an easy Goddess to serve. She tests you, pushes you to learn and develop. Sometimes She can be as fierce as the winter storms but not always. In my experience She is not a Goddess that watches over you closely. She loves the wild and the fierce places in nature, She cares for those that dwell there. There are some people that She calls to and if they answer She will teach them what She wishes them to learn one way or another. If She calls to you think carefully before you answer. You don’t have to say yes, you could say no, or not yet, and She will probably listen as in my experience she wants you when you are willing. Be aware though that if you do say no you might not be given another opportunity to say yes. She’s not an easy goddess but She is a strong one!

On being a priest

This evening I feel twitchy in a non-physical way.  I feel as if I have forgotten something or I’m supposed to be doing something but I can’t think of anything it could be. This non-physical twitchiness is something that I am starting recognise more easily as promptings from those I serve to do something in particular.  This time I believe this twitchy feeling means that I need to write and, in particular, to write about being a priest.

This isn’t the first time I have written about priesthood but the last time was ten years ago so it’s probably about time I revisited this topic here.

Others have written clearly and in depth on a range of questions around being a priest. Most notably John Beckett has written several posts on priesthood the most recent one being “15 Roles of a Pagan Priest – How Many Is Too Many?“.  Also of fairly recent note is a series of three posts by Morgan Daimler starting with “Priesthood in Service to the Other – Part 1: The wide view“. If you haven’t read these posts I recommend you do so if this is a topic that interests you.

My thoughts on priesthood are coloured to some extent by these authors and to some extent by my own experiences and observations. There are a few public individuals in the UK that I feel embody something of what it is to be a priest. Each of them do this in different ways and some may use other titles.  I’m going to name a few of them and try and give some reasons why I consider them to be priests.

The first is Cat Treadwell and you can find her online at The Catbox.  She is self employed as a Druid and Priest.  Much of her work involves celebrancy but she also runs workshops, presents talks, offers divination readings, writes books and blogs and supports people on a personal basis too. Cat serves her community in many ways and is a public voice for druidry and paganism generally.  She does all this from a place of personal challenges and struggles with depression which she speaks about openly. I have still not met her face to face but hers is a voice that speaks from the darkness.

The next is Nimue Brown who writes at Druid Life. Nimue is also an author of books and blogs and she has also been presenting more talks, I’m not sure of she’s been doing any workshops.  My perspective of Nimue is of a woman with a whimsical sense of humour that has worked to overcome a number of personal challenges to get where she is today. She’s a mother, a folk musician and a keen observer of her local environment.  She is a different sort of Druid to Cat and I’m not even sure that she would claim the title Priest for herself but in my mind she is both Druid and Priest.

What these women have in common is that they are both Druids and both pretty public figures. They also both speak from a place of deep experience with extremely difficult personal challenges.

My next example is Dr Jenny Blain. Jenny is a retired academic and a Heathen.  She is a polytheist and animist with strong ties to her local land spirits or landvættir. It is harder to put into words why I consider her a Priest or in Heathen terms a Gythia. One aspect is her ability to lead ritual, another is her ability to share her knowledge with others both through her books and via more direct teaching but there is more to it than that. She is a Seidr worker, that in itself is not a simple thing to put into words as there are many forms of seidr. A basic and probably incomplete description is that seidr is a method of entering an altered state of consciousness which can be used to work magic or journey for various purposes.

My final example is Lorna Smithers. Lorna is a an author, poet and mystic. She has a deep and personal connection to her patron deity, Gwyn ap Nudd. Her priesthood is one of personal dedication and part of her dedication is a call to communicate some of what she learns and experiences through her writing and talks. She is, in my opinion, a priest due to her very direct service to her patron.

I could go on. I have deliberately chosen to highlight a few female examples of priests here but there are a number of men I also consider to be priests such as Damh the Bard, Adam Sargant, Phillip Shallcrass, Geoff Boswell, Robin Herne, Mike Stygal and Rich Blackett. Most of these are Druid types as this is the community I have been part of the longest. I’m still getting to know individuals within the Heathen community.  The main things they have in common are that I know them either personally face to face or online and I respect their opinions.

