The Heart and the Feather – dealing with complaints of sexual abuse

The ‘Missing Stair‘ is a brilliant analogy about sexual predators that is taking central stage in many pagan discourses, possibly better known in the US than the UK. It’s a very useful and necessary tool to raise awareness about how and why predatory behaviour may end up being ignored, and accusations dismissed.

As it’s territory that’s well covered elsewhere, so I want to turn to a different subject: the problem of safeguarding justice on both sides. This is, if you like, the second stage. The one that comes after the stage of everyone agreeing on the need for a Code of Conduct and not dismissing accusations, even if they’re made against a well-known and well-respect figure. This is about how one handles accusations in order to be fair to everyone.

I’m sure some people reading this will be getting annoyed already. So perhaps I’d better present my credentials. Back in the early 90s I was selected by a trade union committee covering a fair chunk of England to become an expert in Equal Opportunities. Scroll on a few years and much training from a specialist lawyer and barrister, and I became a para-legal in the field. Then I worked with management to find softer solutions that were less stressful for everyone – to deal with problems so that going to court wasn’t needed. That didn’t mean being soft on perpetrators, just trying to avoid a form of nuclear fallout. I joined a specialist management team to explore all options, helping to set up and train dedicated “first port of call” workers in our offices who would help those who had experienced harassment or abuse… and to help those accused of it.

You see, I had worked on both sides as a para-legal. I’d represented people of both genders whom I suspect of bad attitudes that they really needed to change, that had brought down on them reactive behaviour from others that resulted in – quite frankly – personal messes that spilled out into the industrial environment. That dragged in all their colleagues. I was a specialist in trying to deal with such messes. I designed and ran awareness courses for managers and trade union reps. I maintained the training of the “first port” workers, arranged the training and briefing of investigators into complaints of harassment and abuse, negotiated every type of associated procedure you can think of, and spent the rest of my time mediating solutions to near-intractable problems. And, if that wasn’t enough, a spent a few years working as complaints manager for the longest established pagan organisation in the UK, designing codes of conduct and acting as an investigator.

Generally, designing codes isn’t a problem. The problem is operating them. And the biggest problem with operating them lies with one issue: how to deal fairly with a complaint.

If one makes the assumption that all accusations are untrue (or true), then everything is simple – but also unfair. For example, two good male friends of mine have suffered complaints against them. Let’s take A as an exemplar. A was accused of rape. The alleged incident took place without witnesses. Now, I knew A was the last person to have committed such a crime but – thankfully – I wasn’t involved in this. In fact, there were ulterior motives for the accusation, but none of that came out as there was no formal complaint and no investigation. It was all a matter of spoken and written allegations to anyone who was willing to listen. The complaint was assumed by many to be true because of two common but mistaken attitudes:
(1) “there’s no smoke without fire” and
(2) no one in their right mind would make such a complaint unless it were true.

Now, hopefully you agree with me that the law (or a code of conduct) has to protect everyone. So, if an accusation has been made against someone, it should be tested before being acted upon. Are there witnesses? What do they say? Are there previous complaints about the same behaviour from the same person? What was the outcome of those? Is there any evidence to support the allegation? What are the details?

As anyone who has been an investigator (and I spent many periods in my life a professional investigator, manager and trainer of wannabe investigators) knows, people lie. There are certain indicators of lies being told, most of which can be boiled down to vagueness or ‘I forget’. So detail is important. If you’ve ever watched a TV crime drama you’ll know how much of the solution comes from checking the details. This should hold for any accusation that has the power to destroy a person’s reputation within our communities. So, where’s the a code of conduct, those who have to administer it should also be aware of the basic tools for examining the evidence in order to come to a conclusion about whether or not a complaint may be true. without that, the rush to remedy one wrong – the missing stair syndrome – replaces it with a new wrong.

If there is a code, there should be an attempt to test the information before coming to a conclusion, and trying to base that conclusion on the evidence, rather than on personal prejudice. That doesn’t imply any harshness – such testing can be done with sensitivity and sympathy. Someone can be genuinely in distress, but that doesn’t mean their complaint is true. Someone can be lying or hiding something they don’t want to divulge, but that doesn’t mean their complaint is untrue. People are complicated. And, because people are complicated and things are rarely straightforward, trying to be fair means giving the accused person the right to know the details and to answer them.

Let’s take an example. Annie’s son has been bullying Brenda’s son for months. Brenda confronts Annie, who refuses to do anything. In fact, Annie goes to the police to (falsely) accuse Brenda of hitting her. The case goes to court but Brenda is only told the accusation is that she hit Annie. she isn’t told when or where or how, and is given no means to defend herself. In court, she is not permitted any representation.  The jury are asked to make a decision based on looking at the two women and listening only to Annie. Annie brings two or three friends to court to say they, also, have been hit by Brenda. Again, Brenda is not permitted to know the details and the police have not checked them in any way. I’m sure everyone hearing that would think that this process is entirely unfair to Brenda.

Now, I want to be fair to Brenda. The problem, of course, is that (a) to be fair to both parties, an investigation should be carried out – but professional training for this sort of activity is rare, and without that, prejudice tends to creep in. And (b) if a code is fair to all parties, and the investigations are impartial and unprejudiced, then the conclusion will often offend the complainers. and their friends. And, once that happens, everyone resorts to gossip.

Another problem is that often, complainants don’t want to go ‘on the record’. They want to make their complaint, to be believed, and for the person they complain about to be punished – all without their name being mentioned. As you can see (if you’ve read this far) that means they don’t want the accused to know the details of the complaint, in case s/he subjects them to more harassment and/or threats. I’ve seen that happen, too. But if the evidence isn’t presented to the accused, we’re back to Brenda.

If you think I’m going to come up with a solution to all this mess, you’ll be disappointed. Neither I nor any expert I talked to had one. Oh, we issued instructions to everyone during an investigation not to gossip, and we did all we could to protect the accuser and his/her friends and allies against harassment – but you can’t protect someone from snubs and worse, in the workplace. And the same goes for the pagan community. The sad truth is that finding a solution means compromise on both sides. I’ve worked on mediations that have broken my heart and – after hours of intensive work to gain an agreement – left me ill for hours. And no one was really satisfied because a compromise often means getting the bare minimum of what you want. But sometimes, that’s all there is.

So, no – no solutions. We do not have Anubis’s scales to measure what lies in the hearts of those involved in a complaint. All I’m doing is raising awareness of some of the issues I haven’t seen discussed much. However, if you want to read one excellent conversation (within the LARP community) that touches on these points, try this.


Nature Worship

One of the ‘essentials’ deemed to characterise paganism is nature worship. This is another fun area where language gets in the way, between monoculturalists and recons, at least in the UK. I can’t speak for the US.

So I got into a conversation about this, recently. It began with someone posting a link to a medieval work that is fascinating. It’s by an 11th century German Bishop and it’s pretty similar to other clerical fulminations against pagans. Because it includes a list of penances, it details specific sins and the penance to be given for each sin. This means outlining common forms of folk magic and witchcraft practiced in that time and place.

To my eyes, it echoed things I’d come across in Anglo Saxon texts and other Christian edicts against folk religion pagan remnants. The problem was, that someone felt it provided evidence for ‘nature worship’. I skim through it and can’t see anything that leaps out at me. so I ask, which bits? this is what I’m pointed to:


OK, reasonable enough at surface glance, if one is inexperienced in dealing with these texts. But the problem is that this is being filtered through the mind and worldview of a medieval Christian bishop. What he’s describing sounds like Christian-speak to me.

