Today’s offering is by columnist Luke Babb. Luke is a storyteller and eclectic polytheist who primarily works with the Norse and Hellenic pantheons. They live in Chicago with their wife and a small jungle of houseplants, where they are studying magic and community building – sometimes even on purpose.
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This is a story around horses. Not about them, not quite – they feature, but are not involved. Instead they hover like specters on the edge of the narrative, appearing in refrains as poetic impulses or half-spoken themes. They are important, but I cannot pinpoint why, and I am left gesturing at something mythic and unknown. Every attempt I make to learn a lesson from this leads only to more frustration.
This is a story about Frey.
I grew up in the fields of the deep Midwest. My memories of home are defined by wheat and soybeans, long rolling expanses of gold and green fringed by thin boundaries of trees planted to mark property or stop the wind. I find this beautiful, peaceful, and absolutely unremarkable. This is my map of the world, my idea of what we mean by “bounty” – crops just before the combine and apple trees heavy-laden in the backyard, ready to be climbed and stored for the winter.
I have only ridden one horse in those fields. Her name was Penny, and I remember her being tall enough that I must have been very short indeed. I needed to be lifted up into the saddle, where I remained as she stood, completely ignoring my John Wayne-learned attempts at goading her into movement, until she decided that it was time to go back to the barn. I, in the midst of a horse phase that mostly consisted of reading about them, remember being very disappointed by the real thing.
Practically, this is all I know about horses – a summer afternoon and a nag old enough to be my mother, standing too far from a post for me to even learn how to climb down.
In theory, I know a great deal more about horses than that. Thanks to a best friend who has raised and worked with horses their whole life, I have picked things up – breeds and tack, naming conventions, training and use and something of the way horse people think of their four-legged counterparts. When all is well, I’m told, a horse and its rider have a partnership that is founded in respect and communication, a relationship that I, not being a person given to animal bonds these days, do not totally understand.
This is one of the reasons I don’t like calling divine embodiment “horsing.” Setting aside for the moment issues of appropriation, I don’t know horses like that. I don’t fully understand the metaphor I’m trying to use.
So I say it like this, instead: the first time I met Frey, there was static on the channel.
This was early in my experience as a Heathen, relatively early in my studies as any sort of serious witch. A group near me had been holding regular semi-private sessions in which they would call in divinities and lend them voices. As a relative newcomer I was surprised to be invited, but I was not going to turn down the opportunity to see in person something I had only heard about – even if I was not convinced it was real.
This is not a reflection on the community, per se. I consider myself a devotee of Loki and Odin, a pair I lovingly call the “two man con,” after Gaiman. It should not be surprising that a clever, cautious part of me is on edge, always, and ready to question even the most profound of my experiences. I am too familiar with the ways the mind can bend and break, the ways social and religious capital can be leveraged in a community, the ways pretenders can pass themselves off as holy, to ever escape that stern, doubtful questioning side of me. Blame my history in the church or blame my over-analytical mind. I certainly do. It can be hard to have an experience while always on the watch for angles.
I wanted these ceremonies to be true, though. Channelling – the practice of lending a body to an incorporeal spirit to speak and interact directly with their followers – seemed dangerous, certainly, and an imperfect practice at best, but I could not think of a better way to interact with the gods. I had been reading everything on the subject I could find, and I was delighted by the opportunity to see it for myself. Nevermind that in this case, they were channeling two deities I hardly knew, and nevermind that some of the safety guidelines I’d read about were being gently set aside. If this was real, I could not imagine anything more holy.
If it wasn’t? Well, I do enjoy a good game, even if I’m the brunt of it.
The first spirit they brought in was… just fine. Pleasant, filled with platitudes and a small lecture about the state of the world. Not what I would have expected from someone whose mythology billed them as a trickster figure, but I didn’t know this deity, not even from the stories. It wasn’t really for me to say.
The channeler was a spirit worker of the academic persuasion, very much like myself. A city kid, clean cut and pleasant, not quite yet someone I would consider a friend. He sat in the same circle with us, but elevated, with a candle at his side and not much else to mark himself as special. He called the gods in silence, leaning back into his chair – and then he began to laugh.
Frey opened his eyes and grinned at me, all rugged charm. The channeler seemed bigger in the shoulders, I thought. Or he held his head differently. He reminded me of forests, and Robin Hood, and light through the trees.
“I wondered,” he said, “when I would get to meet you.”
“I’ve wondered that as well,” I said, hands pressed flat against my legs to keep them from shaking.
“When,” he asked, almost teasing, “are you going to go back to the farm?”
Oh no, I thought. Oh, I wanted this to be real. The channeller knew that I had grown up raising animals, in farm country. It made sense for him to take that logical step. But I’d never lived on a farm. There was nowhere I had to go back to.
“Which farm?” I asked, pushing just a little. Plenty of places had been important, to my life, to my path to this place. Prove me wrong, I thought. Please.
“I-” Frey began, and then raised a finger, slumping in his seat. “Just a moment,” he slurred, shaking his head. Fake, the voice in my head chimed again. Fake as hell, what a classic move. Can’t quite cover up the mistake, so lean on an excuse and change the subject. But I waited, suspending that voice as much as I could, waiting while he shook it off, righted himself.
