Column: Sheepskin

Eric O. Scott —  October 11, 2013 — 20 Comments

Positive Lightning. Photo by Kara Swanson of National Geographic.

I have been sitting in this chair for five hours. It is, at best, 45 degrees Farenheit; a cold wind occasionally blows through the tin-roofed pavillion. It is two o’clock in the morning and there are still twenty people between me and the damned horn. My best friend Sarah and her friend Mark – along with the punky redhead whom the gods were merciful enough to place on my left side – have all given up, gone to bed. We have a ceremony in less than six hours that I will need to be up for. My only respite – the only thing which keeps me from getting up in disgust and going back to my tent, hoping to steal four hours of sleep on my rapidly deflating air mattress – is the Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin on my shoulders.

High Symbel is no joke, folks.

I spent the weekend before last camping at my beloved Gaea Retreat, about an hour (well, 45 minutes if you drive the way I do) outside of Kansas City. The event was Lightning Across the Plains, a heathen gathering I’ve heard about for years but never managed to attend, even though I lived in Kansas City for three years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. My relationship with Heathenry is much more difficult than my relationship with Wicca. I was raised a witch; I’ve known the steps since before I realized they were a dance. My family of Wiccans, though it took me a long time to accept it, has done more to shape me than anyone else could hope to. Doing Wicca – or at least the isolated, mutant form of it that grew in my parents’ living room in St. Louis – comes easier to me than almost anything else.

But I came to Asatru much later, and with hesitations that I’ve never had with Wicca. Much of that, I think, is a feeling of phoniness, of ignorance. My connection to Asatru comes mostly from the mythology and a handful of mystical experiences that, while they were extremely powerful to me, fit squarely into that lovely category of Unverified Personal Gnosis. (“But you don’t know Thor likes Jägermeister. That’s just UPG.”) I belong to no kindreds, swear no oaths, make no mead.

Yet this stuff is still important to me. No religious experience has effected as startling a change in my life as the first time I participated in a seiðr, being led down into the roots of the World Tree until we came to the Well of Wyrd. I don’t even remember what I asked the diviner that night. I just remember the tree, the incredible awe of seeing its branches spreading overhead, seeing every leaf, every gnarl and whorl of its bark. I never imagine in that kind of detail: the tree felt like something more than my head could have produced by itself.

Heathenry tends to be a solitary activity for me – I have my altar and my Eddas, and mainly I keep to myself. At festivals, I often spend my time attending every Heathen ritual and workshop I can find, but that’s a different atmosphere entirely. Festivals are anonymous: if you’re getting too comfortable, you can always run away and hide in the merchant circle.

To put this more succinctly: I think of myself as a Heathen, but, for whatever variety of syndrome you want to diagnose – imposter, only child, restless leg – I feel uncomfortable being around Heathens.

(Were I performing this essay in the manner of a stand-up comedian, there would be a short pause at this moment.)

So I’m sitting under the pavilion with about two hundred Heathens after midnight on a cold autumn night, clutching my sheepskin and hoping to the gods that the pace will start to pick up.

There were two symbels during the weekend of Lightning Across the Plains. The first, the “folk symbel,” held on Friday night, was more informal: we all sat around the fire, and whoever wanted to toast called out for the horn and stepped up. A queue formed very quickly, as you’d expect, but overall, if you wanted to talk, you could expect to get the horn within half an hour of calling for it. The High Symbel, on the other hand, involved everybody at the festival. Everybody got the horn. Everybody got to talk. Everybody made a toast.

THE MATH: 200 people X 3 minutes = 600 minutes / 60 minutes per hour = 10 hours in the dark.

(Note that, while this calculus assumes a three minute average speaking time, that might be a wildly optimistic estimate. The first speakers might have kept to that. By the time we were halfway through the pavilion, people had begun to offer four toasts apiece. And then there was the gift-giving… No wonder Sarah went to bed.)

The High Symbel lasted, by my admittedly sleep-deprived count, six and a half hours from the pouring of the first horn to the final speaker. It was, by far, the longest continuous ritual I’ve ever taken part in, and yet, also one where I felt somewhat alienated and alone. At least half of the toasts were made to the gathering of people at the festival, with long explanations as to the relationships that had been formed there and maintained over the five years LATP had been running. It being my first year – and with you now knowing about my own hang-ups regarding the Heathen community – you might be able to understand why those toasts didn’t resonate as much with me as I would have hoped.

I sat there, listening to these people, all strangers, thinking about what had brought me to this place. I listened to them toasting their kindreds, and the households that they had befriended here, and I thought of Sarah, of her parents, of my coven.