Now I’m not a medievalist, but one of the first things I did when I became a pagan was to read Prof Ronald Hutton’s works. He’s a historian, and he never commits himself to express an opinion that the text can’t support. I prefer that. I prefer to distinguish between what the evidence tells me and what I choose to believe. I like to know the difference. Yeah, I know – it’s kinda weird. Especially for a pagan. 😉

So, I say: Although those things are part and parcel of Heathenry, by then they were surely a part of folk religion, rather like the various customs attached to Hallowe’en, Christmas or the New Year these days? The acts tend to linger even where all religious significance has fled, at least for 90% of the population. Most of the remaining 10% are the Christian priests railing against the practices, much as you see reports occasionally of modern priests going off on one against yoga in church halls, or astrology.

So the person I’m talking to decides to define worship. A very reasonable thing to do, in the circumstances. They explain what worship means to them, which comes down to awe and reverence and the observance of ritual acts to express that. A nice definition and one I have no problem with. If that’s one’s definition, then surely reading that stuff about observing pagan customs at certain times means worship and sure-fire evidence a continuing pagan religion. Doesn’t it?

Well, call me a skeptic, but…

Now you’re wondering where I’m coming from, aren’t you? OK. It comes down to importing our meanings into someone else’s actions. The first amazing thing I encountered, when I started studying theology, was that different words are used in very different ways in different times. Cultures change and word usage moves quickly. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of documents relating to bishops, monks, priests and popes trying to dissuade or threaten old time Heathens and Celts from engaging in the old-time practices. Some of those practices continue today, such as clootie trees. Some are associated with practices foreign to Anglo Saxon peoples today, such as mound sitting and feasting the dead (though that’s still practised in Baltic states, halfway between Slavic and Heathen religions).

Worship is an old Anglo Saxon word meaning (broadly) ‘worthy of respect’. The medieval clergy did their best to ensure that Heathen ways were not regarded as ‘of respect’. From the outset, they tried to sever the ties with the ancestors, by making graveyards into places to be feared, rather than places to consult (and share food with) one’s elder kin. Here’s an example of that from the late 7th century. ‘Punishments for heathens and others who turn from the Church of God’ :

If anyone, in ignorance, eats or drinks by a heathen shrine they are to promise never to do so again and to do forty days penance on bread and water. If it is deliberately done again, that is, after a priest has declared that it is a sacrilege and the place of demons, the offender shall do penance on bread and water for thrice forty days. But if it is done to glorify the idol the penance shall be for three years.

There is at least one similar invocation against priests who help, by blessing food and drink at graves. And you’ll notice how ttalking with and respecting one’s ancestors has been reframed in Christian-speak as an idol. It’s a short step from there to a demon, and so graveyards become shunned. But there are many steps on the way and, during that process, actual worship – something done knowingly in honour of a god or other unseen being (my definition) – dwindles down to superstition – something done without knowing the reasons, because you were taught that it either creates good luck or averts bad luck. Just for an example – were you aware of how and why graveyards came to become spooky when you walk through one and shiver?

The point is this: the existence of practice (which lasts longer than belief) is no evidence of belief. Celebrating certain festivals, such as Christmas, is a common thing in most modern Western cultures, but it’s no evidence that those who celebrate it are Christians. Even worse if we were to judge the depth of that imaginary religious belief by the numbers of family and presents, and amount of food and drink. Ritual is not evidence of belief.

We understand that. Every year, when the Churches cry out against the commercialism of Christmas and asks everyone to remember the ‘real’ Christmas, we understand that the Yule logs and Christmas trees and drunkenly attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve are not worship of anything. Even if the Church tells us it is. At Christmas the demon is the modern one of commercialism, whereas for Hallowe’en many priests descend to more medieval language.

But that still doesn’t make trick-or-treaters demon worshippers. That’s all in the mind of the priests, not the participants.

Let’s go back to astrology. Many Christians are extremely attached to reading their horoscope. That doesn’t make them pagan or even non-Christian – but some clergy will label it both pagan and worshipping the stars. I’ve never encountered any daily horoscope readers willing to claim they worship the stars, but to that clerical mindset, anyone that refuses to lay something aside on being told it’s not Christian is engaging in idolatry by worshipping something other than Christ. And it must be worship, or else they would give it up.

So I become a bit cautious when reading a clerical sermon or essay within that mindset, which was common in medieval times. I am having to rely – in effect – on the description given by a fanatic fundamentalist Christian who believes that’s straight devil worship. Just because the guy giving the description says it’s devil worship, doesn’t mean there’s a devil or that there’s any worship going on – in the sense he means, anyway

If you ask me what I think was going on in the minds of those who carried out these acts – stripped of the Christian description of it. For 90% of them, I think it’s exactly the sort of thing that drove my mother to avoid walking under a ladder; or those who deliberately stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve to ‘see the New Year in’, often by sending someone out into the night with certain artifacts, to return to the house after midnight in order to guarantee good luck for the household. I’ve asked the questions about “where do you think the luck comes from?” or “Why does this thing have to be done in that way? Who says it has to be?” and been told (in effect) that that’s the way it is. Some people become irritated or flustered when asked how their folk beliefs marry up with Christianity but that doesn’t mean they are worshipping (in the case of the New Year’s Eve ritual) coal or money.

We have no idea what was in the mind of those who carried out such rituals a thousand years ago. I would love to believe they knowingly did this understanding they represented a remnant of pagan practices, and they did these things for that reason.

One argument put is that most people were closer to nature, back then, and so it is reasonable for nature worship to have continued. And that reading of worshiping the stars and the sun is an expression of that. But this is a modern mindset. It assumes that all people shared the modern nature=good concept. however, we cannot push that back into earlier centuries. They thought differently, then. As recently as Victorian times, given the choice, millions abandoned nature to live in the city slums.

Yes, the folk back before the Industrial Revolution were dependent upon nature. I agree most people worked the land and even those who didn’t would have had lives governed by the cycle of growing food. I’ve spent most of my adult life living in rural areas, listening to the farming programmes and even visiting farms. As a Heathen, I spend a lot of my life living by a lunar calendar, closely observing the natural cycle around me. The Heathen worldview is deeply embedded in me – a worldview that is greatly attached to the natural world, but which would resist any attempt to label that as ‘nature worship’.

In my experience, many of those who talk about worshipping nature aren’t the people who depend upon it for their lives. The pre-Christian pagan peoples of Europe – Celtic, Heathen, Hellene, Slavic or Roman peoples didn’t express a worship of nature. They saw the world as alive with hidden folk and gods, and their relationships of respect were with those wights and gods who might make their hard lives easier. Their relationships were to *people*, and this is marked by the Heathen word wight, which originally covered the gods, hidden folk, animals and humans. These days, it’s reserved for the hidden folk, but not back then.

Their rituals – such as the Anglo-Saxon Æcerbot or an equivalent Roman ritual to Mars – were designed to persuade the gods and hidden folk to help them control the land and their fates. The church in medieval times (and parts of it still, today) call that ‘idolatry’ and worshipping the sun or moon or stars or whatever. That’s a simple weapon for the priesthood to smack heads with. It doesn’t mean those accused of it actually worshipped nature, any more than it means dressing your child to go out trick-or-treating is worshipping the devil.

It’s a matter, as ever, of trying not to export one’s own beliefs and assumptions into another culture.

Yeah, more easily said than done. 😉

Pagan Monoculture – say ‘pagan’, mean ‘witch’

I grow tired of the number of times I see this, on pagan fora. And I am always taken by surprise – why, after all these years, do so many still equate ‘pagan’ to magic, Wicca etc? Are so many new pagans still ignorant of the breadth of traditions within paganisms, and that they don’t all believe the same things? How does this happen?