All of this serves to give a few examples of the complexity of what it is to be a priest. More recently I have started to think of myself as priest as well as druid.  I am not an author beyond this blog as yet (who knows what they future might hold). Currently I don’t give talks or presentations although I have in the past.  I can write and lead group ritual although I don’t do a great deal of this now. I have acted as a celebrant in the past too. None of these things are why I am using the term priest more lately.  I am a priest because I serve a number of deities and because I am a shrine keeper.

I am sworn firstly to the Herd Mothers and to the Ancient Mother I know as An Cailleach. I feel they are still training me and gradually making me ready for further service.  I also serve within my limited abilities Maponnos, Gofannon, Mannanan, Brigantia, Loki, Ran, Aegir and the daughters of the oceans. Some of these I have served longer than others, some I am still learning about but I honour them and give them offerings. This is why I call myself a Priest and Druid.



New patterns of devotion

Last summer I started feeling the presence of a few other deities to those I have regular patterns of devotion with.  One was a being I had a little experience of but others were new to me.  What they have in common are the seas and oceans.

The one I had some experience of is Manannán.  I had heard about him in various myths and in previous years had felt His presence by the shore and when I took a ferry to Arran.  Last summer I felt Him more strongly, particularly when we took a ferry to the Isle of Mull for a short holiday. His presence ebbed and flowed like the tide but last year His presence began to feel much stronger. If you are new to His name then you’ll find an overview here. For a much better introduction though I recommend Morgan Daimler’s book “Manannán mac Lir: Meeting The Celtic God Of Wave And Wonder“.

The other beings that made their presence strongly felt were from the Norse pantheon and the strongest of these was the Goddess Rán. I’ve written before about Loki entering my life but up to last summer none of the other assorted beings from Norse pantheon had made their presence felt so I had thought that Loki was going to be the only one.  That didn’t bother me in any way as I still thought of myself as primarily Brythonic.  Now I started to realise that maybe that wasn’t going to be the case long term. Along with Rán I also felt the presence of what I knew were Her daughters.  It wasn’t until I got home from Mull that I was able to check my feelings with information on the lore.  As the summer progressed into autumn it seemed like Rán and Her daughters had drifted away but then they drifted back again. Over the last year their presences have continued to ebb and flow in my life.

It got to the stage where I felt I needed to set aside some devotional space for beings of water and in particular the seas and oceans. My main altar was already full though so after a bit of thought I set up one of a set of three nested coffee tables as a shrine to being of the seas, oceans and rivers. I brought an indoor water fountain as the main focal point and added a small statue of a leaping dolphin, some sea glass and a hag stone.  The sea glass and hag stone were collected on beaches I have visited.  Since the photo below I’ve also added a shell from a more recent beach trip.

water shrine
Photo of my shrine to beings of seas, oceans and rivers.

And for a while that was it.  I felt the urge to make offerings occasionally but nothing regular. Last week that changed while I was out for a walk round my local park.  I was musing about the ebb and flow of these developing relationships and whether to try and make more regular offerings. I wasn’t sure how anything new would fit into the patterns I already have and suddenly I had a realization.

Ever since I had changed from a lunar patter of devotions to a weekly one I had struggled to keep touch with the lunar phases in the way that I had previously.  I used to make offerings to my ancestors on the dark moon, to Brigantia the day before a full moon, Epona on the full moon and An Cailleach the day after the full moon. When I started to make offerings to Maponos on Sundays my patterns began to shift to a weekly devotional cycle and I started to lose touch with the lunar cycles a bit. This sudden realization was that honouring the beings of ocean and seas would fit beautifully into a lunar pattern of devotions.  After all we are very aware of the influence of this planet’s moon in the cycle of tides.  Using a lunar pattern made sense, it felt right.

And so on this last full moon I began to add a new pattern into my existing devotional practices.  First I made my offering, prayed and communed with the deity of that day and then I turned my focus to the water shrine and made an offering there. As yet I have not developed any particular prayers for Manannán or Rán who are the strongest of the presences that drift in and out.  The shrine also has images honouring Rán’s nine daughters and her husband Ægir. My intentions are to now honour Manannán, Rán and her daughters and her husband Ægir at both full and dark moons.