It’s not necessarily an easy rope to walk. I’ve been told by some Heathens that I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself one, not so long as I continue to dirty my hands with Wicca. But I belong there – belong with my family, and my friends, and the Horned God and the Mother Goddess.

And I belong here, too, in this hall, with these Heathens. I belong here, in this company, drinking from this horn, speaking these words. The greatest mistake we make, I think, is bifurcation: the idea that we must always choose one or the other, that we must belong to one path and shun all others, that to believe in multiplicity is to really only believe in one gray muddle. I reject that notion.

The horn finally comes to me at just after three o’clock; there are only four people left in line after me. I make my toast to the nameless poets of old, just as I had been planning for the past four hours, and pass the horn along to the man on my right. Warmed slightly by the mead, I sit back down, clutch my Genuine Icelandic Sheepskin around my shoulders, and think to myself, My god, I’m never going through this again in my life.

And then I pause, listen to my neighbor’s toast, and think, Yes, I probably will.

Note: Edited to add some links. -Eric

Eric O. Scott

Posts Twitter Facebook

Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Thank you for this; very moving and touches on things that I think many of us feel from time to time.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    So jealous. I’d love to hit up LATP, but not with my toddlers in tow. Too much for me to do, and not nearly enough for them.

    • Eric Scott

      Maybe not with toddlers, but honestly, when they’re five or six, bring ’em. LATP had a shocking amount of stuff for kids to do. (Including BEATING UP A TROLL KING.)

      • Vision_From_Afar

        That sound appropriately epic. Can’t wait. XD

  • Alaric the younger

    I remember what you asked the Oracle that night. I also remember what she told you. I can remind you sometime if you want, though I might not have the wording exactly as it was said to you that night. I also remember sleeping for 6 hours afterwards just from the drain of that experience.

    I’m usually very skeptical of such things, but that time was very different, and very real. There was a moment three years later, as I was on my way to a very big life change, when I encountered a sign on the way. It was as I snapped my fingers, and instantly remembered what the Oracle had told me. I knew instantly what was gonna happen at my destination, and that everything was going to come through ok. The wyrd is weird like that, lol!

  • I share your discomfort, as well. I was brought up agnostic Jewish, but wandered into Heathenry in my college days. I’m a solitary, and wandering into public ritual like that always feels as though I’m walking unannounced into another’s hall.

    Heatherny is about kinship, both with those who came before us, as well as Family – those bonded by kinship, those bonded by blood shared and spilt, and those bonded by friendship.

  • I can’t think of a significant figure in modern paganism who only practiced one and only one tradition.

  • Cat C-B

    Of course Thor likes Jagermeister. (Isn’t that in the Eddas?)

    Your discomfort is a discomfort I share. I do not speak publicly of personal encounters I have had with deities from pantheons “guarded” by especially avid Reconstructionists–and I will neither confirm nor deny here those deities being from any particular pantheon–in part because I find it quite tedious to have it explained to me by humans that, because I cannot find historical documentation for a practice, I am necessarily “doing it wrong” if I am honoring their gods in a way they have not.

    Of course, that is not what all Reconstructionists are about, and I have known many very deep and serious practitioners who can respect an outsider’s UPG while maintaining their own careful teaching and learning. I’ve enjoyed interacting with those folks a lot.

    And while I suspect that it would be possible to plan a High Symbel that would be less lengthy and more welcoming, I also think it’s terrific that you are willing to be patient with a community that is not necessarily the easiest for a man with Wiccan roots to enter… because you are willing to take your spiritual experiences, and your call to explore them, that seriously.

    I can’t help but suspect that Thor and the rest of the Aesir probably find that patience and humility as refreshing as the mead.

    Thor likes Jägermeister
    Thor likes Jägermeister.
    Thor likes Jägermeister.

    • Cat C-B

      Oh, funny.

      The “Thor likes Jagermeister” quote I absolutely could not get to copy into my comment. (Notice it’s without it’s proper marking over the a even here.)

      At the risk of being dismissed forever as a fluffy Wiccan flake, I thought I’d mention that–along with my surprise at finding the phrase appended THREE TIMES to the end of my comment.


      _I’m_ inclined to take that as a sign, ladies and gentlemen. (Your mileage may vary…)

      • ELNIGMA

        Posting that repeatedly was an accident? hilarious. 🙂

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      How can any esoteric tradition be dismissive of UPGs? The conviction that one ought, personally, to be a Reconstructionist is not found in any book. It’s a UPG.

