Archives For family traditions

Heathen Tongues

Eric O. Scott —  June 13, 2014 — 48 Comments

The Minneapolis Runestone. Located outside the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, it was a gift from the City of Uppsala. Photo by your devoted author.

The page looks like something out of The Shining: line after line of the same eight words repeating endlessly, with errors as the only variation. Hestur. Hest. Hesti. Hests. That’s the singular. Hestar. Hesta. Hestum. Hesta. That’s the plural. This is the paradigm for Icelandic masculine singular indefinite nouns. If we add the definite article, we get hesturinn, hestinn, hestinum, hestsins, hestarnir, hestana, hestunum, hestanna. Sixteen ways to say “horse.”

I am on my third consecutive page of inscribing hestur, the first of six major noun paradigms, into a yellow single-subject notebook, hoping that by the sheer force of repetition I will work these forms into memory. There may be some other way of doing this that doesn’t kill so many trees, but I haven’t found it. The only way I know how to memorize these words is to carve their names into the pulped flesh of trees, like runes, hoping their magical formula will unfold onto me given enough diligence.

This is my third week of an intensive summer course in the modern Icelandic language that I am taking at the University of Minnesota. I spent the last three weeks in Minneapolis, but the class will be flying to Reykjavik on Friday evening, just a few hours after this is published. We will spend another three weeks in Iceland practicing the language in its natural context among native speakers. I can’t help but be nervous – I never studied abroad in college, could never afford it. My feet have never left North American soil for more than five days at a time before. The prospect of learning to operate in this new language, even for just a few weeks, is intimidating; I haven’t studied a living language in almost a decade, not since I took my last semester of French in 2004 and promptly forgot everything about it. I’ve stuck to dead languages since then, Old English and Old Norse, tongues whose precise intonations are unknown and largely unimportant. I haven’t spoken a language besides English on a regular basis since I was 18 years old.

Mynd now – “picture,” the paradigm for the strong feminine nouns. With the definite article, that’s myndin, myndina, myndinni, myndarinnar…

As I lay out the paradigms in their places on the grid of lined paper, I find myself thinking back to a conversation I had with my friend Christian a few months ago. We were at a meeting for Hearthfires, the local Pagan meetup group back home in Columbia, and we were talking about languages; I believe I had just sent in my application for the Icelandic course, which may have been the genesis of the conversation. Christian, who is a Romano-Celtic polytheist, mentioned that he wished he knew Latin better. “My prayers would be better received in Latin,” he said. That sentence has stuck with me for the past few months. I suspect it’s because I can’t decide whether or not I agree with him.

The idea – as I understand it, anyway – behind the sentiment is that, since Christian’s gods were historically worshipped by speakers of Latin, Latin is the natural language with which to address those deities. I know many reconstructionist Pagans feel the same way; not long ago, I helped my family friend Alaric Albertsson – whom I still instinctively refer to as “Uncle Alaric” – proofread some sentences in Old English that an acquaintance of his was producing for his ADF training. Since they are Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Old English is the language they feel is most appropriate for their rituals.

Now, it doesn’t matter to me how any individual performs their rituals – there is something beautiful in giving new voice to a dead language in such a context, and in any case, everyone has the right to practice their religion in the way that makes the most sense to them. But I do have problems with the line of thinking that suggests the old languages are the “correct” languages with which to address the gods; to me, that romanticizes the past and discounts the legitimacy of present-day worship. After all, referring to my own Heathen inclinations, the Icelanders spoke of their gods in the same language they used for courtship, commerce, and craftwork. They didn’t restrict themselves to Proto-Germanic (or, gods help us, Proto-Indo-European), even though those were the languages in use when the Norse gods came into knowledge. The medieval Icelanders addressed Thor in their native tongue – why would it be any different for me to address him in mine?

Of course, I write this while in the middle of a difficult language course that I am taking only because of my religious yearning. Icelandic is not a very practical foreign language to study; its grammar is dense and finicky, its community of native speakers is quite small, and most Icelanders have an excellent grasp of English. Icelandic has some practical uses for me, of course – last fall, I came across an article that looked like a brilliant resource for a seminar paper I was writing, but, because it was in Icelandic, I couldn’t read it. But those are, if I am honest, secondary concerns. I am learning Icelandic because the language appeals to me as a Heathen; I am studying it, whether I want to admit it or not, because I feel like it will lead to my prayers being better received.

Borð, now. “Table.” Strong neuter paradigm. Same form in the singular and plural…

I am aware that modern Icelandic is hardly the language of the Aesir; for the past thousand years, its speakers have been overwhelmingly Christian. Even Old Norse, which Icelandic still closely resembles, was the tongue of a long-converted nation by the time the golden age of medieval Icelandic literature came about. And there’s hardly anything religious about learning how to say, “On Saturday, I will wake up at nine o’clock.” (“Á laugurdaginn ætla ég að vakna um klukkan níu,” if you were wondering – or at least that’s what my notes say.) I can’t say, really, why this language has a hold on me, any more than I can say why I have dreamed of visiting Iceland itself for years. Unlike some of my classmates, I have no Icelandic grandparents or distant cousins waiting for me in Reykjavik; I have been possessed by a nostalgia for a place my ancestors have never walked, a longing for a language nobody in my family has ever spoken.

I don’t know why these things have such a hold on me, but they do. In less than 24 hours, I will be taking my first steps into Iceland, breathing in my first breath of Reykjavik air. I will be hungry and bone-tired after the red-eye flight from Minneapolis. What will I feel in that moment?