Fourth post on HWU conference

This is the fourth (and last) in a series of posts with my notes from the Heathen Women United conference on 6-8 July in Preston.

The first post is Experiences and notes from Heathen Women United 2nd Annual conference which includes my notes on the first panel of speakers and the second post is Notes from HWU conference cont. which includes my notes on the keynote and guest speaker talks on Saturday 7th July. The third post More notes from HWU conference cont. includes my notes from the second panel and a small amount about the evening performance on Saturday.

This post will cover my notes from Sunday 8 July.

The first session of the day was a combination of talk and workshop presented by Alison Williams-Bailey on Galdr (a form of sung magical incantation). Alison spoke about some of her experiences learning about joik with the Sami people. She said that joik is a language for feelings and that it comes from nature.  A joik can be used as an anchor for journeying.  The most common form of joik is the personal joik and that a joik is “owned” by the being the joik is for or about.  There are a number of famous joiks such as the Bear joik and the Wolf joik, there is even a mosquito joik. Alison quoted a friend of hers that had spent time with some Aboriginal tribes saying “Indigenous means your heart is in the land”. Alison demonstrated a joik. The second part of the session was a practical workshop singing various Anglo-Saxon verses and in some cases doing simple dances with the songs.  This was my first experience of attempting to say or sing anything in Anglo-Saxon and I will admit I struggled with the pronunciation on a few things but it was great fun.

This session was followed by the third panel and last of the conference – Skuld. This panel included four speakers.

First to speak was Tom Berendt currently studying in the United States. His talk was titled “Ostara’s American Awakening: Invoking the Heathen Goddess of Fertility”. Tom spoke about the increasing popularity in America of Ostara as a Goddess linked to the Spring Equinox with the festival itself being increasingly referred to as Ostara.  The connection of Ostara to the Spring Equinox was first introduced by Aiden Kelly in 1968.  The origins of this are thought to be with Bede and his mention of Eosturmonath and a goddess named Eostre. Tom mentioned that Bede may overstated the popularity and importancce of Eostre, she may have been a local goddess for the areas now known as Kent in England rather than a much more widely known goddess.  Ostara has become much more popular though and her popularity has been increased by her inclusion in shte cast of characters in Neil Gaiman’s book and TV series “American Gods”. Ostara has become strongly associated with the spring and fertility particularly in neo-paganism.

Next to speak was Dr Edward Davies with the title of “The ‘Silent Voice’ of Heilræði: Surfacing from the Lake of Masculinist Infantilisation.” Edward first gave examples of women in sagas that had played roles of negotiation and diplomacy, roles where they were engaging in social mediation and justice. My understanding from this talk is that “heilræði” approximately means sound or wise counsel.  Edward mentioned that women in the sagas often seemed to prefer discussing situations before acting. He went on to talk about definitions of masculinist and feminist giving a definition of masculinist as having an emphasis on domination, the importance of power and tendency to belittle others. He went on to talk about different waves of feminism and how these were not necessarily tied to linear timing but more styles of feminist thought (if I have noted this correctly).

The third speaker in this panel was Ceallaigh Mac-Cath-Moran from Canada. Her talk was titled “Unverified Personal Gnosis: Mediating the Supernatural Among Heathen Women.” Ceallaigh started her talk by mentioning the recent #HavamalWitches reaction to some of the masculine domination within Heathenry which is a response to stanza 154 of the Hávamál and the statement “We are the witches the Hávamál warns you about”.

Stanza 154 for those not familiar with the Hávamál can be translated as:”A tenth I know: when at night the witches
ride and sport in the air,
such spells I weave that they wander home
out of skins and wits bewildered.”  from

Ceallaigh went on to point out that this is not a new reaction as Seidr is described in source materials as women’s magic. One aspect of Heathen practice is that of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Ceallaigh gave a composite definition for this which I didn’t note down ad she said that there isn’t a dictionary definition of this term. From her research Ceallaigh said that many treat UPG as not as important as information from the lore or archeology. UPG can become verified by a link to an event in the material world and that often this happens retroactively.

