Interview with Jenny Blain: Sacred Landscapes and Seidr

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The Spring 2014 courses are starting soon at Cherry Hill Seminary, a learning institution dedicated to “practical training in leadership, ministry, and personal growth in Pagan and Nature-Based spiritualities.” Over the past couple years, Cherry Hill Seminary has made leaps and bounds towards its goal of becoming an accredited institution, and part of that is thanks to the growing number of prominent Pagan Scholars who have joined to teach courses and work on its board or administrative body. Joining that number this year is Dr. Jenny Blain, who recently retired from Sheffield Hallam University, and will be teaching “Heathenry: Altered States and Non-Human People” at CHS starting this month. Dr. Blain is author of “Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism,” and co-editor of “Researching Paganisms” in the Pagan Studies Series.

In this short interview, we discuss her decision to teach at Cherry Hill Seminary, her work on the topic of sacred landscapes, Heathenry and the practice of seidr, and more.

Dr. Jenny Blain

Dr. Jenny Blain

As someone who has been very involved with the development of Pagan Studies, particularly through the book “Researching Paganisms,” what drew you to work with Cherry Hill Seminary? Do you think that more Pagan scholars will follow your example as CHS grows in size and prominence?

I’d met Wendy on various occasions, and of course she was a contributor to Researching Paganisms, where we were attempting to bring together the different ways that people had found themselves drawn into Pagan Studies and the particular approaches that they were using. And so, a couple of years ago, Wendy asked if I’d be interested to contribute a course to Cherry Hill – but because of my work for a university in England it had to wait until retirement! I’m glad to keep a foothold in teaching, and particularly in distance learning, and of course also to help display aspects of Heathenry to people who may have some preconceptions about this religion that don’t actually chime with the way many Heathens practice.

Cherry Hill gives that opportunity and I’m excited to see how the course will develop and indeed how the Seminary can serve needs of a very diverse range of Paganisms. So, yes, there is scope for Pagan scholars to contribute to CH. I do feel it’s important that the diversity is recognised and particularly that people who are engaging in various sorts of Pagan ‘Ministry’ understand the very different approaches to sacredness and the divine which are possible and present – and of course also how these relate to other religious expressions. On which point it’s time to move to that reburial issue and some of the diversities there.

Touching briefly on your body of work, which has dealt quite a bit with the issue of ancient remains, modern Pagans, and the political issue of reburial (or display/study), what do you make of the current protests headed by Arthur Pendragon at Stonehenge over the remains at the visitor’s center? Is this an issue that you believe more Pagans should be paying attention to? Does it tie into larger issues for modern Pagans?

The issue of ancient remains is, for me, part of a much wider issue about people’s relationship with landscape and place, and with the other-than-human people that surround us. These include – but are definitely not restricted to – ‘ancestors’ in the widest sense, people who lived on the land, worked with the land, developed cultural understanding of place and self and community. To give an example, the people buried at Cairnholy in Galloway are quite probably not ‘ancestral’ to me in the sense of DNA or something like that, but they are ‘ancestral’ in terms of having lived on and with the earth and sea and rivers that my Blain ancestors, much much more recently, farmed and fished. We don’t know what these very far past ancestors thought about death, but we do know that they, some of them at least, were placed into the burial cairns with care and deliberation, into a particular set of relationships with the other beings within the landscape, whether beetles, grasses or other ‘ancestors’. In removing ‘remains’ from their context we are disrupting that relationship.

Now, sometimes that disruption can’t be helped, and many remains unearthed today are discovered during works for new buildings or new roads, with the result that the work stops and archaeologists carefully remove the remains, usually for reburial as close as possible to the site where they were found. Archaeologists do care about these things! But that leaves us with the issue of remains which have been deliberately excavated and stored for research purposes and museum display, which is mostly what Arthur and other campaigners are on about. The whole legal situation is a rather tangled mess, and there are differences between Scotland and other parts of the UK, as in Scotland the dead one has the ‘right of sepulchre’, the right to be left undisturbed unless for very good reason, whereas in England the rights pertain to descendants. The Avebury Reburial Consultation a few years ago showed how difficult it was to make a claim without being able to demonstrate ‘descent’ in the sense of either direct family line or direct cultural transmission.

The Stonehenge protests – well, Stonehenge is the best known prehistoric site in Britain, so it is an obvious target, especially with the new visitor centre developing its displays after the much-promoted recent excavations. There is a related issue about what promises were made before the excavations started, when reburial of possible new finds was discussed (the three sets of remains on display are not from the recent excavations however). I do think that this issue has to be sorted out but there may be less confrontational ways to do this! Groups such as Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) have been working in association with archaeologists and museum curators for quite some time, but positions seem suddenly to have become much more rigid. It’s worth reading what HAD has to say about the visitor centre exhibits – and indeed I plan to be raising some of the issues of ‘ancestors’ in the course for Cherry Hill Seminary.