There’s a forum I’m on which has ‘pagan’ in the title. Let’s call it ‘Pagan Education’, as its title implies that.  Yet 99% of the comments there seem to derive from the monoculture of pop-wicca i.e. a paganism built upon what are perceived as Wiccan practices and beliefs, even if the beliefs aren’t generally held by lineaged Wiccans within the UK. The monoculture assumes that, if some pagans aren’t part of all of it, at least they share ‘essential’ beliefs. Things like the Wheel of the Year, worship of nature, and worship of gods.

Nope. Either nope – as in the festivals – or nope as in ‘not the way you do’. At that point, bafflement sets in for the pagan monoculturalist.

Perhaps we’re back to there being such a critical mass of ignorance among pagans, many of whom never seem to look outside their own beliefs, that it so eliminates any voice expressing difference that those voices fall quiet. This has happened to me. If you’re black, living in what society and with different experiences to everyone else, after a while you realise that the only options are either to shut up or to turn into some funfair exhibition.  “Oh, it’s just X banging on about Y again. Ignore her.”

Let’s go back to the ‘Pagan Education’ forum.  I guess I began to feel I might have been misled by the title of the group when the leaders kept posting stuff that talked about ‘traditions’ when they seemed to mean Wicca/trad. OK, I’m used to being a lone voice, and the name of the site clearly expressed the desire to share information between pagans, so I expressed the recon line, as I tend to do if talking mainly to monoculturalists. After all, Heathenry’s not exactly a minority within the pagan community, these days.

Nope. Everyone continued to chat away about witchcraft.

The leaders of the group seem intent to put out at least one post a day, designed to engender comment and discussion. It’s a great idea – shame about the fuzziness. After observing the phrase ‘the Craft’ being thrown around in a few of these posts, I initiated a thread, asking what people mean by the phrase?

As expected, everyone seemed to have a different idea. Oh, there were one or two voices I’d seen and respected on other fora who put forward the idea it might be lineaged Wicca, but they were largely swamped by the opinions that ranged from witchcraft – any – to (I kid you not) any and all pagans, including Heathens.

You know, there are times when I’m almost pleased to be the lone recon voice on a site. Had there been a few more Heathens – or CR, RR, Hellenismos etc etc – there might have been a small ruckus at being labelled ‘the Craft’.

Move on. The monoculturalists didn’t get it, though lineaged Wiccan friends did – and fell about laughing. “It’s absolutely meaningless!” one exclaimed to me, in private. “Everyone means something different!”

The worst occasion I saw on that site was when one of the leaders asked for recommendations for books for a new pagan. 99% of the recommendations were the usual culprits – Marion Greene, Scott Cunningham, Vivienne Crowley etc.  One or two of us asked what path the new pagan might be interested in? One person recommended a book that explored different paths – and received a dismissive response. I suggested mythology might be good. No one was interested. Another –

Wait. Let’s just rewind on that. Here’s a group purporting to be for Pagan Education and no one is interested in mythology? OK, so what I’m seeing here, in a number of threads, is that pagan = witchcraft and pagan education = leading people into magic.

Guys, it simply is not so. Worse still, you are now part of the problem, in that the name of your website is part of this lack of meaning that makes words useless. Like ‘the Craft’. If pagan = witch, then what becomes of the word ‘pagan’? What word can be used in its place?

I begin to understand why so many recons simply turn their back on the word. They feel that pagan=sub-Wiccan monoculture that excludes them, so they may as well exclude it. Because no one wants to listen. No one is actually interested in what our pre-Christian ancestors wrote about the gods. No one wants to know that there are very many different forms of paganism, all rich and vibrant and exciting – and not a monoculture.

Working with Loki

The Golden Age by Yoann LosselThe Golden Age by Yoann Lossel


A couple of days ago I attended a talk given by someone in their 20s, about “Trickster Gods”. I put that title in inverted commas not to indicate it is a title, but to indicate it failed to live up to my expectations. I might have expected mention of Hermes, Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Odysseus, Gywdion, Lugh, Maui, Eshu/Legba, or Krishna.


Instead we had a heavy dose of stuff copied from the internet, plus multiple mentions of Loki and passing reference to Coyote and Raven. Not at all what I’d hoped for, as I’d come to learn (or so I hoped) from a fellow practitioner.

A friend said after the talk “I doubt she’s ever met Loki. I doubt she’d interest him.” To which I could only respond “Oh, she might. But not for the reasons she thinks.” And not at all the sort of interest anyone in their right minds would want.

If that sounds smug – believe me, it isn’t. I’ve worked with Loki for over a decade. I pay his tax, as I call it. I know he always wants his fun.

I can’t make a journey without something unexpected or downright weird happening. I can’t depend I will get anywhere on time – or even arrive. The same thing happens with technology or countless other things that interest him. It’s not as though I don’t deliver. I spend my life writing fantasy thrillers in which he’s the main character. I offer him expensive booze far too often.  I’m always talking about him. In fact, you might think he owns me… but he doesn’t. And in return, he plays his tricks. They’re part and parcel of the relationship. First it’s the charm; then the seduction; then the tricks. And if I’m not willing to accept that, it’s better to call it a day and find someone else to work with.

And if all that sounds as though working magic with him is a dicey business… oh yes. But when he agrees to take an interest in a working, he delivers. In spades. It’s just that it might not be exactly in the way you thought of.

Now that speaker got one thing right. She said that trickster gods are dangerous. She even had a scary font to emphasise the point. But then she went and ruined it all by saying it was great to call on them to help with a working because their energy was powerful. And you could offset the danger by calling on another, safer, god, to provide balance.

Yeah. Right. Like gods are there at the click of human fingers just lining up to do whatever the human wants, at their command, with nothing in return.

It isn’t just trickster gods who are dangerous. ALL gods are dangerous. No, they don’t need us to “wake them up” as the speaker had it. They don’t need us at all. For some unknown reason, some of them want to interact with us. Some even wish to be generous and benign. Others are strict. And some… well… I wouldn’t want a relationship on any terms with some.

So let’s get this right. If we ask (ASK, not demand or summon) a god to help us, and we know they have a certain reputation, then we should damn well realise that it’s highly unlikely we’re going to be able to limit them taking what they want. Or, if we do try to curb their fun too much, then there’s no point trying to convince yourself they are helping you work any magic. Because they won’t.

One may as well believe that the fay are tiny, attractive adolescent females with butterfly wings. Yeah. Take a look at Yoann’s picture at the top of the page. He’s got it right.

You want to know what working with Loki is like? It’s like the time I found myself walking the edge of a volcano, listening to the seductive voice tempting me to jump right in “The spell will work better that way.”

Well you can. And I’ve no doubt it will. But he won’t respect you for it. If you even recognise what “you” is any more. Because it won’t be the same “you”. And, incidentally, the spell worked just fine without doing that. Lightening fast and effective beyond my imagining.

Or then the was the time I helped out a friend by clearing their house (at their request) of bad stuff. I was left unable to move for hours. And the friend’s marriage broke up within 2 weeks. It happened that the friend is very happy. I’m not so sure about his ex-wife, though.

And then there was the time I was asked to help a friend clear other bad stuff from their house. Oh yes. After three years of not being able to do it herself, that worked. But he had a whale of a time with that one. All sorts of supernatural shenanigans, including the ghost of a wolfhound. Well, we should have seen that one coming. 😉

That’s all Folks!





A Ritual for Thor

Tor såsom Freya” by Carl Larsson (1853-1919) and Gunnar Forssell (1859-1903) as described above. Photograph by User:Haukurth. – The image is found on page 105 of Fredrik Sander’s 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Tor såsom Freya.jpgCandlemas

Like many Wiccans, we don’t feel the need to call this Imbolc. It seems to have been celebrated as Candlemas by the early covens, and may have been popularised as Imbolc by the publication of the books later compiled into “The Witches Bible” by Janet and Stewart Farrer. They wrote these in the early 80s, shortly after moving to Ireland, and the rituals are transformed to point towards the ancient Celtic religion.