The last speaker in this panel was Dara Grey from the United States of America.  Her presentation was titled “Wiccatru, Folk Magic and Neo-Shamanism”. Dara began by talking about the various definitions of what makes something a religion and usually definitions include elements of belief, practice, experience, knowledge and consequences.  There is lots of debate about what aspects of Heathenry fit into these elements. Magic is often defined as separate from religion but lots of ritual practices include elements of magic. The phrase “Wiccatru” comes up in debates over disputed practices. Wiccatru can mean Norse elements within Wicca or Wiccan elements within Norse practices. More often it is used as a pejorative to dismiss something for example within arguments about doing something the right way.  Dara pointed out that we can not reconstruct the wider cultural context of ancient practices and this is a factor is the wider reconstruction of a religion.  There are many gaps in the lore leading to dilemmas over what “doing it right” looks like and for some this leads to anxiety about practices.

The panel question and answer session was lively and I did make a few notes.  One person asked if it mattered if belief in a particular deity was modern or historical. The responses agreed that it didn’t really matter and that it was important to remember that authentic perceptions were often more about consensus than historical facts.  It was pointed out that it is important to be careful when using the internet as a sole source for research.  Another person asked why authenticity was considered masculine. Dara responded that creativity was often seen as in opposition to authenticity and that women were often seen as being more creative and men more about being authentic.  It was noted that this attitude was cultural to some extent as it is stronger in the U.S. than in Iceland and Norway.

Following a lunch break with wonderful food we had talks from two guest speakers and another keynote speaker. The food on Saturday lunchtime was good but the food at Sunday lunchtime was better. It was a lovely soup and a range of artisan breads and some cake too. Very tasty!

The first guest speaker on Sunday was Suzanne Martin from the UK with a talk titled “Queer Heathenry: Heirs of the Bifrost – a queer heathen’s perspective”. Suzanne began with an overview of queer history and the main categories of “queer” people. From there Suzanne spoke about the growth of queer Heathenry over recent decades.  In recent years many groups have made explicit their stances on inclusivity. The Sagas include a range of elements that can be viewed with a queer interpretation such as Thor wearing a wedding dress or Skadi taking up weapons and seeking vengeance.  We have Odin performing seidr which was considered to be women’s magic and Loki not only changing into other species but changing gender too.  There are plenty of other examples in the lore. In modern culture Marvel films have added characters that are queer or have changed the gender of figures such as a recent film with Thor as a woman. Moving forward queer heathens are becoming more willing to come out and are being more accepted within their communities.

At the end it was mentioned that Suzanne is co-host of Frithcast, a podcast focusing on modern heathenry.

The final keynote speaker of the conference was Dr Deborah Moretti with a talk titles “The Witch and the Shaman: Perceptions of the Witch- Figure in Early Modern Italy”. This talk is based on work Deborah has undertaken doing a second PhD and working with Prof. Ron Hutton on a wider project about the witch figure in history. Her research looks at witch trial evidence in two areas of Italy one in the north and one in the south. In the north elements witch elements included flying to sabbats, demonic aspects and sabbats taking place on mountains. In the south ideas were different, more folkloric with the possibility of elements being from older traditions.  Deborah found no evidence within the witch trial documentation for shamanic style practices.  Some of the folkloric aspects do indicate possible older shamanic practices but no evidence was found.

The last guest speaker was Lorna Smithers with a talk on “Belisama and her Daughters”.  In this talk Lorna introduced us to the Belisama, goddess of the river Ribble which flows through Preston and the wells, springs and streams that were part of the local water table although mostly now built over.  She also shared some of her devotional poetry. Much of what Lorna spoke of you can read on her blog at Signposts in the Mist.

The conference ended with a closing blót. This was a simple sumble rite with mead and apple juice being circulated twice and some runic chanting included.

The whole experience of this conference was intense for me but really good. I learnt a lot and by the end of it I felt an unanticipated connection to the Heathen community.  I am so glad I made the effort to attend this conference and I look forward to seeing more from the Heathen Women United community.

More notes from HWU conference cont.

Third of a series of posts with my notes from the Heathen Women United conference on 6-8 July in Preston.