041525650X.01.LZZZZZZZMoving on to your Spring 2014 class at CHS, “Heathenry: Altered states and non-human people,” it seems like the class is centered in your study of oracular seidr. Could you talk a little bit about the class, and why seidr is important to explore within modern Heathenry? What purpose does this reconstructed practice serve today?

Well, first, it isn’t so much centred on seidr as using the development of seidr to explore worldview, cosmology and culture. These various things that I said above, issues of ancestors, other-than-human people, and so forth, will all be part of the course. It’s a matter of what is central to Heathenry; so, the world tree Yggdrasil, the various being (and worlds) that are on or under the Tree or which it connects, and the possibility of knowing about this cosmology through spiritual practice. And this starts with the connections and relationships that we’re part of, relationships with other-than-human people as well as with human friends and relatives.

Many Heathens don’t make seidr, and those that do don’t necessarily do the ‘oracular’ kind or follow the various ritual forms that have been developed. To me and to other Heathens to whom I’ve spoken, seidr is a way of effecting some kind of change – for instance in health, in knowledge, little tweaks if you like to the strands of Wyrd which connect us.

So, seidr and how Heathens today do this will be part of the course but not its totality. And, the purpose isn’t to develop students as seid-workers, but to equip them with an understanding of the connections that make seidr possible, and communities in which it’s being developed. Seidr is important for Heathen communities because it shows the importance of these relationships – we can ‘know’ things or ‘change’ things through respectful interaction with other wights, that is, with the other beings with whom we share space and time. Most Heathens aren’t seidworkers; those that are, are valued within their communities – just as a musician, an artist, a craft-worker, a gardener are valued.

More broadly, there have been noticeable points of difference, and even tension, between modern Heathenry, and modern Paganism. What do you think the two camps have to learn form each other? What is our common ground?

I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about Heathenry, and that there is indeed much to be learned and shared. A few weeks ago I was giving a talk to the Pagan moot in Dundee, the city where I now live, and the talk was basically an overview of the material that will be addressed in much more depth in the Cherry Hill course. The people there were quite fascinated and much of what I said was very new to them – the basis in the Eddas and Sagas, the concept of Yggdrasil as the connection within and between worlds, the ideas of an Animist approach to landscape and to these wights, connections with Siberian shamanic practice and so on. And there were quite a few points of connection, particularly with how the concept of Wyrd gave a focus on taking responsibility for one’s actions, developing self-knowledge in order to create better relationship with others.

Finally, to return to Cherry Hill Seminary, moving forward, what do you see as your role within that learning institution? What does working with CHS bring you that a more traditional secular institution cannot? What are your feelings on building institutions like CHS within a Pagan context?

First, institutions such as Cherry Hill Seminary have different roles in different part of the world – the British context is very different to Cherry Hill Seminarythat in the US, or in Canada where I lived for a good while, and in the UK there is much less focus among Pagans (and particularly Heathens) on formal organisations. But having said that, I do see the importance of building places (virtual or physical) where Pagans can share and develop their understandings. I hope that I will be able to share some of my knowledge and at the same time learn more about ways other Paganisms are developing. In particular, though, I’d like to keep coming back to the ideas of place and landscape and time, ‘where people are’ and how this creates spiritual practice.

And what does CHS bring me – it enables an overt exploration of spirituality within a critical practitioner context. In a traditional secular organisation explorations get done in other ways, and in teaching there’s still the ‘methodological agnosticism’ that comes in when talking about religion. Of course, some anthropological theory has strongly critiqued this and some research foregrounds practitioners ways of knowing – Researching Paganisms is a contribution to this literature, and so is my book Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic. But for the CHS teaching my purpose is to help students develop their appreciations of Heathenry, landscapes, wights and worldviews, and so I can get into areas that would be difficult in a secular organisation.

Final note – there’s a book that came out in 2011, The Wanton Green, edited by Gordon MacLellan and Susan Cross, in which various Pagans discuss landscape, place and meanings. One chapter is mine – and the book is a demonstration, I think, of what can be shared and what we as practitioners of different spiritualities today can learn from each other.

I’d like to thank Dr. Blain for taking the time to answer my questions. She will be teaching “Heathenry: Altered States and Non-Human People” at CHS starting this month. Registration is still open, but will close on January 8th, so sign up now if you want to participate.