      • Baruch,

        I think you accidentally touched on the core of the issue. Many of the founding recons rejected (explicitly or implicitly) all things esoteric after having participated in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Personally, I identify four primary worldviews in modern paganism–esopaganism, neopaganism, retropaganism, and exopaganism–though many individual pagans incorporate more than one of these into their personal worldview. Reconstructionism is the epitome of retropaganism.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          But it’s still a UPG that one should follow the old books to the letter. Denying that is like saying, “God told me to be an atheist.”

          • Nick Ritter

            Well, to put it another way, if one is interested in worshiping certain gods from a particular pantheon, is it necessarily “UPG” to have an interest in re-establishing how those gods were worshiped originally? That maybe there is an important connection between a particular “ritual science” and the gods that were the focus of that “ritual science”?

            As a reconstructionist, no gods ever told me to be a reconstructionist. My interest in doing religious things in a culturally appropriate manner – and re-discovering that particular “ritual science” – just managed to put me in the reconstructionist category. I wouldn’t think that a particular tendency or preferred approach necessarily counts as UPG, do you? Unless, of course, any particular preference counts as UPG if it has to do with religious matters.

            Having used this approach and gotten what seem to be good results from it (i.e. an overall feeling of satisfaction along with significant experience of the numinous), it is the approach I continue to use. I suppose that the somewhat subjective feeling that what I am doing “works” in some manner could be taken as UPG, but even there, I’m not sure that’s what the term really is intended to refer to.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            If you are happy with the path you are on, I won’t trouble you over definition of a UPG. If, however, you were to take the Recon position one so often sees (at least on this blog) that Recon is the true path to the gods and Wiccans and others are merely “making stuff up,” then we’d have an argument.

    • Eric Scott

      I think this has a strong chance of entering the pantheon of ubiquitous pagan chants. “Isis, Astarte, Diana,” “Hoof and Horn,” “Thor Loves Jagermeister! Thor Loves Jaegermeister!”

  • RJohnson64

    Another great story, Eric. Like you, I find the stories of the Norse gods and goddesses to be compelling, and I’ve been drawn to them for many years now. The Asatru community is filled with many wonderful people, and I have had the good fortune to get to know some of them. Though I do not consider myself one who follows their way, I respect their commitment to the Old Ways and the Old Gods. Perhaps someday I will sit there with you into the wee hours as the horn takes its journey.

    • Eric Scott

      You’re one of the few people who’d get this: the reason I bought the sheepskin? Because Mikal had one.

  • trueinar .

    Yeah, the path of the Heathen is often a strange one. I myself was raised LDS, tried a few forms of Christianity while not feeling it at all, reading up and trying Wicca (still influences me at times) and found Heathenry and with it home (took a long time considering Odin was the first deity to really reach out to me back during my Christian dispair). I have had my share of UPG (my experience suggests Thor is less interested in the drink as enjoying it). My closest friend and the only Heathen I regularly deal with is pretty close to half Wiccan and have Asatru after being raised as a Catholic. I find influence in many traditions and I think Odin approves. It seems odd to avoid learning from other cultures and groups while honoring the great wanderer.

  • You are right to eschew bifurcation–in many parts of your life.

    Holders of a NROOGD first degree (white cord) are almost pushed to study another spiritual path, Wiccan or not, as part of preparation for one’s second degree (red cord).

    In my particular case, “tribal style” belly dance has come hard for me. Some of it is a teacher who favors more percussive music and steps than I do, some of it is such a difference from the semi-Cabaret/US “Restaurant style” dancing that I started with in college, too many decades ago. I’m inclined to a more lyrical style of dance, and the new dance and music vocabulary has been, along with the changes age and weight have wrought, a sometimes discouraging challenge. I love the community of being in a troupe/coven, rather than dancing/working solo, but I love the personal expression possible as a solo dancer. I never did enjoy being a solitary witch!

    I took a class at a dance festival, from a mostly-solo tribal dancer. I loved her teaching style, and I felt freed, instead of blocked and clumsy. Afterwards, trying to figure out what to do about the competing pulls of dance styles, I remembered:

    “Feeling at peace, however fragilely, made it easy to slip into the visionary end of the dark-sight. The rose shadows said that they loved the sun, but that they also loved the dark, where their roots grew through the lightless mystery of the earth. The roses said: ‘You do not have to choose.’ ” ― Robin McKinley, Sunshine

    Honor They Who call you, as you have been. My son may never be initiated, but he’s happier and more relaxed among pagans, heathens, witches, druids and “Oh, my!” folk than among any other population he’s encountered yet.