Anyway, our links with Bride have become tenuous and we were looking for something else to do. In the end, we settled on Thor. There is a link, in that Iceland has celebrated a day for Thor around this time since the second half of the 19th century. Besides, Thor is a lovely god, so why not? We decided to act out the comic story told in Thrym’s Tale. Though it wasn’t written for the purpose, this would be a great piece to use if you want to find something that’s missing or take revenge for theft. 😉

An Updated “Lay of Thrym”

Narrator: One morning Thor woke up to find that his hammer was missing. He was not pleased. He stomped around and called for Loki.

THOR: LOKIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

LOKI: What is it now? Whatever it is, I’m not being a mare again. Not for anyone.

THOR: My hammer’s missing. We need to find it.

Narrator: So Loki and Thor went to see Freya.

THOR: someone’s taken my hammer and Loki’s going to help me find it.

FREYA: Fine. Whatever. Anything I can do to help, just tell me. Just don’t try any funny business with me, OK?

LOKI: Funny business? Moi? How can you say such a thing? I just need to borrow your feather cloak to go spying.

FREYA: That’s fine. Take it and fly!

Narrator: So Loki flew off in the form of a hawk. He wandered the worlds and talked to all sorts of people until someone told him to try the ettin, Thrym. So he flew to Ettinland and found Thrym weaving magic into his sword. Loki landed beside the giant.

THRYM: Well, well. Look what the wind’s blown in. What are you doing here, Troublemaker? Have the gods sent you to sort something out again?

Narrator: Now Loki had had plenty of time to cook up a story designed to persuade Thrym to hand over the hammer.

LOKI: Oh nothing. No one sent me to do anything. I’m just doing some research. I’ve heard that someone’s making hammers and trying to sell them as Thor’s. I don’t suppose you’ve bought one, have you?

Narrator: Then Thrym smiled a very unpleasant smile indeed. He wasn’t born yesterday. Everyone knew Loki.

THRYM: A copy? Damn! I’ll just have to destroy it, then.

LOKI: No, don’t bother. Just give it to me and I’ll dispose of it.

THRYM: You think I’m an idiot? If you want it back, you need to give me something equal in value. I’ll take the beautiful Freya. And don’t even think of cheating me. I’ll run you through without a moment’s hesitation. And don’t think you’ll find it, either – I’ve hidden well. Even well enough to hide from you.

LOKI: Really? Underwater, then?

THRYM: You think I’m playing twenty questions with you? Just bugger off and get me Freya.

Narrator: So Loki threw on the cloak and flew back to Asgard. Thor was watching on the battlements and seized him as soon before he could even fold up the cloak.

THOR: Did you find it?

LOKI: Do you want the good news or the bad news?

Narrator: hearing that, Thor let out a mighty groan, because he could see where that was going.

THOR: <mighty groan> Is there any good news?

LOKI: Well, I know who has it. The ettin, Thyrm. He’s willing to give it back in exchange for a small payment.

THOR: That’s brilliant! What’s wrong with that?

LOKI: Well…. the small payment is Freya.

Narrator: Thor did not take this well.

THOR: What??????????????????????????????? Oh, that’s that, then. Why don’t we just go and kill him and his whole family and be done with it?

LOKI: Just give me a few minutes. I’m sure I can think of a way to present this….

Narrator: So Thor and Loki went to see Freya again.

LOKI: Freya! Just the person! Time to go shopping for that special dress. I’ve found exactly the right man for you.

FREYA: What…? Why…? When did I ask you….? Oh no! Is this another one of your schemes? If you think I’m going to let myself be ransomed again, you are off your trolley. Don’t even go there.

LOKI: No, no! No dragons, this time. I promise! No ransoms. Well, not for you. Just a wedding. Seriously.

Narrator: Loki looked so sincere Freya almost fell for it.

FREYA: I just know I’m going to regret this. But I’ll bite. Who is this wonderful god?

Narrator: Thor started laughing though he tried to disguise it.

THOR: He’s not a god. He’s an ettin.

Narrator: Freya was not happy. Freya was distinctly not happy.

FREYA: An ettin?? Are you out of your cotton-picking mind?? A GIANT??? You think I’m desperate or something???

LOKI: Now, Freya, sweetheart. Your brother was perfectly content to marry a giant. Thor’s wife is an ettin. Both my parents are ettins.

THOR: That might not be….

FREYA: Case proven, I think?

Narrator: seeing that Freya wasn’t about to go along with Loki’s scheme, Thor sighed. Time to think of something else. So he called on all the gods to help. They argued for eight days. Then Heimdall the Wise came up with a plan.

HEIMDALL: Right, we’re going to have to fool Thrym into surrendering the hammer. A marriage is the perfect opportunity. Once the ceremony is over and the feasting ended, he’s going to have to place a hammer in the bride’s lap for the blessing, and what other hammer is he likely to use? So all he needs is the bride.

THOR: all well and good, but Freya refuses.

FREYA: Damn right. Leave me out of this. You notice the hammer only comes after the wedding ceremony? No chance.

HEIMDALL: You misunderstand me, cousin. I wasn’t thinking of you. I had in mind someone else entirely.

Narrator: the gods were all agog. Who could Heimdall mean? Heimdall was happy to explain.

HEIMDALL: what better bride than Thor himself? The wedding will have no effect on two men. All we need to do now is to dress him up in the right clothes.

Narrator: Then everyone fell about laughing at such an idea. Except Thor.
THOR: Dress up like a woman? Not on your life! You can forget that! I’m not giving everyone the chance to call me a big girl’s blouse!

LOKI: Oh right. So shall we hand Asgard to the ettins now? Or shall we wait until they beat the shit out of us?

Narrator: So they dressed Thor up as a bride, with the works: dress, veil and all. And Freya loaned her precious Brisingamen, to convince Thrym he was marrying her. Meanwhile, Loki dressed up as a bridesmaid. Then Thor harnessed up his goats and drove the two of them to Thrym’s kingdom. Thrym heard them coming and was delighted.

THRYM: She’s coming! I’ve got riches a-plenty. I’ve got golden taps and diamond studded shoes and champagne every night in the hall. All I needed was a treasure like Freya to make it all worthwhile. Sister! Time to pull out the wedding gifts!

Narrator: So Thor and Loki arrived, and gifts were exchanged. Thrym presented Thor with beautiful dresses, while Thor and Loki gave handsome red dresses and shirts to all the ettins present. The wedding followed, and then everyone went to the feast. And what a feast! Thor did his usual. He consumed:

ALL: twelve ostrich drumsticks
Eleven lambs done leaping
ten Texan beefsteaks
nine bowls of goat stew
eight crates of strong ale
seven bowls of baked beans
six whole turducken
five rounds of cheese
four pigeon pies
three North Sea cod
two giant squid
and a porker roasted whole on the spit!

Narrator: But I think Thrym was most worried by the baked beans.

THRYM: That’s some appetite! But not exactly what I expected from Freya.

LOKI: Ah, but she hasn’t eaten for eight days. She’s been saving herself for this wedding.

Narrator: Thrym was so stricken with love, he tried to raise the bride’s veil and kiss her. But he shrank back when he saw Thor’s gaze.

THRYM: That’s some Medusa stare! It’s scarier than my mother-in-law, and that’s saying something! She could turn a man to stone with that!

LOKI: She’s ready for bed, that’s all. She’s been awake for eight nights thinking of you. Time for the blessing! Bring the hammer!

Narrator: So Thrym brought in the hammer and laid it in Thor’s lap.

THRYM: My darling, I have been dying for this day.

Narrator: That made Thor laugh.

THOR: That’s truer than you think!

Narrator: Then Thor took his hammer and struck Thrym dead. And his sister. And all the wedding guests. And then Thor and Loki rode back to Asgard, taking with them the rest of the wedding feast and all the gifts.