I don’t know, but I am about to find out.

Valhalla, ég er koma. Valhalla, I am coming.

Divinations

Eric O. Scott —  May 9, 2014 — 9 Comments
The Hooded Man, from the Wildwood Tarot. Deck by Mark Ryan and John Matthews. Art by Wil Worthington.

The Hooded Man, from the Wildwood Tarot.
Deck by Mark Ryan and John Matthews.
Art by Wil Worthington.

“I feel like doing Tarot readings,” says Jeff.

It’s about 8:45 and on most nights we would be packing up to leave the Freebirds Burritos restaurant by now, but tonight Jeff decides he wants to run out to his car and grab his deck. There are only three of us – Jeff, Sielach, and me – at this week’s meeting of Hearthfires, a local Columbia Pagan Forum that I have been attending for a few months. I’m thinking about how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and how spending an hour here doing divination is an hour I can’t spend writing my seminar paper on Giambattista Vico and the completely arbitrary relationship I am drawing between his philology and the Icelandic Sagas.

But Jeff wants to do a reading, so we do a reading.

He sorts out the deck onto the wooden table. His deck is called The Wildwood Tarot; I have not seen it before. The artwork is full of nature imagery and fairy-tale settings; in the world of these cards, there is little evidence of human civilization at all, outside of a few human characters and the tools they carry. I search through Jeff’s deck and look at the major arcana. I don’t recognize the names of most of the cards. I only own three Tarot decks, and they all tend towards the traditional – Rider-Waite-Smith, Thoth, Tree of Life. (Tree of Life is my favorite, even though it has no illustrations except for diagrams of the relationship between the cards and the sephira. I am a sucker for diagrams.) I’m accustomed to the seventh card being the Chariot, for example; in this deck, it is the Archer. I don’t know its meaning.

I mention all this to Jeff, and he shrugs. He has looked at the Rider deck before, he says. “But I never got anything from those cards. There’s something in the rigidity of the artwork.”

Jeff begins to draw cards from the deck for me. I don’t mention any specific question for him to look into, in part because I’m interested to see what he pulls together and in part because I don’t have any questions that I want to voice aloud. I have two main concerns in my life right now – in a few weeks, I will be going to Iceland, and in a few months, I will be getting married. Sielach had given me a reading the week before about Iceland, so that seemed covered, and frankly, the wedding seems too distant and overwhelming to worry about now.

Jeff places nine cards down in a pattern – center, cross, left, below, right, above, and then four cards along the side. He describes this pattern to me: the card in the center represents me as I am now. The cross card can be thought of as either my obstacle or my guide. To the left is the recent past; to the right is the near future. The card above is the Sky, or an ideal outcome. The card below is the Root, or the source of my question. The cards along the side give a rough timeline of events, beginning at the bottom and proceeding into the future as we move to the top.

I watch Jeff with curiosity as he lays the cards out on the table. I have never taken to divination of any kind, despite being raised in a Pagan household where I had plenty of opportunity to study it. I’ve never done a Tarot reading for anyone, though I have, in the past few months, begun to do rune readings. I’ve always been more interested in looking at these tools in terms of systems than in terms of oracular use. After I read Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s Promethea, I spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between Tarot and Kabballah, but it never occurred to me to actually shuffle up the cards; I couldn’t get my mind past the inherent randomness of the process.

“I see a lot of Air in the center of the table,” he says as he looks over the tableau. The center card is a Knight of Arrows, or the Hawk. The cross is the Nine of Arrows, which is glossed as Dedication. In the traditional decks that I am familiar with, Air would be associated with the suit of Swords, but the Wildwood Tarot changed the suits. Here, Swords are Arrows, Cups are Vessels, Wands are Bows, and Pentacles are Stones.

Jeff goes through the rest of the cards: the Mother Bear is my Sky, my near future is Healing. (What would I need to heal?, I wonder.) He details a timeline that seems like it might correspond to my time in Iceland – The Pole Star, The Ancestor, The Wheel, The Great Bear – but I am barely paying attention. I am too busy being struck – terrified, actually – by the card in the Root position.

The card is marked number 9. Normally, I would know it as the Hermit; here, it is the Hooded Man. He says that here it has an association with death, which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing; death can simply mean change. Jeff reads this card as being about living through the winter. But that is not the association I carry.

“I wish I had brought my book with me,” he says, referring to a handbook that provides a list of interpretations and correspondences for each card. “I feel like some of my interpretations are off tonight.”

I nod. “I know I feel differently about the Hooded Man,” I say. “I don’t think that’s about death at all. Especially not at the Root. I think that’s a different Hooded Man altogether.”

Sielach nods as she comes to understand what I mean. Jeff doesn’t, though. “Oh. So you’re dealing with some other hooded person?”

“Maybe not a person,” says Sielach. “A hooded personage.”

I have trouble expressing just how spooked this Tarot reading made me. I had a moment of strong cognitive dissonance. My rational mind pushed strongly against any kind of deep meaning to a particular reading; it’s a random deal of the deck, after all. Which card ends up in which place is just a matter of chance.

And yet I read everything about the tableau in relation to Iceland, and it fit. Including the Root. Especially the Root. The Hooded Man. Card number nine. (Nine. Another spooky coincidence.) Of course he would be at the heart of the question.