The first post is Experiences and notes from Heathen Women United 2nd Annual conference which includes my notes on the first panel of speakers and the second post is Notes from HWU conference cont. which includes my notes on the keynote and guest speaker talks on Saturday 7th July.  This post will cover the second panel of talks and a little about the evening entertainment.

The first panel was called Urd and this second panel was called Verdandi.  It included three speakers presenting information about aspects of contemporary Heathen practices.

The first to speak was Annie Humphrey currently studying for a PhD in medieval history in Ireland and originally from the North Eastern United States and her talk was titled “Heathen Motherhood in Theory and Practice”.  Annie spoke eloquently from personal experiences as well as from her observations and much of what she spoke of resonated with me.  She began by talking of how the role of mother could perhaps be better described as that of the nurturing parent and how even in the Heathen and pagan communities there tended to be a lot of stereotyping around parental roles. There can be assumptions that being a mother is the peak of what it is to be a woman which are often painful to those who do not have children either by choice or circumstances. Annie also spoke of how you loose your individual identity in many ways in becoming a mother, you are seen more as “mum” than whatever else you may be.

The second to speak in this panel was Barbara Davy from Canada speaking on “Women, Heathenry, Paganism and Ritual in Contempory Canada”. Her slides had the subtitle “to become Ancestors of a Living Future”. Barbara first spoke about her experiences as a guest at a Dísablót (rite honouring the female ancestors for those not familiar with this term) where a human skeleton was seated at the table fro a community meal along with the living guests.  Dísablót is usually held in the winter months around Yule although timings can vary. She went on to talk about her research on research and environmental values.  Pagans and Heathens feel a stronger connection to the land and wider world to a statistically significant level compared to those who do not follow a Pagan or Heathen path. Ritual is also more important and Barbara suggest that it is ritual that leads to many of the differences she has noted in her research. Barbara suggested that re-emphasizing Ancestor Veneration could lead to a better sense of wider connections with wights and the wider environment as well as our ancestors.

The third speaker was Raoul Zimmerman from France. His talk was titled “Men and Women in Contemporary Asatru in France.” Raoul spoke of his fieldwork in both Iceland and areas of France with different Heathen communities and comparisons between the areas.  He reported that the Asatru community in France was much smaller than in Iceland and the groups he had come into contact with in France were heavily male dominated. He also noted that there was more racism in the French groups than in Iceland.  In his experience the women in France connected with Heathenry in some way also tend to be much more open to ideas from wider Paganism.

There were questions at the end of the panel but I didn’t take any notes on the questions or responses.

The second panel took place after the second and before the third keynote speakers and I have written about all the keynote and guest speakers on Saturday in my previous post about the conference.

The final part of the day was a performance by Alison Williams-Bailey.  This was a solo song and storytelling performance called “Creation Song: A Norse Mythology Storytelling Show”. Alison’s performance lasted about 45 minutes and was a powerful demonstration of memorisation of both song and story.  I was happily enthralled as she moved, spoke and sang stories from Norse mythology. It was a wonderfully immersive experience.



Notes from HWU conference cont.

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.



Experiences and notes from Heathen Women United 2nd Annual conference

This conference took place at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston on 6-8 July 2018.

When I first heard about the conference I thought it sounded interesting but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to attend.  Fortunately things worked out and I was able to attend the Saturday and Sunday aspects of the conference just missing the Friday aspects.  What I missed on the Friday was some meet and greet time and the opening blot for the conference but no talks, the talks began on Saturday.

I did have some anxiety about attending the conference mainly due to worries about being in a new place, including the fears of finding the place and being on time, and meeting new people.  I had no idea what size of conference this would be although I did already know a small number of people that were going to be there so that helped.

Finding the place and getting there went very smoothly helped by the excellent information provided by the conference organiser, Linda Server. I was still a bit anxious on arrival and for a little while afterwards but that faded as the first day continued. I was feeling much more relaxed by the morning of the second day.  The first day continued for about 11 hours of talks, discussion and entertainment, the second day was a bit shorter but still a full day. Lunch was provided for the conference delegates on both days as well as a continual supply of tea, coffee, water and biscuits.  There were also a few stalls at the conference although I didn’t buy anything myself.