“I can’t say. The connection isn’t strong enough. But it will be good, when we start to work together, for you to have something…to connect? I’ll try again, after I speak-” And then he shook his head again and moved on to the next person in circle.
I waited for him to come back around. He never did.
There is a specific kind of calculation that takes place when I think I’m being lied to. On the one hand I am doing the math on the con. Who stands to gain? What are they trying to get? What role do I play? What changes if I go along with it, or if I do not?
On the other hand: what if I’m wrong? What if I’m a suspicious asshole? What will I lose if I ignore this?
That Easter, I went to the farm.
Rather, I went to three different places that might have been ‘the farm.’ I went to the farm where I had my earliest memories, the one my parents rented, and fixed up, and were kicked out of when the landlord decided he wanted to live there. I went to the house where my parents live now, and planted their garden, and bled in their small city plot. I went to the nature preserve where I attended my first Samhain ritual, forested and green, and found the garden the owners had let go to seed. At each of these places I left an offering, and gathered a small jar of dirt.
If it was real, it had been a bad signal. I wasn’t sure what the god had meant. But I was thorough.
By the end, I had an understanding of Frey that was tied to the fields of home, to the big whitetail buck who had left deep prints on my path at my last stop. He was, to me, a god of planting, and of harvesting, and the land that ties us to our ancestors. I liked him a great deal, but he seemed distant – maybe, I thought, because the circle of the year took him further off. I waited for him to come back around.I was two days on the road in Iceland before I realized that there are no fields there.
This is hardly a revelation: the country is an active volcano just barely south of the arctic circle. Not exactly a landscape that lends itself to rolling wheat. Still, once I really took it in, it was an almost physical shock to my system. The only thing I saw growing that I was reasonably sure I could chalk up to human intervention was sheep, and while they were everywhere they were not exactly what I thought of as the bounty of the land. This was different, not what I expected.
Then I saw a reindeer rack, something so common that this one was molding aesthetically on the porch of my AirBNB. I reached out, thinking about how someone would hold something like that. Like a sword, I thought. Something that you actually might have half a chance with, especially if you used the notches at the end to catch your opponent off guard, pull the weapon out of their hand. Compared to this, the whitetail antler I had waiting at home was almost shaped like a scythe.
“Oh,” I said, startled by my own voice. “Oh, I’ve been very wrong.”
This was in the land just south of Egilsstadir. I booked that stop almost at random- something to break up a long drive through land where there was no major stop I felt like I needed to make. It seemed like a quiet night in a busy week, and an opportunity to hold a proper ritual, on my own. I would check into the house, get back in the car, and wait until somewhere suggested itself for blot.
I noticed, once I was close, that there were a lot of horses in the fields. More than I had seen in the west, certainly – but in six hours I had driven through sulfur fields and fjords and mountains. Another kind of terrain wasn’t exactly surprising. It’s too bad, I thought, that I won’t have time for any of the riding lessons they’re advertising.
I found a space for ritual overlooking a lake, next to one of the many memorials that are found along the major roads. The sun had already begun to set, so the solitary devotion was quiet and a little hurried, but it was nice. When I pulled my runes at the end, to see how it had been taken, I expected nothing but a pleased result.
“Ing,” I muttered, looking down into my palm. “What’re you doing here?”I was five minutes down the road, driving back to the house, when I found myself in a forest. It bordered the other side of that massive lake, a replanting that gave me a glimpse of what the first settlers in Iceland might have seen. It was almost familiar, golden light through birches, and a beach, and peace.
Vanir, I thought – the way I had thought jotun while looking at the cliffs of Thingvellir, trying to put words to an experience I didn’t have context for. This is what the Vanir are.
“How do you think about Frey?” I asked, days later. I was sitting with another follower, someone native to Iceland. I was not asking for a definitive answer, but asking for context.
“Oh, he’s – not as important here. Really, he’s only in the east, around Egilsstadir, where his saga happens,” they said. “Thor’s the important god, here.”
“I – yeah, sure. I can tell.” I would deal with the rest of that later. “But, like – what’s he the god of?”
“The persistence of the land.”
“No, that’s Njord.” They looked surprised that I would even ask. “It’s more – the persistence of the land. The fact that the land is still there. But that’s because of where we are. He would be different, somewhere else.”
“Oh.” I folded my hands, and sat with that.On the flight home, I read Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða – the saga of Hrafnkel, Frey’s priest. In it, a priest devotes his best horse to Frey. Or, maybe, Frey claims a favorite horse for himself. When that horse is profaned, Hrafnkel kills the man responsible. By the end of the saga the horse is dead, and Hrafnkel has forsworn Frey and become a happier and better man.
Partnership, I thought, and tried to wrap my head around it. Something to do with riding. Skirnir has a horse, when he runs errands for Frey. I thought about all the things that it could mean, that I had traveled around the world and held a blot in the one place in Iceland holy to this god. I thought about the shaggy ponies of Iceland, hardy and so much shorter than the horse I had once been stuck on top of. I thought about a familiar face transformed.
What do I lose, I thought. What do I lose if I ignore this?
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