I remembered pacing back and forth in my advisor’s office two months ago. I had just found out that I had been accepted into a summer Icelandic program through the University of Minnesota, but I hadn’t been offered any money; it would have cost me thousands of dollars that I just didn’t have. We called every university we were in contact with, every Scandinavian educational association, even the Icelandic embassy, looking for grants. Nothing. Too late to apply. We accepted that I probably couldn’t afford to go this year; our best hope was to defer the admission until next summer, when perhaps I could get a better jump on the grants.

The next day I started a fundraising drive, just to see. Within 24 hours, people – mostly my friends and family, but some people I barely knew, and even some people who I can only assume just knew me through my work – had pledged two thousand dollars. The total climbed to over three thousand by the end of the two month drive. I was dumbfounded. I really had not expected it to work. But it did.

As Florence says, “This is a gift. It comes with a price.”

I leave for Minneapolis, and from there Reykjavik, in a little over two weeks. As that day approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about the bargains I have struck. I made a bargain with myself to quit my job and return to academia; now I have made a bargain with everyone who donated to make sure this endeavor is worthwhile.

And of course, I wrote here not that long ago about the bargain I struck with the Hooded Man himself. And there he is, card number nine, staring at me from the root of the world, exactly where I knew he would be when I began this journey last year.

I have been thinking a lot about divination since last night; what to make of it, how to approach it. How any of this applies to changes I have made in my life, and the changes yet to come. What I might believe about what goes into a Tarot reading.

I believe that the cards in any given tableau are random, arbitrary. I believe they have only the meanings we attach to them.

I believe the cards are fated, fixed. I believe each reading tells us exactly what we need to know at that moment in time.

I believe in all and none of these things.

Eric’s note: This post has been updated to feature the actual Hooded Man card from the Wildwood Tarot. Many thanks to the creators for letting us use the image.

We Know Time

Eric O. Scott —  April 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
"Prosperine," Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

“Prosperine,” Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

I woke up this morning – one of the first mornings where I was able to sleep with the window open, the surest sign that Spring has finally arrived – and found it was still dark. I rarely wake up so early, and I took a moment – well, more like fifteen minutes – to lay there in the darkness, still beneath the covers, and listen to the birds calling in the dawn. After a few minutes in which my universe consisted only of birdsong and darkness, a sentence came into my head and began swirling around, like a song with an inescapable tune. “We know time.” It’s a koan that Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s trickster saint, repeats again and again throughout On the Road. “Everything is fine,” says Dean. “God exists, we know time.”

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that I am a devotee of Jack Kerouac – like many writers, my first encounter with On the Road filled me with shock and liberation, awakened me to possibilities of language and structure that I would not have thought possible. Over the years, I’ve come to think of The Dharma Bums as the better work in Kerouac’s oeuvre, the Apollonian remedy to the Dionysian morass of On the Road, but On the Road is the one everybody remembers best, including me. The peculiar draw of that book is Dean, who is charming and fickle, loving but selfish, and the spots of wisdom to be found among the chaos of his existence. “We know time.” An exhortation to remember how quickly life slips past, perhaps; or a reminder of how human existence depends on the progression towards its own end; or just a bit of truthful-sounding nonsense from a man who, viewed objectively, was an irresponsible, callous exile.

“We know time.”

I came into St. Louis a few weeks ago for my family’s Ostara. It was still cold here in Missouri, and snow flurries continued to fall until the 25th of March; it did not feel much like Spring had begun. Before the ritual, we mostly sat around the fire pit and tried to keep warm; after the ritual, most of us went inside and stayed there for the rest of the evening.

The ritual itself contained a passion play, as many of my family’s rituals do – Kore and Demeter, that foundational myth of the seasons. I called a quarter – West, which is the one I always choose – but otherwise had no special role in this ritual. Instead, I watched as my friend Megan bounced on her toes in anticipation of her cue to speak with the voice of Persephone. But before Persephone can return, Demeter must mourn; the mother must speak before the daughter. And in that moment, I saw one of the more powerful things I’ve ever seen in ritual.

I watched as Therese invoked Demeter. Therese is the high priestess of Watershade, the sister coven to my family’s Pleiades coven; I have known her my entire life. One of my earliest memories is of a sabbat held at her house – one of the Spring festivals, I think, maybe Beltane – where a food fight broke out. My friend Joe and I, only three or four years old at that point, didn’t understand the implicit rules, and started throwing apples. (My dad claims we started asking for canned goods.) When we talk about Therese, we talk about her as a mischief maker, a prankster, a trickster saint in her own right. That is our collective vision of her.

But she was not that person at Ostara. Her son had passed away between Candlemas and the equinox. I don’t want to get into it any more than that – I know how raw that feeling is for me, and cannot imagine how it must be for her. Demeter is a goddess who grieves for a lost child; Therese was a woman who had just lost a child. In the ritual, I saw the duality of the invocation – how Therese was not just a woman, nor even “just” a goddess. In that moment, I saw her, and I understood Demeter in a way I never had before. I was about to write that, in her, I saw the grief made flesh, but that isn’t right; the grief is the flesh. The myth is life.

The only difference is that, in the myth, Kore comes back.

“We know time,” I found myself whispering, still listening to the sound of the birds. I wondered how Therese had felt about playing that role in the ritual, whether she had identified consciously with the myth, whether it brought her any catharsis. I hadn’t thought to ask at the festival; I wished that I had.

My bedroom began to lighten, the black turning slowly to blue. I dug out clothes from the closet and dressed in the dark.