LOKI: Well, you can’t say they weren’t warned. We did give them all red shirts.

THOR: I don’t get it.

LOKI: It’s a nerd thing. Don’t worry about it. Have another squid.


© Alexa Duir 2016. Please do not copy without asking me first. 🙂

A Pagan Yule

View of Monmouth from Kymin
MonmouthfromKymin” by Hugh Colyer HrcolyerOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

Clear your mind of Christmas. This has nothing to do with tinsel, cards or the other paraphernalia of the commercial season. This is a very different midwinter festival.

I’m as much into the feeling of midwinter hygge as the next person. So I light candles. I have IKEA candle holders in the garden, hanging on hooks. If it isn’t raining, I’ll put lights in those over Yule. (And yes – I take 12 days, not the original pagan 3). I put tea lights in the votive holders on the shelves on my staircase. I light the pillar candles. I turn the main lights down. It’s as close to a fire as I can get.

OK, that’s the physical stuff. What about the emotional stuff? Well, I begin to light the candles on Mothers’ Night (Yule-eve). I remove some of the pictures on my altar to make a space for an image of the Mothers from Bath, in Somerset. The Roman Baths there sells tarted-up copies. I remember the Dis – the female ancestors, the luck of the clan and the goddesses. I pour an offering to Freyja, whose images are also around my altar.

The next day the OH and I will buy local cider, go to a high place, and make offerings to Odhin. this is the one time of the year I’ll talk to the Ferryman. It’s our contract: he gets this, once a year, and then leaves me and mine alone. In the past, he’s wanted perry from a particular farm, up-country. And for it to be offered at a particular site, on a high common overlooking the Black Mountains in south Wales and the English Malvern hills, off in the distance. This, for me, is his High Seat. But, for the last two years, I’ve shared this with the coven. Our covenstead has a stone dedicated to Odhin. So we have a sumble, make our toasts and pour perry from that farm on the stone.

Just as well, as, this year the rain will have made the entrance to the common impassable. So the OH and I went instead to Westons, a family firm that has been making cider in Herefordshire for over 100 years. They are very successful, supplying shops and pubs all over the UK. We bought a couple of bottles of their vintage English cider and went up to the Kymin, high above Monmouth. There’s a viewing area outside the building, overlooking the town. The view is wonderful.

Then we go somewhere to have coffee and cakes, and go home. Though i say I keep the 12 days, I don’t. for me, Yule doesn’t finish until Twelfth Night. The reason is the wassail takes place then. Although wassails are popular in various places, it’s serious business in Herefordshire. We make most of the UK’s cider, and even have a “cider route” around the farms, as well as a cider museum. we probably have more mistletoe than any other county of the UK, as well. 😉  So we take growing apples seriously. And the wassail. The farmers fight among themselves for the right to have the Leominster Morris wassail their orchard, this year.But it’s not just a matter of who wins that fight – to even have a chance, you have to own an orchard within a quarter of a mile of a Black & White village. Oh, we have a trail for that, as well! See here for a slide show of these lovely ancient houses.

The wassail is a great thing to take part in. Arrive early – to locate somewhere to park, and hope it’s within a mile fo the pub! Everyone assembles in the courtyard of the chosen pub, to drink hot mulled cider and wait for the Morris. Then we all troop to the field, bearing torches. after that it’s the ceremony, with singing to the tree, making a noise to frighten evil spirits, and lighting fires. You can read more – and see pictures – on the Leominster Morris website.

And all of that is without the coven activities. Present giving, of course! And I bring mulled cider from Westons. And no Yuletide celebration is complete without listening to “The Northern Shaman“. Though, sadly, the most complete copies have vanished from YouTube since last year. 😦  And we might wassail the trees in the orchard.

So, there you go. My Yule. And no tinsel in sight 😉




The Dark Part of the Year

Red deer stag 2009 denmarkI doubt anyone will be a pagan for long before encountering the idea that everything is dead in the winter. Dead, silent, frozen; until Imbolc brings the snowdrops and the spring brings new life.

No doubt this view seems very reasonable, if you live in a city and rarely venture out into the countryside. but I have to say that, out where I live, it’s hard to sustain. And, anyway, I love the winter. For me it’s bright crisp days full of …er… not silence. Stillness might be better. Hidden things growing in the bellies of animals, and being born in the snow (in the case of lambs). Midwinter sun slanting through trees. Warmth and cosiness indoors with the light of candles.

On the other hand, I realise how hard the world was before the days of central heating and electric lighting. Back then, you entered winter not knowing who would emerge alive, the following spring.

That’s why you butchered the livestock you thought wouldn’t make it through… no point using your limited animal food on creatures that wouldn’t make it. Better to use them to feed yourself and your family, and give the precious animal feed to the healthy.

After all, you’d be dependent on the hay and straw you’d made. During the depth of winter, the animals would have it hard finding grass. Not that you could afford a cow: you might have sheep, if you were lucky. And perhaps a few pigs you could turn out on common land, or in the forest. Chickens, of course, though they wouldn’t lay during the winter. And you had your precious store of grain to see and the family through, all the way to the next harvest. That was why everyone set so much value on being a good housekeeper – to be able to preserve the food and keep out the vermin that would eat or destroy it was an important skill. To have the wisdom and strength to calculate how much you could afford to use, week by week, so it saw you and yours through the hard days.

And now you’re reading all that and wondering how I can say winter isn’t dead? I suspect that it was Frazer and his notion of the “dying god/king” that brought about this notion that the winter is dead. At the very least, encouraging many modern pagans to think of the growing season as purely agrarian. Of course it isn’t. But even if it were, it’s not dead.

Yes, the deciduous trees have cast their leaves and the grass isn’t thriving. Flowers aren’t blooming – but sex isn’t everything. 😉  The evergreens, like holly, are thriving. If you’re a gardener, you’ll know that some plants – like jasmine or viburnum – flower in the winter. Tubers and brassicas are growing, to produce winter staple foods of leeks, sprouts and turnips. Farmers these days often grow winter crops, including winter wheat.

But let’s step away from the agrarian stuff and consider the pastoral. And here we find a riot of life. There’s all those lambs and foals and calves and whatnot developing in the womb. Birthing begins towards the end of January (early to mid-Jan these days) with the lambing. I always wondered why some fields were full of lambs in January/early February, while others were empty until mid to late March. One day I asked a farmer – was it a matter of different breeds of sheep, I asked? He gave me a big grin. “It’s a question of who is first on the rota to borrow the ram.” ;)

Another thing I’ve come across, this time among Wiccans, is that initiations shouldn’t take place in the dark time of the year – Samhain to Imbolc. Not all Wiccans observe this. Neither of the covens I have been in did, as I received both first and second at Samhain. (No, not at the same time!)

Samhain has always been important to me. Perhaps, initially, because of getting initiated then. But it stayed with me, even as a Heathen. The closest festival we have to that time is Winter Nights, but that isn’t fixed to a date. It is celebrated when you feel winter has really set in, wherever you live. So I had two bites of the cherry – both Winter Nights and Samhain.

Since 2005 one of my patrons has been Cernunnos. Now, this isn’t the blog to get into the concept of “patron”, which can be a contentious one in the Heathen community. The point I wish to make here is that one of the names he will take (for me and for others) is Herne; and Herne is associated with the Wild Hunt. That places him in October in Britain, as the Hunt operates during the gales of that month. Another reason for associating him with Samhain is that that is the rutting season of the red deer, which are the commonest horns on images of Cernunnos. Indeed, a few statues of him from the Romano-Celtic period have holes, as though for removable horns to be inserted for most of the year, but removed during the winter. It therefore seems apposite to me for at least second degree initiations to take place at Samhain.