I took notes on nearly all the talks, sometimes very brief notes, sometimes longer notes.  My notes will not reflect the level of scholarship and research that the presenters demonstrated but will hopefully give a taste of what took place. Oh, and just to be clear, while this was organised by Heathen Women United attendance was not restricted to just women, there were a number of men there too.

Saturday began with a short welcome and opening statement from Linda Server with some announcements about last minute changes to the conference schedule.  Following that was the first panel of speakers. Panel one had the title “Urd” and included three presenters. Each spoke for about twenty minutes followed by a question and answer section directed at all three panelists.

The first speaker was Solveig Wang from Scotland speaking on “Women and Ritual in Old Norse Society”. Solveig spoke about the role of women as instigators of ritual in old Norse society as evidenced by both historical and archeological records.  Women of the house commonly officiated at rites with senior women in a community officiating at larger community rites. She mentioned a number of words and phrases such as “blótgyðya” which means a sacrificial priestess ( I hope I’ve written that correctly!).  She spoke of the importance of the women who carried and distributed the mead cup at feasts, the women carrying the mead cup had considerable influence and while in that role were sacred.  There are a number of figurines depicting cup bearing women from the archeological record and a couple of slides were shown with examples.  While most of the women in these roles were part of the the home and community there were exceptions, most notably those of the wandering Volva practicing the arts of Seiðr.

The second speaker was Shani Oates from the USA.  Shani’s talk was titled “The Silent Scream: Slaves, Concubines and Polygamy in Pre-Christian Norse and Icelandic Culture”.  Shani spoke about the way some scholars split women appearing in the Norse and Icelandic literature into four categories.  These are the warrior, the prophetess or spae-wife, the revenger and the inciter.  These four types can be further simplified into the sacred (incorporating the first two) and the mundane (the latter two).  She did mention the scholars behind these theories but I didn’t note the names.  Women in pre-Christian  Germanic and Icelandic society had the power ti raise matters for the “Thing” via their husbands.  If the matters they had raised were not dealt with to their satisfaction they could use a range of shaming tactics on their husbands including divorce.  Women would often be the instigator for blood feuds frequently pushing the men into action.  Much of the evidence for this and other examples are evidenced in various laws. There is a composite codex of the laws from these times in Iceland known as the “Grágás”. Abuse and violence towards women was considered shameful and as a result was minimal. In instances where abuse towards women did take place no shame was held against the women involved, instead their male protectors (husbands, fathers or owners in the case of slaves) were shamed.  For the pre-Christian wife loyalty was not expected to shift to her husband’s family but remained with her birth family.  That was something that changed with the spread of Christianity.  Married women had the right to inherit land and property in these pre-Christian societies.  In these earlier societies a Skald or a Gossip was someone who shared information and gave advice in their communities, it was an important role and it was only later that the term came to imply someone that simply talked to much or was malicious.  The mead cup ritual was mentioned during this presentation as well noting that the women carrying out this role could choose to give advice or ask for quests to be carried out, again this emphasized the importance of this role.  Shani also spoke of how it was qualities of personality that allowed people to rise in the pre-Christian Germanic and Icelandic societies.  Men and women with strength of will and intelligence could rise through their efforts.

The third talk in the first panel was from Embla Aae from Iceland and her talk was titled “A Comparative Look at Scandinavian Women’s Literacy in runes from Heathen to Christian Times”.  Embla provided some background to the development of runes through history starting with the Elder Futhark  which were used from late BC times to around 200 AD (if I’ve noted this down correctly).  By 400 AD the Younger Futhark was in use and that remained in sole use to around 600 AD. Dotted runes were fully developed and in use by arround 800AD, new graphemes came in after that between 1000 – 1200 AD with runes use dying out after that time. Before Christianity runes stones are usually memorial and neutral in terms of faith contexts.  Later a wider range of runes stones can be found but most are still memorial.  Women’s names do appear in rune stones as either the carver or someone that employed the carver but not very often.

I didn’t take any notes on the questions to and responses from the panel.  My next notes are from the first guest speaker but as this entry is already over a thousand words I am going to leave this here.