Time in Wicca, as I’ve explained over the years, is about circles, not lines; the wheel of the year turns, but in turning, it comes back around. It’s different than the linear progression of events inherent in the march from creation to fall to salvation to Armageddon. But there is no escaping the linear nature of the individual experience, either, even to one who believes in that cycle. A human life does proceed from birth to death with no backwards steps. Perhaps there are children who follow and continue the cycle – but not always. Sometimes, there’s just the line.

I got upstairs, made breakfast, sat down at my writing desk. Daylight had come, and the birds of the dawn had been replaced by the birds of the morning. I saw them dart from branch to branch in the trees outside my window. New green leaves had formed on branches that were barren a week before. Spring, here at last.

I found myself thinking of the nervous Kore, waiting to say her lines. I found myself wondering if even mighty Persephone truly knows time.

Author’s note: Some names have been changed.

Cheap plug note: Many thanks to my readers for helping to fund my research visit to Iceland! I’m really looking forward the columns that will come out of the experience. There’s still 22 days left in the campaign, so if you want to get your hot little hands on an ebook of my Iceland writings, and maybe a postcard from Reykjavik or other swag, head over to my Indiegogo page and donate a buck or three.

Reclining Pan

Eric O. Scott —  March 7, 2014 — 6 Comments
Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Pan lies at the end of a hallway on the first floor of the St. Louis Art Museum, stretched out on his back on a bed of stone. In his right hand, he holds his pipes, ready to bring them to his lips for a song; he rests his head against his other arm, his left hand toying with the head of a goat whose skin the god wears as a cloak. Bunches of grapes rest between his shaggy feet. A tiny salamander crawls near his right hoof. I cannot read his absent gaze; while he would seem to be reclining in leisure, something in the way the god’s lips hang just slightly agape makes me think he is in some sort of sublime state, either pain or rapture.

This Pan is a statue, of course – Reclining Pancarved from a discarded chunk of marble, and once used as a fountain. (Water would have poured from the bag under Pan’s back, which seems highly impractical.) He was carved in the Renaissance, probably by an artist named Francesco da Sangallo, sometime around 1535, and spent most of his half a millennium of life in the collection of the Barberini family, whose members were princes and cardinals. He came to America, and to St. Louis, two years after World War II, where he has been ever since.

So far as I know, Reclining Pan is not considered one of the great works of Renaissance sculpture – not bad, but not one of the masterpieces. But you would not know that from the way my family treated it whenever we visited the Art Museum while I was growing up. We did not always go immediately to Pan, but inevitably, our labyrinthine paths through the museum would lead us to the hallway where he lays. My parents love art, and would happily observe and discuss nearly anything in the museum collections, but Reclining Pan merited a special reverence. He was our icon, our site of devotion.

But he was not alone. In the rest of the European art, there were other works that featured the gods of antiquity: Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Apollo and Marsyas was always a favorite, with its vivid colors and the wonderfully expressive faces of its subjects. If we wandered downstairs to the Ancient Art section, we found other pieces that usually caught my eye: small statues of Horus, Osiris, Ma’at and Thoth in the Egyptian cases, two headless statues of Artemis, an amphora showing the meeting between Heracles and Apollo at Delphi. A young Pagan could spend all day scouring the collections, looking for traces of the gods, and I often did.

When I was perhaps eleven or twelve – just beginning to understand what my religion was, and how it was different from what most of my peers at school practiced – I remember looking at the scenes painted on the case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht’s mummy, detailing the path his soul would take in the afterlife. I looked at the gods – Osiris, Isis, Anubis, and many more – painted on the casket, and I recognized some of the scenes from the Book of the Dead. Then I looked at the information placard; it said that Amen-Nestawy-Nakht had lived during the 22nd Dynasty, sometime around 900 BC. I paused, and read the placard again. I don’t have the proper metaphor for how this revelation hit me: this person had lived a thousand years before Jesus. A thousand years! I was closer to the Renaissance than this priest of Amun had been to the birth of Christ. And yet we had statues of these gods on our family altar; I may have even had my own statue of Horus in my bedroom by that point. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to know that, in some way, I was connected to something so ancient.

I look at certain things in the Art Museum more critically now than I did as a child. I can’t help but be aware of the colonial stigma attached to the mummy of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht, for example, who had once been interred in the Theban necropolis and would, I am sure, have preferred to stay there, rather than passing into the hands of French collectors and eventually a museum on the other side of the Earth. I notice that the two statues of Artemis on display are both missing their heads, and I wonder what happened to them, whether some patriarchal malefactor destroyed the face of the goddess in an attempt to show his domination of her. And I can’t help but note the irony that Reclining Pan was carved for the family of a Catholic cardinal, the very embodiment of the religion that displaced the worship of gods like Pan.

But still, when I am home and have the time, I make this tiny pilgrimage. Part of growing up Pagan was learning to take comfort in the little reminders of my faith that infiltrated the world around me. I kept my chapels hidden in plain sight. Other visitors to the Art Museum might only have seen a statue of a strange-faced faun reclining on a comfortless bed of stone. I saw a god, and something more than a god.

I saw the face of an old friend.

 

Alone in the Garden

Eric O. Scott —  February 14, 2014 — 6 Comments
The Three Graces. Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

The Three Graces.
Sculpture by Gerhard Marcks, photograph by Scott Spaeth.