If we move onwards and use the narrative made popular in the Witches Bible, then the god is born at Yule, while Imbolc is a special time devoted to the goddess alone. Although this narrative isn’t one I use in my own spiritual life, I am happy to view Imbolc as a special time to devote to the goddesses in one’s life (or the coven’s life). But what strikes me is that the narrative is very strong over these three festivals, and it seems a waste not to use it. Surely, at the very least, Imbolc might be a suitable time for first degree initiations? More suitable than Beltane, when I might think the coven has more things to celebrate. 🙂


When is Yule?

Picture: “Julemiddag“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 Someone on a forum recently asked “When is Yule? I know the Scandinavians messed around with the dating, but is it a fixed date? I heard it depended on the weather.”

To which the answer is: not exactly, yes and no, and no. 😀

OK, let’s clear away the confusion about the weather. We have evidence for very few Heathen festivals in the pre-Christian era. Two we do know about occurred in the winter: Winter Nights and Yule. Of these, Winter Nights seems to have been celebrated when the weather changed to winter.Whenever that was. One winter in the UK I attended three Winter Nights celebrations, the first occurring in Scotland and the last in the south of England, as the weather progressively changed through our islands.

Right, enough about Winter Nights. Yule is  a fixed date. Or set of dates. The main problem is that modern Heathens tend not to agree when Yule begins, and so different heathens may celebrate it on different dates. Another complication is that there is an argument about whether it should last for three or twelve days. If you put these variables together, we have the option of three different “fixed” starting dates for Yule – and six different finishing dates!

So, let’s get started! 😉

Mother’s Night

Most of you may never have heard of this. Effectively, this is the Heathen religion’s “Christmas Eve”. And this is the one there’s argument about. So, what are the possibilities?

  1. 11th December
  2. 12th December
  3. Solstice Eve
  4. Solstice
  5. Christmas Eve
  6. Christmas Day

Before we begin to get down to the detail of the arguments about those, here’s a wee bit of background:

We know Yule was celebrated by the pre-Christian Anglo Saxons because it is mentioned by the Christian monk Bede. At the time, there was a lot of discussion about how to calculate the Christian festival of Easter. Bede wrote a book about it in the 8th century. It’s an important book for a number of reasons – but for Heathens, it’s the only source we have about the pre-Christian lunar calendar. However, that apart, it tells us that the first day of Yule was called “Mothers’ Night” and was celebrated when the Christians celebrated Christmas.

In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the moon, for the moon is called mona and the month monath.
The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March, Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January, when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, ‘mother’s night’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.

The months of Giuli derive their name from the day when the sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of [these months] precedes [this day], and the other follows. …

From De ratione temporum (On the reckoning of time), chapter 15. Translation from here.  This is the Latin about Mothers’ Night:

Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Januariarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctam, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem appellabant: ob causam et suspicamur ceremoniarum, quas in ea pervigiles agebant

Still with me? In that case, you will have noticed that Bede reckons time the way the ancient Romans did. If you want to translate 8 before Kalends of January for yourself, here are the tools. Or, if you want the fun version, you could try my blog here.

Dates are written in accordance with their position before the Nones, Ides, or Kalends. Hence typically the format is ante diem + [Roman numeral] + [Nones, Ides or Kalends] + [Month]

The same site tells us the Romans counted dates inclusively. Put it all together and that gives 25th December as 8 days (inclusive of both 25th Dec and 1st Jan) before the Kalends of January.

Here’s another question I’ve looked at on the past: “Doesn’t Christmas eve come from Bede after adjusting for the the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars in the mid 1700s ?”

Bede lived 672/673 – 26 May 735, which is about 300 years after the church decided to use 25th December to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Back then, they used the Roman calendar created by Julius Caesar – the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar was superseded by the Gregorian calendar in 1582, because the Julian calendar had drifted too far from the solar year. At that time the difference in astronomical time for the same date between the two calendars was 10 days (“Give us back our ten days” was the cry in the streets when the calendar changed.)  However, that time difference continues to widen, so the difference today between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is 14 days. So, if you wanted to use that form of reckoning (which I did in one of my books), then 25th December (Mothers’ Night) would occur on 12th December in 2015. Try it yourself here:P

“But I thought the Roman day began at midnight? So how do we get to Mothers’ Night being celebrated on Christmas Eve when Bede said it was Christmas Day?”

Well, Bede said it was celebrated “when we celebrate the birth of the Lord.” And those celebrations began at sunset the previous day. This would have come naturally to any Anglo Saxons who still reckoned time the old way, when months were calculated by the moon (in the way described by Bede). Back then, the day began at sunset and lasted until sunset the following night. Adopting the Roman calendar was a shock for more reasons than having fixed months and having to remember new names of months and how many days was in each. It also brought a new way of reckoning the start of the day – from a time most people had no means of calculating, from a time everyone with the gift of sight could see with their own eyes. I’m willing to bet that change took more than three generations to bed in. And, in case, there was at least one exception:

Christmas celebrations have long begun on the night of the 24th, due in part to the Christian liturgical day starting at sunset,[5] a practice inherited from Jewish tradition[6] and based on the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.”[7]

So that gives us Christmas Eve as the most likely day/time (in Bede’s day) when Mothers’ Night had been celebrated. And isn’t there a kind of pleasing symmetry about that: that the old religion in England moved from one kind of celebration of the gifts brought by mothers to a new kind? Let’s park the whole question of “who were the Mothers” for another blog, and stick to dating in this one.

“OK, so why do modern pagans use the solstice for Yule?”

Well, this is where things get a little tricky. As far as I can tell (any corrections welcome!) most eclectic pagans – i.e. not recons using entirely different festivals from their own pre-Christian religion – use the “Wheel of the Year” festivals created by Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. Oh, they drew on festivals from pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic religions, plus the equinoxes, but no one religion before Wicca and OBOD Druidry had used all of these festivals. And their usage spread out to other pagans over the years, either through the writings of Wiccan or OBOD Druid authors, or via organisations such as the Pagan Federation in the UK.

But Heathens tend not to separate Yule and Mothers’ Night. Mothers’ Night is always celebrated at night – for one thing, that’s wot Bede said (“this very night”) and, for another, the clue is in the name. 😉 so it tends to be celebrated as the start of Yule. Again, that follows Bede. What they don’t do, is follow Bede and align it with Christmas. Why?

One explanation you’ll see on websites for the change in date between Christmas Day back to the solstice is the change in calendar. But this won’t work, because there was an 11 day difference between the two calendars when England converted to the Gregorian calendar. Even had they converted when Gregory first proposed his calendar, there would have been that 10 day difference – not 12 days. A far more convincing argument is that the shift in dates comes from the Christianisation of Norway by King Haakon I.

Because England converted after only a couple of hundred years of being Heathen, very early documents or references to that pre-Christian Anglo Saxon religion have come down to us. Most was destroyed by the monks (who were the keepers of records). Scandinavia is in a different position, as it converted a few hundred years later. So we have the following:

the Saga of Hákon the Good credits King Haakon I of Norway with the Christianization of Norway as well as rescheduling the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. … In time, Haakon had a law passed establishing that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as the Christians celebrated Christmas, “and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.” Yule had previously been celebrated for three nights from midwinter night… [9]

In addition, we know that pre-Christian pagan religions elsewhere in Europe tended to hold Midwinter festivals, to coincide with the solstice. So it seems reasonable to assume that the pre-Christian Heathen Yule took place at the solstice among all Heathens (in Scandinavia, Germany, Frisia, England etc) and it began (in accordance with how lunar calendars reckon time) at sunset. However, there is (as far as I know) no reference in what we have of continental Heathen sources, to the Mothers’ Night celebrated in England.

