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 https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/havamal.html#spells
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.