 

St. Louis summer: not just hot, but humid, sticky, “muggy,” as we, the low-born of the south side, tend to call it. The world seems to glow orange under the proud gaze of Father Sun. On August days like this, sometimes the death of the Sun King doesn’t seem so tragic after all. He has it coming.

It is a little past eleven, and I am standing, alone, in the English Woodland section of the Missouri Botanical Garden – “Shaw’s Garden,” the other gift of our local saint, Henry Shaw. The year is 2007; I am twenty-one years old.

The English Woodland Garden doesn’t seem traffic like some other spots. It is a quiet, mazelike place. Although there is one asphalt road that splits it in half, a necessary blemish so that the trams and tractors can get across the garden, most of the paths in this garden are made of red cedar chips spread on the ground. They wind and twist around plots of dirt and greenery; black metal signs stick out of the ground and give names to the plants: a swamp white oak here, a dogwood there, a collection of bishop’s hats by your left foot. The dirt and the cedar steam in the heat, enough that my glasses fog up. The Three Graces, Zeus and Eurynome’s bronze daughters, dance together atop a stone on one side of the garden. Squirrels rustle past in every direction.

At the edge of this garden sits a wooden bower. In my memory, this bower was made of rough timbers, lashed together with ropes, the bark barely stripped from the still-round branches. The peak of its sloped roof was decorated with branches spread out like the World Tree. It felt like a tiny Viking hall in the middle of my city. I have been there in the years since, and that is not the building that stands there now. The gazebo that stands on top of my memory is sturdy and made of weather-treated four-by-fours and has metal brackets held together with rivets to brace its angles. Perhaps I remember it wrong; perhaps they tore the old down, or it fell apart during a rough winter. Perhaps I dreamed my Viking hall into being. Perhaps it knew why I was there.

I had no other temple. I needed a place to pray.

I stop at the threshold, place my hand on the rough frame of the doorway. Inside are two wooden benches, one to each side. The back of the bower has a railing and overlooks the last few trees and shrubs in the English Woodland Garden before the landscape melts away and becomes Japan. I first found that place the year before; I had come with friends from my coven. We were smitten. Sarah ran her hand across the tall beams of the frame and looked back at me; she seemed to radiate light. “I need you to build me one of these,” she said.

“Buy a house first,” I said, but I agreed to do it.

I sit down on one of the benches and look at my hands. I haven’t cried yet. I feel like I should have by now. That would be the human thing to do.

Two hours before, I had kissed you goodbye for the last time. I doubted I would ever see you again. We had been standing in the airport with your parents; you were boarding a plane for Washington, DC, en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You always said you were going into the Peace Corps: it was one of the first things I ever heard you say about yourself. You never said anything different, even after we found ourselves staying out talking at restaurants until we were forced out by the wait staff, even after I took you to a dance while dressed as a giant mouse, even after you realized I would never be bold enough to kiss you and so you kissed me yourself. I knew this.

You said you would be there for two years at least, but probably three. We had been together for nine months. The literary critic in me has always rankled at the symbolism.

I kissed you goodbye, and I watched you wheel your suitcase away into the bowels of Lambert International, and I rode in your parents’ SUV back to their house in North County, where my car was parked. I hugged them both goodbye – also for the last time – and drove back into the city, to Shaw’s Garden.

I shut my eyes, at last. Sweat pooled on my forehead. I sit in the muggy heat and try to focus. I begin to chant the names of the gods: I pull their names from my diaphragm like ohms, warping and shaping their names until they are pure notes that stretch as far as my lungs will take them.

I pray to Odin, wanderer. Frigg, all-seeing. Thor, protector. Tyr, oathkeeper.

I pray to Freyr, sower. Idunna, youth. Balder, martyr. Loki, changer.

And I pray to Freyja.

Freyja’s name rises from my belly. My eyes are clenched and my hands are clasped and I am not crying but I wish I were.

I pray to Freyja, and I think about you, and I wonder about what will happen to me now.

There’s a feeling, like a gentle brush of fingers against my hands, and I hear a woman’s voice in my ear. Trust me, she says.

If you say so, I say back.

I don’t think of Freyja when we begin to send each other letters that say how much we miss one another. I don’t think of her when my parents pull together the money for us to spend a week together a year into your term of service. I certainly don’t think of her when we break up two years into your time in Kazakhstan and I try – poorly – to start seeing other people.

It isn’t until you appear in the baggage claim at Lambert Airport and I see your face for the first time in two and a half years and we kiss each other good night on your parents’ front step that I think of Freyja.

Trust me, she says.

Last year, when I bought your engagement ring, I wondered where to keep it until I asked the question. I decided to keep it next to the statue of Freyja on my altar. Perhaps “decided” is not the right word; really, she insisted.

(Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.)

(Also, today is the first day of Pantheacon! I’ll be there! Will you be there? We should give each other high-fives.)

Nature’s Social Union

Eric O. Scott —  January 10, 2014 — 12 Comments
Photo by author

Maiden, Mother, and Crone

My fiancee and I have been waffling about making exact plans for our wedding since May, when we were engaged. This is mostly because of our odd living situation – for a variety of reasons, we have been together for nearly eight years but have only ever lived in the same city once, at the very start of our relationship, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon. But we have finally made up our minds to get things in order. So what if we still live in different states? Are we not moderns?