So the only dispute lies between those who celebrate Mothers Night on the evening before Yule, or the evening of Yule. Given that Yule can occur at any time of the day or night, and our ancestors weren’t as precise (though they were precise to the day) in their astronomical calculations, I don’t think it matters. I think that’s just a matter of personal preference. Having said that. Most of the Heathens I know will celebrate Mothers’ Night the evening before Yule.

Whenever Yule is. 😉

The Length of Yule

Don’t give up now – I promise this bit is shorter!

Meanwhile, back in England, Alfred the Great ordained in 888, that  :

43. To all freemen let these days be given… twelve days at Yule

Now, that’s a bit different to what was going on elsewhere:

Yule had previously been celebrated for three nights from midwinter night, according to the [Saga of Hákon the Good][9]

We know that the ritual of twelve days persisted in England. But where did it come from?

By the time Alfred the Great proclaimed his laws, England had been Christian for nearly 250 years. The process had begun at the very beginning of the 7th century, as a determined mission to convert the English. Now, that itself began at least 250 years after the earliest evidence we have for Christmas being celebrated by the Western Christian church on 25th December. The Eastern church celebrated the birth of Jesus as the Epiphany on 6th January. Eventually the church got its act together and combined these two days to become one festival:

Christmastide, commonly called the Twelve Days of Christmas, lasts 12 days, from 25 December to 5 January, the latter date being named as Twelfth Night … this was done in order to solve the “administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east.”

This occurred in 567, three hundred years before Alfred’s Laws made it compulsory for lords to give their freemen the time off, and before the conversion of England really kicked off. So perhaps, before then, the pagans in England followed their continental brothers in faith and celebrated for three days.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, my first conclusion is this: if you begin your Yule at sunset on Solstice eve in 2015, and you run it for 12 days, then you’ll end at sunset on 1st January.

My second conclusion is: it looks like we might have ‘paganised’ a Christian festival and claimed it for our own. At least the twelve days bit.

And the third is:  the whole point about a Midwinter festival is to celebrate the turning point from more dark to less dark. So enjoy yourself!

And here’s a fun poem for your Yule night (whenever you hold it!):

This is the night of darkness;
This is the night of cold.
This is the night of short light
When gods themselves grow old.

This is the night the ice worm
Below the soil lays hold.
This is the night his grasp so tight
Grips earth, and hearth, and soul.

But on this night the fire bright
Is set alight again.
And knowing his chill rule is doomed
The worm curses all men.

He never sees the starlight,
He never sees the sun;
But still he knows what we ignite
Spells all his will undone.

He loathes the light of hearthfire,
He loathes the flame of doom.
His fear is all we hold so dear
For spring will him entomb.

And so he grips yet tighter
In hope the earth will freeze
And so it will, for two months still
But then his hold will ease.

And on this eve we toast the worm
Whose death brings frith and joy;
And light the fire to be his pyre
And winter to destroy.

© Alexa Duir




Thoughts About Polarity (Part 2)

Let’s go back to the early 1990s. The previous couple of decades had seen the rise of feminist groups and the Women’s Refuge movement. A growing awareness of women’s issues and the need for safe space represented by refuges, gave rise to many woman-centred or single-sex women’s groups, to create psychological safe spaces for women to share pain from inequalities or harms suffered in a patriarchal society. These groups might hold very different attitudes and it would be unwise and unmerited to view them as universally anti-male, even where the purpose of the group was to help women who had suffered from abuse by fathers or male partners. They often shared the intimate pains of womanhood – growing up as a girl, having children, experiencing sexism or prejudice at work, or perhaps just the experience of relationships from the female perspective.

As technology advanced and enabled more people to take on their preferred gender of identity, transfolk began to ask to join such cisfemale groups. Each group wrestled with the situation anew; depending on the activities they undertook, what their members felt, and what sort of person wished to enter the group; each carrying their own burden of fears, hopes and expectations. But often, it was difficult for both sides.

And I found it difficult. Like many feminists, I wasn’t certain what someone brought up as a boy could gain from discussions about all the commonalities of growing up as a girl – when you shed socks for tights; when you began to wear makeup and what you chose; what you did with your hair; how you coped with playground activities; what happened about menarche or menstruation; sex. all the usual stuff. But you know, I’d spent some years running a Bible Study group with a friend. by accident, everyone in the group was female. And they taught me so much about things I’d never experienced – about being pregnant and giving birth and motherhood. About what it was like to have to depend on someone else to earn the money. About coping with kids and schools, and coping with the system (often the NHS) as a mum.

They shared without telling me I shouldn’t be there because I hadn’t experienced it. And that taught me a whole lot of things, from motherhood to being inclusive. I learned to pass. And if, as a cisfemale I could have that privilege, what right do I have to deny it to a transfemale?

I can’t believe that no family is untouched by issues of gender-based identity. Yes, there’s the more straightforward question of sexual preference in terms of gay/lesbian/bi, but that shades into a whole range of attitudes that were hardly raised in the UK in the 90s – asexuality, agenderism and polyamory being at the less controversial end of that hidden range. I had a lesbian cousin and a bisexual aunt. My husband had a genetic malfunction on the sex chromosome that made him infertile. Shortly after being married we had to struggle with a whole range of problems arising that from that, from the nightmare of finding the right dosage of medication to societal attitudes about maleness and femaleness. You know the sort of stuff – the male disgrace about “firing blanks” or the assumption that, as a female, I’d be devastated not to have children. But the more interesting thing for me was coming to grips with the reality of how widespread genetic variations were. That not every child was born with a fixed gender; and that not every physical expression of gender married up with the genes.

This primitive education was expanded greatly for me in the 90s when I took a degree course in gender politics. I began to read the voices of different choices. Of protests about the way society forces gender on everyone, from birth. Of the babies forced through surgery so the families can tell the world they have a boy or a girl, because so many people rejected the idea that a child might be both; or neither. It made parents and aunts and grandparents and uncles and cousins and the whole family uncomfortable. And we’re still struggling with that whole thing. Society still wants people to adopt a stereotypical gender identity. Those who don’t are still left in the cold by the increasing awareness of trans. Even now; even when we talk blithely about how inclusive Wicca should be, we may confine our battles to the first three letters of LGBTI, because that’s as far as our comfort zone extends.

And so we come to Wicca. If it was difficult for relatively ordinary females leading relatively ordinary lives to accept trans and intersex and the whole Pandora’s Box of sexualities and identities they’d never thought about, how much more difficult must it be for people engaged in a major battle with society about another form of personal identity? Wicca was formed at a time when the only acceptable sexuality was straight. When everything was designed for couples. When being gay was a criminal offence; while being asexual or agender was right off the horizon and intersex was viewed with horror.

Let’s not forget that the first generation Wiccans were trailblazers. That takes a certain mindset, where you have great certainty about what you’re doing. Frequently, that is allied with certainty across the board about any part of your identity. As any of us who aren’t ‘normal’ straight white males will have encountered – fighting on too many fronts at the same time courts exclusion, even in these more enlightened times. That we are often constrained to chose one war; one ‘front’; one dimension of ourselves to defend. And let the others stay in the closet.

And there’s another problem, too. If your fellow Wiccans are taking on the world about their rights to express themselves as witches, then they may not appreciate anything perceived as an issue that makes that fight harder. They may not wish to take on the battles of someone else’s sexuality and identity. They may view it as something that can be used as a weapon to denigrate the Wica. But the longer that goes on, the more likely it is to reinforce attitudes that Wicca is this rather than that. And must stay this, in order to be authentic. And then this, as with any religion or practice, becomes frozen in a moment in time.

If we accuse the Abrahamic faiths of being too attached to the book, then surely Wicca can also suffer the accusation of being too attached to the Book of Shadows, and all the ritual ‘business’ that forms the oathbound material. That Wiccan identity is fixed in time and cannot adapt to new ideas.