The idea is to have the wedding in St. Louis at Tower Grove Park – the same park that my parents were married in, and the park where I proposed to her. I like the idea of being married under the branches of those trees; Tower Grove was the park closest to my parents’ house while I was growing up. It was where I took the dog on walks, where I learned to ride a bike. Growing up in the city, Tower Grove was the closest place I could visit to experience nature. Even now, on the occasion that I consider the idea of a Summerland, really I’m just thinking of an eternity laughing on the grass of Tower Grove Park.

Which is odd.

Despite the trees and the flowers and the duck pond, there’s nothing “natural” about Tower Grove Park, nor most other parks in cities across the US. City parks, with a few historical exceptions, are a product of the Industrial Revolution just as surely as factories or high rise apartment buildings, and indeed, rely on those things for their very origins. It was considered important for the physical and spiritual health of industrialized workers that they had an opportunity to spend their leisure time in nature; otherwise, the dehumanizing, “unnatural” urban environment would wear them away. City parks were seen as the solution to this: an area of the city that was reserved away from the weary ugliness of urbanity and instead given over to greenery, where people could interact with the earth in the ways they had since the dawn of the species, according to nature’s design.

Tower Grove Park, in particular, was a bequest from Henry Shaw, who also donated the grounds for the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, which St. Louisians to this day still call “Shaw’s Garden.” It took decades to improve the property to meet the needs of visitors: there were pavilions to be built, bronze statues to be erected, and the earth itself to be molded, irrigated, and forcefully acquired in order to complete the park. Even today, nearly a century after the last tract of eight acres was added to the grounds and the park declared “complete,” Tower Grove requires a small army of groundskeepers, botanists, and rangers to maintain the buildings, plant the flowers, and keep the grass cut low enough that the insects don’t annoy the patrons.

Of course, in “real nature,” the grass grows tall and in the summer the air is thick with bugs. In “real nature,” the greenery isn’t bounded on four sides by major streets, nor are there life-sized statues of Shakespeare, Rossini, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. The city park is an architectural space just as surely as any civic center – it just happens to be sculpted, in the main, with trees and grass as opposed to concrete. To put it another way, urban parks may be “nature,” but they are not in any sense “wild.” They exist because of human design. They are hardly what nature intended, except perhaps in the bizarre alternate reality of the Victorian mind.

This fascinates me, because – despite the debates the community has had over the legitimacy of this definition – my Paganism is, at its core, nature worship. Sometimes when I pray, it’s to the disir or the land-wights or to the gods; but sometimes I just pray to the trees, and that seems like it’s enough. But the way I think of nature – the way I think of “trees!” – has been buttressed by all those afternoons in a heavily cultivated city park, a tamed form of nature where every plant sits according to the plans of human beings. Does that taint the legitimacy of my connection to the earth? Can I really be said to worship nature if my idea of “nature” resembles a Victorian greenway?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not. I have Annie Dillard on my mind right now – I’m teaching Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my Introduction to Nonfiction course this semester – and the central theme of that book seems to be the presence of nature in all her beauty and all her savagery all around us, everywhere we would care to look. There’s a famous passage near the beginning where Dillard sees a frog eaten alive by a giant water bug, which bites into the frog and devours its insides while leaving the empty skin-sack intact, like a deflated balloon. To Dillard – and to me – it’s an otherworldly, terrifying scene. But it’s just the way those two creatures interact: the giant water bug eats the frog, just as the frog eats the fly. Dillard’s Tinker Creek isn’t a finely sculpted civic attraction like Tower Grove Park, but it’s still shaped according to human intentions – there’s a cattle barrier doubling as a bridge slung over the creek, for example. But if the presence of humanity has made any impression on the frog and the giant water bug, they make no sign of it. Nature – “real nature” – goes on regardless.

“This place look like public property to you, bucko?”

I proposed to my fiancee at Beltane last year. In the days leading up to the sabbat, I made a habit of going over to the spot in Tower Grove Park where I planned to ask her. Without fail, every day I was visited by a cardinal bird. He was a feisty young buck, bright red and full of the warrior spirit. He seemed to take offense at the presence of my car sitting underneath his tree, and would swoop down onto the hood to peck at the windshield glass – probably, I suppose, thinking that his reflection was an intruder on his territory, though I like to think he just thought he was tough enough to scare away even a creature as big as a Chevy Cobalt.

The tree that cardinal lived in was planted by humans, kept up by humans, and was meant for human use. But the cardinal didn’t know any of that. To him, it was simply his tree, just as all his forebears had before him.

Perhaps, if the world were still in its primal state and the hand of humanity had never touched this acre of Tower Grove Park, the tree wouldn’t have been there, nor the cardinal, either. But they are here, and they’re true enough.

Dedicant

Eric O. Scott —  December 14, 2013 — 24 Comments
James Morris as Wotan.

James Morris as Wotan,
from the 2009 New York Met production of Die Walkure.

The first time I heard about Odin – really heard, or perhaps really listened – I was listening to Alaric Albertsson speak. That was never what I called him, then or now; he is, and always will be, my uncle Alaric, the person my god-brother was named after, one of the many people who had known me since the day I was born. I was eighteen years old at that time, attending a Pagan festival on my own for the first time. It had been some years since I had last seen Alaric, and his path had evolved in that time. He had embraced something he called “Fyrn Sedu,” or “the Old Ways,” an Anglo-Saxon form of Heathenry. I had never heard the word “Heathenry” before, not with that meaning.

That weekend changed my life in many ways. It forced me to ask certain questions, questions which I am still struggling to answer. It brought me my first genuine mystical experience, undergoing a seidhr ritual by the campfire, diving deep into the roots of the World Tree. And it was the first time I was ever really forced to think about Odin in any context besides how much I loved his turn as Mr. Wednesday in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Alaric, being a Saxon Heathen, referred to Woden, the English cognate of the Norse god. But the Saxon names have never formed easily on my tongue; despite having a rich resource into Saxon Heathenry like Alaric at my disposal, I’ve always been called to the forms the gods took in Iceland, to the Old Norse tongue. To Odin. Óðinn.

“What you have to understand about Woden,” said Alaric, “is that he has plans in mind, and they’re bigger than you. And if you’re part of his plans, that might not always turn out best for you. It will be best in the end, sure. But Woden never tells you the whole story.”

It was a scary thought, the idea of a god whose plans were much bigger than yours. I had always thought of a relationship with a god as being a very individual, intimate thing. The language may be Christian, but it’s not a solely Christian reflex: the desire for your own personal god, a deity who places your well-being at the top of her priorities. And to hear that Woden – Odin – was not that sort of god, was someone who might like you and care about you, but still was willing to use you if that would further his ends… That was a discomforting thought.

And yet…

*

When I first felt comfortable calling myself Heathen, several years later, I did not think much about Odin. I thought of myself as Thor’s. I felt comfortable with him. When I went blindly into a Catholic midnight mass and felt nearly undone with fear, it was Thor who seemed to appear in the pew beside me, who calmed me with the warmth of his big, meaty hand. It was his hammer I wore around my neck; it was his hammer that I sanctified for my altar.

It’s not that I ignored the Old Man; I gave him praise and offerings in thanks for the occasional sips he allotted me from the mead of poetry, and I looked to him for wisdom in the Havamal. But I thought of myself as Thor’s man, even though I never took it upon myself to make that a formal bond.

It was just under a year ago now that I got the letter from the University of Missouri: I had been accepted into a PHD program at the only university I had seriously considered attending. I found out while on layover in Dallas between my home in St. Louis and the 2012 Pantheacon. I was overjoyed – I started jumping and weeping and laughing in the middle of the terminal. I could make it. I was the first person in my family to finish a bachelor’s degree, and now I would go all the way.

Doctor Scott. To hell with the odds. I could beat them.

This was what I had always wanted.

The problem, I realized as I boarded the plane to San Jose, was that I wasn’t sure I still wanted it.

This, you see, was to have been my farewell to the idea of graduate school. I had applied before, when I was still in my master’s program; I hadn’t been accepted. I applied again the next year, this time only to the school where I had done my master’s; I had been told I was a shoo-in. That didn’t work out either. I left the academy and thereby the plans I had made for my life. I went to work, and gradually, I got comfortable with that. I made okay money. I started to pay down my student loans. I had dinner with my family on Wednesday nights. I sent out the last round of applications on a lark; my test scores were all set to expire in 2013 anyway. I had planned on rejection. I hadn’t planned on what I would do if I got in.

And then I got in.

I started dreaming about ravens a week after that. They were not pleasant dreams; the ravens chased me down the sidewalks and alleys of my adolescence, their eyes filled with vicious gleams and their beaks sharpened like daggers. Every night I found myself starring in a somnambulant remake of The Birds. I don’t usually remember my dreams at all; I almost never have recurring nightmares. But this one kept reappearing. I kept waking up groggy and afraid.

I started to realize the details of the dream – the layout of the alleys and the streets, the landmarks, the buildings. I recognized the building where I went to high school – a loaded metaphor if there ever was one – and that’s where I went. The ravens followed me, but inside the building, their character changed. They didn’t attack. They watched.

They were waiting to see what I would do.

Even as I type this, it seems mad. You based your decision on whether to quit your job and move across the state on dreams of a Hitchcock cliché? Rationally, I don’t accept this at all. You didn’t make this decision because of a dream, my reason says. You were in a dead-end job and got a better offer. You took it. That’s all.

But reason is such a small part of my soul. The rest frowns in wonder: who sent the ravens?

As if I couldn’t tell.

What you have to understand, says Alaric, his voice a whisper in the folds of memory, is that he has plans in mind, and they’re bigger than you.

*

I rebuilt my altar a little over a month ago. The night after I put it all together – nailed the pictures to the walls, arranged the statues and the tools the way I liked – I did an impromptu ritual. I simply meant to re-consecrate the altar itself, a sort of magickal stamp of completion. That was the intention.

Instead, I found myself swearing my life to Odin.

I had not expected to do this, and I fumbled through the ritual, searching for the words to properly express the terms of this bond. We came to an agreement. I offered him five years.

I felt anxious, terrified, excited, doomed. It felt like the day I left home, or the night I first made love. I don’t want to make this sound like some heroic endeavor; it’s only graduate school. It’s not dragon-slaying. But I chose to sacrifice quite a lot for it: money, proximity to my family and my coven, any hope of “putting down roots.” I traded those things for knowledge, for another few sips from the mead of poetry.

It’s not quite the same as losing an eye. But yes, it will do.

rackham pictures

Four Arthur Rackham portraits. Clockwise from top right: Donner, Freia, Loge and Wotan meeting Alberich, and Wotan the Wanderer meeting Mime.
Also pictured: my runic yoga cheat sheets. Don’t judge me.

I come from carpenters. I’m not sure I would call it a family profession – more like the results of a long line of bull-headed men who couldn’t stand more than a few years of answering to a boss. Eventually, we all quit or got fired, picked up some tools, and starting putting up fences and building porches. We’ve never been the type to get certifications. My grandfather, even now, prefers to conduct as much of his business as possible in cash, a habit developed over decades of being paid under the table.