But surely it’s time to move past that? To show we are not people “of the book”, like the monotheists. To demonstrate that Wicca is not Procrustean by nature, and it is some of the Wica, rather than Wicca, who are afraid to accept personal identities that go beyond a binary polarity view. To be willing to adjust the words and the concepts we use to bring in greater horizons than those brave trailblazers could foresee.

Or else we, like the monotheists, may end up imprisoning our mysteries instead of exploring them.


Thoughts About Polarity (Part 1)

A friend was reading some crazy stuff about polarity and asked “What is polarity in Wicca? Why should it create problems for gays and trans folk?”

OK, this is actually a big question. For one thing, it strikes at the difference between lineaged and non-lineaged Wicca, and some difference between the US and UK. And then there’s… well, let’s take it in small steps. Let’s start with the father of Wicca: Gerald.

Gerald was a child of his time. Back in the first half of the 20th century, there was almost rabid homophobia. Oh, it had existed long before then. Anal intercourse by anyone on anyone was made punishable by death in 1533. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 extended buggery laws to outlaw any kind of sexual activity between males. Remember that Oscar Wilde was given 2 year’s hard labour in Reading Gaol in 1897 for being an active homosexual. He was lucky – the death penalty for the offence had only been rescinded in 1861.

During the 1950s the government set up the Wolfenden Committee to review the law. In the teeth of widespread opposition, it recommended decriminalising homosexual acts for consenting adults (then those aged 21. At the time, consent for hetero relationships was 16. Although the recommendations of the report were adopted – but not until the late 1960s – progress by comparison with heterosexual freedoms was painfully slow:

  • The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 lowered the age of consent for gay sexual relationships from 21 to 18 in the UK in November 1994.
  • Equality of age of consent was finally achieved January 2001.
  • The Civil Partnership Act 2004 permitted single sex couples to register their relationships legally.
  • Same sex marriage was finally enabled in England and Wales from March 2014, and Scotland from December 2014.

I published that information as a credit to the work of Stonewall in my latest novel. As at today’s date, same-sex marriage is still not permitted in Northern Ireland.

So…back to Gerald. One of his published works was Witchcraft Today in which he wrote:

The witches tell me ‘The law always has been that power must be passed from man to woman or from woman to man, the only exception being when a mother initiates her daughter or a father his son, because they are part of themselves’ (the reason is that great love is apt to occur between people who go through the rites together.) They go on to say: ‘The Templars broke this age-old rule and passed the power from man to man: this led to sin and in doing so it brought about their downfall.’

Although he was being coy in attributing this to unnamed witches, there is enough published out there for me to able to state that Wicca was based on polarity. To quote from a Wikipedia article on the subject:

Most traditional Wiccans worship the god and goddess,[7] and a central part of Wiccan liturgy involves the Great Rite;[8] an act of actual or symbolic ritual sexual intercourse between the two deities. This is traditionally carried out by a priest and priestess who have had the deities invoked upon them, and the conventional practice appears to be exclusively heterosexual. When performed ‘in token’ this involves the athame (representing the masculine principle) descending into the chalice (representing the feminine).[9]

Now, let’s talk about Wicca as it’s practised among lineaged covens. I’m going to concentrate on the UK. Practice in the US is often different, but there is sufficient similarity here that this should apply on both sides of the pond.

Yes, covens are led by a High Priest, representing the god (if you believe in a single god) or a god (if you don’t) and a High Priestess representing ‘the goddess’/a goddess. (I’m not sure how pantheist or atheist Wiccans interpret this, so I can’t speak for them.) Many of the rituals have these two, or other members of the coven, acting out parts deliberately assigned to men or women.

Not unnaturally, there have been reactions against this. An all-female form of Wicca was set up in the US, in the 1970s, as was an all-male form. However, The Minoan Brotherhood is entirely gay, unlike Dianic Wicca. The Feri Tradition welcomes many varieties of sexual expression.

A lot was going on, during the 1970s, in England as well as the US. Though there were no forms of single-sex covens created here (as far as I know), things were going on in that bastion of respectability, the Church of England. The Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) was created, to force the church to change its mind about accepting women as priests. That particular battle became complex, as many gay clergy and officiants joined the fight against the ordination of women, on the grounds of tradition.

In the late 1960s, racial discrimination was recognised as a problem, following the influx of people invited here from the West Indies, to help Britain with reconstruction following the Second World War. This resulted in anti-discrimination legislation passed on the ground of race, then sex (1970s), then other forms of discrimination, culminating in the inclusion of religion, sexual orientation and transgender, in the 2000s. The world was now a very different place than it had been when Wicca was born.

Most of this washed past lineaged Garnerian/Alexandrian covens, who staunchly held to their polarity ideals. Oh, many – perhaps most – covens could not attain the ideal of being formed entirely of matching couples. That covens would include singleton witches was recognised early on. And, by the late 90s, there were certainly some covens run by gay couples, who shared the roles of High Priest or High Priestess. Some of these people may well have received Gardnerian or Alexandrian initiation, but their covens would not be recognised. Or, if they were, they would have to be very careful about who initiated whom. Why?

Because there is one very large show-stopper. Let’s go back to Wikipedia, this time about another Wiccan off-shoot, though one that is disavowed because it broke the cardinal rule:

As in Traditional Wicca, the standard initiation practice is cross-sex initiation (female to male; male to female) but Chthonioi Alexandrian Wicca also accepts as valid same-sex initiations… Because of the acceptance of same-sex initiations, some elders of Alexandrian Wicca do not recognize Chthonioi-Alexandrian tradition as “Alexandrian”

Or, to quote a blogger on Gardnerian matters:

Yet, even today, we have people online who claim that their lineage goes back to Gardner through Michael Reagan to Ray Buckland (possibly even through same-sex initiation, which is a big Gardnerian no-no) back up the line to Gardner.

This implies that it’s possibly OK to have a coven run by a same-sex couple, but they will be hampered by only being able to initiate trainees of the opposite sex. Bit of a bummer, there. And a major stumbling block for growing any coven run by a same-sex couple. Note, I’m not saying that gays or lesbians are unwelcome in Wiccan circles… but like so much else, that very much depends on the coven. But that also provides material for the individual to think about, in terms of what an initiation represents, and whether they wish to be initiated by someone of the opposite sex.

However, there are signs that the standard of polarity is becoming part of a discourse on inclusiveness, covering queerness in Wicca. Out of this discourse has come a book offering ideas for Wiccan covens to use. As the author says:

“the gender binary is the notion that cisgender heterosexual pairs are the norm and that everything in the universe resembles a cisgender heterosexual couple. We need to expand the model to include different genders and sexual orientations.” It is common, in my experience, for people to encourage practitioners to think of this as the union of “masculine” and “feminine” energies, but regardless of metaphysical semantics, it can still feel exclusive especially since “masculine” and “feminine” are so often used interchangeably with “male” and “female.”

The discourse seems to have taken a more urgent turn, either as a result of the book’s publication or (more probably) because the book is an expression and a focal point for pre-existing discontent with the status quo. However, it is not as simple to change lineaged Wicca as it is the Church of England. It can not be done on a vote. In any case, even in the CofE, changes in favour of ordaining women and, more lately, of trying to recognise gay priests, have led to hive-offs, or whole congregations turning away.

Within Wicca, the covens are independent. However, the one point of agreement is that what is passed down, remains identifiable as Wicca. Covens may differentiate between those things which are unchangeable and those things which can be added.

It remains to be seen whether, in time, the decision is that polarity dependent upon a strictly defined sexuality is fundamental to Wicca. I have the feeling that, if that is the decision, lineaged Wicca will become a dwindling religion/practice. I hope that doesn’t happen.