I am not a carpenter, now; in fact, when I was a teenager, first coming to terms with the kind of person I am, I would have nightmares about it. I would dream of waking up in my forties with a ruined back and a tapestry of scars woven across my forearms, the artistry of errant nails and utility knives. Even now, ten years out from the last time I spent a summer working with my grandfather as he hung gutters and tuck pointed a house, I sometimes wonder if this PHD I’m working on is just another way of running away from carpentry.

But there’s when it comes to driving nails, there is something in my blood, something in the musical collision of metal and drywall. I don’t do it often, but when I do, it’s holy. It’s no wonder that my god’s symbol is a hammer.

Today I am driving nails into the wall of my bedroom for picture frames. I eyeball everything. I don’t mind making crooked things: it’s a reminder of the human effort involved. To look at a row of pictures that are slightly off is to know that they are the work of human hands. (Writing, with all its inescapable errors and not-quite-right words, is much the same.)

The pictures are part of my altar area, which I am rebuilding yet again, despite having only put the altar up for the first time in this house a few months ago. My roommate found a wonderfully ugly old metal desk at the university surplus auction – or, more precisely, in the pile of things more valuable as scrap metal than as furniture – and so the end-table I had been using for a desk suddenly became available for better purposes. It’s just the right size for an altar – enough room to hold a variety of tools and statues without being too cluttered. It’s much better suited for this than for being a work desk – it barely held the monitor and a keyboard, much less the stacks of papers and overdue library books an English student tends to attract.

I took the pictures from an art book of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I cut them out with an X-Acto knife and a cutting board; having no straight-edges available, I cut free hand, leaving a slightly curving edge to most of the pictures. (But then, what’s the problem with a crooked picture in a crooked frame?) I hung up four of the plates – Wotan, Donner, Freia, and Loge — to watch over my altar. I can see them from my bed when I wake up: four portraits of a mythic world, a world nobody else has ever conceived in quite the way Rackham did.

Arthur Rackham was no heathen, of course; he was mainly an illustrator of children’s books, though he felt his illustrations to the Ring cycle were “not well suited for those lucky people who haven’t yet finished the delightful adventure of growing up.” Rackham considered his Ring illustrations to be among his masterpieces, but then, he created many masterpieces. If his drawings of Wotan and Brunhilde held any special place in his heart, it was because of the reverence attached to Wagner’s operas, not because he personally believed in the Aesir.

But I do. When I look at Rackham’s Freia, or Donner, or especially Loge, I see Freyja and Thor and Loki. I feel this way even though Rackham did not. I am cognizant of the disconnect between the intentions of the artist and my use of his art; I am even more cognizant of the fact that these drawings are many steps removed from the “truth” of these deities, filtered as they are through Snorri Sturluson and the other Eddic writers, through Wagner’s appropriation and reinvention of the Eddas, through Rackham’s interpretation of Wagner.

It's a pretty steamy scene.

Loge and the Rhinemaidens, Arthur Rackham.

In one picture – perhaps my favorite in the cycle – Loge sits at the edge of a pond, listening to the lament of the maidens of the Rhine for their lost treasure. Steam issues from all over Loge’s body; the water of the pond hisses into vapor at his touch. That’s because Loge, in the Ring, is a fire god, an assumption made based on how closely the words Loki and Loge resemble one another. But as any sufficiently pedantic heathen will tell you, there’s no evidence that Loki was ever considered connected to fire; it’s an accident, a deceitful homonym. Yet Loge’s association with fire is essential to the operas, such that the two most famous scenes, the endings of Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung, rely on Loge’s flames.

I know this, but still, when I look at Rackham’s pictures, I see my gods looking back. That may not have been what Rackham intended, but it is what I find. I cannot divorce the two.

This weekend, I will be going to see Thor: The Dark World with my fiancée. It’s our seventh anniversary, and we are dorks, so this is the kind of movie we are apt to see on such an occasion. I will be going into it as someone who grew up reading Marvel Comics, who still spends an unhealthy amount of money on them every month. But I will also be going into the theater as a heathen, as someone who wears a Thor’s hammer around his neck. As someone who, when he finds an excuse to pick up a hammer, immediately thinks of Mjolnir, and the labors of the god who wields it. If Rackham’s Donner is a distorted replica of the “real” Thor, then Marvel’s Thor is that replica run through about twelve generations of Xerox. But I can’t pretend it won’t have meaning to me. We are surrounded by portraits of our myths created by artists who do not believe as we do.

I do not know what they find in their work, but I find holiness – perhaps removed, perhaps distorted, but holy, still. Perhaps that is not what Rackham intended. I am certain it is not what Chris Hemsworth intends. But when I see a Rackham illustration, or hear a Wagner theme, or even shudder under the assault of a Marvel action scene… I see my gods in them. They are my contribution to the work.

When the pictures are finally hung, I note the imperfections. The portrait of the Wanderer sits slightly higher than the others. I have to adjust the pictures several times to fake the appearance of symmetry, even though that’s a futile task. I look at them and see the gods’ work, and Wagner’s work, and Rackham’s, and mine.

Work is holy. Carpenters know this.

Sheepskin

Eric O. Scott —  October 11, 2013 — 20 Comments
cloud-ground-lightning13_20849_990x742

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